Ringside Shadows #165: The Fusient Era
I'd imagine it was almost six months ago when talks of WCW's eventual sale first hit the internet. Though the story seemed wildly out of the blue and completely untrue, as speculation grew and anticipation flourished, it wasn't long before the average newsboard viewer found themselves reeled in by the prospect of such an enormous transaction. In the early-goings, Fox was interested. Far-fetched rumors like ESPN or Microsoft were mentioned... and however silly they may look now, the potential seemed a bit more real at the time. As the months wore on, competitors bowed out one by one until it seemed to be an old duel revisited. Bischoff vs. McMahon, the owner of the WWF vs. Turner's old winning horse.
Of course the game was different this time around, as were the stakes, but the competitors were all too familiar. In the WWF you had a bidder with interesting possibilities. Would McMahon use WCW as a minor league to the WWF? Would he allow the competition to continue, this time between his two children? Would he allow the WWF to cater to a sports entertainment crowd, while WCW went back to the pro wrestling mentality that brought it to the dance all those years before? What had once seemed like a monopolistic move, sure to cripple the industry, was quickly becoming more and more attractive.
With Bischoff, you had more of the same. A guy who brought Turner's little experiment back from the brink of destruction. A man who helped WCW taste victory for so long, only to lead them back to the valleys from whence they came. Beneath Bischoff, WCW became a power player with big pockets. No longer a second fiddle. The cruiserweight regime was launched, to great fanfare. The nWo blindsided the public and changed how we'd watch wrestling forever. However, also beneath Bischoff lay the broken, unpushed bodies of Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko and Eddy Guerrero. Behind Bischoff stood the massive political swing of Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash, the egos that almost crippled the company. Under Bischoff's watch the nWo slowly outgrew itself, withered, decayed and died with a whimper. Eric had taken many steps forward, but he'd taken just as many back.
Now, with Bischoff and Fusient apparently triumphant, we're greeted with a whole new set of circumstances. A new crop of questions. Could the third time be the charm? Will he hold true to his word this time? Is he more than just a one trick pony? Only the test of time will net us those answers. Probably the most important query of all, though, remains unspoken; has Eric Bischoff learned from his mistakes? As textbooks across the nation endlessly remind us, those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. A lot of good has come under the watch of Mr. Bischoff, as has a lot of bad. He's got one last chance to make this right, and this time around there's no limitless checkbook to fall back on.
It would seem the prospect of one more Bischoff blowout has interested more than just this lowly internet columnist. Several times, through both mail and IM, I've been asked what I would do to get WCW back on track. What I would do in Uncle Eric's shoes. To be honest, I've got a laundry list. A short laundry list, but a laundry list nonetheless.
Right off the bat, before rumors could begin circulating or opinions could be formed, I'd sit down all the talent and clear the air about what I like, what I don't, what's going to be acceptable and what isn't. There's nothing worse than a bunch of unfounded rumors crippling morale, and if I make things certain from day one there's no question about my stance(s). As a follow-up, I'd meet with each athlete in a one-on-one atmosphere, assuring them that regardless of their current position on the card, they'll be getting the same chance to make or break their future as everyone else. I'd encourage input from the talent in regards to their own upcoming storylines, emphasizing that interaction as much as possible. If they have an idea about where their character should go after their current feud, I'd love to hear it. In most cases, nobody knows these characters better than the workers themselves. One of the most underspoken and misused elements of good storytelling in the wrestling industry is continuity. No matter how flamboyant the wardrobe, how flashy the entrance pyro, a wrestler is boring and two-dimensional without personality. Continuity is how we build that.
From there, I'd want to develop WCW as a whole into a more believable, realistic environment. Gimmicks and crazy outfits had their time, and it's passed. Society as a whole is moving on, and it's time for WCW to do so as well. One of the things I liked the most about this federation in Bischoff's first run was that almost everyone used their real names. In the WWF, he was known as "Diesel." WCW acknowledged him as Kevin Nash. "Razor Ramon?" Just call him Scott Hall. These two alone proved that you don't need a gimmick to have depth. They took the first steps toward an overly realistic wrestling environment. As Diesel, he was a giant bodyguard, likely hired from a truck stop somewhere to protect Shawn Michaels. And hey! Wouldn't you know it, this guy just happens to know how to wrestle. As Kevin Nash, he was a big professional wrestler. He had a sense of humor, he knew when to kick a little ass, he was a real person. That's something I'd like to expand upon.
In that same vein, I'd want the building of feuds to become a lot more realistic. The industry as a whole has become far too oversaturated with storylines and booking these last few years. Though these angles, run-ins and elaborate plans have made things more interesting than a standard boxing match, in overusing them we've lost sight of what got us here in the first place. Audiences are interested first and foremost in the thrill of the fight. It's true of boxing, it's true of Olympic style wrestling, and it should be true of WCW. The posters say "Lance Storm vs. Scott Steiner," they don't say "Lance Storm fights Scott Steiner, because Steiner ran in during Storm's match with Booker T and swung a chair at Booker, but missed and hit Lance, and then Lance said some mean things about Scotty on the microphone and Steiner ran out again and they hit each other a lot and now they want to fight on PPV with a giant chair hanging above the ring that they can use on each other." If two guys have a problem with each other, than by all means promote it on television. Use it to your advantage. But don't feel completely obligated to throw a storyline into each and every match on the card. It's asking the audience to keep up with too much, and distorting what the sport used to be about in the first place. No feud should consist of a single run-in or interview, days before the PPV.
One of the most notable things I remember from Bischoff's recent interview on WCW Live! was his statement about excessive language and its use in WCW. Quoted directly, he said that bad language "turns him off," and that it has no place in the fed. While I'll agree with that in some ways, I'll disagree vehemently in others. If it's realistic and fits the character, I'd have no problem with a moderate amount of language sneaking into the programming. Whether it "turns me off" or not, it's a part of the modern language. The "F" bomb is becoming as common a word in casual English as a conjunction or contraction. "Damn," "ass" and "crap" are almost afterthoughts. If you don't recognize this and integrate it into your product, you're letting culture pass you by. Then again, there remain people I've yet to hear utter a swear word... guys who probably never will. It goes back to believable characters, personalities and continuity. If Rey Mysterio, Jr. is portraying a squeaky clean innocent worker, you can't have him spewing vulgarities every chance he gets. It's something that would depend on the situation more than anything else, and I wouldn't want to put my foot down as soundly as Bischoff did on that radio program last month.
One thing that really bothered me upon my rediscovery of the wrestling scene, in the fall of 1997, was the amount of PPVs that had suddenly appeared on the scene. Being a fan from the mid 80s, I'm of the mentality that a Pay Per View is something that should be extra special. The WWF had a great formula when their rotation consisted solely of Wrestlemania, Summerslam, the Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble. With each, you had several months' time to tell stories, build huge matches, establish new faces and just plain interest the audiences. Nowadays, it seems every time you turn around another $30 "event" is just around the corner. I didn't even know this year's WCW Superbrawl was going to happen until about three hours after it was over (Thus, no "World's Greatest" preview for that event.) The PPV has lost everything that set it apart from Monday Evening television in the last five years. You've got your lower tier PPVs, your medium importance PPVs, and your MUST BUY OH MY GOD NOW PPVs. To me, that just doesn't make sense. If you're expecting fans to shell out $30 a pop, you've got an obligation to make that evening a special one. So I'd cut WCW's pay per view roster down to a big four; Starrcade, Superbrawl, Spring Stampede and the Great American Bash. I'm relatively sure the fans wouldn't mind.
On top of that, I'd bring back a little blast from the past. One policy that made a whole lot of sense in the old (circa '92) WCW, but slipped through the cracks was a regular pay bonus to the participants of the night's best match. I'd reinstate this practice, effective immediately on the "big shows," (Nitro and PPVs) with the amount of the bonus depending on the importance of the show. For instance, you'd get more for pulling out all the stops at Starrcade than you would on a Nitro. Not only would this encourage workers to give it their all and more on the PPV, it would also introduce a little friendly competition amongst the athletes themselves.
One subject I covered back in Ringside Shadows #147 (was it really that long ago?) was the importance of a good set of announcers. Almost a transparent element, you'll never notice when you've got a good PBP team, but it's readily apparent when you've got a bad one. Nitro's current lineup is a bad one. Tony Schiavone isn't half the man he was ten years ago, and his flat announcing is one of the many problems plaguing WCW television today. I'm not sure where I heard it first, but I agree wholeheartedly... the announcer WCW needs to get their heads back in the game is a guy named Joey Styles. While Joel Gertner killed his announcing on TNN, Styles is simply without equal as a play by play man. With Joey's talent behind the mic, WCW would have taken the first step in making their product entertaining again.
Speaking cosmetically, WCW needs a complete overhaul and redesign. Their current logo is illegible and out of place. They're trying to gear their content towards the younger generation, but that shiny, sleek logo reeks of a corporation. Their TV production crew is outrageously bad, far below the standards of almost anything else on television. To reclaim their spot at the top of the industry, they need to have a respectable image. Ugly transitions, audible instructions from the men behind the scenes, poor picture quality and nasty graphics don't exactly lend that kind of a feel. In short, they need to clear out pretty much everyone involved with this process. They need a fresh start.
Getting back to the product itself, I'd immediately open the doors to any out-of-contract workers looking for a pay per appearance deal. Be it a star from Japan, Mexico, former ECW or the indies, I'd give them a tryout dark match, have a quick sit-down with the worker to make sure their head's in the right place, and make a decision. One of the things that really boosted the cruiserweight division's reputation in the late 90's was the rotating cast of stars from all over the world. That's something I'd like to revisit, this time integrating it into the entire card.
Finally, three little rules that would be enforced, without exception, to the fullest extent possible;
1) There will be no boundaries between divisions.
Heavyweights will sell for cruiserweights, and vice versa. While the argument could be made that forcing a 400 pound man to sell a punch thrown by a 150 pounder is absurd, I think this all comes back to the realism I mentioned earlier. I wouldn't be expecting a Juventud Guerrera slap to completely floor Paul Wight. Instead, I'd tell the workers to use their heads. If you get punched in the nose, no matter how big you are, how small the other guy is, it's gonna smart. You aren't gonna see right for a couple seconds. If someone hits you with a dropkick from the top rope, you're going to fall down. Plain and simple. One of my major goals in the new WCW would be a closer relationship between the divisions, and this rule is a big part of establishing that.
2) No more celebrities!
I don't think much more needs to be said. Dennis Rodman, Karl Malone and Jay Leno tore down years of work in their combined four matches, proving to the world that just about anyone can do what a pro wrestler does. This is unacceptable, and the only way I'd see it happening is if the celebrity is in a 100% selling role. See the WWF's use of Pete Rose.
3) There is no room for ego.
Once again, a rule that's almost self-explanatory. Egos nearly crippled WCW at the end of Bischoff's first run. Between Hogan's multiple World Title reigns, Nash's run as a booker or Bagwell's multiple unpunished run-ins with the men and women who make him look good on television, there's little need to explain why. Plain and simple, if you want to work for me, you need to think of yourself as part of a collective. It's no longer "what's good for me," it's "what's good for WCW." If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. The Hogans of the industry need to learn that their primary function should be building up the youth. The youth need to learn that no matter how big they get, they will never be above the rules that govern their peers.
Whether Bischoff succeeds or fails in his upcoming relaunch of WCW (or would it be a re-re-relaunch?), it all comes down to the lessons he's learned and the lessons he refuses to identify. The list I've presented above is by no means a manual, nor does it guarantee success. It's merely my interpretation of the travels WCW has undertaken in the years it's existed. Perhaps it would succeed, perhaps not... and honestly, I doubt we'll ever know.
That is, until the brass at Fusient Media Ventures come to their senses and put me at the helm of WCW.
until next time, i remain