Today is a big day in the history of American wrestling. Fifteen years ago the last ever episode of the World Championship Wrestling (WCW) show Monday Nitro took place. Since September 1995 that show had competed head to head with World Wrestling Federation’s (WWF) Monday Night Raw in what became known as the “Monday Night Wars”. The war ended when the WWF purchased their rival.
The story of the Monday Night Wars is actually the story of one of the most spectacular rises and falls in a short period of time ever. They have been other spectacular rises and falls in a short space of time. For example in 1960 Northampton Town were in Division Four, in 1965 they made it to Division One and by 1969 they were in Division Four again! In politics in the 1970 UK General Election the Scottish National Party (SNP) elected 1 MP and won 11.4% of the Scottish vote. By the October 1974 election they were up to 11 MPs and 30.4% of the Scottish vote…and in 1979 they were down to 2 MPs and 17.3% of the Scottish vote. But at least Northampton Town and the SNP still exist. WCW do not which makes this rise and fall quite the most spectacular.
In 1993 WCW lost $10 million. They were very much the number two promotion to the WWF and had never turned a profit since billionaire Ted Turner bought it (when it was called Jim Crockett Promotions. It was renamed WCW in 1991). In fact in early 1995 WCW President Eric Bischoff had a dollar bet with Harvey Anderson that he could get WCW into profit. He did. Then in 1995 Turner and Bischoff created Nitro to go head to head with Raw. A year later Nitro began a run of 84 consecutive victories over Raw in the ratings, and for the first time since Vince McMahon took over WWF in 1982 and took it global his promotion was the number two in America. In 1998 WCW made a profit of $50 million (remember in 1995 people thought WCW could not make any profit). And as quickly as WCW rose..it fell. By 1999 Raw was beating Nitro in the ratings again and WCW lost $15 million. By 2000 they were losing $62 million. By 2001 they were such a toxic brand that the CEO of the TV Network they were on wanted them off the channel meaning no one but WWF would buy a wrestling company with no TV contracts. How on earth did WCW rise and fall so quickly?
The rise was due to Turner having the courage to go head to head with McMahon on Monday nights and also giving Bischoff the money to get Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash from the WWF. Bischoff deserves credit for portraying Hall and Nash as invaders from WWF and with Hogan forming the New World Order (NWO). He also deserves credit for promoting the Cruiserweight Division with exciting high flying wrestlers. But WCW were lucky too. The WWF was stale and stuck in a rut (some would say WWE* is in the same position today) and like the Australian cricket authorities when facing Kerry Packer in 1977 were totally unprepared for head to head competition which they didn’t expect anyway. In 1996 and 1997 it looked like WWF might even go under.
So how did it turn round? In any competition there is what the winners did right and what the losers did wrong. There was an example here of a “butterfly effect” where small events lead to big consequences. The small event here was Bischoff asking Madusa to throw her WWF Women’s Championship into the trash can on live TV. Seemed a harmless little publicity stunt at the time. But two years later when another WWF Champion Bret Hart left for WCW (with McMahon’s blessing) McMahon could hardly risk Bischoff trashing another of his belts. So when Hart refused to lose to Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series 1997 McMahon screwed him out of the title (the infamous Montreal Screwjob). This in turn made McMahon hated and he was clever enough to turn it to his advantage making himself the main heel in the WWF and to him having an infamous rivalry with his most popular star Stone Cold Steve Austin. The Austin- McMahon rivalry helped along by Mike Tyson appearing at WrestleMania XIV, was the main (but not the only) thing the WWF did right.
As for WCW incredibly they made the same mistake WWF had made in the early 1990s. They went stale. They relied on the same stars. They never produced a home grown star in that era except for Bill Goldberg. They had other fresh talent – Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio – who became stars but with WWF since WCW wouldn’t push them. The first three left in frustration while Mysterio went to WWE in 2002 after WCW collapsed. Another mistake WCW made was to give wrestlers like Hulk Hogan creative control which meant Hogan could refuse to do anything he did not want to do. The equivalent of a footballer insisting they are picked for every game and just as ridiculous.
And once WWF went ahead in the war, WCW panicked spending prodigious amounts of money on people that were not needed. For example $1 million on a non wrestling rapper Master P, $1 million on a basketball player Dennis Rodman and $150,000 a year paid to Randy Savage’s brother Lanny Poffo – who never wrestled a match for WCW.
And as often happens when a company is losing they think “if you can’t beat them recruit them”. So WCW signed WWF’s head writer Vince Russo** thinking he would turn them around. The problem was Russo’s ideas were mainly ridiculous. In WWF that made no difference because Vince McMahon had final say so he could veto Russo’s bad ideas (like making Chyna a woman the WWF Champion). In WCW his warped mind ran amuck. He made actor David Arquette WCW Champion in 2000 probably finishing the company off for good. And he loved pole matches – Viagra on a pole, pinata on a pole, Judy Bagwell on a pole (yes a human being!) and most ridiculous of the lot a “San Francisco 49ers” match (don’t ask!)
But it wasn’t just Russo. Whoever run WCW from 1999-2000 especially seemed to be effected. A book could be written on WCW’s incompetence and has been (“The Death of WCW” by RD Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez). It is as much a comedy book as a wrestling book but I should just mention three examples of non Russo WCW incompetence in 1999 and 2000 (there are many more).
1. Having a storyline where one of your most popular stars Ric Flair is sent to a mental hospital where he dances in his underwear meets fellow wrestler Scott Hall who is there for reasons unknown and is eventually bailed out by Arn Anderson (never knew you could get bailed out of a mental hospital).
2. Booker T and Big T have a feud over the right to use the letter T (I am NOT making this up!)
3. WCW’s resident boy band 3 Count claiming that their first (non existent!) album had gone platinum and their second would be even bigger and go gold (in the music industry a platinum album is more successful than a gold one!)
No wonder WCW ratings went down the toilet and Nitro did not best Raw in the ratings after October 26 1998. But even then they could have survived. One reason they could waste money on rappers and basketball players was they had a blank cheque due to being owned by Ted Turner. And he would never have got rid of wrestling as it was the first ratings winner for his cable TV stations TBS and TNT. But when Time Warner merged with America Online (AOL) in 2000 the party was over. Turner lost control AOL were not going to fund a company losing $62 million and WCW was put up for sale in October 2000. Even then they might have survived. Eric Bischoff wanted to buy them but new Turner Broadcasting CEO Jamie Kellner announced there would be no more wrestling on TBS or TNT (similar to what Greg Dyke of ITV had done with UK wrestling in 1988). Without TV, Bischoff’s bid collapsed and McMahon bought WCW for less than $3 million. (to think the owners had turned down $ 500 million a year earlier!). The Monday Night Wars were over. McMahon had won.
But I would say it was not a good result for wrestling. WWE’s ratings have gone down the toilet in some weeks below those of the awful 1999-2000 Nitros. The WWE has gone complacent and stale. Like most monopolies it needs competition. Raw would not have reached the highs of 1998-2001 without the competition of Nitro. Do I think competition in wrestling will happen again? No. There is Total Non Stop Action (TNA) but it is as incompetently run as WCW was and when it tried to recreate the Monday Night Wars in 2010 it got annihilated. Remember WCW was subsidised by a billionaire and apart from 1995-98 lost money. I suspect the WWE will never face competition again. A cheery thought….
*WWF changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in 2002. When writing about the Monday Night Wars I’ve called it WWF. When writing about the period after 2002 I’ve called it WWE.
**I’ll declare an interest here. I hate Vince Russo. He is xenophobic (he said Americans don’t want to watch Mexican and Japanese wrestlers and thought even Vince McMahon could not make WCW wrestler Loch Ness a star. If he knew anything about wrestling outside the US he would know that Loch Ness – as Giant Haystacks – was a superstar in the UK) and sexist ( his idea of women wrestling was to either have them get beaten up by men or fight in evening gown matches, bra and panties matches or other sexist crap. He has to in my opinion take a large part of the blame for the contempt women’s wrestling has been held in until last year’s Divas Revolution). This guy is wrestling’s equivalent of Donald Trump and how he got a job as head booker in any wrestling organisation is a complete mystery.