King Lear (The Fall Of The WWF)

King Lear (The Fall of the WWF)

I was never good at this sort of thing in high school.

I read King Lear in Grade 12, and was quite impressed with it. It was

very dark and cynical, and as a cynic myself I could appreciate that.

But the whole “understanding Shakespeare” thing always went over my

head. I’m a very superficial person at heart, and I dislike symbolism

and allegories and boring stuff like that. It was meant as

entertainment, says I, so entertain me.

Despite that shortcoming, I still managed to turn in a critical essay of

King Lear that earned me 100% on the provincial diploma exam for English

and impressed the hell out of a bunch of teachers. But being the person

that I am, I quickly forgot about the subject matter and filed the play

away in the endless Rolodex of useless knowledge that is my brain.

Skip ahead more than a few years, to late 1997. As a side project for

my spare time, I decide to write a big epic work on the Monday Night

Wars and what led to them. While writing the WWF part of things, it

struck me how closely Vince McMahon resembled the tragic figure of King

Lear, although the ending to HIS story was certainly anything but

tragic.

For those who haven’t read King Lear, here’s a summary of what happens:

King Lear is a once-wise, aging ruler of a large kingdom who is in need

of an heir. He summons his three daughters to him and decides that

whichever one loves him most will be given his kingdom. Regan and

Goneril lie and profess their love with various hyperbole, while

Cordelia simply states her loyalty to him and no more. Lear loses

control and punishes Cordelia for her answer, denying her the kingdom

and giving it to his other, more “loving” daughters instead. As Lear

moves away from his ruling duties, he is shuttled back and forth between

his two daughters, both of whom are using him for their own gains. Soon

Lear’s only true friend is the fool, who ironically is the only one who

speaks the truth. Cordelia is courted by the King of France, who soon

invades the weakened Lear, nearly costing Lear his entire kingdom. The

invasion is barely held back by Lear’s army, and as his other daughters

desert the kingdom, Lear reconciles with Cordelia and finally realizes

who his true allies are, only to discover that it’s too late…Cordelia

has been mortally wounded by the battle, and Lear has gone so mad that

he is unable to see that, and thinking that she is still alive and able

to rule his kingdom, he gives up and dies.

Rather gloomy little play, isn’t it? So what does that have to do with

the WWF? Well, let’s re-write it, substituting some names…

Vince McMahon is a once-wise, aging promoter of a large wrestling

company, who is in need of a new long-term draw. He summons his three

biggest names to him and decides that whichever one kisses the most ass

will be given a run as champion. Diesel and Shawn Michaels lie and

profess their respect for Vince with various hyperbole, while Bret Hart

simply states his loyalty to him and no more. Vince loses control and

punishes Bret for his answer, jobbing him to Bob Backlund and giving the

WWF title to Diesel instead. As Vince moves away from his creative

duties, he is manipulated back and forth between his two champions, both

of whom are using him for their own gains. Soon Vince’s only true ally

is Jim Ross, who ironically is the only one who speaks the truth. Bret

Hart is courted by Eric Bischoff, who soon invades the weakened Vince,

nearly costing him the WWF. The invasion is barely held back by Vince’s

loyalist workers, and as the Clique deserts the WWF, Vince reconciles

with Bret Hart and signs him to a 20 year deal, only to discover that

it’s too late…Bret has been morally scarred by the changing face of

wrestling, and Vince has gone so mad that he is unable to see that, and

thinking that Bret is still a viable draw and able to carry the WWF

title whenever the need should arise, he gives up and instead allows

Shawn Michaels an extended reign as champion, thus effectively conceding

defeat in the Monday Night Wars.

Heavy, no?

So this, then, is why the WWF died, and how they got there…

THE STORY

Part One: Vince McMahon 1, Federal Government 0.

The first player in our little tragedy is a guy you’ve probably never

heard of, but who single-handedly changed the WWF nonetheless: Dr.

George Zahorian. See, from the mid-80s until the early 90s, steroids

were legal for use in the US as long as they were prescribed by a

doctor. So Vince McMahon simply hired himself a doctor, under the

pretext of having them there on behalf of the state athletic commission,

and away he went distributing the juice to any WWF wrestler who had the

cash. And even if they didn’t have the cash, no problem, he’d just

advance them some money on their next paycheque.

Problem: In 1991, Dr. George Zahorian is sent down the river by the

government, and arrested on several charges of distributing steroids.

Suddenly, the WWF is *very* nervous, and rightly so. Just as they

feared, upon his arrest Zahorian squeals to the feds that Vince McMahon

has been using and distributing steroids himself for years, and now the

government has a solid and tangible way to nail McMahon on felony

charges, something they’d been waiting to do for years.

And so, on Friday, November 19, 1993, the Brooklyn, NY office of the

U.S. Department of Justice handed down an indictment against Vince

McMahon and Titan Sports Inc. The indictment contained charges of

conspiracy, possession and possession with intent to distribute. Vince

was, in a word, screwed.

The effect on the WWF was immediately noticeable. Pat Patterson took

over most of the major creative endeavours in Vince’s absence, and the

result was Royal Rumble 94, a card featuring 10 guys teaming up to put

the Undertaker in a casket, and Undertaker subsequently rising to the

ceiling after delivering a soliloquy. It was widely considered one of

the stupidest things ever seen in wrestling. Ridiculous gimmick

wrestlers like Doink the Clown and Men on a Mission were pushed down the

fans’ throats, and the overall quality of Monday Night RAW declined at

an alarming pace.

One of the bright spots of the early 1994 period was the feud between

the Hart Brothers — Bret and Owen. Vince was all for transitioning

the WWF title from Undertaker to Ludvig Borga, who would then lose it to

Lex Luger at Wrestlemania X while Bret fought his brother in the

undercard. However, when a tied result of the Rumble was booked, with

Bret and Lex both hitting the floor at the same time (although

sharp-eyed fans pointed out that Lex clearly hit first), the crowd so

decisively voiced their approval for Bret that the WWF had no choice but

to drastically alter plans. Bret was given the title in the main event,

Luger was buried. Owen was subsequently pushed into the main event as a

foil for Bret. It was the first real sign that the WWF was willing to

change with the times. That proved to be premature hope.

On July 22, 1994, after deliberating for 16 hours, the jury found

McMahon and Titan Sports not guilty of the charges. Despite testimony

from Zahorian and Hulk Hogan, there proved to be too many flaws in the

evidence, holes in the stories, and reluctance from wrestlers to testify

and thus be branded a traitor in the locker room, and Vince was a free

man. And with the Dark Period looking to be over, Vince triumphantly

returned as the creative force behind the WWF.

The first major storyline to emerge after this was the Fake Undertaker

one. Ted Dibiase had “found” the Undertaker (after he “died” at the

Rumble, remember), only it was SMW mainstay Brian Lee with his hair dyed

red. The “real” Undertaker returned soon after the imposter debuted (in

reality he was on vacation with his wife) and a match was set for

Summerslam 94 with little buildup or interest from the fans. The real

Undertaker won the match, Brian Lee disappeared, and Undertaker went

back to his usual act again, a state in which he’d remain until 1996.

Meanwhile, another interesting thing occurred: WWF veteran Bob Backlund

was given a title match against Bret Hart on WWF TV, and lost. At the

end of the match, Backlund snapped and attacked Hart, then stared at his

hands in awe. The original idea was possession by the returning Papa

Shango, but to everyone’s suprise, Backlund managed to get himself over

as a monster heel using only the “crazy old man” gimmick and his largely

untested heel interview skills. The fans were hugely into the

character, so he was pushed into the main event with Bret Hart at

Survivor Series 94…and won the title. Backlund was the most

interesting heel champion they’d had in years, and was hugely over.

Best of all, he was still a great wrestler at 41, an age that seems

downright young compared to the people on top of WCW these days. So

what happened?

The Clique happened. And nothing would ever be the same again.

Part Two: The Clique

Let’s backtrack a bit.

In 1993, Shawn Michaels hit his stride as a singles wrestler, winning

the Intercontinental title for a second time from ex-partner Marty

Jannetty. In order to give the character the last ingredient lacking,

the WWF decided to give him a bodyguard. So, as a favor to WWF star

Razor Ramon, WCW jobber (and good friend of Ramon) Vinnie Vegas was

hired and repackaged as the monster Diesel. The three men became

friends and started working together on a regular basis. Around the

same time, independant wrestler The Lightning Kid was brought in and

repackaged as hard-luck underdog The 1-2-3 Kid, getting his first win by

going over…you guessed it…Razor Ramon. He soon joined their little

group. A contract dispute with the WWF left Shawn out of action in late

93 and Diesel out of luck, but by the end of the year Shawn was back and

Diesel was tossing out 8 straight wrestlers in Royal Rumble 94 to win

over the crowd. Ramon was Intercontinental champion, and set up an

issue with Shawn Michaels over who was the “real” champ that led to the

show-stealing ladder match at Wrestlemania X.

Now they were using each other to get more over, and the push escalated.

Diesel and Shawn were given the tag titles shortly before Summerslam,

while Ramon and the Kid were positioned as buddies. The four men had a

****1/2 tag team match with each other on an early episode of WWF Action

Zone that only served to demonstrate how good they could be together and

how lazy they tended to get otherwise. The booking was starting to

center almost exclusively on those four, and as a result they were the

only ones getting enough airtime to be significantly over. And so, at

Survivor Series 94, Diesel and Shawn finally split up in order to begin

the parallel singles pushes of both men. And mere days later, with

almost no warning, Bob Backlund made his first title defense against

Diesel after beating Bret Hart in a grueling 40 minute marathon. Diesel

won the match against Backlund in 6 seconds with a kick to the gut and a

powerbomb, taking the title and kicking off the wretched “New WWF

Generation” era.

Suddenly, the entire direction of the promotion shifted to Shawn

Michaels v. Diesel. Shawn was put over several bigger men in order to

build him as a viable contender. He won the 95 Royal Rumble and faced

Diesel for the title at WrestleMania XI…and that was the first sign of

a major problem for Vince McMahon, and the first sign that he was

unwilling to change with the times.

Part Three: Vince Big Talentless Slugs

For you see, the WWF had now done the impossible and made Shawn Michaels

MORE over than Diesel. It was undeniable. For the first time in his

experience since the Hulk Hogan era, the fans were actively demanding

that a smaller man be given the World title push at top of the

promotion, and Vince didn’t know how to deal with it. He jobbed Shawn

to Diesel at Wrestlemania, which only served to make him more over than

he was before. He gave Shawn a new bodyguard — Sid Vicious — and then

had him turn on Shawn, hoping the babyface push would steer the fans

toward a Sid-Diesel showdown instead. It didn’t work — the fans

clearly wanted Shawn v. Diesel again, and the WWF was unwilling to

provide that for whatever reason. Instead they provided Diesel v. Sid,

Diesel v. Mabel, Diesel v. Yokozuna, trying everything in their power to

build Diesel as a Hogan-like babyface to recapture lightning in a

bottle.

The ulimate example of this is King of the Ring 95, one of the most

depressingly bad cards ever put together by either promotion. The point

of it was to make the fans fear Mabel as a legitimate title threat, but

what the arena was screaming for was Shawn, and by the time Mabel

defeated Savio Vega in the finals the crowd was so deflated that none of

them could possibly have gone home happy. Meanwhile, the Diesel v. Sid

program dragged on, playing to houses of 1000 people or less much of the

time. And when the focus was shifted to Diesel v. King Mabel and set up

as the main event for Summerslam, the groans of pain from the fanbase

were almost audible. Matches like Michaels v. Ramon in a ladder rematch

and Kid v. Hakushi were blowing the roof off the arena, while fans

snored through Diesel v. Mabel or Undertaker v. whoever. The old

formula of building up a big fat heel to lose to the virtuous champion

was dying fast, but that didn’t stop the WWF from beating it into the

ground all of 1995 and 1996, once Shawn got his run at the top. In

Shawn’s case, he got fed to Vader and a heel-turned Diesel. Vince’s

facination with big men had killed the house show circuit so much and

left Monday Night RAW such a pathetic shell of it’s former self that the

WWF was now almost begging for a challenge to it’s throne.

In a word, Nitro.

Part Four: “He beats the big guy with three superkicks”

With those eight words, the Monday Night Wars were officially launched,

and WCW had the lead. In the early days of Nitro, Eric Bischoff

counter-programmed everything that the WWF did almost to the minute,

putting matches at the commercial breaks during the WWF’s big matches.

And most notably, the first example of Bischoff thinking “outside the

box” was to simply give away the results of the very stale taped RAWs

during the Nitro broadcast, as RAW was taped four shows at a time once a

month. Did it work? That’s debatable at best. But people *did* talk

about Nitro now, whether it was good or bad, and that translated into

viewers, enough to cause the WWF to take notice.

So what did they do? Refine their approach? Push new stars? Adjust

their way of thinking about the wrestling business as a whole?

No, even better…they mocked Ted Turner.

Yes, in early 1996, an increasingly desperate WWF began an infamous

series of sketches called “Billionaire Ted’s Rasslin’ Warroom”, using

very slightly changed versions of Ted Turner, Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage

and Mean Gene to illustrate how much hipper and with it the WWF was.

However, the sketches had two fatal flaws:

1) The WWF was doing the same repetitive nonsense that they were

mocking WCW for, and;

2) The sketches ended up becoming so bizarre and mean-spirited that Ted

Turner’s lawyers issued a cease-and-desist order against the WWF,

something which much of the WWF fanbase agreed with.

And now, with the failure of the Billionaire Ted sketches, things were

falling apart more rapidly than Vince could keep up. Diesel’s contract

was up and he made it known that he would rather ply his trade in WCW

for more money. Razor Ramon was suffering from a severe drug habit and

was no longer welcome in the WWF. The 1-2-3 Kid’s attitude was becoming

so distruptive that he was also asked to leave. And so, in the ultimate

slap in the face to the WWF, the departing Clique members lost their

final matches one night in Madison Square Garden, and then engaged in a

group hug to close the evening, before departing for WCW the next day.

Vince was enraged, and punished the only available target for his anger:

Hunter Hearst Helmsley, who had joined the Clique in mid-95 after coming

over from WCW.

Now desperate for anything to gain the edge back, he started doing

completely the wrong things — he re-signed the Ultimate Warrior and

gave him free reign, he put a major title on Ahmed Johnson, and began

pushing has-been Jake “The Snake” Roberts on a nostalgia trip.

Goldust’s quasi-gay character was stretched to the absolute bounds of

good taste, and then hastily turned face for political reasons.

Untested Olympic weightlifter Mark Henry was signed to a 10 year deal,

and immediately pushed. None of it worked. Nothing. The only bright

spot of the bunch was Shawn Michaels carrying everything on two legs to

**** matches at every turn, and even that could only go so far because

of Vince’s reluctance to give a smaller wrestler like Shawn a proper run

as champion.

And so finally on Memorial Day, 1996, Scott Hall showed up on the first

two-hour edition of Nitro, kicking off the nWo angle, and essentially

shovelling the last bit of dirt on the WWF’s grave, as WCW grabbed the

ratings lead and didn’t let go of it until 1998.

The World Wrestling Federation, 1984-1996, RIP.

Now, let’s cut open the body and see what the causes of death were…

Part Five: Garbageman By Day, Wrestler By Night.

If you could boil Vince’s major problems (and there were lots) down to

one simple reason, it is this: Gimmicks sell t-shirts, characters sell

tickets. Vince’s inability to make that distinction cost him dearly as

fans became smarter and expected a different product as a result.

See, the problem was Hulk Hogan. For years before the big crash, Vince

could just stick some guy out there with a dumb gimmick, put him against

Hogan, and the fans would have a reason to hate them right there. He’s

fighting Hulk! Boooo! Easy, right?

Well, now Hogan was gone and fans needed another reason to care. Want

an example of what I mean? Take Bob Holly, for instance. When he

started in the WWF, he was called “Sparky” Thurman Plugg, which is a

semi-clever play on “STP” and “spark plug”. Hah hah, right? But just

looking at that gimmick, do you cheer him or boo him? And why?

It was that “why” that really got to the fans. Because Vince would just

keep sticking guys out there with silly names and silly costumes and

pretty soon no one cared anymore. Vince produced the evil martial

artist Kwang, who didn’t get a reaction because he didn’t do anything

particularly evil. So he repackaged him as the good Caribbean legend

Savio Vega, and again he didn’t get much of a reaction because he didn’t

do anything particularly good. Vince, ironically, was the last to “get

it”. The fans were asking “Why should we boo a plumber? Why should we

cheer a garbageman? Why should even bother to care one way or another

about Jerry Lawler’s evil dentist?” The WWF’s answer was basically

“Because we told you so” and that’s where it all went bad. Because now

they had to TELL the fans what they wanted to see, when in fact the fans

were already telling the WWF what they wanted, and it was Shawn bumping

like a madman for Razor Ramon, or Bret Hart going 30 minutes with his

brother, or Mankind and Undertaker beating on each other in a boiler

room. The fans didn’t care about the backstory for Mankind (he was a

prize-winning piano prodigy as a child, but he never met the lofty

expectations of his upper-class parents, and one day his mother slammed

the lid shut on his fingers and sent him to live in the sewers and be

raised by rats…just in case you were wondering), they cared because he

was a dominant heel, and oh my god did he just BEAT THE UNDERTAKER?

The people knew who they cared about all along — it was those who had

characters they could relate to, or personalities they could connect

with. It didn’t matter what color the tights were or what profession

they held (and why would someone as well-paid as a plumber bother with

wrestling, anyway?) outside of wrestling, it was the wrestler that

counted. That’s why Sunny got over and the Bodydonnas are a footnote of

history, and that’s why the Goon was doomed to only doing a couple of

RAW tapings before getting shuffled out of wrestling history. And most

tellingly, that’s why fans at the 1996 Slammy Awards chanted “Kill the

Clown” when Vince had Doink make an unscheduled (and unwelcome)

appearance during the course of the show.

But most telling and sad of all is the treatment endured by the WWF’s

brightest star during this whole period, and the one who could have

saved them all along…

Part Six: This Week On RAW: Bret Hart v. Barry Horowitz!

No, not Barry Horowitz.

Following Bret’s loss to Bob Backlund in 1994, he was almost immediately

de-pushed into the mid-card at the request of the Clique, who didn’t

want their heat to be reduced via Bret. And so Bret got to face

Backlund in a boring rematch at the biggest show of the year,

Wrestlemania XI. Then he got to put over newcomer Hakushi and Jerry

Lawler. Then he got to have “Kiss My Foot” matches with Lawler. Then

he got to wrestle Lawler’s evil dentist Isaac Yankem in his first match

at the second biggest card of the year, Summerslam. Then it was off to

a feud with the evil pirate Jean-Pierre LaFitte. Man, can’t you just

FEEL the excitement Bret must have had all year with that lineup?

Thankfully, Vince came to his senses in late 1995 and decided that

Diesel was doing his company more harm than good, and jobbed him to Bret

Hart at Survivor Series 95 to end the Clique Era once and for all. Bret

ended up being a transitional champion to Shawn Michaels, a situation

which enraged him so much that he ended up taking 6 months off and

nearly jumped to WCW in the process as the famed “third man” for the

nWo.

Hindsight says that Bret probably should have left when he had the

chance in 1996. The two obvious questions, “Why was he treated so

badly?” and “Why did he then stay?” are harder to deal with, but both

answers, whatever they may be, speak volumes about Bret’s loyalty to the

sport in general and to Vince McMahon specifically.

When Bret finally returned in the fall of 1996, with the WWF far behind

WCW in the war, he was put into a program with upstart WWF newcomer

Steve Austin, and then, finally, Vince McMahon made the decision to

start listening to the fans, one that would slowly but surely swing the

balance the other way and cause the WWF to rise from the grave like

Lazarus and wreak vengeance on those who put it there.

But that’s another rant.

Part Seven: Checkmate.

The death was slow and painful — from mid-1996 until early 1998, the

WWF was essentially a zombie, a walking corpse that no one had noticed

was dead yet. It took a total cleansing of the heel-babyface system,

the gimmick system, the lockerroom, and a reinvention of what weekly

episodic TV was with regards to wrestling in order for the WWF to return

to it’s former glory. Had ECW not been around to provide a template,

it’s sketchy at best as to whether or not Vince would have known how to

go about recreating himself and his promotion, and it’s even sketchier

whether the WWF fanbase would have been receptive to those changes. In

fact, given how close to total bankrupcy the WWF was at the point where

Diesel lost his title to Bret Hart, it’s sketchy as to whether they

could have even survived another year.

But with wrestling, as with the stories crafted for it and upon which

they are based, it is often darkest before the dawn for the protagonist

and there is usually much soul-searching and spirtual realizations to go

through before redemption can be found.

I’m sure Shakespeare would agree. In fact, he’d probably be watching

RAW, too, and wearing an Austin 3:16 t-shirt…