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