March 26, 2001. The day the wrestling landscape changed forever. That was the day the final Nitro aired, ending the existence of World Championship Wrestling (which had been purchased by rival company the World Wrestling Federation). As we here at Inside Pulse look back on WCW, I thought it would be interesting to look at just how the wrestling landscape has changed so dramatically over the past thirty years.
The wrestling landscape had been unchanged for decades. The largest single company was the American Wrestling Association (AWA), run by Verne Gagne out of Minnesota. This company was strong and had a great deal of up-and-coming talent, including a young man named Hulk Hogan.
Still, the overarching company had to be the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). The difference between the NWA and the AWA was the fact that the NWA was a coalition of almost all of the regional territories. The NWA had drawn up a map of the United States and clearly delineated exactly which promotions could tour in which areas.
This provided several advantages. First, it prevented infighting between the promotions. No promoter could accuse another of trying to invade his territory.
Second, it added a form of security. Other promotions (called outlaw promotions) would occasionally start up and try to run without being under the NWA umbrella. The NWA would respond by sending its biggest stars to the area, as well as threatening to blacklist any wrestlers who worked for the outlaw promotion. These tactics nearly always worked, and the smaller promotions usually were shut down.
Third, the NWA Board of Directors served as a governing body that oversaw all of its promotions. The Board even had the authority to strip membership from any member promotions (which would usually be the kiss of death).
The NWA’s breadth of control over the wrestling industry at this time must be emphasized. The AWA had even been an affiliate (breaking away in the 1960’s). Well-known promotions such as Jim Crockett Promotions’ Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, Georgia Championship Wrestling, Championship Wrestling from Florida, the Continental Wrestling Association (which would become the United States Wrestling Association – USWA) and Fritz Von Erich’s World Class Championship Wrestling (formerly Big Time Wrestling) were all members. Empresa Mexicana de la Lucha Libre (EMLL, which would become CMLL) was a member in Mexico. In Japan, All Japan and New Japan were both NWA affiliates. Carlos Colon’s World Wrestling Council was a Caribbean representative. In Canada, Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, Frank Tunney’s Maple Leaf Wrestling, and Gene Kiniski’s All-Star Wrestling were also members. One more US member? Vince McMahon Sr.’s World-Wide Wrestling Federation.
Under this system, the territories thrived. The NWA would send the champion around to various territories where he would challenge a local star and, while not losing the title, would often be willing to lose the match (most often due to a disqualification or count out). This way the local promotion could build up its own stars, and because the matches were not televised, no luster was lost on the NWA world champion. As long as you were willing to play ball with the NWA Board, everything went well.
The NWA saw its power begin to tremble as more and more promotions began to have programs on cable television. Fans were able to see other promotions and began noticing inconsistencies between their home promotion and others. Also, they were able to see the biggest stars on television every week, which meant that seeing them live, while still a special occasion, had lost some of its luster.
However, a new player was about to enter the game that would change the game forever.
In 1982, Vince McMahon Jr.’s company Capitol Sports purchased the World Wrestling Federation (they’d dropped the Wide a couple of years prior) from his father. He immediately went on the attack, with visions of a true national promotion on his mind. One of his first actions was to again withdraw from the NWA. (Vince McMahon Sr. had done so in 1963, rejoining the NWA in 1971). He began syndicating WWF programming to television stations outside of the WWF’s northeastern home turf. He also began selling videotapes nationwide through Coliseum Video. He used the money raised by these actions to begin buying up top talent from regional promoters (including Hulk Hogan, who soon shot to the top of the WWF).
McMahon was, in some cases, going beyond buying talent. He bought Maple Leaf Wrestling in 1984 (after Frank Tunney passed away), which gave him an entrance into Canada. Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling soon followed suit.
Also in 1984, he purchased a majority share of GCW from Gerald and Jack Brisco and Jim Barnett (although head booker Ole Anderson left the company over the buyout, and Gerald Brisco has stated in interviews that the only reason he and Jack Brisco made it out of the locker room in one piece is because Hawk and Animal, the Road Warriors, kept the other wrestlers from attacking them after word got out of the sale). McMahon purchased GCW for one reason – it gave him a national timeslot on WTBS. This was a rare backfire – fans deluged the TBS offices with letters demanding the return of NWA wrestling, and the ratings began to nosedive. Also during this time, McMahon lost a lot of goodwill with station owner Ted Turner when Turner reportedly tried to buy the WWF from him and McMahon refused to sell. Turner was further angered by the fact that he had been promised a studio wrestling show every week, and instead got a show made up of clips of WWF matches from other shows. In May of 1985, McMahon finally realized the futility of this move and sold the timeslot to Jim Crockett for 1 million dollars.
McMahon’s ambitions understandably panicked the NWA promoters. In 1984, Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett of CWA, the NWA, the AWA, and Ole Anderson (now running GCW) decided to join forces and begin promoting shows together under the banner of Pro Wrestling USA. In 1985, Pro Wrestling USA hit its peak with the Superclash show which over 21,000 people attended – the card was headlined by Ric Flair vs. Magnum TA for the NWA title, and Rick Martel vs. Stan Hansen for the AWA belt. The shaky alliance soon collapsed and the AWA withdrew, taking PW USA’s ESPN TV timeslot with them.
Meanwhile, Vince McMahon was taking an enormous chance on another grand idea that he called Wrestlemania. Wrestlemania would be a supershow available on pay-per-view. McMahon was also able to incorporate several celebrities in the show (such as the A-Team’s Mr. T and rock star Cyndi Lauper, who also earned McMahon extensive coverage on MTV). Wrestlemania was an incredible success, and McMahon’s company continued rising.
In 1985, Crockett began to make moves of his own toward unifying the NWA. He was reelected as NWA President earlier that year and, following the purchase of the WWF’s timeslot on TBS, bought Ole Anderson’s Georgia Championship Wrestling, which expanded his territory as far south as Atlanta.
1986 saw Crockett begin promoting under the NWA World Championship Wrestling moniker, with territories ranging from the Carolinas, Georgia, and even St. Louis. A war began between McMahon and Crockett as both began scrambling for TV time in new markets. That year Crockett also purchased NWA Central States (giving him Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa as well).
Turner’s anger with Vince McMahon had also allowed a new player to enter the national wrestling game – Bill Watts. His Mid-South Wrestling had gotten a timeslot on TBS as a response to the fans’ (and Turner’s) displeasure with the WWF product. Watts put on good shows, hoping for a chance at the WWF’s Saturday night timeslot when the relationship between Turner and the WWF collapsed. Unfortunately for Watts, Jim Crockett was able to buy the timeslot instead.
In 1986, Watts relaunched his company as the Universal Wrestling Federation. However, the UWF couldn’t compare to the WWF and NWA, and was further harmed by a steep depression that the state of Oklahoma’s (one of the UWF’s primary locales) economy entered in 1987. He wound up selling the promotion to Crockett not long after.
Despite Crockett’s personal promotion’s growth, the NWA was beginning to suffer serious blows. In 1985, New Japan Pro Wrestling withdrew its membership (actually, they had only joined to have access to the NWA World Junior championship). EMLL soon withdrew as well (taking with them the NWA World Light Heavyweight and NWA World Middleweight titles in accordance with Mexican traditions). All Japan also soon dropped its membership. Colon’s WWC pulled out in 1987. In 1985, NWA All-Star in Canada pulled out and became the Universal Wrestling Alliance.
In Texas, Fritz Von Erich withdrew World Class from the NWA in 1986. Problems soon emerged as Iceman Parsons, Chris Adams, Missy Hyatt, John Tatum, and the Fabulous Freebirds jumped to the UWF when booker Ken Mantell jumped after problems developed between him and Fritz. World Class’s problems continued to mount as Adams had been forced to surrender his title after an incident on an airplane that resulted in jail time and Kerry Von Erich was involved in a motorcycle accident (which would also result in Von Erich having one foot amputated due to disputed causes that include walking down the hall unassisted too soon after surgery and a premature return to the ring).
Things seemed to get worse in 1987, as Ken Mantell decided to open his own promotion in Fort Worth (near Dallas, which was WCCW’s home base) after the UWF buyout with former WCCW talent such as Fabulous Lance (aka Lance Von Erich), the Missing Link, Wild Bill Irwin, Buddy Roberts, Jack Victory, Iceman Parsons, and John Tatum. Wild West Wrestling only lasted a few months, as Fritz Von Erich sold his controlling interests of WCCW to sons Kerry and Kevin, and (with the exception of Lance) the Wild West Wrestling roster was welcomed back into the WCCW fold. The turnaround continued as Chris Adams left the NWA and also returned to WCCW. Unfortunately, things soon began to slide downward again as Mike Von Erich passed away during this time and in December Fritz faked a heart attack at the annual Christmas Star Wars show. WCCW would be sold to Jerry Jarrett in 1988, who would rename his company the United States Wrestling Association (USWA).
As stated above, Crockett’s purchasing spree was continuing throughout 1987 as he soon added Bill Watts’s UWF and Florida Championship Wrestling. He was definitely the most prominent NWA member, as he was the only promoter still with the NWA with national TV time (after WCCW withdrew and the Portland company was in serious decline). Many wrestling fans began associating WCW and the NWA as one and the same.
Now Crockett had a new problem – the same one that had faced Vince McMahon in 1985. Touring the country took a great deal of money, and Crockett was running out of it. Crockett decided to steal a page from McMahon’s book and began marketing Starrcade 87 to cable companies as WCW’s answer to Wrestlemania. McMahon placed the 1987 Survivor Series the same day, and further told the companies that any of them that ran Starrcade would not be allowed to run Wrestlemania the following year.
Crockett tried again in January with the Bunkhouse Stampede pay-per-view, and McMahon counter programmed by placing the 1988 Royal Rumble on free TV opposite the show. Both shows were unqualified losses for Crockett.
Another problem with Crockett’s promotion was the booker. Dusty Rhodes had begun booking in 1985 with groundbreaking, creative new ideas. In 1988 Rhodes was burnt out, both by battling Vince McMahon and reported backstage conflicts with Ric Flair. After incomprehensible booking decisions (such as having Rick Steiner take the world title from Flair in five minutes at Starrcade), Rhodes was removed as booker and soon fired.
The AWA was faring much worse than either the WWF or WCW. Both companies had been heavily raiding their stars, leaving behind (for the most part) an aging roster. Gagne had made several mistakes throughout the decade, including over-pushing his son Greg and the loss of Hogan. Although in 1985, Gagne had managed to steal Sgt. Slaughter, Bob Backlund, and the Tonga Kid from the WWF, his good fortunes did not last. A partnership with All Japan Pro Wrestling collapsed in 1988 after Gagne wanted champion Stan Hansen to drop the belt, a decision that AJPW vetoed and brought Hansen to Japan. However, Gagne had an idea that may help to turn the AWA’s fortunes around.
By the end of 1988, Crockett was out of money, but he had an enormous stroke of good fortune. A new player was about to enter the game. On November 21, 1988, WCW was purchased by Ted Turner.
In 1988, Verne Gagne made a deal with Jerry Jarrett, Ron Fuller (promoter of Alabama’s Continental Wrestling Federation) and the Von Erichs. Under the deal, he allowed CWA’s Jerry Lawler to win the AWA title. He then defended it against WCCW’s Terry Taylor before moving on to a feud against Kerry Von Erich. Lawler fought Von Erich in a title unification (AWA and WCCW) match at Superclash III, which was the AWA’s only pay-per-view (which also included David McLane’s Powerful Women of Wrestling). Sales for the show were dismal (roughly one-fourth of a WCW show), and attendance was less than 2,000. Problems emerged when attendance figures Gagne gave the public differed from those of the promoters, which again caused the shaky alliance to collapse. Lawler refused to defend the AWA belt in Texas, which caused WCCW to completely collapse. The USWA soon purchased WCCW, and Gagne was left with no world champion.
In 1990, the USWA pulled out of Dallas after problems arose with the Von Erichs, who still owned 40 percent of USWA-Dallas. Kerry Von Erich departed for the WWF, and Kevin began promoting shows in the Dallas Sportatorium under the WCCW banner himself. Money was again running out despite the shows being moderately successful, and WCCW held its final show in November of 1990.
AWA didn’t hold out much longer. Larry Zbyszko (Gagne’s son in law) won the vacant title in a battle royal in February of 1989. Gagne also wound up giving more creative power to a young man named Eric Bischoff, who developed the concept of the Team Challenge Series. In the Series, the entire roster was broken up into three teams – Larry’s Legends (captained by Zbyszko), Slaughter’s Snipers (led by Sgt. Slaughter and changed to DeBeers’ Diamondcutters when Slaughter jumped to the WWF), and Baron’s Blitzers (under Baron Von Raschke), and each team would gain points for winning matches. The Series was soon revealed to be nothing more than regular wrestling matches (including bizarre gimmick matches, including one where Col. DeBeers and Jake Milliman fought over a turkey on a pole). In August of 1990 Larry’s Legends won the Series and a 1 million dollar check, but the damage was done. The final act by Verne Gagne as head of the AWA was to strip Zbyszko of the world title after he jumped to WCW, a symbolic act only as the AWA had already stopped running shows. Gagne attempted to restart the promotion in 1991, but it was a failure and the AWA closed its doors.
WCW entered 1989 with an incredible year as Ric Flair was both world champion and chief booker. Flair wound up having a legendary feud with Ricky Steamboat during this time period, and the fans came out in droves to support the company. New stars such as Sid Vicious, Sting, Brian Pillman, the Great Muta, and Lex Luger were also given opportunities at the spotlight.
In 1991, WCW formally split from the NWA, leaving the NWA with no world champion. Problems soon emerged with new WCW president Jim Herd. In July, Flair was fired and took the title (he had paid a 25,000 dollar deposit to the NWA for the belt and WCW refused to refund the money) with him to the WWF where he began being promoted as the “Real World’s Champion.” WCW soon paid Flair his money and got the belt back, but also earned a black eye in the process.
Wrestling was also starting up again in Dallas as Max Andrews & Grey Pierson formed the Global Wrestling Federation. Armed with an ESPN TV deal, they began running shows at the Dallas Sportatorium (renamed for TV the Global Dome). In 1992 Pierson took full control of the company and started bringing many old WCCW stars back. In 1993, they ran a special card in memory of Kerry Von Erich, who had passed away shortly before. Not long after, the promotion’s focus became Chris Adams. By September of 1994, Global had closed its doors.
1992 saw two other promotions begin that would gain prominence. Jim Cornette and Stan Lane left WCW and founded Smoky Mountain Wrestling. Despite the major depression the wrestling business went through at the time, SMW still put on quality shows, catering to old-school fans.
In Pennsylvania, Tod Gordon founded Eastern Championship Wrestling and quickly joined the NWA. By 1993, former WCW manager Paul E. Dangerously (real name: Paul Heyman) had taken over Eddie Gilbert’s job as head booker and the promotion became edgier, but also kept drawing in new fans.
Things were looking up for WCW in 1993. After shaky leadership under Jim Herd and Bill Watts, Eric Bischoff ascended to the presidency of WCW (a move which also drove Jim Ross to the WWF). Additionally, Ric Flair had returned from the WWF and soon became the focus of the promotion again.
1993 was a year of change for the USWA. The company signed a talent exchange deal with the WWF, sending Lawler to the WWF and several WWF stars (such as Owen Hart, Tatanka, and Randy Savage) to do shows with the USWA. The USWA also soon became a development territory for the WWF, helping to train their future stars.
The WWF was still on top, and still riding on Hogan’s (fading) popularity, a bad move that was beginning to cause fans to leave the promotion. McMahon had tried to begin building the Ultimate Warrior up as Hogan’s replacement as the focus of the promotion, but a last-minute demand for more money at the 1991 Summerslam caused McMahon to fire the Warrior. Unfortunately for McMahon, more clouds were gathering on the horizon.
No one knew how fast things would change in 1994. The WWF had a horrible year as the company was rocked by sexual harassment allegations and McMahon himself was indicted in federal court on steroid-related charges. The trial would see no less than Hulk Hogan take the stand against McMahon (who was acquitted). However, McMahon was also forced to cover expenses by slashing pay for both wrestlers and office personnel.
In 1994, Jim Crockett approached Tod Gordon. Crockett’s no-compete clause with Ted Turner (after the sale of WCW) had ended, and he had returned to the NWA. He worked with Gordon to set up an NWA world title tournament at Eastern’s home arena. Unfortunately, NWA President Dennis Coralluzzo suspected that Crockett was doing this to once again gain control over the NWA title (as he had in the 1980’s) and took personal control over the tournament. Gordon was furious. In an infamous moment, Shane Douglas defeated 2 Cold Scorpio in the finals, then threw the belt down and said he didn’t want to represent something that had died years earlier. Extreme Championship Wrestling was born.
Eric Bischoff sensed the WWF’s weakness and went for the throat, immediately signing Hulk Hogan to WCW, complete with a parade at Universal Studios. Randy Savage soon followed. Bischoff soon began feuding Hogan and Ric Flair, and the following Bash at the Beach pay-per-view did extremely well. However, the ratings did not improve, and Turner executives were not happy when they re-evaluated the company in 1995. But Bischoff still had another idea or two up his sleeves…
In September of 1995, Bischoff’s gamble paid off. He got Ted Turner to approve the creation of Monday Nitro, a live Monday night show on directly opposite the WWF’s flagship Raw is War show which was live every other week and taped the following week (a process they didn’t abandon until the launch of Smackdown). Bischoff made the most of his opportunity. The first Nitro aired on a week when Raw was preempted by the US Open, and also featured the return of Lex Luger, who had been working for the WWF. Further, Bischoff took full advantage of the weeks where Raw was taped by frequently announcing the results of upcoming WWF matches on the air.
Bischoff continued hammering at the WWF, stealing as many stars as he could. Ray Traylor (the Big Bossman), John Tenta (Earthquake), Meng (Haku), Jim Duggan, and Ed Leslie (Brutus Beefcake) all jumped ship during this time period. WCW even teased bringing in the Ultimate Warrior, instead bringing in a Warrior look-alike called the Renegade who failed miserably.
One successful angle involved Debra Miceli. Miceli had long wrestled under the name of Madusa. When she signed with the WWF in 1993, she was given the name Alundra Blayze, and eventually won the WWF Women’s title. In December of 1995, Miceli signed with WCW without dropping the belt. She showed up on Nitro once more using her name of Madusa (reportedly without notifying Vince McMahon of any of this), dropped the WWF Women’s title into a trash can, and said she wanted to be “where the big boys play” (WCW’s slogan at the time).
1995 was also a good year for the USWA. Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling wound up closing and was sold to the USWA, bringing with it more new stars.
During this time, ECW’s edgy approach kept making new fans. New stars like Raven, Tommy Dreamer, the Sandman, and the Dudley family began making names for themselves. In 1995, ECW also brought in new WCW release Steve Austin. Austin was allowed to shake all the WCW chains free, and began viciously attacking WCW and Eric Bischoff. This only endeared him to the Philadelphia fans more and more.
ECW also began looking worldwide to bring in new stars for its fans. They began to place their focus on hiring wrestlers who were more technically sound instead of purely on looks or size (like the WWF and WCW were now doing). New names like Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Misterio Jr., Psychosis, Juventud Guerrera, and Chris Jericho were embraced by the fans.
Throughout 1995 and into 1996, the ratings war between WCW and the WWF was seesawing back and forth. In mid-1996, Bischoff unleashed another shot at the WWF. He hired Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, who were best known as the WWF’s Diesel and Razor Ramon. These Outsiders hinted that they had been sent by the WWF to take over WCW, which resulted in multiple lawsuits from Vince McMahon. Finally Bischoff was forced to ask them both on camera if they were still employed by the WWF, which both denied. McMahon, meanwhile, retaliated by bringing in two new wrestlers and using them as Razor Ramon and Diesel, an angle the fans despised.
Nash and Hall were center stage at the 1996 Bash at the Beach, where they joined with a mystery partner to take on WCW representatives Sting, Lex Luger, and Randy Savage. When Hall and Nash took control, Hulk Hogan ran down to the ring. Instead of helping, however, he attacked Randy Savage and gave Hall and Nash the win. After the match, Hogan declared that the three of them were the New World Order, and perhaps WCW’s greatest triumph had begun.
The NWO era also see Bischoff start a hiring frenzy from both ECW and the WWF. Benoit, Malenko, Guerrero, Misterio, Psicosis, Juventud, and Jericho were all snatched from ECW. Bischoff raided the WWF even harder – stealing Ted DiBiase, Sean Waltman (1-2-3 Kid), Mike Jones (Virgil), Marty Jannetty, Roddy Piper, and Curt Hennig (Mr. Perfect) from the WWF. Fans began tuning in to WCW to see which new faces would show up that week.
Despite this, McMahon began signing his own choice talent away from WCW and ECW – Vader (a former WCW champion and well remembered for his feud with Sting), Marc Mero, Steve Austin, Cactus Jack (Mick Foley) and Paul LeVesque (Jean-Paul LeVesque in WCW, renamed to Hunter Hearst Helmsley in the WWF). The new talent was mostly young and athletic, and disgusted with the lack of push they received from WCW, who was focusing more and more on former WWF stars, Flair, and Sting (who were usually made to look like losers against the NWO). Ironically enough, this marked a 180 degree turn for both companies: the WWF had traditionally focused on the showmanship side of wrestling, and WCW (dating back to the days of the NWA) had always focused on the athletics of wrestling.
1996 saw a dark period for ECW. Despite losing talent to WCW, two major blows hit the young promotion this year. First, in October at High Incident, US Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle was in attendance, and Gordon was surely hoping to sign a deal with him. That night Raven crucified the Sandman on a wooden cross and placed a crown of barbed wire on his head.
Angle was outraged and stormed out without looking back. Afterward, Heyman forced Raven to go out to the ring and apologize to the crowd.
The second problem happened in November. New Jack and Mustapha (the Gangstas) were scheduled to take on Axl Rotten and D-Von Dudley. For some reason, a young man introduced himself as a pro wrestler named Mass Transit (real name Erich Kulas). The young man’s father assured Heyman that he had been properly trained. Heyman let him onto the show.
During the match, New Jack had to blade Mass Transit. He cut so deeply that blood literally fountained into the air from the young man’s forehead, and Transit passed out. It was then that the truth came out – his father can be heard screaming on the tape that he was only 17.
Kulas’s family sued ECW and New Jack. They were acquitted, but the bad publicity (and tapes of the incident that cable companies received) resulted in the cancellation of the PPV.
1996 also saw the return of an old familiar face. Dale Gagner (now going by the last name of Gagne) and Jonnie Stewart reopened the AWA – now calling itself AWA Superstars of Wrestling.
In 1997, Paul Heyman bought ECW from Tod Gordon as ECW was about to gain a new legitimacy. ECW invaded Raw in February of that year to promote their first pay-per-view (which was finally happening thanks to Heyman’s efforts with the cable companies). Heyman joined Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler on commentary – which would soon lead to a feud between Lawler and ECW.
April saw ECW’s first PPV – Barely Legal. The main event ended with Terry Funk winning the ECW world title.
Lawler wound up working with ECW as Raven departed the company for WCW. Even despite the WWF publicity, ECW still suffered as Tod Gordon was soon fired by Paul Heyman. Heyman claimed that Gordon was secretly working with WCW to raid talent from ECW and then lead an ECW invasion into WCW (a charge Gordon denies to this day).
Also in 1997, Jerry Lawler and two businessmen wound up buying the USWA from Jerry Jarrett. The company had closed by November, and lawsuits began to fly among the partners.
1997 closed with a stunning development. WWF champion Bret Hart had been approached by WCW the year before, and had turned them down in exchange for a twenty-year contract with the WWF. In 1997, Vince McMahon came to Hart and asked him to reopen contact with WCW. McMahon explained that WCW had pushed the WWF to the edge of bankruptcy and he could no longer honor his contract. Hart signed with WCW, with his final day in the WWF being the night of the Survivor Series. Hart refused to lose the belt to Shawn Michaels in Canada. McMahon was ringside for the match and ordered the timekeeper to ring the bell while Michaels had Hart locked in a Sharpshooter, giving Michaels the world title. A disgusted Hart went to WCW, and was soon joined by the British Bulldog, Jim the Anvil Neidhart, and Brian Adams (Crush).
WCW closed out 1997 with its highest PPV buyrate ever. Starrcade ’97 was headlined by a Hollywood (formerly Hulk) Hogan vs. Sting match that had been built up for over a year. The match saw Sting win the WCW world title (he was soon stripped of the belt). The event also ended Eric Bischoff’s plans of trying to branch the NWO out into their own television program.
1998 saw a change in the WWF’s fortunes, and once again it was Wrestlemania that got the ball rolling. At Wrestlemania XIV, McMahon had brought in Mike Tyson to serve as guest enforcer for the Michaels-Steve Austin title match. Austin won the belt, and Tyson knocked Michaels out after the match. As a period to the sentence, Sean Waltman returned to the WWF the next night as X-Pac. That night was the first night in 84 weeks that the WWF overtook WCW in the ratings.
The winds continued to blow the WWF’s way as new stars emerged – Mankind (Mick Foley) and the Rock emerged as legitimate main eventers. Steve Austin’s star continued to rise. Hunter Hearst Helmsley (now known as Triple H) took over the leadership role in D-Generation X that the injured Michaels had vacated and rebuilt the stable with Waltman, the Road Dogg, and Billy Gunn. These new stars caused fans to begin switching the channel from WCW to the WWF.
Bischoff needed something big to regain momentum in the ratings war, and he turned to the Ultimate Warrior. Never mind the fact that the WWF had brought Warrior back in 1996 and released him soon thereafter. The Warrior was brought in to feud with Hulk Hogan in a feud that culminated at the 1998 Halloween Havoc.
The feud was a disaster. Warrior would cut rambling, incoherent promos that bored fans. Finally, when the Halloween Havoc match rolled around, the match itself was horrible. The Warrior wound up departing WCW almost immediately thereafter and has not been seen in a wrestling ring again to this day.
However, Bischoff had one wrestler he’d definitely turned into a star. Bill Goldberg rode a phenomenal wave of fan support to the top of WCW thanks to his lengthy undefeated streak.
1998 closed out on a down note for WCW. Bringing in celebrities for PPV shots like Dennis Rodman and Jay Leno had failed to bring fans in. Finally, in December, Kevin Nash easily defeated Goldberg for the WCW world title. Goldberg’s support was never the same.
By January of 1999, Bischoff was back to his old tricks. One night he had head announcer Tony Schiavone reveal that Mankind was preparing to win the WWF world title in the main event, followed by the sarcastic remark “That’ll put butts in the seats.” Over 300,000 fans immediately changed the channel to Raw.
ECW found itself on the rise in 1999. In August, they got a one-hour TV timeslot on TNN, giving them a national audience that they’d never had before.
Unfortunately, the ECW-TNN relationship was anything but perfect. TNN demanded top-quality production values like Nitro or Raw, but refused to give ECW more money to do so. TNN also heavily censored the program and refused to promote it.
This infuriated Paul Heyman. In response, he hired Don Callis (the Jackyl from the WWF) and recast him as heel commentator Cyrus “the Virus,” who represented “the network.”
The WWF continued its rise throughout 1999, even stealing Paul Wight (the Giant, soon to be renamed the Big Show) and Chris Jericho from WCW and immediately pushing them to the top of the card. The WWF also added a new Thursday program – Smackdown.
However, the WWF also experienced one of its darkest days during 1999. At the Over the Edge pay-per-view, Owen Hart was killed when a stunt descent from the ceiling of Kemper Arena went wrong. The WWF dedicated its next Raw to Owen, and WCW included their own tributes as well.
WCW, on the other hand, continued looking for the next easy fix after adding their own Thursday program – Thunder. After failed attempts at ratings boosts like a live concert by KISS, and trying to incorporate mainstream stars like Master P, in September of 1999 Eric Bischoff was removed from his position as head of WCW.
WCW brought in the WWF’s top writers, Vince Russo and Ed Ferrera, to replace Bischoff. The program immediately changed, and Russo immediately began having problems with Turner Broadcasting’s Standards & Practices division. The end result, while utilizing younger stars, felt like a watered-down version of WWF programming.
Russo’s tenure also proved demeaning to many of the foreign wrestlers. The Mexican (except big names like Eddie & Chavo Guerrero Jr. and Rey Misterio Jr.) and Japanese wrestlers were soon released. Before the releases, there were several humiliating gimmick matches. For example, the Mexican wrestlers had competed in a “piÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â±ata on a pole match.” Inside the piÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â±ata was a green card (Juventud won).
Russo didn’t last long. Immediately before the January, 2000 Souled Out pay-per-view, Russo was sent home and a new booker was chosen – Kevin Sullivan. Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Perry Saturn, and Eddie Guerrero immediately demanded and received their releases (despite the fact that Benoit won the world title at the pay-per-view). The WWF scooped all four men up as quickly as they could.
Late in 1999, problems arose for ECW as well. World champion Mike Awesome defected to WCW, without dropping the belt. Only a last minute legal frenzy from Heyman prevented Awesome from bringing the ECW world title to WCW much as Madusa had done years before. Shortly thereafter, Awesome (a WCW wrestler) lost the ECW title to Tazz (a WWF wrestler) on an ECW show.
WCW’s problems continued as they were also soon sued by former manager Sonny Onoo and wrestlers Bobby Walker and Harrison Norris for racial discrimination. Walker and Norris claimed that they had never been given opportunities to succeed due to the fact that they were black, and Onoo’s complaint was an offensive joke that had been passed around the WCW offices in the form of a Chinese restaurant menu. WCW responded by quickly putting Stevie Ray at the commentator’s table, and Booker T soon won the world title.
2000 also saw one of the WWF’s biggest missteps. Vince McMahon had long wanted to branch out from wrestling, but all attempts had failed. These attempts included the World Bodybuilding Federation (a bodybuilding competition that would be held on PPV), Icopro (a nutritional supplement), and selling exercise equipment. This time he announced the launch of the XFL, a football league that would be broadcast on NBC, UPN, and TNN. Although the ratings were high for the first few weeks, soon after they steeply declined, eventually resulting in some of the lowest ratings ever on network television. The 2001 season (its premiere) was also its last.
Also in 2000, ECW prepared for a pay-per-view in Los Angeles (its first on the West Coast). The show was interrupted by an invasion from rival promotion XPW. XPW was a hardcore promotion much like ECW. It was founded by Rob Black, a figure in the adult video business. The ECW and XPW rosters brawled in the parking lot, with ECW eventually winning the fight.
WCW continued sliding throughout 2000. Russo and Bischoff were both brought back in April. Together they tried a new storyline – in which the “New Blood” of WCW (despite including stars like 10-year veteran Shane Douglas) battled the “Millionaire’s Club” of established main eventers. The storyline backfired, turning the Millionaire’s Club into babyfaces and the New Blood into heels.
Also at this time, a WCW-themed movie, Ready to Rumble, hit theaters. In a bizarre booking decision, the star of the movie, David Arquette, wound up winning the world title before dropping it to Jeff Jarrett.
The insanity continued. At Bash at the Beach, Russo did a shoot interview on Hulk Hogan (although just how “shoot” the interview was is disputed) that resulted in Hogan storming out of the company and filing a defamation suit of his own (that was dismissed in 2002). By July Bischoff was gone. Russo himself won the WCW title in September, and soon left the company due to the effects of a severe concussion. Terry Taylor found himself in control of the company.
ECW found itself in a bad position as, in 2000, it was revealed that TNN had successfully negotiated to bring the WWF onto the network. In October, ECW on TNN was cancelled to clear the way for Raw (after Heyman rejected McMahon’s offer to allow the show to remain on the air until the end of the year).
2000 also saw a change in the WWF. McMahon took the company’s stock public, and the WWF stock soon found a place on the New York Stock Exchange.
Problems continued for WCW. Its owners, now Time Warner (after a merge with Turner) were very concerned about the company’s performance. Eric Bischoff attempted to buy the company, but was rebuffed.
2001 opened badly for ECW. Not only had they lost the TNN show, but the end of 2000 also marked the end of their syndicated show as well. They managed to put on their January pay-per-view, but rumors began swirling about the company’s financial status and future.
WCW was doing no better. As Time Warner prepared to merge with AOL, they began extensively reviewing all of their divisions’ finances. The decision was quickly made that WCW was to be sold. Eric Bischoff quickly put together a group to buy the company, but the decision to cancel all wrestling programming on the Turner networks caused the other partners to back out. WCW was sold to Vince McMahon in March of 2001, with the final Nitro airing only a few days later. The show ended with Shane McMahon saying he had purchased WCW, instead of Vince.
ECW closed days later as Paul Heyman filed for bankruptcy in early April. Heyman and many of ECW’s top stars jumped ship to the WWF.
The war was over, and Vince McMahon had won.
The WWF began to make plans to branch out the WCW stars as their own brand (WCW), which would still remain under the WWF umbrella. On July 2, after weeks of run-ins by WCW stars, they were given the final half-hour of Raw for a WCW trial run. Stacy Keibler served as the ring announcer, and Arn Anderson and Scott Hudson performed commentary.
In the match, Booker T (once again the world champion) took on Buff Bagwell. The match was awful, and the crowd only began showing signs of life when WWF heels Steve Austin and Kurt Angle attacked both wrestlers.
Soon thereafter, the WWF changed their plans. Now the storyline was WCW vs. the WWF. When the fans lost interest (mainly due to the booking, where the WWF destroyed the WCW contingent at every opportunity), ECW was brought in. The fans’ interest was peaked by this development and shortly crushed by two mistakes – 1) ECW immediately joined forces with WCW as the Alliance, and 2) Stephanie McMahon was introduced as the ECW owner. Once again, the McMahon family feud was the central storyline.
The Invasion was finally killed at Survivor Series of that year, when Team WWF (Kane, Undertaker, Big Show, Rock, and Chris Jericho) defeated Team Alliance (Steve Austin, ECW’s Rob Van Dam, Shane McMahon, Kurt Angle, and WCW’s Booker T).
Following this, the decision was made to unify the WCW and WWF world titles in a one night tournament between Steve Austin, the Rock, Kurt Angle, and Chris Jericho. In a surprising move, Jericho defeated both the Rock and Austin to win both belts and become the first ever Undisputed WWF world champion.
McMahon decided to bring back another piece of WCW soon thereafter. As part of his ongoing feud with Ric Flair (who’d come in the night after the Survivor Series as half-owner of the WWF), he decided to bring back Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Hollywood Hogan as the NWO. The reunion flopped, as the group debuted in February, and at Wrestlemania in March, the crowd turned on the Rock and turned Hogan into a babyface, causing Hall and Nash to kick him out of the group.
Hall and Nash soon added some familiar faces back to the New World Order – X-Pac and the Big Show soon joined. Booker T was next, and he was followed by Shawn Michaels (who immediately kicked Booker out of the group). In July the group was disbanded.
Despite McMahon’s victory in the war, problems continued to mount. In May, he settled a lawsuit with the World Wildlife Foundation over the WWF initials. As part of the settlement, McMahon changed the name of his company to World Wrestling Entertainment – WWE.
2002 was a banner year for the NWA. Jerry Jarrett founded Total Nonstop Action, a wrestling company that would run, instead of weekly television, weekly pay-per-views priced at $9.95 each. TNA was affiliated with the NWA, giving the NWA its first national audience in a decade. TNA’s X Division (focusing on young, lightweight workers in fast-paced, high-flying matches) soon proved to be one of the company’s strongest points.
Despite this, NWA-TNA was losing money at a rapid rate. In 2002, Panda Energy purchased the company, with former owner Jerry Jarrett remaining on board in a vice presidential role.
With the passage of the dominating WCW and ECW, the independent scene began to bloom again as well. In February of 2002, Rob Feinstein introduced Ring of Honor, a wrestling company which focused more on the in-ring product and less on showmanship. ROH also featured a “code of honor” which focused on good sportsmanship, which all participants were expected to follow.
XPW continued to do well in 2002 as Shane Douglas joined the roster and the product began to mature. Instead of the over-the-top antics the promotion was known for, XPW began to focus more on wrestling and less on shock value.
Another hardcore promotion continued to gain steam as well. Combat Zone Wrestling had been founded in 1999 and began gaining fans due to their ultra-violent style. In 2002, CZW introduced the annual Tournament of Death. The premiere show featured Nick Mondo and Homeless Jimmy falling off a truck and landing on tables and light tubes, and in the main event Wifebeater used a Weed Eater on Mondo.
2002 also saw the WWE take another bold move. McMahon initiated a brand extension whereby Raw and Smackdown became separate brands, with the roster split and each wrestler assigned to one show or the other. Each show would be run by a general manager – Stephanie McMahon on Smackdown, and Eric Bischoff on Raw.
Soon thereafter, Brock Lesnar won the WWE Undisputed title from the Rock. The next night on Raw, Lesnar informed Bischoff that he had signed an exclusive deal with Smackdown and would not defend the belt on Raw. Bischoff responded by bringing back the WCW world title belt (now renamed the World Heavyweight title), and awarded it to Triple H.
April of 2003 saw XPW collapse when owner Rob Black was indicted and jailed for sending pornography across state lines through the US mail. He was released in 2005.
2003 also saw a change in the WWE’s brand extension as McMahon introduced a draft. Five superstars (randomly chosen) from Raw were traded for five from Smackdown. Also, the general managers could negotiate trades between shows for a set time period. The draft would become an annual event.
In July, another well-known independent promotion started in southern California. Pro Wrestling Guerrilla was founded by wrestlers Scott Lost, Joey Ryan, Super Dragon, Disco Machine, Excalibur, and Top Gun Talwar.
TNA also changed their in-ring product during 2003, as the company switched from the traditional four-sided ring to a six-sided one, giving them another difference than the WWE.
2004 saw a shocking change for the WWE as Brock Lesnar (who they had built up to be their next rising star) decided to suddenly leave the company to pursue a dream of playing professional football. In addition, Goldberg (who the WWE had also brought in) decided to leave as well. At Wrestlemania, both men faced each other in their final match, which was heckled mercilessly by the Madison Square Garden crowd.
Ring of Honor faced its own problems during this time as well. Owner Rob Feinstein was caught in a “sting” operation by the Perverted Justice website and a local television affiliate. Feinstein reportedly made arrangements to meet a 14 year old boy over the internet for sex (a quote from the chat logs from Feinstein “lol I’ll pretend you said 18” when the “boy” told his age rapidly became infamous). When he arrived at the address, the television cameras were waiting. The story was broadcast, although no charges against Feinstein have been filed.
After this, various wrestlers began refusing to work for ROH (a well-respected company), and NWA-TNA pulled all its talent as well, demanding that Feinstein leave the company. The issues with the company were resolved when Feinstein sold the company to Cary Silkin, although Feinstein does still operate his tape-selling website.
In 2004, TNA changed their business plan. They withdrew from the NWA (but not without making a deal that allowed them to continue using the NWA World and Tag Team championships for ten years). They also began a weekly television show on Fox Sports Net called Impact. In September, TNA stopped running their weekly pay-per-views, instead opting to run more traditional monthly three hour shows.
The AWA also changed its business plan during this time period. Owner Dale Gagne announced a new “Open Door” policy for the AWA, meaning that interested promotions could join them under the AWA banner. Today the AWA has twenty smaller promotions working together, in much the same style as the NWA.
2005 saw the WWE pulling Raw from Spike TV (formerly TNN) and returning to its traditional home on USA.
In 2005, TNA’s contract with Fox Sports Net expired and the company negotiated a new deal where Impact moved to Spike TV on Saturday nights. Although TNA had been losing a great deal of money until this point, Robert Carter (owner of Panda Energy) announced in September that TNA was very close to breaking even and he expected the company to become profitable in 2006.
TNA also announced the development of a video game through Midway Games (slated for a 2007 release), and continued planning to begin running house shows in 2006.
In 2005, the WWE suffered another tragedy as wrestler Eddie Guerrero was found dead in his hotel room. The problems were compounded later that week when wrestler Nick Dinsmore (Eugene) passed out backstage after taking Somas. McMahon immediately announced the beginning of a “wellness program,” which targets wrestlers’ physical health and seeks to fight both drug abuse and steroid usage.
And everything old is new again. As you can see, the fall of WCW and ECW, simply seems to have brought the wrestling landscape back to where it was in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Today we have one strong promotion (originally the AWA, now the WWE), a secondary group (formerly the NWA, now TNA), and a healthy independent scene.
The independents today, however, vary greatly from the traditional territory system. The old territories would run weekly television shows and have a set touring weekly schedule with their own set stars. Today, the independents rarely have television (although some do), and many do not run weekly shows, instead opting for biweekly or monthly shows.
The business model for the independent promotions has changed as well. Whereas the old territories depended on ticket and merchandise sales at the shows to survive, the newer ones utilize the Internet to spread their popularity and sell DVDs and videos of their events. In addition, companies can broadcast their TV shows over the Internet, which only increases their popularity. Another way the Internet is being used can be seen with the Heartland Wrestling Association (HWA) out of Ohio, which is preparing for their first ever pay-per-view, which will, instead of going through cable companies, be streamed through the Internet.
Another change with the Internet is the style of wrestling. Today, traditional American-styled independent promotions operate with lucha-styled ones (imported from Mexico), and puroresu (Japanese) styled companies. In addition, worldwide stars have become much more appreciated. Ring of Honor, for example, has had great success bringing in Japanese stars such as Kenta Kobashi, KENTA, CIMA, and Naomichi Marufuji.
Wrestlers also no longer compete exclusively for one company (apart from the WWE, which, for the most part, restricts its wrestlers to only participate in WWE events). Today, while big name stars (such as those from TNA) are still in demand with smaller wrestling promotions (much like those from the NWA were back in the early 1980’s), even lesser known wrestlers commonly work for multiple promotions in their area.