Keynotes and Keyholds – The Bright Side of the WCW / ECW Invasion (The Rock, Ric Flair, Booker T, Rey Mysterio, Goldberg…)

Howdy!

Firstly, let’s get the introductions out of the way. I’m English, I’m from England, and week in Keynotes and Keyholds I’ll discuss in detail topical issues from the world of professional wrestling. No recaps unless absolutely necessary, no numbered “thoughts” unless they’re accompanied by a well-written discussion. I welcome your intelligent and considered feedback, and will gladly take suggestions for future articles.

My wrestling interests are varied. I grew up watching WWE, as did many of you, I imagine. As a matter of fact, this week marks the ten-year anniversary of my love for pro wrestling. A decade ago, I saw WrestleMania X7 at a friend’s house. I saw The Undertaker roll down the ramp at the Houston Astrodome on a motorbike; I saw Chris Jericho urinate in an Englishman’s teapot (!); I saw The Rock cheated of victory and battered with a chair; I saw Steve Austin celebrate with beer; I saw Jeff Hardy risk his life; I saw Chris Benoit and Kurt Angle wrestle a clinic. I saw WrestleMania, and I never looked back.

Keynotes and Keyholds focuses primarily on topics related to WWE, and its closest competition, TNA. This is not because I am close-minded, nor is it because I am ignorant of the wealth of alternative promotions that exist or existed outside of the McMahon dynasty. Indeed, courtesy of YouTube I was familiar with Mistico long before I ever heard of Sin Cara. However, I’m sure that I speak for many of you when I say that without WWE, I would never have been exposed to ECW, ROH, TNA, and a whole host of other independent promotions. WWE and TNA, while certainly not the only companies worth discussing, are currently the only companies the analysis of which allows one to comment with any authority on the condition of the business as a whole.

The reason for my narrow focus is thus very simple: analyses of WWE and TNA can tell us a great deal about professional wrestling in general. WWE has for the last decade been, is currently, and will for the foreseeable future be the face of professional wrestling in the Western world, no matter how hard it attempts to distance itself from that label, and no matter how hard we attempt to distance ourselves from Mabel. When people think “professional wrestling”, they think WWE. TNA, on the other hand, is the plucky underdog, and for all of Hulk Hogan’s waffle, Dixie Carter’s poor employment decisions and Eric Bischoff’s insufferable presence, TNA is still the closest thing to an accessible alternative to WWE that exists today. Furthermore, TNA would very much like to take the reins from Vince McMahon and become the number one wrestling company in the world. The exposure that both of these companies receive globally exceeds that of any other. For better or worse, then, WWE and TNA represent to the rest of the world the business that we love. To anyone with any investment in the wrestling business, emotional or financial, these two companies are currently the be-all and end-all. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, of course. I recognise the need of some more outspoken members of the IWC to voice their frustration with certain decisions made by these two companies. I myself am frequently guilty of such unhelpful outbursts, and accept that it is alarmingly easy to revel in the perverse joy of condemning Russo, Hogan, Hunter, and other popular targets. If one considers oneself a fan of professional wrestling as a whole, however, and is at all interested in its growth as an industry and greater acceptance for what it is (rather than for what it often pretends to be), then it is worth remembering that the successes of WWE and TNA are our successes; their failures are ultimately our loss.

Onto business, then.

WrestleMania 27: A brief note

I’m writing this the day after WrestleMania 27, and am aware of the large body of discourse concerning the PPV that is available already on this site and others. (In fact, judging by the amount of negativity on Twitter, it looks like a whole lot of accounts got “hacked”.) I will avoid WrestleMania 27 as a topic of discussion for two reasons: firstly, there is very little that can be said at the moment that has not already been expressed elsewhere, and secondly, because I have a sneaking suspicion that history will be kind to this particular chapter of WWE lore. As such, I will reserve judgement until a later date, suffice to say that I do not believe that any damage was done that could be considered irreparable, even if the alarming burial of every single championship that WWE possesses will certainly have given many reason to question whether they were getting their money’s worth on the night. Consider it symptomatic of the large-scale identity crisis that is afflicting Vince McMahon’s company at the moment (and that is the subject of another article entirely!). I would like to express my relief that that main event feud – that between The Rock, John Cena, and yes, The Miz – eventually became one of genuine narrative substance rather than remaining a rivalry based on little more than the comparative ability of the combatants to say the word “ass”.

(As an aside, there is a place for profanity in wrestling, although it is by no means necessary, and potty-mouth will never provide an adequate substitute for well-written and meaningful verbal conflict. In wrestling, as in life, when profanity is used as a shortcut to avoid genuine linguistic articulation – when the sizzle is nothing but an attempt to distract us from the lack of steak – it is painfully transparent, and only serves to highlight the shortcomings of those who abuse it. Mr Anderson, I hope that you are taking note.)

WCW: Ten years on (Part 1)

Let’s turn to the ten-year anniversary of WWE’s corporate take-over of World Championship Wrestling, the only true competition that Vince McMahon has ever faced, in order to discuss the positives (and there are some, believe it or not!) which arose from the ashes of the Atlanta promotion. It is no exaggeration to say that WCW’s demise changed the face of professional wrestling, and most writers will go on record as saying that the purchase of WCW signalled a downturn for the wrestling business from which it has yet to recover. However, such is the glut of bad will towards the side of the glass which is half empty, few have paid due consideration to the half that is full. Over the last decade, I believe, several benefits have become apparent, which deserve our attention. This week, in the first instalment of a two-parter, I’ll examine these positives which have risen from the ashes of WCW, in an attempt to bring some much-needed optimism to current discourse on the matter.

It would be remiss of me to not mention in passing the reasons for the overly negative response to this chapter of wrestling history. These reasons are at their most fundamental issues of quality and quantity, both related. In terms of quantity, where there were once two major companies, there became just one, eliminating audience choice and market competition. On the other hand, while the quantity of major promotions halved, the quantity of talent that WWE had under contract effectively doubled. WWE suddenly found itself twice the size, but hadn’t a clue what to do with its surplus of talent. No one quite knew how to translate the newfound quantity into quality. The result was the WCW/ECW Invasion, which was a critical flop on just about every level: in terms of the ways performers were used (or not used), in terms of WCW’s tarnished legacy, in terms of contracts that weren’t signed, and pink slips that were.

I shall not (dare not?) rehash criticisms of the Invasion angle. As I mentioned, many writers have found it difficult to focus on anything but what went wrong back in 2001. Make no mistake: the Invasion angle was a wasted opportunity, but to behave as though wasted opportunities have not always been a staple of professional wrestling is to fool oneself. Goldberg’s undefeated streak should not have been ended by a cattle-prod, Hulk Hogan should have fought Roddy Piper at WrestleMania 2, and Rob Van Dam’s WWE Title reign should have memorable for reasons unrelated to its conclusion.

In hindsight, it was sheer wishful thinking on the part of fans to expect WWE to make room immediately for athletes whom falling ratings suggested that fans cared less and less about despite their talent. Vince McMahon can be blamed for many things, but his business logic in this situation is not one of them: WrestleMania X7, starring WWE performers in all of the main spots, was and remains one of the most commercially and critically successful pay-per-views of all time. Why then, given that this success was achieved without the help of Booker T, Mike Awesome, DDP, Billy Kidman and company, would he have considered it a priority to go about incorporating such performers into the heart of his company which didn’t appear to need them? As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why would any businessman want to risk damaging his golden goose – especially after WWE’s victory made such gambles unnecessary to market dominance?

The blame for his and the audience’s apathy towards does not fall on the shoulders of the performers themselves, of course. Given the state of WCW’s booking in its dying days, there was little that any single performer could have done to increase their marketability. The knock-on effect of WCW’s failure, however, was that Vince McMahon assumed that the vast majority of WCW performers were second-rate, and many soon found themselves poorly used or worse, unemployed.

Not a pretty picture, right? However, as I alluded to earlier, the long-term effects of WCW’s demise have proven to be far less gloomy than was initially expected. Hindsight truly is a wonderful thing, but I believe that for all of the problems that resulted from the demise of WWE’s only true competition, WCW’s death also planted seeds for new opportunities within the wrestling industry. In fact, some of the most significant storylines in WWE since 2001 may never have happened had the Invasion angle been handled differently, or turned out as the IWC initially hoped.

In the wake of WWE’s takeover, the older and wealthier WCW employees such as Goldberg, Sting, Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan initially declined WWE contracts for one reason or another. Their absence from the Alliance frontline was one of the many reasons that audiences failed to truly connect with the angle, or take the Invasion seriously. One cannot help but feel, however, that it worked out rather well in the long run. Would Scott Steiner have made such a huge difference to the fate of the Alliance back in 2001? Or would he have received the same treatment as fellow big men Buff Bagwell and Mike Awesome? His return in 2003, one the other hand, caused a huge buzz (even if his matches with Triple H and Test seemed designed to accentuate his weaknesses). Likewise, Ric Flair’s return to the WWE as the first Monday Night Raw General Manager was a wonderful moment that would have been rendered meaningless if he had appeared in the midst of the Invasion to be fed to Steve Austin and The Rock for months beforehand. Indeed, the chances are that Flair would have taken the role of Alliance third-in-command behind Shane and Stephanie, which would have relegated Booker T to the sidelines. Goldberg’s entry into the WWE on the post-WrestleMania 19 Raw was perfectly timed (and served to make Backlash a must-see for the first time in years). As for Hogan, had he and the NWO been part of the Invasion angle, it would have undoubtedly made for superb television. However, in that case I suggest that it is unlikely that WWE would have been able to save Hogan vs The Rock for WrestleMania 18, and we would thus have been denied a definitive WrestleMania moment.

The absence from the Alliance of these established stars, then, may ultimately have proved better for business in the long run. One cannot forget that as part of WCW’s Invasion troupe, men such as Flair and Goldberg would likely have been jobbed out before long. The infamous McMahon ego means that no matter how well-stacked the Alliance was, it would never have been allowed to look competitive for long.

While the bigger stars of WCW contemplated their futures, the younger, hungrier performers of the Atlanta promotion were placed in the ultimate ‘sink or swim’ situation. Names tarnished by their time in WCW, and unwilling to enter immediately into the backstage politics of WWE such as Rey Misterio Jr., or others who weren’t even offered long-term WWE deals such as Juventud Guerrera and a young AJ Styles, plied their trade on the independent circuit instead, suffering brutal pay-cuts. The indies, however, presented a fresh opportunity to express themselves in the ring free of the restrictions imposed upon them by WCW management. Freedom from the WCW machine gave us allowed AJ Styles to develop into the “Phenomenal One” that we know and love today, a former NWA and TNA World Champion.

Meanwhile, those who managed to avoid being future endeavoured by the WWE after the Invasion angle reached its conclusion, such as Booker T, Stacy Keibler, and Shane Helms, were all aware that they were on probation. The onus was thus on all of these performers to prove their worth to the character-driven WWE by showing new levels of personality, demonstrating that they could get over – and stay over – with a new audience. The incentive for these men and women to rejuvenate their careers was great. The success achieved by all of those named above, and more besides, is proof positive in the cream rising to the top. It is unlikely that Rey Misterio Jr. would ever have reached the heights in WCW that Rey Mysterio, that true Renaissance man, has done in the WWE. Booker T, on the other hand, managed to repeat his WCW success by remaining a prominent figure, frequent title contender, and eventually winning the World Heavyweight Championship once again in 2006.

Of course, while WCW’s demise allowed many performers to flourish despite the failed Invasion angle, it cannot be denied that many more, through no fault of their own, found themselves at a bit of a loose end. Which is where the subject of next week’s Keynotes and Keyholds comes in: the rise of the independent scene which spawned Bryan Danielson, Nigel McGuinness, Samoa Joe and my personal favourite, CM Punk. See you next time!

Class dismissed.

Extra Credit:

1) Why on earth hasn’t Justin Gabriel (formerly Justin Angel in FCW) named his finisher “The HALO”? It’d be perfect, referring as it does to the High Altitude Low Orbit skydive innovated by British Special Forces, combined with a subtle nod towards his previous moniker.

2) Furthermore, why are there so many snakes in the WWE at the moment? “The Viper”, “The Texas Rattlesnake”, CM Punk’s Anaconda Vise… are there no other threatening animals that could be considered effective titles? On a related note, how long do you think it will be before WWE curtails Santino’s use of the Cobra because it associates vicariously all of the slippery customers named above with poor wrestling comedy?

3) CM Punk > Kurt Angle

4) Kurt Angle STILL > Matt Hardy

5) I wonder if Matt Hardy watches Z: True Long Island Stories… Zack Ryder has done more for his career over the last few months by simply being wonderfully entertaining than Matt Hardy has done in five years of online bitching. Long Island Iced Z is an example to performers everywhere, no matter how high up the card they are. Will his webshow result in a push? Maybe. I hope so. Has it increased his online presence, marketability and fanbase? Absolutely.

 

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