Keynotes and Keyholds – WCW: 10 years on, part 2 (Chris Jericho, The Rock, NWO, CM Punk, Brock Lesnar…)

As part of the ten year anniversary of WWE’s corporate takeover of its closest competitor, World Championship Wrestling, last week I started to discuss the effect that the events of 2001 had on the performers of the time. WWE, I argued, found itself in a bittersweet quandary following the purchase WCW. Vince McMahon’s dream had come true: his company had achieved complete market dominance – something that few companies in any business could ever aspire to. With this enviable position of commercial success came an enormous roster of talent compiled of WWE superstars and all of the WCW and ECW alumni that McMahon deemed worthy of rescuing from their respective sinking ships. For the first time, the future of professional wrestling was firmly in the hands of the unstoppable McMahon dynasty, headed by a man who must, when all things are taken into account, be considered the greatest promoter in the history of the business.

And yet for several reasons, WWE was unable to translate its commercial fortitude into artistic merit, and suffered what can only be described as a creative meltdown. The result was the ill-received Invasion angle, which failed on a great many levels despite the financial success of the Invasion pay-per-view (which, incidentally, remains one of the highest-grossing events in wrestling history). Hindsight, however, truly is a wonderful thing. To cut a long story short, I am inclined to believe that despite the myriad of complaints that IWC had with the state of wrestling post-Invasion, it all worked out pretty well in the end.

 

WCW: 10 years on, Part 2

 

This week, let’s take a look at the impact that WWE’s market dominance had on its own product, and the products of the independent promotions which sprang up in WCW’s absence…

Firstly, what did it mean in real terms for WWE to have “market dominance”? Creatively, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. On the positive side, it meant that the WWE was at liberty to take a few risks without the possibility of conceding points, as it were. It is no coincidence that Chris Jericho, a man who pre-Invasion had received more stop-start pushes than John Morrison, was finally given the chance to shine as World Champion once the threat of WCW had been removed. (Two years of bouncing up and down the card meant that fans refused to take him seriously when he was eventually allowed to run with the ball, but that’s another story.) Stone Cold Steve Austin as a heel didn’t quite work either, but would McMahon have risked damaging the credibility of his money-spinning anti-hero while WCW was still a viable competitor? I do not mean to suggest that WWE had hitherto played it safe – indeed, the Attitude Era in which WWE turned its fortunes around with controversial, adult-oriented content was itself the product of an all-or-nothing mentality. What the post-Invasion era offered, however, was the opportunity for WWE to try new things without the risk of losing fans to a rival promotion.

On the other hand, while the freedom to take risks was greater than ever before, the incentive for WWE to do so had never been less. Certainly, WWE had nothing to lose through innovation and advancing its product, but without another company to stay ahead of, it also did not have a tremendous amount to gain. You’ll often hear it said that competition brings out the best in businesses – in fact, that appears to be the standard response from any WWE wrestler when quizzed about TNA. It is, of course, far easier to wish a struggling rival the best while one resides comfortably on the winning team (can anyone remember the last time a TNA wrestler spoke about “welcoming” the WWE’s challenge?). On the whole, however, the logic behind such statements is watertight: competition – especially when close-fought – encourages everyone to work harder. In turn, the business itself advances in new and exciting ways. Have you noticed how Microsoft products have become more and more user-friendly since Apple started producing accessible, insanely popular hardware? It’s a perfect example of healthy competition encouraging invention. Conversely, did you notice how sports-based computer games became more and more homogenous while Electronic Arts dominated the field? It’s the same principle. It took Nintendo introducing an entirely new console, the Wii, to break up the monotony of annual “updates” and bring some originality back to playing sports games. Off topic, I know, but I hope that my point is clear: without being driven by the competition with WCW, WWE began to stagnate.

Vince did eventually recognise that his company had inadvertently hit something of a creative trough, and to his credit, he turned the lull into a major storyline in which he attempted to “kill” his dying creation by injecting a poison into it. This poison turned out to consist of the founding members of the New World Order, whom he had finally managed to sign – and it was a rather good thing that he did! Can you imagine Wrestlemania 18 without The Rock vs Hollywood Hogan? The show would have been memorable only for Undertaker vs Flair (which, by the way, I consider the true “icon vs icon” match from that night. It remains to this day one of the most underrated bouts in Wrestlemania history), and maybe another Rock / Austin clash. Between Wrestlemanias 17 and 18, WWE failed to create a single new star. The Alliance members who managed to stick around, such as Diamond Dallas Page, Booker T and Rob Van Dam did so through a connection with the fans that transcended booking (and eventually resulted in the latter two performers receiving healthy pushes).

The 2002 brand separation was, of course, Vince’s attempt to restore some sense of competition to a market which he all but owned. I shan’t dwell too much on this particular chapter of WWE history here, suffice to say that it was, at the time, a smart move that made for interesting television, even if the concept of competing brands beneath the same company umbrella seemed palpably false at the time (as it does even more so today, when competitors flip-flop between brands on a weekly basis). The brand split itself wasn’t quite as important to the future of his company as was his – gasp! – renewed interest in creating new stars. Step forward, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, and Randall Keith Orton, three young men all of whom, despite being trained in exactly the same WWE style, stood out from the crowd by virtue of their size and athleticism, charisma, and lineage respectively. But I digress.

And yet even as WWE realised that it had eliminated the very last wrestling company which could provide it with genuine competition, smaller independent promotions began to spring up, fuelled by an entirely new mentality. These “minor leagues”, as Michael Cole joyfully refers to them, were in no position to challenge the dominance of WWE or fill the shoes of WCW, that much is true. However, the new generation of “indies” did spark something of a creative revolution in the world of professional wrestling, not because they were under any illusions that they could catch up with WWE (at least, not yet!), but because it was only by presenting new and exciting ideas that they could hope to survive in WWE’s shadow. This new competition to thrive despite, instead of alongside, the WWE, spurred smaller groups to new levels of creativity. Unlike WWE, companies on the developing independent scene had everything to gain from enticing an audience through original approaches to professional wrestling.

Although they pay badly and offer only limited exposure, independent companies do provide an opportunity for fresh talent to develop, and for jaded audiences to re-engage with wrestling in exciting new ways. Combat Zone Wrestling, a company that had existed since 1999 but was unknown for anything but garbage brawls, started to diversify its content following the demise of WCW and ECW by combining its trademark hardcore stylings with strong-style technical wrestling. Meanwhile, Ring of Honor, the third most successful wrestling promotion in the West today, was created at the behest of RF Videos to fill the void in its catalogue left by Paul Heyman’s company. ROH introduced something entirely different to the wrestling audience, presenting intensely physical technical contests wrestled to a “Code of Honor” unlike anything seen in the West before (sadly, the “Code of Honor” has fallen by the wayside in recent years in favour of more conventional wrestling bouts). Perhaps even more importantly, Ring of Honor in particular has replaced ECW as a “feeder” promotion readying the stars of tomorrow for their opportunity within bigger companies. Without the opportunities for personal and career development provided by Ring of Honor, would Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Bryan Danielson or CM Punk have become the major players that they are today?

Elsewhere, other promotions which lacked the longevity of ROH or CZW made brave, if short-lived, attempts to carve their own niches – and not necessarily in vain. While MTV’s Wrestling Society X suffered an alarmingly rapid cancellation, it was certainly entertaining while it lasted. Matches were mere minutes in length, and frequently involved explosions, weapons, fireballs and, on one occasion, piranhas(!). It also introduced to the all-important YouTube generation unique talents such as Jack Evans and Matt Sydal, the latter of whom was snapped up by WWE as a result.

Last but not least, however, in 2002 the Jeff Jarrett and his father Jerry started up a Total Nonstop Action, which initially ran weekly pay-per-views, but was soon successful enough that the pay-per-views eventually became monthly, supplemented by a prominent weekly television slot. The company’s main selling-point, other than many stars of yesteryear, was the much-beleaguered X-Division – a group of wrestlers defined not by weight limits, but by “no limits” – which at its peak (c.2005) was just about the IWC’s favourite thing in the world. It is something of an internet tradition to mock TNA ruthlessly for the many idiotic decisions that the company has made since its inception, but for all of its failings, it has a dedicated fanbase, and offers its wrestlers full-time jobs. Furthermore, through sheer luck as much as business acumen, TNA has managed to become the closest thing the WWE has to competition today. Which is certainly impressive, although its spirited, if misguided, attempts to go head-to-head with RAW last year demonstrated how far behind WWE the Orlando-based company remains.

I’m aware that, as with last week, I have glossed significantly over several important factors in the journey from WCW’s acquisition to the state of professional wrestling today. However, what cannot be understated is the fact that, even without a “Big Two” in the wrestling marketplace any longer (TNA is still only half a promotion on a good day), professional wrestling in the West is in a better position now than it was ten years ago. Was the loss of true competition such a terrible thing for WWE in the long run? Ultimately, no. WWE eventually came to its senses and started to drive up business once again. The loss of Brock Lesnar in 2004 came as a severe blow, from which the company took a long time to recover – in part, due to its laziness after the Invasion – and it is a safe bet that Vince McMahon does not want to find himself in that position ever again. Meanwhile, the independent scene is thriving (if still not as profitable as one would like), and has produced some of the greatest performers of the current generation. In WCW, the same company that let Benoit and Guerrero slip through its fingers, there would have been no room for CM Punk or Bryan Danielson. WCW’s demise, in the short term, was undoubtedly problematic. Ten years on, however, WWE is stronger than ever, companies such as Ring of Honor and Chikara are keeping even the smartest fans happy, and TNA hasn’t had David Arquette as a champion once. That in itself is a reason to smile.

 

Class dismissed.

 

Points for Discussion

1) Maybe John Morrison’s behaviour deserved to be reprimanded. That’s not for me to say. However, to push R-Truth at his expense would appear to be a diabolical error… I can only hope that we are all misreading the situation, and that JoMo is being saved for bigger things one-on-one against The Miz. What are your opinions?

2) Speaking of JoMo being replaced by other men, apparently even Paul London’s had a crack at Melina. Although that’s according to Mr London himself, who also believed that Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley wanted to jump his bones. No wonder he’s always grinning.

3) As Mr Glazer predicted, Keynotes and Keyholds will not remain a WCW retrospect, have no fear. I only saw it as my duty to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of one of, if not THE, most important corporate event in professional wrestling history. I have something a little different planned for next week, don’t you worry…

4) Lastly, I am an unashamed Edgehead, and will remain an Edgehead for as long as I live. My esteemed colleague, Mr Chris Biscuiti, pays a wonderful tribute here. I recommend that you check it out. Thank you, Edge, for the best years of your life. Thank you, God, for letting Adam Copeland finish his career with grace, and not by repeating the tragedy of Misawa. A class act all the way.

 

Next week: Shakespeare the booker…

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