The SmarK Rant Repost: King Lear (The Fall of the WWF)

(2012 Scott sez:  As requested by Steve Sindar, who got the six millionth pageview on the blog, here’s another look at what is probably my most popular and famous essay, originally written in 1999 for Wrestleline.) 

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.  (Probably why I’m a lifelong fan of pro wrestling, come to think of it.  I also hated poetry and couldn’t write it to save my life.) 

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. (The “dips” as we called them are kind of a non-binding Canadian version of the SATs, but subject-specific and without the life-altering nature.  Basically if you want to attend Canadian university and you have the money and an 80% high school average, you’re good to go. The mania about getting into the right schools in the US always mystified me growing up because none of it applies up here.)  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.  (I wish I had kept more of my stuff from high school, actually.  Now that I have a daughter who is only 2 and already loves books, I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure to foster that as much as possible.) 

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. (Also toyed with doing a book on the subject for a while too, much later on of course.)  While writing the WWF part of things, it struck me how closely Vince McMahon resembled the tragic figure of King Lear, although the ending to HIS story was certainly anything but tragic.

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

King Lear is a once-wise, aging ruler of a large kingdom who is in need of an heir. He summons his three daughters to him and decides that whichever one loves him most will be given his kingdom. Regan and Goneril lie and profess their love with various hyperbole, while Cordelia simply states her loyalty to him and no more. Lear loses control and punishes Cordelia for her answer, denying her the kingdom and giving it to his other, more “loving” daughters instead. As Lear moves away from his ruling duties, he is shuttled back and forth between his two daughters, both of whom are using him for their own gains. Soon Lear’s only true friend is the fool, who ironically is the only one who speaks the truth. Cordelia is courted by the King of France, who soon invades the weakened Lear, nearly costing Lear his entire kingdom. The invasion is barely held back by Lear’s army, and as his other daughters desert the kingdom, Lear reconciles with Cordelia and finally realizes who his true allies are, only to discover that it’s too late…Cordelia has been mortally wounded by the battle, and Lear has gone so mad that he is unable to see that, and thinking that she is still alive and able to rule his kingdom, he gives up and dies.

Rather gloomy little play, isn’t it? So what does that have to do with the WWF? Well, let’s re-write it, substituting some names…

Vince McMahon is a once-wise, aging promoter of a large wrestling company, who is in need of a new long-term draw. He summons his three biggest names to him and decides that whichever one kisses the most ass will be given a run as champion. Diesel and Shawn Michaels lie and profess their respect for Vince with various hyperbole, while Bret Hart simply states his loyalty to him and no more. Vince loses control and punishes Bret for his answer, jobbing him to Bob Backlund and giving the WWF title to Diesel instead. As Vince moves away from his creative duties, he is manipulated back and forth between his two champions, both of whom are using him for their own gains. Soon Vince’s only true ally is Jim Ross, who ironically is the only one who speaks the truth. Bret Hart is courted by Eric Bischoff, who soon invades the weakened Vince, nearly costing him the WWF. The invasion is barely held back by Vince’s loyalist workers, and as the Clique deserts the WWF, Vince reconciles with Bret Hart and signs him to a 20 year deal, only to discover that it’s too late…Bret has been morally scarred by the changing face of wrestling, and Vince has gone so mad that he is unable to see that, and thinking that Bret is still a viable draw and able to carry the WWF title whenever the need should arise, he gives up and instead allows Shawn Michaels an extended reign as champion, thus effectively conceding defeat in the Monday Night Wars.  (Also note years later that Vince really is losing his mind compared to his younger days, and pretty much kicked heir apparent Shane McMahon out of his “kingdom” and replaced him with HHH instead.) 

Heavy, no?

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

THE STORY

Part One: Vince McMahon 1, Federal Government 0.

The first player in our little tragedy is a guy you’ve probably never heard of, but who single-handedly changed the WWF nonetheless: Dr. George Zahorian. (I think we’ve all heard of George by now.)  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.  (Really, in retrospect he had little to worry about, because the government’s case was ridiculously circumstantial and was based on accusations in one part of the country while WWF was very publicly running shows in another part of the country entirely, thus giving Vince an airtight alibi.  But we certainly didn’t know that at the time.  The courtroom transcripts are really fascinating stuff if you ever have a few years of your life to burn.) 

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. (Some people, ON THIS VERY SITE IN FACT, have since started defending it.  No accounting for taste, I guess.)  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. (This has of course been debunked several times since then and likely came from Tony Halme himself.)  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.  (I wouldn’t say “drastically alter.”  By that time they pretty much knew they were going with Bret as the top guy.)   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. (Not to mention one of Mark Callaway’s best friends in real life.)  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 surprise, Backlund managed to get himself over as a monster heel using only the “crazy old man” gimmick and his largely untested heel interview skills. The fans were hugely into the character, so he was pushed into the main event with Bret Hart at Survivor Series 94…and won the title. Backlund was the most interesting heel champion they’d had in years, and was hugely over. Best of all, he was still a great wrestler at 41, an age that seems downright young compared to the people on top of WCW these days. So what happened?

The Clique happened. And nothing would ever be the same again. (Sorry if this is getting a little too “Behind The Music” for everyone.  I was really into that show at this point.) 

Part Two: The Clique

(I was also into sub-headings.)  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, independent 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…(Frank Stallone?) 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. (That was a pretty awesome moment for him.)  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.  (I’m kind of omitting Shawn’s drug suspension here, which TO THIS DAY he claims was a setup to smear his good name, which was the reason behind switching the title to Ramon in the first place.  Because if you’re looking for someone dependable and drug-free, think Scott Hall.) 

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. (Look it up on YouTube!  It’s AWESOME!  It’s not on DVD and it totally should be.)  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. (That’s what the kids call a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”) 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 gruelling 40 minute marathon. Diesel won the match against Backlund in 6 seconds with a kick to the gut and a powerbomb, taking the title and kicking off the wretched “New WWF Generation” era.  (He was like Hulk Hogan, but with less moves and better hair.) 

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. (Specifically he beat Adam Bomb clean with the superkick to not only show he could beat a bigger guy, but to establish that as his finisher once and for all.)  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 <heart> Big Talentless Slugs

For you see, the WWF had now done the impossible and made Shawn Michaels MORE over than Diesel. (What, someone more over than Kevin Nash?  That’s unpossible!)  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. (I don’t think as the heel champion in 95 would have worked particularly well anyway.)  He gave Shawn a new bodyguard — Sid Vicious — and then had him turn on Shawn, hoping the babyface push would steer the fans toward a Sid-Diesel showdown instead. It didn’t work — the fans clearly wanted Shawn v. Diesel again, and the WWF was unwilling to provide that for whatever reason. Instead they provided Diesel v. Sid, Diesel v. Mabel, Diesel v. Yokozuna, trying everything in their power to build Diesel as a Hogan-like babyface to recapture lightning in a bottle.  (Story of their life.) 

The ultimate 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. (Yeah, even up here in wrestling-crazed Western Canada, they went from arenas to large halls.  It was pretty sad.)  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 fascination 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. (82 weeks of ratings dominance say it did.)  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.  (That’s Vince for you.) 

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, (Example:  They ragged on WCW for using shoes and hot coffee over and over, but RAW was filled with screwjob finishes and run-ins just as frequently) 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.  (It was one thing when they were pointing out logical fallacies in their booking or how old their top stars were, but taking very personal potshots at Ted Turner just left people feeling dirty after watching them.) 

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. (Although even with all the rehab troubles it really just came down to money and he probably would have been re-signed if they could.)  The 1-2-3 Kid’s attitude was becoming so disruptive that he was also asked to leave. (That’s saying it politely.)  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.  (There’s some dispute over whether this “punishment” was a real thing or just urban legend, but HHH himself worked it into his character later on so that’s good enough for me.) 

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. (They were getting major, MAJOR heat from gay rights groups over the character as presented.)  Untested Olympic weightlifter Mark Henry was signed to a 10 year deal, and immediately pushed. None of it worked. Nothing. The only bright spot of the bunch was Shawn Michaels carrying everything on two legs to **** matches at every turn, and even that could only go so far because of Vince’s reluctance to give a smaller wrestler like Shawn a proper run as champion.

And so finally on Memorial Day, 1996, Scott Hall showed up on the first two-hour edition of Nitro, kicking off the nWo angle, and essentially shovelling the last bit of dirt on the WWF’s grave, as WCW grabbed the ratings lead and didn’t let go of it until 1998.

The World Wrestling Federation, 1984-1996, RIP.

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

Part Five: Garbageman By Day, Wrestler By Night.

If you could boil Vince’s major problems (and there were lots) down to one simple reason, it is this: Gimmicks sell t-shirts, characters sell tickets. (That’s the one lesson that Vince Russo actually learned and put to good use.)  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?  (Yup.  Sounds simple, but it worked for FOUR YEARS.) 

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?  (You boo him because he’s a dick, although we didn’t know how much of one at that point.) 

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. (Doesn’t THAT sound familiar?)  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?  (An unmotivated Bret is not a pretty sight.) 

Thankfully, Vince came to his senses in late 1995 and decided that Diesel was doing his company more harm than good, and jobbed him to Bret Hart at Survivor Series 95 to end the Clique Era once and for all. Bret ended up being a transitional champion to Shawn Michaels, a situation which enraged him so much that he ended up taking 6 months off and nearly jumped to WCW in the process as the famed “third man” for the nWo. (That is not correct.  Bret was never even considered for it.) 

Hindsight says that Bret probably should have left when he had the chance in 1996. (Well, Owen for sure.)  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 (ROYALTIES!  I FUCKING WANT ROYALTIES!)  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 bankruptcy 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.  (I still think Vince overstates his own financial woes around that time in order to make himself look like the poor underdog against big bad Turner.) 

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 spiritual 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…

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