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ET CETERA - Want to know how the WWF self-destructed
by Jay Spree on 2002-06-20


Hey look, it’s a Rant. No, not a “rant”, a “Rant” – a Scott Keith-style Rant, a la Lazarus or King Lear, only without the historical or factual relevance or accuracy, the same degree of insight, or any other kind of credentials which might imply that this is worth reading. I guess that makes it a regular old “rant”, then. Ah screwit.

As anyone who has (or at least, has tried their best to do so despite my constant inability to keep to schedule) followed my writing will know that I’m not exactly the most reliable person when it comes to writing updates. But it wasn’t always this way.

I started this gig way back in 1999 – what was this wrestling generation’s “golden era”. Coming off the Monday Night Wars, Austin 3:16, Montreal, and ECW going national, it was a great time to be a mark, smark, sheet writer or net writer – basically, it was a great time to be a wrestling fan. And although as a writer breaking in to this, or any other genre of journalism (if that’s what we can call it), I was hardly eager to miss not only a single update, but even my own self-imposed 8pm Tuesday deadline, I can honestly tell you that I would never – NEVER – even contemplate missing a second of wrestling. After falling out with Sports-Entertainment in the early nineties, I was just loving this rebirth of my interest. Jesus, I was watching all the frigging magazine and recap shows. I WAS WATCHING SUPERSTARS. That, my friends, is the behaviour of a wrestling junkie.

Nowadays? Of course, I couldn’t care less about Jakked, or Velocity, or whatever the shit it’s called. But when it gets to a point where I don’t care about missing a RAW or Smack!Down, or even missing a PPV, I think it’s really telling. Perhaps it classifies me as a much-maligned “casual fan”, I don’t know. What I do know is that, despite my lapsing interest in the WWF product, I’ve never tired of watching my ECW, New Japan, All Japan, Ric Flair or Michinoku tapes. And week in, week out, I’ve been finding myself more and more trying to find excuses not to sit down and try to write anything about wrestling. I’ll stick on a DVD, I’ll go make some food – Christ, I even leaned the damn house. Anything not to write about wrestling. Whatever happened to that kid who used to sit up until 4am GMT so his columns could be posted by 8pm Pacific? Whatever it was, there has been a definite correlation between my zeal to write about the product and the steady decline of it. Not surprising really, and perhaps the very thing that classifies me as a casual fan; that once before, I didn’t stick with the product through the lean times, and that perhaps that’s a pattern I’m doomed to repeat. I will, however, footnote this by adding that I made the seventy-dollar cab ride to Century City to be one of the test audience for Beyond The Mat – if that doesn’t make me a (hard)core wrestling fan, I really don’t know what will.

I never thought I’d lose interest in the product, and certainly, I don’t think ANYTHING could ever make me reach the point where I stop watching completely. But I certainly have gotten over the conception that every wrestling WWF show is must-see TV – to be frank, I’ve started to take the shows for granted. They’re not compulsive viewing any more. No longer will I make sure that, whatever else is happening in my life, I’ll damn sure be at home every week to watch RAW. Maybe that’s a good thing – maybe I was too much of a mark, and now I’ve graduated the smart mark academy. Or maybe, if my interest as a die-hard fan is waning, it is illustrative of the effect the current product had on casual fans a long time ago. And I’ll say this for my declining viewing habit: I felt the exact same way towards the end of WCW, and so did a lot of other people.

Things have looked bleak for the WWF before: steroid trials, the Monday Night Wars, the Clique… in comparison to all of that, things actually look pretty rosy right now – the company is still profitable at least. But if things keep going the way they are, 2003 may as well be 1993 the way the future is looking.

It’s difficult to examine exactly what went wrong, and when. I know Scott Keith is a fan of the “finger-poke of doom theory” responsible for WCW’s demise, and even a “Triple H wussing out to Kurt Angle theory” which marked the turning point for the Fed. I don’t know about that, but left unchecked, the events of June 2002, if nothing else, could prove to be the very nails in the WWF coffin (and, ironically enough, one of the people putting the nails in the coffin is the Undertaker). Here are the Jay Spree FIVE MOVES OF DOOM~! that we may, retrospectively, look at as the chief reasons for the downfall of the Attitude-era WWF.

The McMahon-Helmsley Era

Say what you will or won’t about this point in WWF history. Buys were still high, ratings declining somewhat, but still strong, and Triple H was busting out four and five star matches every other week. All of that was enough to keep the smart fans happy, and halfway oblivious to the fact that the company’s popularity was certainly starting to drop.

But I’ll tell you this – I know for a FACT that a great many casual fans cite the McMahon-Helmsley bullshit as the reason they started to lose interest in the product. Too much Stephanie? That’s easy for us to agree with. Too much Triple H? That too. But this period was the personification of the WWF’s transition from Sports-Entertainment to the full-fledged McMahon Show.

The InVasion

What an utter joke this was. Although I have argued in previous columns that its failure may be seen as either a) not Vince McMahon’s fault, since what he actually acquired when he bought WCW was in no way capable of producing the dream inter-promotion we had all clamoured for, or b) nothing but a grudging attempt to appease wrestling fans by doing a sloppy job and getting it out of the way in order to fulfil his ultimate goal of absorbing contracts, trademarks and video footage, and all-importantly bury Ted Turner for good.

However, all of that notwithstanding, there is no way that anyone can justify what had the potential to be the biggest wrestling angle of all time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: he bought Hogan, Hall, Nash and Flair mere months after abandoning the InVasion. He then sought to create his own “inter-promotion” with the “brand extension” only weeks after that. Obviously, these are all efforts that, had he employed DURING the InVasion, would have made it a success; his refusal to do so indicates a very definite attempt NOT to make it succeed.

EgoMania Running Wild

It’s interesting that, during various stages of their existence, both WCW and the WWF were crippled and almost destroyed (well, in WCW’s case they were destroyed) solely and as a direct result of egos and backstage politics. The chief manipulators? Hogan. Hall. Nash. Michaels. Triple H. Once he got rid of these characters, Vince McMahon’s company was able to flourish, and indeed reached levels of profitability, crossover appeal and mainstream success never before possible.

Look at the current situation. Hogan, Hall and Nash were all brought back in very prominent and powerful positions within the company. Triple H has the most stroke of any wrestler in the history of being. Everyone’s in Vince’s ear, to-ing and fro-ing. And then, if things aren’t looking bad enough, he goes and brings back one of the most politically-minded players in the game, Shawn Michaels. Couple this with the Undertaker taking his “locker room leadership” to the extreme, and you have the most volatile political locker room in history.

Stone Cold Explodes

What could be the last nail in the coffin is the self-destruction of the man who made the last great wrestling boom.

Betrayed by the aforementioned locker room politics, chronic injuries, a subtle yet gradual lapse in popularity largely thanks and in addition to abuse and misuse of his character, Austin saw his importance in the company starting to fade. While I in no way defend the ultimate manifestation of his problems, one can certainly not wander what caused them.

Whether or not you believe that Austin was a great worker, or that he sold more PPVs or merchandise than Hogan, or whether or not he was more or less popular than The Rock, without Austin there would BE no Rock, no Attitude, no 60,000 seat sellouts at WrestleMania. Of course, it is devastatingly tragic what has happened to the man, but don’t confuse one thing for another; perhaps it’s just as sad seeing how one of the most important wrestlers in the history of the business was so mistreated by the situation he helped create.

Austin was the last bona-fide superstar left on the WWF roster that could sell a ticket. Recently, they’ve all had the ball and they’ve all had their chance – Hunter couldn’t draw, Taker couldn’t draw, Hogan couldn’t draw. With The Rock gone Hollywood, Austin was the last bankable asset Vince McMahon could count on. All this time we’ve been harping on about Jericho, Benoit, and building new stars? THAT’S why – because when the well’s dried up, you damn sure better have a couple pails to go get some more water. And Vince is fresh out of buckets big enough for the whole company to drink from.

Where To Now?

Good question. With Austin and (most likely) The Rock almost certainly gone, the last vestiges of the old guard are all that remain: Hogan, Hunter, Taker. The last generation of “superstars” is passing through, and Vince doesn’t quite know where to turn. For the first time in history, he doesn’t have a roster loaded with seven footers – or even SIX footers – on which to build his main event. The current crop of main event contenders are guys like Benoit, Jericho, RVD – high flying, hard working wrestlers, not the towering steroid freaks of the past. You can see he’s already trying to ignore the popularity of these guys in favour of the incredible size (and incredible inexperience) of Brock Lesnar. Despite the fact he is patently not ready, Vince would rather chance it all on an unproven, prototype, patented Vince McMahon 80’s big guy, rather than the smaller workers that are seemingly ready to take their place atop the card, and that is the problem.

When guys like Jerry Lynn and K-Kwik are getting fired for no reason, guys like Justin Credible hardly see TV time and Mike Sanders and company aren’t even on the primary roster, it isn’t hard to see Vince’s overriding reluctance to put his company’s fate in the hands of anyone but the hulking monsters of the past. And since he is fresh out of those – and certainly, fresh out of anyone else that can draw – the only conclusion one can draw is that it’s going to be a very long time until things are going to turn around.

So there you have it – now when your friends say to you “Gee, whatever happened to that WWF stuff?”, you can merrily reel off the reasons why the company crashed and burned. Say what you want about wrestling innately being a cyclical business, but I must concur with Dave Scherer (for better or worse) that the successes achieved on each “cycle” aren’t unsustainable, but rather that each time a promotion reaches such a high, it is their own action or inaction, not some supposed incontrovertible rule, which causes a lull in business and the end of an alleged “cycle”.

Of course, all I’ve done is point out the problems; I haven’t bothered to provide answers or resolutions. That’s the great thing about being a net writer: you can criticise the shit out of wrestling all you want without ever having to justify yourself. God bless America.

NOTE: I just discovered that Vince Russo has been re-hired by the WWF. Make your own damn joke.

Jay Spree

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