Lee Maughan: Eric Bischoff wins the award for the first bit of bullshit, insinuating that Nitro stole RAW’s audience, which was never really the case. The theory at the time was more along the lines that there was a single “wrestling audience” and that was it, but what the birth of Nitro proved was that there was actually separate WCW and WWF audiences, at least at a core level, and all the war did was cultivate a larger casual audience of “floaters” who switched back and forth between both shows. Gerald Brisco is a touch more melodramatic, claiming the whole period “was life and death”, which would sound hilariously overblown if it wasn’t so depressingly true, particularly in the case of Owen Hart, whose accidental death was the indirect result of a rib on Sting’s famous zipwire entrances.
Gene Okerlund gives a potted history of “the early days” of cable television, which he pinpoints as being “around 1983” (embryonic cable first became available in the United States in 1948, with the first basic cable network, WTCG, being launched by Ted Turner in 1976), and credits Vince McMahon with building the first network of syndicated wrestling broadcasts that made use of the medium. In reality, Jim Barnett got there first with Georgia Championship Wrestling on Turner’s rebranded WTBS. Vince in turn makes the somewhat misleading statement, “I sold what was to become WCW to Jim Crockett Promotions out of North Carolina.” In actuality, Turner had rebuffed McMahon’s offer to buy GCW’s Saturday night timeslot on TBS, so McMahon opted to hit GCW at source and buy out key shareholders Barnett and the Brisco Brothers, Jack and Gerry. That left McMahon and Ole Anderson as GCW co-owners, but with Anderson seeing the writing on the wall, he broke away to begin his own Championship Wrestling from Georgia group, leaving majority stakeholder McMahon free to rebrand GCW’s World Championship Wrestling show with matches from his own World Wrestling Federation television tapings. Dubbed “Black Saturday” by long-time fans, McMahon’s pre-taped arena bouts featuring sluggers like Jesse Ventura, ‘Big’ John Studd and Bobo Brazil were not as warmly received as the studio-based antics of Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes and pals, resulting in a ratings disaster right from the off as fans tuned out in droves. McMahon eventually sold the rights to the timeslot to Jim Crockett, Jr. after Turner added both Anderson’s new group and Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling to his network rotation, with Jim Crockett Promotions taking over the World Championship Wrestling slot on Saturday evenings. That McMahon never promoted a card under the GCW banner, and that Crockett’s show was essentially just a continuation of the JCP group founded by his father Jim Crockett, Sr. in 1931, is proof enough to most knowledgeable wrestling historians that McMahon simply owned the timeslot rather than the promotion that eventually morphed into WCW. This becomes even more apparent when one considers that WCW’s title history (in particular that of the United States Championship) belonged to the same lineage of champions promoted by JCP. (Ironically, WWE would later claim that its own United States Title, first won by Eddie Guerrero in July 2003, was a continuation of the legacy that began with Harley Race’s reign as JCP’s Mid-Atlantic version of the U.S. Champion, which is another debatable issue given that WWE does now own the rights to WCW and its associated histories).
Thankfully, Jim Cornette makes an unexpected appearance as a talking head to offer up some actually accurate history, detailing JCP’s incredible fall from grace as they sold out the Richmond Coliseum in Richmond, Virginia to the tune of 10,000 fans, sold up to Turner Broadcasting one month later, and were averaging 400 fans for live events anywhere in the country just a couple of years after that. Not mentioned is that the Crockett organisation was haemorrhaging money and on the verge of bankruptcy before Turner, a fan of having wrestling on his networks due to its success in helping launch his aforementioned WTBS station, swooped in and saved it from going out of business, although Cornette’s point about how badly it was handled after the sale still stands.
The Jim Herd, Kip Allen Frey and Bill Watts eras of WCW are all brushed over, as go-getting young coffee boy and third-string announcer Bischoff impresses all the right people and is unexpectedly promoted to Executive Vice President, resulting in Jim Ross leaving behind three years of guaranteed money with the promotion in favour of a job with the WWF. Not mentioned is that Bischoff was desperate to remove the “Southern stink” of the promotion and rebrand it as a national organisation, subsequently opting to remove Oklahoma native Ross from the broadcast booth, effectively leaving him in limbo. Had Ross not seen the writing on the wall and made the jump, he may have been left out to pasture, forgotten, never to call another wrestling match in his life. Significantly, Ross would end up heading the WWF’s Talent Relations department, from where he would advocate the signings of Mick Foley, The Rock, Edge, Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Randy Orton and Batista, amongst others, names who variously played significant roles in the turnaround of the promotion at the tail end of the 90s and its continued success throughout the first decade of the 2000s.
Bruce Prichard details the theory behind moving out of the big, bright arenas where the WWF taped matches for Superstars and Wrestling Challenge, and into the smaller, wilder, more intimate Manhattan Center to give their new show, Monday Night RAW, a completely different vibe. Okerlund dismissively calls the venue a “toilet”, but it certainly had a different look and feel to it than the big budget productions of the WWF’s other televised presentations. Over in WCW, Bischoff opted to go the opposite direction and move their TV tapings out of their dank, sparsely-attended arenas and into Disney MGM Studios as a means to cut costs whilst simultaneously boosting production values. Not mentioned is that he achieved this by taping his TV in bulks of three month-long cycles, causing most of WCW’s future storylines and title changes to leak out well in advance. Bischoff would later use the WWF switching their RAW tapings to month-long cycles to his own advantage, as we’ll come to later.
Also beneficial to taping at Disney was the fact that former WWF star Hulk Hogan was also on site, shooting his ropey “A-Team on water” wannabe Thunder in Paradise. Sensing a mutually agreeable opportunity for cross-promotion, Hogan agreed to come in and work a few big money pay-per-view main events that would give WCW an undeniable attention boost. Not mentioned is that Ric Flair was the one who first contacted Hogan about coming in, nor is it mentioned that Hogan’s presence led to a slew of former WWF names that were all considered well past their sell-by-date flooding into WCW with him, such as The Honky Tonk Man, The Butcher (Brutus Beefcake), Avalanche (Earthquake) and ‘Ugandan Giant’ Kamala. More significantly, Randy Savage also arrived in late 1994, although again they neglect part of the story, namely that Savage was feeling increasingly ostracised in the WWF, particularly from McMahon, who apparently felt Savage’s in-ring days were behind him.
With more nationally known talent on board, Bischoff’s next trick was to expand the amount of pay-per-view events WCW ran each year, those being one of the few areas in which the company actually made money. Everyone thought he was going to kill the golden goose, believing nobody would buy twelve of them a year, but they did, and the WWF subsequently followed suit as to avoid looking like they were being left behind. Two decades later, WWE would still be running twelve (and in some cases up to sixteen) pay-per-view specials every single year.
To the infamous meeting next in which Turner asked Bischoff what they needed to do to compete with the WWF, with an unprepared Bischoff suggesting they needed to be on the air in prime time, something he never expected Turner to agree to. Cornette (along with everyone else) thought they were nuts to go head-to-head with RAW on TNT, a station which had never broadcast wrestling before. McMahon, meanwhile, cries about the predatory practices of Turner picking the same night and the same time as RAW to broadcast Nitro, when he owned multiple networks and could have picked any timeslot for the show. “Why would you do that? He was trying to hurt us,” bitches McMahon, who might want to look in a mirror and ask himself why he chose to run WWF events in Minneapolis head-to-head with AWA cards, or against the established promotions in St. Louis, Oklahoma, Atlanta, and elsewhere. All whilst utilising headline names already built up by the promoters in those areas, when he could so easily have booked cards on any night he wanted in his already established New York/Boston/Philadelphia network of buildings. What’s that smell? Oh, it’s just the appalling stench of hypocrisy in the air. Adds Gerry “Melodrama” Brisco: “My reaction was, “We’ll knock your socks off of ya’. We’ll beat the crap out of ya’, and kick you in the dirt, and watch you roll over and die.” Okerlund just uses the whole thing to get in a plug for his hotline, which doesn’t even exist at this point. What a shill!
In an impeccable piece of timing, Lex Luger’s WWF contract expired right before the first episode of Nitro was due to air, and although Bischoff wasn’t a fan of his, having found him to be extremely arrogant during his previous WCW run, Sting was able to convince Bischoff that he’d changed his ways and was worth giving another chance to. Bischoff reluctantly agreed, but only with a lowball offer that was just 20% of what Luger had been making when he left WCW in the first place, figuring that Luger would decline the offer and he could at least tell Sting, “I tried”. To Bischoff’s surprise, Luger accepted the deal, and casually sauntered to the ring on the first Nitro less than twenty-four hours after teaming with Shawn Michaels to defeat Owen Hart and Yokozuna on a WWF house show in St. Johns, New Brunswick (erroneously identified as Halifax, Nova Scotia by the fact-filled Okerlund. Stephen Fry on QI he ain’t). Cornette recalls that Luger was actually working for the WWF without at contract at that point, McMahon having made the mistake of taking Luger at his word after being fed promises that he’d put pen to paper on a new deal after his lawyers had gone over the fine print with him.
Bischoff knew the surprise defection of Luger would set the tone for Nitro and get people talking, which leads to a discussion of how Nitro being live every week meant he could give away the results of the already-taped episodes of RAW, and how he also came up with the concept of going on the air three minutes early in order to do it before their show had even begun. He follows that by getting the green light to have regular overruns at the end of his shows so that ardent WWF fans could still switch over after RAW had finished and catch the final, climactic, show-closing angles on Nitro in an attempt to get them hooked on his product instead. McMahon calls these innovations “tricks”, and dubs said “dirty tactics” as being both “rotten” and “painful”. Of course, RAW would later follow Nitro’s lead in going live (almost) every week despite the monumental cost of doing so, and would soon be granted its own end-of-show overrun from the USA Network, a “dirty tactic” it curiously maintained a good fifteen years after WCW went out of business. Old-school Okerlund didn’t much care for giving away a competitor’s results live on the air, but ethically Bischoff didn’t care because it got people talking. Foley took it personally though, since it could have hurt the promotion that was paying his wages and thus putting food on his family’s table, while blusterous Brisco “would have slapped the hell out [Bischoff]” had he ever bumped into him at the time.
The second big defection comes in December 1995 when the WWF decides to scrap their women’s division and leave Alundra Blayze in the unemployment line, so Bischoff brings her back to WCW under her former Madusa name and has her drop the WWF Women’s Title belt in a garbage can on Nitro. That led to the WWF finally responding with their Wrasslin’ Warroom series of skits, centred around the geriatric antics of Billionaire Ted, Scheme Gene, The Huckster and The Nacho Man. Initially comedic, they quickly grew to be incredibly mean-spirited, and were mercifully put out of their misery on the WrestleMania XII pre-show, the insider-laden humour having flown over the heads of the majority of the WWF’s young audience.
Heading into 1996, the departures from the WWF of Razor Ramon and Diesel are portrayed as shocking betrayals, even though everybody knew months in advance that their contracts were due to expire and they’d been offered significantly more money to jump ship. Continuing this documentary’s infuriating habit of not expounding on the situation, it isn’t mentioned that both gave their notice well in advance and did high profile jobs on the way out (Ramon for Vader and Diesel for The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels), just that they left the WWF high and dry. That leads to the as-yet unnamed Scott Hall and Kevin Nash debuting on Nitro over a two week period in May and June, complete with Nash’s grammatically incorrect line “This is where the big boys play? Look at the adjective – ‘play’” (Quick English lesson: “play” is actually the verb. The adjective in the sentence is “big”). Prichard whines about the WWF making those guys into stars first, crediting that with being the reason anybody even watched Nitro at all, although the truth is that both sides were neck-and-neck in the Monday night ratings battle at that point, with sixteen wins each plus two draws. While there’s certainly a great deal of truth to the WWF making them both much bigger stars than they had been previously, the notion that none of WCW’s fan base remembered Vinnie Vegas or The Diamond Studd from just three and four years earlier is ridiculous, as is the hypocrisy behind the statement when you consider that, not long before Hall and Nash switched employers, the WWF brought in and gave a big push to essentially the same Vader character that had already run roughshod in WCW for the best part of four years. Oh, but how dare WCW help themselves to Razor and Diesel? Furthermore, a line from the narrator that upon seeing Hall and Nash presented as an invading force in WCW, fans were left “confused, yet interested” is just a really backhanded way of contemptuously dismissing your followers as cretinous morons who can’t comprehend a wrestling angle when they see one. Also unmentioned is the WWF’s woeful attempt to win a lawsuit against WCW by hiring Rick Bognar and Glenn Jacobs to play new versions of the Ramon and Diesel characters in an attempt to “prove” that WCW was infringing on the WWF’s intellectual property.
Onto Hogan’s genuinely shocking heel turn at Bash at the Beach ‘96 next, although excised is Hogan blowing his lines and dubbing the group the “New World Organisation”, as is Bobby Heenan tipping off viewers to the impending betrayal with the question, “But whose side is he on?!” Prichard calls the turn the high point of the entire Nitro run, which is funny considering it happened on a pay-per-view, while The Big Show talks about the nWo being so badass that they eventually became “cool heels”, which was one of the overriding problems with the way the act presented itself. Nash in particular couldn’t help playing the part of the wisecracking hipster, turning the boos he was supposed to be getting into guffaws, and it all combined to make WCW look deeply unfashionable by comparison, a stigma it was never able to shake off.
“My philosophy of business is help yourself, not hurt the other guy,” cries the delusional McMahon, who spent a good chunk of the 80s “hurting the other guys” in order to help himself. Shawn Michaels then pops up to claim that nobody ever cared about ratings until Nitro came along, which isn’t just completely inaccurate, but also shows a distinct lack of understanding about what a vital role such metrics played within the television industry at the time (and still do), particularly in terms of those all-important advertising rights fees. Bischoff had his finger on the pulse regarding those numbers, however, and found out from focus groups that wrestling fans liked unpredictability and spontaneity, and would closely monitor what was being broadcast at any given time on RAW to determine the most advantageous moments to counter-program his “spontaneous” surprises.
In the wake of the forming of the nWo, The 1-2-3 Kid (Syxx) and Ted DiBiase both jump ship from the WWF to WCW, with DiBiase’s departure opening the door for floundering midcarder Steve Austin to grab the bull by the horns and become the biggest star in the industry. Cornette points out that Austin had previously struggled to make much headway in WCW and, with no track record, had been left to rot in the WWF as the colourless Ringmaster until DiBiase bailed out. Lacking the ability to find anything better for him to do, the WWF’s “uncreative” team decided to just let Austin be himself, which Cornette says was, “the way it needed to be all along,” and thus ‘Stone Cold’ was born. “That’s the way that most major talent gets over; by being themselves with the volume turned way up,” adds Cornette, whose words become all the more frustrating when you think about the agonising minutiae with which WWE programming has been scripted since the Austin-led boom period at the turn of the century.
The Austin story continues with his famous “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!” speech at the 1996 King of the Ring, the importance of which has since be retrofit by WWE to fit their own narrative of his success. What gets largely forgotten is that they did precisely nothing with him for months afterwards, feeding him to the returning Bret Hart at the Survivor Series before continuing to do nothing with him until finding themselves without an opponent for Hart at WrestleMania 13 after the tragic and untimely loss of Shawn Michaels’ smile. Foley at least credits the thrilling Hart-Austin “I Quit” match as the real turning point for Austin’s career, although just as with Hogan’s heel turn, that was another pay-per-view moment rather than a Monday night one.
Despite the ongoing rhetoric that WCW never made any new stars, Chris Jericho stops by to point out the star-making exposure that WCW gave to himself, Eddy Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio Jr., Juventud Guerrera and others, and although his lofty claims that the influx of those “real wrestlers” was just as important to the success of the company as the marquee value of the nWo is perhaps a tad overstated, it’s certainly true that they became the backbone of the promotion, lighting up many an undercard in support of the generally crummy main events of Hogan and his ilk. Benoit rightly points out that the blending of styles from Mexico and Japan offered something new and different, while Okerlund puts the luchadores over in particular for bringing fast-paced excitement to the mile-a-minute television world.
Meanwhile, McMahon fines Michaels $10,000 for going on RAW with a giant sausage stuffed down his crotch, but Michaels pleads his case that, “the boys found it funny!” Whether they did or not, it was undeniably crass. Little did either of them realise that it was precisely that kind of crassness that would begin to turn things around for the WWF, as the increasingly rebellious Michaels went on live TV to declare that he was prepared to continue his wicked ways and, “go down in a blaze of glory,” in doing so. Then followed another wholly unexpected development, as Owen Hart broke Austin’s neck with a botched sitout piledriver at SummerSlam ‘97. “It couldn’t have come at a worse time for WWE,” notes the narrator, although in hindsight it was actually incredibly fortuitous. Unable to wrestle, the WWF had no choice but to further develop Austin’s anti-authoritarian character in a series of memorable angles in which he dropped various on-screen authority figures with Stone Cold Stunners, all of which served to make him more popular than ever. Tapping into the real life situation, Austin’s inability to wrestle was portrayed on-screen as company owner McMahon refusing to allow it, which served to further incense fans until Austin finally dropped McMahon with a Stunner on the September 22nd RAW from Madison Square Garden, cementing Austin’s status as the biggest babyface in wrestling. Not touched upon is that Austin’s neck injury forced him to completely alter wrestling style, ushering in a long-standing era of WWF main events being characterised mostly by brawling, storyline twists, and finisher reversals.
Amidst all these developments, WWF fans quickly came to reject happy-go-lucky babyface Rocky Maivia, with Maivia in turn rejecting the fans to become Austin’s blood rival, kick-starting a run that would see his Rock character become arguably as popular as Austin himself. An unprecedented period of success, it was the first (and to date last) time the promotion had two main event babyfaces achieve that level of mega stardom concurrently. Part of their success was down to the fact that they had room to grow in the wake of previous main eventers Michaels and Hart both departing the promotion, each under wildly different circumstances. With Michaels, it was a devastating back injury that forced him into early retirement in the spring of 1998 (from which he would miraculously return just over four years later). With Hart, it was the news in September 1997 that a financially struggling McMahon felt he could no longer afford his to pay Hart’s twenty-year contract, and that he was free to re-enter negotiations with WCW. Hart had initially signed his deal in October 1996 after a bidding war between the WWF and WCW that saw him turn down an incredible $2.8 million a year offer from Bischoff. McMahon’s counter-offer was an unprecedented double decade deal that would pay ‘The Hitman’ $1.5 million per annum for the first three years followed by a low six-figure amount for the remaining seventeen, during which time Hart would likely transition into a behind the scenes agent role. Faultlessly loyal, Hart felt a sense of betrayal upon receiving the announcement that McMahon had chosen to sever their relationship, although not as betrayed as he would following the events of November 9, 1997 at the Survivor Series in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Having reluctantly struck a deal with Bischoff to spearhead WCW’s impending Thunder telecasts to the tune of $2.5 million per year, Hart found himself in the perilous position of still carrying the WWF Championship despite being WCW bound. Also armed with a WWF contract that offered him “reasonable creative control” in how his character was booked, Hart found the notion of dropping the strap to Michaels, his Survivor Series opponent, totally abhorrent on the grounds that Michaels had previously told him in conference that he would never again put Hart over. Allegedly fearing a repeat of the Madusa belt-trashing incident should Hart leave the promotion with his top title, a desperate McMahon felt he had little recourse but to double cross him at the conclusion of the Hart-Michaels match, ordering referee Earl Hebner to call for the bell and award Michaels the victory as he held Hart in his own Sharpshooter finishing hold, several minutes before the previously agreed upon disqualification finish could be executed.
None of the events of Montreal are covered in any great detail here of course, instead presented as simply just a thing that happened, but the incident did help turn amiable announcer Vince into all-powerful super-villain boss Mr. McMahon, giving blue collar everyman Austin his perfect foil. While there are those who believe the brilliant Mr. McMahon character was Vince’s flukish silver lining from the cloud of Hart’s departure, Foley theorises that McMahon knew what he was doing all along, and that his infamous post-Survivor Series interview in which he defended himself to the hilt and proclaimed that, “Bret screwed Bret,” was less a genuine attempt to absolve himself from blame and more the final evolution into his new heel character.
Also not covered is the mammoth Hogan vs. Sting showdown more than a year in the making over in WCW, and instead we arrive at the spine-chilling angle in which Austin flips the bird to Mike Tyson and generates ludicrous amounts of publicity for the WWF in the process. Barred from boxing after biting a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear in a June 1997 fight, convicted rapist Tyson had transcended his sport through media coverage of his controversial activities to become one of the most famous personalities on the planet, even if it was for mostly the wrong reasons. Realising the magnetic pull Tyson had and the sort of column inches he generated, McMahon offered him $3.5 million to make a handful of appearances for the WWF, including a spot as the special guest enforcer for the Michaels-Austin championship bout at WrestleMania XIV. Bischoff admits he was both so ignorant and arrogant at the time that he completely dismissed the WWF’s plans to rebrand themselves as trash TV in the mould of Jerry Springer and Howard Stern, but had his head turned when he found out they were dealing with Tyson. Not noted, presumably because it doesn’t fit WWE’s triumphant narrative, is that following Tyson’s appearance at the 1998 Royal Rumble, his advisers immediately went to Bischoff and attempted to negotiate a better deal, which even “ATM Eric” rebuffed, figuring the asking price was too high. The key difference was that to WCW, all Tyson would have amounted to would have been some kind of match with Hogan, a big buyrate, some newspaper publicity, and little else. But over in the struggling WWF, the association with Tyson was far more valuable, helping turn Austin into a household name beyond just the hardcore wrestling audience. Hindsight would show that Tyson was worth every penny to the WWF, and had Bischoff scooped McMahon on the deal, history may have ended up very differently.
Onto April 13, 1998, and the WWF finally wins a round in the ratings war thanks to the announcement of an Austin vs. McMahon match to take place that night on RAW. Jericho returns to discuss how complacent Bischoff had becoming after a win streak totalling “eighty-five straight weeks” (it was actually eighty-three – did nobody fact check this thing?), and then comes Triple H kicking Michaels out of DX and replacing him with X-Pac (the former Syxx) and The New Age Outlaws, leading to their “WCW invasion” skits. That prompts Bischoff to retaliate with a grandstand challenge for McMahon to show up at Slamboree ‘98 for a fight. Sensibly, McMahon chose not to bother, dismissing the challenge as, “a cheap and desperate tactic to increase WCW pay-per-view buys,” and instead publicly challenged Bischoff to a rumble, “at any time, in any parking lot across the country, void of television cameras, photographers, and public announcement.” Bischoff declared himself the winner by forfeit, whilst the documentary chooses to ignore such a result and has the narrator attempt to save face for McMahon by simply declaring that, “he was busy.”
Onto more sensible matters next, as JR brags about how the WWF was able to ride the wave of momentum they’d built and used it to reinvent The Undertaker, Triple H and The Rock, whilst also creating a plethora of new stars such as Kane and Kurt Angle. His subsequent burial of WCW for failing to do the same outside of capturing lightning in a bottle with Goldberg rings a tad hollow however, particularly when you consider the ascension from midcard to World Heavyweight Championship of the likes of The Giant, Diamond Dallas Page, Scott Steiner, Booker T and Jeff Jarrett during this period. It’s a complete misnomer at best, and a total fabrication at worst. On Goldberg, Bischoff talks about his “175-0” winning streak (the number WCW actually gave out before he lost to Nash at Starrcade ‘98 over six months later was 173-0, another sloppy bit of fact checking), and the piece is edited to make it sound like 175-0 was his tally heading into his World Title match with Hollywood Hogan on the July 6, 1998 Nitro. The number WCW was actually touting at the time was 108-0, though that itself was a status-enhancing fabrication. Jericho calls Goldberg’s title win, “the peak of WCW,” but in truth the train was already coming off the tracks by then, with WCW choosing to throw away untold millions in potential pay-per-view revenue by running the Hogan-Goldberg bout on free television with just four days notice. It would have been one thing had ticket sales to the Georgia Dome been anaemic, but the advance already guaranteed them a monster house regardless of what they chose the headline the event with. As it transpired, wily veteran Hogan had played his creative control card in getting the match booked, allowing him to crow about headlining a record-breaking event (WCW ended up selling 36,506 tickets for the show when all was said and done) at a marquee venue in the promotion’s home base of Atlanta, thus boosting his perceived worth to the Turner organisation, officials from which would be in attendance that night. It was a carny trick that cost the company money in the long term, but ensured the spotlight remained firmly on Hogan. It also mattered not that all those tickets had already been sold before the announcement of the Hogan-Goldberg main event had even been made. All Turner’s bean-counters would see was that Hogan was on top when the fans came out in droves. Yet again, none of this is mentioned in the documentary beyond the match being a “great moment”.
To September 1998 and the emotional Nitro return of company legend Ric Flair. Once again the ignore machine is in full swing, as the documentary fails to bring up any of the reasons why he was even gone in the first place. Earlier in the year, Bischoff had held a meeting with most of the WCW talent in which he brazenly stated that the only guys in the room who’d ever drawn any money were Hogan, Savage and Roddy Piper, which most took as backhanded insult towards Flair. Justly upset, Flair then requested (and was granted) time off to watch his son Reid compete in an amateur wrestling tournament in North Carolina instead of attending a live Thunder broadcast in Tallahassee, Florida on April 9th. To Flair’s great surprise, he then found out from an announcement on Nitro three days before the Thunder show that he was being advertised to be there, with vague promises that he would discuss his career and “make a challenge”. Upon reminding WCW officials of the relatively brief time off that they’d already granted him, Flair was instead offered a chartered jet to fly him into and out of the Thunder taping, which he refused having felt disrespected by the organisation. Upon no-showing the Thunder event (on which he hadn’t even been booked to wrestle), Bischoff suspended Flair before WCW filed a lawsuit against him on April 17th, citing breach of contract. Flair’s response was to attend the WWF’s Unforgiven pay-per-view on April 26th at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the plan had been to feature “a great wrestling champion” as one of the dignitaries at ringside, whereupon the camera would cut to amateur champion Reid, whose entourage would just happen to include his old man. Sadly, Flair’s lawyers quickly brought him round to the realisation that appearing on a WWF telecast whilst still under a valid WCW contract would only bring him more legal trouble that it was worth, so having circled the building in a limousine several times, Flair eventually thought better of it and left.
“It got boring, man, just the same shit day in and day out,” moans Eddie Guerrero on the continued expansion of the nWo from a lean, mean, three-man killing machine into a bloated self-parody replete with goofball hangers on, and he’s not wrong. Talk moves back to Flair’s return, as Bischoff discusses wanting to create a counter culture between what Flair represented and what he was attempting to do with Hall and Nash. Of course, shortly after Flair’s triumphant return, the Horsemen were back to putting over the nWo again, same as always. Cornette remains apoplectic about the way Bischoff treated Flair, the guy who carried Jim Crockett Promotions on his back for all those years, and that leads back to another tiresome discussion about the half-truth that WCW never made any of their own stars. Rey Mysterio’s conclusion is that he should have been pushed to the main event, citing Edge & Christian, The Dudley Boyz and The Hardy Boyz as examples of what the WWF were doing with younger talent at the time. While there’s certainly a ring of truth to his words, the likes of himself, Jericho, Benoit and Guerrero were arguably just as big in WCW as the aforementioned guys were in the WWF, and it wasn’t until many years after WCW went out of business that Edge and Jeff Hardy finally broke through the glass ceiling to become genuine needle-moving main event players for WWE, while Matt Hardy, Christian and the Dudleys either continued to flounder around as midcarders or bolted to TNA.
More factually inaccurate statements follow as the narrator talks of “an extremely competitive Monday” in “late December” as Mankind won his first WWF Title from The Rock. Although the title change was taped in late December, it was actually taped on a Tuesday rather than a Monday, only went head-to-head that night with a WCW house show (ironically held in Foley’s home town of Long Island, New York – the WWF taping was in Worcester, Massachusetts, hardly making for a “competitive” environment), and didn’t air until January 4, 1999. Bischoff went back to the well that night and decided to give away news of Foley’s title victory to his own audience, instructing lead Nitro announcer Tony Schiavone to proclaim, “We understand that Mick Foley, who wrestled here one time as Cactus Jack, is going to win their World Title. Ugh! That’s gonna put some butts in the seats! Ha!” Foley couldn’t understand how the company he had previously given so much effort for could be so flippantly dismissive of him and his achievements, although his displeasure with the statement was quickly assuaged when the ratings patterns that night showed a significant shift in viewership from Nitro to RAW almost immediately after Schiavone made his announcement. What Bischoff failed to understand was that lifelong fan turned hard-working superstar Foley was particularly beloved amongst the wrestling audience who saw him as one of their own. Coupled with the greatly renewed interest in the WWF’s product, Bischoff’s giving away of their results no longer seemed like an aggressively edgy tactic, but actually acted as free promotion for a magical moment that many supporters were thrilled not to have missed.
More significantly on the night of January 4 was WCW’s own World Title change, in which Nash laid down for Hogan after Hogan gently prodded him in the chest. It was a takeoff of an angle which the WWF had run with Michaels and Triple H in December 1997 over the lowly European Title, but here it was designed to kick-start the new year by bringing together an “elite” version of the nWo as a villainous roadblock for Goldberg (the splitting of the original group into the “nWo Hollywood” and “nWo Wolfpac” factions is also predictably neglected here). In the already predetermined world of wrestling, the idea that fans would feel insulted by two grapplers openly admitting to switching a championship in a fake match perhaps seems like some kind of painfully self-referential parody of itself, but in storyline terms where suspension of disbelief allows the viewer to buy into what they’re seeing as if the outcomes are genuine, a World Championship changing hands in a “thrown” contest was simply deemed as insulting. Worse still, this latest incarnation of the nWo began to dissolve just a few weeks later, and no revenge was ever forthcoming for Goldberg. What had initially been planned as an angle to carry WCW throughout the entire year and into the new millennium turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for the company. Where Nitro’s ratings had previously remained competitive with RAW’s throughout 1998, they began to slip shortly after the Nash-Hogan “Fingerpoke of Doom” scenario. By mid-February, those ratings had dropped below the 5.0 mark; by March they were under 4.5; by late April they fell below 4.0, and come May they were routinely pulling less than a 3.5. With a few aberrations here and there, Nitro never hit those heights again, at least on a regular basis, and by 2000, numbers were even dipping below the 3.0 mark, with the low point being the April 3rd show, admittedly just a “best of” (wrestling’s equivalent of a clip show) which pulled a paltry 1.8. “This is what World Championship Wrestling is all about,” noted commentator Schiavone just moments before the Nash-Hogan match, a line that proved indignantly prophetic thanks to the benefit of hindsight.
Once again, not a single mention is made of any of those ratings woes on the documentary, with talk instead turning to how nobody knew who was actually in charge at WCW. Okerlund more specifically bemoans Bischoff allowing his top stars to have “complete creative control” written into their contracts as being one of the major problems, but in truth the only guy to have any sort of creative control clause worded into his deal was Hogan, and for all the trouble that may have caused, he was still undoubtedly WCW’s top draw during this period, arguably making him worth any correlating headaches. With the tide clearly turning, the rats quickly began deserting the sinking ship, with Big Show talking about how smart he was to see the warning signs when he did and make the leap over to the WWF. I’m sure the ten year contract with a $950,000 a-year downside guarantee that the WWF offered him in February 1999 had a little something to do with it too. McMahon then returns to dub Show “the largest athlete in the world” in another debatable claim, although he’s got nothing to say for himself when it comes to discussing WCW talents being “acquired” by the WWF, where previously WCW had “stolen” the WWF’s top stars. The theory seems to be that it’s really mean-spirited for a huge corporate conglomerate like the Turner organisation to offer big money deals to the main event players of their self-made rival, but it’s okay for the McMahon league to scoop up promising youngsters in the other direction because clearly their talent is otherwise just being wasted. At no point is this hypocritical rhetoric made any more evident than when former two-time WCW World Champion and pay-per-view main eventer Show claims, “I really hadn’t established a run yet,” regarding his time working for WCW.
“Revisionist thinking is that Eric Bischoff had completely pissed away everybody’s money. Bullshit. I was making money hand over fist. I took a $24 million a year company that was losing $10 million a year, and four years later it was a $350 million company that was making $50 million a year,” claims Bischoff, who would challenge executives and call them out on their decisions because he thought he would always have Turner to fall back on. At least, that’s the story he’s telling; The truth is closer to the fact that business was in a freefall and the company was losing around $5 million a month, so he got sent home by high ranking executive Harvey Schiller, at the time the president of TBS Sports. One month later, WWF writers Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara made the switch to WCW, which could make for a whole entire documentary in its own right. Here, the bulk of their run is highlighted by Ferrara’s distasteful Oklahoma character, an unfunny pot-shot at Ross, complete with emphasis on his Bell’s palsy affliction. Quickly dismissed, Flair calls Russo a “clown” and talk reverts back to what great stars Edge, Christian and The Hardy Boyz were becoming, all talent who had been championed largely by… erm, Vince Russo actually. That’s coupled with the narrator talking about how “new talent at WWE was making an impact”, highlighted by Ken Shamrock (who had left the company a month before Russo and Ferrara even made their jump), Val Venis (who had already been a strongly-featured midcard name for the previous eighteen months but was already on the downswing of his career having never ascended to a main event slot, something the WWF routinely bashed WCW for doing with their undercard talent), and Mark Henry (who had already been with the company for three years by this point, and who didn’t actually start getting any good until the latter part of the 2000s).
McMahon dismissively refers to WCW signing away the likes of Savage, Hall, Nash, and others as “buying off” his big name stars, whilst also making sure to put a more self-aggrandisingly positive spin on the WCW-to-WWF switch of The Radicalz as an “influx of talent”, suggesting that it was their choice to leave WCW where the previous WWF names had been stolen from them. Do you ever get the feeling that McMahon genuinely believes his own bullshit? Not mentioned (obviously) is that WCW had just put their World Title on Benoit prior to his leaving (an attempt by then-booker Kevin Sullivan to prevent him from doing just that), that the Radicalz were immediately jobbed out to D-Generation-X on their first night in action for the promotion, that it took Benoit and Guerrero a further four years before they achieved real main event of success in WWE, that the WWF actually fired Guerrero at one point over his substance abuse problems, or that neither Dean Malenko nor Perry Saturn were particularly any better off as on-screen characters in the WWF than they had been in WCW. Still, let’s not let such trivial facts get in the way of WWE’s chosen narrative of, “WCW had no idea what to do with any of them, so they came to us and we made them all stars”.
To Bash at the Beach 2000 now, although no mention is made of Russo double-crossing Hogan by cutting a venomous shoot promo on him after Hogan had already left the building, following a ridiculous angle in which Jeff Jarrett was instructed to lay down and lose the World Title to him. Instead, Russo is simply shown the door with barely any reference made to his torrid tenure as WCW’s head writer, and he’s quickly followed in the knacker’s yard by the previously unmentioned Bill Busch. Who was Busch and what did he do to warrant this on-air note of his departure, you may well be wondering? Well, he was actually WCW’s former accountant before being promoted to Senior Vice President, whereupon realising he knew nothing about wrestling, had chosen to just monitor the business aspects of the company while hiring Russo and Ferrara to run the creative side of things. Once Russo was turfed and Bischoff’s name was brought up as a replacement by Brad Siegel (the head of Turner’s wrestling division, which probably gives you some idea about how many different people were supposedly in charge of the brand), Busch decided to quit, having duly noted the $15 million the company lost under Bischoff’s guidance in 1999. Not that you’d know any of that from actually watching this documentary, mind you; Here, Busch is just the name of a guy who got fired, for some reason.
With most of the disasters of 2000 brushed over, Bischoff’s attempt at buying WCW is quickly covered as, “one day we were going to buy it, and even had a letter of intent stating as much, and then the next day I was told we weren’t buying it anymore.” Nothing is made of WCW losing a mind-boggling $62 million under a combined Bischoff/Russo regime that year (Russo having been brought back not long after having being sent packing in the first place), nor of Bischoff’s conglomerate of potential investors, Fusient Media Ventures, offering to buy the league for around $70 million, only to amend the offer to just $5.7 million down plus $2.15 a year for the next twenty years (a total of $48.7 million) after investigating WCW’s books and discovering what a financial hole the company was in. No mention is made either of WCW’s parent company, Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. merging with Time Warner, Inc. in October 1996, a deal which resulted in Ted Turner eventually being dropped from his position as head of all Turner cable networks by company CEO Gerald Levin. Just as significant but also ignored is another merger on January 11, 2001, in which America Online purchased Time Warner to become AOL Time Warner, just in time for the burst of the dotcom bubble to drag down the profitability and stock price of the entire company to the point that Turner, Time Warner’s biggest individual shareholder, personally lost in the region of $7 billion.
Also deemed irrelevant to the discussion is the appointment of Jamie Kellner as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Turner Broadcasting Systems. A major figure in the creation of the FOX Network, The WB Television Network and FOX Kids, Kellner had a strong preference for targeting young females with shows such as 7th Heaven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek, Charmed and Gilmore Girls. Seemingly already predisposed against wrestling, he also felt that even if WCW could once again attract viewers, the demographics would not be favourable enough to convince the all-important advertisers to buy airtime during the shows, so in March 2001, he announced that neither TBS or TNT would continue to air professional wrestling on their channels. In just his first week on the job, Kellner had effectively brought to an end the seventy-year legacy of the organisation that had originally been founded by Jim Crockett, Sr. back in the 1930s. Without the television to support it, nor Turner to protect it, WCW became essentially worthless to Fusient, and they withdrew their offer, clearing the way for McMahon to purchase what remained of the organisation for just $2.2 million plus fees and legal costs. Ten months earlier, the SFX Entertainment conglomerate of live event promoters had made an offer to purchase the group for around $500 million, and now the rights had been sold to the World Wrestling Federation for an amalgamated fee of just under $3 million.
Instead, things simply zip ahead to the final Nitro from Panama City, Florida on March 26th, 2001, which is often erroneously credited as the final WCW broadcast ever. While it’s true that it was both the final live broadcast and final live event WCW ever promoted, there was actually an episode of syndicated highlights package Worldwide which hit the air in selected markets later that week (March 31st, to be precise), and featured a final sign-off for the promotion from hosts Scott Hudson and Mike Tenay. How apropos that the official final WCW offering should air on the eve of April Fools’ Day, and on the eve of what just happened to be the biggest WrestleMania the WWF had ever promoted. There was also a short-lived series of thirty-minute compilation shows hosted by Dusty Rhodes on the localised Turner South cable and satellite station dubbed WCW Classics, focusing primarily on older footage from the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and Jim Crockett Promotions archives, which ran until the autumn of 2001. The last original episode of the show to air was a one hour special on July 22nd featuring Ric Flair as co-host, somewhat ironically on the same day as the WWF’s InVasion pay-per-view. Two weeks earlier, on a taped episode of Sunday Night Heat, the WWF aired a WCW World Tag Team title match in which Sean O’Haire & Chuck Palumbo defeated the makeshift team of Kanyon & Shawn Stasiak, which ended up being the last match they officially billed as being held under the WCW umbrella, complete with WCW-ingrained ring skirts and on-screen ident bugs.
As has now become the infuriatingly predictable norm, not a word of this is referenced on the documentary, and instead things are wrapped up with a series of talking heads discussing the final Nitro. “It was pure exhilaration for me” notes Big Show, who hadn’t even been with WCW for over two years by the time it closed down, and apparently completely oblivious to the fact that the war between them and the WWF had driven everyone’s bargaining power through the roof. There’s not a cat in hell’s chance he ever would have been offered the WWF contract he was had McMahon already had his monopoly on the business. “I was so happy at that show to see that company close down. I couldn’t stand it,” adds Flair, who at least takes a poignant moment to mention all the people who lost their jobs and had nowhere to go, before suggesting the company was far too concerned with comparing themselves to RAW instead of concentrating on making Nitro as good as it could be.
Foley compares the original RAW broadcasts to the ones from 1997 (not the boring contemporary ones from 2004 mind you, which are now airing unopposed after the death of WCW, but those from when Nitro was still kicking ass in the ratings) and says that the competition brought out the best in them, which is quite the backhanded indictment of the state of business since both WCW and ECW went kaput. Okerlund calls it, “a big piece of wrestling history,” before adding, “Not to say that it couldn’t happen again.” Gee, I wonder if TNA will ever give WWE a run for their money with that newfangled Impact! show they’ve got going on? Bischoff suggests that, “Without a doubt, the highest high was worth all of the lows combined,” which is an interesting way of looking at things after everything he’s been through, then claims that, “the Monday Night Wars were, and still are, responsible for all the success that all of us are enjoying in the business today.” Michaels concurs that discounting what Bischoff did would be grossly unfair to him.
The bothersome narrator finally wraps things up with some truly saccharine generic bullshit about how, “the fans were the winners,” but we can’t leave without a few final thoughts from Brisco, who says the end of the war was, “probably the defining moment. When we finally conquered Ted Turner and all of his billions and billions of dollars and told Ted, ‘We kicked your butt!’,” ignoring both the fact that the closure of the company had nothing to do with the then-powerless Turner, and that it was ultimately WCW’s own internal failures which lead them down that path in the first place, not any significant action on the WWF’s part. “The most important lesson that came out of the RAW – Nitro wars,” he adds, “was don’t mess with Vince McMahon.” Fun fact – Brisco’s head is now so far up McMahon’s ass that when Vince wakes up on a morning, he has to brush two sets of teeth.
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