When the history of American professional wrestling is looked at, there is perhaps none more important, other than that of the industry’s prime time player World Wrestling Entertainment, than the one of World Championship Wrestling. A company that persevered through so much corporate mismanagement in its tenure, that was somehow kept on the air by its #1 supporter, media mogul Ted Turner. How could a wrestling company die if it had the unlimited support of an outspoken billionaire? It’s a story about what should have been, rather than what it is often remembered for, and it is a shame that wrestling fans are consistently reminded more of what made it fail rather than what made it successful.
WCW was, in its prime, the number one wrestling commodity on the planet. It was a company that had probably the strongest roster of wrestlers in its locker room, and an effective unlimited budget from Turner, and considering some of the ideas the company came out with, it seemed that in the late 90’s, WCW was destined to do nothing but grow, prosper and connect with the new generation of wrestling fans. How could this wrestling company have possibly lost pretty much everything in a few short years? How could it have gone from the hottest wrestling company in 1997 to nothing more than a joke by 2000, and was eventually sold to Vince McMahon, the WWF/E Chairman for the change in his back pocket? The answers to that are quite simple, and the saddest thing of all is that had the company tackled all of these issues many years ago, perhaps we could still see WCW in some form or another today.
For a start, let’s take a quick look at the history of what made WCW thrive:
WCW was, in simplest terms, a wrestling organisation that provided an alternative to the industry-dominated WWF. It produced a show that catered for those paying wrestling fans who were tired of the cartoonish characters and cringe-worthy storylines that the WWF forced down their throats. WCW offered something new to the table; a show that featured some of the greatest matches between some of the best wrestlers. Ric Flair was the company’s biggest draw – you could say he was one of the MVPs of the new WCW. His matches with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and Steve “Sting” Borden were guaranteed money makers for those fans, and Flair, having established himself as the NWA’s biggest star of the 80’s rivalled only the WWF’s biggest creation, Hulk Hogan. Eventually, WCW, upon being granted the Prime Time slot every Monday night, to go head to head with the WWF’s show, started to revolutionise the wrestling industry. WCW crafted a former NFL defensive tackle into an unstoppable monster with an undefeated streak that spanned over a year and a half – Bill Goldberg. Goldberg was as hot as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin on the WWF’s side.
WCW also hit a goldmine when, in 1996, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, fresh off the heels of their WWF stardom, showed up one night on WCW Monday Nitro and took the promotion by storm. In a move that can only be described as genius, WCW played out the angle as if Hall and Nash were WWF wrestlers invading WCW and to the shock of nobody, fans were enthralled. Tying in with this was Hulk Hogan’s betrayal of his Hulkamaniacs and joining these ‘invaders’ to form the “New World Order” (or nWo for short). A note to wrestling promoters, take notes of how Hall, Nash and Hogan were booked here – THAT is how you book strong heels (industry slang for villainous characters).
After years of the wrestling industry being exposed as scripted and nothing more than entertainment (and sometimes not even that), the only real thing worth anyone’s attention was the very real and very personal feud that spawned between the two wrestling companies. While a sport that had seldom incidents when wrestlers legitimately hated each other, it was no secret that having the WWF go against WCW was a proven and guaranteed money-in-pocket situation. It would only be fitting to put the WWF against WCW in the wrestling ring, the sport they had their pawns… I mean, wrestlers… beat themselves up every night in for years, all in a nearly twenty year rivalry fuelled by money, power, greed and ratings. It was no surprise to anybody that Vince McMahon and the team of Ted Turner and Eric Bischoff (the man behind WCW’s rise to greatness) really had legitimate beef with each other.
So, with all of that in mind, coupled with an exceptional Cruiserweight division that produced some of the best matches every week, it seemed impossible to even remotely imagine how a company that was doing so well was ever going to lose its paying audience over such stupid and small mistakes. The fact is, you would be wrong, and they did – on a near-weekly basis.
You can make a handful of small mistakes, but you can make very few big ones. Sadly, WCW in late 1998 started to make more and more big mistakes and only started what can only be described as the self-injected lethal dose of reality, where it became apparent that the mismanagement and sheer incompetence behind the curtain overshadowed the product that was being produced in the ring. Little did they know that they would only have just over two years left. Had communication been good, personalities not clashed, and more importantly, had there been a willingness and desire to succeed as a company rather than being only out for yourself, these mistakes would have been avoided. Sadly, WCW learned the hard way.
Without listing every mistake they made one by one (if I did, it would span about twenty pages), there are underlying issues of everything WCW did from late 1998 onwards that instead of turning the company around, in fact sped up the company’s fall. The WWF at the time was beating WCW in the ratings battle every Monday night, morale had sunk to an all time low, and nobody seemed to know what to do. The fact is, had anybody in a position of power taken these points into consideration and let their egos surpass them, again, they would more than likely still be in business today. Well, given the magnitude of their errors, that seemed more likely than Hulk Hogan realising that modern wrestling fans don’t care about him anymore. Which brings me to my first point:
- Wrestling is a very cyclical business. When things are exciting for fans, the ratings prove it but also their reactions prove it. Older wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper etc. have star power and an ability to at least draw some attention. But here’s a very important point. As a cyclical business, fans are more than likely going to lose interest in what these wrestlers are doing after being on top of the cards for so many years. After being champion for so long, fans are going to long for your inevitable goodbye party, when you make way for a young, rising talent with their whole career ahead of them. Sadly, this is not what WCW did on any scale whatsoever. If they did do it, it was much too late and fans had given up by then. It was not only that they had grown stale, their age was becoming apparent and what limited in-ring skills they had were what WCW relied on to stir up interest in their show, while the WWF begun pushing rising stars like The Rock, Triple H and many others – a show that was beginning to at times triple the ratings that WCW was getting. It didn’t help that Hogan and Nash had a sense of an ego-driven power trip to each of themselves. Hogan had a creative control clause in his contract, which meant that he could effectively manage his own storylines and veto those he didn’t find satisfactory, which considering Hogan’s ego, could be described as anything that made him look inferior to anybody at all. Nash on the other hand, was made booker of the company by 1999 (i.e. the person who writes the storylines) and began the inevitable tactic of pushing himself and his close friends in the high-paying main event slots, while leaving any rising talent like Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero all to do what they were told and not dare to get more attention than Nash and his pals. Moving the business forward was clearly a high priority for these two.
- In basics, WCW had only turned a profit in the years 1996 and 1997. By the time 1998 rolled around, both the WWF and WCW were arguably at their peaks, and the ratings had grown to stellar heights and some wrestlers were becoming very wealthy. WCW wrestlers, however, were wealthy regardless of whether the ratings were good or not. WCW management had the habit of signing wrestlers to guaranteed contracts, which do exactly what they say. So if a wrestler breaks his back on his first match of the year, then he will still be guaranteed the money on that contract. However, Eric Bischoff, so intensely fixated on beating Vince McMahon in the ratings every week and putting him out of business, began a spending spree on any wrestlers he could find, as well as public figures like basketball players Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman and talk show host Jay Leno for matches on WCW television – which to their credit, got them some mainstream media attention. But in the long run, this did little to help turn the company around as a WRESTLING company (much to nobody’s surprise at all) and it led WCW to lose millions upon millions each year. But obviously with Billionaire Ted backing them at all costs, it didn’t matter, right? Wrong.
- As mentioned before, Ted Turner’s baby WCW was, in hindsight, his toy to do with what he pleased. Billionaire Ted, having purchased the company from Jim Crockett in 1988, had the ability to make it his own creation. However, by 2000, his love for wrestling didn’t matter. This was the time when the AOL-Time Warner merger happened, and although the exact details aren’t fully known, this is when (in Layman’s terms), Turner was now powerless to WCW, and he had no voice for them anymore. The conglomerate made it clear that wrestling was not a priority for them, and it didn’t fit in with their corporate image for Time Warner to produce something as macabre and juvenile as wrestling. The screws were put to WCW you could say. It didn’t help that WCW had a disastrous year in 2000 – which following 1999’s mistakes seemed to only deepen the wound for them. If 1999 had taught them anything, it’s that the young, rising talented wrestlers were only in WCW as cogs in a machine – they could never get past a certain level and they could never get the breaks that were promised to them. So they aptly told WCW management where they would not be signing on their renewed contracts and sought employment elsewhere (in other words, the WWF), as a way to stick one to WCW. By 2000’s end, WCW had lost a whopping $60 million – which as you could expect, did nothing to help their case in surviving the AOL-Time Warner scrutiny. This overwhelming loss of money was the result of Vince Russo’s horrendous job as booker, wrestling fans would often say. But the fact is it didn’t matter, as Russo, while often very misguided and unaware of how to actually make money in professional wrestling, let his imagination run wild and nobody in management sought to correct his ideas. While in the WWF, he had Vince McMahon halt any ideas he felt unnecessary, whereas with WCW he would just run free with whatever he felt was a way to turn the company around. By this point, WCW was actually celebrating ratings in the 1.5 region – which were a fifth of what they were averaging in 1997-1998.
It is a shame that WCW went out the way it did, as a result of a corporate exchange that left those in control of WCW without any hope of survival in the suit-dominated umbrella. As said before, WCW is twelve years gone from the wrestling world, and since being gone, the wrestling industry has purely been dominated by the WWF/E and wrestling fans that had grown up watching an exciting programme have now lost all interest in wrestling. The spark is gone, and has been gone for many years. WCW will be forever remembered as not the thriving industry that at one point had the WWF on its knees, not the company that provided some of the best in-ring work from established veterans of the NWA, nor will it be the company that had action and excitement at every possible turn for years. It will be forever remembered as the company who solely lost to Vince McMahon and the WWF/E – and the March 26th 2001 episode of WWF Raw is War proves just that.
R.I.P. World Championship Wrestling.