"Extra Cheese": What Happened to Wrestling?
While World Wrestling Entertainment was being criticized for airing an in-ring "terrorist attack" by its Arab-American character Muhammad Hassan on the same day as the London Bombings, the controversy sparked a series of questions: "Wrestling is still on? Who's still in it? What is going on?".
WWE, and WCW too for that matter, were a fixture for my friends and me during our college careers. We would order two pay-per-views a month, watch Monday Night Raw, tape Monday Night Nitro, watch wrestling for four hours on a Monday, maybe check the score of the Monday Night Football game if a fantasy game was riding on the production of a player. We would get no work done for our Tuesday classes, but surprisingly, not diminish our chances of getting laid whatsoever. That is how popular wrestling was in the late 90's, you could walk into a bar with an nWo t-shirt on and it was a conversation starter with women, rather than the equivalent of a neon "Virgin" sign which it is now.
Now wrestling is back to being niche programming. Many of the characters that made wrestling so popular back then, are inactive now and until very recently I would forget to watch Raw on a Monday night, something I thought impossible at one time.
So what happened? How did the juggernaut WWE lose customers like myself? I will be reading the book "Wrestling's One Ring Circus" by Scott Keith -- while you are reading ingenius football previews for the next three weeks -- for the true answers but I have some ideas of my own as to the cause of the demise.
1)WWE buying WCW: While you could say WWE had no competition for two years before the acquisition, the WWE (except for a sputtering NWA TNA which can be seen, well actually it can't be seen anywhere right now) has no competition. This has two effects. One; there is no motivation for the talent, and especially the writers to provide an edgy product that will captivate the attention of the viewing public. If you are a wrestling fan and you don't like what WWE is putting on television, you have nowhere else to go, and everyone knows that. Two; the "holy shit, I can't believe he jumped" heat is lost forever. In its most desperate times, WWE tried to bring in Bill Goldberg and Scott Steiner but without the shock and relevance of having seen them on WCW programming the month before, their runs were unequivocal failures. Now the WWE seperates itself into two "promotions" Raw and Smackdown (MOTL) and annually "drafts" talent from one promotion to another to create this dynamic. It works, but not like it used to.
2)The angle afterwards: Known as "The Invasion Angle" by the WWE and "The Opportunity Wasted" by everyone that had to watch it. Here is what happened. Everyone knew that in March of 2001, Vince McMahon bought WCW. This led to an apocalyptical Nitro which was simulcast with Raw and started off with Vince McMahon's face on TNT. Instead of starting the angle with a WCW revolt led by Ric Flair, Sting, Goldberg, Eric Bischoff, and Scott Steiner (all who claimed to be in discussions with WWE about their contracts and futures in the new structure at the time), the Nitro ended with Vince's son Shane McMahon actually "signing to purchase" WCW as part of their ongoing family feud angle. WCW talent was kept off TV for three months, then Shane would debut his new superstars on Raw. The WCW talent had no heat and no credibility because of WCW's history the previous two years. This led to a memorably bad Buff Bagwell-Booker T match that lost the audience and led to Bagwell's immediate dismissal from the company (turned out he was high during the match). That summer, WCW and WWE titles were defended simultaneously to the point where every single match on Raw was for a championship, therefore each championship and each match meant nothing. So the adjustment? Former ECW wrestlers, already on the roster joining with WCW talent to "Invade" the WWF. Controlled, not by Paul Heyman, the known head of ECW when it was in business, but by Stephanie McMahon, Vince's daughter and the single most annoying television personality on the planet. Over the course of the next few months, WWF stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin and Test would jump to the new "Alliance" and dilute the angle even more. This mercilessly ended at that year's Survivor Series with the WWF winning, of course. The point is Vince McMahon could not simply have his company be successful on the idea of WCW as we knew it feuding the the WWF. His ego could not handle it. So he made the feud part of his family soap opera which had been done several times before and was starting to become less believable each time. The result was that for the first time in four years, the WWF did an angle that went against what the smarter wrestling audience had known. The vow to not "insult your intelligence" made in 1997 was thrown out the window and every angle since then has been made without fan knowledge in mind.
3)The insertion of the nWo: In winter of 2002, Ric Flair had become co-owner of the WWF through some technical contract glich that nobody believed. This led to Ric Flair and Mr. McMahon feuding over control of the company. Having lost to Flair in a match for control, Vince McMahon decided the only thing to do was to "kill his own company" by giving it "terminal cancer" and bringing in the nWo, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Hulk Hogan. The only redemption of this stupid angle of someone trying to kill their own business, was that after nine years, Hulk Hogan was back in the WWF. Hogan was booked against The Rock at Wrestlemania X8 and the match was the single most unforgettable moment in my wrestling watching life. While wearing nWo black, the 67,000+ fans at SkyDome cheered Hogan and booed The Rock. Dismissed as simply nostalgia by Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler, the message was clear. While the WWF had insulted the intelligence of its audience for a year now, its audience would insult the intelligence of the WWF. "Fuck your angles. Fuck your good guys. Fuck your bad guys. We don't even know who's who anymore. We're glad to see Hulk Hogan back, you've driven us to this point." The match just about killed the nWo in the WWF and Hogan was wearing Red and Yellow again the next night. Of course the WWF decided the time was right to give Hulk Hogan a World Championship again and he beat Triple H in a ridiculous (as in "easy to ridicule") match at the next pay-per-view, starting by far his least successful title reign.
3)Brock Lesnar:For years Lesnar was the Hanley Ramirez, or Lastings Milledge of the WWF, a former college wrestling champion with a perfect pro wrestling look. Shortly after Wrestlemania X8, he debuted as a monster heel destroying everyone he faced. Lesnar's look and in-ring ability were enough for a decent championship run during the summer of 2002. However, Lesnar had no mic skills and secretly hated pro wrestling. His career sputtered after he turned face in the fall of 2002 and in 2003 he left the WWE to pursue a career in the NFL. His push was the final straw in Steve Austin's walkout on the company in 2002, and the investment behind Lesnar was ultimately seen as a failure.
4)The departure of The Rock and Steve Austin: The Rock, everyone knows is a full-time actor, wrestling only on the side. As of present time he does not even have a contract with WWE to wrestle at all. Steve Austin's neck prevents him from wrestling beyond giving a few stunners and strutting off with a beer. Their time has passed and the WWE certainly misses them. However if you asked them both why they are done with WWE, they may secretly tell you...
5)Triple H:For the past four years. Triple H has been the centerpiece of the WWE. He even "main-evented" the famous Wrestlemania X8 beating Chris Jericho for the Undisputed World Championship an hour after Rock and Hogan tore the roof off Skydome. Despite being a heel for most of that time, he has been in a championship match the past four Wrestlemanias. While he is somewhat generous as far as jobbing, he has dominated the first twenty minutes of Raw for years, boring fans with his overdone heel act. He has taken a hiatus only to keep his character fresh for when Raw returns to USA network on October 3. You can determine whether or not it is a coincidence that he is Stephane McMahon's husband and Vince McMahon's son-in-law and the only wrestler sitting in on creative meetings.
6)The 2002 Brand Extension:In 2002, in order to give more opportunites to more talent, and create a healthy competition. WWE split into two "promotions" giving Raw and Smackdown exclusive rosters. No one believes the two are seperate promotions because cross-promoting is frequent. The writing and talent pools have been diluted and the results have been forgettable.
7)Hollywood Writers:From 2000-2002, WWE had been posting Writing Job opportunities on Job Boards, like they were the Maxwell Marketing Group. The postings asked for people with "episode television experience" and my resumes have hit the trash bin, I'm assuming. The result has been the return to soap opera style writing and lack of angles with big payoffs, turning off wrestling fans.
8)Janet Jackson's Nipple: Like every other aspect of media, the WWE is now petrified of the FCC. Therefore most of the edgy "T and A" angles that were either big hits or funny misses have gone by the wayside. When the WWE has depended on "T and A" to drive ratings, it has had to go to a reality-show like "Diva Search" that drives in-house wrestling fans insane with boredom.
9)The Return of Gimmicks: Perhaps the Hassan fiasco will be a lesson in this, perhaps not. WWE has gone from promoting characters as just exaggerated extensions of themselves back to all out gimmicks so far from the real wrestler, they do them a disservice. For example, the guy who played Hassan was actually Italian and from Syracuse. A decent indie worker Nick Dinsmore is now Eugene, Eric Bischoff's "mentally challenged" nephew. His segments usually spike Raw's ratings, only because of the amount of people watching wondering "What the fuck has happened to wrestling?"
10)A Fruitless Search for the "Next Big Thing": The truth is, the main reason WWE has fallen off the landscape is that they have yet to replace The Rock, Steve Austin, or Mick Foley. The list of those who have tried starts with Brock Lesnar, Chris Benoit, Randy Orton and David Batista. Each has failed for different reasons which I will go into at another time as I know I am running long here. Currently the company has put its hopes into John Cena. Cena is a young man, with a good look and charisma that hasn't been seen since The Rock's prime. However he is buried by a White Rapper gimmick that he and Vince McMahon will believe in until it kills both him and Vince's company.
I will pick this discussion up after the Football Previews, and reading Scott Keith's book. I believe WWE has turned a corner and should be back on the way up and I will tell you why then. Until then, That is What's Happened to Wrestling.