What if…What if D-Generation X got into the Norfolk Scope during their attack on WCW Nitro?
(The following Re-Writing The Book is written not as a narrative story, but as an article on a wrestling website, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the D-Generation X invasion of WCW Monday Nitro, and looking back at how the event changed the wrestling landscape.)
It’s hard to imagine a wrestling industry where D-Generation X hadn’t gotten into the building where WCW Monday Nitro was being held in 1998. Would they have just stood around outside the Norfolk Scope, yelling at the building, filming themselves making crotch-chops with the crowd and acting like a bunch of idiots? Would they have continued their little stunts, maybe gone down to Atlanta to hunt down the elusive WCW headquarters, or maybe even CNN Towers? It seems almost inconceivable that Vince McMahon, D-X and the WWF could come off as anything but shameless publicity whores with such stunts, that they would ever hope to catch the juggernaut that was WCW at the time with such childish tactics (even if said tactics were cut whole cloth from tactics WCW had used to undermine WWF’s fanbase). But perhaps it only seems unimaginable because of what we, as wrestling fans, witnessed in the ensuing months, and years, after D-X got into the Scope … events that turned, quite literally, the entire industry on its collective ear.It seems appropriate, then, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of D-X’s invasion by looking back at the moment that seemed so innocuous, even as it revelled in a moronic, childish glee … but, in reality, a moment that reshaped the wrestling landscape in ways nobody could have foreseen. With the help of quotes from interviews and online chats from people who were there and the backstage reports from numerous sources, I hope to paint the definitive picture of the tumultuous events that followed that one Earth-shattering day in the spring of 1998.April 27, 1998: The turning point:
The members of D-Generation X and Vince McMahon didn’t expect to get into the Norfolk Scope, where Monday Nitro was being staged that night; interviews with Triple H and Vince indicate their expectations were that they’d shoot some footage, “try” to get in but get “locked out”, call the competition cowards and call it a day. But WCW President Eric Bischoff saw things a little differently. First off, Bischoff had a history of pulling stunts against the competition; his revealing of WWF Monday Night Raw show results on weeks that Raw was pre-taped was one of the questionable tactic he used to help push Nitro into the #1 slot and make the WWF look inferior by a step.But more importantly, on this day, Bischoff was facing the fact that his almost two year domination of Raw was becoming a dogfight once again. On the heels of Steve Austin’s rise to the top of the WWF (a WCW reject, cast aside as “unmarketable” in his plain black tights and boots), along with other new stars like Mick Foley (another WCW castoff), D-Generation X (led by yet another ex-WCW’er–and a curtain jerker in WCW at that), The Rock and a host of others, WCW, led by a bunch of former WWF’ers knee deep in their 40’s and riding the same nWo vs. WCW angle wave for two years running, was starting to lose the edge. And here, presented to him gift-wrapped on a silver platter, was a way to not only strike back at the competition in a fresh new way, but to do so in such a way as to suck the very growing wind out of the WWF’s sails.”Bischoff didn’t have a clue what was going on,” said Hulk Hogan in a 2000 interview with Dave Meltzer. “Nash wanted my spot, and he wasn’t ready for it, so he went to Bischoff and played him. Bischoff was as much a leader in WCW as I am a ballet dancer.” While Hogan would go on to claim he never dirtied his hands in the political pool of WCW, his words about Bischoff and Nash resonate with a startling truth that virtually everyone in WCW at the time agrees on. Therewas a power struggle for the top position both in front of the camera, and as the man with Eric Bischoff’s ear. And while Hogan and his heel turn might’ve helped propel WCW to heights never before seen, two years of reigning supreme with atrocious matches and run-in ending after run-in ending wasn’t getting the job done anymore. The crowd was openly begging for a change. Nash, apparently the beneficiary of advance word that D-X was on their way to the arena to fake an invasion (an act that, to this day, nobody will admit to doing), knew he had a golden ticket in his hands, something that could put Nitro on top again. Something that could curry him enough favor to vault him into the top spot on-camera, and the #1 guy behind the scenes. Something Hogan could never, in his wildest dreams, provide.It was too good an offer to pass up for Bischoff. So, as per normal for WCW, Nitro was re-written on the fly, from the main event on down to the curtain jerkers, all to accomodate this one segment. At the top of Nitro’s second hour–the hour that ran opposed to the first hour of Raw–Bischoff dropped his 100-megaton neutron bomb: the WWF’s own D-Generation X, welcomed to a WCW ring by their buddies, The Outsiders. That the segment contributed nothing to the show in and of itself was a point Bischoff wasn’t willing to listen to; having contracted WWF wrestlers on WCW television was the coup de grace he was convinced would be the killing blow he’d been looking for. As D-X excused themselves after the segment ended and made it back to Raw in time to participate in the show, Bischoff sat in the back and counted the dollar signs in his imagination … and how many shovelfuls of dirt he’d just dumped on the hand trying to claw out from the grave he’d buried the WWF in over the past two years.The immediate impact: May 1998:
An old proverb says that revenge is a dish best served cold. Another proverb, albeit more of a joking one, says that no good deed goes unpunished. Kevin Nash found out about the second one right quick. Despite giving Bischoff a silver bullet which, indeed, helped Nitro crush Raw in the all-important Monday night ratings war, in the weeks leading up to Slamboree, Nash found both his storylines and his profile behind the scenes no better for his contribution. He was mired in a slow-burn (some would say so slow as to be at a standstill) break-off from the nWo and was scheduled to drop the tag titles to the makeshift team of The Giant and Sting at Slamboree, which would springboard into a break-up angle against his Outsiders running buddy, Scott Hall. With Nitro enjoying more ratings victories, and the WWF subject to a rash of rumors about the state of the company thanks to the D-X guest appearence, Nash should’ve been in position to reap the rewards.But over the next two weeks, Bischoff’s ear was continually tuned to Hogan’s suggestions, while Nash was told that the Outsiders breaking up was “necessary for business”. When rumors floated that the Outsiders break-up was meant to keep Nash occupied so Hogan could work a program with Goldberg (including being the man to stop Goldberg’s streak), Nash’s patience with Bischoff snapped, and the first old proverb came to pass. Said Vince McMahon in the “D-Generation X” DVD in 2006: “When Hunter called me to tell me they’d gotten into the Scope and that Bischoff was going to put them on TV, I told him to extend the offer in kind. Did I think they’d take us up? I’d heard things, rumors, about WCW. I was hoping they’d take the offer, but no, we weren’t counting on it. We had our own long-range plan to become number-one again, and we weren’t going to pin our hopes on a maybe.”The offer, as it were, turned out to be a reciprocal visit by The Outsiders to Raw. Nobody in their right mind would make the mistake of thinking that Bischoff would endorse this idea, least of all Hall and Nash. Fortunately for them, nobody in WCW had a clue about the offer. So, when one Monday night in May, Raw opened with D-Generation X welcoming a couple of “buddies from a prison down south”, Eric Bischoff found himself in the same boat as the crowd, the “smart” fans and the industry at large: blind-sided. Like the WCW segment with D-X, the segment on Raw made no pretense at moving any WWF storylines forward. But, unlike its counterpart segment, this one raised eyebrows for reasons beyond the novelty of seeing another company’s wrestlers on the wrong show: Kevin Nash’s shoot promo.”There’s only one reason we’re here on Raw instead of doing our jobs on Nitro tonight,” said Nash that night. “Two years ago, we came out on Nitro and told him all the seniors and dialysis patients he had in WCW couldn’t measure up to us. Here it is, two years later, and he still has us yukking it up with Harlem Heat and the Steiners, while those decrepit old bastards stumble through match after match like a tranquilized turtle. There’s a reason you got all those dinosaurs on the cheap, Eric: Vinnie Mac here saw it was time to put a bullet in the old horse’s head. New blood. That’s what we were supposed to be, remember, Eric? New blood. A shake-up. And what happens? After we tear apart all those walking corpses? You stick us with Hogan! You stick us with the most greedy, self-serving, manipulative son of a bitch in the company! It wasn’t that bald, backstabbing bastard who made people flip to watch Nitro. It wasn’t Hogan that made people buy Bash At The Beach two years ago; that was me and Scotty! Where was the third man, Eric? Undertaker, Bret, Bulldog … ‘Oh, I’m gonna pick the WWF clean. This is only the beginning’. Your promises ain’t worth [bleep], and neither are you. Well, mine are, Uncle Eric, so here’s my promise to you: me and Scotty, we’re declaring war again. And this time, I promise … it ain’t no storyline.”Anyone who tuned in to Nitro for the rest of the night would think the company was coming undone right then and there, and for good reason: by the next day, every dirt sheet and website in existence would buzz with stories of Bischoff’s psychotic rantings and throwing of furniture. Hogan would walk out of Nitro that very night, as would Randy Savage and Lex Luger, turning the show’s script upside down and cancelling matches that had been hyped all night, some allweek. JJ Dillon would step into the void for the evening as booker and hold down the fort, but the damage was done. Nitro got beaten in the all-important (to Bischoff) Nielsens, and since WCW never updated the live crowd about the change in card, the replacement main event was received with a tidal wave of garbage and fans screaming with rage. WCW promptly issued refunds and make-good tickets for future events, turning the evening into a loser for both company morale, the ratings and the bottom line.Another old saying, although more vulgar than the other two, goes like this: shit flies downward. When the higher-ups at TurnerSports found out about the Raw incident, and the mutiny by Hogan, Savage and Luger that followed, the shit indeed did fly downward, right onto Eric Bischoff. With his job on the line, Bischoff took action in two ways: the first was in the form of a lawsuit against TitanSports/WWF (for monetary damages for having WCW wrestlers on WWF programming), Kevin Nash and Scott Hall (for breach of contract). Bischoff believed he had an open and shut case, and for once, he was right … but it was open and shut against him, as not only did WCW fail to prove that Nash and Hall had breached their contract and were under the employ of the WWF, but it was brilliantly pointed out that all of WCW’s arguments–mainly, that having WCW wrestlers on a competition’s programming did undue and irreparable damage to WCW’s integrity–could be applied to WCW’s use of D-Generation X on WCW programming. This, coupled with the WWF’s very prudent decision not to file a counter-suit on those very grounds (and showing that their brand had not, in fact, come under sustained duress because of D-X’s Nitro appearance), gave WCW little recourse but to drop the lawsuits, serving Bischoff a major defeat and humiliation.His second order of retaliatory business would be to deliver punishment to Hall and Nash, in the form of conditional releases which specifically forbade them from going to the WWF until the terms of their WCW contracts expired in 2001. Three years off TV is a lifetime in wrestling, enough to erode the drawing power of the mightiest marquee player down to nothing. In an America Online chat just days after issuing a press release on the terminations of Hall and Nash, Bischoff would refer to them as (ironically) “degenerates”, blame them for the discord in WCW since their arrival, and promised without them “poisoning the well”, fans would see a new, more cohesive WCW emerge. He did not address the issue of the WCW tag titles, last held by The Outsiders, or a replacement main event for Slamboree; and when a host of fans voiced concerns that maybe Nash was on the money in his shoot promo, Bischoff dismissed them by saying they were all “under the spell of some big galoof who wouldn’t know how to book a hotel room, let alone a wrestling show”. Oddly enough, the three men who stormed out of Nitro for no logical explanation, ruining the top half of the card for that night’s Nitro and nearly inciting a riot, went unpunished. Nobody–save Hogan, Luger and Savage–seemed pleased with that.With the red-hot Austin vs. McMahon storyline–which, somehow, managed to encompass Undertaker, Kane and Mick Foley in not one but two identities–on the front burner, and hot undercard programs like D-X against The Rock and his Nation Of Domination, and a pumped up product that pushed the boundaries of taste with hardcore violence, foul language, and lots and lots and lots of sex, WWF found itself reasserting its position as “the most dominant brand in sports entertainment” as it had proclaimed for years. Bischoff, meanwhile, would apply bandage after bandage on what was obviously becoming a hemorrhaging company, hotshotting titles here, there and everywhere in an effort to generate interest. A Hardcore division was established, and then left for dead inside of two weeks. Rather than move the tag titles onto someone else, they were abandoned without a word spoken–quite literally, as Bischoff instructed Tony Schiavone and the rest of the announce crew to pretend like the belts never existed. Celebrities were brought in for angles and matches that didn’t draw. The planned nWo split was mutated into Sting forming a faction–The Hive, a name that earned more scorn for the Stinger and WCW’s creative team then possibly any decision in the year prior–that featured a few nWo exiles, but the group mostly fought with nWo midcarders. Bret Hart, the free agent WCW had so actively sought for almost two years, jumped between face, heel and tweener so many times, he drawing power was eroded to the levels of Silver King or Billy Kidman. And, as the summer drew to an end, Bischoff put out feelers to yet another old former WWF’er: The Ultimate Warrior.An “extreme”-ly bad summer–1998:
In 1998, ECW was in a bit of an odd position. On the one hand, they had tremendous buzz, thanks to aggressive courting of the Internet Wrestling Community, some ingenious and original booking, fresh personalities in the ring, and a style of wrestling the “big two” couldn’t touch. They’d broken the PPV barrier the year before, and while they weren’t a global force, it seemed that, as long as they could keep the ledger ink in the black, the promotion was destined to grow.Naysayers would be quick to point out, though, that ECW was little more then a glorified regional promotion. Their “original personalities” were a hodge-podge of “big two” castoffs and a few never-will-bes. Money was always tight for the company, so while WCW-to-WWF and WWF-to-WCW jumps were commonplace, nobody willingly jumped to ECW. There was just no upside from going to a global company to a regional one voluntarily, and their leader/guru (some would say cult leader) Paul Heyman, knew this. The only broaching of national television they’d made was a syndicated program that was not in most major markets, and their product was a little too cutting edge for the networks to even sneeze at.But one thing they did have was a comfy-cozy relationship with the WWF. Heyman had not been averse to taking a few payoffs from Vince McMahon, as it kept the doors open, and he was happy to reciprocate by occasionally forfeiting one of his boys to the WWF if it meant a bigger paycheck and a better life then he could provide. So, to assume that Vince might’ve slid a little extra cash during this turbulent period in wrestling so the company could keep chugging along (and maybe, just maybe, nip at WCW’s heels while Vince tried to put a foot on WCW’s head) wouldn’t be out of line.But what happened at ECW’s Heatwave PPV would turn the rumors of payoffs and backdoor relationships on their ears.The main event was a six-man match pitting Tommy Dreamer, The Sandman and Little Spike Dudley against Spike’s half-brothers, Buh-Buh Ray, D-Von and Big Dick Dudley. Moments after Dreamer scored the winning pinfall, the lights in the arena went out, a normal happening in ECW when a surprise was about to unfold. But instead of coming back up and having some wrestler or personality standing mid-ring like in the past, a song came over the PA: 2Pac’s “2 Of America’s Most Wanted”. Just enough lights came up around the entrance arch to illuminate the faces of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall as they stepped into ECW. They didn’t attack; they didn’t talk. Hell, they barely even moved. And yet, the former Outsiders garnered a reaction bigger than anybody on the ECW roster could even dream of.Literally, within minutes, the internet was on fire, and would remain so for weeks to come as wrestling journalists and fans alike tried to figure out how in the blue hell a regional promotion that constantly danced on the edge of Chapter 11 snared the biggest free agents in wrestling. Reading boards and columns at that time produced a plethora of ideas, from the plausible to the insane: Paul Heyman had secured a loan to pay for their appearences; ECW had been bought out by another company (New Japan, for some reason, became the top contender, a rumor both promotions were quick to denounce); Hall and Nash weren’t fired at all, but were working the industry in a weird variant on the Brian Pillman/ECW/WCW scene from a few years prior (and some would take that a step further and insist it both the Pillman angle, and a whole new nWo-style invasion, a rumor Paul Heyman publically laughed at in a statement on ECW’s website). But the main rumor, the one that, when people stopped and thought about it for more then a second, seemed the most logical and likely, was that Vince McMahon was paying their ECW salaries in a backdoor deal.And, naturally, this was the conclusion Eric Bischoff leapt to. Another lawsuit was filed, citing (once again) breach of contract by Nash and Hall, and an unfair business practices suit was lodged against the WWF. The WWF’s resident pit-bull of a lawyer, Jerry McDevitt, came this close to ridiculing Bischoff and his recent litigious nature, laughing off the charges as “the height of frivolous lawsuits” and something he expected to be “tossed out quicker then the judge can bang his gavel”. Raising eyebrows further was that Heyman, whose own father was a lawyer, came to court represented by McDevitt. Bischoff cried foul and cited the WWF’s lawyer representing the owner of ECW as proof towards his own case, but McDevitt argued that, as the two lawsuits stemmed from one central issue, it made sense to consolidate legal teams, and the WWF was happy to extend the favor to Heyman in the interest of getting both lawsuits out of their hair. And while the court did make note of the “peculiar coziness” of Heyman and the WWF, the lawsuits were tossed out: the suits against Hall and Nash on the grounds that their employment by ECW was not a violation of their WCW contract (regardless of where the money came from to pay their appearence fees), and other on the grounds that the WWF was entitled to monetarily aid ECW in any way they saw fit, and it was not the WWF’s responsibility to monitor or advise how Heyman spent the money. With four lawsuits thrown out in a matter of months (and a fifth, against Ric Flair, for an entirely unrelated matter that had kept him off TV for months, still languishing in the courts) and two mutinies under his belt–one of which resulted in two of the company’s biggest wrestlers leaving–Bischoff’s reign suddenly made people yearn for the glory days of Bill Watts and Jim Herd. And that got the dirt sheets spinning with rumors about Bischoff’s tenure coming to a end. Nothing would pan out–much to the chagrin of the boys in the lockerroom–but WCW would suffer nonetheless from Bischoff’s focusing on legal matters over the company, as the morale in the lockerroom, already abysmal because of the good ol’ boys and their glass ceiling went from sour to one step away from anarchy. Konnan would walk out of the company and go back to AAA, taking with him Juventud Guerrera and Psicosis and helping engineer the termination of the working relationship between AAA and WCW. The Giant, meanwhile, would gripe to anyone listening (sometimes on camera, in the form of a countdown of days left on his contract) that as soon as his contract was up at the beginning of 1999, he was “going North”. Industry pundits wondered how, while the company was still turning a healthy profit and decent ratings, the bloom could fall off a rose so quickly and dramatically.The stakes are raised–Fall, 1998:
Coming into the fall–a normally hot time for WCW, with the annual Fall Brawl/WarGames and Halloween Havoc events major tentpoles in the company’s PPV calendar–WCW could be best described as a ship with a few holes and people working diligently with buckets to keep the ship afloat … but no one attempting to repair the breaches. With the WWF starting to pull ahead regularly and WCW floundering for direction, Bischoff discarded any thought of a long-range plan and went for stunt booking.First on Bischoff’s grand design was to capitalize on the one home-grown talent WCW had that was catching fire as hot as anyone in the WWF: Bill Goldberg. Hogan, seeing the money to be made in a Goldberg program–and seeing a way to put himself back in a hot front-burner angle–proposed an angle to put the WCW World Title on Goldberg, and be the one to serve Goldberg his first defeat when he won it back. But rather then build this up for a big PPV like Halloween Havoc or Starrcade, or even the next PPV, Bischoff pulled the trigger on the Goldberg era on Nitro. He popped a big rating doing it, defeating Raw for the first time in months, but many within the company questioned the logic of sacrificing the PPV dollars for such a match for the sake of getting a one-night Nielsen victory. Further vexing them, and critics–a group whose number seemed to be growing every week–was Goldberg’s booking following this; his title defenses would fall in the middle of the card, against lower-mid-card jokes like Jerry Flynn and Vincent, and midcarders who seemed shoehorned into a title match for the sake of having a title match on the show, like Perry Saturn and Hugh Morrus. Industry insiders speculated that perhaps the upper echelon of WCW wasn’t ready to job to Goldberg … which brought into question why WCW would put the company’s centerpiece championship on a man whom no one was comfortable putting over. But of course, Bischoff insisted everything was hunky-dory.The next step on Bischoff’s grand design was celebrities. The WWF had used celebrity guest appearences to add mainstream credibility and garner attention, and Bischoff believed he could do the same, but in a way Vince had never broached: he’d put celebrities in the ring. Unfortunately for viewers, Bischoff picked people for their popularity and not for what they could contribute in-ring. This policy produced modern horrors like Diamond Dallas Page partnering with Jay Leno (yes, that Jay Leno) against Hollywood Hogan and Bischoff. Strangely, Goldberg–still undefeated and their reigning World Champion–wouldn’t headline a PPV until October, a full three months after winning the prize that, by all rights, meant the wearer was the promotion’s #1 guy; instead, he’s slum it up in the semi-main, always under whatever atrocity Hogan was perpetuating (and 1998 saw Hogan perpetuate enough atrocities to qualify for a trial under the War Crimes Tribunal). The undercards on these events were fantastic, with amazing cruiserweight action from luchadores and Japanese cruisers, technical wrestling from the likes of Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko, and ECW-style brawling from Raven and Saturn. But none of them got near the main event, which was dominated by the perpetual cycle–some would say downward spiral–of Hogan, Luger, Piper, Sting and Savage (when the mercurial, and oft-injured, star could be bothered to show). But despite all the brightly-lit flashing neon warning signs at the top of the card, Bischoff plunged ahead with his trusty main eventers and more disastrous celebrity booking, including bringing in Motley Crue drummer–and accidental porn star–Tommy Lee to run an angle. Unfortunately, Bischoff decided to forego suggestions on some creative way to parlay Lee’s X-rated notoriety into mainstream attention, and instead shoved him in a stupid feud with perennial mid-carder Disco Inferno (yes, Disco freaking Inferno) pitting hevay metal against disco. Two weeks worth of 10,000 people booing in unison convinced Bischoff to cancel the arrangement.September brought fruition to the pursuit of an actual, honest-to-God wrestler for Bischoff, someone he thought would bring in the ratings through nostalgia: The Ultimate Warrior … although he had to go by “The Warrior” to avoid a trademark infringement lawsuit from the WWF. Few questioned the angle to Bischoff’s face, but word would get back to him that the idea was beyond stupid; when some names were put with the rumors, those people found their pushes killed, or their jobs eliminated. Despite the naysayers, Bischoff remained convinced that victory, in the long run, would be his. If he expected this victory to come through The Warrior, though, he would be corrected right quick; Warrior’s rambling, incoherent promos, and the ludicrous booking around the Hogan/Warrior rematch–not to mention the match being 8 years past the point of relevancy–killed the angle dead long before the payoff match at Halloween Havoc … and yet, they pushed on and “paid off” the angle in a match so vile, it is known to cause internal hemorrhaging and spontaneous combustion in viewers. Amazingly, WCW Champion Goldberg main-evented Havoc against DDP … but WCW found a way to ruin that, too, by producing a 3 and a 1/2 hour PPV instead of their normal 3 hours without telling the PPV carriers of the over-run. And while forcing WCW fans to buy the PPV replay to see the match rang of deceit and trickery, Bischoff–someone to whom “bait and switch” was as ethical a business practice as any other–should’ve had no qualms about such a thing, fans would probably have been willing to fork over an extra $29.95 to just see that match … instead, Bischoff flushed millions of extra PPV dollars down the toilet by airing the match, for free, on Nitro the following night. An interesting side effect of the Havoc over-run debacle was that, since the Goldberg/DPP match got cut off on PPV, Hogan had main-evented the PPV by default. The same old people worked the semi-mains, while the hard workers toiled in the mid-card and got nowhere. But buyrates were still hot, and while the ratings were beneath Raw, they were still pulling in big numbers. Bischoff knew they were only one hot angle away from recapturing the crown, and he believed that he had it.Meanwhile, the WWF was riding high on the heels of their transforming to a more edgy, adult-oriented product that some critics said was a watered-down ECW: Stone Cold Steve Austin, the beer-drinking everyman and his fight against the tyrannical boss of Vince McMahon. The almost Shakesperean saga of Undertaker, his brother Kane–burned in a house fire as a child–and the man between them, Paul Bearer. Mick Foley’s quixotic quest to become Vince McMahon’s surrogate son, all the while fighting to be accepted by the crowd. The Rock’s crazy catchphrases and third-person references were almost forcing a face turn, despite being brazenly obnoxious and egotistical. And, of course, there was D-Generation X. Many angles intertwined. Sometimes they didn’t make sense, but they were fresh, they were brash, and they were leagues better then WCW. The Austin/McMahon war took on a new twist in the fall, with McMahon’s recruitment of The Undertaker and his brother Kane to get the WWF Title off of the uncooperative Austin, and through a series of clever–WCW fans would say convoluted–plot twists, the title became vacant, setting up a tournament for the Survivor Series on November 15th. While the obvious path would seem to point to Austin defying the odds and vexing his boss again, tournaments were historically a place to crown new champions, and with no less than three anti-McMahon participants (Austin, Shamrock and Rock), and a suck-up surrogate son in Mick Foley, the possibility to make a red-hot angle into a blazing inferno seemed certain.Back in WCW, Bischoff, having seen the development of WWF storylines, had decided that, with Hogan on another of his absences (and contemplating a ridiculous publicity stunt with a fake retirement and announcing his candidacy for the Presidency almost two years before the next election), and the crowd turning severely on seeing the same old people, he had no choice but to shake things up. He decided he would give WWF exile Bret Hart the victory in the World War 3 battle royal, putting him in line for the WCW Championship, leading to a big Goldberg/Bret showdown. One can only guess how Bischoff made the leap that pushing Bret Hart, who had up to this point been booked so badly that fans wouldn’t clap if he handed out 100-dollar bills, to the WCW Title would right the ship and help them catch up to the WWF. Some cynics thought Bischoff believed pushing Bret would net him some good will with the boys, as morale was taking a nosedive, and pushing someone new would be an encouraging sign of change. Few believed that Bret would be on top for long; about as long as Hogan’s “retirement”, many guessed. So, as November approached, Bischoff began preaching his new gameplan to all who would hear, and that Bret’s rise to the WCW Championship would be on everyone’s tongues as winter rolled around.He couldn’t have been more wrong.”One of Paul’s greatest abilities is he knows how to book someone to make them look good,” said Tommy Dreamer in an online chat on ECW.com in 2000. “He hides their weaknesses and focuses on their strengths. He knows fans aren’t gonna buy me and Raven in a straight wrestling match, or Jerry Lynn and RVD in a flaming tables match.” It is a mantra ECW fans, employees and wrestlers alike repeat ad infinitum, and if you watch the product for any length of time, it certainly does seem to ring true; rarely, if ever, was an ECW worker exposed in any way. Everyone looked strong through creative booking, everyone got over whether they won, lost or drew, and because of this, ECW had a rabid, cult-like fanbase.And when it came to booking Kevin Nash and Scott Hall in ECW, the party line couldn’t be more true; ECW had an image to uphold, and an expectation to live up to with its fans. The audience demanded extreme athletics, like the kind seen from Lynn, RVD and Sabu. They liked buckets of blood and carnage, supplied by brawlers like Dreamer and the Dudleys. They liked sex and hot women, as evidenced by the lesbian storyline years earlier with Beulah and Kimona. ECW was where the most jaded wrestling fan was guaranteed to find something to suit their tastes, because Heyman booked angles and matches so cleverly, nothing seemed faked or forced. Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, never the exemplar for high-flying or technicality, and certainly not the barbed-wire-and-Singapore-cane types, couldn’t provide any of the qualities Joe ECW-Fan was looking for. And pundits were quick to harp on Heyman for it, saying that the Mad Scientist Of ECW had finally come up on something even he couldn’t work around.But there was one other ingredient that ECW had thrived and grown on: controversy. Whether it was Brian Pillman’s infamous “smart mark” promo, Steve Austin’s “Monday NyQuil” and “Steve-ster” skits, or Cactus Jack’s anti-hardcore/pro-WCW angle in 1996, ECW had a history of poking a sharp stick in the eye of their competitors. Hall and Nash could provide that in spades.As ECW’s November To Remember PPV neared on November 1st, a funny thing happened: commercials started airing on TV, especially during WWF programming (a move that sent detractors through the roof, claiming it a smoking gun towards an ECW/WWF conspiracy), highlighting their huge main event, pitting ECW World Champion Shane Douglas and his Triple Threat stable against Rob Van Dam, Sabu and Taz … and, more importantly, teasing the audience with the faces of Hall and Nash. Credit has to be given to Heyman for the brilliant marketing plan: while men like Rob Van Dam, Tommy Dreamer and Sabu might have been the heart and soul of ECW and the faces around which the future of the company was built, Heyman knew that, to hook the growing body of fans just coming into wrestling and thinking that the WWF and WCW were the entire industry, he needed to get their attention on their level. RVD and Shane Douglas were non-entites to most people. But Hall and Nash were verywell-known: formerly main-event-level wrestlers in both the major feds, video games, MTV Spring Break guest hosts. They were bigger then anyone ECW ever had. Simply flashing the faces of Hall and Nash, two of the most famous faces to have gone through both WCW and the WWF, on the screen during an ECW promo without saying a word, without promising anything, was a masterstroke. And for those who traded tapes or were fortunate enough to see the syndicated show, they knew to expect something: for a couple months, Hall and Nash had watched from the crowd or the entrance ramp, even joining Joey Styles on commentary a couple times. Faces and heels alike would confront them, and every time, Hall and Nash would preach a policy of non-physicality while they “waited for Jimmy Heyman’s Kool-Aid to kick in” (as Nash would say on one occasion). Something was up, clearly … and whether it was a casual fan just seeing the provocative teaser commercial, or a loyal ECW fan who followed their every move, everyone could see that they were building to something at November To Remember.According to everyone in the company at the time, Heyman gathered the roster before the opening bell and riled the troops with an inspired speech–in Tommy Dreamer’s words, “a declaration of war against opponents that didn’t need naming”–that this event, perhaps more than their first PPV a year and a half before, was their make-it-or-break-it moment. With the media blitz targeted at old and new fans alike, the hope was to break the .30 buyrate threshold ECW had yet to conquer, and Heyman was determined that those curious newbies who checked it out to see the Outsiders in ECW would get hooked by a blow-away wrestling product. Those who bit on the Hall and Nash hook discovered a product that promised the edginess that WWF only teased, while showing a level of competition that WCW could only dream of aspiring to. The event received praise from all corners of the wrestling media, with some calling it the greatest top-to-bottom event of the 90’s. The buyrate would be the ultimate litmus test, but Heyman had an ace up his sleeve: whatever newbies he couldn’t get this time around, he’d get next time. There were plenty of ways of making the same hook sparkle like new.And the closing moments of the event did just that; Sabu, beaten and bloodied, scored the winning pinfall against the hated Triple Threat, pinning Shane Douglas. The crowd erupted, but the applause was quickly and abruptly nullified by six now-familiar words: “Ain’t nuttin’ but a gangsta party …”, the opening words to the entrance music for Hall and Nash. The former Outsiders sauntered their way to the ring, still dressed in street clothes, as Joey Styles and the crowd held their breaths to see what would happen. When Hall grabbed Shane Douglas and drilled him with a Razor’s Edge, the crowd came unglued … and was promptly silenced when Nash made Taz eat a boot, then powerbombed him. One by one, all six participants in the night’s main event were physically dissected and decimated. On their way back down the aisle, Hall flashed the familiar nWo handsign “4-Life” and did a crotch-chop, while Nash put up a pair of middle fingers.Once again, the internet set on fire with the number of rumors and newsbits flying to and fro; ECW’s website crashed several times as the influx of traffic–triple what the site had ever, and growing in the days to follow–overwhelmed their servers. News sites and columnists discussed, debated and argued Heyman’s trickery in ending the PPV with a cliffhanger, essentially forcing anybody who tuned in just to see what all the buzz was with Hall and Nash to buy the next PPV, too. The rumor mill exploded with stories that Hall and Nash’s immediate insertion, and domination, of six main event players was causing major rifts in the roster; this, in fact, turned out to be quite true. Bam Bam Bigelow, who had suffered once before under the oppressive power of the Clique in the WWF, served notice and signed with WCW. Shane Douglas, the ECW Champion, let it be known that after he dropped the strap to Taz at the next ECW PPV in January, he’d also be departing. Said Heyman several years later in an interview; “You gotta break eggs to make an omlette. I wish Shane and Bam Bam coulda seen that and understood it; you gotta spend money to make money, and that’s what I was doing. But I don’t blame ‘em.”And, indeed, the “spend money to make money” (even if it was Vince McMahon’s money) philosophy seemed to be paying off; attendance and merch sales were at record highs for the fledgling company. Nobody was willing to discuss the initial buyrate estimates, but industry insiders speculated that the mythical .30 barrier was shattered with ease.None of this worried Bischoff, however. Reports from the time say that Bischoff had actually regained his cocky edge from years past; he was confident his booking plans–pushing Bret, having Goldberg take his first loss and go back to hunting the champ, and even considering a green-light on the long-proposed Apocalypse stable from Chris Benoit–would be more than enough to help WCW right their ship. Certainly of no worry was ECW and the Hall and Nash angle. In fact, in an AOL chat, when asked about the angle, Bischoff referred to it as a “dime-store knockoff of the nWo, doomed to fail”, and that “no fan in their right mind would be suckered in by such a blatant ripoff, especially from some two-bit idiots in a bingo hall”.The WWF, meanwhile, chugged along; the Survivor Series, which would bow before WCW’s World War 3, would feature a tournament for the vacant WWF Title. Many industry pundits, remembering the fiasco of WrestleMania IV’s sprawling, never-ending tournament, predicted Survivor Series would disappoint. Some (mostly partisan WCW apologists who couldn’t admit to quality in a WWF program at gunpoint) even went so far as to predict WW3 would outsell SurSer and lead a second WCW resurgance.Another well-known facet of the peculiar WWF/ECW relationship, aside from Vince’s constant siphoning of money, was a loose agreement for talent exchanges; occasionally, the WWF would send people down to ECW to help them out, or to get someone fine-tuned for television. ECW benefited by having “big names” come into their small pond. Everybody made out. But, aside from the short-lived ECW invasion of 1997, the talent “exchange” was really one-sided: people got sent to ECW for a short time. Anybody who went from ECW to the WWF was always signed.November 1998 broke that pattern.The Survivor Series tournament, while not exciting from a workrate standpoint, weaved together a bunch of stories in truly astonishing fashion: Austin fought against the McMahon machine to try and regain his title, only to be screwed by Shane McMahon in a double-cross. Mankind, the corporate choice, got favors and a greased path to the finals. The brotherly reunion between Kane and Undertaker fractured in the shadow of the WWF Championship. And The Rock fought interference from corporate stooges and rigged brackets to make it to the finals, thus promising a new champion. From a sports-entertainment standpoint, the show was an unqualified, and unexpected, success. In the closing moments, fans held their collective breath when Mankind managed to drop Undertaker with a double-arm DDT and make the cover.And in what became the most talked-about swerve since Hulk Hogan revealed himself as the third man, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash came out of the crowd and stormed the ringside area from either side; on one side, Hall dragged the ref out by the feet and cold-cocked him, while Nash climbed in the ring and pulverized Mankind. Shane McMahon raced down to ringside, still in his referee’s shirt, as Nash put The Rock on Mankind. The audience sat in total surprises and confusion as Shane McMahon gave an unnecessary fast-count to anoint The Rock the new WWF Champion. Outside the ring, Hall and Nash exchanged handshakes with an elated Vince. The group converged in the ring as realization set in with the viewers: the Rock/McMahon feud over the past few months had been a sham, as had the favoritism for Mankind. They had screwed Steve Austin, they had screwed Mankind, and they had fooled everyone. And, in the biggest surprise of all, Hall and Nash had served as an insurance policy. But the night wasn’t over, as Vince was more then happy to hand a microphone over to his guest conspirators for a few minutes, where they would cut a pair of promos that would turn the wrestling world upside-down:Hall: “Hey, yo. You people, you know who we are, but you don’t know why we’re here. Hey, Kevin, this soundin’ familiar? Where is Billionaire Ted? Where’s Uncle Eric? Those punks, they don’t mean nothing here. Us? We go wherever I want,whenever we want. And where’s Paul E. Dangerously? I got a call for ya on your big ol’ cell phone, Paulie. I got a challenge for ya, and for anybody else in ECW. You wanna get extreme? You wanna run with the bulls? This here, me and Big Kev, that’s us. Them boys down it Atlanta, they ain’t nothing, and you, Paulie … you’re just … like … them.”Nash: “Ya see, me and Scotty, we been kickin’ it, relaxing on Paulie’s dime in them bingo halls. Cause, you know, we need somewheres to have a margarita while we wait for our WCW contracts to expire. And as me and Scott sit there and watch, and we see these guys hit each other with VCR’s and garbage cans and guys doin’ gymnastics routines, and it hits us: ECW sucks! Buncha midgets and scrubs, bashing each other with garbage and imitating Mary Lou Retton. Just a bunch of nobodies, a couple has-beens and a bunch of never-will-bes. And here we are; two guys that managed to take down the great and powerful WCW from the inside. That took a damn good while, but we did it. ECW? Dude, that’d take us … what … a couple days? Maybe a week, if we had a good buzz on? Where’s the challenge in that? But me and Scott, we start to thinkin’ that, this time, if we can take the place over … we don’t gotta worry ’bout no bald guys with air guitars getting in our way and hogging all the time, or some blow-dried jerk-off like Eric Bischoff cutting us off at the knees. We’d just need a little help keepin’ things smooth during the transition. So who better to call then the guy who’s gonna give us jobs once we get out of these stupid little contracts? And ol’ Vinnie Mac, he says ‘you do me a favor, I’ll do you one’. So, here we are, makin’ Corporate Daddy proud! You see, Eric? This is how you do business! This is something you could never do! Man to man, eye to eye. So me and Scott, and with a little help from Vince … we’re gonna do a whole different kind of business where you’re concerned, ya stupid son of a bitch! We’re gonna walk into that rat-infested YMCA basement that Paulie’s running in Philly, we’re gonna gut it, clean it up real nice, get it workin’ the way it should, and we’re gonna ram it down your throat until you choke! We’re gonna take ECW, we’re gonna take it over, sharpen the blade, and we’re gonna get all genocidal on anything WCW!”The fallout from Survivor Series, for all three promotions, was felt immediately. For the WWF, the ramifications on screen were projected in advertisements for the next Raw and on their website, speculating about a hostile takeover from Hall and Nash, and what the “favor” could be that Vince owed them. No answers were given, and Vince would only go on to say that, if he needed another favor, he “knew who to call”. Behind the cameras, the WWF’s legal team made sure to file papers in the appropriate places that Hall and Nash were not contracted WWF superstars, but the average person had no idea where to look to find this information. This left the rumor mills and dirt sheets in a tizzy, trying to sort fact from fiction. Meltzer told one “truth”, Keller told another, Bob Ryder insisted he knew the facts, and so did Scherer; none of them got it right.ECW, meanwhile, issued a stern statement on their website that very night from Paul Heyman, which he also read on the syndicated show as a lead-in segment in tones that made the situation sound like nuclear war: “On Sunday, November 15th, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, two contracted performers for Extreme Championship Wrestling, appeared in the ring at the World Wrestling Federation’s Survivor Series event. For months, ECW has provided these gentlemen with continual paychecks, and an open forum in which they could vent frustrations and opinions. Not once have they been asked to do so much as a single minute of in-ring work during the several months they’ve been a part of the ECW family. ECW has gone out of their way to make Hall and Nash feel that ECW was not just a stopover, but an actual new home, and they repaid this kindness by attacking ECW wrestlers and denigrating their product on our competitor’s programming. Their words and actions have proven that the investment made in securing the so-called talents of these men was time and money wasted. We willnot sink to the level of thugs and mercenaries like Hall and Nash and engage them in a fruitless war of words or actions. So, it is with great regret for the wasted time and effort put in to securing the services of these men, that I am forced to announce that the contracts between Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and ECW are terminated immediately. They are no longer welcome in either the backstage area, or as members of the audience, and will be escorted with extreme prejudice from any ECW event immediately, should they try to make their presence, hostile or otherwise, known.”Worked-shoot angles had been attempted before in wrestling, to varying degrees of success (usually, failure); never, though, had the lines between reality and work been blurred to such an extent. Most industry insiders suspected this was just another in the line of talent swaps executed between the WWF and ECW, only done with an inter-promotional angle of sorts in mind. But the detractors of that theory were quick to point out that the Survivor Series promos were also pointedly directed at Eric Bischoff. And many a person had used ECW as a stopover to collect a paycheck while awaiting a no-compete clause to run out, or for the competition of their former employer to come calling. Nobody could quite believe that Hall and Nash were free to deal with the WWF so soon … and yet, here they were, calling Vince “boss” and declaring war on both WCW and ECW. The seamless blending of real-life animosities, reputations and relationships, coupled with scripted events was so seamless, it even had members of both WWF and ECW locker rooms questioning where the line was drawn (if one was drawn at all).New horizons: winter, 1998/1999:
While the ECW/WWF worked-shoot angle may not have fooled Eric Bischoff, it did worry him; in light of the new angle, pushing Bret was … nothing. It was just another former WWF’er, dominating all the homegrown and native talent WCW had cultivated, like Hogan and Savage had done since 1994. Bret was more or less forgotten by the new crop of WWF fans anyway, and those that remembered him did so unfavorably. An inter-promotional angle, with Hall and Nash at the center of it, needed something so enormous, so controversial as to make people forget that the WWF and ECW were really just rehashing WCW’s leftovers. So, Bischoff adjusted his plans.No, he didn’t just adjust; he drastically re-wrote the script. Step one: Bischoff swallowed his pride and brought back the man whom he’d driven out of WCW over a petty miscommunication, Ric Flair. Using their real-life heat, Bischoff built up an angle with him that would lead to a match at World War 3, where Flair would win the Presidency. Step two: While building up heat between Goldberg and Bret, Flair, having banished Bischoff from WCW, would reconstitute the 4 Horsemen, with Arn Anderson filling in the old JJ Dillon role, Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko … and would actively court Bret Hart for the fourth active slot. Bret would turn them down, and as the Horsemen started to help Bret despite his protests, Goldberg would question Bret’s honesty. Virtually everyone in the wrestling media was astonished to see Bischoff willingly let Ric Flair and the 4 Horsemen–a stable he’d declared a dead entity two years prior–take center stage. What nobody understood–but everyone suspected–was that Bischoff had been so rocked by the events of the past six months, that he was starting to crack. While Bischoff disputes it to this day, Bret Hart, WCW executive producer Craig Leathers, Ric Flair and a virtual army of the WCW rank and file all tell the same story: Bischoff was starting to pull away from WCW. He had friends in Hollywood, and with WCW coming unglued, many speculate he saw that the opportunity to spin his capital into more mainstream success might slip away if he stayed aboard a sinking ship much longer. According to Diamond Dallas Page, Bischoff viewed his master plan as his last chance to save WCW, and to everything else he wore blinders. The edition of Nitro two weeks before Starrcade, in fact, had precisely zero input from Bischoff and was booked, in its entirety, by Leathers, Bret, Flair, Anderson and Sting. For those who watched it–and though it was still a generous portion of the audience, the number was smaller then it used to be–it was a throwback to the more wrestling-based, gritty action of the NWA. Reviews were through the roof, blowing away the reception for the continuing Austin/Undertaker/McMahon saga, even if the show was just a placeholder show while everyone waited for Bischoff to return for the final push to Starrcade.The next week, Bischoff would come back, with the mysterious Step Three in hand.
Unfortunately, Hogan came back, too. He wanted to know why his rematch with Goldberg was going to that “boring Canadian midget” (an epithet overheard, and reported to Dave Meltzer, by several WCW workers). Bischoff explained that they needed to go in a new direction, and that he could face Bam Bam Bigelow at the PPV if he wanted. Hogan was adamant he get Goldberg. The meeting moved behind closed doors; to this day, neither Hogan nor Bischoff had revealed what was said. But what is known that Hogan left the arena immediately, and promised not to return until “that double-crossing bastard” was gone. It has been said that his long walk to the parking garage was received by a massive ovation of yelling and clapping from the WCW wrestlers.What is known, though, is that Bischoff held back on announcing his mysterious Step Three–the finish of Starrcade–through Nitro, and for reasons unknown to everyone except him, en route to Starrcade, he re-wrote it. Again. He went into Starrcade that night confident that nothing ECW or the WWF could do would touch what he was about to unleash.In one sense, Bischoff was exactly right, in that nothing ECW or the WWF had ever done earned a similar reaction. For by the end of Starrcade, the fans would go home on not one, not two, but three sour notes: Goldberg’s undefeated streak had indeed come to a halt, beaten by Bret Hart. Second, Bret Hart swerved everyone and revealed he was a Horsemen the whole time, thus turning the beloved, and long-missed, elite stable into another generic domineering heel faction, and turning himself heel for the umpteenth time that year.And third, and perhaps most distasteful: to get the belt off Goldberg and onto Bret, they re-enacted the Montreal Screwjob, with Flair in the place of Vince McMahon, and Goldberg taking the role of the screwed party.The angle did get people talking, but unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. How could Bret Hart, a man who appeared so honorable and noble in the “Wrestling With Shadows” documentary, stoop to participating in a Montreal-inspired ending? Why did Goldberg’s streak have to end? Why did the Horsemenhave to be heels? How could Starrcade, WCW’s centerpiece show, end with a proverbial kick in the nuts? Some found a shred of solace when the original booking plans were leaked and they saw what could’ve been: Goldberg would’ve been the one to turn heel and join the Horsemen, while Bret would’ve been the victim of the Montreal-inspired ending. Regardless, the distaste for the angle was so pronounced that the following night’s Nitro saw ratings plummet a point and a half.And the news wouldn’t get any better for WCW. For all his jaded cynicism, one of Bischoff’s most crucial flaws lay in underestimating and misjudging the fans of wrestling. The more intelligent fans might’ve seen through the worked-shoot ruse, but both the WWF and ECW had managed to go to extreme lengths to cover their tracks, and even to these jaded smarks, it was still engrossing. And since the majority of the fans were not of the cynical variety, to them it looked for all the world like a total shoot, so it was even more captivating. When ECW finally revealed their initial buyrates for November To Remember, it struck everyone–likely even Paul Heyman–like a cannonball to the chest: .78, tripletheir highest buyrate up to that point. After Hall and Nash appeared on the December 10th WWF PPV, Rock Bottom, and vowed to come to the next ECW Arena show on the 19th, ECW’s website was flooded with traffic, all demanding to know where they could see ECW action on television. Bischoff–and all the doubters–could no longer dismiss ECW, as the PPV buyrates, increased attendance and growing mainstream notoriety gave ECW enough name value for their syndicated Hardcore TV show to suddenly get picked up in market after market, including quite a few far outside their touring circuit.The challenge would be responded to by faces and heels alike, from Tommy Dreamer to Shane Douglas to Taz to the Dudleys, all daring Hall and Nash to step up and “get extreme”. When ECW got back from a pair of co-produced shows with FMW in Japan, Nash and Hall were there to welcome ECW back to the states on the 19th. But instead of risking arrest by barging into the arena, Hall and Nash ambushed several wrestlers on their way in, including longtime symbol of ECW, Tommy Dreamer, who got thrown head-first through a windshield. Police were called in anyway, detaining Hall and Nash for the assaults, who were escorted away in cuffs, yelling “WCW junior, that’s all you are!“. The fans were rabid for Hall and Nash to get theirs in a way much more satisfying, especially when, on a website they set up to distribute their anti-ECW and anti-WCW beliefs, the duo posted pictures showing a vicious assault in a bar of the Blue World Order that left the bWo members bloodied and covered in broken glass. By New Year’s Day, fan-built sites dedicated to stomping out the menace that was Hall and Nash had popped up in the hundreds. “We always joked that Paul was a cult leader,” said Taz in an interview with Byran Alvarez in 2005. “But when we saw the fan sites, calling for me to break Kevin Nash’s neck and put him in a wheelchair, or for Balls Mahoney to render Scott Hall brain-dead with a steel chair … yeah, the whole ‘cult leader’ joke wasn’t funny anymore.”On the final ECW event before Guilty As Charged, their January PPV, the ECW roster took action, for the fans, for themselves, and for the honor of ECW, striking at a most unexpected target: Paul Heyman. Taz and Shane Douglas, opponents in the ECW World Title match at Guilty As Charged, got into the ring together as the show started and stated they would pull out of Guilty As Charged, with Douglas promising to take the ECW World Title to another company, unless Heyman delivered Hall and Nash at the PPV. Before Heyman could respond, Taz and Douglas would be joined virtually the entire ECW roster. Faced with a united roster–rivals standing beside each other in the face of this incursion–Heyman came out and acquiesced, saying he would summon Hall and Nash to appear at Guilty As Charged to meet him face-to-face. Between commercials and the new distribution of Hardcore TV, hundreds of thousands of new viewers caught this milestone development.At Guilty As Charged, Hall and Nash, dressed in street clothes, came through the crowd to interrupt an exciting match between Yoshihiro Tajiri and Super Crazy. Heyman immediately came out and ordered his wrestlers to leave the ring before they got hurt. After a few minutes of insults and verbal sparring, Heyman told the duo that, if they were so much better than ECW, to prove it at the next PPV. As Hall and Nash mocked Heyman’s serious tone, someone in a bulky hooded sweatshirt and jeans stormed the ring behind Heyman; the person spun Heyman around, kicked them in the gut, then did a crossed-hands crotch-chop and nailed Heyman with a Pedigree. Before they could be overrun by the mob of ECW wrestlers, Hall, Nash and Triple H fled through the crowd and out of the arena.Within hours, is-it-a-work-or-a-shoot debate would take on whole new dimensions. On the WWF’s website, Vince McMahon posted a statement confirming that letting Triple H help out Hall & Nash “wipe out the stain on professional wrestling known as Extreme Championship Wrestling” was the “receipt” for their help at Survivor Series; Vince went further, declaring ECW “the reason professional wrestling cannot gain traction in the mainstream media as a legitimate form of entertainment”, and that driving ECW out of business was neither about business nor a personal issue, but a “favor to the industry, a gift to the world, and a noble crusade all rational men and women should stand behind”. Vince’s position, defending the WWF’s–and, in Vince’s mind, the entire industry’s–sanctity and way of life against that of ECW put he and Triple H in a rather unique spot, as Vince was a face to WWF fans for waving the company banner with pride, but a heel against Steve Austin and other faces. Likewise, Triple H, leader of the popular D-Generation X stable, was now a face for helping to kill off ECW, but aligning himself alongside McMahon gave him heel heat. It was truly the height of WWF head writer Vince Russo’s “shades of grey” booking. What irritated its critics, however, was that, while elsewhere on the card it usually fell flat, somehow, everyone involved in the ECW/WWF storyline managed to play both sides successfully. Meanwhile, Hall and Nash’s website featured a new snarky posting from the duo, daring ECW to send their finest to Monday Night Raw. And on the ECW website, Paul Heyman launched into a vicious tirade against Vince, Triple H, Hall and Nash, promising that they would feel the full wrath of ECW breathing down their necks. “And,” the closing words read, “you can bet your last dollar ECW’s best and I will be in attendance at your precious little Monday Night Raw.”WCW, meanwhile, was a case study of one step forward-one step back. Starrcade’s initial buyrate estimates were fantastic, but the following night’s Nitro, which chronicled Goldberg being put through the paces by the Horsemen and the debut of Bam Bam Bigelow, suffered a sharp and pronounced nosedive. Word soon got out that Bischoff was shaken to his very core by the negative reaction to the new 4 Horsemen, and that he was in panic mode to set things right–he even succumbed to contacting Hulk Hogan about coming back, proposing a number of ideas, including returning as a face to launch a Bret/Hogan program, teaming with Goldberg and relaunching the nWo as a face group to counter the Horsemen. Every proposal was met with the same demand: Hogan getting the win, either over Bret or Goldberg. For reasons that, to this day, have never been fully explained, Bischoff caved and booked the Goldberg/Hogan rematch as a #1 contender’s match.Goldberg, however, wasn’t so cooperative; rumors stated he felt he’d taken enough hits to his character in the past couple weeks, and that losing to an old man was the final straw. Bischoff imposed his will: do the job, or lose yours. And so, when they met on Nitro (on free TV for the second time in six months), Goldberg decided to take matters into his own hands and proceeded to work stiff. The match was rendered a no decision when Goldberg planted a stiff superkick on Hogan’s jaw; the mandible would break and dislocate, in addition to grade IV concussion, the second highest level of concussions. Hogan filed a lawsuit against WCW and Goldberg the next day; Goldberg was promptly suspended indefinitely without pay. Bischoff’s roadmap to retaking the lead in the Monday Night Wars was in tatters.Before the hammer could come down on his head, Bischoff took the proactive measure of taking a leave of absence for an undisclosed length of time, leaving Craig Leathers in charge of booking and not looking back as he made his way to Hollywood to try and turn his “golden boy who saved wrestling” reputation into something better. Leathers, meanwhile, quickly realized he was in over his head and called on the men who had helped him two weeks before Starrcade: Flair, Arn Anderson, Bret and Sting. The group met with wrestlers and listened to concerns, held a massive wrestlers’ meeting and addressed thoughts and fears in the wake of Bischoff’s abandonment. Number one on their list of goals, they assured everyone, was to rebuild the WCW brand, using not stunt booking but their legacy as a superior wrestling product, and they began that on the next Nitro, returning to a wrestling-focused show. Despite the unpopular start, the Horsemen were booked like the Horsemen of old: running roughshod, egotistical, but respected even in hatred. Wrestlers like Chris Jericho, Booker T and Raven were given new life and pushed as serious contenders, not just midcard afterthoughts. The WCW Tag Titles were reinstated via a tournament. Cruiserweights were treated with the same gravitas as heavyweights, not as a side-attraction. A long-range booking plan was laid out (something that, no doubt, made everyone who was used to Bischoff’s book/rebook-on-the-fly tendencies stop and take pause). And, most importantly, the message was sent to all WCW staff that chasing the WWF wasn’t even on the drawing boards until they could get WCW working as a cohesive unit. The renewed sense of direction and purpose was felt quickly in the on-screen product; ratings didn’t rebound automatically, but incrementally, they started to inch upwards as good worth of mouth spread about WCW’s improved product. On the drawing boards for the next PPV would be headline quality matches: Bret vs. DDP, Benoit & Malenko vs. Sting & Luger, Raven vs. Flair, Booker T vs. Scott Steiner.But if WCW was growing by inches, WWF was growing by yards. Despite controversial content like a crucifixion angle with Undertaker and Steve Austin, sexual content that was one step away from late-night Cinemax (including a full-nude layout of WWF Diva Sable in Playboy magazine that got plenty of press on Raw, despite the bulk of their audience not even being old enough to buy it) and enough swearing to make Andrew Dice Clay blush … despite their content earning the scornful eye of conservative media watchdog groups and scaring away advertisers … their ratings, buyrates and live gates continued to soar out of the stratosphere. Penetration of the mainstream was complete, bordering on ubiquitous; stores like Hot Topic pushed aside rows of Green Day and Nine Inch Nails shirts to put up the latest D-X or Austin 3:16 tee. CD’s of WWF theme songs were charting in the Billboard Top 40. Austin graced the covers of Rolling Stone, while TV Guide ran a four-cover collectible series with Austin, Undertaker, D-X and Mick Foley. And with two hot angles in Austin vs. McMahon and WWF vs. ECW, the sky was the limit for the WWF’s growth potential.And if the WWF was growing by yards, ECW was growing by full-fledged miles. The content of the show might’ve made individual stations nervous about putting the show anywhere but late night, but the ratings–and the phone calls from viewers who didn’t want to stay up to 3 in the morning (over 100,000 calls to the Portland, Oregon affiliate alone)–demanded the show get a better slot. Initial buyrates for Guilty As Charged looked to top November To Remember. And demand outweighed supply on ECW event tickets so much that the fed was forced to upgrade venues in some cities to ones with larger seating capacity. And rumblings were being heard about ECW crossing the mighty Mississip’, venturing out to markets like Denver, Phoenix, Seattle and LA.And their growth only continued as they continued to get air-time on WWF programming; Heyman, with a phalanx of ECW stalwarts, showed up on Raw and confronted Vince, who offered to give ECW five slots in the Royal Rumble, if Heyman felt they were good enough to hang with the WWF Superstars. As the two fed owners traded insults, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall appeared on the TitanTron, inside the empty ECW Arena, holding a pickaxe and a sledgehammer. Heyman and his troops remained stoic, even as the duo used their tools to wreck the ECW Arena, yanking down the ECW banners and tearing them apart.True to his word, Vince allowed five ECW wrestlers into the Rumble–Tommy Dreamer, Taz, Justin Credible, New Jack and Rob Van Dam. Mysteriously, they all drew numbers in the first 10; but, as the Rumble’s only rule concerned how eliminations were made, all came armed to the teeth, with chairs, Singapore canes and other plunder (including New Jack’s signature staple gun, which was introduced to the head of Hardcore Holly). But what Vince did not count on was that ECW would work together at all times, never turning on each other to get ahead, and the ultimate backfire came about as Vince McMahon, who had entered the Rumble to prevent Steve Austin from winning it, found himself at one point by himself against five very angry, and very well-armed, extreme athletes. Eventually, with the help of his Corporation and D-X (no doubt giving viewers a headache, seeing rival stables fighting alongside each other), ECW was flushed from the ring, but not before doing bloodying the WWF Chairman and eliminating both Triple H and X-Pac. ECW had proven to the world they could not only hang with the WWF, but that they were willing to take them head-on, in their own backyard if necessary.To the booking committee, and the higher-ups, in WCW, what the other two companies did didn’t matter. They were working towards rebuilding WCW show by show, and, on the immediate horizon, there was no better opportunity than February 8th; on that day, Monday Night Raw would undergo one of their pre-emptions. Leathers, Hart, Flair, Anderson and Sting worked feverishly to treat that night, a night when they would have the wrestling audience’s undivided attention, as if it were a PPV. Marquee match-ups were advertised well in advance, built towards just like a PPV. Everything, even Souled Out, acted like a big arrow, pointing at February 8th. For once, Tony Schiavone’s bombastic claims of an episode of Nitro being “the biggest in the history of our sport” were being taken seriously.That all changed on the Tuesday after the Royal Rumble. As the morning news day got underway, a press release hit the wire, one that left jaws hanging in shock across the country: ECW had come to an agreement with Fox Broadcasting to air a 2-hour special titled Unleashed, from 8-10 p.m., Monday, February 8th. Heyman would expound on ECW.com that negotiations had been going on since shortly after N2R and the sudden explosion of the syndicated show, and promised that Unleashed would be both the biggest event yet in ECW history, and the dawning of a new era for the wrestling industry: The Era Of Extreme. Insiders speculated that the deal had a contingency that, if it performed well enough, a weekly show could be in the cards, something Heyman refused to address either way. Immediately, Fox and ECW launched a media blitz: newspapers, magazines, television, radio and internet ads. ECW was thrust into the public eye like never before. Ratings expectations were realistic–to pull anything above a 3.0 would be flat-out stunning for a company with no prior mainstream television exposure, and who had never toured further west then Chicago–but everybody had their fingers crossed anyway.Despite the loss of the captive audience, WCW marched ahead and put forth the best show they could; Ric Flair fought for the US Title against Diamond Dallas Page, losing when Shane Douglas made his debut by jumping the rail and blasting Flair from behind; in a match designed to be the flashpoint for the eventual Apocalypse stable, Benoit and Malenko lost the WCW Tag Titles to Jersey Triad members Bam Bam Bigelow and Chris Kanyon; and Raven got his first crack at the WCW Championship against Bret Hart, winning by DQ when Arn Anderson prevented the ref from counting Bret’s shoulders down after an Evenflow DDT. The entire show was a throwback to the classic WCW format: angles that were about wrestling, and matches with a strong focus on action, not shenanigans (even if the top two title matches had run-ins). Had it been alone on the evening, no doubt WCW would’ve seen a boost in ratings and possibly brought the pendulum back to center.But with ECW a few channels over, WCW’s shining opportunity was dulled flat. While there were plenty of crossover fans of both the major promotions, WCW and WWF had just as many polarized hardliners who refused to watch the competition on principle; ECW did not fit into that equation for a lot of these people. Add to that the media blitz that seemed to promise a product like the WWF’s “Attitude” product, only gone batshit insane, and the natural curiosity of the new flock of wrestling fans, and one could hardly be surprised by ECW’s Unleashed special drawing a stunning 4.4. WCW still managed to beat ECW, but what should’ve been a walkaway night for WCW with record ratings became just another installment of the Monday Night Wars … only against a new fighter on the field, one who was far better armed then they had any right to be.Approaching WrestleMania and the one-year anniversary: spring 1999:
There are a few time-tested, carved-in-stone laws that wrestling operates by: the champion is always your #1 draw. If a performer leaves a promotion, they do so on their back. Always be in the process of building new stars.One of the most well-known rules, though would be this: the time period between January and the end of March unquestionably belongs to the WWF.Sometimes called “The Road To WrestleManiaÓ, the three month period at the start of the year is the official build-up to the WWFÕs centerpiece event; it is the culmination of a yearÕs worth of storylines, where new careers are launched, torches are passed and legends are born. ThereÕs a reason networks air reruns and theatrical movies against the major sports championships, and by the same token, no wrestling company is stupid enough to try and compete against the WWF during this time. ThatÕs not to say promotions fold up their tents and go on hiatus for three months, but during this time, the WWF just has too much momentum to fight head-to-head.Those in charge of WCW recognized this, and continued the slow build of their storylines as opposed to trying stunt booking to steal viewers: the 4 Horsemen continued their by-any-means-necessary protection of Bret HartÕs WCW Championship, while Ric Flair abused his position of power on those who stood in their way. Slowly but surely, Benoit and Malenko started to be forgotten about by the Horsemen and resentment started to build. The Jersey Triad warred with a trio of cruiserweights, while Raven continued to enjoy a new career resurgance as a face, being pushed against the likes of Lex Luger (who showed his reluctance to do the job for Raven and got buried as a result) and a captivating, if peculiar, psychological war with fellow face Sting. Nitro ratings grew in inches, a point here, a point there, nothing to get excited over on a nightly basis … but the growth was there. The hopes were high that, with the incremental growth, WCW would have enough of a new footing to start taking strides at true competition again after WrestleMania.That road to WrestleMania ran through ECWÕs Living Dangerously, as the ECW/WWF war got stepped up; Unleashed featured, for the first time, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall in action inside an ECW ring. Many questioned the logic of putting their debut matches in ECW on free TV, but Fox demanded something, and Heyman was confident that giving away their first matches wouldnÕt kill future drawing power. Not with what he had in mind. Taz demanded a piece of Kevin Nash, and despite a gross size difference, toppled the giant with help from his longtime rival–and Living Dangerously opponent–Sabu; Hall brutalized Tommy Dreamer, but came up short; and, in the shocker of the evening, Rob Van Dam and Sabu lost the ECW Tag Titles to Triple H and his surprise partner, X-Pac. This truly set tongues wagging; WWF-contracted wrestlers winning ECW championships? It was only the beginning, as Rob Van Dam got an opportunity at the WWFÕs No Way Out event to fight for the Intercontinental Championship … and won. Through-the-audience run-ins increased, as did the across-the-internet potshots at one anotherÕs promotions. Wrestlers started stealing signature moves and doing them mockingly.It all built to the double-header of Living Dangerously and WrestleMania 15. At ECWÕs event, the interpromotional collision would explode with Hall and Nash taking on Tommy Dreamer and RVD, while the ECW Tag Titles would be defended against the Impact Players; amazingly, both factions of the anti-ECW group toppled their opponents, a shocking turn of events. ECW fans would go home on a happy note, though, as Taz successfully defended against Sabu, then stood tall with the entire ECW roster to pummel the four invaders into bloody messes when they attempted an ambush.This dovetailed into matches on Raw (where Rob Van Dam lost the belt back to Goldust, but the Dudley Boyz scored a crucial victory over the New Age Outlaws), which led up to WrestleMania; the ECW Tag Titles were defended, and lost, to the Dudley Boyz (and, immediately thereafter, Triple H stunned the audience by turning on X-Pac and going full heel). Hall and Nash, however, still proved formidable, besting Rob Van Dam and Sabu. Stone Cold Steve Austin would cap off the night by winning the WWF Championship from The Rock, giving WWF fans a nice go-home moment. ECW fans tuning in walked away with a mixed bag, but knew that, even if the angle was no longer presented as truly inter-promotional (as advertising for WrestleMania was calling their ECW/WWF matches the Òfinal encountersÓ), it might still live on in ECW.With WrestleMania past, insiders, journalists, and those within the business itself all exhaled, and then steeled themselves for what was on the horizon: WCW was slowly getting up some steam. The WWF was now in the post-WM phase, a sort of rebooting/rebuilding period. The ECW/WWF war (at least on WWF television) was over, and, ostensibly, so was ECWÕs sudden large-scale involvement in the national wrestling landscape.Until two days after WrestleMania, when the world was greeted with a press release: Unleashed was coming back. Permanently.
(The following Re-Writing The Book is written not as a narrative story, but as an article on a wrestling website, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the D-Generation X invasion of WCW Monday Nitro, and looking back at how the event changed the wrestling landscape.)
1998 should’ve been the year WCW killed the WWF.
WCW had entered 1998 having just signed Bret Hart, coming off the Montreal Screwjob. They’d just cashed in on the hottest angle in their company, Sting vs. Hollywood Hogan and pulled a buyrate that rivaled, and beat, many WrestleManias. You wanted high-flying cruiserweight action? They specialized in it. Superior technical wrestling? Right here. The biggest name–nay, icons–in wrestling history, all under one roof? Only in WCW, brother! Between WCW’s momentum, their product and the WWF’s dire straits, 1998 should’ve been little more then a mop-up exercise.
One day in April changed all that. One day, and one segment on Nitro, stalled WCW’s momentum. One decision shattered the precarious balance in WCW, sending two big-name wrestlers to a small hole-in-the-wall indy promotion in Philadelphia. On that day in pril, the fortunes of three companies were altered forever.
The events in the wrestling industry, both in front of the camera and behind, that transpired in 1998 and carried through to the WWF’s WrestleMania 15, seemed surreal to everyone, even the most jaded long-time fans: inter-promotional wars, wrestlers from one company winning belts in another, wrestlers purposefully injuring others, mutinies, booking regime changes, backdoor payments, surprise successes, and lawsuits … oh, boy, were there lawsuits.
But what happened two days after WrestleMania 15 shook everyone, everyone, right to the marrow.
Attackers on all fronts: Spring 1999:
“Within thirty minutes of that press release hitting the wire, my phone blew up,” said Paul Heyman in the documentary Forever Hardcore: The (Seemingly Improbable) Rise Of ECW. “Everybody in ECW, they’re calling me; ‘Is it true? No joke?’ Somehow, Eric Bischoff got my phone number, and he called me; I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word ‘cocksucker’ so many times in two minutes. And Vince? You’d think I knocked up his daughter after killing his cat or something, the way he tore into me; ‘backstabbing bastard’ this, and ‘ungrateful son of a bitch’ that. He’s really funny like that; when someone hits him between the eyes with some his predatory business tactics? Oh, that’s unfair. I’ll burn in the seventh circle of Hell for what I did to him, says Vince. But when it’s him dealing it out, there’s nothing on the south side of the moral line, far as he’s concerned.”
What had gotten Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon in such a screaming rage was that Unleashed, ECW’s new weekly two-hour program, was going to debut as a permanent part of Fox’s primetime line-up on Thursday, April 29th. Bischoff had his panties in a bunch because Unleashed would be going head-to-head with WCW’s Thunder on TBS. Why Bischoff was upset about this is a mystery; Thunder had become a very obvious red-headed stepchild in comparison to Nitro. Stars like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Ric Flair and other main eventers weren’t required (and some, like Hogan, flat out refused) to pull double-duty when they had guaranteed contracts for a set number of dates. As such, Thunder had evolved into the Thursday night mid-carders and jobbers showcase. Also confounding Heyman (and others) was Bischoff even voicing an opinion at all; his involvement in WCW was so minimal now, it was a common joke backstage that Bischoff had probably spent more time taking a shit in 1999 then at a WCW event. While hard data on that is somewhat lacking, the truth behind the joke is no joke: Bischoff hadn’t been seen backstage at a WCW event since February, and had called in precisely twice (a charge he vehemently denies to this day). No doubt, his expressing his concerns to Heyman was motivated by the worry that TurnerSports and Time-Warner would start eyeballing Bischoff’s performance and contributions closer with ECW now sending shots across the bow, and he didn’t want those free paychecks to stop. Or to have to earn them.
But for Vince McMahon, Unleashed was a hit between the eyes for a whole different reason: it stole the thunder (no pun intended) of his upcoming SmackDown! special on UPN, which was set to broadcast on the same day, at the same time. For the first time in almost 10 years, three wrestling companies would be available on the dial … but, for the first time ever, all three of them would face off, head-to-head-to-head. And while Vince viewed WCW as a rival, ECW had always been sort of the simple-minded but nice little brother that got to tag along with the big boys. Suddenly, the simple-minded little brother was had taken the money Vince had given them, the talent they’d picked up with it, and parlayed that into a position not of an obedient and grateful, third-place regional feeder system, but of a serious company trying to take on the big dogs fight for fight and bite for bite. In Vince’s mind, ECW had stabbed him in the back and stepped out of line.
Within those actually active in WCW–i.e., the booking team–panic set in. Never mind the headaches of trying to split the audience three-ways; the looming possibility of Bischoff coming back and pissing in the pool they had so carefully cleaned out was a very real threat in everyone’s minds, one nobody wanted to come true. On-screen, they marched forward like nothing was happening, but to those backstage, the employees of WCW were walking around like the last camp counselor in a “Friday The 13th” movie: nervous that, at any time, around any corner, the axe might swing out of the darkness on their neck.
Something not as heavily reported on at the time, though, was that the announcement of Unleashed did not mean a instant world of rainbows and puppy dogs in ECW. “What most people didn’t know,” said Heyman, “was that the Fox deal, yeah, it gave us a lot of leeway, and we got a lot of money out of the deal. But up front, they wanted a lot, and they expected a lot. And some of it went against the culture of ECW.” Some of those expectations that “went against the culture of ECW” included increasing camera coverage to a more traditional set-up, like the WWF’s; adding a second person to the booth; improving production values, including pyro; changing numerous members of the production staff, including long-time director Ron Buffone; ditching licensed music and going to an in-house composer (or getting cover versions); and, perhaps hardest to swallow for Heyman, hiring more staff, both behind the curtain and in the front office (which was a running gag in the locker room, since ECW would need an office in the first place to have a “front office”).
“Before Fox, we all helped run ECW,” said Buh-Buh Ray Dudley in Forever Hardcore. “I helped book venues and arrange travel. Tommy helped run the merchandise at the events. Stevie Richards answered the merch hotlines and shipping. Many of us acted as road agents. Taz designed a lot of the shirts. Paulie handled the books, and did the booking. We all pitched in, and we were like a family. ECW was all our baby. Then we got the Fox deal–which wasn’t a bad thing, obviously–but all the shit they wanted us to do … a lot of it kinda attacked the spirit of ECW.”
“Joey Styles suddenly had a partner in the booth,” added Tommy Dreamer. “They took Joel Gertner away from the Dudleys and put him in the booth. For the first few months, Joey hated it. He was so used to doing it by himself. He got used to it, and they ended up doing some great stuff … like Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan used to do. But that first few month or two … everything that we had to change, it was painful. It changed ECW. We were used to the gritty, by-the-skin-of-our-teeth mentality. We all wanted to take ECW big-time … but we had no idea what that meant.”
And while ECW and Fox were able to come to some concessions (Ron Buffone got to stay after many contentious arguments, and the pyro idea was killed), many of the demands Fox had for investing in the product ended up coming to fruition: Unleashed featured a two-man booth; the multi-camera set-up was put into play; licensed music was killed and cover versions or custom music was recorded; production values were upped; and more staff was hired, including road agents (scoring some truly amazing finds, including Terry Funk, Dutch Mantel and brand new WCW exile Dusty Rhodes) and accountants. Rumors flew that when the accountants got a look at what passed for ECW’s books–piles of receipts in old shoeboxes and orange crates, with no attempt at organization–they almost nearly quit en masse.
The last side effect of the Fox deal and all these new expenses was just that: the cost. Because improving the TV equipment, hiring new staff, and paying for cover songs was all brought on at once, that meant a draining of ECW’s bank accounts just to get up to Fox’s minimum acceptable threshold. And with the backdoor stipend from Stamford no longer there, that meant ECW’s recently swelled bank accounts were suddenly claimed. Somehow, Heyman used his “cult leader” status to keep the troops from revolting when he laid it out that, to keep ECW open to make the first TV taping, performers would have to go without paychecks … for a month, maybe more … with a promise to make it up to them down the road, once the expenses and income from the new TV show were balanced out. Heyman offered anyone on the roster who wasn’t comfortable with this arrangement his blessing to seek work with WCW or WWF, but promised that, for those who stuck around, he’d make sure their loyalty was rewarded.
“We’d all put our blood, sweat and tears into this company,” said Little Spike Dudley of the offer to go. “Paulie may have owned the company, but it was every much ours as it was his. Nobody was gonna give that up.”
So, April 29th rolled around, and wrestling fans were treated with three incredible choices. On Raw, the headliner was a tag team match with The Rock and Steve Austin teaming (!) to take on Triple H and The Undertaker. The heavily hyped show featured a lot of screw-job endings, bizarre angles and confusing plots, which were becoming the standard for the WWF anymore. WWF apologists were quick to jump on detractors, saying the storylines were edgy and captivating andobviously successful, since their ratings were on a constant climb. Never did they address, however, that while the storylines were successful, they weren’t very good. The WWF partisan’s reply was to invoke the Attitude era’s slogan, saying detractors didn’t “get it”.
WCW, meanwhile, featured a double main event with Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko trying to recapture the WCW Tag Titles (and failing), while Bret defended the WCW Title against a surprise opponent, brought in by on-screen WCW executive JJ Dillon: Goldberg. Not advertising the return of Goldberg (a return authorized by TurnerSports executives who were anxious to make some traction in the ratings) was something the booking team questioned, but they made the most of it, and told a convincing story, with the Horsemen stacking the deck with a guest referee Tully Blanchard, and Flair and Arn not too far away. The interference was WWF-esque, but it helped advance the plot that the Horsemen were centered on protecting Bret, while Benoit and Malenko were second-class citizens; old-school NWA fans and those looking for more wrestling-based storylines were in nirvana over the angle, and what it might spell for the future.
ECW, meanwhile, used their debut to showcase their best, and give the network censors enough of a workout to cause a heart-attack. While the true punch had been taken out of the anti-ECW angle, Hall and Nash were still utilized as crusaders against the ethics of the company and wanting to remold it in their image; only now, a twist was added that Vince had abandoned them and they would now use ECW to strike back at him as well as Bischoff. Hall and Nash would go on to take the ECW Tag Titles from Rob Van Dam and Sabu on that night, and found a new partner in their crusade against hardcore: the “King Of Old School” Steve Corino, a man who had been preaching against the hardcore lifestyle, yet always managed to get involved in wild brawls and ended up bleeding enough to fill a Red Cross blood-mobile. That night, Corino would challenge, and fail to defeat Taz, but it would be only the opening salvo in what had now transitioned from a WWF-sponsored invasion to a war of insinuated insiders. Hall and Nash were escorted to and from the ring by armed guards (with nightsticks, pepper spray and guns, as the heat on the duo was big enough for Heyman to be truly concerned with their safety), adding yet another touch to the brilliant angle. ECW and Hall & Nash continued the angle through their websites, including a legendary stunt on May 1st that had ECW.com “hacked” by their enemies, with anti-ECW propaganda spread about the “new” webpage design and some content coming just this close to looking like the nWo.
When ratings came in for the three-way battle, jaws were left on the floor: Smackdown had, predictably, won the night. Thunder, like normal, performed miserably, putting Unleashed in the middle. What stunned the pundits was that the margin of difference between Smackdown and Unleashed was less than a full point. And Thunder’s rating dropped by .5. Clearly, ECW was no longer the glorified regional indy promotion, living only to feed talent to the Big Two or act as a dumping ground for those that didn’t fit the mold of the other companies. Suddenly, saying “The Big Three” wasn’t a joke; ECW was big.
With Thursday’s results, Stamford and Atlanta realized that they could no longer underestimate ECW or take it for granted. Talent scouts and agents immediately descended on the roster of ECW, waving big money contracts in an attempt to drain the talent pool. For days, rumors swirled that, with the May 9th WCW PPV Slamboree just over the horizon–featuring the entire Horsemen stable either defending titles (Bret and his WCW Championship against Booker T, and Ric Flair putting his presidency up against real-life nemesis Shane Douglas) or challenging for them (Benoit for the US, Malenko for the TV)–the company was pushing to sign a good three to six wrestlers from ECW’s talent pool for a hot upper-mid-card angle; this “extreme invasion”, while derivitive, would compliment the red-hot main event angle, with the long-teased splintering of the Horsemen and Benoit and Malenko taking a run at Bret and Flair. The WF, meanwhile, had their eyes on some of ECW’s more technical wrestlers–an area of wrestling they were sorely lacking–and a few of ECW’s premier tag teams.
In the end, the hiring blitz came up against a heretofore unknown brick wall: binding contracts for all performers, a portion of the Fox deal ECW didn’t broadcast. The only casualty ECW would suffer would be Mike Awesome, who was negotiating to return to the fed from Japan when the WWF and WCW feelers went out. ECW twisted the knife further when they threw their hat into the ring for the biggest name to declare their free agency: Chris Jericho. While he had made his WWF intentions clear for months, Heyman couldn’t resist making Vince uncomfortable by making an offer to the former ECW Television champ anyway.
With the recruitment attempts coming up dry, ECW’s competitors recalculated their strategies, and came up with different conclusions: the WWF’s answer to the growing threat from Philly was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The main event continued to be dominated by Steve Austin, Undertaker, The Rock, Mankind and Kane, and just under the bubble about to break through sat Billy Gunn, Val Venis, Jeff Jarrett and Triple H, who was earmarked for a WWF Title reign in the summer.
Those counting the beans in WCW, meanwhile, saw things a little differently. Exactly why they saw things as they did remains a mystery to this day, but what is known is that ECW’s numbers (Unleashed’s numbers sparked fears of a Monday night slot in TurnerSports, and the 1.04 buyrate for Living Dangerously that beat WCW’s Uncensored didn’t help) put the fear of God into the number crunchers and check signers. The Leathers/Hart/Flair/Sting/Anderson booking team’s storylines–slow-burn, and slow to payoff in hard numbers and dollars–was deemed no longer a sound business model in the now-crowded industry. Effective the Nitro after Slamboree, Eric Bischoff would be coming back full time, with full creative authority.
The news hit the WCW locker room like a wrecking ball to the chest. Everyone–fans and wrestlers alike–feared that Bischoff would sweep away months of storylines, kill pushes and turn to his favorites. At Slamboree, the tension was palpable on the wrestlers’ faces and in their performances, as word had gotten out and confirmed the worst fears: the Benoit main event push would be cancelled. Malenko, Raven, Bam Bam Bigelow, Chris Kanyon, Shane Douglas and Booker T were all looking at their pushes slowing down. Ric Flair and the Horsemen as an entity would be shelved. And rumors of layoffs were flying everywhere. Finally, as the main event was set to launch, Bret Hart broke the script and came out first, sans entrance music, grabbed the microphone from over-payed ring announcer Michael Buffer and launched into a tirade.
Bret: “Some of you may know, I’ve been wrestling a little over 20 years, and I’ve seen a lot in this business. Now whether you like me, or you don’t like me, I never let that stop me from coming out and giving you folks every dollar’s worth that you spent on tickets or pay-per-views or toys or whatever. Even when I was a kid up in Canada, wrestling for Stampede, I never let the backstage politics and all the bullcrap get in the way of giving you your money’s worth. I didn’t do it then, I didn’t do it for the World Wrestling Federation, and I’m not doing it tonight. But there’s something you gotta understand; by this time tomorrow, Eric Bischoff will be in charge of WCW again. I was World Wrestling Federation Champion five times! I’m only the second guy to do that behind Hogan, but that don’t matter to Bischoff. He wanted me as a trophy. He doesn’t want Bret Hart as WCW Champion; he just didn’t want me being WWF Champion. That’s why I sat around for a year, playing Hogan’s shadow and going nowhere. So tomorrow night, I’ll probably end up losing this belt, because tomorrow night, Eric Bischoff is gonna come in here and ruin the wrestling show that we’ve entertained you with for the past five months while he was in Hollywood trying to leave WCW behind! He doesn’t think guys like me and Benoit and Raven and Booker can headline. Well, if that’s what he wants, he can have it. But not me. I’ve been screwed every time I turn around for the past two years. I’m not getting screwed again by that pompous son of a bitch, not again. I’d sooner go back to Vince on my hands and knees. Chris, I’m sorry we never got our chance.”
The promo reportedly sent Bischoff into a rage … and once he realized the trap Bret had put him in, he got even madder: the crowd had responded with nothing less than visceral hatred–not heel heat, but real, demand-refunds and change-the-channel heat–at Bret’s promo. But his bosses were demanding changes. It was the proverbial catch-22. In the end, Bischoff would take a course of action that would piss off both camps: Benoit was demoted to upper-mid-card status, chasing the US Title, and promised a match with Bret at Bash At The Beach, while Bret was scheduled to lose the WCW Title in a four-way at the Great American Bash without being pinned to Diamond Dallas Page (a close friend of Bischoff, surprise, surprise). The Horsemen would be dropped, but Flair would continue his reign as WCW President. In Bischoff’s mind, everybody got what they wanted from the deal.
Then, May 23rd, and the WWF’s Over The Edge PPV, rolled around, and it all went to hell.
Tragedy in Kansas–the aftermath of May 23, 1999:
The tragic events that took place at Over The Edge thrust the wrestling industry under a harsh new spotlight. Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, long a champion of a wrestlers’ union, renewed his calls for workers to unionize to keep themselves protected and provide for their post-grappling futures. Discussions of federal laws regulating safe workplace restrictions for wrestling promotions buzzed, but never got anywhere. Longtime nemesis of Vince McMahon, Bruno Sammartino, railed about how Owen Hart was symbolic of the corruption of the industry that Vince had caused.
Still, for the WWF, the unwanted attention magnified another problem that had been nagging the company since their popularity explosion: media scrutiny over their content. While their viewership wasn’t hurt, their image and quest for mainstream acceptance was hampered by conservative watchdog groups that campaigned against their shows, which had morphed from the Hulk Hogan “prayers, training and vitamins” cartoon 80’s to rampant swearing, heavy adult themes and lots of sexual content. Advertisers suddenly seemed hesitant to endorse a product that looked like a cross between a porn movie and a street fight.
ECW got off light, in that their Fox deal already established certain broadcast standards by which ECW had to abide; house shows, PPV and the syndicated show were exempt, and, in a clever loophole, footage from any of these sources could be shown on Unleashed, as the standards applied only to tapings for Unleashed itself. However, following the death of Owen Hart, the deal was restructured to close the loophole with regard to any stunts or spots in which (per the contract’s language, courtesy of Paul Heyman) “the potential for the loss of human life is magnified by the stunt’s inherant nature”. For those who aren’t law school graduates, that effectively killed fire spots, any aerial spots from high places such as balconies, ladders or mezzanines and made New Jack matches really, really even more unwatchable then before.
WCW, by contrast, was never about shock value and controversy, so when it came to complying with standards and practices in the wake of Owen Hart, there almost no transition to be made, save for Sting his dropping down from the rafters gimmick. But just because WCW were more family-friendly didn’t mean they escaped the tragedy’s impact. In fact, their hit was probably the hardest; Bret Hart phoned in his intention to take an indefinite leave of absence, vacating the WCW Championship and killing numerous angles in the process. After deep discussion lasting (per several WCW wrestlers, and denied vigorously by Bischoff) all of a couple minutes, the decision was made not to replace Bret Hart in the match, and let the three participants wrestle for the now-vacant title. On the surface, this seemed the most logical solution, as Bret’s opponents–Diamond Dallas Page, Booker T and Raven–were all selected for being screwed during prior title shots by the Horsemen, and the match was being built as a reckoning for Bret. But, without Bret, the storyline motivation was gone, and it became three guys just wrestling for a belt, with no chance at vindication. And, rather then pencil in a rematch of some kind of the main event for the next PPV, Bischoff was looking to bring back Randy Savage and have him feud with the winner (someone who had to be the worst kept secret in WCW’s history).
To make matters worse, with the Bret/Benoit match at Bash At The Beach now cancelled, Bischoff decided that continuing Benoit’s upper-card run was pointless and sent him crashing back down to the TV Title ranks. Likewise, Raven and Booker T would see their pushes evaporate, with the justification that they weren’t “catching on fast enough” and “needed more time to develop”. People who heard about Bischoff’s comments were baffled, considering the arenas full of WCW fans who were chanting for Raven and Booker and Benoit and several other on-the-rise wrestlers that Bischoff decided weren’t “worth the effort”. Dave Meltzer suggested in an op-ed piece that WCW should adopt The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as their new theme song, if only for one famous, and depressingly appropriate, lyric: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Crossroads: Summer 1999
As summer approached, all three promotions were in a state of flux.
For the World Wrestling Federation, the change came in multiple ways, from multiple directions. Externally, the pressure from media watchdog groups was gaining steam. Efforts to score new advertisers–high-end sponsors, such as car companies–were meeting with dead ends as their angles and content with met with increased skepticism. Vince would rail against his detractors, but his comments did little to buoy the self-appointed neo-PT Barnum persona he considered himself to be; it more supported the appearance of being the man in charge of a bunch of troglodytic muscleheads; the smartest moron in the room, so to speak.
Internally, the problems came from injuries; Steve Austin was breaking down, and needed to take time off for a risky neck surgery that could either extend or end his career. The Undertaker, likewise, needed time off to rest up on some nagging injuries. Mick Foley’s injuries were so extensive and debilitating that he was contemplating retirement. To lose three top superstars was bad enough, but worse was that Vince couldn’t line up replacements fast enough; Triple H wasn’t catching on with his new bad-ass persona as fast as hoped. The returned British Bulldog was an older, injury-plagued shell of his former self. Billy Gunn’s singles push was coming undone. There was a strong push to make midcarders Val Venis, Ken Shamrock and Test into big stars, but when held up to Austin, Mankind and Undertaker, they all fell short. The only midcarder who was on the cusp and seemed poised to successfully break out was Jeff Jarrett … but Austin went to Vince and killed a proposed program between the two that would’ve elevated Jarrett. Jarrett would later state that, because Austin was the one making the company the most money, he’d told Vince not to promote Jarrett “or else”. While whatever Jarrett says has to be taken with a grain of salt for obvious reasons, one thing is clear: as summer began, Jarrett went from the the #2 heel in the company to midcard also-ran so quick, it’s a miracle he didn’t break his tailbone upon landing.
ECW, too, was facing some changes. As Unleashed continued to steamroll on Thursdays, buyrates continued to outpace predictions, and attendance continued to climb, Heyman was forced to make some tough choices, and the hardest to make was abandoning the small venues once and for all and moving up to larger buildings to house his show. The loss of the intimacy provided by small venues like the ECW Arena sat uneasy with Heyman, and it showed in his occasional struggles to appeal to the larger audience; the trademark travelling brawls no longer seemed as impactful in a building twice, three, four times the size of their old haunts. The larger buildings lacked a “crow’s nest” like the ECW Arena, meaning Joey Styles and Joel Gertner had to either be stuck at ringside or by the entrance, which to Heyman, smacked of imitation of WCW and WWF.
But the growing pains were nothing compared to the issues in the locker room. Rumblings had it that Taz was growing bored and wanted to move on to another company. The WWF was also sniffing at the contracts of the Dudleys. And Hall and Nash had both “suggested”–campaigned would be a better word, said unnamed sources to Meltzer–that they both needed singles title reigns to compliment their tag titles. Heyman proposed a number of alternatives, including having them lose the ECW Tag Titles, then mention how they never lost the WCW Tag Titles and run an angle similar to the one that introduced Ric Flair to the WWF. No sale. Heyman said he had no intention of putting them over his champions, not when so many other people had worked in the company longer and not had the opportunity. And with that, Hall and Nash grabbed their bags and left. ECW’s morale suddenly went into a frenzy; as much as nobody liked the politicking duo, everybody knew that it was on the names and faces of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall that ECW had gained their newfound explosion of success, and nobody wanted to lose the brass ring they’d just found. On the next episode of Unleashed, Heyman started off the show in the ring and delivered a fiery speech that turned the situation on its ear.
Heyman: “Tonight, you were supposed to see Kevin Nash and Scott Hall defend the ECW Tag Team Titles against Tommy Dreamer and a partner of his choosing. Earlier this week, Hall and Nash came to my office and made demands, things that I, as owner, felt served only to benefit Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. This isn’t the first time that the two have put their own needs above the needs and the best fortunes of the promotion they work in, and if you wanna see how it turns out, flip the channel to TBS and try not to puke. But unlike other promoters, I am no shrinking violet. I’m not a corporate stooge with bottomless pockets that can cover my mistakes. I’m not some desperate fool looking to keep hold of what I built. I kept these men working, despite the fact that no less then three of my top stars–men like Shane Douglas, Chris Candido, and Bam Bam Bigelow, men who bled for this company, men who invested of their souls–came to me and threatened to walk out, and warned me of the consequences of bringing them in. They warned me I was bringing in a disease to a healthy body, and I’ll be damned if they weren’t … right. For all the good having them in this company did for this company’s profile, it was not worth the heartache, the turmoil, the migraines of dealing with two spoiled, self-centered, egomaniacal prima donnas who are only in this business for the money. You wanna wreck a company, boys? You wanna piss in someone’s pool? I’m not gonna let you do that to these fans, not to the fans who’ve just discovered ECW, and not to the fans who sat in a sweatbox bingo hall in Philadelphia while we fixed the ring ropes at a quarter to midnight to put on our main event. I’m not gonna do that to the boys in the back, who’ve put themselves through hell and back because they love this business, and because they love this company. I’m not going to let you infect ECW with your cancer, not ever again. Kevin Nash and Scott Hall are hereby banned from ECW and are stripped of the ECW World Tag Team Titles. I apologize for the change in tonight’s card; for those of you who feel that there is no suitable replacement for this loss, please see the box office for a refund of your ticket. But I do ask you to stay and give us the chance to make good. Thank you all.”
The speech (which managed to keep every ass in the sold out arena where they were) was both a brilliant invective, a sales pitch, a subtle swipe at his competitors … and a clever, if ironic, coda to the ECW invasion angle. Forum posters, columnists and insiders across the world had a mountain to chew on, and they chewed and chewed for weeks on end; was this just the latest chapter in the angle, a cunning way to work the smark audience? Was this a work that turned into a shoot? A shoot that turned into a work? Was it just Heyman saving face, like he did when he publicly fired Sabu? Whatever the case, once again, ECW was the buzz of the industry. It was only years later, on the Forever Hardcore documentary, that Heyman opened up about the situation:
“I know everyone thought it was part of the angle, that I was ‘working’ them. And you know what? That’s what I wanted. The angle with Hall and Nash was built on blurring the line, on making people believe that they were this invading force, this cancerous legion that wanted to kill ECW. Yeah, they took their bags and went home, and when I went into that ring, I was goddamned positive I would never work with them again. But I couldn’t afford to let the audience know that … so, I spun it. I worded that speech very carefully, so the messages I intended reached their respective targets. I needed that audience to believe I’d finally cut them out, but give ‘em enough of a hook the other way, just in case. And I needed those two sons of bitches to know that I wasn’t going to take their shit anymore.”
And did it ever work; for months … literally, months, all the way into the winter of 1999/2000, there wasn’t a week that went by where some piece of gossip floated up about Hall and Nash coming back, or going back to WCW, or going to one of the Japanese promotions. In truth, they sat at home and bided their time. But Heyman’s careful manipulation of the minds of the casual fan and insiders alike assured that they could coast on the name value of them even with them not present.
As for the now-spoiled main event of Unleashed that night in August, that tied back to WCW’s growing pains.
WCW’s main storyline for the summer involved a feud between Diamond Dallas Page and his Jersey Triad against the returning (and suddenly bulked up) Macho Man Randy Savage and the surprise return of Sid Vicious as his bodyguard. The feud got extra-complicated (or, per countless recappers and columnists across the business, stupid) with a whodunit angle involving a white Hummer with a mystery driver trying to run over DDP. Numerous suspects had been hinted at; Goldberg, Sting (a solution nobody was fooled by), Bret Hart (for all of one episode of Thunder, and quietly dropped after Bret made an unhyped appearance on Nitro to say he wasn’t sure if he’d ever come back to the ring), Rena Mero (having left the WWF, appearing on camera in WCW before her no-compete clause elapsed), and in a fit of hubris that boggles the mind even in conjunction with Eric Bischoff … Dave Mustaine and Carmen Electra. Yes, Dave Mustaine, singer and guitarist of Megadeth, and Playboy model/professional bimbo Carmen Electra. To no one’s surprise–save Eric Bischoff and the TurnerSports execs–the angle was a flaming disaster; crowds actively chanted for Raven, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Perry Saturn, Booker T, Shane Douglas and virtually every hard-working performer who was once again mired in midcard hell and booed the living crap out of the main event. Bischoff’s solution was to commit hasty face/heel turns and pit these midcard heroes against each other, in the hopes of killing their heat so the crowd would cheer who he told them to; instead, he found himself facing crowds as hostile as the one at the 1991 Great American Bash, who rejected an entire PPV event with “WE WANT FLAIR!” chants (speaking of, they chanted for Flair, too, since he’d been pulled off TVagain). Confounding fans and the boys alike was that Bischoff entered into negotiations with All Japan Pro Wrestling to swap talent; this flew in the face of a long-standing agreement with All Japan’s rival, New Japan, including NJPW having a distaff version of the nWo. When NJPW found out about the negotiations, they pulled their deal; when AJPW found out about Bischoff’s duplicity, they pulled out.
Road Wild became Bischoff’s Waterloo. The identity of the white Hummer driver was to be revealed, and Bischoff had been keeping it a secret. Sources close to Bischoff, though, said there was no secret to keep–he simply didn’t know. Yes, like the Black Scorpion debacle nine years earlier, WCW had a mystery/whodunit angle with no idea about how to pay it off. And while this angle didn’t have disappearing tigers and Ole Anderson speaking into a distortion box to stink up the place, it did have performers in the lead positions–DDP and Savage–whom nobody wanted to see. The hope that Bischoff would pluck someone out of the rank and file and give them the push of a lifetime was, despite all the evidence to the contrary, in the air.
Instead, he compounded one mistake with another: he picked Sting, the one person whom the crowd could never–and had already resoundingly rejected as a suspect–buy as a heel. The reveal was met with little more than the chirping of crickets.
Somehow, after the event, Bischoff found a way to twist the failure of the white Hummer angle against the midcarders, saying they had somehow torpedoed the angle by not providing a hot enough undercard to support what was obviously a winner of a main event angle. How he made this leap of logic is anyone’s guess, but, in the middle of what was described by those who were there as a “verbal raping”, Raven stood up and called out Bischoff. After telling Bischoff the company was going fine with him in Hollywood and calling him a “fucking idiot”, Bischoff drew a line in the sand; if you don’t like how I run the show, then you can pack your bags and go home.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Raven did just that. Bischoff asked if anybody else felt the same, they were invited to do the same; The Sandman (who’d only debuted in January and languished even under the Leathers/Horsemen/Sting regime), Chris Kanyon and Perry Saturn all stood up and followed Raven out the door. Reports from others who witnessed the scene said that several others, including Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Shane Douglas, Billy Kidman and Rey Misterio all looked to do the same, but ended up staying seated. Amazingly, true to his word, Bischoff gave the four men their releases.
News of a third mutiny in a year, this one resulting in four more losses to the roster, sent the TurnerSports executives into an Godzilla-style uproar. But before Bischoff could be called on the carpet for this latest embarrassment, the nightmare got even worse. On August 26th, the WWF’s Smackdown went from a one-time-special to a weekly show. Since they were already being resoundingly thrashed on Thursday nights by Unleashed, this wasn’t so much an issue (especially since Thunder had been left for dead, and was frequently scripted by the wrestlers themselves, even if plot developments were ignored on Nitro). What was an issue was that ECW’s fateful firing of Hall and Nash ran across from Smackdown, as did their main event to fill the vacancies in the ECW Tag Titles. A four-way elimination tag match was booked, with the Dudleys, the Impact Players, Danny Doring & Roadkill and Tommy Dreamer and a mystery partner. When Joey Styles questioned Tommy at the beginning of the show on who he’d picked, The Sandman surprised the crowd and entered the ring; the two hugged and shook hands, but Dreamer said he’d let fate pick his partner and he’d meet whoever decided to stand beside him in the ring. When, of all people, Raven ended up being Tommy’s partner (and helped him win the titles), the crowd came out of their seats.
And so did TurnerSports execs. The first thing they did was check the contracts of the four exiles, and to their chagrin, they discovered that the carefully worded no-compete clauses were a little too specific in their wording; the contracts, drawn up before ECW was anything more then a a regional indy, only addressed the WWF. With litigation out of the question, TurnerSports execs pointed their swords at Bischoff, and without a moment’s hesitation, lopped off his head. No defenses, no arguments, no pleading; Friday morning, Bischoff was called on the carpet, and by lunchtime, he was on a plane back to his home in Colorado. In his place was put a temporary ad-hoc team of JJ Dillon, Terry Taylor and announcer Mike Tenay (who only got to book the cruiserweights); the group was given explicit instructions to “hold the fort” until a replacement was found and, under no circumstances, could they book in cooperation with anybody involved in the prior two booking regimes. The placeholder editions of WCW programming were certainly better then the horrid car crashes Bischoff had produced, but that’s like saying a stab wound is better then a gunshot.
Fortunately for TurnerSports executives, a possible savior seemed to fall right into their lap at summer’s end.
Change In The Wind: Autumn 1999
Vince Russo was not a well-known name in the industry. A few insiders knew it, but by and large, the head of WWF’s creative team was a non-entity. But as summer turned into fall, Vince Russo turned himself into one of the biggest names in wrestling, by quitting the WWF over a contract dispute, and signing with WCW. Once the knowledge of just how much of the WWF’s success was attributable to Russo got out, pundits and those in the industry were knocked back on their heels; for all intents and purposes, this looked to be the end of the WWF. Their creative head pilot–the architect that had rebuilt the WWF brand from the brink of bankruptcy–had just left the ship rudderless, and was bailing for the competition.
Strangely, internet-savvy fans fell, mostly, into two schools of thought on this: WWF backers claimed Russo was over-credited (not true) and that the style he had crafted was easily imitatable (very true). WCW backers recoiled in horror, as they had been fed a healthy diet of wrestling and down-to-Earth characters, and Russo’s style favored over-the-top gimmicks and a breakneck pace of programming. Well, there was a third group of fans: ECW fans. They didn’t care either way.
As they faced the loss of their #1 writer, the WWF was also coping with more bad news: Austin’s neck was, in fact, worse off then they knew, and he would be taking time off right in the middle of a hot angle with Triple H and The Rock. Undertaker had just bowed out to nurse some injuries. The recent addition of Chris Jericho, plus the coming debut of Kurt Angle looked to stave off some of the bleeding … but the failure to secure either ECW Champion Taz or the Dudley Boys hurt. And coming into their October PPV, they faced an embarrassing oversight.
Intercontinental Champion Jeff Jarrett had been mired in a go-nowhere feud with Chyna (yes, the Amazonian former body guard of Triple H). “They’d told me, ‘Steve don’t wanna work with you,'” said Jarrett in an interview a couple months later with Dave Scherer. “And they didn’t want me stealin’ Hunter’s thunder. Undertaker was gone. They wanted Mick Foley to work with the one guy, the porn star gimmick, and make him a star. I had nobody. So they stuck me with Chyna.” But, oddly enough, the one thing they didn’t do was look at Jarrett’s contract, which expired the day before his PPV defense against Chyna in a “Good Housekeeping” match. When they finally noticed, it was too late–Jarrett had no desire to renew if the company intended to keep him buried, and to come back and job out to Chyna, he demanded a payoff of some back-due salary and merch fees totalling over two hundred thousand. Not wanting to see another of their belts get tossed in a trash can on the competition’s TV show, McMahon authorized the payment; Jarrett did the job, and McMahon braced himself on Monday night to see Jarrett turn up in Nitro.
He’d have to wait until Thursday … on Unleashed.
Buyrates were, and continue to be, an important barometer of success. Same for TV ratings, live gates and merch sales. But, arguably, there is no better barometer for a wrestling promotion’s stability and market value then monitoring how many people want to get in your door, and how many are scrambling for the exit. ECW had exceptional buyrates, phenomenal ratings, merch sales through the roof, and live gates that grew like a weed on Miracle-Gro.
But Jeff Jarrett represented something wholly new; he was the first wrestler from WWF, long considered the pinnacle of the industry, who purposefully jumped ship and chose that little also-ran in Philly.
With Jarrett’s southern wrestling background, he was a natural fit alongside Steve Corino, and immediately positioned against Tommy Dreamer and Raven. The working relationship with FMW was renewed, and talent was brought over and put in high-profile matches and angles. Perrry Saturn and Chris Kanyon were paired up as a rejuvinated Eliminators-style team. Taz, worried about stagnation and having run his course in ECW, found new life by turning heel and aligning himself with Corino and Jarrett, setting up a program between him and perennial ECW favorite Rob Van Dam. Buyrates had settled into a .70-.85 range, which was still amazing. Unleashed’s ratings were healthy. And, in a surprising development for those with a nose for history, the NWA–the very organization that Heyman had helped Eastern Championship Wrestling break away from five years prior–came crawling to ECW to work out a deal for ECW to rejoin, and become the central member, of the storied group of promoters. When Heyman demanded the NWA Title be folded into the ECW Title, the NWA backed off, but an informal deal was reached for the NWA to act as a kind of feeder/developmental system. And video game companies were sniffing around, looking to marry the digital entertainment media with. “We felt bulletproof,” said Heyman in the Forever Hardcore documentary.
Over in WCW, the arrival of their newest acquisition was met with two different moods: the bean counters and the suits were overjoyed at the steal of the WWF’s head writer, and envisioned a bottom line growing so fat with cash, it could qualify as a congessional district. The wrestlers, on the other hand, were apprehensive; promises of pushing new stars was all well and good, but they had seen the WWF product. The comparison in on-screen delivery between WCW and WWF was night and day. Many feared that the traditional, wrestling-oriented product WCW had presented would clash with Russo’s “Crash TV” booking style; in fact, Russo’s booking, while captivating, at times bore little connection to reality, let alone in-ring events, as his 1999 WWF output would include a pregnant octagenarian giving birth to a hand, and having Vince McMahon employ The Undertaker to terrorize himself in an effort to screw with Steve Austin.
Rather then give him the keys to the kingdom after the next PPV, Halloween Havoc, WCW executives felt there was no point in letting the temporary group of bookers keep the company treading water, not with the promotion bleeding money like a torture victim in an iron maiden (the executives had other reasons to rush Russo’s installment, but they weren’t letting on about those just yet). Plus, giving him control at the PPV meant he could craft the results of it towards any long-term planning he wished, rather then try and mop up the place after the PPV locked him into a path.
For those who bought Halloween Havoc, they got a taste of the new WCW … which fulfilled the suspicions of WCW’s wrestlers in that it looked a lot like the WWF; fast-paced television, with lots of backstage vignettes, screwjob endings galore, and a tendency to book to the smarks (one storyline had Buff Bagwell, worried about impressing the bosses, taking a dive in his match against Disco Inferno … how Russo expected the logic of someone taking a dive in a scripted sport to make sense is anybody’s guess). And the main event, a triple threat match featuring WCW Champion DDP, Sid Vicious and Sting (a fatal four way until Randy Savage left the company–again–after a backstage fight with Russo that came milliseconds from Russo eating his teeth for breakfast), featured a virtual buffet of WWF clichŽs: an unnecessary (and unannounced until bell-time) pair of stipulations being a baseball bat on a pole and pinfalls counted anywhere, not one or two but four ref bumps, run-ins by no less then seven other wrestlers, a false finish/restart spot when Sid pinned DDP with his feet in the ropes (which defied logic, as the rules of the match effectively negated the ropes as an advantage) and a screwy finish that Russo recycled from a storyline in the WWF only a year prior, with Sid and Sting pinning DDP at the same time. This coming from a man who, in an AOL chat, said that every meeting of the WCW creative team started and ended with the group saying the word “logic”. The resulting storyline would see the WCW Title, at this point booked so badly, the NWA Title from which it spun off of was higher valued, vacated, with a sprawling, and largely incoherent, 64-person tournament to fill the vacancy. Note “person”, as Russo, in a flash of … well, something, but certainly not mistakable as brilliance… decided to have four women–Kimberly Page, Daffney, Torrie Wilson and Madusa Miceli–in the tournament. When Mrs. Page was informed of her opportunity to capture the WCW Championship, and that her first round opponent would be the volatile and three-times-her-size Scott Steiner, she refused to participate. Russo insisted; Kimberly quit the company. Management was not happy.
And neither were they happy with the heart attacks that Russo’s scripts were inducing amongst Standards and Practices. Not a single show went by that Russo’s script wasn’t rejected, not for questionable storyline direction, but for gross violation of content restrictions. The result of which made WCW look like a pale imitation of the WWF, which pleased neither the Attitude-loving WWF fans who might cross over, or WCW loyalists who liked their wrestling promotion to be based around, well, wrestling.
In the WWF, the spate of injuries and the departures of Jeff Jarrett and Vince Russo had a profound effect backstage; for the roster, it meant a bunch of people who normally would be mired in the midcard suddenly found themselves in marquee matches by sheer necessity. Val Venis enjoyed a two month run against Mick Foley, as did Al Snow; Ken Shamrock found himself sniffing the main event again, and Test, working a hot angle as he romanced the angelic Stephanie McMahon, seemed poised to hit the big time. The problem, though, was that the angles were all things put in motion by Vince Russo, and with his departure, the endings of the angles went with him. Suddenly, the angle that was guaranteed to turn Test into the next big thing got spun around into putting heat on Triple H; Val Venis’ push, which had serious steam, was all but abandoned. Al Snow’s tenure in the upper echelon ended so quickly that he went through two turns–face to heel to face–and two theme songs in the span of a month.
But to the folks watching at home and buying live event tickets, the scramble to shore up the dam wasn’t doing anything to keep their dollars in their wallets or making their remotes switch to other product. Despite the product’s increasingly erratic tendencies, despite mounting questions about content and a lingering unease after the Owen Hart tragedy, the numbers spoke of continued success; buyrates were astounding, live gates continued to shatter records, and Raw’s ratings were pulling away from Nitro’s like an Indy car racing a riding lawn mower. It was, by dint of comparison to their Monday night rival, that WWF looked so damn good, because, to the critical eye, the show was a confusing, confounding mess. Fortunately, most of the still-growing fanbase wasn’t of the critical nature. The only problem was over on Thursdays, where ECW nipped at their heels.
November’s battery of PPVs turned out to be pivotal for all three companies. In the WWF, Survivor Series was headlined by a triple threat with WWF Champion Triple H, The Rock and Steve Austin … only for Austin to be written out on the PPV when he was “hit” by someone driving a Lincoln. The rest of the PPV was built up around who would replace Austin; the lucky stiff would prove to be a perplexing choice, given all the other upper-mid-card talent they’d been working with for months. Defeating Triple H that night for the title would be The Big Show, a virtual main event non-entity for months and mired in a tasteless feud with Big Bossman which had Bossman invading the funeral of Big Show’s dead and towing the coffin away on a chain. The controversial PPV–with an ending no one was quite happy with, and a bait-and-switch tactic that left many calling foul–impressed few, but laid the groundwork for what seemed to be a change in the air that the WWF needed thanks to their depleted roster.
In WCW, the annual three-ring train wreck known as World War 3 was retired in favor of a generic event called Mayhem, which was built around the seemingly endless, absolutely horrid WCW World Heavyweight Championship 64-Person Tournament (and capitalized as such whenever mentioned, which was every 11 seconds). The tourney, designed to push some new talent and restore some luster to the belt, managed to make the title seem even less valuable; people who lost got reinserted into later brackets, matches randomly had stipulations that were regularly not adhered to in the decision, the announced brackets got switched up on a nearly weekly basis (for instance, by the time the final match of the first round rolled around, Crowbar’s slated opponent had changed three times), and screwjobs, screwjobs, screwjobs! By the time Mayhem, which held the quarters, semis and finals, rolled around, the two most common jokes around message boards were that either A) the tournament would be extended to Starrcade out of spite, or B) it didn’t matter who advanced because someone was bound to be replaced anyway. Scarily enough, B would turn out correct, as Roddy Piper, who somehow made it all the way to the quarter-finals, was pulled and put into the main event as a referee, while Bam Bam Bigelow, who had losttwice in the tournament (once, inexplicably, by count-out in a pinfalls count anywhere match), found himself back in the tournament. So did Disco Inferno, who found himself taking Scott Steiner’s slot in the semi-finals, when Scott Steiner left the arena after being told he would job to Chris Benoit; yes, Disco Inferno was inserted into the semi-finals. The only thing that made a lick of sense and gave those brave (foolish?) enough to buy the PPV was a promo, which promised the return of Bret Hart on Nitro. Many people wondered why they waited until PPV to broadcast this, as opposed to on Nitro or Thunder earlier in the week; Russo would only say that “it made sense” to promo it on Mayhem. The show ended with Chris Benoit capturing the WCW Championship, defeating DDP as Goldberg (who had lost by DQ to DDP in the semis, a compromise to jobbing to Benoit outright in the finals, the second person that night to pitch that particular temper tantrum about the loyal workhorse) watched on from the ramp. What Benoit enthusiasts were left in WCW’s rapidly dwindling audience were no doubt thrilled, but the tedious tournament had done enough collateral damage to everyone and everything associated with it that Benoit’s career moment was met with an apathetic golf clap.
By contrast, ECW’s PPV, November To Remember, provided both cohesive storylines and taut in-ring action, headlined by a killer new stipulation match: the “Devil’s Den” match, which was a pseudo-WarGames match but had all participants in the ring, and was fought under elimination rules. Squaring off in the weapons-filled cage was the extreme lifetsyle loyalists Tommy Dreamer, The Sandman, Raven and Rob Van Dam against the old-school champions, Steve Corino, Jeff Jarrett, new recruit Rhino and Taz. The team captained by Rob Van Dam would go on to win, and in a most stunning fashion, as ECW World Champion Taz suffered the third elimination for his team, getting pinned clean as a sheet, and Rhino taking the brunt of a two-on-one mugging with chairs and a Singapore cane from RVD and Tommy Dreamer before finally being rendered unconscious. As the crowd cheered and the cage lifted, Taz came back, cleared the ring of everyone save RVD, and declared he’d prove who the superior champion was by putting the title on the line right then and there; as soon as the bell rang, Taz swiped the forgotten Singapore cane, bludgeoned RVD until he was bloody, then choked RVD into unconsciousness. Before leaving the ring, Taz vowed that RVD had blown his shot, and had just killed any value he had in any other promotion. Smart wrestling fans knew that “never get another shot” was code for “next person pushed to the title” … but even the smart fans had no idea what to make of the tease for Unleashed that promised an announcement on a special live edition (which was a trial run for a possible switch to live broadcast) of Unleashed that would stun everyone. A second show? A time slot change? Another big name jumping to ECW? Speculation ran rampant, but the one thing nobody could do was pin it down; for once, ECW managed to close ranks and keep the lid on the surprise.
Vince Russo, however, wasn’t happy being in the dark, and took steps to counter Heyman’s big surprise. First, he circulated a false rumor on the ‘net that “sources” had revealed that ECW’s surprise was the debut of Ken Shamrock. For the first time in months, ECW and WWF found themselves on the same page, denying Shamrock’s departure and questioning the validity of “the source”, who sounded from the description in the rumors as Jeff Jarrett. Jarrett, a friend of Shamrock, denied floating the rumors and lashed out at Russo for dragging him needlessly in Russo’s petty grudge against Vince McMahon and the WWF. Russo brushed that off, however, because his second step, he was convinced, would give WCW a nice shot in the arm; Monday Nitro would have Bret deliver a promo that would hype an Owen Hart Tribute Match, facing off against WCW Champion Chris Benoit … on Thunder.
For once, Russo’s break-neck programming tendencies were reigned in for Thunder, as the Bret/Benoit non-title match got 25 minutes to showcase two technical masters in all their glory. Bret’s request to put Benoit over was declined, leading to the WCW Champion tapping out the challenger. Management was not happy at the idea of the WCW Champion tapping clean to a guy who was only coming back for a one-shot, regardless of the warm-fuzzies from it being a tribute match. When they found out that Bret was actually coming back, and that this match would be the launch point for a renewed Bret push, they absolutely flipped their wigs; it was a resurrection of everything they had hired Vince Russo to clean up. In the minds of management, the bloom was off the Russo rose only one month in. It didn’t help that, despite Russo’s promises on the internet radio show WCW Live!, Nitro’s ratings had not climbed a full point. In fact, excluding one-week spikes on the night after Halloween Havoc and the Nitro with Bret’s comeback announcement, ratings had remained flat at best, and fallen in several cases, while Raw’s continued to climb towards a regular string of 7.0’s.
“The suits didn’t want Bret on top again,” said Shane Douglas in a shoot interview taped for RF Video. “And they resented the hell outta Russo for putting Bret back into the main event. They believed that, since Bret had never, you know, paid off in any way for them, he was a bad investment. And that’s so fucked up, when you think about it … who booked the guy into oblivion and killed his character before it got anywhere? Just like how they took me, a hot former world champ in another company and said ‘oh, that shit you did, you did that somewhere else. Here, you’re just another guy’, they did that to Bret Hart. And they blame him for not drawing dick for ratings.”
The Bret/Benoit match ended up scoring Thunder its highest ratings since the debut episode … still behind Smackdown and Unleashed, but the gap was narrowed, running counter to WCW executives’ beliefs that Bret Hart equalled a bad investment. Still, word of ECW’s major announcement helped siphon viewers away from the pre-taped Smackdown, giving Unleashed a jaw-dropping victory in the rating’s war over both their competitors. And since, under Eric Bischoff, WCW had been cultivated with a black-and-white atittude towards success and failure, Thunder’s ratings growth that week meant nothing, since they’d failed to beat Unleashed and Smackdown. Ergo, Bret was still ratings poison.
And when it came to the Earth-shattering announcement, while it wasn’t as immediately as impactful or as sexy as a new wrestler or a new TV show, it was certainly impactful: on December 26th, ECW would present End Of Days, a new PPV on the ECW schedule. The PPV was priced at five dollars lower then normal as a “holiday present”. And, as if presenting a new PPV at a discount wasn’t enough (and with the red-hot Taz/RVD program, expectations for some kind of twist in their storyline at End Of Days was high), the final piece of the surprise would be the venue at which End Of Days would hold court.
The Mecca of the World Wrestling Federation since the promotion had three W’s in their initials, Madison Square Garden.
Shake-ups: Winter ’99/’00:
An old proverb says necessity is the mother of invention. As autumn became winter and the new millennium rolled on, all three federations found themselves faced with the need to restructure and reinvent something about themselves to compensate for the changes wrought by the past year.
To the casual viewer, the hardest hit looked to be the WWF; the losses suffered through injury and abdication had left the company in a precarious position, with all their money players on the shelf, a gaggle of untested and unproven wrestlers treading water, and a writing staff struggling to imitate the formula that Vince Russo had used to draw the company from the edge of insolvency. Without Stone Cold or Undertaker on TV to sell t-shirts by the kajillions and draw in the fans, the company looked exactly as it had been not three years ago: a promotion without a go-to performer.
Two events proved key to helping bring some stability to the company during this period: thanks to the (illogical) turn of Stephanie McMahon to a heel and pairing up with her on-screen husband Triple H, the pair’s corporate Bonnie & Clyde routine managed to finally generate the right kind of heel heat for Triple H and vaulted him into a credible main event heel. Stephanie, who had made a sweet (if cloying) virginal girl-next-door, underwent an astonishing transformation and embraced the role of spoiled bitch princess with aplomb, giving Triple H breathing room for his character to gain the traction they’d been looking for.
The second twist of fate came courtesy of Mick Foley. A lifetime of Japanese deathmatches, hardcore wrestling, and the horrific litany of injuries gotten just from his infamous Hell In A Cell match had taken their toll and pushed him towards retirement. But the honorable performer decided to stay his self-termination a few months as a favor to the fed when both Austin and Undertaker went down. Despite his hardcore roots, his character had somehow morphed into a loveable loser of sorts … the kind of underdog that could play well as Triple H & Stephanie’s kickdog. As soon as Triple H dispatched with Vince McMahon in a street fight at December’s PPV, he and his wife assumed control of the company and, with the help of a reformed D-X as his heel stormtroopers, ran roughshod over everyone, particularly bullying Foley all the way up to a storyline firing. While no one could say that the WWF was hurting at the time (not with record profits and ratings every day), the storyline helped provide some cohesion. And, with Foley helping give Triple H a boost in credibility by taking on his Cactus Jack persona to wage war against the “McMahon-Helmsley Regime”, it gave the other programs beneath it a rub by association. In addition to that, WCW imports Chris Jericho and Big Show were given notable pushes to get them to fill gaps even quicker then before and catching on, while the heavily hyped gold medal Olympian Kurt Angle was already pissing off fans left and right (the right way) with his bizarre mix of smug superiority and dorky cluelessness. It wasn’t a perfect show by any means, by any means, but it was miles from the rebuilding years of the mid-90’s.
The only problem that the WWF encountered that they couldn’t fight was the “invasion” of ECW into Madison Square Garden. Despite pleas and threats to the property management of MSG, they fell back on ECW’s divine right to rent the open date to whomever ponied up the dough. Most in the WWF, per backstage reports, were against Vince fighting ECW’s rental of the venue, pointing out that fighting ECW only made the company look like the big bully to ECW’s scrappy underdog who’d managed to punch the big bully in the nuts. Everyone, even his own wife and kids, were unanimous in being against Vince going directly to Heyman to try and convince him to abandon MSG; supposedly, Vince even offered to re-visit their old partnership and do more cross-promotion if Heyman gave up the venue. Vince denies such an offer ever took place, but reports from others on the scene say that Heyman cut Vince a check to pay back past monies owed, pointed him at the door and told him never to set foot in ECW territory again. To his credit, he didn’t … but Vince didn’t take the rebuffing lying down, either.
ECW’s fights were mostly borne of their continuing growth, for which the company was ill-prepared to cope with. Part of the company’s identity was how the group of core ECW wrestlers had banded together and helped keep the promotion afloat by pitching in on odd jobs. But as ECW’s size and reach matched their reputation, the tight-knit group of men and women found that they could no longer juggle wrestling with making travel arrangements, managing merchandise distribution or booking venues. And without those duties–and as more new wrestlers came in who weren’t there during the lean days–the locker room lost that special brotherhood that had defined the promotion. And with the promotion going into larger and larger venues–including the risk of running MSG, by far the largest venue yet for the promotion–the intimacy the promotion enjoyed from venues like the ECW Arena also slowly vanished. Many questioned whether sacrificing the promotion’s underground, cult-like atmosphere was a worthy trade-off for running step-for-step, and often outpacing, WCW.
Another issue, which, depending on the person was both a positive and a negative, was that the promotion’s steamrolling success allowed the performers to not have to worry about working through injuries just to keep the lights on at home. The upside was a potentially well-rested roster; the downside was that many people were working injured, such as Tommy Dreamer, who had injuries toseveral discs in his back. Heyman would rely on the solutions that had always gotten him through when faced with holes in the roster: creative booking, and a generous employment of local indy wrestlers.
Tommy would hold on through the End Of Days PPV, as part of a huge double-main event, getting a crack at Taz’s ECW World Title in a first-time-ever one-on-one meeting. Tommy would end up “injured”, but Taz’s celebration wouldn’t last, as his old nemesis Sabu would make a shocking return to ECW after a lengthy absence (due to a contract dispute that started a bidding war he largely ignored) and challenge Taz for Guilty As Charged. Meanwhile, the second half of the PPV’s main event was borne of a unique set-up; RVD’s loss to Taz created doubt as to his claim for a title shot, but Paul Heyman reminded Taz he did not choose contenders. As a result of Taz winning a match, and thus a bet with Paul Heyman, RVD was forced to endure one of two arduous paths to get a title shot: he either had to compete in a three-on-one handicap match and win by pinfall or submission, or he had to get two partners and face Taz’s stablemates in a three-man elimination tag with the special stipulation that only Rob Van Dam could score a winning pinfall or submission. At End Of Days, RVD made his choice and, with the help of Raven and The Sandman, scored pinfalls over Jeff Jarrett and Steve Corino … only to draw an inexplicable DQ victory over Rhino, thanks to RVD’s manager, Bill Alfonso, subbing for the downed ref and turning on RVD. Taz came out to remind/taunt RVD that he had to win by pinfall or submission only, but soon found himself cornered and taking an ass-kicking from his ever-growing collective of enemies. While the outcome itself angered many who felt RVD’s nearly two-year reign as TV Champion was destined to culminate with the World Title, the storyline possibilities of a lengthy RVD chase and Taz fending off ECW’s biggest names all but guaranteed big ratings, big gates and big buyrates.
But another incident at the PPV, which carried over to the next Unleashed, drew negative attention for the fed; as hot women and catfights were a staple of ECW, a couple of girls had been tossed into the main event storyline as adjuncts. Miss Congeniality had sided with Taz’s group, while the woman often dubbed “The Queen Of Extreme”, Francine, had fallen in against the old school fanatics. Catfights, ripped hair and, in an incident that had already set Fox’s censors on notice, where Francine had been knocked out and Miss Congeniality had used lipstick to write “whore” on Francine’s forehead, led to an Extreme Catfight at End Of Days. The match had ended when Miss Congeniality decided to fight extreme fire with fire, and slashed at Francine in the face with a metal spike. That week, on the first edition of Unleashed under a regular live format, Francine, her face covered in bandages, confronted Miss Congeniality–who now took the moniker Lolita, The New Queen Of Extreme, and dressed in a skimpy outfit designed to mock Francine’s normal attire–about her disfigurement. In the ensuing catfight, Francine grabbed a handful of Lolita’s barely-there top and tore it clean off, briefly exposing Lolita’s breasts on live television before Lolita covered them up with her arms and ran to the locker room. Horny teenagers and the live audience were elated; Fox was not. Rumors flew that Fox would pull Unleashed, a rumor that grew in credibility when TV schedules for the next week didn’t mention Unleashed.
“We met with the suits, and they told us we were going too far,” said Heyman. “Yeah, Fox. Going too far. The network with Married With Children and Family Guy, but we’re going too far. I guess advertisers were requesting to not have their ads aired in our timeslot because they feared a boycott or something. So they tried to strong-arm us; they never threatened to cancel us, because wewere pulling in ratings, but they did bully us, make us change our presentation. I drew the line when they demanded we change our content for pay-per-view. That was horseshit.”
“ECW, you know, the extreme content,” said Vince McMahon in an interview with (irony alert) Playboy magazine, “it’s a niche audience. It’ll never appeal to the masses, because, all the flaming chairs and barbed wire and everything, it gets old. You get desensitized after a while, and it becomes harder and harder to impress people.”
While Vince’s opinion about ECW being a niche product was disproven simply by the ratings and the PPV buyrates, the second part of his statement was at least partially true; it was no longer just enough to do a flaming table spot, or a catfight between scantily clad ladies, or steel chairs to the face. The crowd was increasingly demanding more and more in the way of extreme content, and past experiences had helped draw lines of taste even Heyman couldn’t cross (there hadn’t been a barbed wire match, for instance, in over two years after the bloody debacle with Sabu and Terry Funk). With so many conflicting forces at work, threatening to tear ECW’s creative nucleus apart, the decision was made: ECW had to evolve. “Extreme” could no longer mean just chairs and arena-travelling brawls and wild stunts. ECW had been founded as an alternative to the cartoony glitz and glamour of the WWF and the glacially slow-paced southern “rasslin'” of WCW; both of those companies were becoming shallow imitators of ECW. It was time to grow. Three elements helped the evolution of ECW; the first was a man that nobody had ever heard of outside of the rank and file in ECW, an employee whose job experience in the company had run the gamut to everything butcreative. But, like Shane McMahon had done in bringing Vince Russo to his father’s attention, thus dragging the WWF from its cartoon-and-characters doldrums in the mid-90’s, a similar fate awaited the company at the hands of this former merchandise shipper-slash-ECW-hotline-operator-slash-ticket-printer. His impact wouldn’t be fully felt until the other two elements fell into place.
The second element tied into the ongoing turmoil in WCW as the new year rolled around; as Standards & Practices found something to wince about in nearly every segment, and ratings continued to circle the bowl, and the “wrong” people continued to be pushed as the promotion’s centerpieces, the executives called Russo in on the carpet and laid out some surprising facts. The company was now in the red, on track to lose more money in one year then they had in all the prior years combined, and this made WCW an albatross … especially in light of negotiations going on for WCW’s corporate parent, Time Warner, to merge with America OnLine. Divisions that bled money like WCW was doing, Russo was told, were often the first to go in a merger. A turnaround was needed, and it was needed now; no more Bret, no more Benoit, no more sex and swearing. Russo protested, saying he needed more time, six months before he could have WCW competing again. No dice, he was told; a shake-up was needed, and they had decided on what it would be.
“They handed Russo a sheet with who they wanted to see pushed,” said Bobby Heenan in an interview for the RD Reynolds/Bryan Alvarez book The Monday Night War. “He said he’d rather go home then push who they wanted, and they called his bluff. Only it wasn’t a bluff; Russo went home. He got paid to sit at home, while the executives went and found someone who’d do what they wanted.”
Those people would be Terry Taylor, JJ Dillon, and, heading up the booking committee, Kevin Sullivan. The news turned the mood of the locker room from apprehension and tension to unadulterated rage. Then, the booking plans got out; gone was the main event of Bret vs. Benoit for the WCW Title. In its place was Benoit, slated to drop the title in a little more then a glorified squash to Hulk Hogan. There wasn’t a single person, save Hogan, who didn’t think the plan seven cans short of a six-pack; had the executives fallen through a time-space wormhole from the year 1988? Equally baffling were burials slated for Bret Hart (to be mercilessly squashed by Sid Vicious) and Shane Douglas (putting an end to his push by taking a loss against DDP), who were at least on the card. A heavily hyped fatal-four-way match between Eddie Guerrero, Rey Misterio Jr., Billy Kidman and Dean Malenko that was actually making stars out of the foursome, was cancelled. Not replaced, not rebooked, cancelled; all four watched were booked to watch Souled Out from their living rooms like common viewers. And Goldberg, the company’s best home-grown creation, who had been booked into the dirt and yet fans still clamored for him? A perplexing, go-nowhere match with perennial never-gonna-be-main-event “talent” Buff Bagwell.
The changing of Souled Out’s card proved the straw that broke the camel’s back for the locker room. Six days before the PPV–the day after the Sullivan regime took the reigns–Bret, Benoit, Douglas, Goldberg, Guerrero, Malenko, Kidman and Misterio collectively went to management and delivered an ultimatum: bounce the booking team, or lose eight wrestlers in one day, six days before a PPV. Once again, management called what they thought was a bluff, and quickly found out it was no bluff. The result of the mutiny was a gutted Souled Out with a very hastily rebooked card, including the awe-inspiring main events of Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Vicious for the vacant WCW Title, Buff Bagwell vs. DDP for the vacant US Title, and Sting against a returning Ric Flair (exiled, once again, under Russo’s regime) for … no good reason whatsoever, featuring a Flair heel turn that even Flair knew the crowd would shit on.
Although still under contract and, thus, not legally allowed to talk turkey, nobody–not WCW, the WWF or Paul Heyman–were stupid enough to believe that the eight dissenters would sit on the couch in silence. When the clauses on their contracts ran out at the end of January, talent relations people from both companies (Jim Ross and Paul Heyman, namely) tripped over each other trying to woo as many of the stars as possible. Rey Misterio surprised everyone and went to Mexico to wrestle in AAA for Konnan, while Billy Kidman decided to ply his wares in Japan for a few months before looking at the other two American companies. A few friends in the locker rooms got word back to Shane Douglas that while he was welcome in both companies, neither company would likely do anything more with him then enhancement talent (for Heyman, it was a matter of the change in company philosophy, while in WWF, it was lingering resentment over the Dean Douglas failure five years prior); this left Douglas with the unenviable position of having burnt bridges in so many directions, he had none left to cross. Reluctantly, The Franchise ended up hitting the independent circuit … although his time in the spotlight would not be done just yet.
The other five, however, became the topics of a vicious bidding war. At stake was not only money, but personal philosophies, company philosophies and how much room there was for these new stars; the WWF, still the biggest dog in the kennel, offered the name-brand association of the most recognizable, and therefore profitable, wrestling company on Earth, which meant, with their incentive-based contracts, more money thanks to profits. Paul Heyman, meanwhile, offered a little less money, but a company with substantially less politics then the other two, and a more wrestling-based promotion for the wrestler to whom the art form was the ultimate currency.
In the end, the WWF got three of the five: Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero and Goldberg. The acquisitions were no doubt huge, and the money to be made from dream matches with Goldberg versus anybody was virtually incalcuable … but Benoit was unquestionably the superior technical wrestler of the group, and the shift in direction in Philadelphia sold Benoit more then fat paychecks from Stamford. Bret, everyone knew, was a pipe dream to go north, but the WWF tried anyway, to no avail; Bret never even counter-offered Heyman’s offer. He just signed it and became a member of the Philly family.
Immediately, the new hires made impacts in their respective companies; Malenko and Guerrero were directly referred to as men who “thumbed their noses at their former employer” and positioned as tweeners, looking to take out whoever happened to be in their way to achieve the success their former employer kept them from achieving. Goldberg, by contrast, was booked exactly as he was in WCW: a steamrolling monster. In ECW, Bret and Benoit were courted by Taz to join their anti-extreme movement; when they remained aloof, fans expected a repeat of the Hall and Nash situation and braced themselves for another newcomer slapping ECW in their collective face.
As winter rolled on, the change wrought on all three companies from the shake-ups both on-screen and off began to show their full effect. For the WWF, the new roster additions provided wrestler archetypes that the WWF had been sorely lacking: technical prowess and a monster face. And, what’s more, regardless of who they were, they provided a much-needed boost in the upper end of the card to make up for the botched push attempts of people like Val Venis and Test, and allowed Mick Foley to retire graciously by putting Triple H over in a title vs. career Hell In A Cell match at No Way Out. The Road To WrestleMania promised a landmark event, the start of a new era to go along with the new millennium (which went along with the event’s name, having dropped the typical numbering scheme for WrestleMania 2000). Triple H, having regained the title, was set to defend in the main event of WrestleMania against The Rock, while Big Show got Goldberg, Dean Malenko was put into a three-way with Kurt Angle and Chris Jericho, and for attacking him after his loss the prior month, Eddie Guerrero was positioned against Mick Foley in a special attraction. Aside from blind WCW and ECW partisans, there was nary a critic who would step up and say the WWF hadn’t recovered from the prior few months and the litany of bad luck.
In ECW, Paul Heyman was facing life as the head of the company, but no longer the main booker (although he would, like Vince McMahon, retain final say-so), as the reigns were handed over to a long-time ECW employee who, as far as booking went, was an unknown quantity. The man, Gabe Sapolsky, surprised everyone by keeping Heyman in the loop and frequently getting input from the “mad scientist of wrestling” as he unfolded his ideas and philosophy on the company. At first, and much to the dismay of Fox, the company looked none different for the booking.
“Gabe came with me to the meeting after the first few shows he did,” said Heyman in the Forever Hardcore documentary, “and the Fox suits were pissed. Fox wanted to know when the company would change. Gabe sat calmly and listened to these pompous television executives who wouldn’t know a suplex from a soufflŽ as they said he was a waste of money, a failure, an insubordinate punk who should be run out of town on a rail; he sat and listened to it all. And when they finally said ‘what do you have to say for yourself?’, he whipped out these folders. They had all the ratings of WCW Nitro, and buyrates for their pay-per-views. cross-indexed with the dates of when they went they changed bookers, and how the ratings tanked. He says ‘If you want me to change the company overnight, I can do that. And that’s what you’re gonna get. You’re gonna get a dead wrestling promotion. If you want your investment in ECW to pay off, you need to back off and let me do this my way. Gradually, organically, logically.’ And I’ll tell you what, Gabe shut up every single damn one of them; they excused themselves, talked it over for a few seconds, and sent us on our way with fond wishes for success.”
With Fox off their backs, Gabe and Paul began a guerrila booking plan that, like the cutting-edge booking surrounding Hall and Nash, confused and confounded the smarts, and kept everyone glued to their seats; Bret and Benoit pledged allegience to only themselves, and won fans over by their scientific skills, while Taz and Rob Van Dam openly tried to woo the two over to their cause. Rob Van Dam overcame obstacle after obstacle en route to a rumored title shot against Taz at ECW’s February PPV, Helter Skelter (with monthly PPVs having proven a bonafide success with End Of Days, ECW immediately moved to a monthly PPV model) … until the ECW website was hacked by Taz’s group, who posted a message to ECW:
“For far too long, we have allowed ECW and their vile, hardcore nature to co-exist alongside our superior pure wrestling. The cancer that men like Raven and The Sandman and Sabu perpetuate threatens not only this company, but the foundation of this very industry, and it has long been our mission to eradicate this corrupting force before their minority views become the standard for this business. We have fought, but have been unable to strike a killing blow in our crusade. This changes this Thursday, on Unleashed. Unless ECW wishes to see their World Heavyweight Championship wind up in the hands of a competitor, Paul Heyman will grant us a four-on-four, real wrestling match–that means disqualifications and a strict 20-count will be in effect–with four of their representatives against four of ours. Should we win, we will dictate the course of the company, its rules and procedures. This is not a negotiation.”
Everybody expected ECW, represented by RVD, The Sandman and the Dudleys, to vanquish their foes, and for RVD to go on to Helter Skelter and win the ECW Championship. When Rhino scored the pin on The Sandman, wrestling fans collectively were left speechless. But that surprise paled in comparison when Bill Alfonso presented Taz with a new belt and proclaimed that they were declaring the ECW World Championship dead; in its place, Taz would be recognized as the first Pure Wrestling Evolved World Champion, and offered Bret Hart the first crack at the new, “premier” championship in professional wrestling.
The next day, visitors to ECW’s website found themselves redirected to a simple page that looked like a document. Addressed to “the fans of Extreme Championship Wrestling”, it was a letter from Paul Heyman;
“As you’ve noticed, ECW’s website is temporarily shut down. This is directly the result of the ongoing campaign being waged by Taz, Steve Corino, Jeff Jarrett and Rhino. I have been dedicated to both running this company and fending off the assaults to the company’s integrity by these four ungrateful bastards, but I now see that I cannot divide my attention anymore and, until further notice, you will be redirected to our message boards. ECW, like it or not, is broken; it is in need of repair, and it is something I must pour all available attention into for ECW and the ethics and standards we uphold to survive. This is by no means a surrender; I intend to fight, and I intend to win. ECW will not die, certainly not by the hands of disrespectful punks like Taz and the idiots who follow him. As far the ECW Championship and this title Taz has given himself are concerned, the rights Taz and his group acquired by pinning Team ECW did not give them the right to create or retire championships. Taz’s Pure Wrestling Evolved Championship is worth no more then his FTW Championship in ECW, and we will not recognize it as a valid championship, regardless of who he defends it against or how many defenses he logs. And, by virtue of his actions on Unleashed, I have stripped Taz of the ECW World Championship, and will fill the vacancy at Helter Skelter with a proper match between legitimate contenders. And, on a personal note to Taz, you rotten son of a bitch … you will regret the day you stabbed me and ECW in the back. I will see to it that you and your friends are burnt to the ground. You’re gonna regret the day you decided to fuck me over. You will regret it.”
True to form, visitors to ECW’s web address would find a mysterious splash page that said “under reorganization until further notice”, and would then be redirected. Rob Van Dam would go on to win the vacant ECW Championship, making him a dual champion, while Taz would retain his championship against Bret Hart by getting himself intentionally disqualified. Paul Heyman and RVD would throw down challenges to Taz and his group, offering the ECW Championship as bait, to get Taz to face RVD once and for all, but Taz declined. When Bret Hart and Chris Benoit finally took a stand, albeit one that maintained their middle-of-the-road stance; they appreciated the love of old school wrestling, but didn’t like the militant stand of Taz and his group. Taz and his group targeted the Canadian duo after this, while RVD and his friends continued to try and bait the old schoolers into a fight. Fans waited with baited breath to see how the situation would finally explode.
Over in WCW, the winter’s tumultuous changes brought a return to basic wrestling-based storylines … except that it featured the same cast of characters on top. Monster heels were built up and fed to Hogan, Flair was a heel, Sting was a neutered hero constantly in Hogan’s shadow, DDP was a blue collar people’s champ, and everyone who wasn’t a “money” name languished. The only differences between winter 2000 and two years prior was that WCW had lost a good number of talented wrestlers, so WCW was no longer the only place to find superior technical wrestling. And the good wrestlers who were still there could no longer delude themselves into thinking hard work would pay off; consequently, they half-assed it on good nights.
The pedestrian booking, stale characters and sub-par wrestling had a predictable effect: ratings and buyrates nose-dived even lower. Buyrates for the 2000 edition of Souled Out were so low, WCW refused to release them, and the following month’s buyrates for Superbrawl weren’t much better. The bean-counters looked at WCW’s books and calculated that, even if WCW managed to stop the freefall and just stayed at their present level–no growth, no loss–they’d be on track to lose over a hundred million dollars … but nobody in their right minds believed that WCW could stop the downward spiral that quick. If ever they needed a reminder, when Raw’s annual pre-emption for the dog show came up, ECW ran a Monday night special in Raw’s time slot; even with an hour unopposed, Nitro not only lost the night to ECW, it lost to the dog show.
After entertaining a number of ideas and proposals (including the first whisperings of a sale), executives concluded that the Sullivan regime was a miserable failure. Catching the WWF, or even ECW, was now an unreasonable expectation; for those at ground level, keeping their jobs was the all-important goal. For the bean-counters, it was much more cut and dry: turn a profit or close the doors. And, in WCW’s less than illustrious history, only one man had managed to drag the company up from the red and fill the company coffers. Of course, he was also the same person who had allowed the once-healthy WCW to become a hemopheliac on blood thinners. And there was also the wizard they’d stolen from the WWF who had brought them back. Of course, his WCW run was anything but inspired. Neither seemed an inspired solution …
But as a combined force … the man who turned WCW into a powerhouse, and the man who breathed new life into the WWF, working as one … it was an idea that proved too intoxicating to resist.
(The following Re-Writing The Book is written not as a narrative story, but as an article on a wrestling website, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the D-Generation X invasion of WCW Monday Nitro, and looking back at how the event changed the wrestling landscape.)
For the three main American wrestling promotions, 1999 was a year of change. The WWF was forced to shuffle their main event picture after injuries robbed them of key performers, and their head writer fled the coop. For ECW, growing pains from their sudden, rapid expansion and a walk-out by two key wrestlers left the promotion trying to live up to their own expectations. For WCW, change seemed to come every week; new bookers, new Vice Presidents, new wrestlers, new crises. As the bitter cold of winter faded away, though, and the first spring of the new millenium dawned, so did the hopes of fans of the three promotions: the WWF had new stars and was forging ahead without two of their biggest names with nary a bump. ECW was slowly but cleverly shifting their product, yet keeping a foot in that which brought them to the dance. And executives in WCW had high hopes for a creative merger of two minds to salvage the sinking WCW ship. The month of April would turn the whole American wrestling industry upside-down and inside-out. The road to rebirth–approaching April 2000:
Before April 2000, nobody really knew the name Robert Zicari outside of southern California. Before the summer of 1999, Zicari was known only as a pornographer, and even in that industry, he and his product were considered among the lowest, most filthy and degrading product available (and in porn, that’s saying something). In the summer of ’99, Zicari–better known as Rob Black–started Xtreme Pro Wrestling, a small-time indy in California that eschewed all scientific skill and workrate for sleaze and deathmatch-style violence that ECW didn’t sink to even in their bingo-hall days. His shows were replete with women from his stable of adult performers, and his wrestlers were castoffs even among the indies, men destined to bleed buckets for enough money to get an extra value meal at McDonald’s. In short, XPW and Rob Black served as much a function in the wrestling industry as groups like the PTC: none at all. Until that April. Some of the following, it should be noted, cannot or has not been verified, for one very simple reason: nobody can agree on the truth. The events of April 2000 were, remain, and unless time travel is invented and someone goes back and listens in, will likely remain a subject of conjecture, opinion and good ol’ guesswork, no matter what Rob Black says.What is known is how everything got started: April was a month circled in red for fans of all three promotions. In the WWF, the road out of WrestleMania was just as important as the road to it; typically, the post-‘Mania season saw new wrestlers debut with the company (either new signees or call-ups from the developmentals), while wrestlers who stepped into the spotlight at WrestleMania looked for ways to use their momentum to catapult them up the card. In ECW, April promised something huge for the promotion, as TV commercials promised a “(r)evolution” (their words) and their website, down for months and replaced with the ominous letter-from-Heyman splash page, had been replaced on March 1st with a timer counting down to their April 13th show from Los Angeles, which would also mark their return to full-time to live television after the Lolita/Francine exposure incident. Those with the inside skinny knew that this was the final transition date for ECW’s long-awaited “shift in philosophy”. What that amounted to was anybody’s guess, though. For WCW and its fans, April 10th was more then just a date. More then just a huge event. Dubbed “The Night The World Changed”, April 10th would mark the first show under the Eric Bischoff/Vince Russo regime. The prior week, Nitro had taken the night off, showing a best-of show hosted by Tony Schiavone, who promised that under the new regime, the show would return to its former glory; yes, Tony flat-out admitted that Nitro sucked, but Bischoff and Russo would “restore the glory and majesty of WCW” (Tony’s words). Rumors abounded about what kind of new WCW viewers would see; a new WCW logo had been unveiled, and a new set was all but certain. But the roster, announcers, the status of championships, and how they would explain this blatant rebooting was a mystery. One mystery–the roster–would come into clarity during the two weeks between the last Nitro of the Sullivan regime and the relaunch: WCW executives, facing bottom-line-watching Time Warner execs who wanted the company to look as shiny as possible for the AOL merger, started cutting expenses. Aside from discontinuing the ridiculous practice of flying everyone to every event, regardless of usage, the execs took deep cuts at the roster; the sprawling multitude of luchadores that never amounted to anything got the boot. Ditto all the wrestlers, like Kevin Wacholz and Lanny Poffo, the company had signed and never used. Several openers and lower-mid-carders also saw their jobs deleted. None of this really surprised anyone; what did were the big cuts. Sid Vicious, prone to “injuries” that often found him rehabbing at softball parks across the country, was dumped. Randy Savage, a man for whom “mercurial” is an understatement, also got the boot. The bloated guaranteed money contracts were renegotiated, and those who balked were given the option of sitting at home, collecting no money and waiting for their terms to run out, or take a pay-cut. And the dead-weight contracts of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall were once and for all terminated. Sadly, while Russo and Bischoff now had license to scour the indies and secure some new (cheaper) blood for their roster, their old harvesting field, ECW, was now out of bounds. Enter Rob Black and XPW. The con–April 2000:
As soon as WCW finished their purge, the free agent market became a pirahna pond (the WWF, to no one’s surprise, scooped up Kevin Nash and Scott Hall). With some money to play around with, Bischoff and Russo went shopping, only to find that many of the best up-and-comers were getting snapped up; the 2000 Super 8 winner, Christopher Daniels, signed to ECW, as did indy tag sensations Christian York and Joey Matthews and martial arts wizard Low-Ki. And the ones who weren’t sewn up turned WCW down flat, either too hesitant to tie their futures to a company as turbulent as WCW, or, thanks to the good relationship ECW had cultivated with many indies, many workers were simply content to wait it out for ECW to look their way. With their vision of a young versus old feud evaporating right before their eyes, Bischoff and Russo scrambled for a savior of sorts, and stumbled upon one (or so they thought) in Rob Black. To this day, nobody will comment on what transpired between the three during private, closed-door meetings, and, in fact, until April 10th rolled around, nobody outside the three of them even knew about the meetings. All that is known is that, as April 10th approached, the rumors about April 10th and the aftermath swirled like the winds of a hurricane; one rumor has the entire past 4 years–dating back to the incursion of Scott Hall in 1996–would be erased as a dream of Sting’s. Some speculated a Sports Entertainment vs. Tradition feud, pitting Russo and a stable of wrestlers against Bischoff and same. And, while nobody knew it at the time, WCW had a nice little bonus secret invested in Rob Black. April 10th came and went; WCW launched their reboot by simply vacating all the titles and pitting the “New Blood” (which had “youngsters” like Scott Steiner and Booker T, both of whom had been in the business long enough to not be “young” anymore) against the “Millionaire’s Club”, and instead of Russo vs. Bischoff, the two were aligned together, to “correct the mistake” they’d allowed to perpetuate. The entire roster was involved in the war, thus turning the entire Nitro into one amazingly cohesive storyline. The Millionaire’s Club were routinely and resoundingly humiliated as they underestimated the New Blood, only to wind up on the bad side of a beating. It was alarmingly good, and despite the WWF countering with the return of Hall and Nash, Nitro’s ratings actually jumped, chewing into Raw’s by way more then anybody could’ve guessed (not enough to really scare Vince McMahon, but enough to signal a possible changing of the winds). Pundits were left scratching their heads; did WCW have a secret pocket of loyalists just waiting for the brand to be revitalized? Would it just turn out to be a one-week spike, and the next week would see ratings bottom out again? Thunder would see Bischoff and Russo play their controversial ace in the hole; the overriding plot of Thunder was of the Millionaire’s Club getting payback on the New Blood. By the end of the night, the crafty veterans had managed to score some convincing victories both in and out of the ring that seemed to signal that maybe the New Blood weren’t ready to step up after all. As Thunder closed, the Millionaire’s Club sauntered out into the parking lot, basking in the pride of their victories … only to get the raw end of a hardcore beatdown by Kid Kaos, GQ Money, Supreme, The Messiah and several other of XPW’s roster, cheered on by master thespians (if one counts group sex as an acting accomplishment) like Kristi Myst and Lizzy Borden. Rob Black shook hands with Bischoff and Russo as the XPW “wrestlers” attacked without prejudice (and sometimes, without protection, as several wrestlers were busted open hardway from their sloppy “workrate”). XPW was to be the nuclear bomb that the stiff old codgers couldn’t counter, the weapon to blow them out of the water. The live crowd, although confused, reacted exactly as Bischoff and Russo hoped. Except that viewers at home who changed channels over to Fox saw Kaos, Supreme, Money, Rob Black, Kristi Myst and, of all people, Shane Douglas, in the front row of Unleashed, heckling a scientifically brilliant Christopher Daniels/Steve Corino match.The next day, TurnerSports executives were furious, and rightfully so. Thunder was pre-taped; Unleashed wasn’t. The explanation was obvious. More then one person pointed out the irony of this happening to WCW, given how they’d done the same thing to the WWF with Rick Rude a few years before. But the irony of it, and the logistics of it didn’t go to explain how or why this happened. To this day, there is no clear answer … but, if one is to believe unnamed sources, gossip, the notoriously unreliable mouth of Rob Black and circumstancial evidence, then a picture can be painted. Supposedly, Rob Black’s deal with WCW was a per-appearance deal for XPW wrestlers and valets to have a short run on WCW to help bolster the angle. WCW never bothered to mention that they’d also be viewing the performances as auditions, and would pursue signing those who showed promise; the fact that Kid Kaos and Kristi Myst kept appearing past the termination of the angle lends credence to the rumors of the appearences being clandestine auditions. XPW was to get a fee as well, giving the promotion some extra cash. Now the situation becomes murky (as if it weren’t already), as the appearence of XPW on ECW television is viewed as one of three things, depending on the person: a publicity stunt cooked up by XPW to get some free publicity–all the participants, save Myst, were wearing XPW shirts. Aside from heckling the product–calling it “fake extreme”, “bored-core” and screaming their promotion’s initials–their appearence on TV was remarkably tame. Of course, after cameras went off, there was a verifiable incident in the parking lot of the arena between XPW and a group of ECW wrestlers, when (supposedly) GQ Money grabbed Lolita’s breast and made and propositioned her. The ensuing brawl would send Supreme and GQ Money to the hospital with broken noses, a clump of hair ripped out of Myst’s scalp, and find New Jack sent to jail for “pulling a shiv” that nobody could ever reproduce on Rob Black (the charges would be thrown out when none of the XPW wrestlers’ stories could support one another on what happened). It was only by the efforts of Shane Douglas that the situation ended up diffused; when this got out, many assumed he might’ve been using XPW to lobby a job back in ECW. That Douglas got hired back into ECW a couple months later was chalked up to “coincidence” by Heyman and Douglas. Another theory says it was a stunt cooked up between ECW and XPW. The fact that XPW kept getting camera time seems to support this, as does Joey Styles’ referring to them even when the camera wasn’t on the invaders. Add to that the fact that Heyman and Black had done business prior to Black getting into the pro wrestling business, and suddenly, the kid-gloves approach to them being on TV doesn’t look so out of place. Why they would do such a thing in collusion is a mystery nobody has bothered to clear up in the ensuing years. Or, the third possibility: it was a revenge stunt, financed by the WWF, to try and disrupt ECW’s big relaunch show. It was widely known that Vince still wanted some kind of revenge for ECW booking Madison Square Garden; he couldn’t pull stunts like he did in the 80’s, such as blackmailing PPV distributors not to carry his competitors’ product, and the audience was too big now for counter-programming to be effective. And, hey, nobody could say Vince wouldn’t stoop to such a level; the “Billionaire Ted” skits, the entire D-X/Nitro segments and the backdoor payments for the salaries of Hall and Nash in ECW were all petty guerrilla revenge tactics, no matter how cleverly executed. Hell, read the lyrics to Vince’s song “Stand Back”; the concepts of “Vince McMahon” and “petty” are practically surgically fused at the hip. The truth? Well, the truth would seem to be a mixture of all three. Certainly, XPW did benefit from the appearance. And some clever snoopsters managed to dig into XPW’s financials, and was able to determine that whatever payoff XPW got from WCW, their bank accounts had gotten a sudden influx of cash well beyond the WCW payment. When lawsuits stared getting filed–WCW vs. XPW, WCW vs. WWF (yes, much to the chagrin of his bosses, Bischoff went to the litigation well again), , ECW vs. XPW (the WWF reportedly were about to file when someone wisely pointed out that filing a suit based on breach of contract tacitly admitted business dealings with Black)–the picture, even though no one was talking, became hard to ignore: Rob Black had played everyone. He’d taken a payoff from WCW to ingratiate XPW into the mainstream and get his promotion an injection of cash. He’d taken Vince’s money and promised to disrupt ECW’s show on the same night as Thunder, then turned around and took another payoff, this one from Heyman, to downplay the disruption, get some publicity for themselves and maybe stir even a little more buzz for ECW. Eight years later, the only thing Heyman, McMahon, Russo and Bischoff can come together on is a lie, even if they’re not telling the same lie. Russo (from an MSN chat in 2002): “Black and his bottom-feeders were there for a one-shot. Anything else they, or anyone else tells you, they’re full of shit. They took our money, screwed us like the whores they are, and snuck out the window to work for someone else. Then Bischoff files a bunch of stupid lawsuits and throws me under the bus and gets me suspended for a week while he tries to short-circuit all our long-range plans. I’ll tell you what, Bischoff, Black, Heyman … they can all burn in hell.” Bischoff (from a Q&A on WCW.com in July 2000): “The incident on Thursday, April 13th, 2000, with members of the Xtreme Pro Wrestling promotion was an idea solely born and pushed by Vince Russo. He wanted to bring in the smut and sickness he peddled on his former employer’s show, and if things hadn’t unfolded how they did, he woulda overrun WCW with that sickness. I’m almost glad they went on the other show. It got them out of our hair a lot quicker.” McMahon (from the McMahon DVD): “Anybody who tells you that I paid XPW to invade ECW obviously doesn’t know how I operate. To think that I’d get revenge by sending some backyard wrestler rejects to sit in their front row and heckle them … that’s not revenge. Burying them in the ratings, that’s revenge. Buying their company, that’s revenge. The whole XPW mess? Just a bunch of nonsense dreamed up by conspiracy theory nutcases in their parents’ basement.” Heyman (from Forever Hardcore): “McMahon is full of shit, okay? So’s Russo. Bischoff might be the only one besides me who’s telling the truth, and I don’t trust that two-face snake as far as I can throw him. XPW screwed all of us; they screwed WCW by taking their money and making them look like idiots appearing on two shows in one night. They screwed Vince by making him look like an incompetent goon. And they screwed me. One of their thugs tried to manhandle Amy–Lolita–and they got their asses handed to them. The only good thing I got out of it was I stole Shane Douglas back after we smoothed a few things over.” Indeed, for all of Rob Black’s creativity in playing a triple-agent, the one thing he didn’t think of was that he was a small-time promoter of a garbage fed and a low-brow pornographer, trying to stick it to much larger companies. By the end of the year, legal fees would drain the coffers of XPW, killing off the promotion in November. And the two XPW performers to make the leap would end up haunted by their pasts; Kaos would stall out as a jobber in WCW before being let go, while Kristi Myst’s XXX-rated past would get her fired only a couple weeks later. Relaunch–Spring 2000:
While the XPW Con-job (as it would come to be known) made asses out of the wrestling industry, and gave wannabe smarks something to debate for years to come, the fact that the Big Three were undergoing spring relaunches (or, in the WWF’s case, the post-‘Mania spring freshening) was not lost on fans, pundits and internet smarks. Expectations were high for all three shows, and initially, none failed to disappoint. In the WWF, Triple H became the first heel to walk out of WrestleMania main event as the victor, when Vince McMahon turned on The Rock. The feud continued through the spring, with the pair trading the belt back and forth in match after stellar match. Looming over Triple H’s shoulder, however, was a most unexpected feud: Hall and Nash, who played off the ECW/WWF storyline, came in with a vengeance for being abandoned by Vince. Furthermore, they were enraged that Triple H would take in “curtain jerkers” like The New Age Outlaws into D-X (in a memorable unscripted quote that earned a lot of backstage heat, Nash commented on the Outlaws; “How did you two slop-artists make it off Shotgun? Oh, I’m sorry, you’re both obviously qualified people. It musta been two other idiots who I saw feuding over an Fat Elvis impersonator.”), but didn’t extend the offer to Hall and Nash upon their arrival. In fact, if one criticism could be leveled at the post-‘Mania WWF, it was that seemingly everyangle pointed back to Triple H; there was a burgeoning love triangle with Kurt Angle and Stephanie, a part-time feud with Chris Jericho, the Big Show lobbied for his yet-unreceived rematch, and the omni-present threat of the Radicals, the stable consisting of Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero and Goldberg, loomed over Triple H’s reign (and anyone else, for that matter). One thing that didn’t change, of course, was the company’s content; as much as ever, sex and violence ruled the day. As a matter of fact, despite the architect of the WWF’s morphing into, as WCW partisan Bob Ryder once called them, “Raw Is Porn”, the WWF’s content managed to up the ante even more in the new millennium. Women’s wrestler Stacy Carter flashed her breasts after winning the Women’s Championship on PPV, and thereafter, her entire gimmick was built around teases of nudity; this turned the entire women’s division into a parade of matches designed to get women stripped down to underwear. And, just to show the company was mature, they decided to spoof the Parents’ Television Council–the fed’s primary nemesis over content–by creating a stable called Right To Censor, complete with wrestlers dressed like Mormon missionaries. Fans of the “edgy” WWF product lapped up t-shirts with “SUCK IT!” on them and Diva lingerie posters, but the critics were beginning to notice the fraying edges; plotlines started and stopped without notice, matches were generic punch-kick-finisher sequences, and the actual amount of in-ring content was dwarfed by vignettes and promos. Once again, the WWF’s response to critics was that they just didn’t “get it”. ECW’s date with destiny, April 13th, proved to be probably the most dramatic in terms of scale. Between the countdown splash page on ECW’s website, and a shift towards more scientific wrestling, fans were left puzzled as to whether the control Taz and his cohorts had won really did extend to the front office. On April 13th, they got their (kayfabe) answer, as two legendary figures in wrestling were welcomed to the ring by Paul Heyman: Ricky Steamboat and Ted DiBiase. With Heyman’s help, they went on to explain that recent changes in the look and feel of the product had been done to attract investors, and that DiBiase was now a partner in ECW. Steamboat, it was explained, would act as ECW’s Commissioner, enforcing some of the rules changes, which included a Code Of Honor that dictated all matches–unless otherwise noted in a “Fight Without Honor”–began and ended with handshakes, the establishment of a “Stable Rule”, which forced champions with stables to keep their mates out of the match, or face title forfeiture, proper respect for authority figures and penalties for sneak attacks. The new ECW–the E now stood for Evolved–would pay homage to the old school values, while retaining its cutting-edge wrestling style, they promised, and to that effort, they also said the company would now support two championships: the ECW World Honored Championship, and the ECW World Extreme Championship, with neither title being valued more then the other (the tag titles, however, would bridge the divisions). Competitors chasing the Extreme Championship would find the Code Of Honor more lax, but would also face more extreme wrestling conditions, while the Honored Championship would be fought under stricter, more pure wrestling conditions. When it came time to launch the new titles, though, ECW World and TV Champion Rob Van Dam was given a choice: he could either pursue the Television Title and forfeit the World, which would be renamed the Extreme Title, or he could keep the World and face Taz to unify the ECW World and Taz’s disputed Pro Wrestling Evolved Championship, which would make the new Honored Championship. RVD would choose the World Title, and, under threat of termination, Taz faced and lost to RVD at a special April event. The Extreme Championship Tournament would also conclude at Barely Legal, with Tommy Dreamer facing off against old-school representative Steve Corino. The PPV would fade to black on the image of RVD in the ring, celebrating his championship victory alongside Tommy Dreamer, the company’s first Extreme Champion. The special April event caused much hullabaloo in the industry, as Heyman and Sapolsky shared the same vision: that the new ECW was a chance to snare more new viewers, and that properly executed, a “rollout event” would do just that. So, rather then present a PPV, ECW negotiated a 3-hour block of time on Fox on a Sunday night, heavily sponsored and presented with limited commercial breaks (two 10-minute breaks at the top of the second and third hours, while the live audience enjoyed performances by a band). The new rules of ECW were officially put into play, and along with matches (including the two title matches), introductory vignettes were produced to introduce the ECW stalwarts to the new viewers. Titled “ECW: The (r)Evolution Begins”, and broadcasting from a sold-out Norfolk Scope in Virginia, the event proved a success in every way possible; Unleashed’s ratings nudged up and May’s PPV buyrates would increase, while critics and fans showered the event as a welcome breath of fresh air, showcasing wrestling in a way that neither WWF or WCW were doing anymore. Behind the scenes, the changes in ECW were welcomed enthusiastically, by both the boys (some of who, like Bret Hart, had no desire to keep up with–or even compete with–wrestlers like New Jack, and vice versa) and Fox, who got a product that was both edgy, different then the competitors, and no longer sent censors into apoplexy. XPW’s invasion later that night would provide a nice highlight for the more knowledgeable fan as to where ECW might’ve ended up had they not shifted their company philosophy, although, to some, the shift would never be acceptable. Paul Heyman would later say he believed ECW lost as many fans at it gained that night; when the ratings came back, Heyman was more then vindicated, as Unleashed’s numbers grew, creeping up on Smackdown’s bit by bit. As the summer continued, the company’s mainstream acceptance grew on the strength of their new outlook; suddenly, ECW shirts were sharing space alongside the latest Austin 3:16 shirt. Rolling Stone ran an article about ECW, profiling how they were changing perceptions of wrestling with their product. By spring’s end, there was no doubt the company’s new product was a success, even amongst their peers; the ECWA, one of the longest-running indy promotions and holders of the annual Super 8 Tournament, signed on to become ECW’s official developmental territory, giving the promotion first crack at the industry’s best and brightest young superstars. WCW’s relaunch had the most stunning start, and despite the bad press Vince Russo has gotten in the years since, never let it be said he didn’t write a blockbuster first chapter; be it the Austin/McMahon war, the Undertaker’s evolution into the Prince Of Darkness, or the New Blood/Millionaire’s Club war, Russo knew how to start a feud. Established stars like Ric Flair, DDP, Sting, Lex Luger and a yet-again-returned Hulk Hogan mixed with new stars like Mike Awesome, Scott Steiner, Booker T and Buff Bagwell. It was when his ideas got bigger then his ability that the storylines started to flounder, and the time in which the New Blood/Millionaire’s Club meta-angle deteriorated set a land-speed record.Chief among the issues of the angle’s collapse was that even though Russo and Bischoff came up with the plan together, they differed on execution; Russo wanted the New Blood as faces, looked to bury the Millionaire’s Club at nearly every turn, and yet scripted the New Blood with overt heelish tendencies while their enemies came off as underdog faces. Bischoff, however, knew that WCW–like the NWA before it–was a promotion with a legacy of being built around dominant heels, and wanted the New Blood to be portrayed as such. Wrestlers were often boggled as to how to portray their roles, as their position would often switch several times in one show, thanks to the two different authors moving in different directions. The effect of all of this led to the audience not giving a damn about either side, even while Bischoff and Russo force-fed the feud (in different ways) week in, week out. By April’s end, there was a betting pool amongst the wrestlers about who would take his ball and go home first; Bischoff’s odds ran 50-1. Russo’s ran 25-1. Someone else decided to toss in a third option: both being fired. That got even odds. And because the two writers couldn’t agree on a direction for the story or the performers, the wrestlers took it upon themselves to add their own twists. Scott Steiner became notorious for his promos, which were rambling, at times incoherant, rarely if ever resembling of the script, and usually inflammatory; one such instance had Steiner ripping into DDP’s physique, when he popped off with “DDP, answer this for me; is the reason you haven’t gotten your saggy bitch-tits fixed like your wife’s because you won’t pay for it on your knees like she did?” This caused a fistfight backstage, which earned Steiner a suspension … withpay. Young wrestlers took unnecessary risks in order to get over (like Johnny The Bull, who thought it a fantastic idea to do a slingshot seated legdrop to the concrete floor, which netted him a broken pelvis), and some of the older wrestlers resented how they were being portrayed and no-sold at will. When Scott Steiner was booked to the WCW Title against DDP at Spring Stampede, Steiner’s actions had effectively turned him heel and DDP face … except that the script had them in opposite roles. Steiner proceeded to heel it up and hog the offense, which set DDP off, who started to shoot on the much larger Steiner; the referee ended up having to quick-count a pinfall just to end the match and call in security to break up a very legitimate fistfight. Amazingly, the duo made it through April, and through May to, although by the time Slamboree rolled around, any pretense of the Millionaire’s Club/New Blood feud was all but forgotten; the stable names were never mentioned, Bischoff had all but disappeared from his on-screen role. Allegiances shifted every episode; Lex Luger went from being a target of the New Blood to partnering with former member Buff Bagwell. Ric and David Flair–father and son, mind you–started off with David a “face” in the New Blood against his father, then reunited with him the next week … then turned heel on his dad the next week. And once again, Bischoff was pulling away from his baby, leaving Russo to indulge in every flight of fancy he so desired. This included a disastrous publicity stunt with the movieReady To Rumble, a painfully bad movie about two idiot wrestling fans (that made all wrestling fans look bad by association) on a road trip to see a wrestling show; Russo tied in the movie to the DDP/Steiner storyline and brought in the movie’s star, David Arquette, to win the WCW Championship. Yes, Deputy Dewey from the Scream movies joined the (now formerly) illustrious ranks of men like Ric Flair, Sting, Vader and Bret Hart. Ratings for this particular episode of Nitro cut in half the week after this disaster–yes, 50% of the audience stopped watching Nitro just because Arquette won the title. Russo would defend the switch as an attempt to get some mainstream publicity; it did. Mockingly. Bischoff, wisely, kept his name off the flaming disaster that was WCW. The Great American Bash would be the duo’s final curtain. The main event, slated to be Steiner against Hogan for the belt, went on second. What happened afterwards is, like the XPW incident, something for which the truth will never be known. What the audience saw was Hogan come out, exchange a few words with the ref and Steiner; Hogan feinted like he would punch, then tapped Steiner in the chest, who promptly sold the devestating poke like he’d been on the business end of a wrecking ball. As the two celebrated the swerve, Vince Russo marched out to the ring, launching into a profanity-laced tirade: Russo: “What I just saw, I gotta say, makes me sick to my stomach. From day one that I have been in WCW, I ‘ve done nothing, nothing but deal with the bullshit of the politics behind that curtain. The fact of the matter is, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got three kids at home, and I really don’t need this shit. But I come back every day, for the guys in that locker that week in, week out, who bust their ass for WCW the right way. I came back for the Booker T’s, I came back for every single guy in MIA, I came back for Steiner, I came back for the guys behind that curtain that give a shit about this company. And let me tell you who doesn’t give a shit about this company, that goddamn politician Hulk Hogan. Cause let me tell you people what happened out here in this ring tonight. All day long I’m playing politics with Hulk Hogan, because Hulk Hogan, he wants to play his creative control card. And to Hulk Hogan, that meant that tonight in the middle of this ring, when he knew it was bullshit, he beats Scotty Steiner and gets another time around with the belt. Even though I don’t want it, Eric Bischoff don’t want it, and you people don’t want it, he wants the belt, he wants the nWo. Well guess what, Hogan got his wish, Hogan got his belt, and I promise everybody or else I’ll go in the goddamn grave, you will never see that piece of shit again! But I also promise, cause I know you paid good money to come here tonight, I promise nobody is gonna be ripped off here tonight. So Hulk Hogan now has the WCW belt, and Hulk, let’s refer to that as the Hulk Hogan Memorial Belt, because from here on in, that belt don’t mean shit! Because there will be a new WCW belt, and as far as I’m concerned, tonight, you ain’t gonna have to sit through no goddamn old folks’ night. Tonight, you’re gonna see two guys who been bustin’ their ass for years, Scott Steiner and Booker T. You’re gonna see them fight for the real WCW Championship. Hulk Hogan, you big bald son of a bitch, kiss my ass!” To say the execs were angry would be like saying Godzilla was just a salamander. Hogan was threatening a lawsuit; refund demands were pouring in from audience members and people who ordered the PPV. And since ratings and buyrates were still in the toilet, even after the dream pairing, Russo and Bischoff had even less of a defense. Nobody knows what happened behind closed doors, but when the doors opened, the results spoke for themselves: Russo was turfed. Bischoff had resigned. Hogan had left the promotion and was filing a suit. Terry Taylor was now in charge of booking, and was given explicit orders: Clean up the mess, while the parent company looked for a buyer. The Big Two’s rocky summer (and that other promotion, too)–Summer 2000:
The wrestling boom in 2000 seemed to grow bigger every day; both ECW and the WWF allied with the two political parties and had representatives (The Rock for the WWF, and Bret Hart for ECW) at both conventions, urging teens and young adults to get out and vote. Sports bars and restaurants like Buffalo Wild Wings and Hooters started PPV parties. Wrestlers were guest-starring on everything from Star Trek to Jeopardy’s celebrity edition. Wrestling became so ubiquitous, many industry experts proclaimed the new boom bigger then the Rock ‘N’ Wrestling era, and couldn’t forsee a collapse, even if ratings had cooled a little. Except for that one company down in Atlanta. The WWF entered the summer with The Rock wearing the WWF gold, finally having brought the reign of terror of Triple H to an end, but was facing threats from Chris Jericho and a dream match Goldberg. Triple H, meanwhile, had a litany of people looking for his head, including Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Eddie Guerrero, who attempted to pick up Stephanie (which led to an odd situation that found Triple H and Kurt Angle partnering against Guerrero and Malenko). The best news, however, was that Steve Austin, the WWF’s cash cow, would be ready to go in the fall. However, not everything ran smoothly for the WWF; the Parents’ Television Council was ramping up their war against indecency, and the WWF was a prime target, and the childish responses coming from Stamford–be it the Right To Censor, Vince’s interviews blasting the PTC with righteous indignance, or the general thumbing of their noses with the “Get it?” slogan repeated ad nauseum–didn’t help matters. As the pressure mounted, the backlash finally started hitting the WWF pocketbook–WalMart, the nation’s biggest retailer, pulled all WWF merchandise from their shelves, citing the product had become “too lewd” for the families who shopped there. But the biggest thing on the WWF’s horizon would strike them to the very core, and in typical McMahon fashion, the situation was handled in such a way that McMahon’s “reputation” as a business genius was cut off at the legs by his own actions. The WWF’s broadcast contract with the USA Network, which had broadcast Raw since its debut, was coming to an end and needed renegotiation. Only Vince McMahon, already by this point a billionaire, decided his company–read: himself–needed more money, and proceeded to shop Raw around to other networks. The biggest interest came from Viacom; their TNN network was struggling to stay relevant with the growing popularity of CMTV making TNN duplicative, and a hot property like the WWF fit into the idea they had of how to transform the dying network into a new broadcast force. The only problem was that USA claimed they had first right of refusal when it came to renewal offers for Raw; the WWF countered this with a labyrinthine argument about broken agreements, windows of time expiring, and the contract being null and void that only the WWF’s resident legal velociraptor Jerry McDevitt could argue with a straight face. NBC Universal (USA’s corporate parent) sued for breach of contract; WWF counter-sued for … well, nobody was quite able to understandwhat they were suing for, other then to get out of the contract. Nobody bothered to ask NBC why they’d want to hold on to a show owned by a company that most obviously wanted to run away, but then again, the problem seemed to repulse logic as if protected by a force field of absurdity. In the end, the WWF got its way, signed a sickeningly expensive deal that only solidified him as the Mr. Burns to the wrestling industry’s Springfield, and Raw and all the other was set to debut on The National Network (whatever that was) in September. Vince’s pockets were made fatter then ever, while USA, loyal home to WWF programming for years, was left looking forward to a massive hole in their line-up and their advertising revenue. Meanwhile, ECW’s evolution into a hybrid of scientific wrestling and hardcore action continued to wow fans with amazing match after amazing match and storylines that started and stopped in the wrestling ring; you beat me unfairly, you have a championship I want, you disrespected me, you left me out to dry in a tag match. Even in the Extreme division (which they made sure never to label a “division”, so as not to marginalize it; everyone was treated as an equal, regardless of style), the storylines were down to earth, if a little edgier in presentation (and to that end, Gabe was willing to enlist help from Raven and Tommy Dreamer, just like the other half got input from Bret). And the matches drew rave reviews; in the span of two months, ECW managed to score two five-star ratings from Dave Meltzer, one for a four-way 60-minute Iron Man match between RVD, Taz, Bret and Chris Benoit, and the other for an amazing 6-man tag between Tommy Dreamer, Sabu and Raven against Rhino, Jeff Jarrett and Steve Corino under Extreme Rules. It seemed as if nothing could threaten ECW’s steamroller of success. In fact, the only thing that threatened ECW’s success was just that: their success. Before their explosive success, ECW had a strong core group of wrestlers that floated in and out of the main event. Thanks to the phenomenal growth, though, ECW had managed to lure a number of top-tier talent from the other two feds, and the side-effect of bringing in all the world-class talent was a massive logjam. ECW’s main event talent alone featured Dreamer, Raven, Taz, Sabu, Sandman, Corino, Jarrett, Rhino, Bret, Benoit, RVD; just below them, waiting for their shot, sat Jerry Lynn, Justin Credible, Lance Storm, Chris Kanyon, Perry Saturn, Super Crazy, Yoshihiro Tajiri, New Jack, Spike Dudley, and new signee William Regal. Beneath them, there were plenty more people either coming up or in tag teams. And a logjam at the top meant a logjam in the middle, and on and on down the line. It was almost an unprecidented position to be in, to have such a dearth of talent in the upper ranks that one had to contemplate ways to solve the problem. Fortunately, solutions presented themselves in the most unusual of fashions; Taz, long suffering under a problematic neck, knew his time was limited, and chose to lessen his in-ring workload to ease into retirement. Likewise, Bret Hart, an old man in a young man’s company, started pulling back the reins. And ECW icons like Tommy Dreamer, Sandman and Raven all willingly took it upon themselves to work with youngsters to get them over. It didn’t solve all of ECW’s woes, but compared to the glut before, any relief was welcome. In WCW, there was some good news (yeah, I know, shocking), although how “good” it was was disputable; the ratings had stopped their nosedive and leveled off. Of course, they were still amazingly low, and showed no signs of turning around. But, to Terry Taylor’s credit, they stayed more or less level, which fulfilled the wishes of his bosses to stabilize the company while they looked for suitors to take the troubled company off their hands. Many companies were rumored to be interested, from a privately led group of investors led by Eric Bischoff, to Atsushi Onita (owner of FMW), to David McLane, the much-maligned owner/promoter of GLOW in the late 80’s. Legendary Japanese promoter/star Antonio Inoki, who also fancied himself a shit-stirrer in the industry, floated a rumor that none other then Vince McMahon was looking at purchasing the failing WCW; coupled with the rumor that the settlement in the trademark infringement lawsuit over Scott Hall and Kevin Nash in 1996 included a clause that the WWF got to make the first offer should WCW come up for sale made the WWF-buying-WCW rumor grow legs. McMahon himself shot down the rumor, stating that while the prospect was intriguing, they were not interested in purchasing WCW. Another rumor (no doubt conceived by Inoki) surfaced, saying the asking price was too high for Vince’s taste. Meanwhile, WCW marched on, trying anything they could to find that one hot story, that one hot character, that would catch fire and revive WCW’s ailing fortunes. When the decision was made to scuttle the long-running Power Plant training facility (which had produced precisely zero successful students), Taylor asked management not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and allow him to promote the students to full-time on-air positions. The group, collectively known as the Natural Born Thrillers, were as green as a plate of spinach, and most definitely not ready for some of the high-profile feuds they got shoved into (two of the group, Chuck Palumbo and Shawn Stasiak, were put in feuds against Lex Luger and Curt Hennig, where they stole the veterans’ gimmicks), but Taylor could ill afford to take a pass on anything to keep the company–and his job–alive. As the summer came to a close, one more name popped up as a potential buyer for WCW, but nobody could scarcely believe it: Paul Heyman and ECW. ECW was most definitely in a good way monetarily, but no one could quite believe they were that well off. For a week in the late summer, speculation ran rampant about how stars like Booker T, Scott Steiner, the Thrillers and others would fit into the ECW equation. The rumor mill damn near fell off its axis when Heyman was spotted taking a meeting in Atlanta with Time-Warner suits, but Heyman himself would shoot down the rumors on ECW’s website the following day, stating the meeting was to respond to WCW’s request for a “strategic alliance”. Heyman would go on to explain that he declined the offer, which proposed an inter-promotional angle and a talent swap, as ECW gained absolutely nothing from WCW’s proposal, and could even stand to lose out as they hitched their name and new reputation to WCW’s dying husk. With the partnership offer rebuked, WCW was quietly taken off the market. Taylor was given no indication from the higher-ups on what to do or what to expect, so he went about doing his best. But taking WCW off the auction block did little to calm nerves. In fact, it made things worse; with a sale, WCW might survive, and jobs might be safe. With no buyers, WCW had precisely two futures: resurrect or die. There was no need to place bets on this one in the locker room, because the odds were plainly obvious. Bombshells–Autumn 2000:
The autumn of 2000 gave the wrestling world two bombshells, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, WCW had nothing to do with any of it. In fact, WCW spent the autumn chugging along, playing to half-full houses (or less), trying everything they could to keep their head above water. The first bombshell came from the WWF, although it didn’t work quite like a normal sudden blast of news would. This was, in fact, more cumulative. Stone Cold Steve Austin, missing in action for almost a year, returned in October, and began a program of tearing through the fed looking for the person or persons responsible from running him over a year prior at Survivor Series. Many saw this as a fantastic way to get one of the on-the-cusp performers like Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, the Big Show or Test to break on through for keeps. Instead, the driver turned out to be Rikishi, a portly Samoan who had become a popular midcard comedy act thanks to aligning himself with clueless, white hip-hip nimrods Scotty 2 Hotty and Grandmaster Sexay and dancing a lot. His motivation of helping the Samoan (namely, The Rock) break through to the top and stop the “great white hope” that kept the island boys down sat well with absolutely no one, since The Rock had become champion not once but several times, including three reigns before Austin went on the shelf. When WWF Creative saw the angle dying a quick death, a hasty rewrite made Triple H the mastermind behind the attack. This made more sense given the storylines running at the time of Austin’s departure, but was a massive letdown when they had a dearth of other more enticing options available. But the change in direction for the storyline became symptomatic of a larger problem with Austin’s return: the promotion being, once again, built around Austin. The stars that had been built up over the past year, like Guerrero, Jericho, Malenko and others all suddenly found themselves crashing back down to the midcard. Kurt Angle, a pet project of Vince, looked strong unless put up against Stone Cold. The only people who were allowed to compete on Austin’s level were Triple H, The Rock, Undertaker and, amazingly, Goldberg … and only because even Austin saw the money to be made in the eventual Goldberg/Austin match. Suddenly, the mood in the locker room wasn’t so sunny, despite the record numbers the company was doing; because Austin equalled money a year before, he simply must equal big money now, even though the company had built on 1999 quite nicely without him. While the WWF became The Austin Show, ECW had their own bombshell announcement in the fall: they put themselves up for sale. More specifically, Heyman put up 49% of the company, citing the need for both a fresh mind in the front office, and more capital in the accounts. Instantly, offers began pouring in, from other promotions both in the States and abroad, as well as private investors. Instead of going for the biggest offer, though, Heyman was shrewd, and picked the person he felt would be the greatest asset to the company, an event promoter by the name of Cary Silkin. Silkin’s participation with ECW was minimal, and more described as an “investment” then a purchase; he would attend shows, sit in on creative meetings and made sure he got to know each and every member of the roster, but his day-to-day involvement in the running was minimal. It almost begged the question of whythe sale even happened. ECW’s on-screen product, however, paid no notice to the split in ownership. Ratings and buyrates continued to be strong, and Unleashed continued to give Smackdown headaches (Thunder, by this point, had jumped to Wednesdays, where programming executives finally discovered that it wasn’t the competition killing Thunder–Thunder just sucked on ice). But as the year wound to a close, there would be one more bombshell to hit the wrestling world.
The last gasp for air–Winter 2000/2001:
Wrestling had always been at the heart of Ted Turner’s media empire, because of a fondness in the eccentric billionaire’s heart for the sport; southern rasslin’ had helped his TBS SuperStation gain a national foothold. When Jim Crockett Promotions was about to go under, Turner rescued it and happily wrote checks to keep the promotion alive, even as it bled money for years. When Eric Bischoff asked for prime time TV, it was Turner who ordered his programming executives on TNT to give it a few hours on Monday nights, against the WWF’s Raw. For years, Turner was the life-support system and cheerleader for WCW’s continued existence. The merger between internet giant AOL and multimedia super-conglomerate Time-Warner gave the world had a new mega-corporation, AOL Time Warner, which had fingers in the pies of publishing, television networks, movie studios, magazines, the internet, the recording industry, sports … and an oddball property, a wrestling promotion that just so happened to be bleeding money. Turner, now a little fish in a huge ocean, could no longer underwrite his pet project willy-nilly. It was now someone else’s property. And when the suits in AOL Time Warner looked at the books and saw this appendage that was a gigantic money-hole, they wasted no time: WCW was going up for auction. And this time, there would be no reprieve. If it wasn’t sold, and sold fast, WCW would wind up alongside the AWA in the graveyard of wrestling promotions that collapsed under their own hubris. Immediately, a suitor stepped forward, a mysterious group of investors named Fusient Media Ventures. Heading up Fusient was none other then Eric Bischoff. And since he was the only one sniffing around, AOL Time Warner began the sale process. WCW.com acknowledged the sale, openly referring to Fusient and Bischoff as “the new owners”, and featured an interview with Bischoff about how he was going to change things: no more guaranteed contracts. They’d conserve money by running smaller venues. Performers would be rewarded for better performances. They would build new stars. And cruiserweights would be pushed to the moon. AOL Time Warner actually gave Bischoff the book, since the sale was a fait accompli (pending a simple little 45 period of due diligence that nobody in the media bothered to mention or notice). Bischoff also decided that the company was going to need a fresh start once Fusient had it in their hands, and began a clever booking scheme to achieve it: WCW Champion Scott Steiner began systematically destroying and “injuring” all the faces, one at a time. It would all lead up to a PPV in May, called The Big Bang, where everyone would make their comeback, Steiner would be dethroned, and the company would begin anew. And for those who actually tuned in to WCW, they found an actually engaging and compelling program … but convincing new people, or former viewers burnt by the company one too many times, was a hard sell. Ratings didn’t go up, but reviews were enthusiastic. For the first time in seemingly years, WCW actually looked good. Then Jaime Kellner entered the picture. A television executive that had helped launch both the Fox and WB networks who helped spawn successful shows like Married With Children, In Living Colour,Gilmore Girls and Dawson’s Creek, he nonetheless came to Turner Broadcasting with a reputation for maddening decisions that alienated fanbases; his gutting of the KidsWB line-up included cancelling hits like Animaniacs, Freakazoid, and unnecessarily retooling Pinky & The Brain. When he landed at Turner and encountered wrestling, he saw huge problems: they were aiming for a certain demographic for both viewers and advertisers, and even if WCW flipped overnight and became a billion-dollar division, they wouldn’t be scoring the demographic he wanted. What’s more, he just didn’t think wrestling fit in the scheme of things, regardless of ad revenue, ratings, or anything else that might possibly be construed as beneficial. So, he cancelled WCW programming. All of it. Nitro, Thunder, everything. Gone. Fusient panicked. The books were bad enough to give the investors in Fusient a scare; without TV, WCW was worthless to them. Bischoff tried in vain to get another network interested, but no matter how much he schmoozed, Bischoff couldn’t shake the stink of death off of WCW. Nobody bit on Nitro. WCW was now the walking dead, with the final broadcast slated for March 26th. With no TV deal, and Fusient’s backers retreating as if their lives depended on it, Eric Bischoff had to surrender his dream once and for all.Just as it was settling into fan’s minds that the Monday Night War was truly over, and WCW would be a memory, someone stepped in to alter that perception: Vince McMahon. On the Wednesday before Nitro, bright and early in the morn, WWF.com broke the story that they were in negotiations to purchase WCW. It was rumored that, thanks to the cancellation of the TV shows, AOL Time Warner just wanted to wash their hands of the property and were selling it for a song. The WWF’s website trumpted the occasion like a cross between Christmas and the fall of Berlin, complete with an interview with McMahon in which he speculated how he would handle both the talent roster and the WCW property itself. By Wednesday afternoon, the story was quietly pulled from WWF.com, along with all related articles, when another bid, topping both the WWF’s bid and the asking price, came in. The media scrambled to find out the identity of the mystery bidder, but neither AOL nor the bidder were forthcoming. Reading wrestling news sites on that Wednesday was enough to give anyone a seizure; to keep up with the news, you had to sit on the refresh button, as another news tidbit dropped seemingly every second. First it was the mystery counter-bid; then, the WWF countered. Nope, another counter-bid. The mystery bidder was FMW. No, it was NJPW. No, it was Jerry Jarrett. Oh, wait, here comes another bid.; wait, the WCW wrestlers are gonna buy WCW?!? No, wait, Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo?!? Hulk Hogan?!? AOL changed their minds? What the–?!? When all the false leads, bogus rumors, innuendo and guesswork were finally sorted out, and people got a look at the truth, it was just as shocking as all the BS–ECW was the mystery bidder, and, after a contentious bidding war, won the auction. It was a truth no one was quite able to swallow. How could a company that was operating out of a bingo hall only 3 years ago be big enough to buyWorld Championship Wrestling?!? The truth was quite simple: without TV, WCW was worth nothing, and AOL was willing to sell it for dirt cheap. And, unlike Vince, who wanted it because his ego demanded so, Heyman wanted it because, despite the recent bad programming, WCW had both a rich heritage he didn’t want to see vanish out of spite, and had a large stable of wrestlers from which he could hand-pick the next crop of ECW superstars without having to engage in a bidding war. ECW retained the rights to 24 stars (although not all would end up on the roster), while the big names left in WCW were left to ponder a deal: take a buyout from AOL at some 50 cents on the dollar so they could test the free agent market, or sit at home and get guaranteed money? Some took the buyout, some didn’t; the WWF, looking to get at least something out of the collapse of their biggest competitor, managed to snag a couple, but not nearly enough, and most certainly not everyone they should’ve. The WCW Title, while not exactly possessing of a long and winding history (certainly not the claims of it stretching back to Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt), was merged with the ECW Honored Championship; the WCW Tag Titles were folded into the ECW Tag Titles. The rest of the championships were given an honorable retirement. As for the final Nitro, Heyman let Bischoff, who had steered the ship for the past few months, book the promotion’s final curtain, and Bischoff spared no expense in trying to make WCW’s death knell a loud one; dubbed “A Night Of Champions”, any previous WCW Champion at any level was welcome to show up and compete, say a few words, or just attend. Booker T upended Scott Steiner for the WCW Title; Dusty Rhodes (with permission from ECW) gave an impassioned speech about WCW’s legacy and ECW keeping the tradition alive; Raven returned and won the WCW Hardcore Title in a violent, bloody brawl that resembled a bingo hall classic, and was miles better then any attempt at a hardcore match then WCW had put on; Ric Flair and Sting faced off for one last time, and, after Sting won by submission, embraced to the delight of the crowd.Nitro’s final moments, however, would belong to Paul Heyman, who surprised the crowd by showing up in the first place, then asked all the wrestlers, and Eric Bischoff, to come out so he could address them. The massed wrestlers–both guests and active performers–assembled on the stage as Heyman held court and gave a stirring, compelling speech that aimed to both heal old wounds, promise a future, and aim a dagger straight at the heart of a demon; Heyman: “If the younger guys like Shawn Stasiak and Chuck Palumbo will beg my pardon, I think all of us guys who’ve been around … Sting, Ric, Harley, Lex, we all remember the territories, and how it worked back then, and how one guy came along and went national and crushed the territories dead. Don Owen, Sam Mushnick, Jim Crockett, hell, even Verne Gagne … every one of them and more all got trampled under a steamroller out of Connecticut that didn’t give a damn about tradition … didn’t give a damn about honor … didn’t give a damn about you guys, or the promoters and their dreams … and didn’t give a damn aboutwrestling. Well, let me tell you, and let me tell that one greedy, egomaniacal, self-centered son of a bitch something; I give a damn about tradition. I give a damn about these guys and their dreams. And I still like wrestling. Not that Sports Entertainment crap you shovel down people’s throats every Monday.Wrestling; two guys fighting it out. No fires at mortuaries, no spilled coffee, no supernatural powers; two guys with a grudge, and a place to settle it. That’s what WCW was about, that’s what ECW is about, and that’s what Ric Flair, and Harley Race, and Big Van Vader, and The Road Warriors, and Ricky Steamboat, and Dusty Rhodes, and me are all about! That’s why Cary and I fought so goddamn hard to buy this company; because we knew, if we wanted the tradition, and the memory what WCW meant to its fans to survive, only ECW could keep the flame alive! Not you, Vince McMahon! All you want is to rape and pillage and plunder until everything you see is yours. Well, the history and the legacy of WCW is something you will never get your hands on. You will never have a chance to piss on the ashes, Vince, because ECW won’t let you. We will proudly fly the banner that this company shrouded itself in, that of pride to be involved in the sport of wrestling … for Terry Funk, and Magnum TA, and the Four Horsemen, and Sting, and The Great Muta … for WarGames … we will continue the traditions and the honor you built with your bodies and your blood … and we’re gonna do it when we bring Nitro back to the airwaves July 2nd, on FX! Do you hear me, Vince? The war … has just begun!” The announcement of the resurrected Nitro was a closely guarded secret that only two people outside of the Fox broadcasting empire knew of: Heyman and Silkin. Coming on the heels of Heyman’s impassioned, fiery speech, pundits were shocked to see that, while the final Nitro under the Time Warner umbrella still lost handily to Raw, the quarter hour with Heyman’s speech thoroughlytrounced the competing quarter hour. It was sweet validation for Heyman and Silkin, confirming what they already believed: that buying WCW was the right thing to do. And while fans of WCW would always lament the loss of the groundbreaking company, anybody who tuned in that night and heard the passion in Heyman’s, and saw the tears of joy and pride in the eyes of the WCW locker room knew that while WCW’s die may have been cast three years prior in a garage in Virginia, those fans knew what made WCW so special wasn’t dead after all. Where are they now?:
The sad, strange saga of the WWF, WCW and ECW, and how their fortunes changed all from a silly publicity stunt in Virginia involved a mighty cast of people. The ensuing years have scattered them to the many winds (and some might argue that being forgotten is a fate too fortunate for some of the players), but, for the sake of history, let’s look back on some of the cast and where fate and fortune have taken them since WCW’s final curtain. Vince McMahon: Not surprisingly, Vince is still in business, pushing Sports Entertainment as hard as ever. But, like Verne Gange and Eric Bischoff and a hundred promoters before him (and himself back in the early 90’s), Vince held on to his top stars and his presentation style a little too long, and by 2003, ECW had managed to beat the WWE (having lost the F in a lawsuit with the World Wildlife Fund) in the ratings for the first time. Of course, by then, wrestling itself had also lost its luster with the American public, but coming in second place was still a bitter pill to swallow for Vince; to this day, he has yet to do anything but trade victories back and forth with Heyman. But he’s still an evil billionaire, so, he can’t be too unhappy. Paul Heyman: After the successful relaunch of Nitro, Heyman stepped back for a time from ECW, letting Silkin and Sapolsky handle the business. He returned in 2004, working on-air as a manager, and behind the scenes as a talent scout; his scouring of the indy scene have produced some of the biggest stars of the post-Attitude/nWo generation, including Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels, Bryan Danielson, Abyss, Monty Brown and AJ Styles, who have taken the “(r)evolution” that ECW brought about in 2000 to a whole new level. Eric Bischoff: After a two year absence from wrestling spent wheeling and dealing various projects in Hollywood that went nowhere fast, Eric Bischoff made a shocking return to wrestling … not as a promoter or owner, but an on-air role as the General Manager of the WWE. Critics everywhere almost fainted when they saw Bischoff debut on Raw by hugging Vince McMahon; one renowned internet writer, RD Reynolds, likened the hug to taking a pile of cash, putting it in a barrel and lighting it on fire. Bischoff played the role for three years before stepping away to pursue some more futile projects. Kevin Nash: While his appearance in WWF generated massive buzz, he was never able to catch the same wave of popularity he had in his initial WWF run or his WCW stint with the nWo. A short title run in 2002 proved a disaster, and a plague of injuries to his knees and legs finally put the big man out of action in 2004. He has since signed on with TNA, acting as a part-time booker and an on-screen, non-wrestling personality. Scott Hall: Always battling problems with drugs and alcohol, Hall’s second WWF run proved all too short, as several embarrassing incidents while intoxicated (including a drunk-driving crash that injured fellow passenger Triple H so badly, he missed almost the entire year of 2001, and the first couple months of 2002) led to his termination. Triple H: A phenomenal run as the company’s #1 heel was cut short thanks to a horrific traffic accident with Scott Hall. When he returned, he was a shell of his former self, and putting on 40 pounds of bulk didn’t help. A series of injuries followed, and, after marrying Stephanie McMahon in real-life in 2004, Triple H retired from the ring and took a position on WWE Creative that he holds to this day. Steve Austin: After a botched heel turn in 2001 cut his drawing power, Austin faced tensions with WWE’s creative team over their desire to use his star power to build new stars. After a walk-out in 2002, Austin returned, but a lifetime of injuries had taken their toll, and his in-ring ability was obviously diminished. He wrestled his final match at WrestleMania XIX, losing to The Rock. Aside from random appearences and publicity tours, he makes no real contribution to the WWE anymore The Rock: The other great draw of the late 20th century, in 2000, The Rock won a bit part in The Mummy Returns, which led to a leading role in the prequel, The Scorpion King. The success brought Hollywood calling for more, and eventually won over The Rock, whose contributions to the WWE became sporadic at best. He wrestled his final match at WrestleMania XX, teaming (and losing) with Mick Foley against a trio of young superstars, Randy Orton, Batista and John Cena, collectively known as The Revolution. Bret Hart: After retiring in 2003, Bret took a position as head trainer in ECW’s training facility. His students have won prestigious titles all across the globe, from Japan (four junior heavyweight champions in three promotions), Mexico (a heavyweight champion in CMLL), and North America (various champions in ECW, WWE, and a Super-8 winner). Along with a few others, Bret’s tireless efforts have turned ECW’s training grounds into such a premier facility, there is a near two-year waiting list to get in. Taz: The man whose “big fight” gimmick served as a prelude to the evolution of ECW in 2000 stepped back from the ring in 2001, a casuality of neck injuries. Taz transitioned into the broadcast booth, becoming the color man for Nitro alongside Mike Tenay, and joining Joey Styles as color-man for PPV’s. In addition, he works part time in ECW’s training facilities alongside Bret Hart. Chris Benoit: Benoit became a centerpiece of ECW, putting on instant classics with nearly everyone in the company. He is a 3-time Honored Champion, currently involved in the company’s top storyline, a race between Samoa Joe and himself to become the first man in ECW history to hold both World Championships simultaneously; Joe has the edge, as he already holds the Extreme Championship, while Benoit holds no title. Eddie Guerrero: A victim of the glut of main-event-caliber talent as the WWF entered the new millennium, Guerrero languished just below World Title contention for a few years before jumping to ECW in 2004, where he promptly got pushed to the main event and won the Honored Title in January 2005. Sadly, it would be his only reign, as undiagnosed heart disease would lead to his death in the fall of 2005. Dean Malenko: Malenko collected several midcard titles in the WWF, including tag title runs with Guerrero, and European and LIght-Heavyweight runs. However, his long-standing neck injuries and small stature prevented a further push, and he announced his retirement at the 2001 Brian Pillman Memorial Show. He now works as a senior road agent in WWE. Bill Goldberg: Goldberg would find the most success of any of the WCW exiles that WWE picked up, winning the WWE Championship twice. However, conflicts between the creative team and himself over how he believed his character should be portrayed led to Goldberg leaving WWE in 2003. ECW passed on hiring him, and with TNA too cash-strapped to take on the superstar, Goldberg made a bid for Hollywood as an action star. Hulk Hogan: Once Hogan’s contract lapsed with Time Warner, Hogan was involved briefly in the abortive XWF promotion ran by Jimmy Hart. He signed with the WWE, enjoying a brief nostalgia run (including a disastrous title run that killed the value of the title, in addition to the drawing power of Kurt Angle–who he defeated for the belt, clean as a sheet–and his own), but got into numerous scuffles with McMahon over payouts and putting over others. In 2006, he broke ties with WWE, and started rumors of forming his own promotion. Nothing has surfaced, but he continues to bring it up whenever he gets the mediaÕs lens on him which, a decade or more after he and relevancy parted ways, is somehow still very often. Vince Russo: In 2003, Combat Zone Wrestling owner Jon Zandig convinced former XPW owner Rob Black, Andrew McManus (of the failed WWA experiment) and David McLane to invest in his company, with the intentions of making a run at establishing a strong #3. Russo was convinced to join up and be the booker, but having four people with differing philosophies on top led to infighting, and the coalition collapsed. Without the money to pay for him, Russo left CZW, got hired on at WWE for four days before proposing an idea that made Vince McMahon scramble for Russo’s contract and a lighter. Russo was terminated, became a born-again Christian, and started a wrestling-meets-religion promotion called Kingdom of Heaven Wrestling. Rob Black: After the CZW experiment went awry, Black tried to revive XPW in Philadelphia, calling it XPW-The East Coast Invasion. With several independant promotions in the area all fighting to be the most hardcore (CZW still survived, fighting against The Blue Meanie’s 3PW, Jersey All-Pro Wrestling and the Indiana-based IWA-Mid South), and ECW still the favored son of Philly, XPW shrivelled up quickly. Black poured his attention back into his porn business, but was indicted and convicted on federal obscenity charges in 2005. He is up for release in 2009, and is not missed in either industry. Tommy Dreamer: The Sting of ECW, worked through injuries galore, putting over youngsters in his final years in the ring to make sure ECW had a future. When he finally hung up the boots, he went to work in ECW’s training facility, once again working with the youngsters. Raven: By the time Raven left ECW in 2002, drugs, injuries and exhaustion had made him a shell of his former self. After pulling back from the spotlight, Raven got himself cleaned up and returned to ECW in 2006 as a manager and, behind the scenes, an advisor to Gabe Sapolsky. Booker T: Touted in WCW for its last two+ years as a future superstar, Booker decided to take the buyout and signed with the WWE … only to languish midcard hell, anchored with brilliant, career-driving moments as fighting over a Japanese hair shampoo commercial. He finally achieved a main event run in WWE in 2006, long overdue to his supporters. Diamond Dallas Page: Another of WCW’s upper card who took the buyout and went north. If Booker T’s career stalled post-WCW, DDP’s went in reverse, going from a WCW main-eventer to a WWE lower-mid-carder after spending four months jobbing to Undertaker in every way possible. After taking on a motivational speaker gimmick that only led to his release, DDP went on to live the gimmick and really become a motivational speaker. Scott Steiner: Another of WCW’s darlings in the final days, Steiner waited out his contract and signed with the WWF in 2002. Out of shape and having lost all his buzz after being off the air for nine months, Steiner proved a dismal failure and was released in 2004. After rehabbing several injuries, Steiner went to Japan, got back in shape, and is now an upper-level heel in TNA. Jeff Jarrett: After his contract with ECW came to an end in 2002, Jarrett had seemingly only one option, to re-sign. At the eleventh hour, Jarrett was brought forth a proposal, headed by his father and a number of smaller investors, to re-establish the NWA brand by creating a new promotion to serve as the centerpiece for the nearly 60-year-old confederacy of independant promoters. Dubbed TNA (for Total Non-stop Action) and showcasing a six-sided ring, the Jarretts’ promotion tried a weekly PPV model before settling into a standard one-a-month format after getting a regular timeslot on WWE’s former network, USA. Unfortunately, with WWE’s sports-entertainment and ECW’s hybrid of hardcore brawling and high-impact pure wrestling, TNA’s southern rasslin’ runs a distant third. Ric Flair: After waiting out his WCW contract, Flair fielded offers from both major promotions. Flair declined both and, in 2002, was presented with a new offer: to help finance a resurrection of his old stamping grounds, the NWA. Flair became a minor financial partner, appearing on-screen for a short run, before transitioning to a managerial role. In 2005, after the publication of his autobiography, and it was revealed that Flair had suffered from severe bouts of depression in the final years of WCW and since, wrestlers across the industry put together an independant show to celebrate the career and achievements of Flair. Wrestlers from TNA, ECW and WWE all participated in a three-hour show, which culminated in a special tag-team main event, pitting Flair and Triple H (a self-professed lifelong Flair fan) against Terry Funk and Dusty Rhodes in a bunkhouse brawl; Flair got the victory with a figure-four over Funk, who then presented Flair with an honorary NWA Championship belt, proclaiming him World Heavyweight Champion For Life. Sting: Like Flair, Sting waited out his WCW contract and turned down offers from ECW and WWE to put his money and his face behind the NWA-TNA promotion, coming out of self-imposed exile in 2005 to give some additional star-power to the beleagured promotion. Shane Douglas: Douglas signed a short deal after the XPW Con-job and quickly discovered he was no longer the big fish in the small pond, but one of many fish. A year later, with the option to renew or leave, Douglas left and signed with the Jarretts’ NWA-TNA, first as a wrestler, then as a color commentator alongside Tony Schiavone.