What if…The Montreal Screwjob Never Happened?
In 1997, the wrestling industry had reached a point no one ever thought possible: the WWF, the bull-in-the-china-shop that killed the AWA, crippled Jim Crockett, neutered the NWA, and obliterated countless other competitors, was on the losing end of a new war. The Ted Turner-owned WCW, long a limping, galumphing colossus with no sense of direction and an unstable leadership, had found the necessary tools to dismantle Vince McMahon’s empire. Rumors that Titan Sports was on the brink of insolvency were all over the fledgling Internet Wrestling Community (a term not yet coined, but the spirit was in full bloom), although, since kayfabe was still protected fiercely in the WWF, they would never admit as much.
As 1997 wound down, McMahon was struggling to keep his company afloat, and needed to make tough cuts to survive. And after a 14-year relationship, Bret Hart found himself on the chopping block. Long had Bret been a mainstay and main event player of the company, but with WCW breathing down their necks, and Bret’s contract a weighty multi-million dollar 20-year deal, his was the most glaring example of fat that could be–and needed to be–trimmed.
Except, of course, for the eensy-weensy issue of him being WWF Champion at the time. And, since Bret had a Òreasonable creative control” clause (a phrase that would be endlessly debated and argued over in the days, weeks, and years following) built into his contract, that meant he had the contractual right to veto storylines he didn’t agree with. Such as losing the title in his home country of Canada to his real-life enemy, Shawn Michaels, at what would be his final WWF in-ring performance, the 1997 Survivor Series.
It was 10 years ago that we all tuned to the Survivor Series, and heard Jim Ross throw a stone through the window of kayfabe, live on pay-per-view, by admitting that it was Bret Hart’s last match in the company, and no one knew what would happen regarding the WWF Title if he defeated Shawn Michaels. And as much confusion as there was in Montreal that night, the havoc and chaos that followed could barely be believed had we not seen it. In honor of the 10th anniversary of that dramatic event, we now look back on the turning point of that night, and the events that transpired from it.
November 9th, 1997:
For several months, a documentary crew had followed Bret Hart as his WWF career took him from his beloved man-of-the-people fighting champion gimmick to a USA-hating, conspiracy-theory-seeing paranoid heel. He had voiced his distaste in the film for the direction the WWF had been heading in–becoming more and more adult and straying from the core principles of wrestling that he grew up with in Canada. And the biggest symbol of the cancer in the WWF–both in real-life and on-screen–in Bret’s mind was Shawn Michaels, leader of the sophomoric D-Generation X faction.
With his showdown against Shawn in his own home country looming, Bret also expressed concern (on film and to officials directly) about what would go down at Survivor Series. Vince McMahon was equally worried; morale was at an all-time low. WCW had shown there was no depth they wouldn’t plumb to win the Monday Night Wars; announcing they’d signed away the WWF Champion live on Nitro was WCW Vice President Eric Bischoff’s speed. And the fears of another Madusa Miceli incident, only with the company’s most valuable prize, were unavoidable, even with Bret’s assurance that he would never bury the company or the title.
What cameras didn’t show were the meetings that Vince took all weekend, about how best to handle the situation. With Bret invoking his creative control clause to veto a title switch, that left little recourse; having him drop the belt at any date after SurSer was shot down as having too many pitfalls. The idea of using the WrestleMania IX ending was floated, but shot down as ridiculous and unsatisfying. Bret lobbied for a DQ ending, where D-Generation X and the Hart Foundation ran in during a sequence where Shawn and Bret traded using the Sharpshooter. The most popular idea behind closed doors branched off that, but was also the most distasteful–throwing the match while Shawn had Bret in the Sharpshooter, making him the new champion and protecting the belt. Predictably, the people most in favor of that were Shawn and his buddy, Triple H. Nobody, save Vince, knew what would happen when it came to match time, because Vince didn’t announce a decision. D-X and the Foundation had orders to go with Bret’s run-in idea; Earl Hebner had been apprised to listen for Vince’s word, just in case. Everyone was prepared, but nobody was on the same page, since Vince was–no pun intended–the only one holding the book.
In his 2002 autobiography entitled “My World”, Vince McMahon, silent for the previous five years, finally related his side of the events that night: “As I watched Shawn put Bret in the Sharpshooter, I thought … business is business… but deep down, I couldn’t believe Bret would steal the WWF Title belt. He had too much integrity. Bret wasn’t in wrestling for the money. Bret loved to wrestle, and deep down, I knew that. With Bret, pride was worth more than a paycheck. Madusa … she was just talent. Bret was like a son to me. And if I wouldn’t do it to my own son, I couldn’t do it to Bret.”
And with that, Bret’s plan unfolded; Bret reversed Shawn’s Sharpshooter. D-X ran out. The Hart Foundation ran out. Earl Hebner called for the DQ. The fans who didn’t know about this being Bret’s final match in the company went home expecting the storyline to continue. The ones that knew were left with memories to counter the sour taste in their mouths.
Vince’s last words on the topic of the 1997 Survivor Series in Montreal in his book are this: “My wife, Linda, knew the turmoil I was in with this decision. When we got backstage, she hugged me and told me that no matter what happened as far as the company was concerned, I did the right thing morally. And to this day, I know I did. But I still spend a few seconds every day since then, wondering what if. What if I’d made the decision like a businessman and put the title on Shawn.”
November 10th, 1997:
From the outside the WWF probably looked like it was coming apart at the seams in the 24 hours following the Survivor Series. The entire main event picture–which really won’t set in stone to begin with–had to be re-arranged. With no title change the night before, the going plan was for Bret to forfeit the title to Vince on Raw, say a quick goodbye, and there would be a tournament to crown a new champion, which would finish at the next pay-per-view.
But before they could deal with that issue, they had another: a mutiny of the Hart family. Minutes after Survivor Series ended, Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart all demanded releases. Owen and Bulldog were flatly refused; both had marketable name value, both were inexpensive, and both were good utility midcarders. Plus, as a matter of principle (stated Vince in his book), he didn’t want to hand Bischoff his entire roster. Neidhart, however, had no upside even with Bret around, and less than none with Bret gone; his release was granted without hesitation.
Monday Night Raw came up that night with Vince in the ring. If one watches the video, you can see his shoulders slumped, his head hanging heavy, as if he were at a funeral. His voice had none of the bombast he is familiar for. “As some of you may know,” he began, “last night was Bret Hart’s last match in the WWF. It pains me to lose one of the greatest stars in this company’s history, but the circumstances are beyond my control. However, Bret is still the WWF Champion, and I can’t allow that to go with him as he explores a new phase in his career. So, Bret, if you’d join me, please …”
Despite being portrayed as a heel for the past six months, Bret enjoyed a hero’s welcome that night. Whatever it was Vince intended to say that night, we’ll never know; with an upraised hand and a shake of his head, Bret cut him off, and, to this day, Vince refuses to address questions about it. The last thing Vince ever said to Bret in a WWF ring were: “Go ahead. You deserve this moment.”
Bret let the audience have their moment, with chants of “please don’t go”, then began his goodbye speech. “First, let me say thank you to all the fans who have supported me throughout my career here in the World Wrestling Federation. It truly has been an honor to wrestle and entertain you, and whether you cheered or booed me, I will miss you all. But, this whole business about the circumstances being beyond control is bullshit. If you want to know who’s to blame for me leaving, blame that man right there. Fourteen years, Vince. I’ve been with you forfourteen years. When you stuck my brother in that idiotic Blue Blazer costume, did I complain? When you let Hogan walk out of the company so he didn’t have to lose to a ‘vanilla midget from Canada’, did I say anything? When you let the boy toy Shawn Michaels and his buddies con you into making the company revolve around them while you stuck me in angles with a pirate over a leather jacket and a goddamned color commentator and his evil dentist, did I gripe? No, I didn’t! And this is how you repay me? When I took time off last year after WrestleMania, WCW threw a big-money contract in my face, trying to lure me away. I could’ve taken it, but I didn’t, because I had loyalty to the company, and the man, that made me the star I am now. You offered me a twenty-year deal, worth a hell of a lot less than WCW was offering, but you knew I loved the WWF and its fans so much, I’d rather wrestle for peanuts here than get paid millions to sit on my ass and watch Hogan play air guitar. But a month ago, you know what Vince tells me? ‘Turner’s kicking my ass, Bret,’ he tells me, ‘and I can’t afford you anymore. Maybe you should call Bischoff and see if the offer is still good.’ He doesn’t ask if I want to renegotiate. He doesn’t ask if I’ll take a pay cut. And I’ll bet it never crossed his mind to consider letting Shawn Michaels out of his contract, since he already showed how much he loves this company by quitting it back in June. No, he knows The Hitman will bail him out, like he always has … the Hitman will take the bullet.”
Insiders at the time said that, as Bret spoke, everyone in the back was glued to monitors, their jaws on the floor. The only person who didn’t have their eyes on Bret at the time was Vince, whose head hung in shame so far he could lick the mat. Bret continued: “Fourteen–look at me when I’m talking to you, goddammit! Fourteen years, and this is the thanks I get? You treat me like an old, crippled horse that you gotta drag out behind the barn and shoot? It’s bullshit, Vince. You wanna push a couple of juvenile punks like Shawn and Hunter … you wanna push some foul-mouthed redneck like Austin? Great role models for the kids, Vince. Whatever lets you sleep at night. You want the swearing, the violence, the bimbos you trot out in bikinis, fine. But remember this, Vince; you will neverbe able to break even on this deal. You sold your soul, and your company’s integrity, down the river. And you sold out a friend.” Bret’s final words in the WWF, while holding the belt away from him as if it were poison would be: “You don’t have to worry about me taking this to Eric. It’s worthless, just like this company, and just like you, Vince. Everything this belt stood for, everything that made this belt the biggest prize in the industry, you’ve flushed down the toilet. It’s a worthless piece of shit. Just … like … you.”
Television viewers at home saw Raw cut to a commercial; those live in attendance saw Bret drop the belt and the microphone and leave, but not before giving Vince a pair of middle finger salutes and tracing “WCW” in the air. The audience would give Bret a rousing send-off. Vince’s departure, head hanging like a man being led to his execution, drew silence.
By the end of the night, the tournament is announced, but the structure stupefies even the most apologetic WWF fan; a 14-man tournament, with four men receiving byes to the second round. Two men–The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels–were given byes without explanation. The other two byes had to be earned in qualifying matches the following week. The segment where the tournament is announced was slated to be read by Vince, but the writers had to switch and send out on-screen authority figure Sgt. Slaughter when Vince decided to hop in his limo and bolt.
On the other side of the dial, Monday Nitro came and went without a whisper of signing Bret Hart. Rumors of a work hit the internet message boards and news groups as soon as Nitro faded to black. Despite Dave Meltzer and several other prominent wrestling websites all reporting that Bret’s deal to join WCW isn’t a work, the rumor persisted, despite logic and all present evidence. WCW, amazingly, offered no response. A couple years later, in an AOL chat, Eric Bischoff would explain why WCW stayed uncharacteristically silent: “I went into the night waiting to see how WWF would handle it. If they woulda come on and taken it in stride, I woulda switched things up and blew ‘em out of the water. But Bret did the job for me, and I didn’t even ask him to. He just went in, was honest, and it cut the legs right out from underneath ‘em. When I saw that, I figured, I’m alone in the race now, so why beat a dead horse?”
As the WWF Championship tournament got underway, rumors of backstage chaos spread like a disease: Shawn Michaels was demanding the WWF Title. Shawn Michaels was ready to walk … again. The Undertaker was penciled in to get the title. No, Ken Shamrock was the favorite to win. Nope, wait, now, Steve Austin. Vince had stolen someone from WCW and was preparing a big surprise. But, as countless interviews with numerous stars over the years would illuminate, the chaotic swirl of rumors only reflected the real nature of the company; plans were being changed, discarded, resurrected, mutated, re-written and politicked for/against with every passing second. A creative meeting on Tuesday was forgotten before the clock struck twelve. Brackets weren’t announced backstage–let alone on TV–until two weeks into the tourney, as plans changed so often, nothing could be announced for fear of having to issue a retraction. Worst of all was that, months in advance, they’d settled on the subtitle of the December In Your House to be “D-Generation X”, which pretty much forced them to book the tourney around Shawn Michaels.
The matches to win a bye would pit Kane against Intercontinental Champion Steve Austin, and Triple H against Mankind. Mankind and Kane won, thanks to outside interference (Austin’s bid was sabotaged by Rocky Maivia, while Mankind got some accidental assistance from Chyna). A week later, the brackets were announced, with plenty of perplexing inclusions: Vader (who hadn’t sniffed the main event in close to a year) vs. Jeff Jarrett (who hadn’t sniffed the main event … ever), Triple H vs. Ken Shamrock, Rocky Maivia vs. Owen Hart, and Austin vs. Davey Boy Smith. Mankind vs. Kane and Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker, the recipients of first-round byes, got to sit back and watch as the worst excuse for a title tournament unfolded. The highlights included: the massive monster Vader jobbing to a Jeff Jarrett guitar shot that happened right in front of the ref; Shamrock advancing past Triple H on a Dusty Finish from Commissioner Slaughter (which led to the booking of a Sgt. Slaughter vs. Helmsley “Boot Camp” match at the PPV); and Owen Hart pinning the hot up-and-comer Rocky Maivia with a school-boy. The only clean finish to be found between the two pre-tourney matches and the first round was the total squash of the British Bulldog in a match that recalled old Wrestling Challenge matches. To call the tournament a debacle would be an understatement; by the time Austin pinned Davey Boy in the main event of the night (a Òmain eventÓ that saw Smith get in two punches before being torn to ribbons in under 90 seconds), the crowd was so quiet, you could practically hear the vendors in the aisles selling cotton candy and Pepsi on TV. Davey Boy was so incensed at the booking of the match that he sandbagged the entire match and no-sold offense everywhere, then went backstage and asked for his release again. This time, Vince couldn’t find a pen fast enough to sign off on that request.
The results of the first round pleased no one–not the audience, not the wrestling journalists and columnists, and especially not the boys. Aside from Davey Boy Smith’s mutiny, rumors were rampant that Shamrock was mad that he’d been promised a main event run, and was being booked too weak for someone with a UFC background; Vader was supposedly tired of being used as a Jobber To The Stars and was looking to get a release and go back to Japan where he was a monster. And Shawn was reportedly livid that Owen Hart was even in the tournament, let alone advancing. It didn’t make things any better when the second round bowed, and Owen Hart went over Steve Austin to advance against Kane, who demolished Mankind. Shamrock was given a clean win against Jeff Jarrett … only to get a match with Shawn Michaels–now confirmed backstage as a finalist in the tourney and likely to win it all–in the semis, having gotten past Undertaker. The crowd wasn’t satisfied with the second round either, as the Owen/Austin match ended with interference (from Rocky Maivia, which set up an Austin/Rock match at the PPV), and the Shawn/Undertaker match had Shawn going over after Undertaker fended off Chyna, Helmsley and Rick Rude (and, so it seemed, the 82nd Airborne), only to fall to a Tombstone from Kane. The night after, Dave Meltzer would post a column on his website that tore the WWF to shreds for their booking of the tournament which, he wrote, “is burying the WWF Championship worse then if Bret had taken it to Nitro and thrown it in the garbage”.
“I laughed at that,” said Bischoff in his autobiography, ÒControversy Creates CashÓ, regarding Meltzer’s comment. And while he would go on to make the dubious claim that he never asked Bret to bring the title with him, one thing is certain: Meltzer’s comment was spot-on. Every week, Raw was losing another fraction of a point to Nitro, and there were a few more empty seats in the arena. And the WWF, languishing in a dismal second and struggling to pay the bills, was doing itself no favors by staying their course. This time, it wasn’t a prominent name jumping ship that was killing the WWF like it did a year before with The Outsiders; the WWF was shooting themselves in the foot. And the shins. And the kneecaps.
Often in wrestling, a tournament is used as an opportunity to elevate new talent and freshen up the main event scene. While maligned for being a sprawling, dull, plodding affair, the tournament at WrestleMania IV established Randy Savage in the main event scene. The same could not be said of the tournament that concluded at In Your House: D-Generation X.
It wasn’t even the quality of wrestling for the pay-per-view; Austin and Rocky tore down the house with a wild fight, the Slaughter/Helmsley match could only be classified as a miracle, and a Jarrett/Vader rematch had a distinct southern flavor to it that the crowd liked. But when it came to the tournament, all the wheels fell off the wagon. For only the third time in the entire tournament, a match ended clean … and it just so happened to be Shawn Michaels pinning Ken Shamrock, after a thorough dissection of the former UFC fighter’s offensive arsenal. Owen Hart would advance, but on a count-out, the result of a ridiculously overbooked mess, which had Paul Bearer trying to attack Owen with the urn, only for The Undertaker to chase off Paul Bearer, which led to Kane abandoning the match in favor of pursuing his brother. Nobody expected the finals to go smoothly, but what the audience saw was nothing more then a farce; Shawn sandbagged Owen on multiple occasions, and no-sold a Sharpshooter, visibly yawning on camera. D-X ran down in a carbon copy of the end of Survivor Series, only this time, there was no Hart Foundation to balance it out; Shawn went over courtesy of a shot with Rick Rude’s briefcase while Chyna distracted the ref. Some in the audience were silent; some expressed themselves with disapproving chants (“This show sucks,” “No more screwjobs”, and “We want refunds” were all heard quite distinctly live on PPV); many threw garbage into the ring.
And the reaction backstage wasn’t any better; Shamrock, angry over how he was booked and being screwed out of what he believed was a promised WWF Title shot, walked out of the company, vowing to go back to UFC. The walkout killed the intended Shamrock/Rocky program for Royal Rumble that would’ve led to a Shamrock IC Title reign and build-up for a World Title program in the summer. Amazingly, as bad as IYH:DX came off, no one else threatened to walk. Not that having Shamrock, Davey Boy and Neidhart all bolt for the door in a month and a half was a track record to point to and be proud of.
But then, the following night, the main event for the Royal Rumble was announced as Shawn vs. Owen for the title in a steel cage. When Shawn got to the arena that night and heard about the booking plans, he confronted Vince McMahon in the dressing room; the confrontation ended with Shawn and Helmsley leaving the arena (which meant Shawn wouldn’t be on the pre-taped Raw for the following week either), while Vince walked out with a black eye. Other programs that launched saw a build-up to an Undertaker/Helmsley match at the Rumble (by way of an Undertaker promo that Helmsley couldn’t respond to since he wasn’t there), while Austin forfeited the IC Title to focus on the Rumble. Rocky Maivia, who had taken to calling himself The Rock (in the third person, no less), won the vacant title (the second vacancy for the belt in six months, and the fourth vacant title overall since June) in a 20-man battle royal with help from his Nation Of Domination friends, who helped oust NOD nemesis Ahmed Johnson, starting a Rock/Ahmed program. Reviews of the Raw weren’t terribly kind, due to the helter skelter rebooking necessitated by the two no-shows, but spirits were higher in the back.
“Even with Shawn pulling his little hissy fit,” said Steve Austin in an interview in 2002, “the writers pulled their shit together and made up a plan for WrestleMania. And Vince, he said ‘never mind what they’re doin’ it Atlanta. Just keep us afloat’.”
But no matter what anybody said, the fact was, December 15th was circled on red on everyone’s calendar and fast approaching. Morale meant nothing in the face of December 15th. The WWF had to swing for the fences that day.
Because, on that day, WCW was free to debut Bret Hart on WCW TV.
There was no need for WCW to debut him with a long build-up or introductory vignettes; this was Bret Hart. During a segment between WCW announcer Larry Zbyszko and nWo boss Eric Bischoff that was building to a showdown at Starrcade for control of Nitro, Bret Hart came out without warning, and got a reception so thunderous, his entrance music was drowned out. And just as quick, Bischoff spent that good fortune by taking the hottest property in wrestling and … booked him as a referee in a match between an announcer and a front office suit. Granted, it was still a hot offshoot of the main nWo vs. WCW angle, but still … a referee?!? And just in case the fanbase wasn’t thrown for a loop already, the nWo got to draw first blood, beating down Bret alongside Zbyszko. Bischoff would get raked over the coals for taking the WCW debut of the biggest name to walk through their doors since Hulk Hogan and 1) reduce him to a mere referee’s role in the long, drawn-out nWo angle, and 2) have him get punked out on his first night. Bischoff had a million defenses: the plan for Starrcade was set in stone before they got Bret on board. Having him as a ref would build tension for his in-ring debut. It would give him a springboard for his first angle. Bottom line, per Eric Bischoff: everyone else was wrong. He was right.
Starrcade, WCW’s answer to WrestleMania and built for a over a year on the back of the first-ever Sting/Hogan showdown, would find its detractors–mostly WWF apologists, who would point out the screwy booking in the main event and the Bischoff/Zbyszko match as everything WCW loyalists derided the WWF for. And, truth be known, the promise that had been unofficially given–that Starrcade would be where the nWo finally ate a fatal bullet–was broken; in almost every undercard match, save Diamond Dallas Page vs. Curt Hennig, the nWo walked out the winners. The drama was still off the charts, and where applicable, the in-ring action was top notch … but the critics would harp on points like how Buff Bagwell and Lex Luger both got involved in the Bischoff/Zbyszko match, which ended with Bret putting Zbyszko on Bischoff and counting to three.
The main event was no better; Hogan pinned Sting after a fast from crooked ref Nick Patrick who subbed for assigned ref Randy Anderson. Bret raced out and got in the ref’s face, and before the crowd could go into a revolt over the possibility of another nWo schmoz ending, WCW’s locker room emptied out and circled the ring. Bret restarted the match, and as WCW, faces and heels united, pound down the nWo, Sting locked Hollywood Hogan in the Scorpion Deathdrop and got the win and the WCW Title. It was emotional, it was glorious, and it was everything Eric Bischoff has planned for over a year and then some. The crowd was whipped up in a frenzy as if the hometown team had just won a sports championship. The sound of the crowd confirmed that Bischoff, as screwy and dirty as he might be, was giving the fans what they wanted.
And it told something else, to the pundits, and to the guys up in Stamford: WCW might just be unstoppable.
As the new year rolled around, rumors swirled about the conditions backstage in both companies. Sources inside the WWF said that, with the Royal Rumble upcoming, spirits had improved. But ratings, attendance and merch sales were all still in the crapper, and contradictory reports kept leaking that this talent was griping about his push, or that talent was going to bail for Atlanta when his contract expired. Helping put a damper on the mood was news that negotiations to bring in former boxing champ Mike Tyson for a big angle and publicity stunt with Steve Austin fell through. Still, the general belief at the time was that the Rumble would do good because of its position as one of the “Big 5″ PPV’s, and the official launch pad for WrestleMania build-up.
It was unspoken common knowledge that, for the WWF’s Big 5, trying to compete for pay-per-view dollars was futile. If you need evidence, then look no further at WCW’s events that occurred the same month as the Big 5: January had Souled Out (a flaming disaster the one year it had run, and prior to that, January was empty on the WCW calendar), March had Uncensored (an unmitigated failure for three years running), August had Road Wild (with its fabled zero-dollar gate and highly receptive audience made of drunken bikers) and November had the overbooked mess of World War 3. Only in June was there an attempt at competition, with WCW’s Great American Bash taking on the youngest of the Big 5, King Of The Ring. But the other four … it was just stupid to try and take them head on. Suicide, even.
Yet, in spite of prevailing wisdom, common sense or business etiquette, Eric Bischoff stopped just short of declaring open warfare on the WWF on their home turf. With a new name–Helter Skelter– to wash away the memories of the prior year’s debacle, WCW’s January event was no longer positioned as a throwaway event for WCW elitists only; no, from moment #1 of 1998, WCW positioned Helter Skelter as an event as important on the calendar as Fall Brawl or Bash At The Beach or Starrcade. Promos on the first Nitro of the year promoted it as “the dawn of a new era in World Championship Wrestling”. And with the goodwill in paying off Hogan/Sting at Starrcade, fans showed with their dollars and their remotes that they were buying the hype; ratings for Nitro continued to climb. Live events were selling out faster then they could print tickets. You couldn’t set foot in an American high school or a shopping mall without seeing nWo or 4 Horsemen or Sting shirts on the backs of teenagers.
Vince recognized the gathering tide and, by all accounts, went into crisis mode. The WWF was losing money faster then an Amish edition of Playboy. He’d lost three higher-end stars in two months, and Shawn Michaels was throwing hissy fits on a daily basis. And here he was, giving the buying crowd a Royal Rumble with results a blind man could see coming. The final Raw (which Shawn Michaels and Triple H actually performed at) before the Rumble pushed their top angles hard, even if the storylines were obvious, and the logic dumb as a potato: Kane teased a face turn that nobody, not even the kids, believed was going to happen and helped defeat D-X with Owen Hart and his brother. Ahmed Johnson won a gauntlet match against the Nation Of Domination. Vader and Mankind beat down the New Age Outlaws in the parking lot, which set up a tag title defense. And Steve Austin, who spent the entire episode giving everyone he saw a Stunner, lost a “First Or Worst” match to Jeff Jarrett (thanks to The Rock), which gave Jarrett the #30 slot in the Rumble and Austin #1.
“Vince lost his friggin’ mind,” said Steve Austin in 2002. “Everywhere he looked, he was seein’ failure. That Raw before the Rumble, everyone said ‘You’re givin’ the show away.’ You don’t let the face get the win ahead of the big showdown unless the face is gonna lose.”
And when the ratings came back flat as ever (despite a hot, if not sold-out crowd), added to the fact that the Rumble–their preamble to their centerpiece show–still wasn’t sold out, Vince did indeed lose his frigging mind. Even Vince himself admitted as much in his autobiography, stating that he had a “mini-nervous breakdown”. His response was to call the creative team–headed by a wild-eyed former video clerk Vince Russo who doubled as a columnist for WWF Magazine under the pseudonym Vic Venom–for an emergency meeting to revamp all existing storylines from the ground up. On Saturday night, after a house show, the new creative direction was unveiled to the boys. To say it was met with criticism would be like saying World War II was a schoolyard scrap; Vader and Mankind, who were scheduled to beat the New Age Outlaws by DQ (setting up a rematch), were now going to lose clean to set up Vader heel turn. Owen Hart, previously scheduled to lose by a cheap loss with DX interfering, was now the beneficiary of a Tommy Rich-esque title hotshotting, but would drop it the following night on Raw to Vader. And, in a carbon copy of the WWF Title match, the main event slot awarded to the Rumble winner would be hot-potatoed, with Jeff Jarrett (yes, he of the lighted cowboy hat and plans to take over Nashville by wrestling) winning the Rumble and losing it to Steve Austin to following night. Vince hadn’t even gotten to the change to the WWF Title match before the bad blood started; Vader reportedly screamed obscenities at Vince, comparing the current change to when Shawn Michaels had short-circuited a Vader WWF Title run in 1996. After tossing a bunch of chairs at the wall, Vader grabbed his gear and left, and wouldn’t be heard from until a half an hour before the Rumble, when he showed up ready to work.
There were no other outbursts, not even, surprisingly, from Shawn Michaels. Vince laid out his plan, everyone kept their negative opinions to themselves .. and then, Vince dropped the biggest surprise; a mega-angle that would start with, of all people, Jerry Lawler. It rendered everyone in the room speechless. Vince took that as a sign that he had, in fact, happened upon the golden ticket, the angle that would succeed in generating unstoppable buzz and would bewilder everyone who watched.
Unfortunately, the Rumble would also bewilder Vince and the rest of the WWF executives.
The Rock retained the Intercontinental Title on a Dusty finish, after Ahmed Johnson kept hitting Rocky with the Pearl River Plunge. Had everything gone according to plan, it would’ve set up a rematch at WrestleMania XIV … but, during a post-match beat-down by the Nation, a badly timed splash in the corner on Ahmed by Mark Henry tore Ahmed’s rotator cuff. The WWF Tag Title match also produced injuries (a busted nose on Road Dogg and a black eye on Billy Gunn), courtesy of Vader taking his aggressions out on the Outlaws with stiff shots. But with Vader primed for a WWF Title run, Vince couldn’t afford to punish the mastodon, save monetarily; there just wasn’t the roster depth to go suspending or firing anyone at that point. And the Shawn/Owen match was yet another debacle, as Shawn and Owen went from wrestling snug to wrestling stiff, with the script thrown right out the window. Shawn’s unprofessional attitude hit a new low when he sold Owen’s enziguiri, the match-winning move (a nod to the ’95 concussion angle) by laying on the mat, watching Owen crawl through the door, his head propped up in his hands like a kid laying on the floor, too close to the TV. By this point, security had quietly doubled around ringside, and trash was routinely raining down into the ring. Shawn responded by giving the crowd a pair of fingers, and proceeded to get in his car and leave the arena immediately.
But for all the hatred the World Title match got, the Royal Rumble itself was even more disliked, if you can believe it. The ending, with yet another Rock-costing-Austin-the-win interaction, was dumb enough, and old hat to boot. But the bombshell … yeah, it got people talking alright. Lawler did his normal cowardly heel, hiding under the ring, stalling for time bit … and, then someone coming from the audience broadsided him: ECW’s Tommy Dreamer. Within moments, ECW wrestlers Mikey Whipwreck, The Sandman and New Jack joined Tommy Dreamer in their attack on Lawler, the man who had led an invasion in their fed several months beforehand. The San Jose, California audience, a market that had little exposure to the exclusively east-coast cult-like phenomena of ECW, gave the invasion the full force of their built-up hostility. Two more of ECW’s wrestlers, Rob Van Dam and Sabu (Lawler’s only allies in his invasion) joined the WWF wrestlers in the ring who had slid under to help out Lawler, which brought the Rumble to a complete halt. By the time ECW was escorted from the ring, the crowd (what crowd hadn’t already walked out) was chanting “bullshit” and “refund”. It was such a debacle that, years later, the event would be inducted en masse by RD Reynolds on his popular WrestleCrap website as an honorary Gooker Of The Year winner for 1998, with the following text:
“For all of the horridness that was WCW’s Unholy Trinity of mini-movies, they were just that: mini-movies. They were short, and they were trying to sell you on an event. 1998′s Royal Rumble was the event, which means, if you watched it, you paid for the privilege of sitting through the most painful, miserable, excruciating excuse for a wrestling event ever.”
Despite the hostile backlash from the live audience and the new asshole he was ripped by industry pundits and critics, Vince was determined to forge ahead with his plan the following night … except two angles had to be re-written, as Ahmed’s injury killed the Rocky/Ahmed program. Somehow, despite a roster with several tolerable midcard candidates, Chainz, the leader of the heatless Disciples Of Apocalypse stable, got the nod to be the Rock’s new rival. But if that wasn’t bad enough, the fed had suffered another high-profile talent loss, and this one the most painful of all: Shawn Michaels. The New Age Outlaws got shoe-horned into the DX stable to keep it–and the valuable merch money–alive, and Triple H (as he was now being called) inherited Shawn’s program with Owen. Beyond those two complications, Raw was tolerable, if predictable; Austin challenged and beat Jarrett. Vader won the WWF Title after a Triple H run-in against Owen, which led to a run-in against Vader by, in a total surprise, Cactus Jack, after the match ended. That, and Austin’s win, were the only things that night that popped the crowd. Much less well received was the ECW angle, which got furthered with, of all things, a debate between Lawler and ECW’s owner, Paul Heyman. The debate, which is harangued by boos, predictably turned into a brawl, with Lawler backed by RVD, Sabu and a contingent of midcard WWF wrestlers and jobbers, while Heyman had his boys behind him. After the pull-apart, Heyman “challenged” Vince to put ECW on Raw, which Vince “accepted”. Of course, it was planned all along, as a way to use ECW’s audience to bolster WWF’s … overlooking the fact that ECW fans already knew what WWF was and, more often then not, hated it. And to the boys in the back, putting the rejects from a bingo hall on national TV meant a bite out of their television time and a sort of roundabout vote of no-confidence in their abilities. It was almost becoming a game amongst WWF-haters, disgruntled fans and the industry pundits; how will Vince top his last misstep?
With the epic, Great American Bash ’91-style failure that was the 1998 Royal Rumble and the following night’s Raw having stumbled similarly, WCW was in position to deliver a crushing blow. Critics across the burgeoning Internet Wrestling Community were skeptical; WCW had been the beneficiary of the red-hot nWo storyline, which had more or less limped along in the last several months as Sting/Hogan drew near. The debut of Bret Hart on WCW television was less than memorable, and certainly not befitting a man with his track record and recent notoriety. There was a lot of doubt that Eric Bischoff had more then one trick in his arsenal.
The episodes of Nitro between Starrcade and Helter Skelter had their critics, to be sure, and almost all the criticism centered around one fact: the new storylinestill involved the nWo. But unlike the previous two years, WCW was no longer a group of individuals all getting trounced on a weekly basis. Instead, WCW’s scattered flag-bearers had become a united front, with a special group of men at the forefront: Lex Luger, The Giant, DDP, new WCW arrival Davey Boy Smith, WCW World Champion Sting, and the most unlikely of choices for a WCW rallying point, Bret Hart.
And with the defeat of his rival so close, Bischoff recognized a changing of strategy was in order. Yeah, Starrcade made megabucks, and the crowd was watching/buying in record numbers, but he didn’t want the win; he wanted the kill, and he needed a new blade if he was going to stab it deep enough to kill Vince Caesar. Slowly, news spread that he wasn’t acknowledging the buttkissers anymore. In fact, he called a staff meeting after the first Nitro of 1998 and told everyone that anyone who wasn’t a team player could “go jump on the sinking ship up north”, that they better be here to work together for the success of WCW or they’d be out of a job. The news struck home to those like Hogan, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, who’d coasted by on fat contracts and being Bischoff’s drinking buddies. And Bischoff further pushed this new agenda when he asked Ric Flair and Arn Anderson (along with special guest Tully Blanchard) to do a segment with the Hart/Sting faction and pass the torch by endorsing the new stable, which had taken the moniker of “The Honor Guard”. The emotional, raw response from the crowd silenced critics that another round of faction wars would drag WCW down.
“What you saw in that ring, what you saw that night,” said Ric Flair on the documentary portion for a Ric Flair & The 4 Horsemen retrospective DVD, “that was real emotion. That was real. This sport, this business may be fake, there’s always critics or columnists who wanna tear us apart, but that night, lemme tell ya … those tears were real. Everything me and Arn and Tully said and did that night … that’s better then any television show, any movie, anything, because that was real life. And I was proud as hell to do it, and I’d do it all over again.”
“It was a great honor,” added Sting on the same DVD, “to have these men, these icons … Flair’s been World’s Champ how many times? And here he is, in the ring with two of the original Horsemen, the dominant stable of WCW. It wasn’t no nWo, where they let anyone in; the Horsemen were the elite group. And here they all are, telling me and Bret and Page and the rest of us ‘We tried. We couldn’t get the job done. But we believe you can. Do what we couldn’t, what we can no longer do. And do it for us.’”
All the sentiment in the world, though, isn’t proof of success; ratings are. And, in this case, the ratings backed up everything Sting and Flair would say years later; the turfing of the Horsemen and the rise of the Honor Guard turned WCW from red-hot to supernova. Everything he served up, the crowd ate, and demanded more. Helter Skelter would continue that trend, with the nWo, reeling from the organization of WCW under the banner of The Honor Guard, facing the new faction’s members all across the board. The two biggest matches would be Bret against nWo also-ran Curt Hennig, which was to be more a coming out party for Bret in WCW, and Sting giving Hogan a rematch in a steel cage.
And even though Helter Skelter ended on a sour note, it fulfilled the promise that Starrcade reneged on; the nWo was rocked to the very core, from the opening bell to the fade to black. Bret’s match against Curt Hennig not only managed to be the best match of the night, but wound up in the running for PWI’s Match Of The Year honors. Programs were blended with each other seamlessly, setting up the next PPV’s match-ups while paying off on the current storylines. The only down note for WCW in their war against the nWo was Hollywood Hogan regaining the WCW Championship thanks to Randy Savage slipping in a baseball bat for Hogan to use. But the audience got something to look forward to at the end, when the Honor Guard surrounded the cage, allowing Bret to get his hands on Hogan. The final image, of Hogan locked in the Sharpshooter, blood pouring down his head, was a direct cribbing of WrestleMania 13′s Bret/Austin submission match, and many a critic nailed Bischoff to the cross for such a shameless theft. But the audience reaction said that Bischoff was on the right track.
And the numbers confirmed it. Preliminary buyrates still had Royal Rumble winning the month, but not by nearly as much as one would’ve expected. And while Vince would be the first to admit he wouldn’t piss on a critic’s gums if their teeth were on fire, it was awful hard to ignore the sacks of angry letters and deluge of similar emails pouring into Stamford. The ECW angle, especially, reportedly (but never confirmed) drew enough negative letters in one week to fill a dump truck. It’s hard to imagine such a thing … not that one angle could piss off that many viewers, but that the WWF had enough viewers left to accomplish such a feat in the first place. Because by this point, one of wrestling’s two golden rules was fully in effect. The first says that when a promoter is hot, they can do no wrong; and the second, applicable to Vince and the WWF in 1998, is that when a promoter is cold, they can do no right.
And that second rule was being exemplified everywhere they turned. Critics were all over the ECW arrangement, saying it was for nothing so noble or altruistic as to help out ECW, but a desperate act by a desperate company trying to plug holes in a sinking ship. Perhaps one of the more telling signs of the WWF’s dire straits was that TV Guide decided to run a special edition with a cover story on the pro wrestling boom, with four variant covers; gracing the covers were Bret Hart, the original nWo trio, Sting and rookie sensation Goldberg. The WWF weren’t even extended an offer to share the covers. The message was clear: they were drowning in a teaspoon.
Amazingly, the ratings rebounded, if only marginally, after the Rumble. Despite the bombing of the ECW angle–even with the WWF bringing in Terry Funk to stand against ECW–and the loss of Shawn Michaels and Ahmed Johnson, the audience bought into the return of Cactus Jack, and Austin remained the biggest draw on the card. The other shifting about isn’t as well received; when Chainz is pushed as The Rock’s next challenger, the lack of crowd response is so astonishing that Dave Meltzer was quoted as saying “I thought my TV was on mute.” One more showdown at No Way Out Of Texas (“Of Texas” added to the PPV’s title at the last minute when some eagle-eyed junior writer noticed the initials of the event were the same as WCW’s centerpiece heel stable) between Austin and Jarrett doesn’t exactly thrill audiences, either, as Jarrett couldn’t buy main event credibility for free. But still, it had Austin, and the crowd lapped up his antics as fast as he did beer.
And then, Shawn Michaels popped up like a bad virus. And with him, naturally, came a lawyer and a lawsuit.
It was, in no uncertain terms, the biggest load of horseshit ever forced into the shape of a lawsuit. And it was also one of the most brilliant end-arounds ever executed. By claiming the WWF had violated Shawn’s right of creative control per stated in his contract when they forced him to lose to Owen Hart, they were, per the lawsuit, in violation of their contract. One need only watch an episode of The People’s Court to see the flaw in Shawn’s argument: he didn’t invoke his clause in the first place. Still, the mere filing of the lawsuit put the WWF in a position they couldn’t afford to be in. Right on the heels of the lawsuit came news that Shawn would drop the suit if his contract was voided, which put the WWF in a double-bind: if they voided the contract, Shawn was all but assured to be in Atlanta by day’s end. But the Titan coffers were simply not flush with funds to fight–and possibly lose–a lawsuit that would likely wind through the courts at a snail’s pace.
So, just a couple days before No Way Out Of Texas, Vince made the hard decision and voided Shawn’s contract.
And just as predictably, Shawn set a land-speed record getting to Atlanta. “They backed up the Brinks truck to my door,” said Shawn in a 2001 interview with trademark glibness. “What was I supposed to do, say no?”
“I wanted to strangle him,” wrote Vince in his autobiography. “I caved to every demand he ever made; I buried guys like Chris Candido and Shane Douglas because he said it was better for the company for him and his buddies to be on top. I did it all his way, and look where it got me; he screwed me and ran.”
By this point, the WWF could’ve had Sunny and Sable perform lesbian sex live in the middle of the ring, and it still would’ve underperformed in comparison to what WCW was offering in February, which was the first-time-ever showdown between Hollywood Hogan and Bret Hart for the WCW World Championship. What the WWF put on was, in fact, about as far removed from that as possible; headlined by a Vader WWF Title defense against Cactus Jack and the long-awaited (as in, “thank God this program’s finally ending”) blowoff to the Austin/Jarrett feud, No Way Out Of Texas was, in comparison to the past several months, a solid wrestling event from top to bottom. Unfortunately, by this time, the WWF’s audience was split amongst a few camps: those watching out of a perverse sense to see if it could get worse, those who wanted the fed to self-destruct and were watching so they could say they saw them hit rock bottom, and a very few remaining hardcore loyalists. That last camp was most definitely not the majority of the live audience that night, so while everyone had their work boots on, the crowd’s apathy–and sometimes downright rejection of things–sucked the life right out of the night.
By comparison, WCW’s build-up to, and execution of, Superbrawl VIII could only be described as flawless. Despite Hogan’s WCW Title victory at Helter Skelter, he was booked to look as vulnerable as a wrestler could be, with the nWo questioning his strength to lead the group as he dropped falls in tag matches and got jumped time and again by the energized WCW forces. The build towards Hogan/Hart helped Superbrawl sell out–an authentic, standing-room-only sell-out–within 48 hours of Helter Skelter, a record for WCW. Segments featuring clashes between the Honor Guard and the nWo set ratings records for the company, and this was happening every week.
And Superbrawl would only continue the hot streak; whether it was just a coincidence, or it was a concerted effort to one-up the WWF, everyone went out and busted ass like never before. Even a match between Kimberly and Miss Elizabeth, which would normally be a piss-break match for sure, turned out surprisingly entertaining, thanks to clever booking (and Kimberly getting her shirt ripped off). A fiery pre-match interview from Sting, where he challenged Hulk Hogan to an “I Quit” match at Uncensored the next month, did as much, if not more, to sell his dark, Crow-like character as brooding in the rafters and dressing in black accomplished did in 16 months. Had the event ended with Sting’s surgeon-like dissection of Randy Savage, the event could’ve been labeled a bonafide classic along the lines of the Great American Bash ’89 or WrestleMania III.
But the main event, as overbooked as it was with extra referees and Eric Bischoff changing rules in mid-stream, hit on all cylinders anyway; in fact, the overbooking brought together a number of storylines and succeeded in paying them off. It is far from a technical classic, and, in retrospect, lacks the drama that it had at the time, thanks to the amazing build-up. But it served its purpose: it made WCW a boat-load of cash, it put more asses in more seats than ever before, and it helped pound another nail into the WWF’s coffin.
Long was the industry position that March belonged to the WWF. With WrestleMania at the end of the month, it was typically hard to compete to the WWF’s machine at this point in the year, and with the promise of the year’s biggest payday looming ever so near, spirits were higher then normal in Stamford.
Equally buoying the good will was a series of good breaks for the ailing company; despite ratings hovering somewhere just above immeasurable, USA committed themselves to broadcasting the WWF for the foreseeable future. Playboy contacted the WWF about getting one of their women to pose nude, an event that could easily be spun into mainstream media coverage; unfortunately, their most popular woman on the roster, Sunny, declined, despite massiveinternal pressure (some unnamed sources would insinuate that Sunny’s job was threatened, something neither she nor Vince would ever comment on). Instead, Sable tentatively agreed; it isn’t as good, but at that point, they could scarcely look a gift horse in the mouth.
There was a belief, not only in the WWF, but among industry experts that WCW had painted themselves into a corner. In the span of three months, they’d hot-shotted the WCW Championship three times, and blown the Hart/Hogan match-up almost instantly, after showing infinite patience with the Sting/Hogan match. The newest of fans could’ve taken a quick look at the roster of WCW and come to the obvious conclusion: there were approximately 4 gazillion face challengers for the title, and exactly one heel on that level. The crowd had seen Hogan in virtually every main event … well, since he’d shown up in the promotion. He’d held the belt, less one week, for almost a year and a half. Hogan had been the dominant heel champion for so long that they didn’t need other top-flight heels, so, save for The Outsiders (who were embroiled in a tag feud), WCW had a whopping zero main event heels that weren’t wearing black and white and severely bald. That meant, until they could build up challengers, Bret would be stuck with paper challengers, a tactic that always proved damaging to the champ.
This was viewed by the WWF as the best news of all, since that meant the time was right to strike back and get the ship righted once and for all. WrestleMania was, internally, declared make-or-break for the company, and to that end, they threw every ounce of muscle, every bit of creative energy, behind it. Along with the long-awaited (some would say unnecessarily dragged-out) match-up between The Undertaker and his “brother” Kane, the ECW angle was set to culminate with five cross-promotional matches, including a Hell In A Cell match between Cactus Jack and Terry Funk that was pushed by showing footage of their barbaric Japanese deathmatches. The main event was a foregone conclusion–Vader against Steve Austin for the WWF Title–but what audience there was left was rabid for it.
But hopes aren’t dollars, and while the name WrestleMania was enough to sell tickets in years past, the miserable stretch of hot-shot booking, talent walk-outs and stillborn ideas since Survivor Series was more than enough of a strong counter to render WrestleMania XIV dead on arrival. The cross-promotional matches highlighted what any newbie fan of either promotion could’ve told the higher-ups: the two styles simply did not mesh. And what made it worse was that only ECW fans knew the ECW wrestlers, so the heels (from the WWF’s side of it) were virtual unknowns, being sold as heels not because of doing something dastardly, but simply because they were outsiders. But when these “nobodies” were paired off against people like Jeff Jarrett and the Nation Of Domination–wrestlers the fans weren’t exactly over the moon for in the first place–the only outcome possible could be abject apathy.
“It was a gross miscalculation,” wrote Vince in his autobiography. “We thought brand loyalty would help drive the angle, but we forgot one thing: we hadn’t done anything over the prior four months to give anyone reason to be loyal to the brand. So we had heatless faces and heatless heels. The best match in the world will still look like a dud if neither participant can draw a reaction.”
The only two matches on the cross-promotional docket for WrestleMania that drew were the Hell In A Cell match between Cactus Jack and Terry Funk, and the women’s match between Sable and Beulah. The latter was notable not because of any technical skill, but because during the catfight, Beulah managed to rip off Sable’s top … bra included. The sight of exposed breasts sent the crowd into an uproar, as it did Sable; unlike the crowd, though, Sable was notthrilled at having her chesticles laid bare live on PPV. She covered herself and fled, all the way to her rental car and right out of the arena.
The Cactus/Funk match would go down in history not for bared flesh, but for the sheer barbarism. The match started on top of the cell instead of inside it, and with the previous Hell In A Cell setting a high benchmark for brutality, it afforded them the opportunity to try something huge: namely, throwing Cactus Jack off the top, through one of the announce tables. From there, Cactus somehow managed to get up and continue the fight; chairs, thumbtacks, and a barbed-wire two-by-four were all found use. And while Cactus won the match, his litany of injuries–a broken collarbone, two broken ribs, dislocated jaw, hundreds of puncture wounds and a gouge across his forehead that requires twenty-two stitches to close–would put him out of action for months. The crowd gave both men a standing ovation, which was the most active the crowd was all night; even Steve Austin’s WWF Title victory over Vader wouldn’t draw the same kind of reaction as seeing Cactus and Funk simply survive their two-man holocaust.
WCW Uncensored, on the other hand, had two things working strangely in its favor: low expectations coming off of the previous editions’ debacles, and low expectations coming off of being in the same month as WrestleMania.
Instead, Uncensored continued the string of hot events, by delivering a breathtaking I Quit match between Hogan and Sting, and Scott Hall finally cashing in, unsuccessfully, his World Title shot from World War III. The debut of Shawn Michaels–who ran in after the main event, superkicked Bret into oblivion, and revealed a New World Order t-shirt under his HBK shirt–on PPV without any advance hype was questioned endlessly as a waste of a money-making opportunity, but it got people talking … and ratings climbing, and more merchandise selling, and improvements in every other metric of success.
With the acquisition of Shawn Michaels, many questioned whether WCW could survive the all-out political warfare that would erupt with personalities like Michaels, Nash, Hogan and Hart all under one roof. Bischoff was adamant that he could reign in the BS and keep everyone in check for the greater good, and their shared goal: the extermination of the WWF.
On that aspect, industry pundits agreed without hesitation: it wasn’t a question of if. Just when.
Many critics, and in fact many employees within WCW, were left looking at their watches when Shawn Michaels walked in the door; how long until the inevitable blow-up between Shawn and Bret? How long until they clashed with Hogan? How long before WCW became too top-heavy and plunged into the deep end of their on hubris? WCW employees, nervous that the explosion would likely tear WCW in half, were doubly nervous since the other big option for employment in the field, the WWF, was hemorrhaging at an alarming rate.
Instead, Bischoff outsmarted all of them; Hogan was turfed from the nWo, and his splinter faction–nWo Hollywood–died upon birth. By May, he was taking “an extended leave of absence”, and nWo Hollywood was buried without hesitation. With Hogan out of the way, many of the old moons who orbited around Planet Hulkster–Randy Savage, Roddy Piper and Lex Luger–went with him. Ric Flair volunteered to take a diminished role in favor of helping newer talent get over.
It was a far contrast from the WWF. Following WrestleMania, Vader took time off and let his contract lapse, choosing to go back to Japan. Unhappy with his demotion from Royal Rumble winner to midcard fodder, Jeff Jarrett sought a release and, when he was denied, simply stayed at home.
Sable filed a lawsuit stemming from the on-air stripping; Vince publically shot himself in the foot, explaining his belief that if she was going to do a full-nude layout in Playboy, a sneak preview of her breasts on TV shouldn’t be embarrassing. Nobody bothered to fill him in that this was a tacit admission that the stripping wasn’t an accident, but a plan that Sable wasn’t informed of. And without the WWF initials behind her, Playboy was no longer interested in her for a layout … but since the WWF didn’t have anyone else to offer in her place, Playboy filed suit for breach of contract.
“I’d had enough,” wrote Vince. “I was getting it from all sides. So I made the biggest mistake of my life and let someone else fight my fight.”
That someone would be Vince Russo. Under Russo, the fed would be transformed into something barely recognizable; the sharp edge that the fed had developed in 1997 was turned into a lunatic whirlwind of amped-up sex, hyperviolence, over-the-top characters and, worst of all, booking that was so nonsensical and convoluted, to call it scattershot would be a compliment. Ratings descended to unfathomable lows, and with the new content sending advertisers looking for a paper shredder in which to stuff their contracts, cancellation loomed like the shadow of the Sears Tower.
The final straw would be delivered by Bischoff, but oddly enough, it would be a play–albeit modified–directly out of Vince McMahon’s own book of underhanded business tactics. As in 1988, when Vince cut off the legs of the NWA by positioning the Royal Rumble for free on USA against the NWA’s pay-per-view Bunkhouse Stampede, Bischoff managed to kill SummerSlam’s buyrate with a cunning one-two punch: he moved WCW’s Road Wild PPV to the Saturday before, and airs a Clash Of The Champions on Sunday, against SummerSlam. The strategy was a success; when buyrates were finally revealed, SummerSlam’s buyrate was one-fifth the previous year’s.
The following night, viewers looking for Raw found a best-of program.
Three days later, they found out why: for a song, the WWF and all its assets were sold to Time-Warner for an undisclosed amount.