Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 16 (Russo Runs Wild)

As 1999 opened, pro wrestling had become a huge part of mainstream pop culture, with stars from both the WWF and WCW appearing on the covers of Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, and even Newsweek.  The WWF ran a commercial during the SuperBowl and also aired a Halftime special opposite the actual Halftime show.  Pretty ballsy move, but it got ratings.

Totally surreal seeing stuff like this

The year opened with a live Nitro episode vs. a taped RAW.  WCW had announced a Kevin Nash vs. Goldberg rematch for the WCW Title but once again pulled a bait-and-switch, and Nash would face the returning Hulk Hogan instead.  But before that match took place, WCW made one of their biggest bonehead moves in company history, by spoiling RAW's main event result.  Eric Bischoff had adopted this practice back in 1995, but on this particular occasion the RAW main event just happened to be The Rock vs. Mankind for the WWF Title, and ol' Mick Foley was going over.  You all know what happened next - roughly half a million viewers immediately changed the channel to watch RAW, giving the WWF a major ratings win.  Nitro would never beat RAW again.  And of course Nitro's main event consisted of Hogan poking Nash in the shoulder and Nash laying down to drop the Title back to him.  One great big ego-stroking jerkfest to close out Nitro.  Once again I had been vindicated as a WWF loyalist.

Welp, that one move cost us the Monday Night War.  Well done fellas....

That's not to say the WWF product circa 1999 was without its creative problems.  Largely thanks to Vince Russo's minute-to-minute booking the shows were becoming increasingly confusing and aimed at shorter and shorter attention spans.  Free TV matches were running 2-4 minutes most of the time, the storylines had more plot twists than an M. Night Shyamalan film, and overall the show was putting less and less emphasis on the in-ring aspect.  Not to mention the content was so sexually charged it sorta came off like desperate pandering.  Women were largely relegated to eagerly-exploited eye candy and their matches more often than not devolved into a race to strip each other of their clothes (because that's how women really fight, right?).  Children in the audience could routinely be heard chanting "Show your puppies," which was actually pretty disturbing.  There is a place for sexual undertones in wrestling but it has to be kept subtle or it just becomes kinda gross.

The Royal Rumble featured a fantastic, brutal Rock-Mankind WWF Title match, which in retrospect is tough to watch given all we now know about concussions.  The rest of the show was either forgettable or nonsensical, and it ended with non-wrestler Vince McMahon winning the Rumble match.  Thus began the tradition of McMahons overstepping their bounds as on-air characters.  By year's end Vince and Shane McMahon would wrestle on a total of six PPVs and would both win major Championships.

The match that scarred two children for life

February saw the shocking debut of the former Giant from WCW, who interfered in the long-awaited Austin vs. Vince Steel Cage match and accidentally cost Vince the win.  Still it felt like a huge moment for Paul Wight to jump to the WWF, and it marked a major momentum shift where WCW was no longer the hot company to defect to.  Unfortunately the booking was so lacking in discipline Wight (now dubbed The Big Show) was jobbed out to Steve Austin on free television only a month after his debut, and turned face, then heel, then face all within his first year.  One could argue that Show's drawing power never recovered from this initial botching.

WrestleMania XV was poised to be one of the biggest of all time, with the company's two top stars, Rock and Austin, facing each other for the Title.  While that match was very entertaining and ended with Austin reascending the mountain, the rest of the show was a massive disappointment, fraught with abbreviated matches and more "Crash TV" booking.

The problem with the overly non-traditional approach in 1999 was, while it often made for pretty bad television, it was working.  RAW's ratings were through the roof and by now were continuously crushing Nitro's.  This success just emboldened Russo, who started making noise about removing the wrestling ring from the show entirely and turning RAW into an action-adventure series.  This approach was baffling to me and though I never gave any thought to swearing off WWF programming, the Attitude Era was becoming tiresome in my estimation.

What kept me tuning in were Austin's new WWF Title run (though by this point I sensed Austin himself was growing a little complacent), The Rock becoming the newest top babyface, the emergence of Edge & Christian, and the rumors that WCW's Chris Jericho was letting his current contract expire and would be jumping to the WWF over the summer.  As one of several amazing midcard talents who should've been WCW main eventers, the idea of Jericho working for a company that would utilize him properly was incredibly thrilling.  So I was still optimistic about the product.

Then on May 23, 1999 the unthinkable happened.  After a stunt harness mishap, Owen Hart fell 70 feet to his death on a live PPV.  Watching from home I was bewildered and devastated.  This was only the second time an active member of the roster had died since I started watching, but unlike Brian Pillman, Owen was one of my favorite wrestlers.  His loss was one of the worst moments I've ever experienced as a fan.  Sadly there would be many such moments still to come.

This one still hurts.

That June I attended my first live episode of RAW.  I had bought the tickets in February and was salivating at finally experiencing the show in person.  Aaaaand then the WWF gave me a perfect sampling of what was wrong with the product during the height of the Russo Era.  It was June 7, 1999, and the main angle going into the show was the reveal of The Undertaker's "Greater Power."  A few months earlier Taker had been repackaged as an evil cult leader who brainwashed lower-card wrestlers into joining his stable, The Ministry of Darkness.  He then began targeting Vince and his family, specifically Stephanie.  This alone was rather confusing given that Vince was the company's top heel character and was still feuding with Steve Austin.  At 'Mania that year the heel Taker faced Vince's heel henchman The Big Bossman in the worst-ever Hell in a Cell match.  Then at Backlash Taker kidnapped Stephanie, and the next night on RAW proceeded to make her the victim of a human sacrifice until Austin came to her rescue.  This all seemed to be setting up a Vince babyface turn where he and Austin would finally coexist against a common enemy.  Oh, and Shane McMahon also turned on Vince and merged the Corporation stable with Taker's gang to create The Corporate Ministry.  Around this time Taker began referring to a "Greater Power" who guided his actions, and promised to reveal this person on RAW.  Would it be someone from Austin's past?  Shawn Michaels?  Jake Roberts?  A new defector from WCW?  Nope.  Vince.  Fucking Vince McMahon was the Greater Power the whole time, and apparently helped orchestrate all these awful things against his own family, just to screw with Austin's head.  This.  Made.  No.  Sense.  On top of such a shitty reveal, this segment took up the first forty-five minutes of the show.  What little wrestling did take place mostly consisted of two-minute filler matches, and then finally the main event was a full-length WWF Title match between Taker and Big Show, which ended when Show chokeslammed Taker through the ring.  The match was officially a no-contest, but as I recall there was no announcement made.  The show was just over.  Man did I feel ripped off.  Out of a two-plus-hour RAW I think they presented maybe 20 minutes of actual wrestling?

By the end of the summer it was clear some new blood was needed at the top of the card, as the Austin-Vince feud had run its course, and Vince had even been "permanently" written off TV after Taker lost a First Blood match to Austin.  The three top rising heels were Billy Gunn, fresh off a King of the Ring win that no one wanted to see (How Big Show wasn't given this tourney is beyond me.), Jeff Jarrett, who broke the record for most I-C Title runs, and Triple H, who had turned heel at WrestleMania and reinvented himself as an old-school ass-kicker of a villain.  I was nowhere near as smart to the business in '99 as I am now, but I recognized Hunter's approach as being very unusual for this era of catchphrases and cool heels.  Triple H rightly understood that in order to stand out he'd need to get over as a bad guy people wanted to hate, not as a bad guy it was cool to like.  It was clear Hunter was being groomed for a WWF Title run, likely starting at SummerSlam.

Then of course Russo's nonsensical booking took over and the SummerSlam main event changed about thirty-five times in the course of two weeks.  First it was Austin vs. Hunter, then it was Austin vs. Chyna, then it was Austin vs. Hunter again, then it was Austin vs. Hunter vs. Mankind.  Allegedly Foley was added to the mix because Austin didn't want to drop the Title directly to Hunter, but I've also heard it was because guest referee Jesse Ventura, who was Governor of Minnesota at the time, was getting a lot of flak for his participation in this event and didn't want to be seen awarding the belt to a heel.  Who knows?  But Austin lost to Foley, and then the next night Triple H beat Mick for the Title on RAW.  Kind of an anticlimactic way for Hunter to win his first Championship if you ask me (or anyone else).

Of course his first run was very short-lived, as he dropped the Title less than a month later on an episode of Smackdown.  Which monster babyface abruptly ended Triple H's inaugural WWF Title reign, you ask?  Vince.  Vince fucking McMahon.  Again.  So in the span of nine months the non-wrestling owner of the WWF booked himself to win the Royal Rumble, be revealed as the puppet master of The Undertaker's cult, and win the WWF Championship.  Un-fuckin'-real.  Vince forfeited the belt days later and declared it vacant, all so Hunter could just win it back at Unforgiven.  Such a pointless Title change.

The August 9th RAW featured one of the most highly anticipated segments of the year.  About a month earlier the WWF began airing short vignettes featuring a Millennium Countdown clock, which seemed to simply be heralding the end of the 20th century.  But as the time grew short it was very obvious the clock would be finished long before December 31st.  Knowing Chris Jericho was on his way out of WCW I immediately suspected this would be his much-anticipated WWF debut (I confirmed this by reading wrestling-related internet content, something that was brand new to me).  Finally on August 9th the clock reached zero and Jericho's first appearance blew the roof off the Rosemont Horizon.  Not only that but he got to trade barbs with The Rock of all people.  This still holds up as one of the greatest debut segments in wrestling history.  It would take Jericho a few months to find his WWF footing, but a charismatic, immensely talented former WCW star with a tremendous in-ring resume was just what the WWF needed at this point.

The WWF would never be the same AGAINE!!

Survivor Series rolled around in November, and was to feature the return of traditional Series matches (As you'll recall the 1998 edition was just about the WWF Title tournament, which was totally inappropriate for Survivor Series).  Sadly the elimination matches they booked were nonsensical and had nothing at stake.  The main focus of the show was a first-time Triple Threat between the company's three biggest stars: Triple H vs. The Rock vs. Steve Austin.  This was a huge matchup, and really the only thing about this show that looked good on paper.  Unfortunately just before the show it was determined Austin would need spinal fusion surgery and was therefore not cleared to wrestle.  So the WWF wrote him out of the storylines by having a mystery assailant run him over with a car (We'd have to wait a year to find out who it was, and it was definitely not worth the wait).  Austin's surrogate in the main event ended up being The Big Show, who shockingly won the Title with help from Vince.  I was fairly excited about witnessing the creation of a new top babyface, particularly considering how poorly Show had been used since February.  Sadly, his big moment was followed by an upper midcard feud against The Big Bossman, which to me signaled quite clearly that they had no long-term plans for Big Show as Champion and didn't think he was ready for that spot (A phenomenon that would be repeated ad nauseum for years).

In late '99 I finally decided to check out some ECW programming.  I had seen a few late night syndicated episodes here and there but was despondent at the ratio of advertising to actual wrestling.  But now it was time to sample their PPV events.  My first show was November to Remember, featuring Rob Van Dam vs. Taz for the TV Title, Mike Awesome vs. Masato Tanaka for the ECW Title, and Jerry Lynn vs. Tajiri vs. Super Crazy.  I was absolutely blown away by this show at the time.  ECW was so different from what the Big Two were doing, and the product felt fresh, urgent, and reached new levels of brutality I couldn't previously have imagined.  From then on I made it a point to watch every ECW PPV.  Sadly there wouldn't be many of those left.

At the end of the millennium the WWF product was still running on Russo fumes, but fortunately Vinny-Ru and his sidekick Ed Ferrara had left for WCW in September, replacing the ousted Eric Bischoff (I rejoiced when I found out Easy-E had gotten the boot).  This allowed WWF Creative to refocus and get back to featuring strong in-ring action, while spotlighting some new faces at the top of the card.  With Steve Austin on the shelf for a full year, several stars got the chance to step up and fill the void.  WCW was floundering and beginning to lose several top young guys, which meant the WWF was now the unquestioned industry leader for the first time since 1994.  The beginning of 2000 saw the WWF product almost immediately shift from a sensationalistic, overly sexualized circus act to a streamlined, state of the art wrestling show sporting the greatest collection of talent in the history of the business.  Things were about to get good.  REALLY good.

Part 15                                                                                                                                            Part 17

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