The Death of WCW


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Book Review: The Death of WCW

By R.D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez

To Hunter and Steph

You know you are in for a good book when it has a dedication like the one above. Besides being scathingly hilarious, it actually makes sense when you consider the WWE is making many of the same mistakes (or should I say “strategic decisions”) that WCW did during its rapid decline. I just read early this week in the Torch that early next year the WWE is actually going to be taping a SmackDown show immediately following RAW in front of the same crowd. Those of us who watched WCW until the very end remember when they started to tape Thunder after Nitro and all it did was burn out an already dead crowd. Even weirder was that at the time Thunder was clearly seen as an inferior show, something SmackDown itself is turning into.

"Those who do not remember history, are condemned to repeat it." - philosopher George Santayana.

After an introduction by Dave Meltzer, the book goes into a nice history of how WCW came to be. There is also a brief discussion of how Vincent K. McMahon bought the then-WWF from his father with the knowledge that if he missed a single payment, the company would revert back to others including the late Gorilla Monsoon. Hopefully one day there will be an in-depth biography or an unauthorized one that goes over the history of the WWE because it is just amazing the amount of risks that McMahon took and almost all of them paid off. Of course, it helped that just about every other wrestling promoter was an absolute boob and The Death of WCW also covers that when talking about the practices of men such as Ole Anderson, Dusty Rhodes and Jim Crockett. While some may blame McMahon for being somewhat ruthless in destroying the territory system, it was only a matter of time, because as history has shown promoters and bookers have never cared about the long term health of their own company, let alone the industry.

The book describes controversial events such as “Black Saturday”, when McMahon bought out Georgia Championship Wrestling and got with it the coveted Saturday and Sunday time slots on TBS. This just pissed off Ted Turner, who felt Vince McMahon pulled a fast one to get the TV timeslots on his station. Turner had promised Bill Watts that he would bankroll Watts’ wrestling show to compete with McMahon, but at the same time Jim Barnett brokered a deal with Jim Crockett that would give McMahon $1,000,000 for the TBS timeslots. Of course, over the next few years the WWE went into rapid expansion while Crockett’s NWA continually burned out it’s fan base by delivering Dusty finishes and having guys like “Hands of Stone” Ronnie Garvin beat Ric Flair. McMahon then became ruthless by scheduling a new PPV, the Survivor Series, on the same night as Crockett’s biggest PPV, Starrcade. To up the ante, McMahon told cable companies that they could not get next years’ WrestleMania if they ordered Starrcade. Only five cable companies ordered the Crockett PPV.

In a series of disasters, Crockett thought he would gain revenge by booking his next PPV up north in New York, a WWE stronghold. This completely backfired as the show drew poorly at the gate and McMahon countered by putting the first Royal Rumble on free TV the same night. A steamed Crockett had a plan, he would air a free show, the first Clash of the Champions, the same night as WrestleMania. Even though this was the exact same thing McMahon had done to him earlier with the Royal Rumble, the cable companies went bananas. They told Crockett in no uncertain terms he was never to schedule a free show against a PPV again. And you thought TNA had problems with PPV providers.

After years of losing money, Crockett sold his company to Ted Turner for $9 Million but mistake after mistake led the company to never reaching the standards that the WWE was setting. During this time Ole Anderson and Dusty Rhodes were doing their best to seemingly book the company into oblivion while there was also the debacle which led to Ric Flair leaving WCW with their world title and going to the WWE. Back then the world title holder had to give a $25,000 deposit when he won the title. Since Flair never got his money back and never dropped the title in WCW, he just brought it with him to McMahon. Several lawsuits later the belt was returned and McMahon was barred from mentioning it on TV, but the damage was already done: Ric Flair, the symbol of WCW, was in the WWE and fans across the country were chanting “We Want Flair!” at WCW house shows. The book has tons of inept decisions by WCW during this period and it all led up to the decision to let Eric Bischoff - then just a lowly C-team TV announcer - run the company. In a funny aside, the book points out the only reason Bischoff was even with WCW was because lead announcer Jim Ross didn’t feel he was a threat to his position. You can’t make stuff like that up.

"With great power comes great responsibility" - Spider-Man

With Eric Bischoff in charge, WCW begin to make some big changes. The first was hiring Hulk Hogan. Like the WWE years earlier in hiring Ric Flair, this was a big move because Hogan was always the symbol of the WWE. Bischoff also brought in Hogan’s friends such as Randy Savage, Jimmy Hart, Ed Leslie and Jim Duggan and gave them huge pushes while simultaneously kicking to the curb such WCW talent as an “unmarketable” Steve Austin and Mick Foley. You gotta give Bischoff credit as he had the balls to ask Ted Turner not just for a primetime slot on TV, but squarely against the WWE and thus began Monday Nitro and the Monday Night Wars. And what a start for the show by getting the biggest coup at the time by signing away Lex Luger from the WWE. I remember clearly when this happened and as a fan I was shocked. I was being shown in no uncertain terms that WCW was now a player. I mean here was a big time WWE star (even after a flop with the Lex Express) going to the enemy. Imagine the Milwaukee Brewers stealing Derek Jeter away from the Yankees. Inconceivable! So obviously, being a born and bred WWE fan my whole life, this was no small accomplishment.

It was only about to get better because now that Eric Bischoff was spending money left and right to acquire quite possibly the deepest talent roster in the history of wrestling, WCW was seen as an attractive place to go for WWE talent when their contracts expired. Bischoff had raided ECW of much of its talent while also taking many of the company’s innovative concepts. Finally, all hell broke loose when Kevin Nash and Scott Hall left the WWE and showed up on Monday Nitro. Anyone who lived through this period in wrestling will never forget it as it was easily the most exciting time to be a fan in the last twenty years. Soon after, Nitro exploded when Hall and Nash teamed up with Hulk Hogan himself, in Hulk’s first heel turn ever, to form the New World Order. The book does an incredible job going over all the TV shows and PPVs during this time period and it was like reliving one of the best parts of my life. WCW’s ratings and PPV buy rates grew and grew, and unfortunately so did Eric Bishoff’s ego.

”You’re an overbearing asshole! You’re obnoxious, overbearing – abuse of power! You…abuse of power! Cut me off! Abuse of power! You suck! I hate your guts! You are a liar, you’re a cheat, you’re a scam! You are a no-good son-of-a-bitch! Fire me! I’m already fired! Fire me! I’m already fired!” – Ric Flair to Eric Bischoff

One thing made perfectly clear in this book is that Eric Bischoff never respected Ric Flair and seemed to go out of his way to bury the man. Time after time Flair was booked in stupid or embarrassing feuds. Flair and his team The Four Horsemen were continually shown to appear weaker to the New World Order, especially in the Southern markets (who loved Flair more than anyone.) Since Flair and the Horsemen were never given a chance to get their heat back, all this accomplished was making the fan base realize their hero was never going to win and soon thereafter, they stopped going to shows. This would be repeated in the WWE with the Hardy Boyz.

But as stale as the booking was (ie: the NWO going over everyone), WCW was still on fire in 1998 doing monstrous numbers in both attendance, merchandise and PPV buy rates. Bischoff felt he could do no wrong and followed the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Unfortunately wrestling fans are a very fickle audience and constantly need new heroes to believe in along with interesting storylines. WCW was creating any new stars since they only kept pushing the New World Order at the expense of everyone else. Soon the backstage environment was becoming hostile as all the wrestlers who were not in the NWO were realizing they were never going to go anywhere and some wanted out. When one WCW mid-carder, Chris Jericho, left in 1999 to arrive in the WWE with a gigantic push, it only made many wrestlers stuck in WCW more bitter about their situation.

They say what goes up, must come down and after months of horrible booking WCW was staring to fall. The fans were sick and tired of the NWO. By this point not only was there a NWO full of wrestlers nobody cared about (Buff Bagwell and Horace Hogan as compared to the original version of Hall, Nash and the Hulkster) but a new NWO WolfPac was created. This was wrong in so many ways because Sting, the one man who the fans believed could fight against the NWO, joined them. The only thing keeping the whole promotion from going completely down the drain was the creation of the phenom Goldberg and good-to-great wrestling from the loaded mid card. But by this time the company was huge and in fact had over 250 wrestlers under contract. You read that right. 250! Even guys like Nailz and Leapin’ Lanny Poffo, who did close to absolutely nothing for WCW were under contract. The company was bleeding red ink and just a few years after Eric Bischoff created the juggernaut that was WCW, he was sent home by management so that a new era could begin. The era of Vince Russo.

”I’m going to tell you something right now that you will absolutely not agree with, but I’ve been a wrestling fan my whole life and I will live and die by this. It’s hard enough, believe me, I write this shit, it is hard enough to get somebody over. You will never, ever, ever, ever, ever see the Japanese wrestlers or the Mexican wrestlers over in American mainstream wrestling. And the simple reason for that is, even myself, I’m an American and I don’t want to sound like a big bigot or a racist or anything like that, but I’m an American. If I’m watching wrestling here in American, I don’t give a shit about a Japanese guy. I don’t give a shit about a Mexican guy. I’m from America and that’s what I want to see.” - Vince Russo, in an online interview before joining WCW

Vince Russo, a name that is almost infamous in wrestling today. At the time Russo was working for McMahon in the WWE as a writer. He had worked his way up from writing for the WWE magazine (the goofy “Vic Venom” character who actually once spent an entire column making an attack on Pro Wrestling Torch writer Bruce Mitchell) into a featured writer on the television shows. Russo seemingly has an uncanny way to convince people he personally was responsible for turning around the WWE, which by this time was fully into the “Attitude Era” and kicking WCW’s ass in every area possible. Russo would go on to later claim how much he helped WCW, but this book puts in black and white how this was simply not the case.

“Russo would later tell the New York Times: ‘There is one word that we start and end every conversation with: logic. Once you lose the logic of the situation, then you lose the realism and you lose the audience.”

Anyone with a sense of humor is going to love the sections that go over the booking while Vince Russo was in charge. Just mind boggling stuff. I watched all of this when it happened and I still can’t believe it after reading the book. Despite having the most talented roster in the industry’s history, Russo booked the foreign wrestlers in matches such as a piñata-on-a-pole match, which only embarrassed the wrestlers and enraged the fans. The TV shows became full of backstage skits that were badly acted and completely pointless, each one with seemingly 10 things going on at once. Many of the wrestlers became jokes, such as Chavo Guererro: Amway Salesman and Jim Duggan: Janitor.

It wasn’t long before the WCW TV shows were doing just as bad in the ratings then before Russo arrived. There was also the added insult that all the WCW title belts meant absolutely nothing, since Russo regarded them merely as “props.” This led to such absurd moments as Oklahoma (a distasteful Jim Ross parody played by Russo friend Ed Ferrera) holding the Cruiserweight title and a female wrestler, Medusa, being entered into a tournament for the World Title. Everything is covered here including the asinine booking of Bret Hart and the shockingly bad decision to turn Goldberg heel. You want to know how bad that the concerts on Nitro by bands such as KISS and Megadeth were, or more importantly, how much money the company wasted on them? Buy the book.

“The idea, of course, was to get WCW some mainstream publicity and to help rebuild their ever-decreasing audience. To Arquette’s credit, he pushed hard not to be given the belt, saying he was undeserving, and, as a life-long wrestling fan himself, he understood that fellow fans would absolutely detest the switch. Unable to change Russo’s mind, he went along with the bout, and sent all the money he made during his WCW run to the families of the recently deceased Owen Hart and Brian Pillman, and also to WWF star Darren Drosdov, who had been paralyzed from the neck down in a tragic in-ring accident on SmackDown.”

I had never actually know that fact about David Arquette and I now have a newfound respect for the guy. I can’t tell you how much I hated him during the time when he held WCW’s belt. It was to the point where I outright refused to see any movie that had Arquette in it. Yes, that’s taking things a bit too far but apparently I wasn’t the only one as WCW’s ratings continued to fall and it’s PPV buy rates became so small they refused to release them to the public. This idea is being copied today by TNA. Eventually the final nail in the coffin was put in place when a man named Jamie Kellner was put in charge of both TBS and TNT. Kellner simply hated wrestling and didn’t want it on his channels. This effectively made the company almost worthless to any buyer because without a strong TV slot, there is no money to be made in wrestling. Again, see TNA. Despite being offered hundreds of millions of dollars for WCW less than a year earlier, the final sale price was to, of all people, Vince McMahon for $5 Million.

Of course, to continue the legacy of WCW, McMahon misused WCW to the worst possible degree. He refused to buy the contracts of WCW’s biggest stars such as Sting, Hulk Hogan and Goldberg and instead pushed WCW wrestlers such as Booker T, Hugh Morris and Buff Bagwell. The WWE fans, who had already been trained for years to hate WCW by the WWE itself, completely crapped on anything WCW. It led to the legendary botch InVasion and millions upon millions of dollars in lost revenue for McMahon. To show how much timing is worth, McMahon eventually brought in just about every WCW star he refused to bring in earlier (Flair, Hogan, Hall, Nash, Scott Steiner) but it was too late. The window of opportunity closed. However, for future generations of would-be wrestling bookers and promoters, The Death of WCW is a must-read as it is a case study on how a combination of apathy and selfishness, mixed in with a little incompetence, can destroy even the most powerful wrestling company.

The overall effect of the book is incredible. It weighs in at well over 300 pages, so there is a lot of reading of you and all of it a combination of on-point commentary mixed well with humorous stories. Each chapter begins with an interesting quote such as the one by Bret Hart to start Chapter 5: ”The biggest mistake was that they had leadership where all the generals were guys who had never been in a battle. They never had anybody who knew what they were doing. There’s nobody who ever understood wrestling or the minds of wrestling fans. They never understood the nature of the business.” Lastly there are a number of sidebars throughout the book which may just be my favorite thing of all. These are usually humorous, such as one which reads like a SAT-like exam on what WCW did after all of Scott Hall’s legendary out-of-ring antics. Speaking of Scott Hall, there is also the seemingly dozens of break-ups and reconciliations with his wife Dana Hall. This reminded me of a running gag from The Onion's 100 years of headlines in which they would keep calling a court case “The biggest case of the century!”

Overall Thoughts: What a truly fantastic reading experience. I think a lot of people in wrestling always try to copy what has worked in the past instead of focusing on not making the same mistakes that ruined companies. This book goes so in-depth during the NWO period that it is indispensable to any wrestling fan. Alvarez and Reynolds cover the NWO PPV Souled Out and NWO Nitro and explain why they were horrible bombs. The book goes into great detail on the celebrity signings such as Dennis Rodman, Jay Leno and Master P and how they ultimately didn’t help the company one bit. Exhaustively researched, incredibly entertaining, to put it bluntly - YOU MUST GET THIS BOOK. Click HERE to pick up The Death of WCW as it’s not just the best wrestling book of 2004, it is the best book on wrestling done to date and will go nicely in your library next to both of Mick Foley’s books along with Ric Flair’s To Be the Man.

Special thanks to Keith Lipinski of the Puroresu Power Hour and Mike Roe, the Jesus of pro-wrestling, for their help in this review.

Copyright © 2005 Derek Burgan. All rights reserved.