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The Monday Night Wars

There has never been a more meaningful, profitable, emotional, tragic or exciting time in the world of professional wrestling than the era known as the Monday Night War. Not before or since. The Monday Night War era officially started when WcW Monday Nitro began on September 5, 1995. No one thought it was going to be a very significant program, not to mention just how serious an impact it was going to make. It started out as a notch on the TNT fall schedule, and within two years, almost put the WWE (then WWF) out of business.

Not any other company in the industry had ever been a threat to the WWF, as it sat high atop the world of sports entertainment since the early 80’s, when Vince McMahon inherited the company from his father. McMahon Sr. always had a working relationship with regional promotions and had always agreed to be a fair competitor. Once Vince junior took over, he raided, if not wiped out, most of the talent from those same promotions, completely against his father’s wishes.

At the outset of cable television growth, professional wrestling was a factor in its success as it was cheap to produce and usually scored high ratings. Georgia Championship Wrestling, under the National Wrestling Alliance banner in the mid to late 1980’s, was the # 2 promotion in the business. A distant second, but second just the same. It had a steady home on the Ted Turner owned and operated WTCG in Atlanta, which became Superstation TBS in the late 1970’s. Jack and Jerry Brisco were the primary stockholders of the company, and in 1984, sold their shares to Vince McMahon. WWF programming filled that time slot which was known as “Black Saturday” and after the strong GCW fanbase refused to watch the family friendly WWF product, it went back to GCW two weeks later, but in a morning timeslot. McMahon had agreed to air originally run GCW programming for TBS, but instead chose to air a WWF clipshow. In 1985, Vince McMahon, under pressure from Ted Turner, sold the GCW shares to Jim Crockett promotions. This set in motion a rivalry between McMahon and Turner that would only increase over the next decade and a half.

The war, by definition, actually started on pay-per-view in 1987. At the time, most pay-per-view companies could only air one live program at a time, and Starrcade was scheduled for Thanksgiving of that year. McMahon’s WWF decided to debut a new ppv, entitled Survivor Series, on exactly the same night. The WWF then threatened that any cable company that chose not to carry Survivor Series would not carry any WWF pay-per-views sixty days before and twenty-one days after the show. A 10-1 vote later saw the Survivor Series win out. WWF was subsequently warned by the pay per view industry to avoid such an incident again. McMahon would heed that warning, but would go up against Jim Crockett promotions again two months later, when the WWF aired the inaugural Royal Rumble free on the USA Network, up against NWA’s Bunkhouse Stampede ppv. Later that year, Crockett utilized McMahon’s practices against him, when they aired the very first Clash of Champions up against Wrestlemania IV. Crockett did this again the following year, against Wrestlemania V, but the Clash was not a ratings success, so they decided to not do that again…for the time being.

Throughout the 1980s, Crockett had steadily bought out other NWA-affiliated promotions in an attempt to make his organization a national one similar to the WWF. As a result, the term “NWA” became virtually synonymous with Crockett’s company (JCP), based out of North Carolina. By 1988, however, Crockett’s acquisition spree had severely drained his coffers, and he was forced to sell the company to Ted Turner, whose TBS aired JCP television programs. Turner renamed the company WCW after the popular former GCW show; it remained affiliated with the NWA until it seceded in 1993.

The late 80’s through the early 90’s saw plenty of front office shake ups within WcW. Executive VP Jim Herd attempted to incorporate a more family friendly style to the company in an effort to compete with the WWF, who had seen nearly a decade of fortune with that very mentality. It failed miserably in WCW, as the more hardcore fanbase rejected it. Further mismanagement led to the departure of Ric Flair. There was at one time a deposit requirement for the company champions somewhere in the neighborhood of the tens of thousands of dollars. Herd and Flair constantly butted heads, and when Flair was eventually granted his release, he was not given back his deposit. Flair would soon appear in the WWF with the WCW title belt in tow. Herd was fired by the end of the year. Enter 1992, and Kip Allen Fry, a Turner exec, who replaced Herd but only for a few months. His replacement was Bill Watts, former wrestler throughout the 60’s and 70’s, and owner of the UWF, which was bought out by Turner in the mid to late 80’s. The UWF was heralded as a company ahead of its time, what with revolutionary production values, the use of popular music for video montages, and edgy, compelling storylines as told through highly competitive often violent matches.

It was also around this time that the WWF was under serious investigation, with accusations by former employees of sexual misconduct and narcotics and steroid abuse throughout the family safe company. The company was already dealing with sagging ratings thanks to weak, if not silly, storylines and characters. Turner struck during this vulnerable time, by hiring Watts to take the helm at WCW. This didn’t turn out as had been planned, as Watts incorporated some edicts that didn’t sit well with the workers, such as banning off the top rope moves, removing the mats from the concrete floor, and drastically cutting pay. He also featured a style of wrestling that was the antithesis of the WWF, with lengthy, wrestling heavy matches in small dimly lit arenas that mirrored wrestling in his heyday. He also received criticism for pushing his son up the roster before he was arguably ready, much in the same way as booker Dusty Rhoades had previously done with Dustin Rhoades. It was an unfortunate interview with Pro Wrestling Torch that was taken out of context over a year before, where he made comments of a racially sensitive nature, that would eventually cause him headaches within WCW, as Hank Arron was a Turner executive, and was rallying for his removal. Watts quit before they could fire him. After Watts’ departure, Jim Ross, who was the voice of the promotion, left the company as well at the beginning of 1993.

It was a chance meeting with “C team” announcer Eric Bischoff, that the company decided to name him as the man in charge. WCW wanted a complete overhaul. Everything from how they presented the product, to its corporate image were in need of a major change, per the Turner brass, and Bischoff was more than willing to oblige. He had started out as an announcer for the former #3 promotion in the 1980’s, the American Wrestling Alliance, out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which went belly up in the very early 90’s. Interestingly enough, in between jobs, Eric Bischoff auditioned for an announcing position in the WWF, where he admittedly did a less than stellar job, and thusly was not hired.

The first year under Bischoff’s reign was shaky at best, but the style was morphing. Television tapings were being held at CNN Center and Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. Gone were the brutal and dark matches of even a year ago. The shows were a bit more akin to a corporate television show, but yet, the ratings didn’t budge. That was until the company signed newly free agent, Hulk Hogan. This definitely ushered in a new breed of wrestling fan, and a style that was at the same time turning off its original core of loyal fans dating back nearly 25 years. Times had changed, and WCW would never be the same again. In fact, the entire wrestling industry was changing, but again, no one could have predicted just how much it was about to.

WWF had been running a Monday night show on the USA network from the mid 80’s until 1993 called Prime Time Wrestling, with the emphasis being on a variety type show, with wrestling being on the backburner almost the entire time. After interest dropped, WWF changed the format of the program, and in January of 1993, Monday Night Raw was born. WWF went unopposed in the timeslot, and had some compelling programming that was completely new. The show was held at the small, gritty Manhattan Center, and the crowd always seemed hot.

In the past, WCW relied soley on their Saturday night time slot on TBS, with in studio programs that were, aside from the quarterly Clash of the Champions specials, considered the flagship. After signing such names as Hogan, Randy Savage, Gene Okerlund, and Bobby Heenan, among others, the company became aggressive. One day, during a meeting with Eric Bischoff, Ted Turner asked him what it would take to compete with Vince McMahon. Eric, never expecting Turner to go for it, mentioned a Monday night timeslot, which he was immediately granted, on TNT.

WCW Monday Nitro began as a live, hour long program and right out of nowhere, surprised everyone with the appearance of Lex Luger. Luger had just been a WWF superstar, and to McMahon’s dismay, was now with the competition. It was this sort of shocking development that made going live a real advantage. Monday Night Raw, on the other hand, had a monthly television taping, with the first show (usually right after a pay-per-view) airing live. With no cmopetition until that point, the WWF was free to broadcast shows that were at times, up to 3 or 4 weeks old. BIschoff hosted the show, and right on the air, would reveal the results of that night’s Raw, since it was almost always prerecorded. WCW also had the Turner billions at its dispense, and used much of it to fill its roster with big names of yesteryear, world class wrestlers from across the globe, and eventually raided the ECW group, which, while small and operating out of a converted bingo hall, was the most copied promotion in North America.

ECW was responsible for the most unique programs in the history of the business. They had everything: hardcore weapon heavy bloodbaths, classic mat wrestling, and thrilling high flying matches. The show was loaded with dark, edgy, compelling storylines that were the cutting edge of the wrestling world and had everyone talking. Excellent promos, modern rock and rap songs as entrance themes, and the soundtrack to montage packages were truly a symbol that the company had its finger on the pulse of what was current. Simply put, ECW was everything that WWF and WCW were not, including wealthy. WCW, aware of the buzz that ECW was creating, sucked up a large portion of their roster. WCW also continued to do this to the WWF. WCW also trimmed the fat, by letting go of some talent that they felt weren’t marketable, such as Mick Foley and Steve Austin.

In the summer of 1996, Scott Hall came through the crowd on a Monday Nitro. A week later, he was joined by Kevin Nash, saying with bravado, that: “if WCW wants a war, they got one.” This storyline was made to feel and look like they had invaded the company. They added another member, Hulk Hogan and completing the trifecta under the monicker of the New World Order. The trio ran roughshod all over the company, and everyone was talking about this. Soon after the creation of the group, WCW Monday Nitro finally beat Monday Night Raw in the ratings. It was the first time that anyone in the industry beat the WWF at anything, and it continued for almost two solid years.

WWF tried a variety of formulas to compete with WCW, including going two hours, then going live more often than they ever had before. They even had a special night featuring the maniacs of ECW raising hell on the show. Nothing seemed to cut the mustard. WCW was killing them in the ratings without any end in sight. The funny thing was that Monday Nitro kept relying on the same things without any serious attempt to create new stars or move forward. They just relied on NWO gang attacks, and stars of old, such as Roddy Piper and Ric Flair headlining shows every week. It kept WWF on their toes, however, as they began to feature new and exciting stars, and wild storylines with an adult themed vibe throughout every show they produced. WWF, even still, was losing money hand over fist, and were forced to sever their ties with a very expensive Bret Hart. This led to the most controversial incident in wrestling ever: the Montreal screwjob. This night served as a blessing in disguise, as Vince McMahon soon became the #1 heel in the company. WWF also continued to kick it into high gear with real Dx invasion of WCW, complete with an army tank and megaphone, creating chaos and rousing the crowd outside of the building where WCW was hosting a show, plus storylines that were rife with adult themes and matches loaded with violence. While WCW raided ECW for their talent, WWF borrowed from their mentality.

It was the Attitude Era, and its representative was the previously unmarketable Steve Austin. With Vince McMahon serving as the quintessential foil for the anti hero Austin, they regained the audience that they lost to WCW, and then some. Ratings were higher than ever, and it really had to be experienced to be believed. Things moved at such a rapid pace. The industry saw numbers that they never had before. The WWF was now in charge again, and they continued to create new stars and keep the program fresh, while WCW kept delivering same old, same old. It was the perfect scenario in the WWF. A multitude of great stars on shows written by (arguably) the two greatest minds in the biz: Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara. They kept it new, they kept it exciting and they kept it going.

Unfortunately, as with any war, there were casualties. Within 10 years, there were something like 40 premature deaths in the business, some drug related, some accidental, but all tragic.

Eric Bischoff was let go after front office shakeups, as after a year of ratings losses and a current huge slump, required changes. Major burnout led to a jump, with unsigned head writers Russo and Ferrara going to WCW for essentially the same job they had in WWF. WWF’s star had risen and it was as high as it was going to get. These creative minds needed a fresh place to work, with the goal of hiring them being to bring the ratings to the WWF’s current level or at the very least, back to what they were a year ago. Unfortunately unlike Vince McMahon, WCW didn’t understand the way television works, and expected an overnight ratings shift. They wanted the same product as WWF had been producing, but because Turner was a corporate organization, there were limitations. Standards and Practices saw to that. They were a a watchdog group for the company that kept an eye on the shows, ensuring they were family friendly and kiddie safe.

A string of injuries and Ready to Rumble, featuring alot of WCW talent, thinned out the roster. Russo and Ferrara attempted to push mid card talent and not feature the same old guys as before. This ruffled feathers within the WCW heirarchy, and after only three months, they were demoted and offered roles in a new booking committee. Russo declined, while Ferrara agreed, causing a rift between the tandem. Three months later, Russo was brought back. This time, alongside the rehired Eric Bischoff. They were on air characters, leading the charge of a storyline of “the new blood” against “the mllionaires club” which saw brief success. At this point, WCW seemed to be in a state of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Nothing could bring them out of the slump, or compete with the superhot WWF, who continued their ratings dominance. Bischoff eventually stepped down after a worked shoot that Russo, still an on air character, delivered directly at Hulk Hogan. This led to a lawsuit and Hogan’s departure from the company forever.

Turner merged with AOL Time Warner, and there was serious talk about selling the company. Bischoff stepped up, with a team of investers called Fusient Media Ventures. The only thing that stood between them and owning WCW was a delayed due dilligence process. One of the primary backers pulled out, leaving Fusient no choice but to pull the deal off the table. At the same time, WWF was in talks with AOL Time Warner about acquiring the WCW brand. Meanwhile, Jamie Kellner was handed control of the Turner Broadcasting division, and deemed WCW wrestling to be out of line with their image. As a result, WCW programming was canceled on both TBS and TNT, leaving Vince McMahon’s company, which at the time had an exclusive deal with Viacom, free to acquire the trademarks, video libraries and a few contracts. During the sale, WCW was in litigation, with various lawsuits pending, and AOL Time Warner still had to pay various performers their guaranteed deals, as many had contracts directly with the parent company, and not with WCW. Since Vince McMahon only acquired select assets, the company that was once WCW became known as Universal Wrestling Corporation once again; its only purpose now, however, was to deal with old contracts and lawsuits.

So, the war was over. ECW, who started out as practically an infomercial at 3 am in select markets, rose high by scoring pay per view and television spots, eventually fell hard when it went bankrupt. WCW became nothing more than a failed storyline, and material for WWF’s dvd home videos. Once the competition was out of the way, WWF ran Raw and Smackdown as two different brands, and eventually brought ECW from out of the mothballs for its own show, but it was never anything like its old self. WWF lost a lawsuit against World Wildlife Fund, and were now known as World Wrestling Entertainment, erasing all references to Federation in its past. WWE, after a few years, developed a PG-14 television rating, and thusly became soft and lazy.

TNA, on the otherhand, who started out as a ppv only organization and ran out of a fairgrounds in Nashville, Tennessee, grew and grew by landing television deals, a monthly ppv, some of the hottest in ring competitors today, and some of the most recognizable names ever, as well as the reunited Russo and Ferrara. Oh, and they will be going head to head on Monday nights against Raw starting March 8, 2010. How long this will last, or what will happen is anyone’s guess, but one thing’s for sure: the business and the fans will benefit. A message to all involved: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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