Thursday, November 1, 2007

WWE transitional periods, then and now

By Rick Morris

With the WWE clearly caught up in a transitional period right now, I was curious to check back in the history of the company to determine if we might be able to draw any conclusions about the future success or failure of the company based on present events. I limited my examination to the period coinciding with Vince Junior running the company, because comparing circumstances with a national promotion to the previous regional one would be apples and oranges.

The old WWWF really didn’t feature transitional periods like the ones we’ve grown accustomed to in the modern era, anyway. When Bruno Sammartino captured the WWWF Title from Buddy Rogers on May 17, 1963 and started his legendary eight-year title reign, the overall style of the promotion didn’t change much at all. The next sets of title changes did have transitional champions in the mix, as Ivan Koloff shockingly won the belt from Sammartino on January 18, 1973, only to drop it to Pedro Morales (the Hispanic equivalent of Bruno’s ethnic champion appeal in the urban Northeast) three weeks later. Then, when Vince Senior decided to move back to Bruno on top, Pedro lost to Stan Stasiak on December 1, 1973 and Bruno beat the big heel nine days later. For all intents and purposes, the overall style of the promotion did not change appreciably during the course of any of the title changes.

The next two switches actually had no transitional champions in the mix at all. Superstar Billy Graham started the first long-term heel title run in WWWF history when he ended Bruno’s time on top once and for all on April 30, 1977. His flamboyant run on top, which a subsequent WWE DVD correctly labeled as ahead of its time, ended when the promotion put the strap on the man it had been grooming for the big spot, Bob Backlund on February 20, 1978. With the old-school Vince Senior still running the show, Graham’s wild charisma did not auger any major changes for the promotion and the reign of Backlund solidified the company as a Northeast regional promotion with a white-bread babyface champion. Backlund had a couple of disputed title changes along the way, but stayed firmly atop the (now renamed) WWF until Vince Junior assumed control, started the national era and with it, the first real transitional period in the style of the promotion.

  1. THE START OF THE NATIONAL EXPANSION, THE PAY-PER-VIEW ERA AND WHAT WOULD COME TO BE KNOWN AS SPORTS ENTERTAINMENT. This era started with the Iron Sheik’s controversial victory over Backlund on December 26, 1983 when “The All-American Boy’s manager Arnold Skaaland threw in the towel with Backlund trapped in the Camel Clutch. As with Koloff more than a dozen years before, the Sheik was used as a hot-button foreign heel transitional champion, but the man who he would deliver the title to was used as a vehicle to change pro wrestling forever. Just a month later, Hulk Hogan began the modern era with a bang as he took the belt from the Iron Sheik in decisive fashion and was booked in more of a show-biz fashion than any other babyface champion ever. This was due in equal parts to his insane charisma, his larger-than-life physique and his inability to work in the ring in a traditional lengthy main-event fashion. Throughout 1984, Rowdy Roddy Piper was established as the dominant heel personality of the new era with his unprecedented “Piper’s Pit” segments. By year’s end, when he attacked Hogan allies Captain Lou Albano and Cyndi Lauper during a charity award ceremony at Madison Square Garden, the seeds were sown for the culmination of the transitional period. The “War to Settle the Score” between Piper and Hogan from MSG, broadcast on MTV in February of 1985, introduced red-hot celebrity Mr. T into the mix and set the stage for the first WrestleMania at the end of March 1985. That event, with the potent mix of the most over wrestlers in the country, massive celebrity involvement and an undercard of wrestlers ready to be introduced to the national spotlight, set the company in motion with no looking back. That year’s return to national television with “Saturday Night’s Main Event” and the first-ever pay-per-view The Wrestling Classic were anticlimactic events: the transitional period had ended at WrestleMania and started the first national wrestling boom since the 1950s.
  1. THE POST-HOGAN ERA BEGINS AND THE NEW GENERATION IS FORESHADOWED. Hogan dropped the belt to Andre the Giant in 1988 and The Ultimate Warrior in 1990, but his shadow never left the main-event scene, nor did the fact that the promotion was still built around the show-biz, style-over-workrate principles he embodied. And when the smoke eventually cleared, he ended up with the belt again both time. However, business had been falling off from the peak period of the boom, starting in earnest with the Warrior’s run on top in 1990. When the title was held up in December of 1991, to be filled at The Royal Rumble the next month, it seemed inevitable that Hogan would stay in the mix – almost certainly to be wrestling in the main event of WrestleMania VIII against the man who became the new champion, Ric Flair (the acquisition of Flair, who left his old promotion without dropping either the WCW or NWA World Titles in the ring in the summer of 1991 is another story in and of itself – proving that the most cyclical element in wrestling is the tendency to make mistakes, the WWF never put Hogan and Flair in the ring one-on-one on pay-per-view during their time together, wasting the ultimate “Dream Match” and foreshadowing how badly they would screw up the acquisition of WCW itself ten years later). But the eruption of the industry’s first major steroid scandal in the winter of 1992 made the poster child for the bulked-up modern era too hot to handle for the company, so a “retirement match” against Sid Justice was booked for ‘Mania instead. For the next several months, the 1980s direction of the company seemed intact, as Flair and Randy Savage traded the title back and forth and kept the focus on the established names of the era with the Warrior also in the mix. But when Flair suffered an inner-ear injury that necessitated the promotion taking the belt off of him, the direction they chose was very fateful. Young Bret Hart, a second-generation synonymous with the traditional type of pro wrestling that had been around for decades before the boom, won the title from Flair in his home country of Canada on October 12, 1992. While the company would not institute the “New Generation” marketing campaign for almost another two years, in retrospect the transition to that era started on that night up north. The following month, Hart and Shawn Michaels, the two most dominant figures of the “New Generation” era squared off in the main event for the title at Survivor Series and signaled that the focus would be on new names and a new direction. Right about then, the Warrior left, Flair was preparing for his final few months with the company and Hogan was preparing a comeback that fizzled due in equal parts to bad booking and a breakdown in understanding with the company. Hogan did have a title run that started with an infamous impromptu match against new champion Yokozuna at the end of Wretlemania IX and ended with a screwy finish at King of the Ring two months later. Fans long accustomed to seeing the Hulkster avenge every wrong were shocked when he quietly faded from the promotion after the loss due to an inability to come to terms with the company. When Lex Luger turned babyface and adopted the persona of a super-patriot by bodyslamming Yokozuna on the USS Intrepid on July 4, 1993, the similarity of his new character to that of Hogan made it clear to one and all that the King of the 1980s era was dead and the new crop of main eventers would be left to carry on in his place. As such, the transition had been completed. The “New Generation” campaign, officially adopted in 1994 as a marketing counterpoint to WCW’s signings of Hogan and other stars made famous by the WWF, fizzled. Business never approached the heights of the boom and the company floundered as more top stars jumped ship over the next few years.
  1. THE SECOND NATIONAL BOOM: THE ATTITUDE ERA BEGINS. This is the murkiest transitional era in the history of the company, as the origins were very difficult to trace. For all intents and purposes, however, the November 20, 1995 episode of RAW marks the start of the period. This program was one of the most historically significant in the long history of the company. Diesel, fresh off the loss of the WWF title to Bret Hart at Survivor Series the previous night, gave a speech in the ring in which he declared independence from Vince McMahon and the promotional machine (marking the “outing” of VKM as the real-life owner of the company) but did not turn heel in typical style – instead adopting an intriguing “tweener” character. At the end of the show, Shawn Michaels “collapsed” in the ring as the result of a kick to the head from Owen Hart. This marked the beginning of an effort to infuse as much real-life drama as possible in the show as viewers were subtly led to believe that HBK’s injury was legitimate and unstaged. The next month, Bret Hart and Davey Boy Smith wrestled in a title match that heralded the return of blading to the company, foreshadowing a wilder in-ring style. The start of this transitional era went into a deep-freeze, however, as business-as-usual promoting took over again until King of the Ring 1996. Steve Austin, who had been given the tournament victory to punish Hunter Hearst Helmsley for breaking script in the infamous MSG “curtain call” incident of May 19, 1996, mocked Jake Roberts’ faith with his groundbreaking “Austin 3:16” promo. Throughout the year, Austin’s blue-collar tough-man style caught on with the fans and it was getting harder and harder to keep him as a heel, even after efforts to make him appear as a heartless predator with the Pillman gun storyline. Subsequently, however, the warming of the crowd to Austin coincided with the cooling of the crowd to Bret Hart’s classic style and the resulting double-turn at Wrestlemania XIII in March 1997 launched Austin as the first mega-star of the Attitude Era (which wouldn’t actually be named as such until a year later). Everything that followed (Austin’s run as face champion starting at WrestleMania XIV, the establishment of DeGeneration X as one of the top acts in company history and the creation of The Rock’s character as a cornerstone antihero rivaled only by Austin) was an anticlimax from the moment Austin broke through by passing out in a bloody heap rather than tapping out to Hart at Mania. That moment launched a period of prosperity that by some measures even exceeded the first boom of the ‘80s.
  1. THE ATTITUDE BOOM GIVES WAY TO THE BRAND SPLIT. Vince McMahon’s second boom period was initially fueled by the desperation of competition. The Monday Night Wars started off badly for the WWF as Nitro began to thrash Raw in the ratings after an initial period of rough parity in 1995-96. Even the early days of “Attitude” in 1997 saw the company trailing WCW, although business was picking up (as a certain announcer might say). The primal need that Vince had to transcend the accomplishments of WCW served as the incentive to adopt the “old rules are dead” wild style of this new era. But once the epoch of brash shoot-style promos (with questionable language and hand gestures), wild sexuality on display from the “Divas,” the reliance on weapons and wild brawling and the overall “anything can happen” atmosphere took hold, WCW and its corporate restrictions and short-sighted management never had a chance. By 2001, red ink was on the verge of putting both WCW and the country’s third-largest promotion ECW out of business. The WWF came in and scooped up the assets (well, some assets – they turned out to be unable to use the ECW name on-camera due to snags in the bankruptcy proceedings) of each in the spring of 2001. With Austin and The Rock coming off a red-hot main event in the sold-out Astrodome for Wrestlemania XVII, the company seemed poised for many huge years to come. But from that point on, everything they could do wrong, they did do wrong. They stuck with an ill-advised Austin heel turn that did nothing but demoralize an audience that never wanted to boo “The Texas Ratttlesnake.” They botched the WCW/ECW invasion, wrestling’s ultimate dream storyline, in such a brutal manner that the abrupt ending to it at Survivor Series was more of a mercy killing than anything else. And as the company was distracted by the steroid scandal of the early 1990s and their subsequent World Bodybuilding Federation debacle, they were also focused too much on trying to force their insipid XFL down the throats of their fans. Ratings were a complete disappointment, as the promotion was left with only their share of the Monday Night Wars audience. So with their dream of a WWF-run WCW circuit keeping up a semblance of competition dead, the company decided to launch a brand split just after WrestleMania XVIII. On April 8, 2002, the Raw show featured a “draft” in which all stars from the promotion were assigned to either the Raw program or Smackdown program exclusively. This began in earnest the transition to the post-boom reality. Initially, the storyline featured Ric Flair as the on-air boss of Raw and Vince McMahon at the helm of Smackdown. However, the best-laid plans disintegrated as events caused the company to go into a frantic spring and summer of hot-shotting. First, the company made a huge miscalculation about Hogan’s viability as a 21st century titleholder when they regarded his massive ovation at by the crowd in the dome in Toronto at Wrestlemania XVIII as anything more than the nostalgia pop it was. They abandoned HHH’s first run as babyface champion (and unified world champion, with his belt now having the lineage of both the WCW and WWF World Titles) quickly, although the horrible booking of HHH in that role necessitated some form of abandoning the reign. Then, Austin walked out of the promotion rather than do a job to mega-pushed newcomer Brock Lesnar. The company panicked and hot-shotted a match instead that saw McMahon take unified control of the two brands from Flair. What, then, would serve as the continued rationale for a brand split if one man was in charge of both programs? Bringing in a new authority figure, of course! Eric Bischoff was crowned as general manager of Raw in a desperate attempt to conjure up that old Monday night magic. In the midst of all of this, the company yielded to legal realities in the form of legal challenges from the World Wildlife Federation and changed their name to World Wrestling Entertainment. Meanwhile, rather than push some of the wrestlers who had been on top in ECW and WCW like Lance Storm, Mike Awesome and Raven, the company awarded half-hearted pushes to Rob Van Dam and wrestlers broken out of tag teams in the split for no apparent reason, such as Bradshaw and Bubba Ray Dudley. After the Hogan experiment crashed and burned, the belt was quickly put on The Undertaker and then The Rock, who lost it at SummerSlam to the aforementioned Lesnar. Immediately thereafter, the “unified” aspect of the belt was lost as HHH campaigned successfully to be given a World Title for the Raw brand only and a second set of tag team titles was likewise created. These actions signaled that, whatever fans hoped to the contrary, the brand split was here to stay. Like the New Generation gimmick before it, it did not yield an era of prosperity.
  1. A REAL ATTEMPT TO BUILD POST-BOOM STARS. By early 2004, fans had lost patience with the floundering lack of direction in both WWE brands. HHH started the Raw-only World Title era by failing to elevate RVD and Kane, then engaged in a surprisingly mediocre feud with old friend Shawn Michaels, a self-indulgent display of backroom power at the hands of Booker T at WrestleMania XIX and lackluster programs with Scott Steiner, Kevin Nash and Goldberg. Smackdown fared somewhat better with Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle at the forefront of the WWE Title picture, but distractions like another ill-fated Hulk Hogan comeback kept the show from reaching its full potential. With Austin having retired after WrestleMania XIX, The Rock coming back much less frequently due to Hollywood commitments and Mick Foley surprisingly staying retired, the company was in dire need of developing new stars. Having hyped the 20th edition of WrestleMania for a full year, the company saw an opportunity and took advantage of it. And they were compelled to make a better effort of it, with the WWE a public entity now and stock prices hanging in the balance throughout their period of stagnation. The transition to the era of new stars began in earnest at the 2004 Royal Rumble when upper-midcard fixture Chris Benoit was elevated with a stirring victory. He ended up on Raw, winning the World Title at Mania. On Smackdown, Eddy Guerrero was tabbed for a promotion to the top of the card, inspiring the wrestling world by capping his comeback from drug issues by capturing the WWE Title at No Way Out and successfully defending it at WrestleMania XX against Kurt Angle. However, the challenges facing the promotion were only just beginning at that point. Mania served as the final WWE match for both Lesnar and Goldberg as two legitimate main eventers quit the scene after one infamous final match. Bradshaw was quickly repackaged on Smackdown as Texas tycoon JBL and thrust into the main event scene so quickly as to defy all credibility. He defeated Guerrero and held on to the belt until the next Wrestlemania, becoming the third man the company tried to elevate that year. He ended up having a longer tenure on top than either Benoit or Guerrero, but never achieved the potential of his great character due to the knee-jerk start to the storyline. Meanwhile, Benoit held onto his belt until Summerslam, but due to questionable booking, still loomed in the shadows of the mighty HHH. Benoit dropped the strap to Randy Orton, the fourth man the company attempted to elevate during this frantic transitional period on both shows. Orton, a relatively hot heel, was inexplicably turned face as champion to go against his mentor HHH. The fundamentally unlikable Orton predictably fizzled as a sympathetic character and his title reign was ended after only a month! Meanwhile, however, HHH’s associate in the Evolution stable Batista was quietly becoming the most over wrestler on Raw. The company did a slow burn with the storyline, culminating in Batista turning face, challenging HHH at Wrestlemania XXI and winning the World Title. On Smackdown, charismatic young John Cena had captured the United States Title, his first taste of gold in the promotion, at Wrestlemania XX. Throughout the year, fans took to his exciting character in such a manner that he was the logical choice for JBL to drop the World Title to at Wrestlemania XXI. On that show, he joined Batista as the final wrestlers in this frantic transitional era to be elevated to the status of world champion. Coincidentally, Cena and Batista were elevated to the “big leagues” not long after the brand split in the spring of 2002 when the company was trying to broaden the rosters of the two shows. When they completed their post-WrestleMania programs with the deposed champs months later, they each moved to the other show in another WWE “draft” that ended this transitional era with each man set as the dominant babyface franchise of his show moving forward. Cena, however, would see his character watered down on Raw, and has never matched the insanely over face status he had on Smackdown – although he has still been the most over wrestler in the promotion, owing to the fact that his crowd reactions are incredible and pretty much unprecedented with women, children and a minority of males loudly cheering him and a majority of males loudly booing him. Batista, due to injuries and incompatible work styles, has never recaptured the magic of his program with HHH. So this era, like the first of the brand split chapter of history, did not lead to massive mainstream success.
  1. THE POST-BENOIT ERA. This is where we’ve been since that horrible weekend in late June 2007 when Chris Benoit shockingly gave in to his demons and slaughtered his wife, son and himself. In the months prior to the tragedy, the company did not necessarily seem on the cusp of a new boom, but it did seem at least somewhat possible. With his rap, movie and commercial ventures, John Cena was earning more notoriety in the mainstream than any other star created since the Attitude days. WrestleMania XXIII, held in a sold-out domed stadium for the first time in four years, earned a good deal of mainstream attention as Donald Trump played a key role in the “Billionaire vs. Billionaire Hair Match” between his and Vince McMahon’s proxies. And the company seemed to moving in a pretty decent direction creatively in the first half of 2007, overcoming an injury to HHH that decimated existing plans for Mania and an Undertaker injury that short-circuited his face vs. face feud with Batista. The company did stub its toe somewhat with an ill-advised “Mr. McMahon death” storyline in which it was depicted that the company chairman’s car was blown up with him in it. Resolution of the storyline was interrupted by the Benoit murder/suicide, which shocked and demoralized a fanbase that had already absorbed many previous tragedies, but nothing this twisted. Benoit’s drug issues caused enormous headaches for the company and exposed massive holes in the company’s alleged enforcement policies. In September, many stars were abruptly suspended for drug use, an unprecedented amount of simultaneous punishment brought down the by company. Embarrassing and potentially threatening Congressional hearings await on the issue of the company’s attitudes on drug use. Other main-event stars have gone down as well, including Lashley and Cena (who walked out of WrestleMania as world champion each of the last three years and surely would have been the man holding up the belt with fireworks going off overhead at WrestleMania XXIV in the Citrus Bowl next spring). McMahon quickly wrapped up the “fake death” storyline of his character, only to substitute a “Mr. McMahon’s illegitimate son” mystery storyline that concluded in the most anticlimactic fashion possible, with a midget wrestler being bestowed the “honor” and the matter being played for laughs instead of mined for potential big-money matches. A series of teaser videos have played on WWE programming recently, seeming to hint at the long-awaited return of former star Chris Jericho, but, to the dismay of fans, he has yet to materialize. This transitional period is the most chaotic we have seen in the modern history of the WWE, which is not completely surprising in that it is the first one to feature three brands (ECW was added to the mix full-time in June 2006, although it bears little in common with the underdog promotion of the 1990s that bore the same name). The company is frantically throwing one idea after another at the wall to see what sticks. This desperation paid off with the Attitude boom, but failed in each of the last two transitional eras. All indications are that their unfocused approach will backfire this time as well.

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