Sunday, November 9, 2008

Starrcade at 25: why this era is stale

By Rick Morris

Previously in The Lounge, we took a look at the historical impact of pro wrestling's first real supercard, Starrcade '83 -- which took place 25 years ago this month. We noted that it changed the business forever by introducing the concept of big shows that culminated several big angles and could be seen by fans of the promotion anywhere. Truly, this was the start of the modern era that Vince McMahon would then emphasize with a flourish over the next 18 months.

So if one views the first Starrcade as the beginning of the modern era in the business, then one can see clearly right now why the entire business -- not merely the WWE -- is so stale.


Because the industry is stuck in the midst of the longest period of status quo in terms of the structure of the business since the modern era began.

Think about it. Prior to Starrcade '83, pro wrestling had several significant territories scattered everywhere who did not compete with one another. The WWF (once known as the WWWF) dominated the Northeast. The AWA promoted from Chicago and the Twin Cities all across the Northern plains out to San Francisco. Mid-Southern was affiliated with both the AWA and the NWA at different times and was based out of Memphis. Major NWA territories included Mid-Atlantic (primarily the Carolinas and Virginia), Georgia, Florida, Mid South (primarily Texas/Oklahoma/Louisiana), St. Louis/Kansas City, World Class (Texas, based primarily out of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex).

Then, in 1984, once the WWF went national, the landscape began to change and the next several years were the most topsy-turvy in terms of good-sized promotions coming and going that we have ever seen.

^ Jim Crockett's Mid-Atlantic territory gobbled up the dying Georgia territory in 1985 and began to have national aspirations of their own when they acquired the World Championship Wrestling clearance on Superstation TBS.

^ Mid-South tried to expand dramatically under the Universal Wrestling Federation banner in 1986 but fell victim to a bad economy in their core area due to the effects of the falling price of oil and sold out to Mid-Atlantic in 1987. Shortly before this, Crockett bought up the remnants of the St. Louis/Kansas City promotion and shortly after this, he absorbed the Florida promotion.

^ The AWA kept for themselves a national program on ESPN that was created during the "Pro Wrestling USA" coalition that existed for a time in 1984-1985 to combat McMahon. Their business continued to decline throughout the 1980s until, in a fit of desperation, they partnered with Mid-Southern (now renamed the CWA) and World Class to co-promote their first (and only) pay-per-view effort, SuperClash III in 1988. This fiasco, which saw the respective promoters not even be able to find common ground on a clean finish between AWA World Champion Jerry Lawler and World Class World Champion Kerry Von Erich, served as one of the death blows for both promotions (the AWA lasted throughout 1990 in a reduced form, while World Class was gobbled up by the CWA in 1989).

As the 1990s dawned, the AWA was wrapping up a several-decades run and the combined CWA/World Class venture (now renamed USWA) was continuing to exist as the closest remaining thing to one of the territories of days gone by. The WWF and WCW (the promotion that was renamed once Crockett sold out to Turner Broadcasting and became the primary name being promoted over the larger NWA banner in 1990) loomed large over the business, with the WWF as the top dog as they were throughouth the mid-to-late 1980s boom and WCW in a distant second place. Events would remain fairly stable over the next few years, with only a few events shaking up the landscape in a mild way:

^ The Global promotion in Texas briefly got a show on ESPN, but failed to make much of an impact at all before folding.

^ The USWA settled into a role as a "feeder promotion" of sorts for the WWF starting in 1992, ending their run of independence.

^ Jim Cornette's Smoky Mountain Wrestling popped up as a throwback to true old-school Southern rasslin', but also settled into a "feeder" role for the WWF before eventually folding.

The industry saw the start of a change in early 1994 when Hulk Hogan signed with WCW, but the dynamic in the industry remained largely the same: WWF on top, then WCW on the next level, then everybody else (tiny independent promotions were taking the place of the larger territories that had existed from coast to coast). But by year's end, things were changing: Philadelphia-based ECW had created a third tier onto themselves as their unique extreme brand of wrestling put them in a slot well below WCW, but well above mere indys. And by September of '95, WCW was on an even keel with WWF for the first time as "The Monday Night Wars" ensued with WWF's Raw and WCW's Nitro programs airing head-to-head. The shows had a rough parity until the vaunted New World Order angle put WCW decisively on top from midway through '96 to the spring of '98 when the Steve Austin character reached heights few others had ever seen. The promotions toggled back and forth into the autumn of 1998, when the dynamic we have seen for almost all of the last ten years began to ensue.

By this time ten years ago, the WWF became the top entity in the business once again, with WCW a distant second and ECW clinging to that spot on the next level (and everyone else far back of that). From that point until the almost simultaneous shuttering of WCW and ECW in the spring of 2001, that picture of 1-2-3 was frozen in place.

After the putrid failure of the InVasion angle in 2001, which was supposed to represent the forces of ECW and WCW ganging up on the WWF after Vince had swallowed many of their assets (but not all of the ECW property, as the lingering bankruptcy proceedings of the time bore out), both entities were retired by the promotion in November 2001 (with ECW revived as a kind of sub-brand in 2006).

But then a strange development came about in 2002 in the form of a revival of the previous 1-2-3 pecking order. The TNA promotion began promoting immediately on PPV starting in June of '02 and the ROH organization came up from the ashes of ECW in the Philly area. TNA became the distant #2 promotion in the industry almost immediately and the smart-mark philosophy of ROH led them to the same niche #3 spot that ECW existed in for so many years.

And it has remained the case ever since.

Much has been made this year of various aspects of WWE staleness. The television show, while shedding some of the excesses of the "Crash TV" gaga that characterized Raw's evolution during the late '90s boom, has remained frighteningly constant in its presentation and format over the years. The "heel authority figure" crutch stopped being fresh at about the time the Y2K bug proved a false alarm. And the hackneyed plot devices of the creative team would make a pulp fiction novelist blush.

But this column does illustrate, in all fairness, that the WWE's staleness seems even worse than it is because it actually mirror's the staleness of the entire industry. In a business that saw constant change from 1983 to 1998 (with the partial exception of the quieter 1990-1994 period), we have seen this picture for all but one of the last ten years:

1. WWF (now WWE) head and shoulders above their next rival
2. WCW (replaced in the equation by TNA) much bigger than anyone else but not a serious competitor to Vince McMahon's crew
3. ECW (replaced in the equation by ROH) filling a niche for the hardcore and smart-mark fans, but not moving out of the squeeze of being smaller than the Big Two and bigger than everyone else

If the WWE creative team had their acts together to any degree right now, would the business feel so stale? It's doubtful, inasmuch as they still make the dominant impression on most wrestling fans. But their own failings account for only a part of the reason that the industry feels so stale. If other entities weren't frozen in place to such a large degree, there would be more of a fresh feeling all across the biz and that's something that the WWE is powerless to affect.

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