Killing the Competition
July 8, 2004 by Kevin G. Bufton
For many months now, things have not been too happy in the world of WWE. Ratings and buyrates have dropped, new gimmicks seem to be falling flat and it seems that every wrestling columnist on the 'Net has something bad to say about the House That Vince Built.
I still watch WWE programming and, on balance, I still enjoy it, but it seems to me that the product is nowhere near as good as it was during the Attitude era. Now this is hardly a startling revelation, but I have been giving some thought to the reasons why the WWE is in such dire straits. Most people assume that it is all down to Vince or, at least, to the booking team but I'm not so sure. Certainly these people must claim some responsibility, but I believe that the WWEs problems lie elsewhere.
Back in the early-eighties, as the WWF was becoming a global company, there was a trio of wrestling promotions, known collectively as the Big Three. These consisted of the WWF, run by the McMahon dynasty, Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association (AWA) and the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), a global conglomerate of wrestling promotions, spearheaded by Jim Crockett Promotions, operating out of the Carolinas.
As the territorial system began to wither and die, thanks in large part to the WWF and JCP buying out many of the smaller territories, the Big Three held the lion's share of the wrestling audience. This was pre-Sports Entertainment and all three promotions could claim their World Heavyweight champions as legitimate grapplers. The AWA title was being dominated by Nick Bockwinkel, Bob Backlund was the WWFs champion, whilst the NWA strap was being traded amongst Harley Race, Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes.
Following the birth of HulkaMania, things began to change and neither the NWA nor the AWA could keep up with Vince's promotion. With the money he was raking in through merchandise sales and massive PPV buyrates, McMahon was in a position to offer huge salaries to those wrestlers currently working for the competition. The WWF poached some of their rivals' best talent, including Shawn Michaels and Curt Hennig from the AWA, as well as legendary NWA superstars, like Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard. As the decade drew to a close, it became apparent that the notion of a Big Three was nothing more than a fantasy. Only one man ran the wrestling industry in America and that man was Vince McMahon.
If this sounds a little too familiar, then it should do. Now, the WWE has all the cards, just like it did following the demise of AWA and JCP. It is also more complacent than at any other time its history, save for those few years when HulkaMania was running wild, brother. In that period, the WWF brought out some of the lamest gimmicks in its fabled history - the Bushwhackers, El Matador, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, the Gobbeldy Gooker, Tatanka, '"The Model" Rick Martel. Need I say more"
Today's WWE is much the same, with characters like Mordecai, John Bradshaw Layfield, Eugene Dinsmore and the addition of voodoo party tricks to Booker T's gimmick. I'm not saying that every gimmick should immediately get over, nor am I saying that workers should wrestle without gimmicks but, now that kayfabe is well and truly shattered, what is the point of these over-the-top characters" Everybody knows that Nick (Eugene) Dinsmore isn't mentally disadvantaged in real life, just as they know that John Bradshaw Layfield was a beer-swilling Texan hellraiser before becoming a J.R. Ewing rip-off ONE WEEK LATER. And as for Mordecai - words escape me.
The problem that exists now, is the same problem the WWF had back in the late-eighties, namely that there is no real alternative for the casual wrestling fan. Certainly, there is NWA: TNA's new show on Fox and Ring of Honor is looking pretty good, considering the Rob Feinstein debacle but can you honestly compare them to the WWE when it comes to having a grip on the mainstream audience" Vince and the rest of the WWE booking team can do whatever they want and feed us one crap gimmick after another, safe in the knowledge that we have nowhere else to go for our wrestling fix.
My main concern is that, if the WWE is not careful, its very complacency could be the company's undoing. As many fans will remember, in the mid-nineties the industry went through a dramatic overhaul, thanks to two new promotions and, in the process, the WWF came within a whisker of being wiped out, largely because Vince thought that his position as the business's top dog was unassailable.
Ted Turner had bought out JCP and re-branded it as World Championship Wrestling. Under this new moniker, the old NWA figurehead promotion swelled its ranks with dozens of superstars lured away from McMahon, thanks to inflated paycheques, much like the WWF had done in the first place. We're not just talking mid-carders, either - Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Bobby Heenan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall - all well-known WWF superstars and all now working for the opposition. WCW had Ted Turner's personal support and a bankroll that seemed to be a bottomless pit of money. Fans were shocked at the audacity of WCW and the resulting war between the two major promotions made one thing very clear - the WWF was not the only major player anymore. The underhand tactics used by both companies have been well documented and I don't intend to waste your time listing them here. Suffice it to say that if you've read this far, you probably know the stories.
As well as these two behemoths, there was another player, whose influence cannot be overlooked - Extreme Championship Wrestling, operating out of Philadelphia. With its hardcore ethic and rabid fanbase, many have claimed that ECW kick-started the Attitude era that would make Vince a billionaire later down the line. While it is true that much of its product was garbage wrestling, there was no denying just how talented some of its workers were. Hungry young superstars like Sabu, Tommy Dreamer, Cactus Jack and Taz, plus others too numerous to mention, helped to redefine wrestling for the new millennium. Though it would never reach the same level of exposure as its more established brethren, fans began to talk about the Big Three promotions again.
It was in this period that the WWF reached its greatest levels of success, though it did not manage this without a fight. For a long time the company seemed to be haemorrhaging wrestlers, leaving it with only a few dedicated workers to shore up its main event scene. Unable to compete with Turner's wallet and having no real way to keep their talent loyal to the company, this was possibly the WWFs lowest ebb. Then, slowly but surely, things began to turn around for Vince. From 1995 to 1996 he signed three young veterans that WCW had no further use for - Steve Austin, Mick Foley and Triple H - and lumbered all three of them with ludicrous gimmicks, simply to give them something to do. At the time, they weren't seen as being future stars but simply a way to swell the mid-card ranks. As the years went by and Vince had to concentrate more on promoting his main event, he left most of the rest of the card to fend for itself. Austin, Triple H and Foley all started to develop their characters, making them more like their real life personas and adding some much needed authenticity to the gimmicks. The Ringmaster became Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H was no longer the snob from Greenwich, Connecticut and the crazed, psychotic Mankind became the dorky, lovable Mankind and one of the three faces of Foley. This, along with third generation wrestler, the Rock, gave the WWF title scene a much-needed shot in the arm. Whilst WCW was pandering to its main eventers and holding down its young blood, the WWF was creating new stars or, rather, letting existing stars recreate themselves.
The rest, as they say, is history. WCWs top stars went on demanding more and delivering less, whilst the WWF merchandise machine went into overdrive, marketing "3:16", "Shut Your Mouth", "Have a Nice Day" and "The Game" for all they were worth - and they were worth a lot.
My point is, the WWF achieved its greatest success, both creatively and financially, when it was forced to do so by the strong competition. In wrestling terms, the 1980s saw the WWF as King Kong Bundy squashing a pair of jobbers, whereas the mid-nineties were more akin to a five-star bout between Angle, Benoit and Rob Van Dam - two first class workers and a plucky young upstart giving everything they had. If you follow this train of thought, the WWE of today is more like a half hour promo from Hulk Hogan - you know what's coming up next, you know you're not going to like it, but you also know it's going to happen anyway.
If Vince wants to return to the wrestling landscape that made him a billionaire, then he needs some serious competition to spur him on and, with the best will in the world, I don't see that happening any time soon. TNA shows a certain amount of promise and Ring of Honor as some of the greatest talent in the world but without the resources and the necessary national exposure, they will never be able to compete with the Big One, at least for the time being. Some people would have you believe that the Monday Night Wars destroyed wrestling but, in my opinion, it was the best thing to happen to the industry, until Vince went and bought out his greatest competitor.
It's not all doom and gloom. There is, and has always been, some excellent wrestling outside of McMahonLand, as long as you know where to look for it. Show an interest in your local promotions and in the larger independents. Buy some DVDs, shell out for some T-shirts, order some PPVs. Here in the UK, we're very lucky, having our own dedicated Wrestling Channel, showing the best of TNA, ROH, CZW, MLW, CMLL and NJPW. I don't know enough about the business to know if this is having an effect on Vince's ratings over here, but the very fact that we have a choice is encouraging.
Will we ever see a Big Three, or even a Big Two" I think there is a good chance, but it could be a long time coming. I only hope, for Vince's sake, that he learns from his mistakes and doesn't take TNA too lightly. It's a shame when any wrestling promotion folds but if it was the WWE, which has giving so many happy memories over the years, that would be criminal.
by Kevin G. Bufton..
Patrick Grimes :
great column. the WWE has become unwatchable with it's rehashed,see it before story lines. at 40 yrs of age, i've recently discovered and become a big supporter of the indy scene. (the International Wrestling Cartel is my local fed) nothing beats seeing tommorrows stars like C.M. Punk, Styles,Sabin,Jimmy Jacobs,etc. up close with 50-200 people. the fans are hyped and there's noone waving a sign in your face every 5 seconds to be on tv. the indies are the future of wrestling..
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