I was so excited coming to work on Monday morning, April 20, 1998. That previous Sunday night one of my favorites Randy “Macho Man” Savage had won the WCW world heavyweight championship defeating Sting at Spring Stampede. Unbelievable! The Macho Man was once again on top of the mountain! He could add the WCW world title belt to his historic collection, alongside the WWF Intercontinental title and the 2 WWF world titles. I had just started following wrestling again after a few years away, but now I was back in 100%, excited to see Savage once again wearing the gold!
He lost the title that night on Nitro.
Man, a lot had changed in the few years I was in college.
I know wrestling must evolve and change with the times, but I guess I wasn’t prepared for how different things were in 1998. The pressure of the Monday Night Wars and live TV broadcasts had completely changed the storytelling dynamic. Where once a wrestler was crowned with a championship belt and then defended it with honor, carving out a legacy in the history books, now titles were being passed around like library books. Often without purpose or sensibility.
Bookers and company executives figured out the way to “shock” viewers was to script ‘mature’ storylines, hot-shot titles, reveal shocking hell turns, and utilize suggestive language. One company had to be “cooler” than the other. The storytelling that worked 10 years before was stale, slow, and uninteresting to the current generation of viewers. Sure the payouts were amazing when a story was built over months and years, but who has that kind of time?
Not WWE when you have to program Raw, Main Event, NXT, SmackDown, and the WWE Network each week. Not to mention monthly pay-per-views. And even though WCW has long since folded and there isn’t really any wrestling competition anymore, WWE still fights the draw of MMA and mainstream stream sports, to say nothing of the short attention span of today’s consumer.
If WWE doesn’t remain interesting every week, they risk losing viewers not to WCW but to one of the other million cable channels on the TV. Wrestling has to keep the pace up. Matches have to be quick and exciting. Titles have to change hands. There needs to be an explosion during almost every segment of the show. Otherwise people grab the remote. Don’t believe me? Check out baseball’s rating. Nobody is watching anymore. I love baseball deeply and watched about 6 innings of the World Series. The game moves too slowly and is over when most of America is ready for bed.
Colin Cowherd, my favorite ESPN personality says that in sports you need to be either “good or interesting”.
This past year, the Kansas City Royals were a good baseball team. In some ways, though, the Royals are an interesting comparison to old school wrestlers. They took years to rise through the ranks, then they finally got their title shot, and although they came up short, their turn in the Series should have been extremely dramatic. Instead their lack of star power and mid-market status couldn’t hold viewers’ attention. They lost the series and returned to relative obscurity. (Too bad there wasn’t a doping scandal to keep them in the news.)
In the late 1980’s the Royals would be the darlings of baseball, with or without the titles. Everybody in sports would have been talking about them. However, next year they will be forgotten if they don’t repeat this year’s success. You gotta hand it to teams like the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys. Regardless of their respective records, they are always interesting. They always attract viewers.
Vince McMahon deserves credit for keeping WWE interesting for a long, long time. We could argue whether it is a “good” product, but there is no denying that he has kept his superstars in the national spotlight for decades now. That takes guts, courage, and discipline. I respect Vince tremendously. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily love his product.
To me professional wrestling has always been character-driven storytelling mixed with athleticism and entertainment. Those elements grabbed my attention from the very first time I walked into the Hershey Park Arena in 1985. The entire experience was fantastic and shaped me into a long-time fan. Over the years I fluctuated from “big-time wrestling fan” to “casual wrestling fan” to “distracted wrestling fan” to “obsessed wrestling fan”…sometimes without rhyme or reason. Without question, though, professional wrestling has been one of the true joys of my life.
As much as I love this business though, the day-to-day details start to become a blur. Part of it is that I’m getting older and my memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be (just ask my wife…). But part of it is that the day-to-day action of pro wrestling really isn’t important. It’s fun to read wrestling websites and keep up with the latest rumors and gossip and to check historical archives for specific statistics like you would with a pack of baseball cards. But the individual match results? The individual show results? Let me ask you…do you remember anything from April 3, 2009 edition of WWE SmackDown? I doubt it. Unless you 1) were in attendance that night or 2) appeared on the card. Otherwise it is all a blur of WWE superstars, Divas, and personalities blended together.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great show. It just means it gets lost in the history books with every other SmackDown from the past 15 years.
To me, after 30 years following this business, there really are only 3 things that stand out, 3 aspects of pro wrestling that pass the test of time.
1) Individual superstars
2) Pay-per-views like WrestleMania and Starrcade
3) Memorable title changes (or defenses)
I don’t remember every single Randy “Macho Man” Savage match result, but I will never forget his robes, his interviews, his ring entrance, his manager (the best looking woman ever in pro wrestling), and his big title matches. His body of work is amazing. Randy Savage changed professional wrestling. I was so excited to see him wrestle and follow his dramatic on-screen relationship with Miss Elizabeth (yes, I know, off-camera as well…). But that was their story. Not if he beat Salvatore Bellomo on WWF Superstars of Wrestling. I remember the wrestlers, tag teams, and managers. Not the specific results.
Except for the BIG matches!
I remember exactly where I was when Hulk Hogan slammed Andre the Giant in the Pontiac Silverdome. WrestleMania III was historic from the opening bell to the climatic finish. March 29, 1987. I’ve had the argument a 1,000 times with modern wrestling fans who say “that Hogan – Andre match sucked! Both of those guys can’t work!” That Hulk Hogan – Andre the Giant match stopped time. I have friends who hate wrestling that readily admit they watched that match. That opening staredown was so engrossing that if my house would have been burning down I couldn’t have dragged myself away. It was a match 15+ years in the making. Fifteen years!! Andre was the biggest face in the world well before Hulkamania. Now he was challenging his former best friend? God, even now I get goosebumps.
And I remember the title changes. The British Bulldogs at WrestleMania 2. The Hart Foundation (my favorites) in January 1987. Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania III. Demolition at WrestleMania IV. Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania V. Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VI. Randy Savage over Ric Flair at WrestleMania 8. I could go on and on, and each one seemed historic in their own way.
I even remember the “near-misses”. I am still upset that in 1986 the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff got screwed in their tag title match against the new champions, the British Bulldogs, on a great edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event.
But now? Too many champions. Too many titles. Too many title changes. Honestly, for years I didn’t know what was more valuable, the WWE title or the WWE heavyweight championship. Or the WWE intercontinental title vs. the Unites States title. They even had TWO women’s titles when the division was scraping by on marginal talent!
Everything seems so watered down. Ask yourself…what title match are you really DYING to see?!
I’ve just become numb to it. The Rock wins the title. The Rock loses the title. John Cena wins the title. John Cena loses the title. I may be in the minority; did the Rock-Cena match-ups do anything for either man’s legacy? The matches were “fine”…but the title implications in Wrestlemania 29 just didn’t seem that important because we all knew the Rock was more interested in making movies than wrestling a full schedule. That’s a little different than Harley Race going from town to town every night wrestling 1-hour matches. Who has time to defend the title when there is another “Fast and Furious” to film!
Do you realize that as of November 2014, Cena has had 22 championships reigns, and he is a 15-time world champion. 22 titles?!?! That’s absurd…and I really LIKE John Cena!
Hell, the current champion Brock Lesnar isn’t even around! That’s insulting.
Can titles still mean something? Sure. I was in the crowd the night after WrestleMania 29 when Dolph Ziggler cashed in his Money in the Bank contract and won the WWE world heavyweight title. The arena exploded. It was a great moment for Dolph’s fans and a nice testament to his hard work. Of course he lost the title in a little over 2 months, which by today’s standards seems like an eternity.
When Daniel Bryan won the WWE world heavyweight title at Wrestlemania 30 it was a special moment. It was actually a RARE instance when the WWE bookers teased a title change for months and built up the drama. When Bryan defeated Randy Orton and Batista it was a beautiful moment. Proof that title changes can still create drama and excitement. Sadly Bryan was stripped of the title 2 months later because of an injury.
When Daniel Bryan got hurt it reminded me of when Beth Phoenix injured her knee in 2010. I was there in Baltimore, MD the April night when she defeated Michelle McCool to win the WWE women’s title at Extreme Rules. The Glamazon is my favorite performer ever and seeing her actually win a title was exhilarating! (You would have laughed at the site of me jumping up and down at ringside, let’s just say I was one of the few…) Less than 3 weeks later Beth blew her knee out and had to drop the title.
Maybe if Beth had stayed healthy she would have gone on to hold the title for a long time. Who knows? But most likely she would have dropped the title to a random challenger in short order anyway. The whole thing was depressing, not to mention Beth’s in-ring career was never really the same after that.
But injuries you can’t control. Storylines you can. There is an old saying, “the thrill is in the chase.” Sadly, in pro wrestling, never has that expression been more true. Because once you win the title, your days…or segments on RAW…as champion are numbered.