Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book Review: The Death of WCW

Originally presented on in 2005.

Alvarez and Reynolds make good on telling what went wrong.
The Death of WCW
by R.D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez

“Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes"
- George Santayana

When it comes to studying the history of wrestling, analyzing how World Championship Wrestling (WCW) failed is equally as important as analyzing how it rose to early dominance in the Monday Night War. Under the leadership of Eric Bischoff, WCW went from distant second place competitor to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) to total domination in the world of professional wrestling. Things were so going so well that Eric Bischoff predicted that the WWF had less than a year before it would go bankrupt. Bischoff was no braggadocio, WCW was close to putting the last nail in the WWF’s coffin but incredibly, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.

Fresh off of the success of Wrestlecrap: the Very Worst of Pro Wrestling, R.D. Reynolds brings his humorous style of analyzing the bizarre with him in dissecting the bloated corpse of WCW and explaining the organization’s untimely demise. Joining him is Bryan Alvarez, co-host of the Wrestling Observer Live radio show and editor of Figure Four Weekly (and indie wrestler to boot!) The two authors do a remarkable job of analyzing what went right and what went wrong with WCW, breaking things down into understandable terms, while entertaining the reader at the same time.

It’s still hard to believe that it’s been nearly four years since World Championship Wrestling went out of business. During the Rock-n-Wrestling Era, WCW offered wrestling fans an alternative to the cartoon styling of Hulk Hogan in the WWF. As Vince McMahon brought the WWF into the national spotlight and put many of his competitors out of business, WCW was for all intents and purposes, the NWA’s last stand against the WWF (there were other promotions such as Mid-South but the only true national challenger to Vince was WCW). When Jim Crockett’s outrageous spending brought WCW close to bankruptcy, Ted Turner bought the organization and kept wrestling on his Superstation TBS network. In Turner’s mind, wrestling was a big part of the Superstation’s success and it held a special place in his heart.

Rudyard Kipling once wrote, "They copied all that they could follow but they could not copy my mind, and I left them sweating and stealing and a year and a half behind." Such was the case with WCW. During the early 90’s they began to copy the cartoonish aspects of the WWF, bringing in characters like Norman the Lunatic, the York Foundation, and the Ding Dongs. This managed to alienate many of their long-time fans without attracting any new ones.

Enter Eric Bischoff. Bischoff had left the dying promotion the American Wrestling Association (AWA) only to find himself working for a promotion that seemed determined to outdo the mistakes made by the AWA. As an announcer, Bischoff witnessed WCW dying the same painful death that the AWA had. A man of ambition and vision, Bischoff seized an opportunity when it came to him and found himself in control of WCW. At first things weren’t so successful but Bischoff had a plan. With Turner’s financial backing, Bischoff acquired the services of Hulk Hogan and began the dramatic turnaround that would make WCW a smashing success.

By 1995, Bischoff had Hogan as well as several WWF stars such as the Honkey Tonk Man, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage on the WCW payroll. In many respects, WCW and WWF had traded places with WCW featuring cartoonish characters while the WWF tried to rebrand itself as the New Generation by focusing on workrate oriented wrestlers such as Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. Ted Turner continued to watch Bischoff’s accomplishments but wondered why WCW hadn’t earned a clear victory in the wrasslin’ wars. After all, WCW had the star power of former WWF stars like Hogan and Savage. When asked why WCW was not dominating the wrestling industry, Bischoff replied that he needed a prime-time show to compete with the WWF (which had had a long-running timeslot on the USA Network on Monday nights). To his amazement, Bischoff was told that he now had two hours of prime-time to air a wrestling show (Bischoff would cautiously keep his prime-time show to just one hour however).

September 4, 1995 marked the debut of Monday Night Nitro and the beginning of the Monday Night War. Backed by the financial power of Ted Turner, Bischoff intensified his campaign against the WWF. WWF superstars like Lex Lugar and Madusa Micelli were signed out from under Vince’s noses only to make surprise appearances on the live Nitro show. To make matters worse, Bischoff took advantage of the fact that Monday Night RAW was frequently taped by giving away the results of RAW matches on Nitro. During the 1980’s, the WWF demolished the territories by buying out their top stars and using aggressive business tactics to dismantle his competition. In the immortal words of the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro “What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”. Vince McMahon may not have liked it but the WWF was now the victim of many of the same tactics he had employed to destroy his competition

By 1996, WCW was in the black for the first time in its history. Ted Turner was delighted. While WCW had always provided good ratings for Turner’s networks, it hadn’t turned a profit in its entire history. Buoyed by Nitro’s success, Bischoff expanded Nitro to two hours and launched another salvo in the Monday Night Wars by adding former WWF wrestler Scott Hall to WCW’s lineup. Hall was joined by another WWF superstar Kevin Nash and a storyline began wherein WWF superstars were apparently invading WCW. Things heated up even further when Hall and Nash challenged WCW’s three top stars Randy Savage, Sting, and Lex Lugar (Hulk Hogan was away filming a movie) to a six-man match at WCW’s Bash at the Beach pay-per-view. Fans were anxious to see if the WWF stars could beat the WCW’s best and equally anxious to learn who Hall and Nash’s mystery partner would be. In the end, the wrestling world was stunned as Hulk Hogan turned heel and joined Hall and Nash as part of a new wrestling organization known as the New World Order.

The introduction of the New World Order in 1996 began a period of unmatched prosperity in WCW. WCW could do no wrong as it sold out arena after arena, broke television ratings records, and enjoyed high buy rates for all of its pay-per-views. Under the guidance of Eric Bischoff , WCW seemed unstoppable. WCW was poised to put the WWF out of business and become the dominant force in professional wrestling.

And yet WCW failed to win the Monday Night War and eventually went out of business in 2001. Through an incredible series of bad business decisions, poor planning, and hubris, the company lost its ground to the WWF. The story of how WCW lost it all is what makes The Death of WCW such a fascinating story. Alvarez and Reynolds do a terrific job of examining what worked so well in building the company up and the many factors that led to its demise. WCW didn’t die overnight and it had several opportunities to re-establish itself but through sustained mismanagement, the company went from the king of the mountain to the bottom of the trash heap.

The detailed breakdown of the rise and fall of WCW is enhanced by the humorous comments of Reynolds and Alvarez. In his debut work Wrestlecrap, Reynolds revealed his mastery of poking fun at the very worst of professional wrestling. The story of WCW’s tumble is ripe with comic material and Reynolds capitalizes on every moment. And just as he did in Wrestlecrap, this book explains the wrestling terminology so non-fans have an understanding of how the business works and the terms used in professional wrestling. Reynolds’ and co-author Bryan Alvarez (also known for his humorous take on things) know how to keep things in perspective. While The Death of WCW has its laughs, the book is a serious look at how even the most successful business can fail. Whether you’re a wrestling fan or involved in business, there’s something to be learned from the book.

The book has gathered a lot of positive feedback from wrestling fans and non-fans alike ( Forbes recently gave the book a glowing review) but it does have its critics. Long-time fans and members of the wrestling media have taken the authors to task for both the book’s content and the analysis. The book has been criticized because it basically recaps much of what was written in the Pro Wrestling Torch and the Pro Wrestling Observer (as well as on last year’s WWE release The Monday Night War). Much of the criticism focuses on the fact that the book doesn’t cover new ground or raise any new theories as to the cause of WCW’s demise. Critics have also expressed concern that while authors Reynolds and Alvarez take a lot of pot-shots at many of the people involved in WCW’s demise, that people who are friends with them are overlooked when it comes to the blame game.

While there’s no question that the book recaps a lot of information, that’s hardly a new concept in publishing. If the book had done a poor job recapping the tale of WCW’s plunge into the abyss, there would be room for criticism. However the authors do a remarkable job of chronicling what made WCW so successful and what led to the bottom dropping out. The story of WCW’s ruin is one of the biggest events in wrestling history and there’s much to be learned from it. With the proliferation of wrestling biographies, the business is finally starting to get true historical retrospectives. The success of Wrestlecrap has shown that there is a market for books on wrestling other than biographies. Reynolds and Alvarez should be praised for their efforts in broadening the scope of wrestling books.

Critics have been quick to note that the authors do not provide a fresh perspective on WCW’s fall from grace. Wade Keller’s review of the book noted that the authors failed to challenge conventional wisdom. ( Pro Wrestling Torch Issue 844 January 18, 2005) concerning WCW’s demise. There’s no doubt that the authors agree with many of the reasons given by others as to why WCW fell from grace. However it’s not as if the reasons behind WCW’s death are a complex puzzle such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Wrestling historians have generally held a consensus as to the reasons behind WCW’s downfall and it makes no sense for the writers to sensationalize the subject matter by throwing out unsupported theories concerning WCW’s fall (Curiously, Keller takes issue with the authors’ failure to challenge conventional wisdom while at the same time criticizing them when they contest the long-held belief that WCW’s guaranteed contracts played a pivotal role in the company’s demise.).

Another criticism of the book is that Alvarez and Reynolds shielded their friends from criticism. Basically, the focus of this allegation is that that WCW’s color commentator Bobby “The Brain” Heenan escaped the blame game. Mark Madden (a former WCW announcer and Pro Wrestling Torch columnist) and Wade Keller, editor of the Pro Wrestling Torch have complained that there is no criticism of Heenan in the book despite his infamous “but who’s side is he on?” remark moments before Hulk Hogan’s heel turn at Bash at the Beach. Madden has also stated at the Torch’s bulletin board The VIP Forum that Heenan had a drinking problem which led to a serious decline in the quality of his color commentary (and the reason why Heenan almost let it slip that Hogan was turning heel and joining the New World Order) and that the authors don’t bring up this up as well.

At first glance Heenan’s performance as a color commentator might seem relevant when you consider that Alvarez and Reynolds bring up Nitro announcer Tony Schiavone several times in their book. For example, the authors bring up Schiavone’s infamous call where he mocked Mick Foley’s WWF Title win (Schiavone knew that Foley was going to win the title since the RAW that week was pre-taped) only to have his comment backfire when Nitro viewers switched to RAW in droves to see Foley’s first World Title win. A closer examination of the two announcers show that while Schiavone’s comments are largely blamed for Nitro losing to RAW that week (and beginning the WWF’s eventual victory in the Monday Night War) Heenan’s comments are considered to be a footnote at best in the world of broadcast faux pas (and given Heenan’s career-long disdain for Hulk Hogan, his comments were similar to what he said about Hogan every other broadcast). Furthermore, Schiavone earned eternal disdain for many other remarks including his constant promotion of “the greatest Nitro ever” week after week.

The criticism made thus far has been extremely weak and I have to wonder if some members of the wrestling journalism community aren’t upset at the success of the book. While The Death of WCW is not a New York Times bestseller, it has had its share of success. It seems to me that some long-time wrestling writers may be a little resentful that guys who haven’t been around that long are now in the spotlight (Fortunately this isn’t the case with everyone as long-time wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer writes a nice introduction for the book). The authors may be recapping material that was featured in newsletters and books like Sex, Lies and Headlocks, but the book is a remarkable accomplishment nonetheless.

Unfortunately, most of the critics have missed out on the book’s one true flaw. Alvarez and Reynolds continue a distressing trend in wrestling books - the total lack of establishing the authors’ scholarship. Time after time, Alvarez and Reynolds provide facts and figures as they document WCW’s rise and fall but rarely do they document what information they relied on to get these figures. While the book includes a brief list of sources, there’s really no way of telling where they obtained information on buy-rates for pay-per-views, wrestlers salaries, or house show attendance. While you can be fairly certain that a lot of the information was harvested from the Torch and the Observer, there’s now way to be sure. There’s no excuse for it. It’s sloppy writing and it’s something that’s become far too common in books about wrestling. It’s a shame because future wrestling historians can’t use The Death of WCW as a resource with any level of confidence because they have no way of verifying the information presented by Alvarez and Reynolds. Ask any scholar or educator about the importance of listing your sources and you’ll understand why The Death of WCW is an enjoyable book but totally useless when it comes to proving historical fact. It may seem like nit-picking but wrestling writers need to bring their level of scholarship up to the same level as any other author writing a historical review. Mick Foley’s Have a Nice Day demonstrated that wrestling fans are not idiots and it’s time that the authors of wrestling books honored the fans’ reputation by bringing their scholarship up to speed.

Despite the book’s scholarly shortcomings, The Death of WCW is a great read. The 335 page book is entertaining and well written (although a little pricey at $19.95 for a soft cover). It also features a nice selection of color photographs that enhance your reading experience and it’s nice to see high quality photography in wrestling books other than those released by World Wrestling Entertainment.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Andre the Giant DVD Review

(Originally reviewed at 2005.

"…For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away" - The Epistle of James Chapter 4 Verse 14

In an industry where everything was portrayed as larger than life, Andre Rousimoff was the real deal. The close to seven foot tall four hundred plus pound wrestler dwarfed his opponents in the ring and made an unforgettable impression in the world of professional wrestling during his 28 year career. During the 1970’s, Andre was the highest paid wrestler in the business and he made a fortune for promoters as he toured territory after territory. Fans clamored to see the real-life giant who could use power moves and high-flying moves equally well. As Andre’s legend grew, he eventually became known as “the Eighth Wonder of the World”.

However, Andre’s tremendous size was both his blessing and his curse. Although Andre’s unusual growth has been attributed to acromegaly (a medical condition in which the body overproduces growth hormone), his actual medical condition was childhood pituitary gigantism (Simply put, both conditions are similar but acromegaly occurs during adult age whereas childhood pituitary obviously begins sometime during childhood). Semantics aside, the end result was that Andre’s body was the proverbial ticking time bomb. When his body stopped growing in height, it continued to grow internally, wreaking havoc on his internal organs. While the matter is now treatable with surgery and drug therapy (as Paul “Big Show” Wight can attest), Andre did not have that option and he lived his life to the fullest, knowing that his time was limited. The stories of Andre’s eating and drinking exploits are legendary with one tale mentioning that he once dined at a restaurant and ordered every item on the menu. Another story has Andre drinking over one hundred beers in one sitting before passing out. While these stories may be tall tales (no pun intended), they reflect Andre’s lust for life. In the end, Andre the Giant’s approach to life was exemplified by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who wrote: Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations.

In the ring, Andre was a true spectacle. Promoters typically put him in handicap matches or battle royals where he astounded fans with his unbelievable size and even more incredible agility (dropkicks and aerial moves were not uncommon during Andre’s early years as a wrestler). However Andre also engaged in memorable one on one battles with other big men of the sport such as Hulk Hogan, Bruiser Brody, Blackjack Mulligan, and Ernie Ladd.

Andre was a guaranteed draw but promoters did not want the Giant’s novelty to wear off on fans. As a result, promoters limited his appearances. This was no problem for Andre. He could appear once or twice in one territory and rest assured that dozens of promoters were waiting to book him in their region. This continued for many years until Vince McMahon’s national expansion during the 1980’s when he cut all cooperation with promoters and restricted Andre’s appearances to the World Wrestling Federation and an occasional appearance in Japan.

By the 1980’s, Andre’s body was feeling the effects of his glandular disease. He had trouble navigating the ring and unknown to the fans, often relied on a wheelchair backstage. However this didn’t stop Andre from participating in some of the most memorable matches of the 1980’s including his Wrestlemania III match with Hulk Hogan where he helped set a live attendance and pay-per-view record. Near the end of his career, Andre wrestled in constant pain. Doctors were amazed that Andre was still alive as most people with his condition were lucky to make it to age forty. Andre defied the odds before passing away at the age of 46.

The Andre the Giant DVD was announced last year to much fanfare. After recent DVD packages celebrating the careers of Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, Fans were eager to see what type of package the WWE’s highly regarded video production department would put together to honor the first inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame. Given Andre’s storied career and feuds with superstars such as Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, Killer Khan, Hulk Hogan, Blackjack Mulligan, and Jake “the Snake” Roberts, Andre’s WWE appearances alone would be enough to fill up a two or three disc set.

Sadly, the WWE has failed to deliver anything even close to that. Andre the Giant is actual a re-release from a Coliseum Home Video produced during the 1980’s. This DVD features ten matches with Andre the Giant and while there are some interesting matches, the DVD is hardly a showcase of Andre’s legendary career. A quick look at the matches featured in this collection should assure you of that:

Andre vs. Moondog Rex- Rex provides the same defense offered by most of Andre’s opponents which is to say none.

18 man Battle Royal- Andre was often featured in battle royals and this one has some of the top WWF stars of the early 80’s such as Sgt. Slaughter, “Big” John Studd, the Iron Sheik, Hulk Hogan, Tito Santana, Adrian Adonis, Dick Murdock, Paul Orndorff, Pat Patterson, and others.

Handicap match vs. Black Gorman & the Great Goliath (who is neither great nor a goliath)-This match was typical of Andre’s typical matches on WWF television.

Handicap match vs. Jack Evans, Johnny Rodz, and Joe Butcher Nova-another handicap match made interesting by the fact that Andre pins three men at once.

Andre vs. Gorilla Monsoon (boxing match)- this match provides fans a look at a novelty match as well as a chance to see Gorilla Monsoon in action.

Andre the Giant and Jimmy Snuka vs. the Wild Samoans- Andre’s tag matches offered his partner a chance to sell offense for most of the match until they made the eventual tag to Andre who would pave the road to victory. This match gives fans a chance to see Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and the often underrated team of the Wild Samoans in action.

Andre vs. the Masked Superstar- Superstar would later team with Andre as part of the Machines and eventually form one half of Demolition. That’s about the best that can be said about this match.

Andre the Giant and S.D. “Special Delivery” Jones vs. “Big” John Studd and Ken Patera (the infamous haircut match where Bobby “the Brain” Heenan’s henchmen Studd and Patera cut Andre’s hair and set up a great feud that led to the inaugural Wrestlemania).

Andre vs. Ken Patera- a follow-up to the haircut match where Andre seeks revenge on one of the man who raped him of his dignity (as the haircut angle was frequently described).

Andre vs. Big John Studd in a Bodyslam Challenge Match (Wrestlemania I)- the payoff match for the haircut angle where Andre put up his career versus $15,000.00 put up by Studd. Michael Cole and Tazz provide commentary in what appears to be yet another WWE effort to deprive Jesse Ventura of royalties for commentary.

The match also features Andre appearing on the old Tuesday Night Titans show where he interacts with a young Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

There are two ways to look at this DVD. As a showcase of Andre’s career, the DVD fails miserably. The matches presented here are appetizers at best, with perhaps two matches that would be considered keys in Andre’s career (the haircut match and the bodyslam challenge from Wrestlemania I). However, given the DVD’s low price (it lists at under ten dollars), it offers fans a cheap way to not only check out Andre’s career during the early 1980’s but an idea of what the WWF was like before Wrestlemania. If you don’t have WWE 24/7, this DVD offers ninety minutes of old school WWF action you’re not going to see elsewhere (at least off the black market).

I like to take some time to address Derek “the Dean’s” scathing attack on the former wrestler and WWF commentator who provides much of the commentary on this disc, none other than Lord Alfred Hayes. True, Lord Alfred Hayes was one of many former wrestlers who polluted the WWF airwaves at the time with less than stellar commentary (No one exemplified this better than Pat Patterson whose broadcasting efforts seemed more appropriate for an oral exam at an English as a Second Language class than anything else). And while Hayes’ foppish manner and outrageously cheesy tuxedos made him a legitimate laughing stock, he is still head and shoulders above Michael Cole when it comes to class and commentary skills.

Watching this DVD, I couldn’t help but laugh at the constant presence of Lord Alfred Hayes. Hayes exemplifies the white trash trying to fit into high society mindset of Vince McMahon. Vince McMahon seemed to be of the same mindset as soap opera writers at the time who thought an English or Australian accent equated itself with sophistication. In McMahon’s mind, Lord Hayes could make a discourse on a colostomy bag seem classy by means of delivering it with an English accent. During the 1980’s, Hayes was omnipresent in the WWF. Lord Alfred was the original stooge for Vince McMahon, serving as Ed McMahon to Vince’s Johnny Carson on Tuesday Night Titans. He provided commentary on B shows, hosted “Update” on WWF Superstars (a brief news segment where he would advance storylines), and was a convenient target whenever there was an airborne pie or pastry.

Unlike Michael Cole, Lord Alfred Hayes was never on the receiving end of poetry or Heinreichesque love. In fact, this anecdote from “Rowdy” Roddy Piper confirms Hayes’ supremacy over Cole:

A few days later, Lord Alfred Hayes, who is hung like a horse comes up to me as I’m getting out of the shower. He’s naked and starts running after me, swinging his dick and yelling “Roddy, Roddy”. He’s twirling that thing around like Roy Rogers trying to lasso Dale Evans -- Roddy Piper, In the Pit with Piper. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2002 p14.

To quote Stan “the Man” Lee: Nuff said!