Monday, January 18, 2010

The Rise and Fall of WCW

As the January 4, 2010 episode of TNA Impact recently showed, people are still fascinated by World Championship Wrestling (WCW). The once thriving national promotion was the southern counterpart to Vince McMahon’s WWF/E, with roots dating back to the 1930’s. At one point, WCW was so successful that it looked to be on its way to not only dominating the wrestling industry but putting the WWF out of business. In a dramatic reversal of fortune, WCW would go down like the Hindenburg, with the WWE triumphing over its longtime rival. Ironically, the very company that WCW tried to bankrupt ended up purchasing it and now has a DVD profiling its legacy. The result is The Rise and Fall of WCW, a WWE Home Video production which tracks the history of one of wrestling's biggest promotions.

Once upon a time, promoter Jim Crockett provided hours of entertainment to fans in Virginia and the Carolinas under the umbrella of a company that would become known as Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP). The exact date of when Mr. Crockett began promoting wrestling is difficult to pin down. Although the company celebrated its in silver anniversary in 1985, some believe this was a kayfabe date. Regardless of its actual start, JCP went on to promote professional wrestling, musical and theatrical shows, as well as sporting events. Mr. Crockett’s wrestling territory was one of the first members of the National Wrestling Alliance, distinguishing itself both by its success as a promotion and by its focus on tag team wrestling. Following Mr. Crockett’s death in 1973, the promotion was eventually handed over to son Jim Crockett Jr. who expanded the promotion from a regional territory into a national promotion. Mr. Crockett’s promotion is fondly remembered by many fans as one of the greatest wrestling promotions of all time, launching the careers of numerous stars and building them in true superstars. Wrestlers like Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper are just a few members of JCP's all-star alumni.

With the wrestling world changing in the 1980’s, Mr. Crockett decided to expand business. The company not only sold out shows at its Greensboro Coliseum but it caused shutdowns of the local highway system. Wisely, Mr. Crockett saw the future and he turned to closed circuit television in order to expand his audience. The result was 1983’s big event known as Starcade (eventually Starrcade), a show held live at the Greensboro Coliseum and broadcast in several other areas on closed circuit television. Despite a freak snowstorm, Starcade was a major success (eventually leading the way for the WWF’s Wrestlemania show).
The second component of Mr. Crockett’s expansion was bringing in Dusty Rhodes to book his product. Mr. Rhodes had helped make Championship Wrestling from Florida a success and he helped take JCP to greater heights, helping in the development of Starcade as well as several other successful promotional ventures.

As the 1980’s marched on, many of the territories were dying or already out of business. The National Wrestling Alliance no longer maintained the stranglehold it once held over wrestling and JCP rose to the position of standing up against the WWF. For a while, JCP more than held its own. While the WWF was winning mainstream audiences with its Rock and Wrestling style promoting, JCP maintained a strong base from traditional fans who held the WWF’s often cartoonish product in disdain. It also didn’t hurt that JCP’s roster included some of the sport’s most entertaining stars including Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, the Rock and Roll Express, and Magnum T.A. (to name but a few).

Sadly, bad business practices ended up killing JCP. Anyone familiar with JCP knows the story. JCP’s accountant entered Mr. Crockett’s office and told him the company was five million dollars in the hole. The company was hemorrhaging money. Could it be saved? No one was certain but David Crockett wanted to hold on. However he reversed his decision when he learned his mother’s pension was jeopardized by the company’s bleak prognosis.

The result was JCP being sold to Ted Turner’s organization and the company renamed World Championship Wrestling. With Ted Turner bankrolling the company (Mr. Turner was fiercely loyal to wrestling since it helped him build up Superstation TBS) the industry waited to see how the new company would compete against the WWF. What happened over the next few years was a fascinating study of the clash between a corporate mentality and the unorthodox world of professional wrestling. WCW went through a period of complete chaos as executives brought in to guide WCW to new heights flew the company in a seemingly endless holding pattern. No one seemed to know how to run the company and WCW suffered as a revolving door of bookers and executives came and went.

Enter Eric Bischoff, the former announcer for the American Wrestling Association. Mr. Bischoff entered WCW as an announcer but he quickly worked his way up to become WCW's executive producer. Mr. Bischoff had a vision for the failing company and he executed it with a take no prisoners attitude. Some of his ideas were radical such as his decision to dump house shows. With house shows drawing pitiful audiences, Mr. Bischoff scrapped them and moved TV tapings to Disney’s MGM Studio. The move was controversial, especially when WCW taped twenty six weeks of television over a short stretch. With the Internet beginning to spread, this meant that fans knew the company’s booking direction for the next six months. Some fans began to wonder if Eric Bischoff wasn't headed for failure like his predecessors.
Unfazed by criticism, Mr. Bischoff convinced Ted Turner that WCW needed to bring in new talent in order to establish itself as a true competitor to the WWF. The result was astonishing-longtime rival Hulk Hogan was now in WCW! Hogan’s presence shocked some of WCW’s traditional fan base but he also brought in a new audience. Mr. Hogan’s presence shook up the company, resulting in some top stars losing their place. However Mr. Bischoff had a direction in mind for the company and he stuck to it. Then, an off the cuff comment led to one of the most revolutionary moments in wrestling history.

According to Mr. Bischoff’s autobiography Controversy Creates Cash, Mr. Bischoff was meeting with Turner executives (including Mr. Turner himself) to discuss an overseas deal when Mr. Turner asked Mr. Bischoff what he needed to compete with the WWF. According to Mr. Bischoff, the question caught him off guard and he blurted out that he needed prime time television. To Mr. Bischoff’s surprise, the man nicknamed Captain Outrageous told him he had it. This led to Monday Night Nitro being commissioned, a TV show that would compete directly against the WWF’s flagship show Monday Night RAW.

When Nitro debuted in 1995, professional wrestling was not setting the world on fire. WCW and the WWF were struggling financially and creatively; the glory days of the 1980’s were well over. With RAW routinely drawing ratings in the 2.0’s, predictions that Nitro was going to either cannibalize RAW’s audience or flop were difficult to ignore. However Mr. Bischoff stuck to his guns and pressed on. Mr. Bischoff’s vision resulted in a wrestling blitz with the live Nitro drawing a 2.5 rating next to RAW’s 2.2. While both shows would trade wins over the next seven months, Eric Bischoff wasn’t satisfied with anything less than complete dominance.

WCW’s Monday night move not only caught the WWF off guard but it came at an opportune time for WCW. The 1990’s saw a slew of problems for the WWF including Vince McMahon’s federal indictment and subsequent trial, the failure of the World Bodybuilding Federation, the departure of Hulk Hogan, and sluggish ticket sales. With the WWF having to watch every dime it spent, WCW was able to hire WWF stars such as Scott Hall and Kevin Nash to the company. That alone might not have meant much but Mr. Bischoff had a bold direction in mind for them-a battle between the WWF and WCW. He booked an angle that made some fans wonder if the WWF was sending its stars to destroy WCW. The angle was a wild success, even when WWF legal action led to WCW making an on-air announcement that Messieurs Hall and Nash were not working for the WWF.

Wrestling is full of hyperbole but it’s no hyperbole to say that WCW destroyed the WWF for the next two years. The company crushed RAW in the ratings and soared to new heights every month with PPV buy rates. People began to wonder when the WWF was going to go under. Mr. Bischoff gloated over WCW’s success, even going so far as to challenge Vince McMahon to meet him in the ring on to duke it out, mano y mano. Mr. McMahon passed on Mr. Bischoff’s PPV invite but offered to meet him in a parking lot of their choosing. Mr. McMahon wasn’t going down without a tooth and claw fight to the finish.

For a while, it seemed as if WCW could do no wrong. Yet it did, running the nWo angle for too long, failing to build new stars, and hemorrhaging money in a way that made JCP’s money woes look like a badly played game of Monopoly by comparison. When the WWF became the next big thing, fans tuned out of WCW and the company entered a nosedive that resulted in the company’s destruction. WCW’s incredible reversal of fortune is still talked about and analyzed to this day which makes The Rise and Fall of WCW an important DVD.

When The Rise and Fall of WCW DVD was announced, fans couldn’t help but think back to the WWE’s The Monday Night War DVD, a product that took a very biased look at the aforementioned Monday Night War. While The Rise and Fall of WCW is the WWE’s take on things, it’s a lot more objective than The Monday Night War was. This documentary provides a fairly accurate overview of what WCW meant to the industry, its history as Jim Crockett Promotions, and the company’s ensuing struggles and success as WCW. Like The Monday Night War, fans who know of the WWF’s business practices during the 1980’s will chuckle when the WWF’s talking heads cry foul about WCW’s deep pockets being used to lure WWF stars and WCW’s breaking the rules (such as launching Nitro against RAW). Anyone familiar with WWE Home Video should know by now that the WWE isn’t going to paint itself in a bad light so this type of bias isn't surprising.

Other than the company’s usual WWE can do no wrong bias, the product is very good. There are interviews with many of the stars involved with JCP and WCW including Jim Crockett Jr., Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Bill Watts, Ricky Steamboat, and Eric Bischoff (although Mr. Bischoff did not agree to be interviewed for this particular product, his comments on WCW from previous interviews provide all you need to know). In terms of historical accuracy, the DVD does a good job although there is one glaring mistake in which longtime JCP wrestler Paul Jones is connected to promoter Paul Jones (an entirely different person).

The WWE has gotten its DVD’s down to a science. Anyone looking for a quick survey of WCW history should enjoy this one (Fans looking for a deeper look at Jim Crockett Promotions should direct their attention to the Mid Atlantic Gateway, a fantastic site that includes interviews with JCP stars, year by year breakdowns of the promotion, photos, and much more). The features and matches are pretty good too although like most WWE DVD's, they don't go back before the mid 1980's (which is a downright shame as some of JCP's best angles happened before the promotion went national). One of WCW's best tag team matches from the 1990's is included on here (Steiner Brothers vs. Luger & Sting) along with the excellent Magnum T.A.’s $1,000.00 challenge angle.