I’ve been a wrestling fan for years now. Moreover, I’ve been a fan of pro-wrestling for years now. That may look like I said the same thing twice, but it’s not quite the same thing. Like many, I’ve been a wrestling fan in that I enjoy just sitting down and watching and enjoying what I’m seeing on the TV screen or in whatever venue I was in for a live show. But, additionally, I’ve been a fan of wrestling. I’m one of those people who love the art of it, the technique of portraying the unreal as real in live entertainment and not breaking the “reality” of it. I love the history of it all, and I love seeing how wrestling has influenced pop culture in different eras and vice-versa. I also love the variety of it all. I’m a wrestling fan, and I’m a fan of pro-wrestling.
This can be a good thing and a bad thing when it comes to what’s happening in the pro-wrestling world. See, I’m in my mid-forties. I’ve seen some of the biggest “Golden Eras” of wrestling over the last 50 years. The big problem with this is that every time we seem to see these “Golden Eras” we see the world of pro-wrestling simultaneously become lesser for it.
One of the first giant booms in pro-wrestling in my lifetime was the Rock and Wrestling era, the 1980s of Hogan and WrestleMania. It was the era that saw wrestling stars on MTV, pop culture icons lining up to be a part of wrestling’s biggest shows, and wrestling characters invading Saturday morning cartoons. Wrestling started going very mainstream with live events getting special treatment in primetime cable television and a wrestling show getting a semiregular rotation on NBC Saturday nights. Wrestling flooded the toy shelves, it sold record albums, it covered the magazine racks in your average convenience store, and there was a more than even chance of opening your door to trick or treaters dressed as popular wrestling heroes and villains as there was anything else. It was the best of times, and wrestling fans were in seventh heaven.
But it was also the worst of times. As Vince McMahon grew the World Wide Wrestling Federation into the sports entertainment juggernaut that would become known as the World Wrestling Federation, there was a cost. That cost was the death of the territories. As McMahon and then others changed the formula for running a successful wrestling company in America in the 1980s, a lot of the old time wrestling promoters couldn’t adapt and keep up. Slowly, all across the United States and up into Canada, the various promotions that existed became smaller and smaller, eventually shutting their doors and closing up shop for good.
The passing of many of these promotions was a terrible blow to local fans, but, sadly, not one noticed by most wrestling fans. The worst part was that fewer still realized the impact this would have on wrestling in this country.
There was something noticeable back then that’s hard to explain to people these days unless they were watching back then as well. Most of the different wrestling companies had a unique and different flavor to them. They had distinct identities and styles with the product they placed on the air. You could tune in to five different wrestling programs from five different promotions back to back and it felt like five different shows rather than one long stream of the same thing. There was variety with how they booked their face vs heel dynamics, how “reality” grounded vs sports entertainment the execution was, and even with the in-ring wrestling styles. As each promotion closed its doors, a little more of that was lost.
BY the 1990s, the WWF was slowing down. The ultra-hot boom period it had been riding for so long was cooling off, and a series of scandals and longtime talent departures didn’t help any. The Saturday morning cartoon vibe certainly wasn’t helping any either. In his quest to be “family friendly” entertainment, Vince McMahon had starting turning his brand of wrestling into a living cartoon. Over the top, larger than life characters in brightly colored clothing filled the WWF landscape, and the gimmicks the wrestlers had to work with were occasionally more than a little eye rolling.
Now, the work in the ring was still as solid as ever. The WWF was, along with the NWA as aired on Turner’s TV stations and in syndication, one of the two biggest games in town. As the territories died off, the best of the best in the wrestling game only has so many places to go. But for many, the presentation of the WWF product was becoming a turnoff, and there weren’t really too many other places to go anymore.
Wrestling wasn’t in a truly bad place, but it was nowhere near what it had been in the prior two decades. Then it happened.
It was series of events that wouldn’t be seen as realistic if they were written as fiction, some of them not even truly intentional or wanted, that turned things around. The outcome of this series of events was the debut of a wrestling television show named WCW Monday Nitro and then, with Nitro’s debut now one of these events, the wrestling war to end all wrestling wars.
While it offered some genuine shocks and surprises in its debut, I’m not sure anyone at the time would have said that this was the event that would eventually launch the biggest boom period in pro-wrestling. Turner’s still struggling wrestling promotion- no longer a part of the NWA and now known as World Championship Wrestling –wasn’t seen by many as any sort of competitor to Vince’s wrestling empire. Even with a few moments that made wrestling fans sit up in shock and/or awe on that first night, WCW Monday Nitro wasn’t exactly setting the wrestling world on fire.
As a matter of fact, a lot of fans and pros in the business alike criticized its placement on the television landscaper. The common complaint was that two wrestling shows on Monday night was just going split the ratings and damage both shows. No one thought there were enough viewers out there anymore to sustain two shows of that kind on the same night, and eventually even during the same hours. Little did we all know.
The defection of Lex Luger to WCW blew the minds of many wrestling fans, but was nothing compared to what was to come. When WCW unveiled The Outsiders to the wrestling world, the buzz was everywhere you could find wrestling talk. It was the dawn of a storyline war in WCW meant in a way to mimic the real war between the two companies, and with the addition of one of wrestling’s greatest faces making a heel turn and joining the outsiders to become the n.W.o it blew the roof off of the wrestling world.
Nitro started to quickly become the biggest thing in professional wrestling, but an interesting thing happened as it did so. At the start of what would become known as the era of the Monday Night Wars and the Attitude Era, WWF Monday Night RAW and WCW Monday Nitro were each doing anywhere from 2.2 to 2.5 ratings. As Nitro grew in the ratings, despite the earlier words of warning and alarm by many, RAW didn’t normally see a huge decrease in its ratings. During the height of the late 1990s, the combined ratings for the two shows on at the same time on Monday nights would range anywhere between a 10 to 11.4 ratings range. It was the new “Golden Era” of wrestling, and fans had never seen anything like it.
Not only was wrestling itself exciting, but it was becoming a major force in pop culture. What we saw with the marketing of wrestling merchandise and the crossover appeal of wrestling superstars into other pop culture platforms in the 1980s was dwarfed by what we saw in the late 1990s. Wrestling was literally everywhere in the pop culture landscape, and it was becoming a major influence on pop culture. The names WWF, WCW and even to a degree ECW were becoming household names, and even people who didn’t watch pro-wrestling could point out and identify its biggest stars. It was the best of times, and wrestling fans felt like they were on top of the world.
But it was also the worst of times. ECW had been building up a solid, rabid following. Under the insane genius of Paul Heyman, it was where wrestlers who “couldn’t make it anywhere else” suddenly became stars that people wanted to see on RAW and Nitro. But Paul Heyman wanted his show to be the next RAW or Nitro, his promotion to be the next big thing rather than the distant #3 with a reputation and name bigger than the actual company. Except it couldn’t survive the wrestling world of that era, and it ultimately became just another territory consumed by the two biggest players in the game.
WCW also couldn’t survive the wrestling and corporate worlds of that era. Mergers and changes in the power structure at Turner created chaos within the already chaotic infrastructure of the company. A seemingly never ending series of leadership and creative changes behind the scenes hindered the ability of WCW to keep its audience while the ballooning budgets of the shows caused it hemorrhage money left and right. Then, a corporate merger brought in people who had no desire to have wrestling connected to their names. By the end of 2001, WCW was gone. The company that had been raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and profits a few years earlier was bought by Vince McMahon for a little over $2 million.
Wrestling had grown larger than anyone alive could remember seeing it, but it came out of that period in many ways smaller than it had ever been. The North American wrestling world was now- for all intents and purposes –a one man show- and that man was Vince McMahon. Most wrestlers now had only one place they could work and make a living, and most wrestling fans only had one place to see those wrestlers work. Then it happened.
WCW was gone, but the NWA lived on. It was still doing live event shows all over the country, but now it was teaming up with a wrestling family to try something new. NWA/TNA was going to be a new wrestling show with a unique distribution platform. It wasn’t going to be syndicated, but rather each week’s episode would be aired as a PPV with a $10 price tag. Also at that time, only with slightly less fanfare, a new promotion calling itself Ring of Honor started up as well. Both promotions eventually landed television syndication deals.
ROH and TNA have been going for fourteen years now. Both promotions have had their ups and downs. TNA- now without the NWA –had probably much greater highs, but its lows have been far worse as well.
The odd thing- if not the outright infuriating thing -about the last fourteen years has been watching the wrestling fans. The WWF, now called the WWE, started getting incredibly stale again. It had its moments, but the ratio in the average show of great moments that made you forget the stinkers vs average to stinker moments wasn’t what it was a few years earlier. A lot of fans were tuning out again, complaining that the WWE product was just unwatchable.
It wasn’t just the creative side that was faltering either. A lot of the guys who wrestling on Nitro or RAW in the late 1990s and early 2000s weren’t there anymore for a myriad of reasons. New talent was needed, and there weren’t dozens of territories out there to pull talent from. This resulted in a lot of guys who weren’t ready for primetime being put there and looking like they weren’t ready for primetime. The wrestling itself suffered in ways that it didn’t back in the cartoonish days of the WWF.
But there was some good wrestling happening during that era in both ROH and TNA. It was just being ignored by many “wrestling” fans. There were some wrestling fans who legitimately found issues with the wrestling or found the creative execution in ROH or TNA a turnoff, but there were way too many people who called themselves wrestling fans who were less wrestling fans that they were WWE fans. They’d watch WWE for hours each week- complaining about the stories or the in-ring action the entire time -but ignore better wrestling because it wasn’t under the WWE label. This wasn’t new. There had been “wrestling” fans my entire life who only watched WWF/WWE. Even during the height of the war between WWF and WCW I knew a few of these guys.
The “logic” used was a bit circular. If it wasn’t WWE, it wasn’t any good. If the people wrestling there were any good, they’d be in the WWE. Since they weren’t in the WWE, they obviously weren’t good enough to be there, even if they were better than some of the greener talent the WWE was putting on its TV at the time.
You’d also see some incredible mental gymnastics by this group. If solid, fan favorite wrestlers left WWE for TNA or ROH, they were only going because they were WWE rejects. If the wrestlers were superstars from the Monday Night War era, they obviously just couldn’t “go” anymore in a top level company like the WWE and they were just taking up roster space that younger, better talent could be filling. Of course, the second any of these wrestlers returned to the WWE, they were held up by the same fans as great again- some even going so far as to start talking about them with regards to one last great run or even one more title run.
It was an attitude that worked against the smaller companies- keeping them from getting the viewers they might have otherwise gained -but it wasn’t the worst attitude out there. There was an attitude that to save my life I could never understand anyone calling themselves wrestling fans holding. Any setback- primarily with TNA –was met by many with comments that they were glad and hoping that the company would finally go bankrupt and/or get cancelled and go away for good. Why anyone calling themselves a “wrestling fan” would actually want to have less wrestling available to them, less options out there for them and the wrestlers, is still beyond me. Yeah, at this point I may joke that it would be putting TNA out of its misery to have Vince buy them out, but that comes from watching TNA waste so much potential over the years. Ask me what I’d seriously and sincerely most like to see right now and I’ll tell you I’d love to have strong, successful alternatives to the WWE product on my TV.
But TNA and ROH both soldiered on, and some newer names threw their hats in the ring as well. Plus, the WWE started changing. Things started happening that would have been unimaginable years ago. One of the major things that happened was the WWE Network.
The WWE Network came along just when a lot of fans were feeling pretty bad about the modern wrestling scene. $10 a month got you access to a huge and growing library of the best wrestling has had to offer over the last few decades. The WWE was putting up television and PPVs from days gone by from some of their most popular eras, but it wasn’t limited to them. You could find the same thing for a number of other promotions from bygone days. If you were a fan of wrestling, this was a great deal- especially if you grew up on the eras in question.
But they also had original programming. You could find things like the Legends of Wrestling roundtable discussions as well as various other biographies and behind the scenes programming. To make the deal even sweeter, you could see the WWE PPVs live as they aired as a part of your $10 subscription price. No more wondering if the show the cable company was charging you $65 for was going to be a bust or not. Oh, and then there was NXT.
NXT wasn’t the poorly conceived concept that gave us the admittedly pretty cool storyline with The Nexus anymore. It had evolved. They closed their old developmental territory and rebuilt it as NXT for the WWE Network. It became HHH’s baby, and it started to be seen by many as a brand in and of itself that rivaled or bettered the main roster’s shows. Not only was it being used to train and groom a new generation of wrestlers, announcers, and behind the scenes technical crews, but HHH was actively seeking out top indie talent and top talent from overseas to build the roster. Oh, and they were showcasing women’s wrestling. Not a Diva division with short, meaningless matches, but wrestling by women who could main event a show and put on matches every bit as good as any other match on the card. It was the NXT women who started the current “Woman’s Revolution” on the main roster.
When NXT started doing its own “PPV” specials on the network, all bets were off. They didn’t have the budget to dress up the shows with the level of surface gloss that the main roster PPVs had, but time and again they were being credited as being the better wrestling shows during a PPV weekend. They were lighting a huge fire under the company’s backside, and it was having a noticeable effect.
This last year we’ve seen amazing strides by NXT, the Network has been delivering some great original programing as well as feeding us more and more classic era wrestling programming, the main roster has tried to step it up to match the buzz being created by NXT, and we’ve seen superstars coming into the WWE and being treated like superstars again rather than repackaged and rebuilt so they could then be pushed as a WWE creation.
Outside of the WWE, ROH has been steadily jugging along, Lucha Underground has become a fun addition to the wrestling landscape, we’ve seen Mexican and Japanese wrestling start getting featured on weekly US television, and even TNA was seemingly getting a handle on some of its creative issue after a long spell of bad years. As I and some of my ESO Pro Wrestling Roundtable buddies have said, it was starting to look and feel like a new Golden Age.
So, of course, things have to start going downhill. News broke of a lawsuit between the controlling powers in TNA. That was bad, but maybe not as bad as it seemed at first blush. But there was already another lawsuit in the works, and together they make a double whammy of news that really looks like it could put a fork in TNA.
I’ve had my bits of gallows humor about the promotion lately, but I’ll always stand on the side of hoping for more options for both the fans and the wrestlers out there. Realistically, TNA may have had a chance to start growing again based on recent events that would allow it to start getting its house in order, and the possibility was there that an improving product overall might have helped lift all boats just a little bit more. It would be a damned shame if we once again start seeing a new Golden Age for wrestling in America, but the time is once again marked by events that will leave us with even less options by the end of it than we saw before it started.