By Mike Mooneyham

March 31, 2002

The World Wrestling Federation boldly proclaimed that last Monday night’s “historic” Raw was the beginning of a new era of WWF television. Whether or not “that’s a good thing,” to borrow a phrase from Diamond Dallas Page, is yet to be seen.

The WWF’s draft and “re-branding” into two separate divisions – WWF Raw and WWF Smackdown – is an ambitious attempt by company braintrust to expand the product with more house shows, more pay-per-views and more talent getting more air time and more exposure.

[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]The WWF plans to increase live events from approximately 200 last year to 350 this year, along with more international tour dates. The split also opens the door for the elevation of mid-card talent, as well as the creation of new WWF superstars. With two viable developmental territories, a number of performers have been groomed for the next big step.

Among that group are stars like Brock Lesnar, a former NCAA heavyweight champ from the University of Minnesota. Lesnar, a bigger, meaner version of Bill Goldberg with considerably more amateur experience, has drawn rave reviews the past couple of years while patiently waiting his turn in Ohio Valley Wrestling. In addition to having “paid his dues” under the guidance of Jim Cornette in Louisville, Lesnar will now reap the benefit of working closely with manager Paul Heyman in the WWF. Hopefully in the near future Lesnar’s Ohio Valley partner and former assistant coach at the University of Minnesota, Shelton Benjamin, will be brought in to join him in the big show.

WWF officials admit the new format will be a formidable challenge, but giving the shows dramatically different looks should create new interest in the product.

“This is an important step for our company, and one that we have planned for quite some time,” WWF owner Vince McMahon said in a press release last week. “With the acquisition of WCW, and the talent development work we have been doing, we now have the depth of talent necessary to provide the star power to drive two compelling, distinct, prime-time television programs, and that’s what our fans will get starting in April.”

There are, however, some inherent shortcomings with the new system. While the division of talent isn’t nearly as one-sided as last year’s botched WCW invasion angle, it would be difficult to argue that McMahon’s Smackdown roster isn’t considerably deeper than Ric Flair’s Raw contingent. Unless there are some major trades and lineup shuffling, the ratings prognosis for Raw should have TNN rightfully concerned. Even Flair, with his commanding presence and compelling interviews, will face a challenge trying to entice viewers to tune in for the likes of Kane, Big Show, William Regal and his other top draft picks.

It also remains to be seen how the “brand extension” (split lineups) will affect the gate since, unless it’s a PPV when the rosters will be joined, fans will no longer see the top stars like The Rock, Steve Austin, The Undertaker and Kurt Angle, not to mention owners McMahon and Flair, on the same show. TNN (Raw) and UPN (Smackdown) also aren’t available in all markets, which means that some viewers will be limited in which WWF product they can watch.

The greater problem, though, lies within the WWF itself. With WCW and ECW distant memories, the only major organization the WWF is really competing with is the WWF, despite the attempt to create a sense of competition through the roster split. Perhaps the most glaring deficiency in the product over the past year has been the writing, which has ranged from sometimes silly to sometimes crude to sometimes insulting, the latter being the most unpardonable offense for a wrestling fan to endure since it is the fan who invests time, emotion and money into a relationship with the product. It is this point which can make or break a promotion, as WCW painfully discovered.

The holes in some recent WWF storylines have been big enough to drive a Mac truck through. Hulk Hogan tries to kill Rock one week, and just a few weeks later fans are supposed to buy that they’re best buddies. The NWO is brought in to destroy the company, yet Vince McMahon now fights for its survival. And, more recently, Stephanie McMahon comes within a hair of winning the WWF heavyweight crown in one of those ridiculous three-way matches that only further diminish the world title.

Certainly there’s no shortage of creative talent and experience within the walls of Titan Tower. But there are a number of questions begging for answers. Who’s writing some of this stuff? Are there puppets posing as wrestling writers at the booking meetings who nod approvingly when ideas doomed for failure are pitched? Is a strong background in wrestling – its history and tradition – even a prerequisite for a position that should include a considerable feel for the business that can’t be picked up overnight by scriptwriters more versed in “sports entertainment” than professional wrestling?

When Vince McMahon said a couple of months ago that he was going to inject the WWF with a “lethal poison,” there were some inside the company who felt that those words might come back to haunt him. Those same critics are now pointing to the recent actions of Steve Austin as proof that the acquisition of Hogan, Nash and Hall have already shaken up the locker room.

Austin, who has been conspicuously absent for the past two sets of television tapings, has been unhappy with his character’s creative direction. Austin, who helped catapult the WWF to the top of the wrestling heap in 1998, reportedly has been increasingly annoyed by the lack of attention the creative team has shown him, and his displeasure has surfaced in recent heated talks with McMahon, who has adopted the NWO as his pet project. Austin, who also no-showed a pair of house shows in Florida last week, is being advertised for Raw this week, but his status with the organization apparently is uncertain.

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Adding fuel to the fire, Nash and the NWO contingent arrived several hours late for a recent Smackdown, and Nash voiced his disapproval to McMahon and The Rock over an unscripted promo Rock cut on Nash the previous night on Raw. The outspoken Nash had vigorously protested weeks earlier when Austin poured beer on Hall after a match despite the fact that Hall was taking a prescribed medication that makes him violently ill when in the presence of alcohol.

- Hulk Hogan teamed with Hunter Hearst Helmsley for the first time ever at a house show Thursday night at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey. The event, billed as the final WWF event prior to the brand extension, saw Hogan and Triple H defeat Nash, Hall and Sean Waltman in a handicap match. Hall and Waltman did simultaneous jobs to Hogan’s legdrop and Triple H’s pedigree. It was the highest-grossing non-PPV event ($475,000) in history for that building.

- Ric Flair (substituting for Steve Austin) and The Undertaker put on strong performances in highlighting WWF shows Wednesday night in Gainesville, Fla., and Thursday night in Jacksonville, with a bloody Flair winning both bouts after delivering chair shots to Taker.

- Triple H paid a nice compliment to Flair after cameras stopped rolling at Smackdown tapings Tuesday night. Calling the Nature Boy back into the ring after their match with Kurt Angle and Vince McMahon, Triple H proclaimed, “You always called yourself ‘The Man,’ but I call myself ‘The Game.’ I always wanted to say: Thank you. If not for you, there would be no Game. I thank you, they (the fans) thank you. You truly are ‘The Man.'”

- The Rock, who is featured in the April issue of Vanity Fair, is scheduled for his second stint as co-host of “Saturday Night Live” on April 13. The Rock’s latest flick, “The Scorpion King,” will debut in theaters six days later.

- Raw drew a 5.4 rating for last week’s show, slightly higher than the previous week’s episode and its best mark since The Rock’s return last July, indicating there is at least strong initial curiosity surrounding the roster split, Hogan and the NWO.

- Jim Ross will continue working the Raw show with Jerry Lawler, who is expected to be replaced as Michael Cole’s Smackdown broadcast partner. New announcing teams also are planned for the other WWF TV shows.

- Eddie Guerrero, who fell off the wagon during his previous two stints with the WWF, is being given another chance to redeem himself. The company obviously has been forced to revisit its disciplinary policy regarding substance abuse since the controversial hiring of repeat offender Scott Hall. Rey Misterio Jr. is also due to make his WWF debut soon.

Their impending arrivals appear to signal the formation of a long-overdue cruiserweight division. The WWF’s decision to finally implement the division comes just months before the planned start-up of Jeff and Jerry Jarrett’s national promotion.

- Longtime wrestler Steve Bolus, who appeared in the Carolinas and Virginia for Jim Crockett Promotions during the ‘60s, recently died of cancer in his hometown of Burlington, Ontario, Canada.

Bolus, who broke into the business during the ‘50s with the help of fellow Greek-Canadians Chris and John Tolos, held the NWA Canadian tag-team title with Dean Higuchi (Dean Ho) in 1969 and also formed top duos with Rufus R. Jones and Steve Kovaks in the Central States territory.

- Jerry Reese, better known in mat circles as Big Red, died of a heart attack March 17. For the past several years Reese, 51, had been an evangelist in Atlanta with his own show on his mother’s national WTMN Gospel Network. As part of his ministry, the 400-pound Reese held special events for the homeless in downtown Atlanta. Last summer, he and his volunteers prepared a feast of ribs, barbecued chicken and all of the trimmings for 2,000 street people.

- Ray Schilling, who wrestled in the ‘70s in Washington as Logger Larson, passed away Thursday at the age of 62.

Of course, Booker was right about WCW, but he probably couldn’t predict that just a couple years later they would all be sharing the same WWF locker room. – Chris Benoit is scheduled to be released to work in May.

- Mike Awesome is scheduled to return to WWF rings soon, but will work out his ring rust in either Ohio Valley Wrestling or the Heartland Wrestling Association.

- Ken Shamrock, who was backstage at Wrestlemania with girlfriend Alicia Webb (who played the role of his sister, Ryan Shamrock, in the WWF), reportedly is fielding offers from the WWF and Jerry Jarrett’s fledging promotion.

- Steve Wilkos, the head of security on Jerry Springer’s TV talk show, made his pro wrestling debut Wednesday night in the main event of an independent card promoted by Maryland Championship Wrestling.

The former Chicago police officer, paired with former WWF light heavyweight champion Duane Gill (Gillberg), defeated Chad Bowman and Dino Devine.

“It was a blast,” the 38-year-old, 6-3, 220-pound Wilkos, told the Associated Press. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I really enjoyed it.”

A record crowd of 1,627 packed Michael’s Eighth Avenue, a ballroom that usually hosts wedding receptions and high school proms. They chanted “Steve! Steve! Steve!” – just as audiences do when Wilkos appears to corral unruly guests on the Springer show.

“What was exciting for me was to be able to use some force, which I can’t do on our (TV) show,” said Wilkos. “I got to show some aggression for once.”