By Mike Mooneyham

April 6, 2002

Week one of the new Raw and Smackdown formats is in the books, and early reaction to the WWF’s “brand extension” has been a mixed bag.

[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]A number of viewers called in to praise the slick new look for both shows, while others expressed concern over the division of talent. While it’s still too early to predict how this now era of WWF will fare in the long run, the split is expected to produce a competitive playing field for a wealth of heretofore-untested talent. Several developmental performers have already made the jump – Brock Lesnar, Rico Constantino and Barry Orton being the most notable – with the gates poised to open for a number of others graduating from the ranks of Les Thatcher’s Heartland Wrestling Association and Jim Cornette’s Ohio Valley Wrestling.

Even with “free agent” Steve Austin back in the fold (at least for the time being), Raw still appears to be comparatively light in the talent and workrate categories. With Vince McMahon’s group boasting the likes of Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit, along with an emphasis on a new cruiserweight division, it appears that Smackdown will be the show to catch if you’re looking for quality wrestling.

As for the draft, McMahon exercised a wise political move by meeting with his entire WWF crew prior to the selection process and urging them not to read anything into the order of picks. The WWF, not wanting to alienate any of its top-tier talent, then took the easy way out by excluding Austin, Triple H and Chris Jericho from the draft, paving the way for The Rock and The Undertaker to slide into first-round spots.

Austin’s tiff with management appears to be at the truce stage for now, with McMahon putting him over Monday night on Raw and setting the stage for his feud with Flair, who apparently will assume Vince’s role as the Texas Rattlesnake’s foil.

Two key angles to look for on Raw in upcoming weeks will be the heel-turning Flair (with likely assistance from Arn Anderson) in a high-profile program with Austin, and the continuing emergence of Lesnar as the WWF’s new Bill Goldberg. Paul Heyman is expected to assume a key role in the development of both storylines, and should have more of a talking role on TV beginning this week.

More ambitious plans include moving a group of mid-card performers into top spots on the roster. Among them are Bradshaw, a probable successor to The Undertaker as WWF locker-room leader, and Bubba Ray Dudley, whose effectiveness as a singles talent is yet to be seen. Kane, Flair’s No. 2 draft pick, also will be asked to step up in the pecking order, although his gimmick has grown a little long in the tooth.

- Raw posted a 4.8 rating last week, an impressive number going up against the finals of the NCAA basketball tournament. Smackdown finished with a 4.1, up from the previous week’s 3.7.

- The disappointing response for the Triple H-Undertaker face-off on Raw Monday night apparently prompted a change of plans for the Backlash main event. The top bout on the April 21 pay-per-view will now feature Triple H defending his WWF title against Hulk Hogan (back in the hokey red and yellow).

- For those keeping score, the WWF’s Excess show on Saturday night will support Smackdown while Heat on Sunday night will support the Raw brand. The Metal and Jakked shows will feature Smackdown talent. Heat’s new announcers are The Coach (Jonathan Coachman) and Raven (Scott Levy).

- The NWO experiment was dealt a setback with news last week that Kevin Nash had suffered a torn bicep in a match the day after Wrestlemania. Nash underwent surgery Tuesday in Birmingham and is expected to be sidelined for eight to 10 weeks. Since Nash rarely has to work anyway, he should be back on TV “long before he is 100 percent healthy,” according to Jim Ross.

Even before Nash’s injury, the NWO gimmick had fallen far short of the “poison” that McMahon had warned he was unleashing on the WWF. With Hogan’s sudden babyface turn, it looks like tough sledding ahead for the once potent force.

- X-Pac (Sean Waltman), in a recent interview with WWF.com., denied reports that there has been major heat over his spot in the NWO.

“It’s a bunch of BS,” he responded to claims that he secured his position due to his longtime friendship with Nash and Scott Hall. “It’s a bunch of insecure guys saying a bunch of stuff and they don’t know what they’re talking about. We’re just doing our thing. We always do what’s right for business. People can say anything they want, but the past is the past, and what’s going on now is what’s going on now. And we’re all business.”

“I’ve read where some people say I jumped over the entire talent roster into a top spot,” Waltman added. “That’s a crock, too. I’ve been in this business 15 years. I’ve been a main-event guy and I was kind of damaged goods for a while, but I took six months off and I’m back, and that’s all there is to it. I’m putting my money where my month is. A lot of guys think they know what they’re doing, and the fact of the matter is, they don’t really. They don’t know how to draw money. And until they get there, they need to shut up.”

Waltman’s inflammatory remarks will no doubt fuel the fire among an increasing number of WWF performers who see the NWO faction as little more than political players who lobby only on behalf of their own self-interests.

- The WWF appears to be on the verge of one of its better hires in Dawn Marie. The ex-ECW personality has the total package – looks, brains, ability and desire – and is a sure bet to crack the elite WWF Diva list in short order. Her ring skills also should provide an immediate boost to a Smackdown women’s roster that includes Torrie Wilson, Stacy Keibler and Ivory.

Dawn’s fiancé, Simon Diamond (Pat Kenney), is expected to land a full-time spot in either the Florida-based XWF or Jerry Jarrett’s new promotion scheduled to start up in June.

- After watching former mat star Burrhead Jones mount and ride a 10,000-pound elephant last weekend at the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. show at Ladson’s Exchange Park, I don’t expect to see the local legend running away and joining the circus anytime soon. Burrhead, who along with myself served as guest elephant riders at the event, later said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but felt much more comfortable (and safer) in the squared circle than under the big top.

- Former world champion Bobby Managoff (Robert Manoogian) died Wednesday at the age of 85. Managoff, who worked more than 30 years as a pro, won the National Wrestling Association heavyweight title from Yvon Robert on Nov. 27, 1942, and held it until Feb. 19, 1943, dropping the strap to Wild Bill Longson.

Managoff was a second-generation performer whose father held the distinction of being the great Frank Gotch’s last opponent. Gotch broke his leg in that bout and died a year later.

- Superstar Billy Graham is still prayerfully waiting for a matching liver donor. Anyone who would like to help ease Billy and wife Valerie’s mounting financial burden can make a donation to: Wayne and Valerie Coleman, 15402 N. 28th St. #105, Phoenix, Ariz. 85032. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated by a man who gave wrestling fans so many wonderful memories over the years.

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- Our thoughts are also with WWF referee Charles Robinson and his wife, Amy, who is battling cancer. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a more compatible couple in the wrestling business than Charles and Amy, and our prayers go out to them.

- Kurt Angle is lending his name to the “Get Tough on Angina” program. Fifteen of Angle’s family members, including his father and three grandparents, suffered from heart disease. Angle noted on the “Live with Regis and Kelly” show Thursday that his 42-year-old sister, Leanne, suffered a heart attack several weeks ago.

“I’ve seen first-hand the devastation that heart disease can bring, and I want people to know that there is help and hope out there for them,” Angle said in a press release. “I’m excited to participate in a program like ‘Get Tough on Angina’ because of its focus on helping patients manage their health, and on helping families find ways to cope with having an ill family member.”

- Iowa State phenom Cael Sanderson, who ended his college career with his fourth NCAA championship and a 159-0 college record, joins two pros, Danny Hodge (Oklahoma from 1955-57) and Earl McCready (Oklahoma A&M from 1928-30), on an elite list of unbeaten college wrestlers.

- Chris Benoit’s return to the WWF may happen as early as the Backlash pay-per-view. Benoit was scheduled to have worked his first match since his surgery last year on Saturday night at a Heartland Wrestling Association show in Ohio.

- The Rock will appear on “Live with Regis and Kelly” Monday. The show airs locally on WCIV-TV4 at 9 a.m.

- The highly anticipated four-way bloodbath featuring Dusty Rhodes, Terry Funk, Abdullah The Butcher and Kevin Sullivan is still on for April 13 in Davie, Fla. Hope the American Red Cross has been notified.

Rhodes is also being advertised as part of the XWF’s four-day Texas house show tour April 24-27, along with such names as Johnny B. Badd, Konnan, The Nasty Boys, Public Enemy, Vampiro, Simon Diamond, Greg Valentine, Kid Kash and Tough Enough 1 finalist Josh Matthews.

- The WWF announced last week that its “Forced Entry” album finished in third place in Billboard’s top 200 albums chart for its debut week. The album finished first in Billboard’s hard rock category.

- Among the names being circulated as having been offered WWF developmental contracts are Matt Morgan from the Tough Enough 2 cast, former Limp Bizkit bodyguard Travis Tomko, Race Steele, Doug Basham, Chad Collyer, Mike “Nova” Bucci and Seven.

- Some quick observations on the first week of the WWF’s split shows: – Those annoying “What?” chants are now beyond old. I don’t care how much Stone Cold is pulling down in revenue. How to stop them? Take a cue from The Undertaker.

- Ric Flair needs to turn over the duty of setting up the weekly obligatory cheesecake match to someone more fitting for the role – namely Jerry Lawler. – I’ve got a pretty good hunch that the stunner Austin gave Flair won’t be the last – by a long shot. Let’s just hope he doesn’t approach Vince’s record.

- Putting Big Bossman on the first edition of the new Raw isn’t a good sign, and teaming him with Mr. Perfect is a worse one. While Curt Hennig still has considerable skill, it’s no secret that he’s being used as the WWF’s “perfect jobber.”

- How funny was it listening to Vince McMahon declare that it was his idea to ditch Austin’s “Ringmaster” gimmick, when it was Vince who gave him the gimmick to begin with?

- The bulked-up Eddie Guerrero has obviously been taking his vitamins during his time away from the WWF. Let’s hope the third time is the charm for the youngest son of the late great Gory Guerrero.

- Someone needs to put the hardcore division out of its misery. Flimsy cookie sheet and garbage can shots, along with the obligatory backstage brawling, have been way overused.

- Vince McMahon, Stacy Keibler and Mark Henry will travel to Australia next week to promote the WWF’s show in Melbourne on Aug. 10.

- 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. – A serious knee injury suffered by Perry Saturn at a recent house show in Jacksonville is expected to sideline him for several months.

- Mark Jindrak will be out of action for at least three months after knee surgery.

- Chris Kanyon is several weeks away from returning following knee surgery.

- Maven broke a finger at Smackdown but is not expected to miss any ring time.

- Jerry Tuite, who performed as The Wall in WCW, worked a dark match against D-Von Dudley at last Tuesday’s Smackdown taping. Tuite’s contract was terminated last summer for problems relating to his admitted drug problems, but reportedly has been clean for several months.

- Several teams are being used at house shows in order to determine their possible viability on TV. Among them are Mr. Perfect-Shawn Stasiak and Hugh Morrus-Chavo Guerrero Jr.

- Triple H is working with a small fracture in his repaired left knee.

- Bret Hart is scheduled to make an appearance at a TV taping for Harley Race’s promotion May 4 in Maryland Heights, Mo. Jeff Jarrett and Ron Harris also will work the show.

- One performer conspicuously absent on the WWF’s new rosters is Steve Blackman. The martial arts expert reportedly is suffering from severe migraines that threaten to end his career.