By Mike Mooneyham

Sept. 15, 2002

While the rest of America was immersed in the anniversary of 9/11 last week amid growing speculation of a military strike against Iraq, Vince McMahon and his WWE writers were working overtime to generate a buzz of their own. If their aim was to get wrestling fans – and the mainstream media – talking about their product, they succeeded. If their goal was to give a much-needed boost to declining ratings, the jury is still out.

[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]A controversial segment on Raw and a heavily hyped gay wedding angle on Smackdown provided ample fodder for water cooler conversation throughout the week. The numbers tell the story of two shows whose differences have become more pronounced by the week.

Monday night’s edition of Raw dropped to a 3.4, down from the previous week’s disappointing 3.6 and the lowest mark for the show in its normal time slot in more than four years. The season opener of Monday Night Football, usually cited with taking a chunk of Raw’s viewership, couldn’t claim much of the credit last week, since it was the lowest-rated opener for the program in eight years despite the debut of John Madden.

But it was Thursday night’s Smackdown, whose numbers rose to a 3.7 (up from 3.2 and 3.1 the previous two weeks), that had wrestling fans abuzz as the WWE stumbled into the world of social commentary with what had been promoted as the first-ever televised gay wedding between two male wrestlers, Billy and Chuck (Monty Sopp and Chuck Palumbo). In typical WWE fashion, however, the same-sex commitment ceremony was a carefully devised swerve, with the participants admitting that the angle was nothing more than a publicity stunt (before the grooms had a chance to kiss, they came out as straight) designed to spark curiosity and, no doubt, ratings.

The WWE garnered considerable mainstream publicity during the week, with the “happy couple” making appearances on a number of national radio and TV programs, including a Thursday morning stint on NBC’s Today Show. “They’re going from headlock to wedlock,” Jay Leno joked Wednesday night.

Wrestling, however, hasn’t been gentle grounds for homosexual characters in the past who have played the role in stereotypical fashion – flamboyant, effeminate, fashion-conscious – and been the target of fans wielding homophobic signs and hurling gay-bashing chants. The Billy and Chuck wedding angle, though, was all tongue-in-cheek, with the two even registered for wedding gifts.

“The issue is certainly topical,” Stephanie McMahon, who oversees the Raw and Smackdown writing teams, told the New York Post last week. “What we like to do in our genre is bring in issues that are out there in society that are topical and bring them into our storylines,” said McMahon, citing the New York Times’ recent decision to list same-sex wedding announcements and a slew of similarly themed TV programs, including a new reality series on cable’s Bravo channel called “Gay Weddings.”

The angle surprisingly drew praise from GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), a group that has ripped the WWE in the past for its portrayal of such darkly homophobic gimmicks as Goldust. Oddly enough there was no comment from the organization on the WWE’s misogynistic presentation earlier that week on Raw.

“It’s a hoot,” Scott Seomin, GLAAD’s entertainment media director in Los Angeles, told The Washington Post. “The audience, from what we’ve seen, appears to be cheering them on. While it’s entertaining for viewers, it’s also enlightening. Because of its teenage audience, Smackdown reaches a lot of potential bullies and gay bashers out there, and what Billy and Chuck are saying is not only ‘We’re here,’ but they also say, ‘Don’t mess with us.'”

But don’t expect the angle, which shouldn’t be interpreted as a social breakthrough for the WWE, to catapult the two into superstardom. Despite the buzz, neither Billy nor Chuck is a major draw, and their “ambiguously gay duo” storyline was far from compelling.

Raw, Smackdown’s Monday night counterpart, continues to reek of desperation. The apparent game plan for that show is to shock the viewers into watching programming much more suitable for the trash TV domain of Jerry Springer and Howard Stern. Last week, though, that shock extended all the way to the corporate offices of TNN and parent company CBS-Viacom, which apparently were caught by surprise by a sleazy edition of the show that was built around the promise of on-air “HLA” (hot lesbian action). The skit, which culminated with two scantily clad women being beaten assaulted by a pair of 350-pound Samoan wrestlers, was – not surprisingly – condemned by the network, which reportedly was flooded with negative reaction from viewers. Canada’s TSN opted to edit out the objectionable segment.

“TNN takes serious issue with the content of Monday night’s WWE Raw episode, and has expressed its deep concern to the WWE,” a TNN release stated on Tuesday. “We don’t condone the content of this episode, and will work diligently to ensure that similar occurrences do not appear again on our network.”

Privately the network’s stance was much harsher, with irate TNN executives reportedly chastising WWE management over the vile skit. It wasn’t the first time discord has existed between the network and the Vince McMahon-owned company. Several months age the network rejected a tape for a WWE Divas special that it deemed too racy. The WWE was forced to re-edit the tape, and the show was moved from prime time during the week to a late-night Saturday slot.

To their credit, WWE officials last week posted a warning on its Web site for parents, but only concerning the Smackdown show. And, despite the reprimand from TNN, the WWE posted a poll on its Web site asking fans what they thought of Monday night, with the choices being “Would like to see more of it” and “Went too far.”

Even WWE talent chief Jim Ross lamented the changing winds of pro wrestling with a statement Friday on the WWE Web site.

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“I am no longer a member of our prime 18-34 demographic, so my voice is not heard as loudly as some of you young bucks who are. Some weeks I even feel like the business has passed me by and someone else should sit in my chair on Raw because I don’t understand it anymore and think, ‘Well, maybe it’s time for ol’ J.R. to go fishing or enjoy more Sooners football games.’ And then I think, ‘To hell with that,’ remembering that the chase is always more exciting than the capture and the road back to ratings success are the type of challenges many of us ‘old-timers’ have thrived on virtually our entire careers. Of course, that is simply just my opinion and I could be wrong, but it is damn sure the way I feel.”

While some fans have come out in favor of the WWE’s most recent shenanigans, arguing that they constitute nothing more than publicity stunts and ratings ploys and that perhaps wrestling is being taken too seriously, Ross acknowledged that last week set an all-time record “for receiving negative e-mails from passionate fans about a variety of television issues.”

“Made me feel like I had PO’d an ex-wife and the alimony check had bounced,” he joked.

The content of recent WWE shows is no laughing matter, though, for the purists and traditionalists who have held out hope that actual wrestling would reclaim the top bill on Vince McMahon’s show. For many, last week’s exhibition may have pushed the envelope for the final time.

“I love wrestling, but I think they’ve stooped to a new low,” said one fan. “This kind of stuff really gets me down on the business. That’s not wrestling, and it’s not entertainment when you get into stuff like this.” Moreover, the fact that the company is leaning more and more on publicity stunts and outrageous angles also says little for its faith in its wrestlers to draw ratings and fans by performing their craft.”

Ironically, the company’s major problem appears to be its inability to create new stars, a situation that most likely will be accentuated as a result of the WWE dropping Heartland Wrestling Association as a developmental territory. While producing only one major star over the past year – Brock Lesnar – it has lost several for various reasons, including Steve Austin, The Rock and Hulk Hogan. Others, most notably Ric Flair, have been devalued to the point where their star power has been greatly diminished.

- Jerry Lawler recently underwent cosmetic surgery on his face, which is why he was behind a pair of binoculars whenever the camera was on him Monday night. Lawler’s face was said to be extremely swollen after work was done on his eyes, jaw and chin.

- Southern Wrestling Federation will present a show at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Northwoods Gym on Greenridge Road.

Lineup is as follows: Mack Truck vs. Michael Devine in a no-disqualification match; Amazing Velvet vs. Tony Platinum for the SWF cruiserweight title; Mykata vs. Jess Bradley; The Armed Forces vs. Lotus and a mystery partner; Crash The Milkman vs. Talon; and Blake Kannon vs. Jessie Lee.

For more information, call 863-9401.

- Mike Paidousis, who worked in the wrestling business for more than 30 years, passed away Sept. 9 at the age of 78 at his home in Mesquite, Texas. Paidousis was a college football star at the University of Tennessee under legendary coach General Bob Neyland.

- Bradshaw (John Layfield) is the latest wrestler to go down to injury in the WWE. The Texan suffered a torn left bicep during a tag-team match with Kane against Lance Storm and Christian Monday night on Raw. Successful surgery was conduced by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham on Wednesday. The injury, similar to the one suffered by Kane in May, is expected to sideline Bradshaw for four to six months.

- Sean Waltman, who recently was released by the WWE, will make his NWA-TNA debut Wednesday night under the Syxx-Pac moniker he used in WCW. Waltman will team with former NWO partner Scott Hall in a Gauntlet for the Gold match.

- Former NCAA heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar defeated former 1996 Olympics gold medalist Kurt Angle in the first official meeting between the two in a WWE title match Tuesday night in Mankato, Minn. – Torrie Wilson and longtime beau Billy Kidman (Pete Gruner) plan to get married next July.

- Heartland Wrestling Association will hold the first in a series of five-day training camps from Nov. 11-15 with Les Thatcher, Ricky Steamboat and Sherri Martel as instructors. Cost of the camp is $995 which includes hotel, breakfast and lunch, and transportation. For more information, call (513) 771-1650 or check the Web site at www.hwaonline.com.

Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected] He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation,” published by Crown.