By Mike Mooneyham

March 21, 2004

Very little could have been done to dampen the rekindled spirit of WWE fans and performers in the aftermath of Sunday night’s Wrestlemania XX success.

The show, attended by 20,000 fans, was the highest-grossing WWE event ever ($2.4 million) at Madison Square Garden. An additional 2,900 people took in the WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday night and the company’s traditional “Bacon, Bagels and Biceps” brunch the following morning. Both events, held in the New York Hilton Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, generated an additional $365,000 in ticket sales revenue.

Sunday night’s Wrestlemania was hailed as one of the best in the event’s storied history, and the card’s headliner closed the show in memorable fashion. Along with pay-per-view buyrates that are expected to soar past 700,000, commemorative DVDs and video games, the value of the extravaganza could exceed $50 million.

Vince McMahon, Jr.

Vince McMahon, Jr.

Vince McMahon’s major announcement Monday night on Raw, however, had to be unsettling for the entire WWE crew. Declaring that the company needed a radical change and that fans want new stars, new match-ups and new rivalries, McMahon revealed that a lottery would be held the following week that would change the face of Raw and Smackdown.

What that means for fans is that McMahon will be reshaping both the Raw and Smackdown brands. What it means for many of the performers on those rosters is that their schedules, and lives, could change dramatically.

Some WWE stars, especially those working a Smackdown house show Monday night in Manchester, N.H., were stunned to hear about the proposed lottery. Some later privately expressed that they were disappointed to hear of the news after the fact.

The jury’s still out on whether the company even needs to reshuffle the deck.

A “new WWE,” as McMahon promised, wouldn’t automatically be a good thing at this juncture. From a creative standpoint, the company is as strong as it has been in some time. With a new direction firmly in place, WWE has two of its best workers (Chris Benoit and Eddy Guerrero) as its world champions, a spot traditionally reserved for chemically enhanced “big men.” That alone constitutes a “new WWE.” Tampering with the rosters, coming off a critically acclaimed Wrestlemania, only threatens to disrupt momentum and sabotage current storylines.

That’s not to say some type of change isn’t needed. Raw’s clearly the hotter show, with Smackdown being seen almost as a lighter version. Much of that perception is based on the fact that Monday night has long been established as appointment viewing for wrestling fans. And since Smackdown is taped two nights prior to its Thursday air date, it lacks the “live” feeling that lends itself to spontaneity and surprise.

Most of the stars in McMahon’s inner circle just happen to be on the Raw side of the fence, and that’s not a coincidence either.

There are a number of holes, particularly on the Smackdown roster, that need to be filled. The brand is in desperate need of top-flight heels. Brock Lesnar has left in quest of a long-shot career in the NFL. Kurt Angle may need surgery on his once-repaired neck. Big Show has been working through a number of injuries, including elbow problems and bad knees, and needs to take time off to mend.

An overreaction to Lesnar’s departure and Angle’s career-threatening injury isn’t in the best interest of either roster. WWE has invested too much time in establishing these brands to simply push the panic button.

Reinvigorating the Smackdown creative team is probably a better solution than any wholesale change in lineups. Shows have become bland in recent months not because of a lack of talent, but because of a lack of compelling storylines and characters. Two Smackdown performers in particular, Rey Misterio and Shelton Benjamin, should have become major breakout stars by now, but instead have become victims of an unimaginative writing crew. Misterio’s status rises slightly above the cruiserweight level only when he works in large Hispanic markets. Benjamin has all the credentials for stardom, yet he’s cast in a mid-card tag-team role that’s dull as dishwater.

A better idea, and one which McMahon hopefully is leaning toward, is to come up with a creative way to tweak the two rosters by swapping some strong heels on the Raw roster for some talented cruiserweights from the Smackdown brand. Smackdown also could benefit greatly by the addition of some credible women performers to help bolster that division.

One scenario that reportedly has been laid out is moving Steve Austin to Smackdown and bringing back Stephanie McMahon in an on-air role.

– Kurt Angle announced last week that the numbness and tingling in his hands that plagued him in the past has returned. Pending further examinations, Angle has been taken off all shows, inflicting yet another blow to Smackdown’s depleted heel contingent.

Angle chose a controversial surgery to repair a neck injury last year that allowed him to drastically shorten his recovery time. The experimental, quick-fix surgery is now raising questions about the former Olympic gold medallist’s future in the business. Officials are now fearing that Angle may need to undergo surgery that could end his career.

– Brock Lesnar recently told a Minnesota radio show that he had three wonderful years in WWE, but had grown unhappy and had always wanted to play pro football, adding that he didn’t want to be 40 years old and wondering if he could have made it in football.

Lensar surprised many in the business when he announced just days before Wrestlemania that he was leaving pro wrestling. Even though he’s still being advertised to appear on upcoming house shows, Lesnar’s last match was at Mania and he’s not honoring any future commitments.

The 6-4, 290-pound Lesnar said he wasn’t worried about passing a test for steroids since he’s been taking drug tests since high school.

“I’m just a white boy from South Dakota blessed by God to be as big as I am,” he said. “Drug tests aren’t the issue; the only issue is to see if I can be a football player.” Lesnar hasn’t played organized football since high school.

Lesnar, whose match with Bill Goldberg at Wrestlemania turned out to be a dud, appeared to be genuinely surprised when fans razzed him with “You sold out” chants the moment he stepped into the ring. As predicted, special ref Steve Austin dropped both with stunners after the lackluster bout.

Lesnar originally had been scheduled to win the match since Goldberg’s future with the company was in doubt, but plans changed when Lesnar announced days before the show that he was leaving the company as well.

Few backstage are shedding tears over either performer’s departure. Both Lesnar and Goldberg are widely perceived as having reaped the bountiful benefits of the business without paying proportionate dues. Goldberg trained briefly at WCW’s Power Plant before cashing in big in his first year as a pro. Lesnar worked at WWE’s Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental territory before becoming an instant millionaire in the big show.

– Ron Simmons (Faarooq) was released by WWE on Thursday. The dismissal came two days after Simmons’ character was “fired” as part of a storyline at Smackdown tapings.

WWE officials acknowledged Simmons’ release, but are tight-lipped about the situation. Sources say the former WCW world champ was let go due to incidents that took place during Wrestlemania weekend.

– Sable worked Wrestlemania despite rupturing one of her breast implants prior to the show.

– Former WWWF heavyweight champ and current WWE Hall of Famer Pedro Morales told the Courier News in Bridgewater, N.J., that he had no interest in watching Wrestlemania.

“It’s gimmicks. Today, you’re selling ratings,” said the 59-year-old Morales, who held the company’s world title during the early ‘70s and drew 20,000 fans to Shea Stadium for a 76-minute match with Bruno Sammartino in 1972. “A lot of what I see I don’t agree with, but how are you going to knock it? They’e making millions of dollars.”

– The Rock has finally come back to … Knoxville.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made his grand entrance Tuesday night in the Tennessee town for MGM’s remake of the movie “Walking Tall.” The premiere was held at the West Town Mall, where 700 fans paid $50 each to see the new release.

“That’s what I remember about Knoxville, lots of energy. I love it,” said Johnson.

The Rock said he drew on his own hard times for his performance. “I literally lived in a seedy motel in Murfreesboro, near Nashville, that’s when I first started and I was making $40 a night,” he said.

The premiere raised nearly $100,000 for Variety, the children’s charity of Eastern Tennessee.

The Knoxville mayor proclaimed it “Rock Day.” Johnson, a former Miami Hurricane player, was presented with a University of Tennessee football, which prompted him to say, “I know, Tennessee kicked our (butt) last year.”

Johnson stars in the movie as Chris Vaughn, a retired soldier who returns to his hometown to make a new life for himself but finds the place where he grew up has become overrun with crime and violence. Similar to the original film about Buford Pusser’s life, the star gets elected sheriff and tries to clean up the town.

Johnson said the film sends a message that sometimes it’s important for everyone to take a stand and walk tall. “To make a stand like that, and to put a lot of things in jeopardy including his life, is admirable,” he said. The movie opens nationwide April 2.

– Davey “British Bulldog” Smith’s autopsy results were disclosed Thursday by a British Columbia coroner.

“Investigation revealed, that in his profession, Mr. Smith had used anabolic steroids in the past,” the coroner stated in a five-page report. “Injectable anabolic steroid and paraphernalia was seized by the coroner. Analysis of the anabolic steroid revealed trenbolone acetate. The above described changes in the fibrous connective tissues are consistent with previous anabolic steroid use.”

Smith, who passed away almost a year and a half ago, died while vacationing with girlfriend and sister-in law Andrea Hart. The 39-year-old wrestler was attempting a comeback at the time.

– “Dr. Death” Steve Williams is scheduled to undergo surgery for throat cancer. Williams, who played football for Barry Switzer at the University of Oklahoma where he was an All-American wrestler, has spent most of the past decade competing in Japan. Williams also has been running a wrestling school in Shreveport, La.

– The Mid-Atlantic Legends Convention will hold a Legends Fanfest Aug. 14-15 in Fayetteville, N.C., at the Clarion Hotel. A tribute to Starrcade is scheduled Nov. 26-28 at the University Place Hilton in Greensboro, N.C.

The plan is to reunite early Starrcade participants Ric Flair, Harley Race, Roddy Piper, Greg Valentine, Ricky Steamboat, Tully Blanchard, Magnum T.A., J.J. Dillon, The Rock ‘N Roll Express, Dusty Rhodes, Baby Doll, Ronnie Garvin, Jimmy Valiant, Ivan and Nikita Koloff, Jimmy Garvin and Precious, Ole and Arn Anderson, and Jack and Jerry Brisco over the Thanksgiving weekend.

– A major Lucha Libre show will be held March 28 at the Gwinnett Arena in Atlanta. Main event will be El Hijo del Santo vs. The Original La Parka.

– The highly anticipated Jack Brisco autobiography, “Brisco – The Life & Times of National Collegiate and World Heavyweight Champion Jack Brisco,” has been released.

The 286-page softbound book, published by Culture House, is available for $24.95 and can be ordered on-line at www.wrestlingmuseum.org or calling Culture House at 641-526-8836 or the International Wrestling Museum at 641-791-1517.

Brisco is regarded as one of the greatest pure wrestlers in the history of the business. An NCAA champion at Oklahoma State University, Brisco went on to become one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling, winning the NWA world heavyweight title in 1973.

– Ken Mihalik is selling his collection of Wrestling Observer newsletters from 1990-2000 (nearly 500 issues in all). He’ll also throw in three Wrestling Observer Yearbooks (1988, 1989, 1990) plus a unique WWF trunk that he’ll send them in. Minimum bid starts at $575. For more information, contact him at (843) 795-0590 or e-mail at [email protected]

– Bobby Heenan is currently doing a book tour for his latest, “Chair Shots and Other Obstacles,” which has just been released.

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 World Wrestling Entertainment,” which was recently released in paperback. For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at 937-6000, ext. 3090.