Dec. 26, 2004
Many credit him with kick-starting one of professional wrestling’s biggest boom periods. Some view him as a one-hit wonder who never was able to recreate the success he enjoyed during the World Wrestling Federation’s revolutionary “Attitude” era. Most agree, though, that Vince Russo was one of the most controversial figures to have emerged during the glory days of the Monday night wrestling wars.
Love him or hate him, and passions rarely settled into any middle ground, Russo spawned an era of sports entertainment that was cutting edge, in your face and sometimes downright crude.
Today Russo cringes just thinking about some of the things he said – and did – for the sake of sports entertainment. Now it all seems so hollow, Russo says, that his entire existence revolved around the wrestling business.
Russo will make what is being billed as his final professional wrestling appearance for an independent promotion called CyberSpace Wrestling Federation at a Jan. 8 event in Wayne, N.J. It’s far, however, from the grand stage of WWE or even TNA.
And, like most pro wrestling “retirements,” it’s far from a sure bet that this will be his last wrestling-related appearance. But this Vince Russo, at least from recent statements he’s made, isn’t the same “Vinnie Ru” who spouted obscenities while pushing the envelope as far as it could go. This version is a born-again Christian who has started his own ministry and on-line site aptly named “Forgiven.”It’s not an angle or a work, the 43-year-old former wrestling writer says, but rather the most important thing he’s ever done in his life.
“Whatever glued those eyeballs to that television set … I did it,” Russo recently wrote on his Web site. “Sex, violence, drugs, nudity, homosexuality, transvestites, men beating women, the killing of household pets, castration, the unnatural love between mother and her son, demonic worship, demonic sacrifice, blasphemy, degrading the cross, there was nothing off-limits. Did I know it was wrong? Sure I did. But in an effort to stay on top, in an effort to please my boss, in an effort to be a ‘worldly’ success, I simply hid behind the excuse -‘I’m not writing this show for kids.’ But the fact was kids were watching. They were watching and we knew it – that’s why we were shipping out Stone Cold Steve Austin lollipops by the truckload every week.”
Vince Russo may be one of the most praised – and criticized – names in the wrestling business.
While some considered him one of the most creative minds in the industry, others branded him as “the anti-Christ of sports entertainment.” With so many varied opinions on the subject, it’s hard to dispute the fact that he put into motion a very edgy, Springeresque product that, for better or worse, changed the course of the wrestling profession.
There was a time when the outspoken Russo chided critics, claiming they just didn’t “get it,” hammering home that point to McMahon and convincing him to re-evaluate his philosophy on the wrestling business.
Hosting a wrestling radio show and writing for WWF (now WWE) magazines under the pseudonym “Vic Venom,” the Long Island native spewed forth plenty of just that in his scathing commentaries that eventually caught McMahon’s eye. Gaining the boss’s confidence and joining his inner circle in Connecticut, Russo landed a job as a member of the creative team and eventually as head writer for WWF television. The former video store operator convinced McMahon that the WWF would never penetrate the popular masses and in particular the coveted young male demographic on the staid course it was on. Promising change, he helped launch the company’s “Attitude” era, directing the development of such major characters as Steve Austin, The Rock and Mick Foley.
During his tenure as chief writer for McMahon’s company, Russo would be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and often would get messages in the middle of the night from the WWF owner. He eventually got burned out, felt unappreciated and left for more money and a better schedule at the Ted Turner-owned WCW in the fall of 1999.
“I honestly felt I had accomplished all I possibly could accomplish at the WWF,” said Russo, who began his career hosting a syndicated radio show called Vicious Vincent’s World of Wrestling. “In my professional opinion, we had gone as high as we were going to get.”
Without the steady editing hand of McMahon and his staff, and forced to conform to the more stringent guidelines set forth by parent company TBS, Russo’s creative juices were gradually drained and WCW became a watered-down version of its competitor. WCW had seen Russo’s WWF success as a surefire solution to a deeper problem. It didn’t work.
Many will rightfully contend that Russo took the “sport” out of sports entertainment and at times turned the product into a shameless spectacle. Russo appalled wrestling purists by booking actor David Arquette to win the WCW heavyweight title and also by putting the championship belt on himself for a brief period. Although the Arquette debacle got the company on the cover of the entertainment section of USA Today, some wrestling pundits now look back on the publicity stunt as the kiss of death to the company and part of a chain of events that led to the demise of WCW. The buy rate for Slamboree 2000, featuring Arquette defending his title for the first time on pay-per-view, was one of the lowest in the history of the now-defunct company.
In Russo’s defense, he claims many in the outfit initially loved the idea and backed him, only later to point fingers and become Monday morning quarterbacks. It was entertainment, he contended, and wrestling fans just needed to accept it because the product wasn’t going back in time.
Russo’s arrogance gradually drew disdain from those he wrote for, with many performers feeling that he pulled their strings like a puppet master. For all the things Russo did right in the WWF, he made monumental blunders in WCW. He booked himself as the first man to ever cut Ric Flair’s hair as part of a wrestling angle, turned the company’s No. 1 babyface (Bill Goldberg) heel, and pushed Marcus “Buff” Bagwell as the next Rock, but at least was prevented from making Tank Abbott the world heavyweight champion. Russo’s booking philosophy was clear. Obsessed with multiple title changes, shocking swerves and psuedo-shoot interviews, his focus was entertainment over wrestling. He boldly made statements that he didn’t watch Mexican or Japanese wrestling, and that a Mexican or Japanese wrestler could never get over in the United States, updating that belief with the warning that the Luchadors in WCW had better be able to speak English and cut an effective promo or they would be history.
Ultimately, though, it was his own crash TV that crashed and burned. Russo was canned after leaving WCW in further shambles during that company’s dying days. He re-emerged in the Nashville-based NWA-TNA in 2002 as a booker. His final appearance with the company was at last month’s Victory Road pay-per-view.
It was always about the money, Russo says in retrospect, claiming he ran out of goals after making $535,000 in his best year at WCW.
“I made more money than I could have ever imagined in my life … There was still this emptiness, this void that couldn’t be filled.”
It began to take over his life, says Russo, and it started making him hate a business that he once loved. It also turned friends, like best buddy Jeff Jarrett, into enemies.
Even when he was with TNA, working one day a week for $2,000, he was still miserable. In his new book, Jerry Jarret told his son Jeff that reading Russo’s TNA scripts were “like reading a book by someone on LSD.”
“I thank Jerry Jarrett for making it crystal clear why I have come to despise the wrestling business over the past 12 years,” Russo responded. “Jerry’s e-mail to Jeff clearly and matter-of-factly shows you firsthand what kind of situations and individuals I have had to deal with throughout my career … Let me just say it right now – I hate the wrestling business.”
To Russo, wrestling had become “a dirty, backstabbing business built on every man for himself.” And he wanted no part of it.
“My greatest joys come in this business today when I get to spend some quality time with the talent,” Russo wrote earlier this year. “This past Sunday AJ Styles and his wife invited me, my wife Amy and my daughter Annie to his church. It was the best time I had in the ‘wrestling business’ in the past two years. To me – that’s what it’s all about.”
Russo, who has attended seminary school in Denver, has turned his life around. Hawking a yet-to-be-released book that he’s promoting to Christian bookstores, he will no doubt have his share of skeptics.
Prior to his conversion, Russo had to come to grips with the realization that he hadn’t been happy since his college days more than 20 years ago. The journey that he once described as a breathtaking rollercoaster had left him empty and with feelings of loneliness, depression and despair. He had always believed in God, but as he says, God wasn’t putting 70 hours a week into the business. He was. After 42 years on earth he still didn’t know what he had been looking for. He just knew there was something missing.
“I realized what I had become, and I didn’t like what I had become.”
NEW FRIENDS, OLD ENEMIES
There’s little doubt that Vince Russo leaves behind scores of enemies in the wrestling business. He has stated publicly that he’s sorry for many of the things he did in the industry. It’s part of the message he wants to convey on his Web site and in his ministry: that all things can be forgiven.
One of those he specifically mentioned in a recent interview is WWE executive Jim Ross. Russo said he most deeply regretted his words and actions regarding JR.
Russo worked behind the scenes against Ross while the two were in WWE (then WWF) during the mid-’90s, and Russo took his dislike for the Oklahoman to another level when he jumped ship to WCW. Teaming with co-writer Ed Ferrara, who had left the WWF along with Russo, the two scripted a tasteless storyline that mocked Ross’s Bell’s palsy. While together in the WWF, the two had portrayed Ross in another tasteless storyline as being disgruntled, deranged and unbalanced.
“Russo wanted to turn me heel because he didn’t believe that people with a Southern accent had any intelligence and people didn’t respect individuals with a Southern accent,” Ross said at the time.
“They laid out this plan that I didn’t want to do at the time. But you try to be a team player and practice what you preach, so you go along with what management wants to do. If I had not wanted to try to support Russo and Ferrara, I would have gone to Vince (McMahon) and told him that I wasn’t going to do this. And then he would have said, ‘OK, J.R., I understand why you don’t want to do it.'”
Jim Cornette, whose old-style, Southern-based approach often clashed with his New York-bred colleague’s harder-edged, “less wrestling” creative direction, was one of Russo’s most vocal detractors during his WWF tenure. “He has no respect for the wrestling business or anybody in it,” said Cornette. “I have always in the past thought The Ultimate Warrior was the epitome of a guy making money with no talent. Sable deserved her money more than Russo. At least she didn’t try to make the entire business a joke, just her part of it, because of her lack of talent.”
Cornette, who was the odd man out in the power shuffle that elevated Russo to the top of the creative team, always maintained that Russo was grossly overrated.
“He was a great self-promoter who made all the Internet people believe he was a genius responsible for the WWF turnaround,” said Cornette.
Whether or not Russo has burned all the bridges behind him really doesn’t seem to matter to him anymore. Now focusing his time and efforts on his family and ministry, Russo’s religious enlightenment has put him on a different path.
“To those in the business – fans, friends and foes – I have a reputation that can be debated until the end of time,” Russo said earlier this year. “There are those who love me and there are those who hate me, I’ve always accepted that. But those who know me truly know my heart. Those who know me understand what I’m all about. The truth is – that’s all that ever really mattered to me. In my journey throughout life, what always mattered most to me was how big the man’s heart. You can talk all you want about babyfaces and heels, but beneath that, we’re all human beings – men and women, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. That’s why I always looked for ‘the heart.'”