By Mike Mooneyham
July 13, 2002
It’s time to call out the cavalry.
That the scriptwriting and creative direction have been woefully inadequate has hardly been a secret to anyone who has watched World Wrestling Entertainment programming over the past year or so. But never was it more apparent than on last Monday night’s edition of Raw.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]I repeat. It’s time to call out the cavalry.
I should preface this commentary by noting that there’s certainly no shortage of talent under the WWE umbrella. No other wrestling company, including the Ted Turner-bankrolled and now defunct World Championship Wrestling, has ever reached its level of success. But times are changing, and the WWE is finding itself behind the curve.
The once-steady weekly ratings are declining. House show attendance continues to fall. Big-money angles and storylines have been botched ever since the then-WWF swallowed up the remains of WCW and threw out a life raft to ECW survivors. The brand extension hasn’t produced enough “new” stars to make fans forget about the old ones they don’t get to see on each show anymore as a result of the split roster.
The WWE needs to make a change, and it needs to make it now. The creative staff, which has shown signs of inconsistency and inexperience, should not be entrusted with the future of the company. Vince McMahon, probably more than anyone, realizes the urgency of the situation. It was that realization that prompted him to rehire former head writer Vince Russo for his creative team, a knee-jerk reaction that generated an uproar among the company’s anti-Russo faction and resulted in the brash writer being demoted to an adviser’s role less than 24 hours later.
The WWE downturn has not escaped the radar of the mainstream media. The New York Times noted in its Monday edition that some of the company’s most important viewing groups, like teenage boys, constituted a 30 percent decline. Noting the cyclical nature of the business, an age-old explanation less relevant in today’s entertainment climate, the Times described the WWE as “down but still dangerous.”
“If you track wrestling, you see that we drop off from our highs at times but not as low as our previous low levels, and then we come back even higher,” Julie Hoffman, the executive vice president and chief of marketing for WWE, told the Times.
To achieve that goal, however, the WWE may have to reinvent itself.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin, once the biggest star in sports entertainment, isn’t even on the roster. His problems with the creative direction became so great that he simply decided to walk out. The Rock, who shared the keys to the kingdom with Austin, is back for now, but not for long. And Brock Lesnar, the self-proclaimed “Next Big Thing,” is still a question mark, as ultimately fans will decide if he really is the “Next Big Thing.”
Even with The Rock coming in to pinch-hit, the Smackdown taping Tuesday night in Atlantic City, N.J., was far from a sellout. And while Smackdown has been a far more entertaining show in recent weeks, in no small part due to Paul Heyman’s creative talents, ratings have dropped (the July 4 edition of Smackdown drew a 2.0, the lowest number in the show’s history, and last week’s heavily hyped Rock return could muster only a 3.3, the seventh-lowest rating ever).
Monday night’s edition of Raw was just a glimpse of everything that is currently wrong with the WWE.
While newcomer Jackie Gayda may have proved she was Tough Enough, her latest performance on Raw proved she’s not ready for Prime Time. The fact that the MTV generation of “sports entertainers” is getting a serious push and considerable airtime is not being lost on a contingent of WWF performers who feel they have been mired in the bottom and middle rung far too long.
Even the announce team of Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler had to cringe at the botched finish in the mixed tag-team match. Jackie’s performance was so terrible that it certainly warranted Ross’s “ugly as a bowling shoe” reference. Give Trish Straus credit, though, since she’s one of the most improved performers on the WWE roster over the past year, and in a division where workrate is not the top priority.
Particularly mind numbing has been the new undefined role of the man many regard as the greatest performer in wrestling history. From returning hero to company co-owner to Raw’s top heel, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair now finds himself in no man’s land. Only one week after Flair announced that he was good for one more glorious run, WWE writers inexplicably fed him to Brock Lesnar, killing any chance that storyline might have had.
Still one of the greatest interviews in the business, Flair’s skill on the mic should be utilized to help bolster the quality of promos in the WWE. Instead, the inept writing crew has placed the 53-year-old in the role of full-time wrestler, with his limited success coming at the expense of lower-card talent such as Stevie Richards. Their match last week on Raw meant absolutely nothing, other than the fact that it gave longtime fans some fond memories of how Flair used to beat his opponents cleanly with his once-feared figure four leg lock.
Not knowing “what to do” with Ric Flair is not an acceptable excuse. The writing crew’s most recent brainstorm has Flair paired with Jeff Hardy in a program with William Regal and Chris Nowinski. Go figure.
Monday night’s show, much like the company’s current direction, ended in confusion.
Kevin Nash, who has undergone numerous knee operations during his career, was in the ring for less than 20 seconds when he appeared to have tripped over Booker T and landed in pain, tearing his quadriceps in a manner much like Hunter Hearst Helmsley did last year. Unfortunately it was Nash’s first match back since tearing his bicep several months ago.
Nash, who underwent surgery to repair his torn left quad muscle on Tuesday in Birmingham, is expected to be sidelined for at least six months, shooting yet another hole through the heart of the ill-fated NWO angle.
– Kurt Angle’s name mercifully has been added to the mix in a three-way match headlining the Vengeance pay-per-view. The Rock is expected to win the WWE title at that event and drop it to Lesnar at Summer Slam.
– Vince Russo, who dubbed Jeff Jarrett “The Chosen One” and pushed him to world championship status during his failed run as WCW creative chief during the late 90s, has resurfaced in Jeff and dad Jerry Jarrett’s NWA-TNA promotion. Russo had been hired by Vince McMahon several weeks ago to join the writing team but was moved into an adviser’s role a day later.
Russo, while credited with giving the WWF its once-trendy “Attitude” direction, left the business after two unsuccessful stints in WCW where he shamefully put the world title on actor David Arquette (and later himself), 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.
The new Jarrett promotion, by the way, deserves a look. Last week’s show earned strong reviews and also garnered mainstream media attention when members of the Tennessee Titans jumped the rail during a match and got involved in the action. According to Jeff Jarrett, only a “little taunting and a little shoving” was planned, but a couple of players jumped a barricade and got physical.
“It definitely got out of hand,” Jarrett told The Tennessean. “There was supposed to be a verbal confrontation, and verbal and physical, to me, are a little bit different. Hell yeah they surprised me … I think when they came over the rail they were really intense.”
“I’m not real excited about seeing my guys jump over fences and get thrown into rings and get hit with chairs, I think that is probably fairly easy to understand,” said Titans general manager Floyd Reese. “They will have plenty of time to wrestle when their football career is over … They have better things to do than just be wrestling with wrestlers. There is always a time and a place and this is probably not the best time nor place.”
– Hulk Hogan said in an interview last week on abcnews.com that returning to wrestling was his dying father’s wish. His father, Peter Bollea, died last December after a series of strokes.
Hogan, 48, also said that his defamation lawsuit against Time Warner-AOL and Vince Russo is still ongoing.
“I want to be remembered as the guy who slammed Andre the Giant (at Wrestlemania III in 1987),” Hogan said. “I don’t want to be remembered as the guy Vince Russo fired. I don’t want to be remembered like that.”
“When I was written off, when I was in the WCW, the people who were writing the show, people like Vince Russo, basically just threw me to the wayside like a piece of trash,” Hogan said. “You can either sink down in the ashes or rise above it. I decided to raise my ugly head up and see what’s out there.”
Hogan also lauded his return to the WWE earlier this year. “It (the comeback) shows that the creative writers (at WCW) were totally ignorant – that they were flat wrong in their decisions,” Hogan said. “To come here and have Vince McMahon make the right decisions, not go against the flow and go with what works, it’s a high level of redemption for me. At the end of the night, I’ve proven everything I needed to prove.”
– Road Warrior Hawk (Mike Hegstrand), who has battled heart and liver problems in recent years, criticized Vince McMahon last week in an interview on the “Between the Ropes” radio show.
“I know he had something against me, but I forgive the man,” he said. “I have no hard feelings against Mr. McMahon. I never got along with him. He’s not my kind of guy.” “What saddens me in wrestling right now is there’s no harmony,” he said. “The guys can’t trust each other. It’s not like it used to be. They need help (competition).”
– Former Road Warriors manager “Pretty” Paul Ellering is seeking the Independent Party endorsement for a House seat in Minnesota’s District 13.
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 & Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation,” to be released by Crown Publishers on Tuesday.