Clotheslines and Cautionary Tales

by Arthur B

The Death of WCW covers a wrestling feud with implications beyond the squared circle.
Professional wrestling isn't a sport; Vince McMahon, overlord of WWE and therefore the most powerful person in the industry, calls it "sports entertainment", and the kindest and most accurate way to describe it is as a performance art in which masquerading as a sport is part of the performance.

Part of the magic of "kayfabe" - the illusion of spontaneity and competition surrounding pro wrestling - is that when you are little your wrestling heroes are just as cool and superhuman to you as Father Christmas is, whilst when you see through the illusion it becomes possible to appreciate the form on a whole new level. Kayfabe jargon refers to "smarks" or "smart marks" - fans who know that the whole deal is fake, but enjoy and pay for wrestling products and shows because they appreciate the combination of athleticism and sleight-of-hand necessary to pull off complex stunts in the ring, or because they like to follow along wrestling storylines even though they know it's a story.

Smarks and the Internet are a match made in heaven. The very subjects that smarks are interested in or get worked up about - which old acts still have it and who needs to retire from the ring before they embarrass themselves or destroy their health entirely, which new acts are the most exciting, what scripting (or "booking") decisions have captured people's imaginations and which have fallen flat, and so on - are precisely the sort of fodder which drives internet conversations and flamewars in any fandom. Booking and other backstage matters are a matter of particular interest to clued-in wrestling fans, and it's natural that that should be the case: after all, the bookers plan out the matches based on behind-the-scenes business decisions made concerning which wrestlers need to be promoted as the major faces of a promotion and which wrestlers are out there mostly to make the major players look good.

It's also natural that smarks should believe that they can do a better job than the professional writers. Part of this is just the sort of smug armchair quarterbacking endemic to fandom; part of this comes down to even major promotions making a range of incredibly foolish, self-defeating, and damaging booking decisions over the years. Bryan Alvarez's Figure 4 website is a well-established online "dirtsheet" (a zine produced to give the inside behind-the-kayfabe news about pro wrestling), and RD Reynolds’ WrestleCrap was one of the first to dedicate itself to covering the worst in wrestling. In The Death of WCW, Reynolds and Alvarez form a journalistic tag team to take a well-researched and bitingly sarcastic look at the destruction of the only wrestling promotion to remotely approach the size of WWF/WWE during the 1990s.

Although The Death of WCW naturally puts an emphasis on the downfall of that promotion, it allows its scope to go a little broader than that. First, the authors provide an early history of the company, noting in particular how, as billionaire Ted Turner’s foray into the wrestling business, WCW was in an enviable position of not having to worry too much about money for much of its existence: WCW had sentimental value for Turner, who hadn’t forgotten how its wrestling content had helped draw subscribers to his cable network back when it started out, and he was happy to write blank cheques for it. (This would lead to spectacles like rooftop monster truck battles between Hulk Hogan and Paul "the Giant" Wight - a prospect that must have sounded interesting on paper but made for snore-worthy television, especially if you were hoping to see actual wrestling on your wrestling pay-per-view.)

Despite using a lot of insider lingo - readers who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool smarks would be best advised to have Wikipedia’s glossary of kayfabe terminology handy when reading the book - early on Reynolds and Alvarez do a good job of establishing that this is a story which has clear points of interest even if you aren’t specifically interested in wrestling. As well as representing a knives-drawn business feud between two media powerhouses in the form of Turner’s WCW and McMahon’s WWE/WWF, there’s obviously lessons to be learned here that in principle could be apply in any business, particularly in the entertainment industry. With access to financial reserves that at the time Vince McMahon simply couldn’t match, WCW should have been able to win the war with ease, particularly once they hit the point in the early 1990s where they had successfully lured away more or less all the stars who’d made WWF a household name in earlier years.

It’s around that point that The Death of WCW begins to focus in on the fine month-by-month detail; it coincides with the ascent of booker and presenter Eric Bischoff to chief decision-maker within the promotion. Although Bischoff isn’t given exclusive responsibility for WCW’s downfall, he is presented by Reynolds and Alvarez as the pivotal figure in their story. On the one hand, his leadership would see WCW achieve its greatest heights, momentarily eclipsing WWE in terms of viewing figures and revenue; on the other hand, it would also see various ingrained attitudes and bad habits established that would drive the promotion into the ground later.

The authors’ thesis is that once a wrestling promotion (or any other entertainment franchise) hits the zeitgeist, you can do everything wrong and for a time it won’t matter - but once you start to lose the spotlight, you can do everything right and it will be too late to save yourself. Inertia and the assumption that if you’re making a good profit you don’t need to change anything will carry you for a time once you’ve established a certain momentum - but audiences don’t have infinite patience, and once their patience runs out the negative consequences of your mistakes then come home to roost and it’s often too late to win them back before you get cancelled, bought out, or otherwise shitcanned.

A perfect example of this is the "New World Order" storyline, which managed to be both the most successful storyline of Bischoff’s tenure and a major contributor to the promotion’s later problems. At its inception, the NWO was a daring move - presenting recently-acquired WWE talents Scott Hall and Kevin Nash as invaders out to mount a hostile takeover of WCW from the inside, the storyline really caught fire when Hulk Hogan attacked "Macho Man" Randy Savage and revealed himself as the third man in their cabal. Whilst most wrestlers alternate between working as "faces" (good guys) and heels, Hogan had consistently been a face ever since his rise to mainstream celebrity status in the 1980s, and a heel turn at this point was a major gamble - had it flopped, Hogan’s earning power would have been wrecked, especially since the convention wisdom was (and to an extent still is) that heels sell less merchandise than faces. As it turned out, Hogan’s 1996 heel turn would go down as one of the most successful of all time, turning him from a face whose act had gone stale to a villain audiences loved to hate, and the NWO provided a welcome injection of 1990s-style attitude and edginess into a wrestling world which at the time felt stuck in the past. (They even managed to nail a stake through the heart of the myth that heels don’t move merchandise, as NWO shirts became ubiquitous at wrestling shows.)

Part of what made it such a great storyline early on is how it allowed everyone else on the roster to reinvent or re-energise their characters: after all, the NWO was presented as such a big deal that everyone from the referees to the commentary team had an opinion on them, and everyone’s reaction counted. In particular, it gave long-time WCW favourite Sting a chance to reinvent himself as a face more suited to the 1990s - gone was his beach-blonde looks and the psychedelic facepaint that used to be his trademark, and in its place was a gimmick where Sting basically turned into the main character from The Crow, a shameless pastiche which managed to work mostly thanks to his perchant for dropping from the rafters of arenas and laying into NWO members with his trusty baseball bat.

Unfortunately, this would be more or less the last time Hogan or Nash would do anything that helped other wrestlers gain prominence, and over time the NWO would also become an albatross about WCW’s neck. So many wrestlers would join the faction and drop out of it all the time, and so many NWO splinter groups would be running around, that NWO membership would no longer seem special or significant. Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash’s increasing power behind the scenes would result in them constantly exerting control over storylines to put themselves over, rather than allowing new talent to threaten their position of dominance, a situation exacerbated when Kevin Nash took over the booking of matches. Meanwhile, Scott Hall faded into irrelevance, as his real-life struggles with alcoholism were exploited for cheap laughs onscreen and he eventually disappeared from the schedule, referenced from time to time as a tasteless in-joke.

On top of all that, the storyline simply didn’t go anywhere interesting. All storytelling logic suggested that Sting was finally going to get the championship match he’d been angling for with Hulk Hogan, handing the NWO the defeat they’d richly deserved for so long and sowing the seeds of their destruction. It didn’t pan out that way, and not because anyone came up with a better plot twist. Rather than Sting finally getting his climactic revenge against the NWO, Hogan refused to drop the belt to Sting, so Sting ended up losing the match everyone had been primed to expect him to win and rather than imploding in the wake of a humiliating defeat the NWO faction just dragged on and on, picking up members here and jettisoning splinter groups there with no real end goal in sight.

The NWO displays in microcosm a story that would be repeated over and over again in the dying years of WCW - they’d occasionally hit on a good thing, like the buzz generated by upstart newcomer Goldberg’s impressing winning streak, but a combination of sloppy booking and the tenured elite stars at the top of the pecking order insisting on reinforcing their position at the expense of new talent meant that the end of Goldberg’s streak would be a massive anticlimax. Whilst WWE rebuilt its lineup around a new generation of talent like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Mick Foley and Triple H, the same increasingly stale figures stayed at the top of the food chain in WCW year-in, year-out. When Vince McMahon shattered kayfabe and humiliated Bret "the Hitman" Hart in front of his home crowd in the infamous Montreal Screwjob, WWE turned the controversy into a moneymaking opportunity by having Vince become a more prominent onscreen authority figure, an "evil boss" archetype that made the perfect foil to foul-mouthed everyman Steve Austin; meanwhile, when Bret came to WCW as one of the most technically proficient wrestlers in the business and with the hottest controversy in wrestling buoying his name, WCW did absolutely nothing of note with his talent or with the red-hot story that came with him, and continued to underutilise him until injuries prompted him to retire. One of the only wrestlers to buck this trend and rise from the lower strata of the roster to a position of prominence in WCW during this time was Scott Steiner, and it’s heavily implied in the book that this is because everyone was too afraid to say "no" to him.

This story of a business ruined by short-sighted individuals prioritising their short-term benefit over the long-term survival of the company feels relevant beyond the wrestling world, which helps make The Death of WCW as compulsively readable as it is. Another key feature is the way Reynolds and Alvarez are able to show how the faultlines that Bischoff failed to address (or directly established himself) became more and more prominent over time, leading WCW to make worse and worse decisions; the culmination of this has to be the account of Vince Russo’s tenure as head booker of the promotion after Bischoff had been ousted. Whilst Russo’s name is cursed by smarks across the Internet for cooking up some of the most boneheaded ideas to ever grace a wrestling TV show, to a large extent these involve Russo taking previous errors made by WCW and turning them up to 11 (though not exclusively - putting the WCW world championship belt on comedy actor David Arquette, and then on himself, are ideas spawned directly from the ego of Russo himself).

Moreover, the factors that sank WCW aren't altogether absent from other promotions, even with the benefit of hindsight. Occasionally, Reynolds and Alvarez drop in notes on "Lessons Not Learned", highlighting how WWE or other promotions repeated blunders that had previously damaged WCW, and which worked no better the second time around. The original epilogue of the book details how Vince McMahon, on purchasing the WCW brand, tape library, and most of its talent for a song, botched his attempt to kick off a storyline revolving around a WCW invasion of WWE, mostly because he was so caught up with making WCW and its veterans look bad that he forgot that an invasion storyline needs the invaders to win a few battles, otherwise they don't look like a threat. The new additional epilogue presented in this reissued edition of the book gives a brief but hilarious rundown of the history of TNA, an attempt to cobble together a new promotion out of all the WCW talent that Vince McMahon wasn't interested in hiring. TNA not only repeated many of the errors of WCW - it did so cranked up to 11, with a host of brand new goofs all of its own.

Although the wrestling subject matter won't be of interest to everyone, both WCW and WWE had to contend with problems familiar to anyone working in any form of episodic entertainment. The task of attracting an audience, keeping them paying attention on a week-by-week basis, and identifying accurately and quickly what is driving them away if you find your numbers dipping will not go away so long as anyone is still trying to make a living from serial entertainment, and the death of WCW presents a fascinating cautionary tale for anyone in that business.

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Comments (go to latest) at 18:36 on 2015-06-20
I've never watched a single episode of wrestling, but I've picked up an ancillary interest in hearing about it from listening to Giantbomb's podcasts. This book sounds like it will scratch that itch particularly well.
James D at 16:24 on 2015-06-21
I actually grew up watching wrestling right during this period, and at the time my friends and I vastly preferred WCW to WWF. WCW had more of the flavor of old WWF wrestling - WWF in the late 90s tried to be "dark", with characters like the Undertaker and Kane and whatnot, but to me came across more like the Insane Clown Posse (and, in fact, there was a lot of crossover between those two fandoms).

WCW on the other hand had more of the flamboyance and fun that I loved about wrestling. When the NWO thing happened, everyone was talking about it, but it quickly became completely impossible to follow - most of us only followed wrestling casually, and couldn't afford the Pay-Per-Views, so it seemed like suddenly there were all these splinter groups forming and reforming to the point where following the membership of these groups and who they were feuding with and who they even were was just totally mystifying.
Arthur B at 17:29 on 2015-06-21
Hilariously, as well as helming their own Juggalo Championship Wrestling promotion as a sideline, the Insane Clown Posse did stints in both WWF and WCW in the 1990s.

The fact that there's an entire Wikipedia article entitled "Professional wrestling career of Insane Clown Posse" feels like one of those cosmic absurdities that are also cosmic inevitabilities.

As far as the NWO plot being impossible to follow, take pity for those of us in the UK whose only access to WCW was watching the internationally-syndicated highlights show that was on Channel 5 back in the day, which chopped things about so much that you could pretty much forget about following a plotline. Reynolds and Alvarez are pretty firm on the point that the NWO should have been kept a much smaller faction, if it even expanded beyond Hogan, Hall and Nash - not only did each new recruit make membership of the faction less special, but the faster people were recruited the faster the storyline became impossible for anyone to follow unless you watched all the content WCW put out.

And then you hit the stage where WCW's writing flat-out contradicted itself so much that nobody outside of WCW could keep track of what was going on - because nobody inside WCW was keeping track either.
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