I don't know that any television product has changed the way we visually consume it more times than professional wrestling. For a majority of its history (which I am counting as the period from "dawn of time" until around 1978 or so), syndicated television was basically a weekly commercial for whatever house shows (wrestling speak for "coming to an arena near you") were going to be in the area over the next couple months. Essentially, wrestling shows on TV were infomercials, only with salespeople that were screaming, sweating, bleeding, and hitting each other. (Not all that different from Sham-Wow guy, really.)
In the '80s, cable television gave Vince McMahon the platform to expand his northeast regional territory (the World Wrestling Federation) nationally on the USA Network (in addition to some late night Saturday stuff on NBC), which meant his infomercials sold not only tickets to house shows, but seats in closed circuit theaters for "super cards". Closed circuit soon begat pay per view in the late '80s as the key revenue stream. Oh, then the Internet came along. There's that.
But this post is about the weekly television, the aforementioned "infomercial." Along the way, in the early '90s, after years of being a weekend based TV product, Monday night became the night for wrestling fans to get their fix. After several years as largely a recap and highlight show called Prime Time Wrestling (skillfully hosted by Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan), on January 11, 1993, the WWF made a hard left turn and converted their Monday night show to a live, action packed, storyline laden showcase.
Live from the Manhattan Center in New York City, Monday Night RAW was born.
Nearly twenty years later, after several twists and turns in the road (including but not limited to Vince McMahon nearly going away to prison in 1994 for steroid distribution, nearly being put out of business in 1996, trying to start his own football league in 2000, and buying out his only real competition for pennies on the dollar in 2001), RAW is celebrating its 1000th episode tonight with a three hour celebration of its flagship show past, present, and future.
Personally, I'm hoping it's mostly "past."
I grew up watching the McMahon family's product, going all the way back to the days of Bob Backlund and Superstar Billy Graham battling for the title in 1978 in Madison Square Garden. Compared to the average viewer tonight, my frame of reference is wide and, I think, fairly well informed.
There have been good times and bad times to consume the product, but as far as the Monday night product, its popularity was built on the sweat of the Monday Night Wars with WCW's Monday NItro product in the late 90's. For a guy whose single-mindedness in eliminating his competition has been his lifelong signature, ironically, it was the actual presence of competition that forced McMahon to reevaluate the delivery of his content -- its characters, its feel, its pace, everything.
So as I get ready to send you on this retrospective, a couple points of procedure:
1. Much like the company itself, I as a fan and a viewer had the current company name World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) forced upon me because the World Wildlife Fund got pissed about people calling Vince's company "WWF." Apparently, as they were trying to save panda bears, the World Wildlife Fund received one too many phone calls for Hulk Hogan and decided to drop the hammer and force a name change on the World Wrestling Federation. Since that occurred in 2002, the now WWE has had to take extreme measures to redact the term "WWF" to anything that happened before the name change, including blurring out old logos and muting any mentions of "WWF" on DVD's and online content. It's even to the extent that current superstars refer to things that occurred under the "WWF" banner before 2002 as having happened in "WWE." Well, they may have to follow those rules, but not me. If it happened before the name change, then it happened in the WWF. If it happened after the name change, it happened in WWE. That mindset will be reflected in this post.
2. In my mind, in terms of recapping RAW, the part of history that really, truly matters the most is the period from summer of 1996 through the night that Vince turned the lights out on Nitro in March of 2001, both in terms of historical importance and quality of content. This, I can assure you, will be reflected in the nostalgia that gets trotted out tonight in St. Louis. So if you liked that period, you will love...no wait, this requires all CAPS...you will LOVE this post. Guaranteed.
So without further ado, the story really began on May 19, 1996. It was the final show in Madison Square Garden for Kevin Nash (Diesel) and Scott Hall (Razor Ramon) before heading off to WCW, and both lost their final matches to Shawn Michaels and Hunter Hearst Helmsley (you now know him as Triple H). Michaels and Nash closed the show, Michaels winning with a super kick leaving Nash "unconscious." Shortly after the match, Ramon came out ostensibly to congratulate Michaels. Not a big deal, since script-wise both were "good guys" at the time.
Then, unless you followed the inner workings of the business, it got weird. Michaels decided to come over and "wake up" his "bitter enemy" Diesel and simultaneously out of the locker room came the "hated" Helmsley, who had just beaten Ramon earlier. Story line logic would dictate that we would soon be looking at a two on two brawl -- two babyfaces, two heels. Instead, the four real life friends engaged in a group hug which completely broke the "kayfabe" rules of keeping the "real stuff" behind the curtain.
Not surprisingly, Vince McMahon was furious. Hall and Nash faced no repercussions because they were done with the company the second the ref counted three in their matches that night. Michaels was the champ at the time so there was no real way to punish him. So in a weird twist of irony, McMahon wound up dropping the entire punishment on his future son-in-law Helmsley, who was jobbed out incessantly over the next year.
A week later, Scott Hall showed up on WCW Monday Nitro, and this happened...
Scott Hall's WCW Debut by sir-roddick
...a week later, Nash showed up and this happened...
Scott Hall's Big Suprise for Eric Bischoff-Kevin... by TSteck160
....then at the next pay per view, they did this to WCW boss Eric Bischoff...
....and then at Bash of the Beach, Hulk Hogan showed up and this happened....
...and then WCW started winning in the ratings. Every week. By lots of viewers.
In the summer of 1996, Vince McMahon was left with a roster that consisted of the Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, some solid pieces like Mick Foley, Steve Austin, Helmsley who had never worked at a main event level for an extended period of time, some older guys who were breaking down or were broken down like Vader and Jake Roberts, and a bunch of cartoon characters seemingly designed to capture that all-important age 4-10 demographic like T.L. Hopper (a wrestling plumber), Duke "The Dumpster" Droese (a wrestling garbageman), and Henry O. Godwinn (a wrestling hog farmer).
Sometimes you choose to change, and sometimes you have change thrust upon you. In 1996, Vince McMahon had change thrust upon him. How he and his company adapted would dictate whether or not they would survive.
So that's where we pick up the story of RAW. At the part where the WWF was trying to survive... September 23, 1996 - Jim Ross turns heel and introduces Fake Diesel and Fake Razor Ramon
Shortly after the formation of the New World Order in WCW, around two months after Hulk Hogan hit the leg drop heard 'round the world on Randy Savage, the WWF "leaked" to their America Online site that Diesel and Razor Ramon would be "returning to the WWF!" This sent all of the wrestling-related chat rooms (Ah 1996...when "wrestling-related chat rooms on AOL" were a thing.) into rampant speculation that Scott Hall and Kevin Nash were actually returning to the WWF. Of course, it wound up being two impostors (one of whom, Glenn Jacobs as the Fake Diesel, would wind up playing the role of Kane a year later.), fans everywhere shit on it, and it was forgotten about a few months later. The best thing I can say about this angle is that Jim Ross' promo leading up to the introduction of these two was killer. So that's the part we choose to remember.
October 21, 1996 - Bret Hart returns to WWF with a "lifetime contract"
On the heels of losing Scott Hall and Kevin Nash to WCW, and with other former WWF personalities showing up in WCW almost weekly at that point, Vince McMahon was under intense pressure to hold onto as many of his stars as he could, and in October 1996 Bret Hart (along with Shawn Michaels) was his biggest star. WCW courted Bret, threw a big money offer at him, but in the end Vince was able to hold onto this free agent, trumping Ted Turner's big money with a lifetime contract. Ironic moment in this one: when Bret confirms he's staying by saying he will be in World Wrestling Federation "forever." Yeah, either forever or for about a year.
November 4, 1996 - Brian Pillman/Steve Austin "gun incident"
One thing the WWF did have going for them in late 1996 was the seeds beginning to sprout on the meteoric rise of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. In November of 1996, shortly after he had snapped Brian Pillman's ankle with a chair, Austin decided to pay Pillman a visit at his home in Kentucky on Monday night. Naturally, Pillman decided to greet him with gunfire. This blatant attempt to "shock" viewers back over from watching WCW is best remembered for (a) Vince McMahon apologizing profusely to viewers for WWF going a bit over the top (right after re-airing highlights of the angle on the Saturday Live Wire show) and (b) Kevin Kelly's screaming like a seventh grade girl for someone to call the police. (The seeds for the Rock calling Kelly a "hermaphrodite" during every subsequent interview were planted this day, I truly believe this.)
March 17, 1997 - Bret Hart turns heel, berates Vince McMahon
The template for the Austin-McMahon "evil owner" angle which eventually pushed the WWF back on top was formed from Bret Hart's real life frustrations with how he was being handled since returning the previous October, and the first big blow up at Vince McMahon was this one, right after losing a title match to Sid on Monday Night RAW the week before Wrestlemania 13. Hart's ultimate blow up at McMahon came in November after the Montreal Screwjob, and that one was far more real (and far more spit-laden). May 19, 1997 - Mick Foley interveiws w/ JR
Attempts to make the make the key players less cartoonish were a staple of the WWF beginning around 1997. Character development became centered more around taking a superstar's actual personality and "turning the volume up," adding a second and third dimension to what had previously just been various one dimensional "colorful" versions of guys hitting each other. The biggest beneficiary of this trend might have been Mick Foley, who hardcore fans loved during his time in ECW and WCW as Cactus Jack, but many new fans didn't know his background. This sequence of interviews with Jim Ross really moved Foley up a notch in the eyes of many, and -- BONUS! -- introduced the world to Dude Love!
June 1997 - Shawn Michaels hates Bret Hart
The wresting genre is at its most compelling when it delicately straddles the line between realism and show. Weaving the actual into the theater that is pro wrestling is not easy, and when done poorly it can be promotion killing (see: WCW, Vince Russo Era). When done well, it can be promotion saving. WWF didn't pass WCW in the TV ratings until April 1998, but they were putting on consistently better shows for about a year before that, and much of that was jumpstarted by the real life animosity between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels playing out so well on television. To wit...
August 18, 1997 - Rocky Maivia joins the Nation of Domination
Dwayne Johnson was introduced to the WWF audience at Survivor Series in November 1996, and to say that the audience hated him is putting it lightly. They despised him with the white hot fury of a thousand suns. He was a scruffy headed, third generation star, smiling and pandering to the crowd. Oh, he also won his Survivor Series debut that night. It was the WWF equivalent of force feeding their fans spinach. And nobody likes spinach, even if it is good for you. Well, this promo fixed all that. The Rock told everyone what they could do with their "Die, Rocky, die" chants, and a star was born.
September 22, 1997 - Steve Austin stuns Vince McMahon
There may be no bigger historical event for the United States than the Revolutionary War, and we always hear about the "shot heard 'round the world" that started the revolution. Well, there was no bigger angle in WWF history than "Austin vs McMahon." This was the WWF's equivalent of the "shot heard 'round the world." And it would be far from the last shot fired. October 13, 1997 - DX name themselves
By October 1997, Shawn Michaels had aligned himself with real life friend Triple H in a faction that got off two things -- sophomoric dick jokes and pissing off Bret Hart. Among several things, the significance of DX in this era was that it signaled Triple H's essentially ditching the Hunter Hearts Helmsley blue blood persona and morphing into a character with much more of an edge. (Ironically, this transformation would lead to him becoming a huge star, marrying Vince McMahon's daughter, and becoming ten times the blue blood in real life than Hunter Hearst Helmsley the character ever was.)
October 20, 1997 - Jeff Jarrett returns from WCW and shoots on everyone
In retrospect, the first signs of the chinks in WCW's armor started showing in late 1997, when former WWF stars who'd left for WCW's big paychecks began to return to the WWF, disillusioned with the playground that Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Hulk Hogan had set up for themselves in Atlanta. Jeff Jarrett wasn't the biggest star this happened with, but he might have been the first. Also, in the spirit of realism, he goes with the quasi-shoot interview. All the cool kids were doing it.
November 10, 1997 - DX Post Survivor Series Promo
Well, as it turns out Bret Hart's "forever" lasted exactly one year and three weeks. The day after the most talked about day in wrestling history, the Montreal Screwjob, which saw Bret Hart have the WWF title essentially stripped from him in-ring with a phony submission call by referee Earl Hebner (the Joey Crawford of WWF officials) on his way out the door, Shawn Michaels and DX ripped Hart from pillar to post the next night on RAW. Ironic part here: Rick Rude, DX's "insurance policy," would show up on WCW Monday Nitro the next week, the same week RAW would be running a taped show which would include Rick Rude. This made him the first superstar to appear on both shows in the same night. (In the ultimate "last laugh," the final person to pull of that feat would be Vince McMahon, the night he simulcast himself onto both shows after buying WCW in 2001. The lesson, as always, don't fuck with Vince McMahon.)
November 17, 1997 - "Bret screwed Bret"
If the seeds for the evil "Mr. McMahon" character were planted back in March when Bret Hart dog cussed him for screwing him over, the flowers began to fully bloom on this night, when Jim Ross conducted this interview with the WWF owner, his eye still jaundiced from the shiner Bret gave him after the Montreal Screwjob.
December 15, 1997 - Austin throws the IC belt in the river
While Bret and Shawn were winding down their little tizzy, the two stars who would launch the WWF into the stratosphere over the next two years were just getting warmed up. The Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin were battling over the Intercontinental championship, a warm-up for what would be multiple Wrestlemania main events in the next few years. On this night, Austin decided to throw the IC belt into a river and tell Rock to go fetch.
January 19, 1998 - DX barbecue skit after Royal Rumble
Dick jokes, no shirts, taunting the Undertaker, and more dick jokes. This was DX. It was glorious time indeed. January 19, 1998 - Tyson Meets Austin
When the WWF had their first big boom period in the mid-80's, it was spurred on by mainstream media coverage of the "Rock and Wrestling Connection." Cyndi Lauper showing up on WWF television, MTV televising Wendi Richter versus Fabulous Moolah, then televising Piper versus Hogan, then Mr. T getting into the mix. The WWF was all over mainstream television and it made the WWF a global juggernaut. Thirteen years later, Vince decided to sign Mike Tyson to play and "enforcer's" role at Wrestlemania, Steve Austin took exception, came out and picked a fight, and ESPN and CNN took it from there. The confrontation ran on news and highlight shows everywhere. If Twitter had existed, the top three trending topics would have been Tyson, Austin, and Jim Ross. It was no longer IF the WWF would retake the lead in the Monday Night ratings war, but WHEN.
March 30, 1998 - Sean Waltman returns and joins DX
X Pac joins DX by rvdrocks
The night after Wrestlemania is historically one of the most intriguing nights of WWF television of the year, as it typically sets in motion some new storylines. The night after Wrestlemania XIV saw the return of Sean Waltman (X-Pac/1-2-3 Kid) to the WWF after a little over a year in WCW. This was significant because, unlike Jarrett, X-Pac was an original "Kliq" member, an F.O.H.A.N (Friend of Hall and Nash) if there ever was one. Despite Nash's and Hall's influence behind the scenes, WCW president Eric Bischoff was not a big fan of Waltman's and let him walk. Waltman, not known for being a craftsman on the microphone, let Bischoff have it in maybe his best promo ever. (Awkward love triangle alert! In this video, Chyna was still dating Triple H, but after Trips left her for Stephanie McMahon, Chyna wound making one of the most disturbing sex tapes in the disturbing history of sex tapes with...SEAN WALTMAN! The creatively titled "One Night In Chyna," which held the crown for nastiest thing on the web until very recently, when the pictures of the guy whose face got eaten by a bath salts zombie were leaked.)
April 13, 1998 - Austin vs McMahon
83 weeks. That's how many consecutive weeks WCW won the Monday Night ratings war. It was finally halted with the promise of an Austin versus McMahon televised main event. For over two years, Vince had been trying every combination on his roster to try and win this thing; who knew that a big part of the solution was staring at him in the mirror.
April 27, 1998 - DX invades WCW
Chest firmly puffed out and knowing the war was beginning to shift their way, the WWF decided it was time to go poke the beast that had been poking so much fun at them the last two years. And who better to do that than the newly formed version of DX. Coincidentally, the two companies were running RAW and Nitro within a few miles of each other, so DX did what any self-respecting competitor would do -- they drove a tank onto the Norfolk Scope grounds (which is where WCW was doing their show) and tried to break into the building. Oh, and they filmed the whole thing. Oh, and Eric Bischoff tried to respond by challenging Vince McMahon to a fight that night on pay per view. Oh, and Vince cackled at his monitor back at his arena and rolled a blunt while watching Bischoff. (I might've made that last part up.)
June 4, 1998 - New and improved Steve Austin
The McMahon-Austin feud would continue for a few years (until an ill-fated heel turn by Austin at Wrestlemania 17 in Houston where he actually aligned with McMahon, we're all trying to forget this), but some of the best work was in the first couple months. This interview is a prime example of the amazing chemistry these two had.
October 5, 1998 - Vince McMahon gets a visit in the hospital
Another seminal Austin and McMahon moment came just after The Undertaker and Kane decided to snap Vince McMahon's ankle with the ring steps. While it was nice to see two brothers putting aside their differences and playing together again, we all wept for Mr. McMahon and the pain he was going through. And by all of us, I mean none of us, especially Steve Austin. (NOTE: Ultimately, the biggest takeaway from this skit was the birth of Mick Foley's hand puppet friend, Mr. Socko.)
December 7, 1998 - Undertaker sacrifices Austin
Winning the TV ratings battle every week and resuscitating a flailing company sent Vince McMahon into a big time phase of random, cavalier "heat checks," a series of questionable programming decisions just to see what the WWF could get away with. I guess he got away with simulating the crucifixion in that he wasn't punished financially. The XFL? Different story. January 4, 1999 - Mankind wins the WWF Title
On my radio show this past weekend, I asked WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross what he thought was the turning point in the Monday Night wars when he knew that the WWF had seized momentum for good, and he cited January 4, 1999, the night Mick Foley won the world heavyweight title for the first time in his career. The match itself actually was recorded a week before, and because of that it gave WCW Monday Nitro play by play guy Tony Schivaone the chance to get off this little gem:
Schiavone even made sarcastic comments about Foley as a champ not "putting butts in seats." The response from viewers was not what WCW had hoped for. 500,000 of them changed channels to go see Foley, a huge fan favorite, win his first World title.
March 22, 1999 - Steve Austin douses the McMahon's in beer
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin beer truck on Raw - 1999 by GoreShrader
More Austin-McMahon greatness. Not much more you have to say here.
May 24, 1999 - Owen Hart Tribute show
On the night of May 23, 1999, at the Over The Edge pay per view, Owen Hart, in costume as the Blue Blazer character, fell from over 70 feet in the air as he was making what was supposed to be a "superhero type entrance," and later that night was pronounced dead as a result of the impact of the fall. In the face of much criticism, the WWF not only continued the card that evening but went on with Monday Night RAW the next night. Appropriately, they scrapped whatever script they had that Monday and did a show entirely in tribute to the late Owen Hart.
August 9, 1999 - Chris Jericho debuts in WWE
Millennium countdown clock, distinctive ring entrance music, an immediate verbal spat with one of the two biggest stars in the company -- this was the textbook way to introduce a star into the company. People already knew Chris Jericho from his indy career and his three years in WCW, where he managed to become a huge fan favorite despite WCW seemingly wanting him to barely ascend above mid card status. WWE obviously had bigger plans for him.
September 27, 1999 - The Rock: This Is Your Life
Someday when your grandkids ask you "What was the highest rated segment of Monday Night RAW, grandpa?", you will tell them "Well, grandson, it wasn't a match, wasn't an interview, wasn't even something involving the McMahons. It was this..." (And then you'll show them this YouTube clip on the small digital monitor that has been surgically installed on their hands since birth. 2035, I'm telling you, it's happening.)
November 29, 1999 - Stephanie McMahon wedding to Test
It wouldn't be a RAW retro piece without a wedding, so why not the on-screen wedding that was the genesis for the actual, eventual wedding of Stephanie McMahon and Triple H? Who knew that implied date rape could end up being so fulfilling?
January 31, 2000 - The Radicalz debut
By 2000, WCW was such a steaming hot mess that even the guys who were getting a good push in their careers wanted out, even their champion! Yes, that's right, one night after winning the WCW title on pay per view, Chris Benoit quit the promotion in protest to Kevin Sullivan (ex-husband of his real life wife, Nancy) being named booker, and he took three of his best friends to the WWF with him. This was historically significant because it was the last big influx of relevant talent from WCW to the WWF before WCW closed its doors for good, and because two of the four so called "Radicalz" wound up being notable players in WWE -- Eddie Guerrero would eventually be a highly entertaining world champion, and Chris Benoit would eventually and tragically kill his wife, his son, and himself and essentially erase himself from WWE history.
March 26, 2001 - Death of WCW
In the end, WCW, which at its peak made an insane $55 million in annual profit in 1998, was purchased for a mere $3 million, a sum that WWE I'm guessing has easily recouped and then some in DVD sales from the tape library alone over the last ten years. It's a number the WWF would have blown up exponentially if they executed the ready made "invasion" angle properly. More on that in a second, but first, Vince McMahon's touchdown dance on Billionaire Ted.
Ironic that in this clip Vince McMahon is touting to someone on the phone how, on the night he had bought WCW, he had booked a match of Austin and the Rock versus the Undertaker and Kane on RAW, only because it was McMahon who once said WCW was going to ruin the future of the business by putting pay per view main event caliber matches on free television. Yeah, ruin it or set the stage for Vince to take his company public and become a billionaire himself. One or the other.
For me, the golden age ended after the botched Invasion angle in the summer of 2001. Instead of using all of the big stars from WCW like Hogan, Nash, Hall, Goldberg, Ric Flair and even Eric Bischoff in a true compelling and more real NWO storyline, we got a gaggle of WCW and ECW mid carders being led around by the nose by whichever McMahon pulled the long straw for the most TV time that night. This was the one huge angle wrestling fans had waited for forever, one that we thought we'd never get, then stars aligned properly to see it, and we got Booker T and Buff Bagwell. Myself, I felt cheated.
Today, I still watch Monday Night RAW, almost every week. I still enjoy it, I'm still a fan, but I know it will never match the halcyon days of 1996 through 2001. It's like watching The Office after Jim and Pam finally got together; it's still funny, it's still on my DVR every week, but if I have to wait a couple days to see it, then so be it. Monday Night RAW still has "Save Until I Delete" status, it just sits there a lot longer waiting to be watched and subsequently deleted.
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The best of times for RAW may be over, but tonight we can at least celebrate those times. Me, I plan on doing so with a few Steveweisers and some pie.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.