Friday, September 26, 2014

Wrestling With History – 2014 WWE Versus 1995 WCW

This is going to be a stream-of-consciousness post. I know how I feel about what I’m writing about today – the entertainment value of WCW Monday Nitro versus that of the current WWE products – but I’m not sure where I’ll end up or what my conclusion will be. So hang in there.

Two things inspired this post. The first is the fact that full episodes of World Championship Wrestling’s flagship show, Monday Nitro, are now available on the WWE Network (only $9.99 a month!) and I have been binge-watching and loving it. I was watching episodes from 1995 with Jonathan from Wrestling With Pop Culture this past Sunday and when it was time for WWE’s Night of Champions pay-per-view to start I did not want to change the channel. I knew that WWE’s show would not be as much fun to watch. So today I want to investigate those feelings.

The second reason I’m writing this is I need a few more posts before 31 Days of Halloween starts here on Needless Things.

So here’s a little background:

I have been a fan of professional wrestling since I was a kid. I watched the late-night recaps of regional wrestling, the Sunday afternoon WWF show on USA, and Hulk Hogan’s Rock N’ Wrestling. I got away from it in high school and then started watching again with my roommates in 1996.

Side Note: Beth V was one of those roommates and she loved Juventud Guerrera and hated Disco Inferno. Like, a lot. I wish I had had the presence of mind to have Mr. Gilberti sign something for her when I met him years later.

The infamous 1996 Bash At the Beach PPV where Hulk Hogan joined the NWO was the first one we ordered. Up until about three years ago I did not miss a single episode of WWF/E or WCW’s flagship shows – RAW, SmackDown, Nitro, or Thunder. It was a little harder to keep up with the peripheral shows, though Velocity will always be one of my favorite wrestling shows ever for its focus on action.

My love for televised wrestling has been on the wane basically since WCW folded in 2002. At first it was the same dissatisfaction that every fan had with the way that WWF handled the purchase and subsequent integration of the WCW brand. But over the years it has developed into a sincere separation of interest between what WWE has been presenting and what I want to see. 
There is a definite parallel between this and Doctor Who, but I could probably count the number of people interested in reading about that on one hand.

So here I am today (or Sunday, as it were), thinking about how much I truly enjoy watching those old Nitro episodes and how little I am invested in modern RAW and SmackDown. I still record the major shows, but I don’t always watch them. As Night of Champions started I couldn’t recall the last episode I had watched. I also couldn’t name any of the champions other than Brock Lesnar. Up until a few years ago I could have told you every champion of every televised company without even thinking about it. Now, not only do I not know but I don’t care.

At some point in the last couple of weeks social media alerted me to the fact that full episodes of Monday Nitro were now available on the WWE Network. When I first heard that I didn’t think too much of it. I loved Nitro in the late 90s. Truth be told I preferred it to RAW for the most part. Once it got bad it got really bad, but I was always rooting for it. Looking back on Nitro, the bad – which was more recent – tends to overshadow the good. Especially with over a decade of WWE controlling the WCW image and presenting it in the light they see fit. 
I didn’t have any plans to revisit Nitro, but a couple of weeks ago I was looking for something to watch. I didn’t want the grittiness of Deadwood or the silliness of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (the two shows that I am currently alternating between). I wanted something fun, but that I could walk away from if need be. I remembered the Nitro announcement and decided it might be fun to go back and watch the first episode – the one that was live from the Mall of America. I’ve seen plenty of clips from it and even entire matches, but I had never watched the full episode in its entirety before.

It was absolutely fantastic.

I’m not talking quality-wise. There was a lot of goofy shit that would never fly on modern television. But there was a certain energy there that is lacking in modern wrestling. It started with your hosts for the event. Bobby Heenan had his usual sharp wit. Steve “Mongo” McMichaels is big, goofy fun. And Eric Bischoff – a couple of years away from his NWO affiliation – is energetic and knowledgeable. The three have a somewhat rocky chemistry in that first episode, but each offers something interesting and different and there is no clear corporate voice. They have three entirely different perspectives and life experiences with professional wrestling and these personal viewpoints shine through.

Point 1: WWE is so completely homogenized now that everything is in the McMahon voice. It’s like a weird hive mind. And this problem will only get worse as WWE continues to expand and dominate professional wrestling. Individual experiences will be less and less common as wrestlers enter directly into WWE-controlled environments and have no opportunity to develop individual experiences and points of view.

And then there were the matches. From beginning to end, each match felt like it meant something. I can’t quite explain it, but it was once again that feeling of individuality. Each competitor felt like something fresh and new. Everybody looked different and had distinct personalities. They were out there to wrestle and to entertain fans, not to promote any kind of corporate agenda. The show was about the wrestling, not the company.

Point 2: Everything that WWE does now is about the company. Nothing feels like it’s about the action in the ring. The wrestling is serving the company as opposed to the company serving the wrestling. These early episodes of Nitro take place in an environment that could not exist without wrestling matches. Whereas on RAW and SmackDown the matches feel like afterthoughts. Without actual wrestling, those shows would keep right on going. Maybe Kane would get a cooking segment or Cesaro and Rusev would enter into an arm wrestling tournament. They could do a reality segment about John Cena recording a new rap album and Miz shooting a movie. To WWE, the wrestling simply does not matter as much as the company.

We sat and mainlined three more episodes of Nitro. And they were all so much fun to watch. Maybe because it was a bunch of people trying to make something work. Definitely because there were so many distinct styles and personalities coexisting.

There were divisions – Cruiserweight, Tag, Main Event – and they were treated as their own important events within the context of the show. The Cruisers might be involved in a tag match, but it was to put over their division. And while the announcers did put the Main Event over throughout the shows, it was never at the expense of the current match (I do believe this changed in later years and I will certainly be addressing that if I get to the more recent Nitros).

September 4th, 1995 was the air date of the first Nitro. From that episode they were building towards the Halloween Havoc pay-per-view that aired on October 29, 1995. The Main Event of this PPV was a match featuring seminal good guy Hulk Hogan facing the Dungeon of Doom’s newest recruit, the Giant (supposed son of Andre) for the WCW Heavyweight Championship. The build-up was solid and featured a sort of prototype of the Hollywood Hogan turn that would happen almost a year later – the Hulkster felt that he had to delve into his darker side in order to face the Giant and Kevin Sullivan’s Dungeon of Doom. He put aside the red and yellow and the talk of vitamins and prayers and donned all black, as did his stalwart manservant, the Mouth of the South Jimmy Hart.

Sure, it was a little cartoonish and over-the-top, but it was also well-defined characters telling a very specific story.

While that conflict was the Main Event, the real draw of the pay-per-view was something so absurd that if you don’t already know about it, you’re probably not going to believe me. Two monster trucks – one representing Hulk Hogan and one representing the Giant – were going to have a match on top of a freaking building. It was a perfect example of WCW-style silliness and I couldn’t wait to see it. But I didn’t want to skip ahead – I was going to watch each Nitro in sequence and then watch Halloween Havoc, as Uncle Eric intended.

Side Note: I won’t even deny that if WWE tried to pull off a stunt like this now I would probably shit all over it. I’m still struggling to define the difference in my expectations of WCW then versus WWE now. That’s why this article is what it is.

So I continued watching episodes of Monday Nitro and found myself thoroughly enjoying them. I didn’t want to skip episodes or even segments. It was all so much fun. I’m sure it helped that these early Nitros were only an hour, which translates to around 45 minutes on the Network.

Point 3: There is too much WWE right now. Three hours of RAW is a drag. Before WWE added the extra hour I was already having trouble paying attention to two hours. They certainly haven’t been able to make three seem worthwhile. Add on to that two hours of SmackDown and then whatever other shows they have on right now and it’s no wonder everything seems bland and repetitive. Who the heck can come up with that many hours of engrossing content every week?

It was with great excitement that I finished the last episode of Nitro before Halloween Havoc. Jonathan had just gotten to the house and I excitedly recapped what had been going down on Nitro. I told him about the monster truck match and the Cruiserweight Title situation and the appearance of the Yeti on that last Nitro. Well, I had to go back and actually show him that one.

THE YETI! Not the guy in front. That's Big Show. And the guy on the right is Kevin Sullivan. Mean Gene is between them, but you probably knew that. It's not that guy floating around on a throne in the back, either. That's... I dunno. The Yeti is in that big block of ice.
We had a couple of hours before Night of Champions started, so I went to The Vault section of the WWE Network to find Halloween Havoc. I selected it and we were treated right off the bat to Rey Misterio, Jr. versus Dean Malenko for the Cruiserweight Title (some of you already know where this is going). Immediately after that, Lee Marshall interviewed Jeff Jarrett about his big match with the NWO’s Giant.

Wait… what?

We realized we were watching the 1996 Halloween Havoc. I stopped it and went back to the WCW pay-per-view section to bring up the 1995 installment, but it was not there. The ’96 show was the first one available. I was super bummed out.

We still had a couple of hours before Night of Champions, so we decided to go ahead and watch the ’96 Havoc, which is where the big realization that led to this post came about – Once it was time for the current WWE pay-per-view, I didn’t particularly want to turn off the WCW event that we were watching. I knew that Night of Champions wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as Halloween Havoc. We were having such a good time watching these great matches and talking about the wrestlers and the booking. Those things were unlikely to happen on such an engaging level with the WWE show.

Now, I do understand that nostalgia played a certain role in our enjoyment of WCW’s product. But that wasn’t all. The things I have discussed in this post all played a part. And when Night of Champions ended, I felt very strongly that I had been right. It wasn’t a bad PPV, but it certainly wasn’t a whole lot of fun to watch. Dolph Ziggler and The Miz had an unremarkable match that would have been at home on the midcard of any episode of SmackDown. The Usos and the Dusts had a very good tag team match that I felt connected with the audience and might have been the best match of the night for entertainment value. Sheamus and Cesaro had a hard-hitting match that didn’t really click for me until the last three minutes. The Divas match was very good and would have been playing to storylines quite well if not for the somewhat awkward insertion of Nikki Bella. Orton and Jericho had exactly the sort of match you would expect from those two. 
I do feel that Lesnar and Cena worked hard to create something that was a follow-up to their Summer Slam conflict. It kept me interested and was a logical progression from what has happened so far between those two. And then Seth Rollins did a bunch of stuff that didn’t make any sense and the match ended on a DQ with Cena the technical winner.

Aside from the tag match and Lesnar and Cena – and the Divas, I suppose – every other competitor on the card was interchangeable. None of their characters or stories are strong enough to have defined their situation at the pay-per-view. 
And I just realized that I forgot about Rusev versus Mark Henry. Rusev’s story is actually fairly strong, but WWE needs to figure out how to do something other than shoehorn guys into pro-USA gimmicks. Despite Henry’s emotional meltdown during Lilian Garcia’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (still the all-time best version of our national anthem) and Big Show’s gift of super-American attire, it was still just Mark Henry fighting a Russian dude. WWE could have picked anybody on the roster, gone through the same motions, and achieved the same result.

Well, mostly. The sight of the massive Henry tapping out while in Rusev’s version of the Camel Clutch was fairly powerful. We sat and fantasy booked a scenario in which Rusev continues to plow through people until Kurt Angle returns to WWE to stop him and the entire arena – in Philadelphia, naturally – explodes from the sheer size of the pop. The problem, of course, with our scenario is that it requires more shoehorning. Which wouldn’t be such a problem if the rest of WWE’s roster weren’t so interchangeable. One program doing that wouldn’t be a big deal. But when 80% of the feuds are based on ”let’s throw this guy in” as opposed to actual storyline reasons for confrontations it wears a bit thin.

Once again, Night of Champions was not bad. It just wasn’t any fun. 

This is what Hogan was looking at in the title picture above.
As soon as it was over we returned to where we had been with Halloween Havoc ’96 and finished watching it. And had a total blast. Now I just have to hope that the Network will put the 1995 edition up sooner than later. If they do, I may well have a retro PPV party at the house.

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