Whilst pushing for the WWF to be syndicated nationally on tv, Vince McMahon turned his company into a traveling national tour. But this tour required a massive capital outlay, combined with his talent raiding spree, McMahon needed to come up with something special to stop his company from suffering financial ruin.
McMahon took a page out of the NWA book. Starrcade showed Vince that the fledgeling pay-per-view market was the future of the industry. Vince McMahon would host his own event, but unlike Starrcade which emphasized the technical ability of the talent, McMahon created a show that not only catered to wrestling fans, but to the wider public.
He achieved this by hiring celebrities like Muhammad Ali, Cyndi Lauper, and Mr T. Even though wrestling critics (yes they really exist) rated the quality of the wrestling at Starrcade higher, WWF was able to generate more pay-per-view sales, in the process establishing WWF as the leading brand in sports entertainment.
The biggest star of the show, however, was Hulk Hogan. He would remain WWF’s biggest draw for ten years, a name even non-wrestling fans knew. Hogan and WWFs growing influence on pop culture would be enhanced by the hugely popular Rock-n-Wrestling Connection on MTV.
The venue was Madison Square Garden in New York City, and the event was WrestleMania. Vince McMahon and the WWF never looked back.
The Four Horsemen
During the territory system era, it was not uncommon for heels to depend on outside interference to win matches. Whether it was assistance from a valet or a manager. But due to the scattered talent nature of the NWA and AWA, it was difficult to build any kind of serious heat for any potential faction.
Jim Crockett Promotions acquisition of elite talent into the NWA allowed four real-life friends to work together. This friendship would develop into a storyline, where the four men, managed by JJ Dillon, created a faction. Dillon recruited NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair, Ole and Arn Anderson, and Tully Blanchard. The concept of a faction running roughshod over its competition was not a new one. But this was groundbreaking, as this new group of renegades created anarchy on the NWA roster. And in the process wore designer suits, chartered private jets, and were surrounded by scores of beautiful women. During an interview Arn Anderson made the following declaration:
“The only time this much havoc had been wreaked by this few a number of people, you need to go all the way back to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!”
The Four Horsemen name stuck and has since gone onto be immortalised in wrestling folklore. Over the next 15 years, the personnel of the group would often change, as members came and went. The Four Horsemen set the template for future heel factions. Without The Four Horsemen, quite simply there would be no nWo, D-Generation X, Nation Of Domination, Evolution, or The Shield.
WrestleMania 3 is one of the most iconic WWE events of all time and is the scene of arguably the most iconic moment in sports-entertainment history. Hulk Hogan achieved the “impossible” by body-slamming Andre The Giant. A moment that solidified the megastar status of Hulk Hogan, and barring sizable financial investment, left the NWA and AWA with little hope of being a threat to the WWF.
Apart from the main event between Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant, the most critically acclaimed match was for the Intercontinental Championship, starring Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage. A match that regularly features on the greatest matches of all time list, and inspired a generation of new wrestlers.
This time the setting was the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Michigan and drew a record WWF crowd of 93 173. Though that figure has since been disputed. That “record attendance” would be broken at WrestleMania 32 at the Dallas AT&T Stadium.
WWF And NWA Go Head To Head
The NWA’s showcase event Starrcade was due to air on November 26 1987 for the 5th consecutive year. That’s Thanksgiving Weekend in the United States. Vince McMahon decided he would for the first time hold a second WWF pay-per-view event of the year, on the same night as Starrcade.
The show was named Survivor Series. It would consist of a series of five on five elimination matches. Jim Crockett Jr and Vince McMahon were officially at war. McMahon escalated this explosive skirmish by threatening any cable company that aired Starrcade, that they wouldn’t be allowed to air the following years WrestleMania. This was a serious gamble because the cable industry could’ve called his bluff, but they didn’t and the majority of cable companies pulled Starrcade from their schedule.
Survivor Series would outsell Starrcade by more than two to one. Desperate to make up for Starrcade, NWA promoter Jim Crockett Jr organised another pay-per-view in January 1988 called Bunkhouse Stampede.
In order to undermine the NWA once again, Vince McMahon held WWF’s first-ever Royal Rumble on the same night as Bunkhouse Stampede. But this time not on pay-per-view but on a free-to-air channel. That meant wrestling viewers now had a choice to make. Pay to watch NWA Bunkhouse Stampede, or watch the Royal Rumble for free.
Bunkhouse Stampede never stood a chance. Jim Crockett Jr would try to hit back by holding Clash of the Champions on the same night as WrestleMania 4, but the damage was done. For Vince McMahon and the WWF, the real war lay ahead.
Jim Crockett Jr Finally Taps Out
Jim Crockett Promotions and the NWA had attempted to match the WWF stride for stride in acquiring talent from other territories. But by mid-1988, Jim Crockett Jr was feeling the financial strain and was facing bankruptcy.
The plan to compete directly against the WWF had backfired. On October 11, 1988, Jim Crockett Jr sold the NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions to media mogul Ted Turner. Turner would rename the company World Championship Wrestling (WCW).
WCW would continue to use the NWA World Heavyweight Championship belt until 1993 when it ceased all affiliation with the NWA. In the early years, WCW would build the brand around NWA legend Ric Flair, and rising star, Steve Borden. More commonly known as Sting.
Ted Turner’s fractured relationship with Vince McMahon was about to grow from personal animosity to all-out corporate warfare that would force fans, and wrestlers to pick sides.
By 1990, Hulk Hogan’s popularity was unrivaled. His relationship with the WWF was an extremely lucrative one. But the last two years had seen the rise of an individual who would come as close as anyone to challenging Hogan’s unparalleled popularity. The Ultimate Warrior. Wrestling purists have regularly criticised the skillset of Warrior, deriding his limited repertoire, calling him too stiff. But Warrior’s charisma was undeniable. His energy when hit the squared circle set pulses racing.
At WrestleMania 6, the first to be held outside the United States in Toronto, Canada, there was only one logical main event. WWF Champion Hulk Hogan against The Ultimate Warrior, who was the Intercontinental Champion. At previous WrestleManias, Hogan had been booked in battles against heels. But this time would be different, for the first time in WrestleMania history, two faces would square off in the main event. Not just any faces, but the two most popular characters in the industry, splitting loyalties amongst fans.
Warrior would defeat the Hulkster in what many saw as a passing of the torch. But more than that, WrestleMania 6 confirmed WWFs position atop the pro wrestling mountain. Though a nemesis was on the horizon. On a sour note, of the more than 30 performers on the WrestleMania 6 card, a third have since passed away, all dying before the age of 64, including Warrior.
The Undertaker Makes His Debut
It’s incredible to think that when The Undertaker made his WWF debut I was still in primary school. And he’s still around today. Imagine Mike Tyson still boxing, or John Barnes strutting around Premier League grounds. But The Undertaker’s debut at Survivor Series 1990 was truly unforgettable.
Standing at 2m tall, with a thousand-yard stare, Taker strode down to the ring as eerie entrance music blared around the arena, wearing dark gear head to toe, in the process terrifying the children in the arena. And probably some of the grownups.
Undertaker has been a top draw since. And his WrestleMania winning streak is unparalleled, and will never be equalled, let alone surpassed. Never. His single most memorable moment was throwing Mankind off the top of Hell In A Cell, a major contributing factor to Mick Foley (Mankind) walking with a limp today.
For a portion of his career, The Undertaker was accompanied by the eccentric Paul Bearer. Who had in his possession, the mysterious urn. The source of The Undertaker’s unique power. Don’t forget that this is theatre.
The Deadman has been involved in a number of first-ever matches. Buried Alive, Casket Match, and the aforementioned Hell In A Cell. And to think Mark Calaway (his real name, sorry) was dismissed early in his career by WCW.
His match against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 25 is widely regarded as the best match in WWE history.
The Undertaker is the greatest gimmick in pro wrestling history. Period.
AWA Shuts Its Doors
Verne Gagne and the AWA had barely been able to tread water in the late 80s. Through the emergence of talent such as Scott Hall (later became Razor Ramon), The Rockers, and Curt Hennig (Mr Perfect), AWA managed to stay afloat.
But like Jim Crockett Promotions, Verne Gagne was powerless preventing his best talent joining the WWF. Most painfully, Gagne had to sit and watch the Hulkamania whirlwind sweep across America.
AWA would also introduce the world to Eric Bischoff. More on him later. In 1991, Verne Gagne had no choice but to cease operations at AWA. One could argue this moment, was the true end of the original territory system.
The Sergeant Slaughter Storyline
For most wrestlers, playing the role of a heel is considered more fun than being a babyface. There are restrictions to being a face. You’re expected to abide by a moral code. Do the right thing, be an example to the kids that are watching.
You have no such worries as a heel. A baddie is expected to do bad things. But 30 years ago, kayfabe was a closely guarded secret. Wrestlers maintained their personas, even in public. Heels couldn’t be seen hanging out with faces, and vice versa. Being a heel brought it’s fair share of danger though. It was not uncommon for heels to be attacked by fans, in arenas and in public. But Vince McMahon took these risks and raised the stakes to new levels in 1990. Sergeant Slaughter had previously portrayed a babyface, as an All American military hero.
Slaughter’s heel turn saw him become an Iraqi sympathiser. Aligning himself with General Adnan, and later Colonel Mustapha(Iron Sheik). “Members” of the Iraqi military. There was even a photoshopped picture of Sgt Slaughter posing with Saddam Hussein. But the Slaughter character began attracting serious heat with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. After Saudi Arabia’s involvement, The United States was dragged into the conflict. Overnight Saddam became public enemy number one.
By proxy, Slaughter was now one of the most hated men in America. Unsurprisingly Slaughter received numerous death threats. He wore a bulletproof vest in public, and Vince provided him with personal security. Which is the least Vince could do. But even Slaughter had to draw the line when McMahon asked him to burn the American flag in the middle of the ring.
In the history of WWE, it is unlikely that any gimmick has drawn as much heat as Sgt Slaughter did with the Iraq storyline. The first Persian Gulf War came to an end when Saddam Hussein withdrew his troops from Kuwait, and thankfully Slaughter made a face turn and is still alive today.
The Breakup Of The Rockers
The late 80s and early 90s was a high point for tag team wrestling in the WWF. As fans, we were fortunate to watch masters of the art like The Hart Foundation, The Rougeaus, Demolition, The British Bulldogs, The Legion Of Doom(Road Warriors), and The Natural Disasters. The list goes on and on.
One of the most popular babyface tag teams of that era was The Rockers, Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels. They wrestled a high flying style developed in Verne Gagne’s AWA, where they were known as The Midnight Rockers. Due to their propensity to party past midnight. The Rockers were also a huge hit amongst female fans.
But burning the candle at both ends, hampered the progress of this promising team. It was not uncommon for one or the other to work matches whilst nursing a hangover. The Rockers had previously been dismissed by Vince McMahon due to their excessive drinking, before being re-signed. A rather impressive feat considering this was a generation of wrestlers known for their drinking binges.
In 1991, Jannetty and Michaels got in a legit fight with each other in a bar, that required Roddy Piper and Randy Savage to separate the two. Although they reconciled and continued to work together, their relationship was never the same.
WWF took this tension and worked it into a storyline, where a number of unintended mishaps would cost The Rockers important matches. This led to both men pointing fingers at each for their failures. Vince McMahon felt confident that Shawn Michaels, like Bret Hart, was ready to make the jump to singles competition. Cue one of the most shocking segments on WWF tv.
That moment stunned fans, and instantly turned Michaels heel, leading to his Heartbreak Kid gimmick. WWF had taken a huge risk in breaking up one of the most loved tag teams, but circumstances between Michaels and Jannetty had forced their hand.
Pushing Shawn Michaels into a singles competitor would pay huge dividends, as HBK would become one of the greatest main event performers in the history of the business, earning the nickname Mr WrestleMania. HBK would become a big cash cow(for lack of a better term) for Vince. And like The Undertaker, Michaels would stay loyal to Vince McMahon through the Monday Night Wars.
Unfortunately for Jannetty, he has become the forgotten man of the partnership. His singles career never quite took off. He tried to reform a New Rockers with Leif Cassidy(Al Snow), but it never gained any traction with the fans. Which is a shame, because Jannetty was a talented worker.
Summerslam had become firmly entrenched as the fourth of WWFs Big Four pay-per-view events. For the first time in WWF history, a major pay-per-view would be held outside North America, at Wembley Stadium in London.
The show would feature The Ultimate Warrior, Macho Man, The Undertaker, and The Legion Of Doom. But the main event, for the International Championship, saw defending champion Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart battle real-life brother-in-law The British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith in front of a raucous crowd desperate for a Bulldog win.
In one of the greatest Intercontinental Championship matches of all time, and arguably the best Summerslam match ever, Davey Boy and Hart showcased their abilities as singles competitors after having made their names as tag team specialists. It was clear to many observers that the days of the old guard of Warrior, Hogan, Savage were likely coming to an end. Four men who starred on the card, Bulldog, Taker, Hart, and HBK, would step up to carry the WWF for years to come.
Welcome To Monday Night Raw!
In January 1993, WWF began airing its first live weekly show, replacing Primetime Wrestling. Airing on Monday nights, Raw changed sports-entertainment forever. The first episode was broadcast live from the Grand Ballroom at the Manhattan Centre in New York City. However, to cut down on costs, Vince McMahon would soon switch to pre-recorded shows instead of broadcasting live.
Raw has been the perfect setting for the storyline build-up and character development. Owing to the success of Raw, WWE would launch Smackdown in 1999, and NXT in 2010, to complete the current roster of WWE’s live programming. But Monday Night Raw is widely considered as the flagship tv show of the WWE. Monday nights in the United States have become synonymous with Raw.
The Steroid Scandal
In 1993 Vince McMahon found himself on trial for allegedly distributing steroids to his wrestlers. During the trial, he ceded control of the WWF to his wife, Linda McMahon.
Numerous wrestlers were forced to testify under subpoena including Hulk Hogan, who admitted under oath that he had used performance-enhancing drugs since the 1970s. Though he declared he did not receive his supply from McMahon. Vince McMahon was eventually acquitted but his reputation was seriously tarnished. Likewise with Hogan, whose “take your vitamins, say your prayers” line suddenly rang very hollow. The steroid scandal was a hammer blow to an industry whose legitimacy was already under question.
The success of the 10th anniversary of WrestleMania proved to be a respite for a company under siege. This was also the first WrestleMania that didn’t include Hulk Hogan, who had departed the company.
The highlight of the night was WWFs first ever ladder match, for the Intercontinental Championship, between AWA alumni’s Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels. Razor won the match, but Michaels was the undoubted star of the show.
Bret Hart would become WWF Champion after defeating Yokozuna, after earlier participating in a critically acclaimed match against his younger brother Owen. This event would also see a shift in direction from Vince McMahon after the WWF was rocked by the steroid scandal. Wrestlers like Hogan, Savage, and Warrior would leave the company, as the WWF began pushing smaller wrestlers like Bret Hart, and Shawn Michaels.
Hogan And Savage Join WCW
Any notion that WCW was an inferior product to the WWF was shattered when two of WWFs marquee attractions, Hulk Hogan and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage signed with WCW in 1994. This signalled to the WWF that none of their wrestlers was off-limits. Critics of WCW felt the two men were past their prime.
Ric Flair and Lex Luger had recently returned to WCW after stints in the WWF. Sting was incredibly popular. And now with the addition of Hogan and Savage, WCW was seen as the first legit competition for WWF in years. Little time was wasted in booking a highly anticipated feud between Hogan and Flair, something the WWF had failed to do during The Nature Boy’s brief spell in the WWF.
But these acquisitions came at a price. Hulk Hogan had a clause in his contract, that allowed him to retain creative control of his character, something that would come back to bite WCW years later.
Eric Bischoff Ignites A War
The animosity that already existed between Vince McMahon and Ted Turner went all the way back to the mid-80s. By purchasing the NWA, Turner ensured the feud would continue. But this rivalry would escalate to new levels in the 90s.
In 1993 Turner promoted Eric Bischoff to the position of Executive Vice President of WCW. Bischoff began aggressively pursuing WWF talent, first by convincing Ric Flair and later Lex Luger to return to WCW, and then by signing Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. As previously mentioned, Hogan was given creative control of his character, a massive concession to give to a wrestler. This set a bad precedent, as more wrestlers would demand similar terms before joining WCW.
But that only set the scene for what was to follow. In a meeting, Bischoff pitched an idea to Ted Turner to a run a live weekly show at the same time as Monday Night Raw. To his surprise, Turner agreed. And so in September 1995, WCW launched Monday Nitro, to compete directly with Raw. This rating tussle would become to be known as the Monday Night Wars.
Eric Bischoff would continue to escalate tensions further. Firstly signing WWF Women’s Champion Alundra Blayze, who showed up on Nitro holding the WWF Women’s title, and then proceeded to throw it in the bin on live tv. And secondly, because at that point Raw was pre-recorded and Nitro was live, Bischoff and his team would tell viewers at home what would happen on Raw, thereby giving fans a disincentive to watch Raw.
In another memorable episode, WWF group D-Generation X showed up outside a Nitro broadcast in a modified Army Jeep with a replica tank cannon, taunting WCW officials, and posing with fans outside the arena. It would’ve been interesting if WCW officials allowed them into the building. Largely thanks to the nWo storyline and the rise of Goldberg, beginning on 17th June 1996, incredibly Nitro would outperform Raw on the ratings for 83 consecutive weeks, very nearly putting Vince McMahon and the WWF out of business. The Monday Night Wars would last until 2001.
Stay tuned for part 4 and the final part of this series
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