Thursday, March 31, 2011
The Bookshelf: The Death of WCW by R. D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez
As of late I’ve become a bit of a mark for pro wrestling. It’s more of a performance sport than anything else (albeit without a formal judging system), and I enjoy the theatrics and the over the top clash of larger than life personalities. WWE’s Wrestlemania XXVII is this Sunday, so it’s as good a time as any to do something wrasslin’ related on the site.
I actually bought this book a while ago and devoured it quickly; I remember the heyday of the Monday Night Wars between then-WWF’s Raw and WCW’s Nitro. Like a lot of people I watched both, but drifted away, and was surprised to hear that the whole business ended in 2001 when World Championship Wrestling was bought by the WWF and effectively dissolved. From the minds behind Figure Four Weekly and Wrestlecrap.com, The Death of WCW details precisely how the Ted Turner-owned promotion, which for a time outdrew the WWF by a wide margin, not only fell behind but slowly and surely ran itself into the ground. It’s a fascinating look at the inner workings of a business that often isn’t taken very seriously, but which can have as much at stake as a movie studio.
The book runs in chronological order and effectively covers the company’s entire lifespan, starting from its beginnings in the late Eighties. As Vince McMahon’s New York-based WWF went national with Hulk Hogan at the forefront, Ted Turner bought the ailing Jim Crockett Promotions, part of the prestigious-by-wrestling-standards National Wrestling Alliance, and turned into a nationwide competitor. WCW struggled to find its feet for many years, but used Turner’s millions to nab Hogan and debut TNT Monday Nitro against Raw. Aggressive booking and poaching of WWF stars Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, combined with an angle that saw the two waging a proxy war on the WCW, helped propel the promotion into the lead, with a key moment being Hogan’s turn to the dark side at a summer pay-per-view, joining with Hall and Nash to create the New World Order.
So what went wrong? Well, according to the book, a number of things. Manager Eric Bischoff had created a plotline and an approach to wrestling on TV that worked, and so saw no need to change things for years. The New World Order continued to dominate the WCW without the good guys scoring substantial victories (a crucial match between Hogan and perennial babyface Sting at the Starrcade 1997 PPV ended in a messy, unsatisfying finish), and new talent was consistently kept low on the card while the focus remained on familiar and aging stars like Hogan, Ric Flair, and Randy Savage. In the meantime, the WWF rallied, with the rise of the raunchy and very 90s “Attitude” era and the ascent of new stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin (ironically a WCW castoff) and the Rock. When Raw started beating Nitro in the ratings again, Bischoff panicked, and WCW’s programming became increasingly erratic in an effort to be unpredictable. Increasingly confusing booking continued with other managers and with the teamup of Bischoff and former WWF writer Vince Russo, and business went into an outright freefall.
The book takes a very methodical approach to unravelling the WCW collapse, going through individual shows and pay-per-views with ratings, gate revenues, and buyrates for each. There’s a real sense of the momentum of storylines as they unfold (the book can’t cover every plot that was going, but the crucial “main event” angles are followed closely), and there’s a sense of genuine excitement as the Hall/Nash “Outsiders” plot becomes the nWo. The book also gets across the sense in later years of that very storyline starting to stall out, extended well beyond its time. Even as the mammoth Bill Goldberg begins his ascent to company icon status, Reynolds and Alvarez point out a few missteps made in his push (including piping in “Goldberg” chants when the cameras showed audiences with their mouths closed, and having his victory over Hulk Hogan appear on free TV instead of pay-per-view in order to boost Nitro’s ratings). It can be hard to keep track of all this, as individual wrestlers and staff come and go, but the writers have a strong sense of the company’s momentum.
As well-written as the book is, it does suffer from an apparent lack of editing. At times the writing lapses into a crude, unprofessional voice, as with the observation that during an on-air tribute of sorts to the newly villainous Hogan by the nWo, “[i]t looked for al the world like he [Bischoff] was either going to propose to the Hulkster or blow him mid-ring. Maybe both.” Though, to be fair, this informal style does produce some funny observations now and again, including the assertion that regularly throwing wrestlers into swimming pools could have saved the company. And at times the writers do attribute motives and reasoning to some people’s actions without any actual way of knowing what was going through their heads (though this is not unheard of in nonfiction writing.) The book assumes some familiarity with pro wrestling terms and concepts, not really explaining things like matches being in “negative star range” or what a buyrate is; most of this you can pick up from context or the internet, but it could have been more accessible.
Despite this the book is endlessly rereadable; it’s a thrilling and extremely informative account of a time when wrestling was at its hottest, and there’s both the amusement factor of watching a company do everything wrong, and sadness at what ended up being lost. I genuinely enjoy WWE’s current product more often than not, for all its faults, but it’s clear that losing its closest competitor was the worst thing that could happen to it. The pro wrestling business has stagnated since, and while nobody’s nostalgic for the days of the KISS Demon and World Heavyweight Champion David Arquette, it still feels like the business is missing something. If you’re at all interested in pro wrestling and how it really works, this is a must-read.