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What I Learned from Watching Nitro, Pt. 1

If you get this reference, consider yourself special.

If you get this reference, consider yourself special.

After watching about a month of programming from WCW Monday Nitro (specifically episodes 141 – 144, from November – December 1996, and a few others prior to those), here’s what I learned so far and why it’s important for us to consider today:

The Wrestlers Didn’t All Look the Same

Somewhere we all got caught up in the niceties of seeing six-foot plus, two hundred fifty plus pound behemoths traipse the pro wrestling landscape hither and thither. While we relished in the Bacchanalian revelry of barking like seals at wrestlers that “looked like” wrestlers, the powers that be consistently gave us what we cheered for, all the while conditioning us to become lukewarm to the different styles and abilities of wrestlers that could … you know … wrestle.

Take a look across the WWE’s roster or TNA’s roster at that; everybody looks alike … period. John Cena can be exchanged for Sheamus, Ryback, Mojo Rawley, Titus O’Neil, and whoever else. Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Randy Orton, Miz, Dolph Ziggler, Jack Swagger … they’re all cut from the same cloth and manufactured from the same fabric that brought us “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect.” They all wrestle alike, they pretty much sound like one another, and are honestly easily replaceable. If Zack Ryder was released today, would you (a) even realize it and (b) even care?

WCW’s roster towards the end of 1996 was literally chock-filled with wrestlers who didn’t fit into one homogenous mold or style. Each “character” was unique from the next, and had a skill set that expressed that their uniqueness. There were wrestlers of all shapes, sizes, and abilities, and while the action at times may have been choppy and suspect, these characters were irreplaceable. Lord Stephen Regal put on one hell of a losing effort to Chris Benoit one week while Juventud Guerrera was getting owned by Miguel Pérez, Jr. Dean Malenko was cleaning house left and right, and Marcus Bagwell, Scotty Riggs, Brad Armstrong, Tony “Villano IV” Peña, Jeff Jarrett, The Taskmaster Kevin Sullivan, the Faces of Fear, Big Bubba Rogers, Psicosis, Ultimo Dragon, Squire Dave Taylor, Sgt. Craig Pittman, the Nasty Boys, the French Canadians, Madusa, Masa Hiro Chono (as it was displayed on the screen), Chris Jericho, Hardbody Harrison, Jim Powers, Bobby Eaton, Rey Mysterio, Jr., Eddie Guerrero, Hector Guerrero, Chavo Guerrero, Jr., La Parka, Alex Wright, Juventud Guerrera, Mike Wallstreet, The Renegade and Joe Gomez, “Crow” Sting, the Steiner Brothers, and the many members of the nWo filled out the television program nightly. And those are just the people I can remember without watching those four particular episodes of Nitro again.

We can’t even look at the past month of RAW episodes and pretend with a straight face as if the roster is that deep or diverse.

Watching two hours of wrestling didn’t feel like watching two hours of wrestling.

Some time ago I wrote that TNA’s move to live broadcasts was far more tantalizing than three hours of plodding through WWE TV. Two whole damn years later, I can justifiably say this about that:

IWasRight

When watching WCW’s product from the end of 1996, multiple stories unfolded over the course of two hours with an intentionally subtle focus on one main story that wasn’t too overbearing or understated. The ebb and flow of the episodes, however, didn’t drag on or cram storylines down our throats. Everything felt organic, moved naturally from one segment to the next, and I eventually found myself wanting to see how things would culminate at the pay per view at the end of the month (Starrcade ’96).

It was interesting to witness WCW create must-see TV without forcing the issue, which led me to saying more than a few times, “Wait…that’s it? That couldn’t have been two hours.” In reality it wasn’t, as the absence of commercial breaks makes the episodes about an hour and a half long…but still…

At times it feels as if one main story on RAW takes precedence over all things, and that main story gets shoved into our faces constantly by the announcers, backstage segments, in-ring talking segments, and even recaps on completely different shows (SmackDown is pretty much RAW V2.5 at this point…and so is Main Event and Superstars…). There’s nothing subtle about the main storylines and most of the time we end up responding to these segments for what they were at the moment and not for what they are in the overarching storyline. Thus, three hours of isolated segments begin to wear on us mentally, especially if the entire three hours focuses hard on one storyline with everything else being comical afterthoughts.

The World Heavyweight Champion didn’t appear on EVERY episode…and I was okay.

The major storyline at this point in time was a pending match between the WCW World Heavyweight Champion Hollywood Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper, and for at least two straight episodes neither wrestler appeared on television as they hyped the possibility of these two facing each other. When Hollywood Hogan finally appeared, he didn’t even wrestle on the show and, in the grand scheme of things, managed not to overshadow the rest of the episode with his presence. Nowadays we complain of part-time wrestlers holding titles and not being in our faces every week, giving us no real reason to salivate over seeing them when they do make a rare appearance on the weekly televised product. When they do appear weekly, they’re so all in our faces that they might as well be sitting next to us in our living rooms.

The clichéd statement is that “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and I felt like I truly wanted to see Hogan face Piper because their interactions on TV were limited to a few spots here and there, even after their first initial face off.

The secondary stories were simple, exciting, and “real.”

While rehabbing a rotator cuff injury after surgery, Ric Flair christened Jeff Jarrett as his heir apparent in The Four Horsemen. Steve ‘Mongo” McMichael and “The Crippler” Chris Benoit vehemently disagreed with this appointment, and ultimately didn’t allow Jarrett to dabble in Horsemen business. Meanwhile Jarrett, along with other members of the roster, were embroiled in a single-elimination tournament to crown a new U.S. Heavyweight Champion after nWo member The Giant commandeered the title.

Chris Benoit was engaged in a bitter rivalry with The Taskmaster over his valet Woman, who at one point was aligned with The Taskmaster. Eric Bischoff, the most senior executive of WCW, was revealed to be a member of the nWo and gave all of WCW’s talent one month to convert their contracts to nWo contracts. While wrestlers began to slowly defect to the nWo, the remaining pro-WCW wrestlers attempted to gain support amongst each other. Caught in the middle of this fight were Sting and Diamond Dallas Page, both straddling the fence for their own very different reasons; Dean Malenko was crushing talent left and right in the Cruiserweight Division while preparing to face Ultimo Dragon, who at this point returned from Japan after successfully unifying eight different junior heavyweight championships.

What’s going on right now in WWE? Exactly.

I was okay with people losing.

I watched at least three episodes before I realized that Juventud Guerrera was being beat by almost everybody he faced, and Juventud was at that point a recognizable name in the Cruiserweight Division. And guess what…I didn’t pitch a fit.

Lord Stephen Regal lost one hell of a match to Chris Benoit after going on a winning streak, and guess what…I didn’t pitch a fit.

This is to say that tons of wrestlers lost matches and I didn’t feel inclined to write scathing commentary about how they were being buried because of a loss or multiple losses. When it comes to pro wrestling, somebody has to lose the match if we expect somebody to win. But in today’s era of trading victories, everybody becomes a fan favorite deserving of an indefinite win streak.

It’s impossible to push everyone as unbeatable Mongols, and if one desires to see a particular wrestler tear through the roster, one has to be able to (a) identify several stars for that wrestler to defeat and (b) craft a believable story to justify why said wrestler is able to tear through the roster like Kleenex at a snot party. Then again, when your main show roster looks like s**t and is ultimately stretched thinly across five hours (three for RAW and two for SmackDown), what can we expect?

Those are just my thoughts so far; perhaps you too should check out WCW Monday Nitro on the WWE Network. Think about all the fun you can have arguing with us here at L.E.W.D. all for the low low cost of $9.99!


Friday Night Fandom: “WRESTLING Matters!”

This one's pretty self-explanatory. | Photo: www.TheHistoricInterwebs.com

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. | Photo: http://www.TheHistoricInterwebs.com

With WWE SmackDown literally beginning as I type, I must admit that the majority of my day was spent gleefully staring at the LED backlit display of my laptop.  My initial internet query early this morning sent me on a somewhat rigorous search for matches featuring Jessicka Havok, TNA’s newest soon-to-debut Knockout.  After watching two or three of her matches in the Women’s Extreme Wrestling promotion, I stumbled upon the 2007 King of Europe Cup … and needless to say I was set for the rest of the day.

We wrestling fans often stand high and mighty on our knowledge of “real wrestling,” all the while managing to avoid teetering precariously on the precipice of having to explain what “real wrestling” is.  Most diehard fans will readily admit that “real wrestling” tends to reside in organizations that focus more on the in-ring action than it does the promos and backstage vignettes/interviews that explain why said matches are taking place.  In that same spirit, “real wrestling” has simple storylines that aren’t necessarily campy don’t cater specifically and strictly to a young audience or demographic.  “Real wrestling” highlights the athleticism of the wrestlers, where “styles” aren’t relegated to a specific region or a particular promotion’s standards, and the wrestlers are characters that are controlled by the athletes portraying them and not by a boardroom of writers and executives.

For those fans who revel in “real wrestling,” Japanese wrestling, women-only wrestling promotions, and Mexico’s Lucha Libre wrestling tends to be the most appealing and sought after product.  In terms of the world’s two largest promotions, TNA is favored for their “wrestling” far more than WWE.  Ironically enough, ROH and their decidedly pure wrestling focused product is rarely mentioned among the internet’s “real wrestling” aficionados.

What strikes me personally as odd is the fact that we tend to relegate pro wrestling and “real wrestling” as being expressed only in the world’s more prominent organizations.  We can talk about AAA in Mexico; we can talk about Wrestle-1 and NJPW in Japan.  We can even rattle off the names of some of the more notable women’s wrestlers (while haphazardly mentioning the organizations they belong to).  We mention how TNA is light years ahead of WWE in terms of the wrestling product, and after that our load is pretty much blown.  Our conversation about “real wrestling” is exhausted and we smirk while awaiting the best smarky response that gives us a good enough reason to go off.

We pro wrestling fans must expand our palate beyond what’s easily accessible and reliably pleasing to our “real wrestling” sensibilities if we’re going to be true to this “real wrestling” perspective.  With so many promotions operating around the world, it’s honestly asinine to keep “real wrestling” in a nifty and convenient little box that excludes the various styles and athletes globetrotting our planet with nothing more than word of mouth as their main source of promotion.

Having said that I now offer for your viewing pleasure the 2007 King of Europe Cup, four and a half solid hours of “real wrestling” goodness.

kingofeuropeI’ll admit to having been in the dark about this series, not coming across it until well into my Jessicka Havok search.  The words “Europe Cup” immediately stood out to me, as I assumed (correctly) that the show hailed from the UK and would feature in some form the catch-as-catch-can style that I’m very fond of.  I wasn’t let down at all, and was pleasantly surprised to see so many familiar faces wrestling on behalf of several promotions from around the world.  The really cool part was seeing these familiar faces presented in a “before-they-were-superstars” fashion wrestling as youngsters not encumbered by the politics and restrictions of wrestling in U.S. promotions for the U.S. market.  Wrestlers like Davey Richards and Rhino (current TNA Wrestlers), Chris Hero (former ROH Wrestler and WWE NXT Wrestler Kassius Ohno), Claudio Castagnoli (current WWE Superstar Cesaro), Matt Sydal (former WWE Superstar Evan Bourne), Doug Williams (former TNA Wrestler), Go Shiozaki, Nigel McGuinness (former TNA Wrestler Desmond Wolfe and current ROH authority figure), and PAC (current WWE Superstar and NXT Champion Adrian Neville) are all featured in the King of Europe Cup doing what they do best … wrestling.

The beautiful thing of it all is that each of the aforementioned wrestlers, along with the other athletes appearing in the tournament, were able to mix and blend their different styles of wrestling in lengthy matches that told stories different than that offered by what we know and choose to watch regularly.  Chris Hero and Claudio Castagnoli face each other early in a clinic of technical wrestling featuring two wrestlers who were tag team partners and are very familiar with each other’s styles.  PAC wrestles a high-flying style that leads to an injury that has him admitted to a local hospital, only to be brutalized by the begrudgingly vicious lariats of Nigel McGuinness.  Go Shiozaki gave Davey Richards one hell of a row with his strong style wrestling, and Doug Williams showcased the brilliance of the catch-as-catch-can style throughout his stay in the tournament.

All of this glowing praise is to say that “real wrestling” isn’t just about being able to watch one ridiculously crazy move after another one or indulging in a product that is subtly different than a product we dislike; “real wrestling” is about being entertained by the story that’s told in the ring through the actions, mannerisms, and facial expression of the athletes that’s supplemented with the commentary from announcers and the stories precluding the matches themselves.  There are tons of promotions and archived videos that present the product in this fashion, and we’d be selling ourselves and the business short if we didn’t saturate ourselves with the product that exists outside of our comfort zones.

As such, for your viewing pleasure and what will ultimately be a shameless plug of British wrestling, catch this epic match between British wrestling legend Johnny Saint and David “Fit” Finlay:

After you’re done with that, check out this match featuring Uhaa Nation from the UK’s Pro Wrestling Kingdom promotion:

And after that, before biting your thumb at Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling promotion as some others have taken a cotton to doing, check out some footage from a few of their international partners: World Wrestling Professionals in South Africa (which, as it turns out, is touted as being the “biggest federation in the Southern Hemisphere), Westside Xtreme Wrestling out of Germany (mentioned also in the King of Europe Cup video from above), and Riot City Wrestling from Australia.

Have fun, and remember: wrestling matters.


The Curse of the Attitude Era

"Hello, Ladies!" | WWE Alumni Val Venis; Photo © 2014 WWE.com. All Rights Reserved.

“Hello, Ladies!” | WWE Alumni Val Venis and X-Pac; Photo © 2014 WWE.com. All Rights Reserved.

A very salient and time appropriate point was recently made by L.E.W.D.’s resident truth telling aficionado Corbin Macklin:

You can make an argument that my generation grew up spoiled by seeing The Rock, Stone Cold, HHH, Mick Foley, Kurt Angle, Undertaker, Kane, Big Show, Shawn Michaels, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho etc every week…

One would be hard-pressed to argue with the fact that thousands, if not millions, of today’s most vocal pro wrestling fans today were indeed spoiled by the capers and athleticism of the aforementioned stars from more than seventeen years ago.  These men, along with a bevy of women as well, left an indelible mark on this business we call pro wrestling during the highly acclaimed “Attitude Era,” that legendary and almost mythical time period where it was cool and acceptable to watch and indulge in all things pro wrestling.  This era was defined by brash attitudes and vulgar language, rampant soft core pornography, controversial storylines, and in-ring actual that seemingly always ended with someone profusely bleeding.  The risqué, “too raunchy for prime time” rated-R product of the late nineties provided countless hours of entertainment for viewers; from the middle-finger flipping, boss beating, beer swilling shenanigans of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin to the crotch chopping, anti-establishment antics of Degeneration X, the spirit and ethic of the Attitude Era spat in the face of polite society and took no prisoners as it steamrolled over all things pleasing, polished, and polite.

These things alone did not make the Attitude Era what it was; in hindsight along with Brother Corbin’s point, we can see that the Attitude Era was made possible and popular by a unique cast of characters, scores of wrestlers, writers, bookers, producers and owners from three different organizations (WWF/E, WCW and ECW) who were in the right place and right time as the stars aligned to create a legacy that has yet to be duplicated in any form or fashion.  The Attitude Era was truly defined by the brilliance, work ethic, and passion of the men and women who gave their all plus some every time they stepped inside the ring or represented their respective promotion.  The Attitude Era, with it’s politics and the unregulated obsession with blood, boobs, butts and four-letter words, was successful because there existed a communal desire among all vested parties to be the best in the pro wrestling world and within one’s own promotion.  This is to say that any given wrestler during that period of time not only wanted to be the best in their promotion, but was intentionally committed to doing whatever was necessary to make sure their promotion was the best in the world.

The raunchiness, crassness and politically incorrectness was only a tool of the Attitude Era, which ultimately served as a tool used by the WWE during the Monday Night War period against WCW.  Behind those tools, however, was the rich and deep talent pool filled with solid athletes and creative minds.  Speaking specifically of the WWE, not only were the main event stars mentioned earlier (Stone Cold, The Rock, Mankind, Eddie Guerrero, Undertaker, etc.) battling one another for ring supremacy, but lower tiered talent such as Val Venis, Mark Henry and D’Lo Brown, Savio Vega, Luna Vachon, Goldust, Droz, The Big Bossman , Crush, Taka Michinoku, Chyna, Sable and Mark Mero, Ken Shamrock and The Godfather also held their own in the ring, providing just as much entertainment and excitement as those superstars heavily featured in the promotion.  Everybody fired on all four cylinders and did so for their own good, each other, and to keep the competition from stomping them into oblivion.

The Attitude Era effectively died when that desire no longer existed, ushering in subsequent periods where all vested parties became increasingly interested in their own personal goals and desires.  With a communal desire to succeed no longer permeating through the actions of wrestlers or the intentions of the bookers, writers, producers and owners, pro wrestling slowly morphed into the static, spiritless state it is today, where individuals from the bottom to the top appear more concerned with their own varying ambitions and aspirations than anything else.  Today’s product is defined by incessant complaining of individual stars being held back, “buried,” mistreated or disrespected by the system, coupled with the constant criticism against the system’s alleged refusal to kowtow to the desires of “the fans.”  Communal desire has been replaced with persistent protesting, and that  along with a lack of true competition makes a divided roster and hierarchical structure even more uninspired, insipid and lackluster.

WWE Superstar Dolph Ziggler | Photo: Prowrestlingpowerhouse.com

WWE Superstar Dolph Ziggler | Photo: Prowrestlingpowerhouse.com

There are some fans whose persistent protesting contains the wish to return to the days of the Attitude Era, explicitly seeking to satiate a craving for a more “adult” themed product from days past.  There exists the notion than the current product has been watered down too much by the politically correct, family-friendly PG politics of the day, rendering the WWE’s content a shell of the ratings juggernaut it once was.  What’s not understood by those clinging to this notion is that the Attitude Era was an anomaly, an aberration of what once was the standard in the world of pro wrestling that coincided perfectly with the culture and circumstances of the time.  A product today saturated with swearing, scantily clad women, and socially unacceptable storylines would not and could not float with today’s generation of pro wrestling consumers.

What fans want, however, is the same level of passion and dedication that was expressed by the populace and the promotion several years ago.  The magic of the Attitude Era cannot be recreated; the type of change that’s needed cannot be found in the endless cycle of recreating what worked seventeen years ago using today’s generation of wrestlers and wrestling minds for a minority within fans that can’t reconcile with the past long enough to truly appreciate the superstars wrestling today.

There within lies the curse of the Attitude Era; the hype and the euphoria found in reminiscing on those violent, angst-filled nights casts quite the looming shadow over today’s pro wrestling landscape.  We want so badly to hear dirty words and to see blood in every match masked as “real wrestling,” all while pretending as if the rosters, creative teams and executives today could carry those principles as a promotion or unit and not as loosely associated entities seeking singular fame and glory.  The Attitude Era had writers with their ears tuned keenly on the pulse of society at the time; it had executives who were hell bent on staying in business and thoroughly crushing their competition in skirmishes that determined whether or not revenue and publicity would flow easily into their own promotion.  The Attitude Era had endless lists of wrestlers who all wanted their own promotion to succeed and, at the time, did their best to lift up their fellow wrestlers as they attempted to climb the ladder of success.  The Attitude Era had fans who were just as passionate about the business as the men and women working in it, and no matter what, would support a promotion and its wrestlers no matter what…especially through their financial support.

Today’s fair weather fans can’t even be bothered to support the WWE Network and feel less inclined to spend their money on anything related to the product no matter whether it’s good or bad.  Only a handful of wrestlers stand out among fans as those who are worthy of a main event push, and those wrestlers change as often as a newborn infant needs a new diaper.  Some of those stars phone in their in ring performances or tend to “play it safe” as a means to avoid rocking the boat or causing too much trouble for themselves.  The writers work with dated material and executives are preoccupied with accounting irregularities and pet projects to truly be focused squarely on the state of the product.  A ridiculously violent and vulgar product under or against these circumstances would barely make a dent in the problem that exists today.

It is without question that the Attitude Era changed the business dramatically and had a profound effect on how we view pro wrestling today.  But to insist that a promotion returns to that era without considering what truly made it spectacular would be a categorical waste of time and energy.  Promotions filled with individuals, from the bottom up, who are willing to work together for the good of the promotion and the passion to succeed as a promotion is what’s needed.  A solid roster of talent giving one hundred percent or more at all times is what’s needed.  Fans who’ll pay for the pay per views and merchandise and who won’t fall off the radar when an episode of RAW doesn’t feature Titus O’Neil in the main event is what’s needed.

Those things are way harder to come by, but there aren’t enough tables, razorblades, swear words and bare boobies in the world to recreate the magic of what happened almost two decades ago.


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