In 1993, Eric Bischoff was hired as the Executive Producer of the Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling (WCW). He was picked largely because he wasn’t “a wrestling guy” and the company was looking to break out of a cold period that was blamed partially on relying too heavily on people steeped in what was beginning to look to executives like an old-fashioned approach to professional wrestling.
Before joining WCW, Bischoff had worked in sales and as a wrestling announcer and commentator. He was replacing Bill Watts, the previous WCW president, who had been fired for extremely off-color political comments made during an interview. Watts was a former wrestler and an innovative storyteller who had a record of success promoting professional wrestling throughout much of the South. He was also a legitimate toughguy among toughguys who, in his biography, claims to have intentionally ripped a man’s eye out of its socket during a bar fight. When he was hired, Bischoff was none of those things. But in 1993, WCW had lost $10 million dollars, so while the hire of a non-wrestling guy to run a major wrestling promotion was a risk, WCW was in a position to take one.
WCW was the re-branded handle given to Jim Crockett Promotions after its purchase by Turner in 1988. Turner’s ownership guaranteed the promotion a wealth of financial resources and a programming home on Turner Broadcasting’s cable networks. Still, it had mostly limped along since the purchase and was mired in a slump after the wrestling boom of the ’80s that saw, among other things, the birth of Wrestlemania in the Vince McMahon-owned WWF (later WWE) and the consolidation of wrestling from dozens of independent promotions scattered across the country down to two major companies. Bischoff proceeded to make big changes in WCW, fast, and in 1995 began what became known as the Monday Night Wars by moving the WCW’s Nitro program to Monday evening, where it would compete with the WWF’s Raw program, broadcast on the USA Network.
Vince McMahon had built his wresting empire by bucking the established business conventions that had been put into place to stymie head-to-head competition among wrestling promoters. He hired-away established stars and signed them to exclusive contracts, and promoted his shows in direct competition with existing local promotions. Bischoff turned the tables and hired major WWF stars like Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Bret Hart, and Randy Savage, he broadcast the results of WWF matches before they aired (the WWF’s matches were pre-taped weeks before broadcast), and used the WWF as the unwilling lynchpin in the storyline for which he’ll be remembered and which pushed wresting to whole new levels of popularity on a national level.
In May of 1996, he brought in two wrestlers, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, and presented them as invading madmen from the rival WWF. This kind of storyline was new in American wresting (it was lifted from a Japanese promotion, New Japan) and fans ate it up. When Hulk Hogan joined the group, abandoning his all-American hero persona (created by Hogan and McMahon) for the first time since he rose to fame in the ’80s, Bishcoff got the attention of wresting fans everywhere. The trio was dubbed the New World Order and sold to fans as practically invincible. Pro wrestling quickly became big business once again. “I don’t know, personally, that I will find [wresting] to be as fun as it was during the Monday Night Wars,” says R.D. Reynolds, co-author of The Death of WCW. “That four or five year period that you just had all the viewership. I mean, you’d go to the mall and you’d see people walking around with a NWO shirt, or a ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin shirt. You’d see that all over the place. I don’t know that you’ll ever see anything like that again.”
The Death of WCW, written by Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez, tracks the entire 13-year lifespan of the WCW promotion and has been re-published and expanded as part of a 10-year anniversary edition by ECW Press (a first for a wresting-themed book, we half-joke). Alvarez and Reynolds use a conversational tone that won’t appeal to everyone, and the book is most definitely focused on wresting first and foremost, but it isn’t necessarily only for fans of the sport. “We wanted to cover every base and get as inside as we possibly could,” says Reynolds, “and then also my goal is always to make people laugh and I felt like [with] this story, the comedy would kind of write itself.”
The comedy comes from the state of general disarray that ruled inside the company. Ridiculous storylines come and go, and celebrities like Jay Leno and David Arquette, and athletes like Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman, get into the ring. WCW’s budget swelled from roughly $35 million in 1995 to over $185 million in 2000. That same year WCW posted a $62 million dollar loss and in 2001, it was sold to WWE for just $3 million dollars. “They’d do stupid things all the time,” says Reynolds, “like running full-page ads in the USA Today with the wrong date. Stuff like that happened constantly.” Ted Turner had been quoted several times as saying that professional wrestling built his Superstation in its earliest days and that he would always make room for it in his programming schedule. After his company’s merger with TimeWarner in 1996 and another merger with AOL in 2001, however, even he didn’t have the authority to save it.
The history of the company is a story worth telling, and in doing so The Death of WCW tracks the last major surge in wrestling’s popularity in America and ends with the de facto monopolization of wrestling by the WWE. “Wrestling was very cold [in the early ’90s],” says Reynolds, “because the creative process was very bad. Once it started to heat up was when Eric Bischoff came up with this idea of, ‘I’m going to start this wrestling show. I’m going to go head-to-head with Vince [McMahon]. And I am going to get on there and I am going to flip the industry upside-down.’ He changed everything, and it made it very interesting and it brought it to a height. And that height cannot be overstated. And we cannot say enough about what Bischoff was able to do. So, you start very low, you go to this height, and then you go right back down to a collapse.
“When you actually go back and look at it, Eric Bischoff, and we take him to task in the book and a lot of people have said he destroyed WCW, and I’m like, ‘No, he’s actually the one who made WCW into a true competitor.’ And he had a vision that was just tremendous. Now the other side of the coin is he did run it to the top and he did lead to a lot of its demise. And anybody they brought in to run in to run it [after Bischoff] truly didn’t understand what the business was. It’s not so much that Vince and the WWF beat them. In a lot of ways they beat themselves. It’s amazing to have been able to lose $62 million dollars in the span of 12 months. In a wrestling company! That takes some doing.”
What started off in the early part of the 1900s as a business spread out among regional promotions in specific areas had, by the end of the Monday Night Wars and with the sale of WCW, finally been boiled down to one promoter left standing. “I think it’s sad,” says Reynolds, “because so much of the wrestling industry was lost. When I say that it sounds melodramatic but I think it’s really true. Not just because a company was lost, not just because jobs were lost, but I think a lot fans lived for that Monday night where you had the two companies battling each other. So you had a true alternative. And if you didn’t like what you were seeing on the USA Network, you could flip over to TNT and you could watch WCW Nitro. Or if you didn’t like what was on TNT you could flip over to USA and you could watch Raw. And it made for such a fun time as a wrestling fan.”
Alvarez and Reynolds are, without a doubt, fans of the sport. Reynolds is also responsible for the site Wrestlecrap, which tracks what he calls “the worst of professional wrestling.” It memorializes the sport at its most ridiculous and buffoonish and when your subject is professional wrestling, there is absolutely no shortage or material to draw from. “Ever since I started WrestleCrap,” says Reynolds, “I never wanted it to be a thing where I was making fun of the wrestlers because by and large, it’s a job for them. It’s their profession. Even if they hate their job, it’s still putting a roof over their head.”
When done right by promoters and performers, though, pro wrestling is entertaining and engaging in a completely unique way. “When it’s at it’s best, you have a mix of storytelling and characters and of sports,” says Reynolds. “People love sports and people love a really good story. There are times you’ll watch a football game and you’ll think, ‘Man, they couldn’t have written that any better.’ Well, the key to wrestling is you can always write it however you want, for this supposed athletic contest that takes place. No other form of sport has that. You can think, ‘Man, it would be really great if we got Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, and we know it’s Peyton’s last year.’ And that would be great, but you’re not guaranteed that’s going to happen. If the NFL were pro wrestling, it would be guaranteed you could make it happen, and you could tell the story that instead of at the end of the year Peyton is hobbled and looking old, you could have him at the beginning of the year hobbled and looking old, and you’re thinking, ‘Man, I don’t know if this guy is going to make it,’ and by the end of the year’s he’s getting stronger, so you think he can cross the finish line. In wrestling you can tell that story, and in other sports you can’t. At it’s best you have guys that are very athletic and can build drama in this supposed athletic contest. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Bischoff lost his management role in 1999, with the NWO storyline having run its course and no other story arcs emerging to take its place. In his relatively short run with WCW, he changed pro wrestling with the Monday Night Wars, and the sport as it exists now is vastly different from the sport it was 20 years ago. While pro wresting has always been far from a highbrow distraction, the battle over ratings pushed it into new depths of vulgarity, violence, and ugly sexism and racism (Mike Mooneyham and Shaun Assael’s Sex, Lies, and Headlocks is a fine chronicle of the era, as well, and is a worthwhile read in conjunction with The Death of WCW).
It’s a battle that the McMahon family ultimately won, and the WWE today is a publicly traded, international company. “It wasn’t a battle between McMahon and Turner,” says Reynolds. “It’s funny because WWE gets to re-write history. There were a couple interactions between VinceI wi and Ted Turner. But they were so few and far between. Here’s the way I would view it; how often in the book did we mention Ted Turner being at Nitro? He was never at Nitro! He was not involved in the day-to-day operations, ever. But the WWE, because they won the battle, they don’t tell who it really was. It was Bischoff versus Vince. Those were the two men who wanted to kill each other and everyone believed they wanted to kill eachother. It wasn’t Ted Turner versus Vince McMahon. You know, ‘Vince overcoming the Billionaire Ted,’ and all this stuff. That’s the story, because the WWF won. The story, now, that is always told is that it was Vince overcoming Ted Turner’s unlimited resources with just Vince’s own brilliance. And that’s not the case at all. One of the things that we were really happy about with the book was we could tell exactly what happened in as unbiased of a way as we could do. And we’re not the victors. We’re not on WWE’s side and we’re not on WCW’s side. This is just what happened.”