In Honor Of Tonight's RAW 1000, The Definitive Timeline Of WWE's Victory In The Monday Night Wars (w/ VIDEO)
I don't know that any television product has changed the way we visually consume it more times than professional wrestling. For a majority of its history (which I am counting as the period from "dawn of time" until around 1978 or so), syndicated television was basically a weekly commercial for whatever house shows (wrestling speak for "coming to an arena near you") were going to be in the area over the next couple months. Essentially, wrestling shows on TV were infomercials, only with salespeople that were screaming, sweating, bleeding, and hitting each other. (Not all that different from Sham-Wow guy, really.)
In the '80s, cable television gave Vince McMahon the platform to expand his northeast regional territory (the World Wrestling Federation) nationally on the USA Network (in addition to some late night Saturday stuff on NBC), which meant his infomercials sold not only tickets to house shows, but seats in closed circuit theaters for "super cards". Closed circuit soon begat pay per view in the late '80s as the key revenue stream. Oh, then the Internet came along. There's that.
But this post is about the weekly television, the aforementioned "infomercial." Along the way, in the early '90s, after years of being a weekend based TV product, Monday night became the night for wrestling fans to get their fix. After several years as largely a recap and highlight show called Prime Time Wrestling (skillfully hosted by Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan), on January 11, 1993, the WWF made a hard left turn and converted their Monday night show to a live, action packed, storyline laden showcase.
Live from the Manhattan Center in New York City, Monday Night RAW was born.
Nearly twenty years later, after several twists and turns in the road (including but not limited to Vince McMahon nearly going away to prison in 1994 for steroid distribution, nearly being put out of business in 1996, trying to start his own football league in 2000, and buying out his only real competition for pennies on the dollar in 2001), RAW is celebrating its 1000th episode tonight with a three hour celebration of its flagship show past, present, and future.
Personally, I'm hoping it's mostly "past."
I grew up watching the McMahon family's product, going all the way back to the days of Bob Backlund and Superstar Billy Graham battling for the title in 1978 in Madison Square Garden. Compared to the average viewer tonight, my frame of reference is wide and, I think, fairly well informed.
There have been good times and bad times to consume the product, but as far as the Monday night product, its popularity was built on the sweat of the Monday Night Wars with WCW's Monday NItro product in the late 90's. For a guy whose single-mindedness in eliminating his competition has been his lifelong signature, ironically, it was the actual presence of competition that forced McMahon to reevaluate the delivery of his content -- its characters, its feel, its pace, everything.
So as I get ready to send you on this retrospective, a couple points of procedure:
1. Much like the company itself, I as a fan and a viewer had the current company name World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) forced upon me because the World Wildlife Fund got pissed about people calling Vince's company "WWF." Apparently, as they were trying to save panda bears, the World Wildlife Fund received one too many phone calls for Hulk Hogan and decided to drop the hammer and force a name change on the World Wrestling Federation. Since that occurred in 2002, the now WWE has had to take extreme measures to redact the term "WWF" to anything that happened before the name change, including blurring out old logos and muting any mentions of "WWF" on DVD's and online content. It's even to the extent that current superstars refer to things that occurred under the "WWF" banner before 2002 as having happened in "WWE." Well, they may have to follow those rules, but not me. If it happened before the name change, then it happened in the WWF. If it happened after the name change, it happened in WWE. That mindset will be reflected in this post.
2. In my mind, in terms of recapping RAW, the part of history that really, truly matters the most is the period from summer of 1996 through the night that Vince turned the lights out on Nitro in March of 2001, both in terms of historical importance and quality of content. This, I can assure you, will be reflected in the nostalgia that gets trotted out tonight in St. Louis. So if you liked that period, you will love...no wait, this requires all CAPS...you will LOVE this post. Guaranteed.
So without further ado, the story really began on May 19, 1996. It was the final show in Madison Square Garden for Kevin Nash (Diesel) and Scott Hall (Razor Ramon) before heading off to WCW, and both lost their final matches to Shawn Michaels and Hunter Hearst Helmsley (you now know him as Triple H). Michaels and Nash closed the show, Michaels winning with a super kick leaving Nash "unconscious." Shortly after the match, Ramon came out ostensibly to congratulate Michaels. Not a big deal, since script-wise both were "good guys" at the time.
Then, unless you followed the inner workings of the business, it got weird. Michaels decided to come over and "wake up" his "bitter enemy" Diesel and simultaneously out of the locker room came the "hated" Helmsley, who had just beaten Ramon earlier. Story line logic would dictate that we would soon be looking at a two on two brawl -- two babyfaces, two heels. Instead, the four real life friends engaged in a group hug which completely broke the "kayfabe" rules of keeping the "real stuff" behind the curtain.