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OOLD SCHOOL
The Critique of Poor Wrestling
August 26, 2004

by Rick Scaia
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com

 

[NOTE FROM THE PRESENT DAY: Six years ago this summer, the WWF overtook WCW as the indisputable #1 Wrestling company in America. But it was one part massive WWF overhauls and at least two parts WCW ineptitude that allowed for the flip-flop to take place.  At a time when the WWF was carefully managing its key title feuds and contenders, WCW was treated all but one of its belts like little more than costume jewelry; the worst offense was Hulk Hogan holding the company's

top title, but not defending it for over three months.  The lack of focus on title feuds and PROPER title holders (and subsequent focus on ancillary storyline overkill on matters like nWo Hollywood vs. nWo Wolfpac) motivated Your Humble Webmaster (under his pseudonym at the time) to  pen his "Critique of Poor Wrestling," underscoring just how important it is for wrestling company's to treat their titles with respect if they expect FANS to treat them the same way.

The discussion seems oddly appropriate to reprise at this time. The specific crimes are different; both the World and WWE Titles have a plenty high profile and are being defended/mentioned regularly... but the basic premise remains the same: WWE, but putting their two top crowns on John Bradshaw Layfield and Randy Orton, are throwing the titles around a bit haphazardly. One might make the case that JBL got his title merely out of spite, because it was the outcome that NOBODY expected and therefore an ideal SWERVE~!... any fan with half a brain SHOULD agree with my case that this was simply the wrong time and the wrong storyline to move the World Title from Chris Benoit onto Randy Orton, and that Orton is NOT equipped to carry an entire brand on his shoulders at this point in his career.  Different crimes, same outcome: shoddy treatment of title belts that devalues the supposed biggest prizes in the game.

So, as a break from all the Orton/JBL-bashing that is so tres chic here at OO, let's step back in time and apply some of these same principles to WCW, circa 1998, and to Hulk Hogan specifically.  Enjoy the ride....]

 
"The Critique of Poor Wrestling" by Big Daddy Who?

Originally Published on nWWWo.com on June 26, 1998

This may not impress very many of you, but I've been saving up this column title for a damned long time. The learned among you will realize I'm ripping off the title of Immanuel Kant's masterwork, The Critique of Pure Reason. The rest of you will take solace in the fact that the similarities between this column and that work will end there. Unless I get really hard-pressed for material later on and have to recount the tale of the guy milking a he-goat while his accomplice holds a sieve underneath... but that's neither here nor there.

Anyway, this column title occurred to me about a year ago, and I thought it was the most clever thing in the world... and I don't genuinely amuse myself like that very often. So while Rocky Maivia's creation of the phrase "testicular fortitude" has easily surpassed "Critique of Poor Wrestling" in terms in cleverness, that doesn't take away from the fact that I was waiting for exactly the right time to spring this column on y'all.

I needed to wait until there was something truly wrong in the wrestling world. Until something so totally offensive to the sensibility was being perpetrated on fans. Until blame could be placed and no dissenting view could be raised. Until I could point to specific problems, and illustrate my points with stellar examples. In other words, I just had to wait until WCW really starting pissing me off again.

Last week's column was a start... and it kind of got my wheels greased to delve deeper. Or at least, to delve again. But that column was spawned more by my disbelief that WCW could bobble an opportunity to blow fans away with a live, pre-PPV Nitro while RAW was taped. Now, my disbelief is muted. Two more weeks have gone by, and with the same basic result. This wasn't a one-time bobble, this is a bona fide rut, my friends.

I mean, look at WCW's resources:

Almost every pay-per-view main event wrestler from 1985-1993

Access to extraordinarily talent foreign stars from Mexico and Japan

An in-house training facility (Power Plant) to train young stars

Backing of an entire media empire and a bottomless checkbook

How is this company NOT kicking ass? The answer: very easily, apparently.

They've got a decades worth of main eventers (and a number of the biggest creations of the 90's, too, like Kevin Nash and the Giant), but they all seem content to live in the past and do their thing while Steve Austin has created himself as the current top dog in the industry.

They've got all the great foreign talent a company could want, thanks to co-promotional deals with companies in Mexico and Japan. But when they import the guys, they send 'em out in meaningless matches and do nothing to promote them.

The Power Plant has turned out Bill Goldberg, and not much else. And let's face it, Goldberg is over more because of his size and charisma than because of his skill. Other than that, the best thing you could say about the Power Plant is that it's provided Dallas Page with a place to hone his skills. The WWF has no full-time training facility, but has succeeded in spotting, hiring, training, and promoting young talent in a way that should embarrass WCW; Val Venis and the Edge are just the current examples of young newcomers who seem to be working out. There are more in the pipeline.

And with the media abilities and money to get guys like Dennis Rodman, Karl Malone, and Kevin Greene locked into special appearance deals, you'd think that at this would be one "fool proof" area for WCW. Guess again. Having the money to sign these guys is one thing. Using them in a way that captures the fans' imagination is another. The fans don't get enough credit... they can see through non-wrestlers if it isn't done right. Mainstream attention is all well and good... but is WCW getting responses like "Hey look, there's Rodman and Malone," or is the company getting the more-desirable responses like "I can't wait to pay money to see Rodman and Malone fight"? Methinks it's more the former than the latter. For a case of a non-wrestler used correctly, witness Mike Tyson earlier this year. It helps that he's a fighter by trade -- which makes his participation somehow more appropriate -- but the promotion and creativity of the storylines utilizing him were steps above the use of Malone and Rodman in WCW.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg... four nice little bullet points just starts to cover the things that I could rage about. Each one could be a column in and of itself. But at this point, it's time to move past the cursory issues and accompanying examples to what I believe is the crux of the matter. To the true thesis of this particular "critique."

This is something I've been mulling over since early April, or whenever it was that Hulk Hogan regained the WCW Title. It's something that a number of readers have been sharp enough to notice, as well, in e-mails I've received. Let me work my way up to it...

Listen, we all accept pro wrestling for what it is; however you want to define that is your business. "Fake," "sports entertainment," "just plain fun," whatever... I still look at the athletic side of it and can't help but refer to it as "sport" most of the time. But the fact is, we all know that it isn't exactly on the level. Hell, it ain't even close. The endings are fixed every single night, and we still love it.

We like the stories and the characters, and without a doubt, by looking at today's TV shows, the two major promotions know it. But there's something bigger holding it all together. I'd go so far as to say that it's the one illusion that -- no matter how smart we are to what's really going on -- all fans WANT to give in to.

What is this grand thing? It's the idea that pro wrestling titles DO mean something. They should mean something to us as a way to rank order the guys we see on TV, yes. They should also mean something to the wrestlers themselves, as something they desire to attain. Stories, characters, and even high quality ring work all lose meaning if you don't have that unifying element, that one illusion we're willing to embrace.

How you promote those titles, who holds them, who's gunning for them... those become the key issues, then, in building interest in your product. And I can't help but notice that the WWF has carefully tended to this issue in the last 8 months or so, while WCW has apparently forgotten about it (or at least, dismissed its importance).

It starts with Hulk Hogan as the WCW champ. There are a LOT of reasons why this is a terrible move. They've been hashed and rehashed plenty (by me and by others). They include the fact that Hogan is a draw WITHOUT the title. Whatever interest people have in him is completely disconnected from whether or not he's got the gold. The "good" Hulkster might have a stake in being the champ. The evil Hulkster is one part history and legend, one part black and white outfits, and one part interviews. It's got nothing to do with whether or not he's got that title. There are other guys who COULD get over thanks to wearing the title. While Hogan's a main eventer title or no, other guys (like Sting, or Nash, or the Giant) aren't really so lucky.

Another basic problem is that Hogan doesn't work often enough to do justice to the title; your champ should be the main event of most every card. Hogan works maybe 1 in 5 shows at all, and wrestles on maybe 1 in 20.

But it goes beyond Hogan to the entire philosophy around how to book the WCW Title... although, more than likely, the two are connected. It's not just that Hogan's the champ. It's not just that he doesn't defend the belt often. What has devalued the WCW Title is the simple fact that it doesn't even seem to exist anymore.

Think about it. Right now, we're in the middle of a four-month-long stretch where the title won't be defended in a single meaningful match. That's a screwed up way to do business. Hogan won the title on Nitro in April (the night after a PPV). He sat out the May PPV. He was in tag action at the June PPV. He'll be doing tag team duty at the July PPV, as well. Let's hope he puts the strap on the line in August at Road Wild... April to August with no major defenses? Wrong, wrong, wrong...

But like I said, it's not just the spotty schedule that makes it wrong. It's the fact that nobody's been raising a stink about it. Why? Because we've all been sucked in, along with WCW, into the whole NWO/NWO feud. It grabbed our attention because it was a break from the expected. But apparently, it grabbed THEIR attention just as strongly. When was the last time Hogan even mentioned the title other than in an off-hand "Oh yeah, I'm still the champ" way? When was the last time somebody else threatened to cause serious bodily harm to Hogan because of his insatiable desire to hold that precious 40 pounds of diamonds and gold? Or at least indicated that he'd like fight Hogan for that title in the near future? These things have ceased to happen. Everybody's too busy bickering over whether it's Hollywood or the Wolfpac that is the strongest faction in the known universe.

That title may just as well not exist. Not only is it not being defended. But it's not even being talked about. That sucks the direction out of the company as a whole... yeah, the NWO is in-fighting. But we're slowly losing focus of what they should ultimately be fighting over: some piece of gold or another. Or at least, fighting over the right to be acknowledged as a contender for that piece of gold.

The tag title has been hurt by this lack of focus, too. Although honestly, Eric Bischoff's admitted bias against tag team wrestling is also contributing. The Outsiders were the holders of those titles for months, and gave them just about as much attention as Hogan's giving the WCW Title now. Now that WCW has decided to refocus on the tag belts, it's been an uphill battle. The use of makeshift teams and constantly changing storylines hasn't helped, but you get the idea...

The US Title is being used in a special way right now: as a tool to advance Bill Goldberg's standing with the fans. The title isn't exactly under siege by a lot of contenders or anything, but this is the only other really acceptable way to use a title. It worked really well for the Ultimate Warrior and the IC Title in 1988, and I think it'll work for Goldberg, too.

The TV Title? I like Booker T as much as anyone. Chris Benoit is a top notch wrestler and a great foil. But this title has been rendered meaningless to many fans. It's been held by rookies scoring wins out of nowhere (Iaukea) and by men who have been pinned by women (Disco)... and worst of all, it was held by Fit Finley, who completely failed to capture the fans' imagination. The TV Title last meant something during the latter days of Steve Regal's reigns. And even then, it came off as being one title too many.

The Cruiserweight Title is where some of the best stuff is going on... not just because Chris Jericho and Dean Malenko and the other contenders are capable of such great matches, but because it's in this division that somebody has stepped up and made a title mean something. Jericho's incessant whining and complaining refocused fans on the fact that the Cruiserweight Title was important (at least, important to Jericho). Fans can get into that...

But regardless of how the secondary titles are working out, it's the big title that sets the tone for an entire company. From June of 1996 through March of 1998, WCW dominated ratings and kept fan interest, and did it with a slow-brewing Sting vs. Hulk Hogan world title feud as its focus. In April, Hogan won back the title, immediately rendering the 2 year long feud with Sting meaningless, and embarking upon a mission to do the exact same thing for Title itself (and oh yeah, it's working). The result: WCW is now only the second hottest wrestling company on the continent, if you put your stock in those same ratings that made WCW #1 for so long.

Since April, Nitro's only scored two wins over RAW. And I'm not one to give much of a damn about the Nielsen ratings. When Nitro was kicking ass, I said "they don't matter much." Now that RAW's winning, I say the same thing. The thing to keep in mind is that they are EXACTLY as important (or not important) now as they were a year ago... so since they meant something to fans then, I'm assuming I can use them as an example now, and you'll agree I'm making sense.

And since my treatise here has been pretty much a compare and contrast thing between Titan and Turner, let me continue... as I've covered above, it was in April that Hogan re-emerged as champ, that the title went into stealth mode, and that WCW began going downhill. It was also in April that the WWF concluded an methodical and meticulous build-up to a huge PPV event and began to reap the benefits of their careful promotion.

My thesis here is that it is the gold in a company that tie the characters and stories together. What better example than the fact that the hottest storyline in wrestling today (and probably of this decade) has WWF owner Vince McMahon doing everything in his power to get the WWF Title off of Steve Austin? The WWF is hot, and it just so happens to come at a time when their title is at the center of things and means something to fans and wrestlers alike. Sure, there may be some coincidental things adding to that, but it sure helps illustrate my point, doesn't it?

And the stability of the WWF's titles right now is another remarkable thing... the World Title is the one that changed hands most recently (WrestleMania in March), but it doesn't look like it'll change hands again anytime soon. Rocky Maivia has been the IC Champ since December (7 months); and discounting a 24 period when the titles were held-up, the New Age Outlaws have been the tag champs for over 8 months. That kind of stability harkens back to the 80's and before, when titles were important things, and storylines building to title changes were done carefully. Today's seat-of the-pants booking style has resulted in those longer reigns and carefully told stories being phased out. It's nice to see Titan bringing them back.

And the titles do mean something, too. "The Rock" takes great pride in being the Best Damned InterContinental Champ Ever, and doesn't let us forget it. Would the New Age Outlaws be as much fun to watch if they weren't announced every week as the "TAGteamCHAMPIONSoftheWORLD" in that classic sing-song styling? Both champs have pending issues, and have been in title defenses over the last few months where they could reasonably have dropped the straps. But they didn't... which means that when they finally do, it'll be that much bigger news.

By the by, the European Title doesn't live up to these other lofty standards... it is, in a way, not unlike the WCW TV Title in that it's a good idea to have a specialized title (in WCW, it's for TV only; in the WWF, it's for Europe only), but that the execution has been spotty and resulted in the belt seeming like it's one title too many for the promotion to keep up with.

But of course, all those titles are -- and should be -- secondary to the Big Title. Steve Austin's belt is the focus of the whole promotion, and it gives direction to a number of storylines. Vince wants that title off Austin, the Undertaker is demanding a shot at it, and Kane is willing to set himself on fire if he doesn't win it! This is an important piece of gold, folks. And that's the way you like it.

Admit it: you want to believe those titles mean something. Even if they don't really make somebody the best in the world, it's nice to think that they are still trophies that are desired by the wrestlers so that we can believe -- no matter how subconsciously -- that even in wrestling, some things are worth fighting for. On a more intellectual plane, you appreciate having that bit of direction and focus when you watch wrestling. But it's the same basic thing.

You want a reason for WCW's slide? For why you just don't get as fired up over an episode of Nitro as you used to? For why more fans than ever firmly believe that not only are Chris Jericho and Dean Malenko wrestling a better match than Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper, but now, they're also paying just as much attention and cheering just as loudly during that match as well?

Why are you watching RAW instead of Nitro these days? Why can you not help but wait with baited breath for the next time Vince McMahon receives a Stone Cold Stunner? Why will we actually care the next time the IC or tag belts change hands?

It all comes down to realizing that there's one bright shining lie that all fans want to believe in. There are a bunch of ancillary issues out there, and I covered some of them at the top. But it's all about the gold. Or at least, it should be if you're doing a good job of running your company. Put a little thought into your title booking, your champs, and the accompanying storylines, and good things happen. Ignore them, and you start to slide.

All the way down to the point where I can write a column about your problems and call it "The Critique of Poor Wrestling."

You are encouraged, as always, however, to keep in mind that this is all just My Own Damned Opinion.....


  
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E-MAIL RICK SCAIA

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Rick Scaia is a wrestling fan from Dayton, OH.  He's been doing this since 1995, but enjoyed it best when the suckers from SportsLine were actually PAYING him to be a fan.

 

 

 


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