(CBS New York/CBS Local) Everything old is new again.
Within a matter of weeks pro wrestling will be thrust back 20 years into a time where the more vicious battles were occurring outside the ring in millions of homes every Monday night. The Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling going head-to-head with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, now World Wrestling Entertainment in a battle for squared circle viewership supremacy.
The ratings slugfest pitted the likes of WCW’s Sting, Hollywood Hogan, and the NWO against WWF’s “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, and Degeneration X. Almost no tactic was out of bounds, not even announcing the results of the competitor’s pre-taped shows while you are broadcasting live. That particular maneuver actually backfired as hundreds of thousands of viewers flipped to Monday Night Raw to watch Mick Foley shockingly become the new World Heavyweight Champion after WCW announcer Tony Schiavone spilled the beans while mocking WWF’s decision to put the title on him.
Then there was the time WWF sent Triple H, Shawn Michaels and the rest of Degeneration X to invade WCW before a live broadcast in Norfolk, Va. In the game of one-upmanship, WWF began pushing content boundaries with a slightly more violent approach and scantily-clad women and more adult-themed storylines dominating TV time each week. The stretch became known as “The Attitude Era” and it was the most successful time in history for McMahon’s wrestling company. Ultimately the risqué content coupled with the mind-numbingly horrible booking and ineptitude that WCW had eroded to led to WWF coming out on top. In 2001, McMahon would purchase his former rival for just over 4 million dollars. It was a bargain.
Here we go again.
McMahon has vowed not to return to the company’s provocative past, bust still readied for battle after news broke that well-funded upstart All Elite Wrestling, led by former WWE stars Chris Jericho and Cody Rhodes as well as The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega, would begin airing weekly two-hour shows Wednesday nights on TNT. In a bit of irony, the network is the same television home as Nitro many years ago. The promotion quickly sold its two pay-per-views this year thanks to a groundswell of buzz and goodwill among fans online. Additionally, tickets quickly sold out for the first three announced television tapings, including at the 14-thousand seat Capital One Arena in Washington, DC. The string of sellouts comes at a time when WWE is struggling to attract fans.
Rumors began swirling that WWE’s developmental brand NXT would be moved from its home on WWE Network to a cable network to go head-to-head with AEW. And earlier this week it was confirmed that the show will shift from the WWE Network to USA Network beginning in mid-September, giving it a two-week head start on its competitor.
Bryan Alvarez had a ringside seat to the first war and authored the book The Death of WCW. More recently, the Monday Night Wars historian penned 100 Things WWE Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die while balancing his duties as host of the popular Wrestling Observer Live and Wrestling Observer Radio shows. And he’s a wrestler himself, which gives him a unique perspective and understand of everything going on both in the ring and on the business battlefield.
I had an opportunity to catch up with him recently to get his thoughts on the forthcoming clash between WWE and AEW and whether he believes history is destined to repeat itself.
How do you see things shaking out? Do you foresee a similar situation as we did with the ECW reboot where it fizzles out quickly or do you think WWE can learn from the past mistakes and build NXT into a long-term ratings success?
It’s impossible to say whether it will be a failure. They’re going to work harder than they did with ECW to make it a successful brand but this isn’t 1996 or 2006. It’s 2019 and Vince [McMahon] has not had a stellar track record of late.
How long do you think it will be before McMahon gets involved in the NXT creative process?
I imagine Vince being all over the product week one. I can’t even fathom him not being involved four weeks in.
You wrote another book, The Death of WCW, and I think that that’s really kind of interesting because now we’re in such a turbulent time in wrestling. Despite the new lucrative billion-dollar TV deals, some are saying WWE is on the ropes given the recent declines in ratings and attendance. Is it possible that you could be writing The Death of WWE in another decade?
Anything is possible, but they are going to make so much money off these television deals that unless they blow through every single dime they should be able to stash away enough money. Even if they got canceled in five years, they could last longer and they’ve got the WWE Network. Absolute worst case scenario they can throw their television on the WWE Network and probably do a lot of downsizing and survive. I don’t picture them going out of business.
This is a very, very different situation than WCW. There are lot of similarities. They are declining. If you take out the television money and you just look at the core WWE business like ticket sales, they are declining.
Ratings are declining a lot, but it is not like a 90% collapse like the last year of WCW. It’s definitely a situation close to 1995. At one point in 2010, TNA Impact tried to go head to head with Raw and it was just wrong place, wrong time, wrong company. It was doomed to be a failure. I wrote about it before it happened. It happened exactly like I thought.
This one is different. This is a period where they are on a decline in fan interest. Teenagers are down 52% over the past two years. There is a major decline there and AEW, like everything that they have done, has exceeded expectations. So, we’re at a point where there a lot of fans who, unlike in 2010, are begging for an alternative right now. I think we’re going to see something really special starting in October, but I also don’t think that it’s going to drive WWE out of business.
I get the impression that there’s going to be a lot more cross-pollination between the NXT fan base and the AEW fan base than there is the WWE Raw and SmackDown fan base and AEW.
So that’s gonna make the battle all the more interesting.
The other thing you have to think about is NXT brings in all of these top independent guys and girls and they let them do a largely independent style. They go out there and do different matches than you’re going to see on the main roster. That’s one of NXT’s strengths and that’s one of AEW’s strengths. They’re not doing the pattern WWE style that you see every single show.
[On] national television, I find it very hard to believe that Vince is not going to be all over that show and putting a show together that’s way more like a main roster show than an NXT show. I think a show like that dies against AEW. A pure NXT show against AEW, that’ll be interesting. I don’t know what will happen, but that will be an interesting battle.
There is another scenario here. Given all the financials that WWE have in their favor, do you think that eventually things will settle back down to where they [control the wrestling scene] and have scooped up the bulk of other substantial promotions that might be chipping away at their fan base? I’m talking specifically about Ring of Honor, which they’ve already tried to do, and Impact Wrestling. You see currently what they’re doing with top-tier indies. Is that a feasible thing to expect in the next 10 or 15 years?
Well, Ring of Honor is owned by Sinclair and they’ve got more money than [WWE]. So, that’s not an easy one for him to just buy and Impact isn’t not really making any impact whatsoever. He [Vince McMahon] usually goes out to try to buy up everything that’s a threat to him. And right now he doesn’t really have a lot of threats. His biggest threat is AEW and he’s not buying AEW. … If Ring of Honor is not making inroads in his business, if Impact is not making inroads in his business, I don’t think he’s going to bother.
Let’s talk about the book, 100 Things WWE Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die. How difficult was it for you to whittle down the list to 100?
Believe it or not, it wasn’t that big of a chore. I sat down one day and I cranked out a list and it really didn’t take that long to get to about 105. Then I sent it to a bunch of friends and I asked if there was anything I was missing. Are there any glaring omissions? Is there anything that probably doesn’t need to be here? Is there anything I could combine? And I got some suggestions back and I pretty quickly whittled it down to 95. I basically stuck with 95 until the last week of the deadline. I did the final five just in case there was something that I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I forgot this.”
You could easily do 200, but I tried to start with the things that you had to do as a fan, like go to WrestleMania. Then I went through everybody that had gotten into The Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame. And then I went through the most important moments. You can’t write a WWE book without the Montreal Screwjob, stuff like that. The harder thing was actually writing the entries.
I would imagine you’ve checked most of the boxes on most of the things in the book already. Do you have a match that stands out to you where you were sitting in that front row that really kind of made you say, “this definitely needs to be on the list” or WrestleMania?
From the first time I ever sat ringside, I always have just felt you have to do this. If you’re a fan, you’re right there. There’s like five feet and there is the ring and there are the performers. You just see things that you don’t see on TV and you don’t see sitting further back. It’s just if you want to see what professional wrestling matches are really like, I feel like you have to be right there in the front row at least once.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.