Paradigm Shifts: A Brief History of the Life, Death and Rebirth of Pro Wrestling on TNT in the US from WCW’s Demise to AEW’s First Show on Television

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Wednesday, October 2, 2019, marks the first time in 6764 days professional wrestling has aired on the TNT network; it’s also been that long since the Monday Night Wars officially ended even though the meaningful battles ceased well before. Over eighteen and a half years have passed since the name on the contract read McMahon, and WCW was no more. How did the Wrestling Wars start, end, and (possibly) begin again?

WWF Monday Night Raw premiered on January 11, 1993. It was the first live weekly wrestling show with true national television reach. Shortly after its debut, costs prohibited going live so multiple weeks of Raw were taped at the Manhattan Center in New York City and subsequently shown in the 8pm Eastern slot on the USA network.

In 1995, the recently promoted Executive Producer of WCW, Eric Bischoff, found himself in a meeting with Ted Turner. Turner asked him how WCW could become competitive with WWF; Bischoff responded that they needed prime time. His off-the-cuff proposal was granted with a Monday night slot on TNT, thus kicking off the Monday night war.

The first WCW Nitro emanated from the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota on September 4th, 1995. The first shot fired was the appearance of Lex Luger, who had wrestled for WWF the night before. Luger’s contract had lapsed and he signed with WCW the day of the Nitro premiere on TNT.

Many memorable moments occurred during the Monday Night Wars and both companies pushed to newer heights in ratings and revenue. WCW actually defeated WWF in the ratings for 83 consecutive weeks. The shows gradually increased in length from one hour, to two hours, to three, in Nitro’s case. (The WWF would change its name to WWE after a trademark lawsuit from the World Wildlife Federation, and would later increase to three hours each Monday after the wars had ended).

There were too many memorable moments to detail here as the companies battled for supremacy. However, it was a golden age for wrestling fans as both companies pushed the envelope to outdo one another. Which brings us to present times.

The current era of wrestling started fairly innocuously. Renowned wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer was asked on Twitter about the drawing power of independent wrestlers, people who weren’t signed to a major company. A follower asked if any independent company could draw 10,000 fans. Meltzer replied, “Not any time soon.” Cody Rhodes, a second-generation star who had recently departed from WWE responded emphatically to Meltzer: “I’ll take that bet Dave.”

At that time, Cody was wrestling in the Ring of Honor (ROH) promotion. It wasn’t an independent, per se, as it was (and is) owned by the Sinclair broadcast group. They had national syndication but at the time didn’t have a national weekly television slot.

Cody huddled with his new friends the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega, and they hatched a plan to do a one-off independent show to try to prove Meltzer wrong. This was the birth of All-In, a supershow in the Chicago, Illinois area intended to sell 10,000 seats. Later, pay-per-view (PPV) distribution was added as the show sold out in under 30 minutes. It was obvious from the response that a hunger existed in the wrestling audience for an alternative to WWE.

Also involved in All-In was Tony Khan, the sports analytics guru and wrestling superfan, and son of the incredibly successful businessman Shahid Khan. In fact, Tony Khan financed the private jet that allowed Chris Jericho to make an appearance at All-In and still honor his concert obligations with his band Fozzy in Merriam, Kansas that night.

Since All-In, it has become obvious that a hunger exists for a different type of pro wrestling than what WWE offers. AEW launched in May with the Double or Nothing pay-per-view from Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena. More events followed with Fyter Fest, a co-promotion with the CEO Gaming convention, and Fight For the Fallen, a fundraiser to combat gun violence in Jacksonville, Florida. The culminating event prior to AEW’s television debut was a PPV from the same arena as All-In. The show, entitled All Out, set the stage for the debut of the TNT weekly program Dynamite from 8-10pm Eastern beginning October 2nd, 2019.

I had originally intended to end here. However, WWE has taken steps to add their developmental territory, NXT, to directly oppose AEW by being televised on the USA network on Wednesday nights also from 8-10pm Eastern. Both promotions cater to the same fans who want more serious pro wrestling. Though the principal players deny it, we have a new wrestling war on our hands.

Enjoy.

Comparing NXT’s WarGames To Its Predecessors

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

WWE finally took its first shot at WarGames at NXT Takeover: WarGames. The War Games concept was originally dreamed up by the American Dream Dusty Rhodes after watching Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It started off as two teams of five that would collide in two rings surrounded by a steel cage with a roof. One member from each team would start and usually after 5 minutes and a coin toss someone new would come in the match.  It was usually the heel team that would have the advantage and the only way to win the match was by submission after both teams were in the cage.

The original War Games matches often featured the Four Horsemen with manager JJ Dillon as a combatant and the opposing team was often led by Dusty and would feature The Road Warriors, Magnum TA, or other babyfaces in Jim Crockett Promotions. The matches were bloody affairs that would usually end with JJ Dillon submitting for the Horsemen so none of the wrestlers ended up looking weak. Most of the early matches are still looked upon with high regard.

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Image Credit: Screen Cap from War Games 07-04-87 via WWE Network

The match would undergo some changes. In 1993 WCW switched from teams of 5 to teams of 4. The biggest change was done in 1998 with the match being contested by 3 teams of 3: Team NWO Hollywood, Team NWO Wolfpack, and Team WCW. The match could be won by submission OR pinfall and had the added element of being every man for himself since the winner of the match got a WCW Heavyweight title shot.

The match was poorly received, but not as poorly received as the match in 2000. This match used the triple cage that was introduced earlier that year, and also featured in the film Ready to Rumble. The winner would have to climb to the top cage, retrieve the Heavyweight title, and walk out of the cage with it. The match was booked by Vince Russo, if that gives you any indication of how overbooked the match was, and it’s not usually looked at as an official War Games match.

So the big question is did the match at NXT Takeover measure up to the originals?

I personally feel that it does. The match did take a little bit to get going, but once everyone was in the cage, it was a spectacle. The lack of roof was a little strange at first, but the roof always seemed to limit the moves that could be done and actually led to Brian Pillman legitimately getting knocked out in 1991 when Sid Vicious went for a powerbomb and he wasn’t able to get Pillman all the way up and ended up dropping him on his head. Sid went for it again, which also yielded close to the same result. The match was stopped shortly afterward.

The use of weapons was a great throwback as well. In 1992 Madusa climbed up to the top of the cage to drop Paul E Dangerously’s cellphone into the ring to be used as a weapon. This match also featured the turnbuckles being disassembled and used as a weapon in the finish of the match so the new match wasn’t the first to feature weapons.

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Image Credit: Screen Cap from War Games 05-21-92 via WWE Network

The NXT version of the match also relied on a little bit of intrigue like in 1996. That match had the NWO line-up of Hollywood Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and a mystery 4th man who they hinted would be Sting. Team WCW was Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Lex Luger, and Sting. Before the match Sting had to convince his allies that he was on their side. They weren’t convinced, and when it came time for the 4th member of the NWO to come out, it appeared to be Sting.

When the time came for the final WCW member to come out, it was the real Sting who laid out the NWO single handedly before leaving the match. Roderick Strong seemed to be the odd man for his team and the Undisputed Era did offer to take him in. Strong did turn them down on a previous episode of NXT, but I know I was waiting for the turn to happen and was actually relieved that it didn’t. Instead he superplexed Adam Cole from the top of the cage.

The match wasn’t quite as bloody as previous ones, but it did have blood after SAnitY’s Alexander Wolfe hit a German Suplex from the top-rope that took him and Akam from the Authors of Pain through tables. Eric Young appeared to suffer a cut on his nose as well. When the match was over all nine men laid in the ring to sell the damage of the match, even the Undisputed Era who were the victors.

The match wasn’t a sprint of violence like 1992, but it wasn’t disorganized and kind of boring like 1998. As far as it being WWE’s first crack at this match, it was great. They had the right people involved in this match, and I’m looking forward to seeing this be a signature NXT match if it’s not used on the main roster.

Header Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos%20#fid-40185648

War Games Revisited

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

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My first encounter with a War Games match came back in the early nineties.  I can remember it well, even after all these years. I’d ensconced myself in the little attic bedroom at the top of the house, gathered around me a generous supply of feasting materials, and settled down to watch something new and exotic – The 1989 Great American Bash.

I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was. This wasn’t WWF; it was WCW[1], and all I knew about WCW was that it wasn’t WWF. Tearing open my first bag of Space Raiders, I crammed the borrowed videotape in to the VCR player I had surreptitiously liberated from the downstairs living room, pressed play, and hunkered down for a three-hour escape into the world of professional wrestling.

At first, though, I was confused. Was the friend who’d lent me the tape having a laugh? Was this a documentary? Why was I looking at a field – with horses – and why did the outside of the arena bear more than a passing resemblance to a factory? Suddenly, I was worried. Was this all going to end in disappointment? Had I got my hopes up for nothing? I thought I might have, until the opening video package kicked in to reveal some well-trodden territory, and just like that, I was back on track.

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Pulling the ring on can of Diet Coke, I revelled in the graphically rendered stars and stripes that crisscrossed the screen and peered hard at the little floating parallelograms of wrestling action that whizzed on by to the rousing wail of guitar based rock. This was what I’d expected. A world of professional wrestling, with it’s larger than life denizens, who inhabited such distant lands as Baltimore, Maryland[2].

Yet, for all that was familiar to me from my regular WWF viewing, already so much seemed so different. Everything was less colorful somehow – muted almost – although, to be fair, I was watching on a fourteen-inch black and white portable TV, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that from the get go, things appeared less vibrant, more, dare I say it, raw. Then it was into the arena and down to the rings.

Wait, rings?

While the two rings were certainly surprising, surprisingly, this wasn’t what surprised me most. What surprised me most was the gloom. It seemed to wrap everything up in a shroud of mystery. All that I could see clearly were the rings, and maybe the first few rows of fans opposite the hard-cam. Everything else was composed of, at best, shadowy outlines, and at worst, impenetrable darkness.

This contrast didn’t change as the camera switched to a fan point-of-view and then out to a slow pan of the entrance area. Everything, apart from the ring, was still an enigma. Even the entryway seemed dark and foreboding. Flooded with blue and purple light, the wrestlers emerged for the first bout as if from nowhere. Where once there had been darkness, figures began to materialize, first as distant shadows, before slowly resolving to full illumination. It was as if these men had emerged from the dark hinterland that surrounded rings. It was as if they had crossed over from that unformed space beyond the light, as if they had emerged from the very shadows and stepped in to the world of wrestling.

Even when the house lights came up, the contrast remained pronounced. A few more rows of fans became visible, but for the most part, there was the ringside area and the darkness beyond. As a young viewer, this dynamic drew me in toward the action in the rings. I was a part of the audience, invited in to view the world of wrestling but forever confined to the shadowy and somehow distant space beyond. Or so I thought.

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Image credit: http://thumbs.media.net.wwe.com/wwe/2017/05/30/images/wwef_36923151_th_64.jpg

Returning now, in 2017, to the 1989 Great American Bash, I’m drawn to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s notion of binary opposition to explain my experience of that aesthetic (Dundes, 1997). For me, the narrative of the event, and my entrance into that event, was driven by the juxtaposition of the binary opposites of, as Roland Barthes (1972) would suggest, the great solar spectacle of the wrestling ring and the surrounding gloom.

It was this oppositional reading of the space in which the fans existed against the space in which the wrestlers existed that allowed me to construct meaning. The wrestlers were elevated to a special world, the world of wrestling, while the rest of us (including me in my little attic room) were kept from this space. Here, the wrestlers were amplified, luminous and dynamic[3]. The spectators, by contrast, were mostly static, sitting in rows behind a barrier and often in shadow.

The gaze of the wrestlers and the spectators worked in binary opposition too. As a young boy watching the TV, my gaze was primarily focused on the wrestlers. So too were the spectators in the arena. The gaze of the wrestlers, by comparison, was primarily focused on their opponent. Again, this distanced me from the special world of wrestling. I was there to consume it, not be a part of it. I was necessarily on the outside looking in. The construction of the narrative did not lead me to perceive myself as bodily co-present with the performers. It led me to perceive myself as apart from them.

Then came the War Games match, and suddenly this opposition shifted.

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Image credit: http://i.imgur.com/J6HCvTz.gif

By the virtue of a camera operator being stationed inside the double cage and between the two rings, no longer was I excluded from the space of the world of wrestling, but rather I was immersed amidst it. The oppositions were shifting, but only for me. The live audience was still bound to their spatial plain beyond the world of wrestling, but, from my little attic room at the top of the house, I had now entered that cage with the wrestlers. I was in the world of wrestling. Just like the wrestlers who had emerged from the gloomy hinterland, I too had now transcended to the light to become bodily co-present with the very world I’d been excluded from only moments ago.

It wasn’t a permanent transcendence, however. It was only fleeting and transitory. One moment I was in the ring, as Jimmy Garvin raked Bobby Eaton’s face across the mesh of the cage, the next, I was cast out. Sent back to the audience and set apart from that special world. That was okay with me though. Those little moments were enough. Those brief instances of privilege, where it was just me and wrestlers in the ring had transformed an event that had at first accentuated my distance from the wrestling world to one that had immersed me in that hallowed space more than anything I’d experienced before.

I remember feeling a sense of sorrow when the War Games match came to an end and the cage was removed with the main event still to come. When Ric Flair faced Terry Funk for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, I’d expected to be back on the outside looking in, and for the most part I was, until the binary oppositions shifted once more.

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Image credit: http://thumbs.media.net.wwe.com/wwe/2017/05/30/images/wwef_36923171_th_64.jpg

After Flair had won the match, the fight continued, spilling into the crowd, with the brawl expanding to include the Great Muta, Sting, and Gary Hart. Soon, all five men crossed over into the space of the of the audience. No longer were the wrestlers set in opposition to the spectators; now they inhabited the same space. No longer were the wrestlers amplified, and luminous in contrast to the audience; now they were often in shadow. No longer were the wrestlers solely those who were dynamic; now the space of the wrestling world had converged with the space of the audience and I too had been invited back in via the roving camera operator, and the experience had been exhilarating.

It was with memories of this level of immersion in the text that I approached the 2017 NXT TakeOver: WarGames, some twenty-eight or so years later. Initially, I had planned to discuss in this posting how and why the aesthetic changes that have occurred on the surface of professional wrestling pay-per-view events have impacted on storytelling; however, within moments of streaming the NXT TakeOver: WarGames event, I was struck by how much hadn’t changed at all. Okay, so maybe the floating parallelograms were gone, but there were still two rings. There was still the opening video package, with clips of wrestling action and shots of downtown. There was still the generic guitar-based rock theme, and there was still, for me at least, the sense of something a bit different.

So, what do I mean by that? Well, while NXT is a part of WWE, it is also an entity in its own right. It’s distinct. There is a purposeful separation between NXT and the other brands of WWE, and this separation strikes me as more pronounced than the separation between Raw and Smackdown Live. This differentiation is especially evident in the visual aesthetic of the brand. Like the WCW of all those years ago, NXT seems to be less vibrant in color palette than the other brands of WWE. The dark grey, if not charcoal, canvas is a marked signifier of this tonal shift, much like the dark canvas utilized in the 1989 Great American Bash. It stands out. It makes thing different, more gritty somehow.

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185652

The aesthetic binary oppositions of the world of wrestling are, I would also argue, more pronounced in NXT too. While the wrestlers – or should I now say sports entertainers – no longer emerge from the gloom of a dark and foreboding entrance way (except for maybe Lars Sullivan), the dark once more enshrouds the NXT audience, clearly delineating the brightly lit world of wrestling from the dark space around it. This, of course, can be read in opposition to other WWE pay-per-view events, or indeed, Raw or Smackdown Live, where the WWE Universe is often celebrated in full light, showcasing the full or near full arenas as a testament to the popularity of the WWE product. It’s another level of differentiation. In NXT the audience, for the most part is hidden, and for me, this begs the question –  just who exactly is sitting out there?

In this way, I found that the dark visual aesthetics of NXT TakeOver: WarGames again distanced me from the special world of wrestling, and maybe even the audience. I was once more there to consume it, not be a part of it. I was necessarily back on the outside looking in. Again, the construction and aesthetic of the narrative did not lead me to perceive myself as bodily co-present with the performers. It led me to perceive myself as apart from them. Even with the on screen paratextual prompts to engage with discussion about my consumption with other members of the WWE Universe (obviously unavailable to WCW in the late eighties), I was encouraged to discuss and share my experience, not participate.

Much like the 1989 Great American Bash, only in the WarGames match itself did this aesthetic of exclusion give way and allow the viewer to transcend the binary limitations of the audience to become bodily co-present in the wrestling world. Once more, I was invited in to the wrestling world to stand shoulder to shoulder with the denizens of NXT. Once more, the live audience remained bound to their spatial plain beyond the world of wrestling; but for me, as a viewer, I was back in that cage with the wrestlers. I was bodily co-present again. I was right there in the ring when Roderick Strong superplexed Adam Cole into the assembled masses of humanity, and dare I say it again, it all just felt a little more raw than Raw.

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185657

So, as I sat there, no longer in the attic room at the top of my parents’ house but in the living room of my own house, no longer watching on a fourteen-inch black and white portable TV, but watching on a fifty-inch LED smart TV, I had expected much to have changed. Yet on the surface of the text, and most notably in the visual aesthetics, I found that, at least with NXT TakeOver: WarGames, not much had, and truth be told, that made me happy. It was just a shame there wasn’t a big in-crowd ‘schmoz’ ending.

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.) New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Dundes, A. (1997). Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Lévi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect. Western Folklore, 56(1), 39-50.

Notes

[1] This was in fact Jim Crocket Promotions and the National Wrestling Alliance, but I didn’t know that till much later.

[2] I’m from Scotland, and at that point in my life I’d never even ventured so far as to cross the border into England, let alone Maryland.

[3] Although, for me, much less so than in the WWE.

The Pop Culture Lens on Prowrestling

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The Pop Culture Lens is co-hosted by PWSA contributors CarrieLynn Reinhard and Christopher Olson. The podcast looks as past pop culture texts using different theoretical lens to discuss the text and its relevance. The podcast tries to translate academic concepts and theories into language everyone can understand and appreciate.

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