The first shots fired in the Civil War were on Wilmer McLean’s property in Virginia in 1861. A bit over four years later, the war would come to an end at Appomattox Virginia Courthouse, 140 miles away, but with a similar character playing the role of “grand opening, grand closing.” Wilmer Mclean had moved after the war broke out to where he thought his family would be safe. The war would end in his parlor, with Robert E Lee signing the confederate surrender.
You could say the Monday Night Wars started and ended similarly, albeit with much less life and death circumstances. There was no matter of national emergency. It was wrestling, reaching it’s nadir in the social conscious of America.
But to millions of people each week, watching the battle was the most important thing going on in their lives. And the parallels are there. The true Monday Night Wars started in the summer of 1996, when Hulk Hogan, for more than 12 years known exclusively as the baby face of all baby faces(wrestling term for good guy), turned on Sting and Lex Luger, joining Kevin Nash and Scott Hall to form the NWO. It broke wrestling to its core. It sent shockwaves throughout the industry. It was the beginning of something new, edgy, interesting. It was a southern wrasslin’ company stepping up the big stage, announcing its intentions of domination and the destruction of the Northern wrestling entertainment company that had held firm at the top of the mountain for decades, and nearly succeeding.
But, a bit over four years later, a couple hundred miles away from where the first shots were fired in the wrestling wars, it was over. The WWF had come back from the brink and secured it’s place at the top of the food chain, where they had been for decades. Vince McMahon stood over a weary wrestling world and knew that he had won. But there was no time to celebrate. There was still a show to produce the next day.
For those that truly got to experience it, the Monday Night Wars were the apex of wrestling. Two deep pocketed companies hell bent on beating the other out of business jockeyed for viewers eyes every week. Tivo had barely been introduced. DVR’s were still a decade away. To experience the Monday Night Wars, you took a side. Either you were team WCW, the upstart company that rose from the ashes of the territory era* and bought up older stars for ratings, or WWF, the wrestling monolith who had dominated the industry for over a decade, and had left every organization that stood up to it in the ground. Then, of course there were those that did both. They would jump from show to show during commercials, or use aol chat rooms to keep up with what was going on in the shows, and flip back and forth if something interesting was happening.
[*The Territory Era signifies the time
in wrestling between 1948-1988 when most areas of the country were
controlled by the Northern Wrestling Alliance, or NWA. Territories
were entire states or big cities that were run by a single show
promoter who controlled the wrestling in that town. For much of
existence, the NWA World Heavyweight Champion was considered the
biggest wrestler in the world. The NWA had a board of directors that
would decide when the title would change and who the next champion
would be. Then, each territory also had its own champion. The larger
territories, such as Chicago, Dallas, Mid South, Florida, Georgia,
St. Louis, and Kansas City always got the NWA World Champion to
wrestle on their biggest shows against their biggest star.
The territory era died out in the late 80’s as the NWA’s influence began to wane. Around this time, Vince McMahon was buying out territories and shutting them down. He didn’t want the wrestlers or the organization. He was only interested in the TV deal they had. Knowing that the future was in cable television and that most, if not all NWA territories had their own TV deal, he would buy the entire organization just to get their time slot so he could air his television shows on it.]
For years, the two organizations would go back and forth over ratings. For 83 consecutive weeks, WCW, led by charismatic tv producer Eric Bischoff, along with stars like Hogan, Nash, Hall, Sting, Lex Luger, the Giant, and an emerging luchador division(which would go on to carve out wrestling like we see it now) lead WWF in the television ratings. At various points, it looked like WWF was going to lose the Monday Night Wars. WCW was the edgy show with new, exciting characters that broke the 4th wall of what we thought wrestlers could be. WWF was still marching out guys who were “Half man, Half Centaur” and garbage men.
When forced with the evolutionary principle of fight or flight, WWF chose to fight. They changed who they were, pushing the edginess up another level. Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock would emerge from this as the crossover sensations they are. DX were the bad boys who were supposed to hate, but loved. They pushed sex and violence upon a wrestling audience that was ready for all of it. Seemingly overnight, the entire industry changed.
Between bloated, guaranteed contracts, giving too much creative control to the wrestlers, and bringing in the wrong people*, the WCW wrote it’s own tombstone. The inevitable was about to happen. WCW died on March 26, 2001, but it actually died in the eyes of wrestling fans 14 months prior, on January 4th, 1999.
[*Wrestling historians often attribute the death of WCW to them making a desperate move and giving control of the wrestling side of the company to a former WWF writer named Vince Russo. Russo claimed he was the one who came up with the Stone Cold gimmick. He claimed he made the Rock who he was. Russo claimed that Vince McMahon wasn’t the reason WWF had come back and were beating WCW in the ratings, he was.
He even brought along his own sniveling number two, Ed Ferrara. WCW, which was already hemorrhaging money, nosedived off a cliff. The story lines were nonsensical. What Russo saw as edgy tended to make absolutely zero sense to the average fan, and made smart fans furious. During his time running the show, Russo is most remembered for making David Arquette the champion, something that Arquette, a wrestling fan himself, still says is one of the biggest mistakes ever, and putting Judy Bagwell, the mother of wrestler Buff Bagwell, on a forklift and have Buff wrestle another guy for the rights to his mother. No, I’m not making any of this up.]
THAT’LL PUT BUTTS IN SEATS
There was always a level of underhanded play going on at all time between the two companies. They were stealing wrestlers from each other all the time. WWF started a smear campaign in national newspapers about how WCW was vulgar and horrible for children, only for them to turn around and do the same thing on their shows. WWF also would make fun of the wrestlers that had gone to WCW as has-beens only chasing money from WCW owner Ted Turner. WWE would also pre tape every other episode of Raw to save on the expenses of shooting live shows across the country, and WCW would get the results and announce them on air. And that ended up being their grave mistake.
On January 4th, 1999, during Monday Nitro, Tony Schiavone(more on him later) would announce on Nitro that Mick Foley was going to win the heavyweight title that night on Raw. He then derisively said “That’ll put butts in seats.” It was meant as a putdown. Mick Foley had used to wrestle for WCW in the early 90’s as Cactus Jack. Billed from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, he was a large wrestler who put in great matches, but never got the respect he deserved because of his looks. He wasn’t a classic looking wrestler, with bulging muscles and bleach blonde hair. He looked like a guy who worked the overnight shift at a Blockbuster.
After leaving WCW, Foley would become legendary in the
Smark(terminology for smart wrestling fan) community for the wrestling he did in upstart promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling and in death matches in Japan against legend Terry Funk. He entered WWF in 1996 as the unhinged Mankind. During that time would also morph into his classic Cactus Jack persona, along with Dude Love, a hippy who talked like people in the 60’s think you should talk on Tinder. During this time, he is most remembered for his match at King of the Ring 1998. Even people who don’t know wrestling have seen the gif of a portly man in a mask and tie bring thrown off a cage through a table. It’s iconic in the collective memories of wrestling fans.
After that, he had earned the respect of even the most hardened fan, and was actively rooted for. Vince McMahon made the decision to put the belt on Foley on the taped episode of Raw that would air January 4th. Schiavone would make his infamous announcement, thinking it was a jab at WWF. In reality, the Nielsen TV Ratings showed that 25% of all Nitro viewers immediately turned off WCW to watch Monday Night Raw. By the end of the show, nearly half of WCW’s viewing audience had tuned in, and what they watched was one of the most seminal and important moments in WWF history.
The match pitted Mankind against The Rock, the most charismatic, brash, and openly entertaining wrestler in the industry. At ringside was a collective who’s who of WWF wrestlers: Ken Shamrock, Big Bossman, Kane, Shane McMahon, Vince McMahon and DX, the group consisting of HHH, Road Dogg, Billy Gunn, and Chyna that were in Foley’s corner. As the match reached it’s epic crescendo, Shamrock ran in and hit Mankind with a chair in his back. Billy Gunn would run in and tackle Shamrock, setting off a melee around the ring. The crowd was cheering at a fever pitch, when one of the most iconic sounds in wrestling history hit, the glass break at the beginning of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s music. The crowd went absolutely berserk as Austin entered the ring and hit Rock over the head with a chair, and pulled Mankind on top of him. The ref counted 1-2-3 and the crowd lost it’s collective mind. It is known as one of the loudest cheers in the history of wrestling, and still brings goosebumps to fans, even twenty years later.
Eventually, WWF, who would change their name to WWF soon after, would win the Monday Night War. They bought WCW. Not for the rings. Not for the wrestlers (thought they did take on some of the contracts), not for any members of the staff. They bought it for the tape library, and to forever vanquish their enemies.
Which brings us to this past Monday night. It felt fitting, and almost with a purpose how Monday Night Raw, now in its 26th year on television started. Rey Mysterio, who for all intents and purposes, is the only wrestler still actively competing who was in WCW during the heyday of the Monday Night Wars, had the unholy hell beaten out of him and his son by monster Brock Lesnar. It felt coordinated and very purposeful to do on Vince McMahon’s part. Mysterio is the last true wrestling link to WCW’s past, the final surviving confederate soldier, still standing proudly, gun at his side. In fact, Mysterio was wearing a jacket that was made to look like the promo from his match with the late Eddy Guerrero at Halloween Havoc 1997 in WCW. Lesnar is the larger than life human that matters more than maybe any other wrestler in this current day, and exclusively a WWE creation. And Lesnar beat up Rey and his son.
Later on in the show, they had a segment in which octogenarian looking former wrestlers Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan threatening to fight each other, a kind of homage to the over-the-hill caricatures that were played of them on WWF tv in the mid 90’s.
To the untrained eye, this all looked like a normal week of wrestling, but there was true purpose behind it. They were the shots fired in the new wrestling wars that officially commence this week. Monday Night Raw was the opening salvo, but the real battle begins Wednesday night. That is when AEW officially takes it’s place as the upstart contender for the WWE throne. It will go up against NXT, WWE’s minor league affiliate which got the jump by airing their first episodes on cable television two weeks ago, beating AEW to market. Then on Friday night, WWE Smackdown, the baby brother show to Raw, will debut on Fox. It will be the first time wrestling has been consistently on network TV in decades.
How did we end up here? We need to back up a little over a year to explain.
Back on Labor Day weekend last year, a group of independent wrestlers set out to prove that you didn’t need to be a big company to get 10k people to a wrestling event. They chose the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. The choice was twofold, as Chicago and the surrounding suburbs are well known hot beds for independent wrestling with fan bases that are openly supportive. The other is that the reason the wrestlers were able to pull this off financially is because a few years back, a company called One Hour Tees in Chicago decided to get into the wrestling business. They built a website that allowed for wrestlers to sell clothing online, and not need to be dependent on selling merch at shows to turn a profit. Pro Wrestling Tees was born and has become sort of a financial backbone to the independent wrestling company. Instead of being dependent on getting to WWE to live comfortably as wrestlers, the site allowed them to deal directly with their fans all over the world. From this came a friendship that would help shape the wrestling world today.
Kenny Omega is a Canadian wrestler who had a brief stint in NXT, WWE’s minor league, before washing out and ending up wrestling in Japan. There, he remade his image and became one of the most recognizable international wrestlers out there. His matches all over the world became instant classics and his fame grew. Growing parallel to him was a tag team named the Young Bucks. Brothers Nick and Matt Jackson were putting on classic matches in proving ground organizations like AAA in Mexico, New Japan Pro Wrestling, and Pro Wrestling Guerilla in Los Angeles. As their fame grew, the three would latch on to someone who was well respected in the wrestling community, and ready to stake out on his own to prove his legacy.
Cody Rhodes is wrestling royalty. His rather, the late Dusty Rhodes, is considered one of the most important men in the history of wrestling. His brother, Dustin Rhodes, has carved out a three decade wrestling career, most of which in WWE. Cody, the younger brother, spent nearly a decade in WWE as well, but never felt like he was properly being used, and often was stuck with gimmicks (in ring personas) that weren’t fitting of his talent and storytelling ability in the ring. When he was finally released, he joined up with Omega and the Bucks to put on the Hoffman Estates show, called All In. The goal was to sell out the nearly 11k seat arena to prove that wrestling could survive outside of the shadow of WWE. They sold out the show in 4 minutes.
On the heels of that, they would run a show in Vegas, followed by one in Jacksonville and another in Hoffman Estates. But by the time those shows rolled around, they weren’t just proving they could put asses in seats. They were out to prove they could stand toe to toe with WWE. With the backing of Tony Khan, whose father, Shad, is a billionaire grad from University of Illinois and owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, they started All Elite Wrestling. From there they were able to secure a tv deal. It was with TNT, the same channel that aired Monday Nitro from its beginning til its end. They set out for Wednesday, October 2nd as their first episode.
In between the All In show and the officially formation of AEW, the WWE was having a pretty great time as well. They were the belle of the television ball. Their TV deal for Raw and Smackdown was coming to a close in 2019 with the USA Network, and they were looking at the prospect of a big payday. In the changing times in TV, there was reason to believe that wrestling was a stabilizing experience and had viewing demographics that networks craved. Five years prior, the WWE had taken a bad deal on their tv deal, and now they were looking to cash in. While it was expected the whole time that Raw and Smackdown would stay on USA Network, rumors started to surface that Fox was interested. It made sense. Fox Sports is a deep afterthought in the sports channel world. Putting Raw or Smackdown on there would immediately make it the most watched show on the network, and would be a tentpole for other shows to get noticed.
Fox was looking bigger, though. And late last year, it was announced that Fox had secured a deal for television rights to Smackdown, which would move from Tuesdays to Fridays, and wouldn’t air on Fox Sports but Fox. As in, cable cutters who only get basic channels would still be able to watch. Anyone with a television and a signal were able to watch Smackdown. For the first time in decades, wrestling would be on network television regularly. And the price Fox paid? 2.5 billion dollars over five years. Realizing they couldn’t risk losing Raw, they signed a similar deal to keep it on their airwaves. WWE stock rose to nearly 100 dollars per share. It was truly heady times for WWE. Around this time, Vince McMahon also announced that he would be bringing back the XFL, his woebegone football league of two decades prior.
In spite of the financial windfall, there were cracks forming around the base of the WWE. Their programming had become stale. They were putting on shows every week that many wrestling fans considered boring and watered down. People watched more out of repetition than enjoyment. Then people slowly stopped watching altogether. In a time when ratings should have been ratcheting up around Wrestlemania, the ratings, along with the company stock, was tanking.
There were rumors that Fox was having second thoughts about the deal and the possibility now existed that Fox wasn’t going to send Smackdown to Fox Sports to prop up the network, but instead to dump it off as a sunk cost til the contract ran out. In the meantime, AEW was ramping up for their launch. They were signing indy stars from around the world. They were building a roster that could compete every week with WWE.
In reality though, they were only doing the exact thing WWE had been doing. WWE was signing everybody they could from the independent wrestling scene just so AEW, and to a lesser extent, NJPW and ROH, couldn’t have them. NXT has a deeper roster than most major promotions ever had in their history, and many will never be used because there are so many star wrestlers already on the main roster. It didn’t matter. WWE and Vince McMahon saw a war on the horizon, and they wanted as many soldiers as they could.
The under handed tactics that WWE were employing weren’t anything new, and in fact, they were simply using the same playbook they used twenty years before. In their quarterly stock disclosures, they hid the stagnant ratings, piss poor live show attendance, and stunted network sales, and instead decided to attack AEW, which had never done a tv show yet. They claimed that advertisers wanted nothing to do with AEW because AEW was going to sell in nothing but blood and sex.
Two things wrong with this, of course: the first being that WWE made it’s mark in the Attitude Era (WWE wrestling between 1997-2001) with sex and gratuitous violence.
The second issue with this is that WWE was about to do the exact same thing. It’s worth noting that on Raw on Monday night, there were two seperate cuckold angles playing out, and ended with Lana, a female manager and actual wife of wrestler Rusev, making out with Bobby Lashley in a mini skirt, as Rusev looked on from the ring. That’s just kind of how the show ended.
Now that might sound ridiculous to you if you aren’t a wrestling fan. But for people who still watch Raw every week, it was a bit of a revelation.
The complaints have long been that Vince McMahon is a spectacularly out of touch aging billionaire who doesn’t understand what the changing taste of wrestling fans want. By all accounts, these are true insults being lobbed. We know this because stars who have left the company have acknowledged this as true. On a recent podcast with Chris Jericho, who is the AEW Heavyweight Champion, Jon Moxley, who wrestled in WWE as Dean Ambrose, stated that Vince thought it would be funny to insult his friend Roman Reigns, one of the biggest stars in WWE, who was fighting cancer at the time? The insults? You guessed it, they were about the cancer.
Ambrose wouldn’t do it, and in spite of the fact that his wife worked for WWE, and he was offered millions of dollars per year to stay, he left. He said that this was a big reason for it, and that Vince would constantly rewrite scripts and make them worse. It lended to fans suspicions that Vince himself was the one ruining the product and running people away from the show.
Recently though, someone got into Vince’s ear and told him that the best way to win the war against AEW would be for him to step away from it. For the first time in many years, McMahon made a decision that was truly best for business: he turned to a living legend to run his marquee show.
If you ever thought that the wrestling business was too violent, too racy, too raw and intense, then the the reason you believe that is probably because of Paul Heyman. Heyman was a manager for WCW in the early 90’s, known as Paul E Dangerously. He would later stake out on his own, taking over a struggling NWA affiliate known as Eastern Championship Wrestling along with promotor Todd Gordon. They would rebrand it as Extreme Championship Wrestling, and it would go on to become the cult sensation that found stars where the larger brands weren’t willing, and sold themselves as the most hardcore, violent wrestling organization around.
They were trendsetters, either too far ahead of their time, or too far behind.
Eventually, Heyman would find his way to WWE, where he would be a fixture on and off for the next two decades. He is best known now as the advocate for Brock Lesnar, kind of a lawyer meets spokesperson. Heyman also happens to be one of the greatest minds in the history of wrestling. Always acute to the changing winds of the consumer, he has always been deftly able to navigate any company he has been in charge of. Recently, he was put in charge of Monday Night Raw. The changes were obvious from the beginning. Even simple things like camera angles changed. The look of the show was different. Suddenly, the characters were edgier again, within reason.
On Monday night, the unofficial rebirth of the war, there was pyro when the wrestlers came out. There were great matches. There were interesting story lines. It just felt different. You wanted to keep watching.
On Wednesday night, NXT and AEW will go head to head. NXT was formerly exclusively online on the WWE Network, but after AEW announced that they were going to air their show live every Wednesday night, WWE worked a deal with the USA network to run opposite of AEW. It’s another underhanded move that puts AEW in a seemingly no win situation. If they beat NXT in the ratings, then they beat WWE’s minor league roster as they were supposed to. If they lose in the ratings to NXT, then they lost to a group that WWE treated as a throwaway product for years. While WWE claims they are not in direct competition, every move they have made over the past few months dictates otherwise. They are very aware of what is happening in the wrestling industry.
Then on Friday night, Smackdown will debut on Fox. They are already hyping such luminaries as Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Sting, the Undertaker, and The Rock to be there. The main event will pit the popular Kofi Kingston, who, if you want to really get into the weeds of wrestling history, is the first true African American Heavyweight Champion in WWE history, against Brock Lesnar. Fox was already heavily hyping Smackdown during NFL games this past weekend.
A week later, WWE will draft their wrestlers to two separate rosters. It’s something they had already done, but before he got dragged off screen(forever, one hopes), McMahon had ruled that there would be a nonsensical wild card rule, which allowed a certain amount of wrestlers to jump from show to show each week. It was blatantly stupid, and reeked of throwing stuff at a wall to see what stuck. Rumors of Fox being very clear of what wrestlers they want on their show should help shape which wrestlers go where.
In between, Hell in a Cell, which has become one of WWE’s marquee events, happens on Sunday night. There could very well be multiple titles changes on Friday night and Sunday night as a way to drum up interest and viewers. Every possible option is on the table in the near future. Everything could be risked, because nothing will be gained without it.
While it might have been coincidence, Lesnar destroying Mysterio on Monday night felt symbolic. It was WWE reminding everyone that they had won the war once, and they were ready to again. As Lesnar stood in the ring, red faced and triumphant, it couldn’t help but feel like the first shot had been fired.