Defending… Vince Russo… ?!?! – Matthew Barnes

Defending… Vince Russo… ?!?!

Matthew Barnes

So… hear me out. You’re going to need to bear with me on this one, as it took me a while to get my head around, but ultimately, there was a method behind this apparent madness…

I’ve been on what I’ve called my ‘Nitro Odyssey’ for the last couple of years, in which I’ve had the goal of watching every episode of Nitro ever, plus all the associated PPVs, in consecutive order. As a young fan watching in the very early nineties, I grew up with WCW Worldwide just as much as I did WWF Superstars, and even then could discern the difference between the sillier WWF product and the more wrestling-oriented WCW. Somewhere approaching the mid-1990s, WCW became very hard to find, so my exposure to the product was limited to occasional snapshots of Nitro and wrestling magazines. By the time I began writing for wrestling magazines in the early 2000s, WCW had already bitten the dust, and the post-fall narrative was incredibly harsh on the company I once loved.

Having read countless books, followed coverage in several monthly magazines and talked to many wrestlers and insiders, I was comfortable with the accepted narrative that WCW was a clusterfuck, Vince Russo killed wrestling and the last couple of years of the product were abysmal. You know it, I know it, we all know it, right?

Sometime over summer, my Nitro journey reached the new millennium. The show hadn’t always been the easiest watch, but 1999 was, in the main, brutal to watch. Three hour shows to wade through, inconsistent booking, stupidity… all the hallmarks we’ve learned about were there in abundance. It may sound familiar, but three hour shows really killed the product.

But, towards the end of 1999, things notably began to change – specially, once Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara took control of the booking. First came the unbearable “Powers that Be” angle (which, incredibly annoyingly, many wrestlers and announcers often pronounced “Powers TO Be”), accompanied by the abhorrent Ed Ferrara ‘Oklahoma’ character. This was beyond dismal, and things had indeed changed for the worse, and this seemed to track with everything we’ve ever heard about WCW.

Still, though, the crowd reactions during this era were insane – cheering, booing, screaming and engagement that companies today could only dream of. Ratings decline and any sense of confirmation bias aside, the product was surprisingly hot, and there was a definite sense of change in the air. The booking was somewhat nonsensical and self-indulgent, but it was also both of these things prior to the Powers that Be.

Then, as the product barrelled into the year 2000, something surprising happened – things got good again. The Powers that Be were gone, replaced by a streamlined nWo as authority figures, new stars were suddenly being promoted weekly on Nitro and homage was being paid to veterans. Seriously, check out this list (presented in no particular order) of regularly featured talent between January and March 2000.

  • Billy Kidman
  • Torrie Wilson
  • Stacey Keibler
  • Tank Abbot
  • Booker T
  • Stevie Ray
  • Big T (The former Ahmed Johnson)
  • The Wall
  • Lash Leroux
  • Hugh Morris
  • Vampiro
  • Brian Knobbs
  • Fit Finlay
  • David Flair
  • Crowbar
  • Daffney
  • Scott Steiner
  • Curt Hennig
  • Bam Bam Bigelow
  • Sting
  • Lex Luger
  • Sid
  • Ric Flair
  • Terry Funk
  • Hulk Hogan
  • Kevin Nash
  • Jeff Jarrett
  • Roddy Piper
  • The Harris Brothers
  • The Artist Formerly Known as Prince Iaukea
  • Norman Smiley
  • Earnest ‘The Cat’ Miller
  • Dustin Rhodes
  • The Marmalukes
  • Three Count

That list is off the top of my head, but tell me that isn’t a roster that fans of any era could see the talent in? A roster featuring a handful of well-paid stars and a wealth of up-and-comers ready to reach the brass ring? The astonishing thing is that, prior to October, many of these talents either weren’t with the company or weren’t being featured at all, including Jeff Jarrett, The Wall, The Harris Brothers, The Marmalukes, David Flair and Crowbar.

The hardcore division was reborn, built around Brian Knobbs, Finlay and Bam Bam Bigelow, and wasn’t any sillier or more offensive than the WWF’s mirror league. Cruiserweight wrestling was again on the menu, Billy Kidman was being pushed up the card as somebody who could challenge heavyweights, and Jeff Jarrett was close to becoming the man, alongside the emerging Booker T and the insane Scott Steiner. At the very top of the card, Sid – as world heavyweight champion – was OVER. So, too, were Sting, Lex Luger, Hogan and WCW icons Ric Flair and Sting.

More subtle changes were emerging elsewhere, too. Language became more risqué, new announcers were trialled to bring a more modern feel, Stacey Keibler and Torrie Wilson were mid-nineties “eye candy”, backstage promos became a little better organised, and suddenly the company had great video packages once again. Pay-per-views were hot tickets, too, with meaningful matches full of genuine stars and up-and-comers up and down the card. The company wasn’t trying to be a WWF copycat – it retained many elements that were traditionally WCW, but an updated ‘Attitude Era’ product was beginning to emerge, counterbalancing years of drawn-out, bloated and done to death nWo storylines that had previously dominated the product.

During this first quarter of 2000, Terry Funk and Ric Flair had a weeks-long feud that featured callbacks to their 1989 classic, emotionally jarring angles involving Arn Anderson and David Flair, as well as matches on pay per view that, judged by the lens of any other era, would be considered absolute classics. Crazy old cowboy Terry Funk punishing David Flair in an I Quit match, teary eyed at dishing out the beating because Flair was nowhere to be seen, would have been held up as a classic example of storytelling if it was held five years either side of the year 2000. Sadly, Attitude Era fans of this period were casual fans, young men and women drinking and having a night out, and just didn’t have the nuance to appreciate what they were seeing before them. As such, the feud barely left a mark. It really should have, though.

None of this is to say the product was perfect. Nut shots, heel turns and chaos were all there in overabundance, but a side by side comparison of Raw in the same era would yield exactly the same results. The accusations that WCW didn’t create new stars just don’t ring true, nor does any claim that the major stars of the company were dragging down the company. They weren’t, because many barely featured during this period (Hall and Nash, for example), and those that did feature were hotter than ever (Luger, Flair, Sting and several others). Crowds were hot, the wrestling was good, new stars were rising and the product felt modern.

Put simply, there was hope.

So where did it all go wrong? The fans? Ego? Wage bills? The television network?

Nope… Russo came back. In my willingness to enjoy the product, I’d overlooked the fact that Vince Russo had a hiatus from the company.

From January to March 2000.

That’s right – the period where WCW came near to the pinnacle of what it could be fell in a netherworld between Russo leaving and a joint Russo/Bischoff booking team sending the company into the abyss. Russo, it turns out, had walked out of the company after having his proposal to make Tank Abbot world champion responded to with a decision that he should be part of a booking committee, not out there on his own. (I should note here that at Uncensored 2000, weeks after Russo left, Abbott legitimately pulled a knife on an opponent on PPV, in an unplanned incident somehow laughed off by the commentary team…)

Somewhere between January and the end of March, negotiations were had and the result was the ill-fated Russo/Bischoff partnership.

In a way, I felt robbed, but in another way, this experience speaks to everything WCW was, was not and could have been. From late January to late March, the booking committee was headed up by the incomparable Kevin Sullivan, who understood the business and merged modernity with classic, logical feuds, who put his faith in Sid as champion, whilst still propelling Vince Russo’s golden boy up through the ranks, and who pushed a glut of new talent who could legitimately, if used well, have righted the ship for the company.

As we know, that wasn’t the case, and those at the network once again showed their lack of understanding of the business and literally flushed the toilet on the entire organisation – and, to an extent, the entire wrestling business for nearly two decades – by reappointing the person who blew a financial hole through the industry with wanton spending, and the man who would ultimately crown David Arquette as world champion. Yes, there was hope, but yet again WCW was doomed. But it didn’t need to be, and that is devastating when you consider what they had, right in front of them.

Oh, what could have been.

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