Wrestling's Unchosen Path: How the WWE's Greatest Year May Have Been Its Last

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Wrestling's Unchosen Path: How the WWE's Greatest Year May Have Been Its Last
Hamish Blair/Getty Images
In an alternate universe, the Rock may still be "layin' the smackdown" on some poor jabroni in 2011. It's one possibility had Vince McMahon gone a different direction in 1999.

Once, when the world was full of unicorns and rainbows, there was a wrestling promotion that sought to entertain the masses by delivering a mix of entertaining storylines, shockingly good matches, and a sprinkling of raunch for added flavor.

When the World Wrestling Federation began preparing for the final months of 1999, they would set the stage for the greatest display of Professional Wrestling entertainment North America had witnessed since 1989. 

As it were, the new century would bring about both the high watermark of the show—and its long, slow descent into what we now know as the WWE.

In looking back on the promotion in 2000 and 2001, I wondered why its success might have indirectly led to its decline ten years later.

 

Incredible, Uncontained Success

In the Autumn months of 1999, the World Wrestling Federation was in a state of flux. Their incredible success one year prior had propelled pro wrestling to the top of the entertainment food chain, growing from a 5.7 rating for Monday Night Raw in May of 1998 to 8.1 in 1999.

In every sense of the word, the promotion was "on fire."

In retrospect, the success of the Attitude Era wasn't built on Russo's Crash TV concepts, as much as it was the incredible luck at having three of the all-time greats peaking at just the right time.  In turn, they were supplemented by a talented and likable group of wrestlers that clicked with the fans of that era.

After his iconic stand against Bret Hart at Wrestlemania 13, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was pure money from the get-go. His widespread appeal came from teens, who ate up his rebellion against the establishment with gusto—and adults alike, who identifed with Austin's railing against the corporate ownership.  

Through his character, his fans lived out a common fantasy—namely, kicking the ever-loving crap out of their jackass boss.  Southern Wrestling Fans (i.e. rednecks) in particular identified with the beer-drinking Texan who would rather kick some ass and exercise his middle finger than promote the medicinal benefits of vitamins or prayer.

Then you had The Rock, whose star ended up becoming too big for professional wrestling to contain.

Dwayne Johnson's character was an anomaly in professional wrestling; he broke the mold, to speak in cliches.  He defied claims that wrestling fans would reject an African American  superstar.

Though positioned as a long-standing foil to Austin, the Rock simply became too popular to remain a heel, and so the promotion turned him into a 1987-style Randy Savage face, playing second banana to Steve Austin's Hulk Hogan. His cockiness and willingness to "lay the smackdown" on anyone from Austin to Gillberg made him a major draw time and again.

Finally, we would be remiss not to bring up Mick Foley, whose various characters in the WWF had given way to perhaps his greatest character: himself. Foley had persevered through incredible adversity, and the fans found in him a symbol of hope.

Foley appealed to fans based on his tenacity and unwillingness to die. He was very much the common man, who lacked the superstar traits of his peers, yet persevered through willpower and an unusual tolerance for pain.

When Tony Schiavone famously dropped his "That'll put asses in the seats!" quip, 600,000 people tuned out of Nitro and into Raw, hoping to see Foley win his first World Championship.  These three men, Hall of Famers in every sense of the word, erupted as  icons and launched the promotion into the stratosphere.

 

The Beginning of Change

By the fall of 1999, though, trouble was brewing. The first of these alarms was the defection of Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara, two of McMahon's chief writers, to WCW.

At the time, the move was considered a bold (albeit risky) maneuver by WCW. The general perception amongst intelligent fans was that Russo and Ferrara (who were not the sole proprietors of the Attitude Era-style of booking, but had contributed greatly to it) were making a mistake in leaving the WWF. 

Casual fans remained cautiously optimistic. However, the ripples that Russo's and Ferrara's move created cannot be understated. A second, more devastating blow came a month later, when the promotion's top draw, Steve Austin, was shelved due to lingering neck problems.

Austin required surgery to keep his career alive, and the WWF was suddenly faced with a challenging dilemma. The prospects of losing Austin for an entire year was disenchanting, to say the least. Ratings had leveled out a bit, moving from the high 6.0s to the mid 5.0s on a consistent basis.

A few shockingly low-rated programs had appeared during the late summer months.  McMahon found himself at a crossroads: continue down the known path of the Attitude Era and hope that ratings wouldn't erode drastically in Austin's absence; or, take a gamble and place renewed focus on the in-ring aspect of the product.  This would include downplaying backstage comedy bits and raunch, to make way for non-characterized wrestling itself.

Either way Vince went, there were potential landmines waiting for him.

If he kept the status quo, he ran the risk of becoming stale with his main event roster depleted. The WWF had witnessed WCW's incredible nWo angle fizzle under very similar circumstances just months before.  The fear of becoming stagnant was a real and growing threat.

Yet, if McMahon gambled and shifted towards a more wrestling-oriented product, he risked losing the surge of casual viewers that were hooked on the larger-than-life characters. The WCW had emerged, and Russo and Ferrara threatened to recapture the magic of "Attitude" that the WWF could no longer offer. 

In the end, McMahon decided to gamble.

He chose wrestling over Attitude. While vestiges of the Attitude Era remained, a noticable shift in booking evolved around the time of No Mercy in 1999.

Triple H slowly overcame his deficiencies in the ring to become a breakout star, while the Federation replaced the New Age Outlaws with a troika of teams that would feud with one another for years afterwards: Edge and Christian, the Hardy Boyz, and the Dudley Boyz.Chris Jericho arrived in August of 1999, and was quickly becoming an impact player in the upper card.  Kurt Angle debuted in 1999, and would evolve to become a wrestling machine.

 

A Perfect Storm

If you were watching at the time, you probably remember slight changes that began to take place around the time of No Mercy.

After a rather dull Survivor Series, the WWF put out a stout Armageddon, which helped cement Triple H as the company's top heel for good.  In January 2000, the promotion caught fire once again.Triple H and Mick Foley (as Cactus Jack) engaged in a blood feud that brought the house down at the Royal Rumble and No Way Out.

The tag team wars between the Hardyz, Dudleyz, and Edge and Christian were heating up, leading to their classic encounter at Wrestlemania that year in Anaheim.  The debut of Tazz from ECW and the Radicalz from WCW around the time of the Rumble added depth to an already stacked roster.

Most importantly, the Rock stepped up into the role of lead face, elevating his game both in and out of the ring to his final ascent into superstardom.

McMahon had created a perfect storm of sorts. With a renewed focus on the in-ring product and the incredible fortune of signing some of the world's best performers, the WWF reeled off nine months of incredible programming.

From Armageddon in December of 1999 through Summerslam in 2000, only two of the nine Pay-Per-Views put out are commonly viewed today as misfires for the period—Wrestlemania and King of the Ring. Of the remaining seven cards, four of the shows (Royal Rumble, No Way Out, Backlash, Judgment Day) are considered some of the best Pay-Per-Views ever put out.

The damage to rival WCW had been done. WCW's attempt to reinvigorate itself with the leadership of Russo and Ferrara was a spectacular failure, lasting all of four months before imploding.The defection of Benoit, Guerrero, Malenko and Saturn in January 2000 sapped the already-shorthanded promotion of irreplaceable talent.

And while the stale WCW attempted to rebuild as the WWF had in 1996, it ran into the dual headed monster of a white-hot WWF and insane monetary losses, going millions into the red for the year.

WCW never recovered.

Its fate had essentially been sealed once the AOL-Time Warner Merger took place in January of 2000, when it became public knowledge that Jamie Kellner wanted to cancel WCW Programming. The failure of the promotion to remain profitable in the face of McMahon's juggernaut was merely the excuse executives in WCW's parent organization needed to pull the plug.

And thus it came to pass, on March 23rd, 2001, that Vince McMahon caused the universe to implode on itself when he officially purchased World Championship Wrestling.

One week later, McMahon and the WWF celebrated by hosting its 17th installment of Wrestlemania in Houston. At that moment, the WWF reached its peak as the premier wrestling promotion in North America. 

After decades of warring with various territories and national competition, McMahon had finally achieved his ultimate goal: unchallenged supremacy.

Serving almost as a celebration show of sorts, Wrestlemania XVII has long endured as one of, if not the greatest wrestling show ever produced. It is the seminal moment in North American wrestling history, upon which all else is judged.

 

What if...?

Allow me to propose a rather unusual hypothesis. It is the opinion of yours truly that Vince McMahon may have been better off not shifting the focus of the promotion to the in-ring product in October 1999. I say that for one reason, and one reason only: ratings.

With WCW rebuilding and facing contract woes which the WWF hadn't been afflicted with in 1996, the increase in WWF's viewership throughout the year 2000 sapped WCW of its already decimated viewership. WCW's average ratings dropped almost a full point from 1999 to 2000, which was the kiss of death for television executives at TBS and TNT who were itching to jettison pro wrestling anyway.

Now, let's play a game of "what if." Had McMahon not shifted the focus of the promotion, perhaps we miss out on the incredible year of shows we had in 2000. Maybe the ratings plateau around 5.0 through 2000. The kicker is, had the WWF's ratings remained at the level, WCW may have managed to keep some of its own viewership base intact.

I know full well that WCW was the proverbial dead man walking on TNT and TBS in 2000, and the WWF's incredible hot streak only added a bit more dirt to the grave. My fantasy scenario wouldn't change WCW's cancellation on the Turner networks.

What it could change, however, is the value of WCW to Fusient Media Ventures. Fusient and their partner groups, led by Eric Bischoff, came very close to purchasing WCW from AOL-Time Warner in January 2001. In our timeline, of course, Fusient's partners backed out of the deal, and McMahon was able to swoop in, buy WCW, and eradicate his competition. 

And once his competition was destroyed, the WWF began a slow, tedious decline into mediocrity.

Yet here we are at the start of 2011, and the WWE has yet to pull itself completely out of the slump that began post-Wrestlemania XVII. The entire focus of the promotion has shifted; the stars of yesterday largely having gone on to other things.

We've come a long way from the glory days in 2000—and have endured some mind-numbing crap over the last 10 years.

Perhaps, if WCW had managed to keep more of its viewers, its advertising potential would have remained more lucrative to prospective buyers. The WWF, though hardly enjoying the level of success it would actually enjoy in 2000, would have remained a powerful broker in professional wrestling.

Maybe Fusient's partners wouldn't have backed out on the WCW deal in January 2001.

Maybe, just maybe, Fusient would have had the muscle and financial backing to purchase WCW.

And that, my friends, would have been a whole new ballgame.

If WCW had gone into Fusient's hands instead of McMahon's, the promotion would have remained competition for the WWF. At the very least, WCW would have been much healthier, purging itself of mountains of bureaucratic red tape that plagued its final months under AOL-Time Warner's ownership.

And with new leadership powering WCW, the WWF couldn't afford to get lazy after Wrestlemania XVII.

The ramifications could be mind-boggling.

With a January purchase of WCW by Fusient, McMahon might not have made the announcement of building a new football league (the XFL) with NBC in February. Perhaps, some of the highly touted "young lions" of the WWF would have actually managed to become draws.

One example that sticks with me is Test. He was really on fire towards the end of 1999 and was geared to breakout in a big way.

And then, just when a ready-made feud with Triple H seemed like a shoe-in, Test became lost in the clutter of the new direction.

What if the promotion had kept its focus on the Attitude Era instead of shifting towards the incoming crop of talent? What if Test had indeed been given the chance to Main Event with Triple H? Perhaps he wouldn't have become the biggest star ever, but maybe he would have stuck it out to become a staple in the main event scene.

And if he'd managed to succeed and elevate himself, maybe he wouldn't have met a tragic end in 2009.

Here's one more chilling scenario to consider before I wrap this one up. If the WWF had retained its focus on "Attitude," Chris Benoit may not have advanced into the upper card as he was poised to do around the time of his neck injury in 2001. Benoit was on his way to the WWF regardless, but his style would have been out of place in an Attitude-driven WWF.

Maybe, then, Benoit would decide to hang 'em up.  With WCW not an option and his prospects in the WWF dim, maybe he retires instead of going through a repeat of what he experienced in Atlanta.

And, if he retires in 2001, perhaps he doesn't have the fateful arguments with Nancy in 2007—that led to catastrophe.

It's a reach, granted, but you can't help but play the "What If" game with guys like Test, or Chris Benoit, or even Eddie Guerrero. If McMahon had gone down Path A instead of Path B, maybe Guerrero and Benoit flounder and leave the promotion, thus avoiding tragedy in their own lives.

If only.

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