90s wrestling can best be remembered for the Monday Night Wars that reignited interest in wrestling and saw the top two promotions, the WWE and WCW, go head to head for ratings every Monday night with their flagship shows – Raw and Nitro respectively.
The Birth of the Monday Night Wars
In 1993 the WWE’s then main television output ‘Prime Time Wrestling’ was cancelled by USA due to falling ratings. After its cancellation, the WWE decided that it should use its television time to showcase original matches and develop storylines that would serve as the major build-up to the then quarterly pay-per-view broadcasts.
Raw broke new ground in televised professional wrestling. Previously, wrestling shows were taped on sound stages with small audiences or at large arena shows. The Raw formula was very different than that of its predecessor, Prime Time Wrestling: instead of taped matches, with studio voice-overs and taped chat, Raw was a show shot to a live audience, with storylines unfolding as they happened.
Changes were also afoot in the WCW in 1993 where the former commentator Eric Bischoff was promoted to the position of Executive Vice President. While the first year can be written off as a disaster, what was to follow changed the WCW.
In 1994 Bischoff declared open war on Vince McMahon’s WWE and aggressively began recruiting Vince’s former stars. The two most high profile early additions to the WCW roster were Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage who, as well as excessive salaries, demanded creative control over their booking something that would come back to haunt the WCW.
Hogan’s first PPV appearance, at Bash at the Beach 1994, saw him cleanly pin Ric Flair to life the WCW Championship in a bout wrestling fans had long dreamed of. Despite the financial success of the event, the match was a one-off with no long term feud between the two superstars.
At their mid-1995 meeting, Ted Turner, the owner of WCW, asked Bischoff how the promotion could compete with McMahon’s WWE. Bischoff, not expecting Turner to comply with his request, said that the only way would be a primetime slot on a weekday night, directly against Monday Night Raw. Turner granted him a live hour on TNT every Monday night, which overlapped with Raw.
The very first episode of WCW Nitro was broadcast from the Mall of America on 4 September 1995. That show featured Brian Pillman v Jushin Liger, Ric Flair v WCW US Champion Sting, and WCW World Champion Hulk Hogan taking on the artist formerly known as the Big Boss Man, Big Bubba Rogers.
However, the biggest talking point of that show was the return of Lex Luger who had spent the previous two years wrestling for the WWE, where he had been one of the promotion’s top stars. Luger’s appearance was particularly jarring for the WWE because he had just wrestled a match for them the evening before. This event set the tone for Nitro’s “anything can happen” atmosphere, something that the promotion would visit time and time again and set the tone for the Monday Night Wars.
Luger’s defection to the WCW created speculation among fans as to which other big-name stars would join him. This helped spark a great deal of interest in the show, which was broadcast live, from fans wanting to see what the next superstar would be. Notably, Luger was followed by former WWE Women’s Champion Alundra Blayze. She marked her appearance on the December 18, 1995 edition by insulting former employers before throwing the WWE Women’s title belt in the garbage bin.
In the early stages, Raw and Nitro both traded wins in the ratings before the rivalry really heated up. A segment was aired on Nitro featuring stock footage of then WWE stars performing as jobbers in WCW. At the same time Bischoff began giving away the results of Raw matches owing to the fact it was not live.
As expected, these moves prompted the WWE to retaliate with a series of skits of their own. These videos titled ‘Billionaire Ted’s Rasslin’ Warroom’ showed scathing parodies of Ted Turner(Billionaire Ted), Hogan (The Huckster), Savage (The Nacho Man), and Mean Gene Okerlund (Scheme Gene). They eventually stopped being aired on the USA Network at the request of network president Kay Koplovitz and were ended permanently after Wrestlemania XII, an event that featured one of the skits.
WCW takes control
The WCW however would gain the upper hand on the ratings war in 1996. On the episode of Nitro on May 27 Scott Hall interrupted a match between The Mauler and Steve Doll and delivered the now-famous speech stating that he and unnamed allies had a challenge for WCW Executive Vice-President Eric Bischoff and any WCW superstar. This promo has since been called the “you want a war?” speech and by God did it heat up the Monday Night War.
After promising WCW superstar Sting a “big surprise” Hall introduced Kevin Nash to the WCW audience a few weeks later.
Despite having left the WWE and signing contracts with WCW, the storyline implied that both were WWE employees and that their presence in WCW represented an invasion. In fact, the WWE was so concerned that they considered legal action with the bulk of their concerns focussed on Hall who continued to mirror the antics of the Razor Ramon character by speaking with a Cuban accent and referring to other wrestlers as “chico.”
Soon the duo would be joined Hulk Hogan, turning heel for the first time in eighteen years, and together the three would play a pivotal role in bringing success to the WCW as the New World Order (NWO). The June 10 episode of WWE Raw would be the last one that would beat Nitro in the ratings war for nearly two years.
Constant attempts were made by the WWE to break the momentum of Nitro and in 1997 they entered a cross-promotional agreement with ECW. Raw commentator Jerry Lawler insulted and “challenged” ECW on the show’s February 17 episode, and in the weeks to come, several ECW wrestlers appeared on Raw in a story mirroring, but with much less success, the nWo storyline.
Throughout the year, the now titled Raw Is War began to move in a more controversial direction storyline wise. Although these angles, including racist graffiti towards the Nation of Domination stable, the gang warfare feuds and the revealing attire worn by divas, helped the WWE recover slightly the WCW remained in control.
WCW demise and advantage WWE
The ratings for Raw is War continued to improve and the WWE capitalized by introducing the new ‘Attitude’ concept, in which the family friendly and clear-cut dynamic the company had traditionally favoured was replaced by a more adult themed wrestling show with less emphasis placed on faces and heels and more placed on more ambiguous characters. Matches were now shorter with greater prominence for backstage events with a shock factor heavily stressed. Greater prominence was given to the company’s newest star, Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Vince McMahon capitalized on fans’ genuine dislike for him following the Montreal Screwjob, blurred the lines between kayfabe and reality by creating the “Mr. McMahon” character, an exaggeration of his public persona, and would begin a lengthy – and commercially successful – feud with Austin.
Desperate to stay ahead of the WWE, in an attempt to keep viewers interested in their product the WCW reformed the Four Horseman and hired the Ultimate Warrior to feud with Hogan. In addition they marketed ex-NFL player Bill Goldberg as an invincible monster with a record-breaking winning streak of 173 matches.
However, cracks began to appear. During this period it is widely believed that Kevin Nash was behind many of the booking decisions and he would go on to abuse that power. Not only did he book himself to win the World War 3 battle royal in November 1998 and the title at Starrcade 1998, it was also Nash that ended Goldberg’s winning streak.
Another problem for the WCW during this period was other questionable booking decisions. Such was Bischoff’s desperation to win the ratings war that matches that could and should have headlined PPVs were being shown on Nitro, the prime example being the bout where Goldberg defeated Hogan to win the WCW title. Whilst this undoubtedly aided the WCW significantly in the ratings battle, it created problems for them when it came to pay per view events.
By November of 1998 the momentum was firmly in the WWE’s favour and would remain that way for the rest of the war. As 1999 began, both shows were consistently getting ratings of at least 5.0 meaning that more than ten million people watched Raw Is War and Nitro every week.
On the January 4 edition of Nitro, broadcast live, Eric Bischoff, who had learned of the results of the taped Raw Is War that was airing that night, ordered announcer Tony Schiavone to give away the title change.
The official ratings indicated that after Schiavone made those comments, some 600,000 people switched channels from Nitro to Raw to see Mankind win the WWF Championship before switching back to Nitro. The final ratings for the night were 5.7 for Raw Is War and 5.0 for Nitro.
The same evening’s Nitro main event was supposed to feature Goldberg again Kevin Nash for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, a heavily hyped and much anticipated rematch of their Starrcade 1998 bout.
Horrific booking saw Goldberg kayfabe arrested and Hollywood Hogan return to WCW after a hiatus. Hogan then challenged Nash to a match, which Nash accepted. This led to the now infamous moment when Hogan poked Nash in the chest with his finger, causing Nash to fall to the matt, and Hogan to win the title.
This event heavily damaged the company’s credibility – after all they did not present the match that had been advertised. This non-match is seen by many as the starting point of the decline of the WCW. After this episode, Nitro only got a 5.0 rating on two further occasions.
With Raw heavily ensconced in pole position in the ratings war, the WCW made a series of desperate attempts to stem the tide. The company brought in a series of “stars” such as Master P and well as music acts such as KISS and Megadeath to perform concerts on Nitro – all of which were ratings flops.
In September 1998 Bischoff was finally removed from his position of power within the company. Around the same time a 25 minute skit on Raw featuring Mankind performing a This Is Your Life tribute to The Rock drew a staggering 8.4 rating. A rating record still to this day and with the current state of the WWE programming, shows no sign of being beaten any time soon.
In another move to turn their fortunes around – but in the end only aided the decline – Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara, the head writers of WWF television programs, signed with WCW. Unfortunately for the WCW, Russo and Ferrara were unable to recreate the magic they did in the WWE. At the same time, the company was in the midst of crippling financial and creative depressions, and neither would improve.
In January of 2000, both writers were suspended and Kevin Sullivan was promoted to the position of head booker in a move that caused alarm in the locker-room. Despite lifting the WCW title, Chris Benoit quit the company and along with Eddie Guerrero, Perry Saturn and Dean Malenko showed up on Raw Is War’s just over two weeks after Benoit’s title win.
It is often said that desperate times call for desperate measures and no measure in wrestling history can be seen as more desperate than when the WCW placed the World Heavyweight Championship on actor David Arquette, who was making promotional appearances for the WCW film Ready to Rumble – itself a commercial flop.
In January 2001, a group led by Eric Bischoff, announced plans to buy WCW but the deal was dependent on the Turner networks keeping WCW television on its schedules. Unfortunately for the group, Jamie Kellner took over as CEO of Turner Broadcasting, and removed all WCW programming from the network.
With no national television outlet to air the shows, the group dropped their offer to purchase the promotion and the WWE made their offer. On March 23, 2001, all of WCW’s trademarks and archived video library, as well as the contracts of twenty-five contracts performers, were sold to Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, Inc. for a mere $3m.
TNT did permit the final Nitro show to air which had been scheduled for March 26. Vince McMahon opened the show with a speech declaring that the war is over. At the end of the show, Vince appeared on Raw Is War to close Nitro and to declare victory in the Monday night wars. However, Vince’s son Shane showed up on Nitro, declaring that it was actually he who had bought WCW.
This act kicked-off the Invasion angle which lasted from March to November 2001 with the end of that storyline also marking the end of WCW as a brand. The final episode of Nitro drew a rating of 3.0.
In the end Raw won the ratings war 154 times – including 122 straight from November 1998 until the war ended, 112 wins for Nitro – including 84 consecutive weeks, and three ties.
The Monday Night Wars were instrumental in generating increased interest in professional wrestling and forced both companies to up the ante in terms of their product.
Although it nearly killed the WWE, in all reality it ended up saving the company. Gone were the cartoon gimmick storylines of the mid-nineties and in their place a beer swilling anti-hero in Stone Cold Steve Austin and a supporting cast of edgier performers that made up the promotion’s roster during the Attitude era.
Millions of new viewers began watching wrestling during this period as WWE superstars such as Austin and The Rock were joined by WCW stars Sting and Bill Goldberg in becoming household names.
The shows themselves redefined wrestling on television. Gone were the 2 and 3 minute squash matches of old and in their place fans witnessed pay-per view quality bouts every Monday for free on their TV screens.
As well as creating millions of new wrestling fans, the Monday Night Wars brought many former fans back to the fold. Personally speaking, my interest in the WWE had waned around the 94 period but was reignited by WWE world of 1999 which, as a fifteen year old boy, appealed to me. Evil clowns and superstars with gimmick second jobs were replaced by anti-authority figures and a host of sultry divas and edgy characters.
Without question the Monday Night Wars was the greatest thing to happen during my time as a wrestling fan. It revolutionized both companies, created a series of new superstars and took wrestling to a wider audience than it had ever had.
Unfortunately for the WWE, even its most ardent fan will admit that the malaise that the WWE is currently in can partly be attributed to the lack of genuine competition the organization has. The gulf between the WWE and its main competitor, in this case TNA, has never been greater and the WWE’s position as top wrestling dog is very safe.
That said, the current state of its product pales in comparison to what we witnessed during the Attitude era and the October 1 2012 episode of Raw recorded its lowest ratings since 1997 – at the height of the Monday Night Wars.
We all remember when Mankind won the title on Raw or when Austin got in Mike Tyson’s face. Those are stand out moments from the history of the WWE. Who can forget when DX invaded Nitro or when they impersonated the Nation of Domination? They are all moments from a period when Raw was unmissible.
Raw has been stale for years and shows no sign of letting up. It is such a shame there is no promotion with a Ted Turner figure out there that can fund an aggressive attempt to challenge the position of Vince McMahon’s WWE.
Ultimately, though, the two lasting legacies of the Monday Night Wars are the fact WWE was pushed headfirst into changing the company for the better and secondly the eventual demise of the WCW, and ECW, leaving the WWE in an unhealthy position of virtually having no competition.
The Monday Night Wars generated unprecedented levels of interest in wrestling, created millions and resulted in a new host of wrestlers becoming house hold names. I can only hope that in my lifetime as a wrestling fan I get the chance to see such a ferocious battle between WWE and a rival competitor. It is what the world of wrestling really needs.