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SLAM! WRESTLING: And Nothing but the Truth

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.

Friday, May 26, 2000

Should title changes mean anything?

Eric Benner
By ERIC BENNER
Special to SLAM! Sports


A weekly
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The night before the writing of this column and likely two nights before you'll read it, WCW Wednesday Thunder has come and gone and we have yet another WCW world's heavyweight champion, Kevin Nash. Now, the debate is again erupting over the shock value of title changes and the long-term value of a stable title, led by respective proponents Vince Russo and the internet community. Internet versus booker debates are all good and fine, but with respect to Joe Fan, who's right?

Let's get the facts out of the way right here.

Sometime in 1999, Vince Russo is hired to replace Eric Bischoff as chief booker of WCW, just one of a slew of changes that went on in the company.

Shortly thereafter, the title was declared vacant, and pretty much everybody in WCW vied for a chance to win it in a 32-man tournament. That culminated to Bret Hart defeating Chris Benoit to win it at November's Mayhem pay-per-view. Vince Russo was then relieved of his duties sometime around Starrcade. Shortly after that, Hart was forced to give up the title due to injury, and top contender Chris Benoit defeated the other top contender Sid to win it. Chris Benoit then vacated it when he left the organization, and Sid held the title for a fair while after. So far, so good. When the title's being switched back and forth, it's out of necessity.

Fast forward to the end of Sid's reign. On April 10, 2000, Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo are both reinstated and Sid is stripped of the belt. Here's the title history in the two months following that:

  • Jeff Jarrett defeats DDP to win the vacant title at Spring Stampede.
  • DDP wins it right back from Jarrett two Nitros later.
  • David Arquette pins Eric Bischoff in an ECW-style tag team match for the title two days later.
  • Arquette, actually the longest-running champ during the new Russo era, loses it back to Jeff Jarrett when he turns on DDP and actually helps Jarrett win it in the big cage match at Slamboree.
  • Ric Flair defeats Jarrett for the title two Nitros later.
  • The next week on Nitro, it's reign number three for Jarrett as he wins it back again (from Kevin Nash this time, after Flair is stripped for medical reason).
  • Oh yeah, almost forgot. Nash wins it from Jarrett not two days ago.

That's seven title changes in eight weeks.

That's a lot.

Anyway, Vince Russo is not an idiot, despite what some may believe and vocalize. He's a man with ideas. I know a lot of non-idiots who couldn't book a wrestling promotion if their lives depended on it, so let's be realistic -- the man can have his own opinions if he wants to without deserving name-calling or anything.

But the argument that his booking has been poor is certainly no less valid for that. Of course, I'm excluding all other titles here, this is just about the heavyweight title.

Russo's logic is simple and well-documented. The title is irrelevant. It's a prop, something to dress up the wrestlers with to help get them over, and with which to put over the product. Unlike what many others seem to think, he views the title as being something simply to use to spike ratings and not as the crown jewel of wrestling, something for all wrestlers to aspire to but few to achieve.

In a short-term sense, I think Russo has a point. Each time he books a title change, he gets us talking on the internet. We generate publicity for him and his television program (I'm doing it right now!), and casual fans watching the show are struck by its seeming importance -- after all, they've witnessed a title change!

But Vince Russo's logic is flawed. It's also laden in paradox. See, the day that Vince Russo walked into WCW offices and started talking about his plans, he made it clear that WCW's would not be a short-term victory. The only way, he rightly claimed, that they could ever, ever catch up to the WWF in any sense would be to slowly build up the product, marketing it effectively the whole time.

So why the short-term gain at long-term expense, Russo?

If we're to analyze this closely, we have to compare the gain and the expense. Simply, Russo's non-stop title changes have generated some measure of interest in the product, and in some cases, have spiked the ratings -- however slightly. Overruns are higher, as a trend, and that's probably because people are always on the watch for another title change. In effect, he's elevated the importance of each WCW program and made it, in WCW terms at least, must see TV.

At the same time, though, Russo has taken the title and shot himself in the foot with it. There's no more carrot to dangle in front of anyone's eyes. Vince Russo has completely devalued that title, to the point where even a Triple H-esque reign may not be able to restore its former glory.

For all the bad things anyone has to say about Hogan's never-ending nWo heel title reign, where no one could touch it with a ten-foot pole, one at least had the impression that the title was important. No more. And those title changes are each chipping away a little bit not only at the value of the title, but of future title changes. It's not going to be long before no one blinks an eye when it's announced that Ric Flair has defeated Kevin Nash for the WCW title. And at that point, Russo will simply have one less weapon to dish out.

In that sense, he's sacrificing part of his long-term arsenal for a very short-term score, and if that's part of his "it's going to take a long time to get WCW competitive again" strategy, then he may be senile.

In a recent interview, Vince Russo was asked -- alluding to his alleged long-term vision -- if he knew who would be fighting and who would win in the main event at December's Starrcade pay-per-view. A very affirmative 'yes' was his answer. My question for him would now be "Will the title even be on the line, and if so, do you have any idea who'll go in as champion?" I doubt very much that his honest answer would be yes.

In a sense, Russo is still being consistent. As I stated earlier, he doesn't believe the title to be important, not in this day and age. He sees it as a prop, something not at all important. Seems like a waste of perfectly good gold, to me.

So Russo doesn't like the title, at least not in a traditional sense. I personally do. The real question, though, is whether WCW's fan-base shares his opinion or not. I have an unfortunate feeling they don't, else WCW wouldn't be benefiting from those shock title changes to begin with.

Let me know what you think of titles and title changes.

Meanwhile, here's the mailbag.

Matthew Van Buren, from filthymick@email.com, writes:
"Hi, that was a great column, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with. Especially the part about you cringing when you see a Flair promo these days, I've felt that way myself. Do you know if there is any truth to the rumour that WCW's decision to give Flair the belt was a sort of going away present? I read that on Tuesday, right before the Thunder tapings. The tidbit went on to say that Flair would retire before the end of the year. I remember reading it and thinking 'Thank God.'"

Right on Matthew! I have no idea what goes on in the deep, dark dungeons where WCW is booked, so I don't know why the title was booked onto Flair, but I do have a possible alternate explanation for it. He had two matches slated for the Great American Bash next weekend -- one against his son, David, and one title shot against Jeff Jarrett. His winning the title effectively consolidates those matches into one, and don't be surprised if he wins it right back this Monday.

Rose Van Wormer, from Roseatcag@aol.com, writes:
"Eric, I think you pegged it. Completely. Flair should take a page from Mick Foley's book and retire before he dies in the ring."

Wrestling would never completely recover if Flair should die in the ring. I think a lot of fans would be turned off for good. Evidently, a lot of them would keep on trucking, but for the legend that is Ric Flair to collapse in the ring would be devastating -- but hopefully, death of any kind is a long, long way off for the Nature Boy.

By the way, I'm not trying to make myself look good, a good chunk of letters also disagreed with my sentiments. But I shuffled through all of them just now, and not a single one is fit for print. Please, if you're going to disagree with me, just try not to rely on profanity quite so much. Thanks.


That's all. Thanks for reading, thanks for writing, have yourself a great weekend and a super week.

CHAT ALERT! Eric Benner will be taking questions online with SLAM! Wrestling readers on Wednesday, May 31 at 7 pm ET. So mark it on your calendar! We'll have the chat room set up Monday to send your questions in early!

Send email to ebenner@hotmail.com.


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