SLAM! WRESTLING: And Nothing but the Truth

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

Friday, January 4, 2002

WWF needs to learn from the past

Eric Benner
Special to SLAM! Sports

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The World Wrestling Federation desperately needs a boost in 2002. The past year can only be seen as lackluster for the WWF. Several opportunities were wasted, including the purchase of not one but both of their major competitors, WCW and ECW. Heel turns and face turns were poorly executed. Every measure of success suggested decline for the WWF. Now, with the return of Triple H, some newly available free agents on the market, and two big pay-per-views on the horizon, the WWF has an opportunity to revitalize their business. To do so, though, they're going to have to heed some of the lessons they hopefully learned in 2001.

Since there were so many, it's hard to pinpoint the biggest failure of the United States, only surviving major wrestling federation. I would probably point first to the XFL. The XFL was not an entirely unsuccessful effort. Certainly, the WWF hype machine managed to attract many viewers to their first show, which drew a rating in excess of 10.0, as I recall. People obviously didn't like what they saw, as few returned. It's easy to see why. WWF Entertainment clearly got ahead of themselves with this endeavour, and the quality of their show just wasn't good enough to warrant a large national audience on NBC. Too many important WWF executives pulled double duty during the first half of 2001, and both the wrestling and football products suffered.

I and many others watch NFL football because it's world class, and though I prefer the CFL's more exciting rules, the caliber of play of the better NFL teams is just too high to miss. If the WWF takes away one thing from their XFL experience, I think it should be that the people in charge are only human and can't do two jobs as well as they can do one. This may become a key issue when it comes time to split the WWF into two promotions. If this involves doubling the pay-per-views, the house shows, and other aspects of the company, then maybe it should also entail doubling parts of the staff, especially the writers.

If the XFL was the WWF's biggest mistake in 2001, it wasn't so by much. The acquisition of WCW, the failure to incorporate it into WWF storylines, the subsequent acquisition of ECW, and the failure to draw lengthy success out of the Invasion storyline really killed any momentum the WWF could drum up this year. Mankind and Undertaker have had several longer feuds than this multi-federation angle lasted. I'm sure the folks at the World Wrestling Federation don't need to be told that the WCW angle failed because the quality of the product offered, both in terms of wrestler representation and the matches themselves, was terrible.

However, I believe that the Invasion angle failed more than anything because of hotshot booking and a lack of a far-reaching storyline plan. The best works of fiction are planned in advance then fleshed out. Few really compelling television series or movies or books are conceived and written and planned immediately before their execution. It wasn't so long ago that Vince McMahon and his top executives had a good idea of what next year's Wrestlemania would look like the day after this year's Wrestlemania. Now, booking seems to happen week-by-week. The result is a less consistent storyline, and it's harder to come up with compelling television in that environment. Stories become confusing and viewers become less enthused about the product. I know many of SLAM!'s readers are having a harder and harder time watching all of the WWF's main offering each week, let alone anticipating in advance the way we used to. It will be even harder to generate interesting angles and feuds with each of the WWF's split promotions having only half of the roster's wrestlers to work with, especially if this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mentality continues.

Steve Austin was the subject of two huge turns this year, first into a heel and then back to a face. Both turns have been met with mild interest. When he first turned heel, no one was satisfied with his explanation. His actual turn, against The Rock at Wrestlemania, was well-executed, but everything after that made no sense. Then he teamed with Triple H for awhile and was almost completely ineffective. He eventually found his way, using comedy, but the value of the turn itself was lost. More recently, he has turned face, but that completely lacked the punch of his face turn four years ago. Meanwhile, others have turned heel or face (Kurt Angle, Undertaker, and too many others to count), with most turns coming out of nowhere and not having nearly the impact they would have had a few years ago when turns were rarer. Turning a wrestler just isn't a stable source of heat. Ask Lex Luger or Hulk Hogan is repeated turns help or hinder a character's popularity.

Finally, The Rock returned this year from his hiatus while filming a movie. His return to the federation was well done and his feuds and character development since then have been strong. Nonetheless, his return generated a brief ratings spike but did not result in increased interest on the part of fans in the long run. If the WWF is to make a splash with big debuts and returns, they have to figure out a way to draw in the fans with the big news but then offer compelling, you-can't-miss-this programming to keep them from week to week.

Ultimately, I think the WWF has lost its sense of Must See TV. There was a time when I would hate to miss an episode of Raw for fear of missing some big storyline. I wouldn't even want to tape it and watch it later because everyone would be talking about it the next day. Lately, not only is there so much content, but the shock value of this content has diminished and it's no longer water cooler material. Our own Yves Leroux probably put it best when he told me, recently, that the WWF had simply failed to surprise him lately.

It all falls back to delivering strong content, the kind that makes viewers glad they're watching or rue that they missed a show. Whether it's the XFL, where unsatisfied viewers didn't return, or the Invasion angle, which started strong but later flopped, or The Rock's return, which failed to generate strong interest in the long run, the WWF has to learn to keep their viewers. Well, really they just have to remember how to do it, since they were doing it a few years back.

Next week, I,ll have some more concrete suggestions about how to do exactly that, keep new viewers, as it relates to the big debuts and returns set for early 2002.

Here's the mailbag:

Mark Dembouski, from, writes:

Now that Flair is in the WWF, and Arn Anderson is "hanging around" backstage, what are the odds of the Four Horsemen being resurrected - if only in spirit? Benoit is due back in the next few months, which would give us 3 of the 4 needed pieces.

Just a thought!
Mark Dembouski

Mark: It would also give of all of one full-time wrestler. Flair has clearly not been positioned as someone to be wrestling very much, nor really to get involved in individual feuds, except for those that relate to his position. Arn Anderson isn't even an on-air personality, and I doubt he's doing his job just to bide his time until the Horsemen are reformed. I sincerely doubt that this will happen in the foreseeable future. writes:

I recently attended a WWA show in London, England and I really was pleasantly surprised by some of the action that was put on. There were some major stars like Jeff Jarrett, Scott Steiner, etc wrestling. Howeverm I really think that tickets were sold on the name of Bret Hart. If Bret did not attend the show, the show would still have been good, but just not good enough. Granted some of the work was excellent, especially Disco Inferno's, who I'm slightly surprised hasn't been picked up by the WWF. However, it wasn't really enough to survive in such a WWF-saturated market. I really do hope that promotions like the WWA and especially the XWF take off and challenge the WWF; however Vince, despite the recent commercial slump, does really have the ball in his court. I don't think its enough to have a WWA touring and an XWF running its infomercials. Someone needs to give the WWF a kick up the ass and hopefully a promotion like the XWF will do it.

These are ultimately my thoughts exactly. To really compete, with the WWF, you have to fight it where it earns its money. Try to steal its television viewers, run shows in the same towns on the same days as it does, or compete for viewers, pay-per-view budgets. But if competition is the way to a more creative, innovative WWF, then running shows outside the continent doesn't really entail competition.

Matthew S Pulido, from, writes:.

Since I attended XWF's first house show tonight and you were asking for fan feedback I figured I'd drop you a line.

Over all it was very good. I give it a 7.5 out of 10. I enjoyed myself greatly.

Every wrestler, from young rookies like Josh (MTV's Tough Enough) to aged legends like Greg Valentine and Jim Duggan all put forth a great effort. Obviously some matches were better than others, but it was plain to see every one was giving their all.

It was great to see a bit of an old school mentality. The matches all started slow and continued to build. There was great psychology in each match. We had a few tests of strength, some manager interference, and lots of chain wrestling. The wrestlers all tried to interact with the crowd. The referees actually made counts for count outs and there was one DQ. The refs even checked each wrestlers gear before each match.

There were a few old WCW people that looked very much improved. Big Vito was downright skinny and toned. The Wall also dropped weight and put on some muscle. The barely used Hail looked great.

I was also impressed with newcomers Ian Harrison (built like a modern Scott Steiner, moved like a young Scott Steiner) and Tough Enough's Josh (who was much more impressive than his Tough Enough appearances. He and Kid Kash had a great Light Heavyweight style match that was very impressive).

I'm not sure it's what everyone wanted. There were many people who have probably only know the modern WWF. They complained that the matches were to slow and that they were exchanging holds instead of punching each other out. Some even booed Kid Kash and Josh for shaking hands after their hard fought match. The worst bit of fan reaction was the crowd shouting "What?" at everything the announcer said. I have one more reason to hate Steve Austin. Flair gives us the "Wooooo!" after chop and Austin's legacy will be screaming "What?" like an idiot.

The night wasn't flawless. They delayed the start of the show because the crowd was bigger than expected and not everyone was in by 7:30. This was a nice gesture, but it did make the crowd restless and helped make the show run late. Also they were taking pictures with fans and the X Girls and the XWF Heavyweight title belt in the ring at intermission. Very cool if you had the money but the line soon grew to long. It was nice that they wanted to turn no one away but it dragged intermission out to about 40 minutes. Combined with the delayed start the show went well past 11:00, which might have been rough on the many people with children that were there. Many people with kids left before or during the last match.

The only other problem was that some wrestlers were trying too hard. One of the main events was The Nasty Boys Vs The Road Warriors. The Nastys were really trying to get the crowd going. They were yelling at the crowd, dodging the LOD, and playing the cowards. This was fun accept they did it too much and it dragged the match out too much. I like a long match but not when it's slow. It was still a good match, but could have been great if paced better.

The same could be said of the second main event. Buff Bagwell just stalled too much. It made things drag a bit.

But over all it was very fun. Roddy Piper's speech that was laced with insults about Vince and some of the things WWF has done lately was worth the admission price alone.

I continue to be a WWF fan, despite their poor track record as of late. They seem to always give me at least one thing a show to enjoy. But XWF is obviously going in a different direction. I welcome the variety, and not just because I prefer the longer matches that aren't all a series of high spots. I am glad that XWF didn't try to copy WWF, but establish their own product. It gives me a reason to watch both, just like when WCW and WWF were greatly different. I look forward to when XWF gets on TV regularly. I think older fans will definitely be pleased and that the company has a great chance of survival. Hopefully their success will then drive WWF to improve upon themselves and give us better wrestling all around.

Matthew S Pulido

Ron: It sounds like a product worth checking out, at least. I'm glad you had fun, and glad that there's wrestling worth watching in other parts of the continent. Thanks for the review! That's all for this week. Please keep the great letters coming and have yourselves a great weekend.

That's all for this week. Have a fantastic holiday weekend, happy holidays, and merry Christmas. Iíll see you next week.

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