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  1. #1
    Super Moderator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Prime Time Warp (again)

    As we rush headlong towards a new Millennium, we must come face to face with a reality that many wrestling fans, especially those who were around in time to see the wrestling boom of the 1980s, thought they’d never see. Following the final financial collapse of the McMahon family, the Monday Night RAW for the 27th of December 1999 will be the last event in the history of the World Wrestling Federation. It’s a surprise to some that AOL Time Warner didn’t stump up the relatively low amount of money to pick up the video library featuring the prime of some of their top stars, such as Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, but given the rather frosty attitude towards their own prize wrestling asset in WCW in some quarters of the media conglomerate it shouldn’t surprise anyone. The simple fact is that WCW will need to keep achieving at a high, high level, or wrestling in the United States could soon find itself in a very dark place.

    It’s funny to think about it now but it could easily all have been so different, and in many ways the whole thing tracks to the history of two men in the announce booth. The history of the Monday Night War as we know it is the history of Tony Schiavone and of Jim Ross, and the choices that Vince McMahon made when he was on top.

    Cast your mind back to the late 1980s and Schiavone and Ross were working together on programming for Jim Crockett promotions, while Vince McMahon’s WWF was still the top promotion, business-wise, not just in the US but in the world. Schiavone and Ross made a great team in many respects. Ross was probably the more typical wrestling announcer, injecting more emotion into his work, while Schiavone complimented that by being slicker, and having more of a straight-sports presentation – so much so that it wouldn’t surprise you at all to see him moving in that direction after wrestling. In short, they were great foils for each other, good enough to prove that you didn’t need a ‘color’ commentator in the WWF style – and also good enough to cover for the drag factor of David Crockett, the weak-link of the team.

    In 1989 it was Tony Schiavone that Vince McMahon approached, and he went North. I am not sure that stylistically this was ever the right call since Schiavone’s sports style wouldn’t work as well with the more cartoonish-style of the WWF, but there’s no denying that his attitude matches more closely with Vince McMahon’s, and that he more closely fit the image of an announcer that McMahon and his allies wanted. In that sense, it was a marriage made in heaven. Ross would stay with WCW, becoming their clear lead announcer.

    It was at the end of the one year contract that the crux came, when Schiavone was made a big offer by the new Turner bosses to return to what was now World Championship Wrestling. After agonizing about the decision Tony took the money…. Only to decide that he did not trust the new direction the company was taking, and that it didn’t compare to working for the industry leader that he’d just left. He called Vince McMahon to say he’d made a mistake and ask for his job back.

    That phone call is crucial, and we can only speculate as to what would have happened if Vince had said no. But can you imagine if he’d said something along the lines of ‘no, don’t move your family again; I’m sure we’ll work together again some time’? Schiavone would probably have stayed with WCW, and he might have even found his way back to being their lead announcer: perhaps Jim Ross might have even found his way to the opposition. Anything is possible, after all.

    But he didn’t – we know that Vince saw the man he wanted, and put his company before Schiavone’s family, and that Tony Schiavone was from that moment on groomed as the long term successor to Gorilla Monsoon. By 1991 Tony was commentating regularly on live events with Roddy Piper and Bobby Heenan, and was a key figure in Vince McMahon transitioning out of the commentary booth himself.

    If you’ve read so far, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a story about Tony Schiavone. But in truth the story of victory and defeat really rests with the man left behind: Jim Ross.

    In the first couple of years Ross flourished, working both in his commentary role and behind the scenes as both agent and creative in the NWA and early WCW, through to the end of the short-lived Bill Watts era at which point he was the head of broadcasting for the company. When Eric Bischoff ascended to the throne, his stock fell immediately. Bischoff didn’t much like Jim, and wanted a new image for his show, and Ross was side-lined.

    Much like with Schiavone’s phone call, it’s so easy to imagine this playing out in a different way. Just think about how things might have been different at this point if the WWF didn’t have their announcing situation sorted out. If there’d been space for a guy like Jim Ross to get a chance in the World Wrestling Federation. We’ll never know for sure but maybe Jim would have forced his way out of the company.

    With no interest from the WWF, though, Ross’s best options would have been commentating on Eastern Championship Wrestling or, more likely, joining up with Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling promotion. Realistically there was little choice but to take being pushed to the side in exchange for a steady pay cheque.

    Perseverance paid off and Ross eventually found himself back on TV. That he was not in the exalted position he had been was clear, as he was playing second-fiddle to the boss, Eric Bischoff. Still, as guys like Hogan and Savage started to appear on the WCW radar being the boss took up more and more of Eric’s time, and consequently Ross was delegated the shows that were further down the WCW pecking order.

    Eventually, Eric turned heel as we know – and think about it, who better to become the babyface voice of tradition at the commentary booth than the Oklahoman, the man who’d booked a good portion of the older WCW, JR? The older Ross, a bit weather beaten due to his health problems but older and wiser, elevated the story to whole other levels with his backing for Sting, Luger, The Horsemen, and anyone else who represented the traditions of Southern wrestling against the New York invaders.

    But as much as Jim Ross became the voice of the wars, this column is again not really about that. Rather, it is about his role backstage, because this is what truly made him such a vital player in the conflict.

    There’s no secret that Bischoff never really liked Ross, even as he brought him back into the fold. But the truth is that JR had a long history of contributing creatively, and once WCW and the WWF were going head to head it made little sense to ignore any asset that you had. While he handled the big picture, the man Bischoff would often turn to for the smaller feuds, and the more day-to-day creative tasks, was Kevin Sullivan, and Sullivan had a creative relationship with Ross going back at least to their time on the WCW booking committee in 1989. Together, and with the intermittent and occasional support of other key players like Flair, Dusty and Anderson, the group represented a traditional wrestling power-block within WCW. The constant support for Sullivan came from Ross, though, and without him it is easy to see how he could have been relegated to putting out fires and responding on the fly until eventually being replaced. As it turned out, their working together gave Sullivan more strength, and allowed for a more coherent structure beneath Eric. This is something that the WWF never seemed able to get in place under the control-freak Vince McMahon, although the briefest of tenures that Vince Russo had as a key writer will always be a fascinating ‘what if?’ for some wrestling fans. The truth is that without that support in place, McMahon was never really able to turn a corner from the dark financial days of late 1997, never able to maximise the good start to things he could generate, and with WCW offering a solid if unspectacular show that rarely mis-stepped through 1998, the writing has really been on the wall for some time.

    Most important of all, perhaps, is just to look at the roster of Thunder since the show debuted last year. It’s no secret that Bischoff wanted a lot more talent to start another show in prime time, but what is less well known is that a lot of the current names holding up that show almost certainly wouldn’t have signed for WCW without Ross. Look, for a minute, about the guys that they raided who’d enjoyed a couple of good years in ECW. Is there any chance that Steve Austin would have come back to WCW, after the promos he cut for Paul E., without a backer of his like JR to smooth the way? The same is probably true of Cactus Jack, who had a couple of stints in WCW but always wanted first and foremost to be a WWF guy. There’s always a chance he’d have come back when the call didn’t come, but it’s far from a guarantee. And then there’s Dwayne Johnson, who without Ross’s extensive research into talent from legitimate athletic backgrounds probably doesn’t make it to one of the major promotions in time to have any bearing on the Monday Night War.

    There’s another intriguing ‘what if?’ in play here. I know that some people will laugh at me for thinking that the TV Champ, ‘Stunning Steve’, could really have made much of a difference had Ross been at the WWF and had the influence on Vince to bring him in. Admittedly it does feel a bit of a longshot for a career midcard guy to be the difference maker against a promotion that has at least one participant in each of the first twelve out of the fifteen Wrestlemania’s on their roster: and lord knows that the state the company has been in, this year’s barely counts. But the truth is that guys like Austin and Cactus proved that they can sell tickets and cut great promos while in ECW, and it feels like they’re stuck on an overcrowded roster. Perhaps a guy like Johnson might even have fully fast-tracked if the WWF had gotten to him first. You can’t help but wonder what might have happened if they’d had a bit more space to breathe, and whether the WWF would still be with us if they’d had someone to steer McMahon towards those guys who didn’t fit his idea of what a ‘sports entertainer’ is, or taught him to look in more athletic places. Maybe, just maybe, he needed a number two guy who still understood wrestling as wrestling.

    Now, though, it is too late to worry about such things. Tony Schiavone performed admirably for most of his career with the WWF but he didn't have those extra strings to his bow, and consequently he was never going to be the man to help turn things around once WCW surged ahead. The end result of it all is that the next RAW is to be the last and no one really knows beyond that what the future will hold. For my part, I hope Schiavone returns to call the show. I know that the quality of his announcing took a steep dive off a cliff in the back end of 1998 and he was removed from TV earlier this year to be replaced with the young Michael Cole, who as someone from outside the world of wrestling will presumably transition back into a more conventional media gig. I think that as a company man through and through, Schiavone felt the strain more than the more easy-going guys on the payroll and that started to come through on TV in the darker times. It is telling that he gets far more positive press from the people who knew him in better times than the few who only knew him as the empire fell around him, though I don’t say that to excuse anything he might have done near the end. But he’s still been the voice of the company for ten years, and if there’s going to be a last hurrah it just feels right that he’s the man to do the play-by-play.

    There’s no word as yet on what the main event will be. All indications suggest that it will feature The Undertaker, the last bastion of the WWF and one man whose future will be monitored very, very closely in the coming months. But we’re not sure who is going to be against him. There’s no one who really symbolises the WWF in the same way left, a statement that probably gestures to a lot of the reasons why they’re going to the wall. Hunter Helmsley is an option, as is Billy Gunn. But in a way it’s a real shame that Bret is with the opposition and Shawn is hurt, because it feels like the WWF should end with two of their last, genuine home-grown stars squaring off against each other. I guess that things rarely work out as perfectly as that, and the two great legends of their era closing the doors does seem to be good to be true.

    Regardless of what they end up putting on, for old times’ sake, I’ll take a path that’s been quite rare over the past couple of years and skip Nitro for one last evening with the WWF for company. And I think going forward I’ll do them one final solid- I’ll remember the good times, of Bret and Davey, of the Wrestlemania Ladder match, and of Hogan in his glorious 1980s pomp, rather than the terrible mistakes they made while they were circling the drain. When this whole thing seems to rest on such fine margins as seemingly-harmless decisions made years earlier, it seems the least I can do to be fair to all involved.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  2. #2
    LOP's Xavier DynamiteBillington's Avatar
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    Had to read the opening sentences a couple of times before I realised what was going on! Initial reaction was that it was an old repost, then things started not adding up. Once my brain kicked into gear, this was an interesting take on an idea that's been done many times in the past. For all the Bischoff v McMahon or Turner v McMahon discussions, I think this is the first time I've seen Ross v Schiavone as the key battle in the MNW era. Considering how well documented Ross's behind the scenes contribution was at WWE, I guess it's a very plausible scenario - and it's also well documented that they haven't really created any new stars of their own since he was responsible for development. If he'd done that at WCW this could well have been the ultimate end...

    Except I don't believe it would have been the end. I believe had WWE lost the MNW, they would have still existed as a smaller, but broader company. I know here in the UK it had an extremely solid fan base and long term TV contract, whereas WCW was barely shown. I'd never really heard of it throughout most of the 90s, obviously it's possible I just hadn't found WCW prior to that, I think it only started to appear on TV in about 99ish.

    I do think WWE's international TV contracts would have been enough to keep some version of the company going had the lost.

    Nice column though, lets do the Prime-Time Warp again sometime
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  3. #3
    The Brain
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    I love that idea that whatever company Human Suit Tony ended up staying with would have died. That's what happens when you put an alien monster in your top announcing position!

    Seriously though, this was very interesting. The impact of Jim Ross as a talent scout shouldn't be underestimated and was probably my favorite part of all of this. Tony felt very awkward to me in his brief WWF run and I think is maybe the reason Vince did turn him down when he wanted to come back. WWF loves for the announcers to also be characters, especially in that era, and I don't think he could have ever pulled that off, whenever they had him do skits on Prime Time he looked like a deer about to be hit by a semi.

    I do really wonder if Ross could have brought guys like Austin back into the fold. Dusty was there and he couldn't do it, despite being a big Austin guy, but maybe Ross would have been the difference maker. The saddest thing about this scenario is that WCW would have almost certainly died anyway a couple years later, so in this world we'd soon be left without any top level wrestling, and without a big payday to work towards, I don't think places like ECW would last either. American wrestling might have died off completely.

    Super interesting piece, really liked this Pete. Great to see you dust off the old pen!

  4. #4
    "Behind every successful man, there's a slut." JL CanadianCrippler's Avatar
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    Fucking awesome column Prime Time! I love how you kept unfolding the layers of the story to a much deeper root. What inspired you to write this?

  5. #5
    Super Moderator Prime Time's Avatar
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    DynaBill: Ha, yeah, I don't give you much time to orient yourself in these do I? Straight in with the weird time shit. I'm not even sure it's a battle really, so much as an acknowledgement that despite Vince and several of his key allies under-appreciating Ross for a lot of his time there, you got much, much more than simply a lead announcer, even if you think he's the best in the world. He adds so much more.

    As to the end of WWF, I sort of took that to be the beginning so it happened here because that was one of the central points from which the rest of it worked out. But for what it's worth, I think you're a bit optimistic in the assessment. I got to the point of 1997 when they were taking the water coolers out of Titan Towers because the company were losing money hand over fist. Then I thought what would have happened to the company in 1998 if they had no Steve Austin (and I dismissed Mr McMahon because he had no Austin to play with), no Foley, and no Rock. So given they were fucked even with the British deal if they hadn't fought back in '98, I came to the conclusion that it wasn't possible to come back without all that talent. If anything, I think I've been a bit generous by allowing them to limp on until the end of 1999. That was a fictional device on my part to invoke the millennium - they'd almost certainly have gone belly up by the end of '98 if WrestleMania XIV hadn't been a hit.

    As for WCW on British TV... no, I'm afraid that's not quite right. They were on ITV in the early 1990s, Worldwide I think it was. I didn't watch it much then because at that age you were the minor leagues if you didn't have Hogan, so what was the point. Then that went away around 1993 I think. I started watching regularly in 1996 when Nitro was put on, and caught it weekly from about 1998. Used to talk about it with a few people every Monday, though not as many who wanted to talk RAW. Just to round it out, Worldwide was back on Channel 5 by 2000, I think. So WCW did have a bit more of a presence than the WWF liked to suggest and actually came and toured here in the early '90s, though it is true that 'The Friday Night War' was a lot more one-sided in favour of the WWF. But to be clear Nitro was on our TV from very close to when Hall jumped the railing, as it happened. It's almost like they knew they had a big story coming up.....

    Glad someone got the reference in the title!



    Mizfan - Ha, you're so mean to poor Tony! I don't know if it's that which makes me want to sympathise with him or if I can just relate to his self-confessed social awkwardness and I'm actually emphasising with the guy. I sort of agree with you on the Tony/WWF run and sort of don't. I agree that it's not his best work and I do think he's pretty awkward with the possible exception of the Summerslam he calls. I tried to touch on his presentation being a weird fit for the WWF at the time in the column. But to be honest, I just don't think Vince agrees, for two reasons. One, I think if he thought that, there wouldn't have been another deal on the table for Tony in the first place. He'd have just let him go. And two, I've heard other people say Vince has made similar comments about putting family first before - and I think that if I'm going to knock the man when I think it's deserved I have to be honest when he might be putting other people first, and to me it does seem like something Vince has a history of doing. So yeah, ultimately I think whatever we think of Tony's WWF run I'm just not sure McMahon thinks the same way.

    I'm not really sure that they would have all come back in, so I had to come up with a situation that was quite different from the real world to justify it. So that's why I waited until Thunder, with the justification being that they would all have been waiting 2-3 years longer, without a major promotion pay cheque, and that could have changed a lot of attitudes. It's still just a theory at best of course, but it seems to me a lot more plausible that everyone would have been willing to do business again in 1998 rather than just saying they all came in later in 1996.

    Glad you picked up on the pessimistic note near the beginning about how WCW might not have survived anyway. Always something to think about. Could have been a bit of a wilderness, though I tend to think at least one channel would have taken a punt on WCW for Bischoff et al if there was no WWF out there. Maybe that's wishful thinking on my part?

    CC - Thanks for the kind words. The inspiration came when I was reading this interview with Schiavone and about how close he came to going back, and I got to thinking about how the WWF always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Ross and it was interesting how, when the two worked together, they went for Tony. And then the scenario just unfolded in my head and I started writing it down. Vince probably wouldn't have been in the market for Ross if he already had Tony signed up.... and that means that Ross's extra curricular stuff wouldn't have been to their benefit... and the company nearly died in 1997... and the people who led the fightback were all signed by or under the influence of JR (with the exception of 'Taker, HHH, and the McMahon family themselves).... and it just seemed to me to be really likely that without his backstage role the company would have died. So in many ways Vince is lucky that Jim Herd offered Tony Schiavone enough money to move back to the South, and that's a funny thought.



    Bit early on the F2F this time but thanks to everyone that has read and replied so far.
    Last edited by Prime Time; 06-07-2018 at 07:18 AM.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  6. #6
    LOP's Xavier DynamiteBillington's Avatar
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    Never realised WCW got on British TV that early - I'd certainly never even heard of it till 98-99ish when I started seeing it mentioned on the internet!

    And yeah, I got the reference...maybe getting that but not knowing about the 2nd biggest wrestling promotion says weird stuff about me! Perhaps I'm on the wrong forums....
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  7. #7
    Super Moderator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Yeah, when I was doing the MNW series I found they'd been on since May of '96. The first time I definitely remember seeing Nitro was probably around October of that year, though it's not impossible it could have been earlier. It was definitely after Hogan was revealed as the 'third man', because Hogan 'going bad' genuinely was like the shot heard around the world. It got eyes on the product in Britain that wouldn't have paid attention otherwise.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

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