Tomorrow night, World Wrestling Entertainment celebrates its one thousandth episode of Monday night RAW. It has come a long way from the very first episode on January 11th, 1993 and back then it was only an hour long. Now it’s two hours and will extend to three hours weekly after the 1000th episode. You might also be interested to know that the first episodes of RAW were live; however, they began alternating between live and taped episodes from 1994 onwards due to the financial strain of having to shoot live shows weekly. Of course, Vince McMahon was still a part of the show in that era too but as a colour commentator. Oddly enough, Macho Man Randy Savage also served as a host of Monday Night RAW.
Unlike the Attitude Era that would soon come and the present age, the characters that the wrestler’s portrayed in-ring were much more colourful and exaggerated. While there was no Hulkamania to run wild on the crowds there was an appearance by Doink the Clown, Undertaker was in full supernatural mode and Scott Hall cut an interview as the suave, stylish, arrogant American bully, Razer Ramon. It was as far from the grit and realism of the Attitude Era as you could get. However, the live format also allowed for surprise title changes and the opportunity to watch storylines unfold as they happened. It was little wonder that World Championship Wrestling followed suit in 1995 with the live Monday Nitro.
While the creation of WCW’s own Monday night wrestling show would inevitably lead to the Monday Night Wars between the then WWF and WCW, the rivalry between Ted Turner and Vincent Kennedy McMahon had been raging since the 80s. Before RAW, the WWF ran a program called WWF Prime Time Wrestling. However, this show was nothing like what RAW would be. It was a compilation of wrestling matches from house shows along with interviews and information on upcoming pay-per-views. In 1985, Ted Turner put on the pressure and forced McMahon to sell the program’s time slot on TBS to Jimmy Crocket Promotions, a Southern-based, NWA-affiliated company. Prime Time Wrestling would reappear on USA Network later that year but it was not an event that McMahon would forget easily.
Following the debut of Nitro, WWF RAW looked to be sinking at times. The show struggled to maintain ratings and compete with the WCW, while the rival company introduced shocks galore by having ex-WWF wresters such as Lex Lugar, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash show up and publicly criticise their former promotion. Furthermore, because Raw was still alternating between taped shows and live ones and Nitro was completely live, WCW had the advantage of being able to expose and spoil WWF storylines before they happened. It felt like a nail in the coffin when Hulk Hogan sided with Hall and Nash to form the New World Order. At that time, the WWF filed a law suit against the WCW, claiming that Hall’s character was too close to his WWF persona, Razor Ramon, and the nWo as a whole acted as WWF affiliates. Whilst it was ultimately a futile attempt to slow how the rise of the ever popular WCW, in the end WWF withdrew their claim in exchange for the rights to bid on the WCW if it ever fell into liquidation. But, how likely did that seem at the time?
The beginning of the Monday Night Wars (approximately 1995-1997) was the lowest point for WWF RAW, and the company in general, and it truly seemed like the program might go of air. If it had this blog would have been completely different. There wouldn’t be any 1000th episode of Raw at all. Yet, it’s unfair to blame WCW entirely for the near demise of RAW. WWF was still relying on the clear cut, gimmicky characters. But the children who had grown up enjoying that formula were now older and they were the audiences that were tuning into wrestling shows, not children. They were the ones with expendable cash to buy the merchandise, not children. The rise of the internet had also done a lot to change the face of wrestling. The viewers were no longer ignorant of how wrestling worked since the wrestler’s real identities and rumours about upcoming storylines were all slowly becoming available worldwide. Kayfabe was broken but the WWF was still living in the 1980s.
Given these factors, coupled with the fact that many of the older, most established wrestlers were under contract with WCW, the WWF began to build up new, younger wrestlers and introduce edgier storylines. Signs that the WWF was beginning to change were evident in 1996 when Brian Pillman pulled a gun on Stone Cold Steven Austin and in 1997 Bret Hart spent most of time, when he wasn’t wrestling, cursing at fans. In 1997, RAW also went under some reformatting, and became known as RAW is WAR, thanks to the induction of a second hour known as WAR Zone. The creation of a black power stable, Nation of Domination, the provocative D-Generation X and the infamous Montreal Screwjob pushed a lot of boundaries previously unseen in professional wrestling and established the iconic figures of The Rock, Triple H, Mr. McMahon and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
By 1999, both shows were tied for ratings and consistently drew ten million viewers each Monday. A lot of significance is given to the fact that WCW spoiled Mankind’s title change on January 4th 1999. However, WCW’s decline began well before 1999. WCW had no changed with the times as WWF had and continued to rely on older names rather than build up new ones, such as Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio or Eddie Guerrero. All would, and two still have, successful careers with the WWE. Furthermore, WCW lacked innovative storylines. The nWo became divided and fought but fans soon began to bore of nWo heavy storylines. One new star they did build up was Goldberg, who was billed as an unstoppable force but the storyline failed to significantly pay off. That’s not to say that Mankind’s title change didn’t help. 600,000 people immediately switched channels following the WCW announcement, although the WWF had already stated it on their website six weeks prior.
While that wasn’t the immediate end of WCW, the company failed to mount a comeback and, in 2001, it was sold to Vince McMahon, which was a possibility thanks to the outcome of the previous lawsuit. The WWF and RAW has ebbed and waned in popularity since then but it has never been as close to dying as it was during the Monday Night Wars. And, having looked at the past, we can look at the current programming and see how it has changed. Now it is kids who have the expendable cash, so we can see a slight return of the more clean cut good and bad guys, like John Cena. But we can also see honesty and grit of the Attitude Era exemplified in CM Punk’s promos, which cut very close to the truth, both in and outside the ring. The last time I spoke on a wrestling event it was when John Cena and CM Punk were set to wrestle each other. Now, here we are again. The Best in the World takes on the Resolve of Steel. Can you wait? I can’t.