THWD: 2001: A Wrestling Odyssey
by Tink Holloway on 21 July 2008
I’ve been feeling a little nostalgic this week, daydreaming back to a time when Raw’s main protagonists weren’t JBL and John Cena (and their ridiculous angle at the end of last week’s show). In particular I’ve been thinking about the small period of time between January and April 2001. During these months a number of events occurred that would reshape the wrestling landscape and throw it into an unknown future…
It was between January and April 2001 that the WWE gained a monopoly over the wrestling business stateside when it acquired WCW, whilst ECW (the real ECW, not the watered down, glorified version of Heat that passes for It now) went bankrupt and closed it’s doors. Meanwhile the WWE were busy presenting the best ever Wrestlemania and assembling arguably the finest working roster they have ever had. Yes indeed, these were remarkable times.
It had been no secret that ECW had been in financial difficulty for some time. With the increase in house show’s, foray into pay-per-view and the rising costs of a competitive, boom time wrestling industry, the money needed to maintain a worthy wrestling product had never been greater, however the fan base of the regional-gone-national promotion didn’t increase as quickly as their outgoings. When ECW secured themselves a network television deal on TNN in 1999, many within the company thought the answers to their problems had been found as it was quite understandably believed that the increased exposure would lead to a rise in incomings and solve the fiscal woes.
Unfortunately this was not the case, ECW’s fan base did not grow at the desired rate and furthermore the company had the financial burden of presenting a one hour network quality television programme each week, as it happened, the deal with TNN had ended up putting them in more trouble. When that deal ended in 2000 however, ECW no longer had the potential to grow any bigger than the cult audience it already had. The company struggled for the rest of 2000 to find a new network deal on a new channel. It was so important to the company’s survival that Paul Heyman, the genius behind ECW’s startling rise from North East Independent promotion to national, pay-per-view provider, dedicated his every waking minute to it. As such the product that he had so masterfully cultivated began to suffer, coupled with a large number of the talent walking out due to pay issues, ECW was in dire trouble. With no mastermind behind the story telling and no ‘mad professor’ to create new stars, ECW was on the road to oblivion- both inside and outside the ring. In January of 2001, ECW presented Guilty As Charged, and whilst the quality of the action was not in question the reason anyone would have to buy it in the first place was. The writing was on the wall for ‘Team Extreme’ and there appeared to be no way out.
Meanwhile over in WCW, their product had been in dire straits for the good part of two years due to a startling amount of mis-management, poorly executed, incoherent story lines and a failure to elevate fresh stars, all of these things resulted in the demolition of the large fan base WCW had amassed previously. To put thing’s in to perspective, WCW had reached it’s peak in 1998 when, in front of 40,000 people at the Georgia Dome, Bill Goldberg defeated ‘Hollywood’ Hulk Hogan to become the World Heavyweight Champion. It’s NWO story line had reinvigorated not only it’s own product but had been the catalyst for the WWE’s creative run in order to keep up in the Monday Night Wars. Undoubtedly WCW was feeling the benefit of the wrestling boom every bit as much as their rivals in WWE were and had a star in Bill Goldberg who, at the time if managed correctly, could have been every much the star Austin had been in WWE. Unfortunately, first Eric Bishoff and then Vince Russo, failed to capitalize on Goldberg’s awesome popularity and drove the company into a commercial recession.
At the beginning of 2001, the staff of WCW were starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel; Fusient Media Ventures, a company which collaborated with former WCW president Eric Bishoff to buy the promotion from Time Warner who were no longer interested in the wrestling business, announced that deal had been done and soon, an official handover of WCW, it’s contracts, tape library and copyrights would take place to the new owners. It was seen as a chance for a fresh start, an opportunity to do away with the backstage politics, poorly conceived ideas and win back some of those fans that had abandoned the promotion due to it’s sub-standard product. Immediately the difference could be seen, new stars began to be made, the company was doing away with some of the over-the-hill members of it’s roster and signing the likes of Christopher Daniels and Michael Modest to contracts. Furthermore, the creation of the Cruiserweight Tag Team Title was a bold step in upping the in-ring quality on show and a real step in the right direction. WCW, it seemed, was going places again.
Whilst all this was going on WWE was in the midst of the most successful run in it’s history. On the back of an edgy, racier product named ‘attitude’ the promotion had closed the gap and eventually passed the WCW in the Monday night wars through 1998 and early 1999. ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and The Rock had become megastars, and after years of Vince searching for his ‘new Hogan’, like busses, two of them showed up at the same time. Add to these two, talents such as Triple H, Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Undertaker, Edge & Christian, Hardy Boys and Dudley Boys the WWE had the most over and talented individuals in the game. In the previous year and a half, the Monday night war no longer really existed- WCW was completely unable to compete with the WWE juggernaut. McMahon’s company had become so successful that he floated the company on the stock market and became a billionaire almost over night. In short, business was booming for WWE at the beginning of 2001 as they started their annual road to Wrestlemania.
An announcement was made in March 2001 that put an end to the Fusient Media Ventures proposed purchase of WCW. Time Warner had decided that wrestling was ‘out of line’ with it’s public image and cancelled Nitro and Thunder from it’s television schedules. Without a television deal, WCW, in Fusient’s eyes, was worthless to them and the deal was off. As such Vince McMahon was able to step in and begin talks with Time Warner to purchase the company. On March 24th the deal went through, and a banner covering the front page of WWF.com which simply read ‘WWF purchases WCW’ was posted on the website to announce the news. It was a gigantic event in the world of professional wrestling, and it was clear that from here on, nothing would be the same. Fusient’s deal falling through and the subsequent WWE purchase of WCW had happened in the blink of an eye and nobody knew what to expect. That Monday, the WWE presented the simulcast of Raw and the final WCW Nitro, at the time they weren’t aware of it but that night they set in motion the beginning of the rest of the year’s main story line, the (often slated) invasion of WWE by WCW. Before that angle could get properly underway however, there was the small matter of Wrestlemania to present. Wrestlemania 17 was undoubtedly the grandest granddaddy of them all, as the WWE rocked 67,925 fans at the Reliant Astrodome in Houston, Texas. The match quality of this event has not been matched by any other Wrestlemania- Austin Vs The Rock, Triple H vs. Undertaker and the TLC 2 match were all 5 star classics. Add to that Shane McMahon and Vince McMahon’s impossibly good street fight, Angle and Benoit’s decent scrap, a quite splendid hardcore comedy match between Kane, Raven and The Big Show and a trip down memory lane with the Gimmick Battle Royal- Wrestlemania 17 had it all. But the event itself was much bigger than all that- it was a celebration of the end of the Monday Night Wars, a party to toast to the WWE’s victory in a war that had threatened to put the company out of business. With an Horizon that looked bright in the future due to the myriad new possibilities the WWE/WCW merger had brought about, for one night only the wrestling world stood still and soaked in the magnificence of it all. Wrestling had never been this good, and never would be again.
On April 4th 2001, just 3 days after Wrestlemania 17, Paul Heyman, who had already taken a job as a WWE commentator, filed for bankruptcy, effectively ending ECW’s life in the process. ECW had been on life support for some time by this point and Heyman’s inability to secure the promotion a new deal on network television had finally condemned it to the grave. News of it’s official demise brought about another major shift in the wrestling world. It was now a fact- Vince McMahon monopolized the wrestling business in the USA, a position that had never previously existed. As ECW had been the inspiration and the breeding ground for so many of the ideas and characters that were popular in the WWE at the time, the promotion’s demise was a real worry amongst those who foretold the problems a monopoly of the business could have. With two of the biggest wrestling promotions going under in a little under a fortnight, there was now only one place as a wrestler to seek full time employment, many would not be lucky enough to secure themselves a job with the WWE and fans themselves had a harsh reality to accept- either accept the WWE product or turn away from the sport altogether.
Comparatively, the wrestling world is going through extremely mundane times. In 4 months the wrestling world had been turned on it’s head, shaken about, wrapped in barbed wire and thrown down a hill with Vince McMahon picking up the pieces. Wrestling had not so much turned a corner than gotten on a plane to the other side of the world. The future was yet to be written and whilst there was a certain degree of apprehension, there was also excitement about what all this would mean. Wrestlemania 17 was a monumental event which had not been bettered before and has not since and the WWE had the key to presenting every possible ‘dream match’ we’d been waiting for- Sting Vs Undertaker, Austin Vs Goldberg- these were no longer beyond the realm of possibility. We have all since realised the damage that WWE’s monopoly has caused to the quality of the product which is currently provided by the and that is not going to change anytime soon (TNA doesn’t appear to be going anywhere right now). However, looking back, at the time, these worries seemed so far away, WWE had all the best wrestlers, a roster assembled to near perfection by Jim Ross, it had the wrestling world in it’s hands and we were all so excited about what they would do with it, the drawback is that these days we know.