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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Some New Lessons in "Old School" Raw

I had more fun watching Monday Night Raw last night than I have in a long, long time. Having followed WWE for nearly 30 years, last night’s “Old School” Raw was right up my alley, and, I suspect, the alley of a lot of wrestling fans around my age. From the retro show opening, to the red-white-and-blue roped ring, to the numerous appearances by WWE stars of yesteryear, the program allowed me to revisit some fun memories from my childhood.

But more than just deliver a one-time nostalgia fix, last night’s Raw actually offered a lot of lessons that remain relevant in the modern wrestling era.

Here’s some of what I took away last night:

With the right theme, a theme-show could work: With pay per view buy rates shrinking over the last several years, WWE took the questionable route in 2010 of rebranding many of their traditional PPV offerings to instead be “concept shows.” The flawed theory reasons that since the Royal Rumble is always good for a few extra buys, why not have every pay per view carry a specialty match theme? And so WWE came up with Fatal 4-Way, Money in the Bank, Hell in a Cell and TLC. None have done anything to drive up buys, and instead have served largely to water down once special stipulations. While I remain down on the idea of gimmick-match centered shows, I’d be all for an annual “Old School” show. It might even be a good idea to move the theme show to pay per view, rather than giving it away from free on Raw. Coincidentally, Survivor Series may be the ideal stage for a nostalgia show. The event, now in its 23rd year, reeks of old-school, so much so that WWE nearly canceled it, feeling its dated tag-team elimination format had become irrelevant. But such a format would be perfect for an annual legends match, where the old timers could “compete” without any one being called on to do all that much. Most importantly, it would allow WWE to brand a show with a “theme” without affecting its organically-developed main storylines and top matches. WCW experimented with just such a concept in the early 1990s with its first Slamboree events, which featured whatever big matches they had on top, and a couple legends matches on the mid-card.

Nostalgia has its place: As a longtime Yankee fan, one of the highlights each year for me is “old-timers day,” when retired Yankees from over the years return to the Stadium, don their old uniforms, and play a couple innings of ball. The key to maximizing the value of the retired players is to bill them as legends, honor their past contributions to the sport, and make their appearances feel special. As beloved as Reggie Jackson may be, no Yankee fan would argue that he should be playing right field today for the team. The money is in presenting Jackson as a superstar of an era gone by, and then presenting Derek Jeter as just as big a star for this era. That point appears lost on TNA, which believes that the fact that Hulk Hogan, Sting and Kevin Nash were effective headliners 15 years ago must mean they could still be effective headliners today. In fact, if Dixie Carter took over the job of general manager for the Yankees, I imagine Jackson would be batting cleanup today, perhaps behind Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield and Yogi Berra.

Some of what worked then would still work today: WWE may have intended to get no more than a few chuckles and smiles by bringing back some of the old staples of WWE’s programming from the 1980s, such as the interviews on the small stage, the “Update” segment with Gene Okerlund, and the small picture-in-picture promos that ran during a couple matches. But it struck me that all those ideas could work well today. One of my favorite features of the 1980s-1990s WWE programming was the “Update” segment, where Okerlund would recap storylines. The same format was used for special pay per view “Report” segments, in which Okerlund would run down the entire card for an upcoming pay per view. Those are both effective tools of promoting that, for some reason, have fallen by the wayside over the last 15 years. Similarly, the small insert promos could help several wrestlers get their personalities over without taking up any extra TV time. And conducting the occasional interview or angle on a ringside stage, rather than in the ring itself, would offer a refreshing and much-needed change of scenery.

WWE has an announcing crisis: Perhaps one of the most underestimated contributing factors to WWE’s recent drop in business has been its subpar announcing team—the worst crew of play-by-play and color commentators I can remember in WWE’s history. Michael Cole’s inconsistent heel persona has only confused fans and distracted from the matches and storylines he is supposed to get over. Jerry Lawler is professional, but unmotivated. Matt Striker is a cliché dispenser. And those are WWE’s three best announcers. But because mediocrity has become the standard, most WWE fans may not even notice how bad they are. All they know is that they are not particularly inclined to tune in to next week’s show, or buy the next pay per view. Indeed, WWE announcers' primary job is to sell the product, and clearly they not have not been effective in doing so. Enter Jim Ross, making a special one-night-only return to call a match last night. Instantly, we were reminded how good WWE announcing could be. Ross called the action with passion and zeal, got over the characters, and spoke as a voice of the fans. And he looked great. It’s absolutely insane that the greatest wrestling announcer in the history of the sport is at WWE’s disposal, and they don’t use him. Even if they never bring back Ross to the booth full time, WWE needs to do something to shake up its listless announce team.

WWE has a rich tradition: I don’t know the logistics of doing so, but I’d be all for WWE re-visiting legal settlement with the World Wildlife Fund, and making an attempt to bring back the WWF name, and the classic logo that was on display Monday night. Even eight years into its new name, WWE still does not easily roll off the tongue, and I still cringe every time the mention of the old letters is censored, or the “Attitude Era” logo is blurred out. Even if WWE can’t get back the WWF name, it should do everything it could to pay homage to its history. It’s taken some big steps toward doing that in recent years, with its historic compilation DVD releases and line of “Legends” action figures. Creating an actual WWE Hall of Fame building, as has been rumored, would be fantastic.

Some old timers still have something to offer: Perhaps with a straight face, Hulk Hogan would argue that his mission in TNA is to use his star power to “get over the young guys, brother.” Of course, many astute observers of TNA and the “Hulkster” would beg to differ. But, it remains true that, when used correctly, legends from past generations could be effective in helping establish today’s stars. I can think of no better recent example than Monday night’s show-closing “Piper’s Pit” segment. The “Rowdy Scot” may have done more to bring into focus John Cena’s moral dilemma heading into the Survivor Series than anybody else for the past month. Adding gravitas to the situation was the wisdom Piper could offer from his decades in the sport, and the respect that Cena said he had for Piper and his generation. Who would have thought that the MVP of the go-home angle heading into this Sunday’s pay per view would be a 56-year-old retiree? While WWE should be commended for its recent youth movement, there remains something to be said for the valuable roles of wise, experienced, grown men in a winning wrestling formula.

Some wrestling stories have happy endings: 2008’s Oscar-nominated film, “The Wrestler” told the tragic tale of a down-and-out former wrestling star spending forced to live in a trailer park and slice meat at a deli after his wrestling career was finished. It’s a story that resonates throughout the sport, but it’s not universal. Monday’s Raw illustrated that, in fact, many of the stars we grew up watching years ago are now well-adjusted, comfortable and happy in life after wrestling. Tito Santana is a successful business owner in New Jersey. Roddy Piper has been trying his hand at stand-up comedy, and is cheering his son on in his career as a mixed martial artist. Nikolai Volkoff has a municipal job and even ran for public office some years ago. And, of course, several WWE stars from the past remain employed with the company in backstage roles. It was nice to be reminded that not everyone ends up like Randy “The Ram.”

-Al Castle
Pro Wrestling Illustrated Senior Writer


Felicity Walker said...

I wish I'd known about this episode. I got bored and depressed with WWE about three years ago and haven't watched it since. I like the fact that in TNA I can see some of the people I miss from WCW.

J\/\/ said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. Agree on all counts, although I'd simply bring back Slamboree with a large tag match and a couple of singles legends matches (with those that can still go) on the undercard.

-Josh Watko

Steve said...

I agree with about everything. Especially what you said about JR. He is so much better than Cole. JR calling the match was the highlight of the night. I would also like to see WWE use a few of the old superstars as managers.