Friday, June 30, 2017

Vince McMahon's Top Booking Blunders Pt. 1

Vincent K. McMahon (Vince Jr.), is the primary owner and CEO of "World Wrestling Entertainment" (WWE), formerly known as the "World Wrestling Federation" (WWF) promotion. The son of Vincent J. McMahon (Vince Sr.), who himself owned and ran Capitol Wrestling, which later in the  60s became the "World Wide Wrestling Federation" (WWWF), after growing up not really knowing his father well or being around the business, he finally got into it as an adult, and became an announcer for his father's company in the 1970s. By the early 80s, he was practically running the promotion as his father's health declined, and he eventually bought the company from his dad in 1983. His father would pass away in May of 1984.

I can't speak for Vince Sr., of course, but I would imagine, knowing his "old school" wrestling territory sensibilities, that he probably wasn't thrilled with what his son did after the sale. Vince Jr. went about, basically, "poaching" many of the big stars from other territories and promotions nationwide, until by late 1984 and into 1985, he had what looked to a growing national (instead of merely regional) audience, as a "superstar" roster. He also undercut the other promoters and promotions, not just by taking many of their stars, but by going against the "old ways" of territory wrestling in North America, and getting his product broadcast nationally in syndication, cutting into regional audiences. Due to this, most of the old promotions and territories, unable to really compete, eventually had to close up shop. Many within the business reviled Vince Jr. for his strong-arm tactics, but many wrestling fans, especially as that audience grew thanks to the WWF's growing exposure, hailed him as a genius.

The Event that started it all.

Regardless of his perception, Vincent K. McMahon undeniably had the pro wrestling world (or at least the United States and Canada), by the proverbial balls by 1985. He further tightened his grip, by cross-promoting with MTV, and with celebrities such as Cindy Lauper and Mr. T, in the buildup to what many hail as his greatest creation: the very first "Wrestlemania" event. He put so much money and effort into building up and promoting Wrestlemania 1, that it is very fair to think that the WWF might not have succeeded long term if the event had flopped. But, bolstered by a main event that saw fan favorite Hulk Hogan team with Mr. T to fight against the dastardly duo of "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Wrestlemania was a success in closed-circuit venues around the nation (this was before Pay Per View really took off). In the years since the first Wrestlemania, he has been hailed by many within the industry and fans alike, as a "genius" promoter and booker of matches and creator of "stars". And in all fairness, he does deserve some of the credit he gets.

But I am here today to illustrate that not all that Vince McMahon has touched was gold. In fact, I could probably write a book on the number of booking gaffes and silly, bad, or outright distasteful TV moments and wrestling angles McMahon has been responsible for over the decades. Hell, the much-lauded "Attitude Era", which I will likely write about at some future date, was absolutely rife with such examples. In fairness to "Mr. McMahon", not every bad moment and match and angle has been his idea, nor fully his fault. Yet, it is a well known fact that even though other "writers" or bookers come up with ideas, ultimately, it is Vince himself who has final approval of everything that you see on WWF/E television. And ultimately, many of the biggest (and sometimes worst) ideas that make it to TV or PPV, are in fact Vince's own brainchildren. So without further buildup, let's dig into some prime examples of what I personally consider some of Vince McMahon's Top Booking Blunders!

THE Top Villain of mid-80s wrestling.

1. The Main Event of Wrestlemania 2

In 1985, in in the buildup to Wrestlemania 1, and in the aftermath, there was honestly not a single personality more hated, nor with bigger "heat" from the fans, than "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. He was the biggest villain of the mid 1980s in the pro wrestling world. From attacking beloved pop star Cyndi Lauper, to antagonizing Mr. T, to bullying his "Piper's Pit" talk-show guests and infamously smacking Jimmy Snuka in the head with a coconut, this man was controversy personified. He could talk fans into a frenzy, and though he was more of a "brawler" in the ring most of the time (an 80s Stone Cold, if you will), he was more than capable of taking people apart on the mat, and through various means both legitimate and nefarious, he always found a way to win.

And that is the point of this, not only chronologically the FIRST of Vince McMahon's missteps I'm going to list, but in many ways, his BIGGEST Booking Blunder. The fact is, Roddy Piper was nuclear hot in 1985, and that didn't really diminish because Hogan and Mr. T won that first Wrestlemania tag-team main event. Now obviously I've never worked in the pro wrestling business, but I've been a fan of it for a very long time, and I think I have both a firm enough grasp of wrestling, and a creative enough mind, that I can understand how something might "go over" or be popular. To my mind, the BIG money, and the OBVIOUS move, if Vince McMahon wanted to follow his first Wrestlemania event with something even bigger, was to "pin his star", if you will, to the villanous Mr. Piper.

 The Match that SHOULD have been.

It has long been stated by fans and critics, that Roddy Piper is one of the most notorious examples of a top star in the business who was never "World Champion". And that easily could have, and easily SHOULD have been rectified in 1985, by having Piper win "the strap" from Hogan sometime shortly after Wrestlemania 1. Have him do it by cheating, with "Cowboy" Bob Orton's help, or whatever else you can think of. But the hot money, I think, would have been to have the asshole Roddy Piper take the belt from everyone's "Hulkamania" Hero, and continue to find ways to keep the belt around his waist, and OFF of Hogan's, for the next full year. Add new wrinkles as the year goes along, find new, more "heelish" ways for Piper to cheat Hogan and scurry away. By the time Wrestlemania 2 is going to happen in 1986, fans are legit going to want to kill this guy (even though I'd like to point out that actually being wrestling fan reality decades ago, was really sad). They should be so furious at Piper, and so sick of their Hero being denied retribution, that the ONLY answer the WWF can provide, to ensure a FAIR and FINAL outcome, is to have a Cage Match for the title at WM2.

Now, in reality, they DID have a Cage Match at Wrestlemania 2. But for whatever ridiculous reasons, Vince Jr. decided that it was a better idea to have the hulking King Kong Bundy face Hogan in a cage as his main event. As for Piper? Well, he got caught up in a very awkward continuing feud with TV celebrity Mr. T, made more awkward by the fact that the two men very obviously disliked each other for real. They were put in a "Boxing Match" at WM2, already not a great idea, and it not only wasn't a good match, but ended anticlimactically. And frankly, while I'm sure fans were happy Hogan survived facing the "behemoth" Bundy in a cage, it did not have anywhere NEAR the same kind of marquee value or colossal impact  that Piper vs. Hogan could have had. Not only did Roddy Piper, one of wrestling's greatest stars ever, DESERVE to be a world champion, but him as a cheating, shit-talking, conniving champ who made Hogan chase after him for an entire year before finally giving fans some payoff in a Steel Cage? Yes, THAT would have been guaranteed money. In fact, it would have, to my mind, only been second in possible epicness of a Wrestlemania main event, compared to what would follow the next year: the immortal Wrestlemania III match between Hogan and Andre the Giant.

I don't know if we'll ever know exactly WHY Vince didn't see the obvious with this Piper/Hogan feud. In fact it makes it WORSE that they DID feud after WM1, just not for very long. Not only that, but while he was absolutely the most popular wrestling star of the mid-80s (or hell, all the way into the early 90s), Hulk Hogan being champion from 1984 all the way into 1987, wore thin on many fans. It would have had greater impact, I think, and more meaning to fans, if Piper had been champion for a long stretch, and THEN Hogan got his belt back, and went on dominating for awhile. Either way, I think this is easily the most obvious and most glaring Booking Blunder on McMahon's part. He could have had one of the greatest and most memorable Wrestlemania main event matches of all time, and instead, he chose a rather boring match-up that most fans probably forget these days.

The Immortal Macho Man, Randy Savage.

2. Cutting Short the Macho Man's Run

After the aforementioned Wrestlemania III match pitting Hulk Hogan against the hitherto undefeated Andre the Giant, which saw Hogan infamously body slam a man who had never been body slammed before (at least to popular knowledge), Hogan's days as World Champion were finally numbered. A newcomer to the WWF landscape in 1987, was "The Million Dollar Man" Ted Dibiase, a rich man who believed that for "the right price", he could get anyone to do almost anything. He even believed that he could buy the WWF Championship from Hulk Hogan, which Hogan declined. So instead, he formed an alliance with Andre, effectively "hiring" the giant to win the championship for him instead. This occurred on the first ever "Main Event" (later called Saturday Night's Main Event) program on television, which saw Andre finally beat Hogan for the title, only to turn around and sell it less than one minute later, to Ted Dibiase for a "large sum of money". The WWF vacated the belt, however, treating it as Andre relinquishing the title, and put it up for grabs in a title tournament that would be held all in one night, at Wrestlemania IV.

Meanwhile, "The Macho Man" Randy Savage, who had spent his first two years as a dastardly bad guy in the WWF, lost his Intercontinental Championship to Ricky Steamboat at WMIII in a match that many consider the greatest Wrestlemania match of all time. After that humbling loss, he gradually underwent a transformation, spurred on by his valet (and love) Elizabeth, until by 1988, he was a full on fan-favorite. He entered the tournament at Wrestlemania IV, and for the first time in WM history, Hulk Hogan would not be in the main event match, which instead pitted Savage against "The Million Dollar Man" himself. In what was actually a rather good match, Savage overcame all odds, and became the WWF Champion. All of that is what DID happen, but I'm now going to show what I think SHOULD have happened next.

Dibiase, caught in the grip of Macho Madness.

In what would become a recurring theme for Vince McMahon, he would build up new top stars for his company, only to basically abandon them and revert back to his older star. This happened to Macho Man, it happened to Ultimate Warrior, briefly to Bret Hart, and has even happened a lot in the modern era, with many stars being forgone for the likes of Randy Orton or John Cena. In Macho Man's case, by 1988, especially after winning the title, he was easily on equal popularity footing with WWF fans as Hogan. What actually happened, however, is that his "babyface" run with the title didn't last all that long, as over the next year, he became "paranoid" of Hogan spending too much time with his girl Miss Elizabeth, and this jealousy drove him to turn on Hogan, and even Elizabeth herself for years, effectively turning him back into a heel rather abruptly.

Now on paper, I get it, Hogan vs. Savage at Wrestlemania V WAS big money, and a pretty good match. But I just don't think it all should have went down quite like that. I think that Savage was a popular enough star, and WWF NEEDED a fresh face in the spotlight, that Vince should have chosen to keep him as a top babyface for much longer than he did. I think the main event for Wrestlemania V, should have seen Savage facing some top heel, perhaps even a rematch against the "Million Dollar Man", or perhaps fellow newcomer villain "Mr. Perfect" Kurt Hennig. Just the thought of Hennig vs. Savage sounds amazing to me, as these were two of the best actual wrestlers in the pro wrestling industry, of all time. And if you HAVE to have your man Hogan in the spotlight, hell, even another Tag Team main event for Wrestlemania V, with the "Mega-Powers" of Hogan and Savage vs. Dibiase and Mr. Perfect, that still would have been a great and memorable match.

You could eventually do the Hogan vs. Savage thing, and the Savage heel turn, if you MUST, at Summerslam 89 or something. But really, I think that Savage could have worked as a babyface in the late 80s and early 90s much longer than he did. Make no mistake, he was a fantastic heel, one of the best ever. But he was also a great, and colorful hero, whom the fans loved. To my mind, he would have been a far better choice as "the next guy" after Hogan, than Ultimate Warrior, who was pushed the following year in 1990. Hell, now that I've brought it up, I'm always going to want to see a Wrestlemania V main event with Savage vs. Perfect, especially considering Perfect was another amazing talent that never got to that World Champ level.

This has Main Event written all over it.

3. The Bewildering Choice for the Wrestlemania 8 Main Event

The WWF's top rival in the 1980s was the NWA, the National Wrestling Alliance, or what was left of it, a governing body of territories that it was once part of. Their top star in the late 80s, was "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair, and many wrestling fans had dreamed of what a clash between the two great champions, Hogan and Flair, would be like. That match became possible when Flair left NWA/WCW in 1991, and joined the WWF. The world title would become vacated by Hogan, and put up for grabs in the 1992 Royal Rumble match (the only time that the Rumble was for the belt ITSELF, and not for a SHOT at the belt), and Flair went on to win that match, becoming he new World Champion. The initial plan, as stories have it, was for Flair and Hogan to fight at Wrestlemania 8, in what likely would have been a huge main event. However, because of egos, politics, or maybe even in part to the brewing (and now infamous) "steroid scandal" of the time, that match didn't occur. Instead, Randy Savage, who had shifted back from heel to babyface (with Miss Elizabeth once more), became the challenger for Flair's title.

Still one of the funniest images in wrestling history.

Now whale Flair vs. Savage probably didn't have QUITE the marquee value that Flair vs. Hogan would have, still, it was a no-brainer to be the main event of Wrestlemania 8, pitting two of wrestling's biggest stars against each other, in what had become a very personal feud. The match itself was also rather good, and while I contend that Ric Flair is actually one of the most overrated "Legends" in wrestling history, his match with Savage was actually rather good. But, Vince McMahon, in his infinite wisdom, decided to put his "True Star", Hulk Hogan, in the main event, in a NON-title grudge match, against yet another villainous giant, Sid Justice (aka Sid Viscous, aka Sycho Sid). This made no real sense on any level, as the World Title match SHOULD have gone last, by tradition, and Hogan was a fading star at this point, about to take "time off" due to being caught up in the steroid scandal, and Sid himself would not remain with the WWF long after this match. The match itself was dull, with a badly conceived clusterfuck "disqualification" ending built around the "SURPRISE RETURN" of the Ultimate Warrior.

Rumors have it that Flair vs. Hogan didn't happen in the first place, because too much ego was involved over who was going to have to lose the match. But regardless of that, Flair vs. Savage was the match that should have main evented the show, no matter how you try to look at it. It was purely a bonehead decision on Vince's part to ever do otherwise. Savage certainly deserved another main event, and he wound up winning the belt anyway, so it would have been a nice moment to end the show with. And why bother bringing in a huge star like Flair and MAKING him World Champ, only to NOT have him in your main event? I don't rank this QUITE up there with the Piper/Wrestlemania 2 debacle, but it's pretty close.

Another One Bites the Dust.

4. Bret Hart's First World Title Run Being Cut Short

As I said, it became a recurring theme. After Wrestlemania 8, which had also seen Bret Hart start to rise as a singles star (after years as part of the successful "Hart Foundation" team with Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart), Savage and Flair would continue to feud, with Flair ultimately recapturing the WWF Championship. However, for a variety of reasons, Flair's WWF tenure didn't last much longer, and he wound up dropping the belt to the young Bret Hart in October 1992. Flair returned to World Championship Wrestling television, and Hart was chosen by Vince to be the new face of the company, in a new era he was heralding as "The New Generation". A huge part of the reason for this, was because of the previously mentioned "steroid scandal", as Vince made a concerted effort to have less stars on his shows that LOOKED like they were, to put it lightly, "big roided up bodybuilders". Bret Hart was a smaller, more natural athlete, and an incredibly technical wrestler, who had become popular with the fans, so he was a great choice to represent this "New Era" for the WWF.

Along with many "smaller" stars like Tatanka, Shawn Michaels, the 123 Kid, Owen Hart, etc., Vince also started pushing more "fat guy" wrestlers, the opposite extreme of "big men" who didn't look like roid freaks. The most prominent of these, was a Samoan wrestler with a sumo wrestler gimmick, called "Yokozuna". In reality part of the famous "Wild Samoan" wrestling family, Rodney Annoa'i was a mammoth of a man, standing at around 6'4" and weighing over 500 lbs. For such a huge man, he was still surprisingly agile in the ring, and a solid wrestler, and he dominated everyone in his path. This led to him challenging Hart for the WWF Championship at Wrestlemania 9, an outdoor event held in Las Vegas. The match itself was decent, and there was plenty of drama with fans wondering how the smaller Hart could triumph over this giant.

Sorry Bret, you got Hogan'ed.

However, as you can see above, Bret Hart did not get the spotlight he deserved as the "New Top Guy", in the end. Hulk Hogan, who had a tag-team match earlier in the night, was back in the WWF, and sporting a notably smaller look, as if perhaps he had been through a "Juice Squeezer", if you get my meaning. In the main event, Bret Hart got "salt" thrown in his eyes by the villainous manager Mr. Fuji, and due to this cheating, Yokozuna became the new WWF Champion. Almost immediately afterwards, the song "Real American" started blaring, and out comes Hogan, to "defend Hart's honor". In reality, Hart was being pushed to the side, while Hogan was being plugged BACK in by Vince McMahon as his top star. In a very brief match that followed, Hogan beat Yokozuna cleanly, 1 2 3, and yet another Hogan related clusterfuck of events to end a Wrestlemania, he was the new champ.

Not only did this move once AGAIN not make sense, but it wound up biting Vince in the ass, as Hogan's following reign and feud with Yokozuna, unsurprisingly, wasn't met with tons of fan enthusiasm. As great a star as Hogan had been, he'd also been on top for about a solid decade in the WWF at this point, and even with many of his most ardent fans, his act was growing stale. Yokozuna eventually won the title back at Summerslam '93, and Hogan was soon gone "for good", joining the rival WCW. Meanwhile, Bret Hart, who had been left with the scraps after being built up as a top star, was STILL popular with fans, and even in the face of Vince trying to shove the big buff Lex Luger down fans' throats as the NEW "All-American" hero, Vince finally relented and crowned Hart as the Champ and Top Guy over Yokozuna in the main event of Wrestlemania 10. 

If I were Vince, I would have stuck with my guns, and pushed "The Hitman" Hart to the moon. Have him retain the belt at WM9, he can lose it to Yoko later, only to finally gain it back at WM10, etc. But the point is, this was the third time in a row that Vince had done this, moving on to a new Top Guy, only to lose his nerve and put the spotlight back on Hogan. He did this with Macho Man, then Warrior, then Hart. With Hogan finally gone, you'd think maybe he would have stuck with Hart as the top guy long-term, but no...that's just not Vince. Instead, a whole different "Kliq" of problems arose.

One of THE top "Big Men" of the 90s.

5. Squashing Vader's Monster Push Because HBK Whined About It

Hart WOULD be the star of the WWF, for a time, but eventually Vince moved on again, to another "Big Man", as he is historically infamous for being enamored with. This time, it was the giant "Diesel", otherwise known as wrestler Kevin Nash, part of a new "Kliq" of wrestlers in the WWF that included Razor Ramon, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, 123 Kid, and "The Hearthbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels. In another rather bullshit turn of events, Vince had Bret Hart feuding with the former WWF Champion from his father's era, Bob Backlund, who had returned with a "crazy heel" gimmick. He had Backlund beat Hart, which on paper is fine, because Backlund was a great wrestler, whom Hart could eventually win the belt back from. But instead, he had Diesel beat Backlund shortly thereafter, in a "historic" matter of seconds with one move, becoming the new WWF Champ. Diesel would go on to hold the title for over a year, and while he was popular with fans, he was not really a "big draw", as his year+ as champ was the lowest point, ratings and gate attendance-wise, in the WWF's modern history. Meaning, that keeping the belt on Diesel as long as he did, was yet another of Vince's Booking Blunders.

He eventually, once again, had to go back to Hart, who was popular not only in North America, but worldwide, as his top guy. And he built up a feud that culminated in one of the best Wrestlemania matches and main events of all time, an hour-long "Iron Man" match between HBK and Hart at WM12. Michaels had already challenged for the belt against Diesel at WM11, in a match overshadowed by a main event that saw the giant Bam Bam Bigelow lose to former NFL star Lawrence Taylor. He had also faced off against Bret Hart in the past for the title, including in a ladder match that preceded his famous one against Razor Ramon at WM10. But in all of those instances, he had been the cocky, chickenshit heel that he played so well, in part because in real life, at that time, Michaels was cocky, arrogant, and not terribly likable as a person. At WM12, he beat Hart for the title, in a forced "overtime" restart of the match, and finally became Champ. The problem, at least from my view, was that he did it as a "babyface". Why is that a problem?'ll see.

It's Vader Time, Bitch!

Hart took a hiatus from wrestling for many months after that WM12 match, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, he had been working for the WWF almost non-stop, 300+ days a year, since the mid-80s. For another, he was just burnt out from, quite frankly, dealing with backstage BS from the likes of Hogan, and now the likes of the Kliq, whom Vince reportedly deferred to (meaning he let them get their way), quite a bit. Turning HBK into a babyface didn't really work, because he had been SUCH a slimy heel for years by this point, and fit the role so well. Him suddenly being a "starry-eyed hero, who just wanted to live his boyhood dream of becoming World Champ", just didn't come off as genuine. Even after the WM12 match, as a glimpse of his real life persona, he famously told the ref to "Get Hart out my fucking ring", so he could have all the spotlight to himself. A move not only classless to the guy that just put you over and helped make you a star, but also clueless, because while fans DID cheer for Michaels, they also STILL loved "The Hitman".

So it was 1996, the "Year of Michaels". Bret was gone off of WWF TV for many months, and HBK had the spotlight all to himself to be "The Man" of the company. Except, similarly to Diesel, he was not really that much of a top draw. And part of the reason for it, was that he always won, and many fans just didn't buy his new "good guy" image. Kinda like how Randy Orton never comes off as a convincing "good guy" nowadays. Well, in the meantime, a new star had debuted in the WWF, the monster Vader, once a top star and World Champion of rival WCW. They brought him in like a force of nature, the ultimate bully, "breaking" Yokozuna's leg, and attacking good and bad guy wrestlers left and right. He had no allies except for his manager Jim Cornett, and he seemed pretty unbeatable. This was the setup for Summerslam 96, which saw HBK defend his title against "The Man They Call Vader" in the main event. Now, it seems very obvious to me, looking back, the way Vader was booked from his debut all the way up to Summerslam, that Vince was behind this guy, and rumor has it that Vader was supposed to have a run as champion. And that totally makes sense, because Vader IS one of the best "big man" wrestlers of all time, coming hot on the heels of his dominating WCW run. Having him be WWF Champion, even for a short while, would have really cemented the guy as a credible monster in the WWF, who could have been a threat for years.

Instead, Shawn Michaels, as he had built a reputation for doing, complained to Vince that he didn't want to work with Vader, because Vader was very "stiff" in the ring (meaning that while he didn't literally beat you up in a match, it was pretty close), and he didn't want to put Vader over. So, just like that, Vince capitulated to his new "Top Guy", and Vader was beaten at Summerslam, and wasn't given a serious push for the entire duration of his tenure in the WWF (which lasted well into 1998). To me, Vince should have seen that there was bigger money, and bigger fan interest to be had, if you just let Vader run wild over the roster for awhile, by himself, an unbeatable monster. Make him your champion, and have HBK, or a returning Hart, or hell, even my guy The Undertaker, be the one to finally end his reign of terror. Making Vader champion and having the heroes try to stop him, to my mind, would have had a lot more value in it, than pushing Michaels to beat big guy after big guy after big guy, which is what basically happened. Even when he eventually lost the belt to Sycho Sid, it was due to Sid cheating, essentially. Plus, it's just shitty the way that Vince treated Vader during most of his WWF run, all stemming from the fact that HBK whined about having to work with him.


And that's all for Part 1, folks! Stay Tuned for Part 2!