I want to tell you a story about failure. America prides itself on its indomitable spirit, its optimism, its ingenuity, and all of that has a ring of truth to it. But for every winner, there is a loser. The winners get to write history, but the losers have to weather it. The winners are America’s hallmarks, but the losers are America’s backbone. I want to tell you a story about that backbone, personified by perhaps the greatest failed business in modern American history: World Championship Wrestling.
Picture the continent of Westeros. The Seven Kingdoms pepper its hilly, green landscape all the way to Castle Black. Territory remains beholden to elite family names, carved out over generations, and though these families sit at the top of their respective food chains, they all owe fealty to the King of the Andals and the First Men, stationed in King’s Landing. That’s effectively what the business of professional wrestling looked like for a long time.
ONCE UPON A TIME
There was Southwestern States Enterprises, ruled by the Funks, based in West Texas. There was Stampede Wrestling, ruled by the Harts, based in Calgary. There was Georgia Championship Wrestling, ruled by the Andersons, based in Atlanta. There was World Class Championship Wrestling, ruled by the Von Erichs, based in Dallas. (Not to be confused with World Championship Wrestling – we’ll get to them soon enough.)
On and on these territory “kingdoms” went. Each wrestling promotion thrived in their own little pocket of Collectively, they all fell under the umbrella of wrestling’s King’s Landing: the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). Having one of your promotion’s wrestlers hold the NWA World Heavyweight Title was akin to sitting on the Iron Throne. It meant your wrestler was the best. It meant more eyes on your product, higher ticket sales, more business.
It also meant a lot of political maneuvering behind the scenes. Like the Peace of Westphalia that followed the Thirty Years’ War, the smoky-room reality of the wrestling business thrived from the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1980s. It had to. The alternative was unfathomable; without a strong, interlocking alliance, promotions might begin to gobble one another up.
And that is exactly what eventually happened.
WINTER IS COMING
I’ve neglected to bring up two other wrestling “kingdoms,” but they were perhaps the most important: the Starks and the Lannisters of the professional wrestling world. Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) was the Stark family. Located in the “Mid-Atlantic” area (the Carolinas and Virginias), the Crocketts wielded enormous industry power. They had incredible wrestlers, a rabid fan base, and in their corner office, one of the most respected promoters in the business: Jim Crockett, Sr. Call him Big Jim.
Big Jim was a good ol’ boy, a backslapper, a double-chinned, bespectacled, big-and-tall, country club, Southern charmer. You don’t dominate a region of the country for 38 years without learning how to shake a few hands. Perhaps the personality wasn’t a match, but in terms of his respect, power and gravitas, Big Jim was Ned Stark.
You also had the Lannisters – the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Ruled by the McMahon family, the WWF was based in New York City, and they acted like it. Vince J. McMahon Sr. was a yankee entrepreneur that controlled New England wrestling with an iron grip. He didn’t care much for the Southerners who made up the majority of the NWA. As a result, Vince Sr. had a tendency to pull the WWF in and out of the NWA’s control depending on how he felt on any given day. They had a ton of money, a great territory, but not a lot of friends throughout the rest of the country.
Things were about to change. It was the 1970s. Winter was coming. In the wrestling world, winter was cable television. And the ultimate White Walker was billionaire businessman Ted Turner. Cable recalibrated the way wrestling promoters thought about their business. Before cable, it didn’t make much financial sense to partner with one of the Big 3 television networks and air your wrestling matches nationally. The Big 3 had plenty of programming already, and besides, wrestling’s popularity had collapsed since the 1950s.
But cable was new. Cable television executives like Ted Turner needed lots of cheap programming that he could air around-the-clock on TBS: the SuperStation! He couldn’t afford scripted shows or big celebrities. He needed to make celebrities and pay them dirt. Wrestling was visually dynamic, had a year-round schedule, and hell, Ted was already a fan.
The question was: how would the wrestling promotions react? Would they unite and air a truly national brand? Or would one promotion usurp the opportunity at the expense of the rest? The answer came quickly: unity was out of the question. The promotions all tried to elbow their way onto Ted’s network. The NWA was still alive and ostensibly in charge of the promotions, but it had suddenly become second priority. Who cared about the Iron Throne when winter might destroy them all?
The big winner of the cable television sweepstakes ended up being the Starks: JCP. Thanks to cable, guys like “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair and “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes became household names. The Crocketts didn’t know it yet, but it would be the last ‘win’ they would ever have. Heads were about to roll.
YOU WIN OR YOU DIE
First, Big Jim died. Those prime rib steaks, night caps, and Marlboros caught up to his weakened heart, but it was still a surprise. Even more surprising was who he left in charge of the company: his 28-year-old. For the purposes of our story, one could say Big Jim had two offspring: his flesh-and-blood son, Jim Jr (the Robb Stark of our story), and his pride and joy, JCP. The company had been around longer than Jim Jr. had been alive. One would have to forgive Jim Jr. for thinking he was conceived and brought to term for the sole purpose of running this company. His fate was not his own; his life did not belong to him. He was an indentured servant to a wrestling promotion, like a slave, like a mandingo fighter in pre-Civil-War, Jim Jr. wasn’t the man-of-the-room that his father so effortlessly personified. He was quiet, timid, and thoughtful. His father had been a bombastic man’s man, and so Jim Jr. became used to listening a lot – instead of talking. This polar personality suited him well growing up… but it would not suit him as a grown-up. He was about to be chewed up, spit out, and left to rot.
Meanwhile, Vince Sr. also died. The patriarchs of the Starks and the Lannisters were no more. In Vince Sr.’s place came Vince Jr. This is the Vince McMahon we all know today. Jim Jr. may have been born to run a business, but Vince was born for business. Vince didn’t just have a silver spoon in his mouth; he chewed that silver spoon up, swallowed it down, and demanded another.
Even if Vince hadn’t been born into wrestling royalty, you get the sense that Vince would’ve become a wrestler anyway. Beginning with Vince, the Lannister comparisons dissolve. Vince is just too sinister for the Lannisters. Too vengeful. Perhaps a better comparison is Harry Osborn of SPIDER-MAN fame.
Like Harry Osborn, Vince watched his father die, but not just once – twice. Before Vince Sr. died physically, he faced his personal death the day the Crocketts shook hands with Ted Turner and assumed cable television supremacy. Vince Sr. was never the same. He wandered WWF headquarters like a lost child. The passion was gone.
Vince loved his father, but seeing him this way was crushing. His father’s death shortly thereafter felt like a gift. But in response, just like Harry Osborn’s transformation into the Green Goblin, and just like Harry’s promised revenge against Spider-Man…Vince promised revenge against the Crocketts.
ANSWERING INJUSTICE WITH JUSTICE
Vince started buying out the competition, territory after territory, assimilating their talent into the WWF. The NWA tried to get him to stop, but Vince didn’t care. He was going to create a national brand. Vince went one further. 1984. While Jim Jr. dillydallied with Ted Turner at TBS, Vince swooped from behind and formed an under-the-table deal with Ted to take the programming block away from him. The WWF now had the cable trump card.
Jim Jr., not used to aggressive tactics like this, tried to plea and bargain with Vince and Ted to get the WWF off the air– but money talked. And for the moment, Vince had plenty. Jim Jr. thought he had no choice. He would have to buy out Vince’s cable buy-out. This ended up being a huge mistake: that’s because TBS viewers didn’t care much for WWF wrestlers at this time. Outside of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, TBS viewers were Southern, and they wanted Southern wrestlers. Not the WWF yanks! Jim Jr. should’ve waited it out, let the WWF wallow in the ratings collapse, but they didn’t. Instead, Jim Jr. handed Vince a check for millions of dollars, all so JCP could regain the TBS timeslot. By then, secretly, Vince was all too happy to take the cash and walk away from what had almost been a disaster.
In fact, Vince would use Jim Jr.’s money in the following year to finance his biggest national show yet. The one that changed the game again. The first Wrestlemania. Winter had come. In the sea change, Vince had nearly lost, but won. Jim Jr. had nearly won– but now he was losing. The buy-out ran JCP’s finances dry. People were watching his wrestlers on TBS (on a show that was now called “World Championship Wrestling”), but Jim Jr. was still losing money by the week. By 1988, the White Walkers overtook Jim Jr.’s Winterfell. JCP was out of money. Ted Turner sat down with Jim Jr. in his Atlanta-based office and offered to buy JCP, its wrestlers, and its bookers for a song (along with a few other promotions, but that’s not relevant here). Jim Jr. had no choice but to sell.
Ted promised Jim Jr. he’d retain creative control, or at least a chance to consult. He never got it. Within a week, Jim Jr. was kicked out of his own building. JCP was officially rechristened WCW. Ted Turner put his boots on his desk, lit a cigar, and laughed.
ALL MEN MUST DIE
The remaining Stark children (see: JCP’s wrestlers) scattered across the country. Many remained with the new WCW. Others went to the WWF. The rest worked smaller promotions and never quite returned to their cable glory days. But at least they could have peace-of-mind knowing JCP’s dissolution wasn’t their fault. They weren’t the failures. It had just been bad business.
Jim Jr. was the failure. He’d been outsmarted, outwitted, outplayed. For every Vince, for every Ted, there is a Jim Jr. The poor guy would sit on the sidelines for the next thirteen years as WCW evolved, succeeded, and eventually, collapsed. From 1988 to 2001, Jim Jr. had to watch the mutated child of the Crockett family without any say or control. Imagine yourself in that position. Would you still feel a sense of ownership? Could you bear to watch the bastardized version of your family’s legacy? Could you stand in front of your father’s grave with pride or dignity? Would you be able to find peace in being a loser in the American game of success? Or would you forever carry that heavy burden until you, too, were dead?
GET RICH OR DIE GRAPPLIN’
Just like poor Jim Jr., the people in charge of WCW would never be particularly savvy at the business. The organization’s history is easily partitioned into three parts: The Early Years, when WCW was like Little Mac in Nintendo’s PUNCH-OUT! Just a scrawny, innocent, doe-eyed contender, filled with promise and hope, looking for a way-in. These were the days of Sting, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Barry Windham, Ricky Steamboat, Vader, and even Cactus Jack.
The Middle Years, when WCW brought out the checkbook to finally match the WWF’s cutthroat business tactics. These were the cool years. The years when WCW was a genuine pop culture phenomenon. The years of the nWo, Hollywood Hulk Hogan, Eric Bischoff, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Goldberg, Diamond Dallas Page, and Rey Mysterio, Jr.
Finally, the Last Years, when financial constraints, big egos, and wild ideas turned WCW into a trippy tornado of half-baked plotlines, celebrity world champions, unbelievable gimmicks, and eventually, system collapse. These were the days of Jeff Jarrett, Vince Russo, Booker T, and even David Arquette.
By story’s end, WCW joined Jim Crockett Jr. in the cesspit of American failure. Both of them fascinating snapshots of capitalism at work. It’s an important story. Each chapter of the saga, every pay-per-view and major Monday Nitro, presents a new twist, a new curl, or a new detail. If you want to understand why some people succeed and so many others fail, if you want to understand the rise-and-fall story of so many athletes and entertainers, you have to dig deep into the greatest sports-entertainment company in the history of our sport: WCW.