Monday, March 14, 2016

The Rise and Fall of Vince Russo

The two Vinces
Screen Grab via WhatCulture
In 1995, pro wrestling was drastically changing. World Championship Wrestling premiered its weekly wrestling program Monday Nitro, which aired against WWE’s flagship program Monday Night Raw. WWE had lost numerous talent to WCW, the southern wrestling promotion owned by Ted Turner and presided by Eric Bischoff. WCW gained further popularity in '96-'97, with the nWo. WCW also used Japanese and lucha styles of wrestling, which were novelties to American audiences. Because of these factors, WWE’s outdated, hokey characters and angles faced all-time low ratings, while WCW retained an 84 week lead.

Meanwhile, Vince Russo — now considered one of the most hated bookers in wrestling history — was promoted to head writer of WWE in 1997. Vince McMahon realized the sea change that Bischoff instigated at WCW and looked to Russo to help overhaul WWE. With Russo’s promotion, WWE entered an era of increased violence, sex, and plot driven out-of-ring segments. The Attitude Era resulted in RAW going from its worst ratings ever to the best. Russo marked wrestling’s most fondly remembered era so distinctly, and yet, if you go on any wrestling forum, you’ll see almost unanimous hate for Russo.

If you look to Russo’s tenure with WWE, it’s hard to see why he is hated. WWE was superb at the time. However, Russo was within the corporate, bureaucratic system where McMahon presumably had final say. McMahon also had other backstage personnel in his ear, who may have steered McMahon away from Russo’s more gratuitous storylines. For example, Pat Patterson, Gerry Brisco, and Jim Cornette all played characters on-screen, and they all offered a more old school style of booking. With McMahon as the head of the company, Russo fit into the company hierarchy not at the top, but able to write angles that were sometimes provocative in a good way, sometimes in a bad way. This is most likely why people don’t usually point to Russo’s WWE tenure when showing how bad he is. Rather, they point to his tenure in WCW. Russo made WWE the top promotion during the Attitude Era, only to then go to WCW in 1999 and eventually kill it.

The main marker of Russo booking was that at every moment of the show something advanced a narrative. Most matches on RAW were short and often interrupted. The emphasis was on wrestling advancing storylines, rather than the wrestling itself. Segments would move quickly, and every character’s storyline would be interwoven.

During the '80s and early '90s, many matches had a top wrestling star beating nameless local talent or a perennial jobber. Under Russo, this dynamic changed so even jobbers had meaningful feuds and story beats. Also, most feuds lasted only a couple months, so not only was RAW fast-paced and narrative driven, but WWE was also constantly progressing on a macro level.

Famous storylines from Russo include Marc Mero trying to repress his sexually liberated girlfriend, Sable, which made women’s wrestling relevant in WWE again. Russo also transitioned Kama Mustafa from member of the Nation of Domination (based on the Nation of Islam) to the Godfather, a pimp who walked to the ring with his ‘ho train’. Russo popularized the ‘Kiss my Ass’ match stipulation, beginning when the Rock wrestled Billy Gunn. He also created the character Val Venis, infamous for his pornstar gimmick. Russo would later write a famously racist angle where Mr. Yamaguchi’s wife had an affair with Val Venis. Upon learning this, Yamaguchi told Val Venis ‘I choppy choppy your pee pee’ and then chops a giant sausage with a samurai sword. The next episode, Yamaguchi attempted to chop off Val Venis’s penis, only for the real John Bobbitt to turn the lights off and allow Venis to escape.

Some other Russo angles include the time when Big Boss Man crashed Big Show’s dad’s funeral, then dragged the coffin behind his cop car as Big Show rode on the coffin (Ed. Note - And what's worst, Big Show was the goddamn Champion at this time! - TH). One of the most egregious storylines from this time was when Big Boss Man kidnapped Al Snow’s dog Pepper, then fed him the dog in his hotel room. Snow then threw up and Big Boss Man rubbed Snow’s face into the dog meat throw up. There are many examples of storylines like this, for a couple reasons. Russo’s philosophy revolves around the idea that only wrestling fans watch wrestling, but all people watch stories. If the storylines comes first, it brings in fans. Russo was right about this, considering RAW reached its highest ratings ever, just months before Russo left the company in 1999.

Russo took what Bischoff started at WCW and made it its logical conclusion by modernizing Southern rasslin’, which had traditionally been more like a "real" sport than WWE, emphasizing the in-ring component. Southern promotions usually had less cartoonish gimmicks, most notably when Razor Ramon and Diesel adopted their "shoot" names to adopt more of a gang ethos. However, Russo was WWE’s answer to Bischoff’s WCW. Russo helped synthesize McMahon’s cartoonish, early 90s WWE with Bischoff’s edgy mid 90s "reality" WCW. The result was frantic, hyperreal, reality TV wrestling that felt in the same zeitgeist as things like Jerry Springer, Jackass, and Image Comics.

Mr. Yamaguchi about to choppy-choppy Val Venis' pee-pee
Screen Grab Via Dorkly
So far, Russo’s time at WWE doesn’t explain why he’s the most hated booker in wrestling history. At the time, many people disliked Russo’s approach, and a lot of internet wrestling fans consider Russo’s WWE tenure overrated. But the point stands, Russo helped create the most popular era for WWE. When people who hate Russo think of him, they tend to think of his time in WCW from 1999-2000, where he was hastily brought in as head writer after putting WWE ahead of WCW in the ratings.

Vince Russo left WWE with the introduction of their second weekly show Smackdown. Russo felt overworked. Meanwhile at WCW, Turner Broadcasting was increasingly displeased with Eric Bischoff, who, despite having managed to make WCW true competition to WWE, allowed numerous creative slip-ups that put Nitro behind RAW. Thus, Turner Broadcasting released Bischoff and brought in Russo.

Russo marked the tone of WWE so much from '97-'99, that it became easy to pinpoint what ideas were his when he moved to WCW. For example, there were various items ‘on a pole’ matches, a stipulation that had became common in Russo’s WWE, and even more common in Russo’s WCW. The items on a pole add narrative progress beyond ‘just’ a wrestling match. Often, the item would be brass knuckles or steel chairs, making the first wrestler to grab it have an advantage.

Some infamous Russo ‘on a pole’ matches include Viagra on a Pole. Leading up to the match, Billy Kidman made a sex tape with Torrie Wilson. Then, Shane Douglas tried to outdo Kidman with his own Torrie Wilson sextape, but couldn’t get a boner, so they had a Viagra on a pole match. There’s also the infamous Judy Bagwell on a pole match. Buff Bagwell’s mother, Judy Bagwell, was lifted on a forklift outside the ring as Bagwell wrestled Chris Kanyon. Had Kanyon won the match, Judy Bagwell would have became Kanyon’s valet.

Another match style, Mankind’s signature boiler room matches, which took place in actual boiler rooms. Not coincidentally, after Russo’s move from WWE to WCW, there were two boiler matches at WCW. This shows the nature of WCW’s scattershot booking under Russo. In WWE, Mankind lived in a boiler room and the stipulation fit his character. In WCW, match stipulations functioned to do something different.

However, even with Russo’s haphazard gimmicks, his main priority in WCW was to take the talented midcard that had been neglected, and push them. A big reason WCW was losing ratings under Bischoff was there were too many old stars. Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Kevin Nash had so much influence in the creative process that older stars were getting pushed more than younger talent. WCW became stale and a number of young WCW talent such as Chris Jericho, Big Show, and William Regal had already left to WWE. Russo was known to be outrageous, but there was hope that his flamboyant storylines would be overshadowed by his ability to give all talent something to do.

Vince Russo and Jeff Jarrett on Nitro
Screen Grab via What Culture
At Starrcade 1999 — WCW’s closest equivalent to WrestleMania — Bret Hart challenged Goldberg for the belt. The match ended with Bret Hart putting Goldberg in a sharpshooter and the referee calling for the bell, even though Goldberg hadn’t tapped. Russo was crazy about recreating the Montreal Screwjob in worked shoot format.

The next night on Nitro, the nWo was rebooted while Bret Hart and Goldberg had a rematch. Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, the original two members of nWo, came out with bats and attacked Goldberg. Then, Jeff Jarrett came out and spray painted ‘nWo’ on Goldberg and referee Roddy Piper’s back. This started nWo 2000, one of Russo’s big booking decisions in 1999. Fans criticized the reboot as a halfhearted attempt at rehashing an originally amazing angle that had already been forced into the ground. However, Russo had the right pieces in place to make it good: the original two members of nWo, Hart — the former face of WWE who was mostly neglected at WCW until now, and Jeff Jarrett, one of the few WWE defectors in the last couple years of the company.

However, it didn’t matter, because Hart suffered a concussion in that Starrcade match with Goldberg. Hart had been wrestling without realizing how awful the concussion was, and by the end of January, he took time off for injury. Hart’s time off for injury ended with WCW terminating his contract. Soon after, Hart retired. Jeff Jarrett also sustained an injury, so the nWo reboot lasted around a month.

Also around this time, WCW brought in Tank Abbott, an icon of early mixed-martial arts, as a prize fighter to challenge Goldberg. This feud never happened. Russo wanted Tank Abbott as the new WCW Champion, now that Hart and Jarrett—two of the leading candidates—were out with injury. WCW did not see Abbott as champion, so they removed Russo as head writer. Russo did not like the demotion and quit for three months.

That April, Russo came back along with Bischoff. They had big plans to reboot WCW. Their first order of business was to put over young talent who had been neglected in favor of aging talent. To do this, they made two factions. The first was the New Blood, comprised of new and underused wrestlers like Chris Candido, Billy Kidman, David Flair etc. They feuded with Millionaire’s Club, a stable of wrestlers like Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, and Lex Luger.

Russo and Bischoff made themselves the leader of the New Blood. This represented a symbolic gesture where they used the New Blood to penetrate the crony politics of old-timers with a lot of stroke backstage. Even though Russo was generating heavily criticized storylines at this time, if Russo was good at anything, it was putting over midcard talent. With Bischoff, who was booking wrestling gold only a few years earlier with similar faction vs faction (WCW vs nWo) booking, there was a glimmer of hope in the dying days of WCW.

The problem was New Blood was seen as cheap knockoffs of the Millionaire's Club. In retrospect, the New Blood should have been the faces in order to get more popular. Also, many of the New Blood feuds felt disjointed. For example, the relatively short and generally likable Billy Kidman as a heel against old bully Hulk Hogan as a face seemed weird. But Russo and Bischoff knew they couldn’t play ‘good guys’: viewers were extremely weary of both of them. Also, the New Blood functioned as a reframed nWo — heels that were actually liked — but Russo and Bischoff did not give fans enough reason to like them. The crowds were behind the Millionaire’s Club, putting this storyline to rest early. At this point, WCW had so many start-and-stops in a short period of time, things weren’t looking good.

Russo, Goldberg, Bischoff
Screen Grab via What Culture
Less than 4 months after the New Blood and Millionaire’s Club had started and quickly stopped, came one of WCW’s biggest Pay-per-Views: Bash at the Beach. At Bash at the Beach 2000 came the most infamous moment of Vince Russo’s career, and the death knell for WCW.

Hulk Hogan challenged champion Jeff Jarrett for the World Heavyweight Title. Russo, in a Barry Bonds jersey, mysteriously walked to the ring before the match. As the bell rang, Jarrett instantly laid down and Russo began pacing outside the ring. After a couple moments of confusion, Russo egged Hogan on to pin Jarrett. Russo eventually hopped on the apron, holding Jarrett’s belt, and threw it into the ring, while Jarrett continued laying there. Hogan looked flustered, grabbed a mic and said "Is this your idea, Russo? That's why this company is in the damn shape it's in, because of bullshit like this." Hogan put his foot on Jarrett’s chest and left with the belt.

After Hogan walked off with the belt, they cut to a short backstage segment, then cut back to the empty ring. Russo came back and cut a long promo. He said:
From day one that I’ve been in WCW, I’ve done nothing—nothing—but deal with the bullshit of the politics behind that curtain […] and I really don’t need this shit. But […] I came back for every one of the guys in that locker room that week in, week out bust their ass for WCW […] Let me tell you who doesn’t give a shit about this company: that goddamn politician Hulk Hogan. […] All day long I’m playing politics with Hulk Hogan, because Hulk Hogan tonight wants to play his creative control card. To Hulk Hogan, that meant that tonight, in the middle of this ring, when he knew it was bullshit, he beats Jeff Jarrett. Well guess what, Hogan got his wish. Hogan got his belt and he went the hell home. And I promise everybody, or else I’ll go in the goddamn grave, you will never see that piece of shit again.
That was both Hogan and Bischoff’s last night at WCW. Bischoff had planned to take time off with Hogan, but neither came back. Regarding the Bash at the Beach incident, the generally held position on it is that everything until Russo came back out to the ring was worked. Jarrett laying down, Hogan renouncing Russo in the ring and Hogan pinning Jarrett was worked. Bischoff wrote in his book that the storyline was supposed to be Hogan, pissed off at Russo, would take the belt and leave. Then, Hogan would return three and a half months later at Halloween Havoc, with Bischoff. Meanwhile, someone else would win an interim WCW Title and Hogan would challenge them to a reunification match. Instead, Hogan sued WCW for defamation, making it clear that Russo’s second segment was a shoot. The case was dismissed in 2003, long after WCW was bought out by Hogan’s new (and former) employer, WWE.

Russo holding the belt at Hogan as Jarrett is prone in the ring
Bash at the Beach 2000 was basically the end of WCW. Vince Russo stayed around a bit longer, but was fired before WCW went under. Bischoff would try to buy WCW, but when Turner Time Warner decided to take Nitro off the air, Bischoff saw no point in purchasing a wrestling promotion without a show. WWE bought it instead and gained all WCW footage for their archive. WWE assimilated WCW talent into their roster, in what is referred to as the Invasion storyline, which brought WCW talent to WWE. But the angle had lukewarm reception, due to many WCW’s biggest stars declining to participate. Not only that, but McMahon used the Invasion to bury WCW talent in the face of WWE’s talent.

Bischoff went on to play General Manager of WWE’s RAW for a few years. Jarrett, one of Russo’s top tier WCW talent, never went back to WWE. On the last episode of Nitro — after WWE bought out WCW — Vince McMahon was seen watching him live on the RAW/Nitro simulcast, before publicly firing him. As for Russo, after WCW’s buyout, he went back to WWE for a week and pitched McMahon a years worth of tv content before quitting/being forced out.

Russo’s reputation was completely tarnished by his run with WCW. Not only was his reputation ruined for hardcore wrestling fans, it was also ruined for the general viewing audience, due to his insistence on making himself such a visible character in the promotion. Russo went on to write for TNA Wrestling — started by his WCW poster boy Jeff Jarrett. After a few start and stops in his TNA career, he was eventually writing consistently from 2006 to 2012. To paint a picture of how hated Russo had become, whenever something happened that the crowd found particularly egregious, they’d chant "Fire Russo," even though many sources confirm many of these weren't Russo’s ideas.

In the internet wrestling community, nearly any comment regarding Russo already presupposes everyone hates him. Even mildly positive sentiments are usually qualified by "Russo sucks, but you have to admit," or something similar. Ultimately, Russo’s image is so damaged that he is blacklisted from WWE, and he will always be the metonymical punching bag for convoluted booking decisions. However, Vince Russo’s impact on the history of wrestling can never be reversed. He blended reality and stage—as well as sport and spectacle—in a way that fans can’t unsee.