WrestleMania is the biggest event in professional wrestling. This weekend, millions will watch the annual World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) event. In the late 90s/early 2000s, the wrestling industry was at its height; one episode of WWE Raw did a 7.1 rating with over seven million people tuning in.
With the advent of reality television, the 24 hour media cycle and the Internet landscape – think You Tube – professional wrestling is doing half the ratings it did over a decade ago. Many of the industry’s fans long for the good ole days. That was a time when wrestling was more mainstream. Everyone wanted to be a part of it. Talents like The Rock, Mick Foley, Steve Austin, Sable and Goldberg ruled the pop-culture universe.
Vince Russo was one of the individuals both hailed and criticized for the highs and lows professional wrestling went through a decade ago. Going back to the Monday night ratings wars of the 90s and early 2000s, Russo – along with WWE owner Vince McMahon – helped move WWE Raw from its second place position, overtaking WCW’s Monday Nitro. This gave Raw the number one spot in all of cable television.
After falling to second place in the ratings, WCW hired Russo away from the WWE in an effort to regain the number one spot. That never happened. While only at the company nine months – broken up over its final years of operation – many people blamed Russo’s creative direction for its downfall. This happened even though he took WCW’s shows from 2.6 to 3.5 in the ratings during his first few months there.
Anyone looking deeper into the situation would probably come to the conclusion that after the merger of AOL and Time Warner, WCW was doomed. There seemed to be no more interest in the wrestling business. Apparently, however, no amount of analysis prevented some industry insiders and critics from trashing Russo. They used him as a scapegoat for all that was wrong with the business.
Perhaps, the low point for pro-wrestling enthusiasts came when Vince Russo came out from behind scenes and appeared as an on going character on television. Subsequently he gave actor David Arquette the WCW World Championship. Russo claims those creative decision were not his. However, appearing on TV gave him newfound respect and better insight regarding wrestling’s superstars.
Today, Russo is trying to make magic happen with Total Nonstop Wrestling Action. Better known as TNA, the company – founded in 2002 in Nashville, Tennessee – offers an alternative to WWE, with programming on Spike TV. Earlier this month TNA moved its show to Monday nights in hopes of bringing back the ratings wars of the 90s. They hope to cash in on fan nostalgia.
Working the creative side of the business, Russo says it might take two, three or four years, but he believes it is possible for TNA to overtake WWE and have the number one wrestling show on TV.
Hulk Hogan’s coming to TNA is sure to boost the company’s profile. Russo had a famously controversial angle involving Hogan on a WCW pay-per-view event in 2000. It led to a lawsuit by the Hulkster but Russo says they now get along fine. He speaks about that incident and paints a great picture of professional wrestling’s highs and lows in his new book Rope Opera: How WCW Killed Vince Russo.
Listen to the Vince Russo CYInterview:
(Backup Player: Including IE)
Chris Yandek: The best way to look at this story is to say that you gave many of your best years to Vince McMahon and then you headed over to WCW and you talk about how your time there really took a toll on yourself and your family. For all the things you weren’t happy with in WCW and even afterwards now things you’ve dealt with in TNA, I wonder why does Vince Russo stay in professional wrestling altogether? Why don’t you walk away and do something else?
Vince Russo: “That’s a good question and the answer is really two fold. Number one is, when I started back in pro wrestling, which was like about 1991, I think I started working for Vince in about 93 or 94. As soon as I got in the wrestling business, the downfall was that I knew I was painting myself in the corner because I knew that once I was choosing this as what I did for a living there just weren’t many options for me.
Wrestling isn’t a computer company. There’s not a hundred other companies to go out there and get employed. At the time it was WWF and WCW. So like I knew early on that if I succeeded in the wrestling business I really didn’t have too many options and that really has rang true throughout my entire career. There’s not many places to take the background I have in professional wrestling. I mean, I write a wrestling show. I produce wrestling talent and outside of our circle, Hollywood, television, movies, etc, they really look down at the wrestling business because they really don’t understand what it is.
For that reason number one, painting myself in a corner and not really being able to take my craft outside of the business. That’s number one. And number two, it’s like no matter how hard I fight it, this is what I do and I know this it what I was made to do and this is what I was built to do and I’m good at doing this. For those two reasons that’s primarily why I just continue to stay in the job that I’m in.”
CY: So regardless of all the negative criticisms and everything else, you really believe this is just what you know, this is just what you are and you’re going to ride it as long as you possibly can?
VR: “Well, I don’t know as long as I possibly can, but I do know that this is what I was built to do. The critics and the people who criticize, they have no idea what it is to write a two hour wrestling show every single week and I’ve been doing it since about 1996 and they have no idea what goes into it and just how hard it is because there’s no down time and the reality of it is you gotta be built a special way in order to do that and I know I was just built to do it. This is what I do and this is what I will continue to do unless something happens or something else more appealing comes along.”
CY: Why do you think a good amount of people in the wrestling community like to use you as the easy scapegoat for the downfall of professional wrestling? I don’t understand how you ended up with this title if you were only in WCW for nine months. Before that obviously you had much success with McMahon. Why do the pro wrestling enthusiasts like to criticize you? Is it because you were an outsider? Is it because you had a different vision? Why do you think you were the easy scapegoat all of these years when in reality you were only one person in a bigger echelon of disasters at WCW?
VR: “I think it’s three things. I think you hit two of them on the head. I was an outsider. I never made any bones about that. I didn’t come up in the wrestling business. I didn’t put 20 years in the ring. I was a fan. And I watch wrestling and I always watch this for the entertainment aspect. I always watched it for the entertainment. So that’s when I was an outsider. Number two, my philosophy. I think the entertainment aspect is just as important if not more important than the wrestling aspect.
And again, that’s what hooked me as a kid and I’ve made no bones about that. I think the casual fan, there’s more appeal to the casual fan through the entertainment than the actual wrestling. And number three, I think a big part of it was when I was writing at WWF nobody knew me. Nobody talked about me. Nobody said a word. When I went to WCW and became an on air character and I was this arrogant and crass New Yorker who said what was on his mind and didn’t care about anybody else and had an attitude and a chip on his shoulder, people bought into that so much that that’s who they thought the person was. And that really made people hate me and to this day I still think that has a lot to do with my perception. So I think it’s really a combination of those three things.”
CY: If you could go back in time, would you have never put yourself on television?
VR: “No, because first of all, it wasn’t my idea. Second of all, it gave me a whole different perspective from a talent’s point of view, which really helped to educate me and really helped for me to see that other side. And no. I wouldn’t trade that experience in for anything. I’m not sorry. I got hurt and I got hurt bad, but it really gave me the perspective of being a talent and being in the ring and being able to have really have a better understanding about that part of the business. I wouldn’t trade that in.”
CY: So when you arrive in WCW in the first few months you’re there you take the ratings from a 2.6 all the way up a 3.5. At that time there were some in the company as you talk about that weren’t happy with your creative direction. As time went on and you had less control of the creative, the ratings went back down a 2.6. With everything truly about money when it comes to TV ratings and ad revenue, did any part of you see the writing on the wall at that point that only bad things were going happen going forward and those at your level with pull at WCW didn’t care about ratings and money thus leading to downfall of the company?
VR: “Yeah. I mean, when I went back the second time and now I’m at WCW for six months. I worked for three then I went home for three. When I went back and it was like I said six months in it became clear to me that there were people in Time Warner/AOL that didn’t want to be in the wrestling business. Like I said, I mentioned to you earlier that Hollywood tends to look down their nose at the wrestling business.
Well, unfortunately at Time Warner and AOL you had people within our own company that were looking down their nose at the wrestling business and they just wanted no part of it because it was beneath them and that was the feeling. It wasn’t about ratings. It wasn’t about who was getting paid what. That really had nothing to do with it. I think when the merger was made somebody on AOL side decided that we don’t want to be in the professional wrestling business and that’s what happened. The decision was made by nameless, faceless suits that I don’t know who they are, but they just didn’t want to be in the wrestling business.”
CY: But so part of you must’ve realized that the end must have been near in some sense or did you never ever think it would never truly end?
VR: “Oh no. I knew it. I couldn’t wait for it to end. I really couldn’t. I was hoping every day was the last day because like I said, when I went back that second time I did see the writing on the wall and it was very, very difficult for me to do my job knowing what was happening big picture wise. It was just a tough situation.”
CY: During your time in WWE it just seemed you really wanted to have some kind of personal friendship, maybe relationship with Vince McMahon because you gave him everything you had to his company and making it the success he was, but it was always about business with Vince. Was that most frustrating thing about working for Vince McMahon and what was the last time you spoke to him?
VR: “Well, it wasn’t that I wanted that personal relationship with him. It really wasn’t that because one thing I learned in this business, you don’t have personal relationships with anybody. You just don’t. It started to become does this guy sincerely care about me and my family or am I just a cash cow who’s making him a lot of money?
That’s the question I started asking myself with and I started struggling with myself and that question was important to me because I was making a lot of sacrifices for this individual and I wanted to know that I was making those sacrifices for the right reasons and that’s why I started questioning what was the relationship all about.
I guess the last time I probably spoke to him was, I guess it was probably about five years ago when I was still, still looking for that closure that I never really received, but I think in that last phone call I had with about five years ago I finally got that closure that I really needed in order to move on.”
CY: Now that you’re working in creative again with TNA and they’re going to Monday nights vs. the WWE in a few weeks, what are your expectations given the fact you’re working with many of the same major stars at the top of the card you worked with 10 years ago in WCW and even before that in the WWE? Can TNA really sell a show with these guys besides a handful of new talent and overtake Raw in the new Monday night wars? What’s your expectations and predictions?
VR: “Well, it’s the same thing. I don’t think people remember. I’ve lived through this before. I was on the same end of it with the WWF when I started writing for them and at the time the WCW was killing us in the ratings. And basically what I don’t think people understand is it took a good two, two and a half years for the WWF to make that comeback. It didn’t happen over night. How it happen was week after week after week of our showing being better than theirs.
And it was the consistency of having the better show and like I said after about two and a half, three years that’s when we flipped the pile. I see very much the same thing. We’re not gonna have a dent in their ratings early. I don’t believe that at all. What I do believe is we will have a better show, we will have a better product, word of mouth will start to spread and in a matter of time and maybe it takes another two or three years, but in a matter of time I really believe that the better show will prevail.
I don’t think we’re just doing this with the same stars we had then and using them now. I think there are a lot of really good young talents that are original TNA members that we will tie in to those veterans who already have names and those veterans will help bring our younger guys up to the next level.”
CY: And everyone wants to know, you had some issues in the past with Hulk Hogan. How are those issues panning out?
VR: “I’ll be honest. People, it doesn’t matter what I say and it seems like every single word out of my mouth gets twisted by the wrestling media. They just need a story. The story is I’m getting along great with Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff and that’s the story and the story is that I’m thrilled to death that they both made the decision to join TNA. They have pumped such energy into the product. I know they have pumped energy into me personally.
And having the experience to work with both of these individuals in a different environment than the negativity in WCW that was happening at the time it just sheds a whole new perspective on it and now I can really appreciate what Hulk and what Eric bring to the table. Individually I can really appreciate that when 10 years ago I couldn’t do that because of the mindset that I had because of WCW. It’s been great for me. It’s been great for TNA and if you ask them I think it’s been great for them as well.”
CY: Finally, through all the highs and lows of the wrestling industry, what keeps you motivated?
VR: “Well, it’s always a new challenge. Obviously now it’s the Monday night war. I’d be lying to you if I told you I wouldn’t have the greatest satisfaction in the world to overtake Vince McMahon even if it’s two, three, four years. That would give me great, great satisfaction just on a personal level looking back on some of the issues that I’ve had with him, but there’s always new challenges.
Again, bringing in new talent and working with the Hulk and working with an Eric it’s constantly changing and I know I need that because I’ve been doing this for about 18 years now, but it’s when that new wave that comes along and it’s exciting and it’s different and now there’s something to fight for. I mean that’s what motivates me the most.”