Please allow me, for a moment, to talk of a sport less legitimate than professional wrestling.
There is a famous playcall that Bill Belichick made in 2009 against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Patriots were winning this game handily heading into the 4th quarter, when Peyton Manning hit a rare clutch zone. He drove the Colts down the field for three 80 yard touchdown drives, effortlessly. He was unstoppable. Everything was on the fucking money. The Pats had no answer, which is even more exceedingly rare.
Eventually, the Patriots were up by 6 points, and faced a 4th & 2 at mid-field. The book says to punt, play defense, and sweat it out.
But you know what Albert Einstein once said, “Pussies read books.”
Bill Belichick decided to go for it. The logic being that you have the best offense in the world, so why not trust them to get 2 yards, and definitively win the game, instead of handing the ball back to one of the best quarterbacks in the league and just hoping for the best?
The call failed, but I always defended it. It took balls, and it was strong, and it was aggressive.
If you ask me, just because it didn’t work, doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right decision.
And this is mostly how I feel about Vince Russo.
The State of WCW
It needs to be understood that WCW was an out and out embarrassment at this time.
Clinging to has-beens from the 80’s, they were meticulously and deservedly getting their asses kicked by new, fresh stars in Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock over at Team WWE.
Why would I watch “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan vs “Silver Alert” Macho Man when I could see prime athletes putting on something new and entertaining?
I remember before Chris Jericho came to WWE, it was just a known, accepted fact that while being a lower-midcarder in WCW, under Vince McMahon he would be a superstar. WCW literally had the dude. Could’ve pushed him anytime they wanted. And didn’t know what to do with him.
The storytelling was a mess, and most importantly the show just had the stigma of fucking failure.
Branding and stigmas are very difficult to shake. The ratings war was long lost. So WCW made an understandable decision. They were built to be a juggernaut by stealing WWE talent in 1996 (Hogan, Nash, Hall and more), so why not go back to the well one more time?
Vince Russo is credited with the Attitude Era. Crazy, shocking storylines that got attention. Austin vs McMahon? Degeneration X? The rise of The Rock? A flourishing mid-card filled with intersecting storylines? All Russo.
If anybody is going to turn this around, why not start with the bedrock of wrestling, the storytelling?
What followed was a series of Hail Mary passes thrown into the endzone. Now, I’m not saying all of these were great ideas. Certainly, almost all of them are unequivocal failures. But the logic behind them is solid.
The Millionaires Club
This was a terrific idea that WWE may want to steal someday. The idea was that WCW was ruined by the “millionaire” wrestlers and that the young guys were not being showcased. As “Cowboy” Bob has said many times, the best promos and angles are based on a true story.
This was essentially a WCW civil war. The top, established guys we all know vs the young, mid-card guys.
My one criticism is that it was way, way, way too on-the-nose. “The Millionaires Club” vs “The New Blood” is really just spelling it out in crayon. But whatever, we don’t watch wrestling for its subtlety. Check out the Wrestlemania where Trump shaved Vince McMahon’s head as McMahon sits in the chair and screams “YOU’RE HUMILIATING ME RIGHT NOW!!!” Wrestling writers never give wrestling fans the benefit of the doubt (sometimes deservedly).
Try to imagine this in WWE today. Imagine if “The Millionaires Club” was Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Randy Orton, Roman Reigns and throw in Rey Mysterio for fun. The “New Blood” could be Undisputed Era, Ricochet and Aleister Black. Instant heel vs babyface dynamic, right? Easily understood motivations? The young guys want to break the glass ceiling, while the old guys want to keep their spots. Writes itself.
In fact, the NEXUS in 2010 was very close to this, except it was played as more of an invasion instead of class warfare.
This was an excellent idea by Russo because it emphasized the young stars and the mid-card, something that WCW had ignored and a huge reason it got into this mess to begin with. The problem?
There was no Adam Cole. There was no Ricochet. There was no Aleister Black.
Booker T? Okay, we can work with this.
Billy Kidman? Buff Bagwell? Mike Awesome? Shawn Stasiak?
That’s a rough fucking crew.
It’s easy to say a better judge of talent would see this coming, but Russo is working with what he’s got here. It’s smart to build young. He was probably gambling that a few golden nuggetts would pan out of the Disco Inferno/Vampiro/Chris Kanyon shit salad.
“Goldberg Refuses To Follow The Script!”
This one is the most painful for good ol’ “Cowboy” Bob.
As I touched on briefly yesterday, it’s incredibly dangerous to point out to people how obviously fake wrestling is.
Russo threw out a storyline where Goldberg was “refusing to follow the script” against Kevin Nash.
In a completely retarded idea, Kevin Nash goes for a jackknife powerbomb on Goldberg, who shoves him off and walks out of the match. Vince Russo, who is now the on-air GM, chases him down and tells him to go back, getting a “fuck you” from Goldberg. (We need more cursing in wrestling)
The announcer stooges then say that Goldberg “didn’t want to do anything to make himself look bad”. Another screamed “Goldberg swerved him!” The next night Russo came out and said that “if this world was real” that Goldberg thinks he can take everybody.
This is a horrible idea.
Wrestling is inherently silly. Its a world where we have to accept that the former undisputed UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar would struggle to defeat Daniel Bryan. It’s a world where a woman built like an amazon such as Charlotte Flair has to look at a 100 pound soaking wet Sasha Banks with fear in her eyes. Hell, it’s a world where we are supposed to believe the catapult is an actual offensive maneuver.
To just flat out throw the fact that this is a scripted entertainment program in our face is going to destroy the entire immersion for the audience. To make matters worse, you’re only doing this for one, particular angle.
So audience, just so you know, all that Goldberg stuff, this is REAL. This is REAL LIFE, everyone. But that other angle with Jeff Jarrett? That’s fake nonsense and scripted cartoony crap.
It’s sort of like those Dominos Pizza commercials from a few years ago that were basically like “Hey, remember how our crust felt like cardboard and our sauce tasted like expired ketchup? No more!”
Ronda Rousey was doing similar crap with Becky Lynch in the build to Wrestlemania 35 this year. “I don’t care what the script says, I’m going to beat the shit out of you.” Awful.
The only saving grace of Ronda’s promo (she wasn’t exactly known as the Frances McDormand of WWE acting anyway) is that it was online-only. The online wrestling world is far different from the television wrestling world. If it’s not acknowledged on TV, it’s basically not even canon.
Still, while this was an awful idea, you have to understand why Russo did it. Part of what is so fantastic about pro wrestling is the show behind the show. We aren’t stupid. These are actors and stuntmen performing live stories. “Wow, is AJ Styles going to put over Ricochet clean?” (eventually) “Will Samoa Joe really job again?” (yes) “Did Nia Jax fuck up and hit her for real?” (probably)
It’s always a fun game trying to figure out what is actually real, and what is scripted. The idea of a wrestler freaking out on live TV is something that the internet would salivate over if it actually happened. However, there aren’t many Leonardo DiCaprios out there at 6’3 280 pounds of solid muscle. It comes off as very fake, very fast.
Russo also doubled-down on this in the famous Bash at the Beach incident where Jeff Jarrett “laid down” for Hogan in the ring to give him the title. Russo then went on an insane rant, essentially saying Hogan used his “creative control” in his contract to bully his way to the belt. Russo is blending our fiction with real life, and knows that super-smarky internet fans believe Hogan hates putting people over.
Vince Russo is trying to get people talking. I believe that his downfall in this angle is underestimating the intelligence of wrestling fans (even more than people usually do), as well as totally overestimating the intelligence of the casual fan.
The casual fan has no fucking idea what a “swerve” is or “putting somebody over”. They don’t know that politics exist backstage, and they don’t care.
I’ve said this before: I have a friend I work with. Loves WWE. Lifelong fan. Watches every Raw, Smackdown and PPV. Has no fucking idea who is in NXT. Does not have a clue who Kenny Omega is. Doesn’t care who the Young Bucks are.
The casual fan just watches what they watch. They don’t obsessively post every whiny Rusev tweet on Reddit.
Russo got people talking, but for many wrong reasons and turned WCW into a clown show.
WCW World Heavyweight Champion David Arquette
This is the hill that I will die on with Vince Russo. It was a great idea to put David Arquette over as WCW World Heavyweight Champion.
Yes, the same belt held by the immortal Sting and Ric Flair.
First of all, it’s not like David Arquette went and pinned Diamond Dallas Page clean or some shit. It was a wacky stipulation tag match, and he got what was clearly established as a lucky pin on Eric Bischoff, of all people.
If anything, it was as realistic as the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan compared to Jay Leno giving fucking armbars to “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan 4 years prior.
It was the kind of wacky pro wrestling shit that makes this wild ride fun. This is the type of surprise that is good. Show us that anything can happen.
If it was Arquette hitting Sting with a Rock Bottom and pinning him, then you can take out the pitchforks. That is destruction of the product. As long as you establish it was lucky and that Arquette is shitting his pants at the prospect of facing real, actual wrestlers (which they established), then this is just good, clean fun.
As a fully devout WWE fan at this time, I remember saying “What? David Arquette? The goofy dude from Scream? He’s the WCW champion?!” Did I tune into WCW the next week? Yup. Maybe I just flipped around waiting to see Arquette, but hey, more eyeballs on WCW than they would’ve had beforehand.
It made it into USA Today. What else could WCW have done to make it into USA Today that night? Putting over Billy Kidman in a quality cruiserweight match?
That’s the point, motherfuckers. Nobody is watching. Nobody cares about WCW. This entire company is on life support. It was a kooky, wacky idea that got people talking. WWE has the better stars. The better production values. Hell, they even have the better crazy stories. I would even go further if it was possible with Arquette’s schedule. Have him keep the belt for a few months. Somehow, someway keeping the belt because his buddy DDP has his back. Make us wonder when he’s going to actually lose it.
You hired this man after somebody fucked the company up beyond repair, then complained when he took drastic measures to attempt to give you a miracle turnaround.
The Russo Legacy
I’m not going to get into everything the man did. “Viagra on a Pole” matches, constant title changes, and nonsensical heel/face turns every week are overkill and destined to fail. But the guy worked with what he had.
There was talk that Eric Bischoff wanted to eventually do a PPV called the “Big Bang” where WCW would go off the air for about 3 months, then come out and literally start from scratch. New roster. New titles. New look. New logo.
That was probably the way to go. Yes, WCW had gotten that bad. It was time to tear it all up and wipe away all this garbage.
But, if you wanted to save it, which is the decision that was made, Vince Russo’s plan was as good as any. Was there dopey shit like Hugh Morris’ senile grandfather somehow stumbling down the ramp during matches? Sure.
But that’s how the narrative goes, doesn’t it? When Val Venis has a Chinese guy ready to chop his dick off with a sword while screaming “I choppy-choppy your pee-pee!” while the ratings are high, you’re a fucking genius. Book a Judy-Bagwell-On-A-Forklift-Match while the ratings are in the toilet, you look like a complete fool.
Chris Jericho once said on Russo, “He’s a guy who has 10,000 ideas. 3 of them are genius, and the rest are terrible, but he doesn’t know the difference.”
I believe, personally, that Russo absolutely knew the difference, but the dude played the cards he had. And 1999 WCW was a 2-7 off-suit if I ever saw one.
However, Jericho isn’t all wrong, because he was on the winning team, and history is written by the winners.
And unfortunately, the winners are who wrote the story on Vince Russo.
4 thoughts on “Defending Vince Russo”
I’m probably less kind to Russo’s overall WCW legacy than you are, having been a devout follower of the product for most of my life. LOL Still, great read! I just wanted to throw in my two cents on a couple of things.
1) Another factor that I think kind of damned the Millionaires Club vs The New Blood faction was that the alignments were all off. Fan perception at the time was, as you were talking about at the top of the article, that WCW was Where The Old Guys Play, and that old timers basically had a death grip on all of the top spots. And yet at the end of the day, the company tried to present the Millionaire’s Club as being the more sympathetic faction, and the young upstarts as being the heels. Seems kind of backwards to me.
2) God, Russo sure loved his worked shoots and breaking the 4th wall bro, didn’t he? What always gets me about this is that in 1999, the IWC by and large wasn’t really a thing yet. A small portion of the wrestling fanbase were subscribers to the dirtsheets, and maybe might be part of a few wrestling BBS groups (rec.sport.prowrestling comes to mind), but easily a good 90% of the fanbase wasn’t tapped into anything insider like we are now. And yet Russo seemed to write a LOT of his storylines with the idea that ALL wrestling fans lived on the internet, and would get all of those inside jokes he was writing. Kind of ironic when you think about him in 2019, and he seems to have a real hate/hate relationship with the IWC, don’t you think?
Totally fair point on #1 and something I wish I had touched on in this article. The heel/face dynamic is totally off. Ironically though, even if he got that part right, he still is still with a group of losers as the “cool, young faction” and it wouldn’t work anyway.
For #2, you can argue he was way ahead of his time, as they essentially dangerously edged close to this flame with the Ronda/Becky Twitter war (check my latest blog!), but WWE smartly never dove full on right into it.
Yeah, Becky even used the term “going full Russo” in a response to Ronda, hahaha! I’m glad that the WWE were smart enough to largely not use a lot of that “everything ELSE on the show is fake but THIS PART IS REAL!” nonsense with how the feud actually played out on tv.
And for all the crap (myself included sometimes) has given Russo for his WCW tenure, there were definitely more good things to come out of it than people give him credit for. He allowed a lot of the younger guys (and especially the Cruiserweights) way more time to try and develop characters and get themselves over on the mic. He was also willing to shake up the long stale main event scene by throwing in guys like Double J, Booker T and Scott Steiner. Although show attendance, PPV buyrates and merch sales suffered tremendously (which I don’t blame on him because they were all spiraling down before him, he just wasn’t able to generate content that made people want to spend money on WCW), he did manage to keep tv ratings at and sometimes above where they had been at earlier in 1999. And hey, even if many would say that Russo was responsible for terrible and/or confusing shows week in and week out, they’re still a LOT of fun to go back and watch with an ironic love. Much like I do with Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room”.
And much like Tommy Wiseau, there’s something to be said for a dude to takes an unbelievably hard swing and a miss and has the balls to take the heat for it.