A smooth-chested wrestler in a towel and a leer grabs the mike. Val Venis, with an “i”, is an ex-porn star who likes to brag about his penis. In the World Wrestling Federation, this makes him a good guy. He points to his johnson and to his foe’s girlfriend, Jaclyn, and says, “She’ll soon be looking for bigger pastures.” Venis, also known as “The Big Ballbowski,” then lays Jaclyn’s massive silicone chest across his knees and spanks her butt. Scores of preteen and just-teen males howl with delight.
In Albany, New York, near the end of the summer, the WWF has come to the Pepsi Arena for a sold-out Saturday-night show. Banners from minor-league hockey teams and a half-dozen local colleges hang about the crowd of 10,000. In Row D, 50 yards from the ring, an extended family shovels popcorn into their already overfed mouths. The doughy, red-cheeked eight-year-old to my left will be heavy when he grows up. He sucks down his grub with gusto, till the MC announces, “X-Pac!”
The red-and-black-suited X-Pac, one member of a WWF faction called D-Generation X, races down the aisle to mob approval, his long black locks streaming. Skinny for a wrestler, and hyper, he humps the air and makes an X across his inner thighs with rapid-fire karate chops, giving the crowd the phallocentric “DX” gang sign. My sugar-shocked neighbor vaults his 90 pounds upward and hammers his prepubescent package, frantically miming the sign right back. His excitement peaks when X-Pack enters the ring to deliver the DX tagline. “Bitch,” X-Pac tells his pretty-boy opponent, the flaxen-tressed Jeff Jarrett, “me and Albany have two words for you.” He pauses for effect, and then my spasming little pal joins the rest of the audience in a jubilant chorus: “Suck it!“
A few weeks ago, X-Pac pissed in Jarrett’s gleaming white boots; in return, “Double J” smashed a guitar over X-Pac’s swarthy head. Tonight, X-Pac pins Double J, winning the latest episode of the feud. As Jarrett leaves the ring, boys rush the barricades, as they do after every match, and one dumps a beer on Jarrett’s head. A nearby 16-year-old named Darren has a dog collar and a bald, pink head, but there’s a scrap of blond moss an inch behind his right ear. Those WWF fans who are old enough to shave can’t seem to do it right. “Why do you watch this instead of World Championship Wrestling?” I ask, referring to the other of wrestling’s two big leagues. Darren’s friend answers first. “[The WCW’s] way too censored,” says Jordan, 17. “They say butt instead of ass.” Darren’s reason is simpler. “Stone Cold,” he mutters. “Definitely Stone Cold.”
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin is the main event here, as he is every night. The sight of his bald skull, goatee, and black leather vest nearing the ring produces the night’s biggest “pop”–wrestling for “reaction.” When Austin defeats a masked titan named Kane with his “Stone Cold Stunner” move, the arena roars till my ears buzz. The WWF’s meal ticket begins with his cocky, lurching stroll back to the dressing room, holding his World Championship belt aloft, then stops. He rushes back between the ropes, as if he forgot something. He climbs the turnbuckle, and flips the whole world the bird. The crowd returns his trademark gesture 20,000-fold. A sea of giant foam middle fingers rises to salute him.
Professional wrestling has rebounded from an early-’90s slump to become a $400 million business that can outdraw the NFL on TV. Two of the three highest rated shows on cable are wrestling; three-and-a-half-million households view an average episode of WCW’s Nitro or the WWF’s Raw. Combined, there are over a dozen hours of televised wrestling each week. In this, the Year that Wrestling Broke, 33-year-old Steve Austin would seem to be the face of the moment–except there’s another, very similar mug contending for the honor. Before Steve Austin led it back to parity, the WWF had been battered by its better-funded rival, Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. Now, as part of its strategy to stop the renewed momentum of the WWF , the WCW has hyped its own black-clad antihero, a bigger, more bionic Steve Austin named Bill Goldberg. Inside the ropes, wrestling’s battles may be scripted, but outside them there’s a death match between a megacorp that wants to make wrestling safe as milk and a family-owned firm that’s found new life by flipping off grade-schoolers.
In 1982, Vince McMahon bought the WWF, the Northeast’s wrestling syndicate, from his father. Using cable television–and Hulk Hogan–McMahon exterminated the competition, the two dozen regional firms that had run the sport as a patchwork of local fiefdoms since World War II. He took the WWF nationwide, and made it interchangeable with professional wrestling.
The golden era peaked with Wrestlemania III, in 1987, when 93,000 filled Michigan’s Silverdome to see Hogan vanquish Andre the Giant. But the golden era ended in 1992, in court. During the federal trials of two steroid-happy doctors, witnesses claimed that 90 percent of the WWF was using. Though McMahon denied everything, FEdEx receipts were produced, and big names were named, such as Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. The New York Post detailed allegations made by WWF “ringboys” that two officials were pedophiles. McMahon sued, then dropped the suit and suspended the accused execs. TV ratings fell to a 2 share.
Before scandal could send it back to its pre-Hulk limbo of Saturday-afternoon syndication, wrestling regrouped. McMahon’s witness-box admission that the fake sport wasn’t a sport ultimately proved liberating. The faker issue became moot, and wrestling became a non-sport in 49 states, exempting it from certain taxes and drug regulations. Simultaneously, hard-core fans drew strength from an upstart Philly promotion called Extreme Championship Wrestling. Porn queens passed as “celebrity guests,” while ECW’s mooky acrobats beat each other with barbed-wire and baseball bats. Too many “caning matches” and crucifixions got it booted from cable, but during its mid-’90s heyday the ECW nourished pro wrestling with fresh story lines and a higher-flying style.
More important for the “sport”, Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, after foundering for five years, in 1994 hired a new executive vice president named Eric Bischoff, a former announcer from the promised land of wrestling’s frozen chosen, Minnesota. He, in turn, hired Hulk Hogan from the Word Wrestling Federation (for $5 million a year), followed by the rest of the WWF’s top stars and a dozen of the ECW’s. He even stole the WWF’s announcing team. When “baby-face” Hogan changed into an evil “heel,” and Turner started airing the WCW’s Nitro live on the TNT network on Monday nights, opposite the WWF’s longtime Raw berth on USA, wrestling had recovered. The WCW got healthy first; in mid-1996, the Atlanta-based league began an 83-week run atop the ratings.
While Bischoff stirred the soap opera, he also changed the rules of wrestling’s ancient morality play. “If you look at action movies,” says Bischoff, “most of the characters who people like have a little gray in them.” In Bischoff’s postmodern soap, the bad guys became the stars and the heroes became antiheroes. The anti-heroes with the highest Q ratings were the members of the New World Order, WCW’s outlaw league-within-a-league, led by Hogan and Bischoff himself. This past spring, with the NWO growing stale, Bischoff split it into warring factions, complete with gang colors–Hogan’s black-and-white NWO Hollywood, and pro basketball dropout Kevin Nash’s red-and-black NWO Wolfpac.
But there were limits to how edgy Bischoff would get, because he wanted to expand wrestling’s audience, and make the once-grotty sport acceptable to advertisers. He hired an outside ad firm to buff the WCW’s image, and booked mainstream celebrities such as Karl Malone and Jay Leno to draw the unconverted. He also kept it clean, as per Turner’s orders. The WCW wouldn’t eve let one its wrestlers call himself “Skank.”
Bischoff’s efforts have put some dents in wrestling’s trailer-park stigma. Lately, upscale clients such as mutual funds have rushed to buy advertising time once occupied only by Slim Jim. Revenues have grown tenfold since 1994, and the cost of a Nitro spot has risen 70 percent in two years. Together, the WCW and the WWF attracted $55.3 million in advertising last year, and the cash flows faster all the time.
But, as Jerry Solomon, an exec at the SFM Media ad agency, points out, “it’s just a case of the ratings getting high enough that people can rationalize what they’re buying.” The guys who purchase commercial time for their clients are aware that ten million people watch wrestling each week, but most haven’t watched the shows themselves to see why, and most don’t know there’s a difference between the two leading products. They don’t know about Steve Austin.
In 1995, 6’2″, 250-pound “Stunning” Steve Austin was half of a pair of WCW heels called the Hollywood Blondes. Though they were popular tag-team champs, Bischoff split them up. Austin claims that a certain older star–he means Hogan–convinced management he’d never amount to much. When Austin tore his triceps, Bischoff let him go. Austin recalls the moment with relish. “He said, ‘Steve, you go out there in your black trunks and black boots, and there’s not a whole lot I can do to market you.'”
After a brief stint in the ECW, where he cut off his stringy blond locks and learned the bankable art of running his mouth, Austin surfaced in McMahon’s WWF in early 1996. To his chagrin, his new boss handed him a pair of emerald trunks and said, “You are now ‘The Ringmaster.'” Austin wasn’t impressed, and neither were the fans. The Ringmaster died, unmourned, after six months.
One day a downcast ex-Ringmaster was channel-surfing when he chanced on an HBO special about serial killers. Late in 1996, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin appeared. His gimmicks were 1) not giving a damn about authority, and 2) a heap of potty talk. He proved he could flap his gums with a career-making flip remark. After beating Jake “the Snake” Roberts, known for preaching by day and hitting strip clubs at night, Austin mocked the Snake’s piety. “Talk about you psalms, talk about your John 3:16,” he scowled. “Austin 3:16 says I just whupped your ass.” Austin 3:16 T-shirts flooded the high schools. Accustomed to being a heel, Austin found that the worse he acted, the more the headbangers loved him.
At first, McMahon and the USA Network, WWF’s TV home, tried to curb Austin’s behavior, especially his permanently erect middle finger. But by late 1997, a year into the WCW’s rating reign, McMahon changed his mind. The whole WWF began to mimic Austin’s appeal to the teen male id. The turning point may have been an ECW-style stunt in which Dustin Runnels staked his wife on a match and lost her, and Raw aired footage of his foe consummating the bet. With the launch soon after of the D-Generation X gang, a crotch-grabbing one-up of the New World Order, the WWF had officially copped an attitude. McMahon marked the change by raising a piratical black flag at the company’s Connecticut headquarters.
In the born-again WWF, everyone’s NC-17. Feeling Goth? A fanged porker named Gangrel drinks a bucket of blood before each match, letting the gore stream onto his ruffled Meat Loaf prom shirt. Also working the undead beat is the Undertaker, Austin’s nemesis, a tower of pallor devoid of feeling, though it probably hurts when he rolls his eyes back in his head like he’s always doing. The Godfather, meanwhile, is an all-too-mortal pimp. Daredevil ECW vet Mick Foley, best known as Mankind, a leather-masked geek who drags a trash bin full of painful tools to the ring, also morphs into Cactus Jack, a kind of hillbilly Tonto with beer tits and missing teeth, and Dude Love, a dumbass hippie. Small wonder that last fall, in her final days as head of the USA Network, Kay Koplovitz called McMahon and asked him where the wrestling superheroes of the eighties had gone. “Those days are over,” gloated McMahon. “That milquetoast era of good guys and bad guys is gone.”
Dave Meltzer, editor of the pro circuit’s newsletter of record, the Wrestling Observer, says he doesn’t expect any wrestling promoter to have a social conscience. McMahon is simply a compulsive opportunist, consumed by competition. Obsessing aloud about “the billionaire” Ted Turner, he peppers Turner’s league with baseless lawsuits and dispatches D-Generation X to Nitro events in hopes of a Raw photo op. He loves to jump on camera and take a Stone Cold Stunner, or call a woman a “bitch” all in the name of ratings. “People generally know that Vince is an asshole,” reports Meltzer. “That’s why he plays one on TV.”
Because of wrestling’s long bond with youngsters, Eric Bischoff blasts his rival’s newly dark direction. “The idea of competition is what every pimp on every street corner knows,” he fumes, with the moral authority of a promoter whose biggest female star has posed for Playboy. “Sex sells, especially to kids. Sooner or later the people in media and advertising are going to realize what [the WWF] is doing, and I’m afraid we’re all get lumped in the same bucket of shit.” Bruno Sammartino, a demigod of the squared circle who sold out Madison Square Garden 185 times in the ’60’s and ’70’s, quit his job as a WWF announcer ten years ago believing the steroid-riddled sport had hit rock bottom. He decided he was “way, way off the mark” when his son made him watch Stone Cold on Raw recently. “I’m ashamed to see that the business I was associated with has come down to this,” he says.
McMahon, meanwhile, revels in the controversy. The “TV-14″ chiron that graces Raw, and not Nitro, is more a promise than a warning. “Quite frankly, I wouldn’t mind if the rating were a little more harsh.” To McMahon, critics are grousing because his underdog league has grabbed the creative initiative away from the WCW, and now Turner’s lackeys are playing catch-up. Their best idea of the past year, says McMahon, was his. “Let’s face it,” says McMahon, “Goldberg is a Stone Cold rip-off.” Austin chimes in, “If Goldberg’s not trying to copy me, I’d hate to see what would happen if he did.”