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Vince McMahon was above petty sniping, at least that was the portrayal in the aftermath of the opening run of Nitros. Not only had E̶r̶i̶c̶ ̶B̶i̶s̶c̶h̶o̶f̶f̶ Ted Turner decided to place their new prime time wrestling show on Monday Nights, directly opposite Raw, they'd also started giving away the results of Raw live on air. WWF's stance on this was the act was to do nothing, this wasn't how you did business. Then as 1995 became 1996, all of a sudden it was.
Maybe it was the buyrate of December's In Your House 5 pay per view that caused a change in attitude. Any thoughts that both WWF and WCW could simply ad pay per views ad-nauseum and people would keep buying them was vanquished. In 1994 there were just twelve between the two companies, there were nineteen come 1995. Something had to change.
Raw on January 1st was a hyped effort, the Raw-Bowl was the focus, with a four way tag team match delivering a barely comprehensible twenty minute match-up. Elsewhere on the show we also got the announcement of Vader debuting in the company at the Royal Rumble, just months after departing WCW. But it was the final two minutes of the show that would be most remembered.
The skit involved "Billionare Ted", "The Huckster" and "The Nacho Man", along with a series of WCW executives played by members of the WWF staff (including the first appearance for one Vince Russo). Ted wanted to make the show more exciting, so videos were played showing moves like the Razor's edge and the Jacknife. Ted wondered why his two main stars couldn't replicate that, and if they couldn't what could they do? Huckster and Nacho Man stand up and do their trademark poses. The show ends with the line: “The New WWF Generation, on top of the hill, not over it”.
It was out of step with a company that always viewed any competition as persona non grata. The segments shined a light on Vince McMahon's viewpoint that it was Ted Turner (not Eric Bischoff – conspicuous by his absence) that was trying to drive the WWF out of business – in a rivalry that in one form or another went back a decade. It was also a fairly significant step, surely if the WWF held out a ray of hope that eventually Hogan or Savage may return to the fold they wouldn't run these kind of segments? But if week one felt sniping, things were about to get a whole lot more serious.
Once again the "Billionaire Ted" segments closed the show, they were running on a set of Raw's so thin on content the company resorted to showing both the Hog Pen match and the main event from In Your House 5 to fill time (I guess if nobody bought the pay per view then nobody saw it, right?). In theory it was a good way of showing fans the action they were missing on pay per view, but it also may not have been the best message to send the few people who bought the show at an increased price.
But before that we saw another mock act, this time "Scheme Gene". The Okerlund knock-off teased a hook for his hotline about an entrant in the Royal Rumble. After he did this the second time – interjecting Jim Ross in a Royal Rumble promotion – Ross appealed to Okerlund's generosity to throw viewers a bone about what his big exclusive was. Scheme Gene relented and revealed that the major star in the Rumble would be... Vader. Yep, we all knew that the week before, thanks Gene. While the rib was actually quite funny and absolutely warranted (Okerlund also issued an apology to Ricky Steamboat just a week earlier) neither the WWF or Jim Ross can claim to be saints when it came to hotlines.
This time however, the subject in case of the war-room was looking for a new catchphrase for the show. Nacho Man suggests sticking with "Where The Big Boys Play", provided we don’t subject WCW's biggest names to any drug testing of course. 18 months after the conclusion of the WWF Steriod Trial, McMahon was firing shots across WCW's bow about it's own much more lax testing. Coincidence it may be, but this was right around the time where Marcus Bagwell started noticeably inflating, and the same month that the Road Warriors were reunited on WCW television.
The next two segments on the two weeks that followed were fairly mundane, questioning what WCW could do to trump WWF's idea, and the WCW board not having any. The usual stuff. The final Raw, on January 29th however, was very noteworthy.
Firstly was an update by Doc Hendrix, that referenced a phone call from a WCW Official (Eric Bischoff) and subsequent answer phone message left for Vince McMahon, telling Vince to keep the Billionaire Ted segments going. The call was 100% real: Bischoff was reacting in the aftermath of Nitro beating Raw by an entire rating's point (which at the time, given that the two shows had largely exchanged victories by the odd 10th of a point, was a huge victory). A letter that Bischoff sent to the WWF also made it to air, although given that this was a time before being able to pause live television, you'd have needed a paused recording of the show to be able to read it. Once again though, the reproduction of the letter was absolutely real, and it contained Bischoff defending WCW's substance abuse policy.
This was immediately followed by a Billionaire Ted "Press Conference". Much of it was Ted flat batting questions that put the WWF in a positive light - "are they trying to put the WWF out of business?", "did you put your head to head program up against Raw to try and hurt the WWF?". The final question asked who was going to win the match between "The Huckster" and "The Nacho Man" at Wrestlemania... Hogan leant in and said "It's in my contract that I don't lose"… ironically enough (and perhaps coincidentally) if you were tuned into Nitro that night you would actually get to see Hogan losing to Ric Flair.
All of this, and it was only the end of January! In February the tone changed somewhat – the second half of the press conference way-laid to Vince McMahon closing the show with an advert they had attempted to place in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The advert had in big lettering: "Attention Stockholders: Time Warner Beware", along with the line "“Has Ted Turner lost $40 million dollars of YOUR money in his personal vendetta against the World Wrestling Federation? Where are these losses reported in TBS financial statements?” The amended advert that ran in the Times, simply said: "Does Ted Turner have a personal vendetta against the World Wrestling Federation?"
The change in direction was part of McMahon's wider approach to try and damage Turner and the WCW brand ahead of the merger between Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting Systems expected to take place later in the year. Citing Time Warner dropping Six Flags amusement parks (as it wasn't profitable) and some rap artists (who were suffering negative publicity) Vince presumably felt if he could present WCW in the same fashion it might have the same results.
This was a definite sign the "war" was intensifying and WCW this time was on the back foot. At a Nitro taping in January, a fire alarm went off during the day before the show meaning the building had to be evacuated – there was some legitimate concern backstage that it was WWF who had caused it. Two weeks later the power went out live during the Nitro main event – when it was restored Eric Bischoff said "well, I like competition, but..." The not-so-subtle idea that it was the WWF had caused it was the subject of correspondence between the two sides and perhaps the first known instance of Bischoff's comments on Nitro causing legal rumblings within the company.
The sniping continued. Vince McMahon sent a letter to Ted Turner bemoaning the promotion of "self-mutilation" of their performers (blading), which was somewhat of a stretch given that Bret Hart had in all likelihood bladed in the main event of In Your House 5 too months earlier. Both companies had noticeably rolled back on blood within the 18 months prior, then within the space of barely a week both WWF Champion Bret Hart and new WCW Champion Ric Flair had bled on television. The letter then stated that McMahon hoped WCW stockholders held them accountable for the "unethically, guttural, potentially unhealthy practice."
The TV segments on Raw had somewhat lost their lustre. After a week hiatus when Raw was pre-empted, we returned for "Larry Fling Live" on BNN (The "Billionaire News Network"). Billionaire Ted was back, once again stumped by the barrage of questioning from Larry. A call in from "Terry from Venice Beach" (phoning in to say he wouldn't be at work on Monday after being hit in the head by a shoe) and "Randy from Sarisota, Florida" ended the segment. The following week we had Nacho Man and Huckster in studio with Billionaire Ted calling in via live satellite link up – by this stage they had used much of their ammo up.
Around this time, at least one prophecy of the Billionaire Ted segments was coming true. The character had bemoaned that what they couldn't buy from the WWF they would have to copy, well, in the case of Diesel and Razor Ramon (who's contracts expired within a few weeks of each other) they may well be getting their wish. Firstly Ramon handed in his notice (not, at that stage, having a WCW deal, more to stop his contract rolling over) then within a fortnight Vince McMahon took a phone call from Diesel confirming he would be departing for WCW.
In many ways it was another thing that was proving McMahon right, but it was hard to care. Diesel and Ramon were two big names – one pushed badly and the other one not pushed enough – that fans would be excited to see cross the border. McMahon bemoaned in an interview with Wade Keller at the time that the signings were more to stop WWF having two top stars, rather than anything to do with what they were or could do with either man, particularly as the WWF owned the rights to the Diesel character (well, what you could own from a name and maybe a pose) and the Razor Ramon character. This, as most of you reading will know, would become quite the sticking point later in the year.
As it was, it's hard to really tell what the Raw audience thought of them. Not that a weekly 2-3 minute segment would likely have any impact on ratings, but both they and Nitro traded wins as they had done for the much part before the New Year. It's hard to image what casual fans must have thought. It's not like Ted Turner was an unknown, but quite how many would've understood the message, let alone it's underlying connotations, is another matter. Did it just remind people that Savage and Hogan were live on the other channel, often at the same time?
The segments were building towards two things. Firstly was the real life part of Turner testifying before the Federal Trade Commission over competition concerns. On air, at least, this manifested itself in a plea from the WWF to its fans "if you share our concerns" to write to the chairman of the FTC. It would be fascinating to know whether anybody actually did. Otherwise on TV, the segments were mostly what you'd seen already – shots at Turner via a trivia quiz show (picking out some more risque quotes from Turner) and segments mocking Turner sat in front of the FTC committee – confirming that he did indeed want to run the WWF out of business.
The second thing they were building to was a match at Wrestlemania. And if their shots at Turner's business practices were hit and miss the company were far more on the ball when it came to taking shots at WCW's product. The trivia show angle had Nacho Man at ringside, but when asked where The Huckster was Nacho said "he's a bit tied up" - they cut to a clip of Hogan handcuffing himself to the turnbuckle – a shot at a botched angle from Nitro in February where Miss Elizabeth took so long to handcuff Hogan that the beat down he was meant to take as a result had already happened.
But perhaps the best segment of the entire run was the "Geriatric Control Center" - a rib on Mean Gene Okerlund's Control Center segments that aired on syndicated television ahead of WCW pay per views. Gene gets a breaking news memo – detailing that handcuffs and heeled shoes will not be allowed at ringside for the match. We then get preparation video packages showing Hogan training... badly – barely getting up for one sit up and being decimated by a medicine ball. Savage's preparation is limited to getting his bald spot sprayed in. Gene signed off the segment by saying: "Will nightfall follow sunshine? I can't tell you this exclusive information on TV, but call my hotline to find out!". The number? 1-800-LYING-BALDY.
When it came to the match at Wrestlemania, the WWF did at least get one thing right. To put this kind of comedy out in front of the live Mania crowd could've got any kind of reaction. As it was, moving to a pre-tape segment enabled them primarily to mock WCW by hosting the match in a high-school gym, complete with about fifty people in attendance who were all old. The camera cut to a stage hand who held up a sign that said "CHEER" - the fifty geriatrics responded in kind.
The Huckster edged his way out to the ring on a zimmer frame, the whole thing took so long that McMahon and King on commentary actually fast forwarded through it. Nacho Man attempted to climb the turnbuckle but couldn't even get on the first one. Huckster, now in the ring, attempted to rip off his shirt but he couldn't manage it – Scheme Gene and guest ref Billionaire Ted helped him with that one. Ted framed the match by saying "May the best, and highest paid, wrassler win", before winking at Hogan.
The match started, Nacho Man collapsed and had to be revived by a defibrillator (they had an ambulance at ring side). Nacho Man grabbed a high heeled shoe and went to Huckster (who had a chair in hand) they both struck either and both hit the deck. Scheme Gene asked Billionaire Ted what would happen now his two top performers had, well, "expired". "It doesn't matter if they're dead, I'll just buy more". With that, a guy decked out in black stood on the apron with FTC written on his shirt. Turner turned around, then collapsed. The segment concluded with a wide angle of all three spark out in the ring.
(Come to think of it, when you type it all out it does seem a bit stupid).
And that was it. After three entire months and probably over an hour of Raw combined dedicated to the segments it was finally over. It was, in all likelihood the best built match on the entire show – Shawn vs Bret was a mix of good pre-taped packages talking of respect and conditioning and weak in-ring confrontations. The WWF had dedicated so much time to these segments, yet was it all worth it?
It's honestly hard to gauge. Obviously their efforts ultimately made no difference as the TBS/Time-Warner merger happened. Did it create a stronger brand loyalty with fans in the WWF? Ratings seem to say otherwise. Did it remind fans that they could still Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage right now on another channel? Yes. Did it prophesise an industry changing set of transfers when Billionaire Ted said he doesn't develop talent, he buys it? Yes.
If you were the kind of person that read the newsletters and watched WCW also, the jibes were often quite funny (the Geriatric Control Center is on-point), but you got to the end of it and wondered whether it was all worth it. Does you average fan even know the back story surrounding it? Do they even care?
The segments, particularly the first one or two in the boardroom, are typically replayed to show what the WWF was like in the run up to WCW Monday Nitro taking hold later in 1996. I'm not sure whether it's particularly a good reflection of anything – their TV wasn't necessary any better or worse than it had been in the year past. The segments only took up a few minutes each week – although crucially frequented the final slot quite a bit. The shots about steroids were a bit strange, but Vince McMahon's mentality was to try and take Turner and WCW down whatever the cost. Well that worked, didn't it?