I recently spoke to Wrestling Observer Newsletter (wrestlingobserver.com) editor Dave Meltzer. In the second of my three-part interview below, Mr. Meltzer and I discussed the Monday Night Wars, the Fertittas purchasing the UFC, WCW folding and much more.
Make sure to check back here later this week for the third and final part of our interview with Mr. Meltzer.
WrestlingINC: When the Monday night wars started and really kicked off in 1998 and the ratings really went through the rough; was that something you saw coming, or were you taken by surprise?
Meltzer: No, no, no. The common thing when the Monday night wars started was that it was going to split the audience in half like when TNA tried to go against them [in 2010] and nothing happened. But, as far as it going back and forth and it fueling this popularity and business -- I will say that when I saw the first Nitro, I thought that Bischoff was really on to something. And that they were going to be more competitive than I first thought.
But as far as fueling wrestling and it getting as big as it got? No. I didn't envision it getting that big. Again, the late '90s was the biggest period in wrestling probably ever. At least in this country. I'm trying to think as far as seeing it happen. I would say in late '97 when DX started and Austin was starting to get big and WCW was already on fire, I saw that the momentum was really big. So, I guess at that point, I could see that it was going to get really big. But, I mean, in '95? No, I didn't see.
WrestlingINC: What were your thoughts of WCW's dying days and the booking decisions they were making? Did you think that they were heading towards going out of business or...
Meltzer: Yes, yes, yes. I just thought that 1999 watching WCW -- I remember it was March of 1998 when I really thought that they were really going down. As far as going-out-of-business down? No. But I thought they were going down and this was when they were at their peak. I just thought they were making so many mistakes.
The main one was not preparing for the future. In wrestling, you've got always prepare for the future or you're not going to have a future. They mortgaged their future in order to protect their present or whatever it was. It was a mentality that was going to kill the company. That was there when it was there on top, just not understanding the long-term at all. I saw that, a lot of people did.
But as far as going out of business? Not then, but in 1999 when that thing was just going down the tubes and you could just see that they were going to lose money... The amount of money they were going to lose -- Vince, at his worst, I think he had a year when he lost $6.5 million. Which, for Vince, that was significant money back then. But, these guys, when they were out there losing $5 million a month, that's a different ballgame. When you're losing $5 million a month -- yes. I thought there was a very good chance that they were going to go out of business.
Now, I thought that somebody would probably buy them. But, I also thought that there was a very good chance that the person that bought them would lose so much money that they would give up, too. I would say from '99 and on, I thought there was a chance of them going out of business.
The way they went out of business, at the time, that was a shock because it happened so quick. Again, they were going to be sold and all that. I didn't have confidence that Bischoff, if he would have bought it, would have been able to turn it around. I hoped he could. I thought that Eric was, at that point in time, was very rational about his approach and what he wanted to do. I was hoping it would work, but I did think the odds were strongly against it working.
WrestlingINC: Was that pretty hard to cover Nitro in those dying days? I remember I just had the hardest time watching the last year.
Meltzer: Yeah. I almost go blank when people bring up stuff like that. So much happened and I don't remember it because I tried to put it out of my memory. On Raw, every couple of weeks, you'd go, 'Boy, this was stupid.' On Nitro for three straight hours and Thunder for another two hours, it bombarded stupidity -- constant.
People like to talk about WWE is bad now. It really isn't. It's not great, but I consider it OK to good now. That stuff was really, really bad with what they did with the last couple of years in WCW. The people who were running that and making decisions had no concept of what wrestling fans wanted. It was unbelievable for me to watch it and it's unbelievable that so many of them still had jobs in wrestling after that and years later in TNA, making the same decisions. It boggles the mind the way that happened.
WrestlingINC: Then, you started seeing WWF not making the bad booking decisions that WCW made, but making a lot of the same business decisions. Starting Smackdown!, adding a lot more TV. Do you think that had an adverse affect on business as far as over-saturation and putting too much product on?
Meltzer: Adding Smackdown! at first, was good. Did that lead to the declined popularity after so many hours? It probably did to a degree. You do burn out the audience with too much television, there's no question. But, the things have changed in the sense that wrestling now is a lot less popular then it was 10 years ago or 11 years ago now. 2001 is when it really hit the skids.
Television, especially internationally, it can make a lot of money. It's a weird thing. You have the ability to make more money but at the same time, you're cannibalizing your interest level by doing so. Everyone is doing it because that's the nature of hundreds of stations of television. Now, there's a demand for product. But, as far as the popularity and the ability to get lots of people to buy your pay-per-views or go to the house shows or even care about Raw is all diminished. But, they still have ways of making money.
Now, with WWF, they can't lose money the way their business is structured. But, if you look at the popularity -- is wrestling as a popularity within culture? It's way, way down. It's not as down as it was during '92-'96 during the dark ages but it's way down. It's probably half as popular as it was 11 years ago.
This years been better than last year but the general rule over the last decade has been a slow, steady decline. You would think that that's not good but they can't lose money. This product, if you put this product in 1998 -- this product here? They could lose a lot of money with this product. Not WCW money, but they could lose money. Whereas, now, they can't lose money because they make so much money off of television and all the new revenue streams that have come forth.
WrestlingINC: Ratings for Raw are kind of in the mid-Monday night wars range when they were getting beat by WCW. Do you think that it's going to keep going on this decline, especially with where the product is creatively and with RAW moving to three hours?
Meltzer: I believe that a three hour Raw means they're doomed to a slow, steady decline. As far as making more money? Yes, but that's the same thing that we talked about before. It's not like they're going to collapse because they're doing three hour Raws but you watch that three hour Raw... It's difficult. And you don't want watching wrestling to be difficult for the fans. Or for them to go, 'There's too much, I've had my fill.' That is what you get right now.
To me, you would want people wanting more not burned out. Again, it's the cash on hand and it's guaranteed money. Pay-per-view money is not guaranteed. House show money is steady but it's not guaranteed. This is guaranteed-in-contract money and they're not going to turn it down. But, in the long run, is it good for them popularity-wise? No, it's not.
WrestlingINC: You mentioned the decline starting in '01, that's when they turned Steve Austin heel [at WrestleMania 17]. Do you think it was necessarily when they turned Austin heel? It didn't work creatively, but it was also that he didn't have anyone interesting to feud with at that time that could have made it work.
Meltzer: Yeah, the whole thing about Hunter not turning face. Austin turning heel was definitely a bad move. It was the wrong guy to turn heel. There are certain guys who are not good as faces, certain guys who are not good as heels and they're great the other way.
The axiom that if you're a great heel, you'll be a great face -- often, that's true. But there are exceptions to every rule. When Hulk Hogan turned heel, it was successful but it was also because the public wanted it that way. They were tired of Hogan. When Austin turned, they weren't tired of Austin. That was like turning Bruno [Sammartino] heel.
I know people will go, 'God, why didn't they ever turn Bruno heel? It would have been huge.' No, it would have killed the f-cking company. But the outright stupidity. So many people came into the company with Austin, Austin was a big deal. They knew wrestling was fake but they believed in Austin and Vince McMahon.
It wasn't even so much Austin turning heel, but it was shaking hands with Vince McMahon. it was like you're watching this soap opera, it was like going, 'Hey, it's all fake after all.' Austin shaking hands with Vince McMahon, that magic moment at the end of that 'Mania, that was the stupidest thing. Austin will tell you that, too.
Austin said, 'I should have stunned Vince impromptu at that moment and stayed face.' That would have been what happened. The thing with the Austin turn, also -- and I remember this well because I was so against it. I remember in February of that year before 'Mania is when I was pretty much told by people in that company that it looks like they're going to turn Austin. They were kind of like trying to sell me on it. I was like, 'That's a big mistake.'
Rock can turn. You can turn Rock because the people love Rock, but it's not like Austin. Rock can be a babyface and Rock can turn heel. It's fine. He's got the charisma. They don't love him the same way. They don't love him. They like him, they like him a lot. Austin, they identify with. They don't identify with Rock.
When they did all those angles before that WrestleMania to make Austin the heel and Rock the face, ever week on TV -- with one exception, I think there was one city where they actually cheered Rock -- but almost every week, they're cheering Austin and they're booing Rock even though Rock's playing the face role and Austin's playing the heel role.
I'm going, 'The people are telling you this. God, damn, they're telling you this, Rock's got to be the heel!' They went in with that mentality of, no, Austin's been a face for long enough. It's run it's course, it's time for Austin to be a heel. Austin's a good heel. Yes, Austin can play a good heel, I have no doubt Austin as a performing can play a very good and entertaining heel. But it's not what the public wants and it's not what they're going to pay for. It was the wrong guy to turn.
The original idea was Triple H to turn and they Triple H decided he wasn't going to turn. But even with Triple H as the face and Austin as the heel -- that's not what the public wanted, either.
WrestlingINC: Maybe it's always been like this, but it seemed like it was during that time when the company really wanted to prove the audience wrong if it wasn't in their agenda.
Meltzer: Yeah. From the beginning of wrestling, it was always, 'We're going to sell you on what we want.' It's always been like that, every promoter's been like that. So, I don't think that was different. But, I do agree with you in that I don't think those old promoters -- when they did that -- had the mentality of we're going to prove the audience wrong. That did become the thing.
I think in WCW as well. During the Monday night wars era, it became an antagonism. I think that's the prevalence of the Internet. They would read stuff and get mad and, 'We're going to prove you guys wrong.' I think that that's different than the '70's and the '80's where the promoters have their story and they're going to tell their story and the public is going to accept their story. But, it wasn't, 'We're going to prove you wrong.' And the 'we're going to prove you wrong' stuff did come into effect in the '90's and 2000's.
WrestlingINC: It just seemed like during the late '90s at least, when Austin or Rocky caught fire, they would go with it more. Now, if someone catches fire that they weren't responsible for, it seems like they try to book to prove you wrong. The prove that they shouldn't have caught fire.
Meltzer: Yeah! That's unique. WCW did that, though. Remember when the West Texas Rednecks for no reason other than that they had this feud idea that back-fired. Then, the first thing they did was take them off television. That was the weirdest promotion. I've never seen a company try not to get people over.
There were examples after examples. 'Wow, this angle is handed to you. Go with it, you can get this new guy over.' I know people who would pitch ideas for guys and they were great ideas. They would tell me, 'We've got this idea...' They were for under card guys! It was just, 'We don't want to do angles with them.' It was just doing crappy angles with everybody else.
What it was was that there were certain guys there who were guarding their spots who just brainwashed people into thinking nobody else knew how to draw money. So, anything for any of those other guys -- including some guys who were big stars who had drawn money in the past -- but they were all bad-mouthed and people were protecting their spots. Some of those guys were never really big stars, either.
It was a weird thing. Yeah, we see that in WWE now. But, I saw that in WCW, also.
WrestlingINC: The only difference I saw in WCW was that it seemed like the top stars were in management's ear to bring people down. Now, it doesn't seem like that's the case as much and that it's just directly from management. Which makes less sense to me.
With WCW, it was bad for growth, it was bad for the company but I understood that the top guys wanted to keep their spot. Now, why wouldn't you go with something that's catching fire?
Meltzer: Now, what you've got this mentality that it's not real. Unless you look this way, you can't be a star. So, when you have a guy who gets over who doesn't look this way, it's like, 'OK, the people are cheering for them but they're not really over.' That was the difference. And, you know, sometimes, you look at TV ratings and TV ratings are a funny thing.
I look at when [CM] Punk and Daniel Bryan start getting reactions and their TV ratings for their quarter are terrible. So, you've got that thing where, 'They're not over in TV ratings and that's our primary goal right now.' House show business wasn't turning around. So, are they the real stars or is John Cena the real star?
To the public, John Cena still was the real star but, at the same time, you have to make new stars. If those are the guys catching on, yeah, you've got to go with them. Eventually they did, you know. But I think that the thing that dooms certain guys and helped certain guys -- I mean, in their mind, Drew McIntyre should be a star. But, he wasn't and eventually... he wasn't, if you know what I mean. But, they shoved him down our throats.
They think 6'5", good body, good looking guy and fairly athletic equals a star and a guy like Daniel Bryan who's 5'8" is not a star even though he's a great wrestler. But, look at where they both are today. As much as management will take forever to get there, the fact is is that at some point, one guy is in one place and one guy is in the other despite all of this.
WrestlingINC: Going back to 2001, that was also the year Dana White and the Fertittas took over the UFC and I remember when that happened, I thought that the company was done. They were putting Dana White in charge who had no experience. I would have never seen how much it could grow. What do you remember during that time? Did you think that the purchase would breathe new life into the company?
Meltzer: Yes. I mean, I knew [Bob] Meyrowitz was just about done. I had never met Dana White until he was put in charge of the company. He was around, he was managing Tito and Chuck Liddell but for whatever reason, I didn't know Dana at all.
But I talked to Dana from day one pretty much and I thought he was a really enthusiastic guy. But I knew the Fertittas and I knew the casinos and I knew they were rich. And I believed in the product in the sense that from UFC 3 -- which I bring back, in my mind -- this is a viable product that handled the right way with television, it could be really big. I believed that.
So, when they came in and they were wealthy, I thought, 'OK, you've got these wealthy guys behind this and they can cut through all the political bulls--t that killed it and it's going to be really big right away.
Now, there's kind of a re-writing of history -- and it may very well be that the people that advised the Fertittas told them that this was a dumb investment. But, I just know from talking to those people at that time that our thought... They were doing about 15-19,000 buys on pay-per-view with maybe 20% of the pay-per-view homes, maybe 25% of the homes able to get pay-per-view actually having access to the show. So, the whole thing was once you get 100%, if you're doing this with 25%, you're going to quadruple it -- four times -- right? That made sense.
So, the feeling was that we're going to go from 20,000 to 80,000. Then, with promotion and building stars, we can get to 100,000. And 100,000 was a great number then. 80,000 was a good number. Then, they did the first show and the first show did 75,000. OK, well, we're right where we expected pretty much. Also, I remember the first show came right after 9/11 and the whole economy was uncertain that month.
OK, the first show did exactly what we kind of figured. Not their first show, but the first show where they got on inDemand and back on the cable systems. But, what happened was that first show was f--king horrible. That set them back and then they were back there doing 30-40,000 buys for a lot of these shows. They were losing their ass and that's when it looked bad.
But, even then, Dana talked a good game. I remember that whole period where they were losing money. I knew they were losing money but I didn't know it was as dire as it was until years later when they would tell the story of how dire it was. After they were successful and going, 'You know, we were $44 million in the whole and about to sell.' I knew they were losing money, I didn't know they lost that match.
I definitely didn't hear rumors that they were about to sell but Dana was always denying it. So, I figured -- why not? He talked a good game. Maybe that's not true. The Fertittas, being rich and everything, at no point did it look like there was no potential there. The 2002 fight with Shamrock and Tito, when it did 150,000 buys on pay-per-view with no television -- OK, this is the proof that you get the right fight with the right guys, you can do it. Imagine once you get TV, the whole thing is you get TV.
But they struggled to get TV. But, I knew that they were always in negotiations for TV and Dana and I were always talking about the Tuesday Night Fights idea and pitching it to Fox Sports and this guy and this guy. Somebody was going to get it, but nobody wanted it. But, I always thought that someone is going to get it on TV. When they do... Again, not explode like it did. But, again: could they do 100,000 for one pay-per-view 6-8 times a year and be a successful business with that if they got TV? Absolutely, 100%, I knew they could.
So, I thought that the Fertittas buying it would be the savior of the thing and it was going to make it. They ended up having a lot of financial troubles and it was harder than I thought. It was harder than they thought. But, then, once it got on TV, it exploded quicker than anyone thought, too. [Laughs.]
WrestlingINC: Yeah, absolutely. Whenever Vince McMahon talks about the UFC -- obviously he can't say it's a competitor -- but, it always seems like there's a little more to his comments. Do you think he has any resentment giving SpikeTV the green light to allow The Ultimate Fighter to go on after Raw?
Meltzer: I'd have to think that with hindsight, he'd have never done it. For a million reasons. Whatever they believe -- who knows because they'll never tell you for real. But, I can guarantee you that those people in that company are so sick of every time they go out and someone goes, 'You're losing market share to UFC. They're the new thing and you're the old thing.'
It just has to drive them crazy. Because they're not doing that bad financially. They have lost popularity and there are people that have moved over. They can deny it but that's just reality. Now, perhaps it's swinging back a little bit. Who knows?
Yeah, I think with hindsight... You've got to remember in that period, UFC was something that was dead and they didn't really understand what it was and that they could do story lines and things like that. I think they just thought it was a bunch of guys fighting. 'You can't control the outcome so, therefore, they're doomed.' That was Vince's mentality. If you can't manipulate who wins and loses, then you're doomed. What if you're main event only goes a minute? People are going to be upset.
And they still don't get that. I heard [Hunter and Nash] say it recently. 'What if the main event goes a minute? People don't get their money's worth.' I never hear UFC fans complaining about a main event that goes a minute. Ronda just had her fight that went 54 seconds. When it was over, did one person say, 'Oh, my God. We just got ripped off. The main event only went 54 seconds.' No! They just said, 'Wow, she won in 54 seconds.' She's a bigger star.
Make sure to check back later this week for the final part of our three-part interview with Dave Meltzer. You can follow him on Twitter (@davemeltzerWON), and check out The Wrestling Observer online at wrestlingobserver.com.