Is the WWF on the ropes?

Sunday's Wrestlemania broadcast, with its much hyped match between Hulk Hogan and the Rock, might not have been enough to save Vince McMahon's crumbling empire.

Published March 19, 2002 9:00PM (EST)

Nobody does hype like the World Wrestling Federation. The professional wrestling outfit has made braggadocio and gross exaggeration an art form; its overly excited ringside announcers sell the WWF's soap-style story lines as if each new plot twist were shocking, new and world historic in scale.

Sunday night's pay-per-view Wrestlemania "X8" (that's 18 in WWF-speak) was no exception. Pro wrestling's annual Super Bowl event, fans were told over and over again, was "the showcase for immortals" and "the grandest stage of all." And the much talked-about featured bout between the Rock and Hollywood Hulk Hogan ("wrestling's future vs. its past") was simply "the biggest match ever," "a match for the ages" and "icon vs. icon."

But the fans assembled in dens and living rooms across North America who shelled out $40 for the pay-per-view broadcast, not to mention the 68,000-plus who packed Toronto's Skydome (setting a new building attendance record in the process) may have detected some authentic urgency among the WWF wrestlers and announcers.

That's because, coming off last year's disastrous foray into professional football with the short-lived XFL (which sucked not only money but also man-hours out of the wrestling company), Vince McMahon's venerable sports-entertainment dynasty has been on the ropes. Not only that, the attempt to integrate wrestlers from World Championship Wrestling (WCW), the WWF's former rival, which McMahon purchased from Ted Turner last year, has been largely unsuccessful. The WWF desperately needs a hit.

Television ratings are off (last week's "Smackdown" on UPN was the show's lowest-rated non-holiday broadcast), live attendance is down, pay-per-view revenues have decreased, and WWF merchandise is still sitting on store shelves.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the WWF would come down from its pop-culture zenith of 1999. That's when gladiators like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mankind and the Undertaker were featured in virtually every consumer magazine in America, while McMahon was toasted as a modern day P.T. Barnum, able to magically, and consistently, attack the mercurial younger-male demographic like nobody else in entertainment.

Today, it has all gone sour. Last year, when Austin, the WWF's blue-collar hero, returned to the ring following a long rehabilitation, ratings barely budged. Nor did the arrival of the legendary Hogan make a difference. (He bolted to WCW in the early '90s.) When McMahon bought WCW he apparently didn't get its viewers; at the peak of wrestling's popularity in late 1998 and early '99, WCW and the WWF together attracted 12 million viewers each Monday night for their competing telecasts. Today, the WWF's Monday-night show draws about half that number.

Ratings for MTV's reality-based wrestling show, "Tough Enough," are down 30 percent in its second season, while its Sunday night "Heat" broadcast is well below what the WWF used to post on Sunday nights at the USA Network before bolting to Viacom-owned MTV.

Against that uncertain backdrop, the WWF will unveil a risky scheme later this month to help boost its TV ratings and extend the shelf life of its wrestlers: splitting its roster into two separate camps. One group, likely led by the Rock, will appear only on Monday nights on TNN's "Raw," while the other, with Austin at the helm, will make its living exclusively on UPN's "Smackdown," according to Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer.

This shift is a huge roll of the dice, which is one reason the WWF has postponed it several times over the past few months. If wrestling fans revolt (they're accustomed to seeing the Rock, Austin, and all the other wrestlers both nights of the week), the ripple effect could be devastating.

Then again, the move could be a stroke of genius, a way for the WWF to create two distinct brands and hook in fans to a pair of wrestling roundups. "The next six to eight weeks are extremely pivotal," says Meltzer.

It will be the consistency of the bouts, plotlines and rivalries that will determine the future of the WWF, notes Meltzer. A great "Wrestlemania" can't guarantee strong TV ratings for the weeks that follow; last year's pay-per-view event was considered a classic, yet wrestling ratings dropped for nine consecutive weeks afterward.

Still, Wrestlemania "X8," with its Hogan vs. Rock matchup, offered the WWF an enormous opportunity to win back casual fans and those whose interest has flagged recently. Unfortunately, most of Sunday night's broadcast came off as a four-hour version of a typical Monday night "Raw." The heavy metal band Drowning Pool performed live for the Skydome crowd, but little else seemed out of the ordinary, memorable or in any way worth $40.

The early Kurt Angle vs. Kane match was a bore, as Angle, the U.S. Olympian turned WWF star, ran circles around Kane, a laborious man of a reported 326 pounds. Perhaps the best story line was offered by the bout between the Undertaker and Rick Flair. Yes, this is the same bleached-blond Nature Boy Rick Flair who first became a wrestling star in the '70s. He's now 53 years old and remains a master showman, but he's no longer much of a wrestler. Since Flair doesn't have the speed and strength to work inside the ring, most of his battle with the Undertaker took place outside, by the scorer's table. Lots of walking around and muttering. The crowd seemed to lose interest after five minutes; Undertaker eventually dragged Flair back in the ring and dropped him on his head with a patented Tombstone move.

Stone Cold Steve Austin faced off against WCW has-been Scott Hall. According to Meltzer, Austin was cool to the idea of wrestling Hogan, so he was moved down the card for this forgettable bout. (Die-hards take note: For his victory ritual, Austin smashed cans of Molson, rather than Budweiser, before the Toronto crowd.)

Wrestling historians had to appreciate the Rock vs. Hogan: Two of the biggest names, and most charismatic performers, in wrestling history in their first-ever match. (Actually, the two had a preliminary tangle last Monday night on "Raw," which robbed the pay-per-view broadcast of some of its thrill; Meltzer thinks that WWF executives panicked over "Raw" ratings and inserted the bout.) Yes, Hogan is 48 years old and hasn't learned a new ring maneuver in 10 years. But so much of the WWF is about manufacturing excitement, giving eager and willing fans a reason to scream and jump to their feet.

That explained the sheer bedlam that erupted when Hogan came out strong early, taunting the Rock and flexing for the crowd. For many of the fans it was pure nostalgia, taking them back to the late 1980s and early '90s, when Hulkamania was running wild in the streets of North America and indeed the globe. In 1987, for example, more than 93,000 fans packed into Michigan's Pontiac Silverdome to witness Hogan lift the 500-pound Andre the Giant off his feet for a body slam.

But Hogan hadn't appeared in a Wrestlemania in nine years and his lack of endurance showed. Just as the match was starting to generate some juice at the 15-minute mark, it was cut short, with the Rock dropping the People's Elbow on Hogan. (Actually, it appeared that the Rock's dramatic finisher missed Hogan by at least half a foot, which is probably why no replay was offered.) Ten more minutes of action might have elevated the match to something that core fans would long remember.

A women's championship bout followed, and it was a boring mess indeed. And then in the championship bout, trash-talking Chris Jericho lost his title to Triple H, who seems to have more muscle mass in his neck and shoulders than most families possess collectively. A decent match. But again, nothing to make the WWF faithful stay up past midnight posting online opinions.

And when wrestling fans stop finding reasons to obsess over matches, buy live-event tickets, and subscribe to a plethora of parasitic magazines, the whole phenomenon -- which looked just three years ago like an impregnable pop-culture empire -- can collapse. Just ask Ted Turner and WCW.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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