2001: The Surprising Origins Of The WWE Network

2001…what a crazy year that turned out to be. The Monday Night Wars ended when Vince McMahon bought WCW in March of that year. Due to a key injury to HHH who was set to work the summer with Steve Austin as a babyface the company felt that it didn’t have anyone ready to step up to the main event level as a replacement. So what normally would have taken six months to a year in preparation the company rushed it’s WCW ‘Invasion’ angle to fill the summer storylines. In the big picture it did not work but did provide some cool moments and gave the WWE roster an abundance of talent that it would count on for years to come. This my friends, was just the summer and fall.

In the winter Chris Jericho would beat Rock and Austin in the same night and cement his legacy by becoming the first champion to hold the WWE Title and the (former) WCW Title at the same time and be declared Undisputed Champion. Paul Heyman dropped truth bombs at commentary and in the ring (especially on Vince…wow!!). Jerry Lawler would get fired and rehired again in a matter of months. Ric Flair would return to Monday Night Raw for the first time in eight years. Rock and Austin would headline Wrestlemania in one of the most explosive main events of all time. Then there was that weird thing called the XFL which came and went faster than Nicky Martin dashing out on the cheque.

It was a real exciting time in my personal life too. I would graduate high school, attend college, become legal drinking age, attend a game a Wrigley Field, get shown on camera during Christian’s heel promo on Smackdown in Toronto, (just barely might I add) get hammed in Greece…ok ok…enough about me…you get the idea…despite the epic and unforgettable nature of this year I want to take this edition of The Grand Slam to focus on two overlooked events.

One would take place on The Grandest Stage of ’em All at WMX7. On a card full of classic matches this was not one of them. Nor was it really talked about much after the fact but it played a significant role in history. The other event would be a program that would debut in the wee hours of the eve of my 19th birthday, August 25, 2001. Did I stay home and watch it? No…however my brother was kind of enough to tape it for me to watch the following day and while the show was forgettable (not to mention that I had a brutal hangover that had me hugging the porcelain bowl faster than a Nicky Martin promo) it did have one MAJOR selling point that would alter the course of the business as I see it.

To confuse the matter even more I am writing this to make the case that these two events that appeared to be largely insignificant were the catalysts for the eventual launch of the WWE Network. The first being the first (and only) Gimmick Battle Royal at WMX7 and the debut of the highlight (magazine?) show WWF Excess. I don’t believe the Network would exist to us fans today as we know it without these two seemingly meaningless and random events.

Let’s start with the battle royal. This match was brilliantly placed after the breathtaking TLC Match and before the double main-event of Undertaker/HHH and Rock/Austin. Sometimes a dose of comedy (more on comedy in a future edition of The Grand Slam) can be placed perfectly between two high profile matches. At this Mania WWE had conquered the Monday Night War and were now officially the King of the Mountain so to speak. So how do you celebrate? Bring back some of your alumni and old-timers for a laugh.

This match was a traditional over-the-top rope battle royal and would feature WWE (and other promotions) stars of yesteryear. We would see everything from the true legends (Sgt. Slaughter, Iron Sheik) to the ridiculous (Gobbledy Gooker, The Goon). This match wasn’t supposed to deliver but was designed to entertain the fans by turning back the clock. Each entrance, even with some modern theme music was a twist of nostalgia and the fans ate it up. I would watch this Mania at a friends’ house and a group of probably close to thirty people crammed the basement. Let’s just say some substances were passed around earlier and this part of the evening was more entertaining than usual for some. A lot of these fans were ‘casual’ and would remember a lot of them form their youth. Their pops for the likes of Slaughter, The Bushwhackers and Earthquake made me realize that this match was a good idea despite the fact that it was a pure novelty act.

How else do you top this match of random gimmicks ranging from the good, bad and ugly? You bring in legends Gene Okerlund and Bobby Heenan for guest commentary. Both men had been the television face of WCW for the past six years and given that the fun they had at this show couldn’t wait to get the Hell out of there. Heenan was in fine form cracking lines like ‘I thought the Gooker was you’re mother in law’…..’by the time Sheik gets to the ring it’ll be Wrestlemania 38’…later Bobby would reveal in an interview that the whole battle royal from backstage to the ring was the most fun he had in wrestling in years.

The nostalgia pop was in full effect and we are all quite sure The Iron Sheik won because his knees couldn’t handle taking a bump on the floor. But it was all good theatre and in this ring of WWE’s who’s who one figure stood out. That being Michael ‘P.S.’ Hayes, formerly of Fabulous Freebirds fame making a long awaited return to his old stomping grounds of Texas. Hayes entered the battle royal with the only gimmick that was never full time in the WWE. Sure the Freebirds had a cup of coffee at MSG way back when and Hayes worked as Doc Hendrix then manager of the Hardy Boyz…but nobody saw him as Badstreet until this show. He even had the amazing Badstreet U.S.A. theme music that used to be property of….you guess it….WCW. I’ll get back to this later…

Fast forward to the messy aftermath of my 19th birthday and I am watching the debut episode of WWF Excess. This is taped in one of their studios in front of a monitor and pretty nondescript overall. Someone had the brilliant idea to make ‘edgy’ segments where host Jonathan Coachman would pathetically try and ‘flirt’ with his co-host Trish Stratus and would keep getting shut down. So what the Hell was the selling point of this show anyway? It sounds like bad hosting mixed with weekly show highlights you probably watched earlier in the week. That is all true however for the first time in recent memory Excess would close the show with a feature called From The Vault. This would be a classic match allegedly voted on by WWE fans. The one they showed on my birthday was the Wembley Stadium Summerslam classic between Bret Hart & Davey Boy Smith.

Now, before I go any further I have to point out one more fact about 2001. I was working part time at Blockbuster Video (remember those?) and DVD’s were becoming the new craze for sale and rental. This means that a lot of older VHS titles were being sold at rock bottom prices or being discontinued altogether. This transition to digital arguably affected classic wrestling videos the most. WWE in the 80’s cornered the home-video market brilliantly with Coliseum Video. If myself or any other fans wanted to watch old school wrestling this was the way to do it at the local video store. Eventually those libraries would disappear and at the time there was no need to convert them digitally. So you either had to have a friend with a tape collection or order some on the Internet yourself. So when my brother and I watched the From The Vault section we were amazed. We desperately wanted to relive a lot of classic content from our youth and at the very least WWE would take us back there once a week. Outside of this segment Excess would produce little to no memorable moments (exception: Al Snow makes a guest appearance and shoots on his video and theme music being dated ‘five years ago’). In fact when the last episode aired in May of 2002 WWE had another card up their sleeve involving the past and the present.

This would be the groundbreaking WWE Confidential show. It would air nearly every week for two years and for the most part would provide some truly fascinating content on not only the present state of the company but its history as well. This would branch out into the history of things like the WCW belt. A renewed interest in NWA/WCW history had been rekindled when key figures like Ric Flair, the nWo, Hulk Hogan, Eric Bischoff and Goldberg would debut after the invasion storyline imploded. A good chunk of the WCW vault (now owned by WWE) would get shown hyping these stars and they started to recognize that people actually wanted to see more.

When Vince bought WCW Paul Heyman in the announce both brilliantly resurrected the quote about Alexander The Great…’he sat down and wept when he realized there was no more land left for him to conquer’. WWE had vanquished its competition and when you are the victor what else is left? Like I mentioned in a previous blog you can control your own narrative which they did for years. You also look back into the past and turn it into the future. WWE wouldn’t make as many new stars during this period as they probably should have because they counted on the nostalgia of former WCW and ECW stars to sell the current product.

However WWE would eventually develop new stars and soldier on. They would also continue to cash in on the ‘nostalgia’ through well-produced DVD sets and the reopening of the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. The company finally decided to cash in on and honour its proud history (plus the history of the territories they would help put under). They recognized that there was in fact demand for this content to the ‘hardcore’ wrestling fan and even some ‘casual’ ones who were unfamiliar. Some of these DVD sets would include footage from NWA, AWA, Stampede, World Class, Mid South, ECW…just to name a few. After a failed launch in 2012 the WWE would retool and successfully relaunch the WWE Network in 2014 leading up to the immortal Wrestlemania XXX. In the past six years this network has become the ultimate authority in being the absolute vault for past and present pro wrestling content in North America. This model has since been adopted by New Japan Pro Wrestling and even smaller promotions like Impact.

Bruce Prichard has gone on the record with his podcast saying that Vince McMahon was beginning to plan the concept for the WWE Network as far back as 1988 or so. I take a lot of what Bruce says with a grain of salt however I could see Vince potentially planning this long before the Network launched. That’s why I can’t help but think that with the surprising buzz surrounding the Gimmick Battle Royal and the From The Vault section of Excess that the company knew nostalgia would be a major selling point moving the promotion forward. They could blend the past and the present with this same curiosity by lifting the curtain and producing Confidential. Confidential would prove marketable for people’s curiosity in stories and history which would lead to DVD packages and an experimental pay service on cable TV called WWE 24/7. This would be the blueprint for the Network in the late 2000’s before it went digital and officially launched in 2014. This is why I love studying the history of the business. Two completely (seemingly) unrelated events that didn’t put a dent on the box office would tie together and lay the foundation for the next evolution of how wrestling fans consume their content.

So what’s next? It’s hard to say where things go from here…while the Network is loved by many it has not even come close to hitting the projected number of subscriptions they had hoped for. If they still keep uploading classic content from all the territories and produce new content they can still keep a base audience. Nobody knew how the year 2001 would roll out in the wrestling world and everybody can say the same about this year as well. At the time of this writing The Rock is very close to buying the bankrupt XFL with his longtime business partners. This is the same Rock who got screwed out of the WWE Title by the former owner of the XFL Vince McMahon….the day after the initial XFL shut down at WMX7…The Rock is now SAVING the brand that McMahon couldn’t get off the ground in a global pandemic….2020 really is the twilight zone…and to a degree that excites me as seemingly unrelated events like this one could have a seismic impact on the future of the wrestling business…you just never know!

Readers Note:
Due to the failure to deliver a recent edition of the Magnificent Mind the three stoke policy is back in place for “Too Magnificent” Nicky Martin via MCW management. He is currently on strike-one and if he misses two more entires on his scheduled dates he will be at three strikes and The Magnificent Mind will be wiped permanently from the MCW Ontario website.

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