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Black Star Power
NEW YORK, NEW YORK — March 26, 2001 marked the beginning of a new era in pro wrestling. Fans tuned in to TNT at 8 p.m. EST, expecting the season finale of WCW’s “Monday Nitro”. Instead of the show starting off with a championship match or interview by a WCW superstar, we were greeted with an appearance by the most powerful WWF superstar, Vince McMahon, chairman of the World Wrestling Federation. As if his presence weren’t shocking and surreal enough, the words uttered through Mr. McMahon’s cocky Kool-Aid grin surely were: “I have bought my competition. WCW, and everything associated with it, belongs to me”.
On television, it was presented as a story line, but behind the scenes, it was the actual truth. The previous week, World Championship Wrestling had been sold to its chief rival of more than 50 years, the World Wrestling Federation. Citing WCW’s low ratings, dwindling attendance, and loss of over $60 million during the last fiscal year, Time Warner (WCW’s previous owner) felt it was necessary to rid themselves of the one eyesore preventing a merger with AOL from. The chief concern among the wrestling circle, however, centered on the future of the business: How viable would it be to have two nationally recognized wrestling promotions under one ownership? Will the business bottom out due to lack of genuine competition, as some critics are predicting already? Or, will WCW benefit from the WWF influence and regain some of the respect it has lost over the last two years? Very little has been answered, of late, but one thing is certain. The man who stands to gain the most from this business deal is the current WCW Heavyweight Champion, Booker T. Depending on how the next few weeks pan out, wrestling’s newest cross-over superstar could be waiting in the wings.
For over eight years, Booker T. (Booker Huffman) has been one of the more talented and athletically gifted men on WCW’s roster. During his time there, he’s won 20 championships: 10 tag team titles with his real-life brother, Stevie Ray (Lane Huffman), and another 10 as holder of either the U.S. or TV title. After outgrowing the somewhat stereotypical “Harlem Heat” tag team gimmick, Booker grew to be his own man. What we saw every Monday and Thursday on “WCW Thunder” was just an extension of his own personality. And — you couldn’t help but like him. He was cocky, well-built, good looking — everything a wrestling champion should be. Literally, when he got on the microphone, everyone listened. The ingredients were all there to make him the cornerstone of the company. It was only a matter of time before he got his shot, and on July 16, 2000 at the “Bash at the Beach” PPV, he got his chance to run with the ball. Booker defeated Jeff Jarrett for his first Heavyweight title reign. Since then, he’s lost and regained the title two times, his last title win coming against Scott Steiner on “Nitro” ‘s season finale. Even someone who doesn’t follow the business has to admit that those accomplishments are pretty impressive. Yeah, titles are “awarded” through pre-determined outcomes, but that’s beyond the point. Your ability as an “entertainer” determines your place in the industry.
So, how exactly will Booker T. benefit from the WCW sale? Through the dreaded “guaranteed contract” curse. The WWF — per their agreement with Time Warner and preserving the old school “pay for what you work” approach to salaries — won’t be responsible for paying for any of WCW’s top-tier superstars, since they were getting paid well into the millions. Men, like Ric Flair, Goldberg, and Sting, now have the option to a) take time off from the wrestling circuit for the remainder of their respective contracts and, in essence, earn “free money” sitting at home, or b) ask for a buyout from Time Warner at a rate of 30 cents to the dollar, at which time they’ll be free to negotiate a new deal with the WWF. Guess who’s the only person confirmed to have opted for a buyout? You guessed it. Booker T. So, not only is a top-name star signed to the “new” WCW roster, but he’s also the possessor of the company’s championship belt. When WCW re-airs, it’ll be Booker T as the main event on “Nitro”. When they get back to pay-per-view, he’ll be involved in the title picture on a monthly basis. You can’t ask to be in a better position than that.
And since both wrestling companies are under the same ownership, it’s only a matter of time before we get matches resembling the inter-league play concept in Major League Baseball. WCW’s already planted the seeds for an “invasion” of the WWF. On the last two episodes of “RAW is WAR”, wrestlers Hugh Morrus and Lance Storm ran in from the stands and interfered in matches already in progress. Wrestling-themed websites were abuzz over the two incidents. Imagine the response if, and when, Booker T. appears on “RAW”, WCW championship belt in hand, and issues a challenge to The Rock or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Not only would a match of that magnitude surely be aired on pay-per-view, but such a match would also take place in just about every city and arena throughout the country. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of money to be made with something of that caliber.
WCW’s re-launch date hasn’t been announced yet. Currently, WWF officials are trying to secure a Saturday evening time slot on The National Network (TNN) for their sister company. This is a huge opportunity for the wrestling business to arise from the rut it’s been in the last few months. “RAW” and “Smackdown!”, on average, have been solid, but without competition breathing down its neck, the WWF seems to be waning a bit, compared to a year ago. Maybe this new version of the “Wrestling Wars” will raise the proverbial bar to a new level. It’s great to see that Booker T. is going to play a huge part in it all. Let’s hope the other stars sitting on the sidelines will take Booker’s example and get back in the game.