In the 20+ years since Dave Meltzer began the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the wrestling business has evolved from a secretive and close-knit society to a million-dollar industry where the promoters themselves call it “sports entertainment.” Odessa Steps senior editor Mark Coale spoke to Meltzer in early February 2000 about the current state of the business, days after the move from WCW to the WWF of Chris Benoit and company.
Q: This interview is being done the day after the WCW Four (now known as the Radicals) debuted on RAW. Do you think there will be any long-term ramifications of this development?
A: I think Benoit and company going to WWF is going to hurt WCW more than help WWF. WWF has already booked them in a manner which has eliminated the greatest potential usage of Benoit on the first night he was in there. It can be explained that he’ll end up doing well, which he will, but it seems ego goit in the way of pushing an angle handed to them.
Q: In all the time you’ve been doing the newsletter, has either of the Big Two been in worse shape than WCW right now?
A: WCW was in worse shape financially in 1993 than it is today. The difference is that the company still had something to build on then. Flair wasn’t nearly as old. Sting was only 33 at the time. They were doing poorly, but they had a future, and totally turned it around. Right now, they have totally mortgaged their future. So in that way WCW is in worse shape today than it has even been.
Q: Will we continue to see an escalation of the hardcore style? Have the majority of fans become desensitized to the “real” violence and pain that the wrestlers go through to perform?
A: The hardcore style is going to become more and more prominent because it’s simple to learn to perform and it’s easy to get a pop. For young wrestlers, rather than spend years learning psychology to build a long match, it’s easier to bring in furniture and get attention that way.
I think once fans got past all the deaths without thinking twice, and the deaths of Gary Albright and Bobby Duncum Junior were amazing in their total lack of fan reaction to, than who is going to think twice about injuries. There was tons of concern in 1990 when Sting tore his ACL and it was well known he’d be back in six months. When Austin’s career was in jeopardy, while it was a bigger news story in the media, there was nowhere near the concern among wrestling fans. SO the answer to both questions is yes.
Q: Will the pendulum ever swing back from “sports entertainment” to “sport?” Will this only happen when the industry’s current wave of popularity cools down?
A: I don’t think the pendulum will ever swing away from entertainment. It may swing away from silliness to seriousness, but ultimately it’s all part of the entertainment equation. Wrestling has to keep pace with all these other live events, whether it be NHL or NBA and has to have the same level of entertainment trappings. There will come a time when this current fad runs its course. It’s already past its peak, except that WWF is still doing well but wrestling in general is way down from one year ago.
Q: How have you found the first few months on the internet? Is it what you thought it would be, given the length of time it’s taken you to come aboard?
A: I’m still in the process of trying to figure out what the right formula for myself is on the internet. It’s definitely now what I’m doing now. I considered the first year to be an experiment and a learning process. It’s a totally different environment filled with a lot of people who are just trying to get themselves over. I really love doing the internet audio show five days a week. It’s really time consuming but I look forward to it. Doing the internet page just seems like falling into this silly game of bragging rights over who gets a story first rather than who understands what the story is. It seems like it’s a waste of time for me because I’m working away from my strengths.
Q: What has the net done to the wrestling business and the sheet industry? Are sheets still viable in the instant news era?
A: The Internet has totally changed the business. The companies book for the internet, all three of them. My feeling is the average fan is like most of my friends who watch TV and would never spend time on the internet looking at a wrestling site. Of all my friends, most are what would be called casual fans. They’er aware of the top angles, but only one has ever looked at my website. They all know I do a newsletter. A few read it but more for the fighting news than the wrestling news. They have different reactions to angles than internet fans, in that the inside references go right through them. But overall, their reactions to the product as a whole are usually very similar as to which show is better and which company is more interesting at the time.
I can’t answer the question about whether sheets are going to be viable in the future or not. The best person to ask are newsletter readers if they will continue to subscribe. Based on the reaction I’ve gotten, the readership increased tremendously through the middle of the year. When we added the website, logic would say subs would increase although I was not sure of anything. It’s held steady and if it stays at this level forver, I’d have no right to complain. Based on everything, I’d say at least the top newsletters are clearly still viable today. I make no predictions about five years from now.
Q; Is the American wrestling fan really to provincial or xenophobic to embrace foreign wrestlers? Is that due to bookers continually perpetuating the same old stereotypes? Could Lucha or Puroresu ever achieve a niche market in the US?
A: Obviously American fans will accept what they are educated to accept. Super Crazy and Tajiri have done well in ECW. The Great Muta was a star in WCW. The Mexicans would have been huge stars in WCW except the bookers killed them dead. If you’re pushed in a position where you’re important, eventually you become important. Look at Helmsley as an example. He was overpushed for years, but it paid off. The size is a BS argument because Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Julio Cesar Chaves and Oscar de la Hoya were gigantic PPV draws. Bookers book what they understand and we haven’t had a booker who has any kind of a world wide wrestling [perspective in the big companies in years. Paul Heyman has the most and he’s made Masato Tanaka a featured PPV and TV performer, drawn above average ratings with his matches, and Tanaka got over and had the most heat PPV matches consistently of anyone in ECW in the past year. The inability to do interviews does hurt, but it’s more the lack of creativity about different forms of wrestling and how to sell them, and being closed-minded to new concepts.
As far as Japanese or Mexican wrestling on its own getting a niche market, with the right TV, Mexican wrestling could and that’s already been proven years ago, but it would need a lot of TV, like AAA had in its heyday, and really, it would have to have a better product than the US was offering which AAA had a t the time. Japanese style at one point I’m pretty sure could have made it Today, because the styles and wants of the fans have changed so much in the past three years, it would be more difficult for Mexican wrestling and Japanese wrestling to make it as TV entities. We’ll never know until a network gives them a chance. At that point, 75% of the success will be determined by the cleverness of the people handling the promotion and the ability of the TV announcer to reach the audience. But the wrestling itself has to be excellent. Good isn’t good enough.
Q: A few years ago, John McCain was one of the leading critics against shoot fighting and did a lot of helkp get the sport killed in the US. If he were elected president, what might that mean to the world of wrestling?
A: John McCain has shown no interest in pro wrestling so I don’t think if he were to be elected it would have any effect on wrestling. He’s shown the potential to do damage. If he came after wrestling judging from Vince McMahon’s reactions, it would be bloody because as UFC shows, it’s a no-win situation and logic doesn’t enter into the equation.
Q: Why can’t a light heavyweight division ever last? Is it the booking or the “bigger is better” mentality of the American public?
A: the light heavyweight DIVISION is the same problem. Most bookers have only seen American wrestling and since Danny Hodge, the junior heavyweight division in this country has been a joke. And in recent years, both WWF and WCW have turned their divisions into major jokes. Right now, I think iti might be impossible for three to five years, because the audience is taught to take women’s wrestling and cruiserweight wrestling as a jobber comedy show. It may be that it shad to go away completely for a few years and get a booker who understands how to work the division and have some patience. You need a super champion with unique ability and great charisma as opposed to simply a good wrestler who is smaller for it to work.