The Importance of…5.29.09: Prime Time Wrestling
When I think of the WWF of my childhood, there are a lot of memories that leap to mind. There’s Earthquake crushing Hulk Hogan on the set of the Brother Love Show. There were the series of ‘perfect’ sports clips to introduce Curt Hennig. There’s Papa Shango making the Ultimate Warrior drip black ooze. I distinctly recall taking in these moments, and so many more, through the lens of WWF Prime Time Wrestling.
As the very name of the show suggests, Prime Time was unique in that it aired in prime time, and what’s more, appeared at the same time each week, on a week night, on a national cable network. All of this was a step forward for professional wrestling, which had dwelled mostly in local television markets and then syndicated TV up to that point. In setting up shop on USA, Prime Time was, in many ways, a step toward legitimacy and permanency for professional wrestling.
Growing up, Prime Time Wrestling was, for many years, the only wrestling show we would watch with any regularity. In retrospect, I have little doubt that a big part of this was my mother seeking to limit the amount of wrestling I watched–sure that I’d outgrow it before long, and weary of what sort of violent, anti-social tendencies it might provoke in the meantime. Beyond the whims of my family, Prime Time, in many ways, made sense as *the* show to watch. While the program rarely aired exclusive material, it functioned well as a ‘best of’ compilation from the weekend before, including all of the essential moments from the syndicated programming, packaged in such a way to keep the fans up to date on everything they needed to know to stay on top of the product.
Beyond serving as a top-notch re-cap show, Prime Time was, in itself, quite the entertaining spectacle. In the glory years of the show, Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon manned the helm of the show. Heenan was the unabashed heel supporter we all recall. Meanwhile, Monsoon was just as biased toward the faces, hardly the relatively neutral play-by-play man we’ve come to accept in Jim Ross or Michael Cole, but openly attacking heels and making excuses for faces. Putting these combustible elements together, Heenan and Monsoon made for one of the most entertaining odd couples in wrestling broadcast history. On Prime Time, recapping the past weekend, and sharing original commentary and promos, the two had the ideal stage to play off of one another. On screen, these guys never had the celebrated friendship JR and Jerry Lawler have shared. There is little doubt, though, that as rivals, the men had a very special chemistry between them.
In addition to their outstandingly entertaining work on Prime Time, Monsoon and Heenan have a unique place in history for their work in creating a transition between the eras of Prime Time and Raw. As a kid, I recall predicting that one day Monsoon and Heenan would have it out in a match (can you imagine how awful that would have been?). I was mistaken, of course. Without a match to build toward, the feud had a unique longevity–stretching out for the better part of a decade. To make matters better, the blow-off of this feud came in a true watershed moment, with Monsoon kicking Heenan out of an early episode of Monday Night Raw, marking the transition from Prime Time to Raw with an exclamation point and the true end of an era.
What I may remember best from Prime Time Wrestling, and what is, indeed, probably the most important moment in the show’s history, was the face turn of “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig. When The Ultimate Warrior bolted from the WWF just prior to Survivor Series 1992, the WWF needed someone to replace him as Randy Savage’s tag team partner for the main event of the show. Prime Time was rarely the stage for any significant plot development, but in this instance, over the course of two hours, something truly remarkable happened. Hennig hadn’t wrestled in over a year, and had spent the preceding months as a sidekick to Ric Flair. Inexplicably, Savage’s character saw that Hennig yearned to get back in the ring, and wasn’t happy playing second fiddle. Opening the show, he called on Hennig to team up with him at Survivor Series, much to the amusement of Heenan. As the show went on, Hennig didn’t deny that he was interested, before, finally, goaded by his former allies, he accepted Savage’s invitation. Hennig had never been a face in the WWF before, and coupling that with the top notch performer’s return to the ring, this show made for some truly exciting television. The comeback itself was a moderate success, but the unexpected and quick way in which it took shape were truly remarkable for the time–in a sense, foreshadowing the more rapid face-heel turns that would define the decade to follow. It was Prime Time’s finest moment.
Prime Time Wrestling represented much of the best of WWF in the pre-Raw era, re-airing the weekend’s best matches, giving the best commentators a stage to play on, and playing host to small handful of historic moments. While it’s not the best remembered or most celebrated of shows today, the fact remains that it was important.
That’s all for this column. Next week, we take a look at the importance of Raw. See you in seven.