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wrestling / Columns

The Importance of…6.05.09: Raw

June 5, 2009 | Posted by Mike Chin

It’s entirely possible that there has never been, and that there will never be a more important wrestling TV show than Raw. As WWE often likes to make note, Raw has had more original episodes than any nationally broadcast weekly TV show ever. What’s more, for over 16 years, Raw has featured some of the most famous matches and moments in all of professional wrestling.

When it began, Raw represented a revolutionary new concept in the wrestling world. Up to that point WWF programming had generally been comprised of syndicated shows like Superstars and Wrestling Challenge, and compilation shows like Prime Time Wrestling, that featured a large studio component. Raw was different. For one, it started out airing live every week, before scaling back to only doing live shows on alternating weeks, a cost-cutting formula the company used for several years to follow. Airing a show live even every other week was exciting and unheard of, as only PPVs and the occasional special appeared live up to that point. Beyond that, the format of Raw had more of a feeling of continuity than the old shows—rather than a more random compilation of matches, these broadcasts lent the fans the sense that they were watching one cohesive show from start to finish

In addition to formatting changes, Raw also featured a regular sampling of matches between legitimate stars. While there were still some squash matches in the rotation, Raw broke from the standard of syndicated programming by regularly having big names square off on free TV, from The Undertaker versus Damian Demento in the first episode, to a forgotten gem of a loser leaves town match in Mr. Perfect versus Ric Flair. Sure, the outcomes of these matches wasn’t exactly in doubt, but it was still a refreshing change from the star-jobber confrontations to which fans had grown accustomed.

Having established stars square off wasn’t enough for Raw, though. The show was also about creating new stars. Most fans assumed they were watching another jobber squash when Razor Ramon stepped into the ring with The Kid in an early episode. This led to one of the most memorable upsets in wrestling history, when scrawny young Sean Waltman picked up his first WWF win, surprising Ramon and kick-starting a new direction for the upper-tier heel character. Besides having a major impact on the careers of both of these stars, this match also helped establish a tone for Raw, planting the idea that anything could happen on the show.

Of course, Raw may not have been so successful were it not for the appearance of some pre-established stars. Indeed, in its first year, one of the biggest stories on Raw was the return of Hulk Hogan. One week, Brutus Beefcake was back, only to get destroyed by Money Inc. From there, it wasn’t long before his best friend had come back, making for some thrilling TV for my nine year old self, and countless other Hulkamaniacs across the country.

Of course, Hogan wouldn’t be around for long, and in the years to follow, the WWF would struggle with its identity. Raw remained the top show, but there were a lot of questions about who would be the top star, or where the product was really headed. By the late 1990s, the company had picked a direction, growing far more cutting edge and pushing the owner, Vince McMahon closer and closer to the spotlight.

Indeed, McMahon was, in many ways, the star of Raw as it transitioned to a new era. After a frustrating loss, Bret Hart had a stunning worked-shoot moment as he berated the boss, cursing in front of the crowd. Little did fans know what would follow, as a long-term story with Steve Austin would make McMahon even more of a focal point. There was the surprise of Austin stunning McMahon. Later, there was McMahon’s first ‘match’—a confrontation between the boss and the Rattlesnake that built over the course of an entire episode, before Mick Foley’s interference kept it from actually starting. From that point on, there were Vince’s first legitimate in-ring confrontations. Today, it’s easy to look back at McMahon as over-involved as an on-camera character, but looking back to the start, is was an absolute thrill to think of wrestling’s biggest promoter mixing it up in the ring.

McMahon and Austin’s twin ascents went a long way toward making the WWF a success again, and in helping the WWF recover from losses to WCW, and ultimately overcome the competition. There was certainly one hell of a supporting cast as well. Shawn Michaels and his clique founded Degeneration X, a cool enough stable to rival WCW’s nWo, and a talented enough stable to deliver some fantastic matches. What’s more, there was the bold Undertaker-Kane storyline that went a long way toward revitalizing the Taker character, and building a new star out of long time supersized journeyman, Glen Jacobs. On top of all of this, Raw delivered some truly memorable stuff, with perhaps no moment greater than Mick Foley’s first WWF title win. While WCW was featuring the likes of Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Sting—guys who had been at the top of the mountain for the better part of a decade—the WWF was pushing new stars, and doing so in new and exciting ways.

The WWF and Raw were the ultimate winners in the Monday Night War, as WCW folded, its contracts and tape library absorbed by McMahon. Fittingly, the moment of triumph came on a Monday night—the last Nitro, and a Raw that aired shortly before Wrestlemania, when the first and only simulcast between the two shows occurred, with Vince and his son Shane declaring victory—making the very end of the rival company a part of their own storyline, as Shane’s character ‘bought’ WCW.

With the Monday Night War over, WWF no longer had competition to its flagship show, and probably could have settled for falling back to squash matches and regular taped broadcasts. McMahon didn’t want to risk losing fans, though, and so he chose to stay the course with a slate of almost exclusively competitive matches, week in and week out, and continuing to air the show live nearly every week.

Major change was not in the cards for Raw until a year later. With the absorption of WCW talent complete, and the Invasion story arc over, this was the point when the company needed to adjust for the increased talent pool, and went ahead with brand extension. To this day, WWE operates under separate (if somewhat flexible) brands—a move that has given far more talent an opportunity to shine, and that has also lent Raw its own, unique roster.

Aside from all of the points above that help to illustrate Raw’s significance in the history of the business, and in major wrestling storylines, the show has also been the site of some of WWE’s best efforts as a good, respectable company. For years, it was Raw that served as the platform for Tribute to the Troops shows. Say what you will about the way in which WWE’s primary focus is making a quick buck, and how it promotes violence and objectifies women. For all of its shortcomings, I just cannot bring myself to knock a company, nor a roster that goes out of its way to travel into a warzone each year, and put on a show to entertain the US military abroad. Skeptics might claim that WWE puts on this show for the sake of good PR, and while I imagine that the company does enjoy this benefit, I’ll maintain that it takes courage and sacrifice to put on a show in this environment and for these reasons. The fact that WWE has chosen to carry on this show for four years running tells me that the company genuinely cares. This may be the proudest, most important part of Raw’s legacy.

In addition to paying tribute to those in the armed forces, WWE has also done its own proud. It’s a tragic thing when a person dies at a young age, and it can truly rattling when that person is a star. Over the course of its 16 years, WWE, has seen three members of its active roster pass away in Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit. In each case, Raw was the site of a fitting tribute—for Hart, a night full of memories; for Guerrero a night full of veritable dream matches; for Benoit, a highlight show as the company waited to see the terms of how he had passed on. In each instance, WWE handled itself with class and dignity, giving both the wrestlers and the fans an opportunity to reflect and mourn, while still having the show go on in some form, as the departed surely would have wanted.

Raw is the longest running show in the history of wrestling. It was the mechanism by which the WWF defeated its greatest rival, WCW. It has, for 16 years, stood as the flagship show for the company, playing host to hundreds, if not thousands of great matches, memorable promos, and tremendous moments. For all of this, there is no more important wrestling TV show than Raw.

That’s all for this column. Next week, we take a look at the importance of Monday Nitro. See you in seven.

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Mike Chin
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