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Monday Night Raw: From 1 to 1,000

WWE’s flagship program Monday Night Raw recently aired its milestone 1,000th episode on USA Network.  

Ever the fans, TJ and Frankie offer their reflections on Raw, its first episode, and its place in wrestling history.

TJ: I have been following professional wrestling for most of my life. My dad was a big fan and got me into it very young. A guy named Hulk Hogan kept me hooked. Not only would I say my prayers and take my vitamins, but I used to tape my wrists with masking tape so I could, in some fashion, look like the Hulkster. There was nothing like cheering for Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, The Macho Man, Bret Hart and the rest. I was a big WWF fan and stayed into it until the end of the “Attitude Era” and the beginning of the WWE era (It still pains me to write or say the ‘E’. It will always be ‘F’ in my heart.)
These days, I’ll still flip Raw on every so often, mostly when I hear that some of my favorite wrestlers from the past will be making appearances. In fact, this past March I ordered my first wrestling pay-per-view in more than a decade after watching the build on Monday nights. It was Wrestlemania and there was no way I was going to miss “The most electrifying man in sports entertainment” The Rock taking on John Cena.
So hearing about the 1000th episode of Monday Night Raw got me excited and, of course, nostalgic. Nostalgic for the past when I still thought wrestling was real, and the characters and action in the ring were so much better. The fact that Vince’s company is still around (and WCW isn’t) and that Monday Night Raw is still on the air, is incredibly impressive. I may not be impressed with the wrestling of today, but I can’t deny the fact that the WWE is doing something right to have their signature show on TV nearly 20 years after first starting. Which takes us back to the show that got it all started…
January 11, 1993 (Before Monday Night Football tried Dennis Miller, Monday Night Raw had Rob Bartlett.)
I was 6-years-old at the time and I knew that the WWF was doing something different than Prime Time Wrestling which usually aired on Monday nights. If I remember correctly, (and please correct me if I don’t) the last episode of Prime Time the week before ended with the set being torn down in anticipation for this Monday Night Raw thing. 

So here we are, the one and only Sean Mooney kicks things off from outside the Manhattan Center. Soon, one of the all-time great characters in the history of wrestling, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan walks by and talks about wanting to go into the show. But Mooney tells him he’s been replaced by Rob Bartlett. Being so young, I had no idea who Bartlett was but I was disappointed that he was commentating and “The Brain” wasn’t. 
Then, the Raw opening theme song and video plays and it is plain-old awesome. It fit the Raw idea they were going for of being edgy, especially for the cartoonish era the WWF was in at the time. The tagline for the show fits well too, “Uncut. Uncooked. Uncensored.”
As we take a look inside the Manhattan Center, the sirens are going off, the crowd seems jacked, and Vince (Not yet Mr.) McMahon, with his then trademark over the top delivery, makes the show feel big and live. Definitely a contrast to the typical studio panel that was Prime Time Wrestling.
Vince introduces his broadcast partners calling the action. The one and only Macho Man Randy Savage and…of course, Rob Bartlett. 

The very first match in Raw history is about to unfold before our very eyes. Koko B. Ware vs. the 505 pound future WWF Champion, Yokozuna (who Bartlett refers to as Yokozuma).
Bartlett: “That’s a big butted oriental, Vince. He’s got an ass like an ampitheater.” (He said ‘ass’!!)
Bartlett also mentions that Yoko should be wearing a bra and compares Koko to Gary Coleman. But I don’t want to make this all about Bartlett and some of his ridiculous jokes. Anyway, this was a squash match, in this case and most of the time involving Yoko, it was literal. He dropped his big (!!) leg on poor Koko and finished him off quickly with the patented bonzai drop. As a kid watching this, even though he dominated, I wouldn’t believe, if you told me, that Yoko would go on to win the Royal Rumble, win the title at Wrestlemania (then lose it to a recently returned Hulk Hogan the same night) and then be the man who eradicated Hulkamania from the WWF for nearly a decade. 

Back from the break, we see Raw ring card girls. I like that. I always like when they do the little things in pro wrestling that make it feel like a legitimate sport. (Like Bobby Heenan referring to himself as a “Broadcast Journalist.”) That’s a big part of why I don’t follow wrestling as closely these days. Vince has made it a mission to take the ‘sports’ out of ‘sports entertainment.’
Next, “The Brain” isn’t completely shut out of the show. He does a taped promo pumping up “The Narcissist” Lex Luger, who is set to debut soon. 
Our next match of the evening, The Steiner Brothers take on The Executioners. Steiners were awesome and The Executioners, in their own way, had been awesome too. During the match, we see Doink the Clown in the crowd being all creepy. Bartlett calls him “Dork the Clown” and Vince slips and goes with it. 
Sean Mooney is outside, a woman trying to go inside saying she’s Rob Bartlett’s aunt. It turns out to be Bobby Heenan in drag. (I feel like this will be a recurring skit of the night.)
Up next, Vince has a very special interview with Razor Ramon. Razor is the number one contender and has a shot at Bret Hart at the Royal Rumble. He does his ridiculous accent, which I completely bought at the time. Vince asks him why he jumped Bret’s brother, Owen Hart, and Razor said it was fun and there was nothing Bret could do about it because he’s “The Bad Guy.” Makes sense to me. 
Back to the ring, Max Moon has a match for IC title against…Shawn Michaels! During this time, I believe Sensational Sherri was singing his theme song. Unbelievable multi-colored costume for Moon. Commercial break during the match. When we return, Bartlett says Michaels pulled a knife on Moon during the break (I actually thought that line was actually funny.) He then does his Mike Tyson impression…I stop laughing. Longer match here (Can’t even imagine a match this long going on during today’s Raw, even though they have to fill three hours.) Superkick hits but doesn’t end it. Shawn has a neat suplex as a finisher though and he keeps the IC title.

Mooney outside, Bobby Heenan in a beard claiming to be Bartlett’s Jewish and wanting to get inside. Not happening. Next there’s a flashback to Superstars. “The Ugandan Giant” Kamala is being bullied by his managers Kim Chee and Harvey Wippleman. Reverend Slick comes out to save him, gets beaten up a bit, but then Kamala strikes back and chases Wippleman out of the ring.
Next up, is the main event of the evening. Damien Demento (who kind of looks like Jesse Ventura) has a match with The Undertaker! (Right about now would have been nice for Heenan to tell us that, “Shawn Michaels has left the building.” Free Bobby Heenan!) Taker does his entrance, Bearer is super creepy. The deadman does his usual “I’m dead, you can’t hurt me” routine. He walks the ropes and ends Demento’s night with a tombstone piledriver.  
That gem of a match doesn’t end the show though. Vince interviews Doink and tells him Crush doesn’t like it when the clown makes kids cry. Crush comes out and chases Doink around the ring. We end the show kind of how we began, with Bobby Heenan trying to get inside the Manhattan Center.

Remember the beginning of the piece when I said the I liked pro wrestling more in the past than now because, “the characters and action in the ring were so much better.”

Well, about that…the first episode of Raw was certainly underwhelming in terms of actual action. And the characters that I loved so much never included Doink, Max Moon or Damien Demento. And what I failed to remember until now is how prominent squash matches were back then. I’m all for not giving away the best action on free TV and saving it for pay-per-views. But I think we were all spoiled and our minds were reconditioned during the Monday Night Wars. It was then that we started to expect quality, pay-per-viewesque action in the ring on a weekly basis.

So Raw 1 was certainly no gem, but its “Liveness” and edginess certainly set the stage for those incredible Monday night battles between WWF and WCW. Raw eventually expanded to two hours (after Nitro did) and 999 episodes later it’s now three hours long (also like Nitro)

And it all began on this cold night in New York City. 

F13: A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of columns about my favorite period in WWF/E history, the span of time between SummerSlam ’91 (August 1991) and WrestleMania VIII (April 1992).  If there was any period in time that put an end to the “Golden Age” of professional wrestling, it was this.

Hulk Hogan had left the World Wrestling Federation (for the moment) and guys like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were advancing toward the top of the card simply by being great wrestlers (although one could argue even a young Shawn Michaels had a screen presence and charisma that Bret Hart, for all his excellence in the ring, lacked).

But the WWF hadn’t yet shaken away the cartoonish characters that came to characterize the ’80s.  In fact, Vince McMahon doubled down on the weirdness, introducing fighting garbagemen, radioactive mutants and evil clowns.  The early years of Monday Night Raw weren’t too different from what had come before, just with the unpredictability of a live broadcast.
But even in that first Raw, that unpredictability shone through.  Sure, it wasn’t the best episode of televised professional wrestling–really, it wasn’t very good at all.  But it was live and went off without a hitch, and that’s what mattered that first week.

I don’t really remember any promotion leading up to Raw.

All I remember was watching Prime Time Wrestling one week, then tuning in a few weeks later to learn it was gone, and seeing Ric Flair and Mr. Perfect battle in front of a live audience.

Coincidentally, this was the first really good episode of Raw, pitting the former allies against each other in a Loser Leaves WWF match.  (Flair lost, sending him back to WCW.)  It established the pattern of big name “superstars” in pay-per-view quality matches against each other on free TV, which had been largely verboten before (aside from Saturday Night’s Main Event and the odd “feature match” in syndication).

The Hammersmith Ballroom at the Manhattan Center was certainly an odd fit for a wrestling promotion more accustomed to huge arenas, but that added to the charm of Raw‘s early days.  The intimate venue helped put the audience in the midst of the action, more so than in a larger venue.

Ironically, Extreme Championship Wrestling would later make that venue its own, and when WWF/E visited again, fans would receive them in a manner befitting an enemy invasion force.

Most of my friends know I’m a huge wrestling fan, but what they don’t know is that I actually stopped watching the WWF through high school.  Peer pressure is kind of a bitch.  Later, I discovered ECW in a late night Saturday slot on a low-power station, and was both enthralled and horrified for a period.  I didn’t know what I was missing at the time, nor that it was the period that would define Raw and cement it as the seminal program in professional wrestling history: the Attitude Era.

Raw was alternating between taped and live shows, and the Federation was floundering during this period thanks to a dearth of crossover stars as well as a federal investigation into Vince McMahon’s possible involvement in steroid distribution.  The entire business was in a tailspin, but both WWF and rival World Championship Wrestling had the raw materials–the talent–to turn things around.  They just needed a catalyst.

For WCW, it was two men who helped usher in the Raw era, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash.  Hall had been the Scarface-inspired Razor Ramon in the Federation, while Nash worked as Shawn Michaels’ hulking bodyguard-turned-rebellious champion Diesel.  Together with Hulk Hogan of all people, they formed the New World Order (branded nWo), a heel stable that got not only the wrestling world, but the wrest of the world talking.

WCW became an edgier product thanks to the nWo, so Vince McMahon took what they were doing and put his own spin on it, using Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels to build new stars like Steve Austin and Mick Foley–battle-scarred ring veterans by then, but relatively new faces in the WWF–plus The Rock and Hunter Hearst Helmsley.  Michaels and Helmsley became real life best friends and formed D-Generation X, which was kind of like the nWo but with a more puckish spirit, and lots more dick jokes.  And Austin, who came into the WWF as Ted DiBiase’s Ringmaster, found his own lane as a character closer to his own personality, the beer-swilling, ass-kicking redneck rattlesnake best known as Stone Cold.

It was the bitter conflict between WWF and WCW (fueled in part by both companies’ liberal jacking of ECW’s themes and talent) that created the most profitable period in the history of the business, the Monday Night War.  WCW took the ratings lead thanks to the nWo, putting Vince McMahon in the uncomfortable position of having to chase his foes for the first time in a long time.

That desperation led to some of the craziest storylines in the business, anchored by one of the best and definitely the most relatable–McMahon’s own war against the rebellious Austin.  It led to indelible moments such as Austin stunning McMahon for the first, second and third times, Foley as Mankind in a near-suicidal war with the Undertaker on top of a giant steel cell, and D-Generation X zinging McMahon’s Corporation at every turn.

It even led to D-X declaring war on WCW by driving a tank up to their front steps.
And it all happened because Vince McMahon decided to try his hand at live television back in 1993.
Ultimately, I came back to wrestling during the Attitude Era.  The nWo had gone past its sell-by date and WWF (later WWE) was a lot more fun to watch, especially once more of WCW’s midcarders headed north to try their hands at becoming big stars, guys like Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero.

Here we are at 1,000 episodes, even though Monday Night Raw has rarely felt as vital as it did back in the late ’90s.  Still, despite what its detractors might say, there’s always something waiting to happen, some surprise every fan will doubtless be talking about, from Mick Foley winning the championship and putting butts in seats to CM Punk becoming a bonafide superstar with just a few minutes on a microphone.

That was the genius of Monday Night Raw, to create a show where anything could–and did–happen.

Happy 1,000, Monday Night Raw.  May you live to see a few thousand more.

Perhaps with a little less John Cena.

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