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The End of Wrestling’s Monday-Night Wars Was the Best Series Finale of the Century

Eighteen years ago, wrestling ate itself. Here’s how Vince McMahon bought WCW and WWF emerged as the victor of a thrilling battle for professional wrestling supremacy.

Dan Evans

Some of the greatest shows went on for too long. ER, Dexter, Beverly Hills 90210, The Office, and don’t even get me started on the Jack Burns–era Andy Griffith Show. There are some shows that drag on forever but that we’re still happy to have around—The Simpsons, Law & Order, even Cheers. All of those shows will end eventually, even if a perfect writers’ room would have pulled the plug years earlier. But what if there were a show that literally never ended? A prime-time scripted show airing weekly for 25 years with no seasons and no semblance of overarching narrative?

The Bachelor franchise is grasping for that level of near year-round permeation, with seasons leading organically into the next and with Bachelor in Paradise there to fill in the gaps on the calendar. Imagine that Bachelor Star Destroyer, 20 years into its run, and the on-screen story gets swallowed by off-screen drama—Chris Harrison being courted by NBC, say, and CBS trying to outbid them as The Bachelor pivots to make him the center of the drama.

It sounds ridiculous. But that’s more or less where WWF was at the turn of the century. An inherently silly, vaguely postmodern scripted pseudo-sport that was unwittingly in its death throes.

The story—the meta story that ate the story, the only story that matters here—goes back to the early ’80s, when Vince McMahon’s WWF started hiring away NWA talent and stepping on the toes of the NWA shows on cable TV. The off-screen conflict hit its first high when McMahon began counterprogramming against the rival promotion’s big events and strong-armed cable companies into stopping his rival’s advancement into the pay-per-view sphere. But the real drama began in ’95, when WCW—now owned by Ted Turner and Turner Broadcasting, and managed by a former wrestling announcer named Eric Bischoff—launched Monday Nitro, an unsubtly named rival program to WWF’s Monday Night Raw that aired at the same time on the same night, headlined by some of McMahon’s biggest former stars such as Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage.

If that were only good-spirited competition, the official declaration of war came with the nWo—when former WWE notables Kevin Nash and Scott Hall (Diesel and Razor Ramon, respectively, in the WWF) popped up on Nitro. They had gone there as free agents, but the on-screen story was that they had been sent there by McMahon to start a fight. It was a canny move: Not only had WCW swiped two of McMahon’s top young talents, but it took full ownership of the meta story that was driving masses of viewers to the televisions on Monday nights. The ratings battle wasn’t the subtext anymore—it was the on-screen narrative, too.

The rest of the story has been told (one-sidedly) too many times in WWE documentary form to count: WCW edged out WWF in the ratings and won the ratings war for 83 consecutive weeks, turning the perennial ratings also-ran—and upholder of the old-school rasslin’ mentality—into cutting-edge, must-see TV. It was also a postmodern exercise in redefining the wrestling model, as WCW’s headliners spent most of their screen time introducing new nWo team members (and new catchphrases) instead of actually wrestling.

For their part, WWF groped around wildly, trying to refashion itself for this new era of postmodern unrest. Eventually, it found its footing through a combination of vulgarity and circumstance—the latter being the ascendance of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and the revelation of McMahon as the on-screen owner—and villainous macher—of the company. Along with Shawn Michaels and D-Generation X, the Rock, the Undertaker, Mick Foley, and others, McMahon’s plucky army made headway against its rival and eventually, um, wrestled back control of Monday nights.

WCW was eventually left flailing themselves—in 1999 it relieved Bischoff of his duties; hired away WWF’s main writer, Vince Russo, to replace him; then tossed Russo, only to bring him and Bischoff both back a couple of months later. Within months, Bischoff soon resigned and Russo stopped writing after he got concussed in a match against Goldberg. If that sounds confusing, imagine watching the show. If you want more detail, I highly recommend the exhaustive Monday Night Wars Wikipedia page, especially for straight-faced nuggets like this: “[In 2000], WCW lost US$62 million, due to guaranteed contracts of their older performers, plummeting advertising revenues, dropping house show attendance, controversial booking decisions (like [actor David] Arquette and Russo winning the WCW Title), and expensive stunts to boost the dismal ratings and pay-per-view buyrates.”

By then WWE had functionally won the Monday Night Wars, but, fittingly, it took some corporate chicanery to really put WCW on ice. After Time Warner—WCW’s parent company—was purchased by AOL, new Turner Broadcasting CEO Jamie Kellner decided to take pro wrestling off the air, eliminating WCW’s most valuable asset—the time slot. (There is no shortage of conspiracy theories surrounding this, too.) McMahon swooped in and purchased the IP, video library, and 25 wrestler contracts for $3 million. For point of reference, WWE gross revenue in 1999 was $250 million. Hulk Hogan’s 1998 WCW signing bonus was $2 million. That the entire, years-long battle between WWF and WCW came down to that small of a figure is almost laughable, but it’s apt. It shows how far WCW had fallen, sure. But it also shows how trivial the whole feud was in the first place.

In interviews, McMahon presents this as a life-or-death struggle—the billion-dollar corporation, Bischoff with Turner’s endless checkbook, against a mom-and-pop shop with human livelihood on the line. And watching in real time through my late teens and early 20s, it felt even more urgent than that. Whichever show you preferred, it felt like a literal fight to the death being acted out by a series of fake fights between cohorts. In that way, the nWo had it right—the matches didn’t matter as much anymore, except as metaphors and totems. When Mick Foley won the WWF title in January 1999, WCW commentator Tony Schiavone famously said live on the air—spoiling the finish of Raw, which was pre-taped—“That’ll put a lot of butts in seats.” It’s become a punch line because it was wrong, but the motivation was weirdly on point. The fight between Foley and the Rock in the ring mattered less than how that fight would affect the WWF-WCW ratings war. It was the early days of online fandom, and wrestling nerds like me were checking blogs and message boards for news about wrestler contracts and quarter-hour ratings to try to divine the future of the conflict.

On Monday nights, we’d gather in front of the TV as real-time test markets, flipping back and forth between shows to see which grabbed our attention, sometimes toggling so quickly the TV became a baby-oiled strobe light. We tallied imaginary scorecards: Sting in the rafters is plus-1 for WCW; Austin riding in on a beer truck is plus-1 for WWF. There was implied nudity, there was real blood, there were fans rushing the ring, both real and staged. The shows were cross-referential—imagine Jay Leno calling out David Letterman, or The Voice doing American Idol parody sketches. Now imagine the only ending is that one company will die. Imagine if your favorite hobby is at war with itself, and it’s playing out in real time on TV every Monday night. I don’t say this lightly: It was the most compelling television show of all time.

Which brings us to Monday, March 26, 2001. Perhaps fittingly, the main action takes place off camera. McMahon’s WWF has bought WCW, as announced via press release the previous Friday. “The World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. agreed Friday to acquire rival World Championship Wrestling, ending a near 20-year rivalry,” CNN reported, letting WWF’s triumph peek through. On Monday Nitro, which had an earlier start time, Vince did a slightly better job of explaining the acquisition as he postured in front of a chain link fence.

“Imagine that—me, Vince McMahon. Imagine that. Here I am on WCW television. How can that happen? Well there’s only one way. You see, it was only a matter of time before I, Vince McMahon, bought my competition. That’s right—I own WCW. … The very fate of WCW is in my hands.”

WCW stalwart Ric Flair was defiant—“You can’t hold people’s lives in your hands”—but Schiavone was realistic: “McMahon has WCW’s future in his hands.” Later in the show he struck a personal tone, evoking McMahon’s post-facto human pleas. “We don’t know what’s going to happen after tonight. We have no idea. We’ve got people here—families—that have no idea what they’re going to do next.” Schiavone never worked another day for the WWF. Later that night on Raw, the show opened up with Vince watching two TV sets in a backstage lounge—one with Raw and one with Nitro. He acknowledged that he had bought WCW and said he’d address both rosters later.

“The war is over and Vince McMahon is the winner. Tonight is the victory party,” said color commentator Paul Heyman, who built upstart wrestling fed ECW and eventually sold to WWE, too, his own little Iliad a pivotal sidebar to the master narrative.

When McMahon finally entered the arena, he addressed the crowds—plural, since he simulcast both in Cleveland, where Raw was occurring, and at the WCW telecast in Panama City, Florida. Heyman was right: By now, the story was over. This was the victory lap. “Obviously, you know I have acquired WCW,” Vince said matter-of-factly. “That’s right, I have bought my competition.”

Vince’s victory was buying—swallowing, destroying—WCW. But his revenge was a direct shot at the beginnings of the nWo angle. He took the real-life story and subsumed it. He made it his on-screen story line. He took ownership of the story, finally. He said he hadn’t actually signed the contract just yet. He would—but he’d do it six days later at WrestleMania, and only if his old rival Ted Turner personally delivered it to him in the ring. “You’re up against a billionaire. How did you do it?” Vince asked rhetorically. “How do you beat a billionaire? Become one yourself.”

(That it was the week before WrestleMania was a weird fluke that underscored the disparity between the story and the story, and even rewatching the show, it’s impossible not to be distracted by the fact half of the cast and crew were wearing WrestleMania 17 baseball jerseys. The biggest card of the year, headlined by Austin vs. the Rock for the world title, is now a weird distraction to the battle that was really playing out.)

The camera cut to Panama City, where the crowd had just watched Booker T claim the WCW title from “Big Poppa Pump” Scott Steiner and Sting submit Ric Flair in a match that tried valiantly to memorialize an entire sports media company in a seven-minute match. Vince boomed on. “You gotta squeeze the life out of your competition. Just like I did to WCW. Just like I’m going to do to my son Shane this Sunday at WrestleMania.” The two McMahons were involved in an Oedipal beef, and even if it wasn’t going to be a wrestling clinic, it was a surefire crowd pleaser. At first blush it felt tangential—it wasn’t nearly as significant as WCW’s demise. But WWF would remedy that. “He who laughs last laughs best,” said Vince.

And then Shane appeared on the Jumbotron. In Panama City. In an unfortunate black turtleneck. “Surprise!” he said. “As usual, dad, your ego has gotten the best of you. The deal is finalized with WCW and the name on the contract does say McMahon.” The crowds—both of them—saw what was coming and erupted. “However, the name on the contract reads ‘Shane McMahon.’”

Later that night, backstage, Vince screamed over the phone to his “lawyers” who let the deal slip away. “You’re good for nothing! Look what you did! You ruined this whole damn thing!” Vince had had a lot of fun in his feud with Austin, hamming it up and becoming a full part of the on-screen action for the first time. But now he was relishing in it, relieved, released. The story was over, and the story had just begun.

Back on Nitro, the show ended with a plaintive sigh from Schiavone. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster for all of us, fans—the uncertainty of our jobs, our future, of what we love of, of what we breathe, and what we live. We don’t just work for WCW; we live WCW.” Fans like me could surely sympathize. We didn’t just watch the WWF-WCW feud, we lived it.

That night was the last night of Nitro. It was the last night of WCW as its own entity entirely. WWF talked about reviving WCW as its own show under the WWF banner, but it never came to be. And so we were right about the stakes of the Monday Night Wars. WWF won and, a silly invasion feud aside, WCW was gone. And if WWF had ended that night too, it would have been the greatest series finale of all time. It was certainly the end of the best story ever told, because it was a story that actually mattered. For all of pro wrestling’s forced hyperbole, a story line bigger than Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant ended that night, and it was a clean finish. The last episode of WCW Monday Nitro was without question the greatest series finale of all time.

At WrestleMania 17 a week later, Austin beat the Rock, and Shane beat Vince. None of that really mattered. By then, the story we cared about was already over.