Tonight WWE celebrates the 25th anniversary of Raw, its flagship TV show. It’s the program that spurred WWE on to its highest peak of pop culture relevance, and whose TV rights fees drive the company’s current financial success. It redefined not just the direction of WWE but the entire wrestling industry. And in the process it basically killed wrestling as it was known in the 20th century, leading to the stagnant, corporate product that we know today.
When Monday Night Raw premiered 25 years and 11 days ago on the USA Network, pro wrestling was about to bottom out. Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation was a few years removed from the peak of Hulkamania, and the attempt to replace Hulk Hogan with the Ultimate Warrior had clearly failed. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, World Championship Wrestling was struggling to establish itself outside of its traditional Southern base—by the end of 1993 the Ted Turner-owned company would name its fifth lead executive since the beginning of 1992. Ratings and interest were down across the board for the two major companies, and new top stars like Bret Hart, Sting and Vader, while popular, largely failed to draw as strongly as the biggest names of the 1980s, many of whom were still active.
Before this downturn reached its nadir, WWF radically changed its approach to television. Its long-running prime time slot on USA was never the promotion’s flagship TV show—that was reserved for the syndicated WWF Superstars of Wrestling, which used angles, promos, squash matches and the occasional competitive match to build up the storylines that would play out at house shows for months on end, and occasionally culminate at one of the company’s quarterly pay-per-views.
That changed with the debut of Raw on Jan. 11, 1993. Instead of a taped show from an anonymous arena, it was broadcast live from the relatively small Manhattan Center theater in New York, which was packed with an enthusiastic crowd. Instead of a series of two minute matches with no-name enhancement talent losing to stars, Raw had… a series of three minute matches with recognizable enhancement talent losing to stars, like Koko B. Ware falling to Yokozuna, and Damien Demento getting pinned by the Undertaker in the main event. In the most competitive match on the show, Intercontinental Champion Shawn Michaels defeated the short-lived future cyborg character Max Moon (here played by Paul Diamond and not the role’s originator, Mexican superstar and future NWO member Konnan) in a ten minute title defense. Add in a few comedy segments starring Bobby Heenan, a handful of interviews, and some putrid commentary from comedian Rob Bartlett (who disappeared from Raw and wrestling after only a few months), and you had a show that felt nothing like anything WWF had ever televised before.
Raw was immediately WWF’s primary show, but it didn’t stop the company’s mid-’90s slide. Audiences grew smaller even as newer stars like Diesel and Razor Ramon became main eventers. In 1994 WCW dropped the wrestling industry equivalent of a nuclear bomb by signing Hulk Hogan and immediately remaking the company in his candy-colored, kid-friendly image. WWF and Raw plugged along for another year with no prime time competition, but had to resort to taping shows at small arenas in cities like Binghamton, New York, and Macon, Georgia. For most of June, 1995, WWF’s flagship show was held at a high school gym in Ohio. Despite Raw’s improvement on WWF’s TV product, after the show’s first two years on the air the company was at its lowest point since McMahon took over from his father in the early ‘80s.
Raw didn’t really become Raw, either structurally or in terms of stature, until well after WCW launched its own prime time basic cable wrestling show in the same time slot. WCW Monday Nitro premiered in September of 1995, and from the start did better in the ratings than anybody expected. It was close enough to Raw’s ratings that WCW head Eric Bischoff convinced Turner execs to open the checkbooks even wider and sign away some of WWF’s top stars in 1996. Kevin “Diesel” Nash and Scott “Razor Ramon” Hall jumped to WCW in the spring of 1996, launching the New World Order angle that would make WCW the most successful wrestling company in the world for a few years.
Nitro succeeded through a combination of surprises and pay-per-view level matches. Unlike Raw, which would tape weeks worth of episodes in advance, Nitro was regularly live, which could lead to shocking moments like WWF star Lex Luger returning to WCW unannounced on the first episode of Nitro. Nitro later expanded to two hours an episode, double the length of Raw. These decisions helped WCW in the short-term, but had a long-term negative impact on the entire wrestling industry.
To compete with WCW, WWF embraced all of the competitor’s tricks. Raw stretched to two hours a week, eventually going live for every episode. It started running high-profile main events and regularly pitted mid- and upper-carders against each other, which gradually decreased the importance of pay-per-view matches even as pay-per-views became monthly events, and also made it harder to establish new stars. Any notion of long-term storytelling was thrown out the window in chase of shocking moments on a weekly basis. It didn’t matter if storylines didn’t make any narrative sense, or if they flouted all traditional wrestling logic; all that mattered was hooking the audience with the steady promise of major surprises and revelations. Eventually Raw, under the aegis of writer Vince Russo, and perhaps reflecting McMahon’s longstanding desire to seemingly divorce his company from wrestling altogether, devalued wrestling to the point where Raw’s in-ring matches felt like afterthoughts that served as pointless palate cleansers between endless promos and embarrassing comedy segments. Title changes were regularly hot-shotted, and once-meaningful secondary titles like the Intercontinental and Tag Team Championships were irreparably devalued. Beneath the main event scene of Steve Austin, the Rock, Mick Foley and the Undertaker (the first three of which combined all-time promo skills with fantastic in-ring work, and the latter of which is the single most protected character in the history of wrestling) you had a large class of wrestlers who couldn’t step up to the next level due to Raw’s steady diet of inconsequential matches and bad comedy. Wrestling stopped being wrestling as it had long been known.
The Raw of 1998 and 1999 doesn’t really feel too much like the show of today. It was far more crass and unseemly back then, and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them matches couldn’t be further from the 20 minute marathons used to eat up Raw’s current (unnecessarily long) three-hour runtime. But this era spawned some of the most basic attributes of WWF (and later WWE) television that persist to this day. Most episodes started with long promos that set up major matches for later in the same episode, generally featuring an authority figure who is usually a heel and often a McMahon family member. By the late ‘90s Raw was airing live every week from NBA and NHL arenas in major metropolitan areas; other than set changes and an upgrade to HD cameras a decade ago, the crowd shots of a 1998 Raw and a 2018 episode wouldn’t look that different. From a booking perspective, only the major main eventers and most protected newcomers could count on consistent winning streaks and regularly being portrayed as serious threats. If a wrestler was anywhere below the upper-card, their push was only as strong as their most recent segment. All of these are still true today, 20 years later.
WWE’s current problems can be traced directly back to its abandoning the traditional wrestling playbook 20 years ago. The Raw of today has a much greater emphasis on actual wrestling than in the past, and the current roster is one of the deepest the company has ever had in terms of in-ring work. Very few of them feel like true stars, though; the only wrestlers today who get close to the reaction Austin, the Rock, Foley or the Undertaker got in 1998 and 1999 are John Cena and the Undertaker, who is a hobbled shell who rarely works more than one match a year at this point. For four years and counting WWE’s main focus has been Roman Reigns, who the fans have roundly rejected as the next top star almost every step of the way. When recent wrestlers have seemed on the cusp of true superstardom, WWE has regularly bungled it by either fighting the fans or intentionally avoiding what worked for wrestling in the past. Those massively popular Raw episodes of the Monday Night Wars shook up the very nature of wrestling storytelling, down to a level as foundational as how to establish faces and heels and turn them into stars, and wrestling has never fully recovered.
As WWE celebrates 25 years of Raw tonight, it’ll also be commemorating the end of wrestling as it was known for most of its existence. As favorite faces from the past return tonight, and clips of great angles and matches from years gone by pop up on your TV screen, you should enjoy the memories and the nostalgia. Hopefully you’ll also realize that what Raw has turned into (with much help from Nitro and WCW’s institutional ineptitude) isn’t what wrestling used to be, or what it currently is outside of WWE, or what it could be in WWE once again if the company returned to what has always worked in pro wrestling.