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The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Wrestling fans woke up on Thursday morning with a news update that seemed to both promise change and also a return to the past. Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff are both now wielding significant power in WWE; with Heyman running RAW and Bischoff SmackDown. The actual extent of their authority is unknown, as it was mentioned in a WWE.com press release that both men would be reporting to Vince McMahon, but obviously both men will have some influence over WWE's product going forward.
The intent of the move was to provoke change; clearly Vince is unhappy with the current trends in his company; poor attendance, declining viewership, mounting opposition, etc. and the idea is to bring in two new creative heads to ignite the stagnant programming.
But the moves also bring the past into play; Bischoff and Heyman are best known for their creative work in wrestling companies more than 20 years ago. The idea isn't just new creative heads are being brought in, but new creative minds that have a long history in the wrestling business that even casual fans understand.
To some fans, the idea of Vince, Heyman and Bischoff all working together is tantalizing. These were the three men in charge of the WWF, WCW and ECW during the idolized Monday Night Wars; surely this triumvirate will bring in a new era of attitude and wrestling the way we remembered it.
However, the move to bring in Heyman and Bischoff is in some ways the opposite of what made the late-90s such an exciting time for wrestling fans. Wrestling peaked during that time period because the promoters in their own separate way, where on the cutting edge of what fans wanted to see. Bischoff and WCW had the NWO and the "cool heels", Heyman and ECW embraced hardcore wrestling and mature themes, and Vince and the WWF did a little of both.
You know what they didn't do? They didn't go back to the 1970s and try and see what they could re-create. Over 100 years of wrestling history has told us that the best way to pop business and improve the product is to push forward and progress with the fans as their taste evolves and changes. Nostalgia and going back to the past can work at first, but the only way to keep fans engaged over a long period of time is to create a product that is new and exciting, not to play the greatest hits from the past.
The capabilities of each man to develop a new and exciting product are in question, and both men are viewed quite differently by wrestling fans.
To a lot of wrestling fans, Heyman's status as a booking genius is unquestionable. Through ECW, Heyman created a wrestling organization that is remembered extremely fondly by fans, despite lacking the resources that WCW and the WWF had at their disposal. Heyman has remained around wrestling since ECW closed, and over the last several years he has had a clear influence in WWE, managing the angles around Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey. Among fans there is little doubt that Heyman is capable of creating an entertaining product.
For Heyman though, he is still two decades removed from his greatest booking success in ECW and has struggled to play the game in WWE. Heyman was once put in a similar position by WWE, as the lead creative mind behind the rebirth of ECW on WWE television, but Heyman soon clashed over Vince's meddling in what he thought was his show, and quit the company. Since returning in 2012, Heyman has worked as a consultant for WWE on certain angles and has been successful, but it remains to be seen if he can be a team player as the lead creative mind for RAW.
Bischoff is in a much different situation. While he is credited with turning WCW around and momentarily beating the WWF in popularity, he is also credited with steering WCW into the ground, the company eventually closing under his watch. Since WCW closed, Bischoff has worked hard over the last 18 years trying to shed that image, placing the blame for WCW's demise on Turner management, Vince Russo, Hulk Hogan's creative control, basically anyone except himself.
Some fans see Bischoff as a booking genius who was the one guy able to get the upper hand on Vince for a period of time. Other fans see him as a complete failure who coasted off of the star power of ex-WCW stars and once that shine wore off, the company collapsed around him. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
Bischoff though, doesn't have Heyman's reputation as an innovator and hasn't been a part of the business in years. While Heyman has worked steadily in WWE for years, Bischoff hasn't been a part of the creative side from wrestling since flaming out of TNA in spectacular fashion in 2013. Going by comments he has made and his track record in TNA, it's reasonable to suggest that Bischoff doesn't fully understand wrestling in 2019, and in that regard is significantly underqualified for his new position.
With their new creative positions, the top priority for both Heyman and Bischoff has to be to create (or elevate) new stars that have a positive impact on business, which is WWE's biggest problem right now. How each man would go about that, and even if they would have the autonomy to do that without Vince interfering, is to be decided.
In ECW, Heyman had the reputation of being able to turn wrestlers into bigger stars by maximizing their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. In WWE's restrictive environment, it is unclear if Heyman would even be allowed to do that. Would talent get to cut their own promos, something that was key to the rise of ECW? Under Vince McMahon, probably not. Heyman also mixed gratuitous violence and graphic sexuality to help ECW stand out, two things he wouldn't be able to do in WWE even if they allowed him to be a bit edgier with the product. It's also unclear if that kind of shock television would even work to raise interest in pro wrestling in 2019.
Bischoff, even at his peak in WCW, was not particularly great at creating new stars; he shined in WCW by capitalizing on older stars that were already established; Hogan, Sting, Flair, Piper, Savage, etc. He was in charge during the rise of Goldberg, but Goldberg's momentum was ultimately botched under Bischoff's (and later Russo's) watch. Can Bischoff, now 64 and more than two decades removed from his peak, develop and book a new talent and turn them into a major star that raises viewership and attendance?
Another thing to note is that the history of former promoters/bookers/creative heads that have spent time away from the business and then came back in a similar position isn't full of giant success stories. Some examples:
Bill Watts: Watts is the famous case, he had a fantastic career running Mid-South Wrestling and was later brought into WCW in 1992 to run the promotion. Watts' old-school ideas were outdated and his gruff demeanor rubbed talent the wrong way. With no real increase in business, he was let go in 1993.
Dusty Rhodes: Dusty was a star booking Jim Crockett Promotions in the mid-1980s, inventing such concepts such as Starrcade and War Games. However, after returning as a member of WCW's booking committee in 1991, he clashed with Ric Flair, sending Flair to the WWF. Dusty remained on the booking committee, but his power and authority declined throughout the decade.
Riki Choshu: Choshu was an ace booker for NJPW in the 1990s while he was still an active talent, leading the promotion through a boom period and also getting over the G1 Climax and IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. When NJPW fell on hard times in the early 2000s, Choshu returned to save the company, only his ideas fell flat and business continued to decline before he was fired in 2002.
Jerry Jarrett: Jerry Jarrett was the brains behind the Continental Wrestling Association in Memphis, running an ahead-of-its-time television program and helping Jerry Lawler turn into a local legend. Jarrett and his son, Jeff, would found TNA in 2002, but the Jarretts were unable to garner any significant business and the company was going out of business in 2003 when Jerry Jarrett sold his interest in the company to Dixie Carter and Panda Energy.
Jim Cornette: Cornette had a long career booking for Mid-South Wrestling, Jim Crockett Promotions and WCW, and later starting his own company in the mid-90s, Smoky Mountain Wrestling. In 2009 Cornette was the executive producer for Ring of Honor's TV series, but his reluctance to embrace contemporary independent wrestling was a problem in the ROH locker room. ROH stalled for several years before he ended up getting replaced in 2012, which subsequently was followed with record years of business for ROH.
Eric Bischoff: Bischoff was named an executive producer for TNA in 2009, and his reign was a part of joint-effort with Hulk Hogan to try and re-ignite the Monday Night Wars, which ended up being a disastrous decision for the company. Bischoff was eventually sent home from TNA in 2013 and ended up in a lawsuit with the company.
Those are some famous examples; one of which is Bischoff. Finding out what drives the wrestling business is all about time-and-place, and the most successful promotions are on the cutting edge of what fans want to see, not ones that rely on a formula from the past. The names above are some of the most successful wrestling minds in the history of the industry, yet once they were removed from their positions and tried to make a comeback, they all struggled mightily with adapting to the constantly-evolving tastes of wrestling fans.
At the end of the day, everything still comes down to Vince McMahon. There is an argument to be made that whoever works underneath him is irrelevant; WWE will be built on what Vince wants to do and how he wants it to be done. Heyman and Bischoff will both have some control and certainly be able to suggest ideas and angles to Vince, but as long as Vince holds the majority of the creative power, the impact that either man can make in the company is always going to be limited.