January 4, 1999, is a pivotal day in sports entertainment history that forever changed pro wrestling, but not for the reason most might remember.
Longtime fans and historians will recognize that date as the night World Championship Wrestling’s Monday Nitro ran live opposite WWE’s pre-recorded Monday Night Raw. That evening, WCW announcer Tony Schiavone spoiled the result of Raw’s main event featuring “Mankind” Mick Foley and The Rock.
“...if you’re even thinking about changing the channel to our competition, fans, do not, because we understand that Mick Foley, who wrestled here one time as Cactus Jack, is going to win their world title. Ugh! That’s gonna put some butts in the seats. Heh!”
According to lore, over half a million viewers switched from Nitro to Raw to see the beloved hardcore icon win his first world championship. Some say that was the night WCW officially lost the Monday Night War to WWE. Two years later, then-WWE owner Vince McMahon acquired the rival promotion.
While that may be true, that and Foley’s victory wasn’t what changed sports entertainment that night. Instead, it was “Stone Cold” Steve Austin coming to the aid of Mick Foley that changed wrestling forever. More specifically, it was how Austin made the save, which effectively changed pro wrestling for the worse.
As allies for The Rock and Mankind battled at ringside, Stone Cold’s entrance music hit, and fans inside Massachusetts’ Centrum Centre went absolutely bananas for the arrival of the uber-popular Austin, who laid out Rocky with a chair, allowing Foley to score the pin and win the title.
Since then, wrestling companies have been chasing that same vociferous pop, sending their babyfaces out to make a grand save, complete with entrance music that now includes a posing routine, before they help a fallen victim.
In fairness, the arena audience always eats it up. But as a television show, it’s an improbable and absurd visual that ruins the suspension of disbelief for many at-home viewers. It also makes the alleged hero look pompous, as they choose to look good first and do good second.
In 1987, as the Honky Tonk Man and the Hart Foundation tore apart Randy Savage, Elizabeth, Savage’s manager, rushed to the dressing room for help. She returned with Hulk Hogan sans music, which sent fans into a frenzy. Only after Hogan and a recovered Savage ran off the evil-doers did Savage’s music hit, prompting a celebration in the stands as the Mega Powers were born.
It was a dramatic moment that played out in a plausible way, which maximized the crowd’s revelry as the do-gooders stood tall.
That’s how it used to be. But in 2023, it’s the other way around, with the spectacle superseding the power of realism, with this week providing several egregious examples.
It began at AEW’s WrestleDream, where a beaten-down Sting had to wait through a short film for a debuting Adam Copeland, who then posed and pandered to the crowd before making a daring rescue. From a character perspective, that Sting didn’t get up and blast the former Edge with a bat for taking so long is baffling because how grateful would one actually be as their defender took time to soak in adulation all while they, the sufferer, endure unnecessary punishment.
Then, on SmackDown (Oct. 6), the nice guys made multiple majestic arrivals before rendering assistance, beginning and ending with John Cena.
As LA Knight stood surrounded by Jimmy Uso and Solo Sikoa at the start of the show, Cena’s music played before he made the save. At the end of the night, as Knight found himself on the receiving end of a Bloodline beatdown, Cena’s music again played before he came to the aid of his Fastlane partner. To Cena’s credit, he came running out with urgency both times, thus reducing some of the over-the-top pageantry associated with the modern superhero rescue.
But things then took a turn when Knight and Cena found themselves outnumbered by Judgment Day and the Bloodline. And that’s when the scene grew ridiculous.
Next on the rescue playlist was Jey Uso and his theme. Jey initially took time to make his presence felt before stepping on the gas and storming the ring. Next up was Cody Rhodes and his smash hit, but The American Nightmare would take a page out of Cena’s playbook and demonstrate his brand of haste.
As expected, the crowd favorites teamed up to dispatch the wicked, and wouldn’t you know it? More music to mark the occasion. And those in the arena sopped it up, as a live crowd often does. But imagine how much bigger the response might have been if WWE had toned down the stagy production and saved the soundtrack to top off their triumph.
Unfortunately, the ones who often look most foolish in these stage productions are the villains who stop what they’re doing once they hear the babyface’s music and stand flat-footed like a deer caught in the headlights. In the real world, when bad guys do bad things, they don’t stand around with mouths agape while police sirens blare. Wisely, they flee the scene in a hurry to avoid getting caught.
Meanwhile, good Samaritans don’t hesitate to jump into action.
That’s realism, and it’s that missing bit of authenticity that allows fans — both at home and in the arena — to get lost in a moment that appears less contrived and more genuine, thus producing a more sincere and boisterous outpouring of emotions that resonates with spectators for years to come.