By Mike Mooneyham
Sept. 16, 2001
Nobody called asking about the ratings for Raw. There was little buzz concerning the upcoming Unforgiven pay-per-view. Hardly a word was uttered about The Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Professional wrestling, like nearly everything else, took a back seat last week to the real-life horror that struck the nation.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]”Unbelievable. I just can’t get over it,” lamented former world champion Ric Flair. “When you think about the thousands of people killed and buried … You have to wonder what the world’s coming to. That makes the wrestling business look pretty trivial.”
His final point is undeniable. Real-life tragedies like the one last week tend to put things such as professional wrestling into perspective and remind us how inconsequential sports, and entertainment, become at a time like this.
But by the end of the week, for better or worse depending on the many varied opinions, the World Wrestling Federation decided to resurface with an edition of its weekly Smackdown show from the Compaq Center in Houston. The nationally televised event, which originally had been scheduled for Tuesday evening, was postponed and rescheduled for two nights later. The crew of the WWF, which had worked Monday night’s Raw in San Antonio, was holed up in a Houston hotel for several days as they watched last week’s tragedy unfold.
“After much deliberation and discussions with local officials in Houston, we have decided that the show should go on,” WWFE CEO Linda McMahon announced on Wednesday. “We do this to support the call by President Bush and other political leaders to get Americans back to their everyday routines after this barbaric act of terrorism, and for many Americans, WWF Smackdown on Thursday night is part of their regular routine. This week’s WWF Smackdown will depart from our traditional format, and will be a special tribute to the spirit of the American people and our democracy, both of which have shone brightly during this terrible tragedy.”
Few sports or entertainment organizations, however, followed “the show must go on” direction in the wake of the worst civilian catastrophe in U.S. history.
The NFL, for one, decided that national mourning outweighed any football games and postponed its entire weekend schedule. The postponement was the first for non-strike reasons by the NFL, which played two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. Commissioner Pete Rozelle later said that was the worst decision he made in 29 years in the job.
With the NFL going dark, it didn’t take long for other sports to follow suit. Major League Baseball won’t play again until Monday. And after going back and forth on the issue, the SEC and Big 12 conferences backed off their plans to play and the entire I-A football schedule was postponed.
Some fans, claiming that Americans needed a diversion from the sorrow and despair prominent in the national news coverage, applauded the WWF decision to run a show last week. They reasoned that it could have a healing effect, offering entertainment and a sense of escapism when it was really needed, while at the same time giving the WWF performers an opportunity to publicly express their grief. Others, though, argued that it was far too soon to stage such an event and vowed to boycott watching the show or even ordering the promotion’s next pay-per-view. They maintained that now was not the time for “business as usual,” especially a business specializing in staged violence and histrionics.
The WWF, no stranger to media criticism, had encountered a public relations nightmare 10 years ago for exploiting the Persian Gulf War with characters portraying American military heroes and Iraqi sympathizers. The angle led to the company getting a formal complaint from an Iraqi delegation as well as security threats.
More recently the WWF came under intense media scrutiny for proceeding with a 1999 pay-per-view in which wrestler Owen Hart fell 80 feet to his death when a stunt went wrong. Making matters worse was that the company never announced to the live crowd at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena that Hart had indeed died.
Thursday night’s show, however, deviated from the normal WWF production. The matches themselves took a back seat, and no one much cared who won or lost. There were no run-ins or storyline development.
Whether or not the show provided a small step in the healing process is debatable, but the 13 thousand fans in attendance appeared to be spirited, waving flags and banners and chanting “USA, USA!” in a patriotic display. The show featured some nice touches, such as ring announcer’s Lillian Garcia’s moving rendition of the National Anthem.
Garcia, the only WWF television personality who lives in Manhattan, related how a close member of her immediate family had been scheduled to take part in an 8:30 a.m. meeting Tuesday at one of the twin tower buildings, but he didn’t make it to the meeting. Her house, located five miles away from the tragedy, was also unharmed.
Other WWF performers were non-scripted as well when describing how the tragedy affected them. Somehow, though, as sincere and heartfelt as their sentiments may have been, their words seemed rather insignificant compared to the slew of gut-wrenching stories from those whose lives were directly affected by the events of last week.
There were obvious attempts for, as Mick Foley refers to, “cheap pops” from the crowd: Vince McMahon delivering a Gold Bless America speech while giving props to the Houston audience. Making sure the camera captured close-ups of a retired Naval commander seated at ringside.
There also were statements that would have been better left unsaid. Stephanie McMahon drew an unfortunate analogy during an otherwise well-intentioned promo when she mentioned “individual attacks on her father’s reputation,” a veiled reference to Vince McMahon’s battle with the government during his steroid trial, in the same sentence as Tuesday’s terrorist attacks. A passionate Justin Bradshaw (John Leyfield) used a poor choice of words by telling people to “go to hell” if they disagreed with the WWF’s decision to go ahead with Smackdown.[ad#MikeMooneyham-468×15]
But there also were WWF performers moved to tears, breaking character and showing unity.
Jim Ross on the WWF Web site Friday staunchly defended the WWF’s decision to broadcast Smackdown.
“Doing the event/program was the right thing to do. I applaud Vince McMahon’s decision. Those who may have been reluctant prior to Smackdown were, to a man and woman, happy they were able to return to work and provide entertainment for those who chose to watch our broadcast. I truly feel it was therapeutic for all involved. It certainly was for me. My eyes filled with tears as our superstars entered the arena for Lillian Garcia’s stirring rendition of our National Anthem.”
The usual suspects most assuredly will seize the opportunity to bash the WWF for going through with the show. It was a show put together – for better or worse – under trying conditions. Perhaps it would have been better to just wait – until the real healing begins. That, unfortunately, will take a while.
_ WWOR in Secaucus, N.J., the UPN affiliate for the New York City area, did not air Smackdown due to the station’s ongoing coverage of the World Trade Center tragedy.
_ The WWF canceled tonight’s house show in Lexington, Ky., and rescheduled the event for Oct. 28. Most of the WWF crew, uncertain if they would be able to book weekend flights, drove from Houston to Nashville where Monday’s Raw is scheduled.
_ MTV, along with the WWF, preempted last Thursday night’s Tough Enough. The show will now air on Sept. 20. The live season finale will be broadcast on Sept. 27. The WWF also canceled tonight’s Heat on MVT.
_ The tragedy hit close to home for Moncks Corner native Melvin Nelson, who spent more than 25 years in the wrestling business as Burrhead Jones and lived in New York City for 17 years. His youngest daughter was working on the 14th floor of a building across the street from the World Trade Center when the first plane crashed into the north tower.
“The building she was in shook. She looked out of the window, saw what happened and ran for her life,” said Nelson, who added that his daughter is doing fine physically but still mentally shaken.
Nelson also had a niece who worked in one of the towers, but said she had left the building to pay a bill prior to the attack. “That’s the only reason she’s alive,” he said.
Nelson, 65, was one of many from the wrestling community who offered solace and hope.
“There are some things about life that we just aren’t going to understand,” he said. “Life’s not meant to be fair. When we go through a tragedy, we have to be like a truck pulling through a mud bog. We have to try to pull through it until we get on solid ground. But it takes some people longer than others to get through. But when we get through, we can relax, and that’s when we have our good times and can laugh and talk about how we pulled through that mud. Some people make it through and some people don’t.”
_ Lou Thesz, the 85-year-old former six-time NWA world champion who logged more than 17 million miles on the road during his career, called for unity and cool heads.
“It’s a terrible situation. It’s really difficult to have anything concrete because you don’t know who you’re dealing with. But we’ll come through this.”
_ The World Wrestling Federation’s Titan Tower headquarters and its television facility, both located in Stamford, Conn., are more than 40 miles from the World Trade Center. Many WWF employees at those two buildings, however, have ties to the Lower Manhattan area, and by 11 a.m. on Tuesday, the Federation’s senior management had sent an e-mail to all staff telling them they were free to leave to be with their families.
The WWF’s New York Sales Office (NYSO) and WWF New York – the Times Square restaurant and entertainment complex – are both located in midtown Manhattan, about five miles from the World Trade Center. The NYSO was evacuated soon after the second plane crash. It opened Wednesday, but only to employees who could get to the building.
_ Raw, going up against the season premiere of Monday Night Football, scored a 4.6 cable rating for the second consecutive week last Monday.