Welcome to the first edition in a series where we look at the first episodes of professional wrestling’s most iconic Television Brands. Our first entry is considered to be the foundation upon which modern televised wrestling was built. This is the first episode of Monday Night Raw.
The first thing you’ll notice about going back to the inaugural episode of Monday Night Raw, January 11th 1993, is its relatively humble beginnings. The Manhattan Centre is the kind of ball room sized venue that you would associate more with mid-sized companies like ECW or Ring of Honour. Recently the Manhatten Centre was host to TNA’s Lockdown PPV. It’s also a merciful forty-five minutes long compared to the three hour bloated monstrosity we have to slog through today.
The opening shot of the Empire State Building leads to a skit where Bobby Heenan is trying to get into the building despite being replaced by Rob Bartlett. It’s a bit that runs through the episode, involving him disguising himself as a woman or a rabbi. Its harmless fun and could have been a lot worse if it wasn’t for Heenan’s gameness and charisma as a comedic actor.
My initial reaction to him being replaced by comedian Rob Bartlett wasn’t one of immediate outrage. In fact, once the three announcers for Raw were revealed I saw three people with distinct personalities and individual looks. It’s certainly better than the cavalcade of cookie cutter clunks all clad in the same light grey suits WWE is threatening to make the future of the announce team.
The men on his right are Vince McMahon and Randy Savage, the credentials for whom are not up for question. McMahon especially, is one of the all-time great announcers. The problems start when the other two start speaking. Bartlett produces nothing more than a series of one liners and all of them are riff’s on the same joke. Savage is the same despite being more bearable. His Jewish roots have given him access to a bevy of old-school jokes which he hands out with an easy charm and a true performer’s delivery. When the wrestler is funnier than the hired comedian you’re not surprized that he doesn’t make it to May.
The true outrage comes during the Shawn Michael’s match when Bartlett decides to call the match entirely in the voice of Mike Tyson. Perhaps the production team were terrified the audience wouldn’t be entertained by good wrestling. Once the average American wrestling viewer is exposed to the mere sight of two good athletes putting on an honest contest they quickly change the channel to Jerry Springer or God knows what.
It’s made even worse by the circumstances surrounding Tyson at the time of broadcast. He was in jail for rape. It gets worse. Not only is Bartlett making some off colour homophobic jokes at the expense of the American prison system, but Randy Savage decides to make his opinions known on the outcome of the trail. He describes a stonewall rape conviction of an eighteen year old girl, backed up by concrete evidence, as a “raw deal.” While sitting next to Stephanie McMahon’s father. Let your mind wander where it may on that one. There’s also an advertised cage match between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow I could have done without.
It makes me incensed that the one left outside the arena is Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, a legend in wrestling commentary, replaced by a comedian with no professional ties to the business. But let this be a lesson to anyone allowing their nostalgia to cloud their views of the modern WWE product. WWE pushing mainstream stars while leaving genuine wrestling talent out in the cold is no new development.
For that matter, there are many trends in WWE that people view as new but are as old as Raw itself, and this program is the proof. There were bizarre promotional video packages and mid match commercial breaks even in 1993.
The wrestling itself is certainly of its era too. They’ve still not shaken the formula of having the majority of matches be squash matches. Yokozuna vs Koko B. Ware, the Steiner’s vs the Executioners, Undertaker vs Damien Demento, all of the latter competitors in each of these matches didn’t have a minute of offence between them. That’s three matches out of four. That’s one thing for modern wrestling, as much as we complain about burials they don’t occur anywhere near as frequently.
The similarity between these matches mean there isn’t much to discuss. But they do bring back certain memories. Yokozuna reminds us that it wasn’t a good idea to try and gel sumo with professional wrestling. He has no manoeuvrability. He literally just stands there as Koko leaps at him and bounces off. This goes on for four minutes. He wins by tiring Koko out. It’s a hell of a first match to start your flagship program with. This, I don’t miss. The kind of match where one wrestler is only there to sell the others near superhuman strength. It makes me sad Rusev wasn’t wrestling in 1993. He’s got ten times the athleticism Yokozuna has. If we were in the 90’s he’d have headlined WrestleMania by now.
The Steiner match reminds us of just how good a wrestler Scott Steiner was until he started making his body look like a pile of rubble. He can actually move here. The Undertaker match reminds us that, while his 1993 flexibility leaves much to be desired, his character was second to none. The way he and Bearer dominate the screen with the dedication to their roles is awe inspiring. All this even despite Bartlett’s terrible jokes that constantly attempt to undermine the mood these two legends are painstakingly creating. At one point he refers to the urn as a martini shaker and says Taker needs his gloves because of “Dish Pan Hands”. God, this guy got old quick.
But the best match of the night was the bout for the Intercontinental Championship, held by Shawn Michaels and sought by Max Moon. This is only going to have one outcome sure, but at least both men are selling it like it is a real competition, not just a showcase for Michael’s strength.
But I think the biggest difference between now and then is that McMahon and company hadn’t quite got the hang of the live weekly broadcast yet. Sure they can handle the big PPV no problem, but the smaller scale stuff was a little fiddlier. There are late fades and early cuts, stopping announcers short ,and graphics that look like they were developed for the PSOne. Worst of all was the communication between the ringside crew and the production truck. Razor Ramone was clearly never told that they were running a VT on his recent attack on Owen Hart, so he just keeps talking over the tape; and at one point Bartlett is in mid-sentence and the truck just cuts to commercial. Say what you will about Raw in 2015, their production values have crack precision.
It’s actually surprising – and reassuring – to see that, for all the complaints people make about the current WWE product, many of those same problems existed in a period more fondly remembered by fans. It also had problems that they thankfully got over. But the first Raw was clearly a program with teething issues, and it was still growing into what would become the cornerstone show of the modern wrestling era, with everything good and bad that came from it.