In the bizarre world of professional wrestling, where the plot twists are increasingly twisted and no outrage is too outrageous, this grudge match is the real deal.
In this corner: World Championship Wrestling and Ted Turner--the billionaire philanthropist, America's Cup winner, Mr. Jane Fonda. His opponents: the World Wrestling Federation and Vince McMahon--the third-generation promoter, P.T. Barnum acolyte, Mr. Take-No-Prisoners.
The mismatched gladiators are locked in a winner-take-all, no-holds-barred, steel-cage match for wrestling's real prize: a reported $1 billion in annual revenues, dominance of the pay-per-view market, control of cable television.
"There is an animosity. That's real," says longtime wrestling aficionado Bert Sugar, who pauses a few seconds before finishing his thought.
"You know, that might be the only thing that's real."
Real, and real ugly. Nobody pulls any punches in this unscripted match, a change from wrestling's usual choreographed challenges.
Here's McMahon on Turner: "I don't like Ted, and he doesn't like me. So we start from there. . . . His vitriol is not to be believed."
Here's WCW president Eric Bischoff on McMahon: "Vince likes to put himself in some type of competition with Ted Turner. It makes him look better."
Critics blame the brawl between the leagues for the May 23 death of WWF wrestler Owen Hart. The incessant battle to be the biggest, boldest and baddest led to Hart's fatal 70-foot plunge as he was lowered into the ring, say the critics, who include Hart's family.
"My poor brother Owen was a sacrifice for the ratings," his sister Ellie said one day after his death. "We figured sooner or later somebody was going to end up with a tragedy because of the direction wrestling was taking."
Bischoff uncharacteristically defends the competition on that charge: "It's unfair to point to the success of the wrestling industry and the competition . . . as the reason the accident happened."
There was no competition until 1988, when Turner first entered the ring. The Atlanta businessman called McMahon to deliver the news.
McMahon says he offered a quick response: "Ted, I want nothing to do with you," and hung up on him.
A feud was born.
McMahon has recently drawn tremendous attention (and ratings) with his envelope-pushing story lines: A wrestling pimp with a stable of hookers; a beer-swilling, bird-flipping champion; fistfights with his son, Shane.
His WWF, McMahon says unapologetically, gives the people what they want: a hybrid soap opera, talk show, rock concert, cartoon that he labels "sports entertainment." Turner provides, McMahon says disdainfully, an antiquated product: "rasslin'."
Not true, replies Bischoff. His group takes wrestling's high road, eschewing McMahon's preoccupation with sex and vulgarity for more traditional scenarios (although a recent WCW episode included wrestler Ric Flair checking into a mental institution).
An exasperated Bischoff also accuses McMahon of swiping a recent WCW narrative that pitted the league's bosses against its wrestlers: "It is absolutely a direct rip-off. Anybody that doesn't see that is either blind or on Vince's payroll."
Each Monday night, people can see for themselves. An estimated 10 million viewers tune in for the leagues' signature shows, WCW's "Monday Nitro" and the WWF's "RAW is WAR."
"Nitro" was top dog for 83 weeks between late '96 and early '98, capturing the higher Nielsen numbers as McMahon languished. It wasn't until April 1998 that the reinvented WWF, with its new, nastier plots, drop-kicked Bischoff & Co. back to No. 2.
"The only thing they could do to compete was adopt the Howard Stern, Jerry Springer approach," Bischoff sniffs. "It's very effective, but not very creative. It has everything to do with desperation."
Desperation apparently sells. On May 10, the WWF garnered the highest rating for a regularly scheduled entertainment show in cable history, with more than 6.1 million homes tuned in.
But Bischoff isn't conceding, and the struggle continues. Both leagues aired their Monday night shows just 24 hours after Hart's death. This match could be a marathon.
From Cooperation to Competition
Today the WWF airs in nine languages and 120 countries, and Turner's stations beam his WCW worldwide.
Things were simpler when Vince McMahon entered the business in the mid '60s. Pro wrestling was a kinder, gentler place: The good guys (baby-faces) battled the bad guys (heels).
The baby-faces won. Always.
Wrestling had what's now called a "niche" audience: folks who watched UHF channels and visited dimly lighted gyms for live shows. Its promoters divided the country into regions, each running his own fiefdom.
Cooperation, not competition, was the catchword.
Vince McMahon smashed that concept to bits.
McMahon followed his grandfather, Jess, and dad, Vince, into the northeast's Capital Wrestling. He became a TV announcer for his dad's operation; when Vince Sr. retired in 1982, Vince Jr. bought the business.
Young Vince, with a mean streak more apropos of his ring creations, invaded his competitors' territories to create a national organization. He aggravated plenty of people and drew plenty of death threats.
"His was a scorched-earth policy," says Sugar, coauthor of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Professional Wrestling." "I don't think Attila the Hun did any less damage."
McMahon put more than a dozen regional operations out of business as he revamped the old World Wide Wrestling Federation into the WWF.
His Wrestlemania III drew a record 93,173 people to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1987. McMahon invited outsiders into the ring: pop star Cyndi Lauper, Liberace and baseball manager Billy Martin each participated in WWF events.
Wrestling insiders attacked McMahon's calculated crossover bid, which included the xenophobic hyping of bad guys from Iran and the Soviet Union, a swishy wrestler in pink tights and a steroid-pumped superhero named Hulk Hogan.
"McMahon made wrestling trash," snapped Bruno Sammartino, heavyweight champion for 14 years under Vince Sr.
One vintage operation survived McMahon: Jim Crockett's Georgia-based National Wrestling Alliance. Before Crockett could surrender, he acquired an unlikely tag-team partner: Ted Turner.
The media mogul needed TV programming, so he bought some. The NWA, rechristened World Championship Wrestling, became a Turner property and joined his TV schedule.
Sound the bell! Both sides were ready to rumble.
Turner fired the first shots, swiping WWF superstar Hogan (and several other McMahon wrestlers). Hulk became Hollywood, Hollywood became a bad guy, and WCW mounted the first real challenge against McMahon.
WCW turned its heels into its heroes, rebels who paused briefly before assaulting any and all authority figures. Turner was soon ripped as a hypocrite: the philanthropist packaging antisocial violence for television.
"That Ted Turner owns the WCW while pledging $1 billion to the United Nations on behalf of world peace is sickening," wrote New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick.
McMahon had his own problems: a 1994 trial (and acquittal) on steroid charges, allegations (but no charges) of sexual abuse within the WWF. McMahon notes that Hogan, a Turner employee, was one of the key government witnesses in the steroid trial.
WCW took advantage and began consistently whipping its competition. But then the script changed. McMahon came up off the mat and mounted his own comeback starting 18 months ago. The WWF story lines and characters changed--mutated, actually.
There were liberal doses of sex, Satanism, violence and vulgarity. WCW, now chasing the leader, positioned itself as the baby-face to McMahon's heel.
WCW fines wrestlers who mouth obscenities on television. The WWF encourages it.
WCW's No. 1 star is an ex-NFL player named Bill Goldberg, who bills himself only as "Goldberg." He's perhaps the last of the great baby-faces. The WWF's top attraction--beer-swilling, gun-toting, head-banging "Stone Cold" Steve Austin--is as well known for extending his middle finger as for pinning opponents.
To his critics, McMahon offers the same gesture.
In a New York Daily News guest column, he dismissed detractors as "out-of-touch moral crusaders who don't have a clue and egghead professors with flimsy studies."
The last shot was aimed at Indiana University communications professor Walter Gantz, who monitored 100 hours of WWF programming and saw:
* 1,658 times when wrestlers grabbed or pointed to their crotch.
* 434 uses of an obscene phrase.
* 157 instances of flipping the bird.
* 128 incidents of simulated sexual activity.
* 47 incidents of simulated Satanic activity.
* 42 incidents of simulated drug use.
Not mentioned by Gantz: the corresponding ratings surge.
The Monday-Night Battleground
The two leagues are warring outside the ring: They offer competing Web sites, merchandise and--coming soon--theme restaurants. There's a pending lawsuit over wrestlers Kevin "Diesel" Nash and Scott "Razor Ramon" Hall, who jumped from the WWF to WCW in 1995.
McMahon charged (and Turner denied) that WCW was using his characters' trademarked names and personas.
But it is Monday night where the two sides most prominently go head to head.
WCW's "Monday Nitro" begins at 8 p.m. on Turner's TNT. The action on a May evening is typical: Ernest "The Cat" Miller is soon bashing his shoe against the head of an opponent, a slick '70s throwback dubbed "Disco Inferno."
"I'm the greatest, baby!" Miller proclaims before departing.
At 8:59 p.m., as "Nitro" hits its second of three hours, the WWF's two-hour "RAW Is WAR" begins with a tribute to Owen Hart. A lone bell rings 10 times as McMahon and the WWF's wrestlers stand silent in a sold-out St. Louis arena.
Leverage in the McMahon-Turner bout won't come from a leg lock or a pile driver. The word here is "demographics."
WCW boasts an audience that is 51% men above the age of 18. One in every four viewers has an annual income of $50,000 or more. Its pay-per-view events reach an average of 300,000 homes. Bischoff brags that its number of licensed products has gone from 25 to 250; that includes a new cologne.
The WWF offers its own avalanche of statistics.
In 1998 its shows posted bigger Nielsen numbers than Jerry Springer among males ages 12-34. Its ratings have made USA the nation's No. 1 cable network. Its pay-per-view numbers in 1998: 4.6 million buys, $142 million in sales. It has more than 150 licensees, everything from neckties to greeting cards to action figures.
The fight for advertising is as brutal as anything inside the ring.
McMahon insists a WCW official made an angry phone call to the long-distance company MCI after an ad with Austin aired during the competition's "Monday Nitro." Bischoff says that Western Union pulled advertising from "RAW Is WAR" over its content.
Mere posturing? Western Union said it advertises in both leagues. MCI could not confirm the McMahon story.
In fact, wrestling's growing audience has wreaked havoc on real sports. Monday Night Football and the NCAA basketball finals both experienced ratings dips as the wrestling audience swelled. Wrestling routinely outdraws the NBA.
Does McMahon watch the competition? He hesitates.
"Very seldom," McMahon finally allows. "Because from what I gather, . . . they don't . . . have the passion."
And Bischoff? A long pause.
"Yeah," he finally says. "I look for the good things they do. . . . But it amazes me that they are successful with that product."
In May, a New York Post gossip column item caught McMahon's fancy: a piece identifying a performer in "Ted Turner's family-friendly" WCW as the star of a porn film.
"The wrestling-porn connection has to be an embarrassment to Turner, who often criticizes the standards of his competitors," the Post story noted.
"I'm sure Ted didn't know, but that paragraph: 'an embarrassment,' " McMahon says gleefully. "I enjoyed that."
Laugh now, says Bischoff.
"The only thing that I'm going to enjoy more than having dominated Vince and the WWF for two years," Bischoff says, "is coming back and beating them again."