A Promotion You Should Probably Know Better: JCP and WCW, Part One

After having so much fun with the stables last month in celebration of the Survivor Series, we’ve decided to turn this December — and all Decembers in perpetuity — into Promotions Month. For a curtain jerker, we have WCW and its predecessor, Jim Crockett Promotions. This is the First Day of #JCPWCWWeek, the fourteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series and we’re going to mix it up, by making JCP and WCW a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better in two parts. Today, we’re talking about the transition from JCP to WCW and tomorrow, in addition to giving you the finer points of the company’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewings, we’ll finish the epic story of the great lost promotion of our time. On Wednesday, we’ll expose some harsh truths with the debut of Lies The WWE Told Us. After Hump Day — and throughout the week — we’ll be quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List and a couple of odds and ends, where JMS HQ erupts in a civil war, which will take place inside of a Doomsday Cage.

The history of Jim Crockett Promotions is in some ways the chronological inverse of the history of the WWE. JCP started out as, well, a promotion company. Jim Crockett Sr. put together wrestling cards starting in the 1930s, but he wasn’t just in the wrestling game, he was in the live event game. JCP helped bring popular music acts of the day to the Charlotte, North Carolina area while also organizing and marketing legitimate sporting exhibitions in a region that did not yet have any professional teams. When the NWA formed, Crockett was granted exclusive rights to promote in the Carolinas and Virginia (branded as “the Mid-Atlantic”). This instantly made wrestling the moneymaking backbone of JCP because they didn’t have to compete with other promoters for talent – they owned wrestling in the Carolinas.

Looking back, it’s fascinating to think that JCP started out promoting music and legitimate sport and then transitioned into wrestling in order to have absolute control over a particular market. WWE, the biggest wrestling company of all time, started as a powerful wrestling promotion with absolute control over a particular region, but sought to branch out into more competitive arenas such as movies and sport. Jim Crockett Sr. promoted outdoor sporting events seventy years before the XFL – and he was much more successful at it!

Before Jim Crockett Jr. became NWA President in the early 80s, JCP was known mostly as a tag team territory. Tag team wrestling was extremely popular with fans in the 70s because the format provided natural drama and, in an era with fewer professional sports teams, babyface tag teams gave fans a local brand to believe in.

More fundamentally, tag team wrestling was extremely popular with promoters because you could pack a card with wrestlers and keep costs down. The line of thought went something like this: “All the workers know I have 100 beans to pay out for my main event. If I have a singles main event, I will pay each of those men 50 beans, which will set the precedent that wrestlers can expect to make 50 beans per night. If I have a tag team main event, each man gets 25 beans, which is an amount I’m comfortable paying people.” The goal was control, and in the tag team era, Jim Crockett Promotions were masters of it, which helped them become one of the most profitable and powerful promotions in the country.

In the early 80s, largely due to Jim Jr.’s presidency of the NWA, Jim Crockett Promotions scored several major coups.

The company partnered with Dusty Rhodes, one of the creative masterminds of the day, to put together Starrcade, wrestling’s first nationally-televised supercard. Dusty understood the importance of bringing wrestling national, and the Crocketts had the money to make it happen with the production values the show would need to get over.

The Crocketts built the entire show around hometown hero Ric Flair winning the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from Harley Race. Flair had held the title before, but the platform created by the pageantry of Starrcade made his win one of the biggest moments many NWA fans had ever seen. It also, more importantly to the Crocketts, gave meant that “their guy” would be the champion, giving the promotion a significant amount of control over the title. This meant even more money for the promotion, as they could make extra money booking Flair out around the world and control the overall direction of the NWA.

The final coup that put JCP on the top of the heap was reclaiming the Saturday afternoon timeslot that Vince McMahon had snatched away from the NWA on the legendary “Black Saturday.” This put Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling on a nationwide cable system and made them partners with Ted Turner, the most influential businessman of the era in television.

David Crockett and Jim Jr. were not the savvy, bottom-line businessmen that their father had been, however. They were just as into living The Four Horsemen lifestyle as The Horsemen, and while they were drawing great gates, the expenses of their superior production values were catching up to them. Famously, the Crocketts bought two private jets to shuttle their stars around the country to various shows. While the price of jet fuel alone did not tip the balance sheet towards loss, the use of the jets was the ultimate example for how the company had fallen into 1980s excess.

Ultimately, the expenses and the aggressive growth of the WWF caught up to the Crocketts, and by late 1988, they were struggling to keep the lights on. Their television partner, Ted Turner, who loved professional wrestling and felt it an important building block of his network, bought the company for a song as it teetered on bankruptcy (an action that would be repeated less than 15 years later) and renamed it World Championship Wrestling.

***

And transition from JCP to WCW is a strange one, significantly stranger than the one between Dave and I for this piece.

For all the pomp and circumstance that the lifestyle of the Horsemen entitled, anyone watching a  JCP show wasn’t going to find much in the way of WWF-style Sports Entertainment. A rugged bunch of Good Ole Boys, like the aforementioned Horsemen and Dusty, along with highly athletic performers like Sting and the Steiners formed the backbone of the preeminent wrestling company in the US.

Which is why it was so odd when WCW decided to get into bed with Hulk Hogan, the avatar for Vince McMahon’s Grecian wet dream/vision for what professional wrestling was supposed to be. And along with Hogan — and Randy “Macho Man” Savage, who actually received a fond farewell from then-only-a-announcer-on-TV Vince McMahon after leaving the company for the greener pastures of Ted Turner’s money — came the exact type of over-the-top spectacle tied in a stale storyline that had left the WWF in financial shambles for several years after Hogan’s departure.

Even things like a three-story Doomsday Cage (no, not the Dave Arquette one from Ready to Rumble/Vince Russo’s WCW) match would be overshadowed in terms of weirdness, contrivance and, most importantly, public ridicule by things like a Monster Truck Sumo Match ON TOP OF A BUILDING. That the reason for the (pardon the pun) over-the-top location was so that The Giant (The Big Show, Paul Wight) could pretend to fall off the roof before coming back during the main event (read: aborted match-cum-Hulk Hogan promo) to win the WCW championship BY DISQUALIFICATION.

Needless to say, fans were not buying into an even worse version of the exact things they hated about Hogan, no matter how many times he flexed. Which is why what happened at 1996’s edition of Bash at the Beach felt so epic (which it was), unprecedented (which it essentially was), and like a portent of positive things to come and the possible end of WWF’s reign as the top promotion in the top market for wrestling in the entire world (which it absolutely was not).

While Hogan turning on the frenemies like Randy Savage and the fans appeared to be the important part of what happened, much more significant was him turning on “the company Up North”, and by extension, his entire legacy of as the Immortal Hulk Hogan. In turning heel, he was rejecting not just his former character, but the notion that his success was due to anyone other than Terry Bollea. Tomorrow, we’ll see just how well that turned out.

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