The Piledriver Report 06.05.14: The Summer That Changed Wrestling History
Posted by Ronny Sarnecky on 06.05.2014
In 1994, the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup Finals. Twenty years later, they are back again. Thinking back to that time, Ronny Sarnecky realized the Summer of 1994 was one of the most historic time in professional wrestling history. Join the “Piledriver Report” as we look back on the three events that changed the landscape of wrestling history forever.
This week, the New York Rangers made their first trip back to NHL Stanley Cup Finals since 1994. It's been twenty years since the Broadway Blueshirts last raised Lord Stanley's Cup. While watching the Rangers ride along the Canyon of Heroes in a ticker tape parade to celebrate their first championship in fifty four years, I knew I was witnessing a historic moment in sports history. What I didn't realize at the time was that the Summer of 1994 would be one of the most historic periods in wrestling history.
In 1989, the FBI started to build a case against Dr. George Zahorian for steroid distribution. At the time, Dr. Zahorian worked for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. As part of his job, he worked the WWF television tapings when the company would come into the state. In the FBI's investigation, records from Dr. Zahorian's Federal Express account showed that the doctor sent numerous shipments to Vince McMahon, Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, and several other wrestlers who worked under the World Wrestling Federation banner. While most of these packages were sent to hotels in the cities that the wrestlers were performing in, many other packages were shipped to the WWF's head office in Stamford, Connecticut.
Dr. Zahorian was found guilty of the first count of illegally distributing steroids, and then was found guilty on eleven more counts. While the federal government was done with the Zahorian investigation, they had a new target in mind: Vince McMahon.
The government's case against Vince McMahon was detailed in Dr. Zahorian's testimony at the McMahon Steroid trial. He testified that Vince and many high ranking WWF officials knew that he was selling steroids to the WWF's wrestlers. Zahorian asked McMahon if Vince wanted him to stop. Zahorian explained to Vince that if he were to be barred, the wrestlers would get their steroids through harmful black market drug dealers. According to his testimony, Vince allowed him to continue with his "business" inside the WWF's locker room. He also testified that Vince McMahon purchased steroids for himself, as did Chief Jay Strongbow and Arnold Skaaland (each for their own sons). The prosecution tried to use that part of the testimony as proof of a conspiracy between Titan Sports and Vince McMahon.
The prosecution asked Zahorian about if he sent steroids to Vince on October 24, 1989. The doctor said that he wasn't sure. This was a key question in the prosecutions attempt to prove that McMahon was distributing steroids. The prosecution had a record of a bank check written in the amount of $538.00 on October 28th, 1989. The government was trying to prove that Vince was distributing steroids from this shipment to Hulk Hogan.
The lawyers admitted that Vince and several high ranking WWF officials knew that Zahorian was the "steroid" doctor. Since Zahorian told Vince that by allowing him to sell steroids instead of having the wrestlers go through the "black market dealers," he convinced McMahon that the WWF's owner was "protecting the wrestlers' health due to the dangers of injecting unknown quantities into ones system than from steroids."
The government's case against Vince McMahon fell on deaf ears as the juror eventually found the WWF's owner not guilty on all counts. While the trial may have been a short blip on the radar in the WWF's history, the trial had major ramifications on the WWF's future.
When the word first leaked out about Dr. Zahorian being in trouble with the law, the WWF broke all ties with him. As the Zahorian saga continued, Vince needed to prove that the WWF wasn't a "steroid" company. After WrestleMania VIII, he had Hulk Hogan go on a near year long hiatus. He implemented a steroid testing program. He started also started to push smaller wrestlers like Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart to show that size no longer mattered in the WWF. The steroid issue was one of the main reasons why Vince McMahon put the WWF title on Bret Hart for the first time in 1992.
By the time of Vince McMahon's steroid trial, gone were steroid guys like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. Their most chiseled wrestler was probably Lex Luger, and he was no longer being pushed as being the company's top star. The WWF was in the middle of a new era. Athleticism and workrate now trumped big bodies and muscles. Without the change in direction, it is very possible that men like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels would not have become the iconic Hall of Fame wrestlers that we know today.
However, a change in philosophy isn't the only way the WWF was affected due to the Vince McMahon steroid trial. With Vince's time and money being spent on preparing for his trial, he rightfully put most of his concentration on being exonerated. This distraction allowed Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling to attack. They signed Hulk Hogan to a contract, which began shortly after the Vince McMahon steroid trial. With the WWF's biggest fish now swimming in the WCW's pond, Eric Bischoff began to sign more friends of Hulk Hogan. Soon Jimmy Hart, Jim Duggan, Brutus Beefcake, the Honky Tonk Man, Earthquake, the Big Boss Man, Randy Savage, and even Mr. T joined Hulk Hogan down south. That's a lot of stars that were under the WWF banner that now switched teams. The WWF was forced to create a "new generation" of younger wrestlers to compete with WCW's WWF Reunion Tour.
While the new generation of the WWF and the older guys of WCW seemed to battle each other pretty evenly, the tide changed in 1996 when World Championship Wrestling signed away two of the World Wrestling Federation's top new generation stars in Razor Ramon and former WWF World Champion Diesel. When they arrived into WCW, they started an angle where the two were "outsiders." The fans were intrigued, and WCW was gaining a lot of momentum. However, one decision put them over the top. On July 7th, 1996, Hulk Hogan turned heel for the first time since Hulkmania exploded over a decade earlier. Hogan joined Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, and the New World Order was born.
When the n.W.o was formed, it was an immediate hit. The New World Order started the new boom period in wrestling. Suddenly, it was cool and the "in" thing once again to like wrestling. World Championship Wrestling did the unthinkable just two years earlier. They over took the WWF as the number one wrestling promotion in the United States. With Ted Turner's wrestling company on top of the world, it forced the WWF to once again change their business strategy. With the WWF's new "attitude," a wrestling war exploded. When looking back at these events, you can easily say that none of this would have been happened if Hulk Hogan didn't jump ship to WCW in the summer of 1994.
In 1989, Joel Goodhart created a small wrestling promotion called Tri-State Wrestling Alliance. In 1992, he sold his ownership into the group to Todd Gordon, who renamed the group Eastern Championship Wrestling, and brought in "Hot Stuff" Eddie Gilbert as his booker. By September of 1993, Eddie Gilbert and Todd Gordon had a falling out, which led to Gilbert leaving the company. Todd Gordon turned to Paul Heyman to take over the head booking duties for the company.
In 1994, the NWA used ECW's home base of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's Viking Hall (a.k.a the ECW Arena) to host a tournament to crown the new National Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight Champion. ECW's Shane Douglas was booked to win the NWA title. Little did NWA President Dennis Coralluzzo know, but Paul Heyman and Todd Gordon had a double cross put in play. Following his NWA title victory, Shane Douglas threw down the belt and started to berate the old ways of the National Wrestling Alliance. At that moment the NWA affiliate Eastern Championship Wrestling was dead. In its remains was born Extreme Championship Wrestling.
Extreme Championship Wrestling created a niche wrestling organization that was missing in the industry. At the time, both WCW and the WWF were geared towards the under 12 audience. ECW had teens and adults in mind. Paul Heyman's brain child was the most innovative wrestling promotion to come along in a LONG time. ECW offered a smorgasbord of wrestling. If you liked scientific wrestling, you could watch the likes of Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, and Dean Malenko. Did you want to see high flyers? Try out 2 Cold Scorpio and Chris Jericho. Do you want lucha libre? ECW could offer Rey Mysterio. Are you a fan of hardcore wrestling? I bring you the Dudleys, New Jack, Tommy Dreamer, and Sabu. Do you like an audience participation entrance? Enter the Sandman. Profanity laced promos? See Shane Douglas. Do you want a little MMA in your wrestling style, then Taz is your guy. Maybe you want the whole F'N show. In that case, see Rob Van Dam. The point being is that ECW had a little bit of everything for everybody.
ECW was more than just their wrestling style. It was also their presentation. The ECW television show (pre-TNN) was gritty. They didn't have the production values of the WWF or WCW. However, that's what made them unique and different. ECW used modern, hip music for both their ring entrances and television shows. Paul Heyman's true genius is that he is a master of pop culture. He knows what the next big thing is going to be before it becomes that big thing, and gets on board immediately. That's what he constantly did with ECW. One of his truly great segments on his shows was at the end when that would show a bunch of thirty second promos from wrestlers hyping their next match/feud. It's something that hasn't been seen since ECW closed its doors. Too bad, because it really made an impact to close the show.
ECW created a ton of stars. During the Monday Night Wars, both WCW and the WWF were stealing ECW wrestlers on an almost monthly basis. The stars that ECW had lost to the Big Two reads like a who's who of late 1990s wrestling. While many did flounder in the mid-cards when leaving ECW, several would go on to win singles World Championships in the WWF/E. During its tenure, and for years afterwards, fans would chant ECW to former ECW wrestlers who were in the WWF/E or WCW. If there was a hardcore spot done on these same shows, the fans would chant ECW. ECWs legacy was so great that they are the only defunct wrestling company to be rebranded to be brought back on a national stage. To this day, the WWE's Rise & Fall of ECW is still one of the highest grossing wrestling DVDs of all-time.
Looking back twenty years later, its pretty amazing to think of what the wrestling industry would look like today if it wasn't for those three events from the Summer of 1994. Maybe the Rangers win the Cup, and twenty years from now, I'll look back and see things that happened in wrestling in the Summer of 2014 that changed wrestling forever. Just like I am today, thinking back to 1994. Maybe there will not be any groundbreaking events that change the course of professional wrestling's history in 2014. If that's the case, at least I may get another Cup. Go Rangers!