Everything’s Fake but the Deaths

How the WWF-WCW Ratings Battle Led to Real Casualties

"He was probably 'roided up at the time," Meltzer says.

Only a couple of months earlier, a wrestler on the way down perished. Rick Wilson had gotten what the fan sheets called "a semi-major push" in 1995 by the WCW. The fans had been promised an "ultimate surprise" by WWF-turned-WCW star Hulk Hogan and were primed to expect the long-missing Ultimate Warrior, a 1980s WWF superstar. Instead, they were introduced to Wilson as "the Renegade." He was lost in the shuffle and reduced to jobbing on WCW's second-tier shows. He was then let go by the WCW. In February 1999, a despondent Wilson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The most spectacular wrestling death in 1999 was that of Owen Hart of the WWF. While the WCW was well-known for repackaging old WWF wrestlers and concepts and selling them to new fans, the WWF also took a few jabs at its competition. The WCW often had its main event star Sting descend via cable from the rafters like a superhero. Once in the ring, he would clobber opponents with a baseball bat. The WWF, riffing on the storyline, dressed accomplished technical wrestler Owen Hart as the comical Blue Blazer and started sending him down from the rafters as well.

Illustration by Patrick Arrasmith

The joke soured on May 23, 1999, during a PPV event, when Hart fell from the rafters to the ring in Kansas City's Kemper Arena. The lights were down, so the audience did not see Hart fall, but they did watch him get carried backstage, where he died while the event was still under way. While online fans were alerted to Hart's death immediately, the thousands of people watching the show live were not told of Hart's backstage death, and the show went on. The next night, on Raw, a "memorial" episode featured heartfelt statements by wrestlers. The WWF also sent a busload of wrestlers and cameras to Hart's funeral, and eventually sent a bundle to Hart's family, which received a huge settlement, reportedly $18 million.

The final wrestling-war death was in 2000, when WCW wrestler Bobby Duncum Jr., who spent most of his career in Japan before working in the ECW and then jumping to the WCW, OD'd on painkillers and alcohol.

By the time Duncum died, though, the war was nearly over. WCW exhausted the possibilities of its "New World Order" storyline, and its bloated roster of aging stars cost the company tens of millions of dollars. Its ratings collapsed while the WWF cashed in on its new stars, like Triple H, the Rock, and former Olympian Kurt Angle. Little ECW suffered the most, as both the larger operations frequently raided its talent. ECW filed for bankruptcy, and earlier this year the WCW was put up for sale.

Today, the WWF holds a monopoly over pro wrestling as powerful as Microsoft's grip on software. Except for a few small promoters who run shows out of high school gyms and air their programs on local TV, the WWF is the first, last, and only stop for wrestlers. Meanwhile, the chances of unionization are near nil, and the WWF is already cutting some of the stars who helped it win the war, including Chyna, who had a bestselling book under her championship belt.

The question no one can answer yet is whether Vince McMahon, who has finally become the undisputed boss, rules over what might be the bombed-out remains of a war-torn industry.

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