Raw turns 25: Through good and bad, WWE’s flagship a blueprint for TV wrestling
Amid successes, failures, laughs, tears and controversies, Raw redefined the TV wrestling format
"Uncut. Uncensored. Uncooked."
The original catch phrase for WWE Monday Night Raw wasn't entirely true, but it gives you a sense of what Vince McMahon and company were aiming for at the time: something vibrant, potentially dangerous, hopefully unpredictable. Over the course of 25 years and nearly 1,300 episodes, Raw has been a little bit of everything.
With an ever-rotating cast of characters, writers, commentators and guest stars, Raw fast became the standard by which weekly pro wrestling shows would be judged. Through trial and error -- with a bit of direct competition to keep them honest in the 1990s and early 2000s -- Raw has hit home runs … and laid eggs. In either case, there was always next week.
(Except during the U.S. Open or the Westminster Dog Show, which used to preempt Raw on the USA Network for weeks at a time back in the day. Those were trying times, I tell you.)
Monday Night Raw was born out of concern for WWE's sagging ratings toward the end of 1992. WWE's incumbent Monday night show was Prime Time Wrestling, but Prime Time had seen better days. By 1992, it featured a roundtable group of hosts introducing taped matches from a dull set resembling a boardroom. It felt canned. It lacked soul.
Several things about the original Monday Night Raw concept marked a fresh approach. WWE -- the company that ran TV tapings in every major city across the country on a regular basis -- chose the comparably tiny Manhattan Center in New York City to be home of weekly Raw broadcasts. The Manhattan Center gave Raw a more intimate, engaged feel.
The show also aired live, a distinction reserved primarily pay-per-view broadcasts up until that point. WWE fans already considered the live shows more special. Now, a weekly TV series would beam that excitement directly into their homes.
The first really big in-ring battle on Raw was the 1993 Loser Leaves Town match in which "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig sent Ric Flair packing back to WCW, while Bobby "The Brain" Heenan flew into hysterics on commentary. That match set the viewers' expectation that big things could, and often would, transpire on Raw.
In the years that followed, we saw things like a revenge-bent Brian Pillman pull a gun on "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who broke into Pillman's home during a live-via-satellite interview. We saw Shawn Michaels surrender his championship because he'd "lost his smile." We witnessed the slight-of-hand magic of Bret Hart and the Hart Foundation come across as ultra-heels in the United States while simultaneously being mega-babyfaces in Canada.
We got Vince McMahon, sporting a legitimate black eye, telling us in multiple sit-down interview segments that "Bret screwed Bret," this a few months before completely embracing the ruthless Mr. McMahon character and igniting a feud with Austin that changed the business forever.
Wrestling was always a haven for oddball characters and gimmicks, and Raw put its share of those on display, too. There was the hockey-loving Goon. TL Hopper, the plumber. Mantaur, the man who actually may have been some sort of bison. Max Moon, space oddity. Val Venis, the wise-cracking porn star. Gangrel, the vampire. Dr. Isaac Yankem, DDS, a dentist of ill repute. Who. (Literally, it was Jim Neidhart in a mask playing a character named Who.) Doink, the evil clown. Salvatore Sincere, the smooth-talking Italian. Duke "The Dumpster" Droese, slinger of trash. Simon Dean, the condescending fitness maven. Did I say maven? There was a guy named Maven, too.
A lot of the time, Raw was "live TV, folks." That sometimes led to memorable events that clearly weren't in the script. Like a broadcast suddenly hindered by a power outage in the arena. Or Kane's ring post pyrotechnics accidentally going off in The Undertaker's face as the result of a production botch. Or like Vince McMahon standing on stage, cameras rolling, trying to get a contest winner to answer the phone and accept a $1 million prize.
Monday Night Raw is often at the mercy of the unexpected, for better or worse. The rest, hopefully, goes according to script. Sometimes that works out fine, as with Mick Foley throwing a "This is Your Life" celebration for The Rock. Or Chris Jericho in his WWE debut verbally jousting with "The People's Champ." Or Austin ramming a beer truck into the ring. Or the original NXT cast ripping apart John Cena as the short-lived Nexus. Or the surprise return of Brock Lesnar after years away from the business.
Other times, you get Mae Young giving birth to a rubber hand. Or Gene Snitsky punt-kicking Lita's "baby" into the cheap seats. Or Vince McMahon's "kiss my ass club." Or the "Anonymous Raw General Manager." Or GTV. Or a distraught Road Warrior Hawk needing to be talked down from the top of the TitanTron.
Sometimes, Raw dropped unexpected bits of reality into segments, like the time Jim Ross cut a scathing promo about getting fired by WWE after a bout with Bell's Palsy, right before introducing deliberately inauthentic versions of Diesel and Razor Ramon to the crowd.
In 1997, the announce team basically made a joke out of the fact that Leon "Vader" White didn't make it to the show because -- oops! -- he's in prison, in Kuwait, for roughing up a TV host. And who could forget the classic CM Punk "pipe bomb" promo, which while planned was still incredibly fun to witness. (Hi, Colt Cabana.)
Of course, Raw's greatest existential challenge was WCW Monday Nitro, produced by WWE's arch rival World Championship Wrestling. Raw famously won the "Monday Night Wars" when WWE bought WCW in 2001, simulcasting parts of the final episode of the once-formidable Nitro on that evening's Raw telecast. That episode was nothing short of a hard-earned victory lap for McMahon, his family and his company.
The threat imposed by Nitro going head-to-head with Raw gave us some of the more outrageous moments in Raw history. The "Billionaire Ted" skits that started off goofy, then took a dark turn. D-Generation X driving a tank up to the gate of a live Nitro show and attempting to enter the backstage area with WWE cameras recording the entire stunt.
I could go on. But 25 years is a lot.
And in the world of televised wrestling -- really, TV in general -- it's a pretty significant milestone. Everything that happened in that time, on the air, is part of Raw's legacy: The tragedies, the comedy, the home runs and the total duds all feed into the greater story.
So cheers, Monday Night Raw. And see ya next week.
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