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Ted Turner dropped a billion of his own dollars on the United Nations. A good chunk of Turner’s benefaction came from pro wrestling. No faking.
Like any good Southern gentleman, Turner insinuates himself into the sporting spotlight whenever possible. He wants everybody to know about his mainstream jock pursuitsthat he skippered an America’s Cup yacht and owns a World Series winner along with an upper-echelon NBA franchise. But Turner is hush-hush about his most prosperous athletic offering, maybe because it’s geared toward the illiterati: The multimedia mogul and Hanoi Jane paramour is also the Don King of pro wrestling. Under Turner’s proprietorship, a promotion group called World Championship Wrestling (WCW) has pancaked all its competitors in what is now a billion-dollar industry and spurred a wrestling renaissance along the way. Locally, Turner’s charges inaugurated the ring at MCI Center last week with WCW’s Starrcade, a card featuring Hulk Hogan vs. Sting, the most anticipated and hyped match of the century. Or at least the last month. More than 20,000 fans paid up to $200 to witness the proceedings in person, and millions of Americans also watched the pay-per-view telecast at $29.95 a pop.
Though the 59-year-old Turner achieved king-of-the-ring status relatively late in life, this isn’t a passing fancy or a manifestation of a midlife crisis. He has actually been supervising suplexes for a while now. From the earliest days of WTBS on cable, Turner has shown his soft spot for the squared circle. He filled endless hours of programming on WTBS with matches put on by the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), a Charlotte, N.C.-based promotional group. Through the 1980s, the organization was nothing more than a regional taste. NWA’s live cards and TV shows, featuring talent like Nature Boy Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen, drew a strong audience throughout the Confederacy. But everywhere else, NWA got body-slammed by the promotions of a Stamford, Conn., group, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF).
More than anything else, what WWF hadand what NWA and everybody else in wrestling wantedwas Hulk Hogan. Hogan, a steroidal, tough-talking, bleach-blond beach bum personified by bodybuilder Terry Bollea, stands as the Babe Ruth of pro wrestling. Hogan marshaled wrestling’s mid-’80s heyday, when its TV shows first moved from pre-recorded Saturday-morning affairs to live, prime-time, and pay-per-view extravaganzas (most notably WWF’s incredibly successful Monday Night Raw and Wrestlemania series). Hulkamania, as Hogan himself loved to say, was running wild.
But just when it looked as if WWF had all its adversaries in a submission hold, developments away from the ring rained on its reign. First came the prosecution of WWF impresario Vince McMahon and some cronies on federal drug charges related to steroid distribution. At trial, prosecutors acted like the heartless DAs who beat on Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, trying to force the witness to confess under oath that wrestling wassay it ain’t so!a fraud. McMahon never regurgitated the exact words the interrogators shoved into his mouth, but he did use the term “sports entertainment” to describe his realm. Even worse for WWF, Hogan was forced to testify against McMahon about the rampant use of steroids in wrestling. McMahon ultimately beat the drug rap, but the trial stained all of pro wrestling and irreparably impaired the relationship between WWF’s beefcakey cash cow and his boss.
WWF’s standing as wrestling’s elite crew suffered another big blow when Turner decided to get more personally involved in promotion. In McMahon’s crisis, Turner saw opportunity. He bought NWA from Jim Crockett Promotions in 1989, moved the group’s offices from Charlotte to CNN headquarters in Atlanta, changed the name to WCW, and set out to knock WWF off its perch.
From the start, Turner made it known that he desired to have all the top names in wrestling in the same grouphis. He not only kept NWA stalwarts like Flair and Sting for WCW, he also brazenly plundered WWF’s stable of high-profile wrestlers, including Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Scott Hall. With McMahon’s fortunes in a down trend, Turner opened his wallet and went after the biggest kahuna of them all, Hogan. He eventually landed Hogan by offering a $3.5-million-a-year contract, the championship belt, and a chance to play the heel for the first time in his career. (Fearing that any switch from good to bad would hurt sales of WWF’s licensed products, McMahon wouldn’t let the Hulkster ever fight anything but the good fight.)
Next, Turner went after McMahon’s live TV franchise, creating a new show, TNT’s Monday Nitro, to go head-to-head with WWF’s Monday Night War.
With Hogan as its bad-guy champion and Turner’s TNT promotion team behind it, WCW’s weekly show slowly took over the cable ratings book. Monday Nitro now consistently ranks as the most watched cable show each week. This week, Turner’s show garnered a bigger audience than McMahon’s (now called Monday Night Raw) for the 71st week in a row. WCW’s pay-per-view telecasts are also bringing in bigger numbers than anything WWF ever produced, including any of the Wrestlemanias.
The ratings whuppings Turner has laid on WWF have been so consistent and so severe that virtually all the heavy hitters in wrestling are now in WCW’s corner. The last of the WWF holdouts, longtime champion and fan favorite Bret Hart, recently gave up his title and broke a long-term contract with McMahon to sign with Turner for $3 million a year. Hart spit in McMahon’s face after his final WWF bout and talked up the rival organization to a live TV audienceacts that even the most jaded wrestling insiders swear were unrehearsed and further evidence that McMahon’s group could be on life support very soon. Turner’s wrestling operation, meanwhile, is thriving and only getting bigger. Hart’s defection from WWF and the Turner group’s one-and-a-half-year promotion effort helped Starrcade, even with overpriced tickets, sell out the MCI Center in a matter of mere hours. (Many fans brought “Vince [McMahon] is Dead!” posters into the arena.) The event also drew the biggest pay-per-view audience and largest overall gate in wrestling history.
Turner has enough money, media clout, and contractual say-so to take pro wrestling in any direction he wants. But he has given no indication so far that his Ivy League education and aristocratic background will screw everything up. Quite the contrary, in fact: After leaving the MCI Center, Sting and Hogan headed north to Baltimore, where less than 24 hours later, in front of another sold-out house and a live cable audience, they re-created the match of the century. Or at least the last month.Dave McKenna