By: Scott Yager
The smell of Wrestlemania is still in the air and, like it or not, wrestling is on the minds of many campus socialites out there! Whether this is just the time of year where you get back into wrestling for nostalgic purposes or you’re locked in year round, there’s no denying that the WWE and their yearly super-show is still on the minds and in the hearts of many of you out there. In an effort to get a state of the union of sorts on the world of pro wrestling I had a chance to talk with Bryan Alvarez of Wrestling Observer and Figure Four Weekly – one of the funniest and most knowledgeable pro wrestling journalists in the country. This guy watches more wrestling than anybody you know, guaranteed. He produces and hosts several online radio programs a week, recapping everything from RAW, Smackdown and NXT to The Ultimate Fighter and Ring of Honor. I spent countless hours in high school pretending to be paying attention in class while actually reading his weekly newsletter, Figure Four Weekly, which I subscribed to for some time.
Now Wrestling Observer is one of, if not the most successful wrestling websites on the Internet. Along with Dave Meltzer, Alvarez has been responsible for delivering the news, inside scoops, comedic takes and firsthand coverage of wrestling for over twelve years. Bryan started out by recording 1-800 hotline reports and eventually partnered up full time with Dave Meltzer when Wrestling Observer Live hit internet radio on eYada.com in 1999. Alvarez has been going strong ever since, continuing to churn out radio shows with Meltzer as well as other co-hosts such as his good friend Vinny and former wrestling star and current wrestling instructor Lance Storm. Having read and listened to Bryan for at least ten years now it was a pleasure to chat with him for over thirty minutes about a topic that whatever I do and wherever I go in life, will always be near and dear to my heart: professional wrestling…
When I told Bryan that I thought wrestling had an unofficial “all in or all out” relationship with the fans, saying that it gets to a point where you either need to drive head first into wrestling or not, doing this by understanding the who’s and how’s, reading the dirt sheets, and joining the Wizard of Oz on the other side of the curtain if you will, Bryan disagreed. According to Bryan the “smart fans” only make up a small percentage of the much larger general audience.
“If you look at how many people are watching Raw every week it’s like five and a half million people. Some of them are kids but you have at least four million adults watching every week. Out of those four million adults 98% of them are probably aware that it’s fake. Very few of those people statistically are going online and reading the newsletters and websites.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t fans that follow every aspect of the business, from the rumors and the booking plans to the contract negotiations and the politics. Not for everyone but for some, wrestling is more than just a television program, it’s an entire industry that is just as convoluted and layered as anything else you might become obsessed with like the stock market or Hollywood. Bryan Alvarez and Dave Meltzer help cater to those fans, giving people their daily fix of the behind the scenes stuff, while also informing the casual fan of what’s occurring on television in general.
“I think that when you understand what’s going on and there’s a whole different world that’s open to you and you get to understand why things are happening, I think the people that get into that become the fans for life.”
I got the idea to do an article on wrestling when I saw how enthusiastic people were getting over Wrestlemania, the new Bret Hart storyline, Shawn Michaels’s retirement and even the repositioning of rival company TNA from Thursdays to Mondays (where they now go head to head with WWE). For the past few years it seemed like wrestling had lost it’s casual viewers in the age group of 18-24, which could also be classified as the “college demographic.” However recently it has been pretty apparent that these young wrestling fans are giving it another go around, at least for a little while.
“This Wrestlemania is going to do a million, maybe a million point one buys and that was going against a UFC PPV with GSP. Usually the UFC shows kill the WWE shows.”
Seeing the spike in interest recently made me realize how far removed we are from the days of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock being household names (as wrestlers, not actors). It’s crazy to think how many Wrestlemanias there have been since The Rock wrestled Hulk Hogan in 2002. After the one where Rock fought Austin and Brock Lesnar almost killed himself with a shooting star (WM 19), however, they all seem to just blur together. Whether other components like the rise of MMA have played a part in a digression in cultural relevance for pro wrestling, according to Alvarez it seems like the biggest problem wrestling has…is wrestling.
“I think the decline in interest in wrestling is due to wrestling. I don’t think MMA has hurt wrestling as much as wrestling has hurt wrestling. They’re basically the same thing except one is real and one is fake.”
He goes into more detail…
“There were two matches at Wrestlemania, Edge and Jericho and Batista and Cena…where this was Batista and Cena’s second match together and Edge and Jericho haven’t had a match in forever, but because all these guys have been headlining PPVs for so long, neither match felt like something new. It felt like stuff we have seen a billion times. Wrestling is like any other sport, well it’s not a sport but it’s portrayed as a sport, where you have to have a constant supply of new guys coming up, new stars, and in wrestling that has BADLY slowed down over the last decade and I think that’s part of the reason some of the hardcore fans have tuned out. But at the same time you have new fans tuning in so that is not destroying the wrestling business yet.”
Bryan knows better than anyone that even though wrestling might not be as hot of a pop culture topic as it once was, it is still extremely popular. He answers tons of phone calls and emails a week from wrestling fans who are still passionate about the product and whether that causes them to be angered by it or optimistic about it’s future, one thing is certain, they ARE invested in it.
When I asked Bryan if there were certain aspects of wrestling that would just never be the same, like the importance of championships, believability of the rules such as count out and time limit, he responded somewhat unexpectedly.
“If Vince got behind it he could make anything work. Based on his track record and success, even today, I mean right now he is the best wrestling promoter in the entire world. The shows can be boring sometimes, sometimes very predictable but this is a half billion-dollar company, they are obviously doing something right. If he were to decide tomorrow that they were going to make titles mean more and merge everything to one championship, then it could be done. I don’t see it happening any time soon, but it could be done.”
After agreeing that this year’s Wrestlemania certainly had a bigger feel to it than years passed and the enthusiasm for the show was at a much higher level, especially around college-aged viewers, Bryan and I spoke about what factored into the heightened level of interest in ‘Mania this year.
“I think the return of Bret was a big part of it but this was just one of the best jobs they have done in years of slowly building the card for Wrestlemania. A couple of years ago they would change plans on a weekly basis because people would find out what was going on, which was funny because it wasn’t even inside knowledge at the time but just if you followed how booking should actually work you would figure out where it should go. They basically just spoiled it themselves by doing a good job. This year they didn’t care if anybody figured it out and with the exception of HHH and Sheamus being for the title, everything at ‘Mania was pretty much exactly what we heard it was going to be in January. They stuck to their guns and they booked exactly as they should have and it resulted in people getting super interested in the show and I hope they stick to that because that’s still the right way to book wrestling in 2010.”
Bryan wrote a great book called The Death of WCW (a must read for wrestling fans of the 90’s), which details the events that caused the colossal failure of a company that was once on top of the world. When I asked Bryan where all those viewers went, whether they hopped on the WWE bandwagon, followed TNA or just found other interests, he seemed to be very confident in his answer.
“They totally gave up. They had a style of wrestling they liked, it was on a certain channel, it was on a certain day, it was portrayed a certain way, it looked a certain way and when it disappeared they didn’t care about those guys going someplace else, especially a place that was portrayed as the enemy for so long. They just stopped watching wrestling. Millions of people…that was the end of their fandom. TNA has tried over the years to get those people back but it is patently clear that those people are not coming back. But TNA continues to try to draw those people and who knows where those people are. Many of them could be dead or maybe they found NASCAR, or had children. Who knows? But those people are never coming back.”
It seems now that MMA and particularly UFC has taken over the sports entertainment landscape, however Alvarez believes the fight is far from over, and the battle between MMA and pro wrestling is a much more back and forth contest than one might think.
“It really depends on what promotion has the hotter stars at the time. UFC did some big PPV numbers in the early ’90s but the guys who people thought were the huge stars were in pro wrestling.”
Guys like Stone Cold and The Rock were bigger than any stars the UFC had during that time period. Hell, even HHH and Ken Shamrock (ironically) were more well-known than the UFC’s main guys. Unfortunately for wrestling however, since then all UFC has done is create stars, from Brock Lesnar (ironic once again) to Frank Mir and the stars the WWE has created have not had thesame effect as their old poster boys to say the least.
“If a guy caught on, and I don’t see it happening anytime soon, but if a guy caught on and became the next Hulk Hogan then I don’t know if it would hurt UFC but it would definitely help wrestling. It all comes down to star power right now it’s just the same old guys in WWE and tons of new faces in MMA.”
MMA is definitely getting more and more popular by the day and although Alvarez isn’t ready to say that it has completely changed the place that pro wrestling holds in our society, he and Meltzer do follow the sport extremely closely and cover MMA on their website as well, donating almost as much time to covering UFC, Strikeforce and other MMA organizations as they do WWE, TNA, etc. Their coverage of MMA tends to be a lot more factual and to the point however, do mainly to the fact that Dana White seems to know exactly what he is doing. UFC at least seems to be making all the right decisions when it comes to growing as a company and using storylines and matchmaking to their advantage. This typically leads to very little complaining and picking fun at UFC and the MMA industry as a whole, although it’s not completely absent from their commentary.
The wrestling side of Bryan and Dave’s and Bryan and Vinny’s coverage tends to be slightly more negative, often questioning why certain decisions are made or some directions are gone in. The constant battle between what actually happens in the world of wrestling and what is the correct way to do things seem to be a common narrative, at least among Bryan and his fellow co-hosts.
“There has always been this idea that wrestling has to compete with the hot sitcom at the time or such and such mainstream show and no you don’t, cause all those shows, even the hottest shows like Seinfeld, they all eventually go off the air. But wrestling is supposed to never go off the air. So to try to compete with shows like Lost is stupid because this is not a television show. TV shows die. TV shows go off the air. Wrestling is supposed to be like a sporting event like football where Monday Night Football is going to be on the air forever. You don’t want your wrestling show to go the way of Lost. What, do you want to do some great numbers for a couple years and then go off the air? WCW did that. Old style pro wrestling booking still works. TNA…trying all their mid-nineties goofiness, I mean there is a reason they’re sinking every week.”
As far as the rise of MMA is concerned, it seems like the sky is the limit. To think that MMA is still not legal in New York and hasn’t even really be integrated into the ESPN world of sports yet is proof that there is nowhere to go but up for the fastest growing sport in the country. When I asked Bryan his thoughts on what MMA’s ceiling were he seemed to have a slightly more realistic opinion on the situation than I did. When I brought up the idea of MMA eventually becoming an Olympic sport Alvarez thought I was crazy. His main reason?
“The violence level. Obviously there is boxing in the Olympics but the small gloves, the punching a dude in the face practically with a bare fist…it will never be an Olympic sport. It can be a very big sport in this country. But the way it looks brings a stigma that is going to take decades to overcome. The idea of this someday being the biggest sport of the world…it’s going to be a LONG time before this is the biggest sport in the world. But in a few years it should definitely surpass boxing. All the kids growing up today are going to want to do MMA instead.”
Last but not least, Bryan Alvarez also does some wrestling on the side, doing so as more of a part time hobby that he does his best to keep separate from his primary job covering the entire world of wrestling.
“I did backyard wrestling like all kids. I did that before the newsletter and then I did the newsletter before I ever got in a pro ring, but I have been doing Indies since 1998. I don’t think I’d ever want to do more than a couple weekends a month, I don’t want to fall apart. But I certainly do enjoy doing it, it’s a lot of fun and it gives me a different perspective than some other people. It’s mostly something I just do for fun because I’ve always loved wrestling and it was always something I wanted to do.”
I asked Bryan if he ever thought about using his connections in the industry and the success of his newsletter to help up his stock as an in ring performer.
“I know enough about WWE and such to know that it was never going to work out for me obviously. I’m way too small. I figured that out in like 1996 and then the newsletter did so well that I thought, I don’t want to give this up to go and get my ass kicked in WWE.”
Bryan obviously made the right decision because Wrestling Observer is a kick-ass website and a great way to follow wrestling and MMA even if you don’t want to watch every single week. Hearing Bryan and Dave recap an episode of RAW while you drive to work in the morning is much more entertaining then spending your Monday Night enduring it first hand, I promise you this.
They’ve got tons of newsletters, radio shows, and daily updates. It’s the biggest wrestling/MMA site on the Internet so pretty much anything you’re looking for is going to be up there! This includes a few free radio shows that go up every week so feel free to check them out and get a free taste of what you get several times a week for subscribing!