Thursday, February 20, 2014

Going Back To The Beginning...Of Monday Night Raw

As of the time of this writing, we are just days away from the launch of the WWE Network.  In the weeks since the new venture was first announced,  it has become one of the most polarizing topics in not just the world of wrestling, but in all of entertainment.  Will it change not just the viewing of WWE product but other forms of entertainment?  Will it cause more duress for the already struggling (and overpriced) cable companies?  Will the content of the network fulfill the needs of wrestling fans of the past, or just the modern day WWE Universe?  To be honest, we've had little facts given to even begin to answer some of these questions.  Others can only be summed up with the age old adage that "time will tell."

Twenty-one years ago, this same company also changed the face of their business, albeit in a slightly smaller scope.  What would eventually become the flagship program of the late '90s professional wrestling boom, Monday Night Raw, was launched on the USA Network.  Many fans are hoping that past episodes of this wrestling phenomenon will be available on the upcoming WWE Network.  In the meantime, a somewhat overlooked DVD release that has been available for a few years has already offered the best of the early days of wrestling fans favorite Monday night television destination.

"WWE Raw-The Beginning-The Best Of Seasons 1 & 2" was released on DVD in 2010.  While not a season set with each and every full episode that many fans have long asked for, this four-disc set was released long after it became apparent that WWE had no intentions of releasing full episodes or pay-per-views for much of anything from the past.

The early years of Raw are very different from what current fans think of the show as today.  The idea was to have a wrestling show emanating from smaller, more intimate locations where absolutely anything could happen.  Many of the segments featured squash matches, where big name WWF superstars were pitted in one-ended contests against preliminary talent.  Although these are occasionally done today if the situation calls for it and preliminary talent still exists (i.e. Dolph Ziggler), the business largely abandoned that sort of presentation once the competitiveness of the Monday Night Wars called for nonstop stars to capture all-important ratings. 

Nevertheless, these early episodes usually contained one quality "main event" match, and those are ultimately what is presented here.  The WWF had not quite adopted their "New Generation" mantra of the mid-1990's, and it may surprise some as to just how many '80s stars continued to shine here.  From the unarguable first classic match of Monday Night Raw featuring Mr. Perfect vs Ric Flair, to a generous dose of the greatness of early Doink the Clown (as portrayed by Matt Borne), the WWF roster of the time was nowhere as weak as some critics would have you believe.

When I mentioned the Doinkster, I wasn't clowning around.  From the cover of the collection to at least ten appearances in the set itself, the Doink character is firmly represented.  Beneath the paint, Doink had an incredible technical wrestler in Borne.  That, coupled with great psychology and his ability to actually make the character evil, leaves little doubt as to why fans fondly remember Doink's initial WWF stint.

Taking us from the birth of Raw in 1993 to the very end of 1994, we are treated to nearly two full years of superstars and storylines.  While some angles were still progressed on WWF Superstars, you can see how Raw slowly began to take over the reigns of flagship show.  The brief 1993 return of Hulk Hogan, the rise of Bret Hart to main event status, and the reign of terror that Yokozuna held over the WWF championship scene are all here.  Pepper that with lots of Razor Ramon, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Lex Luger, and even some of my favorites in Jeff Jarrett and Rick Martel, and you have quite the set.

What I really enjoyed were segments and vignettes that really haven't been replayed or re-released by WWE all that often.  Things like Jarrett's "Double J" intro vignettes and Jim Cornette shockingly debuting on Raw while Bobby Heenan explodes with joy are finally here to be seen once again in original broadcast quality.  Even some of those wacky early Raw commercials and the infamous July 4, 1993 "Bodyslam Challenge" have made it onto the set. 

Monday Night Raw, like everything else in wrestling, was a completely different animal then.  For those who weren't around then and only know the current product, the differences would probably be jarring.  I know that the new product will never go back to smaller venues due to business, but certainly something from these days could be incorporated into the style and look.  Seventeen years of the screen, stage, and ramp that came with the "Raw Is War" title are about ten years stale already.

Complaining aside, I think what really grabbed me about this set was the aforementioned mixed roster.  Back then watching these shows first run, it never hit me that such a wild mix of talent made up the then-WWF Superstars.  In retrospect, the 1993 roster is a lot like the WWF lineup of ten years earlier.  A mix of veterans, up-and-comers, and no real cornerstone star of the promotion.  In '83, Backlund was stale to many WWF fans.  In '93, Hogan was stale to many WWF fans.  And while The Hitman would never reach the plateau that the Hulkster did, these men would both eventually become that cornerstone star of their respective eras.

Overall, this is a surprisingly fun set that deserves at least one go-around in the DVD player.  Seeing as that I did not miss viewing a single Raw episode as it was aired until a good fourteen or so years after its debut, I can tell you that these DVDs really capture the feeling and atmosphere of what Raw was.  Some rumors have said that the WWE home video lineup will be available on the upcoming Network.  If that turns out to be the case, this set might be one to dog ear for required viewing.  Whether it does show up or doesn't, this is a four-disc set worthy of space on any shelf...uncut, uncensored, and uncooked.

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