Are you sitting down? Good, because we’ve got some disturbing news to share with you: You know those bloody cage-match battles and ”I’m gonna whup your a — !” exclamations that make professional wrestling so mesmerizing? Well, they’re all carefully plotted by writers. Still with us? Great, because the current heavyweight of scribes is Vince Russo, 38, a New Yorker known in squared-circle circles as the man who helped World Wrestling Federa-tion programming (including USA’s Raw Is War and UPN’s Smackdown!) become a ratings champ by creating outrageous story lines and such fan-favorite characters as ”Stone Cold” Steve Austin and the Rock. Says Al Isaacs, editor in chief of ScoopsWrestling.com, ”Many people hold Russo responsible for putting the WWF back on top after World Championship Wrestling raided their wrestling talent” in 1996.
Now Russo has scripted his most compelling story arc: Last month he left the WWF to become creative director of its chief rival, WCW (owned by EW parent Time Warner). The Atlanta-based operation (a second-place ratings weakling since 1998, thanks in part to TNT’s viewer-impaired showcase Monday Nitro) signed Russo just two days after he phoned WCW exec VP Bill Busch to talk employment options. ”The way he wrote at WWF reached out to an audience that wasn’t watching wrestling before,” says Busch, who also hired Russo’s writing partner, Ed Ferrara. ”His story lines are compelling and logical, something we were in need of.”
Russo attributes his league hopping to WWF burnout. Hired in 1994 as editor of its official magazine, he began writing its TV fare in ’97. His load doubled this past summer when WWF launched the wildly successful Smackdown! ”There was never talk of more money,” says Russo. ”This was what was expected of me.” Worse, he says, was the lack of credit for WWF’s crossover success. ”To see every magazine and TV show and hear how [WWF owner] Vince McMahon was the creative genius, that starts to wear on you,” he says. ”Meanwhile, I had my eye on the situation at WCW, and I saw it as a phenomenal challenge.”
WWF execs are shaking off the body slam, insisting Russo was just one of many story collaborators. Says Jim Byrne, senior VP of marketing: ”Vince Russo’s departure will have absolutely no effect on this company at all. None.”
Whatever the case, Russo’s already set a minor ringside revolution in motion. To combat WCW’s image as a home for over-the-hill wrestlers, he’s asked headliners Ric Flair, 50, and Hulk Hogan, 48, to stay on the sidelines for a few months. ”There is a role for these guys in this business,” Russo explains, ”but it’s not the main event.” He’s also pumped the heretofore ”family friendly” WCW with a beefy dose of bloodbaths (wrestler Sid Vicious finished a recent pay-per-view match looking like Carrie at the prom) and bodacious babes (a Nitro bout featured a woman with basketball-size breasts).
”Right now, the masses don’t want family entertainment,” says Russo. ”Guys love T&A, they like [characters] with attitude.” Nitro’s ratings are up 32 percent since Russo arrived Oct. 18—a fact that’ll boost his pay, since he has an incentive deal with WCW based on Nielsen and pay-per-view success.