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In 2001, the wrestling business changed dramatically. Both ECW and WCW went under, the latter being purchased by the WWF. The short-term fall-out included the Invasion angle by what would become a WCW/ECW Alliance, followed by the Brand Extension split of the WWF/WWE which set the course of history on a new path. But what if WCW had remained in existence?
Although ECW had a loyal following, it simply would not and could not have grown into a mainstream powerhouse, unless it was acquired by a larger parent organisation; and if that had been the case, the vulgar style of the company may have been forced to change. However, WCW was a major mainstream wrestling promotion, even during its final months of life. Therefore, its demise had a much bigger impact. But it's interesting to consider how things might have transpired had the company managed to continue.
Firstly, WCW would not have been on the air in April of 2001, even if the WWF purchase had not happened. Eric Bischoff and his financial backers Fusient Media Ventures had hoped to buy the organisation themselves, and even believed that they had bought the company prior to Jamie Kellner cancelling WCW television on the Turner networks. But Nitro and Thunder were still going off the air whilst Bischoff and co. found a suitable new home for WCW's television output. Their plan was to relaunch the brand at a PPV event called The Big Bang on Sunday May 6 2001 (ironically, exactly one year before the WWF was renamed WWE). There were even magazine advertisements for the show that never took place. Let's assume, though, that the Fusient purchase did happen and that WCW relaunched with Big Bang; what could we have expected?
Looking at the roster, I think the vast majority of WCW's top names in 2000-2001 would have remained with the company, at least to begin with. Goldberg would likely have been remained WCW's top star, although Booker T and Scott Steiner will have carried the workload in main events leading to big World Title showdowns with Da Man a little further down the road. Knowing his loyalty to WCW, Sting will have remained in the camp, as will have Jeff Jarrett, whose TNA venture alongside his father Jerry would not have happened if WCW had survived. Buff Bagwell may have been elevated, as annoying as he was, and with ECW a goner, it has been strongly rumoured that Rob Van Dam was actually set to debut with the company at Big Bang, so his surprise debut will have given the company a jolt. Perhaps Sabu will have been brought in to feud with old rival Van Dam; Sabu had left ECW several months before that company ceased to exist, and he would have made an ideal first opponent in the new WCW for RVD.
Heading up the mid-card scene will have been Lance Storm, Mike Awesome, Kanyon, Sean O'Haire and Chuck Palumbo, and with Rey Mysterio Jr., Billy Kidman and Chavo Guerrero leading the way for the Cruiserweights. A young AJ Styles wrestled on some of WCW's final shows; perhaps he will have been positioned as a future Cruiserweight Champion in the new WCW. Rounding off the cast will have been the rest of WCW's lower-to-mid-card roster from early 2001, as well as some ECW alumni who would ultimately not join the WWF, such as Kid Kash and The Sandman (who had WCW experience as Hardcore Hak). I suspect that Tommy Dreamer's loyalty to Paul Heyman, by this point an announcer on Raw, will have landed him a WWF spot at some point. Speaking of which, Joey Styles is said to have been chosen as the lead commentator for WCW, likely working alongside Scott Hudson or Tony Schiavone.
What about the other big names? Well, I suspect that Kevin Nash will have remained with the company but, upon his contract expiring at the beginning of 2002, he will have chosen that moment to reunite with free agent Scott Hall and return to the WWF. The Outsiders vs. The Rock and Steve Austin may have been a feature attraction for WrestleMania X8. Diamond Dallas Page likely will have stayed with WCW for some time but, given his attempts to leave the company in 2000. DDP may have found a way to join the WWF himself within one year of Big Bang, while he was still young enough to contribute.
Elsewhere, Ric Flair will not have stuck around under another Bischoff regime, likely joining the WWF in a role not dissimilar to his Co-Owner position which he held when he did return to Stamford in November 2001. Hulk Hogan was no longer attached to WCW by this point, but being good friends with Bischoff and with Vince Russo not associated with the new company, Hogan may have appeared for the brand in a special attraction role (he had been discussing what would become the XWF before WCW went down, although the short-lived company may not have happened at all if WCW had lived on). That said, I believe that by 2003, Hulk will have ensured a return to what by then will have been WWE for major showdowns with The Rock and Steve Austin (who may have co-operated to wrestle Hogan at this point) and several others before a possible retirement in the late 2000s, perhaps in a double finale with Flair. I believe Bischoff will not have even brought in Lex Luger, knowing his dislike for Luger's work. This may have spelled the end of Luger's career since a WWF/WWE return would never materialise. Veterans like Randy Savage and Roddy Piper may have been used, but knowing the necessity to promote younger talent, it's more likely that they will have been left behind, resulting in nothing more than special appearances for the WWF/WWE at some point (they may have decided to bring back Savage, despite the unexplained animosity between both parties, for a short-term ratings or buy rate gain).
Something to consider is whether the Monday Night War will have still been over. Would the new WCW have chosen to keep Nitro on Monday nights at a time when defeating Raw will have been extremely unlikely? Or will a new night have been preferred on a new channel, combined with what Bischoff planned to be a new weekly location at Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas? It's very possible, and it likely would have meant better ratings for WCW television, with the opportunity to return to Monday night head-to-head competition with Raw at a later date if it made business sense. Speaking of which, a TV-14 format will likely have been opted for to give WCW a genuine chance to compete with the WWF; the influx of ECW talent will have helped with this direction, although it will not have gone to the extremes (no pun intended) that Paul Heyman's company did, and there will have been a much lesser focus on sexuality than there had been under Russo's watch in 1999-2000. And Eric's plan was to not hold house shows at first; the focus will have solely been on television and Pay-Per-View.
I expect Big Bang to have been a moderate success, due to a combination of the WCW television hiatus, the overhaul of the company and the influx of new talent. From there, if the new creative team had a sense of logic about them and a desire to prepare for the future, television shows will have likely drawn respectable ratings over the summer of 2001 following strong numbers on their new homes (FX was rumoured to be one potential new channel for either Nitro or Thunder in the States). If the main event scene has revolved around Goldberg, Booker, Steiner and RVD, PPV numbers will have been fairly decent too, if nothing to shout about in the big picture. In a nutshell, WCW Version 2 likely will have enjoyed decent commercial success in 2001, but only with a dedicated and creative team writing the shows and catering to what the fans really wanted to see.
Meanwhile, how will the WWF have fared if WCW remained in business? In the short-term, it may have seen a decline in ratings, due to Steve Austin's heel turn coinciding with The Rock filming The Scorpion King; without the carrot of a WCW invasion being dangled to its audience, might Raw and SmackDown have seen a fairly big drop in viewership with its two top players not serving as the headline babyfaces at the same time that WCW was new and improved? That being said, the WWF will have almost certainly remained the number one company in sports entertainment; only an all-time classic WCW storyline will have changed that perception, as we saw with the nWo tale in 1996-1997. And long-term, the WWF might have actually seen its audience grow; it will have still had the opportunity to gain viewers from the competition, especially once Rock returned and Austin went babyface again, as opposed to losing fans who weren't satisfied with the WWF at a time when it was the only game in town.
Heading into 2002-2003, I doubt that much will have changed from a business perspective. I believe the WWF/WWE will have attracted higher ratings due to there being no brand extension (meaning, all the talent on all the shows), a need to remain on the ball creatively since it still had competition and the return of Shawn Michaels at SummerSlam 2002. In addition, the promotion of new talent from its developmental territory Ohio Valley Wrestling will have kept the product fresh, which will have been more important without the brand extension in effect. It's possible that one or two names from WCW might have defected by this point, perhaps Goldberg or Big Poppa Pump, further boosting business.
In contrast, WCW will have soldiered on. Its ratings would remain consistent, with some new stars coming to WCW from a new upstart promotion named Ring Of Honor to bolster its Cruiserweight ranks, like Christopher Daniels and Low Ki. No major acquisitions seem likely during this era, except for maybe Mick Foley in a non-wrestling role during his time away from WWE in 2002 and early 2003. Assuming that the product was still logical and watchable, perhaps house shows and an international tour were feasible; new, young and exciting talent would be the way forward rather than the veterans' parade of 1996-1998.
By 2004-2005, it's anybody's guess as to how things will have transpired. I believe that WWE will have signed Booker and RVD, elevating them to the top in light of Rock going to Hollywood permanently and Austin retiring from injuries. That being said, I feel that the boom period will have truly ended by this point, and with WWE's numbers declining, this could have given WCW an opportunity to once again compete on Monday nights with Raw, bolstered by the continuing signing of hot independent stars such as Samoa Joe and relationships with big companies in Mexico and Japan, a staple of the original WCW. I certainly don't believe that Nitro will have beaten Raw in the ratings again, but the gap will have been a lot closer than in the dying days of WCW in 2000-2001.
From there, assuming that WCW's creative team had their s--t together, it potentially could have continued on as a respectable Number Two to WWE to this day; if the continuing survival of TNA tells us anything, it's that a company with low ratings can last a very long time so long as it has strong financial backing, and I believe that WCW will have been in a much better position than TNA ever has been.
WWE will have remained the clear Number One company, perhaps drawing higher ratings due to the competition it was still receiving. However, it still will not ever have come close to drawing record numbers, partly due to technological advancements eliminating the need to watch Raw at that time of the week only. Incidentally, the WWE Network likely will not have been a reality, or at the very least it will have been introduced on a smaller scale, since the company will not have invested so much in its videotape library without the access to the WCW archives. One last thing to ponder: would WWE have still gone PG if it were still competing with WCW, and might such a decision have allowed WCW to make gains since its product, drawing higher numbers than TNA ever had remember, will have offered more by sticking to TV-14?
In reality, beyond 2001-2003, it's impossible to predict not only what would have happened to WCW, but wrestling as a whole had it survived. Will there have been another boom period? Will the company's relaunch have been a disaster leading to its demise aside from a WWF buy-out? Might a new and improved WCW have actually found a way to defeat a faltering WWE in the ratings? Would future stars like John Cena and Batista have received the same opportunities to headline had there not been a brand extension? And how many potential superstars will we never know about, because these athletic followers lost their interest in wrestling when WCW crumbled in 2001?
The safest bets are to say that WCW will likely have enjoyed a kinder 2001 than 1999 or 2000 due to renewed interest. The WWF probably would have thrived for another year or two longer than it did during its peak, with legitimate competition still in existence. Otherwise, the future of wrestling would have been up in the air. Really, it may have come down to the two things responsible for the death of WCW in the first place: a misguided creative team and poor business decisions. If these two issues were rectified, the new WCW could have remained in business to this very day, and perhaps thrived if everybody was truly on the same page in trying to make the brand a success again.
One thing is for sure: if WCW had remained in business under non-WWF ownership, the wrestling industry over the last 16 years will have been very different. Would it have been better or worse than what we have seen since 2001? I'll let you be the judge of that.