The Retro Raw Review – Episode 1 (January 11th 1993)

By Nathan Bones @FretlessNathan

Upon the eve of the 25th Anniversary of Monday Night Raw, it seems like the most opportune of times to revisit and reflect on the show’s beginnings. As such, this piece for Kayfabe Today marks the first in a new series analysing the first year of Monday Night Raw.

I’ll give the key facts for each show, a breakdown of every match and an editorial analysis; detailing the in-ring/character work and booking decisions. Hopefully it will act as a viewing guide and give you everything you need to know about each episode. Most importantly, hopefully it will to entice you to watch along on the WWE Network.

I welcome thoughts, feelings, suggestions and feedback to help improve this series as go along.

Background to the format change

For this initial instalment, it’s important to give some background and context to the shift in tone and pace from the previous norm that Monday Night Raw represented.

1992 had been a tough year for the Federation. The Zahorian steroid scandal and resulting positive drug tests led to many mainstays being given their walking papers; including The Ultimate Warrior, “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, Sid Justice and the Legion of Doom. What’s more, Hulk Hogan took an almost year-long hiatus after Wrestlemania VIII; in no small part, due to his disastrous appearance on Arsenio Hall where he (dishonestly) professed to being drug-free.

Due to this mass exodus, the product went through a transition period; with smaller, “clean” wrestlers like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels and Mr Perfect being given more emphasis on TV and higher positions on cards. Yet, house show attendance and ratings suffered due to the ensuing stale product and lack of star power.

To demonstrate, average house show attendance in December 1991 was 6,230; by December 1992, this had dwindled to just 3,210. From a television aspect, the previous incumbent of the Monday night timeslot, Prime Time Wrestling, saw its Nielsen ratings decline from 2.5 in December 1991 to 1.9 in December 1992. Clearly a step change was needed.

Thus, the decision was made to axe Prime Time Wrestling and go live (well, sometimes taped) on Monday nights with a fresher, chaotic, more immediate product. And so, Monday Night Raw was born.

Far from the bulk-taped arena shows of Wrestling Challenge and Superstars of Wrestling, the early episodes of Raw were filmed in the eighth floor of the Manhattan Center in the Grand Ballroom. This housed a rambunctious, young New York crowd, largely sitting on bleachers; a far cry from the cavernous spaces used to tape TV for syndication. As we will see, many of the storylines were self-contained too.

What may also seem odd to the contemporary fan was the inclusion of New York comedian and radio personality Rob Bartlett in the commentary team; unfortunately, at the expense of stalwart colour stick-man Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. Seemingly, this was a rather cynical (and as it turned out, ill-fated) attempt by Vince and Co. to inject humour and satire to the proceedings, in a need to be “culturally relevant”.

Ill-suited to the tone of the show and lacking any real knowledge of the wrestling industry and the presentation of the WWF product, he was poorly received by the viewing public and to this day, his appearances in these early episodes are somewhat of an ill-judged curiosity.

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t last long… Bartlett had already left the company by the Spring of ’93 by mutual consent.

Let’s take a closer look at the premiere episode of Monday Night Raw!

Key Facts

Recorded & Broadcast: Monday January 11th 1993

Location: Grand Ballroom, Manhattan Center, New York, NY

Attendance: 600

Nielsen Rating: 2.5 on USA Network

Body count: 7 out of 24 performers on the show have passed away; equating to a 29% death rate.

Commentators: Vince McMahon, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Rob Bartlett

The Show

SHOW OPENING

The show opens cold on a view of Times Square and we’re joined by Sean Mooney, who describes a “mob scene” outside of the Manhattan Center. On the contrary, I’d describe it as a largely empty street.

Nevertheless, Mooney is accosted by an exasperated Bobby Heenan, who has taken umbrage to being left off the commentary team and replaced by Bartlett saying “I’ve just gotta get inside”. Mooney reasons that there are no tickets left, as they’re “hanging from the rafters”. We go to the main titles…

Author’s note: Mooney talks about the tickets being sold out, but at a capacity of 600 and tickets between $10-$15, no wonder business was down. That’s a maximum gate of $9,000!

MAIN TITLES – It’s that delicious original theme by Jim Johnston that gives me all the feels. That sax-tastic line at the end before the siren really hits the spot. The theme lasted all the way until March 1997 when it was replaced by Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”, then subsequently by the beloved Attitude Era anthem “Thorn in Your Eye”.

INTRODUCTION – Vince McMahon gives his famous “welcome everyone!” growl made famous at Wrestlemania III, as we’re introduced to our ragtag commentary team of Vince, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Rob Bartlett. Bartlett makes one of scores of fat jokes and racial slurs at the expense of “Yokozuma” as we go to the ring for our first match.

MATCH ONE – KOKO B. WARE VS YOKOZUNA (WITH MR FUJI)

As Koko makes his entrance down the short aisle with the beautiful WWF neon logo behind him, we hear what we remember as Owen Hart’s classic “King of Hearts” theme over the speakers. This was a holdover from their days as the abysmal tag team High Energy; parachute pants and all. Just terrible. And speaking of racial slurs, Bartlett remarks that he “often wondered what happened to Gary Coleman”. This is going to be a long night…

Interestingly, Yoko is wearing white tights with a red thong, which is a totally different look to his more familiar red tights and black sash gear. As a noteworthy pre-match character flourish, he and Fuji are met in the ring by flower girls dressed as geishas who present him with bouquets. I thought this made him appear a big deal to the audience and was an undoubtedly unique touch.

Match Analysis

The match is only noteworthy for being the inaugural match for Raw, as it was no more than a definitive squash of Koko. Yoko ruthlessly repelled all attempts at offense; including lockups, drop kicks and shoulder tackles. A legdrop, lifting choke and backsplash set up a devastating banzai drop for a pin for the “Japanese” superstar, who continued his march towards his Royal Rumble win and subsequent WWE Championship reigns later in the year.

Nevertheless, defeating a “name” in Koko in a squash has infinitely more impact than a nameless journeyman enhancement talent. The win served to make Yoko look like an unbeatable monster.

Winner – Yokozuna by PIN (3:45)

PROMO – A video and graphic package for the 1993 Royal Rumble on January 24th 1993.

RINGSIDE – We return briefly to ringside for a glimpse of a swimsuit-clad “Raw Girl”, holding up a placard with a slogan on it. Luckily, these now-politically incorrect additions to the show were short lived. In an incident of casual sexism, Vince refers to her as a “little lady”. Nice…

PROMO – In a pre-recorded promo to camera, Bobby Heenan gloats about how incredible “Narcissus” is; claiming that to compare him to Mr Perfect would be like “comparing ice cream to horse manure”.

This of course follows on from The Brain’s feud with Perfect and leads to Lex Luger’s unveiling by Heenan at the Royal Rumble, in one of the more bizarrely and hilariously homoerotic scenes in WWE history.

MATCH TWO – THE STEINER BROTHERS VS THE EXECUTIONERS

The Steiners had only debuted in the company the prior month (after very successful stints in WCW and Japan) and were already proving their worth in New York by convincingly destroying jobber tag teams with hard-hitting and innovative offense, slams and double-team moves.

Interesting to note that under the hoods as The Executioners were perpetual enhancement tag team Barry Hardy and Duane Gill; the latter going onto life-long infamy as Gillberg during his Attitude Era novelty run.

Also notable is the first appearance on Raw of Doink the Clown in the background during this match (as played by the excellent Matt Borne in his heel persona). Bartlett refers to him as “Dork” numerous times. I think we can all agree that there was only one dork here and he had a headset on…

Match Analysis

This was yet another standard enhancement match, with nothing of note to report. The Steiners decimated their opponents (to no reply) with the kind of moveset that has made them legendary as stiff workers: tiger and butterfly suplexes, power slams, an overhead belly-to-belly suplex and their devastating top rope bulldog finisher; finishing off The Executioners in quick fashion.

The two Michiganians were booked in the only way suitable; as a much-needed kick-ass babyface tag team, injecting new life into a tired division. More of this, please…

Winners – The Steiner Brothers by PIN (3:00)

PROMO – We’re outside the Manhattan Center yet again with Mooney, who restates that this is the hottest ticket in town. He’s approached by a heavyset blonde woman attempting to enter the building, claiming to be Rob Bartlett’s aunt. After the attempted-interloper’s wig falls off it emerges that this in fact Bobby Heenan in drag. As he’s thwarted, he opines that he’s “just gotta get in there!”.

Heenan is masterful in this role as comic relief, yet his absence from the announce table is certainly an obvious and damaging one; given Bartlett’s appalling social commentary and impressions, as well as Savage’s non-sequiturs. Nevertheless, it serves a narrative purpose insofar as giving the show an episodic feel once the situation resolves itself by show’s end.

IN-RING INTERVIEW – Vince McMahon is joined in the ring by Razor Ramon, whose Latino accent is way over the top, to an almost cartoonish degree. Vince puts over what a fighting champion Bret is. In reply, Razor reasons that it took Bret 8 ½ years to become World Champion, yet Razor Ramon will have caught him within 8 ½ months.

We’re shown a video flashback from an episode of Mania whereby a youthful Owen Hart is attacked by Razor with a trashcan in the back whilst being interviewed by Raymond Rougeau. In the video, Razor looks into the camera and tells Bret that “you can’t do nothing about me taking your gold at the Royal Rumble”. After the package, Vince receives a toothpick to the face and we fade to a video package.

Author’s note: Razor seemed to scream “transitional opponent” in the segment. He was trying far too hard to be a cool heel and came across as patently unthreatening, physically unimposing and sorely lacking in the character development department. I would argue that these failings marred his entire career, but that’s another argument for another time. In sum, it’s hard to take him as a credible threat to Bret’s WWF title.

PROMO – A short pre-taped promo sees Tatanka putting over the WWF’s Headlock on Hunger charity drive.

MATCH THREE – MAX MOON VS SHAWN MICHAELS (INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH)

Our third match of the evening sees Max Moon receive an Intercontinental Championship match. Stranger things have happened, but even so, this feels oddly out of place. Nevertheless, this is the best match of the night, which I suppose is like being the nicest guy in prison.

Noteworthy for those trivia buffs out there: this iteration of Max Moon is portrayed by Paul Diamond, not Konnan.

Bartlett quips “here comes Robowrestler” when Moon emerges. Indeed, given the stripped-down production values of Raw at the Manhattan Center, he’s without his jet pack; who knows what the hilariously unfunny-funnyman would’ve made of that…Anyway, Michaels looks mullet-tastic with his feathered ‘do, red leather chaps and mint-green strapped IC title. This classic presentation of HBK warms the cockles of any early 90s wrestling fan.

Match Analysis

Both Michaels and Moon displayed incredible athleticism, energy and ring psychology during the bout; with go-behinds, hammerlocks, escapes and dropkicks aplenty. The crowd seemed firmly in Shawn’s corner, which was hardly surprising, given the reputation of the New York fanbase as vocally contrarian.

Additionally, Michaels’ full heel playbook bore itself out as he displayed some very solid character work. He begged off, took a powder, preened and took time to tell the camera, “this face has broken so many hearts”. It’s true – just ask any Canadian Bret Hart fan after Montreal. Nevertheless; I digress…

What was odd was the finish to the match. Far from the high-spot it would eventually become, Shawn’s superkick was called a savate kick by Vince and garnered no reaction whatsoever. He transitioned directly from this into his old teardrop suplex finisher for the pin and the win.

The match was far more competitive than it had any right to be, but this was a nice change of tempo from the squash matches we’ve seen earlier in the show. Not to mention, Moon/Diamond made a great account of himself and showed his chops as a capable utility player, irrespective of his cartoonish gimmick.

This was a well-booked win and coming out of the match, Michaels was perfectly positioned as a beatable heel champion in preparation for his long-awaited showdown with Marty Janetty for the strap at the Rumble.

Winner – Shawn Michaels by PIN (10:30)

Author’s note: What I neglected to mention in my analysis of the Michaels/Moon match was how unbelievably distracting and irritating Rob Bartlett’s commentary became. After the match’s first break he quips “you missed it during the break, folks; Shawn Michaels pulled a knife.” Vince immediately scolds him for this, claiming the show’s “not THAT Raw”. He must have been seething.

During the middle of the match he begins an appalling impression of Mike Tyson that goes on for far too long; to the point of reaching self-indulgence. Savage panders to him and even sets about attempting some satire himself. This was just awful and as far removed from wrestling television as one could get at that time. To say that Bartlett’s commentary went down like a fart in church would be a dramatic understatement.

PROMO – WWF’s new magazine show Mania gets a plug here. Seemingly, it’s being aimed at a family audience and the tone is suitably wacky and madcap. Change is certainly in the air here.

PROMO – We’re treated to an old-fashioned Royal Rumble Report here (sponsored by ICO-PRO) with “Mean” Gene Okerlund. He gives the rundown of the Rumble competitors (to the sweet sounds of the original Royal Rumble theme) and spotlights the other undercard matches. We also see promos to camera by Mr Perfect, Shawn Michaels, Marty Janetty, Yokozuna and Hacksaw Jim Duggan.

Strangely, given the radical format change that Raw represented here, Gene presenting an Events Center type slot seems oddly anachronistic and somewhat of a throwback. This truly is a transitional period in the company.

PROMO – Sean Mooney is outside the building again as we see yet another attempt by Bobby Heenan to gain access. This time he’s dressed like a Hasidic Jew and claims to be Bartlett’s “Uncle Morty” and calls Rob a “good bagel”. Not the most PC of lines, but if it’s good enough for Seinfeld…Bobby’s obviously found out in short order by an incredulous Sean and the ensuing visual of him with the fake beard around his neck is a classic. It’s no surprise that these skits were played over and over when Bobby passed away, such is their timeless comedic quality. Mr Heenan is sorely missed.

PROMO – Flashback to the previous week’s episode of Superstars of Wrestling, where we see Kamala turn babyface and join with the Reverend Slick after rebelling against the overbearing Harvey Wippleman and Kim Chee.

MATCH THREE – THE UNDERTAKER (WITH PAUL BEARER) VS DAMIEN DEMENTO

Unbelievably, this veritable clash of the titans is our main event. Demento (who is the answer to many a wrestling trivia question) receives an in-ring jobber introduction; presumably due to time constraints. Similarly, ‘Taker’s entrance is brief and to the point and the lights weren’t even dimmed; such were the ‘raw’ production values and immediate nature of the show.

Again, Bartlett chimes in with calling the urn a ‘martini shaker’ and suggests that Undertaker’s gloves are necessary due to his dishpan hands. What’s more, he asks whether Demento had his hair cut during a power surge. Please stop, Rob. I’m begging you…

Match Analysis

As the most decisive squash of the night, the match is only notable for being the first ever main event on Raw. ‘Taker threw weak right hands, pulled off Old School, a choke and a running, leaping clothesline. Prior to around ’96, this arsenal was effectively his bread and butter in most matches.

A quick tombstone piledriver was all she wrote, as Undertaker scored a decisive pin in just over two minutes, sacrificing the ill-fated Demento along the way. Still, the match got Undertaker over as a monster face going into the Rumble, yet did him no favours insofar as showcasing his latter talents for staging a compelling match.

Winner – The Undertaker by PIN (2:26)

RINGSIDE INTERVIEW – After his “clowning around” during the Steiners’ match earlier in the night, Doink the Clown joins Vince McMahon for a brief interview segment. Doink rags on Crush, who comes out to confront him and is squirted with a flower for his trouble to further the silly feud between the two. The two would clash in a dark match after the cameras stopped rolling.

Meanwhile, as the inaugural edition of Raw goes off the air, Bobby Heenan is finally allowed into the building.

Summary

Certainly, from a historical perspective the episode is noteworthy. The showcasing of a new monster heel in Yokozuna, super-over character babyface in ‘Taker, kick ass new tag team in the Steiners; as well as the decent IC Title match in a unique setting, made for interesting viewing for sure.

Additionally, Bobby Heenan’s timeless skits added some much-needed warmth and character to the show that was lacking from an in-ring standpoint.

However, the constant and tiresome pop culture references and indulgence of Rob Bartlett’s “comedy” make it a difficult watch at times.

As they liked to hammer into our heads throughout the early shows: Raw was touted as being “uncut, uncooked and uncensored”. At times, this episode veered perilously close to being “uninspiring, uninteresting and underwhelming”.

Show grade: C+. A mixed bag.

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