Editorial Columns

The Dave Meltzer Effect – Part Two

Adam Van Winkle takes a look at the effect Dave Meltzer has had on the wrestling industry.

I don’t mean to brag but, ya know, the official Jake the Snake Roberts and Arn Anderson Twitter accounts have retweeted my respective TWM columns on the legends. 

I can’t speak to the men actually reading my articles themselves…nor has any of my writing shown up on a major wrestling promotion…

But, man do we know Hulk Hogan reads or read, The Wrestling Observer, Dave Meltzer’s industry standard in wrestling journalism.  He burned the thing live on WCW’s 1995 World War 3 pay per view. Ric Flair has been known to pull out the famous wrestling rag on WCW television as well.

Speaking of Twitter, if you follow wrestling websites and social media with some regularity, you’ll see Meltzer gets trolled by the official Twitter accounts of many a wrestler in response to this report or that about the wrestler’s storyline, performance, or backstage drama.

In a way, AEW, the only significant promotion to gain a national television contract in the wake of WWE’s victory in the Monday Night Wars, is a group of wrestlers’ collective troll to Meltzer on Twitter.

All that by way of saying this week, in part two of my look at the Meltzer effect on pro wrestling in the last quarter-century, I’m taking a close look at times Meltzer’s and his wrestling writing has directly impacted the product.  (Take a look at last week’s column to see my take on Meltzer’s emergence and overall impact on the national wrestling scene).

Meltzer Brought AEW To Life

No, we can’t really know what Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks might have eventually dreamt up, but the fact is, Meltzer sparked the fire and response to put AEW together.  In answering a fan’s question on Twitter about ROH, Meltzer basically offered that no promotion in America besides the WWE could put 10,000 audience members in a building for a show.

Meltzer has long championed independent promotions like Pro Wrestling Guerrilla.  At the same time, many have sneered at his lauding of Japanese fans and their superior enthusiasm and knowledge of the sport to American audiences.  That by way of saying Meltzer’s assessment was sobering as he has clearly had the points of reference to make such a judgment.

But Cody Rhodes, who’d been hanging out as the darling of the independent and international circuits, since he requested release from the WWE in 2016, was in need of something to do with his generations deep knowledge of the wrestling business. He saw Meltzer’s assumption that no one could put together a show that would sell 10,000 seats, and with the Young Bucks organized and sold out All-In in the wrestling hotbed of Chicago, proving the great Meltzer wrong.

From there, and with Khan investment money, AEW was born.  We’ll see where it eventually goes, but it’s safe to say, it’s making noise and giving fans a nationally-distributed, much needed alternative to the major brand.

So, Meltzer isn’t always right.  That said, it’s quite a position of power within the industry he wields that his words can spark an entire damned wrestling promotion.

Observe This, Brother!

In mid-1995, WCW fans just weren’t buying the Hulkster schtick any more.  While his initial jump to WCW in 1994 and subsequent programs with Flair and Vader had initially given a boost to WCW numbers and national legitimacy with a new crop of fans, the core of WCW faithful quickly grew tired of watching the same tired routine.  By the end of the Vader feud, there was notable crowd jeering for Hogan’s comebacks on Vader.

While the WWF piped in and edited crowd noise to handle this same problem a couple of years earlier when Hogan was still there, WCW combatted this by passing out tons of free red and yellow Hogan merchandise. Fans wore it and waived the yellow foam fingers, but they still booed.

Meltzer, of course, reported this, as he would.  Hogan, because he’s a paranoid delusional about nearly everything, decided in his brain that crowds were reacting this way because The Observer was calling his routine tired, rather than reporting the organic booing of an old wrestler.

For his part, Hogan did see all of this.  It’s why in 1996 he would finally turn heel and join the nWo. Starting in 1995, at World War 3, he flirted with a heel turn by “going to the dark side” and wearing all black.  WCW saw it too and booked Hogan to “lose” the title (by deception of course, not a clean pinfall) to the Giant. It’s also why Hogan wasn’t on every pay per view (side note: WCW was also hamstrung by Hogan’s huge PPV paydays as he was promised a huge percentage of the PPV buys, with a 300 something thousand minimum guaranteed; in other words, WCW would have to boost its buys by more than 25% to make a Hogan PPV profitable for them as even a show that made a 100,000 dollars less without Hogan would net WCW a bigger gain by not paying Hogan.

Thus, we arrived at World War 3 in November of 1995. The vacated title (because Jimmy Hart lied to Hogan…) up for grabs for the winner.

In addition to reporting on Hogan’s waining popularity, Meltzer also reported a Macho Man elbow injury, that drove WCW booking mad. As his participation was key for both the popularity of the event and the outcome.  In the end, Meltzer accurately updated his injury report say, Macho would likely wrestle and likely he’d be booked to win the title.

Hogan jumped all over this, using it as a pretense to attempt to embarrass Meltzer on national TV. And I assume, to discredit Meltzer overall as a reporter, which would disscredit factual reports that Hogan was simply losing popularity.  As I said, he’s a paranoid delusional.

The result: a promo with Hogan, Sting, and Macho Man (because Sting and Macho were trying to save Hogan from his “dark self”). Hogan ripped off his black clothes, revealing his red and yellow colors underneath, yelling “Observe this!” before throwing a copy of The Wrestling Observer into a flaming trash can.  

Okay, a lot to unpack there.  Why was Hogan on the dark side?  The Dungeon of Doom comedy, er, heel stable was pestering him by letting him beat them up all the time (and they shaved his mustache which somehow still had not grown back weeks later). Why did Sting and Macho care?  Because all babyfaces are best friends.

Why did Hogan draw attention to Macho’s clear injury (a torn tricep bandaged huge at World War 3) and Meltzer’s journalism as opposed to ignoring it, making fans who hadn’t heard of Meltzer or The Observer aware of it rather than never knowing about it?  Not sure there, I think Hogan’s just not that smart and thought this would be biting or funny.  

In the end, it backfired and Hogan’s popularity continued to decline.  

Meltzer, on the other hand, reported a noted uptick in subscriptions following the exposure.  

Ric Flair took the completely opposite approach with The Observer on WCW television.  When Meltzer wrote a laudatory piece about him, Flair brought The Observer with him on Nitro to show it off.  I can’t help but think he was trolling Hogan a little thereby praising the rag the Hulkster had burned.

Looking back on the World War 3 event when questioned, Meltzer said he took the Hogan burning as “quite a compliment.”

Bischoff Works Pillman into a Shoot

This one is a pretty legendary turning point in the wrestling industry for a couple of reasons. 

First, it was an early indication that promotions were going to begin to play with the fourth wall, the kayfabe breaking of kayfabe, shooting to work aspect of creative development in response to the rising awareness for the business by fans spurred in no small part by Meltzer’s publication and grown rapidly by the mid-90s internet boom.

Second, it signaled the quite dramatic way in which wrestlers would work warring wrestling promotions for their own gain.

It is 1995 and WCW has created a kayfabe “shoot” angle in which the Horseman can’t control Brian Pillman and he and Kevin Sullivan are booked into “real looking” fights.  The end goal was to keep Meltzer and the wrestling press guessing about what was storyline and what was shoot. The problem with the angle is it only works once or twice, because as soon as it comes up a third time it’s clearly a pattern of booking (no wrestler would get away with going off script that consistently that many times in a row).

Frustrated by a failure to work the rag sheet writers like Meltzer (whom Pillman was on very good terms with by the way), Bischoff decided to take the angle further.  At the Fall Brawl ’95 pay per view, Pillman again acted as if going off the script by simply brawling out of the gate, then stopping the match and yelling at Kevin Sullivan, “I respect you booker man,” a nod to Sullivan’s backstage role on the booking committee, and “walking out.”  This was all scripted, but kept from most wrestlers and others in the promotion. To that end, Arn Anderson’s reactions and surprise at having to enter as a substitute for that match are genuine. Everything else was not.  

To combat skeptic writers and head off any smartness to the angle, Bischoff ACTUALLY FIRED Pillman for breach of contract.  The paperwork was filed just to make it seem real with the plan of simply resigning Pillman (a foregone conclusion perhaps in Bischoff’s as Hogan himself had shown interest in working an angle with Pillman).  Pillman went to ECW to maintain his status in the spotlight (and because WCW and ECW had somewhat of a talent exchange then). While laying low there however, he decided to pursue potential interest with the WWF.  

In the irony of ironies, Pillman used his buddy Dave Meltzer’s press pass to get into a WWF event and show up in character as a loose canon to try to make an impression on Vince McMahon.  He did just that and McMahon signed him away from WCW for quite a sum.

You gotta hand it to Dave here, he was on both ends: getting WCW to actually fire Pillman and getting the WWF to sign him.

Daniel Bryan and Japan

I’m not here to say that Dave Meltzer is somehow responsible for the YES! movement or the popularity of the Japanese wrestling style.  That would certainly be an overstatement.

There is no denying however, that Meltzer has had a hand in the last twenty five years in shaping real tastes in wrestling.  Take Daniel Bryan or the Japanese style for example.

Daniel Bryan’s is the greatest modern story in wrestling for a number of reasons.  Most importantly, his is a story that shows that despite the corporate and often blind monolith of the WWE and Vince McMahon can, albeit very rarely, be dictated to by the fans.  While Bryan had already been booked as WWE champion, the former indie king solidified his spot as one of the greatest ever in 2013 when the WWE was forced to abandon a Reigns push in favor of Bryan from the Royal Rumble to WrestleMania that year because of fan reaction (and a good indie body versus corporate mold storyline).

While Bryan has been one of the dominant forces in the WWE over the last decade, Meltzer was on that tip a long time ago too.  In the five years before Bryan’s first WWE title reign, from 2006-2010, Meltzer named Bryan (then as pre-WWE copyrighted real name Bryan Danielson) his wrestler of the year.  Again, while I don’t think there’s a direct link, I can’t help but think the legitimacy of Bryan in the WWE where so many other indie stars have failed to make the transition to the top was buoyed by Meltzer’s high praise.

The same, I think, can be said of the Japanese and Lucha styles in America.  If not for Meltzer covering (and praising) higher work-rates of the international style well before the American wrestling audience at large cared, it’s hard to say if the mid-90s WCW run of NJPW and AAA stars and cruiserweight division would have taken off.

Many, many point to Meltzer’s bias for the international product over the WWE’s product (he’s only given five stars to a handful of WWE matches over the past twenty years) as a sign that he cannot be trusted to report anything about the WWE with accuracy. I, on the other hand, again take it as his predictive powers, to see the way the wrestling landscape needs to go.  As with Bryan, Meltzer is simply recognizing a good thing before the audience at large.

And as with last week’s look at Meltzer’s overall career in the biz I could go on and on.  Mick Foley, for instance, tells in one of his biographies that Bill Watts used to make his wrestlers read The Observer and booked often in response to Meltzer’s coverage and predictions.  This much was confirmed by Watts’ own letter to the editor published by Meltzer when many in the business still denied glancing at the wrestling rag. The ten year PG period the WWE seems to be slowly emerging from was part of the WWE’s response to press, spearheaded by Meltzer, looking to hold the industry accountable for so many tragic and early deaths in the wake of Guerrero and Benoit.  In the early 90s, Meltzer was one of the first and most vocal to cover steroids in wrestling, and the WWF’s drug testing then (and firing of the Ultimate Warrior and the British Bulldog) were a direct response to the press. Petty wrestlers weekly shout at Meltzer on Twitter, taking particular pleasure in calling him “Dave” and telling him he’s wrong. For his part, Meltzer usually handles his end with a little more grace:

In fact, it seems to me, whether folks are trying to hate or laud, Meltzer always takes it in stride, keeps his emotions about what’s happening in check, and never tries to overplay his own impact.  In interviews he’ll shoot down questions of his own greatness, insisting he’s just a fan and reports information he gets. Toward the other end, he’ll gladly announce when he’s wrong (as with Seth Rollins recently), or stand by sources otherwise, but never in a way that seeks to be inflammatory or attention seeking.

Ironic then that he’s been able to sustain and thrive in an industry that encourages the inflammatory and the attention seekers, but he has.  He does. 

He is without question, one of a handful of the most important and influential figures in wrestling in the past quarter century.

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You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.

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