On the latest episode of “83 Weeks,” Eric Bischoff and Conrad Thompson covered the 1/19/98 edition of WWE Monday Night Raw. This was a watch-a-long podcast but there are plenty of backstage stories told by Bischoff on what was happening in wrestling around this time with WWE getting mainstream attention because of the angle with Mike Tyson and Steve Austin. WCW was still on top in the ratings around this time but it was obvious that things were changing in WWE as the company had started to go in a different direction with edgier storylines.
Bischoff was asked what his thoughts were at the time when Mike Tyson appeared on the 1/19/98 edition of RAW. He said, “I think it was in November of 1997, and somebody will correct me when I’m wrong because you know how I am on dates, but Vince came out and he did this promo and I saw it the first time about a year ago. He basically told the audience, and I will paraphrase the whole thing as I don’t know what the verbiage was, but he said essentially he let the world know that WWE is going to be changing their creative approach. The old style of storytelling and presentation of WWE was no longer what the audience wanted. Vince was acknowledging what the audience was demanding and promised that he was going to deliver. At the time I thought, eh, whatever. But shortly thereafter I heard rumblings about Mike Tyson. Zane Bresloff wanted me to call him…I called him and said, “Man, you’re never going to believe this, but they’re bringing in Mike Tyson.” When he said it, I took a pause and it started soaking in. I didn’t connect what was going to become the Attitude Era and the new way of telling stories, which is essentially adapt the formula that was working for Nitro which was quit producing for teens and pre-teens going and start going after the 18-39 or 18 – 49-year-old audience. I didn’t know that’s what Vince meant when he made the big announcement that they were going to listen to the audience and change the way they are approaching wrestling, but when I heard about Mike Tyson it started giving me pause. I thought if they use him right, this is going to be a game changer and sh*ts going to be really serious. In ‘97, we were kicking WWE’s a*s. In early 1998, we were kicking their a*s, but I was fearful that the Mike Tyson thing would be a big deal and it was unfortunately for me, but fortunately for WWE, I was right. It was huge. I think it was the pivot point in WWE. I really do. I think so many things happened just in this one angle. I think Steve Austin’s equity went right through the roof. He was already a big star. He was already heading in the right direction, but with the Tyson storyline, he got catapulted into the stratosphere. I think Vince McMahon became a real character and not a parody of one when he came out as the owner, I think for the first time, but he took on a more serious role. If you go back and you look, Vince even changed the way he dressed. He started wearing a black jean jacket to the ring. God, I wonder where he got that idea? But everything changed in a big, loud, effective way.”
A month prior to the 1/19/98 Raw is when Bret Hard made his WCW debut. WCW also signed Jim Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith from WWE. Bischoff was asked why WCW didn’t do a Hart Foundation vs Four Horseman feud? He said, “I think the Montreal screwjob and the fallout from it was something that nobody obviously anticipated. We didn’t have months to determine what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it with the Hart Foundation so it wasn’t part of any long-term planning. It was a spontaneous opportunity so there was no real plan in place. A lot of the other main players were already in storylines so it wasn’t like you are just going to drop everything you’ve been doing right in the middle of it and start out fresh and pretend none of your other stories were happening. That was part of it. The other part of it was a couple of the aforementioned talent that came over had some issues, drug and otherwise. That was a problem. There wasn’t a lot of urgency to try to create something that didn’t feel like it was time yet.”
Bischoff was asked, “We’re these observations present in your first meeting or do you hire these guys sight unseen based on a recommendation and reputation and then you meet them and you are like, I don’t think this is who I thought I was signing?” Bischoff answered, “I didn’t meet with them prior to signing. I obviously knew exactly who they were and had a pretty good idea what their respective values would be to the roster at that point. I didn’t feel the need to sit down and have a conversation with them. I was a bit taken aback, and it wasn’t obvious. It wasn’t like the first time I saw these guys that it was obvious and it wasn’t all of them. I want to be careful. I don’t want to paint with a wide brush. But, of the individuals that had obvious issues, it wasn’t immediately obvious, but subsequently, after the first time or two we were together, it became really apparent.”