If you ask Eric Bischoff about his long and oftentimes illustrious professional wrestling career, he’s quick to point out that he never pursued any of the success that he was central in creating.
When you consider his body of work, it’s even more impressive, leaving this reporter wondering exactly how much more successful Bischoff could have been had he actually been pursuing the legacy that he would ultimately carve out.
Consider just the highlights:
• One-time executive producer, and eventually president, of World Championship Wrestling, which, for a time, overtook the then World Wrestling Federation as king of the wrestling promotions. While with WCW, he was the driving force behind many defections of the then World Wrestling Federation’s biggest names to WCW, including the likes of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash and others.
• Successful and popular general manager of WWE Inc.’s flagship program, Monday Night Raw.
• Currently executive producer of Total Nonstop Action’s Impact Wrestling.
In wrestling, he’s pretty well run the gauntlet. You can’t throw around the names of influential figures in pro wrestling history without including that of Eric Bischoff nearing the top of that list.
While pursuing a career in professional wrestling was never his intention, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a fan. He most certainly was, and a big one at that, even from an early age.
“I grew up in Detroit and my earliest memories of professional wrestling, and I’m talking very early, is Saturday mornings,” Bischoff said over the phone recently. “My parents both worked, and they would leave my brother and I home alone. This is, of course, back in the early ’60s, so it wasn’t really that big of a deal back then. I was probably five or six years old, and my parents would work Saturday mornings and my little brother and I would sit in front of the television and watch cartoons and after cartoons were over, it was professional wrestling, on CKLW out of Windsor, Canada. And then it was Sky King, which was one of my favourite shows as a kid. That was Saturday morning. The memories are vivid and they stay with me all the time.”
It was a chance encounter that started brought Bischoff into wrestling.
“I never had any intention or aspiration to work in the wrestling business,” he said. “It was really sheer coincidence and likely good fortune. I had a chance meeting with (American Wrestling Association owner) Vern Gagne in Minneapolis to present another opportunity, and for whatever reason he was impressed enough to hire me as a salesperson and I just kind of started out from there. I had never dreamed about being in the wrestling business.”
Bischoff stuck by Gagne, through thick and thin, for years. It wasn’t easy, however.
“I worked for Vern Gagne in the AWA for a long time, and Vern and the AWA were financially (in trouble), they should have closed the doors two years before they actually hired me,” he said. “But Vern was a very proud and very stubborn guy — and I say that with respect — but he was very stubborn, very proud and was determined to try to regain the prominence that he once had.”
Eventually, working for nothing took its toll, Bischoff said.
“It just got to the point where I worked for a year or more — I don’t remember anymore, it was a long time ago — but I worked a long time without even getting a paycheque because I was committed to Vern and I was committed to being in the business,” he said. “I knew that once I got out, it
was very, very unlikely that I would be able to find a way back in. But it just got to the point where I was bankrupt, I owed the IRS money, they were repossessing cars out of my driveway, I was feeding my kids rice and beans and bouncing cheques all over town. I just realized that if I was going to survive, and take care of my family, I had to move on.”
And he did, to a place where he would eventually create his legacy in professional wrestling.
“I got a job with WCW as the third-string, kind of backup to the backup announcer, for 70 grand a year, which at that time, in 1991, to me was like $700,000 a year,” he said. “I was grateful for that, but quite honestly, I had no aspirations, or goals, or desire to do anything other than the best job I could do to keep that job. I didn’t want to become a part of management. It never crossed my mind, but it became kind of an evolutionary process. The longer I was at Turner’s (company), the more responsibility I either found or (it) found me. It all worked, for a long time.”
Did it ever. With Bischoff at the helm, WCW would succeed to the point that overtook the globally superior WWF (now WWE) in ratings, even pushing the bigger opponent to the brink of extinction. Ultimately, WWE would win out, largely thanks to its “Attitude Era.”
“As we built the product success, we found ourselves staring down the barrel of the WWF at the time and was able to take their gun away, and use it against them, and have quite a bit of fun in the process,” Bischoff continued. “It got very close,” he said, referring to upending the WWE, adding he is both grateful to have been a part of it and admitting to being grateful that things turned out the way they did.
Many point to Bischoff’s signing of the WWE’s marquee superstar, Hulk Hogan, as the defining moment in WCW’s rise. Not exactly, according to Bischoff.
“It was very exciting for me,” he said of the Hogan signing, while admitting that, during his high school years, he was still watching wrestling as a fan.
“I lived in Minneapolis at the time,” he said. “I remember when Hulk Hogan made his debut in the AWA. It was a really exciting time as a wrestling fan.”
So when it came time to lure one of his childhood idols to his company years later, it was surreal, Bischoff said.
“Although that had been quite a few years before, by the time I started talking to Hulk, the memories were still very vivid to me. It was exciting, as a wrestling fan.”
But the leadup to the Hogan signing cannot be overlooked, Bischoff said.
“A lot of people suggest that hiring Hulk Hogan was the thing that turned the company around. That’s not really true,” Bischoff said. “It’s what was obvious to the viewer, because so many big things happened in and around that same period of time. But probably the things that turned the company were some of the austerity, kind of financial measures, that we took.
“I literally remember making our senior management, as an exercise, literally count the number of pencils at their desk and report it to me; ‘Let’s make sure we’re keeping track of what we have and what we don’t have and build from there.’
“We cut back a lot of costs. I cut way back on house shows that were losing hand over fist, which was very unpopular with a lot of wrestlers and other management because it took money out of their pockets. I did a lot of things that were very unpopular early on, to make money. Then as we started saving money, lo and behold, we started making money. When we started making money, Ted Turner kind of started giving me, as we say here, more rope to hang myself with and allowed me to do more things.”
If anything was a defining moment, according to Bischoff, it was moving the company from Atlanta to Florida.
“Going to Disney-MGM Studios, in my opinion, was probably the single, largest move that we made and probably, if I had to point to one thing that turned the company around, it was that,” Bischoff said. “Changing brand-building decisions that changed the way advertisers looked at us … it changed everything for us in terms of our gimmick and our perception in the advertising community. That change in perception really gave Turner Broadcasting the confidence to allow me to bring in Hulk Hogan and the other moves that we made. Hulk was kind the manifestation of a lot of hard work and a lot of good ideas, and effort, to turn the company around, but he really wasn’t the focal point.”
After what became a bitter war between companies, Bischoff and WCW were eventually toppled by Vince McMahon and the WWE. And then, a couple of years later, a strange thing happened. Bischoff received a call he never could have imagined he’d get.
“A couple of years had gone by,” Bischoff said, “and really, I had no intention of ever going back into the (wrestling) business. I was perfectly content building my own television production company, which I’m still doing to this day — and quite successful at, then and now — so I had no need to go back to wrestling, (and) really no desire to. I felt as though I had done everything I was capable of doing, it left kind of a bad taste in my mouth … it ended, but not at my control, it ended for me, and not in a good way. I had made up my mind just to move on with my life. I was quite happy doing so.”
And then his phone rang.
“I got a call, out of the blue, from Vince McMahon,” Bischoff said. “We got along extremely well over the phone. He was cordial, he was respectful, he was fun to talk to, to be quite honest with you. It was kind of weird, you know, because I had met Vince once before, very briefly, so I didn’t really know him or have a feel for him. And it was so weird, after all of the back and forth, and all the crazy shit, all the lawsuits and all the stuff. It made me feel good. It made me realize I had an opportunity with WWE.”
Yet again, opportunity had sought out Eric Bischoff.
“I knew I wasn’t going to come back there in any kind of management position. I was under no delusions about that. Nor did I want to. I realized that if I went to WWE as a performer, then I could end my career on a positive note; maybe not as positive as I would have liked to a couple of years previously, but within my control. I could either enjoy it and do a great job and (leave) the business being recognized as a pretty decent performer or I could stay home and be bitter and carry around a lot of grudges, like a lot of people. I just said ‘screw it, McMahon sounds like a great guy, this is a great opportunity,’ thinking it might last six months. I never dreamed it would have lasted four or five years. But it was fun.”
“I achieved exactly what I wanted to achieve there,” Bischoff said. “I had a blast as a performer, I thoroughly enjoyed working with Vince and Stephanie and really Shane, and the rest of a really good team of really professional people at WWE. I can’t say one negative thing about it, and conversely, I think it’s one of the smartest things I ever did for myself.”
Today, as executive producer of TNA Impact Wrestling, Bischoff is back in the role of David in the David (TNA) versus Goliath (WWE) scenario. As history shows, it’s a role with which he’s quite comfortable.
“I hate to overuse the word grateful, but I can’t think of a better word for it,” he said of the opportunity he has with TNA. “I’m really happy that I ended up where I ended up, for a lot of different reasons.”
At this stage in his career, Bischoff’s motivating factors are much more personal than they are financial.
“Financially — this is going to sound arrogant and I don’t mean it to sound the way it’s going to come off — I don’t need it for the money,” he said. “I like money like everybody else and I’m certainly never going to give up and turn it down. It’s not my prime motivator. My motivator here today, is, I love the business. I love the challenge of trying to find new and better ways to tell a story, to make our stories richer, to evolve the product so that it keeps pace with other forms of entertainment to the best of our abilities. I love helping younger guys like me, writers, producers, that are hungry and who are hopefully going to be doing this 10 or 20 years from now. I love sharing what I’ve learned, and quite honest, without sounding full of myself, the talent that I have and the point of view that I have. I love sharing that and I love watching them grow. And of course, creating opportunities.
And then there is his son, Garrett, who is currently signed with TNA.
“My son was an important part for me, still is, as well as different people that I know,” Bischoff said. “A lot of young wrestlers who are there, young talent, I feel responsible to them. If we’re not successful, they probably are going to have to walk away from a dream. That’s kind of a lot of pressure.”
Like any good father, Bischoff only wants the best for his son and wasn’t sure wrestling was the wisest career path for the young man.
“Honestly I had, and still do have, mixed emotions about him being in this business,” Bischoff said. “The opportunity today isn’t what the opportunity was 10 years or 15 or 20 years ago. It’s very, very difficult now to make a good living, long-term, in the wrestling business. I don’t care who you are. And when your last name is Bischoff, to a degree he’s got an unfair advantage. It is what it is. But it’s also a disadvantage. I knew that that was going to be the case. I know that it probably … who knows if he would ever have a shot at WWE or not, that’s like someone waking up one day and saying ‘hey I want to be a rock star,’ or ‘I want to be an NFL quarterback.’ The competition is so difficult now and the opportunities to learn your craft are so limited now that to become a breakout star in WWE, or to be able to find your way onto the roster even at TNA, is a real freakin’ long shot in today’s world.
“Because of that, I wasn’t initially supportive of Garrett getting into the business, but once he convinced and he made up his mind, I realized that my job as a parent is to guide as best I can and then support. But once I made that decision, and got over the hump, the fun of working with him was a blast. Hopefully it’s something that he’ll remember and be able to look back upon long after I’m gone and get a real kick out of it.”
Not surprisingly, Bischoff has strong opinions on the state of the business today. One of those is that what WCW and WWE experienced during the lucrative and wildly successful era of the Monday Night Wars in the mid-1990s and early part of the 2000s will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve again.
“I think the television landscape has changed so much,” he said. “I have no idea what the pressures are within WWE, (but) I can guess pretty well. Been there, done that. And I don’t mean in WWE. I’ve worked for networks and I understand the pressure that’s on them, I understand it when advertisers are no longer excited about your product and I can’t imagine what it’s like to have shareholders jumping up and down on your board table, wanting to know (everything) that I’m sure Vince and his staff have to deal (with). But the television landscape has changed so much that it’s become increasingly harder for the next Stone Cold Steve Austin to break out,” citing the legendary wrestler who took the world by storm during his WWE run. “Remember, Stone Cold Steve Austin had been around the business for probably a decade or more, 12, 15 years, long before he became Stone Cold Steve Austin. He had an opportunity to work for the WCW, to work in the independent scene, to work in small promotions around the country and really developed his skill and craft with other people who are very skilled and very crafted. That doesn’t exist anymore. As a result of that, breakout talent like Stone Cold Steve Austin, or many of the other guys that we point to now as like legend in the sport, that opportunity no longer exists. The guys that are coming out now, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful because I admire every single one of them, even the ones I don’t know, but they’re cookie cutters. They’re formulas. They’re coming out of a wrestling pasta machine and it’s much more difficult for them to break out as a result of that.”
One thing is certain, while it might have been wrestling that found Eric Bischoff and not vice-versa, the business, its fans and countless talent should be grateful it did. Was he, at times, controversial? Without a doubt. But his influence far outpaces his notoriety.
And when it’s all said and done, Bischoff is at peace with his career.
“I don’t think about that too much,” he said, when asked about what his historical legacy might be. “I think a lot about retiring, because you know I’ll be 58 years old next month, and I don’t want to be in the business a whole lot longer because of the travel that goes along with it and all that. But at the same time I love it, so who knows. I’ve been thinking more about my exit strategy and about how I want to go out and what I want to accomplish in the next year or two years, if anything.
“As far as a legacy, or how people will reflect back on what I’ve done, five years from now or 10 years from now, I think … anybody who looks at this business 10 years from now will probably look back at what we did and what we accomplished and how we changed the business in a more positive and affirmative way than they probably have in the last 10 years because there’s a lot of residual “us versus them,” “WCW vs. WWF,” and “Bischoff stole the ECW guys.” All that revisionist, quite honestly bullshit, that fuelled that era, there’s such a residual feeling still to this day, that a lot of the opinions are so ridiculously skewed as a result. But I think if you just step back objectively and say, ‘OK, what happened with WCW, how did WWF react to that change, and how did that competition and that collision, if you will, manifest itself and change the industry over the last two decades?’ And I think if you look at it from that context, one would look at my body of work, or WCW, in a much more appreciative manner.”
Anyone who doesn’t should read up on their wrestling history.