For nearly a decade Smackdown and I have been living separate lives, a fact that brings me no great joy to admit considering how close we used to be. It seems like just yesterday we were first introduced to each other by a mutual friend, Raw. Right from the start we hit it off and before long we became the best of friends.
That was 1999.
I was just a 16-year-old kid back then living in a world drastically different than the one I inhabit today. Films like American Beauty, Blair Witch Project and The Matrix opened my eyes to the cultural impact of penetrating cinema. Brittney Spears and Jennifer Love Hewitt agitated the delicate strings controlling my hormones on a routine basis. Names like Eric Lindros, John Elway and Derek Jeter meant everything to me. The name Osama Bin Laden meant absolutely nothing to me.
1999 was an exciting time to be a WWE fan. Steve Austin, The Rock, Mankind, The Undertaker and so many other compelling characters injected new life into a promotion placed on life support just a few years earlier. Raw was must-see TV; a weekly two-hour rollercoaster ride complete with meaningful matches, intriguing stories that left you on the edge of your seat, sex appeal, comedy and heavy doses of violence. What more could a teenage kid ask for? Most weeks I spent the hour immediately after Raw catching my breath and wondering how I was going to make it through the rest of the week before finding out what would happen next. I’d heard about how this thing called the internet could help fill me in ahead of time but surfing the web was a foreign concept to a poor kid in Philly whose family didn’t even own a computer.
Smackdown burst onto the scene as the summer of 99’ drew to a close and the dread of beginning my junior year of high school set in. The timing couldn’t have been better. I stopped watching WCW altogether that year after it became evident the promotion was no longer capable of keeping pace with WWE. I desperately needed something to fill that void in content consumption. Smackdown became the perfect bridge between episodes of Raw without feeling like the B show it was designed to be. The unique oval-shaped set and contrasting color scheme allowed the show to build a personality all its own.
Smackdown and I spent the next three years in a constant honeymoon state. Sure, as the show became more integrated into the WWE universe it lost a bit of its shine. The championship matches used to create a buzz and establish an audience became fewer and farther between but that didn’t matter to me. The show became a regular part of my life just as Raw did after its debut in 1993. Christmas of 2000 ushered in a new age in my household, we finally got a computer (a Macintosh the size of an anvil) and I received a PlayStation game console complete with one game, you guessed it, Smackdown!
It was during that extended honeymoon that my favorite episode to date aired. It was September 13, 2001, two days after the world changed forever. With Major League Baseball, the US Open and the NHL choosing to temporarily suspend their respective schedules, Smackdown became the first televised public gathering of substance after the 9/11 attacks. Vince McMahon was granted a platform pro wrestling will likely never receive again-and he made it count.
Watching that episode from a small dorm room on the campus of Bloomsburg University was one of many experiences that ultimately changed the trajectory of my life that week -I traded my life as a college student for a life as a military serviceman. I joined the US Navy, spent eight weeks in basic training and was shipped to the USS George Washington, where I participated in both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. My tour of military service remains the longest period of time without pro wrestling in my life. Not long after I returned to civilian life I had the opportunity (and for the first time in my life the financial means) to attend a WWE live event.
That event was Smackdown.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the giant silver fist protruding from the top of the entrance ramp as I walked from the concourse into the main arena. 17 years after I first became introduced to pro wrestling it was if I had suddenly been exposed to a completely new side of the product I never even knew existed. Like a young boy attending his first baseball game with his dad, absorbing the sights and sounds of the happening overloaded every one of my senses.
Soon after the show started we learned a 20-man battle royal would take place, the winner of which would be awarded the vacated World Heavyweight Championship. Talk about right place, right time. The brand split occurred during my time overseas so the Smackdown roster was still a bit unclear to me. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the surprise appearance of Kurt Angle, who was billed as a primary member of the Raw roster at that time.
Angle was always a perennial favorite of mine. Amateur wrestling was as much a part of my life as the pro version. I competed at the highest levels my state had to offer and even belonged to the same Dave Schultz Wrestling Club where Angle trained before winning Olympic gold. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the experience of watching him win the World title that night, or the fact that he pointed to my friend and I as he perched himself on the turnbuckle with his newly won title, a subtle sign of gratitude for the insane adoration two grown men willingly displayed without fear or hesitation.
I’ve since been lucky enough to attend more live events than I can remember but none will ever compare to that night at Smackdown.
Ironically it wasn’t long after that fateful night that my relationship with Smackdown started to change for the worse. Looking back now, all the classic warning signs were there. The brand split was a concept I never fully wrapped my head around. WWE was forcing me to choose a side- at least that was my interpretation of the situation- and when backed into a corner I chose Raw. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened.
It started out innocently enough, missing an episode here, an episode there. Then I started recording the show rather than watching it live only to fast forward through much of the content or worse yet, delete it without watching at all. The next thing I knew I was a guy who didn’t watch Smackdown. In 2011 I came back for a brief time when the brand split experiment was terminated but the magic was gone and before long so was I.
I completely erased Smackdown from my mind and up until recently WWE hadn’t done anything to change that. Having lost approximately one million Raw viewers compared to this time last year, the promotion has struggled to adequately promote its live flagship program let alone its pre-taped secondary show.
Next Thursday marks the beginning of a new chapter in Smackdown’s history. After five years on SyFy the program is moving to USA, a network I will always associate with WWE. That, coupled with WWE’s desperate need for change across the board, has me intrigued. A few week ago it was announced that former MMA and New Japan broadcaster, Mauro Ranallo was hired specifically to work Smackdown. The intrigue grows.
I’ve chosen to no longer be a guy who doesn’t watch Smackdown. Whether that’s because of a twisted curiosity or the longing to reconnect with an old friend, I don’t yet know. I imagine the answer will become clear in the weeks to come. What I do know is that I’m excited. Excited for a new year, a new website catered to all of us who are part of this great fraternity known as wrestling fans and (hopefully) a new Smackdown.
Check back here at WWW to read Barry’s thoughts on SmackDown’s debut on USA.
Be sure to follow @WeWriteWrestlin on Twitter for updates and additional opinions on professional wrestling.
Join our team by sending an E-Mail to WeWriteWrestling@gmail.com