Day 4: The New World Order
Cody, WY (Population: 9,810)/Park County (2020 Election Results: +56 Trump)
No miles added today.
Eric Bischoff loved to be hated, because with every boo, the sound of a cash register rang.
On May 5, 1998 he stood in the middle of the ring in Kansas City, Missouri, flashed his pearly whites, twitched his dimples, and soaked in the jeers of the thousands in attendance as he challenged the WWF's Vince McMahon to a fight.
"There's something about being in the ring in front of however many people and knowing that you have the ability to get them to react exactly the way you want them to react. When you want them to react. That connection to the audience and that energy exchange is addicting as hell," Bischoff, 67, told me today in the kitchen of his two-story house in Cody, Wyoming.
It's that rush that keeps so many wrestlers coming back, even when they probably shouldn't.
At one time in the mid-1990s, Bischoff was the king of the wrestling business, above even Vince McMahon. His World Championship Wrestling (WCW), owned by Ted Turner, wrestled Goliath to the ground, besting the WWF in the TV ratings for 83 straight weeks. In many ways, Bischoff deserves credit for what wrestling became in the late 1990s, the "Attitude Era" that brought Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, because he added a degree of realism and edginess that force the entire industry to evolve to become less of a cartoon. His signature creation was the New World Order (nWo), a faction of outsiders (including a bad guy Hulk Hogan) who made being bad cool.
That ground has been plowed many times, the story of the WWF vs. WCW in the 1990s and the rise and fall of the nWo. But what interests me with this project is not who Eric Bischoff or any of these performers were on screen, but who he is in real life.
Bischoff is reviled by many hardcore wrestling fans, considered an arrogant, smarmy prick who ruined WCW with his own selfishness or ineptidue. The same disdain you see for the character in the above clip is now reserved for the real human being, Eric Bischoff. But Eric just shrugs it off. He knows that if that's how people feel, then he was especially good at his craft--he got people to believe. To believe that he really was that guy. He bent the parallel universes of myth and reality to become one.
Because the same guy who stood in that ring working the microphone like a conductor's baton would rather be here, alone (or with his wife Loree), on over 30 acres of land with million dollar views of snow-clad peaks, reading about Native American history or relaxing at his living room bar ("we built the house around the bar," he quipped).
As I explained my project and ideas, Eric sat rapt, his hazel eyes steady behind a pair of thin-framed glasses. He listened actively, taking in what I had to say without any of the usual fillers ("right," "uh huh"). He's long since let his hair go grey, but keeps it stylishly coiffed, tight on the sides and a little poofy on top. I didn't feel like I was talking to a carnival showman or an entertainment executive--I felt like I was talking to one of my students. He listened, processed, and when he responded he had plenty to say.
About why people hate him. About the state of wrestling. About his best friend Hulk Hogan. About why this peculiar American art form called professional wrestling just won't go away.