Mick Foley refers to it as “the night the channels changed.”
In early 1999, WWE was engaged in a fierce battle for the hearts and minds of the wrestling public with its primary rival, World Championship Wrestling (WCW). The period was known as the “Monday Night Wars,” since WWE and WCW's flagship shows, Raw and Nitro, aired at the exact same time.
In some ways, WCW had the advantage, since Raw taped some of its programming in advance. In an effort to score the edge over WWE, WCW boss Eric Bischoff asked his announcers to give away the endings of pre-taped Raw episodes. On January 4, 1999, Nitro commentator Tony Schivone told his audience that Foley was about to win the WWE Heavyweight Championship from The Rock.
Some 600,000 viewers promptly switched to Raw.
“It changed WWE's trajectory in the Monday Night Wars,” Foley -- who'd later serve as both Commissioner and General Manager on Raw -- reflects. “WCW had the hot hand for a while. But I was the ultimate underdog on the underdog show, and it resonated.”
WWE never looked back. By 2001, the company had purchased WCW, and Monday Night Raw was on its way to becoming the longest-running, weekly episodic show in the United States.
And on Monday, Jan. 22, Raw celebrates its 25th anniversary at 8/7c.
The special guests will represent the various incarnations of Raw, including The Undertaker, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Sergeant Slaughter, “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, Torrie Wilson, Kelly Kelly, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, the Bella Twins, DX – Shawn Michaels and Triple H – “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, the Dudley Boyz and former Nitro boss – and Raw General Manager -- Eric Bischoff.
Hall of Fame announcers Jim “J.R.” Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler will also reunite.
Raw made its debut on USA on Jan. 11, 1993, replacing WWE's prior show in the time slot, Prime Time Wrestling. Rather than broadcasting from a major arena, WWE opted for an intimate setting, playing live to a small but voracious audience at New York's Manhattan Center, down the block from the famed Madison Square Garden.
“It was a different way to do things,” recalls Foley who, at the time, was wrestling for WCW as Cactus Jack. “It was literally 'raw,' bringing people back to a simpler production model. But I don't think anyone at the time knew that it was going to be so big.”
On the debut card, The Undertaker triumphed over Damien Demento, Shawn Michaels defeated Max Moon, and Yokozuna crushed Koko B. Ware. Announcing duties were handled by Vince McMahon, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, and comedic radio host Rob Bartlett. Throughout the night, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, the WWE Hall of Fame manager who'd co-hosted Prime Time Wrestling, attempted to sneak into the building, donning a number of disguises.
To honor its origins, while accommodating the dictates of the WWE Universe, Raw will be telecast Monday from two locations, Brooklyn's Barclays Center, as well as the place where it all began, the Manhattan Center.
Over the years, the show evolved to its current three-hour format. Demand for Raw tickets was so great that the show eventually outgrew the Manhattan Center. But, by Foley's estimation, the “Monday Night Wars,” starting in 1995, had its greatest impact on both Raw and WWE, heralding the edgy “Attitude Era.”
“Although [WCW's] goal was to put us out of business, they did us a favor by forcing us to be better,” Foley says.
By 1999, with few notable exceptions, every Raw telecast was live.
For both past and present WWE Superstars. Monday Night Raw has provided an endless stream of decisive moments in the history of sports-entertainment.
Raw Women's Champion Alexa Bliss felt destined to compete in WWE after watching Lita defeat Trish Stratus for the WWE Women's Championship in a memorable 2004 Raw main event.
“Besides the night when I won the Championship, this was the most important moment on Raw to me,” Bliss says.
Luke Gallows was particularly excited by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin's invasion of Brian Pillman's house in 1996, as well as when future WWE Hall of Famers the Rock'n'Roll Express -- long associated with rival promotions -- appeared on the show in 1998.
A week after injuries forced him to relinquish the WWE Universal Championship in 2016, Finn Balor was most intrigued by the fatal four-way match that led to the crowning of the next titlist. “Seeing Kevin Owens win the Universal Championship [in a contest that also featured Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins and Big Cass] was pretty cool,” Balor says.
On a 1998 broadcast, the company's honcho Vince McMahon awarded Foley the WWE Hardcore Championship -- with the stipulation that the titlist could be challenged, at a moment's notice, 24 hours a day.
“It was a broken championship, all duct-taped together,” Foley says. “But people competed so excitedly for that piece of junk. The meaning of the title was so much more important than the physical title.”
With a number of matches already signed for Raw's 25th anniversary show, Foley wonders if the show's most exciting times are ahead.
“You don't know what people will idealize when we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Raw,” Foley says. “When you sit back and appreciate the challenge of creating something new and fresh every Monday for 25 years, that's nothing short of monumental.”
Keith Elliot Greenberg is the co-author of the third edition of the WWE Encyclopedia of Sports Entertainment, as well as the autobiographies of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Superstar Billy Graham, and “Classy” Freddie Blassie.