Vince Russo’s philosophy on how to present pro wrestling was formed on the night that he attended his very first World Wide Wrestling Federation event about 40 years ago in the old Long Island Arena in Commack.
The Valiant Brothers and their manager Capt. Lou Albano were set to take on arch rivals Tony Garea and The Happy Hawaiian, Dean Ho, in the night’s main event.
“And, for that six-man at the Commack arena, the babyfaces brought in the big, heavy hitter. I am so thankful for getting to see this live. They brought in Haystacks Calhoun,” said Russo, 55, recalling the 6-foot-4, 640-pound wrestling legend. “People that hate me, they don’t understand. Because seeing Lou Albano in there with Haystacks Calhoun, that will just embed a vision in your mind that you will never forget your entire life.”
The outsized personalities on display that night helped shape one of the most influential, and controversial, wrestling minds of a generation. In the span of about seven years, Russo parlayed running ads for his Coram video store on a local wrestling radio show, to hosting his own show, “Vicious Vincent’s World of Wrestling,” to being hired by WWE to run its magazine, to eventually becoming the WWE’s head writer during its late 1990s boon period -- known by fans as the Attitude Era for the edgy content that became Russo’s signature.
As far removed as the Attitude Era seemed to be from Haystacks and Albano bumping bellies in Commack, Russo said he tried to keep the fundamentals the same.
“These are characters that are larger than life with great storylines . . . There was no difference between the Valiant Brothers and Steve Austin,” said Russo, who now lives in a Boulder, Colorado suburb. “I stayed true to all that. The only thing that had changed was the way that the storylines and characters were presented, because society was 25 years later.”
Despite scripting some of the most successful WWE television programs in history, and later doing the same for WCW and TNA, Russo remains one of wrestling’s most reviled personalities for his sometimes unconventional take on the wrestling business. These days he shares that take five days a week on his podcast, “The Brand,” on the PodcastOne network.
Russo believes one of the reasons he is so polarizing is that he’s not afraid to speak his mind about WWE’s current product.
“I have not only burned my WWE bridge, I’ve blown it up. I’ve poured gas on it five times over,” Russo said. “If it’s good, I’ll say it’s good. But, on the other hand, it’s not, I’m not going to hold anything back, because I don’t have any ties to the WWE. I’m not waiting for the phone to ring.”
In just the kind of statement that riles up his detractors, Russo said one of the key problems with WWE’s current product is that it features too much wrestling -- at least as compared to the character development and storylines that he believes are necessary to make fans care about the action in the ring.
“We went to those shows for one reason and one reason only -- to see the characters. And if you’re Long Island guys or New York guys, man, you know that through and through . . . Every single month at the Garden, they were selling out because Bruno [Sammartino] was the guy and they were going to see Bruno. When I look today at NXT, these guys are going to see the match,” Russo said. “When I look at the contrast between then and now, it’s not even professional wrestling anymore . . . If you saw and experienced what I saw, you would not think professional wrestling is great today.”