Eric Bischoff's road to WWE's Hall of Fame started in the Motor City

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Adam Graham, The Detroit News
·6 min read
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Apr. 6—As a kid growing up in Detroit, Eric Bischoff learned how to hustle and how to fight. Those two things eventually made him one of the most influential figures in the history of professional wrestling.

His impact on the business is so undeniable that he's now being inducted into the Hall of Fame of World Wrestling Entertainment, the corporation his success was made from trying to put out of business in the 1990s.

"Well, I don't want you to write it quite like that," says Bischoff, on the phone last week from his home in Cody, Wyoming. But as he stands in the living room of the house that was built on the spoils of going to war with the company that is now honoring him, "the irony is not lost on me," he says.

Nor is the gratitude.

"This has been such an amazing, unexpected journey from day one," says Bischoff, 65, who joins a WWE Hall of Fame class that includes Glen "Kane" Jacobs, Dalip "The Great Khali" Rana, actor William Shatner and Battle Creek's Robert Szatkowski, better known as Rob Van Dam. "I didn't plan on getting into the professional wrestling business, I never really aspired to be in the television industry. So much of what has happened to me in my life has been the result of great timing and the opportunity to work with some really amazing people. And all I can think of is how grateful I am, in a real way, for all of those experiences."

Bischoff's journey began as a kid growing up near 10 Mile and Gratiot. Dad was a draftsman at American Standard, mom was a housewife. His first job was at age 6, when he picked up litter around the parking lot at Lucy's, the nearby grocery market in his neighborhood. "At the end of the afternoon, I got to reach in the cash register and grab as many coins as I could, and that was my pay for the day," Bischoff says. "That's what started me on my road to being an entrepreneur."

He also got in a lot of fights. "It was a way of life, you know?" he says. "It was just something I grew up with, and I thought, 'I guess everybody gets into a fight on the way to school, and oh yeah, you gotta get in a fight on your way home, too.'"

Televised fights also caught his eye, and he still vividly remembers watching grapplers such as Bobo Brazil, the Sheik and Dick the Bruiser as part of "Big Time Wrestling" on CKLW-TV. "I can't tell you what I did yesterday, but I remember what station I was watching professional wrestling on when I was 7," says Bischoff, who was fascinated by the pageantry of wrestling and equally taken with the magic of television. "It's ridiculous."

His love of pro wrestling would last longer than his tenure in Detroit. By age 12, he was off with his family to Pittsburgh, and later to Minneapolis where, among other jobs, he started working for the American Wrestling Association. That led to a job with World Championship Wrestling in the early 1990s, where he transitioned from on-air announcer to an executive in the company.

WCW was owned by Ted Turner, who in the mid-90s wanted to make a run at Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment, then the World Wrestling Federation. Using his hustle and his fight, Bischoff decided to go head-to-head with WWF's flagship Monday night program, "Monday Night Raw," with his own rival program, "Monday Nitro." The ensuing rivalry between the two shows and companies — "Nitro" won the ratings war 84 weeks in a row between 1996 and 1998 — revolutionized the pro wrestling industry and caused reverberations that are still being felt today.

It was a golden era of pro wrestling and Bischoff was front and center, often antagonizing his rival in his on-camera role as outspoken leader of the rebel faction known as the nWo, or New World Order. The character was Eric Bischoff, an amped up version of the real Bischoff, who rode motorcycles to the ring, taunted fans and even challenged McMahon to an on-air fight that would never come to fruition.

But the party didn't last long. By 2001, WCW was out of business, and by 2002 Bischoff had joined his rival, appearing on "Raw," where he played the on-air role of an executive for several years. He's since made appearances in other wrestling federations, including Total Nonstop Action Wrestling and All Elite Wrestling, playing different versions of the Bischoff character.

But the so-called "Monday Night Wars" are undoubtedly Bischoff's legacy. The heat from WCW forced WWE to adapt its product to a changing marketplace, which lead to the minting of stars such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock. Without Bischoff raising the temperature on the industry at large, that environment would not have existed, and it's anyone's guess what the business would have looked like, both then and today.

"I think it is safe to say, without sounding like I'm going to blow out my shoulder patting myself on the back, that had it not been for the Monday Night Wars — that head-to-head, real competition between WWE and WCW — I don't think the business would be as successful today for anybody," Bischoff says. "That period of time, so many people were invested in that Monday Night War; you were a part of it as viewers, you felt it. And you know the saying, all boats rise with a high tide, I think because of that, we're seeing a lot of the success that everybody is having in the industry today."

Bischoff spent so much of his career playing a "heel," or a villain, that he's never found himself on the receiving end of a lot of love and affection from fans — that is, until now.

"I've been the antagonist, I've been the one that everybody wanted to see get killed at the end of the movie, and I've enjoyed every second of that character," he says. "But after the (Hall of Fame) announcement, this is the first time in my life I've ever experienced this enormous outpouring of support."

It feels good. And its made him realize the importance of sports entertainment to fans not just in the U.S., but all over the world. So does it make him wish he would have become a babyface, or good guy, earlier in his career?

"Nahhhhhhhhh," Bischoff says, letting out a hearty laugh. "Oh hell no. I've had too much fun."

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

WWE Hall of Fame 2020 & 2021 Ceremony

8 p.m. Tuesday

Peacock