By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Imagine ESPN merging with Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News. Imagine the Backstreet Boys merging with 'N Sync and Leo DiCaprio's posse. Imagine the Playboy Channel merging with the Spice Network and Action Pay-Per-View. Seems implausible, right? Could never happen, right?

Vince McMahon
Like Gordon Gekko, WWF chairman Vince McMahon swooped in and bought up the WCW and ECW.

That's how any professional wrestling fan would have responded three years ago had you predicted that the three biggest wrestling federations in the country -- the WWF, WCW and ECW -- would eventually morph into one uber-federation controlled by WWF chairman Vince McMahon and his children, Shane and Stephanie. Just about every relevant wrestler working under the same roof, on the same cards, getting paychecks from the same place? How could this happen?

I'm telling you, in the summer of 2001, it happened.

When Ted Turner and TBS pulled the plug on the struggling WCW around the same time that ECW filed for bankruptcy this spring, McMahon swooped in like Gordon Gekko, purchasing the WCW and hiring a number of former ECW stars by mid-summer. And since the WWF's "Summer Slam" pay-per-view aired last Sunday night, the time seemed ripe for my first guilt-free WWF pay-per-view purchase of the year.

Of course, I kept a running diary. Here's what transpired:

8 p.m.: We're live from the Sports Guy Mansion in Boston! I'm joined here by some stale BBQ low-fat Pringles and a Bud Light bottle that I just found in the back of the fridge, as well as WWF announcers Jim Ross and Paul Heyman in San Jose. As an added bonus, tonight's telecast is presented by Chef Boyardee.

(I always thought "Chef Boyardee" would make a great wrestling gimmick for somebody, just for the costume alone. Can't you hear Ross screaming, "My God, what's that? Wait a second ... th-that's Chef Boyardee's music!!!!" as the Chef runs out from backstage, cleans house in the ring and performs the Spaghetti-O on somebody?)

8:02: Here's the Cliff's Notes version of tonight's pay-per-view plot: Earlier this summer, the evil McMahon kids (Shane and Stephanie) seized control of the WCW and ECW, renamed it "The Alliance" and declared war on their father and his beloved WWF (a plot apparently inspired by the Menendez family). Each side ultimately hopes to hold as many championship belts as possible or something.

8:05: Our first match: Intercontinental champ Lance Storm (ECW) takes on high-flying WWF star Edge (no relation to U2 guitarist The Edge). The Intercontinental title is like the PGA Championship in golf -- it's one of the majors, but it's not really one of the majors, if you get my drift.

That's why you have people like David Toms and Lance Storm holding the belts right now.

(By the way, Storm's gimmick includes 1.) telling the audience to shut up, and 2.) occasionally making everyone stand for the Canadian national anthem. You know they don't know what to do with a wrestler when he's making fans stand for a national anthem. It's like waving a white flag and saying, "This guy has no personality -- we give up.")

8:10: First shot of the WWF guys in the locker room cheering on Edge. High comedy for some reason. You can almost hear the director going, "All right, guys, on three, start cheering and pretending you're interested ... ready, 1, 2, 3 ... action! (three-second pause) And ... cut! Good work!"

8:16: Edge pins Storm with a DDT, despite the fact that Christian (Edge's brother) interfered with the match and inadvertently speared his brother, causing a little post-match tension between the brothers. You can see this bitter breakup looming down the road in a David Arquette/Courteney Cox kinda way.

8:18: Backstage interviewer Michael Cole catches up with Test, a wrestler who recently crossed over from the WWF to the Alliance. If the WWF isn't sure about a gimmick, you can usually tell, because the wrestler will only have one name. It's like they're saying, "He's not that interesting, so let's keep his name as concise as possible."

(And if he only has one name and makes people stand for the national anthem, well ...)

8:22: Time for a six-man tag-team match: Spike Dudley and the APA against Test and the Dudley Boyz. There's some bad blood here, because Spike remained with the WWF when his illegitimate brothers (Devon and Bubba-Ray) moved to the Alliance (don't ask). Also, the Dudley Boyz are known for their affection for power-bombing people through tables (again, don't ask).

Needless to say, you can pretty much guess what's going to happen with Spike in a few minutes. I'm already wincing.

8:25: Before I die, I want to give somebody a chair shot. Just once.

8:30: After eight minutes of brawling, Test chucked little Spike out of the ring and through a table -- 9.5 on the "Wow" scale -- followed by evil Shane McMahon sneaking into the ring and hitting one of the APA members with a chair so the Alliance could get the cheap win. Pretty good match. Frankly, I'm enjoying myself right now.

8:31: Just did a few jumping jacks.

8:35: WWF lightweight champ Tajiri steps in to face WCW cruiserweight champ X-Pac, who looks disturbingly like the Backstreet Boy who just went into rehab. They should go the whole nine yards here and have X-Pac use that "Bye-Bye" song as his entrance music.

8:36: Was it 'N Sync or the Backstreet Boys who sang the "Bye-Bye" song? Hmmmmm. This is bothering me ...

8:36: Come on, sing it with me: "But it ain't no crime ... bye bye bye BYE-BYE!" (Now that song will be running through your head for the rest of the column ... and you'll be enduring the personal hell that I'm experiencing right now.)

8:42: After Prince Albert came out to help his buddy X-Pac, Tajiri spit a mysterious red mist into Albert's face to fight him off ... but he was so distracted that X-Pac landed a cheapshot in the franks & beans region, leading to an X-Pac pin. Jim Ross sums up everyone's feelings when he says, "I wish Albert had just stayed in the back and let the best man win." Amen, Jim. Amen.

(And how 'bout Prince Albert's night? They flew him all the way to San Jose so he could have red mist spat into his face? Does he get paid for this?)

8:47: Next up: Chris "Y2J" Jericho takes on Rhyno, who's accompanied to the ring by ECW owner Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley. Needless to say, there's some history here: Steph hates Jericho because he pokes fun at her silicone implants and sexual promiscuity. Unfortunately, he can't make fun of her acting -- even some porn actresses have more range.

While we're on the subject, Steph's breast implants were the head-scratching wrestling development of the summer. Let's just say that she didn't need the help -- this was the NBA equivalent of the Lakers trading for Dikembe Mutombo.

I actually read a few running debates on wrestling message boards about whether Steph needed those implants. The wrestling world is torn on this one.

(Um, not that I've ever intentionally gone to a wrestling message board ...)

8:49: Heyman: "Rhyno is an animal that Y2J cannot tame." Can't they gag him or something? When's Jerry "The King" Lawler coming back?

8:54: All right, I'm enjoying Rhyno's "man-beast" gimmick: He keeps his hair long, wears full-body wrestling tights with a big "R" on the back and uses the "Rhino Gore" as his finishing move. Can't you imagine him watching the Discovery Channel one day while tossing around possible gimmicks and having one of those "Hey, wait a second!" epiphanies during a rhino segment?

8:58: Signs being held up by fans in the audience include: "Stephanie McBoobs," "Welcome to Silicone Valley," "Twins City" and "Stephanie McJugs."

Must be a proud day for Vince and the entire McMahon family.

9:02: Fun Stephanie-related fact of the day, as if the whole impants thing weren't exciting enough:

You might remember the wrestling plot last year where Steph "defied" her Dad and "married" WWF villain Hunter-Hearst Helmsley (aka "Triple H"). Behind the scenes, Triple H was actually dating Chyna -- the muscular, androgynous WWF female champ -- until they broke up last year and Triple H ended up falling for Stephanie in real life.

Now? They're still dating and Triple H is the odds-on favorite to capture the 2001 ESPY for "Upgrade of the Year."

(There's something endearing about Steph, despite the whole bad-girl/silicone/bad-acting thing. I've stopped trying to figure it out. Let's just move on.)

9:04: Y2J tames Rhyno for the win. Decent match. Solid PPV so far.

9:08: Time for everyone's favorite wrestler du' jour: Rob Van Dam, a high-flying, pompous version of Jean Claude Van-Damme who's also completely insane (he would jump off the fifth deck of Yankee Stadium if you dared him).

As an added bonus, RVD's wrestling a "Hardcore Ladder Match" against the always-good Jeff Hardy. I'm almost giddy. Somebody might get broken in half.

(Important note: RVD is approaching the always-exciting "The crowd loves him, but he's not getting a major push yet" phase which helps makes wrestling so much fun. It only happens once every few years -- Stone Cold in '96, The Rock in '98, Shawn Michaels in '93 and so on. Just thinking about it makes me want to perform one of those gushy "Sports Reporters" monologues.)

9:15: Wait a second, what's that? My God, that -- that's the Pizza Hut guy's music!!!! Good God, he's ringing my doorbell! This place is going crazy!!!!

9:17: Mmmmmm ... pepperoni pizza ...

9:21: All right, I'll say it: The "slow climb up the ladder" has officially replaced the "slow climb up the steel cage" as the definitive moment when wrestling just looks a little too fake.

9:23: Anyone who thinks that wrestlers aren't athletes needs to get a tape of a ladder match some time. Good God Almighty. I'm speechless. Even Maximus in "Gladiator" didn't take this much punishment.

9:26: Van Dam climbs to the top of the ladder, grabs the hardcore belt that's dangling 15 feet above the ring, unlatches it and suicidally drops back to the ring for the win. TREEEEEE-mendous match. That got three or four full-fledged "WOW"s from the Sports Guy.

9:28: This portion of the pay-per-view is still being sponsored by Pizza Hut.

9:30: Next up: a steel cage match for the WWF tag-team title belts, featuring brothers Undertaker and Kane against Alliance stars Diamond Dallas Page and Kanyon. There's some bad blood here, because, well, Page stalked Undertaker's wife and took some unauthorized videos of her earlier this summer. You hate to see that. As Ross notes, "There's a lot of personal animosity here."

It's not just animosity, folks ... it's personal animosity.

9:31: By the way, this match will stink for one simple reason -- every match with Kane and Undertaker stinks. They're big and plodding and generally uninteresting. If they were a Baywatch plot, they'd be anything revolving around Hobey.

9:33: Since this match is already dragging, here's a little history about the tag-team champs:

You might remember Kane as the guy who wrestled as evil dentist "Isaac Yankem" back in the mid-90's. Now he plays Undertaker's disfigured brother; he was burned in a fire as a child and enjoyed a love/hate relationship with Undertaker over the years. Kane wears one of those red Hannibal Lecter masks all the time; he also sets off telekinetic fireworks simply by raising his arms and bringing them down really fast. Until recently, he couldn't speak. And he wears Eddie Murphy's red leather outfit from the 1983 "Delirious" concert.

As for the Undertaker, up until last year, he played the "Prince of Darkness" role, performed ritual sacrifices and mock burials, rolled his eyes back in his head and basically acted creepy. Now he's a motorcycle-riding, hard-livin' Kid Rock fan who doesn't mention death at all. It must have been a phase.

(To spruce things up, the WWF should give Undertaker and Kane last names -- like Undertaker and Kane O'Brien, the O'Brien Brothers -- just for comedy's sake. Hopefully the door's still open.)

9:38: Hey, remember my "one-name" rule from before? It's still in effect with Kanyon - we're not sure what he does or why. He just climbed out of the cage for no apparent reason, leaving his partner Page alone with the O'Brien brothers. Apparently, Kanyon was late for his poker game with Test, Saturn, Rhyno and Glacier.

9:41: Ross on Page's subsequent 2-on-1 beating from the O'Briens: "My God, this is savagery!" When it comes right down to it, nobody uses the phrase "My God!" better than Jim Ross. My God, he's the master.

9:46: The O'Brien brothers knock Page around for a few minutes and finally pin him, prompting Kane to set off some celebratory fireworks. Lamest match of the night.

9:48: The Sports Gal just came home and noticed wrestling on the TV, prompting this exchange:

HER: "What are you doing?"

ME: "Just watching wrestling."

HER (noticing the pizza box): "You paid for this, didn't you?"

9:50: Both groups of wrestlers crowd around TVs in their respective dressing rooms to watch "Stone Cold" Steve Austin (WWF champ, former hero, current bad guy and star of the Alliance) battle Kurt Angle (former Olympic gold medalist, current WWF star).

As a near-hysterical Ross tells us, "You gotta believe, down deep in your soul, that this is gonna be as physically intense as perhaps anything we will ever see!"

9:51: All right, I just got that queasy feeling in my stomach ... you know, that sick feeling you get when you realize you're over 30 and you still watch wrestling? I wish I had someone to hug right now.

9:58: Stone Cold is busy doing "evil things" (calling the fans "losers" and stuff like that). He just tossed Angle out of the ring, followed him out, noticed a teenage heckler in the front row and shoved his middle finger about an inch from the teenager's face.

(Professional wrestling ... it's FANNNNNNN-tastic! I love this game ... er, sports entertainment!)

10:01: Hey, how come nobody has gone through the Spanish announcer's table once tonight? I had 9:25 in the office pool.

10:05: Lemme tell you something: Nobody takes a beating and sells it better than Kurt Angle. He's the modern-day Bob Backlund. Stone Cold just pounded his head against the ringpost and busted him wide open as Ross screamed, "Austin is sadistic and cold ... this is reprehensible!" Good stuff. I'm enjoying this match a little too much.

10:10: Ross just described Kurt Angle's face as a "proverbial crimson mask." He's in the zone right now.

(By the way, there's blood everywhere right now. Did we cure the AIDS virus, and I missed the memo? How come pro wrestling is the only sport that takes no health precautions whatsoever? Could we find the referee some latex gloves, please?)

10:15: Angle kicks out of a two-count for the 110th time, as Ross screams, "My God! My God! My God!"

Put it this way: it's only a matter of time before somebody knocks out the referee. You know it's coming. This match has been that good.

10:18: Yup ... Austin just popped the referee and knocked him out. It had to happen. Then he knocked out two subsequent replacement referees and earned himself the DQ -- one of the oldest wrestling tricks in the book. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Stay tuned for the rematch.

10:21: We've reached the portion of this column where I remind you that I know wrestling is fake. Yeah, I know. Hear you loud and clear. Point taken.

10:24: Time for tonight's main event: WCW champ Booker T against The Rock, the WWF's biggest star (and budding movie star), who's making his first PPV appearance in months. You have to love The Rock, even if he ripped off his entire gimmick from one of the true cinematic greats -- Cyrus, the leader of the Gramercy Riffs gang in "The Warriors."

As for Booker T, he doesn't have the charisma to rip off Cyrus, but he did manage to rip off Cyrus's catch phrase ("Cannnn youuu dig it?" - which the Rock had paraphrased into "Can you smell what the Rock is cookin'?" a few years ago) as well as some of Rock's best wrestling moves. They need to settle this thing with a baseball bat match in Central Park.

10:27: All right, I'm openly ignoring Paul Heyman at this point. He's reaching Jerry Glanville-level proportions for me.

10:30: Pretty good match so far. With that said, there's no way in hell The Rock is losing this thing. Even the Sixers-Bucks series last June wasn't this rigged.

10:35: Barring a last-minute catastrophe, the Spanish announcer's table has survived the entire night of mayhem. Absolutely, positively the upset of the night.

10:43: Just when it looks like Booker has the momentum, Rock unleashes the "Rock Bottom" clothesline on Booker T, pins him and wins the WCW title as the crowd legitimately goes bonkers, a solid end to a splendid pay-per-view. That's one of the beautiful things about pro wrestling -- the good guys usually win in the end. Usually.

Some quick final thoughts
1. Way too many titles are floating around right now. Seven titles were defended tonight, and that's before we even mention the WCW tag-team belts, the WCW hardcore belt, the WWF European championship, the women's titles, the IBF cruiserweight title, the WBO flyweight title ...

2. Along those same lines, the WWF roster is inevitably deep right now -- too many quality wrestlers involved in too many plot lines, without enough time to resolve them properly. Once the WCW's show is up and running, that should settle the problem. You don't need 15-20 stars to carry a pay-per-view when 10-12 can suffice.

(Heck, we never even had the "match that's so bad that it sends everyone scurrying to the bathroom" match. That's a wrestling tradition! Every pay-per-view needs at least one stinker match between two lousy guys, just for comedy's sake.)

3. There was definitely poetic justice in The Rock capturing the WCW title. Up until two years ago, the WCW and WWF were involved in a bitter ratings bloodbath on Monday nights; you couldn't imagine a day when one side claimed definitive victory or how that victory would play out. Now? We know.

Having the WWF's most visible superstar capture the WCW belt was truly the final nail in the WCW coffin. As Undertaker O'Brien would say, "Rest in peace."

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.