The Madison Square Garden Curtain Call
In April of 1996, shortly after WrestleMania 12 where Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart delivered an unforgettable Iron Man match, two of the WWF’s biggest stars, Razor Ramon(Scott Hall) and Big Daddy Cool Diesel(Kevin Nash) signed contracts with WCW. Rumours circulated that similar to Hulk Hogan, both men would be given lucrative deals with creative control of their characters.
During their time in the WWF, the duo became part of a group of real-life friends who referred to themselves as The Kliq. Members of the friendship circle were Hall, Nash, Michael Hickenbottom (Shawn Michaels), Paul Levesque (Triple H), and Sean Waltman (1-2-3 Kid, later Xpac).
After their final match at Madison Square Garden at an untelevised event, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash were joined in the ring by Shawn Michaels and Triple H. Breaking kayfabe, the four men embraced in a move that confused the New York crowd. Because the problem was Hall and Michaels were babyfaces, but Nash and Triple H were heels. Imagine Captain America and Thanos hugging it out when the credits roll, or Bane and Batman throwing you a thumbs up whilst sharing a pizza. The consequences could’ve been relatively minor because it wasn’t televised, however,a couple of fans had smuggled a camcorder (remember those) into the arena and captured the moment on video. These were the days before going viral was even a thing, but photos and videos of the incident made their way onto the fledgeling internet.
This was the most high profile incident for wrestlers flagrantly breaking kayfabe in front of a live audience. For the first time the pro wrestling industry had to face up to the fact that fans were becoming increasingly aware of backstage happenings and politics. As a result, future storylines would blur the lines between reality and fantasy, and more and more wrestlers would use their real names for their characters. However, Vince McMahon was still furious. Nash and Hall could not be punished because they had left for WCW. Shawn Michaels was the WWF Champion and the most popular name in the company and was therefore unlikely to get punished. That meant the brunt of the punishment would fall squarely on the shoulders of Triple H, who was booked to win King of the Ring that year.
To punish Triple H, WWF changed course and booked Stone Cold Steve Austin to win the career-making tournament instead. Speaking of which………
King Of The Ring 1996
Triple H was scheduled to win that year’s King of the Ring, but after the Madison Square Garden Curtain Call, WWF creative decided that honour would go to someone else. Since joining WWF a year previously, Steve Austin was called The Ringmaster and was managed by ‘The Million Dollar’ Man Ted Dibiase. From day one Austin was booked as a heel. But after Dibiase departed for WCW, Austin dropped The Ringmaster name, shaved his hair, and took on the moniker of Stone Cold.
Following Triple H’s indiscretion, Stone Cold Steve Austin won the King of the Ring tournament after defeating Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the final, who was portraying a born again Christian. Austin then dropped his now-famous promo:
And just like that, the era of Austin 3:16 was born. Stone Cold would play an integral role in helping WWF win the Monday Night Wars.
The nWo Takes Over The World
When you are watching a wrestling match on tv, and you see members of the crowd stand up and turn their heads, it’s an indication that something is about to happen, or someone is on their way to the ring.
In May 1996, on an episode of Nitro, such an occurrence took place when Scott Hall suddenly appeared unannounced and interrupted a match. The fans in attendance were stunned for two reasons. One, that “Razor Ramon” was there, live on Nitro. Two, fans had become accustomed to Hall being a babyface in WWF, but this was a clear shift in attitude that had the wrestling community buzzing. Though Hall, still spoke in his Razor Ramon Cuban-American accent.
WWF was unhappy because they held the trademark for the Razor Ramon character, which included any likeness or portrayal. Nonetheless, Scott Hall preceded to taunt wrestlers and commentators for a couple of weeks, until he was joined by Kevin Nash, who on his first night in Nitro intimidated Eric Bischoff, who was doing ringside commentary.
The two men known as The Outsiders would continue to wreak havoc on WCW, requiring security escorts out of the building, and because of their recent stint in the WWF, fans in WCW became convinced Hall and Nash were still employed by WWF. Both men were clearly employed by WCW, but WCW creative was happy to let fans think The Outsiders were actually there to stage a takeover of WCW on behalf of the WWF.
The Outsiders challenged Bischoff to a match against three of his best guys because they had a third member. Bischoff duly obliged to a match at an event called Bash At The Beach. Bischoff chose Randy Savage, Lex Luger, and Sting to represent WCW.
But on the night of the fight, The Outsiders showed up minus their third man. With the match underway, Lex Luger soon got stretched out due to injury. With Hall and Nash utilising dirty tricks to gain an advantage, Hulk Hogan entered the arena to a thunderous ovation.
Hogan had been off tv for a couple of months at that point, hence the reception. Now you need to understand, most wrestling fans had only known the Hulkster as a babyface. “Eat your vitamins and say your prayers.” That was the Hulkamania line. So you can imagine the shock when Hogan attacked his longtime friend Savage and stood alongside The Outsiders. What followed has become the stuff of legend (or nightmares), when Hogan was interviewed by another longtime friend, right after the match, “Mean” Gene Okerlund:
The new World order (nWo) had arrived and they would terrorise the wrestlers and officials of WCW for years. And in the process elevate WCW over WWF in the ratings war.
In response, the WWF was who trying to make some sort of point, brought in two individuals to play the role of Razor Ramon and Diesel. The message they were trying to send to Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, was that WWF still owned those trademarks and that anyone could replace them.
But those new characters were, to say the least, not well received by the WWF fans. The gimmicks were soon shelved. The Diesel character was portrayed by Glenn Jacobs. Jacobs had wrestled previously as Isaac Yankem. But would make his name as The Undertaker’s half-brother, Kane. I think that gimmick worked out a little bit better for Jacobs, who is now the Mayor of Knox County in Tennessee. Hogan turning heel sent shockwaves throughout the pro wrestling world and was a moment that would only be at surpassed for shock value at WrestleMania 30. The man who had helped Vince McMahon build the WWF was now the same man who could help destroy it.
Originally founded in 1992 as Eastern Championship Wrestling, the company would soon change its name to Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW).
Under the leadership of Paul Heyman, ECW created a breed of new stars like Raven, Mike Awesome, Sabu, The Dudley Brothers, Tazz, Tommy Dreamer, The Sandman, and Rob! Van! Dam! Unlike WWF and WCW, ECW matches essentially had no rules. Their targeted demographic was adult males. Wrestling traditionalists were horrified and feared WWF and WCW would follow suit in order to boost ratings.
Indeed it was the WWF who changed their programming to be more adult-oriented. Their storylines became edgier. The use of tables and chairs became more prevalent. Blading became standard practice in what became known as the Attitude Era.
ECW became a casualty of the Monday Night Wars as WWF and WCW began raiding them for talent. But with three wrestling promotions, all with tv deals, this was a financially lucrative period for pro wrestlers, as often performers were happy to leverage one company against another during contract negotiations. In the grand scheme of things, ECW was a flash in the pan. But their impact on the industry, and their legacy, will live on forever.
The Great Double Turn
After losing the WWF Championship to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12 in an unforgettable Iron Man match, Bret Hart took a hiatus from wrestling. During that period, Stone Cold Steve Austin rose to prominence.
Upon Hart’s return, WWF booked a feud between the two. The two men couldn’t be more different. Bret Hart was the boy scout, who played by the rules, traditional face. Stone Cold drank beer on tv, flipped his middle finger, and would do anything for a victory. The Hitman would spend a lot of time bemoaning the direction of the company, and the rise in stature of wrestlers like Stone Cold Steve Austin. Hart bested Austin at Survivor Series in November 1996, but the rivalry continued to escalate.
By WrestleMania 13, WWF recognised the changing tide in the two characters. And decided to do a risky move, a double turn. The heel character (Austin) becomes a babyface, simultaneously the babyface (Hart) turns into a heel. A double turn is rare because too much can go wrong. And Bret Hart was one of the most popular faces in the post-Hogan era. There was no guarantee that fans would turn against The Hitman. But the buildup by WWF creative had been excellent. Hart’s constant whining was slowly getting under the skins of the fans. And many were ready to dislike him.
On a largely forgettable card, the match itself is a classic, with UFC star Ken Shamrock fitting in perfectly as the referee. The image of Austin, with blood pouring down his face, trying to escape Hart’s Sharpshooter has become iconic. Even after Austin had “passed out”, Bret Hart continued to assault him, to a crescendo of boos. An irate Hart eventually had to be pulled off Austin by Shamrock.
Austin, refusing medical assistance, and still bleeding, limped out of the arena serenaded by cheers and applause. The double turn was successful. But Hart didn’t quite go full heel. Instead, his frustration was aimed exclusively at the American fans. He criticised the bigotry, lack of intolerance, and lack of universal healthcare in the US. Hart also berated Americans for the love of violent culture, a barb aimed at the increasingly popular Stone Cold(though the two men were and still are very good friends in real life).
This set the scene for the United States vs Canada storyline, which would showcase some of Bret Hart’s best work in the WWF. This was 1997, but the storyline wouldn’t look out of place today. In 1998, the WWF did another double turn, though less high profile but also successful, between The Rock and Mankind, that began The Rock’s run as the Corporate Champ.
In Your House: Bad Blood
This pay-per-view was memorable for a couple of reasons. This was the first-ever match in the WWF to take place inside Hell In A Cell. Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker tore the house down, thus guaranteeing that the large steel structure would become a permanent fixture on the WWE calendar.
Taker and HBK fought inside the Cell, they fought outside the Cell, they fought on top of the Cell. Michaels was a bloody mess. After all that chaos, the arena faded to black as Paul Bearer brought Kane down to the ring. Dressed in a red and black superhero outfit, and a nightmare-inducing mask, Kane marched down, ripped the steel door off its hinges, and stared down a mortified Undertaker. Kane summoned fire from the ring corners, delivered a Tombstone Piledriver to his “brother” and walked out to seal the greatest debut in WWE history.
At a time when the nWo was all the rage, for one night(before trending was a thing) the most popular topic of discussion in pro wrestling was the Big Red Machine.
The Montreal Screwjob
In November 1997, by the time of Survivor Series, Bret Hart had moved on from his feud with Stone Cold, onto a rivalry with real-life nemesis, Shawn Michaels. The Heartbreak Kid’s persona had undergone a significant change as he became the head of a new faction called D-Generation X, that included Triple H, ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude, and Chyna. The rebellious new element originally named themselves Generation X. But after Bret Hart labelled them degenerates, they proudly amended the name to the current moniker.
Hart was the WWF Champion but was involved in a contractual dispute with Vince McMahon. Unable to resolve the dispute, Hart signed with WCW, which was a massive blow to Vince and hinted at a company desperately clinging on for survival. His WWF contract would expire shortly after Survivor Series.
Therefore Vince McMahon wanted Hart to drop the Championship to Michaels. Hart was reluctant to put over Michaels for two reasons. First, Survivor Series was in Montreal, Canada. Hart’s home country. Second, Hart disliked Shawn Michaels. Not kayfabe dislike. Hart really did not like Michaels, especially after Michaels publicly accused him of having an affair with female star, Sunny. Therefore Bret Hart didn’t want to drop the belt to Michaels of all people, especially in Canada.
Vince McMahon was deeply concerned there could be a repeat of the Alundra Blayze incident, in which Hart showed up on Nitro with the WWF Championship. So Hart, Vince McMahon, and HBK compromised on a finish that would end as a No Contest, with members of The Hart Foundation and D-Generation X disrupting proceedings. And then Hart would vacate the WWF Championship the following night on Raw. That was the agreed finish.
But in a clandestine meeting between McMahon, Michaels, Triple H, and referee Earl Hebner. They planned a different finish, behind Hart’s back, that would end with Michaels as champion. Shawn Michaels had to convince Bret Hart, who was unaware of the real plan, to use Hart’s finishing move, the Sharpshooter on Hart. Hart agreed not realising it was a trap. The two men wrestled high energy, back and forth match, in the Molson Centre. And as scripted, Michaels slapped the Sharpshooter on Hart. Interestingly, HBK applied the move incorrectly and needed Hart to covertly correct him.
And then…………referee Earl Hebner called for the bell, signalling that Michaels had won and was the new champion. Even though Bret Hart had not tapped out. Hebner did not hang around and hightailed it out of the ring, followed by Michaels with the championship in hand. The live feed cut shortly after. Bret Hart realising he’d just been screwed spat at Vince McMahon, who soon retreated as he realised there was a raging bull on the loose.
Hart went berserk, destroying anything in sight, including the cameras around the ring, before drawing the letters W-C-W with his index finger.
Backstage, away from the cameras, the confrontation continued, with Hart punching McMahon in the face, breaking his hand in the process. McMahon had tried to hide by locking himself in an office. But The Undertaker (forcefully) persuaded McMahon to unlock the door and face the music. Hart had informed McMahon he was prepared to wait all night for him to come out.
Bret Hart then had to convince the majority of the locker room not to resign, for the sake of their families. Though British Bulldog and Rick Rude quit in protest. Owen Hart was unable to get out of his contract. Originally fans thought it was all part of the show. But rumours soon began to filter out onto the internet on what had actually transpired. Many felt this would be the final nail in the coffin for the WWF, especially with WCW having booked the most eagerly anticipated match in years, a month after Survivor Series.
Before the Montreal incident, few people outside the business knew that Vince McMahon was the owner of WWF. He was known as the babyface commentator, but after that night it would be impossible to go back to that gimmick. After Survivor Series, Vince McMahon was the most hated man in professional wrestling.
McMahon worked the debacle to his advantage to create the greatest heel of all time and future antagonist to Stone Cold Steve Austin, the evil boss known as Mr McMahon. Shawn Michaels would be booed in Canada for the rest of his career, even though he denied his role for years. But Michaels would eventually admit his part, and that the screwjob was the brainchild of Triple H. Michaels and Bret Hart would make amends in 2010 in an unscripted(and emotional) Raw segment.
WCW Starrcade 1997: The Botched Screwjob
One month after the Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series, WCW booked the biggest match in pro wrestling history since Warrior/Hogan at WrestleMania 6. The setting was WCW’s flagship pay-per-view…………. Starrcade. This was WCW’s WrestleMania 3 moment. The biggest event in company history.
Since Bash At The Beach ‘96, the nWo had bulldozed their way over the WCW roster, terrorising anyone and everyone. nWo had also grown from the original trio of Hogan, Nash, and Hall into an army. Hollywood Hogan had become WCW Champion and desperately needed a legitimate rival to keep the heat on the nWo, and the momentum of the storyline going. Goldberg’s undefeated streak was still in its infancy, so he wasn’t an option.
Potential heroes had turned their backs on WCW and joined the nWo, while those who dared to stand up to Hogan and his boys were rewarded with brutal beatdowns.
WCW fans must have felt like singer Bonnie Tyler singing her famous song:
“Where have all the good men gone? And where are all the Gods? Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds? I need a hero, I’m holding out for a hero ‘til the morning light. He’s gotta be strong, and he’s gotta be fast.”
It seemed there was no one left to derail the nWo black-and-white train…………..except Sting. But Sting was nowhere to be found. He had walked out feeling betrayed by WCW, who questioned his loyalty.
Until one day he just appeared. But this wasn’t the same Sting. His gimmick had undergone a metamorphosis. From the blonde-haired multicoloured face paint to the dark, brooding character inspired by the movie, The Crow. But Sting hadn’t pledged his allegiance one way or another on the nWo divide.
Instead of sitting in the rafters silently, watching, for months, while chaos erupted below him. Eventually, the Stinger descended, with a baseball bat, to declare war on Hogan and the nWo. The fans went wild.
This perfectly executed storyline, which simmered for a year, would eventually lead to Starrcade. The stars had finally aligned for WCW to knock whatever stuffing was left out of the WWF, and Eric Bischoff and his team heavily promoted the clash. For many fans and critics, the only logical conclusion was a decisive Sting win, to begin the process of finishing up the nWo storyline. WCW was far more popular than the WWF, thanks to the nWo angle, but after a year and a half, the storyline had run its course. All WCW had to do was get the finish right, and confirm their ascendency in the Monday Night Wars, particularly after the Montreal Screwjob. Vince McMahon would’ve surely been sweating bullets, hoping, praying, something would go wrong.
The bout began with the usual feeling out process, but Hogan then took charge and dominated the match. Sting all of sudden looked like a glorified jobber. Hogan then was able to hit his finisher, the Leg Drop. After a year of anticipation, Sting was getting his ass handed to him. The desperation the fans had of finally seeing Hogan being destroyed never came. Imagine Cersei Lannister beating the crap out of Daenerys in the Game Of Thrones finale. But wait, there’s more. What followed was a puzzling sequence of events. Referee Nick Patrick, who had assisted the nWo in the past, was supposed to do a quick 3 count to gift Hogan an unfair victory, but for whatever reason, he counted at regular speed, as fans watched Hogan gain a clean pin over Sting, in the middle of the ring.
New signing Bret Hart, who was the match special enforcer, had little choice but keep to the script, accused Nick Patrick of a fast count (which everyone with eyes knew it wasn’t, making Hart look stupid). Hart then punched Patrick and ordered the match restarted after assuming the refereeing duties.
This was especially confusing for viewers at home, who had seen a fair 3 count, confirmed by numerous replays, despite the commentators trying to convince them otherwise. With the match officially restarted, Sting hit a couple of Stinger Splashes and then managed to put Hogan into the Scorpion Deathlock. Hogan verbally submitted (Hogan was supposed to tap with his hand, but allegedly refused because it’d make him look weak) to make the Stinger the new champion. Non-nWo wrestlers piled into the ring to celebrate with Sting, but the moment had been tarnished by the Patrick fiasco.
Financially, Starrcade was a runaway success. It was the highest-selling pay-per-view in company history. But over twenty years later, history remembers this moment as the turning point of the Monday Night Wars.
Fans were expecting a definitive conclusion to the nWo saga, instead, they got a farce. The nWo storyline began to lose a lot of heat after that night, especially as the dominance of the group continued. The nWo barely looked weak in future bookings, no doubt Hogan’s powerful influence behind the scenes a factor. Rumours surfaced of nWo members, especially the original trio, Hall, Nash, and Hogan, refusing to put over younger talent.
To this day whispers persist that Hogan and Patrick conspired to make Sting look weak. Both men have denied this. Whatever happened, bit by bit WCW fans preferred Stone Cold and The Rock on their screens.
The next night on Nitro, owing to the controversy of Patrick’s three count, Sting was forced to vacate the championship. In a rematch against Hogan two months later at SuperBrawl 8, Sting finally won the WCW Championship, but by then the momentum of the storyline had lost its lustre. Starrcade ’97 was meant to be the beginning of the end for the WWF, but instead, it was the beginning of the end of WCW. Six months after Starrcade, after 83 consecutive weeks of Nitro dominance, the WWF finally overtook WCW in the ratings war. For Eric Bischoff and WCW, more missteps would follow.
The result of the main event at WrestleMania, for the WWF Championship, was never in any doubt. WWF Champion Shawn Michaels had suffered a devastating back injury at the Royal Rumble earlier in the year. Fans knew Michaels would be out of commission for a while. After WrestleMania, Michaels would not wrestle again for another four years.
Stone Cold was a certainty to become champion. But that wasn’t the only piece in the puzzle. Vince McMahon paid Mike Tyson, who had his boxing license suspended for biting Evander Holyfield’s ear, $3 million to be part of the buildup between Michaels and Austin.
This rather expensive gamble paid off, as a number of mainstream media outlets covered the Iron Mike angle, giving The WWF and WrestleMania 14 a lot of free promotion. For good measure, Iron Mike “knocked out” Michaels to signal a new dawn in WWF. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were gone. Stone Cold Steve Austin and his rivalry with Mr McMahon would be the catalyst in turning the tide in the Monday Night Wars in favour of the WWF.
With Stone Cold Steve Austin’s surging popularity and The Rock’s increasing heat, it seemed inevitable that the WWF would end WCWs ratings dominance. But the expected changing of the guard was delayed.
The reason for that delay was Bill Goldberg and his undefeated streak. Goldberg had made his WCW debut in September 1997 against Hugh Morrus and was immediately over with the fans.
Goldberg was a monster. The bald head, trap muscles that came up to his ears, he barely spoke, seemed to be perpetually angry, like a silent assassin. This is a rare skill in pro wrestling, the microphone is an important weapon in one’s arsenal. Smashing anything in his way, Goldberg was as close to the Incredible Hulk as pro wrestling could get.
This first match would begin a winning streak that would reach 173 consecutive wins (likely exaggerated). It wasn’t just the wins, but the manner of the wins that captivated the fans, especially those who had grown tired of the nWo storyline. Eric Bischoff and WCW would not repeat the Starrcade catastrophe, ensuring Goldberg scored a convincing pinfall victory over Hogan to become the WCW Champion. Although that moment came on an episode of Nitro, instead of pay-per-view.
Ironically it would be Kevin Nash who would end the streak, thanks to a helping hand from Scott Hall, who attacked Goldberg with a cattle prod to hand Nash the WCW Championship. That sequence of events didn’t go over well with the fans and was another moment that pointed to a company in a downward spiral. Fans and indeed critics alike knew that whoever ended the streak could become a huge star. WCW at the time had Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, and Booker T on their books. All competitors who went onto have hall of fame worthy careers in the WWE. Even Sting, Diamond Dallas Page, or Scott Steiner would have better options than the nWo. I know hindsight is 20/20.
In response to the Goldberg phenomenon, the WWF created a parody character called Gillberg. A jobber who’s mannerisms were similar to Goldberg but in a more comical fashion. But Goldberg would inadvertently play a role in two infamous incidents that damaged his credibility and contributed further to the downfall of WCW. In the first incident, he gave Bret Hart a legitimate concussion with a potato kick. The injury would eventually force Bret Hart into retirement. The second incident involved a segment in which Goldberg chased members of the nWo into a limousine. The limousine windows were supposed to be rigged to shatter easily when Goldberg was smashing them with his hands. But instead, Goldberg sliced an artery in his arm, and as he continued pounding, blood could be seen squirting out onto the white limo.
The injury required surgery and would keep Goldberg out for five months, at a time when WCW could ill afford to lose any big names. Goldberg signed for WWE in 2003. But he only spent a year with the promotion. During which he was expected to speak a lot more, and dropped a number of big matches to Triple H. Because to book him like his WCW days, where he barely spoke, would be like Vince McMahon admitting WCW actually did something right. According to the big man, it was a year that “left a bitter taste in my mouth”. Especially after he and Brock Lesnar were booed throughout their match at WrestleMania 20.
Goldberg was available as a bonus character in the WWE 2K17 video game. This set the scene for a return and a rematch with Brock Lesnar that was given a far better reception from the fans than the WrestleMania 20 disaster. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. Goldberg’s current stint with the WWE has been more successful and continues to this day.
Give Me A Hell Yeah!
In 1997, the WWF transformed it’s product from a family-friendly show, to a more adult-oriented theme. Cue more violence, blood, bra and panties matches. You get the picture. This was the dawn of the Attitude Era. Executive Vice President and Vince’s son, Shane McMahon, together with Head Writer Vince Russo, would spearhead the creative department. This period saw many performers rise to prominence, including Kane, The Undertaker, Triple H, Mick Foley, and The Rock. But the man who was to lead this revolution was Stone Cold Steve Austin. To maximise the most earning capacity out of a babyface, you need an antagonist that fits the role. Hulk Hogan had Andre The Giant, The Rock had Triple H, and Sting had Ric Flair. Stone Cold’s sworn enemy would be the evil boss himself, Mr McMahon, who played the part to perfection.
Post WrestleMania 14, after becoming WWF Champion, Stone Cold engaged in Raw segments with Mr McMahon, in which the evil boss tried to persuade the champ to be more corporate in his behaviour. But each time McMahon was met with a Stunner. This set the scene for a feud that would last for two years. With each passing week, the rivalry would get more outrageous. Including Austin attacking McMahon with a bedpan in a hospital room, and Austin filling McMahon’s Corvette with cement. Fans couldn’t get enough, just the thought of physically assaulting your boss, and not get fired for it, was enough to carry the WWF to ratings glory.
The People’s Champ
The paradox between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock is intriguing. In his early years, Stone Cold was booked as a heel, but his anti-hero antics resonated with the fans. The Rock made his debut as the babyface Rocky Maivia, a homage to his father and grandfather, Rocky Johnson and ‘High Chief’ Peter Maivia, who both wrestled. Rocky was given a heavy push early on, much to the disdain of the fans, who didn’t appreciate a rookie being shoved down their throats.
Chants of “Rocky sucks”, and “die Rocky die”, filled arenas everywhere The Rock went. As a response, Rocky joined the heel stable, Nation Of Domination. And began referring to himself in the third person, and proudly declared he was The People’s Champ. The Rock’s promos became must-see, his insults alone worth the admission fee. And that ridiculous eyebrow. Not to mention he had made a mockery of the Oxford Dictionary, making up his own words like smackdown, and jabroni. I still don’t know what a jabroni is, but it doesn’t sound good.
Vince McMahon was smart enough to base the major storylines of the Attitude Era around Austin and The Great One, as they headlined three WrestleManias. A memorable segment on Raw involved Faarooq, the leader of the Nation Of Domination. The Rock gave Faarooq a gift. Faarooq unwrapped his present, only to realise it was a portrait of a half-naked Rocky. Much to the Great One’s amusement.
Finger Poke Of Doom
On January 4th 1999 on an episode of Nitro, WCW managed to score not one, but two own goals on the same night. Which was an impressive feat, even by WCW’s now faltering standards. The first goal was scored by WCW Commentator Tony Schiavone, who under a directive from Eric Bischoff, announced live on the air (Raw was still pre-recorded):
“Fans, as Hollywood Hogan walks away and you look at this 40,000 plus on hand, if you’re even thinking about changing the channel to our competition, fans, do not, because we understand that Mick Foley, who wrestled here one time as Cactus Jack, is going to win their world title. Ha! That’s gonna put some butts in the seats, heh”.
The announcement, which had become standard operating procedure, was meant to deter Nitro viewers from switching channels to Monday Night Raw, but instead had the opposite effect. Several hundred thousand viewers at home promptly switched from Nitro to Raw, to watch Mankind defeat The Rock to become the new WWF Champion.
Right, let’s move onto own goal number two. WCW, over a year after the botched screwjob at Starrcade, was still pushing the nWo storyline, much to the frustration of the fans. This time the nWo had split into two factions, nWo Wolfpac and nWo Hollywood, who were involved in a civil war against each other. Leading the charge for the Wolfpac was Kevin Nash, who was the WCW Champion after a controversial (and unpopular) win over Goldberg. nWo Hollywood was obviously led by Hogan. And so the two men were set for a championship showdown on that fateful episode of Nitro.
After circling each other and bit of smack talk, Nash aggressively pushed Hogan. Who then responded by poking Nash in the chest, resulting in the seven-footer falling down as though he’d been shot. Hogan covered Nash for the three count to become the new champ. Hogan and Nash then embraced, joined by members of their crews to reunite the nWo.
A beatdown of Goldberg ensued after he had tried to interrupt the festivities. Fans, clearly upset at what they had just witnessed, pelted the ring with rubbish and chanted “we want Sting!”. But Sting wasn’t even in the arena. WCW were clearly out of touch with what fans wanted to see, underestimating the popularity of Mankind. The majority of the hundreds of thousands of fans who switched over to Raw, to watch Mick Foley become WWF Champion, in all likelihood, never returned to Nitro.
Any chance of WCW regaining control of the ratings war disappeared that night. WCW would limp on for another two years, only kept in business by Ted Turner’s billions. Giving Hogan creative control over his character had backfired, as time and time Hogan, Nash, and Hall refused to put over younger talent. Or agreed to bookings that made them look even remotely weak. Eric Bischoff was clearly struggling to keep control of the creative department and the big names in WCW, whilst Vince McMahon had been able to quell a rebellion, after the Montreal Screwjob, and find a way to work that situation to his advantage.
The Tragedy Of Owen Hart
On May 23 1999, in a scheduled Intercontinental Championship match against The Godfather at the Over The Edge pay-per-view, as the character The Blue Blazer, Owen Hart was being lowered into the ring on a harness. At some point, Hart unintentionally triggered the release and fell 24 metres, hitting the top rope chest first and fell back into the ring. The incident wasn’t shown on live tv.
Hart was rushed to a hospital but succumbed to his injuries at the age of 34. The official cause of death was internal bleeding due to blunt force trauma. Controversially, the WWF continued with the show. I do not envy the individual who had to make that decision. Do you send everyone home, and tell the viewers on tv that the show is over. I hope I never find myself in such a situation. The entire Monday Night Raw show, on the following night, was dedicated to Owen Hart.
For Bret Hart, already involved in an adversarial relationship with Vince McMahon and the WWF, it’s difficult to understand what he must have been feeling. The death of Owen Hart is one of the most tragic moments in WWE history, if not the most tragic. Bret Hart would eventually make amends with Vince McMahon after suffering a stroke in 2002. Owen Hart’s widow, Martha, sued the WWF, with the matter being settled out of court. Owen Hart’s death continues to be a sore subject in the WWE more than twenty years later.
Oh, It’s True!
For a number of years, there was an adversarial relationship between pro wrestlers and amateur wrestlers. The bulk of the beef emanated from amateur wrestlers who viewed pro wrestling as a joke or a circus. One amateur wrestler who held an extremely negative view of pro wrestling was Kurt Angle. In the wake of his triumphant Gold medal victory at the Atlanta Olympic Games, Angle was offered a ten-year contract by the WWF. But Angle, who felt pro wrestling was beneath him, turned down the offer.
After watching an episode of Raw, impressed by the agility and physiques of the athletes, Angle changed his mind and signed with the WWF. Angle was trained by Dory Funk Jr and proved to be a quick learner. Angle made his televised debut at Survivor Series ’99. In his first year, Angle won the Intercontinental Championship, the now-defunct European Championship, the 2000 King Of The Ring, and the WWF Championship in what is widely regarded as the greatest rookie year in WWE history.
Angle’s success would ultimately lead to a merging of the two worlds. Amateur wrestlers would now be actively scouted by the WWF. Even though Angle was a heel, and got booed in every arena, his achievements ensured amateur wrestlers would play a profound role in the success of WWE in the 21st century. Angle blazed a path for amateur wrestlers like Brock Lesnar, Bobby Lashley, Dolph Ziggler, and Jack Swagger. All of whom have won championships in the WWE. Angle and Lesnar showcased their amateur wrestling skills in a highly anticipated WrestleMania match that’s more remembered for Lesnar’s botched Shooting Star Press attempt that resulted in Lesnar suffering a legitimate concussion.
Vince McMahon Buys WCW
By the year 2000, Nitro had fallen way behind Raw in the ratings. Even a serious injury to Stone Cold Steve Austin, that kept him out for nearly a year, didn’t help Nitro close the gap. Only Ted Turner’s money was keeping the doors open.
Vince Russo had taken over creative at WCW, which was originally thought to be a good move. Russo was a major factor in the successful Attitude Era in the WWF. But his WCW tenure was a disaster, especially for a company on its knees. Constant title changes, which devalued the titles, clashes with big names, and pushing his buddy Jeff Jarrett, drove away the fans. Which had the domino effect of driving away advertisers. The lifeblood of television. The final straw for many WCW fans was the storyline that led to actor David Arquette, who was there to promote his new movie ‘Ready To Rumble’, being crowned the new WCW World Heavyweight Champion. When Time Warner merged with AOL in 2001, it further reduced Ted Turner’s influence in the corporate structure of the new company. Unlike Turner, who was a wrestling fan, executives at AOL Time Warner only saw a company -WCW – haemorrhaging money.
Eric Bischoff and a consortium made an offer to acquire WCW with the understanding that Nitro would continue to be broadcast on TNT. But AOL Time Warner made it clear that they would not continue to air WCW on any of its networks. Causing Bischoff’s backers to pull out of the deal. Vince McMahon stepped in and was able to buy his enemy for pennies on the dollar. Shortly thereafter, Nitro aired its final episode. Sting and Ric Flair wrestled the final match. But before Nitro switched off the lights, Vince McMahon (unsurprisingly) appeared to gloat on screen before the Nitro audience. The Monday Night Wars were over.
WCW and Eric Bischoff had adopted a short term approach. Flood the roster with as much star power as possible, and put together a half-decent storyline, and you would see a bump in the ratings. Talented athletes like Diamond Dallas Page and Scott Steiner seemed to be forced to serve at the altar of Hulk Hogan. The only new superstar created by WCW, to be given a serious push, during the Monday Night Wars, was Goldberg. Booker T’s push came months before the sale of WCW.
Despite the loss of a number of 1980s stalwarts, Vince McMahon and the WWF invested in younger talent like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Kane, and Triple H, allowing them the time and patience to grow into stars. The WWF also acquired promising talents Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit, and Chris Jericho from WCW. With experienced talent such as The Undertaker, Mick Foley, and Shawn Michaels to help smooth the process. It was a risky strategy, as the ratings proved for 83 consecutive weeks, but the long term payoff was exponential. ECW would also go under. McMahon would acquire them too.
Eight days after the sale of WCW, WWF was able to do a victory lap at their biggest event of the year. WrestleMania 17.
But complacency wasn’t on the menu, as wrestling critics generally feel that WrestleMania 17 is the best WrestleMania of all time. This came off the back of the Greatest Royal Rumble ever. The Undertaker faced off against Triple H for the first time on pay-per-view. And that was just an appetiser. Vince McMahon faced his son Shane in a match that surprisingly exceeded expectations, as both men are not full-time performers.
WrestleMania 17 was also the scene of the second Tables Ladders and Chairs (TLC) match. Edge & Christian, The Hardy Boyz, and The Dudley Brothers had already delivered a brutal masterpiece in the first edition at Summerslam the previous year. It seemed improbable they could raise the bar even higher, but that they did. It’s a miracle that all six men were able to walk out on their own two feet. The main event between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, saw the two superstars, in the second edition of their WrestleMania trilogy deliver a jaw-dropping, bloody affair. A match that saw Stone Cold Steve Austin do the unthinkable and join forces with Mr McMahon.
The Rock/Austin show capped off an unforgettable night when WWF stood alone on top of the pro wrestling mountain. It was a rare occasion, between two legends in their prime, in a match, everyone wanted to see. And it not only lived up to the hype, but it also exceeded it. For the first time since purchasing WWF from his father, Vince McMahon had no competition.
Hollywood Gets Rocky
When The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) was cast in a role as the Scorpion King in the big-budget movie, The Mummy Returns, many (including yours truly) assumed it would be a part-time gig. We had already seen the likes of Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Jesse Ventura, and Goldberg dip their toes into the movie business.
But they all returned to their day job. The Rock made a big enough impression that he would be cast in the title role in the prequel The Scorpion King. But this was only the beginning of a career that would include box office smash after box office smash. Dwayne Johnson became a much sought after actor, along with the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Mark Wahlberg, Tom Hardy, and Will Smith. The Rock’s commercial success has raised the profile of the WWE and forced companies like ESPN, Fox Sports, and our own SuperSport to finally take WWE seriously. The Rock also helped paved the way for John Cena, and Batista for their own forays into Tinseltown.
OVW was founded as a small independent wrestling promotion in 1993, operating under the struggling NWA, and was known as NWA Ohio Valley. Upon ending its relationship with the NWA, the promotion changed its name to Ohio Valley Wrestling.
In 1999, WWF creative team member Jim Cornette purchased a stake in OVW and expressed an interest to use the small promotion as a developmental territory for the WWF. Soon, up and coming prospects in the WWF were sent to OVW. The partnership proved to be beneficial beyond the WWF’s dreams. OVW paved the way for young talent to hone their craft, away from the spotlight, in front of smaller crowds. The standout class was the class of 2002 that produced Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Randy Orton, Shelton Benjamin, Charlie Haas, and Batista amongst others.
By 2008, many WWE prospects lived in Florida and were reluctant to travel back and forth to Louisville, Kentucky. The home of OVW. In response, WWE assisted in the establishment of another small promotion called Florida Championship Wrestling(FCW), the predecessor to NXT, in Tampa Bay, Florida. FCW became the new developmental territory for WWE. The popular partnership between WWE and OVW was over.
Today OVW has an agreement with Impact Wrestling (formally TNA). At a time when WWE was looking for new stars in the post-Austin/Rock era, it was a small Kentucky promotion that stepped up.
Hogan Vs Rock
At No Way Out 2002, Vince McMahon brought the nWo to the WWF. McMahon had realised he was on borrowed time with his two biggest money makers. The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. The Rock was destined for a career in Hollywood, whilst Austin’s knees had become a liability. It was now or never for Vince to squeeze out a huge payday between the most key components of the Monday Night Wars.
The havoc-wreaking group immediately got into a feud with two of WWE’s biggest stars. The fans salivated at the prospect of The Rock and Austin taking on the nWo. After back and forth attacks between the five men, which included ambulances, spray paint, hammers, a semi-truck, cinder block, a wrench, a net gun, and steel chairs, at WrestleMania 18 Austin would face Scott Hall, The Rock would take on Hollywood Hogan.
Labelled Icon vs Icon, Hogan against Rock was a dream clash of the generations. Like watching Mike Tyson fight Muhammad Ali, or Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool battling Sir Alex’s treble-winning Manchester United.
Even though Hogan was a clear heel, and The Rock a babyface, the Toronto crowd vociferously cheered for the Hulkster, in a moment that Hulkamania ran wild one final time. After the match, Hogan, at The Rock’s insistence, gave his classic Hulk poses. The Skydome played witness to one of the great WrestleMania moments. But it was a bittersweet sweet moment for the WWF and its fans. The Rock was off to make movies. Injuries were catching up to Stone Cold, and Hogan’s best days were clearly behind him.
Plane Ride From Hell
In May 2002, following a tour of Europe, Vince chartered a commercial flight for his wrestlers and staff back to the United States. And for whatever reason, alcohol was available on the flight. This shouldn’t have been an issue, because a number of WWF executives were on the plane, including Vince and his wife Linda McMahon. One would assume employees would be on their best behaviour with their boss around. Alas, you know what they say about assumptions.
But a number of wrestlers on the flight had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Booze wasn’t the only problem. Gamma-Hydroxybutyric Acid(GHB), a depressant, was smuggled onto the plane. GHB has also been commonly used as a date-rape drug. In other words, it f**ks you up. But it was the wrestlers who injected themselves with GHB and then coerced the flight attendants to dispose of the needles. The scene was set for chaos. Shenanigans began on a small and rather predictable scale. Curt Hennig(Mr Perfect ) and Scott Hall went around tagging sleeping individuals with shaving cream. Not a big deal, we’ve all been there.
Road agent Michael Hayes was then knocked out by John “Bradshaw” Layfield after Haye’s knuckle tapped an open wound on JBL’s forehead. With Hayes unconscious, either due to being inebriated or the effects of JBL’s fist, Xpac took a pair of scissors and cut off Hayes ponytail. All this after Hayes almost urinated on a sleeping Linda McMahon.
Brock Lesnar and Mr Perfect engaged in an amateur wrestling contest that could’ve ended badly when Lesnar slammed Perfect against the aeroplane door. The bout took place after Perfect had continuously goaded Lesnar about being a better amateur wrestler. Ric Flair waltzed around the plane wearing nothing but one of his signature gowns. Probably not much wrong with that, until Flair decided it was a good idea to expose himself to the flight attendants. The flight attendants would bring a sexual harassment suit against the Nature Boy.
Scott Hall and Goldust decided that Flair wasn’t going to have all the “fun”, and engaged in their own acts of sexual deviancy. They too would find themselves embroiled in a sexual harassment suit brought forth by the flight attendants. Vince McMahon would settle the allegations out of court. Scott Hall eventually passed out and had to be wheelchaired through the airport still unconscious. When the dust finally settled, Scott Hall and Curt Hennig were fired from WWF. President of Talent Relations Jim Ross released a statement afterwards:
“The flight was about seven hours in length and at times was low-lighted by a handful of people who consumed too much alcohol and consequently acted like children whose parents were away and left the liquor cabinet unlocked.
The conduct of this inebriated minority was unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Procedures have been put in place to ensure such conduct does not occur in the future. The bottom line is this: yours truly is the person in charge of the talent roster and the buck stops with me. We will do all we humanly can to solve the problem.”
Get The F Out
The WWF had been in a legal dispute with the World Wide Fund since 2000, regarding the usage of the WWF initials. The courts ruled in favour of the nature group, but the WWF appealed the decision.
Pending the appeal, the WWF changed it’s website from wwf.com to wwe.com, as a prelude to changing its name to World Wrestling Entertainment. The dispute would last for years, but for the WWE this was an opportunity for the company to emphasise its role as not a sport, but entertainment. It had been the world’s worst kept secret, but now Vince McMahon would publicly acknowledge pro wrestling as a choreographed concept with pre-determined outcomes. This was a big step for the industry. Wrestlers no longer had to maintain kayfabe in public.
In 2005, WWE was at a crossroad. Stone Cold Steve Austin had retired due to injury problems. The Rock had gone Hollywood full time. Hulk Hogan, Brock Lesnar, and Goldberg had left for “greener” pastures. And Vince McMahon had failed to sign Sting after the fall WCW.
WWE needed new superstars that would be the face of the company for the foreseeable future. As it turned out, three names were elevated to not only main event status, but to mega-stardom. At WrestleMania 21, WWE rolled the dice and gave fans a glimpse of the future of the company. Edge won the first-ever Money In The Bank match. John Cena defeated JBL to become WWE Champion. And Batista triumphed over Triple H to be the World Heavyweight Champion.
Cena and Batista had managed to redeem themselves after a botched Royal Rumble finish. Nevertheless, WWE had entered a new era, and the three superstars who emerged that night all went to onto achieve incredible success. Edge is a WWE Hall of Fame inductee, Batista was due to be inducted this year before the ceremony was postponed due to the Coronavirus. And John Cena is arguably the WWE’s most profitable commodity since 1980s Hulk Hogan. Both Batista and Cena have decent film careers, while Edge has become a regular in the historical series, Vikings. To this day, WWE continues to profit financially from all three men.
The Deaths Of Eddie Guerrero And Chris Benoit
The death of these two popular talents cast a dark shadow over the WWE and it’s drug testing policies. Eddie Guerrero was found unconscious in a Minneapolis hotel room by his nephew Chavo Guerrero. Paramedics were unable to resuscitate him, and the cause of death was ruled as heart failure.
Allegations of steroid use have been seen as the root cause. During this period other WWE performers were also accused of steroid use. Less than two years later, Eddie Guerrero’s former friend, Chris Benoit murdered his young son and his wife before taking his own life. WWE has removed any traces of Chris Benoit on their official website, and he has been all but erased on the WWE Network. The subject continues to be off-limits to this day.
The Rabid Wolverine also had allegations of steroid use labelled against him, thereby pinpointing roid rage as the culprit of this tragedy. Roid rage seems to be a popular scapegoat for the media. Benoit’s brain was examined, and he was found to have a severe form of dementia. WWE was forced to take action(belatedly after the 1993 steroid scandal), with the result being the establishment of the Wellness Policy that is currently in place. Chair shots to the head have now been outlawed. As has been blading. WWE would revert to PG-rated tv. The Attitude Era ended years earlier, but this felt like the moment that it became official.
Money In The Bank 2011
On an episode of Raw, after costing John Cena a match against R-Truth, CM Punk sat at the top of the ramp and dropped a promo criticising WWE management, his unfair treatment, and his expiring contract. After launching a tirade against Vince McMahon, his microphone was promptly cut off. Social media was set ablaze, fans wondering whether the promo was scripted or not. The promo would be labelled a “Pipe Bomb”. WWE called this the Reality Era. The lines between a wrestler and his/her in-ring persona were deliberately blurred.
Reality tv shows were launched, in which wrestlers used their real names, and publicly acknowledged the role of kayfabe. Even Stephanie McMahon’s Twitter bio has listed TV villain as one of her roles.
With Punk’s contract set to expire at midnight, CM Punk met WWE Champion John Cena in his hometown of Chicago at the Money In The Bank pay-per-view.
In a red hot atmosphere in which the crowd demanded Cena’s blood with their popcorn, the leader of the Cenation and Punk put on a WrestleMania calibre match. Adding drama to the situation, Mr McMahon and his lackey John Laurinaitis tried to interfere and ensure a Cena victory, but CM Punk would not be denied, and after a picture-perfect Go To Sleep, had his hand raised.
Alberto Del Rio came to the ring to disrupt matters but instead ate a kick to the head for his troubles. Punk blew a kiss to McMahon than retreated with the WWE Championship through the crowd and into the Chicago night.
NXT, WWE Performance Centre And The WWE Network
NXT was launched in 2010. It began as a pseudo-reality show that got a lukewarm response from fans. But, under the tutelage of WWE COO Triple H (yep), the show underwent an evolution that would see it start out as a developmental territory, taking over from FCW.
But ultimately became just as popular as Raw and Smackdown, and created new superstars like Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, Tomasso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano, Aleister Black, and The Velveteen Dream, just to name a few. The success of NXT led to the building of the WWE Performance Centre. A state of the art facility for WWE to train aspiring wrestlers. And the venue of this year’s WrestleMania. NXT has expanded its brand to the United Kingdom, to create the really popular NXT: UK.
But the biggest (and riskiest) project WWE embarked on, was the launch of the WWE Network. A subscription-based streaming service that showcased only WWE programming. Considering viewer fatigue was a distinct possibility, and that a network requires hundreds of millions of dollars, just to get off the ground, the WWE Network has succeeded against the odds.
Lesnar Breaks The Streak
21 straight wins. That was The Undertaker’s record at WrestleMania. Not a single loss too. The streak took on a life of its own. Part of WWE folklore. Many fans, including myself, took it for granted that it would always be there. Particularly after some close calls in recent years against Shawn Michaels, Triple H, and CM Punk. I don’t recall in my life ever seeing the reaction, in any stadium, in any sport, that I saw at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after the referee counted 1-2-3 and raised Brock Lesnar’s hand. After Lesnar hit his third F-5, we all just assumed Taker would rise up like he always does.
But the expected resurrection failed to happen. Even Hogan turning heel to join the nWo didn’t compare. Jaws dropped, heads were in hands. Eyes were as big as Marie biscuits. The next match on the schedule had to be delayed, in order for the audience to recover from the most seismic shock ever seen in pro wrestling.
In 2018, WWE signed a 10-year strategic partnership with the Ministry of Sports of Saudi Arabia, worth a reported $500 million. The contract was in support of The Kingdom’s social and economic reform project called Saudi Vision 2030. The deal was criticised because of Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record, particularly the suppression of women’s rights. But the breaking point was the torture and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
WWE faced calls to terminate the agreement, not just from the media and politicians. But also from its own fans. Any mention of the words “Saudi Arabia” during promo segments on Raw or Smackdown elicited a negative reaction from the fans, to the point where those words were removed from all scripts. Vince and the WWE, as they always do, rode out the storm and are still in bed with the Saudi government. John Cena and Daniel Bryan, have since declined to work at any WWE events in The Kingdom.
WWE has just about operated as a monopoly for the last 20 years. TNA threatened to be a competitor at one stage but instead became a breeding ground for WWE. TNA alumni AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Eric Young, Robert Roode, and Killer Kross are now on the books of the WWE.
Independents such as Ring Of Honor, Major League Wrestling, Ohio Valley Wrestling aren’t a threat, and probably never will be. The NWA, under the leadership of musician Billy Corgan, is trying to make a comeback. But the biggest competition is now All Elite Wrestling (AEW). AEW operates under the ownership of the uber-rich Khan family, who also own the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL, and Fulham Football Club. Former WWE stars, Chris Jericho, Cody and Dustin Rhodes(Goldust), and Jon Moxley (Dean Ambrose) are on their roster. As are former Indie stars, Kenny Omega, and The Young Bucks. AEW schedules their show, Dynamite, on Wednesday nights, at the same time as NXT. This has invariably led fans to dub the showdown the Wednesday Night Wars. And with the WCW blueprint on what not to do, AEW is not going away anytime soon.
Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, and Shane McMahon are increasingly involved in the running of WWE Creative. Particularly with Vince McMahon focused on the relaunch of the XFL, and Vince’s wife Linda McMahon busy with life in politics. The battle between AEW and WWE will be interesting. One thing is for sure. Vince McMahon loves a fight.
Hope you enjoyed this 4 part series!
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