If the expression “start as you mean to go on” applied to World Championship Wrestling, one has to wonder if they wanted to go out of business two years earlier than they actually did.
The first Nitro of the year on January 4 was heavily hyped with a main event of Goldberg, undefeated record taken by Kevin Nash at Starrcade, receiving his rematch for the World title.
After soap opera shenanigans all show long involving Miss Elizabath and trumped up charges against the challenger, Goldberg was replaced by the returning Hollywood Hogan, who… fingerpoked a surprisingly-compliant Nash and pinned him for the belt.
Goldberg was then beaten down by both nWo Hollywood and Nash’s Wolfpac, giving us the premise going forward of the hot new babyface chasing a unified New World Order force. Simple but effective premise, right?
Well, maybe. If you discount the audience being sick of Hogan as champion even in his relatively new heel persona, the nWo as a whole being beyond stale and the logic holes in the Order merging into one.
But then you add the inevitability that, as with 1998, the focus would remain on the antagonists rather than the protagonist and the company’s alarming failure to do something truly refreshing in the main event in ages outside of DDP’s rise, it didn’t take fans long to realise that this was simply another fake-out to keep the same collective of wrestlers front and center.
And that wasn’t even the worst part of that first Nitro of the year.
Following in the footsteps of Eric Bischoff’s days in the commentary booth, Tony Schiavone – on Bischoff’s orders – revealed that Mick Foley would win the WWE World title in the main event of their pre-taped Raw. “That’s gonna put butts in seats,” Schiavone remarked in a sarcastic tone.
What it did is put hands on remotes.
To double down on the fact that they had well and truly lost touch with their audience that night, WCW tipped the customer base off that the competition was providing something they wanted, while they themselves attempted to relive 1996 without the intrigue.
WCW had lost ground to WWE in 1998 thanks to some missed opportunities and Stone Cold Steve Austin exploding beyond comprehension. In 1999, they pretty much stopped fighting.
The united Wolfpac storyline (which happened, rumour has it, because Hogan wanted to shift himself into the red and black shirts and assert a lion’s share of the new merch top-seller) pottered without direction. Goldberg gained revenge wins on Hall and Nash, but Hogan ended up losing the title to that up-and-comer Ric Flair in as screwy a fashion as he could engineer so he didn’t seem to actually lose to Ric Flair.
It was at this point, that a lifeline seemed to appear.
Flair returned to his heel ways as both World champion and company President. His young Horsemen, Dean Malenko and Chris Benoit, began to show discontent with the old boys’ club Flair was fashioning (in a case of art imitating life). Other prospects also voiced their opinions, such as Buff Bagwell and Perry Saturn. The established old guard facing off outright with the young lions sick of being held back had potential, given its very real foundations.
Alas, the only big name willing to play along was Flair himself, and before long we returned to super-stud Nash beating everybody, Randy Savage getting another title reign just to pass it back to Hogan a day later on Nitro (again!) and a summer of the same old to diminishing ratings.
Admittedly, Flair being committed to an asylum was funny. And the return of red-and-yellow Hulk was a big moment that could have been so much bigger under the right circumstances (WWE did it better just three years later after buying the company). But confusing storylines like ‘who drove the Hummer?’ and the Macho Man’s uncomfortable domestic violence characteristics made it feel as though Bischoff’s glory era was well and truly over.
And it was: in September, Bischoff was removed from his position. And in his place arrived Vince Russo from WWE.
Russo had convinced the world that he was behind Titan’s return to strength after joining the creative team at a time that coincided with Austin’s rise. Within three months of writing Nitro (some would argue three hours), it was clear that WCW had poached Mikael Silvestre, not Sol Campbell.
Incoherent storylines ripped off from movies and jammed on fast-forward were married with constant on-air references that wrestling was fake and acknowledgments that WWE were better. 1999 concluded with Russo’s own re-hash of the New World Order. And I can’t think of a more poetic way for WCW’s year-long fall from grace to end.
Next up is 2000. And it can’t get any worse than this… right?