In 1996, World Championship Wrestling turned everything on its head with storylines, imports and trends that were so remarkably cool and ahead of their time, it was tough to believe that this was the same company that shoved Fred Ottman through a wall wearing a tin foil mask.
Unfortunately, no calendar begins in May. So, WCW’s ‘96 actually began with even more Hulk Hogan trouncing the Dungeon of Doom. Yes, that remained a thing heading into the new year, and if you don’t blink you may spot British wrestling legend Giant Haystacks join the group for a brief spell as Loch Ness and a one-off addition (Jeep Swenson) actually being named ‘The Final Solution’ before common sense intervened.
One good reason to watch 1996 Nitro before you-know-what was the tag team championship pairing of Sting and Lex Luger. Super-babyface Sting was fiercely loyal to arrogant heel best friend Luger, and their dynamic was not only fun and fresh, but put most of the lazy attempts at ‘tag team partners who don’t get along’ to shame.
And, of course, when Scott Hall interrupted a nothing match between trivia answers ‘Mauler’ Mike Enos and Steve Doll, things got good. Real good.
The realism, the carefully-constructed chaos and the subtle-as-a-saucepan-to-the-balls suggestion of a WWF invasion made Hall and Kevin Nash’s appearances must-watch television. It continued when Hulk went Hollywood and the New World Order attacked anyone who moved, including poor human lawn dart Rey Misterio Jr.
The twists and turns continued, including Sting impostors and Bischoff himself being outed as an nWo backer. But as great as all of that was, there was more.
1996 was when the cruiserweight division properly launched in WCW. Thanks to Rey, Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, a whole load of luchadores and more, Nitro had the perfect balance.
The storylines were riveting, the presentation (remember those Neal Pruitt-voiced nWo propaganda segments?) was cool, the big stars were big and the great wrestlers were great.
Not only that, but there were also plenty of solid hands to complete the jigsaw. Guys like Meng, Barbarian, Big Bubba Rogers, Lord Steven Regal, Hacksaw Jim Duggan and so on were the mortar to the bricks on this all-time great wrestling roster.
1996 was the year WCW learned how to be not only great for the viewer, but culturally very cool as well – a feeling they’d never before enjoyed. And it would open to door to two very prosperous years on the business side. Perhaps even more, if they were able to evolve…
Raw’s last ratings win over Nitro in 1996 came on June 10. They would be completely trounced in 1997, too. But we’ll get there.