September 4, 1995 was the day the wrestling television game changed. And it happened in a shopping center.
The Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota was an eye-catching setting for the first ever episode of Monday Nitro. With the US Open tennis tournament pre-empting Raw that week, the ‘Monday Night Wars’ hadn’t even properly begun when such classic WCW pairings as Pillman-Liger, Sting-Flair and Hogan-[insert big dude who works safe here] did their thing and Lex Luger made a shocking appearance, all to the delight of a bunch of middle-aged shoppers riding the escalators.
It would be the weeks after that enjoyable maiden hour that determined Nitro’s success, from a critical standpoint. And the end result? Hit-and-miss, to be completely honest.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that Nitro wasn’t even the company’s flagship broadcast in 1995, and wouldn’t be until some dude in double denim showed up on May 27 the following year.
It’s also worth remembering that the chief storyline at that time was still Hogan’s one-man war against the Dungeon of Doom, though the Hulkster would occasionally be aided by such names as Randy Savage, Sting and some hobo on a California boardwalk that Hulk and Macho decided to include in their pre-tape promo one week.
The most meaningful contribution Hogan made in the first four months of Nitro was his brief switch from yellow-and-red to all black, as he tried (somewhat too hard, it could be argued) to be a ‘don’t trust anybody’ jaded tweener for a few weeks in a desperate bid to tackle how sick and tired everybody was of his old babyface routine.
Of course, he’d hit the sweet spot with a full-blown villainous turn a little while later, but his Nitro main event against Sting (yes, it happened before Starrcade ‘97, on free TV!) was fascinating stuff as he gave the heel persona a bit of a dress rehearsal.
Commentary came from a booth set up far away from the ring, which was a nice little departure from the norm. Unfortunately, inside that booth came weekly potshots from Eric Bischoff about the competition, Bobby Heenan’s 1960s pop culture references and Steve McMichael and his various horrific outfits for his poor dog. Fortunately, the trio had good moments as well.
The true hidden charm of 1995 Nitros, however, was Bischoff’s willingness to offer some truly interesting match-ups. Sting versus Dean Malenko, Randy Savage versus Chris Benoit, Ric Flair versus Marcus Bagwell and more showed that WCW had plenty of fresh, attention-grabbing pairings at their disposal – something Bischoff unfortunately forgot all about by 1998.
And that’s not to forget that one time they ran a fan-vote main event that was even more rigged than WWE’s later efforts with Taboo Tuesday and Cyber Sunday (your choices for the bout were Sting, Ric Flair and a bunch of lower midcarders – and the winner was Sting vs Ric Flair!), that time Kevin Sullivan dressed up as an old woman to perpetrate a sneak attack, that time Kevin Sullivan dressed up as a Baywatch lifeguard to perpetrate a sneak attack, or Hogan cutting a promo pretending to be Zorro, complete with mask and sword.
The early days of Nitro were seldom dull, and often rewarding. If you blasted through those first 13 sub-hour episodes on the WWE Network, it’d be no more difficult a binge as, say, your typical season of 22-24 American sitcom episodes at 22 minutes a pop.
And when 1996 rolled around – after some teething snags – WCW Nitro would really start to conjure up some magic.