In Part 1, I lazily glossed over the first century of pro wrestling and stopped at the early-mid-90’s. WWF was focused more-or-less on Bret “The Hitman” Hart, though they shoved him in the background to push a badass, near-7-foot-tall trucker named Diesel as champion. As a heel, Diesel got popular due to his ruthless and cool demeanor, but when they turned him face and made him champion, they wussed him down by making him a smiling good guy with no edge. His year as champion was a financial failure as his presence simply failed to draw money. Bret was eventually made champion again.
WCW wasn’t doing much better. This was a company where Hulk Hogan was being dry-humped by a giant mummy that the commentator kept insisting was, “THE YET-AAAY!”
ECW had brought in Steve Austin, fresh off his firing from WCW. He was injured at the time, so he could only do interviews for a while, but good gravy, were they good interviews. It was a weird fit because on one hand, he spent all of his time ranting and raving about how badly WCW treated him, which we were supposed to like. But he’d also run down ECW for being garbage, which we were supposed to hate. It was a definite prototype for what would change the business in the near future. He was soon scooped up by the WWF.
Other than Bret Hart, WWF also pushed Shawn Michaels as another smaller star who was immensely talented in the ring. Their rivalry led to a match that lasted over an hour at Wrestlemania 12 where Michaels won the title. Although the two seemed to have some seedlings of real animosity during the match, they agreed behind-the-scenes that a year later, Michaels would let Hart beat him in return.
Also at this show, one of those young WCW-to-WWF transfers, a wrestler named Hunter Hearst Helmsley (or Triple H as he became known as) wrestled a returning Ultimate Warrior, a big deal from Hogan’s time who demanded to win against this budding superstar in mere seconds. While the people backstage were against it, Triple H volunteered to let himself be buried. This would have repercussions on the future, as would another event involving Triple H.
Two WWF wrestlers, Diesel (Kevin Nash) and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall), wanted to leave the company and move on to WCW. Their final show was an untelevised event at Madison Square Garden where Shawn Michaels defeated Diesel in the main event. Razor and Triple H then came out to celebrate with the two in the ring as the four were good friends backstage. Some fans taped this from the stands and McMahon was furious. You see, Michaels and Razor were faces while Diesel and Triple H (who had nothing to do with the others in terms of storyline) were heels. They were publicly breaking the fourth wall, which was a gigantic no-no back in the day. Since Hall and Nash were gone from the company and Michaels was the champion, the fall guy for it was Triple H. Because of that, his planned push was done away with for the next year. WWF had a one-night 8-man tournament called King of the Ring where the winner was meant to go onto becoming the next breakout star. Triple H was going to win that year’s show originally, but because of the “MSG Incident”, they ended up giving that spot to Steve Austin. Stone Cold Steve Austin ended up making the most of his victory by doing an interview immediately after where he ran down his religious opponent and told him, “You talk about your Psalms, talk about John 3:16! Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!”
Back to WCW, Bischoff convinced Ted Turner to do a weekly prime time show set against WWF’s top show, Monday Night Raw. WCW Nitro acted as direct competition and began to slowly, but surely gain some steam when Scott Hall and Kevin Nash started to appear on the show, unannounced. They made it appear as if WWF was invading WCW, to the point that WWF actually put forth some legal action. These two, referred to as the Outsiders, claimed they had a third member. At the PPV Bash at the Beach, the Outsiders were helped out by their new leader, Hulk Hogan, who had turned his back on the company and his fans. The very idea of Hogan being a bad guy was a gigantic deal and it gave his career a new lease on life. They called themselves the New World Order (nWo) and ran roughshod on the company. The nWo became a pretty revolutionary concept in American pro wrestling and eventually put WCW on top. Not only were they dominant bad guys, but they were cool bad guys that the crowd enjoyed and bought plenty of their merchandise. Unfortunately, those positives would lead to the company’s ultimate downfall later on.
Bret Hart returned from some time off in WWF and acted offended by Steve Austin’s success, as Austin was a no-good jerk who was somehow getting popular. Originally, Hart was going to take on Michaels at Wrestlemania for that promised rematch, but Michaels faked a leg injury, claimed he “lost his smile” (don’t ask) and gave up the title. While the match wasn’t for the title, Hart took on Austin at Wrestlemania 13 in a fantastic match where the final moments mutated Hart into a petty and vengeful heel while Austin won over more fan support for his never-say-die attitude and utter toughness. In a world of faces and heels, Austin was an outspoken anti-hero somewhere in-between, regarded as a “tweener”. His rise to the top was unfortunately cut short for a time when wrestling Bret’s brother Owen, who screwed up a piledriver and destroyed Austin’s neck. He’d eventually come back to the ring, but he never had that mobility anymore and it cut his career short.
Hart took a lot of real-life offense to Michaels choosing to weasel out of their promised rematch and the two former friends became legitimate enemies. Hart became the champ again, without beating Michaels, but due to the high price of his contract with the company and his dwindling appeal to the WWF’s ever-changing audience, he decided to go off to WCW, where they’d pay him millions. McMahon wanted him to drop the title to Michaels at the next PPV Survivor Series, but Hart refused. One, the show was in his homeland Canada, where he is seen as a hero and two, if Michaels wouldn’t play ball back at Wrestlemania, why should he? So began the infamous Montreal Screwjob. It was agreed that Hart would win the match through a hackneyed disqualification ending, give up the title on TV the next night and move on. Instead, when Michaels briefly held Hart in a submission hold, McMahon went against the script and yelled at the time keeper to ring the bell. The referee handed the belt to Michaels, declared him the winner, the fans were confused and Hart was furious.
The Montreal Screwjob became a staple in wrestling history and in terms of storylines, it would be referenced and reattempted a dozen times over, each time lamer than the last. One would think that with WCW getting this big time wrestler who had been publicly wronged, they would hold the future instead of WWF. Interestingly enough, that wasn’t the case. While they did bring in Bret Hart and paid him a lot of money, they also did a big pile of nothing with him, squandering this huge purchase. WCW became famous for spending way too much on stuff they barely used, but at the time it didn’t matter because they were the number one business and on the cusp of bankrupting the WWF. Sadly, Hart received a massive concussion in a match and continued to work through it for a few weeks, making it worse. He was forced to retire and later endured a stroke because of this.
The first big roadbump to WCW’s success would be Hogan vs. Sting. Sting was WCW’s main face for many years and when the nWo started causing trouble, he ended up skipping town due to the distrust between he and the other WCW heroes. He came back months later in a new form. Gone was his 80’s facepaint and blond flat top. He was instead dressed like Brandon Lee from the Crow and acted as a silent predator, focused on bringing down the nWo himself from the shadows. After a year of build-up, Sting decisively beating the cowardly Hogan for the title would have been the perfect ending and the downfall for the nWo. Instead, the match was wrong in nearly every possible way. Hogan dominated Sting and pinned him, only for a moderately-paced 3-count to be referred to as a fast count (it’s been said that Hogan had the ref count it normally to again make him look better), a clusterfuck of developments and then Sting getting the win. Only the win had no real value because after all this lead-up, he was made to look like a joke. Not only that, but Hogan won the title back shortly after.
See, the problem with the nWo was that despite being a bunch of interesting bad guys, the destiny of a good bad guy is to eventually be taken down and defeated. That never happened. The storyline was filled with lots of great build, but the group only endured what came across as minor setbacks and never completely crumbled. Instead, they gained far too many members, no longer making the group an elite and it started to splinter into different incarnations, like the nWo Hollywood feuding with the offshoot nWo Wolfpac. Adding to that, even though WCW had an amazing pool of young and international talent, they never got a fair shake. Guys like Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho were victims of an overly-thick glass ceiling. Though there was one guy who had some success.
In the middle of the big nWo storyline, WCW introduced a guy named Bill Goldberg, a former football player of few words. He proceeded to rack up a major undefeated streak against those in the middle of the card and lower to the point that fans would bring signs to shows that stated his current win-loss record. Whatever it was, the losing half said zero. He became hugely popular and there was a show coming up where some Turner executives would be hanging around. The show was already sold out, so Hogan wanted to do a match on the card, allowing him to claim credit for the show’s revenue. Bischoff wanted something huge to make himself look good in front of the bigwigs. They figured that the show would have an untelevised match after (or was it before?) the show featuring Hogan vs. Goldberg. A few days before, they decided to just go ahead and do the match on TV and have Goldberg win the title. This was a really, really stupid move by the company.
On one hand, they did get some good ratings that night. No doubt about that. It’s just that they threw away a massive marquee match in Hogan vs. Goldberg that would have sold millions on PPV, not just for the people at home ordering the show, but for the fortune they would have made on ticket sales. Remember, they had this match on free TV for a show that was already sold out. By the next week, the ratings dipped back to normal. Despite being a huge name, Goldberg wasn’t utilized all too well and wasn’t treated as a champion. Instead, he continued to wrestle against guys low on the card and waste them in mere seconds while Hogan and friends got to take over the main event goings on. Goldberg’s streak was finally ended by nWo mainstay Kevin Nash who – you’re never going to believe this – was the company’s head booker! So the guy writing the story decided that he and only he should be the one to put an end to this ever-unstoppable winning streak!
Back to WWF. After the Bret Hart incident, the fans really, REALLY hated Vince McMahon. As an on-air character, McMahon used to act as merely a commentator until shortly before the Montreal Screwjob, when he admitted to the viewing audience that, yeah, he’s actually the guy who runs everything. He embraced playing a cartoony depiction of his big boss self and made himself an antagonist for the rebellious Stone Cold Steve Austin in a storyline so successful that “face wrestler vs. heel authority figure” has become a constant status quo in wrestling since. Austin won the title from Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 14 in a match that featured boxing legend Mike Tyson playing the role of an official. If there was any doubt to whether Michaels was going to allow Austin to beat him without any of his usual selfish reluctance, it was snuffed out when the Undertaker, the designated leader of the WWF locker room and all-around badass, threatened him with what would happen if he didn’t play ball with the script. The show was a financial success and started moving the product forward. Fans refer to this time as the Attitude Era, when the company was edgier and had more personality than ever. While the matches themselves were usually pretty underwhelming and even some of the storylines had people shaking their heads, everyone was so perfectly charismatic that it felt like a new golden age. At the very least, WCW gave WWF a reason to get their ass in gear and they succeeded. With WCW’s bad decisions taking their toll a little at a time, WWF began to retake the ratings.
Also of note from this time is how WWF had tried pushing a new talent named Rocky Maivia (named after his wrestler father Rocky Johnson and his wrestler grandfather Peter Maivia) down the fans’ throats as an ever-smiling athlete who played the ultimate good guy. People got sick of him quickly and started jeering him with such chants as “ROCKY SUCKS!” and “DIE, ROCKY, DIE!” Eventually, he left TV for a spell and came back with a far different attitude. As a prima donna heel, he played off how much the fans hated him and started referring to himself in third person as the Rock while labeling himself the People’s Champion. He had a high-profile match with Triple H at Summerslam 98, which Triple H won. It was supposed to really push Triple H up the ranks, but he got injured shortly after and Rock ended up catching on more than ever to the point that even though he was a heel, the crowd began to eat up his every mannerism.
The point of no return for the Monday Night War was the night of January 4, 1999. Back then, WWF would produce episodes of Raw two nights at a time for every two weeks. They’d do it live on one Monday, tape the next week’s episode the day after, take the next week off and then repeat. This meant that the events of half the shows were publicly known and Bischoff would openly spoil them on the air for his own ratings gain. Several days earlier, WWF taped a show where Mankind – a former WCW wrestler who left for WWF and became a loveable psychopath who won the fans over with his self-destructive antics and doofy charm – defeated the Rock to become the champion. When Bischoff had one of his commentators spoil that to the audience, it backfired tremendously and caused over half a million viewers to switch to WWF Raw instantly. WCW hurt themselves even more by putting on one of their most insulting shows where champion Kevin Nash was meant to defend against Goldberg in a rematch. Due to some story elements that had plot holes the size of Kansas, it became Nash defending against Hogan. That too would have been a pretty major main event to have. Instead, Hogan shoved Nash over with a nudge of his finger, pinned him, revealed they were in cahoots and then restarted the nWo. The crowd hated it, the viewers hated it and like most nWo stories, it petered off into nothing with the heels never really getting their just desserts.
A few months later, WWF debuted a second major weekly show called Smackdown. This greatly annoyed the head writer Vince Russo, who was already frustrated with his work load and now had to write for two shows. Russo got a lot of credit for WWF’s upswing, though there was a good deal of bad to go with the good. Matches tended to be way too short and far too often had finishes that were far from decisive. Outside interference was a trope that he beat to death, as was having wrestlers betray each other for little justifiable reason. His stories tended to have exciting first chapters, but exploded into confusing nonsense. Still, he had his great storylines, but his time with the company was done. He moved onto WCW and became their head writer, with many interested in how this might improve the product.
As it turns out, he made it worse. But that’ll be a story for tomorrow.