1996: A Year That Transformed Wrestling -
Top Reasons Why List...
The first year of WCW Monday Nitro presented a transformation for professional wrestling. In fact, the episodes played like a pay-per-view event making the weekly spectacles extremely engaging. It would seem that necessity is the mother of reinvention as WCW and WWF competed for ratings in the mid-90s building their brands by leaps and bounds. In the first year of Nitro (95-96), the first half of the season was rather pedestrian, pitting a contracted stable of mega-stars against each other each week in a sort of glorified round robin structure. However, the producers and writers began taking risks in 1996 and some of those daring commitments helped to cement WCW as the dominant production for the next five years. This list is in chronological order:
10. April 15th 1996… Tag Team Sting/Luger vs Flair/Giant – Caricature Virtue Shifting to Real Vice
A very amusing tag-team match pitted the Four Horseman’s leader, Ric Flair, and the Dungeon of Doom’s MVP, The Giant, against the popular team of Sting and Lex Luger. Luger’s character had become a nefarious and petulant sort where Sting had to dig deep to be patient and hold the partnership together. Eventually, that friendship crumbled when the nWo cunningly duped everyone into believing that Sting had turned heel and joined the nascent bully organization. In the April 15th main event match, Flair ended up turning on the Giant and what marks this as important is that WCW was willing to let go of the focus on the “immortality” of Hogan and his mega-power allies. Attempting to overpower Hogan only to face his innate ability to resurrect had truly run its course as a narrative device. The “dark side” of Hulkamania had reared its ugly head months earlier and it was a reasonable prelude to the Hollywood Hogan manifestation, but at the end of the day Hulkamania had been fading fast. The alliance of the jobber stable, Dungeon of Doom, and the old school hermetic club, The Four Horseman, were no longer necessary. Room was freed up for less cartoonish ventures into deceit, betrayal, and revenge.
9. May 27th 1996… first two hour episode with Scott Hall! – Transgressing Space and Time
When Scott Hall appeared out of the crowd on the May 27th episode of WCW Nitro, hopped in the ring, and then took the mic to announce the beginning of the “hostile takeover” of nWo, it was like a light went on for fans everywhere. It was the first two-hour episode of Nitro and the show would soon play like a pay-per-view event every week. The stable of stars was clearly increasing and although Scott Hall had to quickly lose the bad Cuban accent from his WWF Razor Ramon shtick, the suspense of teasing out the formation of the nWo was immaculate in its execution. Hall transgressed the very space of the arena by entering from the crowd. This became a theme for the nWo – many of their segments featured them in the previously repressed spaces of the show such as the locker rooms, hotel rooms, back lots, parking lots and of course the stands. They appeared among the crowd on several occasions, flattening the hierarchy of attention and focus. Suddenly, the audience was a sidekick in the show itself. It is no wonder that nWo signs and shirts began to proliferate among the fans at breakneck speed.
8. June 3rd 1996… John Tenta drops the cartoonish elements – Real people, Richer drama
John Tenta was assigned to emphasize a decided shift away from the cartoonish and caricature elements of wrestling personas when he got on the mic at the start of the June 3rd Nitro episode. He remarked that his characters were silly, if not absurd, and that he was merely a physical man trying to restore his personal dignity in the face of disrespect and bullying. Tenta may never be remembered like other real names in wrestling such as Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, but he made a strong contribution for the movement of dropping the childishness and rousing wrestling fans into a new phase for those who had grown out of an interest in overt fantasy facades. In effect, kayfabe never ceased (just look at how Scott Hall retained the look of Razor Ramon/Diamond Studd even after retirement) but it grew in new dimensions from having created greater conflation between the wrestling persona and the real men.
7. Aug 26th 1996… Spraypaint skunk Flair’s hair by Hogan – Self-reflexive Branding
When Hollywood Hogan won the WCW Heavyweight title at Hog Wild in 1996, he unpacked his new tool of the trade (or possibly trick of the trade) – a can of black spray paint. He proceeded to brand the gold title belt with black lettering spelling out “nWo”. It didn’t stop. Over the following months, nWo flyers were released to the crowds at events, nWo banners hung like marquees around the stadiums, and there was a lot more spray paint, especially onto the bare backs of fallen opponents. The coup de grace came when Hogan spray painted a skunk stripe across the head of Ric Flair after first blinding him with the aerosol. The black became a symbol for the bully organization which they emphasized when beating on the Nasty Boyz for wearing unsanctioned black nWo shirts. The branding brought a refreshing honesty to professional wrestling, whose producers had manipulated fans for years with heavy-handed marketing techniques such as Hogan’s Hulkamania and Macho Man’s Slim Jims. The nWo brand was ironic due to how overtly it was engineered and purveyed to the public. The upshot was that fans could rightfully choose between supporting the WCW stable or the nWo gang. In a previous generation, the marketing would have imposed consolidation - cheer for faces and boo the heels.
6. Sep 2nd 1996… Larry Zbyszko, “living in the age of anxiety… to err is human but to forgive is really stupid” –
Prognosticating The Post-modern Condition
Larry Zbyszko made a cynical, yet astute observation at the beginning of the September 2nd edition of Monday Nitro when commenting that turning the cheek will only lead to crucifixion. It is a lesson learned from a two thousand year old story that captured the imagination of billions of humans. Yet, the lesson remains one that is still challenged today, perhaps through stupidity (or admittedly it might be from fear, good-nature, love, expectation, etc.). Nevertheless, the emergence of the nWo brought a survivalist ethos to professional wrestling that married well with choreographed combat. Suddenly, botched punches and slams had greater impact in the public’s imagination. Things were getting shaken up and if something went wrong or was poorly timed, it could be the work of the boogeymen – the nWo. Shadowy organizations became all the rage for conspiracy theorists in the early decades of the internet and they were able to spread their messages of Reptilians, Illuminati and such to a wide audience. In the age of boogeymen, pro wrestling provided an irrevocable prime example as warning – an excuse and a scapegoat - the nWo.
5. Sep 9th 1996… Bobby Heenan calls Meng “Haku” -
During the Monday night wars between the WWF and WCW, there was a lot of merchandise that changed hands as it were. WCW was poaching talent from the WWF every month or so, adding more big names to their roster. Some came into the new production with much the same MO while others dramatically altered their in-ring personas. Often, fans would sit in front of the television biting their lips in anticipation of the inevitable slip up where actors would stumble through their lines in interviews and possibly refer to their opponent by an old name or forget who they were wrestling for. Lex Luger came very close to saying “WWF” but quickly sputtered through his bit by adding a couple of letters in front of WCW. It was a close call and he was in his “prime” at the time. However, on the September 9th edition of Monday Nitro, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan got caught up in calling the action from the broadcaster’s booth and substituted Meng’s name with his WWF alter-ego “Haku”. It was amusing to hear the awkward silence in the broadcaster's booth afterward. Ironically, it was preceded by a near slip up for Eric Bischoff about half an hour earlier on the show. It almost makes you wonder if Freudian slips are contagious much like yawns. Either way, the slip marked an important occasion for acknowledging that the redundant characters of the old generation would soon be phased out completely. The new “monster” unleashed by the nWo was the public. The crowds used the promotion of gang violence to indulge their own psychological id drives. For years to come, they became a rowdy and disruptive rabble while throwing trash at wrestlers and chanting disdain for whatever match they found trite.
4. Sep 16th 1996… Flair flicks nWo trash back out to crowd – Unchanging of the Guard
When Ric Flair casually picked up trash from inside the ring at the end of the September 16th episode of Nitro and then threw it back out to the crowd, it was clear that some wrestlers were incorruptible to the wiles and seductions of the nWo. Flair was an ideal candidate to retain his autonomy as he was the long-time champion of WCW and was also the guy who made bully tactics in wrestling popular in the first place when The Four Horseman used to beat up on Dusty Rhodes more than a decade earlier. Flair never converted to the black-and-white bully organization and it was cause for many fans to cheer as they were given an important reason to stay loyal to the anti-nWo cause. In effect, the nWo never became a metonym for the cheap shot which allowed the WCW organization to grow and adapt.
3. Oct 21st 1996… Sting won’t sell out – Dark Alternatives
For many, the brute thugs of the nWo did not in fact represent darkness. Cheap shots, lies, betrayal, ganging up was understood as dishonourable and pathetic – a form of overcompensation for inherent weakness of individual members in the gang. When Sting manifested his dark side there was much conjecture about his affiliation with the nWo, but over the last few months of 1996 it was apparent that he had simply gone to a dark place so that he would be prepared to fight fire with fire against the bully organization. This choice added several dimensions to Sting’s persona and bred a unique and profound form of nostalgia around the idea of the old WCW. Fans also had a legitimate alternative to the nWo where they could posture on being tough and ruthless alongside nWo fans. Through Sting, it was still cool to be one of the good guys and supporting the good guy wrestlers could help see them succeed in the ring.
2. Nov 25th 1996… Bischoff With nWo – Endless Options
Eric Bischoff revealed that not only was he the head executive for operations at WCW but that he was in with the nWo. His character immediately became that of an insufferable, little weasel reveling in the unfairness that he wrought across the organization. It was kayfabe at its finest, but there was more to it than that. Bischoff announced that he would be building a "dynasty" and was granting WCW wrestlers 30 days to decide on renegotiating their contracts with the nWo. It was an ideal method for quickly bolstering the ranks of the bully organization without having to explore the motivation of why each new member converted. He was the pied piper leading the rats out of WCW – basically the least popular heels were brought over to the bully organization along with a couple of wild cards, most notably Marcus “Buff” Bagwell. With Bischoff straddling both sides of the conflict, anything was possible when it came to how fights would be booked, how the cards would be set, and how the shows would be produced.
1. Dec 9th 1996… Roddy Piper vs Hulk Hogan –
Expect the Unexpected
At the end of 1996, WCW had been rendered impotent by the machismo of the nWo. Hollywood Hogan was becoming exceedingly obnoxious and now had the unbridled support of Eric Bischoff. The Macho Man and Sting story arcs had legs, so how would the promotion close out the year? They unleashed the original mean-spirited, obnoxious bully – "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. The matches at Starrcade had a good month of build-up and the main event matchup was capturing the old time fans’ imagination. What was brilliant about the matchup was that the role of heel and face were flipped. And that was the upshot of 1996 and the successful transformation of professional wrestling – it was all about Hogan. Hogan accomplishing the heel-turn was critical to reinventing the sports entertainment enterprise and he pulled it off perfectly. Regardless if you had never excited by his Hulkamania shtick, now you had to respect the man for his endurance, flexibility, and charisma. It all made sense though… Hulkamania was so profound in its popularity that its inverse had to be equally compelling.