It wasn’t supposed to end the way it did. It seemed like an institution, but in the grand scheme of the wrestling industry, it was more of a comet that shone brightly through the night sky of the industry, and flamed out just as spectacularly, imploding into itself like a neutron star. They filled some of the biggest venues in the country. Every week, millions of wrestling obsessed fans watched them. They even wrestled in North Korea.
And then it all ended, at spring break in front of drunken revelors in Daytona Beach of all places.
Though it’s lineage dates back to the 70’s with legendary Jim Crockett Promotions, World Championship Wrestling was officially born in 1988, the brainchild of cable television tycoon Ted Turner. Turner had wanted to purchase part of the World Wrestling Federation in the 80’s, seeing it’s value on the still burgeoning cable television. Vince McMahon, the star, owner, and brains of WWF, rebuked Turner. So Turner decided to go into business for himself, leading to a story that Vince McMahon loves to tell, with Ted calling Vince on the phone.
Ted: Hey Vince, I got into the wrasslin’ business.
Vince: Well, that’s nice Ted. I’m in the entertainment business.
While WCW would spend years trying to act as legitimate competition for WWF, they were mostly seen as an afterthought. What WCW did provide was great wrestling. While WWF was, as Vince said, in the entertainment business, where the actual wrestling was secondary to the stars that they created, because very importantly, stars create merchandise sales, WCW prided itself on having some of the best wrestlers of it’s time in the organization. Ricky Steamboat, Ric Flar, Sting, Cactus Jack, Brian Pillman and even lesser known talents like Bobby Eaton and William Regal provided great television for wrestling fans. But backstage turmoil, notably bringing in pizza mogul Jim Herd to run the company in spite of his lack of knowledge of the wrestling business, and let’s not forget the horrible tie in with Robo Cop, stunted the growth of the company.
As the final days approached, the wrestlers knew it was over. More backstage turmoil, notably the power struggle between Eric Bischoff and booker Vince Russo, the creative control given to veteran wrestlers in their contracts, and the purchase of WCW’s parent company by AOL, had made it obvious the end was near. There were no shows booked after March 26th. One way or another, the company was about to go dark. Bischoff attempted to purchase the company, but his backers dropped out after AOL Time Warner decided that wrestling wasn’t in line with it’s image as a company and cancelled the show. Without a TV show, without an owner interested in keeping the brand alive, wrestlers were left wondering if this was the last time they would ever be on television. Whether their new owner would be intersted in keeping them in the buyout. Whether the new owner really was interested at all in the wrestling business.
Vince McMahon was no stranger to burying his competition. When he purchased WWF (then WWWF) from his father, Vince McMahon Sr, professional wrestling was still very much entrenched in a near half century old territory system. Major cities were run by one company. WWWF in New York. GCW in Georgia, WCCW in Dallas, Stampede Wrestling in Calgary. All fell under the banner of the National Wrestling Alliance, a governing body that acted as a de facto parliamentary committee that determined who the world champion would be, territory disputes, and other issues of the era.
Almost immediately after purchasing the company, McMahon started committing the cardinal crimes that stood against the values of the NWA. He began poaching talent from all around the country and signing them to exclusive contracts. Roddy Piper from Portland. Randy Savage from Memphis. Hulk Hogan from Minneapolis. He then started encroaching on other territories, slowly taking over the eastern seaboard. He was able to do so by having a weekly television show that was airing in more and more markets, seemingly every week. He would run huge shows against smaller companies in the same town, squeeze them out, and take their television spot. McMahon gained a lot of fans. He also made a lot of enemies.
The only place McMahon didn’t succeed was in the south. On day that became famous in wrestling circles as Black Saturday, Vince appeared on television in the time spot that was reserved for Georgia Championship Wrestling. He had done so by buying out the Briscoe Brothers and promotor Jim Barnett, 75% of the ownership team of GCW. Used to edgier content that involved more anti-hero personas than WWF was presenting at the time, viewers tuned out immediately. Vince started losing money on the new television spot and decided to cut bait. He ended up selling the spot to Jim Crockett, who would run Jim Crockett Promotions out of that time slot. Crockett would eventually become WCW. And the network that this battle occurred on? Ted Turner’s TBS.
Even as Turner opened up his checkbook to bring in stars such as Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, he lagged far behind WWF in the public eye. WCW was operating in an outdated business model for the industry. While WWF had their normal weekend programming such as Superstars, their main show was Monday Night Raw. It was where stars were able to best move forward story lines, and gave a combination of squash matches (matches in which the star wrestler quickly defeats someone brought in as enhancement talent, or a jobber in wrestling parlance) and matches between stars that would normally only be seen on their biggest shows, such as Pay Per Views.
In 1995, Ted Turner handed over the reigns of the company to Eric Bischoff, formerly a backstage commentator for the company. Bischoff was a door to door meat salesman before latching on with the AWA in Minneapolis during it’s dying days. He was able to parlay that into a job with WCW, where he had worked his way up the ladder. Now, in an effort to directly compete with WWF, he was given the orders to build a show that would air at the same time on Monday nights. The concept of Monday Nitro was born on that day.
Six years later, with a ring situated between two hotels and a beach, drunken revelers all around, Ric Flair came to thing ring. “Who means more to WCW?” opined announcer Tony Schiavone to the television audience. The answer very well might be nobody. From the beginning of WCW’s existence, Flair was the backbone of the organization. The charismatic ring technician was, in a way, a dying breed of wrestler. A man who honed his skills in the territory era, and built an enduring character that made him one of, it not THE biggest wrestler in the world for decades. He had everything: ring skills, looks, a character that blended fiction and reality to a level that made people believe he was the real deal, and an innate ability to speak rivalries into existence with his grandiose charisma.
His matches against Ricky Steamboat were notable as some of the finest examples of modern professional wrestling. When the NWA decided it was Sting’s time to take the reigns of the championship, it was Flair that got him over and made him look like a million bucks. In 1991, Jim Herd tried to force Ric Flair to take a pay cut to stay with the company and turn his character into an ancient gladiator, it was Flair, at the time still World Champion who took the belt with him to WWF, at the time the biggest coup in the industry. When he came back to WCW a year later, it was him reclaiming the championship, When Hulk Hogan came to WCW in 1994, Flair was the man who put over Hogan in his first match. Flair was the kingmaker. Generations of wrestlers became who they were because of Flair. And on this night, viewing the dying breath of WCW, he unleashed one of his greatest promos ever.
It isn’t a stretch to say that WWF very well might not have survived to see the moment when they were able to buy out their competitor. In fact, a mere 4 years prior, they were in fairly dire straits. Vince McMahon had created a product that was completely out of touch with the changing desires of wrestling fans. Terrible, every day worker gimmicks like garbage collector Duke “The Dumpster” Droese, plumber TL Hopper, and a countless host of others had left the company scrambling. WWF’s popularity was heavily built on the 80’s star power of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, Ultimate Warrior, and Rowdy Roddy Piper. By the mid 90’s, Hogan and Savage were in WCW, Andre was dead, Warrior had lost his mind, and Piper’s body was beginning to betray him. In their void came a new generation of stars that were simply not drawing crowds at the time.
Bret Hart was a ring general who, much like Flair, could make anyone look good. Stuck in the shadows of Hogan for years, he was finally getting his chance to be the star, but he didn’t have the same charisma that popped through television screens. Shawn Michaels had everything you wanted in a star, but was still a couple years ago from making the leap. Hunter Hearst Helmsley was still two years away from becoming the star he was.The company still didn’t know what they had in a young, second generation wrestler going by the name Rocky Maivia at the time. Two other people they had invested their money in, thinking they had stars on their hands, were also the people currently running them out of business.
Monday Nitro had started off well enough. In a coup for the time, Lex Luger appeared on the first episode, at the same time he was appearing on Monday Night Raw. Luger had been a rising star for WCW, and went to WWF to be the star of McMahon’s burgeoning World Bodybuilding Federation. When a steroids trial against Vince and a general lack of interest in body building as a televised sport, Luger made the jump to television, first as the preening Narcissist, and later the All American, someone who ostensibly would fill the role left behind when Hulk Hogan left the company. Seriously, he just kind of went from being a bad guy to being a fan favorite because of a body slam challenge.
Around the debut of WCW Monday Nitro, Luger was also working without a contract, and nobody in WWF seemed to be paying much attention to it. WWF also taped it’s episodes of Monday Night Raw weeks in advance, They didn’t think Luger would show up on Nitro because they didn’t actually realize he could. When he did, it was the opening shot of what would become the Monday Night War.
In the summer of 1996, two other former WWF stars were poised to take wrestling by storm. In a gimmick that was heralded for it’s originality (though it had, in fact, been done before in Japan), Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, formerly Diesel and Razor Ramon in WWF, were showing up at Nitro and beating people up and causing trouble. They were being shown as invading wrestlers from a different company. Renegades bent on bringing down WCW. In fact, the two were among the biggest stars of the time in WWF, and when their contracts came up, WCW jumped in, offering them massive pay raises to jump ship.
The idea was the brain child of Eric Bischoff, the same man tasked with going head to head with WWF in the first place. With an open checkbook at his disposal, he poached wrestlers much in the same way that WWF had in the 1980’s. But to bring the invasion angle to an epic crescendo, they needed one more piece to make it work. Hulk Hogan had always been a babyface. That’s how he got his sponsorship deals, merchandise, and movie roles. Being a bad guy was never in the cards for him. It took pleading and begging and long term storyline ideas through the night before Bash at the Beach 1996 by Bischoff and booker Kevin Sullivan to get Hogan on board. The next night, when it was revealed that Hulk Hogan was the third man, along with Hall and Nash, the wrestling world changed in that moment.
The NWO, or New World Order, would act as a seismic shift in how people watched wrestling. It wasn’t outsized characters in crazy costumes. It wasn’t overwrought gimmicks and goofy over-the-top spectacles. It felt more real. In that moment in July of 1996, WCW passed WWF like a fighter jet flying past the Wright Brothers plane. Suddenly, WWF felt old and past it’s prime. WCW was new and edgy. Over the next couple years, WCW would come to take the mantle as top organization in the country. WWF was left to play catch up.
They say that history is told by the victor. WWE (they dropped the F in 2000) is notoriously good at white washing history to make them look like the conquering heroes. In truth, Vince McMahon is just as brutal and vindictive as any businessman could be. He ran faux commercials on his television shows making the WCW seem old and hopeless, mocking the former stars that he had that were now in WCW. He was also incredibly litigious. He filed numerous lawsuits against WCW over any thing he thought he had been wronged about. The way the story is told now, WWE were plucky underdogs who were so good at what they did, that they overcame the goliath WCW.
In reality, WWF got lucky, almost in spite of itself.
14 months after the forming of the NWO, WWE was attempting to play catch up. They had basically copied the NWO by starting their own faction called DX. Then they made a bunch of other factions, like Los Boriquas, the Nation of Domination, and the New Hart Foundation. The leader of that group was Bret Hart. He was the champion at the time, and he was ready to leave. Bret Hart’s contract was expiring and he was planning on going to WCW. Though the story is different depending on who you ask, what can’t be disputed is that Vince McMahon ordered referee Earl Hebner to ring the bell to make it look like Bret Hart had submitted to his opponent, Shawn Michaels. He did so because he didn’t want to risk Hart leaving the organization with the belt (like Flair had done when he came to WWF in 92). Because the event was being held in Canada, Hart didn’t want to drop the belt in his home country, and was willing to drop the title the next night on Raw. He also did not want to drop the belt to Michaels.
The two top stars in the company hated each other. Michaels had implied in an interview that Hart had slept with Sunny, a manager in the company at the time. Hart saw Michaels as an unprofessional crybaby who used his influence in the locker room to get what he wanted. They were the antithesis of each other, and that drive and hatred is what made their matches so great. True animosity bred an intensity that just couldn’t be found often in the ring.
After McMahon forced the ending of the match, Hart spit on him and left. Later, he beat up Vince backstage. Hart’s lack of desire to drop the title at Survivor Series had forced Vince McMahon to acknowledge he was the person in charge. He found out how much heat he could get on himself with the crowd and started using that to his advantage. The Mr. McMahon character was a driving force in WWE’s popularity sky rocketing.
His character, along with the meteoric rises of Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock, the crotch chopping DX, and the ever present Undertaker, were able to help eyes back onto their product. For the WWE to come back like it did, it needed everything to fall into place. Mr. McMahon loses it’s steam without Austin. Austin doesn’t maintain his level without the charisma of the Rock to play off of. DX needed to be there to act as the glue of the midcard before finding their way to main events. It took a lot of luck for WWE to survive. And once they got momentum, they set out to bury their opponent.
And even those characters weren’t the vision that Vince had for them. After being underused in WCW, Steve Austin spent a stint in Extreme Championship Wrestling honing his Stone Cold character. The way WWE tells the story now is that Austin left WCW and showed up in WWE and turned the company upside down. The truth is that Austin was brought into WWE to be….The Ringmaster. Austin acted as a henchman in Ted Dibiase’s Million Dollar Corporation. He was not over with the crowd. Then, at King of the Ring 1996, he dropped the infamous “Austin 3:16 just kicked your ass” promo, and then took nearly a year before he got completely over with the crowd, thanks to a legendary match with none other than Bret Hart at Wrestlemania 13.
The Rock was brought in to be a babyface who smiled all the time and be a pure good guy. The crowd hated him almost immediately. The Rock had to become himself, not WWF’s vision for him, to succeed. HHH’s character was so completely not worth mentioning when he was brought in that WWE just kind of pretends it never happened. But it did not matter, because once every character clicked into place, WWE was destined to take it’s spot back at the top of the wrestling mountain.
As the final Nitro came to an end with Sting and Flair embracing in the ring after their final match, WWE decided to remind everyone who was king. In a simulcast on both Nitro and Raw, Vince took to the stage to take his victory lap.
WCW had started to lose control long before 2001. A number of things started to bring the company down. Wrestlers had too much creative control. Storylines were ruined on a whimsy. Their top performers were leaving for WWE. They made questionable calls with creative, including bringing in former WWE writer Vince Russo, who accelerated the fall of the company. It was almost shocking how quickly everything broke down for WCW. They bastardized the characters and stories that made them so popular in the first place. Wrestlers were making millions of dollars to either stay home, or show up when they wanted to. David Arquette won the World Championship (a moment he, a wrestling fan, regrets agreeing to do to this day). Where as everything had to fall into place for WWE to succeed, everything fell out of place just as quickly for WCW. To make matters worse, WCW had a tendency to announce what was happening on Monday Night Raw, which was pretaped every other week. The idea was to give away the results so people wouldn’t turn off Nitro to see what was happening on the other show. The idea worked right until it didn’t.
Mick Foley had been a journeyman wrestler for many years. He played a deranged mid carder named Cactus Jack in WCW. In the mid 90’s, he left to join Extreme Championship Wrestling. He would also game fame internationally fighting in death matches with the likes of Terry Funk. In ECW, he started perfecting his character, cutting blistering promos that made him a crowd favorite.
He would debut in WWE in 1996 as Mankind. Even this was a name Foley came up with himself, as McMahon wanted the character named Mason the Mutilator. Foley had always been willing to put his body on the line, and eventually, it would make him one of the biggest stars in the company, albeit with a shorter shelf life as a wrestler, and a post wrestling career filled with constant pain. At King of the Ring 1998, he was flung off an 18 foot tall cage through a table. Everyone has seen this clip, even non wrestling fans. Jim Ross’ call of “bah got that killed him. It broke him right in half” is legendary. After that, Foley was a made man for the company, both in the eyes of the fans and management.
On Monday, January 4th, 1999 on Nitro, announcer Tony Schiavone announced that Mick Foley would be winning the WWE Heavyweight Championship, scoffed, and said sarcastically “that’ll put buts in seats.” Not only did it put butts in seats, it caused people watching WCW to tune out and watch Raw. Foley was an enduring character who was beloved by most wrestling fans. What would happen on this night did, in the eyes of many, was to end the Monday Night Wars. While it would go on for two more years, Foley winning was the point where WWE knew they had the upper hand and didn’t not relinquish it.
The epilogue to the final Nitro is that WWE brought in a number of the old WCW guys for an invasion angle. It didn’t work. Vince McMahon’s plan was always to bury as many people as possible from WCW. Many were used to make WWE guys look better. Very few ever got a real chance in the company. Only Flair, Booker T, Lance Storm, and Rey Mysterio and later on, Goldberg and Hulk Hogan, had extended successful runs with the company. The war was over, and the victory, long before known, had been settled. The truth is, Vince McMahon and WWE really only bought the tape library of WCW/Jim Crockett Promotions. There was nothing else to buy. Nitro had no time slot. The biggest stars opted to stay at home and continue to get paid through the end of their contracts by AOL Time Warner. Ted Turner had long since been pushed out of power. WWE had vanquished their opponent, though in many ways, WCW had done a good job of vanquishing itself.
Over the years, other companies have tried to compete with WWE. TNA, Impact, XPW, Wrestling Society X, Ring of Honor, and currently All Elite Wrestling have tried to fill that void. But WWE remains the top dog. They are a billion dollar company. They are publicly traded at the New York Stock Exchange. Their television deals are in the billions. They just sold off their archives of shows to NBC Universal for 2 Billion dollars over the next five years. Their place in the hierarchy of professional wrestling is secure.
They were just a scrappy (60 year old) company that came from humble beginnings (Madison Square Garden) that valiantly fought against a much larger company (they did this to numerous companies before someone stood up to them) and persevered (in spite of themselves at every opportunity) to become the monolith they are today (have been since the 80’s).
Or at least, that’s how the victors tell the story.