One of the great pastimes of the Internet Wrestling Community (IWC) has always been WCW bashing. I don't think even the WWE has been more analyzed, discussed and dissected. It remains a topic of endless fascination among pro wrestling fans. But the discussion often focuses on what WCW did wrong. After all, that is the more entertaining subject. It's easy to read and remember, then shake your head and think to yourself, "how did those clowns even get to that point?" The easy answer is the nWo. The not so easy answer, is that for all WCW and Eric Bischoff did wrong, there were a few things they did very right.
But before we jump into all of that nonsense, let's take a look at why WCW continues to be a topic of so much discussion, even ten years after it's closing. The WWE of today seems like an untouchable juggernaut. They have been the number one wrestling company since the mid-80s and will likely be for at least the next ten years. In the 1980s, Jim Crockett and the AWA all tried to go against Vince McMahon, but were all crushed by his monstrous creation, Hulkamania. It wasn't even close, in fact. McMahon's then World Wrestling Federation dominated the wrestling landscape and seized mainstream attention like no other before him. By 1990, the WWF was a household name.
By 1995, however, the WWF wasn't in the best shape. A steroid scandal had rocked the company, forcing McMahon to put his promotional power behind smaller guys like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. The WWF was geared mostly towards kids and business was down, despite the talent they had tearing it up in the ring (sound familiar at all?). At this point, McMahon's empire was at its most vulnerable.
So in stepped WCW and one Eric Bischoff.
Now remember, at this point in history, the WWE was pretty much a living cartoon. Sure, you had guys like Bret Hart, Bam Bam Bigelow and Shawn Michaels who were revolutionizing wrestling in their own ways, but this was also the era of the two Undertakers, skits with Leslie Nielsen, Doink the Clown and Atom Bomb. In 1994, it sometimes felt like the WWE was less of a wrestling show and more of a demented circus. At times, it resembled something that was born from Hunter S. Thompson's acid fueled nightmares more than the squared circle that produced the likes of Terry Funk and Ricky Steamboat.
Anyone remember Papa Shango casting a voodoo spell on the Ultimate Warrior?
That was the kind of nonsense that WCW was trying to copy in the early 90s. Incredibly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they failed miserably at it. That's right, WCW tried to copy the crap that the WWE now likes to pretend never happened and failed to even reach those standards of quality. For all the blandness and problems WWE has today, it still doesn't sink to the depths that the mainstream wrestling industry did before 1996.
So now we get to 1995 and WCW needs to do something big. They needed a shake up, a leader, a guru, an idea man; a fresh face and a new perspective. In short, they needed a hero. A hero for the coming fight. He had to be fast, he had to be strong and he had to belong to the light. What they got was Eric Bischoff, who was good enough. Truth be told, the smug little bastard was just the guy they needed. Bischoff launched Monday Nitro and took WCW in a new direction, one that ultimately took the company to the top of the proverbial mountain and threatened to destroy Vince McMahon's mad creation.
This didn't happen by accident. Bischoff had a plan, one that had some brilliant maneuvers on his part. So here is an exploration of some of the things WCW did right to get to the top of the business.
1 - Put the focus back on wrestling. The first match aired on Nitro was Brian Pillman vs Jushin Lyger. If that's not setting a tone on the in ring action that can be expected on WCW's new flagship show, I don't know what is. There was a coordinated effort to move away from the sillier costumes and gimmicks, putting what matters most in wrestling front and center. You know, the wrestling. WCW in '96-'97 was all about good wrestling. Randy Savage, Sting, Ric Flair and Diamond Dallas Page were picking up the slack in the main event when Hogan and Piper were struggling in the ring. The New World Order may have been drawing in fans, but it was Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho, Raven and many others who kept them coming back and from tuning out. Which leads us to our next bit ...
2 – The Cruiserweights. Ultimo Dragon. Eddie Guerrero. Pscicosis. La Parka. Rey Misterio Jr. Chris Jericho. Lizmark Jr. Juventud Guerrera. Blitzkrieg. Does any more really have to be said about WCW's cruiserweight division? Whatever your feelings on the Lucha Libre style, they brought something fresh and different to the WCW program. Sure, you can say they stole it from ECW, who booked Rey Misterio against Pscicosis in the U.S. first. But WCW was willing to put them on a big stage and let them do their thing with little interference to their style, something WWE has never done nor are they likely to ever do.
3 – Steal From ECW. Prickish? Sure. Smart? Definitely. Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Eddie Geurerro, Raven and Dean Malenko all wrestled in ECW before WCW. So did Perry Saturn and many other top talents during that time period. A lot of talent was coming through ECW and WCW needed talent to establish its brand. These guys wrestled all over the world and were fusing Japanese, Mexican and American styles together. They were new and exciting. They had a firm grasp of psychology and had worked with veterans like Terry Funk. They didn't wrestle like WWE castaways. They brought a unique style to WCW that set them apart from WWE.
4 – Establish a Unique Brand. Before Uncle Eric, WCW was a strange company. It was caught between the old NWA style and ripping off WWE as much as possible. It never felt like WCW had its own entity. At times it felt like a watered down NWA, other times it felt like a shameless rip off of the WWF. By bringing in international wrestlers, as well as more established talent, it no longer felt like a cheap clone of another organization. In 1996, WCW was doing things that WWE would never do, thus changing the landscape of the industry. Hulk Hogan no longer looked like a WWF guy who wandered into the wrong arena. He became a WCW guy, shedding the baggage of his WWF history to form a new identity with a unique brand. WCW became a very real alternative to the WWE. During 1997, WWE and WCW were as different as night and day. And that year, fans preferred WCW's brand of wrestling to WWE's brand of sports entertainment.
5 – Turn Hulk Hogan Heel. It was a big gamble but it paid off big time. Vince McMahon has never been about turning top babyfaces heel. There have been instances of it, sure, but for the most part it's just never been the WWE's thing. Turning Hogan heel is something that McMahon probably never would have done, for the very reason why WWE ultimately triumphed over WCW. Vince tends to look at the whole picture, including merchandise sales. WCW was all about the ratings for the Monday Night War. Their focus on ratings led WCW to make most of their worst decisions. WCW wanted to shock fans and get them watching Nitro, merchandise be damned. Hogan's turn would lead to the nWo and take them the peak of their success.
6 – The New World Order. This is an obvious one, but also what sparked me to write this in the first place. Having just watched the Best of Nitro DVD, I almost forgot just how well done the rise of the nWo was. It was flat out brilliant. The booking, the pacing and the patience and care put into the original angle is truly breathtaking. The build up to Sting vs. Hogan at Starcade 1997 was brilliantly done. Then it all went wrong almost as fast as it all went right.
At this point the story is pretty familiar to all wrestling fans on the internet. WCW, once a company of such promise, quickly turned into a money burning joke. Everything they were doing right was thrown out the window while everything they did wrong became the weekly standard. In the end, WCW's biggest success became the albatross that dragged the company under.
Bischoff, Hogan and Nash ran the company as if it were their personal boy's club. Some of the greatest talents wrestling has ever seen were tossed under a glass ceiling while Hogan mocked them from his mountain top. The whole thing fell apart and the fans left in droves. Hollywood Hogan turned out to be a false prophet, while a redneck from Texas who enjoyed beer and mayhem skyrocketed the WWE into the massive, commercial juggernaut it is today.
Wrestling's true prophet (and profit), was Austin. It was Austin, all along. A man who was cast out of WCW in 1995 and after a brief pit stop in ECW, made his way to the WWF. In ECW, Austin cut two blistering promos on WCW. With a passion and fire never seen in wrestling before, he tore apart their false idols. He looked straight into the camera and said that he was going to be every bit the superstar that he knew he could be and that there was nobody who could stop him. By 1998, wrestling fans had found their hero.
WCW, for all the right moves it made in the previous two years, devoured itself while the competition only grew stronger. At the end in 2001, WCW was a weak and pathetic organization. WWE buying it out was ultimately a mercy killing.
So why does the demise of WCW fascinate us 10 years later? How is its story still relevant to the wrestling industry today? WCW was the only company to truly challenge Vince McMahon's WWE. It lost its fight because it made stupid decisions, then made even stupider decisions to try and patch it all up. There are lessons to be learned from WCW, from all that it did right and all that it did wrong. Lessons that few seem willing to learn now. It matters because if WCW had not imploded then we'd have two strong wrestling brands to this day. There would be more options for wrestlers and talent and the independent scene would be healthier today. It matters because so many livelihoods were dependent on its success. All their hopes and dreams, financial security and the health of an entire industry was gleefully flushed down the toilet by three men because of greed, politics and ego.
There's a lesson to be learned by all from that alone. That's why it matters.