Today is the anniversary of the infamous match between Hollywood Hulk Hogan and Sting at at the Starrcade pay-per-view (PPV) on Dec. 28, 1997.
We all remember the build to that match. It was quite possibly the greatest build to any match in the history of professional wrestling. Hogan turned heel at Bash at the Beach in July 1996 and cut a promo that will forever live in the annals of pro wrestling lore. He joined forces with The Outsiders, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, and dubbed the new supergroup the New World Order (nWo).
The nWo's numbers gradually grew. It wasn't long before it felt like nearly half the active roster was wearing the trademark black and white and helping Hogan spraypaint the world heavyweight championship, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. He was evil personified, a true villain who would do whatever it took to stay at the top. This was true in more ways than I ever could have known at the time.
But in pro wrestling, as in life, for as much evil as there is in the world, there is just as much good. It's called duality. For every heel like Hogan, there's a babyface hero to oppose him.
The Stinger was the squeaky clean California surfer with the flashy face paint. He led the charge against The Outsiders when they first showed up on Monday Nitro, WCW's flagship program at the time, and he was all set to lead the charge against Hogan, as well. Except the nWo played some mind games with WCW and made it appear as though Sting had switched sides. They hired a man who looked just like Steve Borden and fooled Team WCW into believing the Stinger had abandoned them.
But he hadn't. And he proved as much at Fall Brawl in Sept. 1996. But because the members of WCW failed to show him loyalty, he branched out on his own and turned into a much darker character. He became what is widely known as "The Crow" Sting, dubbed as such after the movie of the same name starring the late Brandon Lee, which was released just a few years prior in 1994.
Sting's gimmick was to hang out in the rafters and watch over Nitro. He would occasionally come down and taunt certain wrestlers with his baseball bat, testing their loyalty. The powers that be masterfully teased for months whose side Sting was on before finally making clear that he was fighting against the nWo.
They spent an entire year building towards a match between Sting, the new leader of WCW who rallied no troops but simply kicked ass and took names whenever he decided to rappel from the rafters, and Hogan. Sting slowly but surely made his way through the entire nWo, which had grown to nearly the entire roster. Sting went through everyone, gradually building towards the big payoff.
A match with Hulk Hogan for all the marbles in the main event of the biggest pay-per-view of the year.
Starrcade was WCW's version of WrestleMania. Sting represented WCW, and if he could bring the world title back to where it belonged, theoretically, it would deal a crippling blow to the nWo. This after a year and a half of the rogue organization running roughshod on Nitro and doing everything within its power to completely take over.
In fact, there was a match earlier in the night between Bischoff and Larry Zbyszko with Bret Hart as special guest referee (this is important for later) that had the stipulation of if Bischoff won, Nitro would go to the nWo but if Zbyszko won, WCW would keep control.
Zbyszko was awarded a disqualification victory after some goofy booking saw Hart tease allegiance to the nWo before eventually siding with WCW. This meant WCW had control of its weekly program and it was now up to Sting to take the world title back.
What happened next -- and the reason for it -- was an utter and complete abomination and one of the bigger black marks against Hogan in his career of ruthless politics. It's also the match that changed how I viewed the business of pro wrestling.
For starters, the match itself was slow and really, one of the worst big time main event matches in the history of the business. For as much build as it received, it was too short, told a horrible story and was overbooked in a way no main event of this caliber should ever be.
And it was overbooked because Hogan refused to job clean to Sting.
This was the first match that caused me to really want to dig deep and question why things happened the way they did. Before this, I was content just being a mark who let myself mark out when I felt the inclination and enjoy the show for what it was. And WCW at the time was a damn good promotion.
But I had to know why they would create this match this way.
Hogan was upset, or he claimed as much, that Sting wasn't in shape for the showdown. Sting, after all, had spent an entire year and half doing run-ins and hanging in rafters, never wrestling a single match. His personal life was in shambles at the time, as we would learn later, so he was, admittedly enough, pudgy and carrying a little extra baggage. That's partially why he wore the full body suit.
But surely someone being out of shape isn't reason enough to kill the payoff to one of the greatest storylines in the history of the business, right?
Hogan, who had creative control of his on-screen character because Eric Bischoff had it written into his contract as a way to help get him to sign with WCW, simply decided he didn't want to do a clean job to Sting, likely because it would kill a lot of his heat, and he was real hot at the time. This seems downright goofy to you and I but ego and greed are powerful things and Hogan was overrun with both. He refused to work the match that was originally laid out, which is to say, they spend 15 minutes building towards the big finish that sees Sting overcome Hogan and cover him for the 1-2-3.
WCW wins and good triumphs over evil. The way these stories should end.
Instead, we got Hogan invoking his creative control and demanding that if he was going to lose, he would do so in a way that would make him look as good as possible (his loss not actually looking like a loss) while making Sting look as bad as possible (his win not actually looking like a win). So they had Nick Patrick, who had a previous storyline as a crooked referee who was in the nWo's back pocket, do a fast count that wasn't really fast and used Bret Hart to recreate the Montreal Screwjob storyline that had happened just one month prior in the WWF. Hart, who was a referee that night, remember, mumbled that he wasn't going to let this happen again and restarted the match, leading to Sting winning, not by pinfall, but by verbal submission. The verbal part is key because Hogan is never shown tapping out. Hart just gets close to him as though he's asking if Hogan wants out, Hulk writhes in pain and Hart points to the bellman to ring the bell because the match is over. The entire WCW roster floods the ring and everyone leaves happy, right?
That's not ever the way it should have gone down and the only reason it didn't was because of Hogan's greed and Bischoff's lack of ability to reign in his ego. What was ultimately the biggest match in WCW history and what should have been the payoff to the greatest feud of all time, was a dud for the ages.
Not coincidentally, this is when many pro wrestling fans, myself included, decided it was time to give the WWF a harder look. And they were doing great things at that time. D-Generation X was in full swing and wreaking havoc on Monday Night Raw while Stone Cold Steve Austin was just about to win the Royal Rumble to earn a title shot at WrestleMania 14.
There couldn't have been a worse time for WCW to mess up. And all because Hulk Hogan wouldn't do a clean job.
It actually gets worse. The very next night was Nitro and the storyline continued in a way that furthered the gap between WCW and WWF.