Edited and promoted to the front by Cageside Seats.
By now you, the wrestling fan, know the story. Ted Turner, head of Turner Entertainment, in a meeting with Eric Bischoff and a few Turner executives, put World Championship Wrestling (WCW)'s third string announcer, and then behind the scenes executive vice-president, on the spot. Turner questioned Bischoff on how WCW could compete with the then World Wrestling Federation (WWF).
After all, the Atlanta based promotion had Hulk Hogan, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, Ric Flair, and a fledgling 24-year old seven-footer named Paul Wight, all on their roster; yet they were still practically neck-and-neck with a WWF that was in creative and financial shambles.
After a few moments, Eric came up with the somewhat crazy idea of a primetime show. It wasn't all that crazy, really -- after all, WWF had one. Turner blessed the idea, so Eric Bischoff and WCW were granted a two-hour block on Monday nights on TNT.
On Labor Day 1995, at 8 p.m. ET, the televised wrestling landscape changed forever. WCW presented its first weekly primetime program, Monday Nitro LIVE! or better known simply as: Monday Nitro. Unlike the WWF, Nitro would be the first such wrestling program of its kind; where every show was live. At the time, Raw would tape two, three, sometimes even four episodes in one evening. Initially, Raw had been taped live every week, but financial issues caused them to scale back live tapings.
For better or worse, Nitro changed the way wrestling was presented on television; not just in the United States but around the world. Seventeen years later, many of Nitro's influences remain. In essence, Nitro was the best and worst thing to happen to pro wrestling. Here are ten reasons why for both -- starting with the best -- after the jump.
- It was LIVE! One of the first decisions made during the creation of Nitro was that they were gonna do it live (yeah-yeah, we'll write it, and... we'll do it LIVE). The thing with live television though, is anything can happen. AN... NY... THING. Case in point: during the main event of the first show, Hulk Hogan, wrestler/owner of Pastamania, brotha! vs. Big Bubba, aka the late Ray "Big Boss Man" Traylor, there just happened to be an incident where Lex Luger (thought to be under contract to the WWF -- the man was working a house show the night before) "accidentally on purpose" walked among the masses and right onto the debut set, smack dab in the middle of the Mall of America. The only thing was that Luger wasn't under contract to the WWF, as his contract had ran out the previous weekend; that and Vince McMahon forgot. How do you forget that sort of thing? Anyway, the walk-on that shocked the world inadvertently told wrestling fans, "hey, you don't dare flip that channel for anything, because more people may be "accidentally on purpose" walking on to their shows". Case in point...
- It introduced the New World Order. They weren't exactly wrestling's first cool heels, just wrestling's first acceptable cool heels (outside of the Four Horsemen in their heyday or maybe the Freebirds). It began on May 19, 1996, when Scott Hall, fresh off his contract expiration from the WWF, "accidentally on purpose" came through the crowd and called WCW out. Many wrestling fans weren't as savvy back then as they are now, so many people naturally thought Scott Hall was still working for the WWF. So here was this guy on their lawn being the "likes to fight" guy about to start a war. Two weeks later, Kevin Nash, the man who had been the WWF Champion during the early months of Nitro, declared that these "outsiders" weren't in WCW to play. Although, he sorta lacked knowledge in parts of his speech. The original nWo would be complete a month later with the shocking addition of Hulk Hogan, now calling himself "Hollywood". With society changing, the renegades from "up north" were seen as cool and to many wrestling fans, likable. The group got bigger and bigger and would dominate WCW for the duration of their existence.
- Nitro was not a jobberfest. Do you remember how wrestling shows were mostly presented on television before Nitro? If not, go find a full episode of any Saturday morning wrestling program prior to September, 1995. Any one, from any promotion; doesn't matter. It was mostly superstars squashing jobbers, updates on story lines and the hard sell of coming to the arena for their next big show in your area; because that's where you get the good stuff. Oh, and if you're lucky, you'll get one major star vs. major star match during that show. Nitro brought the good stuff every single week, live... to your living room.
- Nitro made small guys wrestling watchable. Before I pat Nitro on the back, let's get this out of the way now: ECW did it first. It was ECW that first brought Rey Mysterio, Psicosis, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit to the United States. But a lot of people didn't have a way to watch ECW in 1995, so guess where the first introduction to the lucha libre and the light heavyweight technical style was for most wrestling fans in America? Nitro. For all its faults, WCW did the one thing the WWF hadn't done: made American wrestling not a one-size-fits-all sport.
- Big matches every week. This was both a blessing and a curse for Nitro (the curse part later). Instead of being fed jobber squash after jobber squash, you had big names on Nitro facing off quite often, in matches usually reserved for big house shows and pay-per-views (PPVs). Plus, once in a while, you would get a really awesome Nitro moment; like Lex Luger, career choke artist, submitting "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan on the 100th Nitro to win the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. Or, the Owen Hart tribute match between Bret Hart and Chris Benoit which is still talked about to this day. Or, Bill Goldberg winning the WCW world title with 40,000 watching at the Georgia Dome.
- Nitro Girls! In its early years, the WWF had the Raw ring card girls (some good, some bad, some straight repulsive) with quips like "I Like It RAW" and they even had a house band. WCW had the world's sexiest dance team (two of whom I happened to meet at an autograph signing in December, 1997. I wish I still had the proof.) Plus, the group gave us Stacy freaking Keibler. Scoreboard.
- It made "diamond cutter", "spear" and "jackhammer" household names. Sure, WCW had nearly every big name star from the WWF during the Hulkamania days, but some of WCW"s biggest success stories were built from within. Well, let's be honest, there weren't many, as most of the roster made their name elsewhere before WCW-or after it. But, IMHO, crowds around the world at WCW, for a period of time, marked out for three moves more than any other: Diamond Dallas Page's Diamond Cutter (if you don't believe it, check out the crowd reaction when Scott Hall got the business end of one-just as many thought DDP was nWo-bound), Bill Goldberg's spear that murdered EVERYONE who was on the business end of it (including Goldberg, thanks to Bret Hart ingenuity) and Goldberg's jackhammer.
- It was a place for wrestlers to air their grievances before a live audience. You probably remember the Four Horsemen reunion in September, 1998. You may also remember during said reunion Ric Flair verbally ripped Bischoff a new one, calling out his abuse of power and daring him to fire an "already fired" Flair. He wasn't the only one; a week earlier, Eddie Guerrero demanded to be released from his contract on Nitro. On a number of occasions, Kevin Nash called Scott Hall to the carpet for his drinking problems. Scott Steiner ripped into Ric Flair once, Shane Douglas too. Mike Awesome ripped into his former employer, ECW, on his WCW debut. This, while he was still ECW World Heavyweight Champion. On a pre-Christmas edition of Nitro in 1995, Madusa Miceli dropped the WWF Women's Championship belt in a trash can. Nitro for many wrestling fans was their introduction to one of the best and worst things to happen to wrestling, the worked shoot.
- It forced the WWF to get better. The WWF was sitting pretty at the top of their perch as the premiere wrestling organization in America. Then WCW and Nitro lit a fire under collective asses. Nitro would find ways to jump on the WWF, starting earlier by three, sometimes as much as five minutes. They would expand to two hours nearly a full year before WWF's Raw did the same (May, 1996 for Nitro compared to March, 1997 for Raw). They would expand to three hours, something WWF Raw didn't do during the Monday Night Wars, to their credit. They would book on the fly, sometimes to their advantage, sometimes to their detriment. They would even give away Raw's results to discourage viewers from changing the channel. Nothing was out of bounds for this live wrestling program. NOTHING.
- It made the syndicated wrestling program practically obsolete. At least for the major promotions, anyway. Nitro in a lot of ways practically buried one of WCW's other shows, Worldwide. Their syndicated show, which moved to Orlando to save costs a few years prior, relied on two things mainly, shows taped weeks in advance and the roster to stay healthy. Two problems, title changes were spoiled, often, and people got hurt, often. As for the WWF, Superstars, their long-time Saturday morning staple on syndicated television, was moved to the USA Network in 1996 where it became a de facto highlight show, until its cancellation in 2001. It briefly returned to television from 2008 - 2010 for WGN America and still runs today as an Internet-only show in the US, and as a TV show in many international markets. In its place was Shotgun Saturday Night, which was originally done from various New York locales. It was an edgier version of Superstars that lasted from 1997 - 1999. Though Nitro has been gone for more than a decade, syndicated wrestling shows still hang around (Ring of Honor (ROH)s comes to mind, for many) but you notice they're no longer the jobberfests they once were.
Yet, for all the good Nitro did, and it did plenty for the business, it did a lot of bad as well. Here are ten reasons why Nitro was the worst thing ever for WCW.
- The third hour. Granted, WCW had a deep enough roster to support a third hour of wrestling on Monday night (I read somewhere once that WCW had over a hundred wrestlers under contract-that's just insane), but there is a such thing as too much. Especially during the height of Nitro's popularity, it was about one group of wrestlers: the New World Order (nWo). By 1998, when Nitro was still popular and viable, people were tired of the black and white express. So in WCW's infinite wisdom, no less than four groups were spawned from the nWo. The nWo got so big it didn't split in half, it split in three: Hollywood A-Team, Hollywood B-Team and Wolfpac. Then there was the Latino World Order (lWo), really. Don't worry, you didn't miss much, it was only around for about three months before Eddie Guerrero was nearly killed in an auto accident on New Year's Eve, 1998, which effectively put an end to the storyline. Then there was the One Warrior Nation (oWn) that had exactly two members. That left a huge number of wrestlers (read: anyone not associated with the nWo factions) that were criminally underused or just plain forgotten altogether.
- Long-term booking was thrown away in favor of hot-shotting angles. This was the case often from Nitro's early days until WCW's death, in 2001. The show was often booked on the fly, sometimes while the show was in progress. This was one of many reasons disgust and distrust were common place behind the scenes in WCW. With many top stars having creative control written in their contract, many would go weeks at a time without showing up, even when they weren't injured. It's hard to make plans when your biggest money makers are the least reliable.
- Big matches every week. As mentioned earlier, this was both a blessing and a curse. Here's the curse: PPV matches were given away on free television (well, non-PPV, seeing as basic cable is hardly free) often. The day Lex Luger won what would end up being his last WCW title - on Nitro. Goldberg's big win in the ATL with nearly 40,000 people watching - on Nitro. Ric Flair's last world title - handed to him - you guessed it - on Nitro. Hogan vs. Nash (you know, the Fingerpoke of Doom match) could have been a big deal on PPV, seeing that they were the leaders of the warring nWo factions. Nope, it happened - on Nitro. Goldberg vs. Diamond Dallas Page for the WCW title - on Nitro (due to the PPV from the night before running over because of Hogan-Warrior II). There's no telling how much money was lost because matches that could have been reserved for PPV were put on TNT instead, just to pop a rating; sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
- Only the next quarter-hour mattered. When the WWF overtook WCW in 1998, Nitro began chasing ratings points any way they could: booked storyline swerves that made no sense, booked title changes that weren't necessary, booked matches that people wanted to see earlier than necessary. Anything to get a few more viewers, regardless of how sensible it was. The Nielsen ratings and PPV buyrates mattered more than any long-term plans.
- It got WCW in court. And quite a bit, too. Two such incidents involved Madusa's dumping of the WWF Womens Championship on WCW Nitro in 1995, and the original formation of the nWo the next year, where the WWF implied that the Scott Hall and Kevin Nash characters played too close to the Razor Ramon and Diesel characters of the WWF. This, despite the fact that both Hall and Nash said on WCW programming (after being asked point blank) that they didn't work for the WWF. Though WCW won their fair share of lawsuits, I'm guessing the good folks at Turner didn't like the legal bills they were left holding.
- Two words: Vince Russo. When Russo left the WWF in September, 1999 for WCW along with Ed Ferrara, he wanted to stick it to his boss any and every way possible. His mission: to recreate the Attitude Era for WCW. Two problems: (1) he didn't have the McMahon filter he had in his WWF run, so a lot of mess went through, and (2) the dwindling audience was more into the "Southern rasslin" style. His haphazard booking got him booted from his job just three months in, only to be brought back three months later when that booking team did worse. Russo's second run (initially coordinated with Eric Bischoff) was both a critical and financial disaster of epic proportions. Oh, and on the fifth anniversary show, he booked himself to win the world title. No, I'm not kidding.
- Celebrities: why are they there? Here's a short list of big (and in many cases, expensive) names that appeared in matches or on-screen in-ring promos on Nitro: Master P, Karl Malone, Dennis Rodman, Kevin Greene, Reggie White. I believe Jay Leno appeared once on Nitro, though I'm not totally sure. KISS (you know, the band?) appeared on their show once for a musical performance. It was the anti-"This Is Your Life", the lowest segment in Nitro history. Bischoff, in an effort to be mainstream, spent millions and millions of Turner's dollars to get some media exposure. I didn't even mention David Arquette, who appeared on an episode of Nitro (along with Courtney Cox, his smoking hot wife at the time) as the WCW World Heavyweight Champion. It would be funny, if it wasn't so sad. Fuck you very much, WCW, for making that happen.
- Surrounding your show with one group is a bad idea if badly executed. Case in point, the nWo. They went from being the focal point of the show to being THE show. Anything a WCW guy did almost didn't matter in the grand scheme of things because both behind the scenes and on camera, if you weren't nWo, you were left behind. The group became such a huge part of the show they nearly changed the name of it to nWo Monday Nitro. Why didn't they? During their "trial run" which was the Monday before Starrcade 1997, they needed nearly a half-hour to break down the set and replace WCW stuff with nWo stuff. Mind you, the breakdown didn't occur during commercials or between tapings, but during the show. It was the lowest-rated quarter hour of the fall for the show.
- It assumed we all had the Internet. When a worked shoot, or a plain shoot, happens once in a while, it catches viewers and fans by surprise (see Punk, CM, June 2011). But when it happens nearly every week, it's not nearly as surprising or effective. This was the case quite a bit during the Russo era when inside references to behind-the-scenes incidents and wrestling jargon were tossed around like everyday conversation. Note to wrestling promoters everywhere: just give us a good show. If behind-the-scenes stuff isn't relevant to the story line, we don't want it. Granted, today we probably all have the Internet, but back in 2000, while it was exploding, probably less than half of all wrestling fans even had access to the web, at best. And those who did, likely had frighteningly slow dial-up.
- Nitro became the WWF Seniors Tour. Even before the nWo formed in 1996, it was very hard for younger talent to break through to the main event. And they have one man to thank for that: Terry Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan. When he signed on with WCW in 1994, his many friends and associates (and rivals) were thrust into the main event picture. In addition, many of the older stars on the roster were seen in the main event positions over and over again. Rarely did young blood break through. When they did, their legs were soon cut out from beneath (see Goldberg, William). The difference became clearer when right at the same time, WWF's main event was skewing younger. No wonder why guys like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, and Chris Jericho left.
For all the flack that WCW got in its existence (and deservedly so, in my view), WCW Monday Nitro was one of wrestling's greatest creations. It changed the television wrestling program, and in turn, it changed wrestling forever. The Monday night show that made WCW also broke WCW. Monday Nitro: for wrestling, it was both the best and worst thing ever.
So where do you come out on this? Do you have any best and worst Nitro moments to share?