Welcome to Article Lucky 13 of this series! Today we look at the Last Days of the Reign of Terror of Archduke Herd.
Wrestling is a cyclical business. At some point in every champion's career the bumps get that bit more painful, the spots get that little bit more difficult to perform, the physique gets a little less toned and the character is a little less captivating for the audience. At this stage, tradition states that said champion should hand the torch to the up and comer to legitimise him as the next face of the franchise.
Somehow, in 1991 WCW would manage to bungle this idea so that the torch was not only not passed, but the torch ended up at another company altogether. Though the fire still managed to burn down WCW.
In 1991 Jim Herd was attempting to keep up with the WWE juggernaut that he saw as beginning to dominate the wrestling world. Instead of offering a viable alternative to the product based on the talents and the stroylines that southern 'wrasslin' was rooted in, Herd had been attempting to beat the WWE at its own game. Cartoonish gimmicks such as the Ding Dongs were used to attempt and gain new fans into the business while novelties like El Gigante (later repackaged in the WWE as Giant Gonzalez) were employed for their appearance rather than any discernible ring talent.
But WCW still had some trump cards up their sleeve. They had the Four Horsemen- arguably the biggest stable in wrestling history as well some interesting rising talent in Sting and Lex Luger.
And WCW had Ric Flair- who was still the company's biggest draw- despite being 42. To say the Nature Boy was respected by the fans would be like saying the Pope is slightly Catholic. The fans hugely admired him for the miles that he had put in for the business he loved and the fact that he had never turned his back on WCW and the NWA for the temptation of the WWE.
And then Jim Herd begun doing Vince McMahon's job for him.
Ric Flair in Jim Herd's eyes was the past- a relic that needed to stand aside for the future of Sting and Lex Luger. One would think that in this situation that the idea would be for Flair to use his legitimacy as a former World Champion and main eventer to put over these young talents as the new faces of the company and more beyond.
Herd had a different idea. He believed that Flair would be best suited shaving his head, wearing a diamond earring and adopting a Roman Gladiator gimmick by the name of Spartacus to change with the times (I personally don't recall Roman gladiators making a screaming come back into pop culture in 1991, but that may be just me) as well as making Flair take a significant pay cut despite the fact he was still the top draw in the company.
Imagine Sting vs Flair for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. That is an event that has credence. Sting vs Spartacus on the other hand sounds stupid and shows how much Herd was willing to trash the heritage of both the wrestlers and the promotion in order to try and ape the WWE.
While all this was going on, Herd booked Flair to drop the WCW title to Luger at the Great American Bash, but Flair refused to go through with the job as Herd had promised Flair that he would lose it to Sting- something that Flair himself had also promised the Stinger. Having reneged on his promise but not prepared to do what he had promised earlier, Herd decided that there was only course of action.
He fired Ric Flair with only two weeks to go until the Great American Bash.
Just consider that for a second. The executive of WCW decided to fire the face of his franchise two weeks before one of the biggest events in their calendar because he was not willing to negotiate with his top guy on a promise that he had made.
Herd's decision torpedoed much of what was going for WCW in both the short-term and the long-term. Not only did the fans not get the main event they paid for- whcih was Luger vs Flair in a Steel Cage Match, but Luger and Sting would not get the chance to get as much of a main event rub from the Nature Boy that they could have had Flair stayed in WCW.
What was worse though was that Flair, having been fired from WCW- saw that his loyalty to the NWA and to WCW was not being validated and so jumped ship to WWE with the World Heavyweight Title in tow in one of the biggest coups in wrestling history- leaving WCW not only without a champion, but also a championship as well. The Great American Bash crowd responded as well as many would have predicted, with the crowd chanting for Flair all throughout the event- leaving WCW looking like a laughing stock while WWE rubbed their hands and waited with baited breath for their newest acquisitions- Ric Flair and the WCW World Heavyweight Championship.
Flair and Savage then proceeded to tear the house down at Wrestlemania (though not in the Main Event, which was granted to Hogan and Sid Justice in one of Vince's less inspired booking decisions) and Jim Herd soon found himself out of a job. Without Ric Flair to be the figurehead, the NWA and WCW seemed more and more like the past to the visionary outlooks of McMahon's WWE. When Flair joined them it seemed to signal to a lot of wrestling fans that WWE was prepared to be the national wrestling show while WCW couldn't even sort out it's own dirty laundry.
The massive irony about all of this is that if Herd and Flair could have come to some sort of agreement then WCW may have stolen a march on the WWE in the next year or so. WWE would soon be dogged with the steroid scandal and McMahon would be trying to move away from Hogan to figures like Bret Hart. Had WCW continued to have Flair in its locker room, WCW may have been able to promote itself as the true home of wrestling, where families could tune in for wholesome entertainment. As it was, WCW lacked the truly big name to stick up against WWE when the scandal hit.
The firing of Ric Flair of WCW was a massive blow for WCW and seemed to the final nail in the coffin of a policy where executives from outside the wrestling business seemed to tell those inside how to do their jobs. The stewardesses on a plane don't go into the cockpit and give the pilot a few pointers, but in WCW at least they believed that wrestling was an easy thing to book and master.
It would also be the horrible booking of the executives as well as the tactlessness of some of the actual wrestling personalities that would leave the door open for Eric Bischoff to waltz in and take over WCW in the early 90s. Put simply, WCW had been burned so many times with wrestlers and non-wrestlers that an inoffensive former wrestling TV announcer probably seemed like a good compromise.
Finally, it also saw Hogan and Flair wrestle under the same franchise for the first time when they were both real names. The match may not have happened there, but already one could have seen that Hogan had Flair covered. His match went on last despite Flair and Savage being the title match- something that would never really change between these two men as their paths continued to cross throughout their careers.
Well, that's article 13. Next time we look at what happens when someone takes offence at your PDA. See you soon!