How WCW Squandered Its Future in 1994

When it comes to the death of WCW most of the conversation revolves around the horrendous creative of Vince Russo from 1999-2001 and the tumultuous backstage politics with parent company AOL/Time Warner (Now WarnerMedia) happening at the same time. While there is no question that Russo’s ineptitude at booking a wrestling show and the instability within WCW corporate ultimately put the final nail in the coffin, WCW was a lost cause years before. Hulk Hogan’s arrival in the summer of 1994 and the subsequent re-centering of the company around him set WCW on a path to its own destruction. In bringing in Hogan, WCW gained the biggest star in wrestling at the time but they also signed one of the worst contracts in pro wrestling history, gave one talent entirely too much say, and focused more on the present with no regard for the future, ultimately squandering the potential of its pre-existing talent in the long term for a short term success.

WCW Pre-Hogan

In the years before Hulk Hogan arrived WCW can best be described as a hot mess. From the regime of the unqualified Jim Herd to the brief tenure of the overly generous Kip Frey to the reign of the stingy, old-school "Cowboy" Bill Watts, the top position in WCW was a bit of a revolving door. The position of booker was as well. By the spring of 94, when WCW was wooing Hogan, Eric Bischoff had ascended from second-string commentator to Executive Vice President after Watts ouster amid allegations of racism and Ric Flair had replaced old rival Dusty Rhodes as head of the booking committee. From a creative standpoint WCW was actually in a good place. Flair was champion after defeating Vader in a fantastic main event of Starrcade the previous December. In addition to Vader, Sting and Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat added strong veteran presence and skill to the roster. Most importantly WCW was awash in young talent like "The Natural" Dustin Rhodes, "Stunning" Steve Austin, Johnny B. Badd, Lord Steven Regal, and Cactus Jack. Spring Stampede, the second-to-last PPV prior to the Hogan era, was well-received and featured a wild tag-team brawl between the Nasty Boys and the team of Cactus Jack and Maxx Payne, a superheavyweight slugfest with Vader and The Boss, and a stellar WCW title main event between Steamboat and Flair. Though buyrates and overall visibility as compared to the WWF weren’t great, there was potential in WCW’s future if the talent could be harnessed properly. Instead, WCW opted for an immediate fix via hitching their fortunes to the drawing power of Hulk Hogan.

Hulk Hogan Circa 1994

By the spring of 1994 Hogan’s red and yellow American hero act was a decade old. He’d last won the WWF Championship from Yokozuna in an impromptu second main event at WrestleMania IX only to lose it back to Yoko at the inaugural King of the Ring in June before leaving the company. When the federal government indicted Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation on federal steroid distribution charges, Hogan agreed to be the key witness, souring his relationship with the company and damaging any hopes for a comeback. With the WWF in the midst of the ultimately doomed Lex Luger experiment, Hogan set his sights on Hollywood. He began filming the show Thunder in Paradise in the fall of 93. It was during the process of filming this show that he began to entertain the idea of returning to wrestling for WCW.

Bringing Hogan in: The World’s Worst Business Deal

In the June 11, 1994 edition of the Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter, Wade Keller reported that Hogan had officially signed with WCW. The initial contract was only for six months but the financial terms of the deal were staggering. Hogan was to make $300,000 each for appearances at four PPVs and three Clash of the Champions TV specials. That adds up to guaranteed minimum payment of $2.1 million. On top of that, Hogan was entitled to 25% of any year-to-year PPV revenue increase for the shows he appeared on. Per Keller’s math that would be an additional $300,000 per show. It is important to understand how financially stupid this was for WCW. For years Eric Bischoff has repeatedly bragged about how WCW finally turned a profit in 1995. That means that at the time Hogan signed in 1994, WCW was at best breaking even and more likely losing money. Somehow though they thought it was a good idea to commit to paying one talent over two million dollars and a percentage of their PPV revenue which otherwise would have gone towards covering that exorbitant salary. That on its face sounds like a bad business deal especially when you consider that there was a locker room full of other talents who also had to be paid and were not getting cuts of the PPV houses. Bischoff was essentially gambling the fortunes of WCW on Hogan being a draw. In addition to the absurd financial component of the contract, Hogan also got creative control, meaning he could refuse to do a job or ask for a change in creative. While a wrestler having input was not new, Hogan having veto power was a bad precedent that ultimately came back to bite the company.

Road to Bash at the Beach

Hulk Hogan made his WCW debut on the June 27 Clash of the Champions XXVII to a thunderous crowd reception and immediately kicked off his feud with Flair. Hogan’s arrival did bring mainstream attention to WCW as major news outlets like CNN and newspapers covered his grand return to wrestling. To WCW’s credit the creative building up this dream match of the two biggest stars of the 1980s was surprisingly strong. The press conference officially announcing the match featured the first and only TV appearance of Ted Turner himself. That showed how important this match was to the company. The match itself delivered well beyond expectations, especially for a match featuring Hulk Hogan. Ric Flair and to a lesser extent "Sensuous" Sherri Martel did their best to make Hogan look good. Hogan did hold up his end of the match and walked out of Bash at the Beach WCW World Heavyweight Champion. For Bischoff and WCW, the Hogan gamble more than paid off as Bash at the Beach more than doubled the buyrate of the previous year’s Beach Blast, becoming the highest grossing PPV in WCW history to that point.

Turning Point: Fall Brawl

By any metric Hogan’s debut PPV was a success yet that success was a double-edged sword as it validated Hogan’s inherent egomania and increased his ability to influence decisions backstage. Up to this point Hogan’s entourage only included then-best friend Ed Leslie as Brother Bruti and Jimmy Hart. That changed at Fall Brawl with the surprise debut of "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan. On its face Duggan’s arrival would not be a big deal. The problem is that Duggan debuted by defeating "Stunning" Steve Austin for the United States championship in 10 seconds. Austin was rising star in WCW at the time and was coming off an excellent series of matches with Ricky Steamboat who had suffered a career-ending injury that forced him to vacate the title to Austin. So to be clear, Steve Austin, a guy who demonstrated that he could hang with one the best and most respected workers of all time, was squashed by a guy who was never a good wrestler and whose best days were in Mid-South in the mid 80s. That was only a sign of things to come. Hogan and Flair were scheduled to have a rematch at Halloween Havoc. This time not only would the match be fought inside a steel cage but Flair had been convinced to put his career up alongside Hogan’s and retire from the ring when he inevitably lost the match. By all accounts the decision to "retire" Flair came from WCW not Hogan but it definitely benefited Hogan by removing his biggest rival for the top spot in the company. With Mr. T as the special referee, Hogan defeated and "retired" Ric Flair. It was the post-match though that really shifted WCW into a new bleak era. A running storyline coming into the match was Hogan being targeted by a masked assailant. When the assailant attempted to strike after Hogan’s victory, he was unmasked and revealed to be Brother Bruti. Bruti, along with Kevin Sullivan and the debuting John Tenta, formerly Earthquake, as Avalanche attacked Hogan until Sting made the save. By the end of Halloween Havoc, Jim Duggan held the second most important title in the company and Ed Leslie and John Tenta, last seen wrestling an awful sumo match against Yokozuna on WWF Monday Night Raw, were in the main event picture. The event nearly doubled the buyrate from the previous year though.

Cronyism and Killing Careers

In the wake of Halloween Havoc another Hogan buddy joined the fray in the form of The Honky Tonk Man. His was a mercifully short run which ended when he walked out of Starrcade after refusing to do a clean job to Johnny B Badd. Speaking of Starrcade, the 1994 edition of WCW’s biggest event of the year was perhaps the starkest display yet of how fully entrenched the Hogan era already was. Vader, a man who worked with one of the premier workers of his (or any other) generation the previous year, was relegated to working with "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan. Sting, the top babyface in the company the previous two years, got the dubious task of getting a match out of Avalanche despite Tenta being out his brief prime. Mr. T, another friend of Hogan's had a match with Kevin Sullivan that was as bad as it sounds. The main event was Hulk Hogan battling Ed Leslie now going by the name The Butcher. The match was terrible, a far cry from Vader vs Flair the year before, but hey Hogan got his best friend a PPV main event. The message about who was in charge and who was getting pushed was about as subtle as a clove of garlic. Hogan and his friends were the priority regardless of their limited working ability and the fact that the majority of their careers were behind them not in front of them.

The first casualty, albeit indirectly, of this mistake in prioritization was young up-and-comer named Jean-Paul Levesque. Levesque had originally come into the company with the punny name Terra Ryzing but in the fall of 94, switched to a heel Connecticut aristocrat. For several weeks prior to his departure he was being scouted by Lord Steven Regal as a prospective tag team partner (Bobby Eaton wound up filling the role opposite Regal in the Blue Bloods). Levesque was offered a contract for $1500 per week or $78,000 a year, significantly less than the $130,000 a year his would-be partner Regal was receiving. Last year in an interview with Loudwire’s Wikipedia: Fact or Fiction, Levesque, who of course went on to great fame as Triple H, confirmed that it was indeed money that forced him to jump to the WWF saying in part, "I was losing a lot of money on wrestling". He says he even suggested foregoing the multi-year contract WCW offered for a year deal in order to prove his worth which he says Bischoff called a "dumb decision". Bischoff for his part was largely indifferent to Levesque’s departure reflecting on an edition of his 83 Weeks podcast that Levesque not living in or around Atlanta was a problem financially for the company and that he didn't think a teetotaler like Levesque fit in with the boys.

The next victim of WCW's ineptitude was Dustin Rhodes. At the first Uncensored PPV Rhodes took part in the infamous King of the Road match with Blacktop Bully (Barry Darsow's trucker character). The match which took place on the back of flatbed truck driving down the highway was filmed in advance and aired at the event. During the match both Rhodes and Bully bled which was in direct violation of WCW's no blood policy. As a result, Rhodes, Bully, and the road agent for the match Mike Graham were all fired. While it sounds like it was a termination for cause the reality is Turner had ordered WCW to cut $500,000 in costs. Dustin simply gave WCW a place where they could cut some of those costs without calling it cost cutting. Losing Levesque was one thing, losing Dustin was another. Levesque was a promising prospect, Dustin on the other hand was a second-generation stud, a former US and tag team champion. WCW had invested a lot of time and effort into Dustin including building their signature WarGames match around his feud with Col. Robert Parker’s Stud Stable in 94. Still, he was expendable in the eyes of WCW management.

Getting squeezed out because of belt tightening as a result of Hogan’s bloated contract is bad enough, but what happened to Vader and "Stunning" Steve Austin was even more egregious. Vader had spent 1992 and 93 dominating WCW. As champion for a large portion of that time he had great matches with Sting, Ric Flair, and Cactus Jack with whom he had a couple of the most brutal violent matches you’ll ever see. Even after losing the title he stayed in the upper mid-card engaging in a big man feud with The Boss/Guardian Angel. After Hogan "retired" Flair and quickly dispatched with The Butcher, Vader was the natural next opponent. The two had a confrontation following the main event at Starrcade that was better than the match that preceded it. And then came Clash of the Champions XXX. Following the main event which saw Hogan and new acquisition "Macho Man" Randy Savage defeat the Butcher and Kevin Sullivan, Vader stormed the ring, attacking Hogan and hitting him with his trademark powerbomb. Hogan was down a second or two before jumping up and virtually no-selling the move. Hogan blatantly going into business for himself not only undercut interest in the SuperBrawl match, Vader was understandably furious. It also contributed to a tense situation backstage ahead of the match. In the February 11th Torch, Keller reported that "neither man trusted the other" or would do the job for the other. To the surprise of nobody, the PPV match ended in a DQ when Ric Flair interfered. The two met again the following month at Uncensored in a leather strap match. Once again neither man would do a clean job so head booker Ric Flair came up with the solution of having Hogan drag him to all four corners instead. That kind of toxicity was not good for business. Ultimately the feud ended at Bash at the Beach (the infamous one that took place on an actual beach) when Hogan defeated Vader in a steel cage match. That proved to be Vader’s last hurrah in WCW. Vader was turned face at the conclusion of Bash at the Beach and scheduled to team with Hogan, Sting, and Savage against the Dungeon of Doom in the WarGames match at Fall Brawl. In early September Vader got fired after a legendary confrontation with Paul Orndorff. Even if he hadn’t gotten himself fired, Vader was not built to be a face. It's not possible to know the longevity of a Vader face run but it's not a stretch to think it wouldn't have been tremendously successful. It was quite the ignominious fall for a man who was once the top heel in the company and arguably the top star or at least the number two behind Sting.

The situation with "Stunning" Steve Austin was even more insulting. Following his ten second loss to Duggan, Austin was on the shelf for a few months with a knee injury. He returned in late March to little fanfare. In May he balked at WCW’s request that he put over The Renegade, the Ultimate Warrior knockoff Hogan brought in, and walked out of a TV taping. Flair was able to persuade Austin to come back and do the job on the promise that Austin would be reunited with old tag partner Brian Pillman as the Hollywood Blondes. That promise never came to fruition as Austin was infamously fired via FedEx in September after injuring his triceps in June. It was reported in the Torch in June that Bischoff didn’t think Austin was "gimmicked enough" to fit in. There’s no question that Austin hardly fit into the increasingly cartoony environment WCW was creating with the Dungeon of Doom. Still the idea that there was no place for an athlete the caliber of Austin in the company is a reflection on the priorities of the company. Austin was a former two-time TV champion, two-time US champion, and former tag-team champion with Pillman. He was significantly pushed for years yet Bischoff could find nothing for him in Hulk Hogan’s WCW.

Those four people are not the only ones who were negatively affected. They were just the ones that ultimately ended up on the outside. "Das Wunderkind" Alex Wright was an undefeated rookie prospect in the spring of 1995. Wright was scheduled to face Arn Anderson for the TV title at Slamboree. According to reports in the Torch, the Hogan camp pushed for Wright to lose so that the Renegade could defeat Anderson for the TV title the following month. Ric Flair, head booker at the time, reportedly felt so bad for Wright that he re-wrote the ending of a television match that aired after Slamboree and changed the finish to a DQ. Wright’s booking was suspect the next couple of months as the Hogan camp viewed as a threat to the Renegade, unsurprising given how awful Renegade was between the ropes. The mere fact that Hogan and his cronies would attempt to kneecap a young up-and-comer like Wright for a bum like Renegade just further highlights how toxic they were for WCW’s overall future.

They Could’ve Seen This Coming

The decimation of the next generation in the wake of Hogan’s arrival and de facto takeover of WCW should not have been a surprise to anyone. Vince McMahon created the Hulk Hogan monster by centering his company around Hogan. By the time took Hogan his hiatus from the WWF in 1992, things were a mess. There was no clear heir apparent because there had never been a plan for one. The title bounced from Flair to Savage back to Flair and then to Bret Hart all inside nine months. Bret of course lost the title to Yokozuna at WrestleMania IX only for Yoko to drop the belt back to Hogan. According to well-documented stories Hogan was supposed to drop the title back to Bret but refused leading to Yoko regaining the title. Given Hogan’s character or lack thereof, I tend to believe those stories. Hogan didn’t want to put over another babyface. He didn’t want to pass the torch, probably for fear that it would mean he was no longer the center of the universe. Though Kevin Nash (as Diesel) got a sustained push it really took until 1996 before WWF found someone (Shawn Michaels) to make the centerpiece star of the company. If they’d been paying attention even a little bit WCW brass would’ve seen all the issues Hogan brought with him in addition to the name value. In an interview with the Torch not long after his departure from WCW, a departure that occurred just as Hogan arrived, Mick Foley told Wade Keller that upward mobility was already an issue within the company. Bringing in a guy who was notoriously protective of being the top guy to the point of undercutting others was not going to help this problem. WCW had not only their future but the future of wrestling in the palms of their hands and they opted to throw them away in favor of riding the Hogan wave. That wave was successful for a time but ultimately the fact that they had little experience getting over new talent cost them everything.

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