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25 years later, the formation of the nWo is still wrestling’s greatest story ever told

The greatest storytelling in the history of our sport

As Geno points out, WWE is in celebration mode this week.

July 7 marks 25 years since Hulk Hogan dropped his leg across Randy Savage’s chest at Bash at the Beach and formally announced the nWo. Word to the great Ghostface Killah, wrestling would never be the same again, and we’re still living in the aftermath of that hot summer night from many moons ago. While the nWo achieved the highest of highs and hit several low points along the way, the group’s formation is the greatest story in the history of professional wrestling.

Before we even get to the part about wrestling’s prominent “good guy” trading in his red and yellow for black and white, we have to talk about the era in wrestling that made such a thing possible. Kayfabe was still very much a thing in the late ‘90s, with wrestling striking the perfect balance between reality and illusion. As the very dope Brian Pillman Dark Side of the Ring episode notes, wrestlers who colored outside of the lines made even fans who considered themselves smarter than the average fan question truth. Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Hulk Hogan, and Eric Bischoff worked perfectly within that sweet spot.

From the very start, the nWo played on the genuine business rivalry between WCW and WWF. When Scott stepped onto the scene in May ‘96, shortly after one final curtain call in WWF, it was different. Rather than show up as a wrestler with entrance music and a new look, he came out of the crowd. Instead of getting his own match, Hall interrupted matches and talked directly to WCW’s executive brass. Scott wasn’t concerned with wrestling; he told the bosses he was ready to engineer a hostile takeover. When Hall showed up in jeans, boots, a denim vest he could only rock in the ‘90s, and a toothpick behind his ear, it caused even those hardcore fans to wonder if his WWF exit was just a long-term hustle to destroy Vince McMahon’s competition.

Hall, always the creative genius, understood that possibly better than anyone. Despite not being in a WWF ring anymore, he still walked, talked, and acted like Razor Ramon. The man even implied he was “sent” to WCW with a mission. Since he wasn’t one of the Blues Brothers, the only higher power with enough clout to send Hall or any wrestler anywhere during that time was one Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

That line between fact and fiction only got blurrier when Kevin Nash showed up. Kevin and Scott “bought tickets” for Monday Nitro, they were “invited” to the Great American Bash, and they were escorted out by security whenever they caused a little too much havoc. Hall and Nash created more intrigue when they promised they weren’t alone, and speculation—no pun intended—ran wild as to who the third man was.

For a brand of entertainment known for its scripting and predetermination, everything they did in May and June felt like one giant, unpredictable ad-lib. And it helped WCW expertly build suspense and anticipation for Bash at the Beach, setting the stage for a battle over the company’s future.

On hiatus from WCW, Hogan was barely two years into his run, hardly long enough to consider him a loyal company man like Sting or Ric Flair. Hogan was never entirely accepted by the World Championship Wrestling faithful. Either because Hulkamania was passé or because he was always seen as Vince’s guy, something never fully clicked. But he was still “Hulk Hogan.” When push came to shove, as it often does in wrestling, the belief was the “real American” would always do the right thing because that’s what superheroes do.

When Hogan turned heel on July 7, 1996, it played on several elements that came before:

  • Hogan’s history with WWF
  • His tepid reception in WCW
  • His relationship with McMahon
  • The anti-WWF sentiment among WCW fans

But even the fans who didn’t particularly like Hogan still believed in him. They damn sure didn’t want to see two WWF interlopers defeat WCW’s heroes. The amount of garbage thrown at the ring can attest to that. Hulk told the fans they could “stick it,” and they responded in kind.

The formation of the nWo confirmed fans’ worst fears: WCW let entirely too many roosters into the hen house, and the World Wrestling Federation was taking over. While that last part was never explicit, it’s the subtext that underlined almost three months of storytelling. WCW provided all the necessary elements of a compelling drama by going against the grain. It was the last time when doing such a thing and eliciting real emotion from fans was possible.

Five years earlier, and it’s too soon. Five years later, and it’s the invasion angle. WCW produced a story perfect for a time where wrestling’s curtain wasn’t entirely pulled back. Even if fans got little peeks behind the veil, there was still so much we didn’t know. The formation of the nWo used those unknown variables to its advantage, and the rest is, well, you know.

Tony Schiavone said it a lot, but he was spot on this time: 1996’s Bash at the Beach was the most important night in the history of our sport.

And it’s one that we’ll likely never, ever see again.

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