ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY... 15 years ago, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) held its annual Starrcade event on December 28th, 1997. Since the 1980's, Starrcade was the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Mid-Atlantic's top event and remained as such when the promotion was bought and renamed to World Championship Wrestling by "Billionaire" Ted Turner, owner, operator, and innovator of Cable Networks CNN, TBS, and TNT. The event used to be a Thanksgiving tradition until Survivor Series 1987 challenged its spot. Starrcade then became a December tradition and dominated that month for over a decade as WCW's #1 big show of the year. Starrcade was WCW's Wrestlemania, so to speak.
Starrcade 1997 was supposed to be the biggest Pay Per View of the 1990's. In fact, before Wrestlemania 14 in 1998 outdrew it a few months later to kick off the WWF "Attitude Era", Starrcade 1997 was in fact the #1 drawing Pay Per View of ALL TIME (well, maybe tied with WWF's Wrestlemania 5 in 1989). The hype for Starrcade 1997 was HUGE during 1997. WCW was the top promotion in the world and continued to extend its ratings streak for WCW Nitro over WWF's Monday Night RAW since 1996. WCW had the hottest angle in the land with the New World Order (NWO) heel stable and one of the deepest talent rosters of all time. Starrcade 1997 was supposed to be the show that further distanced itself from its main competitor, World Wrestling Federation (WWF) who had some rough times during 1997. After all, the WWF just gave away Bret "the Hitman" Hart to WCW by opting out of Bret's 20 year WWF deal. In fact, Bret Hart was actually booked to participate at Starrcade 1997.
The show featured what should have been the ultimate blow-off match between then WCW Champion and leader of the NWO "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan versus WCW mainstay and top babyface, Sting. With the New World Order assembling as a massive heel stable during 1996 (core members Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, the Giant [Big Show now in WWE], Syxx [Sean Waltman or X-Pac], and Ted Dibiase), there was a great need for a major babyface foe to square off against the NWO. Lex Luger did a great job during 1997 and even beat Hogan for the WCW Title on Nitro during the Summer of 1997 (Hogan won it back immediately at the Pay Per View). Diamond Dallas Page rose to fame with his Diamond Cutter and became a thorn in NWO's side. His feud with eventual NWO member, "Macho Man" Randy Savage was legendary and DDP is forever grateful for that awesome feud. NWO dismissed the Giant (again, Big Show now in WWE) from the group during late 1996 and he feuded with the NWO for much of 1997. Rowdy Roddy Piper joined WCW at Halloween Havoc 1996 to go after Hogan.
But with due respect to the talents of Lex Luger, Diamond Dallas Page, the Giant (Big Show now in WWE!!!), and Roddy Piper... They didn't defend the WCW shield like the man called Sting. Sting has been with NWA/WCW since 1987 and unlike about every major star in the industry, Sting never jumped ship to another promotion. In fact, he remained with WCW through the promotion's closure during March 2001, even fighting in the very last WCW match against Ric Flair. He was the perfect foe for Hulk Hogan and elements of that could be seen during a November 20th, 1995 edition of WCW Nitro when Hogan and Sting squared off on WCW Nitro. Yes, the famous "he's gonna break it Macho" match, with Hogan dressed in black ironically at the time (he was trying to show his dark side when feuding with the infamous "Dungeon of Doom" stable). WCW fans loved Sting and WCW embarked on a 1 year+ build-up of an eventual Hulk Hogan vs. Sting match-up.
The angle was quite awesome... With the NWO expanding with new members, WCW flirted with the idea that Sting was going to join the NWO. Before Fall Brawl 1996, with the NWO considering its team against Team WCW, Nitro ran a shocking ending for its September 9th, 1996 Nitro where "Sting" came out of a limo and attacked Lex Luger. Here, with "shades of 1990 Halloween Havoc" with Barry Windham dressing up as Sting to lose to Sid Vicious for the WCW Title, a guy dressed up as Sting came out of the limo and attacked Luger! The wrestling world was shocked when they thought that their loyal Stinger had joined the NWO!
But it wasn't Sting... Sting played up the fact that nobody believed his loyalty by showing up the Team WCW at Fall Brawl 1996 and then delivered 2 awesome promos: one with his back turned on WCW and the other in front of the NWO with a new look. Sting was beginning to grow his blond hair out, but in response to an inquiring NWO about joining, yet again, Sting debuted white and black paint like the comic book character the Crow and wore a black trench coat. This was a much darker Sting compared to the bright colored tights and the spiked blond hair. His response to the NWO was classic... "The one thing about Sting these days is nothing's for sure", dropping the microphone, and walking away to a baffled Hulk Hogan. Sting would lurk for much of the next 6 months or so from the rafters, often randomly attacking various WCW wrestlers with a new reverse DDT finisher called the Scorpion Deathdrop. The build up was incredible as his bizarre actions attacking random WCW wrestlers kept fans questioning whether he was still loyal to WCW or not. Great booking that just built the anticipation.
And then Sting struck the NWO. Following the Uncensored 1997 during March 1997 in which the NWO won a group battle match which granted them unlimited power in WCW to challenge for any title at any time, Sting dropped from the rafters and attacked the NWO! The fans in attendance went BONKERS! For the next 9 months, WCW slowly hyped the match that couldn't be avoided: Hulk Hogan vs. Sting. Eventually, the match was made for WCW's biggest show of the year, Starrcade 1997. This show was dripping with anticipation, as fans were already wearing thin on how dominant that the New World Order had become.
The New World Order (NWO), conceived initially as an unofficial WWF "Invasion" angle with a then unnamed Scott Hall and then Kevin Nash showing up unannounced at various WCW events. Hall and Nash would challenge WCW for a 3 on 3 match at Bash at the Beach 1996 in which a mystery 3rd member would be revealed at the show. Hulk Hogan, who was taking time off after the Uncensored 1996 debacle of a match, would end up being the 3rd man and thus turning heel. Hulk Hogan arrived in WCW during 1994 and Eric Bischoff pushed him hard initially as the Red & Yellow babyface he was known for with the WWF but many Southern wrestling fans disliked him because they disliked they Northeast WWF brand of wrestling. For almost 2 years, they had to endure Hulkamania and the cheers became less and less... The timing was perfect for a heel turn and becoming the 3rd man of the NWO fit the bill.
Hall, Nash, and Hogan became a dominant force in WCW, calling themselves the "New World Order of professional wrestling". The NWO name stuck immediately, as did the t-shirts and the awesome paid advertisement promos. They expanded the group almost by the month, at first having great additions but eventually adding almost half of the promotion. The NWO dominated the titles, held their own Pay Per View (Souled Outs in January), and Hulk Hogan had a stranglehold on the WCW Title. By late 1997, however, the NWO was beginning to wear thin on wrestling fans. Too many members, too much merchandise, and just the same repetitive stuff. WCW's Creative Staff, too, began to ditch long-term booking and were booking by the show. Hulk Hogan was beginning to use his contracted "creative control over his character" clause regularly and became too dominant at the top. One would figure that eventually, the NWO would "get theirs" and that WCW would share in the winnings. Many assumed that would be Starrcade 1997 in the possible blow-off match between Hulk Hogan vs. Sting.
Starrcade 1997 card was set...
-Dean Malenko vs. Eddie Guerrero for the Cruiserweight Title
-NWO (Scott Norton, Vincent, Randy Savage) vs. Steiner Brothers/Ray Traylor
-Bill Goldberg (early in streak) vs. Steve "Mongo" McMichael
-Perry Saturn vs. Chris Benoit
-Buff Bagwell vs. Lex Luger
-Diamond Dallas Page vs. Curt Hennig for the US Title
-Kevin Nash vs. the Giant (BIG SHOW!!!)
-Larry Zbyszko vs. Eric Bischoff (LOL - see Bischoff's "loaded foot" kick)
-Sting vs. Hulk Hogan for WCW Title
Seems like a normal WCW Pay Per View for 1997 with the biggest match of the year at the top. One would think that Sting would just go over cleanly versus Hulk Hogan, right? WCW surely wouldn't hype this match for 9 months and botch the finish of what the fans wanted and deserved, right? WCW wouldn't drop the ball on their biggest show of the year, right?
WCW dropped the ball, bigtime ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY.... All 650,000 households who bought the Starrcade 1997 were able to witness the official PEAK of the WCW promotion. Heading into Starrcade 1997, fans didn't realize that 3 years and 3 months later, WCW would be dead as a promotion and purchased by the #2 promotion at the time, WWF. This was the beginning of the end. The match was probably supposed to be a dominating match by Sting and then a clean finish. However, what we got was utter bullshit. Hulk Hogan dominated the match as the heel wrestler. Despite Hogan getting whipped by Sting throughout the last 9 months on demand, Hogan controlled the tempo and flow of the match. Even with Hogan refusing to play the "**** heel", the clean finish could still work. The NWO biased Nick Patrick was the referee and after a Hulk Hogan big boot/legdrop combo, he counted 1, 2, 3 in what appeared to be a normal count.
WHAT?!? Hulk Hogan won the match and cleanly? This is where the Hogan vs. Sting match, to quote Spaceballs, goes from SUCK to BLOW. Bret "the Hitman" Hart, fresh off of his Survivor Series 1997 controversy, comes down to argue with referee Nick Patrick and eventually punches him. Hart was claiming that Nick Patrick counted 1, 2, 3 too fast. Clearly, if you watch the video, Nick Patrick counted normally (see 3:35 below):
Hart, who acted as the "special guest referee" for the Eric Bischoff vs. Larry Zbyszko match-up, must have continued his temporary referee license for another match... He ordered a restart of the match to which Sting would become NEW WCW World Champion by defeating Hulk Hogan with the Scorpion Death Lock. Completely botched finish that ruined Sting's night and moment with loyal WCW fans.
The aftermath was much, much worse... Because of the controversial ending, WCW actually vacated their WCW Title with Commissioner JJ Dillon making the on-screen decision on the first ever edition of WCW Thunder on January 8th, 1998. The title was up for grabs at the Superbrawl 1998 event and Sting won the belt, thanks to Randy Savage turning on Hulk Hogan during the match and cost Hogan the title. Sting was a WCW loyalist since 1987 and its biggest babyface star, yet this was how the promotion booked him. Amazing. Sting wouldn't hold the title for long. Just 2 Pay Per Views later, Randy "Macho Man" Savage defeated Sting at Slamboree 1998. And guess who beat Randy Savage the following night on WCW Nitro? You guessed it, "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan.
Problem with WCW was their refusal to evolve past the NWO storyline with Hulk Hogan as the centralized figure. Certainly, the NWO and Hulk Hogan did great business during 1996-1997, but wrestling fans were hungry for something new. After all, the WCW stacked with many former WWF greats acquired during 1995-1997 along with many great younger wrestlers hungry for a chance. Instead, we had Hulk Hogan running the NWO and being World Champion. During early 1999, WCW's big proposed storyline was to reunite the NWO and you guessed it, make Hulk Hogan champion again. Eric Bischoff simply refused to let go of the two things that saved his career as the WCW chief executive: Hulk Hogan and NWO. Both things saved him from his rough early goings in WCW (see 1993 WCW, ouch!). Instead of letting Sting win cleanly at Starrcade 1997 (transitioning into a "dream match" between Sting vs. Bret Hart for WCW Title to essentially make it title vs. title based on Survivor Series 1997's screwjob events) and then have a storyline where the NWO falls apart, WCW ruined Sting AND Bret Hart while kepping that NWO train going with Hogan as its conductor. WCW had a rising Bill Goldberg, Kevin Nash gettig over as "Big Sexy", a hungry Diamond Dallas Page, and a returning Curt Hennig who were all chomping at the bit to take the ball and run with it. Others were growing impatient with WCW's booking and jumped to the WWF during 1999-2000 (Giant or Big Show, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Perry Saturn, etc.).
But instead during 1998, we had Hogan as champion again by the Spring and the NWO growing into 2 factions: NWO Hollywood and NWO Wolfpac. Meanwhile, the WWF was pushing new stars like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and the Rock with a great anti-establishment storyline with real life WWF owner Vince McMahon as the main heel. WWF unloaded their developmental territories and pushed anybody who wanted it. Compared to WCW in 1998, WWF was fresh and hip and had new faces to represent wrestling. That, and great storylines... For 1997-1999, Vince McMahon went with more adult themed storylines and brought on a hungry magazine writer named Vince Russo who wrote interesting storylines. When Russo wore thin through the Summer of 1999, Vince McMahon let him jump to WCW knowing that Russo unleashed could be bad for a promotion. Russo struggled to turn around a sinking ship that was 1 year and 10 months in the making from the aftermath of Starrcade 1997.
By 2000, with the Time Warner corporation merging with America Online to form "AOL / Time Warner", the bean counters began to look at WCW's profitability or lack thereof. It became quite apparent that Eric Bischoff's administration overspent on free agent wrestlers with guaranteed contracts. Making matters worse was all of the promised "creative control" clauses in the contracts as well, with several wrestlers actually receiving promises of a World Title runs (I remember Curt Hennig in particular). The collection of overpaid WCW stars who each had creative control made things tight creatively for WCW. In addition, WCW's production costs skyrocketed through 1998. Expensive television and Pay Per View sets that took many production trucks to haul. It was adding up but the ratings were sinking. WCW Nitro was pushing into being below a 2.0 by the end of its life cycle. Thus, WCW was put up for sale by AOL/Time Warner but limited buyers by canceling WCW Nitro on TNT and WCW Thunder on TBS during early 2001. This allowed for the WWF Corporation to swoop on in and buy WCW for under $5 million, a bargain considering the many years of WCW's video library that the WWE could sell on video.
Makes you wonder how the WWE would react through 2012 if it had legitimate competition as it did during 1995-2001 against World Championship Wrestling. For those of you who HATE John Cena and his dominance at the top, imagine if you could flip the channel on Monday nights to another wrestling promotion if you were sick of Cena. Fans during 1998 could just simply change the channel from WCW on TNT to WWF on USA Network when disgusted with the WCW product. Instead, without a real competitor, the WWE can push who they want and when they want without significant fan reaction. Sure, WWE's numbers are down from years ago, but the company is still profitable (at least when it's not lending $45 million to THQ). The NWO never ending angle should also teach the WWE not to run something into the ground and over-exploit it. After all, the WWE does own the WCW video library and could just watch the tapes...
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana, 1905/1906
Starrcade 1997 also shows you the consequences of how a BAD FINISH can harm a wrestler, especially over a World Title. WWE wonders why several of its Money in the Bank winners aren't getting over when they cash in their briefcase and win the title. There is no shame in losing a match cleanly as long as EFFORT by the losing wrestler exists (hence, the phrase "losing effort"). Too much politics over match finishes, as maybe that's what the WCW era created with the end of squash matches and regular roster wrestlers having too much say over their protected spots. The WWE is very protective, especially, over their developmental "Class of 2002" mainstays, John Cena and Randy Orton, while having no hesitation of pushing and quickly demoting other wrestlers. Someone like CM Punk can't get clean wins, let alone a Main Event slot as long as protected John Cena is on the roster. Dolph Ziggler is losing everytime to John Cena without much of an upper hand.
Competition is needed or else the WWE will become a bloated promotion in decline... Much like WCW was after Starrcade 1997, on this day in pro wrestling history!