ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY... The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) returned to Toronto, Ontario, Canada for the 2nd ever hosting of the WWE's top annual event, Wrestlemania. Previously, the WWE had Wrestlemania 6 in Toronto during 1990 which saw the Ultimate Warrior defeat Hulk Hogan to become WWE Champion in the Main Event. Hulk Hogan was still in his prime when he lost to the Ultimate Warrior and it was apparent that Toronto WWE fans didn't forget that heartbreaking loss. Thus, when the WWE returned to Toronto on March 17th, 2002 on this day in pro wrestling history for Wrestlemania 18, the fans overwhelmingly cheered for the return of Hulk Hogan to Toronto, WWE, and Wrestlemania.
During March 2001, the WWE purchased its competitor, World Championship Wrestling. WCW was owned by the AOL/Time Warner corporation and thanks to the combination of low ratings, low buyrates, and weak attendance figures combined with highly paid veterans, executives at AOL/Time Warner had enough. They began shopping the company in attempts to sell WCW while possibly retaining television rights on TBS and/or TNT. Former WCW chief, Eric Bischoff, was rounding up investors to help buy the company himself. AOL/Time Warner, however, cancelled WCW programming on TBS/TNT and that immediately scared all other buyers away. That allowed for the WWE to swoop in and buy WCW for under $5 million.
However, the WWE didn't have to purchase WCW contracts of professional wrestlers. Maybe it was an "independent contractor" thing, but all WCW wrestlers were technically AOL/Time Warner employees. Thus, the top WCW stars under AOL/Time Warner contract such as Bill Goldberg, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Scott Hall, Scott Steiner, and Kevin Nash who showed up later in the WWE had 3 options: (1) hope that WWE bought their contract from AOL/Time Warner, (2) cancel their AOL/Time Warner contract and sign a deal with WWE (like DDP, Booker T did), or (3) wait until their AOL/Time Warner contract expired. With the WWE not willing to buy the expensive WCW contracts (1), as some were making $ millions, those wrestlers waited for their AOL/Time Warner deals to expire before considering WWE (3). So during the Summer of 2001 when the WCW/ECW Invasion occurred, the top WCW stars weren't there due financial reasons. WWE wasn't willing to pay WCW stars what they were already making by sitting at home with no-complete clause contracts.
One by one, their contracts began to expire and Flair, Hogan, Nash, Hall, Steiner, and Goldberg eventually made it to the WWE. "Nature Boy" Ric Flair first showed up on the RAW following Survivor Series 2001 where the WCW/ECW Invasion angle officially ended. The storyline was that for Shane McMahon and Stephanie McMahon to invest in the WCW/ECW brands to fund the Alliance that was attempting to defeat the WWE, they needed capital. Thus, both sold their shares of WWE ownership to Ric Flair and Flair revealed himself as the 50% owner of the WWE to Vince McMahon. We would be treated to a Vince McMahon vs. Ric Flair feud which actually featured a fun match between the two at Royal Rumble 2002. Vince McMahon became paranoid about Flair being part owner of the WWE insomuch that he was willing to "poison" the WWE in his own very words. During a backstage segment, Vince McMahon turned around his chair to reveal the letters "NWO" painted on the back. The New World Order was the successful heel stable that made WCW the #1 promotion during 1996-1997 and its charter original members were Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan.
During early 2002, all 3 contracts of the original NWO members came up and Vince McMahon entered in negotiations to bring the New World Order to the WWE. All 3 wrestlers haven't been seen in the WWE for years. During early 1996, both the WWE contracts of Scott Hall, wrestling under "Razor Ramon", and Kevin Nash, wrestling under "Diesel", were up. Lucky for both Hall and Nash, the WWE had a wealthy and hungry competitor, World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Hall and Nash were good friends and both agreed to join WCW with money that they could not resist. Meanwhile, Hulk Hogan had not seen a WWE ring since 1993 shortly after losing the WWE Title to Yokozuna at King of the Ring 1993. Hogan was the promotion's top star since late 1983 when he could get out of his American Wrestling Association (AWA) contract and join Vince Jr.'s dream of a national wrestling company. By 1993, however, the WWE and Hogan agreed to part ways as the grand jury trial against Vince McMahon was looming. Vince was accused of distributing steroids to his pro wrestlers and was put on trial during early 1994. Hulk Hogan did testify for the prosecution but did not accuse Vince of distributing steroids. Hogan, however, had to admit to using steroids and the whole trial probably strained relations between Hogan and McMahon. In addition, Hogan worked for Vince Jr. since late 1983 and maybe it was time to move on especially after Hogan's WWE Title win at Wrestlemania 9 wasn't so well received.
And move on to World Championship Wrestling, Hulk Hogan did during 1994. After a series of bad free agent signings of former WWE superstars, WCW landed its first huge name to finally compete with the WWE on a national level. After 2 years of trying the Hulkamania stuff with Southern WCW fans, Eric Bischoff and his creative team came up with the BEST storyline ever. Hall and Nash debuted with WCW as "invaders", alluding to still being employed with the WWE during mid-1996. Fans bought it and more were tuning into WCW Monday Nitro to see what the unnamed Scott Hall and Kevin Nash would do next. This angle was so real that it actually resulted in a lawsuit filed by WWE which forced Hall and Nash to admit that they were no longer employed by the WWE at WCW Great American Bash 1996. But also at the Bash, Hall and Nash (the "Outsiders") were offered a match at the next Pay Per View, WCW Bash at the Beach 1996. The match would be a 6 man match of Outsiders vs. Team WCW with a "mystery" 3rd person would be revealed. Hall and Nash took on Lex Luger, Randy "Macho Man" Savage, and Sting. After Luger was carted out with an injury, everybody thought that Hulk Hogan was going to join Team WCW to fill in for Luger. Hogan was the 3rd man. Hall, Nash, and Hogan would form the New World Order of professional wrestling and WCW dominated the wrestling scene for almost the next 2 years because of this hot angle.
The NWO, during the course of 1996-1997, would add many, many members. By 1998, especially when the NWO split up into 2 separate factions (NWO Hollywood and NWO Wolfpack) would dilute itself and lose its drawing power. Thus, when Vince McMahon brought in the NWO during early 2002, he wanted the original 3 core members in Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall. The trio debuted at No Way Out 2002 and it became very apparent how surreal it was to see Hulk Hogan in a WWE ring again. With the next Pay Per View being Wrestlemania 18, plans were immediately underway for WHO Hulk Hogan might wrestle.
Early on, the Wrestlemania 18 Hogan match was supposed to be Hulk Hogan vs. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. In fact, the WWE began negotiating it behind the scenes almost immediately upon Hogan joining the company. Hogan's WWE contract granted him some creative control and with Steve Austin being a top WWE star, he had some creative control over his character. Both wrestlers could not come to terms over the finish, as the "dirt sheets" of the time were suggesting that WWE was pushing for Hulk Hogan to defeat Steve Austin. This is a difficult circumstance to discuss, provided that Hulk Hogan actually lost cleanly to the Rock at Wrestlemania 18 and was open to losing throughout the year (Triple H, Undertaker, Lesnar, and Angle). In addition, Steve Austin had issues throughout 2002 and had problems working with the newly revised WWE Creative Team (Stephanie in charge and her boyfriend Triple H growing in power). Austin was a powder keg that walked out of the WWE twice during 2002 and had domestic violence problems outside of the ring as well. Hard to say what happened to the proposed Hogan vs. Austin match and the WWE went with Rock vs. Hulk Hogan instead. Major win for the Rock, but possibly a better match occurred instead as well.
When Hulk Hogan arrived in WCW during 1994, he commanded great influence over Eric Bischoff that remains to this day in TNA Wrestling. In addition to Hogan's own creative control over his character, Hogan was able to influence opinions on other wrestlers who existed in WCW already. Wrestlers who were receiving pushes during the first half of 1994 where about to be depushed. Hogan had many of his WWE friends follow him to WCW and they were pushed immediately. One such WCW wrestler, "Stunning" Steve Austin, ran into a Hogan friend named "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan over the WCW United States title. Austin lost the US Title to Duggan in a match at Fall Brawl 1994 in just 35 seconds and then lost 2 big event rematches against Duggan (Halloween Havoc 1994 and the following Clash of the Champions). By early 1995, WCW released Steve Austin by calling him over the telephone while Austin was at home recovering from a triceps injury.
Austin was very bitter over what happened to him in WCW. For the first half of 1994, he seemed to be climbing the ladder to the top of the promotion. He was a strong US Champion for the first 8 months of 1994... Then, he became Hacksaw Jim Duggan's "bitch"... Needing work, Austin took an offer from Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) to briefly join their promotion. Paul Heyman, owner and operator of the ECW promotion, gave Steve Austin the opportunity to vent in front of a camera for promos. He ripped WCW hard and in particular, mocked Hulk Hogan (even dressed like him). It became quite clear that Austin was blaming Hogan directly for his changed fortunes in WCW during 1994. What else explains Jim Duggan's domination of Austin and release soon thereafter?
Steve Austin was against the Wrestlemania 18 Hogan match and later turned down any suggestion by the WWE or Hulk Hogan of a "Dream Match" of Hogan vs. Austin in later years. Instead of wrestling Hogan at Wrestlemania 18, Austin took on Scott Hall in an underwhelming match where Hall had ring rust from not wrestling for a while. Frustrated and burned out at the current WWE happenings, Austin walked out of WWE for the first time on the RAW following Wrestlemania 18. Austin would return weeks later but he was very vocal backstage and with media outlets about his dislike of the current WWE creative direction. Months later, he'd walk out of the WWE again after the WWE creative team sought to have Steve Austin lose to Brock Lesnar on an edition of Monday Night RAW that wasn't hyped in advance. Austin would not return until the next year. His differences with Hulk Hogan being hired appeared to be the beginning of the end to "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's relevance to the WWE. In fact, Austin hasn't been the same to the wrestling world since 2002.
Quite interesting how Wrestlemania 18 features the "end" of Steve Austin and the "rebirth" of Hulk Hogan in the WWE.
With Austin turning down the match against Hulk Hogan, Wrestlemania 18 was rebooked to feature Hulk Hogan vs. the Rock. The feud started off with Hogan and the Rock meeting in the ring on an edition of RAW and the Rock challenging Hogan to a match at Wrestlemania 18. You could just sense the excitement of the fans for the match. Instead of just letting this in-ring face to face confrontation doing the job, the New World Order instead attacked the Rock and after Rock was placed in an ambulance, Hulk Hogan rammed a semi truck into the ambulance repeatedly. Don't believe me?
Goofy booking aside, their match at Wrestlemania 18 was fascinating. Certainly, it's not an in-ring gem warranting 4 or 5 stars. Hulk Hogan was fresh off knee surgeries and the fact that he was 48 years heading into Wrestlemania 18. Not to mention ring rust, as Hogan's last match was with WCW during 2000. The Rock, however, was still in his prime and bumped and sold like a champ. Rock's selling helped make this match reasonable to watch. But it was the Toronto crowd, ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY, that stole the show.
The Toronto fans may have remembered what happened 12 years ago at Wrestlemania 6. Their possible hero, Hulk Hogan, lost cleanly to the Ultimate Warrior for the WWE Title. Hogan was possibly still in his prime when this happened and took time off while he saw the WWE attempt to push the Warrior as the next great thing. As evidence of this, by Wrestlemania 7, the WWE put the WWE title back on Hulk Hogan. With Hogan on top of the WWE, the company expanded considerably and probably ramped up in Canada with a growth in Hulkamaniacs. Thus, when the Rock (babyface) took on "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan (heel, leader of the NWO), the Toronto fans' memories of Hulkamania suddenly came back. Toronto fans cheered HEAVILY for Hogan and booed the Rock bigtime.
After all, it was Hogan's first WWE Pay Per View appearance for the WWE since 1993 and coming after many years of being in a rival promotion. The man was back in a WWE ring and fans didn't forget. Especially Toronto fans. The cheers kept growing and growing for Hogan and it becomes evident that Hogan became aware of it rather quickly. Hogan began doing his classic poses and the fans ate it up with a spoon! The Rock received no love by the Toronto fans, but it probably didn't matter. Canadian fans didn't forget their love for Hulkamania, nor did they possibly forget the disappointment of Wrestlemania 6's Hogan vs. Warrior match. And the best thing about Toronto's fans was that it influenced the WWE to buy into Hulkamania again. Hogan was turned into a babyface immediately and 1 month later, Hogan cut short Triple H's WWE Title reign. Triple H, by the way, won the WWE Title at Wrestlemania 18 and thanks to Hogan/Rock stealing the show, his match against Chris Jericho struggled to follow and saw Toronto fans leaving early during the match.
Hulk Hogan would have a pretty good run during 2002-2003 and did good business with the WWE. After defeating Triple H for the WWE Title at Backlash 2002, Hogan would go on to put over various wrestlers. The Undertaker beat him for the WWE Title, which given their 1991 past, is quite interesting. Triple H would win their rematch and then Hogan would go on to put over both Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar. Not quite the raging egomaniac control freak that many, including Steve Austin, expected Hogan to be. Hogan would enter into a long feud with Vince McMahon which should have probably ended with their battle at Wrestlemania 19, but then we got the "Mr. America" stuff afterward... Hogan would disappear after 2003 and return during 2005. Possibly the one time where Hogan's creative power intervened was during the SummerSlam 2005 match against Shawn Michaels where a rematch was nixed and Hogan refused to lose to Michaels. But no signs of Hogan problems existed during 2002-2003.
Oh, other stuff happened at Wrestlemania 18 on this day in pro wrestling history... The returning Triple H took on the new "Undisputed" WWE Champion, Chris Jericho. Triple H tore his quadriceps muscle in a tag match where HHH teamed with Steve Austin to take on Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho. His in-ring return was Royal Rumble 2002 which Triple H won and used to challenge the crowned "unified" WWE and WCW Champion, Chris Jericho. This feud involved a Triple H and Stephanie McMahon break-up and Stephanie meddled in this feud, including involving squabbles over ownership of "Lucy the dog". Jericho was a sitting duck in this feud, as Triple H was primed to win his WWE Title back.
Undertaker vs. Ric Flair is worth a watch. Flair took a brutal beating and Undertaker was glad to give it to him. After taking a beating during the WCW/ECW Invasion of 2001, Diamond Dallas Page won an actual Wrestlemania match. Rob Van Dam vs. William Regal was a pretty good opening bout. Kane vs. Kurt Angle was good, though not up to the expectations of a random Smackdown match that impressed many.
The night after Wrestlemania 18, Brock Lesnar made his WWE debut and the WWE would fully unload the other Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental territory wrestlers during the course of the 2002 year. Wrestlers like Batista, John Cena, Charlie Haas, Shelton Benjamin, and Randy Orton would make a sudden impact and John Cena, Randy Orton, and Brock Lesnar are still big WWE stars to this day. Quite possibly, Wrestlemania 18 was the beginning of the end for the "Attitude Era", especially with Steve Austin going off the deep end following this event.