WCW is where Hulkamania died. It is the promotion that gave us a wrestler named The Yeti, and a match held on a moving flatbed truck—with police escort—and a "Sumo Monster Truck" match held on a rooftop in downtown Detroit. It is what taught me that I could in fact be embarrassed to be a wrestling fan.
WCW is gone, and it was terrible, and over the weekend I watched more hours of WCW PPVs then I’d ever watched in my entire life. Unlike my adventures with a quarter-century of Royal Rumbles, this was more of a hate watch—like Smash, but with powerslams and the (fucking) Yeti. I'm feeling a little better, now. As you might imagine, I was left with some questions.
Some of them, such as who signed off on the words "Sumo Monster Truck," may not have answers. Many others are in The Death of WCW, which Figure Four Weekly’s Bryan Alvarez wrote with WrestleCrap’s RD Reynolds. It's about what it sounds like it would be about, and is the gold standard for understanding the series of mishaps, botched storylines and half-truths that drove what was—for a while, at least—the most successful wrestling company of all time right off a cliff, and into the portfolio of its most hated rival, Vince McMahon. It's not necessarily a happy story, but few wrestling matches on moving trucks end happily.
The WCW claimed to trace its origins back to 1905, which is not quite/not at all correct. It's more accurate to say that it started in 1988, following the bankruptcy of the Mid-Atlantic’s NWA regional affiliate, Jim Crockett Promotions. The promotion was unable to compete with the then-WWF on a strategic, financial or exposure level, but it had plenty of talent in its stable. After its bankruptcy, Ted Turner bought the promotion's contracts with Lex Luger, Sting, the Steiner Brothers and Ric Flair, among others, for $9 million. Turner was, sadly, not hiring Flair as a correspondent for CNN. He was looking to build a property of his own, and one that could compete with Vince McMahon. And, like that, a new rasslin’ company was born.
The first two years, under the control of Ole Anderson, were not good; 1991’s Wrestle War, the pay-per-view series which would eventually become Fall Brawl, was WCW's first real success. At this show, The Four Horsemen—Ric Flair, Sid Vicious, Barry Windham and Larry Zbyszko, who replaced an injured Arn Anderson—fought Sting, the Steiner Brothers (Rick and Scott) and Flyin’ Brian Pillman in the hugely popular War Games match, created by the returning booker and legend Dusty Rhodes. It would be one of last two matches to receive the wrestling writer Dave Meltzer’s famous 5-star rating in the company's history; 1992's edition was the other.
That later gimmick matches—and comparatively non-gimmick matches—were not well-received didn't chasten WCW at all. The opposite, in fact: instead of figuring out what worked and didn’t, WCW simply turned up the spectacle. Gimmicks like those found on Halloween Havoc, WCW’s annual October PPV, would become the norm, and then became something like WCW's defining aspect. Ideas like the Chamber of Horrors and Spin-the-Wheel/Make-the-Deal (a “wheel” randomly spun to determine the stipulation for a match) became the things around which entire PPVs—that is, not to belabor it, the things fans actually pay to see—were built. That the titular wheel wasn’t rigged, and that it would lead to a heavily advertised main event between Sting and Jake “The Snake” Roberts being a Coal Miner’s Glove on a Pole (Yep. Exactly what it sounds like.) Match is an indication of how successful this strategy proved to be.
Hulk Hogan arrived in 1994, and things remained terrible, albeit with higher production values. For instance, his Tower of Doom match from Uncensored '96 featured a beautiful three-story cage (see right). But the problems with this match give a prime example of the type of disconnect between the imaginative people in charge of WCW and the practical medium within which they were working. Announcers struggled to see what was happening during the match, and palpably do not comprehend any of the match's bespoke rules.
“There were times when [the announcers] knew everything that was going to happen on a show and also times when they were left completely in the dark so they could react like fans,” Alvarez told me in an e-mail interview. This was almost always, Alvarez noted, "not for the better." Actually watching confirms this. That match ended with Hogan and his partner Randy Savage beating other grown men with frying pans to make their way out of the cage. This is how those Sumo Monster Trucks got on that Detroit rooftop. This is how that flatbed truck wound up rumbling down a highway, with wrestlers wrestling on it. (Those wrestlers would both be fired shortly after the match.) This is how we got a match in which ten men in a cage waited while a giant metal “electric chair” was lowered from the ceiling into the middle of the ring, then ended the match by pulling a lever to “shock” defeated opponents. This was the WCW.
“Everyone had different kinds of wacky ideas about what wrestling was supposed to be, from Kevin Sullivan to Dusty Rhodes to Ric Flair to Kevin Nash to Vince Russo,” Alvarez says. Instead of picking a single creative voice to guide the promotion, “each new [WCW] booker was the new Vince McMahon and got to put his own stamp on everything.” The result was violent, not-so-charmingly bipolar, and relentlessly strange.
It’s hard to say, in retrospect, whether or not WCW hated their fans or just thought they were dumb. There’s certainly evidence for both, although Alvarez thinks it was certainly the latter. “It's funny, because throughout history the promoters who respected their fans were the most successful," he said. "And the promoters who thought their fans were idiots and treated them as such usually failed big in the end. Of course, nobody in WCW in a position of power really learned much from history, and in the end I guess they were too smart for their own good.”
There were instances in which WCW did its big, dumb thing very well—Bash at the Beach 1996, for instance, had both one of the more enjoyable undercards of all time and the biggest swerve in the history of wrestling, when Hogan formed the nWo with The Outsiders, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall. It was a great show, but still mostly ruined by allowing its storyline—in this case the nWo’s dominance over the company—to blast far past its expiration date. It's not a coincidence that this happened at the same time that the guys at the top—namely Hogan, Nash and real-life company president Eric Bischoff, who seemed to get off on being able to hang out at the cool table that was the nWo—had complete creative control and nearly everyone had guaranteed contracts.
The essentially ended after bringing on WWF castoff Vince Russo, who continued the company’s legacy of disrespect for fans, but added to it an open mockery of those fans and what they loved about wrestling. “Russo liked to do things that had never been done before, not realizing that wrestling had been around for 100 years,” said Alvarez. Things like—again, I swear to God this happened—Pinata on a Pole Matches between Mexican wrestlers and the use of the gimmick match from the Oliver Platt vehicle Ready to Rumble to take the WCW World Championship belt off of David Arquette (yes, that David Arquette).
Say this much for WCW, at least—it did not lack for ambition. Instead of tweaking WWE's successful Royal Rumble formula, WCW created the asinine World War 3 concept of a sixty-man battle royale in three rings. This was not at all an outlier: WCW routinely made matches with convoluted rules that demanded constant reminders from announcers and detailed infographics. It consistently mistook complexity for intrigue, and locked itself into a relentless, losing race to come up with more ornately weird concepts.
As Alvarez puts it, using an example of Vince Russo’s work in active also-ran TNA, this inability to separate spectacle from substance was emblematic of the negative influence Russo-types had on WCW. “There was a reason that nobody had ever done a reverse battle royal before, where you fought to get INTO the ring instead of fighting to throw people out," Alvarez said. "It sounded stupid going in and in execution it was a disaster, but [Russo] wanted to try new things, and often those things, because they were new, required a lot of explanation.” This misses the entire point of gimmick matches, which is to allow for the natural escalation of feuds in a way that’s easy to follow for the average viewer. But it certainly wasn't doing things the easy way.
That doesn't quite make it admirable, though. Successful feuds power pay-per-view buys, and demand gimmick matches that are easy yet satisfying to digest. “To me, any match that a five-year-old can't understand is too complicated," Alvarez said. "And when you have to have three full screens-worth of rules to explain your concept, your concept sucks.” WCW, a wrestling company with TV people in charge, was unwilling to do this, or to let the sport speak for itself.
For all his other problems, Vince McMahon does not struggle with this. More so than any other major promoter ever, he is both willing and able to determine what fans will want to see, instead of just deciding it himself. He’s a wrestling guy at heart, and willing to leave the sport—the product he's selling—at the center of things. While he may cover it in the spectacle of matches like the Royal Rumble, Hell in a Cell, Money in the Bank and last weekend's Elimination Chamber match, he also knows what we know. That in the end, getting our “butts in the seats” is simply a matter of giving us what we want—to see something spectacular, and to understand it.