Rewriting The Book: What if Goldberg never lost at Starrcade ’98? (Part II)
by Jed Shaffer
Previously in RTB, Goldberg’s title run and undefeated streak became protected by mandate of Turner Sports executives. Kevin Nash booked Goldberg very weakly, so as to diminish his marquee value. After a couple months of this, Turner Sports demanded Eric Bischoff return from “sabbatical” and book Goldberg stronger. Diamond Dallas Page won a #1 contendership match and was pushed to the sidelines as other contenders were propped up. Hulk Hogan returned, looking to get his win back on Goldberg, but severely injured his knee in the process, ruining the plan for Spring Stampede, which is where our story continues …
The road to Spring Stampede
With Hogan on the shelf, morale actually went up a little in the locker room, for the simple reason that there were now fewer political hacks jockeying for the ear of Bischoff. Nobody below the glass ceiling had any delusions of grandeur that they’d be tapped to fill the void at Spring Stampede while Bischoff and company re-charted WCW’s spring and summer course.
Nobody, that was, except Chris Jericho.
Finally extricated from a protracted and painfully stupid feud with Perry Saturn, Jericho had all the tools for a main eventer: he had the look of a rock star, an in-ring skill-set that blended the best of Mexican lucha and Japan puroresu in with American style, and he had positively magnetic charisma. Like virtually all the other young talent, he got a token reign or two with the TV Title, which was the WCW equivalent of the junior high kiss-off “I like you, but I don’t like like you”. Whispers of interest from Stamford were growing, but Jericho wanted to show some loyalty to the company who put him in American homes every week … as long as they showed him the same. So he went to management and made a suggestion: revive the aborted Goldberg mini-feud that had ended without an ending, and give it the finish it deserved, with Goldberg squashing him like a bug. Jericho had no aspirations of winning the belt, but he knew how the business worked: if the company made more money, then it trickled down, and everybody came out better for it. Goldberg killing an annoying little prick and finishing off a feud that got cut off? Goldberg gets some positive momentum, Jericho gets a little rub but doesn’t really elevate, the execs get what they want with Goldberg, the crowd goes home happy … what’s not to love? Win-win-win-win, right?
If you have to ask, you haven’t been paying attention.
Jericho, from a 2003 interview with Slam!: I go in, pitch ’em my idea. Figure the worst that can happen is they tell me no. Nash tells me “the only way you’ll ever draw a main event audience is with a pencil and paper.” His exact words, I kid you not. I tried to explain, and he runs me down for daring to step out of line. Says they have a plan, they don’t need me trying to hit out of my league, thank you very much, you can go now. I turn around, go to leave, and no joke, Bischoff says – and this is the only thing he said for ten whole minutes – Bischoff asks me if I’d had a chance to read over and sign my contract extension. Told him I’d look it over and let him know. That night, when I got in the car to leave the arena, I called WWE and said I was ready to talk.
An objective eye can see that, while Goldberg/Jericho headlining Spring Stampede would’ve been a nice bone to throw to the boys and a fun little ride, that’s all it would have been; Jericho hadn’t, to that point, been anywhere close to a threat to somebody on Goldberg’s level. He hadn’t even had a run with the US Title. And while it had been quite some time since the US Title was a legit stepping stone to the main event, it was still a plateau one step higher than Jericho had ever reached. But the callous insult within the dismissal of Jericho’s suggestion illustrated three very key points:
1) WCW management had tacitly ended all pretenses of the roster operating under the traditional caste system (main event, upper mid-card, mid-card,etc.), and had become a roster of haves and have-nots.
2) The gap between the haves and have-nots wasn’t just about card placement or salaries. It was philosophical. It was entrenched. And it was widening.
And 3) WCW management either did not see the widening gap … or did not care.
Whatever the case, Jericho’s brush-off killed off any upward swing in the morale Hogan’s absence may have caused. The dirt sheets were filled with talk of a talent uprising, and more than a few WCW midcarders biding their time till their contracts ended so they could go north. But Bischoff, Nash and company had tunnel vision, and a group of execs looking at shrinking ratings and a bottom dollar that was bottoming out. What the utility players in the midcard thought at the end of the day didn’t matter. After all, they got their paychecks, sometimes unbelievably, inappropriately large paychecks. Why should they bitch?
So, as the lower class went through their rumblings, the management fixated in filling the Hogan-sized hole. The first week after Uncensored, they stalled for time by rehashing the “everybody lobbies for a shot” gimmick. DDP, still sporting a totally inconspicuous nameplate graphic reading “#1 CONTENDER TO WCW CHAMPIONSHIP”, was not tapped, and made no mention of wanting it. Instead, the same old (no pun intended) parade of challengers put their name in the hat. Interestingly, Jericho – acting without approval from management – tried to revive the angle on his own, just by gesturing to his waist and saying “Goldberg” off mic to a camera. That action cost him his night’s paycheck. The same courtesy was not paid to other non-challengers who did the same thing, like notorious hothead Scott Steiner, who not only threw down the gauntlet, but did so with another one of his uniquely eloquent (read: profane and borderline-shoot) promos. Likewise, Buff Bagwell, a prima donna without the achievements to back it up, got away with the same crime Jericho got popped for; and on the Thunder right after Uncensored, he got a title shot. And got squashed, but that was beside the point; the message was clearly being sent that if you weren’t part of Bischoff’s chosen few, the rules were different.
By the second week of TV, the decision has been made, and it was baffling for two reasons. Ric Flair, designated pinata during the main event of Uncensored, somehow got tapped. To the eagled-eyed viewers, the “why would Bischoff give Flair a shot” question was still there, but those viewers got tired of asking it. Bischoff and Nash planned on using the Vader/Flair template, but with Goldberg going over … and since Flair spent much of that match getting punished, that meant it was more of the endless Bischoff/Flair backstage polemics playing out on-screen.
But far more baffling was that Flair was passed up in favor of another challenger, one that the crowd actually got hot for: Sting. The original WCW franchise, Sting and Goldberg had yet to cross paths. When Sting put his name in the running on the air, the crowd lit up, and so did message boards. WCW fans called it WCW’s version of Hogan/Andre; a passing-of-the-torch moment that would take Goldberg from superstar to icon. Even WWF loyalists had to admit the prospect had drawing power, way more than Goldberg/Hogan II (Arthritic Boogaloo). But WCWs management either refused to listen to the audience, or had a strange allergy to logic, because Sting wasn’t even given a moment’s thought. And just to make things a little more bizarre, Randy Savage was announced on the go-home show as the main event’s special guest referee. Having not been seen in the ring since June of 1998 at the “height” of the battlin’-nWo’s angle, Savage’s sudden placement in the main event raised many an eyebrow. His on-again, off-again friendship with Hogan made many speculate it was Hogan putting a mole in the main event, somebody he could manipulate down the line if need be to his own ends. The truth was far less Oliver Stone-ish; Savage was just back from a long injury/surgery layoff. His re-emergence, while coincidental in timing, had zero sinister undertones. As for the build to this match, well, if you’ve been reading this long, you should be able to chart the course blindfolded: Goldberg ate up jobbers, Flair cut promos, Savage and Flair had staring contests. It was just as exciting to watch as it was typing that sentence, only watching it took at least twice the time off your lifespan.
Perhaps most confusing of all, though, was an incident two weeks before the PPV. Bret Hart had been out due to injury for several weeks. Prior to his time off, he’d been stuck on the midcard road to nowhere, feuding with Roddy Piper and a comedian. Since his WCW debut, he’d already turned face and heel twice apiece. To call his run disappointed would be a gross understatement. So when he gently walked out in street clothes, completely unannounced, fans were caught off-guard. And since the staff were routinely left in the dark, so were the announcers, and virtually everybody but the front office and the people involved in the segment. Bret would proceed to cut a promo that completely erased the line between work and shoot, complaining about being held back by Hogan’s politics, how WCW management only hired him to take him away from WWF, and he was the best there is, etc. He then said when he came back from injury, he’d prove why he was the best, vowing to take out Hogan, Flair, Sting, Nash … and Goldberg. The mention of the champ brought him out, and they engaged in a staring contest that looked more at home on Conan O’Brian than in a wrestling ring. Then, Goldberg, unprovoked, speared Bret.
Just so that we’re clear, let’s make sure all the facts are on the table: Goldberg was a face. Bret Hart, when last seen, was a heel. At best, the promo made him a tweener. He was also injured. And had taken no physical steps towards Goldberg. Are we on the same page, as seeing this as just friggin’ nuts? Good. Well, if that wasn’t bizarre enough, when the spear happened, they both fell to the mat, but Bret got up. Under Bret’s hockey jersey was a “steel” plate. Why the impact of the steel plate into Bret’s sternum didn’t knock him out, and why hitting said plate with his shoulder and not his head knocked out Goldberg, nobody could – or would – explain, but that was besides the point. Bret grabbed the mic, said he was quitting WCW and walked off. The commentary team was instructed to not mention it because … yeah, no clue.
Meanwhile, Bischoff told Nash to work the midcard and keep them happy; Benoit and Malenko were booked to a WCW Tag Title shot. Not even the most strident defender could deny that they’d gotten short-sheeted in their jail-sexing in the tournament final. And while the tag titles were a treadmill to nowhere, it was more than others got; Raven’s “home in the Hamptons” vignettes had led not to his career rebirth, but to the launch of a mediocre, half-hearted attempt at a hardcore division, centered around his neighbor Hak. The same could be said for Sting, who was also conspicuous in his absence from Spring Stampede. Nash, of course, showed no such humility to step back from the spotlight; he booked himself into a feud with DDP over … well, nobody was really sure. They just seemed to bump into each other and that was good enough. Weirder still, nobody played the heel; Nash still wavered on that too-cool-to-be-hated, too-douchey-to-be-liked tweener line, and DDP played the people’s champ role. Nobody but Nash and Bischoff saw it for anything more than what it was: a Friends Of Bischoff circle-jerk, keeping the wagons circled while they made adjustments for a new, Hogan-less future.
Like normal, much of the midcard for Spring Stampede had that going-nowhere-fast feel. Cruiserweights did stuff that blew minds, the technical wrestlers put on scientific clinics, and all of it contributed to forward progress like a hamster in a wheel. The only interesting note was an unadvertised match that set tongues wagging all the more: Jericho, that insolent bastard who dared try to suggest an idea for the good of WCW, was put up against newcomer and former ECW underdog Mikey Whipwreck. To the shock of everybody – especially the boys in the back – Whipwreck went over strong. The message could not have been clearer: don’t overstep your boundaries. In later years, Jericho would tell of his getting back to the locker room and finding a copy of the unsigned contract extension on his gym bag, with a sticky note saying “still waiting”. By the end of the night, the contract would find its way to Bischoff’s door, complete with a large brown stain. The unsanitary refusal to sign would make Spring Stampede Jericho’s last PPV with WCW. He would spend the remainder of his tenure with WCW working the Thunder/Saturday Night rotation, putting over everybody who set foot in the ring short of announcer Dave Penzer.
As expected, Benoit and Malenko got the tag titles from the geriatric duo of Hennig and Windham; defenders proclaimed it a victory for the youth of WCW and a great foundation for the new tag division. Detractors called it too little, too late and an empty gesture by a front office afraid of a brush fire coming up from below while they dealt with the heat coming from above in the Turner organization. Whatever the case, what nobody expected was that they’d have no time to enjoy the moment, as they got ambushed literally seconds after the bell rang by Bam Bam Bigelow and Chris Kanyon. The duo held up three fingers and said “for Jersey!”. Given WCW’s penchant for angles that paid off in disappointment, nobody knew whether or not to think it mattered. It didn’t help that Tony Schiavone and company didn’t reference it. The problem was that WCW didn’t have a Men In Black neuralizer to make everybody forget about these dangling plot threads; loyalists and detractors alike remembered them and demanded answers. Pretending it didn’t happen was just a slap in the face to the viewers.
Fortunately, not much can be said one way or the other about the Nash/DDP match. It happened. It was neither good nor bad. It ended in a double-count-out, which caused grumbling backstage about Nash and DDP getting protected by Bischoff, but the grumbling was more resigned than raging. That kind of taking-care-of-our-own mentality had been pervasive in WCW for years now, and no amount of dissent was going to change it. The only upshot was that, for once, nobody outside the circle was made to suffer for the self-aggrandizement of the F’sOB (Friends Of Bischoff).
That left the main event, and hey, would ya look at that, Goldberg main evented! Without Hogan, no less! It had only taken the collective might of Turner Sports execs threatening heads to roll to get it done, but it indeed happened. And, as planned, it was cookie-cuttered from the Vader/Flair match, quite literally, with spots repeated, in sequence, verbatim. The only difference was Flair was now almost 6 years older, and Goldberg was far from the veteran Vader was. Even if you didn’t know the Vader/Flair match to compare/contrast against, any discerning eye could see Goldberg did not fit the mold given him, and Flair just wasn’t in the shape to keep up with his younger self. Watching it inspired less disappointment or hatred and more sympathetic embarrassment for Flair and Goldberg; they tried their best, but it just wasn’t there for them. When Goldberg finally ended it, it hardly felt like an emphatic statement of dominance against a legend, and more like a mercy killing. The end result was a match that was bad not because of uneven booking, or ridiculous overbooking, but asking square pegs to fit in round holes.
Well, that was until the post-match overbooking kicked in.
First, WCW addressed that dangling plot thread from earlier when DDP came out and hit Goldberg with a Diamond Cutter in the aisle. Together with Bigelow and Kanyon, they put the boots to the champ. The heel turn might have had more resonance, had a number of factors not been working against it: DDP’s new allies having all the heat of a Popsicle, Goldberg’s heat having cooled significantly, and people just flat not wanting to boo DDP.
But why stop there? How about one more shot at the heel turn, just to completely neuter it before the PPV rolled credits? How about Randy Savage attacking Ric Flair as he laid on the ground, selling the Jackhammer? Mind you, to this point, Savage’s alignment hadn’t been firmly established. He’d spent the entire build getting into arguments with Flair, but his arrogance and aloof behavior was far from endearing. And his new look – all black attire, slicked back pony tail – looked heelish … except Flair was a heel. But then Savage attacked a man who was still, more or less, out cold on the mat … attacked him with his finisher, no less. If all this is confusing to you now, imagine how it was watching this live and hoping to make sense of it. Even Schiavone and crew had trouble trying to figure out if they should be sympathetic towards Flair or reveling in his suffering. And because this happened after DDP’s attack on Goldberg, the confusion pushed DDP’s heel turn to the back burner. It was a classic case of putting the cart before the horse … and tying it together with a Mobius strip.
But at least it gave the champ clear direction and a strong challenger for once. Buyrates would later show Spring Stampede’s marquee value was over-estimated, and that the Goldberg/Sting idea would’ve likely pulled in more buys, but it accomplished two goals: setting up the future, and getting Turner Sports execs to turn down the heat. A little.
The only problem was, Bischoff and the F’sOB now had heat from a new source: Goldberg.
Goldberg, from a 2003 interview: I may have been a rookie, but I wasn’t an idiot. That garbage at Uncensored 1999 … I knew the score. Hogan was always the plan. And I woulda been fine with it, if they’d been up front. But they kept telling me it wasn’t, and they kept booking me like a bitch. Did I handle it right? I guess not. But they didn’t exactly give me many options, did they?
The road to Slamboree
With the main event course laid out for the world title match at Slamboree, the confusion and milling around that had led to poorly received (not to mention rushed) matches was gone. That’s not to say the crowd wasn’t compliant to WCW’s angles; DDP’s heel turn had been over-shadowed by Randy Savage’s bizarre heelish attack on a heel Ric Flair, and he’d been aligned with two guys who, while heels themselves, had been ineffectual failures and no heat with the crowd. They did everything they could to make DDP an outright bastard: sneak attacks on the champ, beat-downs, threatening referees … but after years of the same tactics from the Horsemen and the the New World Order, seeing the Jersey Triad do it stank of yesterday’s news.
Behind the scenes, though (and, eventually, bleeding out onto the screen), it was no easy road from Spring Stampede to Slamboree. Goldberg, growing tired of the political hacks playing ganes with his career and potential iconic status, struck back in the most base way he could: working stiff. Already not known as the safest worker, Goldberg took the effort to be extra snug. One of his designated punching-bag title defense opponents came back with a black eye and broken nose; another, bruised ribs. Management could dock him pay, but with Turner Sports’ pro-Goldberg stance, monetary fines were no more than a formality, and a toothless one at that.
Leave it to Bischoff to put all of his creative efforts into finding a way around it, instead of, oh, I don’t know, booking a good Nitro.
Now, what follows here has never been proven conclusively. Like any good recounting of events where there are sides, each side has their own story that is (no doubt conveniently) slanted to the teller’s favor. First, we will note the facts. All else cannot be absolutely verified, but it fits the facts we have.
Fact: On the final Nitro before Slamboree, Goldberg and DDP, involved in a six-man tag with Benoit, Malenko, Bigelow and Kanyon, got into a scrape that became a shoot fight.
Fact: When the dust settled, Goldberg came away with bloody knuckles, and DDP came away with a busted lip, a new hole in his smile, a broken cheekbone and a bruised rib.
Fact: DDP drew first blood – a kick in the jimmy – and never took another shot. It was like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy, only DDP never got his guard up, and didn’t try to take another swing.
If you just watch the fight with an objective eye, there doesn’t seem to be a reason for DDP – several pounds lighter, not as well built, older, and not a former pro football player – to go off on a suicide shoot mission. There’s no accidental sloppiness, no intentional stiffness, no nothing that anyone with a neutral eye could point to as what caused DDP to snap and try to give Goldberg a hard-way vasectomy. Partisans on both sides swear up and down one side said this or did that, but in the 5+ years since then, nobody’s admitted to anything of the sort. In fact, all they will say is that they’re great friends and have the utmost respect for each other.
So, we turn to speculation, conjecture and rumor.
Courtesy of the occasionally-reliable yet impossible-to-track-down “backstage sources”, DDP started the fight but had no intention of actually participating in it. Like he wanted to get beaten down. Reportedly, DDP complained to Bischoff and Nash, but when Turner Sports came a-knocking, DDP was nowhere to be found, and neither was Goldberg,
Add that to what we know about Goldberg’s little rebellions against jobbers, and how Goldberg was being propped up by the Turner Sports bosses against Bischoff’s wishes, and there’s only one conclusion one can draw: DDP was sent out to provoke Goldberg in the hopes of killing Goldberg’s Turner Sports support.
Except it didn’t work. The marching orders stayed the same: Goldberg wins, restore the roar, so on and so forth. Goldberg, in their minds, was worth the troubles (and wouldn’t be so difficult if Bischoff would just push him right). One can only imagine the frustration in the Bischoff camp in that final week before Slamboree.
As if all this wasn’t enough, a minor uprising of sorts was going on. Chris Jericho’s insurrection, while relegated to the B and C shows, still was a public nuisance and embarrassment; he would wear homemade shirts that referenced the Goldberg feud-that-wasn’t. Whether it was Jericho’s fictitious and facetious “win streak” over Goldberg, or a shirt saying “I’m next”, Jericho’s simple rebellion had the desired effect, being people chanting for Goldberg, demanding the two square off … when they weren’t chanting, at the top of their lungs, for Sting to be next. Meanwhile, Raven, feeling he was owed after his abrupt US Title reign being cut short to a day, and his character being put through a wood-chipper with the “going home” vignettes, got upset about being left out of a “King Of Hardcore” match at Slamboree over Brian Knobs (a longtime buddy of, surprise surprise, Hogan). When Bischoff told Raven in no uncertain terms where he could stick it, Raven stuck it to Bischoff by running to the dirt sheets and spilling the beans on a number of long-running WCW rumors: the aborted fingerpoke angle that would’ve reunited the New World Order, Nick Patrick intentionally screwing up the count at Starrcade ’97 on orders from Bischoff, details about the Flair/Bischoff feud that got Flair excommunicated from WCW for most of 1998.
The airing of family business, coupled with the Goldberg issue, was threatening to undermine Bischoff’s carefully crafted house-of-cards empire. Turner Sports demanded answers and results; the masses in the locker room had to be quelled, and the customers needed to be placated. The balance was precarious, and it had to be stricken.
No, really, it had to be. Turner Sports gave Bischoff a deadline: September. Right the ship, or September would be the iceberg the good ship Bischoff crashed upon.
Going into Slamboree, the card was acceptable, but not memorable.
The show would turn out quite memorable. For all the wrong reasons.
The undercard – as in, the matches not in the main event but featuring WCW’s old guard main eventers – was nothing to write home about, but it was so perplexing, one could not help but be fascinated. Since Randy Savage was not an “active” competitor (a situation they never elaborated on), they left this future hall-of-famer’s career in the balance … between Ric Flair’s grossly untalented son David and Savage’s valet and real life girlfriend Gorgeous George. A Power Plant graduate, George had all of the wrestling acumen of a dining room table, applied make-up like a Picasso painting, and looked like a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman. Shockingly, this was not a match for the ages; VHS copies of the match could be ground down and used as fertilizer for crops. The announcers were so disinterested, they did legit play-by-play for the first 45 seconds or so, then spent the other ten minutes doing a PPV hard-sell. Mind you, to hear this commentary, one had to buy the PPV in the first place. Why WCW would try to sell you on what you’d already bought, nobody knows. The alternative would be to actually watch the match.
As if that wasn’t torturous enough, then there was Flair the elder taking on Roddy Piper (also an elder). How did this match come about? Well, simple; Flair wanted Savage, you see? But Savage wasn’t “legally” available. What law it would’ve broken to have a contracted wrestler, you know, wrestle … okay, we’ll skip that. Anyway, since Flair couldn’t get at Savage, he wanted to take it out on a friend of Savage’s … because that’s a good substitute, right? But since Savage had interacted with all of one person – Flair – since coming back, and his alignment still hadn’t been settled, there wasn’t exactly a well-spring to tap. So, in a chain of logic that can only be called WCW-esque, Savage called up his buddy Hulk Hogan, who was still injured … and he sent his friend, Roddy Piper. When Piper and Hogan became friends on screen, nobody can say, because it never happened. Nevertheless, Piper vs. Flair was a thing in 1999. And since Piper had Savage in his corner, Flair needed somebody, so he contacted a friend … no, not Arn Anderson. Not former Horsemen Chris Benoit or Dean Malenko. No, he called Sting. Because they were totally tight. So, yeah, try to follow this: you had a face (Piper) wrestling proxy for a sort-of heel (Savage), against a heel (Flair) who had a face corner man (Sting). If that makes your head hurt, don’t watch the match. Just don’t. It’s safer that way.
Pair up all this with the usual under-card treadmill matches, and you can assume the crowd was more than a little irritated with what they’d paid to see live. So who should come strolling to the ring for an unadvertised match? Kevin Nash. “Big Sexy” threw out an open challenge, and for no adequately explored reason (read: they made no effort to explain at all), the challenge was answered by not one but two people: Raven and Chris Jericho.
And if you can’t see where this is going … well, this is one time where you wouldn’t guess unless you knew.
Jericho and Raven would later say the intention was punishment: a burial, and maybe a little stiffing as a parting gift. But a funny thing happened on the way to their graves: Raven and Jericho continued their recalcitrance. As soon as the bell rang, Jericho and Raven laid down. For an awkward minute or so, Nash and the ref broke the third wall, telling them to get up and do their jobs, as Schiavone and company said nothing at all. Finally, after the most uncomfortable minute ever on a PPV, Nash left the ring and didn’t return. Whether or not this meant Jericho and Raven won by count-out was a point of fact that went unmentioned. But what was made clear was the rebellion was now laid bare in front of the world, and Jericho and Raven put a stamp on it by getting a live mic. Jericho only needed five words to toss a grenade in the Bischoff camp’s lap: “I don’t respect you, booker-man!”
At this point, the more eagle-eyed of fans looked at the clock and did the math: it was twenty minutes into the third hour of the PPV, and there was only one match on the card left. With the mandate from on high to not put Goldberg in marathon matches (well, marathons for Goldberg, anyway), a little simple math said that, even taking away five minutes for the intros, this PPV was ending earlier than normal.
When the match started at almost half past on the dot, the crowd was actually a little excited, if only because the last time they clashed, Goldberg and DDP had put on a fine little match. Now being face/heel, the dynamic would be different and they could build off that.
Or, they would have, if Goldberg hadn’t pinned DDP clean as a sheet in four minutes.
At first, the crowd popped … and then, it quickly hit them that is was still well away from the end of the hour. Rarely did a PPV butt up to the hour’s end, but twenty-five minutes early was coloring way outside the lines. Smartly, Bischoff told the production truck to kill the feed as the crowd started chanting “refund” (and, reportedly, several other off-color chants that weren’t in lie with WCW’s family-friendly sensibilities). Not to mention a hailstorm of garbage thrown at the ring that looked like Desert Storm footage of Patriot and SCUD missiles in the night sky … only this was popcorn containers and soda cups and anything else people could pick up. That it didn’t escalate into a full-scale riot is a miracle.
But since the suits didn’t read live show reports on Scoops or The Torch or 411, all Turner Sports execs saw was Bischoff following their orders, in the most literal sense possible: Goldberg won and dominated to do it. Bischoff kept a tight lid on the post-fade-to-black shenanigans, so in the end, he looked like the dutiful employee. And since it wasn’t like there was some kind of guarantee of show length, all the demands for refunds could be ignored.
Well, that’s what Bischoff assumed, anyway. There was one entity whose silence he couldn’t buy. The one entity out of Bischoff’s control.
The road to The Great American Bash
Due to the NBA playoffs being on TNT and TBS, Nitro and Thunder didn’t air the night after Slamboree. That gave Bischoff a week to figure out where to go next. WWF was building towards their next PPV, with their hottest face, Steve Austin, facing the hottest heel, the now overtly-Satanic Undertaker. The crowd was chanting for Sting, but Bischoff wanted to draw that out the same way he did Sting/Hogan, give it that epic, once-in-a-lifetime encounter feeling. Jobbing DDP so hard had sort of slammed the door on that angle. Hogan was still not ready to return, and the crowds were getting weary of the merry-go-round of usual challengers.
So, it was borderline divine intervention when the solution fell into his lap, in the form of Bret Hart. Having received medical clearance, Hart was ready to return, and the angle for his return was right in front of them. Bischoff wasted no time in penning in Hart as the next victim (although, per Hart in an interview years later, Bischoff wasn’t forthright about Hart losing). Hart appeared on that Nitro, sitting in the audience, watching the show like a paying customer. The cameras paid him more attention than some matches, especially one featuring Raven getting waffled by Brian Knobs, which some people swore the cameras did their best to avoid.
By this time, it should be mentioned that Nitro’s crowd – by no means a sell-out, a concept far in WCW’s rear view mirror and not even a mirage on the horizon – was particularly raucous. While Turner Sports execs didn’t see what happened after Slamboree went off the air, it got reported online. Bischoff could work the boys, and he could work the suits, but the audience was another story, and the rumor mill only increased his negative perception. And after Slamboree, the burgeoning internet wrestling community, normally a faction-heavy enclave that rarely saw eye to eye, had (mostly) united over WCW’s spectacular failure there. As a result, the fans in Cedar Rapids, Iowa continued the backlash Bischoff had invited eight days prior, and then some. They drowned out promos with anti-WCW chants, including “Bischoff sucks”. They chanted for Chris Jericho and Raven. They brought signs that veered from the smarky (“WCW 3:16 says who watches this crap?”) to the scary (wishing death on a multitude of people, for instance, or “How much for Bischoff’s teeth?”). The sign issue got so bad that, in the following weeks, security would confiscate inflammatory signs; clever attendees would bring blank cardboard, or white boards and dry erase markers.
And, most importantly, as Goldberg came out for an interview – yes, you read that right – the crowd booed. Hard. And it wasn’t genuine heel heat. It was the kind of heat Hogan was getting in ’95, the heat that says “I’d rather watch a porno starring my own mother than watch you”. Goldberg did not seem bothered, and in fact played to the crowd a little; when they chanted for Sting, he called the WCW mainstay a “tired old man”. Mean Gene Okerlund opened the interview by posing Goldberg’s catchphrase at him, to which Goldberg chuckled and said the real question should be “who’s left?”. It straddled the line of heeldom, but then again, so did Bret Hart, and when Goldberg saw him, Goldberg dared him to come in the ring and take another spear. Hart waved him off and walked away, prompting Goldberg to jump out and try to go after him, only for security to hold him back.
All in all, in should have been a hot angle. Rebellious, bitter “ex-employee” stalks the champ, champ demands reinstatement and a match to get his revenge, match ensues. And with it being Hart’s first title shot in WCW, all the more marquee value. It should’ve been money.
But then two things got in the way. The first was those damned Turner execs. The post-PPV escapades may have escaped their eye, but after the boisterous and defiant Nitro crowd (and Thunder, too), they did their due diligence and got some context for Nitro’s bizarro crowd. Bischoff, no doubt, did so much spinning, he looked like the blades on a blender, and we’ll never know exactly what yarn he spun. He kept onto his job, so we know it was something … regardless, the execs were not happy to see their cash cow’s milk go sour. As normal, rumors abounded of what was said in the secret meetings, and they were of no help. All we do know came from Goldberg, via an interview: Bischoff – and only Bischoff, strangely – called in Goldberg the weekend before the next Nitro to discuss his character’s direction. The fans had soured on The Streak, Bischoff said (leaving out why), and they’d soured on him as a superman (again, not mentioning who was to blame for that), so there was only way thing left to do: a heel turn. That way, the crowd’s reactions would work for the character, and people would pay good money to see Goldberg lose. And with so many fresh match-ups this provided, they could stretch it out as long as they wanted, starting with Bret Hart.
Then, the second thing got in the way: the sudden, accidental death of Bret’s brother, Owen Hart, at WWF’s Over The Edge PPV.
By the time the sun rose on Monday, there wasn’t a question of if Bret would be at Nitro. While nobody could blame him for needing to take time off to be with his family, Bischoff now had a full-blown emergency on his hands. Goldberg/Bret had heat. Goldberg/Bret was original. Goldberg/Bret had engaged the audience, even if it had prompted the wheels to turn on a heel turn for Goldberg. They had to come up with a replacement program and fast.
If you’ve put more than .00000000000001 seconds worth of thought into it, you know that there was another person on the WCW roster who could easily slide into that role. He was getting a good crowd reaction, people were chanting for him and practically paying in advance to see the match, and it hadn’t been done yet. And, it had an element Goldberg/Bret couldn’t touch: the first meeting of WCW stalwarts.
So, of course, Bischoff picked Kevin Nash instead of Sting. One can only assume that Bischoff felt the convoluted, nutty angle of Sting and Flair against Piper and Savage (booked for the PPV) was too big a moneymaker to flush down the drain, despite being so schizophrenic an angle, quantum physics couldn’t unravel it. Whatever the case, Nash – who was scheduled to pick up the feud with DDP – was given the go.
And it only took about 48 hours for news to leak out why. Nash, Bischoff’s unofficial creative lieutenant, was given unofficial walking papers. More specifically, Turner Sports told Bischoff he had until September to fix the problem himself, and if Nash – or anybody else on the active roster – participated in the creative process, he’d be canned. Again, nobody admitted it, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Nash’s sudden, inexplicable, inappropriate and nonsensical promotion to the main event (and the PPV bonus therein) was an I’m-sorry present from Bischoff. DDP would find himself left off GAB in an active capacity, becoming The Triad’s corner-man in their tag title shot against Benoit and Malenko. The old boy network, while hobbled, was not down and out, much to the dismay of the growing-ever-more-restless midcard.
And then, you had Bischoff and his ass-backwards ideas of using Hollywood connections to bolster the product, further alienating 7/8ths of his own roster. WWF used their “real world” connections to augment, not be a centerpiece, and had gotten great results for it. For instance, WWF had used the reunited Motley Crue to introduce a new wrestler, Test, as their roadie/bodyguard. Motley Crue got some pub, but didn’t get involved in the action itself, and Test got a good debut. Even when the celebrities did get involved – see Kevin Shamrock’s turn as a ref at Wrestlemania 13, or Mike Tyson’s involvement in the build-up to Wrestlemania 14 – it was never to the detriment of the full time performers. WWF flat out knew how to use celebrities as seasoning to make the dish better, not to present them as the dish.
On the other hand, you had WCW. Ignoring their pre-Bischoff toe-stubbings like Robocop and Oz, WCW’s track record with celebrities was, at best, eye-rolling. Bischoff’s brain farts included ex-football player, ex-commentator and green-as-the-grass wrestler Steve McMichael as a member of the elite Four Horsmen stable, basketball rivals Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman (who was in talks to return), linebacker Kevin Greene, and Jay Leno. Yes, the lantern-jawed, obsequious talk-show host, who did not host a segment but main-evented a pay-per-view. All of these people were in matches as competitors, and often more highly promoted than the wrestlers themselves. Tyson was a special guest enforcer; Malone and Rodman tagged with DDP and Hogan, respectively, in a pay-per-view main event. Clearly, there was a difference in approach; one way made everybody look good, and the other got fat paychecks for walk-ons while the permanent roster members got nothing to show for it.
All this is a way of setting the scene for Bischoff’s latest turd to stink up the joint: The No Limit Soldiers. Master P, a passable but unspectacular rapper who had a few hits in the vacuum that came after the end of the east coast/west coast rap rivalry, entered into a partnership with WCW. To the tune of $200,000 (that was merely his paycheck, for which he’d make one appearance), P supplied the name of his label No Limit to a group of has-beens, Power Plant graduates and lackeys of the rapper. The idea was to tap into the fast-growing mainstreaming of “urban culture” and draw them into WCW on the backs of P’s No Limit Soldiers stable. They would be paired against a foursome known as the West Texas Rednecks – the aging Barry Windham, his never-nearly-as-successful brother Kendall, fellow journeyman Bobby Duncam Jr, and noted Minnesotan Curt Hennig – in a country vs. rap feud. Except, right from the start, the angle was doomed.
For starters, Bischoff forgot his core audience; WCW was born and bred in the south, where country ruled the radio waves. Master P being from Atlanta counted for nothing; the audience were country boys to the bone. Then, the angle’s kickoff was completely botched; P bullied Hennig by rejecting a custom-made cowboy hat and assaulted him with a cake. Acting like a spoiled punk, and having an entourage that outnumbered the Rednecks 2-to-1 in the ensuing brawl, didn’t exactly reinforce the faces being faces.
So, naturally, they were booked for the GAB as well. Because at this point, the check was signed, sent and cashed, and there was no way Bischoff wasn’t going to get his money’s worth. Not with the brass watching. He couldn’t keep the purse strings open (and thereby his job) if he pissed money away.
Well, blatantly, anyway.
The Great American Bash
As had been the pattern now for several PPV’s, the undercard was starting to underwhelm, and not due to the enthusiasm or skill of the participants. There was just only so many times the same wrestlers could face each other and keep things interesting. And it was beginning to even show in their performances; the luchadores, a division that had set WCW apart from WWF (one which WWF had tried to duplicate with their light-heavyweight title and failed miserably), had either been de-masked or otherwise marginalized with wretched booking. And because WCW had so many people on staff (at one point, the roster was well over 100 paid wrestlers, with less than a third ever appearing on prime time TV in any given week), the chances of escaping the mire were even less, because the mire was just too deep.
Wisely, by the time the PPV rolled around, the No Limit Soldiers had been augmented with some actual talent, as the “talents” of Master P lackeys Swoll and 4×4 were so toxic, city-wide evacuations had to be organized in the cities they wrestled in for fear of radiation sickness. Still, even with Rey Mysterio and Konnan carrying the load, there was only so much they could do with Hennig and Duncam. Konnan was aging and had a string of injuries, Hennig was a long cry from perfect, and Duncam was, at best, a third-generation Windham copy. Add in that this match got a staggering 11 minutes, while the tag title match got barely 7 … yeah, it was the kind of match the term “bathroom break” was made for.
Speaking of the tag title match, it’s 7 minutes were far more entertaining than anything prior, and, for that matter, everything that would come after. It was wall-to-wall action, as best a match they could put together for that timeframe. Sadly, the ending came to be more memorable than the match, as a ref bump (yes, a ref bump spot in a match fifth from the top, less than 10 minutes long) allowed DDP to get involved … and give Kanyon a Diamond Cutter. The announce team, who weren’t given scripts in advance, couldn’t have sounded more baffled. The crowd, likewise, didn’t know what to think, especially when DDP, after KO’ing Kanyon, yelled out “That’s for Kimberly” and walking away to let Malenko get the pin on Kanyon. Didn’t really help the champs look better, or the floundering division for that matter, but that was hardly a concern.
The semi-main was, naturally, the unbelievably Byzantine tag match with Ric Flair and Sting against Roddy Piper and Randy Savage. Because the pairings were inexplicable, even by the most apologetic of WCW loyalists, and because nobody wanted to see Sting spinning his wheels in this go-nowhere-do-nothing feud, and because Sting – at the age of 40 – was the youngster of the crew, all that equaled a match little in the way of real heat. Nobody knew who to cheer for, because the battle lines couldn’t be less clearly drawn than if Stephen Hawking drew them with his eyes closed. And all four, ring veterans and then some, couldn’t play to the crowd’s responses, the match itself was a choppy, disjointed mess … and that’s not even factoring in the turtle-on-Quaaludes pace, or diminished-by-age ring skills of three of the four.
That left the main event to save yet another disappointing show.
Oh, wait, you mean the main event with Goldberg and Kevin Nash? Goldberg, coming in with mixed crowd reactions and a string of title defenses that either made him look clownish or made WCW look clownish (sometimes, both)? Nash, who got his title shot as an apology, with no on-screen explanation, and riding a PPV streak of beating up a guy smaller than some sixth graders, embarrassing two midcarders in a handicap match, and a double count-out?
Yeah, take a guess how it went.
It may seem like this column exists to kick WCW while it’s down. The sad fact is, these are facts. Undisputed, on video, witnessed by millions of people all over the world, and documented ad nauseum online (nausea being a logical expectation after watching WCW’s spiral into creative bankruptcy in ’99). Nash and Goldberg didn’t have a lot to offer as a wrestling match six months prior. Now, with a hot-shotted feud that was never supposed to happen, a champion whose heat could be generously called “room temp”, and a challenger with a recent resume as exciting as a tax audit? There aren’t enough Z’s in the English language to describe it.
So, yeah, the match happened. Again. Thankfully, there was no Scott Hall to turn the match on its ear. Goldberg beat Nash decisively, clocking in at a skosh under 11 minutes (and, after last month’s debacle, positioned much closer to the end of the time slot). If the worst that could be said about it is that it happened, we’d be getting off light. But that just wasn’t what Bischoff wanted. He should’ve known better than to extend a feud they had to make due to emergency and was as flimsy as a satin football helmet. Hell, that’s what killed the New World Order takeover, right? Going just a few notes past the end of the song? Same problem here, only they compounded it by pulling the trigger on the Goldberg heel turn.
And they did it with a run-in after Goldberg had cleanly won the match. A run-in by, of all people, Sid Vicious. The sometimes softball player and true vagabond of professional wrestling, having ping-ponged between WCW and WWF five times (and a pit-stop in ECW), hadn’t been seen in WCW since 1993, and in wrestling in any capacity in two years. While he was still built like a brick wall, looked as imposing as a Sherman tank, and as crazy as a wolverine on angel dust, he wasn’t exactly a hot property.
Regardless, this is how The Great American Bash ended: with Sid, power-bombing Nash and standing arms raised with Goldberg in the ring. At least Bischoff’s bosses couldn’t be upset at the crowd’s hostile reaction. He’d finally out-smarted the crowd. For one night, in one match.
What Bischoff failed to take into account, though, was that he now had to build Goldberg as a guy you’d pay to see finally lose. And while the crowd reaction matched his alignment, that wasn’t even half the story. If the heat was “go away” heat, or if the crowds got sick of Goldberg running through a few challengers, it could all be for naught.
Bash At The Beach would be the proving ground for Bischoff’s new strategy.
And if it didn’t work, September would be his Waterloo.
To be continued …
Just a reminder that, after the story arc concludes at Part IV, there’s going to be an “aftershow” edition, where I’ll explain some of my ideas and thought processes that went into the column, and answer questions and comments from YOU, my faithful friends and readers. But I can’t do that without your help; there’s no A’s without Q’s, so this is where you come in. If you have a question or comment about this particular RTB arc or any other I’ve written (I can’t answer questions for the other authors who’ve written under this banner), or anything else for that matter – where I get my ideas, my favorite ice cream flavor, which Doctor is my favorite, whatever – then hit me up! This is the RTB you get to help shape! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a comment down below, drop a comment in the RTB thread of the forums, or hit me up on Twitter at @zeteticbynature and use #askrtb. I already have a couple, but there’s plenty of room for more. Be a part of it!