Rewriting The Book – What if Goldberg never lost at Starrcade ’98? (Part IV)
by Jed Shaffer
Previously in RTB, Eric Bischoff’s mismanagement of WCW led to extreme fan disapproval, sagging ratings, plummeting PPV buyrates, and most alarming, a talent revolution. That latter saw several key talents walk out less than 24 hours before a PPV. He would be fired two days before Fall Brawl, thanks in part to all that, and the loose lips of Shane Douglas. An interim booking committee of JJ Dillon and Kevin Sullivan were installed, and actually booked compelling television, pushing younger talent, mixing up the card, and attempting to put some luster back on Goldberg with decisive performances in the ring. But to Turner Sports executives, they were nothing more than a stopgap, which is where our story resumes to its conclusion …
The road to Halloween Havoc
Usually, WCW (and WWF) spaced out their PPV events within four weeks of the last. It gave a nice, steady beat to the year for the viewer, and gave the creative teams something of a regular schedule with which to work.
But occasionally, the space between events would be longer. WWF could have six or more weeks between their February event and Wrestlemania. Likewise, WCW found itself in that position after Fall Brawl, with six-plus between it and Halloween Havoc. The result meant a lot of slow-burn builds, and for a fanbase that was used to the more classic paced wrestling product than WWF’s slam-bang “Crash TV” model, the six weeks was a welcome respite.
Those weeks in between FB and the end of September was used well by the Sullivan/Dillon regime. Indeed, it almost felt like a renaissance for WCW, as Sullivan and Dillon worked hard to heal the wounds left by the mismanagement of their predecessor, both on-screen and behind the curtain. Malenko was being pushed into a feud with Luger over Malenko submitting him in the War Games cage, with the plan to be a submission match at Halloween Havoc. Sid was to face Nash, Flair would get DDP, and Benoit would get a US Title shot. The night after FB, Bret Hart did indeed return, announcing he wanted to challenge Goldberg for the WCW World Championship. As he had “quit” WCW when last seen, Hart had to be reinstated, so, in storyline, he was made to fight for his job. He did this via a match, in Kemper Arena where his brother Owen had died accidentally not five months prior, against fellow Canadian Chris Benoit. Hart dedicated the match to Owen and said beforehand that, were he to fail, Benoit would the finest opponent to have his last match against. Hart would pull out the victory, thus officially kicking off the long-awaited, highly-anticipated Goldberg/Hart rivalry. WCW was truly firing on all cylinders; critics had little to say, and the partisans wouldn’t shut up about it. For those who watched, it truly was classic television and classic WCW, the kind of smart, simple booking not seen since the Dangerous Alliance or the Sting/Vader rivalry. Everything just [i]worked[/i].
Except for the small problem that was really a large problem: all the metrics that mattered still sucked like an Electrolux. Yes, the fans who showed up and the people who turned on the telly all ended the night with smiles on their faces and/or a sense of having gotten value for their entertainment dollar, but it wasn’t translating in that most fundamental way: growth. Ratings were still dreadful in comparison to only a year ago (and especially noxious if you went back two or three). Live crowds were still heavily papered. Merch sales were non-existent. PPV buyrates couldn’t be taken into account yet, but with WCW’s days as a money-printing machine past and more days ahead where they’d be tossing money into a fire, execs had no patience to wait out for the temporary regime’s slow-build strategy. Solutions had to be developed and implemented [i]now[/i].
Enter Vince Russo.
Russo began his career in wrestling as a freelance writer for WWF Magazine. Over time, he would work his way up to the position of editor, until he was plucked out of the magazine and put on the creative team. In 1996, an episode of Raw hit an all-time low of 1.8; Vince McMahon, in a panic, called upon Russo to make changes to the product. Together with Shane McMahon, they pioneered “Crash TV”; it would combine the edgy, violent, sexualized brand of wrestling being seen in Paul Heyman’s ECW, but with the roughest edges streamlined for American television, albeit in a rapid-fire delivery. Storylines ping-ponged all over the place, faces became heels and back again within months or even weeks, brawling became the norm, sex was emphasized, and there were lots and lots and lots and lots of segments with no wrestling whatsoever. It was as if Russo took the “male soap opera” epithet literally; promos would last ten, fifteen, twenty minutes at a clip. Matches on Raw could last as little as thirty seconds, and it’d be all the wrestling you’d see in ten segments spread over a half hour. The epitome of this approach to booking was symbolized by a segment on Raw’s September 27th edition, where Mick Foley threw a “This Is Your Life” presentation to The Rock. This advanced no angles whatsoever, featured several non-roster members in prominent roles, had tons of sexual innuendo and profanity … and scored the highest single-segment rating since the Monday Night Wars began. And mind you, this was a distillation of ECW’s product, which, while still only a cult following, had a fanbase every bit as rabid, and had a product that was even edgier. In fact, PPV buyrates for ECW and WCW were coming closer, and while ECW had shown a [i]little[/i] growth, they were closer simply because WCW had nose-dived. Professional wrestling had come a long way from the smoke-filled sportatoriums and armories. Hell, even those say-your-prayers all-American hero days, which were barely 10 years back, seemed a lifetime ago. Wrestling had come a long way. It’s audience demanded more. It demanded different. The old school way wasn’t getting it done anymore.
At least, that’s what Turner Sports execs thought. The one thing they didn’t understand was that, while the territory system was as dead as the men who made it, the [i]audience[/i] still had regional tastes. For the most part, WWF played everywhere (save for a few enclaves, like Philly), but the southeast, WCW’s home territory, was still rasslin’ country. They didn’t like McMahon’s muscle-bound superheroes of the 80′s, and they sure as hell didn’t like the sex and violence he was peddling now. They liked the old school feel. They liked the slow burn. They liked the simple feuds that started and ended in the ring. They didn’t need corporate power struggles, demonic cults, Playboy centerfolds and steel chairs.
Too bad, then, that in those three weeks, WCW wasn’t touring the Carolinas or Georgia. Perhaps if they were, we might be living in a different reality. But they were in the heartland, where WCW’s name value was dropping faster than a WWF Diva’s clothing, and the heartland wasn’t proving the point. They were busy making Vince McMahon an honest-to-God billionaire and his Attitude product a multimedia sensation. You could get an Austin 3:16 t-shirt at Hot Topic and Kmart. Wrestlers were on the cover of TV Guide. WWF was putting out CD’s of entrance music and they would chart.
So, when Russo walked out of WWF, citing exhaustion, WCW backed up the Brinks truck to get him and what he’d brought to the table in Stamford. In WWF, Russo may have been the head of creative, but he’d always had an editorial check-and-balance in Vinnie Mac. WCW offered him a big paycheck and a blank canvas. No editor. As long as he followed a couple basic conditions, he had absolute power.
Condition #1 – Build around Goldberg.
Condition #2 – Bring back the ratings.
Never in the history of wrestling had the person [i]behind[/i] the curtain gotten more attention than the people in front of it. Russo’s defection became the talk of the business; op-eds by the millions went up on websites. Russo himself cut interviews, where he said he had a plan: he was going to focus on the young guys, re-emphasize the cruiserweights, use Bret Hart more effectively (ignoring the fact that, for the past three weeks, Hart had been used quite effectively), and rebuild Goldberg. To that end, he said heel Goldberg was a travesty; people wanted to cheer for him, so he’d give the fans what they wanted. He insisted that his staff meetings began and ended with one word: logic. Never had a booker gone public and announced booking plans. WCW loyalists didn’t know what to think, except to throw up a finger in Stamford’s direction and taunt how their empire was going to come crumbling down without the architect of their success.
In the weeks after his debut as writer – the first Nitro of October – it became clear that Russo’s “logic” was no logic anybody else had ever seen, and certainly not comprehend. The cruiserweight division got an injection of personality, but the foundation of that division – the luchadores – were shunted to the sidelines, as Russo saw no marketability in people who couldn’t cut a promo. The same luchadores who had built the division with fast-paced action that got the crowds excited. Action that the WWF couldn’t imitate.
The midcard was indeed focused on … in storylines such as Buff Bagwell being an unwilling puppet of an unseen, Dr. Claw-esque authority figure known as “The Powers That Be”. He’d go out and lay down on their orders, but do so defiantly, then stomp to the back cursing and fuming. Shane Douglas announced The Revolution was dead and he was seceding from the United States. Dustin Runnels returned to WCW and was to feature a gimmick called Seven, a white-faced, trenchcoated monster reminiscent of the villains from the movie Dark City; when standards and practices expressed concern about it, Runnels debut with a shoot promo mocking the gimmick, insulting management for giving him a “garbage costume” and invited others to join him. Berlyn would do so, renouncing his gimmick and going back to Alex Wright … but keeping the Berlyn look.
But the biggest changes were reserved for those feuds that were actually, you know, worth something. Thankfully, the Sid/Nash program was blown up … but without warning, Sid became angry about Goldberg somehow costing his team the War Games match. You know, the match where Lex Luger surrendered, not Goldberg, who wasn’t in it in the first place? Yeah, so Sid turned on Goldberg, which turned Goldberg face. This led to Halloween Havoc’s main event being changed to Goldberg defending against Sid in a First Blood match, a stipulation which had no context in their feud, but … sure sounded … fun?
Once more: “logic”.
What of Bret Hart, you ask? Well, in a call back to their micro-feud early in the year, Sting openly questioned whether or not Hart was on the level, since the last time he was seen was the “steel plate” incident. Hart insisted he just wanted to get on with his career, and that he’d had enough of politics and conspiracies to last him a lifetime. Sting – having absolutely nothing to go on, and virtually slandering a man coming off a well-documented, real-life tragedy that made him quite sympathetic – not only did not buy this, but insisted Chris Benoit threw the Owen Hart memorial match. This led to a pull-apart, which led to a match being booked for HH. Crowds were completely blind-sided by Sting’s sudden attitude, and the accusations about the memorial match made many downright squeamish.
Altogether now: “logic”.
Luger attacked Malenko backstage and announced he was supporting Sting and wanted to expose Benoit for being a “slimeball”. How beating up Benoit was supposed to accomplish this was an avenue not traveled down. The end result was the submission match was moved to be Luger/Benoit, with Malenko in a wheelchair in Benoit’s corner. And DDP and Nash would re-team (no mention of nWo red & yellow) to square off against Ric Flair and a mystery partner.
Not only was all this accomplished, but it was done so with approximately four different scenes per fifteen minute segment of television. If Crash TV was wrestling for the ADD crowd, this was Crash TV on angel dust. Without a governor in place, there was nobody to stop Russo from indulging in his every whim. The core WCW audience, not used to a wrestling program like this, were like a deer in headlights; by the end of a Nitro, the audience was so silent, you’d swear nobody was there. They were, but they were burnt out by the break-neck pacing. The re-alignments, the rampant sex, the long-winded promos, the endless parade of backstage segments, the bizarre angles that seemed designed to amuse Russo and do nothing for the participants … it was a lot. Ratings for the first episode of Russo’s reign were up, but by the time Halloween Havoc came around, they were right back to where they were with Sullivan and Dillon. WCW loyalists were not pleased by the WWF-ing of their beloved rasslin’ show, and WWF fans weren’t going to leave to watch WWF-lite, especially since WWF’s new booking regime seemed to ape Russo’s style perfectly.
Russo’s response? “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” He needed time to reorganize before he could rebuild, he said. Give it a few months, and WCW would be knocking on WWF’s door once again.
It was clear to see, though, that building Rome wasn’t the problem. It was the fires. And Russo’s style was just adding gas to the fire.
Despite the abrupt, whiplash-inducing switch in booking styles, WCW’s most ardent fans (the dwindling pool that would claim to be) were hopeful for Halloween Havoc. While the change in direction for many angles and wrestlers seemed out of the blue, and often poorly explained, some were willing to give him a honeymoon period.
That honeymoon ended at Halloween Havoc. And a good number of fans called divorce attorneys by the show’s end.
The show had a [i]dozen[/i] matches, for starters. In the glory days, a jam-packed show, run tight up against the clock with little to no filler, could squeeze in up to eight matches. The lowest of those would get maybe 7 minutes in the ring, with the run-times going longer as you went higher up the card. But a dozen matches hardly enough time to establish a story in the match, let alone make an impact with the audience. Toss in more elaborate entrances, backstage segments and even a promo, and that turned the matches into mere hiccups of wrestling. If star ratings are worth a damn in your mind, no sane person would grade any of what they saw on Halloween Havoc at better than three stars, and that’s grading on a curve. It was hard to find entertainment value in a match when you could miss more than half of it making a microwave burrito.
Then there was the over-booking. SO MUCH OVER-BOOKING. ALL THE OVERBOOKING. For all the crap Paul Heyman may have gotten with his lawless, who-needs-rules promotion, at least when he over-booked, he found a way to make it make sense. Witness the Pitbulls vs. Raven & Richards match, when there were more run-ins than legal participants in the match … [i]but it all made sense[/i]. Here, Russo did over-booking simply for the sake of it being an option. During a match between Shane Douglas and David Flair, Alex Wright showed up and pulled the ref out as Douglas went for a pin, seemingly turning face only a couple weeks after joining up with Dustin Rhodes … only when Douglas confronted him, Wright attacked Flair. Rhodes came out and the trio declared themselves … The Revolution. Which had been dissolved by Douglas not but a few weeks prior. Mind you, the match still wasn’t over. Flair’s valet, Torrie Wilson, got in the ring and slapped Douglas; this brought out the former Miss Madness, who came through the crowd and attacked Torrie, ripping off her shirt to expose her bra. Keep in mind, the match was [i]still[/i] not declared over (pulling that ref to the floor must’ve hurt the ref, right?). And yet, once the men separated the women with the help of security – because four male professional wrestlers pulling apart two hundred-pound women is hard work – everybody went their separate ways. No official end to the match, ever. Considering the bell never rang to end it, you could make the case that, legally, the match is still going on.
And this was only [i]one match[/i] on the card.
Imagine [i]eleven more matches[/i], all just as ridiculously, needlessly, almost comically over-booked. Lash LeRoux versus The Artist for the WCW Cruiserweight Championship? Two ref bumps and a valet run-in. Harlem Heat versus Rhodes & Wright? Two valet run-ins, another catfight, blood, and a handful of tights. The Wall, now doing a white-rapper gimmick and going by “Gin & Juice” Jerry 2-Sweet, versus Brad Armstrong? A table and a ladder got involved before the match even started. If Nitro was a car crash, Halloween Havoc felt like one of those NASCAR accidents were a dozen cars hit each other, one after the other in a chain reaction. You couldn’t look away, but you had one of two reactions: either total sensory overload and you burnt out by the end, or you raged at seeing WCW become short-attention-span theater.
As for the big matches, well … they got a little more time, but were definitely not spared in Russo’s quest to make every match seem like the kitchen sink he was dumping everything into. Luger and Benoit put on a fair match, which is to say Benoit pulled a fair match out of Luger, despite Luger seemingly trying to prevent Benoit from doing just that. Benoit was a better wrestler anyway, but Luger’s reliance on the “WWF Main Event Style” of wrestling – that being kick-punch-finisher – was painfully dull, poorly done, and stood in stark contrast to Benoit, who tried every way he knew how to keep the match lively. In the end, it would all be for naught, as Malenko would rise up and blast Benoit in the head with a baton, marking the second heel turn of the night, if you count Alex Wright turning face for eleven seconds before turning heel again. Luger won a submission match by hoisting an unconscious Benoit up on his shoulders for the Torture Rack. This would’ve been an acceptable ending, even if it was cribbed whole cloth from the Steve Austin/Bret Hart submission match only two years prior … except that Benoit was never conscious to begin with, so he wasn’t fighting off the pain. And Luger dropped Benoit after, maybe, four seconds in the Rack. The ref had no choice but to call it, saying Benoit submitted … which contradicted what Schiavone was saying on commentary about the ref stopping the match to protect the unconscious Benoit.
While we’re on the subject of matches with interference leading to heel turns, we have the Bret Hart/Sting match. It was passable, but it was another of those matches, like the Goldberg/Nash match two months before, where you could feel the match was just a pit-stop on the way to whatever end-of-match shenanigans Russo had in store. Not that they dogged it, but there was just something in the air. Perhaps it was just malaise after watching better than a half dozen matches stuffed with bimbos, run-ins and enough blood to keep the Red Cross from needing donations till February. Whatever the case, in the closing moments, Hart stopped a Scorpion Deathlock attempt with a mule kick and put on his variation, the Sharpshooter. Sting tapped … just as Lex Luger returned and waffled Hart with a baseball bat. Luger offered the bat to Sting, and for the first time in his WCW career, Sting turned heel. If you’re keeping score, that would be two full heel turns and one heel turn swerve.
By now, message boards were lit up like Christmas trees; fans of WCW complained about the hurricane of activity on the show, the booking that made schizophrenia look coherent, and the parade of heel turns. WWF fans, ever so gracious in victory, rubbed it in … completely missing the irony of the Attitude era’s reliance on the very same shock tactics and shades-of-gray booking. The boys knew it wasn’t right either, but the hope was still there that this was just a growing period; a quick burn-off to get back on course, and then they’d slow down.
On this night, though, it was damn-the-torpedos, and the next stop was the tag match with DDP and Nash against Ric Flair and his mystery partner. It’d be nice to say the surprise was actually a surprise, but a blind man could’ve seen it coming: it was recent WWF exile Jeff Jarrett. The match itself was actually not bad, done in a classic Memphis style, albeit shortened due to the night’s running time. DDP played Ricky Morton, teased a hot tag a couple times and had the crowd salivating to finally tag in the big man. So of course Russo had to kick in with his “special” brand of logic and pick that moment, right before DDP hit the tag, for Jarrett to clobber Flair with his guitar. Considering Jarrett walked away after that, and that Nash (now tagged in, which sorta got missed by everybody) looked as baffled as anybody, it sorta hinted that the turn here wasn’t Jarrett but Flair … although one heel breaking a guitar over another heel’s head wasn’t exactly the quickest path to babyface sympathy. Just in case it wasn’t clear, though, that Jarrett was indeed the heel here, David Flair came out to attack Jarrett, only for Torrie Wilson – who had stood up for David earlier against Shane Douglas – to kick David in the huevos rancheros and leave with Jarrett. So that’s now [i]three[/i] heel turns, one face turn, a heel turn fake out, and whatever Jeff Jarrett’s actions qualified as (a heel re-upping?). Scott Keith, a rather well-known IWC show recapper and columnist, would be quoted in his review of Halloween Havoc as saying “one has to wonder if Russo has any story left to tell, since he just ran through a year’s worth of twists and turns in two and a half hours; for the money he’s getting, he damned well better”.
Amazingly, there was still one match to go. That the crowd was so quiet you could hear an ant fart was beside the point; Russo, who lived and died by the internet’s response, saw the forums and chat rooms alive with activity, so in his mind, it was a success. The main event was a textbook WWF Main Event Style brawl; it went all over the ringside area, up the ramp and back, and in eleven minutes, featured all of three wrestling moves: a side slam (on the announce table), and Goldberg’s finishing moves, the spear and Jackhammer. Everything else was some kind of strike or use of the environment. The only problem was that, since Sid was not exactly an athlete, and Goldberg had as much experience in a hardcore-style match as Scott Steiner did on Jeopardy, it wasn’t very pretty to watch. There was little selling beyond taking the hit and stumbling away a little, and none of the feeling that the match was a war of attrition between two men with iron wills. Just lots of clubbering until the pin.
Yes, that’s not a typo. A first blood match was decided by a pinfall.
You know what one word goes here. It begins with an “l”.
When all was said and done, the reviews were not kind. This was not news for WCW; all year, the feedback on PPV’s had ranged from “meh” and yawns to outright rage and demands for refunds. But this was different; nobody knew what to make of it. Some WWF fans continued to throw shade, but the more self-aware realized Russo’s short WCW tenure didn’t just make WCW look bad; it cast a bad light back on what they’d been championing for almost two years now. Predictably, some WCW fans outright hated it, those fundamentalists who couldn’t embrace the idea of growing with the times. But the rest of them couldn’t be anything but perplexed. They [i]wanted[/i] to like it, but it was so different from what they were used to, and so endemic of the rival promotion, only even crazier. Was it the work of a genius finally allowed to play in the playground without supervision? Was it really just Russo trying to get the house in order the way he wanted – and at light speed – before setting out on a more reasonably-paced master plan? Or was it the mess made by a madman without a cooler head to separate the wheat from the chaff? Was Turner Sports trying to clean up a mess by making a bigger mess?
At that point, all fans had were questions. The answers would come soon enough. Because nobody knew it, but the clock was already ticking. They’d given Bischoff a long leash and he’d let down the corporate masters, and dragged WCW damn near to the bottom of the ocean in the process. Russo would not be given so much leniency.
The road to World War 3
As Halloween Havoc passed and the build to World War 3 began, fans hoped that Russo had finally gotten the furniture positioned where he wanted it and was set to deliver compelling, modern programming without feeling like televised schizophrenia.
They weren’t the only ones. So were the boys.
Say what you will about Bischoff’s finger and its distance from the pulse of the viewer as far as content, but he understood the pace WCW’s audience needed, and the pace with which the boys were accustomed to. Russo, on the other hand, was convinced the whole of the landscape was online and glued to dirt sheets, and they had to outsmart the “smarks” at every turn. The result was a severe bloating of scripts, and it was nowhere more visible than the quarter-hour blocs. WCW’s quarter-hour programming, prior to Russo, was as reliable as a metronome; one segment per quarter-hour, two if they were different kinds of segments (a match and an interview/promo). But under Russo, you could see four, five, even six segments per quarter-hour, and they were loaded with content. Wrestlers were handed bullet-point “scripts” that had more text than a corporate five-year plan, and expected to craft dialogue around it. And, very often, your average wrestler would be in multiple segments per episode of Nitro. Some people were okay at coming up with something to say – your Ric Flairs, your Kevin Nashs – but Hugh Morrus, Chris Benoit, Juventud Guerrera (really) … not so much. And the top talent was featured far more often, so they had to come up with more content. Live. By the time the build-up to WW3 began, the wrestlers were as burnt out as the viewers.
But with Russo’s success in WWF, hiss promise that he had a way to restore Goldberg’s shine, give new dimension to his undefeated streak and make it matter again, and build up new talent, all acting as carrots, everybody pressed on. They just had to see it through and hope that, once Russo’s master plan fell into place, the pacing would balance out.
In front of the camera, feuds progressed, even if the motivations behind the feuds became needlessly complicated. The tag titles changed hands three times in a week en route to World War 3; the First Family lost them to The Filthy Animals, which almost nobody saw. They lost them back to the First Family on Saturday Night, the first title switch on the show in years. Viewers who tuned into the Nitro had no idea there’d even been new champs, as Schiavone and the crew never mentioned it, despite the fact that the Family were feuding with the Animals. Finally, the Family lost it to DDP and Nash, who were then attacked by Alex Wright and Dustin Rhodes. Why hotshot the titles three times in a week, never reference two of them on the flagship show, and all in the name of pushing a different feud entirely? Russo would say later on that moving the titles around built up interest. If he’d asked fans, they could have told him that seeing a parade of champions weakened their value and made everybody look bad, since they were all on an even keel.
And sitting in the crowd, watching this from the front row, was none other than Scott Hall. When Mean Gene Okerlund tried to get an interview, Hall flicked a toothpick at him and told Okerlund to “talk to the Powers That Be”, that mysterious, Brooklyn-accented authority figure who only visible features were a hand and a card table. Was he an agent of the PTB? Was he rebelling against them? These questions would be asked, over and over and over again, as if they were on a tape loop. Never did they even approach an answer. In fact, they got even farther away from it, when Lex Luger took offense to Hall’s presence and made the perfectly logical conclusion that Hall was there to attack Sting. Not once did Hall show any specific interest in Sting; in fact, in all the times the camera would watch him watching the show (which was, literally, at least once a quarter-hour), Hall looked more bored than anything. It was like a projected Freudian slip, since the overdose of scattershot pacing, ludicrous scripts, turns and worked shoots were inspiring boredom in the viewers too.
The rest of the newly reconstituted Revolution were also featured prominently; Douglas continued to feud with David Flair. The promos for that feud were enough to make people take a power drill to their temple, with Douglas’ rambling, profanity-laced worked-shoot promos focusing on the elder Flair and not his current nemesis, and David Flair’s promos sounding like they were written by a fifth grader’s imitation of a promo. And delivered by a second grader. The elder Flair continued to feud with Jeff Jarrett, and Dean Malenko continued his feud with Chris Benoit. And like the Revolution and their enemies, other midcarders got more screen time: Booker T got in a feud with Sid Vicious (over a coffee spill, believe it or not), Vampiro would feud with Meng, and Buff Bagwell was ordered by the PTB to attack Curt Hennig. Why Hennig, long past his prime and having been booked into the next lowest rung on the ladder below oblivion, was seen as so crucial an obstacle to the PTB was never explained; they just pointed, and Bagwell was their reluctant Manchurian Candidate. As said before, some of these feuds were not exactly well-defined, and many featured perplexing (if downright sickening) combinations of talent; but they got notable screen time in feuds that were given honest-to-God attention. Never let it be said that, at least on the use of midcard talent, Russo didn’t follow through on his promise; new faces got their opportunities. Even if they had to do it in matches that lasted a minute-forty-five, or a seven-minute backstage skit that also involved four Nitro Girls in a catfight, an interviewer, a dog and the local police.
In the main event ranks, the 60-man car crash known as the World War 3 battle royal was built around Bret Hart. They propped up a few other people as possible contenders – and with virtually everybody in the promotion taking part, whether they had their own match scheduled or not – but the battle royal was clearly being built for Hart to succeed, much in the same way WWF had done with past Royal Rumbles. To inject some drama into what otherwise seemed like Foregone Conclusion Theater, Russo concocted a simple storyline that, really, was as preposterous as all get-out: Sting spread his “you can’t trust Bret Hart message” far and wide, and managed to Pied Piper everybody into going after Hart, from the cruiserweights to The Revolution and all points in between. It didn’t make a like of sense – why would the suddenly-heel Sting have any credibility with anybody outside of Luger? Why would they just assume Hart had a some kind of advantage in a winner-take-all environment with 59 other people just because Sting said so? By this point, though, WCW fans had learned that the lapses in storytelling logic (there’s that pesky word again!) were just best ignored.
The main event, amazingly, had a nod to continuity … provided you ignored other continuity. Goldberg called out Sting, launching the two into the oft-delayed, once-highly-coveted match-up between WCW-made original icons. Russo even made sure Sting’s almost-forgotten #1 contendership status didn’t go unmentioned, using it as rationale for booking Goldberg/Sting. This, of course, ignored the fact that Sting had just lost to Bret Hart at Halloween Havoc, so, logically (again with that damned concept!), Bret Hart should be the new #1 contender. But WCW and logic had parted ways long and long before Vince Russo rode into town.
None of this acknowledged the fact that what was once a dream match was now met with a shrug and a yawn. Three months ago, Goldberg was a heel and Sting was being thought of as a potential savior. Six months before, it was a hot face/face combination, like Hogan/Warrior at Wrestlemania VI. Now? Goldberg had ping-ponged between alignments, and, to paraphrase a Soundgarden song, while he was being booked California, his heat was Minnesota. Russo booked him in more frequent title defenses, using both local talent and midcarders Russo wasn’t looking at favorably that day, and even had Tenay mention The Streak again. To say nothing of Sting, who was not catching on as a conspiracy-theory-spouting, backstabbing heel. No matter what he did, no matter how many promos he cut, no matter how many attacks with a baseball bat he did on unsuspecting victims, people just did not want to boo Sting. It was like hating a puppy even after it pees on your linoleum. As a result, Goldberg and Sting trudged along on what should’ve been a basic feud, building to a strong, iconic match-up, and instead got fans ho-humming with indifference.
But in Russo’s mind, it was the internet fans that mattered, and they were talking. A lot. Sure, opinion was turning against WCW more and more every day, but Russo held steadfast to the idea that he just needed to unfold his master plan. They didn’t see his grand design. They didn’t understand. He was determined to show them all – fans, wrestlers, executives, Vince McMahon – that his vision for professional wrestling was, pardon the pun, a new world order of wrestling (brother).
World War 3
If there was any shred of lingering hope that Russo would settle into a groove and not over-stuff every event with twice as much content as the time slot allowed, World War 3 eradicated that hope, like using plastic explosives to remodel your house. The event was stuffed to the rafters with matches, skits and promos, going by at light-speed, almost daring the viewer to lose track and tune out. Considering this wasn’t Nitro but an event viewers had to pay to see live, such a strategy could be reasonably questioned by any sane person. Russo, of course, saw it different.
Russo (from a 2002 interview): “Wrestling had changed. WWF was pulling sevens and eights. WCW couldn’t get an eight by adding up all the viewers from Nitro, Thunder and Saturday Night. They needed me. Much as anybody there doesn’t wanna admit it, they needed me to drag them into the modern era.”
The live audience did not seem to appreciate Russo’s sentiment, and responded to his hyperactive PPV with the same apathy that Halloween Havoc got. Skits and promos littered the landscape, eating up time from matches that needed it. Vampiro and Meng wrestled to a double-disqualification in just under three minutes. The ending itself was hardly satisfying for what had been a rather hard-hitting feud to date, but the run time made it worse; they had to go at each other, no-sell everything, then get into a scrum in the corner, push the ref and get the match thrown out. It’s as thrilling as it sounds. The ending was met with a rousing chorus of nothing at all.
The Buff Bagwell/Curt Hennig match, which had the added stipulation of being a retirement match, didn’t fare much better. Perhaps it was because Hennig had already retired and come out of mothballs before. Perhaps it was the fact that retirements in wrestling were largely thought of as jokes, thanks to guys like Terry Funk and Roddy Piper making retirements almost an annual tradition. Perhaps it was because nobody in their right mind thought there was any chance of Bagwell, many years the junior of Hennig, hanging up the boots. Or maybe it was how they’d booked the match, with the PTB lording over Bagwell for still-unexplained reasons and Hennig’s WCW career having been the definition of “doing it for the paycheck”. Nah, it was all of that. And the match being six minutes long.
And the less said about the Booker T/Sid match, the better. Sometimes, there are matches that end up being a “coming-out party” for someone; a wrestler is put into a spot where he can carve a name for himself against an opponent who can help him look good. Only the wrestler ends up doing the work himself and looking like a star. Steve Austin’s match with Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1996 would be a fantastic example of this. This would be the opposite for Booker T, somebody who Russo had big plans for. Shawn Michaels worked like a son of a bitch and barely got to “watchable”; Booker T was no HBK, and Sid, reportedly sore about having been shunted down the card, was in no mood to be helpful to a pet project. So, yeah, imagine that. If, for some reason, you’ve eaten a meal you no longer want in your stomach. Or want to see if boredom can induce a coma.
But Booker T/Sid looked like a Misawa match when compared to David Flair’s showdown with Shane Douglas. Run-ins galore, from Ric Flair, to The Revolution, to Torrie Wilson and Mona (the former Miss Madness). Blatant use of international objects, right in front of the ref. And the wrestling … oh, lord, the wrestling. Douglas, his skills diminished by past injuries, was hardly the best choice to steward David Flair through a match, and the skill set of D. Flair was been well documented. So, picture it. Or don’t. You want to see your kids grow up. Just imagining this match may make blood shoot out your eyes.
Amazingly, many of the upper card matches were okay … and they could’ve been good, maybe even great, had they any breathing room. Flair the elder had a nice little brawl with Jarrett that could’ve felt right at home in Memphis or Charlotte. Had it gotten more than eight minutes, it could’ve been a great brawl, a fine example of a that popular WWF Main Event Style, and maybe one of those passing-the-torch moments. As it was, it scratched the surface of decent. Likewise, Malenko and Benoit’s grudge match could’ve been one for the ages, had it gone longer than seven minutes; still, what they squeezed in seven minutes was scientific magic, and the first match to get the crowd’s attention. Benoit would win the match, but take a beatdown in the end; in this case, there were no complaints about the feud continuing, if it led to a full-length face-off down the line.
So of course they followed that up with a stinker in Hall versus Luger, the one main event match to lay a mango-sized turd. The time off did no favors for Hall, as he may have been healed but he was far from healthy … or sober. Luger, meanwhile, had truly settled into a late-career malaise, doing just enough to keep the money rolling in. The match would go to a double count-out, which pleased nobody. It made no sense to protect either man; Luger was obviously a high-end jobber to the stars, and Hall was too unreliable to build around. At least, you would think so. Just keep that in mind. It’ll come back.
Once past that, two of the top three matches delivered, as best their time limits allowed. Nash and DDP – now coined The Insiders – held off Wright and Rhodes, albeit by Nash kicking Rhodes in the junk before hitting the Jackknife. Not exactly the behavior one expects from upstanding babyfaces, but Russo’s “shades of gray” booking eliminated hard and fast alignments … when convenient. Of course, another beatdown ensued, because The Revolution were being positioned as a top-level heel stable. Now, you may wonder why Russo would build a top-level heel stable less than a year after the nWo finally drifted into the ether … and if there was an answer to be had, it’s still unknown. The Revolution did have a different flavor than the nWo, and weren’t bloating by the week with extraneous hangers-on, but that was like saying dark chocolate and milk chocolate weren’t similar. When it came down to it, it was just a digging-up a concept everybody wanted buried. Still, thanks to the meticulous plotting of DDP, the athleticism of Wright, and the experience of everybody involved, the match played out nicely and still made everybody look good.
The titular battle royal, sadly, got short-sheeted on time – 22 minutes for 60 men – so a lot of the tension was sucked out in favor of brevity. Still, it fulfilled the goal of injecting some drama into what is otherwise a huge, confusing, eye-straining car crash of a match. The Bret Hart versus the world storyline played out well, with a large portion of the slate targeting him … except, to keep the believability intact, the efforts often broke down as people wanted to be THE guy to eliminate Hart, rather than just settling for him being eliminated at all. In the end, Hart won, and with it, the main event of Starrcade, against whomever came out champion. When Hart dedicated the win to his late brother
And it is at this point that even the most ardent Russo haters had to bite the bullet and admit when he did something well. Goldberg/Sting was given a big-fight feel, complete with introductions done after both were in the ring, and a darkening of the arena for the entrances. Goldberg and Sting put 110% into the match, and while they were no Benoit/Malenko, it was leagues better than, say Hall/Luger. And the effort really gave it all an iconic, match-of-the-ages feel, the kind of air the first meeting of Sting and Goldberg deserved. Too bad the crowd still wasn’t as receptive as they should’ve been, and it was through no fault of Sting or Goldberg. Eventually – and much to the match’s betterment – Sting stopped wrestling like a heel and led Goldberg to the match they should’ve had (months before): an epic clash of WCW’s titans. In the end, Goldberg still reigned supreme, muscling out of a Scorpion Deathlock, then hopping up, hitting a spear and the Jackhammer. It accomplished in short order what Bischoff, Hogan and Nash couldn’t in months of corporate-guided booking: it made Goldberg look like a boss. Sting got to look strong, but in the right way: as a wily veteran who lost because youth and strength won out the day.
Reviews of the show were, predictably, mixed, and not because they were split down party lines. Nobody really knew how to feel about WW3; it was hard to complain about the success of Goldberg/Sting, and the other matches that were good, while short, were still entertaining. And the matches that were crap were also short. Yes, there was still classic Russo over-booking, needless T&A (the Torrie/Mona catfight once again ended with exposed underwear, this time Mona’s), but there weren’t any sudden turns or swerves. That in and of itself was a damned miracle. So, you can understand why reviewers were loathe to review this event; how does one really quantify it? Damning with faint praise? Left-handed compliments? Some of the time it delivered and some of the time it made you run for the toilet. You can’t just say “average show”, because it really wasn’t; it was a bi-polar show.
Backstage, the morale was just as mixed. On the one hand, Russo had managed to kill all politics and backstage shenanigans. Nobody had any stroke with Russo, not enough to influence his pen, at least; he had his favorites, sure, but he didn’t play favorites, if that makes any sense. He had a vision and, while he wasn’t sharing it, he was confident in letting people know there was one, which was a lot better than Bischoff’s wheeling and dealing. For the first time in a long time – possibly since Kip Allen Frey’s brief tenure – WCW’s locker room was harmonious. Confused and exhausted, but harmonious. Nobody was out to get anybody else, and nobody was indirectly sabotaging anybody.
They didn’t need internal sabotage or in-fighting. By the time 1999 ended, WCW’s legs would be cut off at the hips by dumb luck.
The road to Starrcade
The last PPV of the year for WCW had always been their biggest, their “granddaddy of them all”, and with good reason; it pre-dated Wrestlemania by a couple years, and had long had epic match-ups that were blow-offs to major feuds. Flair/Race, Piper/Valentine, Vader/Flair, Hogan/Sting … these are just a tip of Starrcade’s legacy, dating back to 1983. December belonged to WCW, and WWF knew it. Their PPV for December was a jumbled mess: their top faces, Rock and Mick Foley, were stuck in a tag team feud against the New Age Outlaws. Chris Jericho inherited Jeff Jarrett’s he-man-woman-hater angle and his feud with Chyna. The WWF Champion was Big Show, tossed into an after-thought blow-off match with Big Bossman that went in the semi-main slot, leaving Triple H to go last in a feud with a babyface Vince McMahon.
With that staring Russo in the face, he made sure to go all-in with his first (and only, though he didn’t know it at the time) Starrcade. From top to bottom, it would be packed (read: over-booked) with the matches that had been building and brewing … and some that hadn’t, but at least had a logical bend to them. Buff Bagwell, long suffering lo the past two months under the oppression of the Powers That Be, demanded his freedom; Dean Malenko accused Bagwell of being a corporate puppet and vowed to take him out. Yeah, it didn’t make a bunch of sense, but it was a fresh pairing, and it put Bagwell in the hands of somebody who might be able to coax decency out of him. Chris Benoit moved up from his turncoat ex-friend Malenko to Jeff Jarrett, a gauntlet as set up by Douglas if Benoit wanted to get at the man who orchestrated his best friend’s betrayal. Benoit stumbled through promos – far from his strong suit – where he had to reference their shared Horsemen past and make insider comments about Jarrett hopping promotions like the town whore. Jarrett responded with guitar shots and constantly referring to being “The Chosen One”. It wasn’t a feud that played to strengths, but it at least used some history and fed off the Malenko feud.
And speaking of The Revolution, one feud that did get a lot of attention – some controversial – was Shane Douglas and Ric Flair. The natural extension of the David Flair/Douglas feud, Douglas/Flair the elder had a lot of tension going for it, both kayfabe and behind the curtain. Douglas’ many, many tirades against Flair were referenced … tirades that 98% of the viewers hadn’t seen, since they were done in ECW four or five years ago, when ECW was a regional promotion with a noisy cult following and no penetration in WCW’s biggest markets. That didn’t stop Douglas from airing dirty laundry on TV – often coloring outside the lines, which made Russo happy (since it played to the internet minority). Too bad it also stirred up bad blood between Russo and Flair, who resented allowing Douglas so much leeway on TV. It would be the first sign of dissension in the locker room, something which would come back to bite him in the ass later.
The two major matches, though, would be the tag title match and the main event, and these would intertwine with more classic Russo hotshot booking. DDP and Nash would lose the tag titles to, of all people, Goldberg and Bret Hart, in a classic Russo-ism, “wacky tag partners who don’t trust each other”. Of course, there had to be interference involved, namely from Wright & Rhodes, who then nodded and winked at Hart. For everybody who’d hoped the bizarre “you can’t trust Bret Hart” part of Sting’s heel turn was gone, oh, no, this lit a whole new fire under it. Sting and Luger spent every waking moment on TV preaching of the conspiracies being run by Bret Hart. Hart, of course, played it off, but the shadow of doubt was now there, which led to their partnership dissolving a week later in the rematch against the Insiders. To no one’s surprise, this match also ended with interference, this time from Sting and Luger, who cost Hart the match. Nash and DDP took offense at the interference, thus igniting a feud between them for the tag titles, while Goldberg now had reason to doubt Hart, giving them an actual beef. To balance the scales, the PTB offered a solution: an independent party capable of handling themselves against incursions would officiate the match. Namely, Scott Hall. It wasn’t the most logically booked – the detractors certainly scoffed at the fifth time the titles changed hands in a month – but it was something.
All in all, on screen, it was a quiet, simple month.
Behind the scenes, though, was another story.
Two months in to Russo’s reign, and the ratings were no better than either of the two prior regimes. In fact, on a couple of weeks, Nitro had managed to find new levels to which to sink, and Thunder was so bad off, more people watched PBS at 3 in the morning. The preliminary buyrates for Halloween Havoc also came in, and the result wasn’t pretty: the space between WWF’s buyrate and WCW’s was like the distance between Earth and the moon. Meanwhile, the difference between HH and the latest ECW PPV was .04. This, despite ECW only having been on national TV (TNN) for two months at the time, buried in a horrific time slot, and not having a national touring circuit. And the live attendance was abysmal, like an episode of Antiques Roadshow, only less lively. And papering was no longer a solution; people would turn down free tickets, resulting in huge sections of the venue being tarped off and cloaked in darkness.
When word got to the locker room, the reactions ran the gamut; the midcarders who’d flourished and gotten real TV time under him were dismayed that their hard work was accomplishing nothing, and quite possibly justifying the long-held belief by the old boys’ network that none of them were up to snuff. Nobody was happy about having seen their beloved promotion and its classic style nuked in favor of Russo’s Crash TV format, when it was now obvious it wasn’t the format that was drawing viewers. Russo haters within the locker room – the ones who’d seen their characters altered and heat killed (Sting) or been sidelined (the luchadores) – were elated to see the emperor turn out naked as a jaybird. Nobody actively wanted WCW to die, but if a little suffering could flush out the toxin, many were ready to endure some low times if it’d get them to somewhere better.
There was one more entity in the trinity of disappointment, and this one sat at the top of the pyramid: those ominous Turner Sports execs. Once upon a time, WCW being a financial albatross on Ted Turner’s media empire was unpleasantly tolerated because it was Turner’s vanity project. And while this was a passable cudgel against reality before, the game had now officially changed: Time Warner was being bought out, by ginormous internet service provider America Online. While it hadn’t been officially announced or filed with the FCC, the rumors were flying backstage, and up the top floors of the ivory towers, it was more than rumor. It was the new reality. And the new reality meant a corporate belt tightening. Turner’s ability to indulge in capricious whims like big, money-sucking black holes in the corporate family tree was no longer allowable in the new paradigm. Every facet of the new super-power-ninja-turbo-neo-ultra-hyper-mega-multi-alpha-meta-extra-uber-prefix conglomerate had to be a wheel that actually got traction … or it’d be stripped off the new machine.
And there was no division that failed harder than WCW. The tiny little blip on Time Warner’s radar was costing the parent company no less than five million dollars a month. Every decision seemed to have the exact opposite of what was intended; it was like watching a hemophiliac think he could dry up one cut by making another. And the Russo decision was proving to be the worst one yet; between his paycheck (and the paycheck for his simpering yes-man assistant Ed Ferrara) and his style of booking alienating old fans and not drawing in new ones, the choice was clear: Russo was a mistake. A massive meeting was called, with Russo the guest of dishonor. What anybody knows of the meeting comes from either rumor or Russo’s own mouth, so everything has to be taken with a grain of salt, but it boils down to this: Russo spun a yarn made of gold and promised them that once his plan fell into place at Starrcade, WCW would be back on track.
And so it was that Russo got a stay of execution.
A very, very short stay.
But before he’d get whacked, he’d put the final bullet in Goldberg’s marquee value and WCW’s viability.
The final Starrcade of Vince Russo’s tenure, at least, maintained the atmosphere of a major event, even if the booking was nonsensical from beginning to end. If you have to give any credit to Russo, it’s that at least the evening told one cohesive story when viewed as a whole, much like Survivor Series 1998′s Deadly Game tournament. And much like that event, the wrestling was merely a stage prop for the drama.
It all started, literally, with the first match. Smartly, Russo booked the event with a hot match to start in Benoit/Jarrett. The two worked well together, with Benoit elevating Jarrett’s game and Jarrett adding some old school, Memphis-style heat to the match. Benoit, clearly being groomed for bigger things, was set to go over strong … until the over-booking kicked in, and he got the DQ win thanks to a run-in, from two new wrestlers, notable twin biker bad-asses The Harris Brothers. Together, they put a massive beat-down on Benoit and helped their leader to the back. Likewise, Buff Bagwell got a disqualification over Malenko when The Revolution swarmed the ring … minus Jarrett (or his burly new associates). The announcers openly questioned what viewers were wondering: where was Jarrett when the Revolution was active?
And then the first big swerve dropped, in the WCW World Tag Title match, when Kevin Nash turned on DDP by dropping to the floor when DDP was coming for the hot tag. The crowd was stunned and perplexed, as there’d been no indication of an oncoming heel turn. Furthermore, even Sting and Luger looked confused, since they weren’t told about this. The ref had to awkwardly cue them to continue the match and pin DDP. Nash would pop up again for swerve number two in the Ric Flair/Shane Douglas match; with the ref out cold and Flair having Douglas in the figure four, Nash broke up the hold, hit a Jackknife on Flair, then put Douglas on Flair.
By this point, the internet fans had made their voice known and sealed Vince Russo’s fate; out of eight matches prior to the main event, six had interference, two had DQ endings, and two had screw-job endings. The only match to get out of the night without anything screwy was a Torrie Wilson/Mona bra & panties match. Because nothing demands sanctity and purity like two women trying to strip each other down to underwear sets that bordered on not being there at all. Even more amusingly, this match – with only Mona being a trained wrestler – got nine minutes, more than four other matches on the show. Because watching a person drag an untrained fashion model through a catfight needs almost ten minutes. You can imagine the rage people had on the message boards and news groups, let alone the people in the arena, who were chanting “we want refunds” and some other, far more off-color, phrases. For a man fighting for his job in Russo, this couldn’t be any less helpful to the cause. It was like watching somebody with stage fright go up on stage and forget the lyrics to their song, but try to muscle through with mumbling and made-up words.
Finally, it came down to the match that sells the show, the main event. Once again, it was given the old school, big fight atmosphere with the delayed introductions and “in this corner …” and whatnot. And, like Goldberg/Sting, both men put their all into it. It was, excluding the match with Benoit, the best of Hart’s tenure in WCW to that point.
It would also be his second-to-last match in WCW.
Midway through the match, Goldberg whipped Hart into the ropes and went for a superkick. Whether it was timing or placement or miscommunication is unknown, and it really doesn’t matter; the end result was that Goldberg’s kick hit full force like a baseball bat to the face. This, in addition to a botched figure-four around the ring post where Hart’s head bounced off the mat, resulted in at least one concussion, possibly more. Hart, from the old school, didn’t stop for injuries, certainly not one as inconsequential as a rung bell. It would be a decision he’d live to regret for the rest of his life. Hart would later go on to say that, while he felt sympathy that somebody as “good-hearted” as Goldberg was responsible for ending his career, the fact was that Goldberg “had a tendency to injure everyone he worked with”. And true enough, Hart wasn’t the first to see medics after a match with “Da Man” … just the most profoundly affected.
Of course, the audience didn’t know of Hart’s concussion(s) when watching it. They just saw Hart take a kick hard on the mush. In a strange way, it helped play into the story of the match the way it unfolded. Goldberg took control at that point, muscling Hart around the ring with throws and stiff clotheslines (no doubt aggravating that concussion). Finally, after a gorilla press slam, Hart looked ready for the finish. Goldberg went to his corner and set up for the spear … only Hart dodged and hit a drop toe-hold and quickly put on the Sharpshooter.
Less than a second later, Scott Hall called for the bell.
That’s right. They Montreal’ed Goldberg.
Hart got in Hall’s face, demanding to know why he called for the bell, and Goldberg joined him … and then Hall and Hart ganged up on Goldberg.
And then came Nash.
And then Jarrett and the Harris brothers.
And then The Revolution.
And when Nash presented Hart with the WCW Championship, they “toasted” Hart’s “victory” with a hand gesture very familiar to WCW viewers. The wolf’s head.
Yes, Vince Russo’s master plan was to revive the New World Order was again, and incorporate The Revolution into it.
To say the fans hated it would be like saying World War II was a brushfire war. The live audience pelted the ring with garbage and could be seen on camera leaving the ring in droves. Vince Russo’s live-and-die metric, the message boards, could not be more distinct or more unified in their response: abject hatred. Even the most apologetic and generous WCW fans expressed ennui with the idea.
And, again, you have to give credit to Russo for the basic concept: he felt Goldberg needed a strong set of heels to chase. In later years, he would say that Goldberg had become tired because he was too dominant. Getting the belt off him without a clean loss meant his aura of invincibility was still intact, and now he had a gauntlet of enemies to run through.
But the credit ends where the logic gaps begin: why would Hart align himself with Hall and Nash, two people whom he’d had backstage heat with in WWF, and was never aligned with before in WCW? If Jarrett was the “Chosen One” of the PTB, how was he also in the nWo? Why would The Revolution, a group of younger talent looking to break through the glass ceiling, align themselves with two of the most notorious clogs in WCW’s arteries? What about Sting and Luger, who’d claimed for months that Hart wasn’t on the level? They’d turned heel because of it … so were they now faces by default? Did that excuse them of their actions?
Well, Russo said his conversations began and ended with logic. He never said anything about what was in the middle, right?
The aftermath: 2000 and beyond
Any angle is only worth it’s weight if the follow-up counts for something. Imagine if Mr. McMahon, the on-screen character, had acknowledged how much publicity and viewers Steve Austin’s “fight” with Mike Tyson got them and said “I’m not fond of how you do things, but you make me rich, so go nuts”. No Austin/McMahon feud, and possibly no WWF resurgence. Imagine if the nWo lost at Uncensored 1997: they break up, no Hogan/Sting clash at Starrcade ’97 … it goes on and on.
So the follow-up to Goldberg’s first loss was critically important. If handled right, it could’ve meant money in the bank, a gauntlet of enemies for Goldberg through, and a new era for WCW. We’ll never know if Russo would’ve been able to handle it right, because fate stepped in and cut everything off at the knees, as if even God didn’t like Russo’s booking. Because the very next night, Goldberg chased the newly re-formed nWo into the parking structure, where the piled in a limo. Now, the spot was supposed to see Goldberg, with the aid of a concealed piece of metal pipe, pound the windshield. But Goldberg decided to go Incredible Hulk on the stretch; after busting up the windshield, he took a window-breaking tour of the rest of the limo. Two got taken out with his fists (taped up for safety), but the third, he decided to shatter with a forearm smash. Doing so put a nasty gash in his arm that he aggravated with further pounding on the car. His Herculean display was visually stunning and impressive, and in a perfect world, would’ve made the nWo look like dead men, even though they outnumbered Goldberg a kajillion to one. But Goldberg lost an ocean of blood and came within a centimeter of having his arm straight-up amputated. Looking superhuman is one thing, but being superhuman … well, it just isn’t human. With that, Goldberg went down on injury, and would miss almost six months. In that time, he’d miss quite a lot: Bret Hart being forced to surrender the WCW Championship and retire due to injury, the departures of Chris Benoit, Alex Wright, Dean Malenko and Shane Douglas as a unit, the benching of Vince Russo, the injury of Kevin Nash, the departure of Scott Hall due to personal demons, and the return of Russo and Bischoff as a booking team.
By the time Goldberg came back at the end of May, Russo and Bischoff had re-arranged WCW from the ground up, splitting the roster into two factions: hungry youngsters called “The New Blood” and established main eventers called “The Millionaire’s Club”. Unfortunately, their booking was ass-backwards, and – shock of shocks – politics got in the way, and what should’ve been a sure-fire mega-angle backfired, as the Millionaire’s Club looked sympathetic and oppressed instead of greedy and self-righteous, and the New Blood looked petty and jealous instead of hungry and eager. Goldberg returned as a face … then a month later, turned heel … then did a “Nitro swerve”, an annoying trope during that era where heels would tease tension, one would look to turn face by the end of the show, only for it to all be a trap for the real face … and then finally turned face again.
And this was all within three months of his return. The rest of 2000 – also, by right, the rest of WCW’s lifespan – was fraught with meandering feuds, worked worked-shoots, a ridiculous angle where Goldberg accidentally assisted in putting the title on Vince Russo (don’t ask), and the demand by a new Commissioner (a position that, at one point, changed hands via a match every month for several months) that demanded Goldberg recreate his epic two-year-plus winning streak or be fired. This brilliant idea was put into play at the end of 2000, despite the fact that it was well-known – not rumored, not hinted at, not tacitly understood but a flat-out, mother-loving fact – that WCW was on the block to be sold or killed if it didn’t move fast enough. Dream big, right?
So, of course, a month away from the doors closing and the lights being turned out, Goldberg lost.
In a tag match. After being sprayed in the eyes with mace from a “fan”.
This is the same man who made a comeback from a tazer. Thousands of volts of electricity coursed through Goldberg, and somehow, he sloughed it off and beat up Kevin Nash … but pepper spray incapacitated him.
Sadly, that would be the swan song for Goldberg’s WCW career, as only a couple months later, WCW itself would join the AWA, WCCW and a number of other promotions in the graveyard of rivals crushed under Vince McMahon’s empire. Goldberg would stay home and draw his nice, fat AOL Time Warner contract salary until it lapsed …
And, well, we all know how that turned out.
Wrestling is unlike any other athletic endeavor, for a number of reasons. One of the many distinctive, unique aspects of wrestling is the ability for a wrestler to re-invent themselves and pull oneself out of a slump. You never see an athlete like a quarterback or pitcher or goalie, years into their career, transform how they play and their identity. They may make tweaks and adjustments, but the beauty of wrestling is that no matter poorly you’ve been booked, a hot angle can take you from curtain jerker to marquee name in no time at all. Just ask Steve Austin: he went from midcard sensation in WCW to unemployed, got to WWF, got saddled with the most embarrassingly one-dimensional gimmick … and went on to be the flashpoint for a new golden age in wrestling. All thanks to a name change and one promo. Ask Scott Levy, who went through two gimmicks with lots of flash and little substance before creating the grungy cult leader Raven and becoming legend. Those are only two people, and living proof that it could happen for almost anybody. One hot angle, one hot match, one hot promo, and boom, a wrestler can make themselves relevant again.
Anybody except Goldberg. If there is an exception to every rule, Goldberg is it, without a doubt.
Were he in WWF, or had Bischoff been replaced by the Sullivan/Dillon regime sooner (and no Russo), perhaps … perhaps … Goldberg’s heat, and his career, may have been resuscitated. The entirety of 1999 is full of missed opportunities and shoulda-woulda-couldas …
What if Goldberg had faced Sting after the first tease?
What if Goldberg hadn’t turned heel?
What if he hadn’t ended Bret Hart’s career?
What if, what if, what if …
Goldberg’s catchphrase may have been “who’s next”, but those two words – what if? – more succinctly, more aptly describe his career than anything else. Almost every moment of his career, from Starrcade ’98 forward, is filled with what ifs, and virtually none of it is Goldberg’s fault. Petty jealousies … backroom deals … politics … secret resentments … internal sabotage … mishandling … sloppy booking … if there was a way to misplay the Goldberg hand, those in charge found every single possible way, and often did it repeatedly, and just as often on purpose. There was literally a hundred chances to do it the right way, and every time the wrong way was picked, it made it that much harder for Goldberg to come back from the abyss. And unlike your Steve Austins or Ravens or The Rocks, a career reinvention just wasn’t an option. He had to keep trying to rebuild his house as somebody knocked the foundation out from underneath, like some comical metaphorical version of the castle in the swamp in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
Really, though, the truth, the sad, unfortunate truth of it all is that once the fix was in at Starrcade ’98 and he was made to look like a buffoon who got lucky, there was no coming back. He was a nail in a land of hammers, and everybody was swinging like their lives depended on it … and costing Goldberg his livelihood. He could’ve swarmed Hall … but he’d still been made to look inferior to Nash, so the specter would’ve hung overhead. Every mistake was followed by another; simply stopping the mistakes and booking with any modicum of intelligence wouldn’t correct the months of FUBAR booking that preceded it. It was as if once the train left the station, there was no choice but to watch the cars come unbuckled and let them derail one by one, until there was nothing left but a sputtering engine, moving forward out of habit. By the time he got to WWF in 2003, he was, in an amusing piece of synchronicity, just a name that once meant something … the same thing WCW built itself on in the 90′s. His presence was a novelty, but the fire, the luster, the value, it was all long gone.
Like the New World Order before him, Goldberg was a victim of over-exposure and over-reliance. Once “the streak” stopped being special and winning became old hat, they had nothing to fill the void. He had no defining characteristics, no outwardly visible motivations, no anything distinctive. He was just a big meathead with a winning streak. Turner Sports (and, in their own twisted way, Bischoff, Nash and Hogan) thought “the streak” was the beginning and ending of Goldberg’s allure. They didn’t understand it was the aura, the monstrous relentlessness, the “can anybody beat him?” question … that’s what sold Goldberg. When they booked Goldberg to need twenty minutes to finish off clearly inferior athletes (or drunken reprobates), needing bodyguards and intricate conspiracies to get one over on someone, and getting scared of balding old men on busted knees, no amount of winning was going to counter-balance that weight. It’s like telling a kid magic is all smoke and mirrors and misdirection; once they know it’s a con, the spell is broken and they’re more interested in looking for the wires than believing. That’s why Goldberg’s one-year run with WWE was so frightfully dull, and why his career stateside is likely over: because even WWE, as skilled as they can be in getting somebody over, never redefined Goldberg. He was marketed as the unstoppable, silent killer from WCW who mowed down everybody in his path … an identity WCW couldn’t even keep up after 1998.
It’s almost enough to make you wonder … maybe he would’ve been better off getting that first loss out of the way earlier, back when they’d had it planned for at Starrcade ’98. Give him something to fight for. A demon to chase.
It couldn’t possibly have been as bad a career path than what we saw … right?
So … there ya go. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed writing it. It was by far one of my favorite RTB’s to write, in the top 5 for sure. Remember, next week is the “aftershow” edition. Author’s notes, behind-the-scenes, and I answer questions from YOU, the readership. So, if you got anything you’d like me to include next week, this is your last chance. Email me at email@example.com. Hit me up on Twitter @zeteticbynature, using #askrtb. Post a comment down below. Let’s go out with a bang, eh?