Rewriting The Book: What if Goldberg never lost at Starrcade ’98? (Part I)
by Jed Shaffer
(Author’s note: Stephen King once said that any story that couldn’t act as its own defense attorney didn’t deserve to be written. Normally, that’s a policy that I agree with; if a story’s quality or direction needs defending, the author should’ve hit backspace a few more times. Like, until the page was all white. That said, there’ve been some who have taken RTB to task rather than just enjoy the ride – be it for historical errors, or storyline logic – and my rebuttal against those critics has always been that these are chronicles of what COULD have happened, not what WOULD have happened. One is a fun little diversion into narrative fantasy, and one is an opinion piece. I’ve never indulged in the latter, because the format is not one where opinion can really creep into the product … until now. And that’s why I feel the need for this brief note before we kick off the festivities. By the time you finish reading this, I hope it’ll be obvious that the story isn’t what I think what would’ve literally happened … but the overall message of the story, the basic thrust if you will, IS infused with my opinion. My story and reality may not share the same road, but I think the end result would’ve been the same. You’ll get what I mean by the end.
Anyway, enough of my blathering. You’ve waited long and long for this, in more ways than one. On with the show. This is done in the same non-kayfabe style I did the Nitro/D-X story, and it comes from a point of view as if it were written following WrestleMania XX and the notorious Goldberg/Brock Lesner match.)
If there is one lesson to be taken from WCW during the Monday Night Wars in the late 90′s, it is this: sometimes, you have to play dirty to win. Vince McMahon found out the hard way, and nearly went out of business because of it.
If there is another lesson to be taken from WCW in this time frame, it is this (and it’s one all promoters should, but rarely ever, follow): there comes a point where you’ve stricken the iron too many times, regardless of whatever heat remains in the metal. They learned the hard way with not bringing the nWo angle to its logical conclusion at Starrcade ’97. They watched months (and months and months and months and months and …) of build-up for Glacier go down the tubes because of a bizarre need to delay the debut until nobody cared. They sat on midcard talent until they’d been booked into oblivion and bolted for Connecticut.
And, some would say most important of all, they blew their diaper with Goldberg.
He was supposed to be the can’t-miss, home-spun superstar of WCW, their first on that level since Sting. He looked like a gladiator mixed with a Terminator, and wrestled like a steam-roller with a NASCAR engine. He mowed down opponents in such dominating fashion, he won the WCW United States Championship and World Championship in his rookie year, toppling no less than Hulk Hogan live on Nitro for that ultimate accolade. Crowds chanted his name like a cult. Goldberg t-shirts were the only wrestler-specific shirt WCW sold that came close to the level of the New World Order shirts. In short, he was a money-printing machine and ratings gold. He was WCW’s answer to Stone Cold Steve Austin. If ever there was a guy you could point to and say “icon” long before he got there, Goldberg was it.
And then 1999 happened.
Now, his name his synonymous with squandered potential. Backstage political machinations. Incompetence and hubris. It is, alongside the New World Order, emblematic of what took WCW from having their boot heel on Vince McMahon’s throat to being on their knees, praying for a savior to come from out of nowhere, and hoping the axe never fell on their collective necks.
Now, with WrestleMania XX behind us, likely being the last time we will see Goldberg wrestle on American soil, we can look back now at “Da Man”, starting with the event most amateur historians look to as the turning point of his career. The event where Goldberg’s shine – and WCW’s existence – started to be consumed by a cancerous rust.
December 27, 1998. The event, the annual year-end centerpiece of WCW, Starrcade. The main event would see Goldberg, WCW World Champion since July and still undefeated, take on Kevin Nash.
December 1998: Starrcade.
By now, thanks to interviews and books and internet chats, we all know for sure what we knew then as rumor: Eric Bischoff, President of WCW, was becoming more and more detached from the day-to-day creative aspects of WCW, and was letting the inmates run the asylum. The inmates with the stroke were his on-screen allies in the New World Order: Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash. Hogan had gone on one of his sabbaticals, which were a political ploy to begin with; he’d disappear for a length of time, come back, point to the one-week ratings pop his return provided, and use that as empirical evidence of his drawing value. In this case, his return had an ulterior motive; he had originally struck a deal that he’d drop the title to Goldberg, so long as he could get back his win and the title (and thereby ending the undefeated streak) down the line. In Hogan’s mind, it was time to cash in, regardless of the long-term plans.
Okay, so there weren’t long-term plans. Just go along with it, eh?
Only problem was, while Hogan was gone, Nash got in Bischoff’s ear. For a couple years, Nash had been playing second-fiddle to Hogan. He was tired of it, and with Hogan off the reservation, Nash knew his influence over Bischoff would never be greater and his chance to shine never etter. So he put the bug in Bischoff’s ear that he wanted to be the one to end the streak. And to cover his tracks, he promised to drop the title to Hogan shortly thereafter. Everybody leaves happy, even if not exactly as planned. Except Goldberg, but, hey, omelets, eggs, all that.
And they would’ve gotten away too … and it wasn’t those darned kids or their dog who got in the way. It was the one entity to whom Bischoff could not brush aside: the heads of Turner Sports. With concerns growing that the WWF was pulling away from them in all the important metrics (ratings, buyrates, live gate), Turner Sports execs asked a very simple and logical question: what are you going to do about it? Bischoff gave them their plan: Nash defeats Goldberg (with help from Scott Hall and a tazer), Hogan comes back as a face, but swerves everybody when Nash lays down for him, Hogan wins the belt, reuniting the two factions of the nWo, and boom, their biggest success is back in the saddle. Smell the success! But to the astonishment of only Hogan, Nash and Bischoff, the whole of 1998 – a year spent with the group divided into two factions that feuded to endless stalemates, and featured a cast of luminaries like Horace Boulder and Vincent, and Sting inexplicably joining the Wolfpac – somehow failed to instill any confidence in the suits as the ratings continued a slow but steady downhill slide. The new plan didn’t sound like a bold step forward; it just hit the rewind button. This defied continuity (a problem the more discerning fans were noticing with WCW) and all recent market trends, so the suits demanded a change; Goldberg, right now their only cash cow, was to remain on top and be milked till he was dry. And if Bischoff and Nash weren’t satisfied with that, they’d find themselves removed from the decision-making process.
Thus, the stage was set: a booking “team”, given explicit orders to keep the ship steady as she goes and hope it led to ratings gold. A money-making superstar rookie, unaware forces were conspiring against him. And that “team” looking for an end-around to keep them in the driver’s seat while cutting loose the albatross around their necks.
Boy, did they find it. And it was right in front of them the whole time.
Instead of changing their entire booking plan for the match, they’d just tweak the ending: Hall would still come down, still zap Goldberg with a tazer, and Nash would still hit the jackknife. Only Nash would see Hall as he makes the pin, and do the honorable thing in not taking the cheap victory; he’d pull off, yell at Hall from in the ring, allowing Goldberg to recover, hit the Jackhammer, pin, the end. The teased Hall/Nash feud could still move forward (provided Hall could be counted on to be sober enough to stick around), and down the line, Hogan could still get his win back.
So, they went through with their revised plan. The crowd popped for the Jackhammer and the pin, the fans went home happy, everybody wins. Right?
Except for that small, teensy-weensy minority of fans grumbling on the internet, pointing out how Nash guzzled the offense in the match while Goldberg got in barely enough offense to qualify as token. Sure, they ignored the whole fact that Goldberg withstood two people AND a tazer – a restraining device which can incapacitate a person for several minutes, even a couple hours, with a serious dose of electricity – for one of the most amazing (if preposterous) comebacks ever. But the gripe of this small few was that Goldberg should never had have to made the comeback at all. He was “Da Man”, dammit! He was designed to be a human bulldozer! He should’ve hit Nash so hard, it would’ve caused a rift in the space-time continuum!
“You can never please all the fans,” said Nash in an interview in 2002 with Dave Meltzer, “so I didn’t try. I did what I was told, and I did it in a way I thought was right at the time. The thing you gotta remember is this; the suits market us as superhuman, larger-than-life; the dude got to make the comeback against a guy nine inches taller than him – and a former world champ in his own right – after being zapped with a stun gun. Jesus, short of taking a bullet, how much more superhuman do you want?”
Nash’s invocation of The Nuremburg Defense would be his go-to answer for months to come, as he (and, since he was busy hob-knobbing with Hollywood and setting up a production company, Bischoff to a lesser extent) did exactly what he was told, and only what was told: keep the streak alive. Because the one detail Turner Sports execs failed to include in their edict was how to keep the streak alive. And Nash, having learned the fine art of backstage BS from the industry’s very best, stretched that loophole wide enough to drive a diesel (no pun intended) through.
The road to Souled Out
Certain times of the year belong to certain promotions. It’s sort of an unwritten rule borne out of tradition. WWE usually limped to the end of the year (excluding Survivor Series), while WCW would ramp up for their supercard-of-supercards Starrcade. After that, WCW usually went on cruise control for the winter, coasting on the fallout from Starrcade, and with good reason: up in Stamford, January belongs to the Royal Rumble, the first step on The Road To WrestleMania. With the McMahon/Austin feud nearing a crescendo, along with Rock/Mankind, D-Generation X, Undertaker turning into a Satanic priest, and more tits and ass than the Playboy Mansion, it was a wonder anybody watched WCW at that point. It was just smart to duck under the water line until Mania was gone, when the companies could truly compete head-to-head.
And “cruise control” was an apt description of Goldberg’s WCW Title run at this point. In the big-match-every-week mentality of the Monday Night Wars, there was no shortage of dream matches left on Goldberg’s dance card. But even after proving himself against Diamond Dallas Page back at Halloween Havoc, his “superhuman” comeback against Nash, and kicking off his title run against Hulk Hogan, Goldberg’s Monday Nitro schedule went right back to what it was at the beginning of his career: squashing jobbers. Even the most ardent, apologetic fans (Bob Ryder excluded) would be hard-pressed to find anything of value or interest in a title defense against perennial after-thoughts like Jerry Flynn or Ron Reis (and that’s not even mentioning how in the hell guys like Flynn or Reis earned a title shot). Yeah, the crowd loved watching three-minute squashes and seeing that streak become bigger and and more unbelievable. But the sad fact was, people wanted their cake and to eat it too: they wanted Goldberg to crush people like Bigfoot crushed cars, only they wanted the crushed to be Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Sting and so on. Watching Goldberg tee off on Prince Ieukea was like watching Mike Tyson box a Hooters waitress.
But if that weren’t bad enough, the astute critics noticed what was getting pushed: the old-timers, lobbying on screen (as well as in the back) to be next in line for the shot at Goldberg. In fact, the main storyline wasn’t the rivalry the champ was in; it was the rivalries between all the contenders, griping about their place in line. Hogan made a “timely” comeback to throw his name in the hat; Ric Flair, having won the on-screen WCW Presidency from Bischoff at Starrcade, let it be known he wanted to challenge (why he had to declare it since he was, you know, PRESIDENT OF THE COMPANY, was a plot hole that went unaddressed). DDP asked for another crack, saying he’d figured out Goldberg’s weakness. Luger wanted a piece; so did Roddy Piper and Bret Hart. Newcomer to WCW Bam Bam Bigelow declared his intentions to get some. Randy Savage even crawled out from whatever rock he was hiding under and sent in a video message saying he wanted Goldberg. There was no shortage of challengers, and their lobbying and jockeying and wrestling one another took up what seemed like an eternity on Nitro. What seemed like hour after hour was dedicated to an endless game of leapfrog by all these contenders (pretenders?), while the champ himself languished in middle-of-the-show matches against WCW Saturday Night’s best and brightest.
Finally, finally, WCW made a pair of announcements on the final Nitro before Souled Out: they would have a 20-man over-the-top battle royal for a WCW World Title shot at a date to be determined by the winner (in kayfabe; behind the scenes, they didn’t have a clue, and unnamed sources say the plan was to ignore the title shot long enough so that it went away quietly) … never mind the fact that only two months before, they’d run World War 3, their Brobdingnagian take on the Royal Rumble with 60 participants in three rings, vying for the very same honor. The second announcement was the one everybody really wanted to hear: Goldberg’s opponent. Shockingly, they went with the most logical opponent, also someone who, in the weeks between the two PPV’s, hadn’t so much as mentioned Goldberg or the WCW Title: Scott Hall. Instead, Hall and Nash had been teasing tension in their long partnership as The Outsiders, and everyone assumed there’d either be a match to finally push the break-up, or a match between them.
Keep in mind that these announcements – announcements which sealed the deal on their main event and their semi-main, the ostensible primary selling points of the PPV – were made six days prior to Souled Out. Not including Nitro itself, that left WCW the four hours between Thunder and Saturday Night to sell the PPV; no small order when Thunder’s audience was a fraction of a fraction of Nitro’s, and Saturday Night was watched less than infomercials at 3 in the morning. WCW’s attempts to push their main event were to mention it all of twice on Thunder, and have Goldberg wrestle on Thunder, defending the WCW Title against The Giant, whom everybody and their mother knew was leaving the promotion and thus stood no chance. Surprisingly, they let The Giant chokeslam Goldberg and get a good three minutes worth of offense, more than most did, but it ended the same. The push on Saturday Night was more enthusiastic, but between the time slot (mid-afternoon on a Saturday, a time slot ghetto if there ever was one) and the reputation of the show, nobody was there to buy the hard sell.
Was this a white flag by WCW, knowing they had little shot of diverting attention from the red-hot WWE as they built towards a Royal Rumble featuring Rock/Mankind in an I Quit match and a Royal Rumble with both Austin and McMahon himself in it? Or was it intentional sabotage?
“I kept asking ‘who’s next?’ every show,” said Goldberg in a 2003 interview. “Asked it on TV and I asked backstage. And all I kept hearing was ‘brother, when we know, you’ll know’. Guess who said that.”
Souled Out, in its short three-year lifespan, had grown a reputation: that of being one of the worst, most skippable PPV’s on WCW’s schedule. The first year was marketed as an nWo-promoted event and featured some of the worst matches and most unbearable moments in professional wrestling history. The next year’s edition did nothing to change this image, as it followed up the highly successful Starrcade 1997 (with the long-awaited Hogan/Sting showdown) without either Hogan or Sting, and main evented with Lex Luger against Randy Savage for … no good reason. Clash Of The Champions, which had been devalued in the monthly-PPV era to the point of being retired, was more still more watchable. 1999, while stacked with star power on paper, was a raging disaster the minute the FBI warning faded to black.
The midcard, usually the bastion of workrate? Hastily thrown together matches featuring workrate hero and “vanilla midget” Chris Benoit facing Mike Enos, a guy to whom all but the most zealous fans would say “oh, that guy’s still around?”. Fit Finlay faced generic big man Van Hammer; Norman Smiley battled Chavo Guerrero; and once-hot-but-now-forgotten Wrath (who had built his own win streak prior to facing Nash en route to Starrcade) dropped a match to Bam Bam Bigelow. Chris Jericho, three times as over as most main eventers and despite getting one-tenth the screen time, languished in a feud with Perry Saturn. Some of the matches were fun to watch, but they all lacked the intrigue given to the main eventers.
But here, too, some of the main eventers were just killing time. Luger wrestled Konnan to the delight of nobody. Ric Flair brought in his untalented and unwatchable son David to fumble through a tag team match against fellow AARP member Barry Windham and a Curt Hennig who was perfect … ly average.
And then, the first surprise of the night was unleashed: a change in the card. The main event was now the semi-main event. Yes, the grudge match that built off the previous month’s main event … the only match on the card that seemed directly connected to an ongoing storyline and featured the champ was suddenly and inexplicably not the feature bout. And to make matters worse, they gave it 22 minutes … 22 of the slowest, most plodding minutes you can imagine, as Hall wrestled in a state that could generously be called questionable sobriety, and was given the kind of offense usually reserved for 80′s Hulk Hogan matches. Goldberg’s share of the offense clocked in at a whopping 3 minutes grand total and consisted of a couple punches, a clothesline, a spear and a Jackhammer. The crowd responded to watching a drunk “wrestle” for 19 minutes by throwing cups, bottles, and anything they could get their hands on into the ring, as well as a rather profane chant that lasted a minute and a half and a deaf person could hear. Nash and his cronies spun this as “positive heat”. No word on if he honestly thought TurnerSports execs would believe him, but, well, come on. It’s Nash.
And then … then … came the main event. The hastily-thrown-together 20-man battle royal for the #1 contendership for the WCW Championship.
That lasted eight minutes.
Yes, a 20-man battle royal went eight minutes. WCW detractors swore up and down that some people – those who found themselves often on the outside of the Bischoff/Nash/Hogan triangle looking in – were voluntarily jumping over the top rope; while this is not true, the sentiment backstage amongst many of the battle royal’s competitors was that they might as well have.
Bret Hart (from a 2002 interview): “Word had gotten out that they were gonna put Page over and bury the title shot, since he was the boss’ buddy and wouldn’t bitch if it got forgotten. Page was safe, he was one of the boys. None of us wanted to be there. So, yeah, we dogged it.”
Lex Luger (from a 2003 interview): “None of us would’ve had a problem doing the job if wasn’t so obvious what Nash and Bischoff and Hogan were doing. If they’d been up front, even a little …”
Sting (from a 2002 interview): “I don’t like to burn bridges or speak of ill people who aren’t here to defend themselves. What they did to us at Souled Out … it didn’t do anybody any favors, let’s put it that way.”
What they did was book it so that Hogan and Nash ran through thirteen of the eighteen men opposing them (seven for Hogan, six for Nash). Then they teased some animosity between the leaders of the two increasingly irrelevant nWo factions, before Hall came out again and got involved, throwing over two people himself. Yes, a man not involved in the battle royal somehow scored two eliminations. The final people – not counting the not-really-involved Hall – were Hogan, Nash, Hart, Sting and DDP. Flair would become the battle royal’s second run-in, and second outsider to score an elimination, getting Hogan out. It should be mentioned here that Sting was put out of action on-screen by Bret Hart back at Halloween Havoc and hadn’t been seen on-screen since then … and this was his first appearance back. No notice, no build-up, no nothing; he just got dropped in, unadvertised. And the beef with Bret Hart? It went completely unaddressed. Meanwhile, Nash was eliminated by “accident” by Hall, when he went to punch DDP and DDP ducked, popping Nash in the jaw instead. That left Hart and Sting, who eliminated each other Royal Rumble ’94-style, leaving DDP the winner.
In case you weren’t keeping track, here it is in black and white: DDP won a #1 contendership battle royal without eliminating a single person, and two people who weren’t in the match did score eliminations. Goldberg then came down to ringside to congratulate the new #1 contender, presumably to get some heat going for the showdown … only for Bam Bam Bigelow, who’d had a few sporadic run-ins with Goldberg since debuting for the promotion a couple months back, to ambush Goldberg and leave him lying face-down on the mat to end the PPV.
So, to recap the main event scene:
Goldberg, the WCW Champion, did not main event.
Said World Champion, a monster who defeated Hulk Hogan, Raven, and walked through 9 men at Hog Wild in less time than most people need to make and eat a sandwich, needed 22 minutes to finish off a visibly inebriated challenger.
The new #1 contender to said monster champion was crowned by winning a match with nineteen opponents, and he defeated precisely zero of them.
And immediately after crowning said contender, they started a program between Goldberg and somebody else. Somebody whom, up to this point, hadn’t been considered a main eventer in WCW. Or even upper midcard. And, apart from a two month title run in ECW, hadn’t been within shouting distance of a PPV main event in about four years.
To say the PPV was critically reviled would be a compliment. WCW apologists, realizing there was no defense, fell back on the “Raw is porn” mindset (perhaps hoping pointing fingers elsewhere would be a distraction) and treated WCW Souled Out 1999 like Garth Brooks’ Chris Gaines album.
And how did Nash, booker extraordinaire, defend himself? He has never commented on it, but backstage sources told several big-name dirt sheet writers that Nash felt that, since was doing exactly what Turner Sports execs wanted him to – keep Goldberg champ – he was on the right track, critics be damned.
Whether this track had rails or not is up for the reader to decide. But the boys, especially those like Sting, Bret Hart and Goldberg, saw the situation for what it was: Kevin Nash was intentionally trying to derail the train. And given the relationships and contracts in WCW, they were powerless to stop him.
The road to Superbrawl
This time around, the build-up to the PPV – namely Goldberg’s title defense – got some attention with more time than six days. That the angle kicked off making zero sense … well, you can’t have everything.
DDP, the rightful contender, stepped aside the night after Souled Out, saying he would defer his shot until later so Goldberg could get revenge on Bigelow. This was a program that had been, at best, mildly simmering on the back burner since World War 3, so to finally get some progress on it was astounding for WCW. Granted, it wasn’t the hottest program, nor was Bigelow the dream opponent, but hey, at least it had some history to it.
The only problem was, once again, the time given to it was microscopic compared to the time given to the other main event programs. And once again, Goldberg’s February calendar was filled with title defenses against luminaries like Barry Darsow, Ciclope and – on WCW Saturday Night – The Gambler. The chanting of fans was quieting down a little (but you wouldn’t know it, since WCW’s sound crew piped in chanting … then broke the illusion by going to crowd shots that looked like still photos) and the reactions to his matches was getting a little cooler with every schlub he put through the mat. He cut all of one promo – saying his infamous two words and nothing more – while Bigelow cut one every week. Both men wrestled on both shows, and in the weeks between the PPV’s, they crossed paths – in backstage brawls – all of twice, once on Thunder. As far as the wrestling media and WCW’s critics were concerned, the message was clear: Goldberg may have held the main event championship, but he himself was not a main eventer. Despite being the most over wrestler in the company, winning three awards from PWI in 1998, and now having been WCW World Champion for going on seven months, he was marginalized … and with him went the WCW World Championship.
Meanwhile, other main eventers – and some under-card wrestlers – got juicy stories replete with TV time. Hulk Hogan, now back full time, turned face as a result of Ric Flair’s actions at Souled Out and Flair, accommodatingly, turned heel, taking on a crazy, Vince McMahon-ish evil authority figure role. Mind you, Flair had wrested the WCW Presidency from Eric Bischoff, who’d been an evil, Vince McMahon-ish authority figure … so to have Flair suddenly become power-mad and insane was a pill WCW fans weren’t enthusiastic about swallowing. Let alone the fact that Flair, who’d been Hulk Hogan’s whipping boy for going on five years now, was in perfect position to be so yet again. The grudge match set up between the two got tons of time on Nitro, with matches, segments, video packages and promos galore, not to mention the announcers talking about it non-stop. The tension between Hall and Nash was put aside – again – so they could team up in a hair vs. mask feud against Konnan (who neither had hair nor a mask) and Rey Mysterio. This was not without political reasons, of course, as Mysterio would later reveal.
Mysterio (from a December 2001 interview with Dave Meltzer): Bischoff thought the masks made us luchadores too hard to market. I told him we could make money selling masks, but he didn’t want to hear that. And Kevin was trying to silence some of the boys backstage by dropping that match to me on Nitro. Nobody believed it, but that’s what he was selling.
Meanwhile, other feuds that hogged time saw Scott Steiner chasing Roddy Piper and the United States Championship, who won the title from Bret Hart on Nitro; the idea that Piper, old and borderline immobile thanks to hip replacement surgery several years prior, could match up physically against a mountain of muscle like Steiner was genuinely insane, but Nash pushed it anyway. And, to make matters more confusing, DDP was shoe-horned into the feud because, well, why not? Sting and Bret Hart actually started to feud in a shocking show of continuity (twice in a month!) … and immediately took a big steaming dump on the goodwill by having Hart lose the United States Championship thanks to a run-in from MAD TV comedian Will Sasso. Why Will Sasso? Cause Bret Hart appeared on MAD TV. It only made sense to further a feud that had zero ability to be paid off.
Meanwhile, the decision was made to resuscitate the dormant WCW World Tag Team Championships with a double-elimination tournament. Despite a rich legacy of tag teams, WCW had devalued the division and the belts to the point of irrelevancy, and it showed in the finals of the tourney, which were slated for Superbrawl: Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko – a makeshift team of two successful singles wrestlers who were associated because of the now-defunct (again) 4 Horsemen – against Barry Windham and Curt Hennig, two guys well over-the-hill that exposed the lack of depth of the division.
And that’s not including the cruiserweight division or other feuds. Chavo Guerrero was working a “crazy” gimmick where he carried around and talked to a hobby horse named Pepe; despite all logic, this got over. Booker T was perennially on the cusp of breaking through, so he had a feud that gave him time but failed to finish the breaking-through. So did Chris Jericho, who was one of the most over members of the roster. And Raven has a series of vignettes to hype his return that exposed him as the son of upper-class rich snobs in the Hamptons, instead of the child of abuse and neglect he purported to be. These vignettes also introduced his drunken neighbor, ECW alum The Sandman, now known as Hardcore Hak, and Raven’s sister, who was played by a former adult film actress, an irony that somehow escaped the “Raw is porn” WCW loyalists.
Now, none of this is to say that giving all these midcarders feuds and angles are a bad thing in and of themselves. WCW as a whole was in desperate need of new stars, and getting the midcarders some exposure should’ve ostensibly had metric tons of upside. But when it comes at the expense of the centerpiece of the company, angles around crazy guys with a hobby horse and a brooding grunge kid who lies about his childhood suddenly lose whatever intrinsic value they might have in the long run.
So, on paper, Superbrawl looked to be a stacked card, and it needed all the help it could get. WWF wasn’t taking the piss with their pre-Wrestlemania PPV, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre; it was headlined by two huge matches, a Last Man Standing match between The Rock and Mankind for the WWF Championship, and, after a year of hostilities and teasing, a steel cage match between Steve Austin and Vince McMahon.
The WWF show delivered in classic Attitude fashion. The undercard was sufficient in both quality and drama, and the two main events were off the charts in every way; Rock and Mankind had a wild, crazy brawl that built off their long-standing feud and a classic ending inspired by Rocky II, and Austin beat the ever-loving hell out of McMahon for fifteen minutes. And The Giant – now going by his real name, Paul Wight – debuted in WWF, attacking Austin. It hit all the right notes building towards Wrestlemania XV.
WCW had a week before their Superbrawl hit the airwaves. One Nitro and one Thunder for the hard sell, to convince people that Goldberg/Bigelow and Hogan/Flair and the rest were just as must-see as anything the WWF had. And to really hammer it home in those final two shows … Nash and Hogan no-showed Nitro (never mind Thunder), Steiner cut an insane, rambling semi-shoot promo that had little to nothing to do with his DDP/Piper program (other than to suggest DDP’s testicles provided the ball joint for Piper’s artificial hip), and it was revealed that the hair vs. mask match had not Nash’s long flowing locks on the line … but those of Miss Elizabeth, the valet to Lex Luger, who was acting as a valet for The Outsiders at Superbrawl. Why, nobody knows … but not only was this pointless stipulation dropped on Nitro, it was the first time Elizabeth heard about it, too … and when she got back to her locker room, she found a pair of electric clippers in her locker. The rib went unpunished, since nobody copped to it. But the implication was clear: no matter how much people didn’t like the direction Nash had them going, he had the power, and everybody else was powerless to stop it. After all, Goldberg was still champ and still winning.
Oh, and there was one more thing: it was announced on Nitro that Flair/Hogan would main event Superbrawl. Yes, that meant for two consecutive PPV’s, the WCW World Championship would semi-main. Apparently, a fictitious Presidency out-ranked the primary championship. The announcement was made because of the overwhelming backlash from Souled Out; this way, fans couldn’t complain about the match order being a surprise, and with “the fate of the company hanging in the balance” (as Tony Schiavone said seemingly every fifteen minutes at Nash’s insistence), it made sense to put it on top. From Nash’s point of view, at any rate.
And since the booker was never as much to blame as the people on screen for failing to connect with the people, the wrestlers took the brunt of criticism from those not in the know. And since he was front and center (so to speak) with the gold, Goldberg was set to take the lion’s share of the blame if Superbrawl failed to deliver, regardless of card position.
As stated before, every effort was made by Nash to make Superbrawl a successful event, considering what it had to go against, and the expectations of the higher-ups within Turner. While some of the storylines coming into the PPV were ludicrous, the matches themselves had reasonable market value.
So when it failed so spectacularly, even the boldest of WCW partisans was left to scratch their heads.
As had been the formula for the glory years of the New World Order, Superbrawl was constructed to follow the blueprint of an under-card carried by the workrate guys, and pushed the drama at the top. But apart from a Jericho/Saturn match and the cruiserweight division, even the stalwarts failed to deliver … or were set up to fail. Booker T’s singles push met Disco Inferno, an annoying midcarder with an offensive repertoire as vanilla as they come; the resulting feud relied on weak stereotypes that verged on latent racism, and the match itself merely existed. The Piper/Steiner/DDP triple threat was wretched from the word go, as Skteiner’s reckless offense put both Piper and DDP at legitimate risk of injury, and Piper moved with the speed of a garden slug on Valium. This left DDP, a guy who planned out matches in greater detail than countries plan out wars, to improvise; the result was a match as ugly as watching Stephen Hawking try a Slip-n-Slide. Steiner would win the match, almost crippling poor Piper in the process with his Steiner Recliner. Some backstage were rumored to have been insulted that Steiner could shoot on his co-workers, wrestle with no care for the safety of others, and somehow get a title run out of it. It helped being a friend of the boss.
Rumors abounded pre-show that the long-awaited, oft-teased and more oft-delayed split of The Outsiders would happen; this would prove to be either disinformation spread to the dirt sheets by Nash himself (a charge he vehemently denies), or wishful thinking leaked to the very same outlets by hopeful undercard wrestlers. Given events to come in the coming months, the latter is more likely. Whatever the case, not only did the break-up not happen, but Konnan and Mysterio were absolutely obliterated from pillar to post. In an eleven minute match, Konnan and Mysterio traded off playing Ricky Morton so many times, one would have thought it was a mid-80′s WWF Superstars squash match. Anybody who hoped for a fluke roll-up or a schoolboy was either hopelessly myopic or blindly loyal, as Nash won the match with the putting-one-foot-on-the-chest pin on Konnan while Hall mostly struggled to stay vertical. And, as Eric Bischoff wanted, Rey Mysterio’s signature mask, that which made him recognizable and could have made Bischoff tens of thousands of dollars in merch sales, was torn off his head to reveal a guy who didn’t look old enough to get into a PG-13 movie. How this was an improvement, only Bischoff knew. And as if this wasn’t enough, Hall injured his foot and wouldn’t be seen on WCW television for another 8 months. This meant the simmering Outsiders break-up and feud was shelved, and any chance for Mysterio and Konnan to get revenge on Hall and Nash also went up in flames.
And any hope that the WCW Tag Team Championship match would save the day was dashed as soon as the bell rang; Malenko and Benoit were light years ahead of the older, slower Hennig and Windham, and judging from the crowd reaction far more popular. So, of course they lost, and looked like chumps doing it, as they fell to Windham choking Malenko out with his belt right in front of the ref. An acceptable move in no-DQ matches, which this was not.
This left the two main events to save the show. After the abortion at Souled Out and the debacle of Starrcade, the pressure was on to deliver big; for Goldberg to show that the match at Halloween Havoc wasn’t the product of DDP’s meticulous planning, but of Goldberg finally arriving as a performer.
Instead, Bam Bam Bigelow took Goldberg to pound-town for 13 excruciating minutes that felt easily thrice the number. And the match ended on a DQ when Bigelow, frustrated that his Greetings From Asbury Park piledriver didn’t finish the job, grabbed a chair and cracked the champ across the back. To say they didn’t click before the bell rang was an understatement. But with the DQ ending, Bischoff and Nash might as well have gone out on stage, waved around a fat stack of cash and yelled “we got your money” to the crowd. The save of Goldberg by DDP only underscored the problematic booking to WCW’s critics. Loyalists could only say “wait and see”.
That left Hogan and Flair to close the show and save the day, a concept so insulting, a good twenty percent of the crowd actually left the arena. Those who left missed nothing of consequence, and may have saved brain cells; Ric Flair got some help from Arn Anderson and a tire iron. And Hogan got help from David Flair, who had turned heel with his father only a few weeks before, only to turn face again. The match was a cookie cutter of their encounters five years back … only, hey, they were five years older now, and their glacial movement and antiquated “action” showed it. Couple that with Hogan dealing with a legit bum knee, and presto, you have the perfect match to cap off an evening of extraordinary entertainment (depending on how objectively one uses “extraordinary”). To the shock of many, Flair won the match, albeit after bludgeoning Hogan so many times with the tire iron, it made Flair an honorary member of the LAPD.
Critical reviews savaged it, and WCW detractors hurt themselves trying to crawl into foxholes. None of WCW’s most blindly loyal could dare challenge the quality of WCW against WWF’s admittedly schizophrenic but far more entertaining “Attitude” booking. There were so many reports of disgruntled wrestlers and backstage rumors, it was assumed everybody had The Torch and/or The Observer on the first speed-dial position of their cell phones … with Stamford on #2, ready to jump ship as soon as their contracts came up. Rumors were strong Jericho was being courted, and Raven was also getting a lot of ink for a possible exit.
But the biggest backstage news wasn’t about departures; it was about an arrival. Or, more accurately, a return.
The road to Uncensored
The term “prodigal son” has, thanks to popular usage, come to mean anybody who returns home after a long absence. But the true meaning is far less warm and cozy; the Biblical parable tells of a young man who was given his inheritance early, only to run off and waste it. His return is given much attention, but it is prompted by the son having pissed it all away; his homecoming isn’t one of celebrating a conquering hero, but of welcoming a lost sheep back into the fold. The adjective “prodigal” is a reference not to any sense of wanderlust, but of wasteful extravagance.
It is in this classic definition, as winter turned to spring, that WCW’s own prodigal son, Eric Bischoff, returned from his self-imposed disappearence in Hollywood.
WCW honks would have you believe that Bischoff had stepped back and given Kevin Nash the reigns so he could further the WCW brand in the mainstream, and there is some truth to it … in a roundabout way. Part of his time away was spent trying to put the finishing touches on a long-gestating (read: languishing) NBC deal for prime time specials akin to Saturday Night’s Main Event. Dirt sheets swallowed up the occasional leaks on this and regurgitated Bischoff’s promise of an “imminent announcement”, and so did the boys in the back. They’d just come to terms with former ECW centerpiece Shane Douglas, a controversial guy with a propensity to run off at the mouth (and a hatred for Bischoff nemesis Ric Flair), which always got attention. Coupled with other deals in the works (including negotiations with several musicians, and more scheduled appearances by basketball oddity Dennis Rodman in the summer), it seemed Bischoff was on the precipice of making some major moves that would return WCW to a position to threaten Stamford once more.
But Bischoff’s time in Cali was really for more self-serving purposes. While nobody will confirm it to this day, there is enough circumstantial evidence to bring a picture into sharp relief. And the picture is that Bischoff was, creatively, running on empty, and he knew it. The WCW/nWo war – an angle he did not dream up but in fact stole from Japan – had gone on far too long, and the splitting of the mega-stable into warring factions failed to re-stoke dying fires. Sting’s big victory over Hogan was botched, as was the major acquisition of Bret Hart, who had been relegated to the same midcard no-man’s-land as most everybody else. There was a great deal of dissent in the midcard ranks who saw no opportunity for upward advancement when the top of the card was clogged with friends of the front office. Word on the street had Bischoff and his partner, former Wonder Years bully big brother Jason Hervey, shopping around a new production company venture in Hollywood; ostensibly, this was to be a part of Bischoff’s WCW-ing of Hollywood, but in reality, he was testing out life preservers. The great ship WCW was taking on water, and he knew he’d land on his feet better if he didn’t have the stink of failure on him, so he skedaddled to Cali and started putting out feelers.
Until TurnerSports told him, in no uncertain terms, to get his ass back to Atlanta and do his job. One can only imagine the profanities in that phone call, and not on Bischoff’s end.
The hot mess Bischoff stepped back into couldn’t have been worse: ratings were inching down show by show, house show attendance was sliding, and the roster was days from breaking out in open warfare. The higher-ups wanted Bischoff to work his magic and fix everything, and priority one was fixing Goldberg. And to that end, they gave Bischoff a mandate: no more games, no more end-arounds. Make Goldberg the main event, and make him [i]hot[/i]. So Bischoff conferred with his inside circle (read: Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash) and determined the course of action. It was quite simple and, in Bischoff’s mind, a 100% can’t-miss plan.
Step 1) Build up Goldberg by having him roll over some more people. Not that this hadn’t been done before, but it’s what got Goldberg hot to begin with, so it wasn’t a bad idea per se.
Step 2) Put the kibosh on the DDP title match indefinitely. Since DDP was rather popular and had been the only person to get a quality match from Goldberg thus far, this was a tad puzzling.
And then came Step 3, where the wheels came off and the car crashed into the ravine. According to numerous unidentified sources at the time, the original plan pre-Bischoff’s return was to go with Goldberg/Flair in a terribly obvious rip-off of Austin/McMahon. While this was unoriginal as an angle, the match-up was fresh, and a quick crushing of a certified legend like Flair was just what the doctor ordered for the stale champion.
So, of course, Bischoff took that plan, set fire to it, and buried the ashes. Bischoff’s plan, strangely, made sense: a fatal-four-way that would tie together several plot threads all at once. Goldberg would get one more chance at Bam Bam Bigelow. Not exactly a match people were clamoring for again, but fair.
Toss in Ric Flair, under the pretense of a power-mad tyrant wanting both the office and the gold. Reasonable.
And then Flair’s #1 rival … Hulk Hogan, the man whom Goldberg beat for the belt, bringing the whole thing full circle.
The moment that plan hit the grapevine backstage, the backlash was could’ve cut the space-time continuum in half. Everybody could see through the pretense; Bigelow was a sacrificial lamb. Flair was there for Hogan to get heat on. And Hogan was there for the sole reason of building up to Goldberg/Hogan II at Spring Stampede. Where, as had been the plan since July of 1998, Hogan would get his win back. Whether that was still the plan only two people knew, but the mere hint of Goldberg/Hogan II was enough to send red flags up everywhere.
The tangled web of this plot would dominate Nitro (but not Thunder, of course) to the level that the nWo did only a year or so before; when one of the four weren’t on-screen, Tony Schiavone would reference the match and the foursome that reeked of a “where’s Poochie?” vibe. The constant under-selling of the product on screen earned Schiavone a heap of undue scorn, including numerous calls for Schiavone to “die on his way to his home planet”; notable IWC columnist Hyatte would go so far as to put an only semi-facetious bounty on the teeth of Schiavone’s children. The truth was, the commentary was done at Bischoff’s command, via an earpiece. How this constant under-selling of everything but the main program was expected to help the rest of the show is unknown, but it certainly had an effect, most notably backstage, where morale somehow found a way to get under the bottom of the barrel and bring a shovel with it.
Nevertheless, the train rolled on, despite many questioning the existence of tracks beneath it; Goldberg was put in handicap matches by the tyrannical Flair and dropped houses on them, making people wonder why he could polish off two people at once, but looked so stunningly inept against a drunk in January. Hogan demanded a rematch with Flair and Goldberg, which made perfect sense if you ignored he was getting just that at Uncensored, albeit with a tag-a-long. Bigelow vowed to hunt Goldberg down and “wear his balls for earrings”, a quote that had TurnerSports execs apologizing to sponsors before Nitro went off the air that night. Amusingly, Bigelow’s hunt would take on a Spinal Tap-esque flavor, as he would be in the same arena with Goldberg every single week, and yet Goldberg’s balls remained conspicuously where nature put them. You can guess how many times they actually crossed paths with two fingers … if those two fingers were your index and thumb making a circle. Hogan got his revenge on Flair in a match that has been known to cause spontaneous cranial bleeding from watching just the ring introduction; even more infuriating was that the match had high-stakes stipulations on it (the WCW Presidency was on the line, to be returned to Bischoff if Flair lost), and this epic grudge match was given away on free TV, with precisely zero weeks of hype to boost the ratings. This cut the storyline of Flair wanting the Presidency and the championship off at the knees. Logic would dictate that Bischoff – still a heel, but friends with Hogan – would kick Flair out of the match at Uncensored as punishment for his tyrannical reign of eight weeks. And if you actually thought that, you need to remember this is WCW, where logic died at the arena door.
If you’re wondering why scarcely little if at all has been mentioned about the midcard, it’s because that’s how WCW treated it. Garbage in, garbage out. Guys like Benoit, Jericho, Booker, Malenko, Raven, Saturn, Chavo and almost everybody else were treated as inconsequential and interchangeable. They exchanged wins, put on wrestling clinics, and got nothing for it. Eventually, even the crowd started to cool to them, since they were ostensibly being told by WCW itself that these hard workers had no real value in comparison to the Hogans and Goldbergs of the world. The only wrestler outside of the foursome that got anything was Nash, as his program with Rey Mysterio went one more agonizing month of the diminutive luchadore getting bitch-made week after week. Why Nash felt the need to get heat “back” on Rey is a mystery, since he’d already made Rey look like a chump at Superbrawl, but sometimes, you don’t get answers to your questions, Virginia.
And so it went. Bischoff promised the brass he had his plan to restore Goldberg’s golden touch, and undercut him right in front of the world on TV. The same old guys kept dominating TV time, and the strong undercard kept treading water. Considering Uncensored had a legacy of being almost as bad as Souled Out, hopes were not high among WCW’s rank and file.
The weekend of Uncensored, rumors were flying left, right and center over what was going to happen at the PPV regarding the main event. The execs in TurnerSports were getting ancy, what with two PPV’s in a row where the main event was received with what could generously be described as negativity. Rumors abounded that the much-talked-about switch from Goldberg to Hogan would happen here. Another rumor said Flair would get the belt as a payback for being hastily turned heel and having his presidency angle killed so quickly. What with the bad blood between Bischoff and Flair reduced to a low simmer instead of 1998′s high boil, nobody believed that rumor.
A third rumor did come close to happening, making it all the way to about an hour before showtime, when Bischoff changed his mind. That plan? Well, it was the original plan for Starrcade, but with a twist: Goldberg would be written out via an off-screen attack, stripped of the championship, Nash would be inserted in the match, and after Hogan and Nash had managed to wipe out Flair and Bigelow, fingerpoke, Hogan gets the belt, New World Order rides again. The idea was it would give Goldberg immediate feuds upon his return, plus a mystery angle to milk.
What killed it, you ask? Surprisingly, Kevin Nash himself.
Nash [from his 2002 interview with Meltzer]: It made sense to do it in December. It didn’t make sense here. We had Randy [Savage] coming back the next month to work with either me or Hogan … I didn’t wanna be Hogan’s stepping stone.
So much fretting and hand-wringing was done over the main event that you may be wondering how much attention was shown the rest of the card. The answer is: as much as this column has shown. It was such an afterthought, WCW was this close to running a scrolling graphic that said “skip this crap” for the first two hours. Only for Nash’s absolute, final burial of Rey Mysterio did the announcers perk up. Even DDP – still clutching onto that #1 contendership, although they never mentioned it outside of his nameplate graphic – got shorted, getting jammed into a Booker T/Scott Steiner match for the TV Title at the last minute.
The only other thing that got any appreciable TV time was a complete surprise to everybody – the audience, Schiavone and the rest of the commentary crew, even most of the boys. To start off the show, Bret Hart came out and went on for about ten minutes. His presence on the show was completely unadvertised, and to most, unexpected, since he was injured. Nevertheless, he cut a long-winded diatribe that fell in the gray area between work and shoot, most of which revolving around his being stuck on the “middle-of-the-show treadmill” like he was the last time he and Hogan were in the same promotion at the same time. He ran down Hogan for still dodging him after all these years, WCW management for not giving him or the fans the matches they wanted, and then, out of the blue, threw down the gauntlet at Goldberg, promising to “excellently execute” Goldberg once he (Bret) returned. The crowd didn’t know what to think of it, as it veered from face to heel with almost every word. Worse yet, Schiavone and crew were told not to talk about it. Yes, the big star WCW lured away from WWF a year and a half ago cuts an incendiary promo, challenges the world champ, and the reaction from the people whose sole purpose was to sell the storylines? An Orwellian “it didn’t happen” code of silence.
As far as the main event goes, those who saw it wish they could 1984 it out of their brains. The first problem was that, despite WCW’s insistence, nobody really wanted to boo Ric Flair. Sure, the kids would, but the majority of the fanbase had long memories, and those memories had built up an appreciation for Flair that the hasty and unwanted heel turn just couldn’t overwrite. Likewise, WCW’s partisan loyalists had no love lost for Hogan; the nWo era at least said their hatred of him was justified. But now, it was right back to 1995 all over again, with Hogan wearing red and yellow, tearing his t-shirt, blah, blah, blah. Toss in Bigelow, who just didn’t mesh with the slow, grandfatherly pace of Flair and Hogan. And neither Bigelow nor Goldberg seemed much interested in selling for anybody – amusingly, this is where Goldberg and Bigelow actually had something in common, as both were sick of the political BS that was cutting the legs out from under their careers.
And if all this wasn’t enough to take the match from unwatchable to a Guantanamo-esque torture video, there was still one more problem that would pop up, and this one was an unexpected problem to boot. It was the one opponent even the immortal Hulk Hogan could not refuse in putting over: father time. Namely, Hogan’s knee, already dodgy at the beginning of the year, was breaking down seemingly with every step. By the time Uncensored came around, he was a semi-truck trying to drive on bicycle tires.
The closing sequence of the match was to begin with Hogan and Goldberg alone in the ring; Hogan was to hit his leg drop on Goldberg, and the rest of the final moments would play out from there. But when Hogan landed, his knee popped. He rolled off Goldberg, moaning in agony, and immediately rolled to the ropes. Medics took Hogan away mid-match, causing the finishing sequence to be altered. Goldberg went over as planned, pinning Bigelow after throwing Flair over the top rope. The match wasn’t nearly the coma-inducing nightmare the past few events had been, but that may have been worse; loved or hated, either response showed people had feelings about it. It even drew in some people who watched in with Mystery Science Theater 3000-esque ideal of enjoying the awfulness. But Uncensored wasn’t actively bad. It wasn’t good either. That it happened was about all you could say, and being so utterly devoid of content was far worse than being polarizing.
Backstage, though, all hell was breaking loose. It was obvious before Hogan was loaded into the bus that Goldberg/Hogan II was dead and gone. Early estimates put his absence at a month, and even the apologists knew that the Hogan/Goldberg program was a Hail Mary at best for what was ailing the promotion had it happened right away. With a month or more to cool off, it could be outdrawn by a fish tank at a pet store once it was revived. And with Wrestlemania less than a month off, their chance to score big in the Mania hangover period had evaporated like an ice cube in Death Valley. It’s been said (but never verified) that Bischoff spent much of the night behind closed doors on the phone with Turner execs. What was said in that conversation has been the topic of much speculation … but one can only guess. And sympathize with Bischoff’s ears.
To be continued …
Don’t forget that when this story concludes (Part IV will be the final chapter), my intention is to do a special “aftershow” edition the following week, where I’ll explain my thoughts behind the column, and answer questions you may have. The questions don’t have to be about this though; whatever you wanna ask, no limits! You can email me at email@example.com, leave a comment down at the bottom, or hit me up on Twitter at @zeteticbynature and use #askrtb. This is meant to be an interactive edition of the column, so I need your help to make it happen!