Psych 101: Hulk Hogan vs. Sting, Starrcade 1997 (Part One)

The internet had been abuzz lately about the 2.21.11 vignettes that had been running on WWE TV the past month. Realists had assumed it was for the promotion of a returning Undertaker, while wishful-thinkers were hoping it to be the long awaited WWE debut for NWA-WCW loyalist, Sting. The timing would’ve seemed to make sense for the latter.

WWE is creeping up on WrestleMania, which is being held this year in Atlanta, Georgia. If Calgary, Alberta is the wrestling capitol of the world, then ATL is its second city. It’s the old stomping grounds for legendary names of the nitty-gritty style of hard-working wrestling. Performers like Ric Flair, Lex Luger, Arn Anderson, Great Muta, Vader, Steve Austin, the Steiners, Ricky Steamboat, Steven Regal and yes, Sting, made a name for themselves by being showcased for the NWA, Jim Crockett Promotions, and eventually Ted Turner’s WCW.

The glitz and glam of Vince McMahon’s north eastern product didn’t resonate as well in the heart of Georgia. While WCW did have its’ fair share of outrageous characters and crazy storylines, the mainstays of the promotion were those on the roster that threw on the solid-color tights, laced up the boots, and put on as good of an in-ring product as they could muster. Legendary altercations and acclaimed matches soon developed between Ric Flair and Sting, Sting and Vader, Austin and Steamboat. It wasn’t too long before the WWF began making moves and swooning various talent away from Ted Turner.

The earliest get for Vince McMahon was the acquisition of WCW’s World Champion Ric Flair. Flair had been having creative and financial differences with WCW President Jim Herd, which ultimately led to his departure in 1991, as well as Flair’s appearance on WWF programming with the WCW World Title. Lex Luger was soon to follow as were the Steiners Brothers, and previous to them the Road Warriors of Hawk and Animal. Despite the mass exodus, Sting remained on the WCW roster.

As time passed into the mid-90s, WCW began to fire back by acquiring aging WWF talent. Former WrestleMania headliners in Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage were signed to deals, Ric Flair was also recovered from enemy territory. The WWF would sign up Vader, Steve Regal, Mick Foley, and a budding superstar named Steve Austin. WCW, though, in a very radical move, would sign up WWF headliners Kevin “Diesel” Nash and Scott “Razor Ramon” Hall in 1996. Sting, as noted previously, remained Sting under the WCW banner.

The injection of Hall and Nash would breakground for the risky concept of these two talents “invading” WCW, as if to presume they were both still under a WWF banner. This would move into an epic heel turn for the iconic Hulk hogan babyface character and launch a brand name, the nWo, that would catapult WCW out of the shadow of WWF and into its own limelight.

In conjunction with the emerging nWo, an angle was set in place to question the loyalty that Sting had towards the brand of WCW. The nWo procured an imposter Sting that would turn on fellow WCW roster members and leave both the talent and the fans to question Sting’s loyalty to the company. Sting, deeply bothered that his character and moral would come into question after his years of allegiance, retreated into himself. It was an added aspect of the story that displayed an amazing attention to detail. An invading entity threatens your company, those inside the company begin to question who bares allegiance and who will flee, then said invading entity toys with the company by making them believe their strongest remaining asset will be the next to jump. Indeed, in a rare instance, WCW Creative had developed an impressive web of subplots.

After a brief period of reclusiveness, Sting would return once again, this time a visibly changed and broken character. The colorful outfits were gone, traded in for a black and white color scheme. The two colors that were shared by the nWo, yet not proudly worn in the same manner. Sting was accused of being one of the nWo, therefore he would wear the colors that the WCW locker room assumed he would, but they would be adorned as shameful markings of both who he isn’t and who he friends thought he was. The colorful facepaint was gone as well. In its place was a solemn white face with black streaks. Where the former Sting wore colorful combinations with sleek points and sharp edges, the “Crow” face paint had only slim black strokes weaving around the contours of his face. The representation of ever-present tears of sadness for his self-imposed damnation. Compelting the change was a black trench coat and an emotionless demeanor. He was outcast from his friends, yet unclaimed by his enemies. He stood alone as a character looking for redemption from either side of the battle.

Slowly Sting would re-enter the fold from 1996 through 1997. Voiceless and expressionless, he’d often appear by either assaulting nWo members or questioning WCW members of their belief in him. The road to his return began by taking out the imposter Sting that tricked others into damning him. He used a trademark black baseball beat to proceed in either punishing the nWo or seeking acceptance from his former allies. He’d offer the bat to his friends to strike him if they believed him to be of the other’s persuasion, usually they would not go through with the act. Soon a campaign would develop from his actions, as Sting sought a single person to do battle with to relclaim both his own glory and that of WCW: The WCW champion himself, Hulk Hogan.

Week after week, wrestling fans were glued to their TV sets to watch Monday Nitro. What was Sting going to do next? Who was he going to attack to send a message? What’s Hogan and the nWo going to do? The “debut” of the new Sting was a rallying point for WCW to further stake their claim in the ratings war with Monday Night Raw. Turning the tradional idea of heel vs. babyface on its head, your heel was the most iconic and biggest drawing wrestling character up to that point, and your babyface was a self-deprecating lost soul. No “high fives” to the ring, no smiles, no colors. Just a single determination to face a new villian and reclaim personal stature.

Sting would silently campaign for a match with Hogan for well over a year. The slow build to the moment was excruciating. Fans were pining to finally know when and where the two characters would clash in an ultimate moment of defining conflict. They would get their wish in December of 1997, at WCW’s Starrcade pay-per-view event. The betrayal of Hulk Hogan would go to war against the damnation of Sting. This would be a peak in business that would drastically change the progression of the story, as well as strike a blow into WCW’s (up to that point) untarnished booking of the main event angle.

— End Part One —

– Nick

Dear Vic Venom,

Almost a week ago Pro Wrestling Illustrated was kind enough to post a fantastic interview with Chris Jericho on their very free and very public blog. I was very happy about this because I don’t even read Pro Wrestling Illustrated anymore. I didn’t even know that it’s still around. I just figured it stopped publishing when everyone got on the internet.

There is a lot of interesting insight about his depature from WWE and future endeavors, but the best points Jericho makes are related to TNA’s product. Here at DBB, we’re likely going to be very TNA-centric. Now, that isn’t because we like to complain or nitpick, but rather because we, as pro wrestling fans, are more disturbed by the amount of talent TNA has versus the show they actually perform every week.

There has been and continues to be a great deal of hope that TNA can provide a legitimate alternative to WWE’s programming. Since its incarnation in 2002, however, TNA has never quite been able to reach that mark. As a performance show in itself, it has grown from weekly pay-per-views to purchase, to Fox Sports, to Spike TV. The company gobbled up every top independent worker on the circuit that it could, even going to far as to forcing top tier  indies like Ring of Honor to have to contract workers and tie them down.

With a surplus of “smaller” and more athletic wrestlers flooding the market, TNA incorporated the “X Division” title, which promoted a faster paced, high flying style to fit both the typical cruiserweight performers and the mid-size workers who worked a similiar style. Although not as widely acclaimed as the “X Division,” a six-sided, lucha libre-style ring was used to further diferrentiate itself from the traditional idea of American Wrestling, or WWE’s product. The name itself, “Total Nonstop Action,” was devised on the basis that unlike the soap opera and gimmicks in WWE, TNA will provide a show based primarily on the in-ring performance. 

Following an inaugural World Title run by Ken Shamrock, Ex-WCW/WWE worker Jeff Jarrett was essentially self-booked in late 2002 to get the World Title spot he felt he never adequately received, but many others were finally given a chance to take the ball and run. Guys like AJ Styles, Chris Daniels, Jerry Lynn, America’s Most Wanted, Chris Sabin, Petey Williams, Monty Brown and Samoa Joe, were all given an opportunity to shine.

The common point of all these breakout performers? None of them were ever under contract with WWE, or in the case of Jerry Lynn, were never heavily featured on WWE programming while they were with the company. Sure, there would be a few ex-WWE (or recently ex-WWE) workers coming over that could be used for their name value and ability in the business, but for the first few years there was a core of talented, young workers that could define the company. As the years moved on, however, TNA began to sign more and more performers that were not only clearly defined as being WWE talent, but were also aging and incapable of putting on a competitive, athletic portrayal of a fight.

 To become a true alternative to another brand a company needs something that clearly distinguishes itself from the competition. Pepsi and Coke come in different color cans, Windows and Mac runs on different systems, McDonald’s burgers are round and Wendy’s are square. Part of what made the original Monday Night Wars so intriguing and the “jumps” that much more exciting was because there already were two definable rosters and styles. Even so, aside from the major name performers, if someone signed and switched companies, they would often debut with a new image or tweaked character as a means to differentiate that, “This is OUR wrestler now.” 

Old names and old characters incapable of still performing at a high level began to flood the TNA roster and become focal points of the show that ultimately detracted from any sort of meaningful progression. Performers like Kevin Nash, Sean Waltman, Jeff Hardy, Scott Steiner, Scott Hall, Kip James/Billy Gunn and others were seemingly signed up and put on display as soon as possible. A series of actions that would return when Hogan & Bischoff came as a combo deal to TNA in late 2009, featuring the likes of a returning Nasty Boys team and putting them over any tag team they could sacrifice.

This, finally, brings us to the point Jericho made in the PWI interview. When asked about Kevin Nash making negative comments regarding WWE’s youth movement and being in favor of older, established names, Jericho noted:

“There’s still a place for guys who are older and it’s not necessary to just take care of the young guys. You are who you are. There are guys who are better in their 40s than in their 30s. There are guys who are done by the time they’re 25, 26, 27 years old… Everybody’s got a certain shelf life. Some guy’s shelf life is longer than others. That’s why you always have to have young guys come in. You always have to have big drafts come in. And you can’t keep guys on top just because they have name value. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You have to be able to entertain and you have to be able to provide the certain quality of work that they’re you’re always used to. Just because a certain somebody had name value in 1999 when wrestling was quote-unquote hot, doesn’t mean they necessarily should be on top in 2010. It’s a case-by-case basis.”

There are two cleary definable attributes that Jericho points out. One is name value, the other is shelf life. Let’s consider “shelf life” as being more a reference of actual working ability than of still having a name that will draw interest in a product. To first estsblish itself apart from WWE, TNA promoted the fact that they were based on in-ring performance and emphasized their creative X Division performers. Since that point they have caved into the concept that these “name” performers need to be around and need to be made the focal point of the shows to attract an audience. However, just because a performer is signed to attach their name to your product, doesn’t mean that that “name” then needs to be maintained as a strong character over your young crop of capable performers.

When Hogan & Bischoff were brought in, so was Ric Flair. Both Hogan and Flair are very old and self-admittedly broken down performers, so logically the two should instantly be in conflict with each other and be featured in matches against each other in television and pay-per-view. Valuable time that could be spent on showcasing a match involving a younger and capable performer like Doug Williams, or an interesting reinvented character like The Pope, is instead focused on two aging stars that can’t accomplish much more than waddle a few punches and bump once or twice. In theory, TNA sacrifices ring performance for characters of legendary status in order to draw interest to make money. In practice, this idea is entirely flawed because of the growth of UFC.

The UFC for the past several years has been providing a highly viable form of Sport Entertainment that provides legitimate fighting between two competitors. Young fighters of all shapes and sizes and going at it in a caged setting and are executing impactful strikes and immobilizing submissions. The casual viewer enjoys this style and latches onto it instantly. Really, what more do you need to convince them to watch a UFC fight? However, when that same viewer then tunes in to watch TNA and sees a couple 40 or 50-somethings waddle around a ring and stand tall over over a pack or highly athletic 20 or 30-somethings, any kind of suspension of disbelief is immediately lost.

This is purely speculation, but one would imagine that the casual viewer of today is not the same casual viewer of the mid-90s, regardless of age or maturity in understanding and accepting the pro wrestling product. Chances are the average child that’s allowed to watch professional wrestling is also watching UFC fights. The level of physical execution needs to be set to a higher standard in order for someone outside of the pro wrestling fan community to legitimately sit down and be able to get into a match. Showcasing old, slow, incapable performers, merely because they have a  previous track record from over a decade ago, doesn’t make the show believable or enjoyable and it doesn’t convince anybody to continue to watch.

As Jericho had stated, just because a worker was a name during the hot period in the late 90s, doesn’t make them necessary or adequate to be on top of a promotion now. TNA’s weekly television ratings have remained exactly the same for 3 years. It’s not as if featuring these older talents are actually creating a beneficial progression. It’s fascinating how TNA began its existence on a premise of featuring the X Division and athletic performers, yet now faced with a shift in perception of the business caused by an increased interest in legitimate fighting, is adapting to that by reverting to using old wrestlers who become less and less capable to put on an exciting match with each passing year.

– Nick