The latter part of 1997 was an epic turning point in the world of professional wrestling. WWF mainstay Bret Hart had defected to “greener” pastures, deciding to take on a large contract rather than remain under the wing of Vince McMahon. Bret, who was WWF Champion at the time, had hoped to leave on his terms without having to put over and drop the belt to Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series in November. Instead, Bret would retain the title through some manner of schmoz finish and then drop the belt the following evening on Monday Night Raw. Vince McMahon had allegedly reluctantly agreed to this behind closed doors.
As the main event unfolded, Bret was put into a Sharpshooter submission hold by Shawn Michaels, which was Bret’s own finish, and cited much ire from the Montreal crowd. As the Hitman went to continue the spot as devised and reverse the hold, Vince McMahon came running to the ring, ordering the match to be called and for Shawn Michaels to be given the title. Bret stared in amazement and shock as Michaels fled from the ring in an aggravated and perplexed demeanor. With garbage beginning to flood the ring with a chorus of boos, Hart would spit on Vince McMahon and spell out “WCW” in the air towards the hard camera. In a highly debated “shoot,” Bret Hart’s legacy in the WWF was effectively put on hold and he would be mocked in the WWF/E for nearly a decade following.
Both the WWF and WCW would use this event to change the course of their companies. In the WWF, the “Mr. McMahon” character was ignited versus the rising “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and the Shawn Michaels-led DeGeneration-X would gain more momentum heading into WrestleMania 14. In WCW, the tarnished image of Bret Hart would be used as a tool interjected into the nWo vs. Sting storyline. One company would grow stronger from their creative take on the situation, the other would begin a slippery slope that it would never quite recover from.
Starrcade 1997 was meant to be a turning point for the battle between the nWo and the WCW roster. With Sting returning to assert himself as the necessary combatant to Hulk Hogan, the remaining talent that hadn’t crossed to the dark side used The Stinger as a rallying point. If Sting can get past his demons to return to glory, then certainly the other talent can do the same. The two important clashes between nWo and WCW on the undercard to Hogan-Sting were Diamond Dallas Page versus Curt Hennig for the United States Title, and an encounter between Eric Bischoff and Larry Zbyszko with control of Monday Nitro on the line. Bret Hart would make his first impact on the show as special referee for that match.
From the in-ring standpoint, DDP defeated Hennig to bring the US title back into the realm of WCW. In the worked-shoot world, Zbyszko scored a disqualification victory over Bischoff (via ruling of Bret Hart) and earned WCW control once again of their flagship program. Momentum was clearly gaining on the WCW side and the tyranny of the nWo was heavily reeling. All that remained in their favor was the World Heavyweight Title that Hulk Hogan still had in his possession.
WCW certainly made a spectacle of Sting’s return to the ring. Following the typical entrance of Hogan, fans were met with a lightning show depicting a scorpion crawling its way around the skies of the MCI Center in Washington, DC. No longer an outcast to his home, Sting would enter to the ring through the entrance way, almost as if he had granted himself the privilege to finally exist among the rest of the wrestlers. In grand fashion and to much enthusiasm from the crowd, Sting entered the ring and finally stood face-to-face with the man that helped orchestrate the destruction of his character and the destruction of the only wrestling company he had ever known. It was in this moment that loyalty had to shrine through on either side of the coin. Whether it be from the man to the company, or the company to the man, Sting was owed his retribution, and the company owed it to themselves to let him have it.
Somewhere along the road, however, the company lost sight of what it was trying to accomplish. Whether it is attributed to the politics of Hogan, the naivety of the creative team, or the cockiness of Eric Bischoff as a competitor to Vince McMahon’s WWF, the conclusion of the Hogan-Sting contest would be nothing more than a let down to anyone who followed the masterful angle to that point.
The body of the match went along as typically would’ve been expected, even with the usual heel referee of Nick Patrick governing over it. With the limitations of a worker like Hogan up against the time off Sting had for the sake of the angle, there was really never any expectation of a knock down-drag out war that could really embody the nature of the angle. Hogan worked with his usual eye pokes and back rakes, and Sting worked in flares of emotion and babyface excitement to briefly burst out of the self-loathing character he was portraying. If anything, Sting’s subtle bursts were very well done by situating himself still within the context of his character, but also exposing glimpses of the old Sting to those that wanted to see him burst from his shell.
The build of the match fell apart following one of Sting’s only true hope spots. After hitting Sting with a vertical suplex, Hogan attempted to heel up the crowd and rile them by turning his back to the babyface and giving them a double bicep flex. Sting, meanwhile, had no-sold the move, returned to his feet, gave the icon a crotch chop gesture and proceeded to beat Hollywood down in the corner. As the fans rallied behind Sting, Hogan would end the barrage with a simple eye poke, followed by dumping Sting outside the ring.
Hogan would then take Sting around the ring and put more and more heat on the situation. He whipped Sting into the post, mocked him with his own t-shirt, beat him with his own bat, sent him reeling over and over again. In one shining moment, Sting reversed an irish whip, sending Hogan into the steel barrier. With a running start, Sting took flight to attempt a Stinger Splash on the champion, but was instead met with the cold steel as Hogan ducked away at the last second. The beating continued on the floor until Hogan decided to bring the match back into the ring.
Here was the moment for the tables to turn. Here, after over a year away from the ring and after over a year of the nWo crushing the WCW roster, here was the moment for Sting to break free from the pit he was stuck in. After being beaten down and mocked all the way around the ring for the past 5 minutes, a journey that summed up the character’s journey over the past year, now was the time to fire back. This was the moment for WCW’s savior, for its’ conquering hero, to return to form, howl at the rafters and once again assume his role as WCW Champion and for WCW to assume its role as the dominant faction.
Just as the moment was right to allow the crowd to become unglued and cheer on the man they had wanted to see destroy Hogan for 14 months, Hogan would hit Sting with a big boot. Hogan cupped his ear at each side of the ring as Sting was motionless on the mat. As Hogan bounced off the ropes, everyone assumed Sting would move out of the way and then begin the epic comeback that was due. Instead, he was met with the same leg drop that other competitors to Hogan had met metaphorically in the past. Hogan went for the cover as the crowd awaited the gigantic kickout that Sting was sure to do. Nick Patrick went down for his patented fast three count, except this time it wasn’t fast at all.
1 …2 …3. Hulk Hogan had just pinned Sting or, the company man that was due his title run was sabotaged, or the damned babyface that was to the conquer the unstoppable evil was silenced. The crowd was confused, as was anyone else who understood how effective story telling should unfold.
With Bret Hart still at ringside, the Hitman interjected once again to stop the time keeper from ringing the bell. Audibly screaming “I’m not gonna let it happen again” in reference to both Nick Patrick’s fast counts and his own Montreal Screw job, the Hitman laid waste to Patrick and threw Hogan back in the ring for the match to restart with himself as the new referee. Two minutes behind schedule and finally occurring at a time where whatever happened was essentially worthless, Sting roared with a Stinger Splash on Hogan in the corner. Buff Bagwell and Scott Norton of the nWo ran out to intervene, with Sting dropping both with hard right hands, and Norton having noticeably no enthusiasm to be featured for a brief appearance.
With the henchmen done with, Sting hit Hogan with another Stinger Splash, then followed with a Scorpion Deadlock, seemingly in ode to Bret. Bret quickly checked on Hogan who then submitted in rather quick fashion. Sting was crowned the new WCW Heavyweight Champion as the entire WCW locker room made their way to the ring to celebrate their hero.
WCW caught a lot of grief back then for the booking of the match just as they continue to today. In context of the story, the obvious route was for Sting to return and overcome the oppression that Hogan and the nWo had been pushing on WCW for the past year. After a year of waiting, of zipping down from the rafters, of taking out the nWo during their beatdowns of others performers, this was the moment for the Sting character to finally win in an “official” standing in the world of professional wrestling. This was the epic, climactic battle that rather than assert Sting as the worthy victor, instead condemned him further as just another guy that couldn’t get the job done.
Imagine, if you will, that Rocky doesn’t win versus Apollo Creed. The underdog, spit on his entire way through, given grief from everybody and from all angles, comes to the climax of the biggest boxing match of his life, and fails to overcome the odds. This was WCW’s “Rocky,” and rather than put the crown on the character in the most logical manner, they instead opted to screw the character over and deny both that character of his proper retribution, and the fans of the ending that they couldn’t wait to see happen.
Assuming the finish was done at the behest of Hogan, either for his own political propaganda or the fear of his character looking weak, everything that occured after the first pinfall could’ve happened logically without needing that first pinfall to occur.
– Bret Hart had no reason to be involved in the match, period. He was useful for the Bischoff-Zbyszko match to help WCW reclaim Nitro, but the only purpose he served in the Sting-Hogan match was to simply be used as a reminder of what occurred in Montreal a month earlier. He offered no real advantage to the WCW side of things in that context. Any WCW talent could’ve been appointed in the role that he was if they had really believed in working that into the finish of the match. In fact, in context of the year-long story arc, it would’ve made more sense to have a “true” WCW talent as Bret should theoretically have no moral interest in either side of the battle at this point.
– The run-in from nWo talent would’ve been logical and expected before Sting would get his pinfall. That was the M.O. of the faction from day one. Sting could’ve easily thwarted their attempts on him during a comeback on Hogan, in fact it would’ve added to Sting’s prowess as a Super Babyface that was finally going to save WCW and himself. Furthermore, the laziness of the run-in is quite unsettling to watch. Scott Norton in particular is very clearly uninterested with playing his role for the run-in. He strolls slowly to the ring, enters extremely slowly through the ropes, takes one punch, bumps, rolls out, then is noticeably fine on the outside of the ring as he walks at an agonizingly slow pace and clearly watched Sting continue to finish off his faction’s leader. If this was done on purpose as a jab to WCW for his dislike of the match and angle, so be it, but there needs to be commitment to the story you’re telling, no matter how small your role is in it.
– The crowd erupts in a massive pop after Sting is declared champion. It could be pure speculation, but the pop seemed to be in reaction to the expectation that Sting was expected to beat Hogan anyhow. It doesn’t appear the crowd was going nuts for that entire finish sequence, but rather going nuts because they finally saw what they were waiting all night for: Sting to defeat his demons, defeat Hogan, and defeated the nWo.
The holes in the match and the story weren’t just noticeable to a keen eye, but also noticeable to the average fan. It was following Starrcade 1997, and also in conjunction with a number of other questionable booking moves, that WCW would start to lose its superiority over the WWF. While it would be unjust to purely peg the booking of this match as the sole reason for WCW’s decline, it did strike a major blow to their progress. From this point, the nWo just continued to exist in a limbo state, Sting’s character moved in an undefinable direction, and Bret Hart just existed on a roster of guys where a good percentage did exactly the same – just existed. The failure to progress led WCW into stagnation and stagnation was a trait that would cling to them until 2001.