April 20, 1998. World Wrestling Entertainment and its Monday Night Raw program were fresh off their first victory in the Monday night wars in months. World Championship Wrestling responded by pitting its fastest rising star, Goldberg, in a match for the United States Championship versus a moody grunge-inspired heel, Raven.
A Goldberg victory was certain, and it would be his first taste of wrestling gold. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest match in the history of TNT’s WCW Monday Nitro, but it was one of them. Goldberg battled Raven’s dirty tactics, and eventually took on most of his “Flock”, taking them out one by one with a series of spears and Jackhammers. Even 7-footer Reese went up for Goldberg’s finishing move.
Elsewhere, on USA Network, Raw had taken a step backwards from the previous week’s program that saw Steve Austin go head-to-head with WWE CEO Vince McMahon. It was a Monday night that typified the heated rivalry between WCW and WWE. Come up with the best program you can, get out there and nail it, then wait for the viewers to decide who’s No. 1.
On this Monday evening, it was Goldberg’s dismantling of Raven and the Flock that came out on top.
While the sports superstars of the 90s battled for prestigious championships like the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, World Series, and NBA title, WWE and WCW competed for the prize the professional sports leagues were really after: television ratings.
Prior to the 90s, wrestling had always been territorial, with promotions generally respecting one another’s regional supremacy. WCW was the child of Turner Broadcasting System, the National Wrestling Alliance, and Jim Crockett Promotions. WWE had become something of a global entity by the early-to-mid 90s, but its stranglehold on the wrestling world would come to be challenged by a man armed with Ted Turner’s pocketbook… Eric Bischoff.
WCW emerged from its largely southeastern grip on a wrestling audience as a major player when Hulk Hogan jumped ship from the WWE in 1994. Randy Savage followed shortly after. Although leaning on WWE superstars of yesteryear provided Turner’s wrestling product with a much needed boost, it wouldn’t be enough to catapult WCW out in front of the ratings race for more than a week or two at at time once Nitro started going head-to-head with Raw.
Bischoff, a successful producer and announcer in the realm of WCW, approached Turner in 1995 with the hopes of pursuing an effort to dethrone McMahon as the king of professional wrestling. Turner agreed to give Bischoff and WCW a primetime slot on Monday nights to compete with WWE’s Raw program. WCW Monday Nitro was born. Nitro began as an hourlong show, live every week as opposed to Raw’s occasional pre-taped programming.
Nitro became a two-hour program by May of 1996, and two months later WCW would shock the wrestling world with a heel turn previously thought to be unimaginable.
The 1996 Bash at the Beach Pay-per-view event saw recently arrived former WWE stars Kevin Nash and Scott Hall deliver a beating to fan favorite Savage, who appeared to be in line for some help from Hogan, who had disappeared from wrestling for several months at the height of his acting career. Hogan, the lifelong face who stood for everything good and American, entered the ring only to join in on the romping of Savage, thus giving birth to the New World Order and instantly cementing himself as one of the greatest heels sports entertainment has ever known.
Fans’ disgust was exemplified by the amount of trash thrown into the ring, something that became far too common at WCW events.
WCW had become the place to be. The lure of guaranteed contracts, lighter travelling schedules, and creative control over their own characters pushed WWE out of its place atop sports entertainment. The biggest names in wrestling resided in WCW, and some of the best matches of the era took place every week on Nitro when its severely underrated cruiserweights took to the squared circle.
A nearly two-year dominance of the ratings war for WCW followed Hogan’s heel turn, and the nWo established itself as one of the all-time greatest storylines in wrestling. Bischoff resorted to underhanded tactics like revealing taped Raw results during Nitro broadcasts to help keep viewers in tow. More former WWE stars showed up on Nitro seemingly every week. The WWE, on the other hand, struggled to find its identity in the shifting world of wrestling. While WCW targeted fans who had grew up in the 80s by poaching and/or digging up any old era talent they could find, McMahon et al looked to homegrown talents like the Undertaker, scantily clad divas, rising stars like Shawn Michaels and The Rock, and repackaged veteran stars like Steve Austin to help pull them out of a funk.
Talent bounced between the promotions through the end of the decade. Hall and Nash began their careers in WCW, but found much more success as WWE stars Razor Ramon and Diesel in the early to-mid-90s. Ric Flair, Lex Luger, and the Steiner Brothers achieved levels of popularity in the NWA and WCW on par with many WWE stars of the 80s and early 90s before heading north and then back home again. Others, like Bret Hart, Curt Henig, Rick Martel, Roddy Piper, Rick Rude, and Davey Boy Smith left or were dumped from WWE roles wound up chasing perceived freedoms with WCW.
WCW's crowded roster often led to some very good wrestlers like Chris Benoit, The Giant, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, and Dean Malenko finding themselves working lousy angles or none at all. WWE welcomed all of them.
WWE leaned on brash characters and increased violence to battle back in the mid-to-late 90s. The Attitude Era ditched traditional good vs. bad angles in favor of middle finger-wagging, beer-swilling, bad asses like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and the nWo-esque D-Generation X, which was fronted by Michaels and Triple-H.
The Attitude Era was refreshing, even if it was derivative and frequently crass. WWE relied on its ability to develop stories and characters, while pushing the envelope for what’s acceptable on television week in, week out.
Nitro’s run of dominance was evaporating rapidly, with too much talent and little-to-no direction behind the scenes. The WWE way was to build a story and let it culminate during a PPV, whereas Bischoff’s obsession with television ratings led to major mistakes like wasting a long awaited meeting between Goldberg and Hollywood Hulk Hogan on a Monday night, rather than cashing in with PPV buys.
By 1999 the ratings war was petering out. WWE and Raw had reclaimed the throne, and the popularity of guys like Austin, The Rock, Michaels, and the Undertaker had reached new heights. Meanwhile, WCW’s aged stable was left to confront one another in convoluted storylines, only compounded by the arrival of former WWE booker Vince Russo and his newfound penchant for absolute nonsense. David Arquette, the actor, held the World Heavyweight Championship for a time. David Arquette.
It’s rather ironic that the same things that made WCW king for a couple of years would eventually derail it. The lucrative guaranteed contracts and creative control many wrestlers had over their own characters led to a mess that was far too gone to even bother cleaning up.
Competition was great for wrestling, as evidenced by the ratings that on occasion saw almost as many people watching Raw and Nitro as there were tuning in to Monday Night Football. Casual fans became die-hards, nostalgia seekers were satiated, and the going was good.
The rivalry was extinguished for good when McMahon purchased WCW in 2001. The impact of WCW would be felt for a long time, though, as many characters and even the nWo would resurface in WWE programming in the early 2000s.
You can’t even say McMahon killed the competition with his purchase of a failing product back in 2001, as WCW had effectively killed itself with incessant in-fighting and a lack of leadership behind the scenes.
Wrestling in the 90s succeeded because it captured the attention of casual or non-traditional fans. The Monday night wars commonly produced ratings numbers upwards of 5.0 in the late 90s for both WCW and WWE, while the more niche-based audience of today is lucky to top 2.0 in the key demographics.
It was the 1990s, and wrestling was at its best financially and in terms of popularity. Memories are all we have, because we’ll never have it as good as we did at peak Monday Night Wars.