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Thursday, January 14, 2016

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The Missed Opportunity of WCW

By George Cushini (@GTAPeel)

It's crazy to think that it's been almost 15 years since WCW ceased to exist. From the mid-1990's through to 2001, WCW and the then-WWF went toe-to-toe on Monday nights, spawning the Attitude Era, and wrestling fans across the world lapped it up.

Fast-forward 15 years and WWE have no viable alternative, which has stifled their product, but given independent promotions the chance to carve out their own niche and provide something for those of us who are crying out for something different. WCW now only exists in the minds of fans who are a certain age, and through WWE Network subscribers. It's a damn shame, and a huge missed opportunity.

Believe it or not, but there was a time when, on paper, WCW seemingly had all the pieces of the jigsaw to be a long-term player. They had bundles of cash, established mainstream wrestlers, NWA/Crockett veterans, as much TV time as they wanted and the right people booking the product. Unbelievable right? It was as if the stars had aligned and at the time, the WWF were in serious danger of going out of business.

WWF's product in the mid-1990s was brutal to watch. All Vince's established stars like Hogan, Savage, Piper, Nash, Hall and DiBiase headed for WCW and left him in the lurch. Vince was left bereft of any credible main-event talent, but with 2 hours of TV on a Monday night to fill. Smaller guys like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were given their shot, but a combination of outdated ideas and cartoonish gimmick wrestlers led to fans deserting WWF in their droves.

Enter WCW. Ted Turner's foray into the "wrasslin" business. Before Hogan and others jumped ship, WCW's talent pool consisted of wrestlers. Not sports-entertainers. Wrestlers. Guys with bundles of experience across not only the US, but Europe and Japan too. Trusted guys. Guys who the fans believed could put a match together and put aside the fact that the outcomes were pre-determined. WCW's matches, at least in the early days, felt like fights. They were even contests. Babyfaces drew sympathy and fans bought their comebacks. Heels drew real heat and couldn't give two shits about being "cool". They wanted to piss you off and make you hate them. And you did. Pro-wrestling at its simplest.

BUT...for all that, they didn't have that one guy. That breakout, mainstream star that non-wrestling fans knew about. Yes, Flair had personality but he didn't have that mainstream appeal. The same goes for Sting, Ron Simmons and Vader. All well-respected, but they didn't have that star power to draw new people in to the product.

Timing is everything, and WCW got the star they needed when Hogan came aboard. His star had been waning in the WWF and he'd been away for a few months. When news broke that Hogan had signed with WCW, it was HUGE. The shot in the arm, and the in that WCW needed to get some mainstream exposure. Yes, his act may have been tired, but Hogan was still a big deal. Ted Turner had an endless supply of money and could give Hogan virtually anything he wanted. In return, Hogan could make serious cash for himself, and Turner in the process.

With Hogan on board, WCW grew and grew and grew. Others soon joined him and before long, they were kicking the WWF's ass. Spectacularly too. It would be foolish to ignore the impact that Hall, Nash and even Eric Bischoff had. They tried to do something different - blur the lines of fiction and reality. And they did it brilliantly.

New World Order. The nWo. You can still feel their influence on the business today. There are shades of the nWo in almost any faction there's been in wrestling for the last 20 years. It was something that most of us hadn't seen before. They had their own feel. They did what they wanted, when they wanted and however they wanted to. And nobody could stop them. It was truly magical. Unpredictable. You thought you knew what was happening, but you didn't really.

It's worthwhile pointing out that this was all happening at a time before wrestling websites existed. You couldn't just log on to PWInsider, PWTorch or Wrestling Observer to find out the latest backstage news and rumours. You either had to subscribe to the newsletter or call Mean Gene to find out the haps!

As brilliant an idea as the nWo was, and as great as Hall, Nash and Hogan were, eventually those four entities played a huge part in the downfall of the company. Instead of using their established talents - like Sting, Flair, Hall, Nash, Hogan etc - to elevate younger stars, the political landscape of WCW led to some horrendous storylines, decisions being made and it was all about creative control brother.

Simply put, the nWo and Vince's old boys had too much power, and up-and-coming stars had no chance of getting over and being the stars they should've been. Yes, there were exceptions, like Goldberg and Booker T, but on the whole, the show focused on the Neverending World Order. A decision that WCW would never recover from.

WCW should still be in business today. That's a fact. If the people signing the checks had made long-term instead of short-term decisions, there might be WWF footage on a WCW Network. But there isn't.

You have to remember that as great as the nWo was, they weren't the whole f'n show. There was a tremendous cast of supporting players, who should've got more than they did.

Jericho, Regal, Pillman, Austin, Guerrero, Mysterio and countless others were telling incredible stories in the ring with their wrestling skill, but Hogan and others were main-eventing. You can understand that, but they had a limited shelf-life. In order for WCW to have had long-term success, they should have recognised that by building these guys to look strong against your Hogans and Nashes, they could eventually have taken a place alongside them. Even replacing them once their careers were over. And why didn't they - because of the one word synonymous with the wrestling business: insecurity.

Guys who had been at the top for years were scared of losing "their spot", so they played the political game and kept others down, save a few exceptions.

When WCW got it right, boy did they get it right. Take Goldberg for example. Paul Heyman has always been the master at accentuating a wrestler's strengths and hiding his weaknesses. WCW did that with Bill Goldberg.

Strong as a bull, with a kick-ass look, theme and attitude, he was just what WCW needed and in all honesty, he's probably the only star they created themselves. Bill Goldberg didn't have 5-star, 20-minute classics. He came, he saw and he conquered. He kicked a serious amount of ass, and the people ate it up. Go back and just listen to the people when Goldberg came out. They went apeshit. Because they knew what he could do, and he did it better than anyone in WCW. He could very well have been their star and if used right, he could have carried the company. Instead, our old friend insecurity came in to play and Goldberg's streak ended at the hands of the nWo.

Whilst the nWo were busy burying anyone who got close as being as popular as them, my all-time favourite Randy Savage was busy doing the right thing - helping to build a new star. DDP had been around the business for close to a decade, but hadn't really gained much traction until his singles feud with Savage. For all Randy's faults, he knew how to build and position a feud, and give the story the right ending. DDP vs Savage might just be the best feud in WCW history. Everything about it was fantastic. From beginning to end, it was just classic pro-wrestling.

The turning point for both companies came in late-1997. November 1997's Survivor Series in Montreal, Canada to be precise.

WCW made Bret Hart an offer he couldn't refuse, and with the WWF being in a shaky financial position to say the least, Hart was going to leave the WWF. There was just one problem though - he was still the WWF Champion. Hart was reluctant to drop the belt to Michaels, especially in Canada.

This is just my opinion, but Vince McMahon had no choice but to get the belt off Hart. He gave him countless chances to drop the title, and Hart refused them all. What else was Vince supposed to do? You'd have done exactly the same if you were in his position. Hart was a huge mark for himself and should've done the right thing. But he didn't. Ironically, it ended up turning the fortunes of both companies around, and has led to the wrestling business being what it is today.

When you think about it, Bret Hart did indeed screw Bret Hart. He went to WCW and never quite reached the heights he had done in the WWF. Flipping the coin, the WWF only grew from strength to strength.

The star of a certain bald-headed, goatee-sporting, foul-mouthed, beer-drinking, bad son-of-a-bitch called Stone Cold Steve Austin was rising fast. He needed an antagonist. Someone to fight against. In steps Vince McMahon. Perhaps the greatest heel character in WWF/E history. Austin and McMahon was magic. Like peanut butter and jelly. Or Jack Daniels and Coke. Actually, make that Jack Daniels and more Jack Daniels. Very more-ish!

It was this combination of the blue-collar worker fighting against "the man" that eventually led to WWF turning things around and the rest as they say is history. But this isn't about the WWF. It's about WCW. So what happened down south?

Welp, to be blunt, a whole lot of fuckery. WCW went from being so far ahead of the curve to being so far-detached from reality and what was working that it was scary.

A company that had brought us the nWo and classic undercard matches went to having Dennis Rodman, David Arquette and Jay fucking Leno in wrestling matches. And not just wrestling matches. Main-event matches. On TV and PPV. Yup. Just take a moment to let that sink in. It's fine having these guys there to enhance and add to mainstream exposure, but having them play integral parts in wrestling matches was just what it looked like - a complete and utter clusterfuck. And embarrassing. We all know wrestling's a work. We get it. But having these celebrities wrestling when they had no business doing it just smacked of desperation.

It was perhaps fitting that the last WCW match featured Ric Flair and Sting. Two men who had battled each other countless times over the years and through the territories. They had a seamless chemistry and they were able to tell stories that some wrestlers can only dream of.

OK, so neither man was at the peak of their powers during that last match, but it didn't matter. It was Ric Flair and Sting goddammit! Two of the best of all-time standing proud as "WCW guys". When you think of WCW, they're probably the two guys you think of first. Oh...and Van Hammer. OK. Maybe not Van Hammer, but Flair and Sting were it. The franchise players. Most others who came, went and came back again were just mercenaries. Flair and Sting had a genuine affection for WCW as a company and its fans, and it shone through in their work. There was an authenticity to it. It didn't feel like they were going through the motions - or just there for the money - at any time.

There are a lot of people out there who would have you believe that Vince Russo is solely responsible for the downfall of WCW. While there's some truth in that, he's not the only one. Yes, some of his ideas were ridiculous, but the truth is that WCW was a sinking ship long before Russo came on board. To be honest, he's become a scapegoat when others like Bischoff and the nWo have generally got off scot-free.

The people who ran the company should also take their share of the blame. There was so much confusion about who was actually in charge that the inmates ended up running the asylum. And that's not how it should be. It's not how it was in the WWF. Even when they were struggling, everyone knew that the buck stopped with Vince McMahon. He was the man. The decision-maker. The boss. Who was the boss in WCW? Bischoff? Jim Herd? Bill Watts? Dusty Rhodes? All of the above? Who knew? A distinct lack of leadership is what cost WCW it's survival, and it ended up costing some wrestling fans what they love. Those fans haven't come back, and likely never will.

WCW could, and probably should, still be in business today. For every right decision they made, there were two or three wrong ones. An over-reliance on stars who were almost past their best, a lack of leadership from the top, not understanding the cyclical nature of the business and the need to create and maintain new stars all played their part in the downfall of WCW. It was a HUGE missed opportunity. And one the wrestling business has not, and will not, recover from.



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