Thursday, December 8, 2016

The History of NWA/WCW Starrcade, part 3 (1989-1991)

Welcome back!  Starrcade's about to hit a rough patch.  A realllllllly rough patch.....





Starrcade '89 - The Omni - 12/13/89

For Starrcade '89 the NWA inexplicably (for the first of four consecutive Starrcades) went with a non-traditional card format, in this case two round-robin tournaments, one singles and the other featuring tag teams.  I can only assume they got this idea from New Japan's G1 tournament and wanted to try their hand at such a gimmick.  I've already published my own revised version of the show HERE, but in short, there were three major things wrong with using the Iron Man/Team tournament concept at the company's flagship PPV.  1. They'd already given away the blowoff to the year's biggest feud (Ric Flair vs. Terry Funk) on free television a month earlier, so the singles tournament featured no hot rivalries at all.  2. They never made it clear what was at stake in these tournaments other than bragging rights, so the audience had no real reason to invest in the outcome.  3. Twelve matches is a lot for a three-hour PPV.  Oh, and 4. In both tournaments they totally buried someone unnecessarily.

Still this show had a lot to like about it.  Of the twelve matches about eight or nine were watchable or better, and this show marks one of only two times (I think) we ever got to see The Steiners vs. The Road Warriors.  In general the concept of a round-robin tournament is fun and presents some intriguing pairings you wouldn't normally see (just watch some of the recent NJPW G1 tournaments for evidence of that), but Starrcade was just the wrong show for this experiment.  The attendance numbers certainly reflect this; the 17000-seat Omni was only about a third filled, to the point that the house lights had to be dimmed midway through the show to cover up the vast areas of empty seats. 

The singles tourney featured the NWA's top four stars - World Champion Ric Flair, US Champion Lex Luger, and two former TV Champions, Sting and The Great Muta.  On paper every one of the six singles matches should've been gold.  Unfortunately the time contraints (fifteen-minute time limits for all twelve bouts), somewhat hindered the wrestlers' ability to deliver standout matches.  In some cases, mostly those involving Muta, the matches were criminally shortchanged; Flair vs. Muta theoretically could've been the main event of Starrcade had they built it up properly.  In actuality that match was given under two minutes and Muta looked like a chump after it was over.  The innovative, tremendously exciting young Japanese import was jobbed out three times and ended up leaving the company right after Starrcade.  Not the best way to treat one of your top heels of the year.  Flair's other two matches, against Luger and Sting respectively, were both headliner-worthy but not up to their 1988 efforts.  Luger was the only man to go undefeated, beating Sting and Muta and going to a draw with Flair.  But Sting scored a major upset in the final match, defeating his former rival and current mentor Flair with only thirty seconds left in the time limit.  This gave Sting enough points to win the whole tournament, and he was soon named the #1 Contender.  Flair and the Andersons made Sting an honorary Horsemen but soon turned heel on him once the reality of Sting's impending challenge set in.  Had the company made it clear beforehand that the winner of this tourney would receive an automatic title shot, that probably would've gotten people much more interested.  Sadly this wasn't the case, and all Sting officially won that night was a trophy.

It's Champion vs. Champion!



The tag team portion of the show was even more vexing, as top teams The Steiners, The Road Warriors, and Doom were joined by makeshift team The New Wild Samoans, a last-minute substitution for The Skyscrapers after Sid Vicious was injured (the night before as I recall).  The problem was the Samoans didn't arrive at The Omni until about halfway through, thus the tag team match lineup was a mess.  The other three teams each wrestled twice before the Samoans even showed up, and the Samoans had to wrestle the remaining three matches consecutively.  Even stranger was the fact that Doom, the hot new heel team, lost all three matches, yet five months later they beat The Steiners to win the NWA Tag belts.  The Road Warriors on the other hand won this tournament but didn't get anywhere near a title shot for their remaining six months in the company.  Also a match like The Steiners vs. LOD should've been given a full fifteen minutes and been a co-headliner, but on this show it was alotted a paltry seven-and-a-half minutes and was quickly forgotten.  That being said, Steiners-LOD was probably the big standout of the tag tournament.  Finally I'm not sure why The Midnight Express, who had just turned heel again and could've delivered three great matches, weren't asked to replace The Skyscrapers instead.

This was good, but it should've been EPIC.

Starrcade '89 is one of those shows that I can appreciate for what it was - a series of pretty good matches for the most part - but it's still irksome to me how much better it could've been.  Even if the NWA didn't go with a traditional Starrcade lineup, the World Champ and Tag Champs should never have participated since a) the prize at stake should've been a future title match and b) why would a Champion agree to wrestle thrice in one night and risk getting injured for nothing?  Also there were multiple first-time matchups that didn't get anywhere near the time they deserved and should've been saved for a more appropriate setting.  The company took a big risk with this format and lost pretty huge - live attendance was anemic and I can't imagine the buyrate was very strong. 

In early 1990 the NWA more or less reset everything to the way it was two years earlier - Flair turned heel and feuded with Sting, Luger turned babyface again after Sting got hurt, The Road Warriors went back to being a special attraction team that didn't get title shots, Muta went back to Japan, the Midnight Express feuded with the Rock n' Roll Express...  It's like the year 1989, amazing though it was, existed in a different NWA continuity.  What really should've happened was Luger winning the tournament, subsequently beating Flair for the Title as a heel, and later dropping it to Sting.  But that's just my armchair booking.  Anyway, Starrcade '89 is a tough show to rate.  I liked a lot of it but I didn't like the choice of format or the lack of meaning behind it all.  It felt like the company was throwing things at the wall instead of building to a year-end climax (They'd already blown their load with Clash of the Champions IX), and the result was a Starrcade that ultimately didn't feel like the biggest show of the year at all.

Best Match: Ric Flair vs. Sting
Worst Match: Ric Flair vs. Great Muta
What I'd Change: See my Wrestling Do-Over piece
Most Disappointing Match: Ric Flair vs. Great Muta - Seriously, this should've headlined a major show at some point.  Clash 9 maybe.
Most Pleasant Surprise: I guess that the show wasn't a total wash
Overall Rating: 7.5/10 just because it had several good matches





Starrcade '90 - Kiel Auditorium - 12/16/90

I'm not sure what happened in 1990 that ruined the world, but both the WWF and especially the NWA spent that particular calendar year serving up a menu of dog crap a la mode.  Case in point, Starrcade 1990.  Man, what a difference a year makes.  While Starrcade '89 was no all-time classic, the NWA as a whole was at its apex in 1989, and suddenly with the new year they reset just about everything, crowned Sting their new top babyface (which made sense, he was super over), and had him feud with one of the stupidest mystery characters ever created in any medium, The Black Scorpion.  This nonsensical six-month angle climaxed at Starrcade '90 with a payoff in the same ballpark of stupid as the WWF's "Who Ran Over Steve Austin?" angle ten years later.

Look, the WCW logo is sinking.  Rather symbolic, don't you think?
On top of their flagship PPV being headlined by a World Title match involving an unknown challenger, the company decided to cram an entire seven-match tag team tournament onto this show as well, bringing the total number of matches to fourteen.  Fourteen matches on a three-hour PPV.  What was the object of said tournament?  A trophy.  Which teams would be competing?  The Steiners.....and seven other teams, mostly comprised of dudes no one's ever heard of.  Super.  I wonder who's gonna win.....

The show started out promisingly enough, with Bobby Eaton vs. Z-Man.  Pretty good little opening match with two guys who could work and had faced each other in tag matches numerous times.  Nothing mindblowing but this match did its job as the kickoff.

We then plunged into the tag tournament, with four mostly pointless, abbreviated matches that just cluttered up the card.  Konan & Rey Misterio Sr. vs. Chris Adams & Norman Smily was the only standout of the opening round, but even that was too short and a little sloppy in spots.  The Russian team of Victor Zangiev and Salman Hashimikov had interesting amateur-style grappling moves but Zangiev's back hair was so long it was parted in the middle!  So all I could think of during his matches was "Jeezus, someone actually has to touch that furry creep??"  That match had an awkward ending, like the ref forgot he was supposed to count to three, so he hesitated and then counted anyway.  The other two first-round matches were either done in the blink of an eye or totally forgettable.  All of these teams were wrestling like they knew they only had 3-5 minutes.

Next up was a battle of former stablemates, as Michael Wallstreet faced Terry Taylor.  This felt like a free TV match on a WCW Saturday Night undercard.

For some reason, and despite Sid Vicious now being a Horseman, The Skyscrapers faced The Big Cat & Motor City Madman in a sloppy one-minute squash.  On the biggest PPV of the year which had thirteen other matches.

Moving right along, the Freebirds were next against Ricky Morton & Tommy Rich (subbing for an injured Robert Gibson).  Jeezus, this Freebirds-RNR feud lasted like eight months.  This match could've been decent had it gotten five more minutes.  I wonder if the wrestlers on this show were pissed that they had no time to do anything.

The tournament semifinals were up next, and both matches could've been really splendid, but they were alotted a total of six minutes.  Yes, TWO semifinal matches combined got about the same amount of time as a commercial break on the Syfy Network.  The Steiners vs. Konan & Misterio on paper is quite a contest, as is Muta & Saito vs. The Russians.  Both matches had innovative spots and pretty great mat wrestling.  But what in God's name is anyone supposed to do in a three-minute tag team match?  This tournament had no business on this show, and the Steiners were presented as so far above everyone else there was zero suspense about who was gonna win the whole thing.

Finally something interesting happened in Match 10, as Stan Hansen defended the US Title against Lex Luger in a Lariat Match (read: Bullrope Match).  This was a pretty enjoyable wild brawl hindered somewhat by the lame Touch All Corners rule.  They did a tricky finish where Luger got all four but was knocked into the referee in the process, and the second ref saw Hansen touch all four before the original ref woke up and reversed the decision.  Kind of a dumb finish, but this was easily one of the best matches on the show.

The Tag Team Titles were next as Doom continued their feud with the Four Horsemen, in this case Barry Windham & Arn Anderson.  I'm still confused why WCW feuded the heel Horsemen with the heel team Doom for several months.  Since neither team turned good as a result, I'm not sure what the endgame was supposed to be.  This was a fun Street Fight with crazy finisher kickouts, but once again, yup, you guessed it - too goddamn short.  Also how can you have a no-decision in a Street Fight??

The tournament final pitted the Number 1 seed and very obvious favorites The Steiners vs. The Great Muta & Saito.  I'd call this probably the best match of the night by default, as it had good wrestling from all four guys and a clean ending.  Just imagine what they could've done with fifteen minutes or more.  This tournament should've been held on a different show; Clash of the Champions perhaps.  When presenting the trophy, Legendary Wrestling Idiot Jim Herd referred to The Steiners as "my favorite super-heavyweights."  Uhh, Jim? 

Once you know it's Flair, it's reeeeeally obvious.

The main event was the resolution to the months-long Sting vs. Black Scorpion feud which saw multiple impostors attack Sting only to later be revealed as decoys.  All the Black Scorpion vignettes featured the thinly-disguised voice of Ole Anderson, which was later recycled for the dreadful Shockmaster gimmick.  Evidently the booking team intended for the Scorpion to be revealed as pre-NWA Sting cohort Dave Sheldon (say it with me, "who?") before realizing that would be the stupidest idea ever.  So instead they went with the most obvious choice, the guy Sting just feuded with, Ric Flair.  Given who the Scorpion turned out to be, this match was pretty weak.  I found it quite plodding and heatless, and the character limitations really hurt Flair's performance since his selling and facials are among his biggest strengths.  To his credit though, Flair did work hard to wrestle a different style and not give himself away.  But then after Sting won the match, WCW's booking geniuses gave away the surprise anyway, by sending Windham and Anderson to attack Sting before Flair was even unmasked.  Then when the mask finally came off the cameras never got a clear shot of Flair's face, yet Jim Ross repeatedly shouted, "It's Ric Flair!!  OH MY GAWD, KING!!!"  Oh wait....  What a fucking terrible angle this was, on every level.  A spaceship entrance?  Really??
Although I shouldn't wonder when they actually booked a Robocop angle seven months earlier.

Only memorable part of the match right here.

Starrcade '90 actually had the ingredients to be a pretty good show.  Flair vs. Sting?  Check.  Decent opening match?  Check.  The Steiners vs. two accomplished Japanese stars?  Check.  A solid US Title match?  Check.  But aside from the dull main event nothing got enough time to be meaningful and the whole show felt like StarrcA.D.D. (Heh - get it?).  Pretty sad considering how goddamn good the NWA product was one year earlier.

Best Match: Steiners vs. Great Muta & Mr. Saito
Worst Match: Skyscrapers vs. Cat & Madman
What I'd Change: Get the tag tournament out of there.  It took up half of the fourteen matches, only the finals went longer than six minutes, and the trophy at the end meant nothing.  What is this an 80s WWF show?  Also change the ending of the Tag Title match so it gets restarted after the double pin.
Most Disappointing Match: Sting vs. Flair - Given how many good matches these two had I was shocked how flat this was.  I guess that's what happens when you handicap one of the greatest of all time with a character he isn't suited for.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Stan Hansen vs. Lex Luger
Overall Rating: 3.5/10





Starrcade '91 - Norfolk Scope - 12/29/91

I'm really not sure what the higher-ups at WCW were smoking when they invented the Battlebowl concept.  I'd like to think there was some variety of substance abuse going on, but who the hell knows?  Evidently having learned nothing from the box office disaster that was Starrcade '89, WCW went with another "tournament" format for the 1991 edition.  Only this time the card would consist entirely of mongrel tag teams decided at random, competing so both members could enter a main event two-ring battle royal.  The winner of that would get......something or other.  No concrete prize was ever established (much like what happened with the Iron Man tournament two years earlier).  So of the eleven matches on this show, ten involved pairs of partners with no chemistry and in some cases little or no tag team expertise facing other such pairs.  Few of these matches had any kind of story to them either, except in rare cases when two enemies were forced to team together.  Wow, did this get monotonous fast. 

The first four matches sorta blurred into each other and were varying degrees of lackluster.  Marcus Bagwell & Jimmy Garvin vs. Tracey Smothers & Michael Hayes was noteworthy only for the anticipation of seeing the Freebirds fight each other, which barely even happened.  Rick Rude & Steve Austin vs. Van Hammer & Big Josh was a case of two big stars on one side and two gimmick-saddled utility guys on the other.  Also, in what wrestling universe did the 5'10" 220-pound Matt Osborne qualify as "big?"  More like About Average Josh.  Dustin Rhodes & Richard Morton vs. Larry Zbyszko & El Gigante was pretty awful; anything involving the future Giant Gonzales is by definition a turd.  The story here was Gigante not being able to understand Zbyzsko's instructions and eventually getting fed up and attacking Larry.  Pretty bad stuff.  Things picked up a little in Match 4 as Jushin "Thunder" Liger & Bill Kazmaier faced Mike Graham & Diamond Dallas Page.  The Graham-Liger exchanges were intriguing but with no heat between them there wasn't anything to get invested in. 

Ka-BLAMMO!

Finally in the middle of the show we got a few memorable bouts.  For starters, WCW Champ Lex Luger & Arn Anderson faced Terrence Taylor & Tom Zenk.  This is more like it.  The match was entertaining from start to finish and had some nice conflict with Taylor slowly turning babyface.  Ricky Steamboat & Todd Champion vs. Cactus Jack & Sgt. Buddy Lee Parker was fun just for the Steamboat-Cactus interactions (Did they ever have a singles match together?), but not much going on besides that.  Abdullah the Butcher attacked Parker during his entrance, which meant Cactus wrestled almost the entire match by himself.  The most unexpectedly good match was Sting & Abdullah vs. Bobby Eaton & Brian Pillman, a wild battle where Sting and Pillman worked together despite being on opposite teams, and Abdullah was just trying to kill Sting the whole time.  Chaotic but enjoyable.

After that the card fell into pretty dreary territory for the remaining four matches.  Vader teamed with Mr. Hughes vs. Rick Steiner & The Nightstalker.  This was decent while Vader and Steiner were fighting, but beyond that there wasn't much to like.  Next up was Scott Steiner & Firebreaker Chip (Just about the least badass name ever) vs. Arachnaman & Johnny B. Badd.  The problem here was that despite the strong action throughout, the match was impossible to get into with no issues between any of the four babyfaces.  The final tag match pitted Ron Simmons & Thomas Rich vs. Steve Armstrong & PN News, an insufferably dull and overlong bout that ended mercifully with a Simmons spinebuster on Armstrong.

The winners of each tag match were entered into the confusingly structured Battlebowl, where the object was to throw your opponents over the top rope, into the second ring.  The winner of Ring 1 would then get a rest period while everyone in Ring 2 threw each other over the ropes to the floor.  The winners of each ring would then face each other one-on-one, until one guy tossed the other out of the ring.  Only problem (besides the nondescript brawling and rapid-fire eliminations toward the end) was that Lex Luger (Ring 1's winner) only had to be thrown out once, despite never having been eliminated from Ring 1.  In a double-elimination format, shouldn't Sting (Ring 2's winner) have needed to toss Luger into Ring 2 before throwing him out to the floor?  Also the Sting-Luger stuff was fairly boring due to Sting having been attacked by Rick Rude just before the finals.  This was no Royal Rumble, that's for sure.  There was no tangible prize at stake, the process of earning a spot in the Battlebowl was convoluted and not much fun to watch, and the Bowl itself wasn't very memorable.

How does a match with these four dudes go wrong??

Starrcade '91 was a pretty awful show from a company clearly being mismanaged to death.  There was no shortage of good talent on the WCW roster at this point, but no one got a chance to shine or deliver noteworthy matches due to the impractical structure of the show.  This was the first Starrcade event without Ric Flair, and his absence was pretty glaring.  But it didn't have to be that way, if WCW would've just assembled a lineup of meaningful bouts around the various feuds that were going on at the time.  In pro wrestling, simple is usually better.  Not surprisingly, nary a match from Starrcade '90 or '91 made WWE's Best of Starrcade compilation a few years ago.

Best Match: Lex Luger & Arn Anderson vs. Terry Taylor & Z-Man
Worst Match: Ron Simmons & Thomas Rich vs. PN News & Steve Armstrong
What I'd Change: Create a separate PPV called Battlebowl (which they did in 1993) and keep Starrcade as your flagship PPV.  This format would be like holding a Royal Rumble plus a bunch of qualifying matches on a WrestleMania show.
Most Disappointing Match: The Battlebowl - Aside from a few big moves this was about as nondescript and forgettable as such a match could be.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Sting & Abdullah vs. Eaton & Pillman
Overall Rating: 2.5/10


Part 2                                                                                                                               

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