Friday, November 30, 2018

The History of NWA/WCW Starrcade, part 4 (1992-1994)

The next triumvirate of Starrcades starts off okay before a steep decline in quality....

Starrcade '92 - The Omni - 12/28/92

Well this was a whole lot better.  The previous Starrcade featured ten forgettable, awkward tag matches and a convoluted battle royal main event.  Yes, the Norfolk Scope was dressed up nicely, adding to the splendor of the event, but not one match from that show stood out or warranted a second viewing.  SC'92 on the other hand featured a handful of big matches (two of which were truly inspired) and even though half the card was still taken up by Battlebowl proceedings, the four mongrel tag bouts were concise, fast-paced, and moved along with a purpose.  I still had no interest in the tournament format but Starrcade '92 was a rare show with nary a bad match.  This PPV took place during the Bill Watts era, thus The Omni had a stripped-down, barebones look with gloomier lighting and minimal Starrcade decor.  The focus in 1992 WCW was almost entirely on the action in the ring, and the play-by-play was called by the dream commentary team of Jim Ross and Jesse Ventura.  While their chemistry wasn't as strong as say Jesse & Gorilla or JR & Lawler, I loved hearing these two work together; my favorite play-by-play announcer with my favorite color man.

Side note: I know Rick Rude was injured but where the hell were Steve Austin, Arn Anderson & Bobby Eaton??

The first four matches were all Lethal Lottery tag bouts, none of which overstayed their welcome, fortunately, and all of which were at least a little fun on some level.  Cactus Jack teamed with Johnny B. Badd vs. Van Hammer & Dan Spivey in a decent opener with some good wrestling from Team Cactus.  I'm not sure what they were thinking giving Hammer & Spivey the win though; what's the point of two obvious non-winners being in Battlebowl?  Next was Vader & Dustin Rhodes vs. The Barbarian & Kensuke Sasaki in a very entertaining slugfest reminiscent of a Japanese Strong Style match.  This didn't go long but felt urgent.  Vader beat the piss out of Rhodes after getting the win.  The standout of these tag matches was next - The Great Muta & Barry Windham vs. Brian Pillman & 2 Cold Scorpio.  I liked the Muta-Scorpio/Muta-Pillman exchanges a lot; Muta vs. Pillman should've been a major feud at some point.  Another brief match where they crammed in a lot of good action.  Finally we had Sting & Steve Williams vs. Jushin Liger & Erik Watts, which had good wrestling all around except for Watts, who was clearly not ready for prime time but was being pushed due to his father's position as head booker.  Still this was a fine match, particularly when it was Sting vs. Liger.

Lotta talent in that ring.

With the Lottery bouts out of the way the show settled into a more traditional format with four title matches.  First was The Great Muta challenging Masahiro Chono for the NWA World Title (now separated from the WCW version).  I liked this quite well actually.  Nothing about it was mindblowing, and at 12 minutes it couldn't be epic, but it was well-worked by both guys.  Muta unexpectedly submitted to Chono's STF.

The one disappointment on this card was WCW Champion Ron Simmons vs. Steve Williams, who was substituting for the injured Rick Rude.  Without the Simmons-Rude heat this match was already somewhat handicapped, and sadly Simmons and Williams never fully gelled.  There were multiple miscues and the pace was kinda plodding.  Some moments were nice, like the shoulderblock contest, plus Jim Ross was clearly very much into this pairing, but overall it just didn't click.  The finish was pretty lame too, as it went to a double countout before Williams attacked Simmons and got retroactively disqualified.

The show picked up huge with the next two matches.  First it was WCW Tag Champions Ricky Steamboat and Shane Douglas vs. Barry Windham and Brian Pillman.  This was a goddamn helluva tag match featuring wild action that ranged all over, and nice extended heat sequences with the heels working over Douglas first, then later Steamboat.  It's not often you get a match with two hot tag spots either.  The finish came when Steamboat hit Windham with a cross body that took both guys over the ropes, and Douglas caught Pillman with a belly-to-belly for the win.  Really good bout.

Battlebowl may have inexplicably gone on last, but the real main event of Starrcade '92 was Sting vs. Vader in the finals of the King of Cable Tournament (don't ask what the eff that means).  This was all kinds of awesome - stiff, snug and believable all the way through.  Vader's size and dominant style would realistically make most of his matches into rather unwieldy squashes, but Sting was so freakishly strong he was able to manhandle Vader for much of the match.  This resulted in some amazing spots, like the second-rope superplex, Sting's over-the-top plancha on both Vader and Harley Race, and the finish where Vader dove off the top rope and Sting caught him midair and slammed him to the mat.  Just a great main event, and I could watch these two beat the shit out of each other all day long.  Vader may have been Sting's greatest opponent.

Wait, why is Randy Anderson trying to prevent this suplex?

Finally we arrived at the Battlebowl, which was actually a pretty fun mini-battle royal.  There were few enough guys in the ring that the action was easy to follow and they could put together some decent spots.  The single ring also kept things streamlined - double-ring battle royals sound fun in theory but in execution they're just a convoluted mess.  I'll never understand why Van Hammer and Dan Spivey made it to the Bowl, but they were fittingly the first two eliminated.  Sting and Vader went out shockingly early, leaving only Windham, Muta, Dustin and Williams.  To their credit, those four were able to keep the crowd invested even after the two favorites were gone.  It came down to Muta and Windham, who had a decent little final run until Muta's false elimination.  My only complaint was how fast Muta knocked Windham out with two dropkicks.  They could've milked that climax much longer.  But overall a decent if anticlimactic main event.  Had the roster been more robust they could've kept Sting, Vader, Muta, Windham, Williams and Pillman out of the Lethal Lottery and therefore Battlebowl could've gone before Sting vs. Vader, as it really should have.

Starrcade '92 certainly wasn't an A+ PPV, but after the back-to-back fiascos of Starrcades '90 and '91 it was refreshing to see an understated Starrcade with a heavy focus on gritty in-ring action, where the high-concept nonsense didn't completely get in the way.  The Lottery tag matches were entertaining enough to justify their inclusion, and short enough that the four top-billed matches got adequate time.  Also the King of Cable final and the World Tag match are worth going out of your way to see.  This show didn't have that "biggest PPV of the year" feel to it, but I'll be damned if it wasn't a pretty neat little show.

Best Match: Sting vs. Vader
Worst Match: Cactus & Badd vs. Van Hammer & Spivey, but even this wasn't bad
What I'd Change: Again, save the Battlebowl stuff for a separate PPV.  Making half your roster pull double and triple duty seems excessive, plus it exposes how thin your roster is.
Most Disappointing Match: Ron Simmons vs. Steve Williams - The pieces were in place for a great rough-and-tumble fight, but they just never synched up.
Most Pleasant Surprise: The four tag team qualifiers.  The previous year's tag matches were almost universally tedious, but these four were all short, to the point, and had a sense of urgency.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10

Starrcade '93 - Independence Arena - 12/27/93

The Bill Watts experiment ended in early 1993 and a young, ambitious fella named Eric Bischoff soon took the reigns of WCW.  Initially the product didn't change a whole lot except in cosmetic ways.  But a host of new and returning talent found themselves on WCW TV, such as Davey Boy Smith, Sid Vicious, and of course the company's former cornerstone, Ric Flair.  The "Nature Boy" was brought in as a babyface and immediately reformed the Horsemen with Arn and Ole, and a mystery partner, who was revealed as Paul Roma.......ummmmmm.....okay.... 

The WCW Title was kept in a stranglehold by the monstrous Vader, who was set to feud with Sid Vicous leading into Starrcade.  Then during an overseas trip Sid and Arn Anderson got into an absolutely insane real-life slugfest which escalated into a scissor stabbing contest.  Both men were hospitalized, and Sid was fired.  The company scrambled, but found a much more suitable challenger for Vader, taking Starrcade back to its roots.  Ric Flair would now vie for the WCW Title in his hometown, with his career on the line.  The top of the show included a vignette shot live at Flair's home as he kissed his family goodbye to leave for the arena.  The cameras followed Flair into his limo, where he discussed with Gene Okerlund the grave situation he was about to face.  This came off as quite melodramatic, but it made for a nice little bit of window-dressing.  Before we get into the Flair-Vader showdown, let's look at the rest of the card.

The show kicked off with a tag match, as Pretty Wonderful (Paul Orndorff and failed Horseman Paul Roma) faced Marcus Bagwell & 2 Cold Scorpio.  This was a fun little opening match, and I liked both combinations.  Bagwell was actually a decent wrestler before he got Buff, and Roma & Orndorff made a fine heel team.  Solid work by everyone involved.

Speaking of failures, The Shockmaster made his Starrcade debut next against Awesome Kong.  Everyone of course remembers The Shockmaster as "Tugboat" Fred Ottman, who was supposed to be Sting's big equalizer at that year's WarGames, against Vader and Sid's team.  Ole Anderson provided the easily-identifiable voice for this character, and the fools in charge stuck a glitter-bedecked Stormtrooper helmet on Ottman as a disguise.  Ottman was supposed to break through the wall of Ric Flair's talk show set and make a grand entrance, but unfortunately he tripped on the way through and fell on his face, losing the helmet in the process.  This was all broadcast on live television, so the gimmick was D.O.A., and Ottman became more of a comedy wrestler instead.  Anyway, this match went 94 seconds.

Third up was the Television Championship, as Lord Steven Regal defended against Ricky Steamboat.  Let me preface by saying I loved Regal's European grappling style; so fluid and subtle.  This match had excellent chain wrestling and really should've been a classic.  Unfortunately Steamboat worked the match like he had an hour to burn, rather than the standard fifteen-minute time limit of a TV Title match.  So this barely had time to get going before Steamboat picked up the pace in the final three minutes.  This should've been booked in a way that Steamboat moved urgently while Regal constantly tried to stall.  Had their storytelling matched that dynamic, this would've really been excellent, but instead the match was just decent.

The second throwaway of the night was next, as Cactus Jack and Maxx Payne wrestled the future Godwinns, Tex Slazenger and Shanghai Pierce (Who came up with those ridiculous monikers?).  Cactus was fun to watch, doing moves no one else did in 1993, but otherwise this was totally skippable.

Things picked up in the fifth match as US Champion Dustin Rhodes defended against "Stunning" Steve Austin.  It's so weird to go back and watch these two before they became the world-famous characters they would be best known for.  Seems like two other guys fighting.  Anyway this was a very strong, intense fight, and Rhodes and Austin had great chemistry.  I think the 2/3 Falls stip actually hurt the match though, because they only had 15 minutes to work with, and after a long first fall the deciding second fall was totally anticlimactic.  Rhodes accidentally threw Austin over the ropes for a DQ, and two minutes later Austin pinned Rhodes with his feet on the ropes to take two straight.  Had they either been given 20+ minutes, or just had a one-fall match, this would've been greatly improved.

It's Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Goldust!!

Resuming their WWF feud from 1990 (but not really), NWA World Champ Rick Rude defended against The (Big) Boss(man).  These two plodded through a 9-minute NWA Title bout that felt like a 1989 Saturday Night's Main Event midcard match, and it was a bit of a harbinger of what WCW would become in 1994: 1980s WWF.  Terribly boring offense eventually led to a sunset flip ending out of nowhere for the Rude win.

That was nothing compared to this fiasco - The Nasty Boys vs. Sting and Hawk for the WCW Tag Titles.  Holy jeezus, what were they thinking giving this 29 minutes??  This should've been no longer than 15 at the absolute max.  First off, the Nasty Boys were awful.  I seriously don't understand why they won championships everywhere they wrestled.  I always found it postively excruciating to watch Knobbs and Sags, and they had annoying characters to boot.  Second, while the Hawk/Sting combination was intriguing, Hawk and Animal were never the same without each other.  The Road Warriors were greater than the sum of their parts, and every attempt to team one of them with someone else always fell short.  This match just kinda felt like a waste of Sting's talent and star power.  It was nice to see Hawk & Sting break out the Doomsday Device though.  But seriously, avoid this calamity of a match.  It goes on FOREVER.

Finally we came to the marquee matchup, WCW Champion and leviathan heel Vader vs. the returning hero Ric Flair.  This was a damn fine main event; dramatic and intense with great storytelling and a real David vs. Goliath narrative.  Vader was just ungodly awesome back then; everything he did looked like it fucking killed.  It's a shame his stock plummeted after feuding with Hulk Hogan.  The problem with a match like this is that Flair's offense wasn't very believable in terms of actually hurting a guy like Vader.  Flair really should've switched up his game for this match and added some more painful-looking strikes or increased his speed.  They could've shown training montages and had Sting help prepare him, thus adding a whole new layer to the story.  That being said, Flair and Vader worked in enough shortcuts and lucky breaks to keep the match realistic.  Flair whacked Vader's knee with a chair, Harley Race's interference backfired, Vader missed both of his top rope/second rope moves.  My only real complaint about this match was the finish, which looked amateurishly terrible.  Flair crouched down and just sorta pushed Vader's leg out from him, then awkwardly climbed on top for the pin.  Really bad-looking, almost on the level of Austin vs. Owen Hart from SummerSlam '97.  Otherwise though, this was a helluva good World Title match and a great moment for Flair, ten years after the first Starrcade.

I'm still amazed that the 450-pound Leon White did moonsaults.

While Starrcade '93 was no instant classic, it had four good matches out of eight, one of which was among the better main events of the series.  On that basis I'd give it a slight passing grade.  Plus it was the first SC in five years to have a traditional match format with no stupid tournament gimmicks.  This show felt like the company's flagship PPV again, regardless of its uneven match quality.  Flair was back as the WCW Champ, and things were ok.  For the next six months anyway....

Best Match: Vader vs. Ric Flair
Worst Match: Shockmaster vs. Awesome Kong
What I'd Change: Clearly the World Tag Title match was twice as long as it needed to be.  Cut that down, skip the Shockmaster nonsense, and give the extra time to the US Title match so it could be three full falls
Most Disappointing Match: Steven Regal vs. Ricky Steamboat - This wasn't bad, but it should've been great
Most Pleasant Surprise: That Buff Bagwell used to be able to wrestle
Overall Rating: 6/10

Starrcade '94 - Nashville Auditorium - 12/27/94

1994 was the year WCW evolved....into the WWF of the 1980s.  Eric Bischoff had taken the reins the year before and urgently hoped to make the company profitable, and as fate would have it he was able to sign Hulk Hogan in the summer of '94.  This of course immediately brought WCW mainstream attention and lapsed fans from the 80s began watching wrestling again.  The unfortunate side effect of all this was the annihilation of the historic WCW culture.  Gone was the emphasis on athletic, scientific wrestling and simple angles.  In their place were the over-the-top characterizations, convoluted heel turns, and rudimentary brawling of the WWF circa 1988.  Hogan had so much pull he populated (polluted?) the roster with all his old WWF pals, and the in-ring product became a less entertaining version of everything Vince had more adeptly presented a decade earlier.  And you thought Black Saturday was bad.  On the bright side though, at least Bobby Heenan was on color commentary, even if he and Tony Schiavone had zero chemistry together.

The opening match for the US Title pitted Jim Duggan (who infamously defeated Steve Austin for the belt in under a minute - good call on that one Eric) against the man who by all rights should have main evented this show, Vader.  The match was actually better than I expected.  Probably the best Duggan match I've ever seen, which isn't saying much for him.  The first half or so was pretty hard-hitting, then it settled into a plodding second act before ramping back up toward the end.  They recycled the Starrcade '92 finish where Vader came off the top and got powerslammed to the mat, but this time Harley Race interfered to distract the official.  Vader then won with a wheelbarrow slam which Duggan took pretty poorly. 

The unexpected standout of the night was Alex Wright vs. a young blueblood character named Jean-Paul Leveque.  From a mat wrestling standpoint this was quite good.  Sadly it went about five minutes longer than it needed to, and there wasn't really anything at stake.  It's so weird to see Triple H in a WCW ring.  This was technically a good match but little more than a showcase for two young dudes.

It's Triple H vs. Berlyn!!

The TV Title was on next, as Johnny B. Badd defended against Arn Anderson.  This wasn't too shabby; both guys could work and they gelled fairly well.  It's criminal that the only reason Arn got on this show was due to the original challenger, the Honky Tonk Man, being injured.  Hogan's spray-tanned fingerprints were all over the WCW product at this point and it was ugly.

The last four matches on this show ranged from bad to unwatchable, starting with Harlem Heat vs. the Nasty Boys.  This 17-minute-plus bout featured the usual awkward brawling from Knobbs & Sags while Booker and Stevie Ray attempted to get a good match out of them.  They almost succeeded for a little while; had this been an 11 or 12-minute match it might've worked, but after the initial wild brawl stuff it settled into a pretty dull affair.  Eventually Sherri Martel got involved and Harlem Heat was disqualified, capping off an instantly forgettable tag match.  Where were Marcus Bagwell & The Patriot on this show, by the way?  They were the Tag Champions after all.

The descent into madness continued with Kevin Sullivan vs. Mr. T, a pointless and brief special attraction match.  This amounted to three minutes of unimaginative brawling until Dave Sullivan showed up in a Santa costume and whacked Kevin from behind to cost him the match.  Wait, Kevin Sullivan's supposed to be the heel right?

The semi-main event was Sting vs. Avalanche (or Earthquake as he would've been known had Vince McMahon not owned that name).  Yeesh, even the exceptionally talented Sting couldn't drag a good match out of Avalanche.  This felt like it lasted eons while the 400-pounder rehashed all his old dull offense from his WWF days.  Eventually Sting did a Hulk Hogan-type comeback and had the match won till Kevin Sullivan interfered to draw a DQ.  Then Hogan made the save.  Once again this felt like a bad Saturday Night's Main Event match.

Finally we arrived at the main event, the WCW Champion Hulk Hogan vs. Brutus "The Butcher" Beefcake.  Good. Lord.  This was awful.  Think of any generic Hogan match from the 80s against any lower-echelon opponent.  Those were all masterpieces compared to this.  Beefcake looked terrible, like an in-shape sixty-year-old (despite being only 37 - Jesus, I had no idea he was that young at this point), and moved even worse.  Nothing about this match was fun.  For some reason Hogan was allowed to whack Beefcake with a chair three times in full view of the referee without being disqualified.  Man that guy's got clout.  Toward the end both Avalanche and Sullivan tried to interfere, only to get knocked off the ring apron by Hogan, before he landed the legdrop for the win.  Randy Savage, making his WCW PPV debut, came to Hogan's aid after the bout, thus reuniting the MegaPowers.  Are we gonna redo everything from 1988-1990?  This ranks highly among the worst PPV main events of all time.  One last thing, Jimmy Hart inherently doesn't work as a babyface manager.  His character is by nature annoying, so he naturally draws heat.  Plus what did Hogan need a mouthpiece for?

Look, it's the WWF babyface locker room in 1992...

If there's any doubt how much Hogan reshaped WCW in his own image, think on this.  Of the seven matches at Starrcade '94, six either featured or were scheduled to feature at least one of his old WWF buddies.  Jim Duggan, Honky Tonk Man (who was replaced by WCW franchise player Arn Anderson - think of how twisted that is), Nasty Boys (true they were in WCW before Hogan showed up, but still), Mr. T, Avalanche, and worst of all Brutus Beefcake in the main event of the company's flagship PPV, in 1994.  Their new slogan should've been, "WCW - If You Want Good Wrestling, Look Somewhere Else!"  After three inoffensive opening matches, this show drove off a cliff.  I mean that literally; Hogan hooked a semi rig up to the Nashville Auditorium and drove the entire building into a fucking ravine. 

Best Match: Alex Wright vs. Jean-Paul Levesque
Worst Match: Hulk Hogan vs. The Butcher
What I'd Change: Cancel the show.  Just tell everyone there's a blizzard and the show's off.
Most Disappointing Match: I couldn't have had lower expectations going into this, so actually nothing disappointed me.  There is that I guess.
Most Pleasant Surprise: The first three matches were watchable, so there's that too.
Overall Rating: 2/10

Part 3                                                                                                                                 
Part 5

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