Monday, December 3, 2018

The History of NWA/WCW Starrcade, part 5 (1995-1997)

We've arrived at the start of the Monday Night War!

Starrcade '95 - Nashville Auditorium - 12.27.95

Hulk Hogan's shadow was temporarily lifted from WCW in late 1995 due to a kayfabe suspension, so the focus for this show was on in-ring wrestling and several homegrown WCW stars.  WCW once again went back to a standalone tournament-type format for Starrcade - this time it was a WCW vs. New Japan series of matches with the winning team earning a World Cup trophy, which in the long run meant absolutely zero.  Despite WCW putting together a team of both babyfaces and heels, their guys were all greeted as heroes by the Nashville crowd.  Aside from the tourney there would also be a Triangle match to determine a number-one contender to Randy Savage's WCW World Title in the main event.  Two of those contenders and Savage himself were also in the New Japan series, which was just strange.  But unlike say Starrcade '91, this show at least had a handful of memorable bouts, even if the tourney concept was once again pointless in the grand scheme.

Bobby Heenan was great as usual on color commentary but unfortunately had to compete with Dusty Rhodes, who I've always found insufferable as an announcer.  He probably took up about half the talking time of the three-man team and most of his comments were incomprehensible.  So that was quite distracting.

The WCW-NJPW series kicked off with a pretty great on-paper match: Chris Benoit vs. Jushin Thunder Liger.  This did its job as an opener but was frankly a little underwhelming given the talent involved.  I imagine their matches in Japan blew this one out of the water.  Kevin Sullivan ran down to distract Benoit (thus ruining the ending) and Liger executed a really bad hurricanrana and hooked Benoit's legs for the pin.  Not nearly as good as you'd think.

On the flipside though, Alex Wright vs. Koji Kanemoto was a shockingly good followup; better than the opener and with a nice fluid feel to it.  They got almost twelve minutes and did a lot with them.  This match felt almost like a lighter, less stiff version of a New Japan match.

The first throwaway was next as Lex Luger wrestled Masahiro Chono.  Not much to this one but at least it was short.  Chono dominated most of the match, even slapping on his STF finisher, but Luger made it to the ropes and mounted the shortest comeback ever before applying the Torture Rack for the win.

Another decent little match followed, as Johnny B. Badd faced Mr. Saito.  This was essentially a short New Japan-style match with some good chop battles in the middle.  Pretty fast-paced overall and both guys did what they could with just under six minutes.  The finish was pretty anticlimactic, as Sonny Onoo distracted the official on the apron, Badd went after him, and Saito just dumped Badd over the top rope and got disqualified.  I guess the story was that he was used to over-the-top throws being legal in New Japan.

The show stealer, and the one match from this show to make WWE's Best of Starrcade DVD, was Eddy Guerrero vs. Shinjiro Otani, in one of the better thirteen-minute matches you're likely to see.  This contained not an ounce of fat and was replete with athletic, innovative stuff.  Otani got the win after a series of pin reversals.  Pretty excellent little bout.

WCW trailed 3-2 going into the Randy Savage vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan match.  Again, I'm not sure why the WCW Champion would take part in this tourney when he was scheduled to defened the Title later on.  Another pretty forgettable six-minute match capped off by the Macho Man elbow off the top (which by 1995 looked far less impressive than it did in 1988).  This wasn't bad but it also wasn't memorable at all.

The World Cup final pitted Sting vs. Kensuke Sasake.  As six-minute matches go, this had a lot of good action and urgency, but being the deciding World Cup match it seems very odd to only give it six or so minutes.  There wasn't much time to build suspense over who would come out victorious.  Tony Shiavone did a good job at the end acting excited for WCW's moment of triumph, but this wasn't much of a payoff to an angle that struggled to convey much purpose in the first place.  The trophy ceremony immediately followed this match, and then Sting went to the back only to return moments later for the Triangle match.  Where were Arn Anderson and Brian Pillman for this tournament?  Couldn't Sting, Savage and Luger have sat this out since they had bigger fish to fry?

The semi-main event (and as it turned out the show's centerpiece) was Ric Flair vs. Sting vs. Lex Luger in a Triangle Match for an immediate World Title shot.  The Triangle Match rules were a little awkward; two guys would fight while the third stood on the apron waiting to tag in.  This match was pretty well-worked but went waaaay too long; 28 minutes was not necessary when 20 would've sufficed.  The three guys all had chemistry though, having wrestled each other numerous times before.  The booking of the finish didn't make much sense, as Flair took advantage of a ref bump to clip Luger's knee while Luger had Sting in the Torture Rack.  Luger fell out of the ring and Flair threw Sting over the ropes, then woke the referee up and urged him to count them both out.  This begged a couple questions, 1) Why would you have a countout in a three-way match?  If one guy gets counted out, then what happens? 2) Luger stopped Sting from climbing back in at the last second.  Why would he do this?  I'd have assumed if Sting got back in the match would continue, but then they never made it clear what the rules were regarding countouts or disqualifications.  Anyway this was fun just to see Flair, Luger and Sting in the same match but was not the great main event it could've been with more focused, decisive booking.

Say it with me: Right. In. The Dick.

Almost an afterthought by this point, the main event was WCW Champion Randy Savage vs. Ric Flair.  Like the World Cup final match, this was quite scant for a match of such importance.  Flair and Savage delivered a classic at WrestleMania VIII but this was nowhere near that level.  The action was pretty furious but never fully got going.  Toward the end Savage blocked Flair's attempt to use Jimmy Hart's megaphone and used it himself.  Flair bladed like crazy, gushing blood all over the place, and Savage hit the flying elbow only for the new Horsemen to break up the pin and cost Savage the match.  Considering the legendary wrestlers involved this was pretty lackluster and overly brief.  I did like the Horsemen lineup of Flair, Anderson, Pillman and Benoit.  Too bad Pillman left so soon after.

Starrcade '95 was another one of those PPVs where there wasn't anything bad, but there wasn't anything truly great either, and the show meant very little in the end.  Aside from the WCW Title change nothing of note happened here.  The WCW vs. NJPW series looked intriguing on paper but after it was over the New Japan guys went home and no feuds were advanced or settled.  Once again WCW attempted to shoehorn a high-concept tournament into their biggest show of the year, negating its importance.  Flair vs. Luger vs. Sting should've taken place halfway through the show, on a card stacked with important matches, and the WCW Title match should've gone at least 15 minutes.  I'm not sure how you justify a PPV main event running less than twelve or so.  Definitely a middle-of-the-road show overall.

Best Match: Eddy Guerrero vs. Shinjiro Otani
Worst Match: Lex Luger vs. Masahiro Chono
What I'd Change: I hate to sound like a broken record, but for fuck's sake why did Starrcade need to be a showcase for whatever experimental nonsense format popped into the bookers' heads that week?  The flagship PPV should be the show where feuds are settled and stars are made, not where a bunch of talent gets thrown into some weird tournament for a prize that will quickly be forgotten about.
Most Disappointing Match: Chris Benoit vs. Jushin Liger
Most Pleasant Surprise: Alex Wright vs. Koji Kanemoto
Overall Rating: 6.5/10

Starrcade '96 - Nashville Auditorium - 12.29.96
By 1996 WCW was dominating the WWF in the ratings and had become the most popular wrestling promotion in the world, fueled by the ongoing nWo storyline and the influx of international talent most North American fans had never been exposed to.  Starrcade '96 was a pretty perfect cross-section of the overall WCW product.  Most of their in-ring strength was in the undercard, while the main event matches were storyline-driven and featured very little actual wrestling.  Having run roughshod over WCW, Hulk Hogan and the nWo were then challenged by Roddy Piper, returning after a 13-year WWF association.  True to form, WCW was still regurgitating 1980s WWF feuds, but now Hogan was the heel and Piper was the babyface.  It was a very odd hybrid product; the smaller names were doing their damnedest to steal the show, while the big names were lumbering around the ring like it was 1987 WWF and the crowds were eating it up.

The announce team once again consisted of Tony Shiavone, Bobby Heenan (hilarious as always), and Dusty Rhodes (A more long-winded, barely intelligible announcer I cannot recall).  Plus Mike Tenay sat in during the Cruiserweight matches and Lee Marshall during the Women's match.  Four men is way too many for a commentator team.

The opening match, for the Cruiserweight Title (plus 8 other belts) pitted Dean Malenko against  Ultimo Dragon.  This was great for its spot on the card; a very strong opener that amazingly got more time than any other match.  Nice crisp action from both guys, a little slow in the middle, but it ramped up again for the third act, capped off by a cool finishing sequence full of reversals.  Cruiserweight wrestling was one of the few things WCW did way better than the WWF at this point.

The second of three matches involving New Japan stars was next, as Madusa battled Akira Hokuto to crown the first WCW Women's Champion.  This was a good little women's match and I had forgotten how good Madusa could be.  Too bad the company did very little with her after this.  The WCW Women's Title was vacated after Hokuto left the US and WCW never resurrected it.  So in the end this match didn't mean anything, but it was still very watchable.

Probably the best match of the night was third, as Rey Mysterio faced Jushin Thunder Liger in a true Cruiserweight dream match.  Nice high-impact offense from both guys.  Liger had slowed down a little but Mysterio brought the movement and played the usual underdog role.  Pretty weird to see New Japan go 3-0 on a WCW PPV.  A hotter crowd would've elevated this to the next level.  This just needed some drama added to it.


The most convoluted feud at the time was represented next as Chris Benoit took on Jeff Jarrett (which he would do again at Starrcade three years later).  Solid midcard match that strangely didn't make much use of the No DQ stip.  The storyline was confusing as Jarrett was feuding with Benoit, who was still feuding with Kevin Sullivan, while Benoit's Horsemen pals seemingly sided with Jarrett.  Arn Anderson double-crossed Jarrett at the end but that was negated by Sullivan's attack on Benoit.  Jarrett won with his arm unintentionally across Benoit's chest when both guys were down.  Only problem was Jarrett's shoulders were down as well.  He probably should've rolled over another half-turn to fix that.  Good match though.

Going from the first half to the second half was like watching two different shows.  The first four matches were almost exclusively about workrate and the last four were almost all about the nWo.

The Outsiders defended the Tag belts against Faces of Fear in a surprisingly effective brawl between monster teams.  The odd heel vs. heel dynamic didn't much get in the way because of the nWo's ultra-heel personas making everyone else on the roster a de facto babyface.  Meng and The Barbarian showed some good fire standing up to bullies Hall & Nash.  Nash got a shockingly clean pin after a Jackknife powerbomb (Of course referee Nick Patrick was in the middle of an nWo heel turn, so it wasn't totally clean I guess).

Next up was the finals of a US Title tournament: Diamond Dallas Page vs. Eddie Guerrero.  On paper this seemed like Match of the Night material, and while it was good, a fairly disinterested crowd brought it down a few pegs.  DDP and Eddie worked well together though, despite style and size differences.  The finish devolved into the obligatory nWo overbooking, as The Outsiders cost DDP the match as punishment for not joining their cause.  Eddie hit the Frog Splash to win the vacant US Title, much to the edgy crowd's dismay.

In the semi-main event slot Lex Luger challenged The Giant in what was actually a fairly entertaining David vs. Goliath match for the most part.  I didn't think I'd like this at all, but it wasn't bad.  Luger had his selling shoes on, as Paul Wight dominated most of the match before Luger's comeback.  That Luger was able to apply the Torture Rack to the 400-pounder is quite impressive.  Then we got another overbooked mess, with Syxx and Sting interfering - Sting whispered something to both Luger and The Giant, and left his baseball bat center ring.  Kinda confusing.  Luger got to the bat first, hit a low blow, and then whacked him a few times with the bat for the win.  The crowd was red-hot for this match.  Jeezus, anything touching the nWo was way over at this point.

The War to Settle the Score!  Again.

Hulk Hogan vs. Roddy Piper, like so many of Hogan's 80s matches, was pretty terrible from an actual wrestling standpoint, but the two of them played their characters so well you can somewhat forgive the lack of athleticism.  Hogan's wrestling style was actually better suited to being a heel; slow, plodding, crowd-killing brawl tactics sprinkled with taunts.  Piper's facials were great.  He was in full "I'm all outta bubblegum" mode, which made this match a lot more fun than it should've been.  The Giant interfered toward the end but this moment was somewhat ruined by a crazed fan trying to enter the ring.  Piper escaped and caught Hogan in the sleeper to hand him his first clean loss in nearly seven years.  So yeah, this match was certainly not good, but I also didn't hate it.  It was your typical crappy Hogan match that would've been right at home on Saturday Night's Main Event ten years earlier, but with the roles reversed.

1996 WCW was clearly a very uneven product based mostly around plot twists and nostalgia.  It most definitely hasn't aged well, and if you take each major show separately you aren't likely to find many great wrestling matches by any means.  But at the time it was working; WCW was a red-hot combination of past stars and athletic, state-of-the-art imports, and those in power attempted to throw a little something out there for everyone.  As for Starrcade, I sorta feel filthy giving it as positive a review as I am, but there weren't any matches I truly disliked and there were actually a handful of pretty good ones.  Nothing exceeded 3.5 stars or so, but considering how putrid many Bischoff-era PPVs were, this wasn't bad at all.

Best Match: Rey Mysterio vs. Jushin Thunder Liger
Worst Match: Probably Luger vs. Giant, but that was honestly not bad
What I'd Change: More a critique of WCW's overall product (which to be fair was drawing big ratings), I'd have pushed some of the great undercard workers into prominent upper-card spots to mix up the roster.  There was a clear division between the good workrate matches in the first half and the big-name sports-entertainment matches in the second.  Recycling feuds from the 80s was a terrible business move long-term, quite obviously.
Most Disappointing Match: Probably Eddie vs. DDP.  It was good but not where it should've been, plus the lame nWo crap at the end didn't help.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Outsiders vs. Faces of Fear, which had no right to be as entertaining as it was.
Overall Rating: 7/10

Starrcade '97 - MCI Center - 12.28.97

Starrcade '97 was the night WCW killed all their momentum.  They'd been dominating the ratings for well over a year with arguably the hottest angle of all time coupled with a miles-deep roster, and had just taken away yet another top WWF star.  This time it was Vince's franchise player, Bret Hart.  To be fair, Vince helped broker the deal, citing the inability to pay Bret the amount he'd agreed to.  But with all those factors, plus the loooooong-awaited in-ring return of Sting (who'd adopted a Crow-inspired gimmick and hadn't wrestled a match in over a year), Starrcade '97 should've been WCW's WrestleMania III.  It should've been the PPV that launched WCW into the mainstream stratosphere, solidifying them as wrestling's number-one brand, and been the big payoff to the nWo storyline: the returning WCW hero conquers the villainous invaders and restores balance to the besieged company.  But nope, Hulk Hogan and his ego got in the way.  Again.

The two masters Eddy Guerrero and Dean Malenko kicked things off for the Cruiserweight Title.  These guys couldn't possibly have a bad match, so this was a fine opening contest.  While it wasn't at the level of their ECW classic series, it still got 15 minutes and had strong action, plus had the role reversal with Eddie as the heel and Malenko as the no-nonsense babyface.  Good stuff so far.

Eddy vs. Dean was always a fine showing.

Not-so-good stuff followed it, as The Steiners & Ray Traylor faced Randy Savage, Scott Norton & Vincent.  How odd to see Savage and Elizabeth on the heel side and Dibase managing the babyfaces.  This wasn't much of a six-man.  Scott Steiner had some good moves as usual but he was already an over-muscled, bloated oaf by this point.  I'm not sure why he felt the compulsion to get so big.  The action here was mostly clumsy, with everyone well past their prime.  Jeezus Elizabeth looked amazing in the 90s.  Savage's top-rope elbow however did not.

Bill Goldberg made his PPV debut next against Steve McMichael, in a pretty awful six-minute brawl.  I believe this was also Goldberg's first non-squash, and the less-than-accomplished McMichael was probably not the guy to guide him through a real match.  At this point the fun in watching Goldberg was seeing the spear-jackhammer combo, and both of those moves were ineptly executed here.  There was also the most gratuitous of table spots, as Mongo got knocked off the ring apron through the table Goldie had set up.  And after about four seconds of selling Mongo took over on offense again.  Not a good PPV debut for the future WCW Champion.

The other two future Radicalz, Chris Benoit and Perry Saturn, had a fun little chaos match, as Raven's Flock repeatedly attempted to interfere only for Benoit to keep them at bay.  Benoit and Saturn worked pretty well together and kept this from being total nonsense.  In the end the numbers game was too much, and Benoit walked into Raven's Evenflow DDT, followed by the Rings of Saturn.

Next up Lex Luger vs. Buff Bagwell had an unbelievably boring match.  Neither guy did much of anything and of course the finish involved multiple nWo run-ins before Bagwell took the duke.  How this got 16 minutes is beyond me.  Your basic late-90s nWo drivel.

The last good match of the night was third from the end: Curt Hennig vs. Diamond Dallas Page.  This was a fun little US Title match.  Both guys could obviously work, and DDP was pretty underappreciated as an in-ring guy I think.  He was pretty consistently one of the few bright spots during this era.  Nothing mindblowing but this was a solid match.

For the semi-main event they actually booked Larry Zbyszko vs. Eric Bischoff.  Oh good, the retired wrestler vs. the non-wrestler for control of Nitro.  Bret Hart made his WCW PPV debut as the special referee of this farce.  The early minutes consisted of Bischoff stalling before Larry took over on offense.  To tease Bret being part of the nWo they had him blatantly break up Larry's legal holds while ignoring Bischoff's repeated strikes in the corner.  Late in the match Scott Hall slipped a piece of metal under one of Bischoff's kickpads (nevermind that in that position such an object would hurt Bischoff, not Larry).  After Bischoff kicked Larry with the loaded pad, Bret revealed his true allegiance by punching out Bischoff and hooking Hall in the Sharpshooter.  Larry choked Bischoff with his own belt, and Bret declared Larry the winner.  No pin, no submission, the match was just over.  Who booked this shit?

Some bad news I'm afraid: We're about to lose the Monday Night War.

The main event was apparently "the biggest match in the history of our sport," Hulk Hogan vs. Sting.  For all the hype surrounding it, this was yet another run-of-the-mill Hogan match with lots of punch/kick offense for about twelve minutes, before Hogan hit the big boot/legdrop and Nick Patrick counted to three.  Not a fast-count like they had planned, but a normal three-count.  Hogan won clean.  Bret showed up out of nowhere and declared a restart, despite only having been a licensed official for the previous match, and Sting won with the Scorpion Deathlock.  So let's recap: Hulk Hogan used his clout backstage to get Nick Patrick to "forget" to fast-count the pin, thus making Sting look weak and Bret look stupid (Bret's apparently the worst referee ever based on his two appearances on this show).  What a dreadful main event.

So Sting's big homecoming moment was ruined, the Title was held up, and Sting finally won it two months later at SuperBrawl.  But by then it was too late, the bloom was off the rose.  Sting got lost in the shuffle of WCW heroes and eventually joined the nWo Wolfpack, while Bill Goldberg emerged as the new face of WCW.

The WWF may not have won a ratings battle until about four months after this show, but make no mistake, Starrcade '97 was the real turning point of the Monday Night War.  The booking on this show was so nonsensical and made the conquering heroes look so bad that fan enthusiasm dwindled at an alarming pace.  And it was all to please one guy's out-of-control ego.  This overall war was WCW's to lose, and lose it they would, starting here.

Best Match: Eddy Guerrero vs. Dean Malenko
Worst Match: Larry Zbyzsko vs. Eric Bischoff
What I'd Change: Christ Eric, get control of your top stars.  The move was having Sting go over squeaky clean.  There should've been no screwy finish of any kind.  Also, Luger-Bagwell had no business getting more time than any other match.
Most Disappointing Match: Hogan vs. Sting obviously
Most Pleasant Surprise: Nothin' much
Overall Rating: 3/10

Part 4                                                                                                                              
Part 6

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