Monday, December 18, 2023

The History of NWA/WCW Starrcade (1996)

A surprisingly entertaining Starrcade thanks to a strong undercard....

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

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