This month marks the 15 year anniversary of the final Monday Nitro, and in turn, the death of WCW. Sure, WWE propped up its corpse for several months afterward “Weekend at Bernie’s” style, but the moment that Raw/Nitro simulcast went off the air, it was all over. The fact remains that for all its dysfunction, WCW going under was one of the worst things to ever happen to the wrestling business, trumped only by the rampant drug and steroid abuse that has taken far too many lives.
A myriad of different reasons have been cited for the company’s demise – guaranteed contracts, wasteful spending, the AOL-Time Warner merger, Starrcade 1997, the Fingerpoke of Doom, the hiring of Vince Russo… even a voodoo curse put upon them by Papa Shango. To listen to WWE’s revisionist history, it was Vince McMahon who killed WCW, or Triple H himself, as pitched during the build to his match with Sting at last year’s Wrestlemania, a rare bit of WWE comedy done right. I suppose you could argue that the Montreal Screwjob being Hunter’s idea and all, it led to Bret Hart’s departure, which in turn gave rise to the Mister McMahon character and his legendary feud with Steve Austin, which led to the greatest period of prosperity in WWE’s history, but that would be a bit of a stretch (although I just did a better job of offering up a rationale for it than WWE did). In reality, it was Jamie Kellner’s decision to pull the plug on Nitro and Thunder that, quite literally, killed the promotion, but most of the other reasons I mentioned deserve credit as well.
That being said, there was a lot to love about WCW. The birth of Nitro gave rise to the most chaotic and unpredictable period in the history of the business, not to mention one of its most lucrative. As a fan, you couldn’t grab that remote control fast enough to flip between Raw and Nitro to see what was going on (younger fans today will never know the struggle of a pre-DVR world), or wonder who might be next to jump ship. The cruiserweight division gave the show an energy that WWE, though they tried, couldn’t replicate, and talents like Rey Mysterio, Jr. opened doors for smaller wrestlers who otherwise might not have been given an opportunity. The New World Order, Sting descending from the rafters, Goldberg’s streak, the Diamond Cutter, WAR GAMES… WCW had a cool factor about it that even growing up in the northeast as a loyal WWE supporter was hard to deny.
Of course, WCW existed long before the Monday Night War became a thing. While it wasn’t always pretty, it did give us the Four Horsemen, those Flair/Steamboat classics, Paul Heyman’s giant cell phone, Surfer Sting, the wars between Big Van Vader and Cactus Jack, and “Ravishing” Rick Rude’s absurdly catchy theme song. I’ve been hosting a countdown of the 15 greatest WCW matches of all time on my podcast dating back to December and each week, I am reminded of what it was that made WCW so special. To be honest, I’ll be sad when it’s over in a few weeks.
Most of all, what WCW did is it forced Vince McMahon’s back against the wall at a time when his product was in the doldrums. With nowhere to turn, he decided to take his storylines and his characters in a decidedly edgier direction, pushing boundaries that would have sponsors up in the arms if he tried the same thing today. The show didn’t feel nearly as rigid and formulaic as it does today. The fans were not routinely ignored, or at least, didn’t perceive themselves to be ignored when it came to who and what they wanted to see. Competition is a wonderful thing and is something that is sorely lacking in wrestling today. It’s what forced WWE to become better. Today, even as television ratings have dropped, there is little incentive for them to change when they continue to make money hand over fist. That is what I miss most about WCW.
Did they deserve to die? Probably. Lord knows the signs were there for a long time. It was bad enough that Ric Flair himself, the man most associated with WCW, has since admitted that by the time it happened, he was happy to see the company meet its demise. However, it deserves to be remembered for the good that it offered as much as the bad. After 15 years, for all the complaints about the current WWE product, the ghost of WCW looms large.
Jason Solomon is host of the “Solomonster Sounds Off” podcast, which can be heard weekly on thesolomonster.com, Stitcher Radio and iTunes.