In my younger years my exposure to WCW was pretty limited. The territory was essentially in the exclusive domain of cable which our household lacked so it was almost impossible for me to watch any WCW programming. Even if I could watch I likely would not have. In my opinion the WWF was the major league of professional wrestling and anyone else was just a pretender. Sure I knew the big stars. Ric Flair was a household name even if you didn’t watch WCW as was Sting. I also knew the Steiner Brothers and Lex Luger but it pretty much stopped there.
Things started to change after the debut of WCW Monday Nitro in 1995. People that had previously written off WCW as a minor league to the WWF were now searching for alternatives. WWF programming hit rock bottom in 1995 with the promotion putting together what many consider to be the worst year in the history of the sport. Don’t believe me? Try watching King of the Ring 1995. Nitro went head to head against Monday Night Raw and for the first time in years fans actually had a worthy competitor to the WWF. Throughout 1996 fans flocked to the WCW in droves leaving many to view the WWF as yesterday’s news.
I was still a WWF guy but in 1997 a friend of mine continued to rave on and on about how great the WCW was. Our house still lacked cable and the only way I could watch wrestling was at my neighbor’s house through the magic of VHS tape. He was a hardcore WWF fan and made sure to record every Raw and a large portion of the pay per view events so I would watch the recordings with him. My neighbor and I balked at the idea of even entertaining WCW. Finally in May of 1998 my WCW loving acquaintance recorded Nitro for me and I gave it a try. It was certainly different but I was excited to see names I enjoyed as a kid: Hollywood Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Bret “Hitman” Hart, Lex Luger, and others. Although the production values did not seem quite as refined as the WWF the wrestling action throughout the undercard did seem more exciting. From that point forward I watched both promotions through the magic of VHS every week.
Admittedly WCW was on the downturn in the summer of 1998 whereas the WWF was on the rise. That said, there was still some gas left in the WCW tank to make that summer one of the best in pro wrestling history as the battle between the two goliath’s raged. As the summer began the WWF was building off of a year of solid programming whereas the WCW was coasting on the momentum of excellent programming a year ago. If you were to graph the viewership and ratings of each company the summer of 1998 was the intersecting point where they were at a dead heat. It was a thrilling time to be a wrestling fan.
June began by building off of the developments at May’s Slamboree pay per view. The primary storyline was the nWo Wolfpac splintering off and rebelling against nWo Hollywood. The Wolfpac at that point consisted of Kevin Nash, Curt Hennig, Konnan, Scott Hall, Macho Man, Miss Elizabeth, Rick Rude, and a useless Dusty Rhodes. After nWo Hollywood appeared to take the advantage by recruiting The Giant (Sting’s tag team partner) the Wolfpac recruited Lex Luger (Sting’s best friend). Sting was the focal point of the promotion as fans wondered if he would defect to the Wolfpac to ally with Lex Luger or to nWo Hollywood to join his tag team partner The Giant. Early in June Sting would join the Wolfpac in memorable fashion. He entered the ring and removed his trademark trench coat to reveal an nWo Hollywood shirt causing Hogan and Giant to openly celebrate in the ring. He then attacked the duo and took off the shirt to reveal a red and black Wolfpac shirt underneath.
I was a Hogan fan and I also typically preferred the attitude of the heels so I was disappointed in Sting’s choice but Hogan still had the world title and the Giant controlled the tag team championships. Since the pair had split it was determined that the Giant would square off against Sting at the Great American Bash in a singles match with the winner taking both tag team titles and getting to choose his partner. Sting won via the Scorpion Death Lock and surprisingly (in my opinion) would choose Nash to be his tag team parter rather than his good friend Lex Luger. Another bizarre booking choice at the event was Curt Hennig and Rick Rude attacking Konnan to defect back to nWo Hollywood. Why did they leave just bounce right back? No reason was given. Whatever.
As summer progressed WCW began the build up to Bash at the Beach which had historically been one of their bigger events of the year. In an effort to draw in mainstream sports fans the promotion began to integrate NBA players Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman into their shows. Dennis Rodman had been appearing on WCW TV for years but Karl Malone was a newcomer to the wrestling world and appeared to be genuinely enthused to be a part of the story. Malone would ally himself with Diamond Dallas Page whereas Rodman would continue his alliance with Hollywood Hogan. In a shocking example of logical booking by the promotion, the pair would feud on screen as Rodman and Malone were also facing each other on the basketball court in the 1998 NBA Finals.
Hogan not only had DDP and Malone to worry about but a newcomer to the world title scene. Over the past year wrestling rookie Bill Goldberg had taken the territory by storm winning every single contest in convincing fashion. He won the United States Heavyweight Championship at Spring Stampede against Raven and continued to squash his opponents while remaining undefeated. After each win he would glare into the camera and ask “Who’s Next?” Although I was not a Goldberg fan it’s easy to understand his appeal. His entrance built up so much anticipation as the camera would follow him from the locker room through the hallways of the building and onto the entrance ramp where he would stand amidst a shower of sparks eventually exhaling a plume of smoke amidst explosions behind him. His music sounded like a foreboding military march of conquest. He physically dominated his opponents with impressive raw power. Although promoters have tried to replicate the formula since then with different wrestlers they don’t seem to understand that Goldberg’s winning streak felt legitimate. You can give any ham & egger a winning streak but if the crowd doesn’t buy the idea that the guy racking up all the wins would be truly capable of pulling out victories, it comes off as forced. Goldberg’s run seemed organic.
In an unusual move, the decision was made to televise Bill Goldberg vs Hollywood Hogan for free on the July 7, 1998 edition of Nitro. This was a premier world title match and would have earned a princely sum both at the gate and in pay per view sales. But this was WCW and the Monday night wars. Ratings were more important than money it would seem. Even more curious is that the match wasn’t announced to the TV audience until the Thursday prior on Thunder and even that was without much hype or fanfare. Commissioner of the WCW Championship Committee James J. Dillon announced the match on the entrance ramp in a brief interview with Mean Gene Okerlund. There was no background to build up the match and only a few days to promote it to the television audience. That’s WCW for you.
The match took place in front of 40,000 fans at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta; home of WCW. The hype was incredible. I continued to receive phone updates from a friend of mine throughout the night since I could not watch the show live. Although there were a few twists and turns throughout the program WCW actually delivered a big moment and a relatively clean and entertaining main event match to millions of viewers as Bill Goldberg won the title. The live crowd erupted. I was upset but still enjoyed the match as I watched it on VHS with my parents a few days later.
Despite losing the title Hollywood Hogan would still play a marquee role at the Bash at the Beach pay per view. Hogan and Dennis Rodman would defeat DDP and Karl Malone in a tag team match that attracted a great deal of mainstream attention. The build up was incredible, if not unusual. In the week leading up to the Bash DDP and Malone allegedly drove from Utah all the way to Nitro in Florida in a semi truck with a trailer full of chairs. I’m not sure what the end goal was. Maybe they were hoping Hogan and Rodman would meet them at Nitro with their own truck filled with card tables. However illogical it was, the build up for the event worked as I badly wanted to see the live event. As usual I couldn’t buy it. Fortunately WCW gave the main event match away for free on Nitro essentially slapping everyone who paid for the event in the face. Neat!
At the end of July my family moved to a new house and my parents finally splurged on cable TV. I was now able to watch pro wrestling, old John Wayne movies, and Atlanta Braves baseball without depending on VHS recordings from my friends. Pro wrestling was first and foremost on my mind as I made sure to watch as much of the product as was possible. Nitro, Raw, Thunder, WCW Saturday Night, Sunday Night Heat…. everything. Considering I was finally able to watch WCW live I should have been in seventh heaven.
Unfortunately after Bash at the Beach ’98 WCW started to go into a nosedive pretty quickly. It’s almost as if they put all of their efforts into that one final stand and just ran out of steam afterwards. Attempting to continue pulling in mainstream entertainment attention WCW entered into an odd arrangement with NBC’s Tonight Show, setting up a feud between Hogan and Jay Leno. If you didn’t see it as it happened you’d think I was making this up. It’s not as bad as their alliance with RoboCop or the Chucky doll but it isn’t THAT much of an improvement either. Wasting tons of time each Nitro, Eric Bischoff had a fake Tonight Show set built and conducted horrible interviews while the live crowd booed and shouted in disgust.
Whereas the WWF continued to build momentum through the summer with the ultimate payoff at SummerSlam, WCW’s summer routinely ended with a thud at the terribly themed Road Wild pay per view in Sturgis South Dakota which was held during the famous bike rally. The event was outdoors and charged $0 for admission which resulted in a loss for WCW and made for poor television. Rather than build up an opponent for the new undefeated champion Bill Goldberg they simply tossed him into a battle royal as an afterthought. Hogan and Eric Bischoff teamed up against Jay Leno and DDP in an infamous match that attracted as much criticism as it did curious viewers.
By the end of the summer WCW’s quagmire would continue to worsen as they brought the Ultimate Warrior into the fold in a quick fix effort. Although things ended on a low note, the summer of 1998 was still very entertaining if you were a fan of WCW. The summer of ’98 was also the last time there was legitimate competition in the world of North American pro wrestling. These days WWE makes WCW’s poor booking decisions and terrible shows at the end of the company’s life look like a dance around the Maypole. None of us knew it at the time but the summer of ’98 was the crossroads for pro wrestling. Had WCW righted the ship the sports entertainment landscape would be dramatically different today. As it stands, this period was the last great era in a sport that has declined into insignificance.