Twenty-five years on, WCW Monday Nitro’s place in the annals of wrestling history remains significant. And it likely always will.
The show that helped change the way wrestling was presented and gave us the most exciting half-decade of graps of all time, of course, has several key figures who were more responsible for its legacy than others.
Here are the 10 individuals (well, nine individuals and one very influential duo) that shaped Nitro into the legendary show it was.
Where better to start with the man more responsible for any other for WCW Monday Nitro existing and thriving? This list has to start with Easy E.
The oft-repeated story goes that Bischoff was handed the Nitro timeslot and the edict to compete with Monday Night Raw in primetime as a total surprise. If that’s true then surely Bischoff must have had at least some of the ideas swirling round in his brain for some time because Nitro came out of the traps with a lot of focus and sharp branding that set it apart immediately from anything else WCW had previously produced.
Bischoff crafted the Nitro format we are all so familiar with but also acted as THE voice of the programme in its early years. It’s hard to think of Nitro in its first couple of years of being without Bischoff voice soundtracking the key moments.
If this were a list of only one entry, Bischoff’s would be the name on it. Truly, THE most influential individual in Nitro history.
With a few paces down a walkway in a shopping mall, Lex Luger set the tone for what Nitro would be, literally on day one.
His appearance on that first Nitro, a total shock to fans and WWE alike, was the first shot in the Monday Night Wars and it made audiences sit up and take notice.
This would be a programme that did things differently and would not allow you to miss an episode in case you missed the next big revelation.
Beyond that Luger was a mainstay for the whole Nitro period, near or at the top of the card. His interactions with Randy Savage, Sting and Hulk Hogan provided the backbone of the main event soap opera that carried Nitro ably in the pre-NWO months.
The Nitro highlight for Luger was defeating Hollywood Hogan for the WCW Title on the 100th edition of the programme. That he was chosen for such a key position speaks for his importance to the Nitro brand.
Not so much for his early Nitro work (he was a reassuring presence but certainly didn’t pull up any trees) but almost all for the period when he didn’t actually get in the ring (are you besmirching the awesomeness that was the Sting-Luger tag team in early 1996? – Ed)
The birth of Sting’s ‘Crow’ character was a perfect use of episodic television to give the audience a little more each week until they were gagging to pay big money to see the payoff.
The patience shown in the weeks and months leading up to Sting vs. Hollywood Hogan at Starrcade 1997 was a big part in Nitro’s huge rating success at that time. Fans simply HAD to see what WCW’s avenging angel would do next.
Simply put, without Hulk Hogan, there would be no Monday Nitro. WCW was in no hurry to rush into primetime before Hogan came along but his name power and box office appeal allowed it to happen.
Nitro was really the first time where we had seen Hogan in the flesh on a weekly basis and in the early months, that was a huge novelty and appeal. Obviously, when Hogan became ‘The Third Man’, that weekly appearance was as THE heat magnet in WCW, spearheading the faction and the story that would make WCW briefly the number one wrestling promotion in the world. Without Hogan, none of this happens.
Scott Hall & Kevin Nash
If Lex Luger appearing on Nitro was WCW telling us that anything could happen on Nitro, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash showing up was them getting right in our face and screaming that same message with a loud hailer!
The history of Monday Nitro can be split into the period pre-Outsiders and then ‘everything else’. Their presence made headlines and grabbed viewers like nothing else to that point. Their weekly antics personified Bischoff’s famous SARSA mantra (Story, Anticipation, Reality, Surprise, Action) more than anything else in Nitro and it truly did get audiences to break the fabric between the WWE and WCW reality in a way that captured huge attention and made Nitro the brand that it became.
Rey Mysterio Jr.
Listing Mysterio Jr. here is actually shorthand for a whole raft of wrestlers who comprised WCW’s Nitro-era cruiserweight division. Nonetheless, Rey – perhaps the greatest light-heavyweight of all time – certainly deserves to serve as the face of the argument being made here.
Using the cruisers on the programme was frankly, a masterstroke. With Nitro’s main event populated with stars better known for their character and their ring work, and Raw’s midcard populated by acts like The Godwinns and Aldo Montoya, there was a clear gap that was smartly exploited by Bischoff.
By filling the key midcard slots on Nitro with unique looking, often masked, characters performing insanely acrobatic moves never before seen in mainstream US wrestling, he offered the audience yet another fresh reason to keep their eyeballs glued to the screen. It was car crash TV in a way but it was so far ahead of its time that it grabbed huge attention and praise. Looking to Mexico and ECW for the talent to fill the lower card was something that set Nitro aside from the competition in another huge way.
No single wrestler took part in more matches than the five time WCW champion. Across 284 episodes of Monday Nitro, Booker T wrestled 157 matches. That is comfortably over an average of every other week. On such a stacked roster, that is truly remarkable.
In the early years of Nitro, Booker and Stevie Ray were the cornerstones of the tag team division as Harlem Heat. After the team split, Booker became the breakout star of the midcard, leading the charge of a huge improvement of the in-ring work among the non-cruiserweights. His best of seven series with Chris Benoit was the stuff of Nitro legend.
Later, Booker rose to the main event and became a rare beacon of quality as Nitro, and WCW, fell apart from the main event down. Even amidst the dire mess that was the last two years of the show, Booker T could always be relied upon to provide a dose of quality.
Well, except when he was G.I Bro…
An off the wall choice maybe but make no mistake, without McMahon upping the wrestling ante with Monday Night Raw in 1993, the status quo would have remained unchanged. WCW would have plodded along with Saturday Night and who knows what the wrestling landscape would look like in the late 1990s.
McMahon’s bold play to change the game with Raw poked the bear that was Ted Turner and showed him that his little rasslin’ company could be more than just cheap programme for early evening weekend timeslots on TBS.
Every war needs at least two sides at odds with each other and without McMahon firing the opening shot, WCW would never formed their primetime battalion.
Who’s next? Goldberg, naturally.
Just when the gloss on the nWo was starting to dull, along came WCW’s biggest self-created star. If Nitro was wrestling’s biggest three ring circus, with something for everyone, Goldberg’s growing streak was the new act in the big top just as the lions were starting to look a bit mangy.
His push was a masterclass in so many ways. Hiding negatives and accentuating positives is a term associated closely with Paul Heyman but has it ever been more in evidence than with Goldberg’s rise to the top? The creative team clearly listened to the audience every step of the way.
Despite winning 173 matches in a row, Goldberg never felt overpushed. That’s because it is what the audience wanted. Arrive, spear, Jackhammer, leave. Crowds ate it up. It was different, it was exciting. It was very Nitro.
Nobody said they all had to be positive influences!
Arriving in 1999, Russo essentially made Nitro the playground for all the nonsense ideas that he couldn’t get cleared in WWE. To be fair, the crown had slipped to an enormous degree before he arrived and it could be argued that nobody could have turned it around, but Russo took it down with a certain panache that only he can offer.
Some of his ideas, like making David Arquette champion are well known and oft discussed, but the real legacy of Russo on Nitro was changing everything that the brand personified.
From box office names and compartmentalised storytelling with something for everyone, it became a byword for silliness and people seemingly pushed or not depending on if Russo thought they were in his crew rather than whether they connected with the audience.
Would WCW have survived if Russo hadn’t arrived? Almost certainly not. But it would have gone down with more dignity.