When the usual fireworks and drunken belligerence marked the beginning of the year 2001, it was common knowledge throughout the wrestling community that WCW was on borrowed time.
Up for sale after losing a freakish amount of money in 2000, so soon after spending several years as a thriving entity, the uncertainty over the future actually allowed World Championship Wresting to find a degree of comfort in the present.
Vince Russo’s self-promoting in-ring dalliances led to the untrained and middle-aged writer suffering several serious injuries (shocking, right?) and a holding-pattern committee was tasked with steering the ship until someone had secured a purchase.
I’m not going to pretend that 2001 WCW was particularly fantastic or ground-breaking. And yet, with no sign of Hulk Hogan, those big names still around (mostly) behaving better than usual and plenty of young talent on the books, Nitro started to look like a watchable wrestling show again.
In the main event scene, Ric Flair assumed power as CEO and turned heel (some things never change…) to assemble The Magnificent Seven, a faction of heels that protected World champion Scott Steiner by taking out all of his key threats.
The storyline was headed to a natural finish on two fronts. Firstly, Steiner’s original victim upon winning the title Booker T would return to reclaim the title. Second, all of the other big stars on the Seven’s hitlist – Sting, Goldberg, Kevin Nash and DDP – would return as a force to end the Seven’s reign of terror once and for all.
In addition, the cruiserweight division was on the verge of an unlikely comeback. Rendered a complete joke following the trailblazing mid-1990s Nitro episodes, the juniors were slowly starting to command respect once again thanks to acts such as Three Count, The Jung Dragons, Elix Skipper and a Filthy Animals stable that had wisely dropped back down to help the young guns.
The lynchpin of all this was, believe it or not, Chavo Guerrero Jr. Upon winning the cruiserweight title and ditching the Misfits In Action comedy group, Chavo embarked on a red-hot run as heel champion that enhanced many of the rookies he worked with and restored credibility to the division.
Not only that, but Sean O’Haire and Chuck Palumbo rose from the ashes of the ill-fated Natural Born Thrillers stable together as an impressive duo. With people like Nash, Page, Lex Luger and Buff Bagwell actually putting them over (regardless of circumstances), they finally looked like they could be the stars their Power Plant physiques set them up to be.
Of course, fate intervened before we got all the way there. WWE bought the company that was flat-out embarrassing them just four years later.
In a poignant moment, the Vince McMahon-coated final episode of Nitro at least ended with Sting facing Ric Flair, one more time, just as they had fought on the show’s very first edition.
But that emotional handshake and hug was also an on-screen farewell to a staple of any fans’ childhoods. Nitro’s run had finished. The Monday Night Wars were over.
Of course, if you read the previous instalments of this potted history, you’ll suspect like me that the Wars were in fact over by ’99. But with this calmer, smarter, more enjoyable finish to the Monday night product, Nitro reminded us that its demise wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite of defeat.
TNA at times proved (until they were sabotaged by the very same entities that turned WCW 1996-97 into WCW 1999-00) and All Elite Wrestling is currently hoping to prove that there is room for a mainstream alternative without neccessarily ‘beating’ WWE. In fact, history dictates that Vince McMahon only takes the needs of his audience seriously when there is at least someone else in a position to do the same.
AEW, full of nostalgic references to the NWA/WCW glory days, airing on TNT and voiced by Tony Schiavone and Jim Ross, has in its first year of proper existence shown as much promise AND as many red flags that were found in the final year of WCW.
I truly hope Tony Khan, Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks and company continue to move in the right direction from here, because we may no longer have a WCW but we can still have something to choose between.