If 1997 was an actual sporting contest between WCW Monday Nitro and WWE Monday Night Raw based on the television ratings, it would have been a rout. A whitewash. A good old-fashioned shoeing.
Eric Bischoff’s masterstroke of ‘96 carried them on a huge wave of momentum and even though Vince McMahon and his team found a few promising leads, such as a heel and anti-American Hart Foundation, turning Steve Austin and Mankind babyface and the origins of D-Generation X, they just couldn’t touch the promotion that was now being seen as the top dogs.
The New World Order invasion had been written to perfection, and as 1996 closed their ranks were swelling with countless members and Bischoff himself, now recognised on-air as the boss of the company, siding with the invaders.
Some would argue that these things hurt the faction’s aura. On the contrary, they were doing what all successful hostile takeovers do: they became the boss.
And on a pair of successive Nitros in January, the next logical step became apparent when first, Diamond Dallas Page did the unthinkable and actually turned down old friends Scott Hall and Kevin Nash’s advances in emphatic, aggressive fashion (Page would trump that later in the year, disguised as La Parka against year-long rival Randy Savage).
Seven days later, Sting repelled from the rafters from the very first time, looking nothing like his old self, and had a global audience in suspense as he silently surveyed the post-apocalyptic landscape of the company that he once carried on his back. The Order wanted him, and WCW desperately wanted him back… but we’d have to wait to find out.
Indeed, the episodic metamorphosis of the affable, colourful Stinger into the silent, jaded Crow-inspired enigma remains remarkable to this day. Steve Borden didn’t have to wrestle for over a year. He barely said a word. And yet, every slight movement he made was must-see.
With DDP rebelling, Sting brooding, Lex Luger redeeming his questionable behaviour in ’95 and ’96 by toppling Hollywood Hogan for the title on the 100th episode and others starting to show more and more fight against the now-establishment heel group, fans clamoured for that poetic role-reversal where the company loyalists became the invaders to reclaim what was theirs.
Unfortunately, if you look carefully, the signs were there as early as ‘97 that the story wouldn’t get its happy ending. The big names with creative control were in no mood to shift from running roughshod to their act-three comeuppance. Bischoff’s preaching of ‘SARSA’ and good storytelling began to fall away.
Anti-nWo entities such as the Four Horsemen didn’t get much comeuppance, as the fantastically devious parody of Arn Anderson’s emotional Nitro retirement seemingly set up. Big names such as Dennis Rodman sure added to the mainstream attention and ‘cool factor’, but often distracted from the primary focus a little too much. And then, of course, came the main event of Starrcade 1997.
WCW finished the year the way they started: beating WWE in the ratings and constantly coming across as one step ahead, thanks to moments like Rick Rude appearing live on Nitro while at the same time in a Raw ring via tape delay.
But their big storyline was reaching its natural conclusion, whether its chief contributors were willing to admit it or not. And with WWE putting something together involving Austin and ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, 1998 would reveal whether the nWo, the cruiserweights and other Nitro-driven ideas were merely the beginning of Bischoff’s genius, or the successes that would make him foolishly believe he was untouchable.