It’s 25 years since the birth of WCW Monday Nitro. A weekly show that indelibly changed pro wrestling’s presentation, characters and storylines forever.
But just how timeless is Nitro? Have their top storylines stood the test of time?
Come with me, as we take a trip down a misshapen memory lane. Fantasy booking with a twist.
An alternate universe where I take a modern superstar and transplant them into a classic Nitro moment. Seven “what if?” scenarios designed to showcase the best of Nitro to a contemporary audience.
Who’s the first name that comes to mind when you think of Jim Crockett Promotions? Probably Flair, right? If not the Nature Boy then surely it’s Sting. The blonde babyface. The flat top and face painted hero that a generation of modern superstars grew up cosplaying.
But this isn’t JCP week, it’s Nitro week and just as the juggernaut of southern wrestling morphed into World Championship Wrestling in the early 90s, the industry morphed with it.
Our all-American heroes of the prior decade either had to move with the times or be left behind.
It’s no secret that Sting was the original third man that Hall & Nash taunted the WCW locker room with. Even after it was decided that Hulk Hogan would turn heel and form the original trio, it was still teased in storyline that “the Stinger” possibly could be the man to betray his colleagues.
With dark hair grown out and half hearted face paint, the man they would come to call “the franchise of WCW” found himself in limbo. Although he wasn’t destined to turn “Hollywood” on us, it was the same catalyst that triggered his metamorphosis.
Personally, I believe Sting’s transformation, inspired by the most 90s movie of the 90s “The Crow”, is one of the greatest pieces of long term storytelling in wrestling. To go from the squeaky clean surfer dude to gothic vigilante, over the course of 18 months, with no matches and no promos, is unthinkable now.
A huge part of Sting’s mystique and likely where some of his comparisons to the Undertaker came from, was his ability to appear from nowhere, propelling himself from the rafters to the ring below.
These mercurial moments came to define the new Sting and so his debut decent, on the January 20th, 1997 edition of Nitro, is as iconic a moment in the show’s history as any.
Like all of my revisionist history, throughout these articles, I try to pick a modern superstar who’s situation or character aligns with the one they are replacing.
Out of all of my choices, I know this will be the most controversial and so all I ask is that you keep an open mind, read this reimagining to it’s conclusion, before pointing your bat under it’s chin and deciding it’s fate.
“What if John Cena repelled from the rafters?”
It was January 20th 1997 that we first saw a black and white Steve Borden drop from the ceiling of the United Centre in Chicago but this story starts way before then.
Before the arrival of the Outsiders, John Cena has been our top babyface. The same dayglow shirt wearing, arm band throwing, make-a-wish granting superhero we know today but in this timeline, he was the foil to Ric Flair and was Seth Rollins’ childhood Halloween costume, thanks to winning the title at the Great American Bash 1990.
Fast forward to ’96 and the “Super Cena” passe persona is a relic of a pre-Nitro territory. The kids who once wore lime green t-shirts and proudly declared to their parents that they were members of “the Cenation”, were now precocious teens, decked out in black & white, obnoxiously cheering for the bad guys to wipe the floor with their incorruptible role models.
Cena, who has neglected his clean crew cut and looks more muted in his presentation, teamed with Luger and Savage to defend WCW against Hall, Nash, and a mysterious third Outsider to be revealed at the Bash at the Beach. Of course, this would be revealed to be Hulk Hogan and the NWO was born.
Cena, along with the rest of the WCW locker room, began a crusade to preserve the territory they’d built from the ground up but due to doubt cast by the NWO, including an attack on Luger by someone we assumed was Cena, it was suggested that “Big Match John” had finally turned his back on his friends.
At Fall Brawl, where the NWO would face team WCW in a War Games match, Cena hit the ring as the final member of the home side. He laid out all members of the NWO with Attitude Adjustments, turned to Luger and said “Is that proof enough for you?!”. He then left the ring and his WCW team-mates, who were beaten down, were now at a three on four disadvantage.
The following week on Nitro, Cena cut a promo in the ring.
“I’ve carried the WCW banner, and I have given my blood, my sweat, and my tears for WCW! So for all of those fans out there and all those wrestlers and people that never doubted me, I’ll stand by you if you stand by me! But for all of the people, all of the commentators, all of the wrestlers, and all of the best friends who did doubt me, you can stick it! From now on I consider myself a free agent.”
That was the last we would see of the John Cena we knew.
In the following weeks, Cena would appear sporadically, dressed in a black trenchcoat, black shirt and slicked back hair, like wrestling’s answer to “The Punisher”. He attacked the imposter who attacked Luger and had caused WCW to doubt him, with shoulder tackles, a back suplex, a fist drop and then an AA, a series of offense the commentators now referred to as his “five moves of doom”.
The NWO appeared hastily on the ramp, offering Cena the chance to join them but he said nothing and would continue his silence for over a year, appearing in the rafters of each stadium, ominously cradling a black baseball bat to match his black attire.
Finally, this brings us to January 20th 1997 and the first time we see Cena propel down to the ring, like a member of the special forces. Bat in hand, he slides into the ring, antagonising Randy Savage, eventually drawing his weapon back, only stopping within inches of the Macho Man.
He then handed the bat to his assumed target, turned his back and waited. Nothing. Cena turns around. Gives Savage a nod. Takes back the bat and the two leave together.
So, I think I owe you an explanation.
When I first came to rebook this angle names like Jeff Hardy and Finn Balor were suggested to me. It makes sense. Two babyfaces who exhibit dark or enigmatic alter egos that appear when pushed to their limits.
Inevitably though, I know most suggested it because of the face paint. To reduce this character down to pure aesthetics is to undermine its importance and the real power of its storytelling.
That’s why I went without the paint for John. If you want to imagine him with it, you can and it won’t change the story but as I felt it was an uphill struggle convincing you guys that Cena could be Sting, the paint felt like a step too far.
This Punisher inspired look for Cena contributes to his greater character. A no nonsense anti-hero, who may be broken and may feel pushed to resort to more extreme measures but who hasn’t abandoned his values of hustle, loyalty or respect.
For 90s kids like me, it’s hard to realise just how big Sting was in the 80s. Although not as culturally transcended as Hogan or Warrior, he was the equivalent for a generation of fans.
On the flipside, it’s an unimaginative cliche to align Cena with Hogan. We even saw an alternate reality “Hollywood Cena” in the Firefly Funhouse. That’s not to say it’s an inaccurate comparison but when writing these articles, I wanted to pitch ideas that were different and worth reading. I’m sure there are a million and one articles out there that fantasy book Cena heel turns or even place him in the 90s as the third man available for your reading pleasure.
Many of us want to see darker, edgier, more layered versions of two dimensional good guys and the knee-jerk reaction is to suggest he goes heel.
What WCW did with Sting was update a cornerstone of the company, without lazily confusing growth and development with turning him bad. At a time when everyone was a cool heel, they realised that they needed a powerful protagonist to go against the NWO and although “Surfer Sting” wasn’t that man, “Crow Sting” could be.
I think the same could be said for Cena. Will we ever see a heel turn from the biggest babyface of the last two decades? Who knows. Do we need to? I don’t think so. But could we update the Cena character, add something new, explore something different, without him turning his back on everything he’s stood for? Absolutely.
But maybe you disagree. Maybe you think Cena is just too hard to imagine in the Sting role. Maybe you think he’s the 2000s Hogan. Maybe there’s someone else better suited to replace “The Icon” in our journey through time?