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It was the year Nitro started. The end.
That’s the perception you get when watching WWE documentaries on the topic of WCW in 1995. Stories of 1995 tend a angle more towards the WWF, but if I can indulge a bit of revisionist history of my own, pull back the curtain and say: without Nitro, WCW's year was barely any better than the WWF's.
Of course, you have to be willing to overlook the financial aspect of all this (WCW, famously, would end up returning their first profit in history), but from an on air perspective, without the debut of Nitro – which absolutely was not flawless – you'd see the same struggles from them as you did in the WWF. From pay per view quality, to frequency, to buyrates and drawing power, if 1995 was about WCW fighting the WWF, then it seemed to be developing in a race to the bottom.
Hulk Hogan held the WCW World title up until the end of October... where he never really lost it. By that time he'd teased and as good as executed a heel turn, before giving up on it just a few weeks later and abruptly changing back to the red and yellow. The year started as 1994 ended, with Hogan on top, closely trailed by Savage, Flair and Sting. WCW's main success at pushing new/fresh/old acts came in the form of Lex Luger (who had rediscovered some of his mojo after his career had threatened to implode in the WWF) and Paul Wight (a man who was debuted, literally, as the son of Andre The Giant). Flair, perplexingly, would end the year as champion.
Read More: Hulk Hogan Takes A Trip To The Dark Side
It's tricky to try and ascertain what the direction of WCW was in 1995. After the abysmal Hogan/Butcher program ended 1994, we at least moved onto Hogan and Vader. A feud that promised a lot, delivered a lot of pay per view buys, but was wholly unsatisfying. Politics saw to it that Hogan didn’t want to lose to Vader, Vader didn't want to lose to Hogan. Superbrawl in February generated a big fight feel, by the time it came to the third edition of the match in July, the mystique had disappeared. It was only Vader getting fired that stopped that program continuing later into the year.
But WCW's lack of direction couldn't be made more clear by their lack of fresh/compelling opponents for Hogan. Once they spat Vader out the other side, there was any number of options – primarily Randy Savage or Sting. Instead they went back to Hogan and Flair, at least on television, having Hogan petitioning for Flair's reinstatement as Hogan had got tired of his shit – covering for the fact they couldn't do a clean victory in the Vader matches, Flair firstly caused a DQ in February then, (on a pay per view called Uncensored, where WCW basically said DQ's weren't possible) Hogan ended up retaining the title after dragging Flair around all four corners in a Strap Match. The one problem you may have spotted? Flair wasn't Hogan's opponent, Vader was.
Lame duck finishes in big matches was a far cry from what WCW had prepared next, mind. The Dungeon Of Doom was setup, seemingly, on the basis that the only reason the Three Faces Of Fear didn't work was because it was a faction that was entirely too serious and credible. Lead by Kevin Sullivan – who was as irrelevant as an on-screen character in 1995 as he'd ever been, the faction seemed to draw a who's who of names that had little to no value on their own – their own version of the Million Dollar Corporation, if you like. Predictably their goal was to end Hulkamania and, in a funny kind of way, they almost did.
The Dungeon Of Doom did at least spawn the debut of The Giant. Quite why you needed a shitty faction to help get over a guy who was seven foot tall I will never know, but the Big Show is the only connection to the Dungeon Of Doom that has ever really gone on to have any success, even if that success even in WCW was in spite of the faction, rather than because of it. Giant's rise to the main event despite having wrestled just one match prior to facing Hulk Hogan at Halloween Havoc was impressive. While not spectacular, he didn't look out of place despite being so green.
If people think the WWF struggled on pay per view in 1995 the outlook across the border was hardly any better. While WCW's move to near monthly pay per views (well, seven to ten) seems like a stark increase the level of output and specialty didn't seem to go up or down. Buyrates declined but there's little indication volume was the primary issue. Quality and the lack of compelling main events (beyond the early Hogan/Vader matches) were the key cause.
My scores for WCW pay per views out of ten, went as follows: 3.5, 3, 3.5, 6, 2, 6.5, 3, 6.5, 7. A lot of shows that scored above a 4 were only doing so thanks to one or two really good matches in an otherwise listless card. Great American Bash (the first 6) had two excellent matches between Brian Pillman and Alex Wright and Ric Flair against Randy Savage. Halloween Havoc (the final 3), contained a fantastic match between Anderson/Pillman and Flair/Sting - yet was let down by a myriad of bizarre to downright awful storytelling decisions.
WCW's "success" on pay per view, in terms of quality, really lies in the hands of just a handful of names: Brian Pillman, Arn Anderson, Alex Wright, Ric Flair, Johnny B Badd and Sting. Badd and Pillman imparticular, always shone when given the opportunity – their match at Fall Brawl was excellent. Wright too, who nearly became a footnote once Ric Flair lost the booking power, had fine matches with Anderson and Pillman before having a stand-out match against Koji Kanemoto at Starrcade.
Read More: Das Wunkerkind Alex Wright
While pay per views struggled, television thrived. Saturday Night was increasingly more enjoyable in 1995 as is, but WCW really stepped things up when planning the new "WCW Monday Nitro". It called for them to go head to head with Monday Night Raw, a ballsy move and one that absolutely could've blown straight back in their face. Raw was the home team on Monday Nights, with an established audience that was having high moments in 1995. Eric Bischoff frequently talked a good game about how WCW was better than the WWF, but now he was putting it out there to undeniable, factual numbers.
Fortunately Bischoff had his head screwed on. Nitro was going to be like no WCW show on television. Hell, it was barely going to be like any wrestling people had seen on television full stop. He found out people wanted unpredictability, and that's what he gave them. After Vader got himself fired, Bischoff bought in Lex Luger under the cover of darkness – 24 hours after working a WWF live event Luger was debuting on the first Nitro. Luger had been a dead horse in the WWF, but now in WCW he was reborn. It was still *only* Lex Luger, but it set the stage that Nitro wasn't going to be boring.
The show flew out of the blocks at 100mph, no segment was given room to breathe as in an attempt to keep people watching they bounced around from one angle and story to another with a relentless pace. Ric Flair vs Sting – one of WCW's big marquee matchups, was second on the show and already felt down the pecking order. By the time Luger walked out during the match it had become an after thought. It's the kind of booking style that would become tired and overplayed as the years went on, but on an one hour show in the landscape of 1995, it was perfect.
Nitro's early few months were a big success. Sure, for all Bischoff's hope of unpredictability they did fall into a horrid pattern of interference laden main event finishes. But Nitro held its own against Raw, trading marginal ratings wins in the opening months. While it may not have seemed like much, it was a great achievement given how habitual Monday Night Wrestling had become. And while people might point to WWF's struggles in 1995 as a sign they were there for the taking, on screen Raw was often a good product – and WCW shared many of the same off-screen negatives as the WWF did in 1995, perhaps without the crippling financial losses, though.
After a year of near tranquility with Hogan as champion, WCW's main title ended in a state of flux. Original plans, seemingly, called for Hogan to lose the belt at Halloween Havoc, and then for it to stay vacant possibly going into 1996 (Starrcade originally called for 7 World Cup matches and nothing more, World War 3 wasn't going to be a title match, either). But with Hogan staying around and WCW trying to arrest falling buyrates Savage picked up the title at World War 3 and Flair defeated Savage at Starrcade. Don't worry, all roads still pointed back to Hulkamania.
But WCW undeniably had issues at the top of their roster, exacerbated by the live Nitros exposing Hogan to unforgiving crowds. Previously Hogan cherry picked TV appearances, and only wrestled on certain pay per views. He wasn’t immune but he was well shielded. While the new show no doubt swelled Hogan’s already bulging wallet, he was now at the mercy of live audiences. Was his “dark side” experiment a way of justifying a negative reaction?
Savage, while popular, still wasn’t *the* guy that WCW perhaps hoped he would be. Maybe it was the stench of being ex-WWF, maybe the shadow of Hogan, maybe WCW fans just wanted to cheer Sting more? That’s not to say Savage was getting negative reactions, but he wasn’t a universal success either.
Primarily, though, was Ric Flair’s insistence on playing a heel, despite the fact that most crowds simply wanted to cheer him (a problem that would really stay with Flair until he retired. Preposterously, this wouldn’t be for another 15 years). When Flair turned on Sting at Halloween Havoc (in arguably the best match of the year) the crowd exploded with cheers. When Flair used the assistance of Pillman, Benoit and Anderson to defeat Savage for the title at Starrcade, the crowd popped big. Flair would rally against this for the rest of his career while he was a heel, I’m not sure he ever really won.
WCW began 1996 with the news that, for the first time in company history, they had turned a profit. Eric Bischoff had worked wonders turning the company around, off screen at least. With Hogan, Flair, Savage, Luger, Sting and The Giant atop the tree, they were in rude health. The platform for 1996 had been laid.