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To say WCW's title booking headed into 1996 was a bit of a muddle would be an understatement. After Hulk Hogan had held the title for over a year between July 1994 and October 1995, plans called to take the title off him to enable him to take a hiatus away from the company. Then, after ratings in the early couple of months of the Monday Night War showed WCW to be far more competitive than anyone thought and WWF on the rocks business wise – the decision was made to keep him around. But they took the title off of him anyway... this is where things get a bit muddled.
Hogan dropped the title, in theory, to The Giant at Halloween Havoc in 1995. I'll save you chapter and verse on that one (you can read about the whole thing here) but suffice to say – Hogan shoved Giant off of Kobo Hall, who plummeted six stories to his death... only to reppear 20 minutes later. Hogan lost the match after interference from the turning Jimmy Hart (and Lex Luger) then the Yettay debuted. Yep, that all happened.
And that was meant to be the end of it – the goal was with the Giant to setup him as Andre The Giant and let Hogan slay him ala Wrestlemania three, Hogan's brief segue to the "darkside" made little sense whatever angle you took it from, but with Hogan going away for a while people would've forgotten about it while he was away. The Giant could defeat all and sundry in the meantime and setup a big rematch with Hogan down the road, where Hogan as this mega babyface could defeat the unstoppable monster. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was 1985, not 1995, but this was a company that was attempting to recreate the eighties. In The Giant's second title run in mid-1996 this actually played out, but by the time he dropped the title back to Hogan, Hogan was actually a heel.
While all of this was going on, Nitro had not long started. After a hot debut with Raw pre-empted, many expected Nitro to struggle to maintain viewers up against Raw who, contrary to all major opinion regarding their business in 1995, was actually doing quite strong TV ratings. But Nitro quickly found its feet, clearly leeching some of Raw's Monday audience but perhaps more critically creating a new audience from their existing fans and TNT viewers on Monday Nights. Make no mistake, by the early couple of months of 1996 both shows *between* them were breaking all kinds of wrestling viewership records.
But still, this was a battle and shit was being thrown in both directions. The prevailing opinion around the end of October/early November when Hogan was meant to leave pointed to the WWF being a vulnerable target, rightly understanding its poor business performance for the year. Hogan would stay, Giant's inaugural title victory was soon expunged, made vacant and put on the line in the three ring, sixty man battle royal at the first World War 3 pay per view.
Randy Savage won the match, but not after a hideously convoluted finish that saw Hogan eliminated by being pulled under the top rope and none of the half a dozen refs seeing it. Despite numerous replays being instantly available to viewers, Gene Okerlund ensured us that the tape wouldn't be viewable until Nitro the following night (not the last time they'd pull a ludicrous stunt like that). Reports later still said that Hogan called the fucked finish while he was in the ring. It was all incredibly odd, but Savage was the new champion.
After the match they immediately teased dissention between Hogan and Savage – this was a match that was teased the first night Savage joined the company 11 months before, but not something they'd developed a lot since, citing Savage and Hogan finding neutral enemies in Flair and Vader and later the Dungeon of Doom. By the time they'd taped the Clash of the Champions in January at Caesar's Palace, they'd made an agreement for Halloween Havoc to return to Vegas that October, and that the first match between Randy Savage and Hogan in WCW would be saved for that occasion.
Quite what that was supposed to mean for the coming few months it's not particularly clear to understand. With that change, and every subsequent one, it felt like they were just keeping the seat warm for Hogan. Perhaps a year or two before Savage's title reign would've stuck for a while, but in the emerging heat of battle on Monday Night's keeping people on their toes seemed to take precedence. On the final pay per view of the year, Starrcade, Ric Flair defeated Sting and Lex Luger in a half an hour semi-main event by double count out, before pinning Savage in a contracted final match that involved interference from Arn Anderson, Chris Benoit and a marathon ref-distraction from Jimmy Hart.
So from Hogan, to Giant, to Savage, to Flair in the space of barely two and a half months... it was the kind of frenetic pace of change we'd get used to as 1995/6 became the late-nineties, but looking at an explanation for any of the changes really was difficult to see. Indeed, plans with Hogan had changed coming out of Halloween Havoc, why not just have him win the sixty man battle royal? There were efforts in the "Hogan camp" to try and placate the feeling that it was all about Hogan, but it all felt a bit hollow. A year prior a similar situation arose, and Hogan wanted to prove he was a team player, by dropping the title at Starrcade 1994. Of course, that idea doesn't look so selfless when you remember his opponent was best friend Ed Leslie. That idea was thankfully scrapped.
But certainly issues surrounding the happiness of Ric Flair at the time caused some of the changes. Flair, more than most, had probably suffered from the arrival of Hogan and Savage et all, seeing his powerbase as head booker eroded until mid-1995 where he was removed from the role completely. Whether giving him the title at the end of December was a way of placating him isn't entirely clear, but cracks were certainly forming around things at the top. But on New Year's day, Flair was the champion.
Of all of the possible options, Flair being champion really made the least sense. Had Savage's reign just continued they could've built around him in the first half of 1996 – even if it was, as it turned out, in an extended program with Flair. If they'd have just gone back to Hogan we'd have returned to the status quo, and if they'd have stuck with The Giant they'd have at least been doing a long storyline that would've culminated in Hogan slaying the Giant at some stage. You'll notice Sting isn't in this list... as had been the case since probably the end of 1993, he'd never really got near the title scene.
So... of course, what happened in January? Live on Nitro on January 22nd Savage pinned Ric Flair to regain the title at Ceasar's Palace. Re-balancing a wrong maybe, but one that made even less sense when a month later Flair defeated Savage at Superbrawl in the semi-main event to win the title back thanks to a heel-turn from Miss Elizabeth. Five months, five title changes... While changes in coming years could just be attributed to the shock-factor style of booking as both companies tried to up the bar in newsworthiness, it's really not clear what WCW were trying to achieve.
The wider picture showed a couple of things going, but nothing that painted the WCW World Heavyweight Title as anything more than a commodity. Nitro had fused two programs together – namely Flair vs Savage and Hulk Hogan vs the world. Main event matches were combinations of Hogan and Savage against Flair, Anderson and Taskmaster – and they'd use end after interference from The Giant or Lex Luger or The Shark... often all three. This was hurtling on a collision course towards Uncensored, with a planned three tier Doomsday steel cage match pitting Hogan against four men (presumably Taskmaster, Luger, Flair and either Anderson or Brian Pillman – who was busy writing his own story).
This quickly swelled to a two on eight match the week of the show, Hogan would be teaming with Savage to take on eight men... including but not limited to The Taskmaster, Anderson, Flair, Luger, Pillman, Meng, The Barbarian, Dennis Rodman, Ze Gangsta, The Ultimate Solution and Giant Haystacks. You may notice there's 11 names there – Giant Haystacks, playing "Loch Ness", was flown in there for the match, quite possibly before they worked out he wasn't likely to fit through the door of either of the cage matches he was attempting to feature in. Brian Pillman, who's story I've documented in full here, was on a tear of his own in ECW, but allegedly missed the event after having surgery – that didn't stop them promoting him for the show the entire week. As for Dennis Rodman, that was Eric Bischoff talking shit.
The match was a mess, with the rules never properly explained (in fact, they weren't explained at any stage, at all) it went nearly half a hour. Hogan and Savage fought through the different levels of the cage, seemingly "defeating" clusters of the eight as they went, before escaping the cage then inexplicably going down towards the ring, before randomly walking up the aisleway back towards the cage where mysteriously everyone re-appeared from. Thanks to the helped of Ed Leslie (now as babyface "Booty Man"), a couple of cheap frying pans and some powder the babyfaces heroically fought of the evil heels and two men had prevailed over eight in what stands to this day as one of the most bizarre things ever to categorise itself as "professional wrestling".
All that was left was for Hogan to once again plan on going away for a while. They almost followed the script with this one mind, Hogan did leave a few weeks later for a hiatus, the title was returned to The Giant, who beat Flair for the title at the end of April on a taped edition of Nitro, and six months on from having a ready made storyline of the heel Giant on top slaying all before him before finally being cut down to size we were finally a go. All we needed now was the all coming babyface Hulk Hogan to finish the job. Right?