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While the preparations for the arrival of Hulk Hogan were being made as early as February, you can plot a dividing line almost right down the middle of 1994 where WCW are concerned. Hogan debuted in June and wrestled his first match in July, the company (in effect) changed forever on the basis of one signing, but even inside six months the company had taken a significant turn to the left.
The truth is, that up until Hogan's arrival, WCW were actually producing some very good wrestling. Superbrawl, Spring Stampede and Slamboree were all very good shows (Spring Stampede in particular) showcasing a the wide ranging nature of their roster with standout performances from even those you might not think, like The Boss (Big Boss Man, who's name would soon change to The Guardian Angel) and The Nasty Boys.
But while all that might be true, subjectively at that, there just weren't that many eyes on the company as TV ratings sagged and live attendances sank. While, eventually, those numbers may have improved if the company could've produced 12-18 months of television on a par with the first few months of 1994, it wasn't going to improve fast and this was a company that wanted fast. Hulk Hogan was fast.
The Hogan juggernaught arrived, and you'd be hard pressed to find a member of the WCW team (be they wrestlers or staff) who can't say they didn't experience or see the effects of Hogan's arrival. Stories have emerged of things like centre stage where they taped the TV's being cleaned up and made much more presentable upon Hogan's arrival.
Mean Gene Okerlund, Bobby Heenan, Honky Tonk Man, Earthquake, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan were all guys who arrived seemingly with Hogan (although, Okerlund and Heenan were there before he arrived). The wrestlers in that group all had Hogan and 1980s WWF in common, not the exciting action the company had been producing in the first third of the year.
By the years end, long time names like Rick Rude and Ricky Steamboat had both retired, Ric Flair fell on his sword in a retirement angle to boost the Halloween Havoc buyrate for Hogan's own end, and guys like Cactus Jack had been driven out of the company, despite being one of their top performers in the first half of 1994.
Hogan and Flair was the big program of 1994. Flair entered 1994 as champion, after a great showing at Starrcade in December. But as soon as Hogan's arrival was forecast Flair, as head booker, lit the touch paper on his own heel turn, one that probably contradicted an audience that wanted to cheer Flair in what was planned to be the final couple of years of his career.
But Flair and Hogan couldn't co-exist as babyfaces in 1994, so Flair went heel. After finishing with Vader, he dialed things up a bit in a feud with Ricky Steamboat which saw him vacate the title in a draw at Spring Stampede before winning it back on WCW Saturday Night. The arrival of Sensous Sherri (Martel) from ECW acted as a great foil as Flair defeated Sting do dissolve the now irrelevant WCW International Title (formerly NWA Title).
Flair vs Hogan was a home run. From a financial perspective, Hogan's deal was so monumental it'd probably be difficult for them to ever have a major success, but Hulk Hogan was the kick up the arse that money could buy. Their match at the Clash in August was a big success from a viewership standpoint, and PPV buyrates were significantly up for their two big matches.
But it would be unfair to write a review about WCW and just talk about Flair vs Hogan. Those who survived 1994 to tell the tale on television come December – guys like Dustin Rhodes, Vader, Sting, The Nasty Boys, Col. Robert Parker and more all contributed to a good year for the company. Rhodes' feud with Parker (that had shown few signs of stopping as 1994 became 1995) was almost a glue for the company, holding together TV shows and even a pay per view (Fall Brawl) where Hogan wasn't around. The Nasty Boys and Vader were also vital for the company, even if they don't look like amazing wrestlers both provided a brawling style that would entertain both before and after Hogan arrived.
There were plenty of negatives about Hogan's arrival. The effort to be so pro-Hogan meant that things suffered elsewhere. The Three Faces of Fear (Beefcake, Earthquake and Kevin Sullivan) took a spot in the main event picture after Flair “retired” that they had no right to have. Beefcake's place in the main event of WCW's biggest show of the year was an insult to the name Starrcade.
Steve Austin and Brian Pillman, two of the company's rising young stars would fade away in 1994. Pillman just disappeared, the ongoing promise of a cruiserweight belt only mentioned on the last edition of WCW Saturday Night in 1994. Austin remained on television throughout the year – that in itself no easy feat and one that indicated the company saw something in him – but in retrospect, his year did seem to travel downhill quickly after a feud with Ricky Steamboat. Losing the title to Jim Duggan in 30 seconds at Fall Brawl. While the angle itself was presented very well it pales into insignificance when politics followed by an injury that would see him on the shelf for long into 1995 are taken into account.
Headed into 1995, the company was in a strong position. With the acquisition of Randy Savage, Vader's ascension back into the main event along with guys like Harlem Heat, Rhodes, Johnny B Badd, Alex Wright, Jean Paul Levesque, Lord Steven Regal and more, the company was in a good spot in 1994. Oh, and did I mention Ric Flair's return was being planned weeks before he even retired?