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The history books will tell us that episodic wrestling television began in 1993 with the advent of Monday Night Raw, and in late 1995 WCW joined the party with the introduction of WCW Monday Nitro. And, if you watch any WCW Television through until the end of 1994 you’d largely be correct in this assertion. But come the turn of 1995 - WCW TV actually got quite decent.
To watch anything WCW produced in the larger bulk of 1994 would be like an episode of Groundhog Day. Squash match -> promo, squash match -> promo, squash match -> promo, main event between two recognised WCW talents - ends in a DQ. I could write you an entire years’ worth of 1994 WCW Television in my sleep.
It's funny, reading about developing talents on TV around that time and thinking - what have they done with them? I recall reading Wade Keller talking about Triple H (as Terra Ryzin and later as Jean-Paul Levesque) as a "rising star" within the company. Which was absolutely true, but even having trained myself to look out for him I honestly couldn't have told you anything about Levesque beyond a bit about him becoming a bit snooty with the name change.
Alex Wright is a similar situation. Wright's character on WCW television was basically a green wrestler who came out to some techno music, did some odd music and got mobbed by a bunch of female plants in the crowd. Wright's character didn't really develop, he just won matches. Given his broken English he never even talked either. Character development was a problem around this time, and it's no real coincidence this came at a time where the guys WCW used on the roster became more and more of established names playing knock-off versions of their former WWF characters.
So colour me surprised when things started to change. We head to December 1994 to a segment that was so out of place I actually really enjoyed it. For months WCW had been building a guy called "Blacktop Bully" in the crowd at WCW events. The storyline never seemed to go anywhere until he got in Dustin Rhodes' face and got put in jail. WCW aired vignettes over the course of 2-3 weeks with Col. Robert Parker going into jail to try and bail him out (Parker and been feuding with Rhodes for most of the year).
A week later Parker returned to the jail, this time with a sufficient (if fanciful) $75,000 to bail the Bully out. Bully said (paraphrasing) "I owe my freedom to Parker, I will do whatever he wants me to do, and if that's beating up Dustin Rhodes, then that's what I'll do". We had a reason to care about Bully. Ultimately, though, the Bully character failed to stick before the pair of them were fired for blading in a match that took place in the back of a moving truck.
The wheels were in motion though, it began to look like WCW cared a bit more about creating episodic television and building main events. After Randy Savage debuted at the Clash of the Champions he faced Arn Anderson in the main event of WCW Saturday Night. Prior to every commercial break before the main event we got comments from Savage and Anderson building up the main event. Hardly ground-breaking, but WCW were starting to do the basics right.
Things got really, really good though when things between Vader and Hulk Hogan got heated up. The battle between the two that manifested itself on screen, coupled with the excellent Nick Bockwinkel as commissioner made for some excellent television. Continuity improved and small things that we overlooked became the norm. People like Brian Pillman, Diamond Dallas Page and Dave Sullivan were getting screen time outside of matches.
One of the best examples of this was with Lord Steven (William) Regal. Regal had been lined up to form a tag team with Jean-Paul Levesque, but that got canned when Levesque departed for the WWF. Regal was looking for a partner, but was less than impressed when Bobby Eaton came up and volunteered for the role himself. Regal offered Eaton a match the following week, and after about three minutes on the losing end of things Regal bailed from the ring saying that Eaton was the perfect tag team partner.
This is where it gets good. “Beautiful Bobby” became “Earl Robert Eaton” thanks to a series of inspired vignettes that involved the pair “in London” with Regal working on Eaton’s manners, dictation and even his wardrobe. The pair eventually “met the Queen” in a series of segments that you absolutely have to watch.
But saving the best for last was the return of Ric Flair. Having been retired after losing to Hulk Hogan, the wheels off screen were already in place to get him back in the ring. Flair returned a couple of months later at the Clash of the Champions and aligned himself with Vader. He and Vader kept the pressure up on the babyfaces Hogan and Savage, with Flair forcing a DQ at Superbrawl in the main event, before being the man Hulk Hogan dragged around all four corners at Uncensored. For what it’s worth, no, Flair wasn’t in that match. But Flair, despite being head booker, did book himself to dress as a woman earlier in the show, so it was hardly the stupidest thing to occur.
Flair was suspended by Bockwinkel, but Savage and Flair demanded his return, believing that they could control Flair if he was in the tent, as opposed on the outside of it. Flair, in the meantime, “purchased” time on WCW Television across two weeks for some inspired “Be Fair To Flair” segments. Eventually, the faces won out and Flair would be voted back in by the WCW board – another thing that made it to TV.
Episodic television might feel like the norm now (or perhaps, it should if modern day WWE had any continuity), but it’s difficult to put into words how much WCW television improved in 1995. It’s almost like someone started caring about getting week to week TV ratings and giving viewers a reason to stick around. That might become important, that!