Moving back to WCW’s TV shows, time to dip a toe into the Monday Night War proper. It’s the 1st January 1996 and we’re in the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, George for an episode of WCW Monday Nitro! Your main event tonight: Ric Flair defends the WCW World Heavyweight Championship against Hulk Hogan! Now that is quite a main event. I’m sure it will have a finish.
This isn’t very far past the previously reviewed Fall Brawl, and the Monday Night War is in full swing at this stage. Eric Bischoff is embracing a degree of unpredictability in his booking, and antagonisation of “the enemy”, with Madusa’s infamous trashing of the WWF Woman’s Championship occurring just a few weeks before this. It’s also the first Nitro after Starrcade 95, where Ric Flair won the World Title, so some momentum for WCW going into this one, even if the recent hot potatoing of the top strap – it’s gone from Hogan, to the Giant, to being vacated, to going to the Macho Man, to Flair, and will be back on the Macho Man soon enough, and all in three months – is getting a little silly. But still, Monday Night War, this has gotta be good! Right? Right? The Raw opposite this had just two matches, a tag team elimination match where the Smoking Gunns retained the titles, and Diesel beating King Mabel in eight seconds, so I think Nitro has it all to win.
Buildings go on fire then explode on the main titles, and Eric Bischoff welcomes us to the year 1996 and the show. Atlanta is home to the Olympics (Jesus, remember that?) the Atlanta Braves and the world’s biggest wrestling show. Steve McMichael (remember him?) and the Brain also on commentary, and they disagree about whether Flair’s title reign will be short, ahead of the main event tonight. I have a feeling that main event won’t be answering that question. We kick this off with a huge match on paper.
Arn Anderson vs “Macho Man” Randy Savage
Anderson and Flair have gotten over their differences and AA helped the Nature Boy win the title the other night. Randy Savage none too happy, hence match. Anderson attacks before the bell, but Savage back quick. AA thrown out and ringside brawling follows. Anderson into the ring-steps, eye-poke, beat-down. Bischoff heavy on the brand promotion already, desperate to stop people from changing the channel. Back in, AA going for a Sunset Flip but Savage out. Inverted Atomic Drop keeps the Macho Man in charge, and hits a double axe-handle off the top. The guy can still go at this stage.
Chops and strikes to Anderson. McMichael’s is “tired of all this interference” and oh boy, maybe you shouldn’t keep watching Nitro then. Savage gets two off an elbow, then gets a rake to the eyes. Armbar from AA, elbow-locks, Scoop Slam. To the outside, fighting up the ramp, and Anderson sent into the barricade. Back inside, really awkward arm-first snapmare where the Macho Man falls over very slowly, looked shocking. Rest-hold, which is probably needed. AA working over the arm for a while, sending it into the post. They play up how brutal Anderson is, and Bischoff has the best line saying that no one in the sport knows more about breaking bones. Chickenwing Armbar, but it looks dumb being right next to the rope, Savage has to actually scoch his legs in to avoid being out of the ring, and doesn’t always succeed. Just move into the centre!
Going back-and-forth for a bit, lots of dodges and counters. AA hits a DDT OUTTANOWHERE, but only two when Savage gets a rope break because now he remembers those. Anderson going for another, Savage pushes him off and ref bump. Anderson retrieving some brass knuckles from his tights, Savage intercepts, uses the knucks himself with the ref still down and gets the pin in just under seven.
Winner: BONESAW IS READ-EE
Verdict: Started OK, got sloppy by the end.
Pillman and Benoit, latest members of the Four Horsemen, out to chase Savage off and see to AA. Three guys who never got the shot they deserved in WCW. The replays of what just happened includes the Macho Man’s entrance for some reason.
After the break, right into our next contest and Holy God yes please.
Lord Steven Regal w/Jeeves vs Chris Benoit
Bischoff takes the first overt shot at WWF, advising viewers to stay away from Raw, and spoils the tag team retention of the Smoking Gunns (Raw was pre-taped). I suppose that was a decent tactic for a while in terms of grabbing attention and painting yourself as the edgy alternative to WWF at the time, but it’s impossible to think on WCW’s announcers doing that and not remember primarily the time it blew up so spectacularly in their faces in January 1999. Anyway, regards this match, I know this wasn’t the best time for Regal in a lot of ways, but I’d would bet any money that he and Benoit can put on a clinic regardless.
“Two guys that nobody likes” says Bischoff, so I guess this is heel-vs-heel. Regal with early control, and then amazingly starts headbutting Benoit while engaging in wrist-lock chains, but Benoit fights out. What a way to spice an opening up. Dueling European uppercuts/chops, and Reganl putting in a hard looking head-lock. Benoit eventually out, his own wrist-lock, Regal rolls out and goes for a version of what they would later call the Regal Stretch. Starts pounding on the back of Benoit’s head, hmm.
The two men duck a few clotheslines, and Benoit hits a sweet looking German. A few chops, the two go counter-for-counter for a bit, and Regal hits a sweet looking Butterfly Suplex. I love these two. Dueling pins for two, Regal set up on the top, and after some elbows back and forth Benoit hits an Electric Chair Drop. Goes for the Flying Headbutt but nobody home. Regal back with chokes and strikes to a prone Benoit, going for a Tombstone, but Benoit counters backwards into one of his own. “The man who has perfected that move as of late” says Bischoff, yeah, OK. Regal to the outside, and dodges a springboard crossbody, Benoit lands hard. Back in, and Regal gets an unexpected pin in just over five-and-a-half.
Winner: You listen to me sunshine.
Verdict: Short but as good as I expected, with the exception of the ending: I half-think Benoit may have legit hurt himself on the last spot so they had to finish it quick.
After some replays Mean Gene is in the ring with three of the Horsemen, sans Flair. Pillman, in a leather jacket, criticises Benoit and Anderson for their two losses tonight. Benoit snaps back that “Steve Regal” beat him by sheer luck. Pillman goes on about how the Horsemen aren’t pulling their weight, that they need to see to a hit-list of targets, and AA says Pillman’s been starting wars they don’t need to fight. Suddenly the Giant, Zodiac and Jimmy Hart are here, but the Giant drags them back from the ring as we go to break. OK then.
Bischoff plugs WCW Saturday Night and onto our next contest.
Sting and Lex Luger vs the Super Assassins (#1 and #2) w/ Colonel Robert Parker
The luchaed-up Super Assassins are Barbarian and Warlord, who recently jumped ship from the Fed. Don’t recall them ever being up to much in WCW. Sting and Luger are in an “unlikely allies” story, and Sting gets the biggest pop of the night by far when he comes out. As the match starts, the commentary booth is suddenly accosted by some guy I don’t initially recognise, who wants McMichaels to be his manager? It turns out it’s Craig “Pitbull” Pitmann, who to my astonishment is actually going to be with WCW for another two and a half years. While they talk the tag match goes on, picture-in-picture style, and it takes a minute to go to it properly.
Sting is getting manhandled by the Super Assassins as we join this match properly. Torture Rack in the middle of the ring for a bit, and then Sting floored with a big forearm. This as Heenan outlines the Parker/Sherri storyline is somehow still going, and Parker is expected to propose to her this Saturday. Spare me. The Assassins double-teaming Sting with shoulder charges, and Luger caught out on a ref distraction/unseen tag spot. The ref also distracted from a quick pin on Sting after a big suplex. Sting takes a powerbomb, but then dodges a splash attempt.
Hot tag to Luger and the guy who remains WCW’s big acquisition for another little while at least clears house. Puts in his own Torture Rack for a big pop, while Sting slaps a Deathlock on the other Assassin, and we get a submission in just under six.
Winners: The Sting/Luger Connection, who would have a fairly lengthy title reign soon enough.
Verdict: Eh. The booking of this did favours for no one really: Sting as the face-in-peril despite being the most over, Luger as the hot tag guy despite not really being all that great, and the seemingly monster-like Assassins being made to tap out.
Back to Mean Gene, who is with Jimmy Hart and the Giant on the ramp. Okerlund and Hart swap insults I don’t understand, and Hart says he’ll always be around winners, which is why he’s managing every heel going right now. Giant threatens Hogan on account of a chair shot last week, and says tonight is his night. I’m guessing we’ve just discovered the cause for the inevitable non-finish in the main event.
Randy Savage tries to get you to buy some Slim Jims, Bischoff plugs Clash of the Champions later this month, and now the main event.
Ric Flair (c) vs Hulk Hogan (WCW World Heavyweight Championship)
Hogan is in an awkward spot on the card currently, being booed more and having his in-ring work limited. They’ve experimented with him having a dark side ahead of the outright heel turn later in the year, but so far it’s nothing special. After the break away we go.
Hogan knocks Flair down a few times, and this crowd at least is happy to see him. Lock-ups, Flair takes over and starts with the chops. Hogan hulking up a bit early to lay in some shots, but Flair cuts it off quick enough. Flair to the top, but caught and thrown off. Cactus Clothesline sends Flair out. Ringside brawling, Flair floored with a clothesline. Back in, and Flair ends up on the apron off an Irish Whip and eats another clothesline. All pretty standard so far.
Flair starts targeting the leg. Stomps, rope-assisted butt smashes and then the Figure 4. Heenan declares Hulkamania is dead just before Hogan rolls over and here comes Jimmy Hart with his microphone for the distraction. Flair back to the leg, suplex, but Hogan hulking up for real now. Strikes, Big Boot, Leg Drop, but Hart up on the apron. AA in the ring suddenly, and uses the knucks, but of course to no effect. Hogan floors Anderson, shows the ref the knucks for some reason and this one gets thrown out in just under eight.
Winner (by DQ): The ever withering carcass of Hulkamania
Verdict: Dull as dishwater. Finish made no sense really, since they made it look like Hogan was looking for the DQ even though that would mean Flair would retain.
We still have five minutes left though, and the stereotype of Nitro endings being interference-laden messes rapidly comes true as first the Horsemen, then the Giant, then Randy Savage come out, all in rapid succession. Ridiculous moments where the Horsemen are all on their knees begging Hogan not to hit them, and you can bet who insisted that be a section of this post-match fracas. Hogan and Savage clear house, the Giant spends a bit of time jawing from the ramp while the DOD hold him back and we go to break.
We’re finishing up with an in-ring Mean Gene interview with Hogan and the Macho Man, where I’m stunned the words “Mega Powers” aren’t uttered once. This consists of Hogan and Savage just reciting the old rote words at each other – “Brother” “Oh yeah” etc – and challenging Flair and Anderson to a match next week. The commentary booth confirms that match will take place next week, and finish things off by taking a few more shots at the “pretenders” on “the other channel”. If interested, Raw won the battle on this night, 2.6 to 2.5. WCW’s lengthy streak wouldn’t start for another six months or so.
Best Match: It may have been short, but Regal/Benoit is something I could always stand to see more of.
Best Wrestler: I’ll give it to Sting, who was misused in his tag but is obviously someone who should be at the top of the card.
Worst Match: Main event. Both Hogan and Flair have their problems, but they especially do not go well together at this time.
Worst Wrestler: Pick one of the Super Assassins, who have very little in the way of a future in WCW.
Overall Verdict: It was fine. Hindsight is 20:20 of course, but you can see why Nitro was becoming ever more attractive to an audience. Big stars at the top, really watchable guys in the mid-card slots, hot crowds, that edgy anti-WWF attitude: WCW already had a very solid show before the Outsiders kicked things into overdrive later in 1996. But the problems are there too: aging names in the main event who can’t go, little in the way of youth getting a spotlight, and messy over-booked match finishes.
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