Earlier this quarter, World Wrestling Entertainment, the $700 million publicly held parent company of the WWE brand, was the subject of several news reports about a positive outlook for its stock, thanks largely to the success of its in-house, subscriber-based TV network.
Earlier this week, news broke about Nike opposing WWE in a trademark lawsuit, while Forbes had a story on the top-ten-earning performers in WWE, all of whom are millionaires.
Stock prices, quarterly earnings, an in-house TV network, trademark lawsuits, millionaire performers...these are the daily issues of a media giant. For WWE, though, it wasn't always this way.
In fact, there was a time in the mid-1990s when the company, then named the WWF, was teetering much closer to financial collapse than financial success, under siege by archrival World Championship Wrestling (WCW), which was owned and fiscally nourished by the seemingly bottomless checkbook of billionaire Ted Turner.
In spring of 1996, Turner took WCW's attack (and some would say his personal attack) on Vince McMahon's then family-owned WWF to the next level. He authorized WCW president Eric Bischoff to sign WWF linchpin performers Scott Hall (a.k.a. Razor Ramon) and Kevin Nash (a.k.a. Diesel) to massive guaranteed-money contracts to woo them away from McMahon's company, a shot across the bow of the WWF ship. Bischoff, in what was easily his best decision as the head of the company, booked the entry of Hall and Nash into WCW story lines as an invasion angle, as if the pair were still their WWF characters with designs on a "hostile takeover" of WCW.
The angle played out over several weeks, beginning with Hall's memorable debut on a late May 1996 episode of WCW Monday Nitro, in his Razor Ramon character, telling the audience "You know who I am, but you don't...know why...I'm here." Two weeks later, Hall was joined by Nash on WCW television, and eventually the angle peaked with a six-man tag team match at the July 7 Bash at the Beach pay-per-view — WCW staples Randy Savage, Sting and Lex Luger taking on the "outsiders" team of Hall, Nash and a mystery third man.
There was no social media back then, and the Internet was in its infancy. Still, the speculation over who the third man was going to be was rampant on message boards and in AOL chat rooms (the "Twitter" of 1996). The match itself was more about paying off on the story line than it was back-and-forth athleticism, and eventually it happened...Hulk Hogan, a babyface for more than a decade, a former WWF champion who'd spent a couple of lackluster years in WCW to that point, came out of the dressing room in the middle of the match (the third man still hadn't been revealed, even after the match started), dropped a big leg on Savage, revealed himself to be the third man, formed the New World Order with Hall and Nash, and thus began the biggest boom period in the history of pro wrestling, for both WCW and WWF.
On the day after the 20th birthday of the NWO, let's go back and relive the magic and assess historical significance...
Glorious, significant, stunning, surreal ... those adjectives all fit that moment. It was an incredible payoff that led to several months of gripping television, in both WCW and WWF, quite honestly.
As we know now, today's wrestling product is solely WWE, as WCW somehow managed to botch all of its success from 1996 through 1998 and wound up a cesspool of bad story lines and red ink. By 2001, WCW was effectively a dead company with microscopic TV ratings compared to McMahon's company, as Turner had long since divested himself of the wrestling business after AOL purchased Time Warner, which owned Turner's family of networks.
WWF, which would become WWE after a name change, purchased WCW in March 2001 for a couple of million bucks, mostly for the rights to WCW's video library. Many young fans of today's product were in kindergarten or younger when the formation of the NWO took place. For those of you who fit that category or those who just want to take a spin down memory lane, let's assess the six minutes of video above and what it all ended up meaning...
1. The moment itself was surreal.
From the garbage rained upon the ring to seeing Hulk Hogan tell the fans to "stick it," this whole scene was like nothing we'd seen before. For an angle where the buildup was methodically perfect on television in the weeks leading up to the pay-per-view, the payoff was satisfying. In a live-performance business like wrestling, you get one chance at perfection, and the performances of Gene Okerlund and Hulk Hogan were just that — perfect. Between Okerlund's over-the-top disgust and Hogan's emphatic insistence that he'd been wronged by the fans, this could not have been executed any better. Oddly enough, when WWE purchased WCW, it booked an invasion angle going the other way — WCW invading WWE — that was popcorn fart compared to Bischoff's 1996 brainchild. It's about the only thing WCW did better than WWE.
2. In pre-social media wrestling, this is the moment where it's most fun to envision Twitter's reaction.
Nowadays, whether it's a sporting event or WWE pay-per-view or an episode of The Bachelor, I am watching it with Twitter open on my laptop. I like to react to things I see, but more than that, I like to see the reaction of others. It must be an innate instinct to want to commune over events like this, because the night of Bash at the Beach in 1996, I had my laptop open and was inside a chat room in the WWF section of AOL's online world. (Yeah, I was pretty cool back then.) The reaction when Hogan dropped that leg was exactly like a Twitter timeline in 2016 when something huge happens in a game or on a TV show. The only thing missing was hashtags and a crying Jordan face on Randy Savage's body.
3. Hall and Nash ushered in the era of guaranteed salaries in wrestling.
For decades, most wrestlers were overworked, underpaid independent contractors, struggling to make ends meet. Competition between WCW and WWF, specifically Turner's seemingly endless checkbook, took wrestling's pay system out of the dark ages. Hall and Nash both had contracts in WCW that guaranteed them more money ($700,000 annually) and fewer work dates than everyone else in the company, other than Hogan. Guaranteed contracts became the norm for most stars above the mid card in WCW, forcing McMahon to begin giving out contracts with downside guarantees in the WWF. Eventually, WCW's low-work, high-pay contracts became its undoing, but it forced McMahon to at least provide reasonable salaries and pay structure for his star performers. Today, as mentioned earlier, seven-figure superstars are not uncommon. The war between WCW and the WWF was a huge turning point for working conditions and income.
4. This angle awoke the sleeping giant that was Vince McMahon.
The night that Hogan hit the leg drop heard 'round the world, the WWF had a roster that included cartoonish characters like a wrestling plumber (T.L. Hopper!), a garbageman, a pig farmer and an aerobics instructor. To say that WCW's more realistic, conflict-based angles were resonating with audiences more than McMahon's circus was an understatement. The formation of the NWO served as a wake-up call for McMahon to change his strategy and compete with WCW. The spawn from this was the WWF's "Attitude Era" and the development of a gaggle of the biggest stars in the history of the business — Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H and Mick Foley to go with existing stars Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker. One of the biggest stars of all became McMahon himself, who made himself an on-air character as the foil to Austin's WWF champion.
5. WCW unfortunately couldn't control the beast it created.
While Bischoff was the mastermind behind the NWO angle, behind the scenes, he became a little too friendly with the superstar talent, ceded creative control to many of them and wound up with an NWO angle, and, in turn, a company that was unwieldy with story lines that had more holes than a sponge. It didn't help that Bischoff's biggest advocate, Ted Turner, checked out about the time things started to slide downward. Bischoff had nowhere to turn, so AOL Time Warner management brought in former WWF writer Vince Russo to book story lines around 1999 or 2000. But Russo was a train wreck, booking the company to where the person who got the most TV time was VINCE RUSSO. It was a mess, but man, it was a fun (and at times cringe-worthy) ride down.
6. Where are they now?
In an industry where early death has been, at the very least, a macabre coincidence and, at worst, an epidemic, perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the NWO angle is that most of the luminaries involved are still with us today, especially when you consider the hard lifestyle some of them have lived. Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Hulk Hogan are all alive. (Hell, Hogan is about to own Gawker!) Of their opposition that night, Savage is the only one who's departed this earth. Even the key players in the WWF during that time — Austin, Rock, Foley, Michaels — are all still alive 20 years later, and Triple H is running the company as McMahon's son-in-law.
Twenty years after its formation, the New World Order is still something fondly remembered by wrestling fans, and often referred to in pop culture. In fact, during the week Dwyane Wade has chosen to head to Chicago, placing all three Miami Heat Big Three members on separate teams, I'm reminded of just how relevant a pop culture reference the NWO has become over time...
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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