Wrestling in the Clinton Years: Hulk Hogan vs the world.

Welcome to the first entry into the second volume of Wrestling in the Clinton Years, this time focusing on World Championship Wrestling’s Monday Nitro show during 1996, the most important year in the company’s history. But nearly 6 months removed from the rise of the nWo WCW is still firmly in its own Hulkamania era as Hulk Hogan faces the challenges of both the 4 Horsemen and The Dungeon of Doom. So without further ado, on with the first Nitro of 1996.

WCW Monday Nitro 1st January 1996.

The show opens with an orgy of pyrotechnics and the 3 man commentary team of Eric Bischoff, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Steve “Mongo” McMichael, accompanied by Pepe, Mongo’s pet chihuahua, here dressed in patriotic “Uncle Sam” garb. Pepe’s wardrobe will be a running theme throughout this series so get used to canine fashion watching on my part. The trio debate the show’s huge main event, a WCW world heavyweight championship match between champion Ric Flair & challenger Hulk Hogan, back in WCW after a suspension late in 1995. Also on the show we will see Sting & Lex Luger team up amid questions over Luger’s true motives and a grudge match between Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Arn Anderson, the man who cost Savage his world title to the aforementioned Flair at Starrcade just a few days prior. That match is first up and what a way to kick off the new year and the series.

This match starts early as Anderson attacks Savage as be enters the ring, ramming Savage’s head into a turnbuckle and driving his shoulder into his stomach. Macho gains control after blocking an Irish whip and drops Arn with hard punches to the face before throwing “The Enforcer” outside the ring through the ropes. The Macho Man follows and attacks Arn on the outside, ramming poor Anderson’s head into the ring steps and the guardrail as on commentary, Eric Bischoff reveals to the audience the results of “The toilet bowl/Raw bowl” over on USA and WWF Monday Night Raw. As underhanded a tactic as it may seem to give away the results of the competition, it’s a clear declaration of war and it is admirable on Bischoff’s part. As this is going on Savage repeatedly kicks Arn in the gut as he lies on the mats surrounding the ring. Savage then rolls Arn back into the ring but is jumped by “Double A” as he gets back in, followed by some hard clubbing blows and an Irish whip that Savage manages to counter but this only allows Anderson to try to gain a pinfall with a sunset flip. Savage maintains his balance however and reaches down, repeatedly punching Arn in the face to break the attempt.

An atomic drop by Savage causes Arn great lower abdominal pain and a flying axe handle from the top rope only adds to Anderson’s misery as both moves gain Savage 2 counts. Ever the heel, a quick thumb to Savage’s eye turns the tide of the match back in Arn’s favour. Anderson next hits a DDT on Randy’s heavily taped left arm leading to Anderson focusing on Savage’s injured limb, wrapping it around the top rope and trying a hammerlock slam to add even more damage to it. The camera sadly catches Savage moving his arm during the slam to avoid the impact, robbing the move of its potency but Bischoff impressively covers for it on commentary, praising Savage’s self-preservation. Following the slam Savage leaves the ring & heads up the aisle, Arn gives chase but Randy kicks him and rams his head into a guardrail once more before the two return to the ring where Savage ends up trapped in a painful armbar by Anderson. After a prior failed attempt Savage manages to fight out of the hold, standing up and punching his way out of the out, backing Arn into a corner. After this a series of counters and reversals between the two Arn drills Savage with a DDT but can only get a 2 count as Savage manages to raise a foot and place it on the ropes. Arn attempts a second DDT but Randy shoves Arn off him, sending Anderson clattering into the referee. Arn uses the opportunity to reach into his tights and retrieve a set of brass knuckles, the same brass knuckles that cost Savage his title at Starrcade. Before he can use them Savage punches Arn, causing him to drop the knucks, and Savage gains a measure of revenge by drilling Anderson with them, before placing the illegal object back in Arn’s trunks as the referee comes to and counts the pinfall that gives The Macho Man the victory. Fellow Horsemen Brian Pillman and Chris Benoit rush the ring to protest the manner of Anderson’s loss but the result stands and Savage leaves the ring triumphant.

Considering that Vince McMahon thought Savage too old to continue his in ring career in the WWF prior to his exit in 1994, Savage and Arn had a marvellous TV match that more than kicked off the year in fine fashion. The two’s hard-hitting and well paced and believable action was great and I was amazingly entertained by these two’s chemistry and would love a few more matches between them.

Now a brief diversion if I may but its going to be relevant going forward. There was a time when I was a huge fan of Chris Benoit, his technical prowess and steely and tenacious attitude and the sense that he was a “real” wrestler reminded me of Bret Hart and made me an instant fan of WCW when I first saw it on British television in 1999. I watched with glee as he debuted in the WWF in 2000 amid its golden period and became an even bigger star. I had tears in my eyes watching him win the WWE World Champioship at Wrestlemania 20 and embrace with close friend and WWE Champion Eddie Guerrero as confetti rained down at the close of the show. That made the tragic events of 2007 all the more painful to me and for years I went unable to even watch footage of Benoit, eschewing his entire career. As time wore on I found myself able to separate Chris Benoit the wrestler from Chris Benoit the man. I still struggle to enjoy his work but it means that I am finally in a place where I can watch Benoit and write about him for this series. Personal feelings aside I do feel able to say whether I consider the match “good” or not.

With that disclaimer out-of-the-way it’s time for the next match which sees Chris Benoit of the Four Horsemen take on Lord Steven Regal in what promises to be a technical wrestling showcase.

After the two opponents jockey for position and lock up, Regal draws first blood as he takes Benoit down to the mat with an armdrag and traps his opponent in an armbar. Regal transitions to a knuckle lock that gets a 1 count very early on. As Benoit struggles to his feet he is met with a vicious headbutt from the man from Blackpool that causes him to drop to a knee. The resilient “crippler” is quick to get back to his feet but two more hard headbutts and a choke from Regal take Benoit down to the canvas once more until a swift punch to the face frees Benoit from Regal’s clutches. After sporting legend Hank Aaron is shown sitting in the crowd Regal drags Benoit to his feet and drills him with a hard European uppercut but Benoit instantly retaliates with a chop to the chest. Regal regains control with a go-behind and spins Benoit around, snatching him into a cravat hold that immobilises Benoit’s neck.

The malevolent Regal violently drags Benoit over his shoulder and drives him hard into the mat from the cravat hold, turning it into a modified neckbreaker and retains the hold on Benoit’s head. “Horsemen” chants ring out as Benoit manages to break the hold, twisting & turning until he catches Regal in a wrist lock. However Regal uses his training & technical know how to spin out of the hold, dropping Benoit with a drop toehold before climbing on top of the prone Benoit for a chinlock accompanied by hard slaps to Benoit’s face that made me wince multiple times.

Dragging his opponent to his feet once more, Regal drills Benoit with more European uppercuts and wicked palm strikes again to Benoit’s face. Benoit does manage to reverse an Irish whip (the only one in the match so far) and tries to hit Regal with a clothesline which Regal ducks ends up receiving an impressive German suplex from Benoit. A later chop from Benoit echoes off Regal’s chest all through the arena but a whip is countered by Regal into a butterfly suplex that gets a near fall for him. As he gets up, Benoit fells Regal with a lariat as he rises up. Benoit takes a dazed Regal and heaves him up onto the top turnbuckle so he sits on it. Benoit follows but Regal throws a few elbows that send Chris tumbling to the mat. Benoit is quickly back up however and Regal is soon crashing down thanks to an electric chair drop. As Regal lies on the mat Benoit climbs an adjacent turnbuckle and leaps off hoping to land a diving headbutt that he sadly misses as Regal rolls out of harms way causing Benoit to crash & burn. Regal brutalises Benoit with headbutts and forearms as they lay on the mat.

Benoit then reverses Regal’s attempt at a tombstone piledriver with a nasty one of his own, flailing his legs and causing Regal to lose balance before bringing him crashing head first to the mat. An injured Regal rolls out of the ring to escape further punishment but Benoit tries to press the advantage, hurling himself over the top rope with a plancha. Instead of his intended target however, Benoit crashes hard onto the arena floor as Regal dodges the dive. Regal rolls a lifeless Benoit back into the ring and pins him for a count of 3 and the victory in an outstanding technical match that was full of drama and crisp mat work. After the bell Regal turns to a nearby camera and mocks “The Four Horsemen, they’re no match for nobility”

With Benoit defeated and Arn’s loss earlier the Horsemen are 0 and 2 on this night and that is the focus of Gene Okerlund’s interview with Benoit, Anderson and stablemate Brian Pillman. The ever increasingly unhinged Pillman chastises his two cohorts over their losses, questioning Benoit’s commitment and Arn’s ability. Benoit retorts that Regal was “lucky” to beat him and Anderson turns the accusation back on Pillman, accusing him of “starting fires” that the other horsemen then have to deal with and acting in his own interests by targeting the likes of Regal, Paul Orndorff and the Dungeon of Doom. This brings out an irate Taskmaster and Zodiac, two members of the aforementioned Dungeon who have to be restrained by Jimmy Hart (now manager of the Dungeon of Doom) and the Giant who hold the two back from attacking the Horsemen in the aisle way.

Next up is Lex Luger and Sting teaming against the massive Super Assassins with manager Col.Robert Parker. The Assassins are portrayed here by the former Warlord and Barbarian, once called the Powers of Pain in the WWF and elsewhere. Sadly the match is hampered by a needless cut away to the announce booth as Sgt. Craig “Pitbull” Pitman arrives uninvited to beg for managerial help from Steve McMichael. Mongo deftly avoids offering to help Pitman, giving him some vagaries in order to make him go away. All of this necessitates the screen being divided between video of the match and the announce booth in two tiny windows at the same time. What action we do see is surprisingly good as Sting is subject to a lengthy beat down by the Assassins, including a very cool looking Suplex/Top rope spear move by the two masked men. A missed top rope splash following a powerbomb gives Sting the chance to finally tag Luger in who attacks both of the Super Assassins, beating them down easily until he locks one of them in the dreaded Torture Rack as Sting joins him in the ring to apply the Scorpion Deathlock to the other Assassin to huge cheers from the crowd as the bell is rung for the submission victory.

Distractions aside it was fun to see Luger back in his old Atlanta stomping grounds. Far away from the WWF and his failed push and working with close friend Sting Luger looked much more at home and competent before a “hometown” crowd. As basic as the match was is wasn’t without its charms and featured some fun moments at the end with the double submission. It’s clear that Nitro is much more action and star packed that Raw but this may be a detriment going forward when such star-studded shows become the exception rather than the rule.

Following Gene talking to the now heelish Jimmy Hart and The Giant. Hart boasts that he is the manager of winners, sometimes appearing with Ric Flair or the Giant or Lex Luger. Given that the Horsemen and the Dungeon are at odds this could possibly lead to a conflict of interests for “The mouth of the South” going forward. The Giant’s speech about ending Hulkamania is met with a deeply stupid & unprofessional “I don’t know what he’s saying but I get the impression that The Giant is predicting a victory for Ric Flair” from Mean Gene.

Following this it’s time for the main event, Hulk Hogan vs Ric Flair for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. What’s immediately striking to the viewer is just how little a reaction the returning Hulk Hogan gets from the Atlanta crowd. Not that Bischoff would have you believe anything other than Hogan being “the man who rules the wrestling world”.

As Hogan tears his shirt in the time-honoured fashion Hogan and Flair lock up with Hogan easily shoving “The Nature Boy” down onto the mat. Flair charges Hogan but is dropped with a shoulderblock as Hulk remains steadfast on his feet. A second lockup allows Flair to grab a side headlock on Hogan but the Hulkster shoves Ric off and drops him again with another shoulderblock. As the two pace around the ring a fan dressed as Hulk tries to start a Hogan chant but while some fans join in, Hogan is met with a chorus of boos & down turned thumbs from the crowd in a hilarious moment. The two lock up once more and Hogan is backed into a corner by Flair and he blasts Hogan’s chest with a hard chop. Flair then whips Hogan but hangs on to Hulk’s arm and takes him down to the mat I’m what looks like a mistake by The Hulkster as they’re back up instantly where Flair whips Hogan again but Hulk hangs onto the top rope and doesn’t budge leaving Flair to resort to chopping at Hogan’s chest again but Hogan no-sells several of Flair’s signature chops. Hogan retaliates with a kick to Flair’s gut and an oh-so heroic eye rake, following that with a series of punches to Flair’s face. An Irish whip by Hogan is countered by Flair with a back elbow as Ric rebounds out of the corner and Hogan is dazed. Ric then climbs to the top rope and I think you all know what happens next as Hogan recovers and chucks Flair off the top, sending him sailing to the air and crashing to the mat. Hogan follows up with two clotheslines the second of which sends Flair over the top rope to the arena floor. As Hogan follows outside to ram Flair’s head into the guardrail we see fans hurl abuse at Hogan’s face again. A thumb to the eye saves Flair and the world champion whips Hogan into the steel barricade. Hogan no sells this for no real reason and rushes Flair, dropping him with a hard clothesline. On his knees Flair begs for mercy from Hogan but only receives a punch to the head and is rolled back into the ring. A hard whip to the buckle sends Ric tumbling into the corner with “The Flair bump” followed by Hulk clotheslining Flair as he stands on the apron.

Another thumb to Hogan’s eye gives Ric the advantage and he takes Hogan down with a chop block to Hogan’s left knee. Flair begins to assault Hogan’s injured leg with a knee drop to it and then draping it on the bottom rope, where Flair jumps and brings all his weight down upon it.  This is the setup to the legendary Figure Four Leglock which Flair applies as the crowd goes ballistic for as they will Hogan to submit. This is indeed a hostile environment for Hulk Hogan. Hulk manages to turn over, reversing the hold and putting the pressure on Flair which brings Jimmy Hart down to ringside to cheer Flair on as he screams in agony. Again for no reason, Hogan breaks the hold and wanders over to gesticulate at Hart as he stands at ringside. Flair uses the distraction to kick Hogan’s bad leg once more after which he takes Hogan over in a suplex but Hogan begins to Hulk Up and feel no pain. Hogan shakes and staggers though his routine to almost no reaction from the fans as Hogan gives Flair a big boot and the immortal Leg Drop of Doom. Hogan again proves to be an idiot as instead of pinning Flair and winning the World Heavyweight Championship, (the reason he is here) Hogan opts to grab Jimmy Hart who has climbed onto the apron. During the distraction Arn Anderson enters the ring and blasts Hogan with his brass knux (Thanks Savage for giving them back to Arn) and of course Hogan is unfazed by this and instantly gets back to his feet. After reaching into Anderson’s trunks to retrieve the weapon and showing it to the referee (again for no real reason). as the ref calls for the bell Hogan hits Flair and Anderson with the knux as Pillman and Benoit rush the ring only to get dropped by the superhuman Hogan. All four of the Horsemen, a supposed elite group of the toughest and accomplished wrestlers in WCW, begin to beg off from Hogan as he brandishes the infamous brass knux like a set of absolute cowards.

Adding to the melee is The Giant, speeding towards the ring holding a tiny wooden stool. I can imagine that backstage at a wrestling show is a hotbed of all manner of dangerous impromptu weaponry so the choice of a small stool is all the more puzzling and funny. Giant doesn’t get a chance to use the stool as he is followed by Randy Savage who snatches the stool from the Giant before he is also victim to Hogan and the brass knux. As all the heels scatter The Taskmaster and Zodiac appear to try to hold back the Giant as Zodiac reveals some hither-to unheard vocabulary of “Hurt” and “Friend”. Hogan and Savage pose in the ring as everyone else leaves the stage.

After a quick ad break Gene enters the ring to speak to Hogan and Savage who challenge Flair and Anderson to a tag team match next week on Nitro. Highlights include Hogan promising to go “to infinity and beyond” and calls the Horsemen “the four Shetland Ponies”. So two men had 7 of WCW’s top heels running scared with nothing more than a small wooden stool and one set of brass knuckles in a vast display of ego on Hogan’s part. This is the problem of Hogan in WCW, his insistence on being the ultimate hero undercuts everything else around him, rendering both the Four Horsemen and The Giant, the 7 foot tall bruiser of the Dungeon of Doom and his cohorts completely ineffectual.

Main event shenanigans aside, this show was so chock-full of action and content it was unreal. 4 star-studded matches with Savage and Anderson opening in grand fashion and Benoit & Regal having a technical clinic, Sting and Luger may not have had a great match with the Super Assassins but it was entertaining at the end and the crowd loved it. The only weak link was Hulk Hogan’s aggrandising in the main event. His stale routine & character are so out-of-place in the very southern flavoured WCW and watching the crowd turning on Hogan is fascinating. 1996 is going to be a very interesting viewing experience.

By Martin Dixon (@BunnySuicida)

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