Wrestling in the Clinton Years: The warm glow of Lex Luger’s friendship.

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By Martin Dixon (@BunnySuicida)

Hello and welcome to another instalment of Wrestling in the Clinton Years, a series that isn’t 19 years too late, it’s just been biding its time until the Internet was suitably prepared for its magnificence. The place is WCW, the year is 1996 and I suppose it’s about time to look at another classic episode of Monday Nitro.

WCW Monday Nitro, January 8th 1996.

From Charleston, South Carolina Eric Bischoff, Bobby Heenan, Steve McMichael and a bomber jacket-clad Pepe the Chihuahua welcome us to the show and remind us the audience of tonight’s star-studded main event grudge match pitting WCW World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair and fellow Horseman “The Enforcer” Arn Anderson against the one time “Mega Powers” of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage.

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Before that however there’s the matter of a pretty mouth-watering set of undercard matches, the first of which pits Germany’s “Das Wunderkind” Alex Wright against Chris Benoit, with Brian Pilman in tow and looking to bounce back from his loss to Lord Steven Regal last week on Nitro. Poor Wright is thrown in the deep end as Benoit attacks him before the bell rings with a clothesline and a perfect snap suplex that reminded me why I became a fan of Benoit years ago. Chris then levels Wright with a back elbow following an Irish whip. Wright attempts to fight back, punching Benoit in the gut from a kneeling position but Benoit absorbs the blows and bodyslams Wright. Wright tries the same again, punching from his knees but again Benoit perseveres and fends off Wrights attempt at a comeback with a hard headbutt. All the while Pilman endears himself to the fans at ringside as he challenges several audience members to fight before focusing back on the ring as Benoit uses a northern lights suplex to get the first near fall of the match as Wright kicks out. Benoit chucks Wright through the ropes to the floor and as he is admonished by the ref, Pilman uses the distraction to choke Alex with his Horsemen shirt, laughing manically as he does so in keeping with the “loose cannon” he was slowly becoming.

Wright struggles back into the ring where he manages to surprise Benoit with punches but a vicious chop to the chest sends the young babyface reeling and stumbling into a corner. More thunderous chops echo throughout the arena as Benoit tees off on Wright, whipping him to an opposite corner but with amazing resilience & agility, Wright leaps onto the top rope and in one swift move moonsaults over a charging Benoit, ducks a clothesline and jumps high to drill “The Canadian Crippler” with a kick to the face. Emboldened, Wright climbs to the top again and dives onto Chris with a flying crossbody that delights the crowd. The quick offence by Wright continues as he grabs Benoit with a double leg takedown that takes his opponent to the mat, and from there slingshots the horseman over the top rope and crashing down to the mat. This causes much confusion as whenever it felt like it, WCW employed a ruling that throwing an opponent over the top rope resulted in a disqualification and Heenan & Bischoff take time to debate if Wright should-be DQ’ed for hurling Benoit, in this instance the rule is forgotten in favour of keeping the match going.

Wright again takes to the top rope and dives onto Benoit as he stands dazed on the outside of the ring, again raising a loud cheer from the fans. With Benoit momentarily incapacitated, Wright turns his attentions to Pilman, stalking his earlier attacker around the ring. Pilman begs off to such a degree that Wright just abandons the chase, instead opting to reenter the ring and continue where a tired and gasping Benoit joins him where Wright presses his advantage, stomping on Benoit as he rolls under the ropes. Wright drags Benoit to his feet and blasts him with a hard European uppercut and a beautiful dropkick. A bodyslam by Wright earns him a near fall as Bischoff takes the time to take the piss out of the competition which he dubs “Titanic Sports” and their raising of their prices for Pay Per View events in just one of many jibes on the show towards the WWF.

Wright tests the limits of Benoit’s spine with a painful looking Boston Crab that despite his screaming in agony, Benoit refuses to submit to. Pilman paces up and down, growing ever exasperated at the prospect that Benoit might lose for the second week in a row as Wright changes tack & locks Benoit in an STF hold to try to extract a submission from his opponent. Benoit’s toughness saves him as Wright is forced to release the hold and allow Chris to his feet where the two combatants exchange hard chops & punches each with more venom than the last. Wright loses the exchange but reverses an Irish whip and blasts Benoit with a back elbow as a receipt from earlier in the bout, accompanied by a snap suplex of his own that although pretty, isn’t anywhere near as crisp as Benoit’s. Wright then runs the ropes but the wily Pilman reaches into the ring and grabs Alex’s leg to halt his momentum, Wright halts but only to leap over the ropes and onto Pilman with a plancha to even the odds. Climbing onto the apron Wright attempts a vaderbomb onto Benoit as he lies in the ring but the raising of his knees turns the tide once more in Benoit’s favour as Wright injures himself with the move. Wright manages to block Benoit’s dragon suplex attempt and the two exchange holds and reversals but technique is no match for a basic punch to the face and Benoit drops Wright with a hard shot before finally hitting a dragon suplex and bridging into a pin for the pinfall victory before Pilman gloats over the fallen Wright after the bell, brandishing the Four Horsemen hand signal in the dazed Wright’s face and laughing.

Again Nitro stars an episode strong, Wright & Benoit had a great match full of technical sophistication, hard-hitting brawling and a little high-flying to keep things varied. Far from a squash match this was back & forth and showcased not only Benoit as the established star, but Wright as a relatively fresh face who is much lower on the totem pole. Good stuff all round.

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Lord Steven Regal of The Blue Bloods takes on Eddie Guerrero in the next match that gets a modern viewer salivating when it’s announced. Regal appears even cockier than usual after his win last week over Chris Benoit and Eddie is resplendent with greasy mullet and sequinned ring attire to remind me just how far Eddie’s star rose later in his career.

The bell sounds and the match begins with a lockup where Eddie grabs an arm wringer on his much larger opponent but Regal rolls towards the ropes and forces the hold to be broken. A drop toehold by Regal takes Guerrero down but once there Eddie uses his technique to turns it into a hammerlock on Regal on the mat and from there flips Regal over into a pin that gets a 2 count for the man from El Paso. The two lock up once more and the more powerful Regal uses his strength to trap Eddie in an arm wringer of his own until Eddie twist & turns and flips his way to reversing the hold. Sadly this excellent chain wrestling is met with stoic silence from the crowd as the match plays out before silence. Regal locks Guerrero in a side headlock and after Eddie fights out still manages to keep Eddie in his grasp with an armbar as an “Eddie” chant does begin to rumble from the stands. After fighting out again Eddie leap frogs over a charging Regal but is violently taken down with a running knee to the gut to end his chances at taking control for the moment, at least until Eddie beautifully reverses a butterfly suplex into an armdrag then sending Regal flipping with a flying headscissors and finally a dropkick that raises the volume of the fans at last. Guerrero’s momentum is short-lived when Regal jabs his thumb into Eddie’s eye and begins to work over Eddie with brutal forearms to the back, kneelifts and hard European uppercuts. Eddie does get brief flashes of offence throughout this but Regal negates them everytime with his larger size and powerful strikes, that is until Regal attempts perhaps one European uppercut too many as Eddie grabs Regal’s arms and pins Regal with a backslide for the surprise win against the flow of another great match that sadly had a few messy sequences where Eddie and Regal just didn’t move as smoothly as at other points in the match that lost the crowd all too frequently. The story the two men told was great however with the much larger Regal dominating Guerrero until the surprising finish. Another worthwhile WCW undercard match.

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After this Mean Gene is joined on the entrance ramp by Lex Luger and Sting and following Starrcade, the Stinger has a few questions for “the Total Package”. Well, actually only one question a Sting wants to know why Luger held Sting’s arm and prevented him from entering the ring during a triangle (Triple Threat) match, costing Sting the match. The mysterious Luger claims an injury during Starrcade and he was simply reaching to Sting for “help”. This is seemingly enough for Wrestling’s nicest (or most gullible) man and Sting and Luger agree to form a tag team on a more regular basis ahead of Clash of the Champions and the two leave arm in arm (metaphorically) with a renewed friendship.

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Sting has little time to enjoy basking in the warm glow of Luger’s friendship as he is part of the next match taking on the cigar chomping, recent millionaire lottery winner, future stalker and present day yoga saviour Diamond Dallas Page. The sneaky DDP seizes control of the match before the bell even rings as he attacks Sting as the referee checks Sting’s attire for international objects, taking his cigar and rubbing it in Sting’s face, blinding the former world champion and proceeding to beat down the future thorn in Triple H’s
side until Sting reverses an Irish whip and blasts Page with an axe handle to the back as he runs past. This causes DDP to be caught in the ropes and only a Sting dropkick frees him, sending Page crashing to the floor. Sting then channels Alex Wright from earlier in the show as he performs a plancha of his own onto Page, levelling him again. Back in the ring a botched leap-frog by Sting leads to DDP getting a face full of Sting’s, er, “little stinger” and causing Sting himself to crash to the canvas in a pain almost unique to the male gender. Firmly back in control, Page assaults Sting with punches and kicks culminating in a back suplex and swinging neckbreaker that can only garner DDP a count of 2. A rear chinlock keeps Sting grounded as Page embraces his inner IRS by using the ropes for leverage as Sting’s consciousness begins to fade. Sting returns to the world of the awake as the fans chant his name, fighting out of DDP’s hold and rocking Page with 4 punches, an atomic drop, dropkick the Stinger Splash and finally the Scorpion Death Lock but Page is too close to the ropes and escapes thanks to a rope break. Page’s last offence comes from a stun gun on the apron, draping Sting’s throat across the top rope and hits another swinging neckbreaker for a close near fall. Aiming for victory, DDP tries a back suplex but Sting easily lands on his feet, takes Page down to the mat and again locks DDP in the Scorpion Death Lock, this time in the centre of the ring and Page has no option but to tap out to the painful hold, giving Sting the victory.

A far more “traditional” mainstream match between these two stars, low on chain grappling or high impact blows but given that at this point DDP is much lower on the totem pole than Sting this was a very competitive match between two of my personal WCW favourites. I wasn’t disappointed here save for the lack of the Diamond Cutter, but I’ll be seeing plenty of those going forward.

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Which brings us lastly to the main event of Ric Flair & Arn Anderson taking on Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. Judging by the cheers Flair & Anderson receive as they make their way to the ring it’s safe to say that South Carolina is Horsemen country, doubly so by the large number of boos that greet Hulk Hogan. Savage sadly is guilty by association and is not only forced to make his entrance to Hogan’s theme and ceremony, but he is booed by the crowd.

Flair & Hogan start off the match (after a fair bit of stalling) and Ric is soon on the mat courtesy of a Hogan shoulder block. The two then lock up and Flair traps Hogan in a hammerlock until Hogan reverses it but is immediately countered by Flair with a drop toehold that the world champion turns into a front facelock. Hogan’s chain wrestling is impressive and he is making great efforts to hang with Flair as he counters the counter, grabbing his own hammerlock on Flair before dragging him to his feet but a kick to the gut lets Flair escape the hold. Ric shows Chris Benoit how to chop when he blasts Hogan, the sound of the impact echoing throughout the entire arena. Hogan of course opts not to sell this and begins to destroy both horsemen with punches and bodyslams, forcing Arn & Flair to bail from the ring to escape and regroup. Arn opts to replace Flair and face Hulk but he is soon caught in an arm wringer as Hogan tags Savage who leaps from the top rope with an axe handle to Anderson’s arm. Savage continues to work on Arn’s arm but a knee to the gut frees Anderson from the Macho Man’s clutches. Anderson tries to suplex Savage out of the ring from the apron but Randy remains steadfast, blocking the move and ramming Arn’s head into an awaiting Hogan’s boot that leaves Arn in a heap on the mats outside the ring. Climbing the ropes again Savage leaps, hitting Arn on the floor with a second axe handle and from there he rolls Arn back into the ring and once more ascends the ropes for a third leap and axe handle, earning a 2 count for the heroes as Flair breaks up the pin. This causes Hogan to begin to chase Flair around the ring, snatching at Flair’s trunks and exposing Flair’s rear (thankfully only the live crowd are witnesses to Flair’s behind on this occasion) before the ref ushers Hogan back to his corner.

Flair replaces Anderson and takes control of the match, Chopping at Savage’s chest as Bischoff reveals that next week on Nitro Hulk Hogan will face Meng! I am genuinely looking forward to that one. Ric climbs the ropes and as sure as eggs are eggs, is thrown off the top by Savage in the time-honoured tradition before Randy locks Flair in the figure four leglock as Hogan and Anderson enter the ring too. Hogan decks Arn and applies his own figure four  which raises a few cheers from the fans and even more boos.

As the ref tries to break up the melee Flair & Arn escape the figure fours and as Hogan is again led out of the ring, Arn drills Savage with a beautiful DDT behind the official’s back. Flair is still the legal man and chucks Savage over the top rope as Hogan and the Ref converse some more where Arn rams Macho into a guardrail and rolls him back into the ring with Flair as the show breaks for some ads.

Returning from the break Anderson has tagged in and has Randy trapped in an abdominal stretch, complete with hand holding assistance from Flair away from the gaze of the Ref. “The Macho Man wants a huge piece of Arn Anderson’s rear end” Bischoff informs us as Flair takes over to continue the beatdown of Savage, including a back suplex that forces Hogan to save Macho from Flair’s pin attempt following the suplex. Anderson tags in but Savage traps him in a sleeper hold as the fans who had been silent for a while spring to life for the Macho Man, Arn backs into a corner however where Ric helps him escape Macho’s hold. It’s here that it becomes clear that Hogan is a terrible partner, constantly drawing the Ref’s attention and allowing the heels free rein to cheat, it’s almost like he’s secretly evil. (Hmmmm….)

Savage does valiantly fight back against Flair’s dominance with a backslide and a reversal of the figure four with a small package hold, both of which garner 2 counts for the former champion. A Flair chop takes Savage down but Macho fires back with punches and tries to tag Hogan but Arn enters to prevent the tag. An attempt at a second DDT by Arn is thwarted by Savage as he holds the top rope and finally tags Hogan who attacks both opponents once more, eventually clotheslining both of them over the top rope. Randy catches up to Arn and rolls him back in with Hogan where Arn suddenly blasts the Hulkster with a scintillating spinebuster. Hogan is unfazed however and begins to Hulk Up and poor Arn is subject to the point, 3 punches big boot and legdrop that gives the babyfaces the victory as Benoit and Pilman rush the ring to aid their stablemates. Their aid is prevented by the upper echelons of the Dungeon of Doom as Taskmaster, Zodiac and the Giant halt the junior Horsemen before the enormous Giant enters the ring and obliterates Hogan and Savage each in turn with his amazing chokeslam where Giant falls with the victim, giving the impression that he is driving them into the mat with greater impact instead of letting them fall to their doom. The heroes laying, Zodiac urges Giant not to hurt them further as everyone just decides to leave, the final shot of the show being Hogan and Savage prone in the centre of the ring.

Again the show closes with a multi man brawl but at least the match did have a finish (however unpopular with the crowd who booed Hogan and Savage’s win) but the formulaic ending and main event couldn’t spoil another loaded show, with Wright & Benoit and Regal & Guerrero having great matches and Sting & DDP bringing some nostalgic fun to me. Without enhancement matches these shows feel more action packed, with very little filler. This is not without its pitfalls however as without any recaps it’s left to the announcers to keep the audience up to speed on storylines which often is lost in a mess of garbled exposition. That said outside of Hogan, Savage, the Horsemen and the Dungeon there’s been very little story to tell across the two episodes I’ve seen. Time will tell if more plots emerge before the megaton bombs that explode over the summer months but for now Nitro is an all action affair and I can wholeheartedly say I’m enjoying what I’m seeing so far.

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