Wrestling in the Clinton Years: Nitro Glycerin (#Nitro20)

Alright, it’s crossover time!

As part of New Blood Rising  (@NewBloodPod)‘s celebration of Nitro’s 20th anniversary I thought I’d do what I do somewhat competently and step outside the Wrestling in the Clinton years timeline of 1996 to recap and review the first ever episode of WCW’s Monday night delight and see just how auspicious a start the show made when it burst onto cable television. So before I begin thanks for clicking this link however you came across it and if you’re a new reader or one of the regulars, please enjoy this slight diversion in the long highway of Wrestling in the Clinton years.

WCW Monday Nitro,  September 4th, 1995.

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And so the Monday night wars begin! In an effort to challenge the WWF’s monopoly on primetime “sports entertainment” programming the bold, brash Vice president of WCW Eric Bischoff finally got his wish. Not only would WCW air a new flagship programme on TNT, it would do so directly opposite Monday Night Raw over on USA. The ever opportunistic Bischoff chose a great week to debut his new baby as Raw was “preempted” meaning that the was no Raw to oppose Nitro this week so WCW had an open platform to showcase itself and drag viewers away from the WWF. WCW did indeed go all out, the whole nine yards, or testes to the wall if you will in hosting this debut edition in the Mall of America in Minneapolis, a very unique setting for a wrestling show.

Nitro also made great pains to distance itself from Raw with star vs star matches all through the show from top to bottom in stark contrast to the squash matches that made up the majority of the WWF’s television output as well as being broadcast live each and every week as opposed to being taped sometimes weeks in advance, again at great expense to Turner.

So with an exotic location, an array of huge stars and a surprise waiting in the wings, this was the wrestling that was on the debut episode of Monday Nitro.

After what would become the standard outlandish display of pyrotechnics to start the show, lead announcer Eric Bischoff introduces the latest addition to WCW’s commentary team: never mind that faeces, Here Comes Mongo!

Bischoff has a ridiculous haircut and Steve Mongo Mcmichael has a ridiculous everything as he rants incoherently about digging around in the dirt in what is actually the highlight of his contribution to the commentary.  Bobby Heenan crashes this little tete á tete with the offer of a handshake to his newest colleague McMichael who duely accepts. Heenan is shocked at the handshake. Literally shocked as Mongo is wearing a hand buzzer, what is he, five years old? Although this was more entertaining than the stilted interactions of Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler over on Raw.

After that corny opening we’re taken to the ring for Nitro’s first ever match and what a match it is. 20 years before his appearance at NXT Takeover,  Jushin Thunder Liger would kick off another significant American wrestling show as he faces the talented future loose cannon Flyin’ Brian Pillman.

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The match kicks off with Pillman trapping Liger in an arm wringer but Liger is quick to flip his way out of the hold and reverses it into an arm wringer of his own, Liger changes this into a side headlock but some forearms to the kidneys free Brian and he attempts to whip Liger into a corner, the masked man counters this however and Pillman is sent into the buckle instead.

Liger charges forward and drills Brian with a rolling cartwheel kick but Brian is soon back on the attack,  chasing Liger towards a corner where Liger runs up the ropes and leaps off with a moonsault onto Brian that gets him a near fall. The match briefly settles into a chinlock but Pillman is soon fighting back to his feet. His resurgence is short lived as Liger backs Brian into a corner and proceeds to mark his chest with some wicked chops. Liger whips Brian into an opposite corner and dashes after him. Pillman shows that his agility is equal to “The Super Beast God of the Lion and the Tiger” as he grabs the top rope and leaps up, his legs snatching Liger’s head as he is sent spinning to the mat with a beautiful headscissors.

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As Liger seeks refuge in a corner it’s Pillman’s turn to chop away at Liger’s chest. A boot to the face by Brian precedes a sadly messed up flying huracanrana that gets another 2 count. Pillman splats face first on the canvas thanks to a drop toehold thanks to Liger who then delights the crowd by using the Romero Special to try to force a submission from Pillman.  Brian valiantly refuses to quit even in several excruciating variations of the hold and is freed when Liger can’t keep the pressure on. Pillman begins a comeback with another headscissors but is sent sailing over the top rope with a backdrop from Liger who then takes to the apron and leaps off with another cartwheel kick that leaves Pillman laying on the ringside mats.

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Liger is the God of the lion, the tiger and is a licenced chiropodist.

The crowd begins a USA chant as Liger tries to suplex Pillman into the ring but ends up being suplexed out of it instead.  Brian goes one better than Liger,  climbing the ropes to leap onto Liger as he staggers around outside before rolling him back into the ring.  Pillman climbs to the top rope once more but his attack is halted as Liger gets to his feet and lurches into the ropes causing Brian to become crotched. Liger seizes the opportunity to hit a top rope superplex that nearly earns him a victory but Brian kicks out.  Liger takes to the skies again but is brought crashing down to earth with a well-timed dropkick by Brian but he can’t keep the momentum as a powerbomb by Liger gets him yet another close near fall.  A frustrated Liger perches Brian on the top rope for a huracanrana that goes off without a hitch but Pillman once again kicks out. Liger hoists his opponent up for another huracanrana but Pillman fights it and hits a tornado DDT for another two count.  The stalemate is finally broken when Liger grabs Pillman with a rear waistlock and attempts a German suplex but Pillman uses his legs to roll Liger into a pin and eke out a win and a place in wrestling history as the winner in Nitro’s first ever match and what a match it was! Nothing shows the difference between the two companies than matches like this with superb wrestlers having a superb competitive match light years ahead of what the WWF was offering at the time.

Pastamania is running wild in the Mall of America apparently as Hulk Hogan is surrounded by adoring fans as he babbles on about “hulkaroos” as well as promising to defeat Big Bubba Rogers later on the show.  The kids still love Hogan it seems. Adults however will make their feelings towards Hulk known later on.

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The big stars shine once more as United States champion Sting faces Ric Flair.  Before the match begins everyone is shocked to see Lex Luger wander out to the ring and observe Ric and Sting as the crowd chant his name.  Luger’s return to WCW had been a closely guarded secret and in 1995 I doubt many fans knew that Lex’s WWF contract had expired so his appearance here set another tone for Nitro as a show of surprises. Doug Dillinger ushers Luger away so the match can finally get going.

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Ric shouldn’t have been to Pastamania before the show, his Hulkaroo is too hot.

Sting and Flair lock up but are too evenly matched and disengage with neither one gaining an advantage save for Sting popping the crowd with a signature “Wooo”. Flair gets a side headlock from a second lock up but he is shoved off into the ropes.  Ric knocks Sting down with a shoulderblock but he is soon back on his feet to leapfrog over Flair twice to show off his athletic prowess. He also gives Flair a pair of press slams for good measure too. Ric can’t catch a break as he is sent flying across the ring with a hiptoss and a dropkick but finds some respite as he rolls out of the ring. Ric takes his time returning to the ring as Bischoff recieves word that backstage is abuzz about Luger’s return which may have more truth to it than first appears given how close a secret Lex’s signing was.

A thumb jabbed in Sting’s eye gives Flair a cheap advantage upon the resuming of the match and he follows up with some “vintage” (Eric’s words not mine) chops to Sting’s chest. These strikes have no effect on the superheroic Sting as he becomes impervious to Flair’s attacks and gives him another press slam to the delight of the fans watching on multiple levels of the mall. In a desperate move, Flair leaps at Sting sending the pair tumbling over the top rope.  Ric’s gamble doesn’t appear to pay off as Sting once again shrugs off Flair’s chops and once again lifts the Nature Boy over his head before dumping him through the ropes back into the ring.  Flair begs for mercy from Sting but only receives a face buster for his grovelling but does manage to counter a Stinger Splash with a swift back elbow to give him some breathing space as the shows takes a commercial break.

Ric is climbing the ropes as the show resumes and true to form, he is hurled through the air by Sting and crashes down on the canvas. As a tracksuited Arn Anderson slinks down to ringside Sting hits yet another press slam and misses a top rope splash that the cameras almost miss thanks to focusing on Arn.

Arn’s presence at ringside is a source of intrigue as he and Flair are at odds despite the assurances by Heenan that their differences have been reconciled and they are once again bosom buddies.  Ric hits a wounded Sting with a suplex but a surge of adrenaline brings Sting straight to his feet once more where a hard irish whip to the corner sends Flair head over heels and a clothesline sends him flat on his back.

Sting has 10 punches that he wishes to share with Ric and the crowd love counting along as each blow lands.  Sting tries to follow this with a superplex but Ric thwarts that and a hiptoss too. Flair can’t thwart a backslide however nor can he avoid Sting’s second attempt at a superplex and Ric clashes to the mat once more.  Sting finally notices Arn at ringside and is distracted as they exchange glares.  This obviously allows Flair a chance to attack Sting from behind with a chop block to the knee and Sting crumples to the floor.  Flair ties Sting’s leg in a knot with a figure four where some dastardly use of the ropes by Ric stops Sting from turning over and escaping.  This is the catalyst for Arn to hop into the ring causing a disqualification and pull Flair off Sting.  The two state at each other as it seems Heenan’s assertions of the rift in the Horsemen being repaired are unfounded as the two begin to fight wildly out of the ring and backstage leaving Sting victorious but baffled. Welcome to a Nitro tradition: the cluster ending to a fun match.

More confusion breaks out as Scott Norton crashes the announce table with some angry words for Eric Bischoff.  I assume that he is upset at being left off this debut Nitro but that isn’t made clear at all. Norton and Mongo square up to each other teasing a brawl (Mongo was only an announcer at this point and wouldn’t wrestle until June of 1996). The crowd erupt as Randy Savage appears to make the save. Savage is happy to oblige Norton’s desire for a fight and challenges him. The two don’t come to blows as security arrives to restrain Norton. It seems the two will have to wait until the next episode to wrestle sadly. In the confusion Eric introduces a hype video for another new arrival to WCW, the homicidal, genocidal, suicidal, death-defying Sabu! Although the awful filter all over the video makes it hard to see who is debuting with its “drunk o vision” effect blurring everything to a comical degree.

Belated congratulations Mike Hill from Cullman, Alabama on winning a Harley Davidson motorcycle in a sweepstake. I hope it served you well.

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Lex wins the Daz Doorstep Challenge.

Another video is shown for another debutant.  Mr Michael/VK Wallstreet has some disparaging words about a certain “new generation” and casually drops an IRS reference just in case you couldn’t place where you’d seen this man before.

All of which brings us to the main event of WCW Champion Hulk Hogan facing Big Boss Man, I mean Big Bubba Rogers.  This is every inch a standard Hulk Hogan match with all the usual trappings one would associate with that description.  Hogan dominates Bubba early on until Rogers hits a Boss Man Slam (here called simply a “Side Slam”) but Hogan “Hulks up” becoming impervious to pain before beating Bubba with his big boot and legdrop combo.

After the bell the Dungeon of Doom rush the ring, here compromising Kevin Sullivan,  Zodiac,  The Shark and Kamala. Hogan fights them all off single-handedly before Lex Luger reappears to chase off the Dungeon members. The two end up in a stare down in the ring as Sting and Randy Savage appear to try to calm things down.  Hulk is a real dick to Luger, telling him to “go back where you came from”, all set to a soundtrack of cheers for Luger from the fans. Hogan is not popular here despite WCW’S best efforts with even a couple of signs emblazoned with “Hogan Sucks” and “Hogan is a wimp” visible on screen before the people holding it were no doubt ushered out of the mall never to be seen or heard from again.

“You got a bus, brother? I didn’t get a bus.”

Lex’s reply to Hogan has to wait until after the last ad break as Gene Okerlund enters the ring with a mic.  Luger says that he is sick of playing with “kids” and challenges Hogan for his championship.  Hogan joins in the WWF bashing and accepts Luger’s challenge for next week.

Lastly the announcers break down the next show where we get the first ever glimpse of the infamous Pepe the Chihuahua, Mongo’s pet and sidekick throughout his Nitro commentary career. Pepe is dressed as a devil complete with little horns and cape to begin a proud tradition of cute outfits for Pepe. Bischoff looks pleased as punch as Nitro signs off with the opening shot of the Monday Night War fired across the bow of the WWF.

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The opening Nitro is a clear statement of intent that WCW was serious about taking the WWF’s spot as number one. With lavish production and an array of top talent all crammed into 45 minutes there was a lot to love about this show. Pillman & Liger set the tone wonderfully and Flair & Sting brought a lot of class before the gong show antics of Hogan and the Dungeon closed out the show. Even Luger’s shocking appearance showed that Nitro was a show in which anything could happen and seemingly anyone could show up which would stand it in good stead around 8 months after this.

Personally I loved it and it’s safe to say I’ve watched quite a bit of Nitro as of late and this still ranks as one of the best I’ve seen even with its inflated importance.  As wrestling history it is essential viewing and as a wrestling show it is deeply entertaining 20 years on. For good or ill, at its inception Nitro led where the WWF would follow for almost all of the late 90s and beyond. Raw may have been the show that survived the Monday Night War but look closely at it even now and Nitro’s influence can see be seen with the death of squash matches, big stars on every episode and the show stretching for multiple hours. Despite WWE claiming in its revisionist history that Nitro and WCW was universally bad except the cruiserweights and nWo (a position that it is seemingly softening on) Nitro changed how wrestling is presented on television and how audiences perceive televised grappling even now some 20 years on. To borrow from and paraphrase Ric Flair in the doldrums of 1995 whether you like it or you don’t like it, Nitro was the best thing going that day.

Martin Dixon (@BunnySuicida)

Another great Statement of Intent.

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