I don’t think I’m alone as a wrestling fan in admitting there were periods where my fandom wained. I seem to remember 1994 was the last strong year for me as my interest dropped for about 3 years until Steve Austin exploded into pop culture. 1994 was special for wrestling specifically where I lived in Charleston, South Carolina because it was a year where we had both a WWF house show and a WCW Clash of the Champions. But even then, something seemed to be waining. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but wrestling just didn’t seem as interesting as it used to be…
I lead with that because that’s where my mind first went when reading Martin Dixon’s new e-book Wrestling in the Clinton Years: The Road to Hollywood. Specifically, Martin is chronicling WCW Monday Nitro in the year 1996. But not at the point that’s obvious. The low hanging fruit is to start with Bash at the Beach ’96. It is beyond memorable as Hulk Hogan leg drops Macho Man Randy Savage. The interesting challenge and journey, for that matter, is what was happening on the way toward Orlando in the summer. What was going on each Monday from January to June? In short, it’s a fascinating nexus of older talent and a group of wrestlers that would define the next 10 years of the wrestling business.
When Martin first mentioned to me that this was the final form of the column he had originated years ago, it gave me pause in thinking about how the shift WCW goes through in 1996 is actually remarkably parallel to what was going on in professional sports throughout the same year. Actually, in its totality, 1996 was a reclamation for the old guard of many athletes, teams, and of course, sports entertainers to take back the top spot in their respective arena.
Right off the bat, 1996 begins with the Dallas Cowboys returning to championship form in winning Super Bowl XXX against another old guard team in the Pittsburgh Steelers. Truth be told, this was Dallas’ third title in four years, so it wasn’t like they were out in the cold for long before getting another Lombardi trophy. But when you look at the year before where San Francisco had gotten over the hump and seemed primed to repeat and Green Bay with an ascending Brett Favre knocking on the door, the pathway was not exactly smooth sailing back to the championship heap. The Cowboys have always been polarizing and a team more fans love to hate than not, but Super Bowl XXX was still a seminal moment in the NFL. Dallas’s clash with Pittsburgh would be the highest rated Super Bowl for over 10 years. That’s a huge credit to Steeler Nation, but Dallas is a team that will always continue to move the needle of attention on the NFL product. 1996 represented their last year at being the champion of the NFL, but it was significant that despite the competition that was getting increasingly difficult, they reclaimed their place at the top of the mountain.
Speaking of top of the mountain, is there anyone who America wanted to be a champion again more than Michael Jordan in 1996? Although it was entertaining to see the Houston Rockets go back to back as champions of the NBA along with the rise of the Orlando Magic and Shaquille O’Neal as a new face of professional basketball, the return of Michael Jordan to basketball became the overriding storyline of the 95-96 season. And wouldn’t you know it, Jordan led the Bulls to 72 wins and a cruising 4-2 series win over Seattle to win his fourth NBA title. The image you can’t forget is Jordan laying on the locker room floor crying uncontrollably since the series clinching win came on Father’s Day, almost a year after his father had been murdered. Like the Cowboys, it was a short time that Jordan was absent from the championship scene, but it was still significant because in his return, so did the fans return. The ratings for the ’96 finals were significantly higher than the previous two Jordan-less seasons and for the ’97 and ’98 finals where the second Bulls three-peat would be completed, the ratings only grew. (Since then, the ratings for the NBA Finals have not come close to equalling where they were for ’96, ’97, or ’98 Finals.)
Who could forget as well that 1996 marked the return of Mike Tyson to the WBA and WBC heavyweight championships in boxing? Tyson, soaked in infamy for the 1992 rape conviction that sent him to prison, was an instant ratings draw when he returned to boxing in 1995 and had one of the biggest pay-per-view buys of all time when he slaughtered Peter McNeeley in the time equivalent of a Vine video by today’s standards. By the time he had regained his spot as the number one man in boxing in 1996, Tyson was poised to deliver the fight we never got in 1992 when he faced Evander Holyfield. Holyfield won that bout and the subsequent “ear biting” rematch the year after, but the midst of that ’95 to mid ’96, Mike Tyson had people coming back to boxing in droves to buy ppvs even for fights that wouldn’t last longer than a few minutes.
Probably the biggest return to prominence in sports came in the fall of 1996 when the New York Yankees, after being out of the playoffs for over a decade, would win the first of four World Series Titles in five years. What made the ’96 World Series all the more memorable was that the Yankees unseeded the defending champion Atlanta Braves who were poised to become the team of the decade after finally getting over the hump the year before in the World Series. Once again, this was a championship game/series that ratings-wise has yet to be topped in the 21 years since.
It’s all coincidental, of course. It’s not like everyone got together and booked it to where all of the champions of years past would once again be champions in 1996, but it is something significant. Not just from the standpoint of championships. More so from the aspect of popularity. The athletes, the teams, the stars brought eyes back to the product in ways that in years after were rarely, if ever, equalled. Now, let’s shift back to where Martin Dixon leaves us at the end of The Hollywood Years installment.
WCW in 1996 was starting to close the gap. It had poached and signed many top WWF talent and had assembled a roster that finally brought a rival to Vince McMahon. The introduction of The Outsiders in the spring of 1996 was significant. Why were Razor Ramon and Diesel on WCW television? The intrigue started to build. But, the tipping point came with Hulk Hogan’s seismic character shift in Orlando. The moment Hogan’s leg dropped on Macho Man, he instantly became one of the most popular draws in pro wrestling again. After a period of decline and staleness in character, Hulk Hogan was revitalized as Hollywood Hogan, and so with it professional wrestling would be revitalized as well.
1996 was wild if you were a sports fan. Probably even more wild if you were just a casual fan. The Cowboys, Jordan, Tyson, the Yankees, Hogan; what these all represent collectively is the power of bringing in the casual fan to sports and entertainment. And if there was any true measure of success as we’ve seen in pop culture, it’s the breakthrough to the casual fans that usually reaps the biggest rewards.
Martin Dixon’s Wrestling in the Clinton Years: The Road to Hollywood is now available on Amazon.com for electronic reading.