Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jabroni Companion #4

The third major topic I’d like to breech is one that still very much concerns wrestling today. Variously known as a faction, a stable, a clique, I’m talking about a collection of wrestlers united for a single cause, and famous examples through the years have included the Four Horsemen, D-Generation X, Evolution, the Main Event Mafia, the Nexus, but today I will spend my time with the one version I still believe to this day dominates the idea in its most perfect form,

IV. New World Order

Spelling it all out like that is a tad less glamorous and familiar than simply saying, the nWo. I like to using the capitalization featured in the group’s logo, because it looks cooler, and is more representative of what it eventually came to symbolize, breaking all the rules, a rebellion that led directly into the Attitude Era, when wrestling vaulted back into the popular consciousness after the hot early years of Hulkamania died down, which only made it fair that Hulk Hogan was once again at the center of things.

Lots of people have tried to downplay Hogan’s role in wrestling’s resurgence during this time. Even though his heel turn galvanized fans as he himself hadn’t been able to do in years (and in reality, he’d only waited about five years for this moment to arrive), Hogan was seen as past his prime. Fans embraced Steve Austin as the new Hogan only two years after the formation of the nWo, and it took another five years for Hogan to be cool again (only that time, no one realized that the fans now wanted an unmitigated hero again).

Anyway, before I get completely ahead of myself, let’s back up a little. Wrestling is only really popular in the mainstream when it breaks free of its own constraints. A lot of great wrestlers toil for years under very little recognition because they can’t transcend expectations. Ric Flair is probably the prototype. There’s no doubt that he became one of the most successful, charismatic, and beloved wrestlers of several generations, but he excelled at all the things a wrestler was supposed to, rather than completely reinventing the rules. It’s exactly the opposite of what Hulk Hogan did during the very same years. On paper, Flair and Hogan are fairly similar wrestlers, believe it or not. Both of them know exactly the kind of match, exactly the kinds of things to do to involve the crowd, to get them excited or concerns based on the current chances of success. It doesn’t matter that Flair was usually the heel, and that Hogan was usually the face. Both knew what needed to be done, and they did it well, and very consistently. But while Flair would have been at home in any era (as he proved for years), Hogan was something new, which the AWA and WWE itself didn’t realize for years. He had to appear in a movie (ROCKY III) to appear larger than life, for his sheer size to be realized. From that moment on, he was accepted as the new standard for professional wrestling, and the entire industry had to realign itself to compensate.

It’s the same thing that happened with The Rock years later, though as it turned out, charisma is something that’s a lot harder to match than mere presence (just ask Chris Jericho, the wrestler who most benefited from this phenomenon, and who tried the hardest to live up to it), and why WWE had to completely revamp itself around Austin, a process that took years (from a period that actually predated the formation of the nWo, no less).

All of this is to say, true wrestling success, success that the mainstream readily accepts, is incredibly rare, and is probably routinely impossible. When WCW originally acquired Hogan in 1994, the company no doubt believed that it could buy that kind of success outright, even though Hogan hadn’t been relevant for about three years by that point. By dragging everyone to Hogan’s level, the novelty of Hogan himself had worn off. WCW wasn’t a place to develop talent comparable to him, and WWE, faced with lawsuit and scandal, had backed off of the oversize game. A spin-off of the NWA, one of the oldest promotions in wrestling, WCW was far more traditionalist than Hogan was used to, and most of what he had to play with there was already familiar, whether it was Flair (with whom, admittedly, he’d never really done much work, by his own design, when the “Nature Boy” had briefly competed in WWE a few years earlier) or Randy Savage, or…Well, there really weren’t too many options. Paul Whyte debuted as the Giant in 1995, but he was new to wrestling, and so didn’t know what kind of role he should play (think Matt Morgan). Vader might have been a perfect opponent, exactly the kind of foe Hogan would have enjoyed in WWE just a few years earlier, but that wasn’t the way WCW did business (though that’s exactly the kind of program Sting used to enjoy, for some reason, and Flair, too).

No, instead it was WWE who had the likes of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, charismatic big men who didn’t have the same kind of opportunities Hogan had enjoyed for years, and so ended up looking somewhat average, even though they were pushed as some of the company’s biggest stars. “Average” was exactly what they’d been for years until they’d adopted, respectively, the Diesel and Razor Ramon personas, when they became bona fide stars. Ironically, the same thing that made their careers also inhibited them. “Big Daddy Cool” and the “Bad Guy” weren’t exactly immortal. The business, as I said, had adapted to Hulk Hogan, and not for the better.

So that’s what made the summer of 1996 so perfect, because WCW finally seemed to realize what it needed to reach the next level. It needed, not just Hogan, but Hall and Nash, and the only concept that was big enough for all three of them was the ultimate heel faction, the New World Order. I like to maintain to this day that Scott Hall got the bum deal of all bum deals in his career, since out of the three of them, he alone never became a world champion. Yet he was the only one who could have introduced the concept and been taken seriously. He had indefinable charisma, trapped in a vaguely foreign package that was just strange enough to be cool. Most wrestlers who aren’t outright Americans are relegated to jobbers for the biggest stars. Hall never became that. He also never became anything else.

Anyway, Hall set up the WCW debut (or rather, return of) Nash, so that Nash could finally just be himself and be taken seriously (I still can’t understand how the company had found it so easy to ignore his upside years earlier, when Shawn Michaels saw it so clearly from the other side of the pond), and in turn allow Hogan to become relevant again by completely inverting his appeal. He didn’t become a better wrestler, it’s true, but it’s almost as if allowing fans to hate him made everyone forget that he was using the same tactics, the same basic charisma, to prove the same point. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself again.

The formation of the New World Order completely transformed WCW. Beyond Ric Flair only one man truly symbolized the company as it had been before Hogan’s arrival, and that was Sting, and he’d never meant anything in relation to Hogan for two years, and now suddenly, someone seemed to realize that if there was anything that was the complete opposite of Hogan, who blatantly went after the approval of the crowd, it was Sting, who had once been built up as the next generation, and evolution of the Ric Flair archetype. It’s why he didn’t go by Steve Borden, and why he wore paint on his face. But that wasn’t enough in the world of Hulk Hogan. To be the opposite of Hogan, he had to truly be too cool for school, as it were (I swear, that terminology would have been relevant in 1996). Instead of continuing to wrestle, in fact, Sting abandoned the ring for more than a year. And became more popular.

Sure, he changed his look, became more mysterious, less predictable. But the main thing was, while nWo ran wild (as it were), Sting did anything but. He stayed back, looked on from the rafters. One of the most popular wrestlers of that period never even wrestled. While Hogan (in reverse) continued to appeal to the crowd by the same tactics (via different methods) as usual, Sting beckoned for their approval by doing nothing more than looking on in disapproval. He had, in essence, become one with them. He was, as the story went, disgusted, not only with Hogan and his gang, but with the company in general, which had failed to trust him (there’s an excellent War Games match from 1996 that illustrates this whole arc, and has been included in multiple WWE DVDs, which I will reference again later in the Jabroni Companion).

It’s exactly the opposite, too, of what would make Steve Austin so popular, because of all the things the nWo did, it flaunted authority more than it challenged it. A lot of people, though, started to care about WCW precisely because of the nWo, whether because of Sting or alongside him. From the early months of 1996 most of the group remained Hogan, Hall, and Nash, but slowly grew to include many other members, and it’s said that adding to this select group diluted it, but that wasn’t how it originally played. The greater its influence grew, the greater the menace of the nWo grew. It was unlike anything wrestling had seen before. The whole idea of Hall and Nash’s introduction as the Outsiders was that they secretly represented a war between WCW and WWE. It was, in the imagination of the fans, what the later WCW/ECW Invasion was supposed to look like, a whole new company not just challenging but dominating the status quo.

Sting abandoned his allies. Ric Flair was humiliated. The Giant swapped sides (several times). Randy Savage eventually decided, if you can’t beat them, join them. Lex Luger put up a valiant effort, and was actually the first wrestler to defeat Hogan for the strap during the war. But it simply wasn’t enough. 1997 was much like 1996, except nWo was now a way of life. At the end of the year, Sting finally staged his return, and his clash with Hogan at Starrcade was dubbed the match of the century. Austin never had anything like that. Still, the idea of the match was different from the reality of the match, and in reality, Sting was not exactly the Ultimate Warrior (you can do some research and discovery the irony of that statement for yourself). He had done everything he could do. WCW had done everything it could do. But the simple fact was, Sting meant more as an idea than he did as a wrestler at this point. He won the battle (twice), but couldn’t win the war. Wrestling craves, in the end, a lot more than a silent warrior. That’s why Hogan and the nWo were back to dominating before long.

It was okay, too, since there was another warrior on the horizon, by the name of Bill Goldberg. By the time Sting was preparing for his comeback, Goldberg was building a different kind of mystique, not by presence alone, but in the ring. He was a different kind of transcendent star, much as Hogan had been, much as Austin had now become in WWE. He was the rare star who could captivate an audience simply by his performance, not with a lot of fancy tricks, the way Ric Flair would, but by convincing dominance. He truly seemed unstoppable.

By the summer of 1998, two years after the formation of the New World Order, Goldberg was ready for his moment. Roddy Piper had tried already (no, really). Sting had tried. This time it was Goldberg’s chance. He did it on TV. That’s all he needed. The idea of Goldberg alone demanded it. He got the job done with very little fanfare, again, another opposite, the reverse of how Sting had accomplished it. Incredibly, Hogan and the nWo kept chugging along during Goldberg’s whole reign. Part of the reason was that “Diamond” Dallas Page had reached a point where he was a viable contender, a worthy adversary, in ways that Goldberg couldn’t be. DDP could do all the nonsense that Goldberg couldn’t, appear in mixed matches with celebrities. In fact, Goldberg’s biggest world title match during his reign wasn’t against an nWo opponent, but against DDP.

Of course, he didn’t lose the title to Page. Goldberg didn’t lose matches. Although Hogan was no longer a viable contender for “Da Man,” there remained one other foe in the nWo fold who was, Kevin Nash. This was the beginning of the end for Goldberg’s popularity, when he was forced into a position that didn’t suit his character, when he was forced to face the regular realities of other wrestlers (much as had felled Hogan years earlier), when he was forced to become just like everyone else. Make him seem less special and he becomes just another man. Nash defeats Goldberg, nWo takes over again. Goldberg is forced to compete just like anyone else, to prove himself again, and the bullies once again dominate.

The story of the nWo doesn’t get better than that. There are no more glorious chapters, at least in WCW. Jeff Jarrett eventually forms nWo 2000, a version that is only relevant for bringing Jarrett to the main event level for the first time (in hindsight, if not a highlight of the nWo legacy, still incredibly significant in wrestling lore). The group, if not outright disbanding, finally fades. Without a true challenge, whether the intangible threat of Sting, or the awesome power of Goldberg, this ultimate version of the heel means nothing. Still, the idea of the nWo remains. When Vince McMahon conjures the boogeyman (no, not that one) years later, it comes in the form of Hall, Nash, and Hogan. 2002 is not exactly 1996, but the idea of these big names coming at opponents all at the same time is much the same. The only problem is, there are too many targets. Austin and The Rock together are more than even Sting and Goldberg coming at you at the same time. They have charisma to spare. They’re more than just wrestlers. They transcend the ring exactly in the same way the nWo does. So what happens is, this war becomes more about Hogan than his band, more about the epic clash with The Rock, and that brings the nWo right back to where it started. Originally, it brought star power to WCW. Now, it brings star power back to Hogan, if only for a little while. He’s older now, less capable of fulfilling the routine demands of the crowd. (No wonder his presence now means virtually nothing to TNA. He couldn’t surprise the fans even if he wanted to.)

The New World Order, when you strip it down to its component parts, seems very familiar. A group of wrestlers united for a common cause. But it’s the intangible that makes the difference. Bigger than the sum of its parts, but still dependent on those parts, with the intrinsic need for something to work off of, and blessed three times with exactly that. It always gets the job done. It motivates the fans. That’s what it’s all about.

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