Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – One fateful moment…

There are moments in the history of professional wrestling which cause the entire landscape to drastically change, such as the infamous “Montreal Screwjob” or The Outsiders’ invasion of WCW leading to Hulk Hogan’s heel-turn and the formation of the new World order. These turning points can inspire fans to wonder, “what if things had been different, and how would the future have changed?” It’s Hogan and the nWo that I’ve been musing on lately, in fact. Specifically, the moment some experts believe to have been the beginning of the end for the once-mighty World Championship Wrestling: Starrcade 1997, and the long-awaited showdown between heel world champion Hollywood Hulk Hogan and the emotionally and physically altered, Crow-inspired version of Sting.

TODAY’S ISSUE: What if the Sting/Hogan match had been booked the “right way”?

Perhaps no single match in the history of the business had ever been built so patiently, dangled so deliciously in front of salivating wrestling fans and allowed to age like fine wine to exquisite perfection, as the uncharacteristically slow-burned Hollywood Hogan title defense against the mysterious, brooding avenger, this new, darker Sting.

Where things went wrong in real history for WCW was when the conniving, super-politician Terry Bollea invoked the dreaded “creative control” contract clause to protect his Hulk Hogan character from ever suffering that devastating defeat at the hands of Sting, a defeat the 18-month storyline absolutely required in order for the storyline arc to make sense. Instead, Bollea muddied the waters, took liberties, and ensured that while Sting emerged with the WCW world title belt at the end of the night, his victory at Starrcade was marred with controversy and eventually erased from relevance altogether through more over-booking, manipulating, and self-preservation by Bollea. The greatest angle produced by the leading wrestling promotion in the world at that time ended up a complete dud, with an unsatisfying splat in place of what should have been a huge fireworks display. But what if things had been different?

Let’s go back to the match at Starrcade 1997, but this time, things will be different.

Hogan utilizes every dirty trick in his arsenal as expected, but in the end, the Stinger simply will not be denied. Sting overcomes Hogan’s illegal tactics, interference by the nWo, and even some questionable officiating by referee Nick Patrick, to dominate Hollywood after two big Stinger Splashes in the corner and a vicious Scorpion Deathdrop. Finally, Sting vanquishes Hogan and the nWo when he forces the former hero to tap out in the Scorpion Deathlock.

Hogan’s hand slapping the mat as he begs for mercy is representative not only of a clean, decisive victory for Sting, but also for the forces of good over evil, and for WCW over the nWo. Bret Hart never gets involved, there is no fast-but-not-fast count, and Terry Bollea does not influence the outcome of the match with his creative control. In every conceivable way, the match is booked exactly as many felt it should have been, and the moment of Sting’s victory is a crowning event and satisfying conclusion well worth the 18-month build up.

When Sting slowly walks away from the ring following his victory, the announcers wonder if he’s just so exhausted from the match and the many months of pursuing Hogan that he has no energy left, and they assume the big celebration will take place the following night on Nitro. Oddly, Sting doesn’t appear on Nitro 24 hours later, although everyone else celebrates throughout the entire broadcast. They show video highlights and stills of Sting pummeling Hogan and stopping his onslaught, but sadly missing is an image of him proudly hoisting the gold title belt aloft in victory. In fact, he leaves the belt behind after the match, presumably so WCW officials can clean the spray-paint stained nWo logo off and shine it back to its rightful appearance as the sought-after prize it has been for so many years.

Meanwhile, with the spirit of the nWo now severely shaken, WCW patriots begin to regain confidence and challenge nWo personnel to matches at every turn. You can feel the nWo in chaos, their leader Hogan not only defeated soundly, but nowhere to be found. The announce crew speaks with a pride and strength not heard since the “hostile takeover” began prior to Bash at the Beach a year and a half earlier.

It’s assumed that Hogan has denied his contracted right to a return match against Sting, and when the nWo try to claim that rematch clause applies to another member of their now-weakening faction, WCW President J.J. Dillon has the guts to stand up to the nWo and guarantee that only Hogan personally is entitled to this rematch, and if anyone else in the nWo wants a world title shot, they had better earn one the old fashioned way.

Reeling from the seeming abandonment by their leader and their inability to regain their foothold in WCW or to find a new leader, the nWo begins to splinter and fall apart. Internal strife reigns supreme throughout the new World order, and members being facing each other in matches, backstage confrontations, and verbal disputes, while jubilant WCW loyalists either sit back and enjoy or outright instigate issues between the civil warriors who once held their home promotion hostage under a black and white banner of fear and dominance.

The announcers begin to speculate that Sting will soon return to his former happy-go-lucky, neon persona, smiling and speaking again, but it never happens. He faces legitimate challengers to his championship month after month, but with a recognizable lack of passion. He defends his gold with no emotion or intensity. He now seems more a broken man than before he lifted the shroud of the nWo and restored WCW to its former glory. Curiously, the commentators never make mention of his worsening mental state, choosing instead to focus on the glory of the December night in which he ended the nWo’s rule over WCW. But it’s obvious things are not as they should be.

Through the summer months, Sting begins leaving messages in black, shiny envelopes with his white scorpion logo in the middle of the ring addressed to Mike Tenay. The champion instructs the Professor to read his memos to the world on national television much like the Phantom of the Opera might. The notes are cryptic, chaotic, and clearly not from the mind of a sane man. Statements like, “things are getting worse…” and “why won’t it heal?” disturb the audience, and each message ends with the phrase “I must not rest until it’s over”.

Eventually Tony Schiavone begs Tenay to stop reporting Sting’s messages, but what else can WCW do? According to their own mandate, the world champion is entitled to interview time on each episode of television, and if this is how he chooses to utilize that time, they must comply. In addition to these downright creepy missives, Sting continues to act almost zombie-like while successfully defending his title, wrestling in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of early Undertaker’s style. He seemingly feels no pain, but no joy of victory either. He’s workmanlike but unmotivated, and he never carries the big gold belt with him; it somehow just appears at ringside before his world title matches, and disappears when he wins.

He ignores the increasingly fearful looks from the fans and still refuses to speak a word, making Sting the opposite of the hero he was in December. He begins to devolve into a dangerous enigma, a broken shell of a man who should have begun cheering up the night he defeated Hogan and shattered the nWo. But the taint upon his soul caused by a boyhood idol letting him down, and his very own loyalty being questioned for months by his friends and allies seems to have ruined this once proud warrior.

In late summer, Sting increases his presence on television and at pay-per-views. He begins involving himself in title matches, anointing those he feels are worthy of being champions. If he doesn’t approve of a champion or challenger, he simply knocks them out with his trademark baseball bat behind the referee’s back, and leaves them lying in the middle of the ring so his chosen wrestler can capture the contested title. The Tag Team, United States, Television and Cruiserweight champions are all manipulated by Sting, and when a new man has a chance to become the #1 contender, for instance in a battle royal, Sting simply eliminates the men he doesn’t wish to win and ensures victory for those he wants to succeed. Nobody can even figure a pattern to the men he chooses to silently endorse. Some are heels, some faces, some have been lifetime WCW supporters and some were former nWo members who have since rejoined the fold.

Stepping up the dangerous, unpredictable side of his ever-darkening activities, Sting abducts people at random, whether they be wrestlers, commentators, referees, front office personnel, and in once rare case, a “fan from the audience”. Many of them never return, or worse, when they do show up again months later, they are shells of their former selves, trancelike and disinterested in the world around them. What Sting could possibly be doing to his victims is unknown, and while many speculate, Tenay is the only man who has the courage and insight to state, “perhaps we don’t WANT to know what he does with them.”

Sadly, Sting is ordered by WCW management to be banned from buildings unless he has a scheduled title defense, but of course, J.J. Dillon and his bumbling security team have absolutely no chance of stopping the rafter-hiding, zip line-descending enigma from making his way into arenas and interfering anytime he chooses to. It appears that Sting, in his warped, delusional frame of mind, believes that the only way he can safeguard WCW is to control it completely, much as a totalitarian state would control its own people.

Ironically, the fearful commentators begin to lament the end of the nWo, frequently stating that at least you always knew where you stood with them. Conversely, Sting’s motives are unclear, his actions are erratic, he’s impossible to predict, and unlikely to be stopped by anyone or anything they have at their disposal. WCW is actually worse now, under the oppressive thumb of the insane dark avenger, than when the renegade nWo were in control. With each monthly defense of his crown, the announcers pray that the challenger will take the title from Sting and rid WCW of his chilling dominion, but nobody is able to come close. Sting dominates the world title, and the entire company, with little effort. He shows no remorse, no pity, and no hesitation. He simply controls from the darkness.

With WCW wrestlers and leadership alike feeling terrorized, Dillon knows that something must be done. Trembling in fear one Monday night in October, he takes a microphone into the ring, awash in the bright glow of one solitary spotlight. Looking over his shoulder, almost afraid to speak, the WCW President announces that at Starrcade 1998 things will be different. He has contracted a challenger for the world champion; the one and only man who Dillon believes can put a stop to Sting’s rampage. While Schiavone and Dusty Rhodes excitedly speculate over the identity of this challenger, Mike Tenay is surprisingly quiet. He doesn’t enter the debate as Nitro goes off the air.

Sting disappears for a few weeks, then breaks his own silence without appearing on television, as WCW personnel begin finding his now signature shiny, black envelopes in odd places, one per week. These envelopes appear in lockers, vehicles, at the announce position, or hanging from Sting’s zip line, and each asks a simple question, “Is it Lex Luger?” “Is it Randy Savage?” “Is it Kevin Nash?” “Is it the Giant?” Obviously interested in who his mystery opponent will be at Starrcade, the champion shows his first sign of weakness since his overthrow of the nWo almost one year earlier. What a difference a year makes.

Leading into Starrcade, Sting becomes frantic. He succumbs to violent temper tantrums whenever the commentary team discloses the single piece of information about his challenger that they know. When Sting asks about potential adversaries for Starrcade in his weekly notes, Dillon responds directly, stating it won’t be Luger, or Savage, or Nash, or the Giant challenging for the world title, but that’s the only information he offers. Sting seems intent on tearing WCW apart unless somebody reveals his opponent’s name. He threatens employees, destroys locker rooms, and attacks innocent competitors in the middle of their matches. But in a rare moment of courage under fire, Dillon refuses anything more than to give Sting a single hint, and promises to do so two weeks before Starrcade.

When that night comes, 13 days before the anniversary of Sting’s world title victory (and the night his descent into madness became worse when it should have gotten better), the arena is eerily quiet. Nitro begins with another single spotlight in the ring, but this one doesn’t frame a person. It illuminates a shiny, red envelope with yellow lettering, spelling out the word “Sting”. The maniacal champion rappels from the rafters, landing mid-ring, and opens the envelope. The eyes of millions are on Sting as his facial expression becomes distorted and twisted with rage. Fans the world over buzz with anticipation and insiders like Meltzer and Alvarez speculate as to who Sting’s opponent will be. What name did Sting see inside the envelope?

The main event of Starrcade 1998 finally arrives and Sting’s haunting entrance music hits, but rather than a ghost-like, creepy stroll to the ring or an impressive zip line from the rafters, the world champ hurriedly marches down the ramp, enters the ring, grabs the microphone from Michael Buffer and demands his opponent reveal himself right this second. Sting is completely flustered and out of control since he’s no longer manipulating the situation around himself and pulling the strings, and he clearly doesn’t like it. After too long of a wait, the opening chords of “American Made” rip through the PA system and the crowd goes ballistic. After a one-year absence, Hulk Hogan has returned to claim his contractually obligated return match against Sting.

But this is the Hogan of old. Gone are the black and white of the nWo, replaced once again by the red and yellow. Gone is the weight belt with the name “Hollywood” around his waist, and the black stubble. The legendary multi-time champion is back to rescue WCW from Sting’s reign of terror and lunacy. Sting is livid, and tries to attack Hogan in the aisle before he enters the ring but the Hulkster fights him off with big punches and tosses him into the squared circle.

The bell rings and the match begins properly, with their roles from 12 months prior ironically reversed. Sting is now the desperate champion, willing to do anything and everything to retain against the babyface challenger, who wants to set things right. It’s a bruising battle, and Sting throws everything but the kitchen sink at the former leader of the nWo, cheating quite liberally. After absorbing everything Sting has to offer, Hogan “Hulks-up” and goes into his signature finishing sequence, dropping the big leg and defeating Sting, thus reclaiming the world title.

The locker room empties as WCW wrestlers congratulate the victor, helping Hogan celebrate as the commentators rejoice. A stoic Mike Tenay’s final comment, and the last spoken words on the broadcast are, “I hope Sting takes some time away to get his mind straight. Even in the shadow of this great victory, we must acknowledge that in the past year, WCW has lost a cherished, principal part of our family. Good luck, Sting. We hope you come back soon, and better than ever.”

The following night on Nitro, Hogan explains that while he stayed away for an entire year and watched WCW decay and crumble in Sting’s grasp, he realized just how bad things were when he held the company in a similar hostage-like situation with the nWo, and this introspection helped him to rediscover his roots. He only invoked his rematch clause to try to reach Sting, who Hogan feels responsible for turning into the changed man he is today, he says. He endorses Sting, claiming it was his own fault that a good man like Sting wound up traveling a bad path, and he hopes Sting will take a much-needed vacation and find himself again. In this promo, Hogan effectively clears the way for Sting to return to his former look, character and state of mind someday.

And that’s exactly what happens to bring this fantasy to a conclusion. Sting returns during a Hogan promo in late spring with spiked, bleached-blond hair, neon pink tights and day-glow green boots. The former world champion shakes Hogan’s hand and hugs him, thereby reclaiming his spot at the top of the babyface heap in WCW. After the incredible journey both men have taken, Sting and Hogan are the top two babyfaces in WCW once again.

In my fantasy version of how things could have been, Sting returns to his former persona after nearly three years of incredible changes, but with his adversaries (and allies) now harboring a new, deeper respect for what he did for WCW, the madness he endured, and the fact that he was able to return from it a stronger man. He seems a more three-dimensional character now, not just a poster boy for babyfaces wrestlers the world over. He’ll always need to be careful not to let himself slide down that slippery slope again someday, and it’s a weakness heels are able to exploit in promos and attacks on the Stinger. Weakness in the hero always allows for more sophisticated storylines to be written.

Hulk Hogan is back to his “say your prayers and eat your vitamins” routine, but now the fans love him again, and his gimmick seems fresh once more. It’s amazing what affect his heel-turn and subsequent absence had toward making Hogan beloved and appreciated when he had worn out his welcome in WCW years prior, and now he’s regained his place as the #1 face in professional wrestling. At least for the moment…

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “[Optimism] is a mania for saying things are well when one is in hell.” – Voltaire

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