The Column Beyond: Wrestling, Shared Universes, and the Obsolete Joy of the Lethal Lottery

starrcade 1991

I’ve often found that there are two major cross-sections of wrestling fans. The first is also big sports fans, drawn in by the athleticism, the local favoritism, and the similar presentation. This makes sense. Wrestling isn’t a sport but it’s almost undeniably sports entertainment. That might be a fabricated, corporate, even self-loathing phrase, but there’s some level of truth in it.

The second, on paper, is somehow less obvious. There’s a huge intersect between fans of pro wrestling and fans of comic books. If you ask someone in either industry you’ll get the same typical answer, one of colorful characters and the battle of good vs evil and big, over the top battles. For instance, Marvel’s editor in chief, Axel Alonso, when recently asked about CM Punk writing a story for an upcoming Thor annual, responded with “Comics and wrestling both feature costumed heroes and villains that fight, sometimes heroes and villains switch sides…” and while that’s true, I don’t think it, alone, gets to the heart of the overlap.

There are very few genres which feature weekly serialized storytelling in a shared universe. With both wrestling and the Big 2 (Marvel and DC) superhero comics, fans can follow a world of characters over a large canvas, enjoying weekly fixes of their addiction to keep them hooked. They’re never far away from another dose of the fictional environment. With the advent of DVDs, on-demand television, and services like Netflix, there’s been seen a rise in binge-able serialized television in general, but even then, it’s usually just one show, in one world, at a time, and then, only for part of a year and almost always telling a finite story.

With comics and wrestling, a reader/watcher has multiple characters in multiple interactions, with multiple stories that occasionally interlink, all as part of a never-ending tapestry. There’s a weekly investment that what they’re watching counts and matters and will for years. Comics might occasionally reboot, sure, and WWE especially is terrible about year-to-year continuity, let alone month-to-month, but it’s still there, and it’s not anything that can be found almost anywhere else. It’s not just a show, but a fictional world, a shared Universe. It’s not just entertainment but a sort of living history as well.

That stands out and it hooks people. It did so even more back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when there wasn’t that level of serialized connectivity in other media. For kids, cartoons (being glorified toy commercials) had one-and-done episodes. Everything would be resolved and back to normal by the end of the half-hour. The same was true for weekly TV dramas for adults. Being sold into syndication was where the money resided for a TV show, and that meant being able to watch any episode in any order. It meant a lack of complexity and continuity.

It was a different time for wrestling too, however. Most television consisted of jobber matches, with maybe a TV main event, or a couple of featured match-ups on the early evening or prime time shows. Pay-per-views were fewer and farther between and viewers only saw full cards like the MSG or Boston Garden shows if they happened to live in the right area, and even then WWF had phased out most of those by 1991. Furthermore, WWF had an increased rigidity due to their organizational structure. Feuds would last over months and months with matches and return matches and blow off matches. Pairings would be tightly locked and usually only varied within these periods if there was an injury.

WCW was a little looser in its scheduling and more regularly featured displaying more major match-ups on TV, but it was a difference of degrees. In the more territorial days, earlier into the 80s, when Jim Crockett Promotions had a smaller roster, one wrestler would often discuss other things happening on the show in his promos, and more and more into 1992, there would be featured tags and six-man matches that brought random assortments of babyfaces together due to the Dangerous Alliance storyline, but there was still the lack of cohesion that everyone is so used to today.

We take it for granted now. The need to fill hours of weekly television without enhancement matches to fall back upon means that everyone ends up wrestling or teaming with almost everyone else within the course of a year. Moreover, there are far more frequent battle royals. We just had a year in 2013 where there were six man tag matches main eventing television shows week after week after week. Then there’s that other trope, fairly popular with the WWE creative team to bring the entire roster to the entranceway or place them all into the ring for a promo. One can look at more recent elements like the draft show during the brand split or the video games which feature the entire roster that can be shuffled at will, or even something as simple as seeing all the wrestlers sit together during the Hall of Fame ceremony. We even have a series of talking heads shows on the Network now where wrestlers talk about other wrestlers.

As I said, it was a very different world back in 1991. For WCW, there would occasionally be a big multi-man match on PPV such as War Games or the Chamber of Horrors, and just as rarely something like the Georgia Brawl battle royal or even an anemic lumberjack match like Rich vs Josh at a Clash, but they were rare. There were things that helped such as the Top Ten list or the sheer variety of opponents that TV Champ Steve Austin had during the year, but these were little touches, greatly offset by the confusion and incoherence of the booking. As a ten year old, I think I picked up more of the WCW shared universe feel from the Impel brand trading cards or the WCW Magazine (or even better, the Apter mags that crossed over between universes) than I did from watching WCW Saturday Night. For a kid in that period, it was usually schoolyard arguments and action figure wars that brought it all together. Rarely did the actual product live up to its potential in that regard.

That’s what made the Lethal Lottery so special, and also, why it’s hard for a lot of people who came into wrestling during the Monday Night Wars era or later to fully understand why some people might remember it so fondly. The show began with the entire roster out standing on risers. Everyone was next to everyone else. They then retreated back to the face and heel locker rooms, where again, you could watch them interact with one another through the night. Magnum TA and Missy Hyatt would pull out names and wrestlers would head down to ringside for tag team matches. The winners would advance to the BattleBowl battle royal. Relative to those other period bastions of a shared pro wrestling universe, the Royal Rumble and Survivor Series, it had that special tinge of WCW convolution.

It also didn’t lead to many good or great matches. There were multiple reasons for that. While it was worked, of course, they fought for at least some air of believability here (though in later years, less so). It meant that you couldn’t stack a match too obviously like Pillman and Liger vs the Young Pistols, or at the least, you couldn’t stack too many matches like that. Also, most of the top stars (of which WCW didn’t have that many anyway) had to be kept apart for the first round or else they wouldn’t be able to have them all in BattleBowl at the end of the night; only winners advanced. Likewise, the best wrestlers, who may not necessarily have been the top stars had to be spread out to subsidize the worst wrestlers. With ten tag matches on the card, timing would play a role in the mapping out of the matches. Along those lines, with so many tag matches, they had to make sure not to follow the same, successful southern tag formula in each match. Hot tags had to be used sparingly so that the crowd didn’t end up burnt out on them.

So, here we have what was traditionally the biggest WCW show of the year trapped in a format that wasn’t going to lead to good matches and really wasn’t there to forward storylines much either. This was in part because they were so new into the Dangerous Alliance saga. I also want to say it had something to do with the transition from Jim Herd to Kip Allen Frey as Executive VP since the later would have that role by the Clash in January but I’m honestly not sure. We have all of this pushing against the show and its gimmick and I’m saying how great it was, both in general, and especially to me, a 10 year old sleeping over his friend’s house to play Nintendo and watch this back during a cold Massachusetts winter. Why? Because of the characters and how this freed them to interact with one another.

Wrestling is about more than star ratings. It’s even about more than just good booking. It’s also about characters. Yes, it’s about heroes and villains; that’s true enough. The comparison to comics that everyone makes isn’t false when it comes to that. It’s about more than heroes fighting the villains though. Sometimes it’s just about them coexisting in this same insane world. WCW in 1991 was this mad mishmash where Scott Steiner could exist in the same shared narrative space as Firebreaker Chip who was in the same world as the Diamond Studd who was there with One Man Gang or Jimmy Jam Garvin or Oz or Ron Simmons or Black Blood or Alexandra York. So little of it ever got explained. Was Oz supposed to be a wizard? Was he supposed to be a maniac strong-man inspired by the Wizard of Oz like some Batman villain? Was he just some schlub put out there in a corporate sponsorship gimmick trudging along like someone with an Eat at Joe’s sign? There was never any indication that he even knew, let alone anyone else. What about Black Blood? Was he a time traveler? A copycat killer? Some guy that Kevin Sullivan found and put a hood on to be intimidating? Who knows? They never had a chance to really show the character as anything but the barest minimum of what he might be.

During the Lethal Lottery, WCW stuck these broadly-defined entities in affiliation-themed locker rooms, put them in tag matches together against two other wrestlers, mid-carder or better, and forced them to interact with one another on a big stage. In this setting, character exploration almost had to take place. And it did. There were satisfying, little character moments during Starrcade 91 in just about every match.

There were cases of partners not getting along. Newly turned heel Tracy Smothers, one half of the Young Pistols, got to showcase his new persona and down the ring in a tag match where he was trapped between the two Freebirds. He refused to tag Hayes in and got himself over as a stubborn, obstinate, irritating jerk. Rick Steiner, likewise, refused to tag in the Night Stalker, choosing instead to take on both Vader (who bumped around the ring for him) and Mr. Hughes. This was more because he didn’t trust his partner, green as he was. Eventually Stalker tagged himself in and duly lost the match. Larry Zbyszko bossed partner El Gigante around right up until the point where he got clobbered for it, leading to both of them getting eliminated.

Then there was Abdullah the Butcher. Abdullah, confused and upset that Sgt. Buddy Lee Parker was named bosom buddy Cactus Jack’s partner instead of himself, attacked the poor Sgt. both in the locker room and then on the ramp way, and Parker, to his credit, tried to crawl to the ring, garnering the only “Buddy, Buddy” chant of his entire career. Abdullah was legitimately scary to me as a kid. The image of him hitting Parker, who wasn’t even a good guy, with an object over and over again was jarring. He wasn’t even a good guy! Later on, Brian Pillman had to selflessly deal with a crazy situation where he was partnered with Bobby Eaton even his opponent, Sting, had a partner that was trying to kill him in Abdullah. At one point Eaton went so far as to try to tag Abdullah in despite the fact they weren’t partners.

The fun implications of the shared universe show up even in smaller moments. Thomas Rich spent a whole minute before his match trying to shake Ron Simmons hand but after they won their match, Simmons finally deigned him worthy of a well-earned high five. Jushin Liger may have been wasted in his WCW PPV debut teaming with Bill Kazmaier and facing Diamond Dallas Page and Mike Graham, but they still came together to end the match with a double team move. It’s even in the tiniest of things like Paul E. Dangerously cowering in the heel locker room after Vader pushes him out of the way when his name’s called. There would have been no opportunity for a moment like that in the normal course of weekly WCW TV or even on most PPVs.

I can’t honestly say how much of this I picked up on as a ten year old, and how much of it was the novelty of it all or the excitement of guessing which wrestler might be called down next. Abdullah stood out. The superteam of Arn Anderson and Lex Luger did as well. Watching my hero, Pillman, do the right thing even if it wasn’t in his own interest made me proud as a kid even if it’s not even a footnote in his career. Throughout the night the announcers did a good job of pointing out a lot of these moments and while they knew they weren’t watching Steamboat/Rhodes vs the Enforcers, I think they put across how fun the night was.

Even looking back now, while I find the enjoyable elements of the show enjoyable, I can understand why it wouldn’t seem like anything special to someone younger than me. It’s a litany of one and two star tag matches, none of which really given the chance to stand out. What made Starrcade 91 so special is so commonplace now. At the time, though, it was a magical thing, one night where viewers were no longer watching wrestlers in the tiny little bottles of their individual feuds but instead a whole federation consisting of larger than life characters balanced precariously in a strangely fascinating world.