For more on the wrestling landscape in 2001 and the last stand of WCW, be sure to check out our PTBN Summit on the spring of 2001
No doubt I grew up a WWF fan. I had an easier time finding Superstars and Challenge on weekends than tuning into TBS at 6:05 for Saturday Night, and for a long time, I only thought of WCW as that weird show with the robotic backgrounds and the Steiner Brothers.
Of course the boys down south caught my attention in 1997 when the New World Order debuted and the Monday Night War would hit full swing, but it proved a momentary flirtation. Ordering Fall Brawl in 1998 with my high school buddies and watching Buff Bagwell get carted off in a stretcher for 20 minutes only to reveal he had been faking proved enough to switch the channel back to Stone Cold and company. I would keep checking out WCW as a dedicated wrestling fan, but they had proven themselves the minor leagues.
However, when I got to college in the fall of 2000, a somewhat rude awakening awaited me, as I found new pals who dug wrestling as much as I did and we settled in to watch the September 18 episode of Raw, only to learn it would be the last broadcast on the USA Network. Unfortunately for us, our school’s cable plan did not include TNN, leaving us out in the cold as far as the WWF’s flagship program. We still had SmackDown, but without many Friday classes, we tended to be out on Thursdays, leaving one another viable option: WCW Monday Nitro.
Thus, for the fall of 2000 and winter of 2001, I became somewhat of a born again WCW fan. It may have been somewhat out of necessity, and via the Internet I still kept up raptly with what the WWF had in store, but call it Stockholm Syndrome or whatever, I came to appreciate what the alternative had on the books in what proved to be their final run.
By October or so of 2000, Vince Russo had shuffled off to the side of being a power that be in WCW; Eric Bischoff had preceded him out the door months earlier. I’m not sure exactly who they had calling the shots, but in many cases, it seemed like the inmates had taken control of the asylum, nothing new for WCW, but in this case, it had far differently results than in prior days. For whatever reasons, rather than the now-departed Hulk Hogan and his ilk booking themselves to hold down the younger talent, veterans seemed to suddenly gain in generosity and though it may have been too late for the company, WCW’s new blood finally stepped up.
The most surprising and pivotal big star willing to donate his time and reputation to building the future of the business turned out to be Kevin Nash, long criticized for squashing promising young careers. Nash took an interest in the Natural Born Thrillers, a group of rookies straight out of the WCW Power Plant that included the likes of Chuck Palumbo, Sean O’Haire, Mike Sanders and others. While the NTB may have been green in the ring, they possessed charisma and raw potential that “Big Sexy” appreciated, as he spent his fall and early winter teaming and then feuding with them, trading victories but ultimately putting the kids over both through association and when he and Diamond Dallas Page laid down to give them the Tag Team titles.
While the stars of tomorrow stepped up with the help of those from yesteryear, other competitors who had spoiling for the main event finally had their chance to break out. Lance Storm, toiling for the last few years in ECW, found lightning in a bottle with his Team Canada gimmick, adding skills on the microphone he had never demonstrated to his proficient in-ring abilities to become one of the hottest heels in the business. Despite never being a top rate technician in the ring, “The Cat” Ernest Miller rode a connection with the audience and knack for comic timing and quick wit to get over as an unlikely crowd hero. Jeff Jarrett, removed from an uneven main event run in the spring, anchored the upper mid-card, putting on his work boots and making everybody from Mike Awesome to the Filthy Animals look like stars, bringing the journeymen Harris Brothers along with him.
Eric Bischoff had started the WCW cruiserweight division back in 1996 mostly as a way to fill out TV time with exciting action that would attract and hook a younger and/or more work rate-oriented audience while they waited for the name stars in the main event. By 2000, this once revolutionary and can’t miss title had fallen on hard times, with Vince Russo using the Cruiserweight championship as a prop for comedy angles involving the likes of Madusa and Oklahoma.
However, just as Edge & Christian, the Hardy Boyz and the Dudley Boyz used the ladder match as a platform to resurrect tag team wrestling in the WWF during 2000, so did a group of young, hungry cruiserweight attempt to do the same. Evan Karagias, Shane Helms, Shannon Moore, Kaz Hayashi, Yang and Jamie-san—later Jamie Noble—collectively 3 Count the Jung Dragons, stole numerous pay-per-views and TV outings with their high flying, devil-may-care matches, showcasing innovation and disregard for their physical wellbeing in a series of ladder and triangle tag matches.
By 2001, Chavo Guerrero Jr. stepped back into the cruiserweight scene, winning the title from Mike Sanders, and providing a grounding influence for the division. His matches with Helms in particular as well as other members of the new guard plus standby like Rey Mysterio Jr. and Billy Kidman, made this once forgotten title a focal point anew.
Meanwhile, at the top of the card, with the likes of Hogan and company absent plus Nash and Jarrett, not to mention Bill Goldberg and Lex Luger, being willing to play supporting roles for the time being, some long-deserving young veterans got a shot at the main event. Booker T had already been handled the ball over the summer, and carried it admirably, immediately possessing the credibility and confidence that justified his position. However, it had been years in the making since he blew up in the 1990’s for Scott Steiner to become World Champion, and once he knocked off Booker at Mayhem in November of 2000, he would not look back.
Unquestionably, Steiner’s physical had deteriorated from their peak in the early-90’s; a combination of steroids and injuries forced him to change up his game, using more clotheslines than suplexes, employing the Steiner Recliner over the Frankensteiner as a finish. However, what “Big Poppa Pump” may have lost when it came to holds and throws, he had discovered on the microphone and in his persona, becoming not only a genuinely scary bad ass who you believed could not be beaten, but a born antagonist, able to get the fans chanting along with his every catchphrase and then boo him in the next second.
With Steiner’s World title reign, the seemingly unselfish new attitude of the WCW veterans played out in full effect, as the likes of Sid Vicious, Kevin Nash, Diamond Dallas Page and others lined up to put over the champ as a killer. With a great heel on top, new stars burgeoning in the mid-card and main eventers peppered throughout in various roles, against all odds 2001 WCW seemed to show the company in the best position for the future it had been in years.
I would argue I may have enjoyed WCW in its final months more than I ever had in the past, even at the height of the NWO era. Whoever had the book behind the scenes, but more importantly, the guys and girls in the ring, let loose with the freedom of performers who knew they had nothing to lose; for the veterans, they realized this could be their last go around, and suddenly titles and being on top seemed to matter less than legacy. For the young and hungry, the responsibility lay on their shoulders to either turn things around or prove their worth to whoever would be taking charge.
No, not everything in 2001 WCW came out smelling like roses. While I found some appeal to Ric Flair’s Magnificent Seven faction, a retread of the familiar monster heel group on top did seem played out, particularly when the likes of Road Warrior Animal served as the squad’s heavy. Some feuds like the Shawn Stasiak-Bam Bam Bigelow program would be easily forgotten. Though I believe the long term plan for Bill Goldberg may have paid off, shelving such a top draw seemed like a mistake. And Sid Vicious breaking his leg in the main event of the Sin pay-per-view may have scarred my friend Nate and I for life, as we rolled our eyes at Tony Schiavone’s claims that the footage may be too graphic—as an aside, Schiavone and Scott Hudson found a great comfort zone as well in those waning months—and then fell to the floor screaming.
But for my money, the good outweighed the bad in those midnight hours of WCW’s existence. I’ll remember always knowing I’d be guaranteed at least one or two outstanding cruiserweight matches every week; Palumbo and O’Haire’s ascent to the top of the tag team division with even notorious prima donnas Lex Luger and Buff Bagwell willing to put them over; Lance Storm making Team Canada a force to be reckoned with; Scott Steiner willing himself to become the best heel champ since Hollywood Hogan’s glory days; even the goofy but fun old school feud with Ric Flair and Jeff Jarrett against Dusty and Dustin Rhodes.
The comparison I’d draw would be how much I dug WWE’s version of ECW from about 2007 to when it closed its doors in 2010. Where most saw the clear third rate brand of the company, I saw a show were chances could be taken and unexpected stars could rise because less eyes—both from the audience and the office—meant more freedom. The 20-minute matches and more outside the box characters missing from Raw and SmackDown popped up there; a spirit of working together from the seasoned pros to the guys just up from the farm shone through, because they only had this.
You saw all of that in 2001 WCW. The rest of the world may have stopped caring, but that’s exactly what these guys needed. Without the crushing pressure to beat the WWF in the ratings or satisfy the whims of Vince Russo or Eric Bischoff, WCW became free to find its identity independent of the competition, and what they discovered, I enjoyed.
Could WCW have sustained itself in its 2001 incarnation had Vince McMahon not come along? Doubtful. Eric Bischoff or somebody else would have come along and not had the patience to simply be the alternative; as long as WCW struggled to try and top the WWF, they would inevitable suffer and eventually go under (I feel like I just wrote this article about another company…). But for a brief shining period, as a wrestling fan, I felt like I had been let in on a secret, and had some of the most purely pleasurable viewing experiences I can remember to this day.
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