nWo: 20 Years of New World Order
If there were actually people out there who asked me why I loved professional wrestling, my answer would be fairly simple. Certainly there are a lot of draw backs to wrestling and I don’t mean the whole “IT’S FAKE” shit; at its lowest form it’s as infuriating an entertainment form there is, the worst of the most unwatchable carnival show. Basically when wrestling sucks, it really, really sucks. But when wrestling is great? Well my friends there’s nothing else like it. At its peak I’d argue there’s nothing better than professional wrestling, nothing in the world that can equal the combination of storytelling, athleticism and bone chilling moments it provides. It’s why we all keep coming back; for every Triplemania 23 there’s an Ultima Lucha. For every Royal Rumble 15 there’s a Wrestlemania 31. That’s the power of wrestling; at its apex it can do anything. I bring this up because next week will be the 20th anniversary of proof that wrestling can do anything, be anything. Next week is the 20th anniversary of the climax of what still is the greatest wrestling story ever told.
nWo; New World Order. It seems only like yesterday that The Outsiders (Scott Hall and Kevin Nash for those of you who have never seen day light before today) were showing up on WCW Monday Nitro and declaring war against the number two wrestling promotion in the world. Of course a big reason it feels like all of that was yesterday is because so many people, from fans to even WCW’s rival WWE, still talk about it. As such, if you’re a true wrestling fan in this day and age then you know every last detail there is to know about the rise of the New World Order. There’s the factoid of Eric Bischoff getting the idea for an invasion angle from a storyline run in New Japan Pro Wrestling. There was Hall and Nash spurning WWE for big time WCW offers despite hesitation on how they’d be used by their new company. There was the weeks of WCW portraying The Outsiders as WWE invaders, a brilliant stroke of genius that made the story and led to WWE filing a lawsuit against WCW. There was the third man and the speculation behind it. There were the attempts to convince Hulk Hogan to turn heel and be the third man, with Sting and Bret Hart as the backup plans. There was Bash at the Beach 1996 and Bobby Heenan screaming “WHOSE SIDE IS HE ON?!” And at the end there was Hogan, doing the right thing and making wrestling history by hitting his leg drop on Randy Savage and joining Hall and Nash to officially create the nWo.
If you think this column is going to be another one of those pieces that relives all of that, think again. There will be many pieces of written work in the next few weeks that dive into the backstage politics, the “what if” scenarios of what would’ve happened if someone other than Hogan had been the third man and so on and so forth. For me it’s old news; there’s nothing else to learn about how the nWo came together onscreen and off screen that you or I haven’t heard a thousand times already. And frankly going in depth into all of that for over the 9,000th time only serves to undercut just how epic, just how great the story of the nWo was and still is. We know how everything worked. What I’m interested in, much like Kevin Costner in JFK, is the why; why did the nWo storyline work so well and why does it still resonate so strongly with the wrestling fan base today?
Let’s start with the first why, which brings us to Eric Bischoff. No one in the history of wrestling has been hurt by revisionist history more than Bischoff has. Some of that his deserved, but not in the case of the nWo, where the narrative (especially by WWE) has been presented that Bischoff was a lucky thief who only got the angle to work because he stole the story idea from New Japan and stole the talent from WWE. This concept isn’t just laughable; it’s a flat out lie. For one, no angle these days is entirely original; everyone everywhere has done a variation of a storyline done somewhere else, be it WWE, WCW, ECW, Lucha Underground, TNA, New Japan, wherever. To punish Bischoff for doing what everyone else has done or for signing talent that were about to be free agents (something Vince McMahon has done forever and ever) is flat out silly. It also doesn’t tell the whole story. You can have the idea and you can have the talent, but that means nothing if you don’t have the execution. There are many reasons the WWE’s nWo angle or its many imitators (the Nexus and Invasion angles in particular) failed, but the biggest one is Vince McMahon’s unwillingness to ever make the heel faction a threat, especially when that faction involved something WCW related going up against WWE (you could argue Vince’s inability to show even a little ass during these storylines, especially the Invasion angle, are his biggest failures).
It’s there we find the genius in Bischoff’s decision making. How easy would it have been for Easy E to bring in Hall and Nash, build them up as threats and then job them out to Sting, Savage and Lex Luger at Bash at the Beach 1996 ala what Vince did to the Nexus fourteen years later? That’s not just a Vince thing either; almost every other wrestling promoter in history has done it in order to show that his performers and product was superior to the promotion the invaders had come from. Instead Bischoff bucked the grain. Hall and Nash didn’t just look strong, they were made to be superior and terrifying, a true threat to WCW in every way. Once Hogan joined the group that only intensified; many people don’t remember that the nWo didn’t lose a single match until Lex Luger pinned The Giant at Starrcade 1996, FIVE MONTHS after the nWo formed. More than anyone else Bischoff understood that keeping the invaders strong and stacking the deck against the heroic WCW was what kept fans coming back, hoping that this would be the day the nWo finally got theirs. In the big picture that strategy carried on for far too long and was a big part for why the nWo and WCW eventually cratered. But it worked for so long because Bischoff, the WCW creative team and the WCW stars themselves were able to put egos aside and allowed the nWo to look like a million bucks. It was the genius of the angle, and the reason it worked for as long as it did.
This brings us to the second why; why does this storyline continue to resonate? Certainly what we just talked about is part of the reason; you can count how many times a promotion over the years has let an invader stable look strong against their own guys. Another reason has to be the current state of wrestling as compared to 1996. Look at the event Hogan turned heel and joined the nWo, Bash at the Beach 1996, in my opinion the greatest wrestling PPV in the history of the western hemisphere. For all the talk about how great the in ring wrestling product is today in many areas, only Ultima Lucha Uno (yes I’m bias) an Money in the Bank 2011 even come close to matching Bash at the Beach for me. What those three events get right (especially Bash at the Beach) isn’t just the wrestling aspect; it’s the atmosphere. Certainly there’s a lot of great wrestling at Bash at the Beach but what we remember most is the tension all throughout the show; the mystery of the third man, the investigating of “Mean” Gene Okerlund for his identity backstage, the disappearance of Eric Bischoff, the hysteria of the announcer’s team (Tony Schiavone, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Dusty Rhodes) throughout the night and then the match itself. It was the perfect slow build throughout the show and the culmination of the perfect slow build over the course of two months leading up to the show. You don’t see that sort of thing anywhere else.
But at the end of the day, the biggest reason the nWo continues to be important, at least to me, is because of the point I made earlier; it’s wrestling done at the highest level. Not only that but it’s wrestling done at the highest level OUTSIDE of WWE. That’s not a knock; WWE has contributed most of the most famous moments in wrestling history and deservedly so. But for all of WWE’s greatness over the years, the only thing that comes close to how WCW handled the nWo storyline for the first two years is the Austin-McMahon feud. But in the end even that holds no candle. Perhaps it’s a hot take but the nWo storyline, from Scott Hall’s first appearance all the way to Hogan dropping the leg on Savage, is the greatest wrestling story ever told. It had tension, it had chaos, it had mystery; it successfully fused elements of “mystery man” and “invasion” angles to launch WCW into the top tier of professional wrestling for over two years. I’ve seen many great things in wrestling, but nothing like this. The nWo formation is greatness, and its proof that greatness in wrestling doesn’t just come from the halls of Stamford, Connecticut. The last 20 years are as much validation of that as anything.
So in closing, here’s what I ask. When the 20th anniversary of Bash at the Beach 1996 officially arrives next week, don’t watch any of those Monday Night War documentaries on how all of this came be for the 9,001st time. Watch the Nitros, the Great American Bash and Bash at the Beach instead. Wrap yourself up in the story and watch magic happen, the same way myself and my uncles (the men who got me into wrestling) did all those years ago. If nothing else, let this 20th anniversary of the nWo remind you of what wrestling was and can be again. That’s the power of the now; that’s the reason we’ll all remember it 4 life. Sorry; I had to.