Thanks for following along on this journey back in time at VoicesofWrestling.com to relive the transformation of Sting from 1996 through 1998. This is the penultimate section, based entirely on the match with Hollywood Hulk Hogan at WCW Starrcade 1997. Don’t forget, if you missed any of the previous parts, please check them out at these links for #1, #2, #3 and #4.
Before I get into the action, I want to remind you that pro wrestling is like all other forms of entertainment, there are no unanimous feelings towards a particular match, event or character. You may really like The Miz in his current form, I do not. Yours truly likes Robbie E and I know very well that there are many who are apathetic towards him at best. Even the infamous WWF/WCW invasion angle in 2001, which is widely considered a massive letdown, no doubt there are plenty of people who loved every bit of it and were satisfied at its conclusion that November.
The point I’m making is that while below, I try to use as honest a voice as I can when breaking down the Starrcade ’97 main event. It is not a case of pummeling and piling on for no good reason. If something is ridiculous, I’ve pointed it out throughout this series and when something was cool or fun, I made sure to note that, too.
So, if you personally loved this show, awesome.
Aside from the “big fight” feel, I did not. Let’s find out why.
December 28, 1997
650,000 PPV buys
$543,000 live gate
WCW would reach enormously heights in 1998 due almost exclusively to red hot Goldberg. But, Starrcade 1997 was something the company had never quite had accomplished before or ever again in terms of drawing out anticipation for a single match and making a ton of money off of it. After all, this pay-per-view set the record for best buyrate in the promotion’s history and unlike the big Hogan/Goldberg match in the summer of 1998 (thrown away on free television), people had to pay to see this one.
On a personal level, I vividly recall my father being so interested in Sting vs. Hogan that our family ordered the PPV that night. My brother and I were die-hard WWF fans at the time who watched Monday Night Raw while only flipping over to Nitro during commercial breaks. We routinely ordered WWF pay-per-views and only were moved to watch a single WCW PPV before this (Road Wild 1997, don’t ask). I can only imagine the thousands of homes elsewhere in America and worldwide who were similarly intrigued enough to go out of their way and on a rare occasion, plunk down the $40 (ballpark number) this show cost.
Remember, through all the promotion and intrigue about crow Sting, the nWo and Hulk Hogan, was an actual wrestling match. A routine one-on-one singles match, that happened to feature the biggest stars in WCW at the time.
Yet, the time for gimmicks and mind games and tricks were supposed to be over. The big valiant baby face finally gets his opportunity to stick it to the insufferable villain. The one-week Lex Luger title reign the summer before notwithstanding, December 28 was all about seeing Sting kick Hogan’s ass and become the new, undisputed WCW World Heavyweight Champion.
From the perspective of Sting himself, having a big match on such a stage – when it’s his first live TV/PPV match in over a year – is a lot of pressure. I cannot tell you for 100% fact how strenuous his training was for his return, how often he worked out and with who he trained with. I don’t care who you are, if you are not active for a substantial stretch of time, many men are going to struggle with their stamina when thrown right into the fire. We saw this to a degree at Wrestlemania in 2012 when The Rock returned for his first match in several years against John Cena. He was training for over a year with Curtis Axel (then Michael McGillicutty) and Curt Hawkins to prepare but still managed to lose his wind at a certain point during the live match. Granted, the whole segment (entrances and the match) lasted for well over a half-hour, and he was carrying a lot of muscle, but a lot goes into such a match and more than the typical next stop on the road.
With the match, Nick Patrick was the referee after having won a drawing backstage (I believe this was not a segment that aired) to be the guy. Some reports said they were interested in signing WWF head ref Earl Hebner (of Montreal infamy) for this spot, but he did not make the jump. Remember, Patrick was considered an nWo ref, so this was just one more tag in Hogan’s pocket to protect the championship.
At the end of the day, it’s still Hulk Hogan so there were no expectations for a fast-paced, action-packed match. At the same token, expectations were all about seeing Sting beat up the nWo leader because after all, with the exception of the match with Luger, Hogan had run roughshod over WCW since the summer of 1996.
So, how does the match unfold? Here’s my running commentary for it (after the awesome entrances, including ring announcer Michael Buffer):
Stalling. After a minute of Hogan playing to the crowd, they lock up with a collar and elbow tie-up. Hogan pushes him into the corner and tries to land a cheap shot, but Sting blocks it and hits him with a punch.
More stalling. Finally, Hogan goes for a test of strength and suckers Sting with a low blow. This leads into Hogan’s offense over the next few minutes, until he misses elbows and is sent out of the ring off a dropkick.
More playing to the crowd and Hogan gets back in the ring. Another quick collar and elbow tie-up gives Hogan the chance to use the dreaded headlock. They do a spot running the ropes which ends with a pair of dropkicks and ultimately, Hogan’s back on the outside.
More stalling. Back in the ring, Sting grabs a headlock and it’s a rest spot. They do another sequence running the ropes which ends with Hogan knocking him down with a clothesline. Hogan uses a suplex and displays what used to be his 24-inch pythons but Sting no sells the move and is back up. The man in black even does a version of a crotch chop as Hogan begs off. Finally, Sting begins pummeling him in the corner with strikes and an eye gouge for good measure. Unfortunately, Hogan is the master of the eye gouge and uses it to get back in control. He tosses the challenger to the outside, follows him and uses the announcers table to his advantage. Hogan uses a bat on Sting, throws him shoulder-first into the steel post and taunts him with an nWo shirt. Finally, Sting reverses an irish whip and the Hulkster hits the guardrail, but the loner misses a splash.
There’s more Hulkster beating up Sting, on the outside, in the ring…this guy’s pretty good.
THE BIG BOOT.
THE BIG LEG DROP! Okay, naturally Sting will kick out of Hogan’s big move and have his comeback and beat the ever-loving crap out of him to win the belt.
Hogan pins Sting, Nick Patrick goes for the count, 1–2–3! What the hell?!
The camera cuts to the time keeper and Bret Hart has taken control of the ring bell for a reason that is not made clear. Absolute silence is a good way to describe the arena at this point. The guys on commentary don’t know what’s going on and Patrick wants the bell to ring because naturally, the match is over. Bret Hart says, “Not again!” and we’re left to wonder what the hell he’s talking about.
Bret accuses Patrick of making a fast count before knocking him out with a punch. Why would Bret Hart attack a ref for doing his job? Oh, right, Patrick was supposed to unleash a fast count during the pinball except, he made a mistake and used a routine count. That’s a pretty big mistake.
Hulk Hogan has his belt and is walking to the back but Bret runs after him and throws the champion back in the ring. Okay? Bret is apparently the referee all of a sudden, the crowd is pumped and Sting is happy, too.
The match is restarted, Sting hits the stinger splash while the nWo begins to interfere. Buff Bagwell attacks Sting, but he and Scott Norton get laid out. Stinger splash #2 hits and then he locks on the scorpion death lock while Bret gets into position to call the match.
Hogan does not tap out, but Bret calls for the bell after a Ryback-like verbal submission. The crowd cheers and Michael Buffer announces the new champion. The WCW locker room empties into the ring and they celebrate with the new WCW World Heavyweight Champion, Sting!
Simply put, the match was bad.
There was no flow, no rhythm and the execution of the ending was horrific. People did not want to see Hogan on offense for the majority of the short (it did not last even 15-minutes) match, but that’s what happened. Some believed the finish was purposefully messed up so Hogan could show how important he was or how great he was – the usual accusations about Hulk, the politician. I don’t think there’s much behind any of those theories for the ending, although he very could have been the brains in terms of laying out the match.
I won’t say the false finish in theory was a mistake. When done properly, it can be a great twist to an otherwise obvious outcome. A quick example I’ll give is at Ring of Honor Final Battle 2006 when world champion Bryan Danielson (well over a year into his reign) was to defend the gold against Homicide. The show took place in New York City, Homicide’s hometown and was the culmination in his long storyline chasing the top spot, so everyone wanted/knew his time to become champ was coming on that December night. What did they do to throw a curveball to fans at the Manhattan Center? During the title match, Adam Pearce interfered to cost Homicide the match. The referee initially called for a disqualification based on instinct and when the crowd realized what happened, to say there were a lot of pissed off people in that building would be an understatement. Danielson tried to leave with his belt, but after a few chaotic minutes passed, the referee came to his senses and made the decision to restart the match. The crowd went bananas and shortly thereafter, Homicide pinned Bryan to win the championship, making the people go bananas again. That’s an example of a comparable finish performed excellently, where it can add and not subtract from the situation.
Nick Patrick simply made a mistake. He was known as one of the best in the industry before this match and that did not change much after the match. It’s unfortunate that this one mistake happened to occur on the biggest platform in WCW history and there’s no minimizing its incredibly bad impact on what should have capped off this incredible angle for Sting.
Bret Hart, earlier in the night, acted as a special guest referee for a comedy match between Eric Bischoff and Larry Zbyszko. I’ll assume that explains how he was able to ref the main event in trying to apply logic to an illogical situation. The idea behind the false finish in this match with Bret was to play off the Montreal Screwjob from the month before. I guess it could make sense because for over a year, the nWo had been involved in every ounce of the championship picture so they were not about to let it go without some tricks up their sleeves. The thought of having no interference of any kind and Sting pinning Hogan for a simple pin fall or making him submit without tricks was not what the people drawing up the match had in mind.
While the hype leading up to Starrcade remains one of the finest aspects of WCW in its history, the match was subpar and did not live up to that hype at all.
Very, very hard thing to live up to. You know they pushed it, and pushed it and pushed it and pushed it. Yeah, it was very, very difficult. I was out of the ring for 12 months, and Hogan’s knees were REALLY bad at the time. So yeah, it was a little difficult and probably didn’t live up to the hype.
– Sting’s response during a 2003 interview in New Zealand (NZPWI.co.nz), when asked if the match lived up to the hype
But, did WCW let this bring them down in the ensuing weeks? Surely, they did not let it drag on everything and ruin the red hot interest in Sting now that he could be considered the top guy in the company, right? This is what I’ll look at in the conclusion of this series, looking at the transformation of Sting, next time at VoicesofWrestling.com.