WCW Monday Nitro debuted on TNT 25 years ago today. Ted Turner, the innovative media mogul, envisioned WCW to be on the same national level as the WWF. Turner decided to roll the dice by going head to head on Monday nights with the creation of Nitro. Eric Bischoff insisted that the new television property be aired live against Raw, which was mostly taped at the time. The wrestling industry would never be the same.
Before the debut of Nitro, WCW gained momentum by signing wrestling legends like Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage. Both guys may have been aging, but their ability to draw fans and garner mainstream opportunities (Slim Jim sponsorship, PastaMania, and appearances on Baywatch) showed promise for a company that was still associated with southern wrasslin’ roots.
WCW made a lot of questionable business decisions throughout the years. The inception of WCW Monday Nitro and the location of the debut episode were among their best. A wrestling show at the Mall of America? Strangely it worked quite well.
The venue provided a unique backdrop that was not your typical grungy arena. It allowed the WCW television crew to go wild with beautiful high-angle jib shots. Along with the iconic intro to Nitro, the show looked legit from the start.
The fans, being made up of WCW fans and local families, were enthralled with the show. Not hard to believe when they only had to sit through one hour of action with dream matches galore. WCW booked three matches that were safe, familiar and a perfect representation of what fans could expect when tuning into WCW Monday Nitro every week.
Flying Brian Pillman vs Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger
The first episode of Nitro starts at a rapid pace. Eric Bischoff introduces, former Chicago Bears player, Steve ‘Mongo’ McMichael, to the commentary team. Bobby Heenan interjects, “I like when you played for the Cubs.” Mongo didn’t have a witty comeback, which would be the theme of the night. Mongo and Bobby were awkward and had no chemistry.
The action inside the ring started hot. Pillman vs. Liger is a certified dream match in any era. Like the other matches on the card, these guys were familiar with each other. They had faced off in NJPW and even wrestled for the WCW Light Heavyweight Championship at SuperBrawl II (which featured Sting vs Luger in the main event).
The match was rushed but the crowd loved it. This was the perfect match to set the tone for the reboot of the cruiserweight division. Liger may not have been a household name in the States, but appearing in the opening match showed how integral international talent would be in WCW. The talent pool only grew and these matches helped balance the lackluster main event work rate as the years went on.
The most surprising aspect of the match is that it was booked as face vs. face. WCW typically booked Japanese wrestlers as the heel foreigners. Pillman and Liger even shook hands at the end of the match.
Winner – Flyin’ Brian
Luger Shocks the Wrestling World
Luger showing up on the debut of Nitro is one of the most iconic moments in wrestling. Bischoff’s melodramatic call may not age well, but the surprise element of wrestlers jumping to other companies is still must-see television to this day.
Luger had a lackluster run in the WWF so it was not that surprising that he jumped, but it was the sudden timing that turned heads. He had wrestled on a WWF house show the night before and had interfered in the SummerSlam main event just 8 days before this. Negotiating contracts with non-compete clauses quickly became common practice in the wrestling industry as a result.
Ric Flair vs Sting
What do you do with a marquee match-up that has headlined pay per views? Jam it on free television. This philosophy was another dramatic shift in wrestling, for better or worse, that WCW forced on WWF. Before Nitro, Raw mainly featured jobber matches. Featuring high-profile matches every week eventually had diminishing returns for both companies. Naturally, they both relied on DQ finishes.
Flair vs. Sting never gets old though, and their chemistry is a thing of beauty. This match featured the condensed version of their greatest hits. Commentary lacked in introducing all these characters to the national audience, however. Wrestlers like Hogan and Savage needed no introduction. Does the national audience know Sting and Flair? Do they know the storyline between Flair and Arn Anderson? Well, WCW only had one hour to jam everything in.
Sting and Flair could still go at this point. The most impressive spot was the back bridge into a backslide, which is a sequence generally done by the smaller wrestlers. They pulled it off flawlessly.
The match ended with Flair refusing to let go of the ropes while applying the Figure Four. Arn Anderson quickly hit the ring to beat Flair down. While this match was the only one with a non-clean finish, the Flair/Arn storyline further builds up to Fall Brawl (which is a great match).
Winner – Draw (No contest)
Hulk Hogan (c) vs Big Bubba
A competent Hogan match in WCW? Hulkamania was not dead in WCW. Facing a familiar opponent like Big Bubba was solid booking for the champion. The PastaMania era of Hogan is an odd site upon revisiting. Long hair, slimmed down, and pre-swagger NWO Hogan.
Bubba had been a solid mid-card workhorse for his entire career while occasionally flirting with the upper card. His offense was convincing and could also bump like a boss for a legend like Hogan. Unfortunately, this run in WCW was not his best.
Bubba hits his signature sidewalk slam but falls to Hogan hulking up. Hogan must pose to end the show, but Luger interrupts to demand a match for next week. Nitro established right off the bat that anything can happen. Bischoff knew his audience loved the anticipation of a fight and utilized this format a lot going forward.
The debut episode of WCW Monday Nitro was a resounding success. WCW strategically went unopposed for the first week. The following week they continued their momentum by pulling in a 2.4 rating to Raw’s 2.5. It’s amazing to see how much the numbers changed from there.
While Nitro was an innovative show by design to create competition for the WWF, it did have some negative aspects that wrestling fans are still feeling today. Would WWE have eventually bumped Raw up to 3 hours at some point? It was probably inevitable. Does the pay-per-view-a-month structure work when the main focus is the weekly television show? AEW took notice.
Ultimately, this show has it all. Memorable venue? Check. Stacked card? Definitely. Cliff hanger making you tune into next week? You bet. Surprise debut? Oh hell yeah. It’s safe to say that the first episode of Nitro is the best debut show of a prime-time wrestling show ever.
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