Though Sting has, with his run in AEW, absolutely cemented his status as a living legend of professional wrestling, he’s still haunted by his past. A past that has routinely been the subject of ridicule for decades. What is this ghost that I speak of? His reputation for being an absolute idiot of a top babyface because he got turned on every two years or so.
That’s a lot of turning on Sting! What an idiot, right? After all, who was he to, for example, push for a shot at Four Horsemen stablemate Ric Flair’s world title? What did he expect?
Well … the reality is actually a lot more complicated than that. In the interest of setting the record straight, let’s take a look at every single time Sting was turned on in his first decade as a babyface and see if, when you look at how each storyline actually played out, he was a genuine idiot to put trust in the heel who turned on him.
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Eddie Gilbert (1987)
In the Spring of 1987, the heel tag team of Sting and Rick Steiner lost their UWF Tag Team Titles to The Lightning Express after manager Eddie Gilbert accidentally hit Sting with his boot. Days later, Sting and stablemate Terry Taylor were set to do battle in a “UWF Title Contention Match” with Gilbert as special guest referee, but Sting, not wanting “any more mistakes,” demanded a replacement referee. Senior referee Tommy Gilbert, Eddie’s father, agreed to make the substitution, sending in regular referee Carl Fergie as the replacement. Fergie got bumped, Gilbert gave Taylor the boot, and Taylor nailed Sting with it to get the win once Fergie recovered. Sting, naturally, attacked Gilbert after the match en route to further cementing his turn by leaving with babyface Chris Adams, who was feuding with Taylor.
The verdict? Not an idiot. He should have foreseen something happening with Gilbert, but in the moment, removing Gilbert from the match was a perfectly reasonable decision.
The Road Warriors (1988)
This one is incredibly straightforward: Sting substituted for Dusty Rhodes in an NWA World Six-Man Tag Team Title defense with the Road Warriors against The Varsity Club. Road Warrior Animal tagged in Road Warrior Hawk, the match broke down into a six-way brawl, and Sting put Mike Rotunda in the Scorpion Deathlock. For some reason, the Road Warriors took exception to this as if he got in their way, and immediately attacked Sting. And…that’s about it.
The verdict? Definitely not an idiot. There was no way whatsoever for Sting to see the turn coming in this case. Sometimes, I think the chronology of this one gets messed up and fans remember it as happening after the Road Warriors attacked Dusty Rhodes or brutalized the newly-babyface Midnight Express, but it was actually the first step of the turn, so there’s no way to classify Sting as an idiot based on how it actually happened.
On This Day in Wrestling History – Sting is kicked out of The Four Horsemen 32 years ago today at Clash of the Champions (2/6/90) @TheArnShow @FlairUncensored pic.twitter.com/4va7ScaFjS
— Wrestling from 80s/90s (@Wrestling80s90s) February 6, 2022
The Four Horsemen (1990)
This is the first instance where it’s pretty clear that Sting’s self-awareness has been grossly misrepresented over the years. The way it’s usually remembered, in large part thanks to the framing of the angle where the actual turn takes place, is that Sting, newly a member of the Four Horsemen, earned a shot at stablemate Ric Flair’s world title and didn’t foresee any issues coming out of the situation. But that’s not how it happened.
Sting clearly earned a title shot by beating Flair in a non-title match to win the Iron Man round robin tournament at Starrcade on December 13, 1989, with Ole and Arn Anderson joining Flair in congratulating him after the match. Two and a half weeks later, on the December 30 episode of World Championship Wrestling, the invitation for Sting to be the fourth Horseman is extended, and a week later, he accepted. A week after that, on the January 13, 1990 episode of WCW, the show opened with Sting announcing that he was getting a shot at Flair’s title on February 25 at the WrestleWar pay-per-view event. And that’s where things get really interesting.
Three quarters of the way through the show, after Arn Anderson won a squash match over Hacksaw Higgins, Jim Ross interviewed the Four Horsemen, giving the caveat that it would be Sting vs. Lex Luger if Luger dethroned Flair in the interim. (They were working a house show program at the time.) Ross asks if it’s a conflict of interest for Sting to get a title shot while he and Flair are training together every day, but Flair says it absolutely isn’t. Then Sting gives his side.
Ric Flair, Arn, and Ole Anderson discuss the aftermath of Sting being kicked out of the Horsemen. As discussed on this week's BTT NWA pod recap covering February 10, 1990. Download here: https://t.co/JAeAKNGsR5 pic.twitter.com/9yyt02N691
— Booking The Territory ???? (@BTT_Podcast) July 5, 2021
“This time I know there’s no problem, because, to be honest with you, I said ‘Ric, we don’t have to do it like this,’” he explained. “And before I could finish my sentence, both the Andersons and Ric said ‘No way, Sting, you don’t have to worry about a thing, ‘cause everything is cool. And besides that, we wanna keep this world title in the family. So whether it’s Flair as the world champion or Sting as the world champion, it’s gonna be in the family.’ And I’ve never been in a family before, and it feels kinda good to be honest with you.” Both Andersons then backed up Sting’s version of how they got to that point.
So there it is, in plain English: Until the actual turn, the storyline was not only that there was no dissension in the Horseman over the WrestleWar matchmaking, with zero teases of Sting being turned on, but Sting was the one who had shown hesitation about agreeing to the match. When the famous turn goes down at Clash of the Champions X on February 5, Ole Anderson’s promo retcons the whole chain of events into the previous six weeks or so being an elaborate plan to protect Flair’s title from Sting.
That retcon is why this turn is remembered as a prime example of Sting being particularly stupid. But it’s clearly not that. Sting was wary of a title match with Flair jeopardizing their friendship and his growing relationship with the Andersons, and was willing to turn down a world title shot to preserve that new “family.”
The verdict? Definitely not an idiot.
Lex Luger (1991)
OK, this one is pretty cut and dry: Starting in August 1991, a mystery heel started sending Sting giant gift boxes. Abdullah the Butcher and Cactus Jack popped out of the first two to attack him, while the third housed a blonde woman who gave Sting a kiss and a note from Cactus. The parade of gifts then went dormant for several weeks, only for the “final” box to come in the form of an Egyptian-style caravan at Clash of the Champions XVII on November 19. From the “box” emerged Madusa, dressed as a belly dancer, and this is where it gets really stupid.
Madusa had been in WCW for several weeks with a bit of an aimless presentation, first as a babyface wrestler, then as a heel wrestler, and then finally being cemented as a heel manager/bodyguard/valet hybrid at Halloween Havoc on October 27. There, she was side by side with Paul E. Dangerously as he revealed that the mysterious WCW Halloween Phantom was “Ravishing” Rick Rude, with Madusa given the credit for bringing him to WCW to take Sting’s U.S. Title.
So when Sting was met by a woman who was already, in explicit terms, a clear ally of the heel he was defending his title against that night, what happened? He was distracted by her hypnotic belly dance, of course, providing the opportunity for Lex Luger to emerge from the caravan to clip his knee, which would end up costing him the title later that night. Oh, and Luger? He hadn’t interacted with Sting at all since turning heel and winning the WCW World Heavyweight Title four months earlier.
The verdict? Yeah, Sting was absolutely a huge idiot here. Madusa was explicitly antagonistic to him for three weeks going into the Clash, so it should have been obvious, even by wrestling standards, that the belly dancing act was a trap. He couldn’t necessarily have known that Luger was involved, but that doesn’t matter in the fist place.
Ric Flair (1995)
This is the trickiest one, as, to the viewer, it was very obvious from the moment that the storyline started, with a Ric Flair/Arn Anderson schism and Flair begging Sting for help against Anderson and his new protégé, Brian Pillman. Sting, sensing that Flair was not sincere, repeatedly refused to team with him. But then Flair brought the Little Stingers into it, asking a group of kids who painted their faces up like Sting to back up his request, and that was enough to change the tide.
“I live and breathe these Little Stingers right here every day of my life,” Sting began. “And if I thought for one second that you, a man who has kids of your own — right? — you would use these kids, especially the Stingers out there, your kids, to get something out of me? If I thought for one second, you were gonna use ‘em, Flair … let me tell you something. Reluctantly, I’m gonna give you the benefit of the doubt this one time. One time only! But if you swerve me? If you swerve me in the SLIGHTEST little bit? Sometime down the line, Halloween Havoc for starters: I’m gonna leave you for dead. Dead, dead, dead.”
Come Halloween Havoc, Flair was “attacked” before his and Sting’s match with Anderson and Pillman. Naturally, Flair was M.I.A. at the opening bell, joined the match while it was in progress, got tagged in by Sting … and immediately turned on him, starting a new Four Horsemen with Anderson, Pillman, and, within weeks, Chris Benoit. Well, at least he saw it coming this time.
The verdict? It’s complicated. This is the only one you can see both ways. Yes, it was incredibly obvious to everyone what would happen, but Sting was included in that “everyone.” He repeatedly told Flair to shove it, even after a weeks-long charm offensive. It was only Sting’s belief that Flair, as a father, wouldn’t exploit a bunch of children to advance a pro wrestling beef that allowed him to get dupe. I wouldn’t call him an idiot in this case, but he didn’t use his head, either.
Lex: "You want a Chicago Street Fight for the belts? You got it!…Tell 'em Stinger!"
Gene: "…Luger, Sting, & the Road Warriors…Chicago Street Fight?"
Lex: "What does that mean, anyway?"
Sting: "What did you say?"
Lex: "I'm from Chicago, what IS a Chicago Street Fight?" pic.twitter.com/Lrc0MYXwFM
— Lex Luger Moments (@LexLugerMoments) March 16, 2019
Lex Luger, sort of (1995-1996)
Buckle up, folks.
One of the most shocking moments in the history of professional wrestling on live television came on the debut episode of WCW Monday Nitro on Labor Day 1995. During the second of three bouts, Sting vs. Ric Flair, Lex Luger walked to ringside to cause a scene, and by the end of the show, he had challenged Hulk Hogan to a world title match for the following week. This was a huge shock because he had just worked a WWF house show the night before, but he was legally free and clear to leave for WCW.
Over the course of the next several weeks, Luger’s allegiances would be in question as he was still Sting’s friend, came to a sort of détente with Hogan, and was not getting along with Randy Savage. Eventually, at the same Halloween Havoc show where Flair turned on Sting, Luger turned on Hogan, seemingly joining the Dungeon of Doom in the background of Jimmy Hart’s own turn on Hogan to join the Dungeon of Doom. Most of the time, when something like this happens, it’s an outright heel turn, but that’s not what happened here.
A simple misunderstanding between Lex Luger and his BFF Sting over if Lex and Jimmy Hart are in cahoots. Because they’re clearly not! pic.twitter.com/zYdAhTPCXe
— Lex Luger Moments (@LexLugerMoments) March 16, 2019
Instead, Luger turned into a shockingly nuanced character, one who stayed fiercely loyal to Sting despite otherwise being a heel (and trying to hide his bad side from Sting), albeit one that was clearly intended as a parody of the first decade of his career.
Constant turns back and forth? Check. Looking down on wrestling fans to the point of only making eye contact with them when Sting was looking? Check. A diva who was obsessed with his appearance? Check. This was hilarious, but throughout the whole storyline, Luger was also an incredibly consistent character: he hated Hogan and Savage, but as much as he’d otherwise be a heel, he’d never come close to turning on Sting despite hating Sting’s other friends. Maybe he didn’t know what a Chicago Street Fight was, and sure, he went a bit too far in trying to hide his business relationship with Hart from Sting, but he was still a loyal, mostly reliable friend.
When the nWo invaded WCW, this all went to the wayside; Luger got his priorities straight, and he was cemented as an unambiguous babyface. However, when the nWo’s imposter Sting first appeared, attacking Luger, Lex refused to believe his buddy’s pleas that it wasn’t him. Sting was crushed, having stood by Luger for a year when everyone else had difficulty trusting him, and within weeks, he turned into the brooding version of himself inspired by The Crow. Several months passed before Sting cemented his loyalty to WCW at Uncensored 1997, with his first move after taking out the nWo being to hug Luger after the show went off the air.
The verdict? #It’sComplicated. Sure, Luger was up to no good, but he never stopped being loyal to Sting. If anything, you can argue that Luger’s only “turn” on Sting here was refusing to believe that the nWo could have used an impersonator to dupe him outside at night in the rain. He didn’t reciprocate the trust that Sting had put in him for a year. But six months after that, they came to a tenuous understanding, so…all’s well that ends well, I guess?
No, Sting was not an idiot. He was turned on pretty frequently, but when you get down to the specifics of the storylines? The real lapses in judgement were incredibly rare. And if you think otherwise? It’s almost surely because you remember one of the details of a storyline where he explicitly wasn’t an idiot completely wrong. That’s a you problem, not a Sting problem.