Dawn of the Sad Rafter Clown (1997 Week 3)

I watched a frankly modern amount of wrestling this week. Raw was an hour. ECW was an hour. WCW, damn them, ran a Nitro, a Clash of the Champions, and nWo Souled Out, a whopping six and a half hours of content strung along, like most WCW programming, on the idea that the arena and at home audience would be captivated by the same blur of muscled flesh throwing punches at one another.

It’s 1997, so it mostly works. On Nitro, it’s The Giant trying to get to the ring through a sea of bodies, presumably to dispute Hollywood Hogan’s claim that he saved a crashing nWo Lear jet by punching his arms through the sides of the plane and using his arms as wings. At the Clash, WCW got one over on the nWo when the Steiner Brothers and Lex Luger out-punched Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Syxx. It’s all part of a fairly good build to Souled Out, WCW building momentum before meeting the nWo on their own battleground. But this is ultimately the most the nWo is capable of, and it becomes less and less thrilling over time.

The Greatest Year in the History of Our Sport

The idea behind this kind of storytelling is that it saves both the babyface and the heel from losing. At the Clash, Lex Luger racks Scott Hall, but he wins by disqualification. Hall loses, but he doesn’t lose. Like mass brawls, it’s an acceptable storytelling tool, but Luger never gets a clean win over Hall. It’s a chase with no conclusion, a dog chasing its tail. A disqualification is a moral victory, but sports like professional wrestling don’t believe in moral victories. There are multiple avenues towards a conclusive finish, many ways for a heel to get their heat back after a loss. It’s wrestling, and that is ultimately what fans want to see.

nWo Souled Out is almost entirely made up of moral victories and beatdowns. Outside of the entryway, which is one of my favorites of the era, the idea of running a show under the auspices of a heel stable is completely flawed. Regardless of how cool that stable is (and considering their roster was so paper thin they had to send Michael Wallstreet out against Jeff Jarrett, that cool had its limits), heels are meant to be unlikable. Getting one flavor of unlikable over the course of two hours and 30 minutes gets pretty boring, especially when the most frequent source of heat is a heel referee. The best match on the card, and really the only one worth recommending, is one that takes the action out of the referee’s hands.

But forget all of that, because Nitro absolutely whipped.

Sad Rafter Clown

There are few moments in the history of wrestling that thrill me as much as Sting’s first descent from the rafters. I’ll get to the circumstances in a moment, but I want to spend a minute with this singular image. Sting, dressed in black and white, rappels down a cable from a place wrestlers should not be. It looks way more dangerous than Shawn Michaels’ WrestleMania XII entrance, and ultimately much cooler. This isn’t a man zip-lining to the ring to chase his boyhood dream; it’s a demon descending into hell.

His backdrop is one of the Chicago Bulls’ NBA Championship banners. Intentional or not, the juxtaposition of Sting against the white cloth of that banner has always screamed at me, not just for the obvious black-against-white symbolism, but because Sting, WCW’s franchise, was flying past the accomplishments of one of the NBA’s franchise teams who, in Michael Jordan, absolutely boasted the league’s franchise player. The best wrestler, the best basketball player, an iconic image that’s really only rivaled by Sting’s drop from a helicopter in 1998.

The segment around this scene is phenomenal. Nitro begins with a disgruntled Randy Savage, who brings a chair to ringside. You’ve seen this angle a thousand times: an upset worker threatens to derail the show by occupying the ring until his demands are met. This kind of scene isn’t a trope yet, and it’s Randy Savage, who still has some pop left as an unpredictable wildman. Essentially, he’s been blackballed from WCW by Eric Bischoff, and he thinks that’s bullshit.

WCW Monday Nitro was a show that thrived on creating a sense of total chaos, usually in the form of faction-on-faction violence. That’s not the case here. Savage is one man, and his sitting down in the middle of the ring is loaded with tension. When Chavo Guerrero, Jr. comes out to try to convince Savage to leave so that he can wrestle, it’s entirely different from most of WCW’s main eventer segments because he’s not mad at Savage, he just wants a payday. Similarly, Savage isn’t mad at him, it’s just that Guerrero can’t do anything about his situation, so it’s time to get out of the ring.

Randy Savage
WWE

With the exception of the Steiner Brothers, who lurk in the background of a crowd shot in the entryway, the wrestlers who try to convince Savage to leave are completely unimpressive. We’re talking Maxx and The Amazing French Canadians, all of whom are like “C’mon, Randy” and “Get out of there!” You get the sense that this might take awhile … and then Sting makes his entrance.

This entrance is suitably impressive to Savage, and the two engage in a kind of trust exercise to see if one will hit the other with a bat. They leave together, and that’s it for both of them this week.

For years, my friends Robert, Irving, Andey, and I have called Sting “the sad rafter clown.” He looks like a mime, he lives in the rafters, and he’s probably suffering from some sort of depression. It’s an affectionate nickname, at least on my end, because as theoretically goofy as this sounds—there’s really no reason for him to enter the ring this way—it completely rules. In the near future, it’ll be a means of ambushing the nWo and rescuing members of WCW, but right now it’s pure, unadulterated spectacle. Dude may be a sad rafter clown, but it’s still showtime, baby.

Bret Hart Quits and Unquits In One Night

I am incredibly anxious about Bret Hart’s 1997 leading to the Montreal Screwjob. It’s January, and for a couple of weeks now all he’s talked about is getting screwed by the WWF and Vince McMahon. It’s a weird, kayfabe foreshadowing of what’s to come, and it kind of sucks that Hart will spend the entirety of 1997 and 1998 talking about injustices perceived by his character or acted out against him.

Here, he quits the World Wrestling Federation due to what happened to him at the Royal Rumble, where he did, indeed, get screwed. He’s justifiably mad about not getting a WWF Championship match despite repeated promises that he would, and is told that nobody can do anything about it because the referee’s decision is final. With Vince asking him not to go, Hart bails over the guardrail and that’s it for the Hitman.

Bret Hart
WWE

Something I love about Raw from this era is its ability to tell a complete story in one night that continues the build towards something more consequential. That’s something usually associated with its two hour era (think Vince McMahon in the hospital), but this Raw really cooks around this Bret Hart angle, as well as a pair of hot matches in Owen Hart and The British Bulldog vs. Phil Lafon and Doug Furnas and Steve Austin vs. The Undertaker. This show is built around Hart, but it’s also incredible for Austin, who rushes into the ring after Hart leaves to tell him to run crying all the way back to Canada.

Austin is such an unlikable human against Hart that his comeuppance, his shot at the WWF Championship being stripped and put on the line against Vader, Undertaker, and, if he accepts Gorilla Monsoon’s invitation, Bret Hart, feels like the closest possible thing to justice. Austin hits the ring after Monsoon’s announcement, too, insulting and threatening the old man. Bret comes back, having apparently been listening from the concourse of the arena, and accepts Monsoon’s invitation. When he and Austin brawl, the crowd in Beaumont, Texas is wild for it.

Bret Hart Steve Austin
WWE

This is the hottest act in the WWF, and nothing else comes close. The reason why is pretty simple: Bret Hart is authentic a babyface as there’s ever been in wrestling, and Steve Austin is a total dick. I’m looking forward to seeing where the turn begins for both men, but this is incredible traditional wrestling storytelling, and I have loved every minute of it.

The Triple Threat

I don’t get Shane Douglas. Maybe I would if I had come to ECW sooner than I did, but he’s always struck me as a kind of generic Big Bad, a Triple H for town halls and rec centers. I think the best period of his career was when he was Ricky Steamboat’s tag team partner, and the rest is something that occasionally rises to being fun—what I admire most about him was his ability to present himself seriously to the ECW audience despite The Dynamic Dudes and Dean Douglas.

Douglas is one of the focal points of ECW at the moment, holding the ECW Television Championship and having recently reformed his Triple Threat stable with Chris Candido and “Primetime” Brian Lee. This is a new development, but this formation of the group, especially compared to its Douglas/Dean Malenko/Chris Benoit and Douglas/Candido/Bam Bam Bigelow iterations, feels kind of small time. Candido is fine, he’s an incredible wrestler who is impossible to not have a fondness for, but Lee, who was the Fake Undertaker in 1994, feels like the Largest Local Wrestler at a show smaller than the ones ECW put on.

ECW Triple Threat
WWE

They took over this episode of Hardcore TV, which was frankly a nice reprieve from Raven, Sandman, and the BWO. They started by throwing Tommy Dreamer off of the ECW Arena balcony after beating him up. When nobody successfully claimed the bounty on Pitbull #2’s head, the Triple Threat took him out themselves, with Lee chokeslamming Pitbull #2 through a table. This accomplished their goal of taking out the top contenders to Douglas’ title. The biggest development in all of this is that a mysterious masked man has beef with Douglas and debuts at the end of the show to declare his intent to mess with him. This is a big development because the masked man is Rick Rude. Or is it?

The in-ring centerpiece of the show is a match between Brian Lee and Terry Funk. It’s kind of hilarious because Joey Styles, on commentary, bemoans the folly of Funk’s comeback tour every time Lee gets an advantage. Despite his retirement later in the year, it’s just the beginning of a fairly extended run that will see him wrestle in ECW, WWF, and WCW. Lee can’t beat the ancient Funker without the help of Douglas and Corino, and is kind of further chumped out when Funk revives himself after a table chokeslam to punch and cuss him out. I care way more about Terry Funk than Brian Lee, so that’s a positive, but between it and Rude it’s kind of an inauspicious start to your standard dominant heel stable storyline.

Matches of Note

As mentioned, Owen and Bulldog vs. Furnas and Lafon was really good, a clash of two teams that are pretty similar but operating at different speeds, with Furnas and Lafon representing the future of tag team wrestling. When the worst guy in the ring is the British Bulldog, you’re doing pretty good. Steve Austin vs. The Undertaker is shortened by Vader and Bret Hart’s interference, but I’ve seen a lot of their stuff from 1998 and 1999 and think that this is their best match. It’s quick, aggressive, and not bogged down by Attitude Era storytelling. It’s in, out, and on to building to Final Four.

Between Nitro and Clash of the Champions, Dean Malenko and Ultimo Dragon have two matches that are both good, the later being great. Malenko wins the Cruiserweight Championship, meaning that Ultimo Dragon has zerotitles to pose with. Chris Benoit and Kevin Sullivan also wrestle each other two nights in a row, and while their crowd and bathroom brawls are pretty famous, they run the same match near exactly, which diminishes both. Eddie Guerrero vs. Scott Norton might be my favorite match of the week. Ostensibly a squash match, Guerrero thrives against bigger opponents and really throws himself into bouncing off of Norton. Eddie wins due to Diamond Dallas Page’s interference, but this is an extremely credible big guy/smaller guy match that acts as a kind of template for WCW testing out having its luchadors fight bigger roster members.

The only flat-out good match at Souled Out is Syxx vs. Eddie Guerrero in a ladder match for the United States Championship. With the referee taken out of the equation, Syxx and Guerrero get to go balls to the wall. It’s a while before anybody gets to the ladder, just a lot of hard strikes and good cruiserweight action. The ladder match is in its infancy at this time, so the spots still feel fresh. There’s only one truly crazy spot, but that’s fine; when that spot is a spinwheel kick from near the top of the ladder, that’s fine. The goal here is spectacle, but with all of this being new, the only bar to jump over was Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon. This doesn’t do so, but it’s a good match that serves as a preview of what smaller, more athletic wrestlers would do with the form as it became ubiquitous in the 2000s and beyond.

The Greatest Year in the History of Our Sport is a 52-week project tracking the highs and lows of the WWF, WCW, and ECW. It updates on Sunday. The archive can be found here.

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