On December 2, the man called Sting debuted in AEW. I’m not a frequent reader of dirt sheets, so I don’t know how much of a surprise it was, but it certainly shocked me—five years after retiring due to an injury sustained in a match against Seth Rollins, now at the ripe age of 61, Sting’s arrival, once the shock wore off, seemed superfluous. What could he do for a promotion that billed itself as the future of professional wrestling, as a home for wrestling fans tired of nostalgia?
The answer, so far, is unclear. We know he’s going to wrestle—that’s already been confirmed by the company. But thus far, the bulk of Sting’s AEW run has been as a defender of Darby Allin, whose similarities to Sting begin and end at facepaint, antagonizing Team Taz, and insulting Cody Rhodes by being nice to him. And, you know what? It’s been great.
I mean it, too. I wish that the need to advertise against NXT wasn’t such that AEW has to announce an appearance from the man—part of the appeal of Sting at the height of his career was the will-he-or-won’t-he nature of the crow gimmick—but what we’re getting, the Sting who does not wrestle, the Sting who comes in small doses, the Sting who is (mostly) quiet in the face of his antagonists? It’s the best version of him, full stop, and while he’s yet to get physical with anybody just yet, the moment he finally does so will be the moment I lose my mind.
The Sad Rafter Clown
In my reviews of AEW Dynamite, I’ve taken to referring to Sting as a “sad rafter clown,” something my friend Irving West called him once while we were driving to a show. It’s an apt nickname, whether you’re for or against Sting—he paints his face, hangs out in the rafters, and looks really sad because he’s working with a black and white color palate. Outside of a brief period where he looked like a tomato, and another one where society (or Impact Wrestling) forced him to become The Joker, Sting’s looked the way he looks now since October 1996.
There’s a whole story behind it, one that, until its conclusion, was one of the best slow-burn stories in wrestling. Before The pre-October 1996 version of Sting was colloquially known as “Surfer” Sting, a California dude who painted his face in flamboyant colors and delivered promos in an excited shout, punctuating sentences by screaming into his cupped hands at all the little Stingers sitting ringside. He was WCW’s franchise superstar, the guy who screamed World Championship Wrestling more so than even Ric Flair, who left WCW for a couple of years for the WWF.
There aren’t a lot of good analogues for who Sting was to WCW who wrestled at that time—he wasn’t a star of Hogan or Flair’s caliber, but there weren’t many people as vital to the company’s survival. He wasn’t regarded as a great worker, but against Flair or Vader or Cactus Jack (or a half dozen others, enough to qualify him as a good wrestler in his own regard) he could make magic, giving and taking punishment on a scale not many at his level did at the time. In a lot of ways, he was a prototype for someone like John Cena (who was also a Prototype before he was John Cena), someone with a sneaky good resume who weathered his fair share of criticism for not changing things up, largely because WCW, like WWE at Cena’s peak, needed him to be who he was.
Hulk Hogan’s debut in 1994 changed everything. That’s most obvious in looking at the major roster shakeups that accompanied his arrival, but WCW’s attempt to boot up Hulkamania-era storytelling meant that there was room for one top dog and one sidekick. Randy Savage’s debut in December of the same year meant that that slot was occupied, and Sting slid into a tertiary role in the company, backing up Hogan when necessary, but mostly wrestling midcard talent for the US and Tag Team Championships.
By 1996, Sting was washed, desperately in need of a heel turn. In the summer of 1996, the opportunity presented itself. Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, the Outsiders, debuted in WCW earlier in the year, taking the wrestling world by storm. Their in-ring debut, Bash at the Beach 1996, was advertised as the reveal of a third man for the group, but whoever it was wouldn’t reveal themselves until the match itself. According to Scott Hall, the first person they pitched the third man angle to was Bret Hart, whose contract was ending, but WCW President Eric Bischoff couldn’t convince Hart to jump ship, leading him to sign an ill-fated 20-year contract with the WWF. The second person was Hulk Hogan, but Hogan had creative control and didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to.
Sting was the third choice, as Hogan was flying from a movie shoot to Daytona Beach, and there was no guarantee that he’d even make it, let alone agree to be the third man. Obviously, Hogan did it. He was arguably in need of a heel turn more than Sting, as his run in WCW was critically lambasted and flailing—if it looked old by May of 1996, when Hall made his debut on Nitro, Hall and Nash’s gimmick made Hogan’s version of WCW look positively ancient. Throwing out the historical significance of the moment, Hogan’s turn made sense. It was a massive success. It’s track number one on WCW’s Greatest Hits album. It’s all earned.
With Hogan as a heel, Sting could be shifted to the forefront of WCW’s crew of babyfaces. That’s what Bash at the Beach 1996 did, though it’s less heralded than Hogan’s turn. When Lex Luger, Randy Savage, and Sting came out to fight Hall and Nash, all three men were wearing Sting’s facepaint. Sting, not Hogan or Savage or Luger or Flair, was the symbol WCW rallied itself around. And that’s why the nWo tried to isolate Sting from his friends. Before Fall Brawl 1996’s War Games match, the nWo announced that their fourth man was Sting. It wasn’t Sting, obviously, just Jumpin’ Jeff Farmer in Sting cosplay, but wrestling being a theater of narrative leaps, men who knew Sting for more than a decade were fooled enough to question his allegiances. When he showed up to Fall Brawl, he entered the War Games cage match, dropped the impostor Sting with a Scorpion Death Drop, and left. Down 4-3 without their spurned franchise, the new World order won the match, and WCW was officially on its heels.
Franchise vs. Franchise
Sting’s rebirth as The Crow is credited to Hall, whose Razor Ramon gimmick was also pilfered from a movie, but Steve Borden deserves credit for making it work as well as it did. That two characters—Sting’s and Hogan’s—could drastically change as much as they did as a consequence of the same match is rare in itself, but unlike Hogan, who wrestling fans were already primed to hate, Steve Borden had a lot of work to do in shedding the persona that had already made him an indelible figure in the history of professional wrestling. It helped, I think, that the ascent of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the WWF (and Hall and Nash’s popularity in WCW) had wrestling fans hungry for more antiheroes, but if there’s one problem with making Sting a glowering, brooding presence, it’s this: His voice.
Steve Borden’s voice is perpetually, terminally upbeat, and I don’t think it’s an affectation he puts on for the sake of wrestling promos. If dad joke meme’s had a voice, his would be a good candidate. Yeah, he ratcheted that up during the Surfer Sting era, but if you listen to his promo with Cody Rhodes, even at his voice’s most even register, when he’s just talking, he sounds like he’s cutting a wrestling promo about the good times and good vibes he and all of his fans were going to have after beating the Four Horsemen. The Sting of 1996 and 1997 was a man who had been seriously, deeply betrayed, both by Hogan and by his friends. A man who looked at the company he’d given the bulk of his professional life to in disgust. That Sting can’t cup his hands around his mouth and scream. That Sting shouldn’t even talk, quite frankly.
So he didn’t. Instead, Sting became the man of the 1,000 yard stare, a man who did his talking with a baseball bat, a man whose sole focus, to the extent that he didn’t wrestle until December of 1997, when the match between the two was signed, was Hulk Hogan. This made sense on another level, as Hulk Hogan, now “Hollywood,” was a man who just could not shut the fuck up. As 1997 wore on, the nWo expanded cartoonishly, but that, too, had a purpose. As Sting’s intent towards Hogan became clear, the need to protect the nWo’s biggest star, their heavyweight champion, was obvious. Sting was a wrecking machine, using his new Scorpion Death Drop reverse DDT with wild abandon, but he was often alone, trying to get to Hogan through a score of other wrestlers.
Man, the Scorpion Death Drop. It’s an incredible finish, as indelible to Sting’s run as the Stone Cold Stunner was to Steve Austin’s. It’s a perfect narrative development, too. The above supercut is light on 1997 Death Drops, but Hulk Hogan was normally outside of the ring, cowering while Sting cut the head off of one of his underlings, his quest being to do the same to Hogan. The change from half facepaint to full was also key to this version of Sting, as painting the lips and blacking both eyes made him look like a shattered man.
Sting, despite remaining a babyface, despite eventually forgiving WCW and wrestling Hogan for the championship, was, like Hogan, a ruined franchise. WCW liked to play it as though Hogan was their franchise, but he wasn’t, obviously—he was the WWF’s red-and-yellow hero, corrupted by the 1990s. Time didn’t corrupt Sting, but he was a fallen man. He didn’t want redemption. You can talk about wanting redemption in professional wrestling as a nominal babyface. What Sting wanted was revenge, to make men afraid of him. You can’t expect people to cheer for you if your goal is to torture your enemy.
If a wrestler isn’t talking, you can’t know how he thinks. If a wrestler isn’t wrestling, you can’t know how he wrestles. Sting didn’t talk and he didn’t wrestle. What he did was appear and disappear, use his bat, use his chops, use his Scorpion Death Drop, and bounce. Nitro at the time was famous for screwjob endings to marquee matches, a brawl between the WCW and the nWo ended nearly every episode of Nitro with Tony Schiavone screaming about being desperately out of time. If Sting wasn’t there, WCW normally lost. If Sting was there, his entrance was spectacular, his movements swift and effective, and the vibe, contrary to most evenings of Nitro, one of hope for World Championship wrestling. He was fallen, but he was the franchise.
The Benefits of Never Wrestling
By Starrcade 1996 fans wanted to see Sting wrestle, but WCW was surprisingly patient, waiting until Starrcade 1997 to pull the trigger. Hogan held the belt for a long time, broken up by a brief Lex Luger reign, and he lost here and there, but the plan was to get both men to Starrcade with a year’s build and put the title on Sting. That didn’t happen, but Hogan’s creative control and Sting’s (supposed) ring rust hardly matter to the point that I’m making here, which is that Sting’s best year is the one where he didn’t wrestle.
The Monday Night War era is often cited as the reason why big, pay per view caliber matches are burned on free television, and while there’s a certain truth to that, nWo-era WCW didn’t do it often, unless the match was something that’d already been on PPV. Hogan vs. Piper was a PPV feud. DDP vs. Savage was, too. But Sting vs. Hogan took it to the next level, as his PPV appearances were no more or less spectacular than his Nitro ones—he was there or he wasn’t, his being there meant a good night for WCW, and so on.
In not wrestling, Sting’s actions in the ring meant more. It was a signal that his first match, whenever it did happen, was going to be a big deal. Consequential, not merely to WCW or the year 1997, but to the history of professional wrestling as a whole. Unable to develop the character through conventional booking means, flourishes like his descent from the rafters and his seemingly psychic connection to various birds of prey were added. When Kevin Nash started wearing a plastic Sting mask to play an impostor, Sting did the same thing. And dozens felt the wrath of the Scorpion Death Drop.
Wrestling is about the build to a big emotional release, but the Sting who didn’t wrestle was building to two things at once: a match against Hogan, and the first glimpse of a wrestler whose overexposure was long a thing of the past. The Sting of 1997 and the Sting of 2020-2021 are hardly the same character—the Sting on AEW Dynamite talks, and given that he’s 61, he’s unlikely to rappel from anything, rafters or helicopters. When he debuted, I thought that his age would be to his detriment. Not because of how his match against Seth Rollins went (I thought it was great until he got injured, for the record), but because in-ring bumps are harder and harder to take the older a wrestler gets, and the move I want to see him hit, the Scorpion Death Drop, is a bump. One that has to happen at a pretty high speed for it to look good, too.
So AEW has changed the stakes. Yes, Sting will wrestle, but we’re a month into his time with AEW and he’s yet to throw a punch, let alone a Scorpion Death Drop. When his music hits and the snow starts to fall, Team Taz back down, and with good reason. In the promo against Cody Rhodes, he repeated a phrase that he dropped in his last promo from 1996, his last promo until 1998: The only thing that’s for sure about Sting is that nothing’s for sure. It’s corny, but it’s true. Nobody knows what Sting is capable of doing, kayfabe or otherwise, so his mere presence keeps his antagonists and the viewers at home in suspense.
I am dying for him to hit the Scorpion Death Drop. Every time he comes out I want Ricky Starks to take a swing at the Stinger and go down in a heap. But it’s not going to happen. Every time it doesn’t happen, I want it more. By the time it does, I will break down and cry, and that’s not an exaggeration—I have cried just thinking about it twice since his debut. And that’s just a move. One move. A 61 year old man’s one move. Without knowing where it’s going, I can say this: It’s the most compelling angle in professional wrestling, and while the stakes of wrestling in 2021 and 1997 are extremely different, while Team Taz is not the new World order, I want Sting to crush these men. I am willing to wait as long as it takes. That’s good booking, and it doesn’t require Sting to lift a finger.