The Greatest Year in the History of Our Sport (1997 Week 1)

The blue World order takes over, Hulk Hogan breaks an old man's hip, and Shawn Michaels dances.

I was nine years old when wrestling was cool.

The thing is, I didn’t know it was cool back then; it was just wrestling, just something I watched. Now that I’m older, I still don’t know if it was cool. It was popular, but it was approached less like Nirvana or hip-hop than it was a kind of cultural curiosity, a freakshow that was maybe a little less hillbilly than it had been a year or two prior. “Soap opera for men” is not a label appended to something that’s cool, and as wrestling’s hot streak wore on you could almost feel the medium getting self-conscious about that not-entirely-incorrect label and, as a consequence, writing dozens of storylines soap opera writers would be embarrassed to pitch.

But 1997 feels different. It’s the year Steve Austin came into his own. The year Bret Hart turned his back on America. The year Sting stalked Hulk Hogan from the rafters. The year Goldberg debuted. The year ECW made it to pay-per-view and Vince McMahon screwed Bret Hart at the Survivor Series.

It’s a pretty important year. It might be the most important year in North American wrestling. The reasons why have been talked about in-depth from the moment the Screwjob froze 1997 in amber, but this 52-week project isn’t really about backstage intrigue. I’m interested in how the year stands up narratively, which elements of it are still relevant to professional wrestling in 2022, which elements it has shed, and, how that shapes what we watch now.

It’ll be hard to see that early on in this project. WCW, for example, just had Roddy Piper beat Hulk Hogan decisively at Starrcade, but that is an ongoing issue in the new year and will be until October. In the WWF, Steve Austin and Bret Hart are still beefing, which is good, while Raven continues to psychologically torture The Sandman in ECW. Let’s start there.

The Blue World Order

Hardcore TV’s normal intro is interrupted by an incredibly long video hyping the Blue World Order, the trio of Big Stevie Cool (Stevie Richards), Hollywood Nova (Nova), and Da Blue Guy (The Blue Meanie). Though Taz has a shoulder injury and Raven fights Sandman through the venue (and into the bWo locker room), this offshoot of Raven’s Nest, its leader specifically, is the focus of the show.

And they should be. They’re extremely over with the live crowd and, according to Joey Styles, have one of the fastest selling t-shirts in ECW history. Despite their reputation and limitations, the BWO want to be taken seriously as wrestlers while continuing to support Raven. The wrestler best equipped for this task was Big Stevie Cool, Raven’s most reliable flunkie. ECW kind of specialized in unlikely heroes—see Mikey Whipwreck and Little Spike Dudley—but what made Richards different is that he wasn’t working from a size disadvantage, just the fact that nobody believed in him—he was, to quote Styles from 1994-1996, a clueless putz.

ECW BWO Times Square
WWE

Working a comedy nWo parody seems like another point for “clueless putz,” but Richards’ Stevie Kick finisher became a knockout blow, and he started winning. Thus the BWO snowball ran downhill.

This wouldn’t have worked anywhere but ECW, but here’s something worth pointing out: In the 1990s, nobody questioned the merits of having the babyface win. WWE is guilty of a lot of things in 2022, but one of the narrative elements that plagues them the most is their habit of booking babyfaces, even babyface champions, to lose when they should win, to constantly throw up a hurdle when they should encourage fans to get behind their faces by creating a sense of forward momentum. Big Stevie Cool beats Axl Rotten on TV here and Ricky Morton later. WCW is in the early stages of building Lex Luger and The Giant to fight the nWo. It works for all three men. Stevie doesn’t feel like a joke character at Barely Legal, and Giant and Luger are credible Hogan challengers. It’s classic booking, but it’s classic for a reason.

The nWo Were One of Wrestling’s Worst Stables

I know the nWo drew a ton of money, but so did Hulk Hogan on his own, and Hulk Hogan sucks. Initially a three man crew of Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash, the group drastically expanded to feature such luminaries as Michael Wallstreet, Vincent, and Big Bubba Rogers. The bloom fell off the rose earlier though, when Ted DiBiase was added as the stable’s “money man,” because what a cutting edge groups like the nWo needed was a shell of a quintessential 1980s gimmick, fresh from helming one of the WWF’s worst ever stables.

It doesn’t really matter—all of these people were paid to stand around and watch Hulk Hogan speak, or to stand around and get hit with Sting’s baseball bat. While a lot of the narrative juice for WCW’s 1997 came from the nWo, it’s hard not to feel a kind of dread when they invade the commentary booth or swarm the ring for an interview. This is the kind of thing that will happen again and again and again, though the pattern won’t reach its nadir until Eric Bischoff gets a 20-minute talk show segment in 1998 so he can feud with Jay Leno.

The nWo was a vanity project by this point, a means of running Hulkamania backwards (you see, he was evil, but he had nWoites, brother). On 1997’s first episode of Nitro, there’s footage of the nWo attacking Roddy Piper’s hip replacement—a dastardly attack that makes it sound like both men are 30 years older than they were.

WCW Giant nWo Hogan
WWE

We’re on the road to Souled Out, an nWo-branded pay-per-view meant to test the ability of the brand to stand on its own. (Spoiler alert: it could not.) The matches that get some build here are Syxx and Eddie Guerrero’s ladder match (Syxx stood on a ladder while Guerrero wrestled an unsurprisingly good match against Alex Wright) and Hogan vs. The Giant. Hogan throws a punch, only for Giant to catch and crush it. It’s a good, old school visual, but Hogan is quick to take a chair to Giant and wear him out. Sting comes out while the nWo are gloating at commentary, whispers something in Giant’s ear, and leaves the bat in the ring. After some mild comedy where Vincent checks to see whether Giant is unconscious for a solid minute before sandbagging a chokeslam, Giant grabs the bat and the nWo scatters.

I’m not sure what to make of tweener Sting. At this point in the build to Starrcade ’97, the nWo brag about having signed him while the Stinger coyly drops his bat in places where either the nWo or a WCW guy can use it. There’s never any doubt that Sting is playing for WCW, but the waters are cloudy at this point, and the response to his emerging isn’t as fevered as it would be later in the year. He’s supposed to seem mysterious, but that worked better when he was a straight-up face, the Scorpion Death Drop much more exciting than watching one dude whisper into another dude’s ear. “What’s he saying?” Tony Schiavone is desperate to know. Probably something like “Use my bat, bro; it’s on the other side of the ring.”

The Heartbreak Kid

When Shawn Michaels won the WWF Championship at WrestleMania XII, it was in part an effort to make the company’s image more hip and cool than it had been under the previous champion, Bret Hart. Quizzically, they had Michaels managed by Jose Lothario, his trainer, who in 1996 seemed like the oldest man on earth. He didn’t add much at ringside and added nothing on the mic—he was an anchor, someone the crowd was asked to care about without being given a reason.

I still don’t care about Jose Lothario.

This means that I don’t really care about Shawn Michaels, especially when his chief rival going into the Royal Rumble is WWF Champion Sid Vicious, who looks cool as hell as he fistbumps fans on his way to the ring. One thing I feel about Michaels is that he was never a very convincing babyface until his 2002 return to wrestling. Something that I believe is true even today is that cockiness isn’t a good look on a face, that it’s a sign that a turn is coming. (See also: The Rock.) Michaels did turn in 1997, but the trajectory of his career that year was so convoluted (here he is soon to lose his smile) that it’s difficult to say whether he would have if not for his coming hiatus.

He spends Raw acting like a dickhead, frankly. He interrupts a Sid promo to taunt him by dancing, which doesn’t impress Sid (it shouldn’t, it’s some of the worst dancing in WWE history), then spends the Bret Hart vs. Vader main event on commentary insinuating that he knows rumors about Bret Hart that would make the fans hate the Hitman.

 

It’s utterly bizarre behavior, so it’s something of a relief when Sid grabs a cameraman so Shawn Michaels can watch him powerbomb Jose’s son Pete onto a table. Michaels sprints to the back to check on Pete to close the show, but Sid has done something much more damaging than dance on a table.

WWE Sid Vicious powerbomb pete lothario
WWE

1997 won’t afford me much opportunity to say this, but Sid Vicious absolutely rules.

Steve Austin is frequently cited as the point at which fans thought it was cool to cheer heels, introducing the anti-hero to professional wrestling, but I think the credit should go to Sid. Why fans were so taken to him isn’t exactly a mystery: he talks like a psycho Ultimate Warrior and his finishing move is the powerbomb. You don’t need to be traditionally talented to get over in wrestling, and Sid is not traditionally talented. He’s an assemblage of quirk and muscle, a guy who looks like a legitimate killer and has vague psychological theories guiding his actions. He also has his name spelled out in sparklers during his entrance. He’s cool, then, in the wrestling way—nobody outside of the bubble would take him seriously; inside the bubble, he’s a magnet. You can’t help but be drawn towards him.

Matches of Note

Raw’s just an hour long, which makes it easy enough to watch. It features Mankind vs. Owen Hart and Bret Hart vs. Vader. Vince McMahon won’t stop calling the former a “toughman contest,” which is weird, but it’s worth seeing for Owen deciding to meet Mankind on his level. Bret vs. Vader is worth it for the matchup alone, but it has to build Hart/Austin and Sid/HBK, so the poorly-shot ending is tainted and muddy.

Nitro is a struggle at times, but it does have an okay Rey Mysterio, Jr. vs. Psychosis match (Psychosis is off his game and nearly breaks his neck). Eddie Guerrero vs. Alex Wright is a straightforward Wrestling Match that isn’t spoiled by Syxx’s presence. And, because I’m a freak, I’m going to recommend both Lord Steven Regal vs. “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Lex Luger vs. Meng.

ECW doesn’t have anything outstanding unless you’re into the idea of a walk and brawl between Raven and Sandman, but Hardcore TV rules—it’s faster and slicker than it should be, and all of the, uh, licensed music they use gives the show an edge WCW and WWF couldn’t buy.