I’ll admit that 21 is not a very special number when it comes to anniversaries and I’m a year late (and a dollar short) for the big 20th one. Maybe I’m just a tad early for the 25th. However, this past October when All Elite Wrestling began airing ‘Dynamite’ on WCW’s old home TNT and went head to head with WWE I thought it’d be fun to take a look back at how one company tried to take on the WWF and wound up infamously shooting itself in the foot after a period of great success. Hopefully, AEW has long term success and does not repeat history.
I’ve been a fan of pro wrestling since I was about 5 years old when I discovered the WCW/NWA programming one weekend while watching “The SuperStation TBS” at my Grandmother’s house. Later on, I was fortunate to be a rowdy teenager during the 1990s when the Attitude Era of the Monday Night War became one of the hottest and most exciting pop culture trends America had seen in a long time.
When the WWF’s popular “Monday Night RAW” began to face competition from the newly created WCW “Monday Nitro” viewers were forced to chose their side. My mind was made up long before though… I was a WCW fan for better or worse.
The WWF began the “Monday Night War” with the upper hand but WCW’s popularity skyrocketed following the creation of the nWo (new World order) stable of wrestlers and the Hulk Hogan heel turn at the Bash at the Beach in 1996. This popularity leads to an 83 week-long run at the top of the wrestling world for Ted Turner’s WCW. Slowly things began to change behind the scenes at both companies and WWF would once again gain the upper hand. The WWF’s winning formula took advantage of the overall anti-authority rebellious culture that was beginning to take hold in America during the late ’90s and the use of youthful fresh faces like ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and the members of Degeneration X.
Both companies would trade television rating victories back and forth once Vince McMahon and the WWF stopped the 83-week run. However, one defining moment in history has been pointed to time and time again as the straw that broke the camels back for WCW. January 4th, 2020, is the 21st anniversary of that event that fans call “The Finger Poke of Doom.”
Let’s set the stage a little. Just a week before this infamous incident, at the Starrcade 1998 Pay-Per-View, WCW made what most fans consider a major mistake that led to an already disappointed fan base who were hoping for a course correction at the January 4th Nitro.
At the WCW’s annual flagship event the red hot Bill Goldberg entered the night as WCW Champion. Goldberg had been WCW’s answer to the WWF’s Stone Cold Steve Austin. Muscular, bald, with plain black tights… an all-around badass. Goldberg was in the middle of a nearly 200 match winning streak (kayfabe, folks) and was WCW’s lone hope against the crushing power of the evil nWo. On this night at Starrcade, Bill looked across the squared circle and found nWo Wolf Pac leader Kevin Nash. Except, Kevin Nash was also the behind-the-scenes scriptwriter at the time…
So, big tough Goldberg entered the arena the undefeated champion but he walked out a humiliated and defeated loser. Kevin Nash won the match through a bunch of silly shenanigans that mostly involved Nash’s best friend Scott Hall and an electric stun-gun. Yep, they electrocuted Goldberg to win the match and end “the streak” that had been a virtual printing press for WCW in terms of merchandise and ticket sales.
Days later Nitro aired live from the Georgia Dome on January 4th. This was significant because the Georgia Dome was in WCW’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia and was the same arena Goldberg defeated Hulk Hogan just 6 months prior in front of 40,000 fans. Nash started the show off with an interview segment and offered Goldberg a chance to regain the Championship. More juvenile shenanigans occurred and Goldberg would wind up getting arrested by the Georgia Police Department after false stalking allegations from Miss Elizabeth and was unable to make it back in time for the Main Event match with Nash.
We needed someone to come to the rescue and save the main event and take on the recently turned heel Kevin Nash. But who? ‘Hollywood’ Hulk Hogan, that’s who.
The original leader of the nWo and current leader of “nWo Hollywood” made a surprise returned to WCW after declaring himself retired just one month earlier. The bad guys in nWo Hollywood (Hogan’s group) and the good guys from nWo Wolfpac (Nash’s faction) had been feuding for several months leading up to this event and the two leaders would finally clash. To show how “unscripted” the moment was, Hogan wore street clothes rather than ring gear.
The bell rings and both men circle each other while a packed Georgia Dome blows the roof off the place with thunderous anticipation. Nash shoves Hogan. Hogan winds up his right fist to punch Nash but stops inches short…
He pokes Nash in the chest gently and Nash flops to the ground like he’d been shot.
The air goes out of the arena in stunned silence while Hogan pins Nash and the referee quickly counts to three. Hulk Hogan is the new champion and the rival nWo factions have merged to create “nWo Elite.” Hogan once again spray painted the World Title but to show his approval of the merged groups he used red spray paint this time. The upset fans who weren’t busy walking out of the arena voiced dissatisfaction as they littered the ring with food, drinks, and garbage.
Goldberg finally arrived to attack both men but the merged nWo group way outnumbered the lone Goldberg and they tied him to the ring ropes. In a closing segment that lasted way too long, the members of the nWo used the stun gun over and over again. The remaining fans chanted for Sting or Luger… anyone to come to save him… but nobody came. The disappointment turned to anger as the show mercifully came to an end.
As if that wasn’t enough, about an hour earlier in the night during a transitioning segment, WCW lead announcer Tony Schiavone made a throwaway comment that still haunts him today. On the USA Network, WWF was airing a tape-delayed episode of RAW and WCW President Eric Bischoff had gotten hold of the results. Always trying to one-up the WWF, Bischoff was famous for giving away RAW’s results live on Nitro and tonight would be no exception.
Former WCW and ECW wrestler Cactus Jack (Mick Foley) was a rising fan favorite in the WWF under the name Mankind. Never considered “THE guy” by management, it was a big surprise to fans when he won the WWF World Heavyweight Title and a sign that the WWF was headed in a new and more youthful direction.
Bischoff gave the command to Tony Schiavone to spoil the surprise for any viewers considering switching channels and Tony uttered the following famous words:
“Fans, as Hollywood Hogan walks away and you look at this 40,000 plus on hand, if you’re even thinking about changing the channel to our competition, fans, do not, because we understand that Mick Foley, who wrestled here one time as Cactus Jack, is going to win their world title. Ha! That’s gonna put some butts in the seats, ha!”
Except, according to Neilsen’s ratings, about 600,000 viewers immediately flipped the channel to watch Mick Foley win his first major championship. Hardly anyone switched back to Nitro at the end of the night or seemingly ever again. The final ratings for the night were 5.7 for RAW and 5.0 for Nitro.
It’s interesting to think that the two incidents that point to the start of the downfall of WCW occurred on the same night.
Following the January 4th Nitro, WCW seemed unable to make the fans happy. At one time the hottest character in the entire industry, Bill Goldberg was never the same again. His winning streak gave him purpose, and especially after losing in such ridiculous fashion, his character floundered through the rest of his WCW tenure. He would be champion again, but to the fans, it just wasn’t the same.
In the late 90s, there was hardly a wrestling fan that didn’t own a nWo t-shirt. As a matter of fact, you still see many of them at wrestling shows today. The nWo was a virtual printing press for money in merchandise sales for WCW and fans were turned off when the very popular nWo Wolfpac was dissolved to form nWo Elite when Nash and Hogan aligned. This new combined version of the nWo caused the group to become too saturated and watered down. This bloated group gave birth to the fan named “nWo B Team” of lower-level two-bit players like Vincent and Horace Hogan that seemed to be thrown into the mix for no storyline reason.
To be honest, I have never been so disinterested in the WWE as I am today. Most of that is in part thanks to the start of AEW and it’s ability to hold my attention. AEW, minus the flips and flops, just feels more like WCW of old to me. In today’s wrestling “war,” AEW is just beginning to tell its tale and only time will tell if it will fall into the same trap of WCW and have it’s own “Finger Poke of Doom” moment. Hopefully, the “Dark Order” henchman video that went viral last week is not it. I don’t think it will be, but, only time will tell if AEW has what it takes to take on the WWE without its own “Finger Poke” or “Butts in Seats” moment.