On the 25th anniversary of the premiere of WCW Monday Nitro, I break down the first episode.
Wrestling’s greatest boom period began 25 years ago today, on a Monday night in September in the middle of a shopping mall.
Monday night wrestling was the domain of the WWF, thanks to Monday Night Raw which debuted in 1993 on the USA Network. (And, before that, Prime Time Wrestling on USA which debuted in 1985.) The WWF and WCW were competitors, sure, but in more of a passive way. Monday Nitro changed it to an active battle.
The first episode of Nitro was, in many ways, a mission statement: Wrestling can be different than what the WWF is presenting. It would be live every week, while Raw was, at that point, live only once a month. It would feature giant stars having matches that would previously be the domain of pay-per-views and special events only. It would feature fast-paced cruiserweight and international wrestling. It even could look different; setting the first episode of Nitro inside the Mall of America rather than an arena was an inspired choice.
Yet it was also familiar. People watching WCW for the first time — and there were many in that boat — would see recognizable faces and hear recognizable voices. Bobby “The Brain” Heenan on commentary. Mean Gene Okerlund doing interviews. Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage in the ring. (Along with other prominent faces from past career work in the WWF like the Big Boss Man, Jimmy Hart, Ric Flair, Mike Rotunda and Lex Lugar.)
The first episode of Nitro checked off every necessary box in a mere hour, providing good wrestling, a new vision, surprises, drama, and a hell of a hook to tune in the following week. (Plus, it strategically ran on a week when USA Network had bumped WWF, leaving Nitro unopposed.)
The war was definitely on.
1 | Mongo meets world (1:00)
I sang the praises of the episode in the introduction but it wasn’t perfect. Perhaps the roughest part of the episode (well, other than Hulk Hogan’s insane promo later) was the introduction of former NFL player Steve “Mongo” McMichael on commentary.
Mongo was beyond green as a pro wrestling commentator (and a pro wrestling fan, as there were indications in what he said that he wasn’t particularly familiar with the product). He was also pretty green at this point as a human who could talk. Here was the first thing Mongo said on the episode, as the head of WCW, Eric Bischoff, stood next to him, alternating between looking confused and fake laughing:
Look at this venue here. This place is apropos. And that don’t mean you’re digging around in the dirt with farm implements, baby! This means, this is a championship place to showcase championship ath-a-letes.
Mongo would, believe it or not, get better as the months went on. He was never a good commentator, per se, but he wasn’t that bad. Still, this episode would’ve been so much better without him calling Bobby Heenan “Bobby the Stain” and repeatedly parroting how WCW is the only place to see action like this.
2 | The opening match: Jushin “Thunder” Liger vs. Flyin’ Brian (1:58)
Nitro opened with action — specifically action from two of the best workers the company had access to. Liger was already a legend in Japan (impressive considering he just retired this January). Pillman was universally recognized as a young up-and-coming superstar and a big part of the future of pro wrestling. The match itself was great action; a few botches, sure, but otherwise moves that really hadn’t been seen by mainstream WWF wrestling fans. It was revolutionary stuff for the American audience.
That being said, Liger did clearly pin himself for about 10 seconds while executing a surfboard (5:48). And there’s referee Nick Patrick, not counting. He was already corrupt here!
3 | Hogan’s Pastamania promo (12:06)
Hulk Hogan, both now and back then, has a broken brain programmed only to spout cliches and self-promote. The promo he delivers early on in this episode demonstrates that to an extreme effect.
At this point in his career, Hogan had a small restaurant chain called Pastamania. There was, it turns out, a location in the Mall of America. So Nitro aired a pre-taped promo from Hogan at Pastamania earlier in that day. The only way to do it justice is to transcribe it.
“Who’s the greatest wrestler in the world!? [a few kids scream “Hogan.”] You know something, Eric Bischoff? Tonight on Monday Nitro, Pastamania has got all my Hulkamaniacs running wild. And I’ve eaten so many Hulk-a-Roos and Hulk-a-Yous I kinda feel sorry for Big Bubba, brother. Because tonight, brother, first time on TNT, I’m putting the WCW heavyweight title on the line, and with Pastamania running through my brain, who’s going to beat Big Bubba tonight, Hulkamaniacs? [a few kids scream “Hulk Hogan.”] And when I’m done dragging him around the Mall of America, and all my Pastamaniacs are tearing their WCW shirts off, brother, I’m gonna give Big Bubba a dose of my Hulk-a-Roos up there and then I’m gonna body slam him again. You know, with little Hulkamaniacs like that [pointing at a kid], Pastamaniacs all around the Mall of America, Big Bubba, you better tighten up that waistline, brother. Because the Hulkster’s slim and trim, I’ve been eating my Pastamania, and whatcha gonna do in the Mall of America, brother, when Hulk Hogan, Pastamania, and all my Pastamaniacs run wild on you? Whatcha gonna do? Alright!”
Pastamania would go out of business within a few months.
4 | Casually giving away Flair vs. Sting (13:30)
The second match of this show was Ric Flair vs. Sting for the U.S. title. “Main event anywhere in the world,” Bischoff says — and he’s not wrong. One of the big reasons Nitro started winning the war against Raw was Bischoff had no issues with giving away main event matches between mega stars. (One of the reasons Nitro ultimately lost the war was virtually all of those mega main events ended disappointingly with a bunch of people storming the ring to interfere and the ref calling a DQ or no contest.)
So, fittingly, on the first episode of Nitro, this match ended in a lazy DQ when Arn Anderson ran into the ring to confront Flair.
5 | The first reference to WWF Raw (14:00)
One of the signatures of early Nitro was mentioning the competition (and, eventually, even giving away spoilers for their taped shows). That was all beyond unprecedented at the time and gave Nitro a real edginess boost. The first reference to Raw happens before Flair vs. Sting begins, when Mongo says, “If you’re not tuned into this, you might as well be watching…” And Bischoff cuts him off with, “Don’t say it!… But I know what you mean!”
That’s not a super strong reference — and Bischoff would get exponentially bolder with the WWF call outs soon — but it was the beginning of shots fired.
6 | Lex Lugar walks out (15:18)
The most memorable (and enduring) moment of the first episode of Nitro is the moment that Lex Lugar walked out. Lex had just been in the WWF (after jumping there from WCW a few years earlier) so his cameo was a big, shocking jump. My favorite part, when watching today, is seeing how Bischoff handles it. Whether he realized it or not, you can actually see him working out the kinks of the “surprise invader” formula. The first thing he says when Lugar shows up is “Get the camera off him! Get him out of here”.
But then he goes on to mention Lugar roughly 700 times over the next two segments, making it clear the surprise appearance was very much a part of the show. Contrast that with how he handles it when Scott Hall pulls the “surprise invader” move in May of 1996 to begin WCW’s legendary NWO angle and he does an infinitely better job of keeping up the ambiguity of whether or not it was part of the plan.
7 | Scott Norton interrupts the broadcast (25:05)
Poor Scott Norton. He also made his surprise debut on this show, but it’s (rightfully) overshadowed by the Lex surprise debut just moments before. That being said, even though Scott Norton wasn’t exactly a mega star, having two surprise debuts on one show greatly contributed to the “you never know who’s going to show up!” must-watch nature of the live Nitro programs. Plus later in the show, Norton versus Randy Savage was announced for next week’s Nitro and framed as a big deal.
8 | Sabu and IRS (26:34)
Nitro takes a breather before the main event to show pre-produced packages from two soon-to-debut stars. The first is Sabu, which was nuts to me; I have absolutely zero memory of Sabu being part of the early Nitro era. He’s just so affiliated with ECW, especially in this general time frame. The second package is for Mike Rotunda, formerly IRS, coming to WCW as Michael Wallstreet. Adding another familiar WWF face to the mix was a good play here — even a midcard one like Rotunda — as, again, it gave the impression that everyone was fleeing the WWF for WCW.
9 | Hogan’s mullet (29:47)
The main event of Nitro is Hogan versus Big Bubba Rogers (formerly Big Boss Man, wearing suspenders, weirdly). It’s a paint-by-numbers Hogan match so, really, all I could focus on was the mullet on Hogan. I’ve never seen it that long. Maybe he was trying to make it look like his pasta?
10 | Mongo calls Hogan a “technician.” (33:55)
It’s truly amazing they kept Mongo on the air after this night.
11 | The hook for next week. (39:40)
The first episode of Nitro ends (oh boy, pun) explosively. After Hogan beats Big Bubba, the Dungeon of Doom runs in to attack — and Lugar shows up to help Hogan. Lugar and Hogan then argue and Macho and Sting come down to mediate. Eventually Mean Gene comes in for interview. Lugar announces he’s there to take Hogan’s belt. It’s a perfect face-to-face wrestling promo that ends with them shaking hands to have a title match next week on Nitro. How could anyone *not* watch?
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