Starrcade ’97

By 2019, Starrcade has morphed into a glorified house show – a throwaway pay-per-view.  In 1997, it was widely considered WCW’s Wrestlemania.  If we’re all being honest with ourselves, however, WCW had no Wrestlemania.

Still though, the lead-up to this pay-per-view was a study in what was working for *Schiavone voice* WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING!

The New World Order was as over as a group of heels could ever be.  nWo shirts were making appearances at ECW shows, at WWF shows, and in the wild.  In the 17 months since the stable’s creation, they were largely responsible for WCW gaining control in the ratings war with the McMahons.

Hulk Hogan, the WCW Heavyweight Champion in the year-plus leading up to Starrcade ’97, was the leader of the nWo.  Sting, having been teased as a new member of the group, underwent a transition in his gimmick.  Once a blonde, colorful, flat-topped charismatic surfer, he would now silently stalk Hogan and the nWo from arena rafters in a black trench coat as a mysterious Crow-esque character.

With the silence came intrigue.  

Would Sting join the nWo or oppose them?

After it became apparent that Sting was anti-nWo, he challenged Hogan to a match for the title at Starrcade. And the rest is a complete and utter clusterfuck that left me, WCW’s ride-or-die, wondering if I’d chosen the wrong product.

I am of the opinion that with proper booking, this eventual match could have been THE match to single-handedly turn the tide for good in the Monday Night Wars.  WCW had it’s Rock/Austin match in-hand, and in proper WCW fashion, they let it slip right through their fingers.

White the entire show wasn’t awful, botching the main event left a lasting bad taste in the mouths of fans.

Overview:

Starrcade ’97 took place on December 28, 1997.  It drew 17,500 fans to the MCI Center in Washington, DC.  Dusty Rhodes, Tony Schiavnone, Mike Tenay, and MEAN Gene Okerlund worked the sticks.  Charles Robinson, Nick Patrick, Randy Anderson, Micky Jay, and Billy Silverman were your referees.

Match Results/Notes/Ratings:

1.) Cruiserweight Championship Match: Eddie Guerrero defeats Dean Malenko via pinfall

File this one under “Solid opening matches.”  This is one of the things WCW did very well, opening a show with great workers who give the crowd a good match.  And this was a match we’ve seen in ECW a few years earlier to high critical acclaim.  These two guys were so far ahead of their time.  If you gave Malenko a talented mouthpiece, these two could be the whole business if they wrestled today.  

Guerrero was the heel champion, representing the Latino World Order – an underratedly good spin-off of the nWo.  Side note: he’s so much smaller here than WWF fans will remember him.  The crowd, and the action was hot from the get-go.  This is the kind of thing people think about when discussing how fast-paced and crisp WCW’s cruiserweights were.

Malenko hits Eddie with a dropkick and a quick two-count.  He then gave Eddie a powerbomb, a spinebuster, and a powerslam.  Eddie, in true heel fashion, leaves the ring to collect himself.  When he returns, he hits Malenko with a dropkick and goads the fans.  As was common for WCW, the commentary team was not as into this match as they should have been.  It’s beyond me that a team so talented (Dusty, Schiavone, and Tenay WERE talented, fight me) didn’t have the wherewithal to realize they were promoting the main event by underselling a gem. 

Eddie gets a powerbomb in for two, Malenko responded with two near-falls of his own.  The two set up on the top rope, but Eddie wasn’t able to capitalize.  Malenko hits another powerbomb, and locks in the cloverleaf.  Eddie, to the crowd’s chagrin, manages to get out of it.  He lays into Dean with a drop kick, and closes with a frog splash for the three count.

The match was good, but it loses some points in relativity to other matches these two put on. (Match time: 14 minutes, 57 seconds)

Match rating: 6.55/10Above Average

1.5) Scott Hall cuts a promo, I’d really forgotten his whole survey deal, but watching it brought it all back.  I use the term criminally underrated allot, but I don’t think Hall is underrated.  I think it just seems that way because he never won THE title in either WCW or the WWF.  And even if he wasn’t great in the ring – he was – the man could work a mic and get heat with the best of them.  Hall mentions that his buddy Kevin Nash will miss the event, before prodding & subsequently mixing it up with The Giant.  Hall hits Giant with a punch (his working punches are erotic), who responded by powerbombing Hall.  Solid promo, but literally nothing was stopping this from being an actual match.. considering Hall wasn’t on the card and Nash/Giant were supposed to have a match themselves.

1.75) A BOLD crowd sign makes an appearance: “McMahon Fears Steroids” …which to me is just the bee’s knees.

2.) Six-Man Tag Team Match: Scott Norton, Vincent, & Randy Savage (w/Miss Elizabeth) defeat Ray Taylor, & the Steiner Brothers (w/ Ted DiBiase Sr.) via pinfall

It’s widely known that Konnan was supposed to wrestle this match, but didn’t because problems that arose in his girlfriend’s pregnancy. Randy Savage agreed to replace Konnan, but only if he pinned Scott Steiner. Which would be a spoiler if this match was at all what it could have been.

And it could have been something; here’s my reasoning:

  • The Steiners are definitely in the conversation for all-time best tag-teams
  • I think the world of Scott Norton as a worker (fuck you if you don’t, go watch some of his New Japan stuff)
  • Savage was a legendary showman
  • Big Boss Man (Traylor) in his prime, literally carried Hulk Hogan through some decent matches
  • Vincent, at times could go. And by ‘go’, I mean sell/take a bump

Savage makes his entrance last, with Liz. (Fun Bonus Fact: At the time, as an 8-year old, I didn’t know they’d divorced.) Having her at ringside added to the match for me, she was as engaged as I’d ever seen her.

In a perfect world, this match could have been great, but it wasn’t. It just was what it was. Very WCW: looks good on paper, kind of a shit-show in practice.  It lacked nuance and structure.

The nWo didn’t have control for most of the match, with Vincent taking a majority of the substantial bumps. DiBiase gets involved a little, causing a distraction that allows Norton to put in some work. The match ends after a Savage elbow drop (see above) that the crowd popped for, because why wouldn’t you? (Match time: 11 minutes, 6 seconds)

Match rating: 1.93/10The Worst

2.5) Mean Gene and J.J. Dillon discuss the referee for the main event. Former nWo member Nick Patrick’s name is randomly chosen out of a hat.

3.) Goldberg defeats Steve McMichael via pinfall

It is odd seeing Goldberg’s entrance without pyro.

Also, *Bruce Prichard’s Cornette voice* HE’S A HEEL!

In true heel fashion, he doesn’t wait for Mongo’s entrance to end before attacking him. The two mix it up on the entrance ramp for a bit before getting to where they belong. Mongo gets a few licks in, and kicks out after the spear (!!!) before the two wind up back outside the ring.

Goldberg sets up a table (!!!), that Mongo does not want to get slammed through. After fighting off the slam, Mondo unreasonably gets up onto the ring apron.

Right. In front of. The table.

Goldberg capitalizes and puts him through the table this way. To be fair, being knocked onto/through the table is probably safer than getting slammed through it.. gives the bumpee more control, I’d imagine. But then why do the spot at all? It was weak, and the crowd is just as weak because an “E-C-Dub” chant broke out. And while it fizzled quickly, the spot did not warrant it at all. As an early fan of ECW, this offended my sensibilities. Shame. Fie and shame on everyone involved.

Mongo manages to bounce back and nearly hits Goldberg with a piledriver, but winds up taking a nearly-botched jackhammer for the L.  (Match time: 5 minutes, 59 seconds)

Match rating: 1.13/10The Worst

4.) Raven’s Rules Match: Saturn (w/ Raven) defeats Chris Benoit via submission

WCW did a couple of things well. They also did allot of things terribly. It stands to reason that extreme matches that worked in ECW would lose a bit of their hardcore luster when put in front of cameras backed by TV advertising money. For the most part, that was true. The WWF made due; the Attitude Era was what it was partially because of how seamlessly the company adopted aspects of what worked in ECW. The same could not be said for WCW. Whenever EXTREME made an appearance in WCW, like an artist being hired by a multi-billion dollar company, the product always felt handcuffed and watered down. Even when the workers were talented, and the three wrestlers involved in this match were talented.

Raven makes his way to the ring, and tells us that he won’t be wrestling. His Flock-mate Saturn will, however. I love Perry Saturn to death, but him being in the Flock (or this type of match) did not work for me. His opponent, Chris Benoit, is one of the greats. Hall of Fame-worthy talent and work ethic. One of my many dream matches would be these two – in their primes – wrestling a 60-minute iron man match or a two-out-of-three falls submission match.

One of Benoit’s few faults is being weak on the mic. He’s given pre-match mic-time nonetheless. Saturn takes this opportunity to get a head-start on the match, Benoit responds and the two men throw down fisticuffs. Benoit puts the Crippler Crossface on Saturn, but as was typical of the Flock, they could not help themselves. They come out from the crowd to interfere. “Raven’s Rules” is just a fancy way of saying “no-disqualification,” so this is allowable. My man Kidman hits a shooting star press on Benoit, but Benoit rallies enough to hit Saturn with a diving headbutt. The Flock don’t allow anything to come of it though, as Raven hits Benoit with a DDT to set Saturn up with the Rings of Saturn and the win.

The match reads allot better than it felt though. It lost allot of points that it didn’t need to lose, namely: not using the match stipulation effectively, & losing the crowd… and I mean LOSING the crowd, man. (Match time: 10 minutes, 50 seconds)

Match rating: 3.76/10Bad

5.) Buff Bagwell defeats Lex Luger via pinfall

Allot is made of wrestlers who “who have the look,” and Buff Bagwell had the look. He had a good finisher as well, but did not have much more than that. He’s a good what-if story. I don’t necessarily 100% believe the bag-shaving story, but I do believe other stories about his attitude & nonsense. If he’d played the game even just a little more, he might have been something bigger than what he became.

In ’97 Bagwell was a mid-carder, and Luger was not that far removed from a run with the World Title. If the plan here was to put Bagwell over, Luger was not the right dance partner. He was significantly better, but he had faults of his own.

Bagwell cuts a promo and calls Lex: “Lex Loser,” which is par on the lame scale for both Bagwell and WCW. The two go back and forth for a bit before classic-nWo interference, which I happened to occasionally enjoy. Emphasis on occasionally, because it happened all the fucking time.

Vincent hits the ring first, but doesn’t get anything notable in. He takes a bump, but does manage to distract Luger enough for Bagwell to gain the upper hand briefly. That settles down before Luger and Bagwell again mix it up, which is awful because Bagwell can’t work and Luger can’t sell. Luger puts Bagwell in the Torture Rack, before Randy Savage hits the ring. “Not today, sir!” says Luger, before Savage also gets racked. Scott Norton runs in for good measure to knock out Luger.

PANDEMONIUM!

Buff Bagwell gets the pin at 16:36. If this match is 5 minutes, maybe it rates higher. 16-plus minutes of this match is the dignified wrestling fan’s equivalent of gouging your own eyes out. Which, actually says more about WCW than the talent. Needing three other guys to stretch this one out should have told the booking committee to reconsider at the very least the timeframe. (Match time: 16 minutes, 36 seconds)

Match rating: 2.12/10Awful

6.) United States Championship Match: Diamond Dallas Page defeats Curt Hennig via pinfall

The commentary team mentions that DDP is replacing an unfit Ric Flair for this match.  This is fine by me now, and especially so in ’97.  Sting was my guy at this time, and Owen Hart in the WWF.  But DDP had IT, man.  His finisher was astute, he was loud, fast, charismatic and good on the mic.  I couldn’t help but fall in love.

His ribs are taped up here, which I always thought added to his look.  Hennig is mildly, but noticeably out of shape – he’s for sure not Mr. Perfect.  

Or maybe he is, because the start to the match is solid.  Hennig starts working DDP’s taped ribs, in case anyone didn’t see that coming.  DDP manages to get out of a chinlock and the two mix it up before Hennig rejects a Diamond Cutter.  Hennig attempts the Perfectplex, which DDP got out of.  DDP gets in another failed Diamond Cutter attempt.  Persistence does win out though, as DDP manages to come off the ropes to finally get one in for the win.  The Diamond Cutter coming off the ropes is the best variation of the Diamond Cutter by far.  And the crowd pops like it hasn’t all goddamned night. 

AND NEW.. United States Champion… DIAMOND DALLAS PAGE.

Could have been a little better, could have been much worse. A very solid, adequate match between two legends.  This one did a very small percentage of a point just because it’s absurd to me that this was the third game-time substitution on the card. (Match time: 10 minutes, 52 seconds)

Match rating: 5.48/10Average

7.) Special Guest Referee (Bret Hart) “Match”: Larry Zybyzko defeats Eric Bischoff (w/ Scott Hall) via disqualification

Uhm, excuse me. What the fuck is this?

I went into this review expecting to skip over this match.  And I would have, had it not gone 11-plus minutes.  Absolutely abhorrent.  The only two reasons this match didn’t get a 1.00 – the lowest mathematical score based on my metrics – are that the two guys showed up, and it was a Special Guest Referee match (my undisputed favorite of all the gimmicks.)

Hell of a way to debut one of the best the business has ever seen.  Zybyzko/Bischoff was never going to be good, the lead-up was fairly decent though.  In short: if Zybyzko won, he gets to fight Scott Hall at Souled Out; if Bischoff won, the nWo took over Nitro.  The segment starts with Bret Hart making his entrance, in a black t-shirt.  They missed a golden opportunity to put him in the pale blue shirt & black bow-tie.

Whole lotta stalling in the early goings, before Bischoff leaves the ring for a pep talk/game-plan session with Hall.  Zybyzko slaps Bischoff, and gets a warning from Hart for some reason.  This leads to Bischoff getting a kick in, before Zybyzko gets him in the far-right corner with some aggressive jabs.  Bischoff gets manhandled and tossed into the center of the ring before getting his face smothered into the mat.  Hart puts the kibosh on that too, which is understandable.  Zybyzko then gets Bischoff in a sleeper hold that Hart then also stops.

Sloppy ringsmanship and no storytelling as they go from one move to the next.  Hart breaks up another hold, to the ire of the commentary team.  Scoop slam from Zybyzko before Bischoff gets to the ropes for a break.  On the outside, Bischoff gets slammed into the ring post, and stairs.  Hart is arguing with Zybyzko rather than calling the count-out, and the commentators start pondering if Hart is nWo.  Bischoff hobbles around the ring a bit – he’d supposedly hurt his knee training for the match – before landing a few kicks and punches in on Zybyzko.  While Zybyzko is trapped in the corner taking a beating from Bischoff, the fans start to cheer him on.  He responds by rallying mildly to hit a swinging neck breaker.  Zybyzko puts Bischoff in the tree of woe before Hart again separates the two.

As Hart and Zybyzko argue, Hall puts a foreign something-or-other in Bischoff’s boot.  When Bischoff goes for the devastating kick, the object flies out of his boot before making contact.  As Bischoff celebrates the botched spot, Hart decks him and puts a retaliatory Hall in the sharpshooter.  Zybyzko gets the win by DQ, in an awful match.  Reading this one back, it almost sounds like it was decent, but make no mistake: this was messy, convoluted, and I feel dumber for having watched it again.  A prime example of what was wrong with WCW’s booking.  (Match time: 11 minutes, 12 seconds)

Match rating: 1.08/10The Worst

8.) World Heavyweight Championship Match: Sting defeats Hulk Hogan via riff-raff, inexplicable Bret Hart interference, and submission

This may be the most talked about match in WCW history, but for not the greatest reasons.

I am personally of the opinion that it was bad, but not awful. If you think it was awful, you probably think that in relativity to at least one of the following:

  1. the hype/build-up of the match
  2. what the match should have been
  3. what the match reasonably could have been

Admittedly, the match got major points on the front end from me initially. This is largely because I was eight when it took place. At that age, I loved Sting, I loved to hate Hogan, and I loved Bret Hart, who – spoiler – makes an appearance later on.

Hogan comes out first, and as much as I hated him, his nWo entrance was nice. Sting’s entrance was damned near perfection though. When his music hit, the memories of the build-up came back to me like it was brand new. Goosebumps, and that’s not rhetoric.

Allot is made of Sting’s appearance here, even today. I don’t see the concern. Yeah, he’s wearing a bodysuit, but he doesn’t have tits or a gut. He’s on the pale side, too, which was a concern to WCW we’ve learned. But bear with me on this: he’d just spent the last year-plus stalking the nWo from the dark in the rafters, why wouldn’t he be pale? (My lord and savior Conrad Thompson asked a similar question on 83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff, but it’s an original thought of mine that has haunted me lo these many years, I promise.)

Sting and Hogan have an epic stare-down prior to the bell. After it rings, Hogan shoves Sting, who responds with a slap. Something about nWo guys being disrespected like that speaks to me. In true heel fashion, Hogan stalls and panders to the crowd. The two finally lock up before a robust “Hogan Sucks” chant starts.

Boy does he, brother.

More stalling before Hogan lures Sting into a cheap shot. “Come on, hero!” Hogan says as he manhandles my actual hero. Sting rolls away from a few elbow drops before dropkicking Hogan out of the ring. The two men circle each other before Sting winds up in a headlock. Hogan goes for a way-too-early leg drop, and Sting responds with another dropkick out of the ring. Hogan stalls again, and winds up in a headlock when he comes back into the ring.

They exchange shoulder blocks before Hogan hits a vertical suplex. A crotch-chop by Sting here that mild pop from the crowd. The action hits the outside, as Sting gets slammed into the barricade and aggressively shown an nWo shirt. A potentially decent spot here, as Hogan gets whipped into the barricade and Sting goes for the Stinger Splash. I say potentially, because Hogan hit the barricade in such a gentle manner that it was laughable. You could see him brace himself on camera. Back in the ring, Hogan gets a leg drop on Sting for the three-count.

starrcade97.gif

The bell doesn’t ring, however, as Bret Hart does not allow it. Hart gets the mic and says something like “it’s not gonna happen again.” This is a clear reference to the Montreal Screwjob. I wasn’t against that, but I take issue with how they did it. For one, Nick Patrick used to be the nWo’s referee, but he wasn’t at the time. Two, Patrick didn’t hit Sting with a fast count. Ergo, there was no screwjob. If WCW had a grasp on the subtleties of storytelling, this could have been pretty cool. Maybe they could have cut a backstage promo earlier on the card where either the nWo paid off Patrick for a fast count, or he flat-out rejoined them. Even if they had done that though, the count wasn’t fast, making it seem like Bret Hart was just upset that the bad guy went over.

Objectively speaking, this whole last sequence of the match was fucking cool and saved the entire match from being awful or the worse. If the first half of the match wasn’t as bad as it was, THIS next sequence is what history would remember.  Hart tosses Hogan back into the ring and signals for a restart. Hogan takes the Stinger Splash before the nWo shows up.  Sting makes easy work of Buff Bagwell and Scott Norton before hitting Hogan with another Splash and a Scorpion Death Lock for the win. Hart calls for the bell and the entire WCW locker room hits the ring for the celebration.

“MAMACITA!” Sting proclaims to the camera.

Mamacita, indeed, Mr. Borden.

(Match time: 12 minutes, 53 seconds)

Match rating: 3.14/10Bad

Event rating: 3.14/10Bad

Takeaways:

  • Malenko/Eddie was the best match on the card by far, but not their best match together by any means.
  • DDP/Hennig wasn’t great, but it gave us a taste of how good DDP would become.
  • WCW botched the debut of one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time.
  • The company also pissed away what could have been it’s Austin/Rock. It doesn’t matter why they did that (glares angrily at Hogan), it only matters THAT they did it.
  • Starrcade ’97 averaged the exact same number that the main event scored, which to me says nothing more or nothing less than the event lived and died with Sting/Hogan.

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