An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published Jan. 3, 1999
There are stars. There are superstars. And then there are living legends.
Ring announcer Michael Buffer perhaps best summed it up when he introduced the greatest performer in the modern era of professional wrestling on Monday night. Ric Flair, who has held the world heavyweight title 13 times during an unparalleled career that has spanned 25 years, last week did what he does so well.
Ric Flair put WCW back in the race.
WCW, which began 1998 as the number one promotion in the country but has seen its supremacy overtaken by the WWF in recent months, ended the year with a bang and renewed optimism for 1999. The reason, pure and simple, is Ric Flair.
Since his return Flair has single-handedly pumped new life into a company that seemingly had taken a creative leave of absence while watching the WWF expand its lead in the Monday night ratings war. Flair, who had put WCW in an enviable position in early 1998 with a potential big-money feud with Bret Hart, saw the legs cut out from under that program in favor of Hulk Hogan-pushed celebrity matches and the return of The Warrior. Flair stood his ground, however, and parted ways with the company, making it clear that his reputation would not be sacrificed at the altar of WCW politics.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]The WWF, meanwhile, continued to gain ground with Flair out of the picture. Coming up with more creative and entertaining storylines, along with an energized Jim Ross enjoying one of his best years behind the mic, Raw pulled many viewers away from Nitro, which by now had earned a well-deserved reputation of being the Hollywood Hogan show. New WWF groups such as DX and The Corporation became perceived as hipper and cooler than their WCW counterparts, which splintered into diluted factions such as NWO Hollywood, NWO Wolfpac, the LWO, Raven’s Flock and the One Warrior Nation.
Flair’s return last September in Greenville was probably the most emotional wrestling moment ever captured on television. His interviews since then have been some of the best of his career, and that’s saying a lot. His fiery spiel two weeks ago on Nitro and subsequent whipping of former Horseman Barry Windham was vintage Flair. And last Monday night’s tirade and drubbing of Eric Bischoff, along with a post-match celebration that made viewers feel they had truly witnessed something special, was Ric Flair at his best.
Flair pulled a rabbit out of the hat twice in recent weeks as he not only salvaged a terrible angle (heart attack) and a terrible pay-per-view (Starrcade), but he turned in some of the most memorable performances of the year in professional wrestling.
WCW has a golden opportunity to turn the tide when it invades the Georgia Dome for this week’s Nitro that will be headlined by a return world title match between Kevin Nash and Bill Goldberg. The show is expected to draw the largest crowd in WCW history (40,000 plus), eclipsing last summer’s mark at the same location set by the Hulk Hogan-Bill Goldberg title change.
What would make the record-breaking evening even more memorable and attention-grabbing would be to have WCW owner Ted Turner make a rare personal appearance and officially establish Ric Flair as the new “leader” of WCW – if only for 90 days as the angle stipulates. Not only would it give the storyline more credibility, it would be a well-deserved tip of the hat to acknowledge the man who has been the flagship wrestler for Turner’s organization and SuperStation for the past two decades.
But before giving WCW too much credit for its one-week success, a sober, objective look at the situation portends a gloomier forecast. Lurking in the background and threatening the rising momentum at WCW is the impending return of Hollywood Hogan. Hogan, who watched ratings drop as he shoved tired and stale angles and even staler characters down the collective throat of the WCW audience, announced his retirement last month after allegedly being asked by Eric Bischoff to reduce his overbearing presence on WCW shows. That now appears to have been a scenario worked by the two and designed to give a glimmer of hope to others in the company who may have had aspirations of moving up the ladder.
Hogan reportedly was a factor in the recent deal between WCW and NBC, and will return as part of the package. Hogan is expected to make an appearance at this week’s Nitro in Atlanta where he will make a farewell speech, only to set up a grandstand play to reform the original NWO along with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall.
Signs of Hogan’s return began to surface last week on TNT’s “Best of Nitro” show which more aptly should have been called the “Best of Hogan.” Conspicuously absent on the three-hour offering, which drew a strong 3.5 rating in a Tuesday night slot, was footage from the Arn Anderson retirement speech and the return of Ric Flair – the two greatest moments on Nitro.
The WWF countered the Flair-Bischoff match on Nitro last week with WWF owner Vince McMahon firing “corporate commissioner” Shawn Michaels on Raw. Michaels, who responded by dropping McMahon with some “sweet chin music,” likely will be taken out of commission in an upcoming angle. The former WWF world champ is scheduled to undergo back surgery in late January and may not be able to wrestle for several months.Michaels tentatively had been scheduled to face Hunter Hearst Helmsley at Wrestlemania, but doctors told Michaels that he couldn’t return to the ring without having surgery first.