First to Last: WCW Monday Nitro

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First to Last is an occasional column where the pilot episode and series finale of a TV show are examined. But there’s a catch—the author has never seen a single episode of the show before viewing these two episodes! This week’s show: WCW Monday Nitro.

In second grade a kid asked me if I knew what a sleeper hold was. I told him that I did not, and he was kind enough to demonstrate. Laying on the ground, I decided that I was not going to be a fan of professional wrestling. Until recently, I would have said that you couldn’t even pay me to watch pro wrestling. My editor at Paste Magazine apparently took that as a challenge and, as it turns out, you can pay me to watch wrestling. I was asked to watch the first and last episodes of WCW Monday Nitro, and, surprisingly, I enjoyed them quite a bit.

The first episode took place at the Mall of America in 1995. The first fight was between Justin “Thunder” Liger and Flying’ Brian. Liger looks like a Power Ranger who put a Halloween mask on over their Power Rangers uniform. Flying’ Brian does not actually fly at any point, but still wins the match, because of course the American is going to win. The bout was cartoonish, yet satisfyingly choreographed.

After the match, we cut to Hulk Hogan talking trash to nobody in particular, before his speech turns into a commercial for Pastamania, a restaurant he seemingly owned in the Mall of America. At this point I stopped taking this seriously, yet began enjoying it immensely.

The second fight was between Ric Flair and Sting (who I had seen action figures of in the past). Ric Flair wore tiny yellow shorts with matching boots. Sting has a blond flat top and his face is smeared with paint that matches his purple sequin jacket, which he quickly discards. His pants, naturally, are neon purple. This is not how I remember him from the action figures. The two ultimately end up on the ground, legs locked in what the announcers call a “figure-four.” To me, it looks like they’re both just sitting on the ground doing nothing, but the announcers claim that Ric Flair is about to win the match. Another wrestler, Arn Anderson, begins pacing around the ring and the announcers lose their fucking shit.

The announcers here act as a laugh track would on a sitcom. Just like a laugh track lets the clueless audience know that Sheldon just said “bazinga,” the announcers let the clueless audience (me, in this case) know that some shit is about to go down.

Anyway, Ric Flair and Sting are both sitting on the ground doing nothing (though Sting is doing it worse) when Arn Anderson jumps into the ring to challenge Ric Flair. By “challenge” I mean “pummel the fuck out of.” I know it’s fake, and you can plainly see that most of the “hits” aren’t even near connecting, but I still found myself saying “oh, holy shit, is that guy gonna be okay?” Ric Flair ran out of the arena, so I guess the winner of the Flair vs. Sting match was Arn Anderson?

Pro wrestling has a very gestalt quality to it. The acting is bad. The choreography is repetitive. The punches are insultingly unconvincing. Yet it all forms something charming that is really fun to watch, just like a bad horror movie or a car crash.

The third and final match was between Big Bubba Rogers and Hulk Hogan. Obviously I’m familiar with Hogan, who is more well known than shampoo. Despite this being the first wrestling program I’d watched in full, the actual combat quickly became bland—you can only flip and bodyslam and bounce off the edge of the ring in so many ways before they blend together. Yet Hulk’s charisma kept me captivated. Hogan had showmanship perfected, and he deserves all those shitty reality shows VH1 gave him. Anyway, his fat opponent beat on him for a while until Hulk Hogan went into beast-mode, nonchalantly taking punch after punch to the face, all while maintaining menacing eye contact with Big Bubba. It should go without saying that Hogan won the match. There’s a reason VH1 never had a show called Big Bubba Knows Best.

Okay, so that was fun. On to the final Nitro, from Panama City, Florida in 2001! Everybody’s muscles are way bigger and veinier than they were in 1995.

I wasn’t expecting a twist ending for this series, but I sure got one. The final installment begins with Vince McMahon, owner of the WWF (now known as the WWE) announcing that he has bought the WCW.

Rick Flair gives an oddly angry speech both praising WCW and talking shit on Vince McMahon and the WWE (which he had joined following WCW’s end). He was not alone in his sentiments, exemplified by the brazen “MCMAHON IS SATAN” sign held by one fan, hilariously juxtaposed by a nearby fan’s “HEY MOM” sign. Another fan, apparently unaware of poster board, wrote “VINCE SUCKS” on a beach ball.

Compared to the first installment, the choreography is better, the costumes are less extravagant, and the whole thing seems to be taken more seriously. It suffers for all of these reasons. The charm seems to be missing. The first three fights (one of which being a tag-team match) were unremarkable. The wrestlers are less unique than they were in 1995. Most of them wear Speedos or tiny shorts, with the only distinctions being the text written on their asses. One of them had a maple leaf on his butt, perhaps representing the syrupy swamp-ass he must suffer from.

During the fourth fight, between Shawn Stasiak and Bam Bam Bigelow, I regained interest. Shawn was a muscular man in a tiny pink Speedo, whereas Bam Bam was a big fat fatty—the type to be embarrassed to take his shirt off at the swimming pool (or, as it turns out, in the ring). It didn’t seem quite fair, yet I couldn’t figure out which one had the disadvantage. Stasiak wins after receiving help from Stacy, a random woman off stage [this is future Dancing With the Stars contestant and George Clooney girlfriend Stacy Keibler—Ed.], and nobody seems upset about this obvious cheating. I’m not sure if it’s about hating fat people or about objectifying women, but if there were a time and a place for either of those things, it would be during a pro wrestling match.

The final fight of Nitro is between Sting and Ric Flair, who also fought in the first Nitro. I don’t know how intentional they were, but I found several parallels between this match and the first installment. Ric Flair shows up in a purple sequin jacket, much like Sting did in 1995. Sting wears a black leotard with a scorpion skeleton on it. His hair and makeup evoke Brandon Lee in The Crow. This is the Sting that I remember from the action figures. Ric is now too old to take his shirt off in public. Again they struggle in a figure-four like in their first Nitro fight. Near the end of the match Sting goes into beast-mode (similar to, and better than, Hulk Hogan did in the premier), unaffected by the blows to his face which, also reminiscent of the ’95 show, don’t come close to looking convincing.

Sting wins, and a huge ominous musical score engulfs the scene. He helps Ric Flair up and they hug. Sting’s victory seems like a satisfying end for Monday Nitro, as he remained loyal to the WCW by declining to sign with the WWE, unlike Flair. [Sting eventually signed with WWE in 2014, losing his first WWE match to McMahon’s son at WrestleMania earlier this year.—Ed.]

This exercise seriously made me respect pro wrestling more than I previously did. Obviously it’s fake—they don’t let you pass the sixth grade if you don’t know that. It’s not real, but it’s fun. That’s the important part, right?

Matt Pass is a writer in New Jersey. Have a suggestion for next week’s show? Shout it at him on Twitter!

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