2001 will go down in history as a time where the landscape of the professional wrestling world changed forever. WWF and WCW had long battled for supremacy during the infamous ‘Monday Night Wars’, with each company rallying to sit as king, atop the wrestling mountain.
This bitter rivalry saw both sides chalk up wins and losses, including a mammoth 83-week stretch in which WCW beat their competitors in the weekly rating war. Wrestling fans were spoiled for choice as WWF beckoned in the ‘Attitude Era’ and WCW created the nWo.
By late 1999, the World Wrestling Federation began to leave World Championship Wrestling behind, winning week after week as the latter struggled creatively and audience numbers fell.
Despite WCW’s former Senior Vice President Eric Bischoff’s best efforts to secure funding and purchase the company, various circumstances led to the deal falling through. As a result, WWF Chairman Vince McMahon made history and bought the company that had been a thorn in his side for so long.
During a recent episode of the ’83 Weeks’ podcast, Bischoff recalled that despite having assurances, his deal fell through:
“There was a letter of intent outlining the terms that had been negotiated between between Fusion media [the group Eric was with] and Turner Broadcasting. Everybody had signed off on it. Due diligence had been done, there was close to $1 million in legal fees. We had assurances from all of the top executives at Turner Broadcasting that it would go through. There was even a Wall St. conference call announcing the deal publicly based on the letter of intent.
My kids were young at the time, and I realised that once the deal was done, I wouldn’t see a vacation again for the next 5 years. The deal was due to close in the next month or 2, so I took my kids on vacation because I had a bit of time on my hands. We all went to Hawaii, thinking as soon as the plane lands back home we have about 2 days and off I go. While I was in Hawaii, I got the phone call saying that the deal was dead.”
Turner Broadcasting had made the decision to pull WCW from its scheduling. And, despite the best efforts of Eric Bischoff, by 2001 all hope was gone. On March 23rd of that year, it was announced that WWF had purchased WCW for a reported $4.2 million, killing the ‘Monday Night Wars’ once and for all.
On March 26th, 2001, twenty years ago today, WCW aired their last ever broadcast – ‘WCW Nitro: Night of Champions’. Held in Panama City Beach at the Boardwalk Beach Resort, the show not only made history as the last of WCW’s flagship programme but also as the first and only simulcast between Nitro and former competitor, WWF’s Raw is War. Unlike any Nitro to precede it, the show featured an official WWF presence backstage, with Shane McMahon and Bruce Prichard meeting with staff and talent, while overseeing the show itself.
As the companies iconic logo beckoned viewers into one last episode, they were not greeted by the likes of Tony Schiavone and Scott Hudson on commentary.
Instead, Vince McMahon opened the show with an eerily ominous statement:
“Imagine that. Me, Vince McMahon. Imagine that, here I am on WCW television. How can that happen? Well, there’s only one way. You see, it was just a matter of time before I, Vince McMahon, bought my competition. That’s right, I own WCW. So therefore in it’s final broadcast, tonight on TNT I have the opportunity to address you the WCW fans. I have the opportunity to address you, the WCW Superstars. What is the fate of WCW? Well tonight in a special simulcast, you’ll all find out. Because the fate, the very fate of WCW is in my hands.”
During its heyday, Nitro was flying high with the likes of the New World Order and Goldberg. Acquisitions such as Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart, Ultimate Warrior and Roddy Piper created a ‘must see’ aspect of the show. On this night, none of that remained. Many top talents such as Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash had been sent home with guaranteed contacts. Allowing them to collect lucrative cheques from the sidelines.
This evening was something of a showcase for some of WCW’s home grown talent. One such competitor was Booker T. A former member of Harlem Heat, Booker had broken into singles competition to become one of the company’s biggest attractions.
In a 2012 interview with WWE.com, Booker T recalled the emotion in the locker room in the lead up to the final episode:
“The one thing I remember the most about that night is how antsy everyone in the locker room was. Everybody was on pins and needles, just wondering what was going to happen next. I actually saw tears in the eyes of a lot of the guys, a lot of questions surrounding what was next in life, especially as far as careers go. It was very topsy-turvy, definitely a night I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Walking into that evening, Booker faced WCW World Champion Scott Steiner. Including vacancies, the WCW World Heavyweight Championship changed hands a mammoth 25 times in the year 2000 alone.
Booker T defeated Steiner that evening to become a five-time WCW World Heavyweight Champion, the last man to wear the gold under the company banner. Booker was one of the few performers to break his guaranteed contract with WCW in order to jump to WWF sooner.
A move Booker feels was the right one to make:
“When I started my career back in the early 1990s, I worked my way from the bottom. I had no ties to sports-entertainment, I wasn’t second-generation or anything, so for me to work my way up and close the company down as a dual champion is a real feather in the cap for me.
I could have stayed under contract with WCW and not competed like some other guys did. But I thought I was talented and capable enough, so I rolled the dice by going to WWE […] My time in WCW was like the summer of my life, when it came to an end, I had to move on to the fall, where I am now. I have a lot of great memories from WCW, a lot of admiration for the WCW competitors I worked with, and I learned so much in my time there. All I can do is look back and think, ‘It’s been a hell of a ride.’”
Notably, another end of an albeit short era occurred on this episode of Nitro. Less than one month after their introduction, the WCW Cruiserweight Tag Team Championships were won by Billy Kidman and Rey Mysterio. Defeating inaugural champions Elix Skipper and Kid Romeo. The championships, alongside the WCW Hardcore Championship, did not transfer to WWF.
Also appearing on the card that night was a young Chavo Guererro Jr. Prior to his lengthy tenure with WWE, Chavo was a staple in WCW’s cruiserweight division. Reportedly concerned for his future, Chavo contacted former WCW cruiserweight turned WWF Superstar Eddie Guerrero. In the hopes of securing a position for the opposing company.
Chavo recalled this in a 2013 interview for Bleacher Report:
“We got to Panama City, and it was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ Nobody knew what was going to happen that night or afterward. My uncle [Eddie Guerrero] was in WWE, so we were talking, trying to keep each other abreast. But the WWE guys didn’t even know…”
Arn Anderson, who played a pivotal backstage role in WCW during its dying days recalled many of the younger performers feeling the pressure when WCW’s doors closed. During a recent episode of ‘ARN’, the former Four Horsemen member described the atmosphere backstage as one of mixed emotions.
“Everybody had a different opinion. Again, a lot of top guys that were on contract with that company, weren’t there because they had been sent home. Some guys that hadn’t been in the business very long were not very confident they were gonna be absorbed. There were guys that were veterans that weren’t confident they were gonna be absorbed. It was more doubt and people assessing their self-worth.
I didn’t see anybody cocky. That they were gonna be taken aboard and pushed to the top. I just remember there were a lot of private conversations and it had this really weird aura. I don’t think anybody really believed it was gonna be the last show until those guys walked in. Then it became very real.”
Throughout the night, many WCW performers thanked the audience for their years of dedication and viewership. Diamond Dallas Page proclaimed his love for the company, claiming he “wouldn’t change it for nothing.”
Despite WCW bidding an emotional farewell, WWF was on top of the world. Less than a week away from their biggest pay-per-view of the year, WrestleMania X-Seven. The company stood alone as the undisputed kings of sports entertainment, eradicating their competition once and for all.
Throughout the simulcast, Vince McMahon appeared in several segments from backstage at Raw. Perhaps the most famous of these is the real-life firing of Jeff Jarrett. Following animosity between the two, in which Jarrett allegedly held McMahon up for six-figures prior to a pay-per-view following Jarrett’s contract expiring.
McMahon addressed Jarrett’s status during the simulcast:
“Let me just say that tonight for sure, one man will make history. And that’s me, Vince McMahon. Now, as far as the Jeff Jarrett’s of the world are concerned, you know how Jeff spells his name, that’s ‘J-E- double F.’ Well, you know what. I would suspect that we’ll spell it a different way after tonight. That would be – Capital G, double O, double N, double E… GONE.”
One of the most memorable moments from that evening was the main event. The debut episode of Nitro saw Ric Flair and Sting close the show in a one on one bout. And history repeated itself as when the final curtain was preparing to close, the pair squared off inside a WCW ring one final time.
The match, allegedly held at the personal request of Vince McMahon was not initially welcomed by either competitor. Ric Flair was reportedly less than eager to climb into the squared circle, having not competed in some time. As a result, ‘The Nature Boy’ took to the ring wearing a t-shirt in his showdown against The Stinger.
During a later interview with WWE, Flair admitted his relief at the company finally closing its doors:
“I felt glad. We should have closed down a year before. We had turned into such a mockery – we had become the laughing stock. The guys in the WWE were just laughing at us. It was an embarrassing nightmare for anyone that had ever become successful in our business. It was terrible. I was emotionally upset for the people who had worked there for years, like the production people and wrestlers losing their jobs. When there are two entities, and it becomes one, the marketplace becomes a lot smaller.
Everybody got a month of severance pay for each year they had been there, so a guy who was there for ten years would only get paid for a year in severance. One hundred fifty people went out of business in one day — some of them made it, and some of them didn’t. Nobody gave a sh*t — it was pretty sad and very insensitive.”
Ultimately, Sting had his hand raised and went down in history as winning the final match on the final Nitro. During an emotional few moments, Sting and Flair embraced in the middle of the ring as Nitro drew to a close for the final time.
The show ended with Shane McMahon declaring himself the true owner of WCW. Leading to the infamous ‘Invasion’ angle featuring WWF, WCW and ECW. Despite the company appearing on WWF television over the following months as part of the angle, WCW never saw the light of day again.
This Nitro in Panama City truly marked the end for WCW. Despite initial plans to reboot the company with an alleged ‘Big Bang’, WCW never televised another show.
Tony Schiavone bid farewell to viewers at home with a poignant sentiment:
“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us, fans. The uncertainty of our jobs, our future. Of what we love, of what we breathe and what we live. We don’t just work for WCW, we live WCW. And I know Flair, Sting and the fans will agree.”
And with that, on this day twenty years ago WCW Nitro was gone. Though the show has remained long-dormant, many fans remember Nitro fondly as a one-time serious contender for WWF’s sports entertainment crown. Helping thrust professional wrestling into the main event limelight of popular culture in the 1990s.