To say 1994 was a terrible year for professional wrestling would be a pretty safe bet. By the time the smoke had cleared, not only was WCW in a heap of their own dung, but the WWF was struggling through issues of their own (the steroid folder had finally been opened by the public, Diesel was flopping as champion, Vince didn't know where to turn with the company next and backstage politics was at an all-time high). When all was said and done, WCW had effectively shot itself in the foot. Their plans to give Sid a World Title reign in late 1993 had backfired horribly when Vicious and Arn Anderson cut paper dolls out of each other with scissors. A Horsemen reunion went over terribly with the viewing audience. Sting had lost nearly all his credibility in a horrid series of "feuds" with Vader that looked more like cheesy movies than wrestling events. A sparkling Flair run as booker was tossed aside to make way for Hulkamania and though entire arenas were turning on him, Hogan dominated the scene. Their home grown champion had been disgraced all the way out of the promotion, retiring after losing the mother of all squashes to the Hulkster. Revenues were down, attendance was in the can, and morale had hit an all time low. But it's like they say.. once you've hit rock bottom there's nowhere to go but up.
Flair tasted the fruit of retirement for the first quarter of 1995, while Arn Anderson made a slow return to the company he'd helped to build from the ground up. Barry Windham had disappeared from the scene altogether. Paul Roma's terribly failed Horseman run pretty well sealed his fate, and Tully Blanchard remained an ordained minister, enjoying a quiet life away from the glitz of professional wrestling. Sid Vicious had left the company after the scissors incident in Europe, and was just starting a new run atop the WWF with Shawn Michaels. The Horsemen were scattered like dust in the wind, but it would only take the eventual return of one man to bring rumors of their arrival back to the forefront yet again.
The said return hit at the very first Uncensored PPV in March of '95. The real American hero, Hulk Hogan, was meeting the man they call Vader in a main event strap match, and the audience was delighted to see Flair and Arn Anderson alongside the Mastadon as both walked down the entryway. Cue those Horsemen rumors I'd mentioned before. Flair slid right into the heel role he was born for, but fans still didn't buy it wholeheartedly. They'd rather cheer a heel Flair tan a face Hogan. Along the course of the match, Hogan no-sold the Vader bomb, because he's an ass. The match mercifully ended, but not without further destroying Flair's reputation. After the Nature Boy had sold the entire match outside the ring for "Renegade", WCW's pale attempt to recreate the Ultimate Warrior, Hogan drug him into the ring. After several unsuccessful attempts at driving Vader headfirst into all four corners (and thus winning the match), Hogan instead did so to Flair. For one reason or another, the bell rang. The match had ended, and Hogan was proclaimed the winner. Post match, Flair recovered from his humiliation at the Hulkster's hands, only to jaw alongside Arn and Vader, promising a Horsemen-style beating the champion would never forget. As the show went off the air, fans were left with an interesting visual; Flair, Anderson and Vader... certainly a step up from their previous roster.
While Slick Ric continued to waste time as Vader's manager, watching the big man drop match after match to Hogan, the Renegade was given a tremendous push to the top, which culminated with a clean TV Title victory over Arn Anderson. The audience just abhorred this pale Warrior rip-off, and it took bookers months and an extended TV Title reign to realize it just wasn't working.
Meanwhile, Flair went about interfering in Vader's matches... most of which were against Hogan. Just before Bash at the Beach, the champion had enough and asked WCW to reinstate Flair as an active wrestler. The committee accepted Hogan's request, yet Flair remained at ringside for Hogan/Vader at the PPV. The match itself isn't worth the effort of recounting and almost became a comedy routine when Hogan put Vader's big, spooky helmet on himself right in the middle of the match. Mr. T was at ringside, as was Jimmy Hart. The Zodiac (Ed Leslie / Brutus Beefcake / The Disciple) made a run-in that amounted to absolutely nothing, and Hogan high-stepped his way to another victory. Post match, realizing his man had dropped yet another title shot, Flair snapped. While Hogan celebrated with his mainstream friends, Flair climbed into the ring and verbally berated Vader. After jobbing to Hogan, Vader was in no mood for any more humiliation and stood to confront Flair when Arn Anderson hit the ring.
It all led to Flair's real return to the ring at the next Clash of the Champions, where he and Arn took on Vader in a handicap match. Without the dead weight of Hogan hanging off him, Vader remembered he was allowed to work in America, and the three put together a relatively enjoyable match. Surprisingly enough, Flair seemed to be responsible for most of the slack on that evening, and when Vader made a big comeback, Ric was the one missing from action. Vader quickly and decisively nailed a three count on Anderson before anyone knew what had happened and that was it. Afterwards, Flair cut loose on Arn with a verbal tirade that could've cut through the strongest will and Arn stood defiant. When Flair was through, Anderson turned right back and confronted him about the years and years he'd been loyal... all without a title shot. The two glared nose to nose that night, and set their first and only one on one singles match for Fall Brawl 1995. One of the longest lasting professional friendships in the sport had come to a close, and all that was left was the blowoff.
Going into the Brawl, Arn Anderson took the time to recruit the help of Brian Pillman. The years he'd spent as a Horsemen had shown the younger Anderson the advantages of working in a group, and he was already employing his knowledge of team warfare, just weeks after his split from Ric Flair. The two met in the ring after a lackluster Fall Brawl card, itching to show all the new fans what the sport was really about. They put on a clinic.
Flair took the heel role for the opening minutes, giving his old friend the glory he was always denied in the past. Presented with a solid black and white for the first time in ages, the fans sparked to life behind Anderson. Arn didn't hesitate, starting out on top and already softening the arm for his tried-but true arm bar submission. Flair fought back with the backhand chops that he made famous, but Double A hit a single arm DDT before the action spilled to the floor. Back inside they went, with Arn still in control. Flair quickly put a stop to that, however, with another Nature Boy specialty.. the low blow. Flair grabbed the advantage with a brutal suplex on the floor, throwing Arn back underneath the ropes. When Flair's assaults were reversed into another attempted DDT, Ric stopped the new momentum by grabbing the ropes. The former champ seized the opportunity, locking in his figure four leglock, but it was almost immediately reversed by the one man who may know Ric better than himself. Unswayed, Flair tried it again and was rolled up for a two count. With Flair granting the audience a "whooo", Pillman climbed to the apron for a better view. Ric didn't hesitate to smack the flyin' one for good measure, and Brian shot right back with a kick directly in the head. Reeling, Flair backed right into the awaiting Anderson DDT for the one.. two... three. The crowd ignites, and Arn celebrates the huge victory alongside his new buddy. Before the focus could be shifted elsewhere, Arn fits the camera with an icy stare and announces "You're looking at the new Horsemen." Meaning, of course, Pillman and himself.
arn is announced victorious over ric flair
Where Flair could've likely taken the loss in stride, the Horsemen reference was too much and he challenged the two to a tag match at Halloween Havok. They accepted, and Flair immediately asked Sting for his aid. The Stinger initially balked at the notion, but after Flair proved himself to be a man of his word in multiple handicap matches, Sting hesitantly accepted. Flair assured him he wouldn't regret it, and the match was set for late October. Elsewhere in WCW, two former ECW tag team champions arrived in the tag ranks. Though his partner would wait a while, Chris Benoit would find his way right into the thick of things... or so it would seem.
With the event already underway, reports came in from the back that Arn and Pillman had started the match a bit early.. Flair had been jumped in the parking lot. His inclusion in the main event was immediately put in doubt, as announcers told us this may put the tag team event in jeopardy. We knew better, though, and when it came time for the match to go down, Sting made his way to the ring alone.
Sting came out a man on fire, completely deconstructing the two men on his own and sending them outside early to regroup. The former friend, Pillman, invited Sting to try all that again out on the floor, and the former champ was more than happy to oblige. When the "New Horsemen" tried a double team, Sting put a halt to it rather quickly and tore back into the ring. Arn followed, presumably to launch an assault, and Sting picked up right where he left off on the floor. With Double A and Pillman finally managing to grab an advantage, Flair finally arrived on the scene. Wearing street clothes, Flair jumped to the corner and urged Sting to make the hot tag. Unfortunately, Arn and Pillman had effectively cut the ring in half. In true Nature Boy fashion, Ric had taken off his dress shoe at this point and was using it as a weapon. Pillman tried a splash, but Sting managed to get the knees up and made a dive for the tag. Arn stopped him short, trying a belt to back that landed him a quick 2 count.
Pillman hits a kick to the ribs on a downed Sting and Flair doesn't appreciate it. The two double team Sting to infinity in their own corner before the former World's Champion fights back. He appears to break free, only to find himself caught by a neatly executed Arn Anderson spinebuster for 2. Just for the hell of it, Arn goes to work on Sting's knee. Alongside Pillman, he chops away at Sting in the corner.. giving their opponent the perfect opportunity for a double noggin knocker. He takes it. He tags Flair. The crowd squirts. Flair does the strut for a moment, and then turns and kicks the living hell out of the Stinger. The three smear what's left of Sting around the mat for a bit, before raising four fingers and proving we'd all been taken yet again. Arn grabs the mic, amidst simultaneous Flair and Pillman "whooo!"s and says "Be careful what you wish for... all the bloodthirsty fans out there asked for this!", flashing the Four Fingers "Well now you've got it. Deal with it!"
Just after Halloween Havok was in the books, Flair, Pillman, Anderson and Woman (the group's new manager) climbed into the ring on a regular televised program for an interview segment. In it, Flair and Anderson revealed they'd been scoping the youth scene of the federation relentlessly for a fourth member, and had been deeply impressed with the work of one Chris Benoit. He'd turned heads as a team player with partner Dean Malenko early on, and his skills as a single were put to the test and proven with a strong showing against then US Champion Kensuke Sasaki. Though Benoit lost that match, he'd won the admiration and respect of the men watching in the back... enough so to merit a slot in the fabled lineup of the Horsemen. Within moments, Benoit himself had stepped into the ring and joined the group without hesitation. Once more, the four were complete.
Benoit and Pillman immediately took the roles previously reserved for the Andersons, assaulting the tag division while Flair jumped right back into the hunt for the World title, currently around the waist of Randy Savage. Pillman began his infamous habit of "snapping" around this time, viciously assaulting anyone unlucky enough to be around when it inevitably happened, and effectively injuring several big names in the process. Paul Orndorff was among the unlucky, and ended up in a neck brace as a result. Kevin Sullivan took exception to Pillman's treatment of the established stars of yesteryear, and the two began a rather large-scale war of their own. With Hulk Hogan taking some time off at the time, WCW had inexplicably become halfway watchable in his absence Over a year before the nWo tried the same thing with a few variations, Sonny Onoo led NJPW (or New Japan Pro Wrestling) in an 'invasion' of WCW. What resulted was an interesting enough angle, well before its time. Unfortunately, audiences didn't know what to think, as names like Ohtani and Liger were thrust upon them without warning. The Japanese talent, strong as it was, still had some problems adjusting to the American style, psychology and crowd demeanor. While the two sides struggled, a definitive leader in the ongoing battle between promotions was difficult to judge. To settle this thing once and for all, officials decided to try a 'best of seven' series running throughout Starrcade. Pulling double duty were Luger, Sting, Flair and Savage... all busied in the main event(s), as well as in matches against the NJPW force.
The same committee that couldn't decide on a winner in the WCW / New Japan situation was having the same sort of trouble finding a #1 contender for the main event. So, in the traditionally nonsensical WCW tradition, another set of matches were set to be held at Starrcade: Flair, Sting and Luger (the three men in contention for the title shot) would meet in a semi-main event midway through the card, while Savage would defend his title early as well. The winner of the three way would then meet the equally-winded Savage in the final match of the evening for his World Title. Simple enough.
Starrcade 1995 opened up with a continuation of one of the decade's greatest feuds; Chris Benoit vs. Jushin Liger in a rare North American clash. The two tore it up with a solid performance that just lacked that extra something. Liger removed some of his higher spots, which wasn't without justification... they'd have probably gone over the viewing audience's heads. Benoit, too, was lacking his characteristic killer instinct here, though he did debut the rolling German suplexes to WCW on this night. The Ligerbomb hit paydirt, but without any knowledge of its history the crowds don't pop as they should, and the pinning combination that followed didn't net a fall. Kevin Sullivan popped his head in for the finish, in what was a continuation of his feud with stable-mate Pillman at the time, but served as a bit of foreshadowing of things to come for Benoit. As the Crippler made a move for the Sullivan, Liger secured the surprise victory.
Elsewhere on the card, Eddy Guerrero took on Shinjiro Ohtani in an encounter that I'd kill to see on TV today. Incidentally, Ohtani took the clean pin in that one. Elsewhere, World Champ Savage took out Tenzan within a couple minutes, pretty well negating the reason for his midcard defense in the first place. Lex Luger dropped a snore-fest to Masa Chono, before the WCW talent made a comeback to make the score 3 to 3 going into the final cross-promotion match of the night, Sting vs. Kensuke Sasaki (still wearing the US Heavyweight title belt). WCW's resident phenom took it for the home crowd in an elongated squash, with Sasaki tapping to the Scorpion Deathlock in the end.
The rules for the triangle match weren't your usual fare, as two men would go at it in the ring while the third stood on the apron, available for a tag. Despite being big draws on their own, the added history between these three is about as long as you're likely to find; Flair and Luger have been at each other's throats off and on for years, stretching back to Luger's days as a Horseman. Flair still harbored angry feelings against Lex, who'd taken the World Title Flair vacated in '91 only days after his departure to the WWF. Sting and the Nature Boy were right in the middle of a rekindled feud of their own, following the big turn at Halloween Havok, though their past was just as historic. Luger and Sting, however, were the best of friends. Though things may have been said behind each other's backs, the two remained fairly open with each other on screen. They'd built a mutual trust, solidified alongside a common enemy. It was bound to be a rough night for Flair, no matter who he was in the ring with.
Sting started the match off against Flair, because the two buddies weren't about to willingly take each other down this early on. Both Flair and Sting still had it in them at this point, and gave us a good series of holds, blows and reversals to start it up. Sting took the offense early on, beating a new hole in Flair in retaliation for the recent turn of events surrounding them. Following a convincing flurry of offense, Sting tagged Luger to continue the mauling. Lex did just that, pausing only to acknowledge Flair's pleas for mercy. Taking advantage of the brief shelter his begging has provided, Ric immediately took Luger's legs out from under him. The Nature Boy effortlessly made the transition from the beaten to the executioner, tearing into the leg and goading Sting, who watched from the apron. Soon after, Flair played his trump card and tagged the painted man in, forcing the two friends to duke it out in the middle of the ring. Luger seemed to have no problem with it, however, and recovered quickly from the beating his legs took in the moments prior. The Narcissist was immediately looking for a home run, and locked Sting into the torture rack.. but smacked the ref on his way up. Flair seized the moment and rushed into the ring, sending Luger hard out to the floor. He glared down at Sting, still shaken from the effects of the torture rack, and threw him, too, in a heap to the floor. The ref revived himself in time to count both men out.
This meant, of course, that we'd see Flair and Savage in the main event, with the World Title on the line. The injured Orndorff made his way out to catch the fight, still engulfed in the neck brace prison that Pillman had sentenced him to, and Jimmy Hart accompanied Flair to ringside after offering his services earlier in the evening. The two put on a lackluster performance, which looked especially bad after the worthwhile three man that had preceded it. A Jimmy Hart attempt to pass his megaphone in to Flair failed, and Savage ended up clocking the challenger, drawing some big time red along the way. The Macho Man then climbed up top and dropped his famous flying elbow on Flair's prone body. Flyin' Brian and Benoit took offense and made a run in while Hart distracted the referee with what was left of his megaphone. Arn, too, snuck in and drilled Savage with a pair of brass knuckles just before our ref turned back to the action. The three abandoned the apron, Flair covered and an unconscious Savage couldn't kick out. Taking 1995 home on a bright note, Brian Pillman snapped and tore into the motionless corpse of Randy Savage. It was a good time to be a Horseman.
If 1995 was full of twists, turns and questionable alliances.. 1996 was overflowing. How long could the new Horsemen survive with a loose cannon, an aging champion, some new blood and an injured enforcer? Take a peek at the next installment, visible at finer newsboards around the nation tomorrow afternoon.