You won’t find WCW Thunder on the WWE Network. It already has so many sorting, browsing and searching problems, you really don’t need non-essential content cluttering up an already crowded service. And Thunder isn’t essential, as this first show clearly demonstrates.
Thunder was created at the tail end of Nitro’s 21 month long streak of beating Raw in the ratings battles. It was an extension of the WCW brand and one that Bischoff thought the company could ill afford. A second two-hour weekly broadcast in the middle of a recruitment freeze would be difficult to justify. Over exposure of the stars and the extra physical exertion could lead to a talent crisis that would affect the already triumphant Nitro.
But Ted Turner was adamant that the success of a second weekly show would be the final nail in the coffin of their trailing rival, so the show was green-lit with a three pilot. Of course, we all know it wasn’t the death blow Turner was hoping for. WWE’s new direction would lead to a bunch of must see TV moments that would cement their characters in the annals of wrestling history. WCW however, would soon be struggling to keep up, and any attempt to do so would just create more distance between the two products. If Thunder does have one use, it’s to showcase the flaws that would eventually render WCW extinct.
Thunder begins with a promise. A promise to clear up the controversy surrounding Starrcade’s title match. That’s it. That’s what they’re enticing their audience to watch the pilot of their new flagship show with. Not a match, not a long awaited appearance from a beloved wrestler; but a replay of a crappy ending to a messy main event. Throughout the matches and interviews, all that is discussed is the executive decision JJ Dillon will make at the end of the programme.
That’s not all. There’s also the matter of how the Randy Savage match ended. Now, Macho Man vs. Chris Adams did have its good points. It’s a good showcase for Savage’s arrogant persona. Shows every step of his experience. He’s clearly making mincemeat of a far smaller opponent, but he doesn’t want the punishment to end so he pulls the kid up. Modern wrestling really needs to get back in touch with the basics. Too bad it’s over too soon and ends trying to service three separate story lines.
Next we have Louie Spicolli vs. Rick Martel. Totally uneventful. No story. No real direction, no purpose, no action. For once I was grateful the announce team were talking about something else.
Much better was the next match between two impressive Eastern athletes from New Japan. This is where WCW was always interesting to me. You have that international edge that they bring to North American wrestling. It adds an extra dimension the program and the fact that they cross promote between companies shows a generosity WWE has always lacked.
The match itself has that strong-style striking that looks like it can knock you out your boots if you’re not careful.
Bret Hart and Ric Flair have a video package next that is a refreshing antidote to the confused muddle that is the WCW/NWO feud. Two men. The faces of their generations, arguing over who’s the best. Too bad the whole thing is punctuated by that God awful lightning graphic.
One of the mars of this program (especially during a package like this which relies on the purity of the storytelling) is the overuse of the gaudy and distracting graphics. It’s WCW Thunder, so they have to end every segment with an overused and overly flashy Lightning graphic and a campy sound effect that wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of Elvira.
Fortunately after that we have the first meeting between two legends of wrestling. Following up the VT is Flair and he’s facing Jericho. Not everything you’d hope this would be. WCW are still undervaluing Jericho as a mid-card talent; here he’s merely jobbing to the legitimate legend. They really don’t realise how far the Lionheart could go. There’s no desire to push here. Jericho’s only roles in the match are to sell Flair and progress his cry-baby gimmick. It’s a total waste of potential. Still though it is a good match (though it could have been a great one), Flair thrilling get the audience with his “dirtiest player in the game” routine.
At the end of the first hour we have Meng vs. The Giant, the latter of which we now call Big Show. Show is still around in WWE mainly as a name and the last of the great Big Guys. His inability to keep pace with his more modern contemporaries is a source of genuine criticism but bloody hell could be move for a man of his size back in the day. Meng is no slouch but next to Paul Wright he looks like a freshman.
Steve McMichael vs. Goldberg next. McMichael was the first name on Nitro to be plucked from under the nose of Vince McMahon. It must have been a good investment; he got a good 30 seconds of offence in. Remember, this is when Goldberg was demolishing opponents left right and centre. 30 seconds is quite an accomplishment. But ultimately this was just another Goldberg squash, and in my opinion those got old quick. Even if I’m alone in that.
Konnan and Buff Bagwell vs. the Steiners. Exciting tag action. Suplexes galore and a really subtle but effective story beat where Scott bags a victory by himself without the traditional assist from his brother. In the NWO storyline you can really sense that WCW are losing sight of what subtlety can add to a storyline, but moments like this remind you they had a good hold on it once.
Good news. We get a Sarrcade replay. Bad news. It’s Bischoff vs. Zbyszco. And much to my surprise Bisch’s claim to be a black belt in karate isn’t delusional crap. He really moves like a martial artist. He’s even got a pretty quick jab and a decent kick. I actually think he could maybe take a couple of wrestlers in a real fight. Maybe even Larry, especially at his age.
Unfortunately, he clearly doesn’t want to get too physical. The narrative they are pulling is that Eric’s moves (even his entire discipline) have got nothing on the Living Legend. He’s evasive, he’s cowardly and he doesn’t last two minutes against the real offence of Zbyszco. Also, the longer it goes on for the more Bischoff is exposed as an extremely limited performer. And his lack of physical fitness is supposed to be an act. Somehow I’m not so sure.
The whole thing ends with special guest referee Bret Hart turning on Bischoff and siding with WCW. It’s a total farce but did I really need to tell you that? Thus begins Hart’s WCW career. It was his only contribution to the night after the Flair package. After this, we leave the world of Starrcade behind and stumble back to Thunder, returning to the messy NWO angle smearing itself across the program like a monkey wiping faeces on the window at the zoo.
From here the only match of note is the Cruiserweight title match between Juventud Guerrera and Ultimo Dragon. A great advertisement for the division and the title change provides the sort of conclusion the main event can’t offer.
Firstly, the only glimpse of the WCW Heavyweight title we get is as its being vacated by J.J. Dillon. It isn’t on the line like it should be on the first edition of such a huge show. Well, it was supposed to be a huge show. I doubt anyone will remember it that way. Remember the first edition of SmackDown (to be reviewed in the next edition of Look Back)? The end of that program saw The Rock vs. Triple H with HBK as ref. Now that’s how you start a series.
Here we have DDP vs. Nash for the U.S. Title. Hardly an inspiring pairing. It’s a fist fest. Easy. Lazy. Boring. Nash is barely mobile and DDP can’t do a damn thing with him. The cruiserweight battle ended cleanly and definitively. This was ended without a shred of respect to the belt. Hall gets Nash disqualified way too easily and quickly. Then The Giant comes down to tease the battle between him and Nash in the next PPV. During this, the commentators are trying to work in an angle where the cameras are getting cut off as the programme goes over time. It looks weak and the wrestlers are awkwardly dancing around one another waiting for their cues.
The whole show was emblematic of the company at the time. An indulgently long programme that never needed to exist except to appease the egos running over the company. You’d think that we’d be thankful that the show was filled with wrestling, but the performances from the most high profile matches betray their roster’s lack of talent.
The first episode of Thunder was three hours long, if only they could fill it with a half-hour of decent content.