Here at We Are The Universe, we like to remain positive. Unfortunately, we can’t discuss the history of Nitro without bringing up the year 1995. So, let’s just get it out of the way!
Many longtime fans, and wrestling historians, consider 1995 to be the worst year in pro-wrestling history. I wouldn’t argue against it. But it was also a very important year that would lay the ground work for the wrestling boom that was to come.
For starters, this was the era of “occupation” wrestlers, particularly in WWE (WWF at the time); garbagemen, police officers, farmers, clowns, race car drivers, it was as if every midcard wrestler had a day job.
Additionally, the 1995 editions of Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, and SummerSlam are often considered amongst the worst of their respective pay-per-views. And the 1995 edition of King of the Ring is perhaps the worst pay-per-view in company history.
It was a bad time.
However, when looking at the top of the card in WWE(F), we see a crop of future legends who would be instrumental in shaping the wrestling landscape during the Monday Night War.
Bret Hart, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Shawn Michaels, and The Undertaker, were already household names at the time. They would soon become globally recognized pop culture icons.
If that wasn’t enough, as the year went on, WWE(F) would go on to acquire the talents of Triple H, Mick Foley, and Steve Austin. We all know how that ended.
So, what was going on in WCW?
In the midst of all of this, Eric Bischoff had worked his way up the WCW corporate ladder, from announcer all the way to executive Vice President.
WCW had experienced its own downturn in business. The revolving door of company executives, and the circus surrounding them, would be worthy of its own series.
Throughout 1994, the company had signed numerous former WWE(F) superstars, including Hulk Hogan, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Brutus Beefcake, and Randy Savage. As a result, WCW had transitioned from a sports-centric company with a heavy focus on athleticism, to something resembling a watered down version of 1980s WWE(F).
Having been tasked by Ted Turner (head of Turner broadcasting) with finding a way to compete with WWE(F), Bischoff, on a whim, asked Turner for a prime time television spot opposite Monday Night Raw. To Bischoff’s amazement, Turner agreed.
Bischoff knew he needed to make his new show as different from Raw as possible. So, he literally made a list of every way WCW Monday Nitro could contrast WWE(F) Monday Night Raw.
Raw was taped, so Nitro would be live. Raw featured characters and storylines that were cartoonish and kid-friendly, so Nitro would feature characters and storylines that were grounded in reality. Raw was family-friendly, so Nitro would chase an 18-34 male demographic.
The first episode of WCW Monday Nitro emanated from Mall of America, in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 4 September, 1995.
This was very deliberate. Bischoff was more than aware that this new show was a huge risk, and the worst thing that could happen would be for the live feed to start and the arena to be half-empty.
In a brilliant move, he was able to mask WCW’s potential lack of drawing power, whilst also creating a unique atmosphere that genuinely gave off the feeling that anything could happen.
The one hour show kicked off with an action-packed match that saw Brian Pillman do battle with Jushin Thunder Liger. This was followed by Sting against Ric Flair, and the main event pitted WCW World Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan against Big Bubba Rogers.
This illustrated another way Nitro would be very different from Raw: competitive matches.
At the time, it was still very common for enhancement talent to be heavily featured to get over big stars on televised shows, and thus save most of the important matches and angles for pay-per-views or television specials.
WCW presented three pay-per-view caliber matches on their very first episode. But, that wasn’t even the biggest point of intrigue.
Lex Luger was a well-known wrestler at this time, already. He had already established himself as a World Champion in WCW previously, before spending a couple of years in WWE(F). Luger fulfilled his final contracted match for Vince McMahon’s company the night prior to Nitro. Thanks to some carefully orchestrated planning by Bischoff, Luger made his shocking return to WCW live on Nitro during the main event. He didn’t physically interfere in the match, but by simply showing up, he made a huge impact.
This set the tone for Nitro. It would be an action-packed show, full intrigue and surprises. It offered a clear alternative to Raw, and would force Vince McMahon’s wrestling company to either evolve, or go extinct.