Friday, June 23, 2000

The World's Greatest WWF King of the Ring 2000 Preview

KOTR has been notorious for stinkers.. especially in the tournament itself. This year is an incredible exception, as the roster has expanded to previously unthinkable bounds. For the first time in years, the WWF's list of active athletes is larger than WCW's.. and it's never been more obvious than in the 2000 King of the Ring tournament. Names like Benoit, Guerrero, Jericho and Venis lend an incredible amount of credibility to the crown, and each give a distinct rub to the man that takes the title. Where the 1995 tournament gave us a complete flop champ in Mabel, I honestly don't think there's anything the WWF can do to screw this one up. With the exception of a last second Mark Henry return or another Paul Wight title reign, the tournament seems destined for success. The WWF's pushed all the right buttons, and they'll be reaping the benefits come Sunday night.

Pat Patterson vs. Gerald Brisco
Evening Gown Match for the Hardcore Title

I haven't got much to say about this one. The gimmick became overdone and tired long ago, and it's pretty safe to say these two passed their prime a couple years back. The humor just isn't working anymore, and Vince needs to realize that. I'll take Saturn, making the run in with a new ref and winning his first gold.. just because he needs it, while Brisco and Patterson don't.
Winner: Perry Saturn

X-Pac, Road Dogg & Tori vs. Dudley Boyz
Dumpster Table Match

I like the little bit of history they threw our way the other night, remembering the infamous NAO Dumpster incident in the weeks before Wrestlemania 14 with the Dudleys' fall from grace. Though it isn't a trend I'd like to see every week, I'm glad to see they haven't forgotten one of the feuds that helped launch the Attitude era. Getting to the match, anybody that doesn't expect a sloppy series of bumps, falls and big spots should check their head. With X-Pac throwing his hands up in the air and mailing his recent matches in, the Dudleys are gonna have to work extra hard to keep things decent here. Silly stips, 2 below average workers and one guy that's given up on his career do not a good match make. I'll take the Dudleys, just because I can.
Winners: The Dudley Boyz

Too Cool vs. Edge/Christian vs. T&A vs. Hardy Boyz
Tag Team Championship

The belts need to change hands tonight, and with the Hardy Boys' stagnation, T&A never catching on and Too Cool working more and more as singles, the winners seem to be pretty obvious. I'm not positive which rules this one will be fought under, though I'd hope it isn?t just a straight up brawl. All eight men are extremely talented (and yes, I meant to include T&A in that list), so the action could be very worthwhile.. though it'll be very easy to just fall back and let things become a spot-fest.
I'd like to see the Hardys take home their second tag titles here, so I won't completely rule a Matt and Jeff victory out. Edge and Christian simply have more promise as champions right now.
Winners: Edge & Christian

Kurt Angle vs. Chris Jericho
King of the Ring Quarterfinals

Jericho's got the momentum, while Angle's got the big feud with HHH looming on the horizon. These are a couple of the fastest rising stars in the promotion, and it's tough to call a winner so early. The two have worked well together in the past when they haven't blown their loads too early and spent the rest of the match trying to recapture a pace. If they keep the spots flowing evenly throughout, building to a strong finish and maybe.. just maybe.. slipping in a bit of psychology for sticklers like Spence and I, we could see something really special in the first round. I've got a strong hunch this might be the big surprise match of the night, and I'm gonna go out on a limb in picking Y2J.
Winner: Chris Jericho

Crash Holly vs. Bull Buchanan
King of the Ring Quarterfinals

For the sake of the future, I hope Crash takes a win here and begins a strong run towards future credibility. Though he hasn't been able to show it more than fleetingly, tangled in the Hardcore division, Crash Holly is actually a promising talent. He's got the charisma, the willingness to bump, and a moveset that supposedly goes the distance. While Bull's enjoying the immediate push that most WWF superstars get to experience early on, I'd bet it's all about to come to a halt Sunday night. Crash Holly gets the nod in my opinion, though he won't get far.
Winner: Crash Holly

Rikishi Phatu vs. Chris Benoit
King of the Ring Quarterfinals

As I've said in the past, Rikishi is one of the few big men in the industry that's actually worth his weight. Though he has trouble sometimes, he's never afraid to keep up with the smaller guys and will bump when the situation calls for it. Though I've quickly become tired of his "dancin man with the ass" gimmick, an upcoming feud with Venis could lend a bit more personality to his character.. which is just what he needs. Benoit's in similar water, as fans don't know if they're supposed to cheer him or boo him anymore. Something needs to happen in this match, something decisive. The Tazz run-in is likely, though if it goes down I'd wager he causes Benoit?s advancement in the tourney, not his elimination. Chris just jobbed the IC gold to Phatu. Look for him to gain his revenge Sunday night.
Winner: Chris Benoit

Val Venis vs. Eddy Guerrero
King of the Ring Quarterfinals

Eddy and Val are becoming two of the top "can't miss" prospects of tomorrow. After an overly stale character was dumped in favor of a strongly motivated heel, fans and critics alike have suddenly recognized Venis' above average talents and sung their praises. When he faces off with one of the world's finest workers, bar none, in Guerrero, sparks can't help but fly. I'll go with Chyna interference here, accidentally costing Latino Heat his spot in the semis.
Winner: Val Venis

Chris Jericho vs. Crash Holly
King of the Ring Semifinals

Much as I like Crash, I don't think he's quite at the level to go over as established a star as Y2J just yet. Though it would be an interesting enough scenario to see Elroy Jetson as the flukey surprise finalist.. I just don't think it's a prudent decision. While their angles may not have anything to do with each other at the time, I'd see that as a demonstration of the random nature of any tournament. At the very least, it'll net us a nice match. As I covered above, I don't think Crash can go over here.. it would ideally be a well fought, close match that sees Jericho walking away with a clean pin.
Winner: Chris Jericho

Chris Benoit vs. Val Venis
King of the Ring Semifinals

Here comes big swerve number two: Benoit doesn't make the finals. If you're a regular reader of my stuff, you'll know there's nobody I'd rather see reign as the 2000 King of the Ring more than Chris Benoit. While he's enjoyed a long run as IC champ, I still don't believe he's got the attention of the common fan. Not enough to merit a victory at the year's biggest tournament, anyway. Venis makes the finals, building his way to a strong midcard heel run.
Winner: Val Venis

Chris Jericho vs. Val Venis
King of the Ring Finals

What a tournament final should be. A fresh match, with clearly defined face and heel roles that the fans enjoy watching. It's a tough one to call, since Jericho doesn't exactly need the push as much as Val might.. but a Venis victory could knock Jericho from the position he's earned as one of the federation's top stars. I won?t begin to pretend this one's gonna be clean from start to finish (I'll leave that hopeless dream with Jericho/Crash Holly), but if nothing else I'd like to see a finish that isn't completely marred by outside interference. These two could put on one helluva show if the crowd gives them reason to, barring an untimely injury or a bizarre DQ finish. When the dust settles, I'll put my money on Jericho, squeaking by a tough victory that raises the stock of both men.
Winner: Chris Jericho

Triple H, Vince & Shane vs. The Rock, Kane & Undertaker
Six-Man Tag-Team Match

A couple months after WCW ran a similar angle (winner of this big tag match gets the belt), the WWF's running the same thing to main event a PPV.. and you know what? It works this time. Maybe it's the fact there aren't any actors in the roster, though I wouldn't put much money against a surprise Samuel L. Jackson appearance. Seriously though, I'm a bit surprised Vince went with a 6-man for the main event, and inserting Shane and himself to the mix only exploits the Federation's main downfall.. a near complete lack of main event heels. Not only does this drag the match down a couple notches (because Vince and Shane can't hope to pull as much weight as say.. Benoit or Malenko could.. though their insertion makes a lot more sense), but it almost insures a turn on the faces' side. The big money's on Kane, and though I'm looking more at an Undertaker turn, I will admit Kane would have the most to gain by going bad. His only World Title reign in the past was at Vince's bidding, a tidbit which I'm pretty sure hasn't been overlooked in the long run. As a face, Kane's getting mixed up with the Undertaker and the Rock.. and stands as a distant #3 in the eyes of the fans. Joining forces with HHH wouldn't make instant sense, but I'm confident Vince can make us believe. Against my better judgement, I'm going with the popular belief here. Kane's turning, and he's got several months of a World Title reign in his future.
Winner: Kane

In Closing...

I'll be the first to tell you every one of my predictions is probably wrong. But hell.. what fun is a preview that doesn't take any chances? If the tournament is even a glimmer of what it could be, we're in for a real treat this weekend. What the WWF's done in 2000 as a whole is simply amazing, especially when compared with how terrible and predictable the product was becoming just before Russo's big jump. We've gone from an Intercontinental Belt with no value whatsoever (after being passed around the likes of the Godfather and Goldust) to a strap of gold that's quickly reclaiming its past glory in the hands of Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle and Chris Jericho. The tag team division has been resurrected, when Kane and X-Pac were obliterating their opponents not one year past. New stars have risen from the least likely places (c'mon, who really thought Kurt Angle was gonna work out?), and others have arrived from otherwise-binding contracts with the competition. Tournaments like this don't come around every day, and if you don't take advantage and enjoy it now it may slip through the cracks and fall from grace.. like the WCW Cruiserweight Division.
until next time, i remain

Wednesday, June 21, 2000

Ringside Shadows #136: The Complete History of the Four Horsemen (Part 12: 1998 & Beyond)

Just months removed from what could've become the strongest modern roster in the stable's history, the Four Horsemen found themselves scattered across the WCW landscape. Curt Hennig's nWo turn, an unexpected obstacle, had caught the group completely off guard and left them broken and directionless. For once, Ric Flair didn't have the answer and the four were quietly disbanded through a telephone interview. Though separated in body, the former members did their best to keep the stable alive in spirit. Chris Benoit still wore tights embroidered with the Horsemen logo to the ring. Mongo often rose the four fingers, disregarding the absence of their meaning in the group's absence. Though he wouldn't admit it until later, a part of Arn Anderson's heart was empty without the reassurance of the infamous stable at his back. It certainly appeared as though the nWo had effectively destroyed their enemies, but it was only a matter of time before the war would rage once again.


It all started in a roundabout way, on the eve of April 9th. Ric Flair claimed he'd been granted the night off months in advance. He'd planned to watch his youngest son, Reid, participate in an amateur wrestling tournament in Minnesota. Eric Bischoff, however, says Flair never asked for the time off, and booked the Nature Boy for a Thunder broadcast in Florida. In the weeks before, Flair had signed a letter of intent to stay with WCW. It served as a legally binding document, which basically stated Ric wouldn't show up on Raw while he was negotiating a new contract with Turner. The whole thing wouldn't have amounted to much of anything, had WCW not heavily promoted Flair's presence in the days before. Mean Gene told us on the Nitro prior that Ric had a "very important announcement in store, regarding the future of the Horsemen".

Naturally, the viewers tuned in to see what Flair had to say, but Ric had flown to Minnesota anyway, putting his family ahead of the business. Gene explained to the viewing audience that Flair had experienced flight problems and was stuck in Charlotte, which was the last time the Nature Boy's name would be mentioned on WCW TV for months. Bischoff had decided to make an example out of Flair, much in the same vein as he had with Vader years earlier. He sued, taking Slick Ric for nearly all he was worth. He teased reuniting the Horsemen without their centerpiece. He tried ignoring the weekly, thunderous chants that demanded "We want Flair!" It wasn't long before rumors hit the net, confirming his arrival on Raw almost immediately.

Meanwhile, Nitro carried on with the teased Horsemen angle, Flair or not. Chris Benoit became a constant thorn in Arn Anderson's side, reminding him that the legacy shouldn't die so easily. Despite the fact that Anderson wanted no part of any reunion without Flair, stating his opinion bluntly on several occasions backstage, Benoit would not be swayed. He fought the good fight, resuming the group's crusade against the nWo after defeating each member of Raven's flock in singles combat. Though he gave everything he could offer against the constantly growing heel faction, Benoit often found himself overwhelmed by the sheer number of his opponents. One evening, following a match with Stevie Ray, Benoit again found himself buried by the mob of nWo members... only this time help was on its way. Steve McMichael, who had taken months off from the ring, returned to save his long time teammate. The two shared a glance, turned to the audience and proudly rose four fingers to the air. The audience erupted, proving not even Bischoff's power could crush a legacy.

raise those four fingers high
benoit and mcmichael unite, instantly gratifying thousands of fans with a single gesture

Following their own realignment, Benoit and McMichael started in on Arn Anderson again, whose opinion still hadn't changed. Along the way, Benoit's friend and former partner Dean Malenko joined the crusade. After working so closely with the Crippler for so many years, Dean saw how important the group was to his friend. As a second generation wrestler himself, he also held tradition in high regard... and the Horsemen represented that tradition in every essence of the word. To see them defeated by the nWo debunked the years of suffering the original four had endured, and served as a slap in the face to all the men they'd beaten to gain their legendary status. Dean didn't want to see tradition dead, not yet, and joined the effort to reform the Horsemen. He was soon accompanying the Benoit and McMichael to the ring, saving them when the occasion called for it and occasionally tagging up with them.

Though he meant well, Malenko's addition to the movement bothered Arn, and the Enforcer became more and more vocally opposed to what they were trying to do. One particularly memorable Nitro speech saw Double A revealing the deep scar that runs down his neck, telling the Iceman that the mark was something he'd earned through his years with the Horsemen. Tradition wasn't dead, so long as he remained standing. The three youthful revolutionaries were moved by the speech they'd witnessed, and as a disgruntled Anderson stalked back to the locker room, a touch of doubt appeared on their faces.

Not long after, the nWo started in with their usual bag of tricks. When the new Horsemen movement was the subject of another nWo parody, Malenko took personal offense and embarked on a feud with the stable, focusing primarily on Curt Hennig. Though Hennig had the definite edge in terms of manpower (especially once Rick Rude began accompanying him to the ring), Malenko was always in charge and took multiple nearfalls, DQs and the like. That's not to say Rude and Hennig were helpless, however, and the inseparable duo had the Iceman at their mercy more often than not. Rumors swirled about Rude's imminent return to the ring, which were amplified when he used his old finisher, the rude awakening, on Malenko one particular Thunder. Fed up with the whole feud, Hennig invited the iceman into a steel cage on Nitro, where the two would settle things once and for all. When Stevie Ray joined Hennig and Rude in the ring, Malenko knew it was bound to be a rough night.

Hennig dominated the early goings, much to the delight of his friends on the outside. But once Malenko took a distinct advantage, Rick Rude played his trump card. He produced the keys to the cage door, climbing in with Stevie Ray right on his heels. Together, the three destroyed the man of one thousand holds, and drug his body to the cage door. Reminiscent of the move that ended the Horsemen of 1997, the three draped Malenko's head through the opening and prepared to slam the cage door on him... until Arn Anderson arrived from absolutely nowhere. Let me reiterate this: in a day and age when one can see a run-in coming a mile away (usually by watching the crowd, who turns in anticipation every time a stage hand moves on the entryway), this came from out of nowhere. The attention was so centered on Hennig and Rude's activities that Arn's lighting fast run-in was a necessarily unexpected surprise.

Double A tore down the entryway, clotheslined Hennig (who sold like a bomb had just gone off in his face) turned and decked Rude an instant later, and climbed into the ring to meet Stevie Ray. Both peeled off their shirts as the crowd went nuts, and Arn dared the former Harlem Heat member to make a move for him. Stevie obliged, and soon found himself greeting the cage wall with a kiss. Ray went down and the Enforcer put the boots to him, forcing him to the floor, where Hennig and Rude still didn't know what had hit them. It was Arn's first physical contact in the ring since his surgery, and he made it mean something.

The next week on Nitro, the WCW Executive Committee chairman, JJ Dillon, was spotted backstage in a tux. Moments later, he appeared in the ring. The Carolina crowd was already anticipating a possible Flair return, and even the most remote Horsemen reference would've been enough to send the roof off the place. Dillon introduced Arn Anderson, and the crowd had their excuse. An enormous "We want Flair" chant shook the arena, and Arn played it for all it was worth, telling us "everybody's gonna get what they want tonight." Clad in a tux himself, Double A kicked out yet another unbelievable speech. "Tonight is a new beginning for the four" he said, "About a year and a half ago, I laid down on an operating table, and when I woke up, Arn Anderson the wrestler was dead. And I thought to myself, 'How could I be a Horsemen if I couldn't be a wrestler?' Well, the fact is, I questioned my mind. When I thought I could no longer be a Horseman, Chris Benoit came to me... and he said, 'This could all happen.'"

With that, he introduced the new roster. McMichael, Benoit and Malenko. He took a moment to praise their particular talents, saying "the best thing in the world I can call you is a Horsemen. And I'm proud to do that now," before letting the anticipation get to him and rushing to the next segment. "I'm not going to be responsible for what happens next. Because we don't wear white hats. We are not nice guys. And I can tell you this: heads are going to roll. Greenville... I give you the champ." Seconds later, The Nature Boy was on his way to the ring. To say he got the pop of the night would be an understatement.

A humbled Flair tried to get a word in amongst the cheers, but it was no use. With the affection obviously having a profound effect on him, the best he could muster was "thank you." This is the kind of moment that makes your heart soar as a wrestling fan, the moment that sends a tingle through your body. Finally, Flair regained his composure and spoke of tradition, how the past twenty five years on the road were all worth it. Passionately, he turned his attention to Eric Bischoff and his crimes against the sport, recalling his words the night of Arn Anderson's retirement. Flair got so worked up in the process that he took a chunk out of his own tongue. Blood pouring from his mouth, he never missed a step and plowed right through what was arguably the most memorable interview of the decade. As he told us the disbandment of the Horsemen was Bischoff's doing, Eric stepped from behind the curtain. In an instant, Flair became a different man. While being physically held back by the Horsemen, out of his mind with rage, Bischoff announced the show was over. Flair called him an "overbearing asshole." Tearing his jacket off, the Nature Boy invited Eric into the ring, but Bischoff had already gone to the back. The show triumphantly went to commercial as Flair and company enjoyed the adoration of their public. The boys were back.

By the next week, Bischoff had wasted no time and began to flex his corporate muscle. He'd acknowledged Flair's presence as a personality, but wouldn't call him a wrestler. Flair wasn't allowed to work a match, and Eric proceeded to exact his revenge on the other three, through ridiculously one-sided matches. As his mouth ran the next week on Nitro, the Horsemen tried to approach the ring, only to be stopped by Doug Dillenger and the WCW security team. After a heated staredown, Dillenger stepped out of the Horsemen's way and ordered the security under his command to do the same. Bischoff was irate, but he soon had company in the ring. While Eric tried to talk the talk, he successfully walked the walk... right into a corner. He was at the Horsemen's mercy, and they made sure he knew it. Flair told us that he was the one who introduced Hogan to Bischoff, and the segment ended with all the Horsemen raising four fingers right in the little prick's face. It was a quiet message, but it delivered in spades.

One week later, Eric came out to tell us The Nature Boy wasn't in the arena, but Arn was right there to tell him he was wrong. Apparently a Flair was in the arena, in the form of young Reid. Anderson looked on as the ten year old styled and profiled in the ring, abruptly taking Bischoff to the mat on two different occasions. When Bischoff demanded Reid's father on the telephone, 2001: A Space Odyssey blasted on the speakers. Ric Flair was in attendance, and that was enough to send Eric out through the crowd. The nWo bad boys were quick to circle the ring, but the remaining three Horsemen were even quicker in chasing them off. Again, Flair and friends had the last laugh.

flair, benoit, malenko and anderson share the salute
the horsemen of 1998.

In the weeks just after, Benoit and Malenko began to team on a regular basis with Arn Anderson serving as their manager. Their run as a team would lead to what was effectively the last hurrah for the WCW Tag Division, competing against teams such as Raven & Perry Saturn and Rey Mysterio, Jr. & Kidman.

Flair, meanwhile, came to the ring one Thursday night with a surprise for Mean Gene; a returning Barry Windham. The old school Horseman wasn't a new member, but Flair was simply glad to see him back. It wasn't long before Bischoff made his way to ringside, telling Barry there's no room for him in WCW. Later in the program, Bret Hart took on Chris Benoit in a fabulous little match that Chris took via DQ. When Hart didn't like the decision and clobbered Benoit with a chair, Malenko tried to make the save. When Hart flattened Dean with the chair as well, Diamond Dallas Page finally ran him off for good.

Only one week later, Bischoff called Flair out to the ring, accompanied by Windham. Eric was acting surprisingly submissive, and told Flair he wanted to mend fences. The old school Horsemen exchanged high fives, and Bischoff mentioned the irony, claiming Barry would be knocking Flair on his ass before the night was through. Flair laughed it off, and Easy-E slapped him directly in the face. When Flair made a move for the little man, Windham turned and floored his former teammate. The turncoat sat down on a chinlock, while Eric rained down the hurt with kicks to the head. The Horsemen tried a run-in, but that was just what Eric's men were waiting for. The nWo intercepted them midway and isolated Malenko immediately, targetting his knee. Angrily, Bischoff banned Benoit, McMichael, Anderson and Flair from the arena and put the injured Iceman in a match with Bret Hart. The two went sixteen minutes, before Hart reverted to the use of a chair again and found himself disqualified.

One week later, Flair had decided it was time he and Eric had a match. Calling the president out on live TV, Flair shouted "If you wanna fire me, fire me... but in your neighborhood tomorrow a twelve year old kid's gonna say, 'Ric Flair called you out - he's old, can't you beat him?' A 10-year-old down the block's gonna say 'Bischoff, Ric Flair called you out last night.' Ted Turner's gonna look across the board of directors and say 'Did Flair call Bischoff out last night?' They're gonna say 'yeah!' I wanna wrestle you here tonight, tomorrow, next week... you and I are gonna have it out once and for all. YOU. ME. COME. JUMP. ON. THIS. OLD. MAN! WOOOO!" Bischoff responded in person, flanked by Barry Windham. He accepted the challenge, under one condition: that Malenko beat Windham one on one later that very night. Dean had no problem with it, and even told the other Horsemen to leave the arena, as he wanted to do this by himself. When the Horsemen had agreed, Bischoff introduced the special referee: long time Horseman enemy Dusty Rhodes.

Though Windham didn't really give the previous week's Malenko vs. Hart match much of a run for its money, the fight was as strong as can be expected... considering it was two minutes long. Barry was viciously assaulting Malenko's leg throughout the match, and Dusty wasn't forcing a break in the corner. Dean went down and after a couple submission holds didn't net a finish, Windham started getting dirty. He hit low blows, illegal holds and whatnot... and Dusty turned a blind eye to it all. Windham wrapped Malenko's leg around the ringpost, and Duthtay quietly asked for a break. When Windham refused, Rhodes flat out disqualified him! An irate Eric Bischoff confronted the American Dream and fired him, but it was all that he could do; the match had been set for Starrcade, Flair vs. Bischoff.

In the weeks leading up to their meeting, Flair became even more animated and excitable in his promos. Though he wasn't allowed to work until Starrcade, that didn't stop him from dropping elbows on thin air and bouncing around on the ropes. On Nitro one evening, Ric was going through the same motions when something seemed to go wrong. After telling Bischoff he would rip out his heart, and "show the world," he grabbed his left shoulder and slumped to the mat. Mean Gene quickly wrapped the segment up, while Flair sat in the corner, staring blankly into the distance. It was a legitimately scary angle, as Arn Anderson, the WCW trainers and Dusty Rhodes came out to check on the Nature Boy. Doctors later told Flair he'd been "poisoned," and that was the last we heard of it.

Bischoff later tried to apologize to the fans and the Flair family for his actions. Later in the week on Thunder, Bischoff had David and Reid Flair in the ring, and told them both he was sorry... for kicking their asses. With one swipe, David was on the floor and the nWo's Brian Adams had restrained Reid. Eric continued the assault on an unconscious David, then made a quick move for Ric's wife, Beth. Bisch grabbed a quick kiss before Thunder ended.

That following Monday, Barry Windham and Van Hammer were ready to begin their scheduled matchup, and Flair stopped the action before it had even begun. He caught a surprised Windham from behind and immediately went cheap, hitting low blows, eye rakes and widening the various orifaces in his former ally's face a bit. Barry tried to fight back, but it was no use. When he fell back into a corner, Ric hit a kick square in the nuts before the nWo ran in to stop the violence. The Horsemen caught them before they got to the ring, and chaos erupted. The police eventually made an appearance and had to use mace to restrain the Horsemen. The night ended as Flair stared right through the camera, snarling "Bischoff, as God is my witness... I. WILL. KILL. YOU."

The Starrcade that followed was far from a good sign for the white-hot new group. Within the opening minutes of the broadcast, Bobby Heenan told us that the Horsemen had been taken from the building by force. Flair and Bischoff was a mini-main event, capping the middle of the card, and Flair held a strong advantage throughout, with the boss landing a solid kick or two when things got monotonous. The Nature Boy looked to have things wrapped up, when Curt Hennig made his return after a couple months off. Hennig handed a pair of brass knuckles through the ropes to the executive leader of the nWo and Eric put them to use, KO'ing Flair and covering him for the swerve that nobody wanted to see.

The very next night, Flair walked to the ring with his luggage in tow, apparently deciding to show on Nitro at the last second. He started the segment almost sedate, telling Gene and his fans that he blew a golden opportunity, and didn't deserve any of the praise he'd been given. It didn't take long before things got heated, though. He started slowly, taking off his coat, naming its maker and price and laying it in the center of the ring. Various accessories came off in the same fashion: his sweater, his watch, his shoes. By the time he was through, Flair found himself standing in the center of the ring in his boxers, telling Bischoff it could all be his. He handcuffed himself to the ropes, did a little dance, and told Eric to meet him face to face like a man. Before Bischoff was even in the ring, Ric had already decided on the stipulations: if he lost tonight, Eric could have all his worldly possessions, but if he won, he'd run WCW for 90 days.

Easy-E finally got near the ring, and said it was fun beating up his son. He loved kissing Flair's wife. But none of it would be nearly as exciting as taking all of his money. With an enraged Flair lunging for him, Bischoff said "you're on." It was all Flair needed to hear. Two and a half hours later, the man was already waiting in the ring. Backstage cameras showed us that Bischoff was having second thoughts, as he made a beeline toward his own limo. He opened the door and climbed in, immediately climbing right back out, face as white as a sheet. Mongo, Benoit and Malenko had been waiting for him inside. The three carried the evil promoter to the ring, where he attempted to beg off instantly. The crowd was all over Bischoff, as Flair peeled the skin from the front of his chest with brutal, backhanded chops. Minutes of absolute Flair domination led nWo flunkies Horace and Vincent to run-in. Not surprisingly, the four men on the floor were enough to counter any offense these two might have thrown together. With Bischoff apparently unconscious in the ring, the rest of the nWo flooded the ringside area. Amazingly, Benoit and company kept them from the ring, but when the Giant hit the Horseman blockade it became too much. He halfhazardly stepped into the ring and floored the unsuspecting Flair with a big headbutt.

As the locker room continued to empty, the Giant motioned for a chokeslam. When Randy Savage made his first appearance in months, the big man hesitated, but all seemed to be in order when the Macho Man flashed the "Wolfpac" hand signal. Wight went for the chokeslam, but Randy changed his mind, hitting a low blow and throwing the Giant back over the top rope. Flair lifted Bischoff into a big vertical suplex, then locked in the figure four. When Bischoff tapped, the entire arena was on its feet. Despite having already won the match, Flair dropped an elbow and covered for three just for the hell of it. It was a good time, and a superb up note upon which to end a sub-par year for WCW.

Unfortunately, the end of 1998 would also prove to be a climax for this incarnation of the Horsemen. With his newfound power, Flair spent less and less time with the stable he'd lifted to near-mythic proportions in the past. Not a month into the year, Ric was teaming with his son David on PPV, while Benoit and Malenko struggled in the tag ranks. They would eventually hold the Tag Team Championships, Benoit's first officially acknowledged WCW gold.

It's been said absolute power corrupts absolutely, and such was the case with Flair. After extending his reign as President further than the original ninety days, the Nature Boy seemed to lose his mind. Benoit and Malenko tried to remind him of the Horsemen's existence, but Ric remained ignorant. He put the US title on his son, and that was pretty well the straw that broke the camel's back. Dean and Chris made the break official, appearing as Roddy Piper's "mystery partners" in a match against Flair and Diamond Dallas Page a few short weeks later.

Benoit would go on to hold each title in WCW's rotation (with the exception of the cruiserweight belt), including a brief one day reign as World Champ before heading to the greener pastures of the WWF. Malenko's story reads much the same. After dropping the tag straps he shared with Benoit, Dean joined up with Shane Douglas, Perry Saturn and Benoit, in the Revolution. Dean also jumped to the wild frontier of the WWF. Steve McMichael suffered a foot injury at the beginning of 1999 and was released from WCW. His current whereabouts are unknown. Arn Anderson eventually sided with Ric Flair, advising him as best he could through the Presidential reign. He now works as a road agent for WWE. Flair himself has since won the World Title for a fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth time, returning from a short retirement as CEO of the company. Suitably enough, he worked the last match in WCW history against Sting and eventually jumped to WWE as co-owner of the company alongside Vince McMahon himself.

Though it was a shame to see the historic stable fall apart so quickly in 1999, none can deny the magical air that surrounded them mere months earlier, as Flair locked Eric Bischoff into the figure four leglock on Monday Nitro. The stable's been through much worse, come back from more debilitating a break, and stood strong through too vicious a hellstorm to let it all end like this, and it's honestly only a matter of time before those four fingers lift toward the sky once more. Though they've since jumped promotions, the legacy is still alive in Benoit and Malenko and I wouldn't be surprised to see the name alive and well another ten years from now. And don't think the idea of a Horsemen invasion of WWE hasn't crossed my mind. Now that Vince McMahon owns WCW and every trademark and videotape therein, such an angle could be huge. With four former members on staff, it's almost elementary. It's been fun, guys. Thanks for giving me something to write about. that's it. Thanks for all the wonderful feedback, and for taking the time to wander through all twelve posts! Keep your eyes peeled, as I may just do another series in the same vein sometime in the near future. Until that time, though, I've got a suitable follow-up in mind for this time next week.
until then, i remain

Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Ringside Shadows #135: The Complete History of the Four Horsemen (Part 11: 1997)

The Horsemen were in disarray by the time 1996 came to a close. They'd successfully missed with a "can't miss" roster that included Brian Pillman, Chris Benoit, Arn Anderson and Ric Flair, though it wasn't thanks to a lack of effort. Fortune just wasn't smiling upon the fabled four in '96, as Pillman left the promotion in the opening months and the Horsemen never really recovered from that initial shock. Steve McMichael couldn't hope to fill the boots Flyin' Brian had left behind, and injuries crept up on Flair and Anderson. The only man unaffected by year's end, Chris Benoit, found himself questioned by his peers. Jeff Jarrett had been introduced to the stable by Flair, and was immediately disliked by the others. To make matters worse, the nWo had stolen the spotlight from WCW's first and foremost stable. If the group's historic legacy was no longer good enough to merit a slot atop the promotion's cards, they'd just have to go about building it back from the ground up... and that's just what they did.


As the year began its cold start, Chris Benoit and Kevin Sullivan picked up the pieces of their ongoing feud, only to throw them back to the floor again. Sullivan was still hot over Benoit's "stealing" of his wife, Woman, and countered her presence with a woman of his own: Miss Jacqueline. Everywhere Woman went, she now had a shadow in Jacqueline, and this shadow wasn't afraid to get physical with her. Early in the year, though, it was widely recognized that the Benoit / Sullivan series had gone on for long enough, and it was quickly becoming obvious that Chris had the upper hand after a solid victory at the year's first Clash of the Champions card. Still, the two signed the dotted line and agreed to meet yet again in a "San Francisco Death Match" at Superbrawl VII.

Meanwhile, Ric Flair was finally convinced that the Crippler was suitable as a member of the Horsemen, and had moved his critical gaze to Steve McMichael. Mongo would meet Jeff Jarrett at the same Superbrawl card, with the winner claiming a spot in the timeless stable. It was a final proving ground for Jarrett, and a chance for Mongo to redeem himself. As an added bonus, it seemed Debra was ready to make up her mind with this match. Though she'd never left Mongo's side, her infatuation with Jarrett was becoming more than a professional matter.

Leading off the night for the Horsmen, McMichael and Jarrett wasted no time in tearing into one another. When the action became too frenzied and the official was subsequently knocked unconscious, Debra indescriminately slid a briefcase into the ring. Double J was the first to his feet, and after knocking Mongo cold, took the pinfall and a slot on the Horsemen roster.

Later in the evening, Chris Benoit and Kevin Sullivan were finally ready to end their long standing feud once and for all. With Woman and Jacqueline chained to each other at ringside, the Taskmaster and the Crippler went through the usual motions. After a brief fight backstage, they returned to the ring where Benoit set up a table. While Benoit draped his exhausted opponent over the table, Jacqueline drug Woman into the ring and fell on top of her man. Benoit took a moment to make sure Woman was out of harm's way, before diving from the top rope and putting both Sullivan and his escort through the wood simultaneously. A pinfall later, and Benoit had sealed the feud in decisive fashion.

After losing his slot to Jarrett at Superbrawl, McMichael appeared less often with the group, though his wife was just as visible as ever... living it up beside Double J. In the weeks after the match, Ric Flair surprisingly announced that Jarrett hadn't taken McMichael's spot after all. He was merely keeping Arn Anderson's space warm while the Enforcer was out of action. Though this appeased McMichael, Benoit was far from content. His membership in the Horsemen had taught him the benefits of teamwork, and the Crippler was ready to take the next step. That is, he would have, if the original storylines had followed through.

benoit, malenko, saturn and guerrero
the radicals? hardly.. the apocalypse planted the seeds, vince merely harvested them

Booking was calling for a new youth movement. The group was set to be named "The Apocalypse", and would've served to give several latent midcard talents their first big chance to shine. The roster reads like a who's who of the midcard talent that made WCW so strong in the mid '90s. Benoit, Malenko, Guerrero and Steven Regal were set to begin a public protest of Jarrett's new membership in the Horsemen, and were more motivated than they'd been in yaers. It was all to come to a head with Benoit leaving the Horsemen in disgust, leading his own stable of four... and it would've likely worked to perfection. Instead, politics got involved. Hulk Hogan saw his spotlight fading, and the Apocalypse angle was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Benoit's on-screen frustrations would never play out to a logical conclusion, and were eventually dropped altogether.

Back on screen, the nWo was becoming a thorn in the side of the Horsemen again. Without a strong leader in action and a subsequent lack of direction, Benoit, Jarrett and McMichael had a serious problem. Coincidentally, Roddy Piper had just signed a match for the upcoming Uncensored card, pitting himself and three partners of his own choosing in a triangle match against the nWo's four top names (Hogan, Savage, Hall and Nash) and WCW's biggest stars (Luger, the Giant and the Steiners). Problem was, Piper hadn't really recruited anyone since signing the contract. He'd "tested" a couple Power Plant students on Nitro, a segment which flopped tremendously, and was becoming visibly concerned as the event neared. With Ric Flair's blessing, the active Horsemen signed on as Piper's partners against the nWo.

The match was to be fought in a fashion similar to WarGames, as one man from each team would start in the ring with three fresh men entering every two minutes after. Instead of falling victim to a pinfall or submission, though, workers were eliminated in battle royal fashion; over the top rope.

Before the match, WCW was handed an early disadvantage; Rick Steiner had been attacked backstage, and would not be able to compete in the main event. Benoit, Hall and the Giant started things out, and the Giant calmly sat outside and watched while the Crippler cleaned house on Scott Hall. Finally, the future Big Show stepped between the ropes and almost instantly took the advantage. With ten seconds remaining before the next wave of participants, Big Paul made a kamakaze charge at Hall, who stepped out of the way and eliminated WCW's big man. Jarrett, Savage and Luger entered the fray next, followed by Mongo, Scott Steiner and Kevin Nash. Steiner became a man with a mission, tiger bombing Hall and suplexing Nash out of his boots. Steering clear of the stampeding Michigan native, Nash got up and promptly clotheslined Jarrett out to the floor. Hall was still being beaten down, this time by Mongo, when he reversed an attempted piledriver and flipped McMichael over the top to join his teammate.

Piper and Hogan made it complete, while Steiner was eliminated by a Kevin Nash boot. On the inside, Benoit was still going strong, but appeared to be fighting a losing battle against both Outsiders as Piper made an immediate beeline for Randy Savage. After a brief exchange of blows, Hogan awkwardly eliminated the Rowdy one with a little help from ringside. Moments later, Chris Benoit fell victim to a double team Outsider's Edge and was eliminated. With all of Piper's team eliminated and 2 of the 3 WCW members joining them, the nWo seemed to have things pretty well in hand. They slowly surrounded the last opposition to their domination, Lex Luger, but the Package wasn't about to go down without a fight. While Savage had turned his back, Lex took advantage of the distraction and racked / eliminated him in seconds. Nash, turning to see what was going on, quickly found himself on the receiving end of a clothesline that sent him to the floor. Hall didn't have time to think before he'd suffered the same fate. While Hogan backpedaled, Dennis Rodman hopped to the ring apron and sprayed paint into Luger's eyes. A Hulkster shoulder drove him over the top, and the match was at an end.

The following night on Nitro, Flair cut a promo on Piper, verbally berating him and tearing his reputation as a leader to shreds. After announcing that Piper had dropped the ball, fans and critics alike saw something that had been missing for months. The fire had been reignited, the desire reclaimed. This was the Ric Flair we knew and loved, and he was here to stay.

Meanwhile, Mongo and Jarrett had, despite their personal dislike for one another, begun representing the Horsemen in the tag team ranks. After costing the Public Enemy a series of matches, the Horsemen had gained the team's full attention and a match at the upcoming Spring Stampede card. In the meantime, Benoit found himself in the first significant title shot he'd been granted since joining the Horsemen, a US Title shot against former tag team partner Dean Malenko.

The night didn't go according to plan, however, and McMichael let personal issues with Jarrett get in the way during their match. They lost the fight they'd requested against the Public Enemy, after a briefcase shot floored Double J and Mongo didn't bother to stop the count. Meanwhile, Benoit seemed to be well on his way to federation gold when Kevin Sullivan made his way to ringside. The Wolverine was readying himself to put Malenko away when Sullivan's role became more than that of a spectator. A bit of physical exchange later, and the ref had thrown the match out, ruling it a no contest. Sullivan had taken Benoit yet again.

benoit stretches malenko in all sorts of awkward directions
chris benoit made a man of his former tag team partner, dean malenko, at the 1997 spring stampede

Interestingly enough, Kevin Sullivan dropped from the public eye just after costing Benoit his US title shot. In his place stood Meng, who aimed to do the Taskmaster's dirty work for him in a "Death Match" at Slamboree. A bit peeved that Sullivan couldn't be bothered to do the deed himself, Benoit set out with a renewed vigor... ready to make an example out of the islander. Elsewhere, Flair and Roddy Piper had reformed their uneasy alliance against the nWo, who refused to go away. Despite their ongoing dislike for one another, their shared hatred of Hogan's stable was enough to unite the two in a six-man tag match on the approaching Slamboree card. Surprisingly, the two called on Kevin Greene to complete their roster, though Flair and the Carolina Panther had been butting heads less than a year before. Steve McMichael, the man who had turned his back on Greene to join the Horsemen, was nowhere to be found.

When the bell rang for Benoit, he wasted no time in throwing almost everything he had at the Samoan monster. After repeated attempts at wearing his opponent down had failed, Benoit went for a submission. Twice, he locked in the Crippler Crossface and twice, the Dungeon of Doom member reached the ropes. Benoit threw him out to the floor and used his only ally, his momentum, to fling himself out in pursuit. His suicide dive landed successfully, but moments later they were back into the ring. When Meng tried to fight back, Benoit reversed his efforts into a pair of crisp german suplexes. It was enough to wind Meng, and Benoit went up the top for his diving headbutt. The monster had been waiting for this moment, and clamped his Tongan Death Grip on at the moment of impact. Benoit was trapped in the middle of the ring, and after several failed attempts to punch his way out, finally lost consciousness. What should've been a relatively easy victory had gone the other way entirely for the Crippler, who dropped the match cleanly.

The unhealthy tandem of Flair, Piper and Greene were up next, meeting the original Wolfpac in its entirety, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Syxx. The match served as a homecoming of sorts for Flair, finally returning to action before a friendly Charlotte crowd. Ric showed us all he hadn't missed a beat, as he slipped into his old form as though it were an afterthought. Apparantly out to prove a point, Flair spent the majority of this match representing his team, and the nWo couldn't come up with an effective counter to his years of experience. When Scott Hall finally mounted an offense, Flair tagged in a fresh Roddy Piper. Before long, all six men were in the ring, and the ref had taken a fall. While the others brawled out on the floor, Flair and Hall were duking it out on the canvas. Kevin Nash smacked Flair through the ropes, giving Hall the chance to hit his Outsider's Edge, but instead of taking the plunge, Ric slipped out backwards and locked in the figure four. Nash came in to put a stop to that, but Greene took Big Sexy's knees out from under him and Piper was there to slap on a sleeper hold. Syxx desperately ran towards the melee, but the football star was waiting with a powerslam. With his comrades gasping for breath, Scott Hall passed out in the figure four, and referee Nick Patrick called for the bell.

The following night on Nitro, Syxx demanded a shot at the man, the myth, the legend, Ric Flair. Surprised and perhaps a bit amused, Flair wasted no time in strutting down to the ring. Smiling all the way, he accepted the smaller athlete's challenge and the match was set for later that very night. Not long after the match was made official, Waltman revealed the reasoning behind such a bold challenge: The Horsemen were to be banned from the arena, effective immediately.

Despite their protests, the group was indeed out of the arena by the time Flair's music filled the arena. The Nature Boy, manly man that he is, still stood proud on his way to the ring despite immeasurable odds. Syxx lay waiting in the ring, and the two almost instantly locked up. When Flair took the early advantage, the nWo wasted no time and jumped him, ending the match before it could really begin. As his teammates slaughtered the Nature Boy, Kevin Nash grabbed a mic and announced he was going to personally put Flair and Piper out of wrestling.

Hall and Nash put their tag team titles on the line against Flair and Piper at the Great American Bash, and the old rivals once again found themselves aligned against a common enemy. Many felt this would be the Outsiders' greatest chance to disable their older opponents, making good on Nash's promise earlier in the month. Others thought a loss might send the nWo as a whole spiraling downward, eventually falling like dominoes. Something had to give, and all signs pointed to the Bash as the instigator.

Early in the card, Chris Benoit and Meng went to the finish we should've seen a month earlier, as both men just kicked the ever-loving crap out of each other. Benoit somehow found a way to harm Meng, and finally locked in the Crippler Crossface in the middle of the ring. Meng passed out, granting Benoit the victory he needed on the home stretch of his ongoing feud with the Dungeon of Doom.

Piper and Flair tagged surprisingly well, for two guys who hate each other, and held a relatively comfortable advantage early in their match. Eventually, though, their years of experience as a team gave the Outsiders the advantage. Flawlessly merging their unique offensive styles as singles, they isolated Piper to their half of the ring, all the while taunting Flair, who remained helpless in his corner. Just as Piper appeared to be on his way to making the hot tag, Syxx ran out to ringside. Flair hadn't forgotten the beating he'd suffered as a result of his match with the cruiserweight, and took the opportunity to exact some revenge. With Piper slowly rising to his feet in the ring, Flair gave chase and ran Syxx to the back. Without a partner to tag, Piper was lost and Scott Hall eventually scooped him up for the win.

The next night on Nitro, Piper was furious. He demanded an explanation from Flair himself, who told the rowdy one he'd done what was best for the both of them. The explanation didn't satisfy Piper, and he made sure Flair knew it. One week later, the Scotsman continued his questioning of Flair's actions... only this time he got more than he bargained for. Flair again confronted him in the ring, now backed by his Horsemen (sans Jarrett). While Flair remained somewhat silent, Mongo and Benoit confronted Piper, who promptly attacked the two men. Ric was caught off guard by this turn of events, but when forced to choose between the Horsemen and Roddy Piper, his opinion was crystal clear. He assaulted Piper, who fought off the younger Horsemen and backed Flair into a corner. "The man" begged off in his own unique fashion, giving Mongo enough time to deck Roddy with his briefcase. As Benoit locked in the crippler crossface, Flair and McMichael stomped away on the Scot's exposed head. Just before the show went to commercial, the Horsemen left the ring together; the first sign of unity they'd shown in many months.

the hottest free-agent in the world
ric flair wasted no time, grooming curt hennig for an immediate membership in the horsemen

Bash at the Beach was the next scheduled event for WCW, and the Horsemen were ready to make a name for themselves once and for all in the modern world of professional wrestling. With Arn still out, the three that stomped Piper out on Nitro became tighter than ever before, and to an increasingly disgruntled Jeff Jarrett, the roles were becoming pretty clear cut. The golden-haired superstar saw his spot in the fabled group fading away and there was nothing he could do about it. Luckily for him, Eddy Guerrero was there to lend an open ear. The two began spending more time with one another before the cameras, and it was no surprise to the viewing audience when they began accompanying each other to the ring on a somewhat regular basis.

On the Bash card, Benoit and Sullivan had once again decided to finish their feud, with Sullivan putting his career on the line for one last chance to embarrass the man who'd stolen his wife. In the same fashion they'd used to build their feud, these two tore it down in front of Woman and Miss Jacqueline, their respective valets. Though Benoit had his share of offense, the advantage was becoming clearly Sullivan's. As the older man readied himself for the finish, Jacqueline suddenly flattened him with a wooden chair. Benoit, surprised, gathered up what was left of his opponent for the pinfall, and Kevin Sullivan's active career came to a close. With Sullivan's departure, though, so came Woman's. Her appearances were becoming fewer and further between, and she soon stopped coming to the ring altogether. Benoit didn't seem to mind, as he jumped into the slot he'd been ignoring as a Horseman. With his partners in crime by his side and his long standing feud with the Dungeon of Doom finally at an end, Chris Benoit was ready to pick up the fight against the nWo.

Elsewhere, the former Mr. Perfect, Curt Hennig, had made his much-anticipated WCW debut. He immediately announced himself as the "biggest free agent in all of wrestling", proclaiming his services would go to the stable or organization that most impressed him with their offer. Flair took notice, as did Jarrett. In the weeks to come, the Horsemen, the nWo and WCW would all make an effort to acquire Hennig's services.

After weeks of rejection from his peers, Jeff Jarrett decided that he'd had enough. In the middle of a tag match with Steve McMichael, he turned his back on the Horsemen and devoted his focus to the sprouting partnership with Eddy Guerrero. Two weeks later, Flair made the split official when he announced the Horsemen didn't want anything to do with his failed protege. The remaining three stablemates attempted to break his pride with violence, but Jarrett had the last laugh. He'd walked away from the stable of his own free will and brought Debra McMichael with him. He and Mongo feuded briefly, which all ended when Double J left for the WWF.

In mid August, Arn Anderson stepped into the ring for one of the most memorable promos you're ever likely to see. Before a hushed crowd, the former TV and Tag champion announced his official retirement from the sport. A botched neck surgery had left him without full use of his left arm and would put his life in danger if he continued. The interview was particularly emotional, to the point where Ric Flair himself was weeping openly in the ring. Many backstage echoed the sentiment, including Sting and Roddy Piper. Eric Bischoff's response to the touching scene? "That's great TV."

Double A quickly proved he wasn't about to let his retirement affect the Horsemen, and nearly topped his retirement speech within the month. After Curt Hennig had avoided the issue of his promised spot in the stable time and time again, Anderson demanded an answer from the former Mr. Perfect. In another superb promo, Arn vacated his slot in the group, stepping into the empty managerial position Ole had left behind years ago. He immediately offered the space to Henning, but gave the words extra meaning, saying "I'm not just giving you any spot... I'm giving you my spot." Hennig finally accepted, and the four were complete again.

Not long after, the nWo assaulted the Horsemen head-on, mocking Anderson's retirement, Flair's mannerisms and Hennig's joining the group in a skit that's gone down in infamy. Flair and company were furious, and made the gravest of challenges; WarGames. So secure with their new lineup were they, that they were willing to risk it all in one of the most historically dangerous matches of all time. An almost B-team nWo roster accepted, and the match was set as such: Flair, Benoit, McMichael and Hennig against Nash, Syxx, Konnan and Buff Bagwell.

The night started off on a sour note, as Mean Gene was interrupted mid-shill by an early nWo attack on the newest Horseman, Curt Hennig. Flair and company didn't arrive on scene until it was too late, and Hennig showed a bit of frustration over their lack of assistance.

In the ring, Benoit and Bagwell started it off for their respective stables, as Benoit took a sound advantage. The nWo won the backstage coin toss, and Konnan was the next man in the ring, followed by Mongo, Syxx and Flair. The Nature Boy had things in the palm of his hand by the time Kevin Nash finalized the heel roster. Hennig finally completed the roster, arrived wearing an arm sling, and hesitated initially before turning full-fledged nWo. He reached into the sling, pulled out a pair of handcuffs, and locked his former partners to the cage while the rest of the heel faction took Flair apart. Hennig drug the thirteen time World Champ to the cage door and threatened to guillotine him, which forced Mongo to submit the match. Despite their compliance, though, Hennig slammed the door on Ric's head anyway, leading to a series of the most horrific screams you'll ever hear from a living man.

Days later, a defeated Flair disbanded the Horsemen through a telephone interview. As Starrcade approached, the Horsemen were scattered like dust in the wind. Instead of soaring with the eagles at the promotion's top card, the famed stable was in shreds. Benoit dropped his match to an unfamiliarly green Perry Saturn, Steve McMichael jobbed to a rookie named Goldberg, and Flair wasn't even on the card. Curt Hennig, though, carried the US Heavyweight title... a belt he dropped to DDP at that very event.

And so, 1997 ended... not with a bang, but with a whimper. Though Benoit was slowly building an unstoppable amount of momentum (eventually losing a best of seven series against Booker T in the TV title ranks), his former teammates were in a bad way. Flair's personal problems with Eric Bischoff had intensified to the point that Ric was sued by the promotion he'd helped create. It was all leading to one helluva triumphant return, and we weren't about to be let down. Check it all out as I wrap things up with part XII tomorrow.
until then, i remain

Monday, June 19, 2000

Ringside Shadows #134: The Complete History of the Four Horsemen (Part 10: 1996)

Following an off center 1994 and a bizarre 1995, the Horsemen had somehow found themselves back on top of the hill. On paper, the roster was one of their strongest ever. Flair held the World Title, with Anderson as strong a backup as ever needed. The future of the stable seemed secure with two hungry young members, Chris Benoit and Brian Pillman. Both were riding their stars to fame at the time, both arguably ready to carry the legacy on into the coming decades when neither Flair nor Anderson could continue to lace up the boots. Hulk Hogan, the greatest enemy the four had known (both before and behind the cameras) had dropped from the public eye, and Randy Savage was proving to be a less than ideal replacement champion.


Brian Pillman had continued his feud with Kevin Sullivan and the Dungeon of Doom, begun during the later months of the last year, and Sullivan had included the rest of the Horsemen in his assaults (as evidenced by Benoit's loss on the big Starrcade card of 1995.) His interference didn't sit well with Flair, Benoit, or Anderson... but Pillman took notable exception. The two took part in multiple run-ins, brawls and schmozzes throughout the following weeks, all of which were meant to culminate at the upcoming Superbrawl card in a "Respect" match between the two. Since neither had shown even a trace of respect for the other, this would likely have served as the big blowoff for their feud. Their rumored real life troubles behind the scenes, however, where Pillman felt Sullivan (then head booker of the promotion) was responsible for holding him back, were another story entirely. If anything, the match had the potential to further distance the two in the long run.

In the meantime, the Horsemen had collected yet another new manager, through their own characteristically sneaky measures. Following his loss at Starrcade, Randy Savage made an appearance on Nitro to challenge Flair to a rematch at the very same Superbrawl event that would see the Sullivan vs. Pillman blowoff. By his side were two lovely ladies, Woman (whose attempts to buy out the Horsemen years earlier never came to fruition) and his own mainstay and ex-wife, Miss Elizabeth. Their appearance was a shock to the viewing audience, but not nearly so much as Woman's turn and attack moments later. Waiting until Savage had issued his challenge, Woman revealed her true colors by jumping him right there in the ring, leaving Elizabeth to console her former husband while she walked out to join the Horsemen. Savage would have the last laugh though, tricking Flair into a World Title match on Nitro weeks later, and taking the belt home with him. The Superbrawl rematch was still slated, but it now held a whole new meaning to Flair.

Pillman and Sullivan were the first in the ring together, and the crowd was naturally rather hot for their "respect" match. A stipulation had been added in the days leading up to the match, making this a strap match, in addition to the existing stip. The two tangled for less than a minute, before Pillman busted out the first memorable swerve of the 'smart' crowd by suddenly grabbing the mic and shouting "I respect you, bookerman!" He then walked from the ring, laughing like the complete nut he was supposed to be.

The real story gets a bit more interesting; Sullivan and Pillman had played the whole scenario as a hush-hush sort of deal, taking every precaution not to let anyone in on what they were about to do. Everything was a work, from the rumored tension between the two backstage to what actually went down at the event. Like I said, they told nobody... not even their coworkers and higher-ups. When Pillman asked WCW for his release a few days later, booker Sullivan thought he was just playing the role, but the WCW office had bought the gimmick. They gave it to him, and he signed his way out of WCW in a whirlwind. He'd used Sullivan for everything he was worth, and now had what he wanted: a golden road that led straight to the WWF. On the pay per view, moments after Brian's famous words, Sullivan stood around in the ring for a couple minutes while announcers struggled to figure out what to say, who to say it about and how to say it. Assuming something had gone terribly wrong, Arn ran out to the ring and threw himself into Pillman's abandoned slot. Those two went at it for a couple minutes, before Flair came out and broke the whole mess up. The whole thing came off as very awkward and strange, even without any knowledge of the backstage scenarios leading up to it. Is it any wonder why Pillman's "crazy" gimmick went over so well?

While officials tried to sort out what had happened earlier in the event, Flair and Savage stepped out to entertain the paying customers in a cage match for the World Title. Woman stood alongside the then-twelve time champion of the World, amidst pyro, feathers and "theme to 2001" while Elizabeth was her timid self next to Savage. The two took their time stepping into the confined metal cube, but jumped right into a heated brawl once both had made their way inside. Flair took an early advantage, and nonsensically floored the ref without much rhyme or reason. Maintaining the advantage, he then sent Savage into the cage, diced him up with solid knife edge chops in the corner, and climbed to the top turnbuckle. As always, this is the signal to his opponent that it's time for the big slam from the top, and in this occasion Savage was more than happy to oblige. Adding a little insult to injury, Savage then locked the figure four on Flair, but before too long the challenger had broken it. Macho Man reached the roof of the cage and attempted a flying assault from way up, but Flair nailed him on his way down. Running with the momentum, Flair sent the champ into the cage wall before locking in with a figure four leglock of his own.

Eventually breaking the hold, Savage took the cue and quickly jumped to the advantage. The champion then sent his assailant headfirst into the cage, effectively busting open both the door and Flair's forehead. Taking note of the open entrance, Woman reached into her pocket and lobbed a cloud of powder at Savage, but the Macho Men managed to duck clear. And then the unthinkable happened. Unseen by the otherwise occupied Savage, Miss Elizabeth passed her high-heeled shoe to Flair through the cage door, who immediately used the feminine object to its utmost advantage. Flair then made the cover, and it was official. The three new companions left head the arena together, skipping to the head of the line for Space Mountain and leaving Savage a mess in the ring.

With the audden departure of Brian Pillman, the Horsemen had a couple problems to deal with: Savage was more pissed than ever and after blood, Kevin Sullivan was stuck in an ongoing feud with the stable that had yet to be resolved, and they were down one member. The problems, though, soon took care of themselves.

Chris Benoit rose to the challenge abandoned by Pillman, making use of a poor draw at the 'Battle Bowl' wild card tag tournament. The gimmick in this tourney had a wild card drawing at the opening, with random singles wrestlers thrown into the mix. One name at a time was drawn, with every two consecutively selected athletes working as a team, for better or for worse. As fate would have it, Benoit ended up paired with Sullivan in an opening round against the Public Enemy, and it was more Crippler vs. Taskmaster than a tag match. Not surprisingly, they lost in the opening round, which furthered the hatred between them. Benoit had the Horseman name and reputation at stake: that was all the motivation he needed, and Sullivan had reasons of his own as well. Woman had begun accompanying Benoit to the ring on a regular basis, and her recent real-life split with the head of the Dungeon was more than an issue. The Horsemen played their cards perfectly, announcing that it was Benoit who had shown her the err of her ways as Sullivan's wife. Enraged, Kevin set after Benoit for forcing the divorce that had 'forced him' to join the Dungeon of Doom.

backstage hijinks
benoit and sullivan simply mauled each other
at the 1996 great american bash.

The Wolverine and the Taskmaster took it to each other hardcore style at the 1996 Great American Bash PPV. "Since no ring could hold them", it was a falls count anywhere match. "Since there had to be a winner," it was no holds barred. These two just unloaded on each other, letting go with all their on-screen frustrations and, I'm willing to bet, many of their off screen ones as well. The end result was two men nearly killing each other in a wild fight that stumbled throughout the arena. They took it into the bathroom. They fell down a flight of stairs. They went to the loading docks. Benoit finally took home the victory after a suplex from the top of a table. The Horseman had won the battle, but the war was far from over.

Meanwhile, Flair went about business as usual. With Elizabeth anything but a constant by his side and Woman choosing to spend more and more time with Benoit, the Nature Boy was getting a little lonely. The new object of his affections was officially taken (as the ring on her finger told us), but that was never something that stopped the Nature Boy in the past... why should it be so different with Debra McMichael? While husband Mongo was at the announce position butchering calls and letting his attention wander, Flair was hot on the heels of the former Chicago Bear's wife. Once McMichael caught wind of what had been going down, he was outraged. He confronted Flair and was promptly put in his place by the World's champion. Pissed at his wife, himself, but most of all Flair, Mongo recruited the help of his NFL buddy, Kevin Greene. The two signed a one time only tag match against Flair and Arn Anderson, with the reassurance of a gold-hungry Randy Savage in their corner.

Come match time, the ringside area was getting more than a little crowded. Greene and McMichael were escorted to the ring by their wives and Savage, while Flair and Anderson had Benoit, Woman and Elizabeth in their corner. As the match hit the midway point, Flair's lady friends covered for the paused action in the ring by giving chase to the women in the opposite corner. The various escorts ran around the ring for a moment, before high tailing it backstage for the remainder of the match. This gave Benoit and Savage a bit more breathing room out on the floor, if only momentarily. Greene was on the receiving end of the Horsemen's offense when Elizabeth, Woman and Debra pranced back to the scene of the crime. Debra carried a sealed briefcase, which she cracked open for her husband to examine. Inside was an enormous amount of money, covered only by the dark fabric of a Horsemen T-Shirt.

McMichael took a moment to weigh his options, but when Greene interrupted his thought process with a tag, Mongo had seen enough. He floored his former partner with the briefcase, allowing Flair to take the easy pin. Together with the Horsemen for the first time, McMichael joined in as the assault began. There wasn't much that Savage or Greene could do, as the four men cleaned house and left their opponents lying beaten in the center of the ring.

After the addition of Steve McMichael to their roster, the Horsemen made an attempt to tie up any loose ends. The first matter on their plate was this lingering feud with Kevin Sullivan and his Dungeon of Doom, which still clung to them after months of tedious matches. Anderson and Benoit took on Sullivan and the Giant (then a Dungeon of Doomer himself) at the Bash at the Beach PPV, but the Horsemen couldn't get it together for long enough to put the other men away. The Giant held most of the offense, as he was on his way to the top, and Sullivan had the last laugh on this occasion.

In retaliation, Ric Flair was given a US Title shot against another member of Sullivan's stable, Konnan. The match went down on Nitro, and the Nature Boy held the K-Dogg in the palm of his hand throughout. Following several failed comeback attempts, Flair quit playing with his prey and brought home the sixth US Title of his career. Elsewhere, Chris Benoit was enjoying some time away from his long-standing feud with Sullivan. He met Dean Malenko at Hog Wild in a brilliant technical masterpiece. Originally given a half hour time limit, the two were still going strong as the bell rang to signal the match's end. Officials decided that a five minute overtime was in order, and the former partners quickly drained the additional time, ending the match with what appeared to be a second time limit draw. Finally, yet another five minute overtime resulted in a decision: Benoit's hand raised high. Though the match was a thing of beauty, the irritable Sturgis crowd paid no heed and nearly killed the mood for the rest of the night.

raise those four fingers high
the finalized horsemen lineup of 1996: mcmichael, flair, benoit and Anderson

Elsewhere, a couple former WCW employees had wandered back onto the scene after some years in the WWF. Scott Hall and Kevin Nash had dropped by "where the big boys play", and the ultra-hot nWo gimmick had just begun. Recognizing the immediate threat to their thrones, the Horsemen abandoned each of their other ongoing rivalries to pursue this new challenge. Slowly drifting back to their abandoned roles as the establishment's favorite sons, the Horsemen were granted an opportunity to wipe out the newcomers at WarGames 1996. Realizing their common enemy, Sting and Lex Luger approached the Horsemen and suggested they join forces at the event and, hoping to destroy the faction before it became too strong, Flair accepted. Benoit and McMichael stepped down and offered their spots in the caged match to the new volunteers.

A bit frustrated over giving up his spot in the main event, Chris Benoit opened up the card against a new lightweight making his WCW debut. Though it wasn't their first meeting, nor would it be their last, Benoit's road wouldn't cross with Chris Jericho regularly until years later, when both were members of the WWF. Regardless, the two tore it up here, both working a much tougher style than their later meetings under Vince's eye. As an interesting bit of trivia, during the early moments of this bout, Benoit locked Jericho into a hold that's eerily similar to the liontamer. Weeks later, the young "Lionheart" adopted the maneuver as his regular submission finisher. Their stupendous, curtain-jerking match in this instance ended with Benoit finally gaining the pinfall with a superplex from the top, Dynamite Kid-style.

As the main event grew near, the tension one could sense within the arena was growing almost unbearable. The nWo had won a backstage coin toss, giving them the ongoing advantage, but still had one more trick up their sleeve. Joined by new leader Hulk Hogan, Hall and Nash's "Team nWo" was still one man short in this four-on-four match. Arn Anderson was the first man in the ring for "Team Horsemen," and Scott Hall played leadoff for the nWo. Minutes later, Kevin Nash entered the ring as participant number two, and the Outsiders proceeded to kick Double A around the ring for several moments before Lex Luger evened the sides. Luger cleaned house, hitting several clotheslines and powerslams before Team nWo took the momentum back with Hogan's entrance. Before long, Luger had been isolated by Hall and Nash, while Anderson and Hogan climbed their way into the second ring to face one another in private.

Flair was in next, igniting the crowd, and made a beeline for Hogan and Anderson, over in the second ring. Just as things appeared to be completely in favor of WCW and the Horsemen, the mysterious fourth nWo member revealed himself... it was Sting. The Horsemen in the ring stood shocked at the turn of events, as Luger openly questioned his friend's turn for the dark side. Keeping silent, Sting suddenly turned and attacked Luger, leading into an all-out beat down for the three. Finally, right on cue, a second Sting made his way to the ring, this time supporting Flair, Luger and Anderson. With the nWo nearly defeated, Sting stopped dead in his tracks, asked his teammates why they didn't trust him, and calmly walked out of the match. Taking advantage of their new strength in numbers, the nWo methodically took apart their broken opponents, and finally isolated Luger. Locked in a scorpion deathlock by the nWo Sting, Lex tapped out and cost his teammates the match.

In the days after the WarGames, the Horsemen and Luger had several violent disagreements, as Lex had cost them the match and the opportunity. Sting, however, was nowhere to be found. When he turned his back on WCW, he meant it. Regardless, Arn Anderson put the Horsemen's name on his shoulders and carried it on to a feud against Luger, while Flair defended his US title both here and abroad. In Japan, Flair granted a title shot to former champion Kensuki Sasaki, unfortunately injuring his shoulder during the match. When he returned to America, it quickly became obvious that Flair wouldn't be able to compete for some time, and soon thereafter, the US title was vacated. Moments after being stripped of the title, Flair was the victim of a brutal nWo assault, courtesy of Eric Bischoff and the Giant. Bischoff would go on to claim the nWo "put Flair out of wrestling."

With the other Horsemen a bit lost in their leader's absence, Flair personally recruited Jeff Jarrett to fill the role he had vacated with his absence. Though this added a bit of salt to the nWo's wound, as Jarrett had turned down an earlier offer to join their ranks, it didn't sit well with Benoit or McMichael. Regardless, Ric endorsed him as an unofficial member and Jarrett went about imitating the thirteen-time World Champ as best he could. He debuted the Jarrett strut, continued using the figure four, and did just about anything moral to get on Slick Ric's good side. As the other Horsemen slowly started to accept him, Jarrett began making moves on Debra, which incurred Mongo's immediate wrath. Arn had yet to state his position on the matter, as he was still busying himself with Lex Luger.

With the Halloween Havok card already upon us, the Horsemen found themselves stretched to the limit, with each member, both official and unofficial, in action on the card. Accompanied by Flair himself, Jeff Jarrett matched up with the Giant in a sort of grudge match, as it was supposedly the Giant's blows which had taken Flair out of action. The match was, primarily, an extended squash. Everything Jarrett tried was met with little or no success, and the match regressed into your run of the mill Paul Wight slaughter. The two went outside, and Flair ended it with a DQ, nailing a low blow on the Giant.

Luger and Arn Anderson entered the ring next, as Anderson aimed to decisively exact a sharp means of revenge on the man who had submitted at War Games. Arn grabbed an early advantage and remained true to the Anderson tradition, tearing Luger's arm apart from the very get go. While Luger took a moment to catch his breath, Arn landed a quick spinebuster near the ropes. As the Double A made the cover, Luger used the ring position to his advantage, forcing the break from what should've been a clean pinfall. Sensing victory, Arn looked to land a DDT, but Luger blocked it. As the two took it to the floor, the ref was inadvertantly knocked to the ground. Lex noticed this and grabbed a chair, flattening the Horseman and rolling him back in the ring. As the referee came to, he noticed Luger placing Anderson in the torture rack and rang the bell.

Benoit and McMichael stepped up next, hoping to turn things around for the Horsemen unit in their match against the Faces of Fear, Meng and the Barbarian. Meng started the match in charge, opposite Steve McMichael, who was already looking for a tag. After finding himself isolated in the wrong corner for a couple minutes, the former Chicago Bear found inspiration, landing several dropkicks and making the hot tag to Benoit. As both Meng and the Barbarian find themselves chastised by the ref for extensive double-teaming, McMichael took the opportunity to land a briefcase shot to the head... more than enough to merit successful Benoit pinfall, avoiding a clean sweep for the Horsemen.

After a particularly poor outing at Havok, the Horsemen found themselves stagnating on the verge of the premiere WCW event of the year, Starrcade. Flair was still nursing his shoulder injury, and Arn had taken some time off to undergo neck surgery. His last match before the extended leave of absence off was a tag team encounter, facing the Amazing French Canadians alongside McMichael. Due to a sad twist of fate, this would be his retirement match, as a WCW-recommended doctor botched the operation... leaving Anderson's left arm nearly useless. So ended an otherwise remarkable career, highlighted with monumental victories over both Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair. At the time, there were only a handful of men who could claim such an honor.

arn anderson, victorious over hulk hogan
years prior to his retirement, arn anderson
stood tall as one of the few people
to defeat both hulk hogan and ric flair

When Starrcade finally crept around, Chris Benoit was the only active member of the Horsemen on the card, facing potential stable-mate Jeff Jarrett. His feud with the Dungeon of Doom was still ongoing, but had become so intertwined and convoluted by this point, few had noticed that it was still plugging away. With Flair visibly backing Jarrett, Mongo failing as a Horseman and Arn fading into the distance after neck surgery, Chris Benoit was sitting on the hot seat for the group. He still came to the ring with Woman by his side, yet his allegiances were constantly under fire. Flair seemed to be making room for Jarrett, which didn't sit well with the Crippler. Flair was a face, and the bookers hoped his backing of JJ would lend enough of a rub to launch a full babyface stint for the young protege, but the audience was just starting to notice Chris Benoit, and they liked what they saw. The end result? A heel that's cheered for his impressive, hard work and a face that's booed proportionally to the top heel.

When it was finally match time, Benoit gave the crowd just what they were beginning to expect from him: a rough, believable match from bell to bell. He tore Jarrett apart, stomping him through the mat, stiffening his blows just enough to remain credible, and having a good time of it. A couple minutes of that was enough for several viewers backstage, as Arn stepped from behind the curtain... followed by Dungeon of Doom members Kevin Sullivan, Konnan and Hugh Morrus. Double A finally revealed his opinion on the whole Jarrett deal, DDTing the guitar-toting pledge right into the mat. Had Benoit been paying attention, he could've grabbed an easy win, but his eyes were on Woman, who was the target of the Dungeon of Doom's assault at ringside. When the Wolverine tried to put a stop to it all, he was greeted with a solid wooden chair to the face... a gift from the taskmaster, Kevin Sullivan. Benoit fell back into the ring, and Jeff threw an arm on top for the win.

While the year began with a cohesive Horsemen unit, apparantly capable of just about anything, it closed with a stable in disarray. Flair had his heart set on Jarrett as the future of the organization, a decision which Benoit, McMichael and Anderson despised. Benoit, despite constantly proving his worth and loyalty, was "on the bubble" so to speak, while Flair pondered the future of the group. With Arn out of contention for the moment (as the surgery was supposed to be non-career threatening), a new slot was opened and Jarrett wanted it to be his. 1996 left us with several unanswered questions, and 1997 would give us more than one answer. See it all in part XI tomorrow, as we hit the home stretch of this epic series.
until then, i remain

Friday, June 16, 2000

Ringside Shadows #133: The Complete History of the Four Horsemen (Part 9: 1995)

There's little doubt that 1994 will go down in history as one of the worst years ever for the Nature Boy, Ric Flair, and his Four Horsemen. Coming back from a short stint in the WWF, where he carried their gold as World Champion, the stage was set for Ric's proud return to the promotion that had made him famous, not to mention his legendary stable, the Four Horsemen. Unfortunately, the arrival of one Hulk Hogan changed all that in an instant.


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 a pair of scissors. A Horsemen reunion went over terribly with the viewing audience, thanks in large part to the inclusion of Paul Roma. Sting had lost nearly all of 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 enjoyed the fruit of his 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 infamous return went down 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 challenger, walking down the entryway. Cue those Horsemen rumors I'd mentioned before. Flair slid right into the heel role he was born for, but the fans still didn't buy it wholeheartedly. They'd still rather cheer a heel Flair than a face Hogan. With the match leaning in his favor, Hogan looked out to the floor, spotted Flair, and spontaneously drug his former rival into the ring with him. After he'd failed several 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 by 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 the Horsemen's 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, Hogan's on-air buddy and WCW's attempt to steal the "Ultimate Warrior" gimmick from the WWF, was given a tremendous push to the top. Athlete after athlete fell to his wrath, despite the crowd's rejection, and his much-publicized run culminated with a clean TV Title victory over Arn Anderson. The audience just abhorred this pale Warrior rip-off, and it took bookers several months and an extended TV Title reign to realize it just wasn't working.

Meanwhile, Flair went about interfering in Vader's matches... business as usual for the old veteran. Just before the big Bash at the Beach show, Hulk Hogan decided that he'd 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 vs. 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, steam-dispensing 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 his team's 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 the match was suddenly ended. Afterwards, Flair cut loose on Arn with a verbal tirade that could've cut through the strongest will, yet 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 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, Anderson took the time to recruit the help of Brian Pillman. The years he'd spent as a Horseman 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 WCW legends finally met in the ring, following a rather 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 in charge and already softening the arm for his tried-but true arm bar submission. As the action spilled outside the ring, then back in again, Arn remained distinctively in control. But just as things seemed to be completely in Double A's favor, Flair turned the tide with a Nature Boy specialty... the low blow. When Flair's continued assaults were eventually reversed into an attempted DDT, Ric stopped his opponent's momentum by grabbing the ropes. The former champ seizes the opportunity, locking in his figure four leglock, but it's almost immediately reversed by the one man who may know Ric better than himself. Unswayed, Flair tries it again and is quickly rolled up for a two count. With Flair granting the audience a "whooo," Brian Pillman climbs onto the ring apron for a better view. Ric doesn't hesitate to smack the flyin' one for good measure, and Brian shoots right back with a kick directly to the head. Reeling, Flair backs right into an awaiting Anderson DDT for the three count. The crowd ignites, and Arn celebrates the huge victory alongside his new buddy. Before the focus can 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 anderson, destroyer of men
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 both Pillman and Anderson 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 at the time would wait a while before becoming involved, Chris Benoit would find his way right into the thick of things... or so it would seem.

When the big Halloween Havok event rolled around, reports came in almost immediately 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 placed into doubt, as announcers told us this may put the tag team event in jeopardy. The fans knew better, though, and when it came time for the match to go down, Sting made his way to the ring alone.

Sting came to the ring with purpose, completely deconstructing the two men on his own and sending them outside early to regroup. His former friend, Pillman, invited Sting to continue his assault 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. With Double A and Pillman finally managing to grab an advantage, Flair sluggishly arrived on the scene. Wearing street clothes, Ric jumped to the corner and wildly urged Sting to make the hot tag. Unfortunately, Arn and Pillman had effectively cut the ring in half. In true Nature Boy fashion, Ric took off his dress shoe and began using it as a weapon. Pillman tried a splash, but Sting managed to get the knees up, making a blind dive for the tag. Arn stopped him short with a nasty belly-to-back suplex that grabbed him a two count.

Though the "new horsemen" held a distinct advantage, it was obviously only a matter of time before the former World's Champion fought back. And, sure enough, just as Pillman and Anderson appeared to have things fully under their control, Sting surprised them both, ramming their heads together and sailing across the ring for the hot tag. The crowd, ecstatic and electric after this turn of events, looked on as Flair strutted around the ring, turned his back on Anderson and Pillman, and casually kicked the living hell out of his partner. The three teamed up to smear what was left of Sting around the mat for a while, before raising four fingers and proving we'd all been taken yet again. Arn grabbed the mic, amidst simultaneous Flair and Pillman "whooo!"s and announced "Be careful what you wish for... all the bloodthirsty fans out there asked for this!", flashing the Four Fingers, before continuing "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 Chris Benoit. He'd turned heads as a team player with his 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 suddenly losing his temper, or "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 the meantime. Over a year before the nWo tried the same thing with very few variations, Sonny Onoo led NJPW (or New Japan Pro Wrestling) in an 'invasion' of WCW. What resulted was an interesting enough angle, just 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 back in 1991 was having the same sort of trouble finding a number one 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 (or the new champion, in the event Savage lost his first match) 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, as 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 the wolverine's tag partner, Brian Pillman, 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, World Champ Randy Savage took out his first opponent, 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 even the score between WCW and New Japan at 3-3 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 swerve 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 before. The Narcissist was immediately looking for a home run, and locked Sting into the torture rack... but Sting's leg 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, leaving a sizeable gash in Flair's forehead along the way. The Macho Man then climbed up top and dropped his famous flying elbow on Flair's prone body. Pillman 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 the 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.
until then, i remain