I was thinking about my own fandom and how it developed over the years, and I thought it might be fun to take a trip down memory lane to discover what it was like to be a wrestling fan in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. It was from around 1997-2001 that I consider my prime wrestling fan years, so I hope to spend most of my time discussing that period, but before we can get into that we must go back even further into the 1980’s where it all began.
My first wrestling memory is of Hulk Hogan. I have no idea who he was wrestling, but it was sometime around late 1986/early 1987. I know this because my brother was born in April of 1987, and I sat in the hospital playing with my Hulk Hogan/Big John Studd thumb wrestlers, my LJN wrestling ring, and a random toy cow that was fond of doing run-ins. That single Hulk Hogan match really sold me on the excitement of wrestling and my parents were happy to supply some toys of my new hero to distract me while my mother was busy giving birth. Back in the late 80’s, I didn’t watch wrestling on a weekly basis, but it was something that if I noticed was on TV or if my parents noticed were on, they’d let me watch and I grew to love all the larger than life characters like Andre the Giant, Macho Man, and The Ultimate Warrior.
My fandom continued into the early 90’s, when watching wrestling became a little more regular and I was able to experience my first ever pay per view, Summerslam 1991. My uncle had a large satellite dish in his yard and a special chip in his receiver that gave him all the pay per view channels for free. I don’t think we watched the live broadcast, because I recall seeing bits and pieces of the Summerslam show before watching the full event, but one night after dinner we sat down and watched the whole thing. It was so amazing to see what a large, full scale pay per view was like. It was so much bigger and more impressive than the standard TV shows. Nowadays the pay per views are hardly distinguishable between your average Raw or Smackdown, but back then it was night and day. It truly felt epic and larger than life.
Over the next five or six years, my wrestling fandom came and went. I wasn’t much of a weekly watcher, but I’d still rent VHS tapes at the local video store, buy Hasbro toys, and play all the video games that came out on Sega Genesis. Wrestling’s cool factor had died down and my interest in other sports had gone up, so unless I was really bored I usually found other ways to spend my time.
The next time wrestling showed up on my radar was in 1994 when Hulk Hogan signed with WCW. I was living in Orlando at the time and it was huge news. I remember my dad calling me over while watching the news because Hulk Hogan was riding in a Viper (my favorite car at the time). I was confused, because it had never occurred to me that WCW was something different than the WWF. I had some WCW trading cards and had even watched a few VHS tapes, but my ten year old brain had never put it together that there was a different wrestling company other than the WWF. I just assumed WCW was part of the WWF. But after the news cast, I learned that there were two major wrestling promotions: WCW and WWF.
Wrestling got a boost in popularity (at least in Orlando) once The Hulkster signed with WCW. Thunder in Paradise was airing on TNT and suddenly Hulk Hogan was everywhere again. I had no idea about the steroid trial and the fall out from that, but it was very noticeable that the WCW Hulk Hogan as significantly smaller than the WWF Hulk Hogan.
Following Hogan joining WCW, so did a slew of other WWFers, which made WCW feel more like the WWF I remember. I was even convinced for a short period that The Renegade was actually The Ultimate Warrior. All the kids in school said it was true, so it had to be, right?
The excitement for WCW died down rather quickly and all of us fourth graders went back to worshipping Shaquille O'Neal as our Florida based hero.
A few years later, in 1997, I remember wrestling being discussed in school again. Things were changing in the industry thanks to the NWO and Stone Cold Steve Austin and kids were beginning to pick up on it. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on but I kept hearing about the NWO and The Outsiders, so I decided to tune into Nitro one night and experience it for myself. I was blown away by what I saw. The show looked and felt so different from the WCW shows I’d watched just two or three years earlier. It was edgy and the wrestling was different. There were luchadores, Sting now looked like The Crow, and Hulk Hogan was a bad guy. Tuning into that episode of Nitro was like entering the Mirror Universe, because everything I knew and loved about wrestling was turned upside down. But it was the unfamiliarity that made it exciting and that is why I watched the entire broadcast for the first time in years. It’s why I tuned in the next week and the week after that.
I’d tune into Raw is War/Warzone to see what was going on with the WWF but it didn’t feel as fresh. It was kind of like the uncool cousin that you were forced to play with. It was wrestling and it felt more familiar than WCW, but it didn’t feel cool. It wasn’t an event like WCW was. Not to mention, all of my favorite wrestlers as a little kid were now in WCW, the likes of Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan, Sting, Ric Flair, Jim Duggan, etc. Even Mean Gene and Bobby Hennan were on Nitro and that gave WCW legitimacy. WCW felt like the WWF of the 80’s all grown up and like someone was writing and making the type of show this fourteen year old boy could love.
We were limited in what wrestling was available in 1997.
Monday: had WCW Nitro (2 hours) and WWF Raw is War (1 hour) and WWF Warzone (1 hour).
Saturdays: WCW Worldwide (1 hour), WCW Saturday Night (1 hour), and WWF Shotgun Saturday Night (1 hour.)
Sunday: WCW Pro (1 hour).
To cultivate my love of wrestling in 1997, I did all that I could to watch every single minute of wrestling that was broadcast. It was interesting during that time because the type of shows broadcast were very different.
Shotgun Saturday Night was arguably the most different of all the shows because it usually aired late at night, after midnight in many cases. The ring ropes were yellow, the ring was smaller than usual, and it was filmed inside a nightclub. The show itself was edgier. The debut episode in January 1997 actually had a spot where Marlena climbed the ring apron and removed her top to distract The Sultan allowing Goldust to win the match.
WCW Worldwide featured matches taped at Disney/MGM studios and eventually Universal Studios. Most of the matches featured cruiserweights and mid-carders with main events like Eddie Guerrero vs. Hugh Morris or High Voltage vs. Public Enemy. It wasn’t the most exciting of shows, but it was a pure wrestling show and I really liked that. WCW Pro was very similar in nature, but shortly into 1998 turned into primarily a weekly recap show.
WCW Saturday Night was WCW’s second tier program at the time and it also skewed as more of an actual wrestling show. Each week at 6:05 PM, you got some great wrestling featuring everyone from the rookies to the lower main eventers. It was another great hour of wrestling that was also taped at Disney/MGM and Universal Studios.
There was plenty of wrestling to keep me busy in 1997 and my favorite feud was Sting vs. Hulk Hogan. WCW did a great job of teasing Sting joining the NWO and eventually attacking Hulk Hogan and it was riveting television. I haven’t seen a slow burn feud capture my imagination nearly as well as Sting vs. Hogan did, it’s just a shame that the payoff at Starrcade was a bit of a letdown.
My wrestling fandom only grew in 1998 as wrestling itself grew. Suddenly, wrestling was everywhere in pop culture. Dennis Rodman, who was part of the greatest Chicago Bulls team of all-time, was showing up in WCW in his off-time. Jay Leno participated in a match, WCW was on MTV, Mike Tyson showed up to face off against Stone Cold, and Celebrity Death Match debuted. Wrestling was popular and it was insane, because just a year earlier it seemed like no one cared about wrestling. I think the moment I knew things had changed is when I started to see wrestling shirts showing up in stores at the mall when previously the only way to get them was to buy it from a show or order it from a 1-800 number advertised during Raw or Nitro.
Speaking of wrestling shirts, I began a collection. Stone Cold, DX, Goldberg, Wolfpac, Chris Jericho were just some of the shirts that I had. At one point in 1999, I had over thirty shirts, and I would wear one a day so I could wear a different shirt for an entire month. I remember walking into a K-Mart with my grandmother and some grown man made a point to walk across the parking lot to tell me how much he loved my NWO shirt. My grandmother stood there stunned.
Wrestling may have found a new place in pop culture, but that didn’t mean that everyone accepted it. My family was particularly hard on me about my fandom because as far as they were concerned wrestling is something you watch as a child and grow out of. I heard “You know its fake right?” so many times that I finally grew numb to it all and it no longer bothered me. I also got called gay quite a bit for watching wrestling and was even sat down once and told that I need to find another interest. But I’ve always been stubborn and I like what I like, and as I grew into an adult I discovered that many wrestling fans experienced the same type of insults that I heard over the course of their adolescence as well. It seems like it’s just a rite of passage for being a fan growing up in the 80's and 90's.
1998 was my real breakout year for wrestling fandom and I was able to purchase my first two pay-per views: WrestleMania 14 and King of the Ring. I preferred WCW’s show in 1997, but the WWF had finally caught my attention when Mike Tyson (fresh off biting Evander Holyfield’s ear off) showed up in the WWF.
It was the classic exchange between Stone Cold and Mike Tyson that sold me on how badass Stone Cold was and made any match involving the two a must-see event. It was honestly difficult to tell whether Austin and Tyson actually hated each other or if it was all a show. Between January and March 1998, might have been my favorite run of WWF shows. I loved the buildup between Austin and DX and the Mike Tyson wild card worked so well.
I spent in the summer of 1998 in North Carolina visiting my mom and grandmother and my wrestling fandom was on full display. My grandmother was always supportive of whatever I liked and she offered to purchase the upcoming pay per view for me, which happened to be King of the Ring. I was excited, because I hadn’t seen a Hell in the Cell match yet, and from all the highlights that were shown of Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, it looked amazing. Little did I know I’d be witnessing one of the most memorable matches ever.
It’s hard to put into words what it was like to watch that match as it occurred live. I had no way of knowing what was real and what wasn’t. It’s hard to think its all part of the show when you watch a man get thrown from the top of a cage like Mick Foley was. I seriously thought he was dead. Then to see him continue to take a beating, it was just wild. It was like watching an exciting train wreck where you were so nervous about how excited you’d become because real lives were at stake. Amazing is the only way I can describe it and that doesn't even do it justice.
It was also in 1998 that I attended my first live wrestling event. I believe I may have attended two, but the only one I can totally confirm was a taping of Raw and Sunday Night Heat. I’m hoping to revisit these shows in the near future and recap them on The Wrestling Insomniac, but until then let’s just saw it was a wonderful time and I even have a picture taken after the show ended of my brother and myself. I’m the one in the baseball cap.
In 1998, the weekly wrestling shows increased and changed. Now each week I was watching:
Monday: WCW Nitro (3 hours), WWF Raw (1 hour), WWF Warzone (1 hour)
Thursday: WCW Thunder (2 hours)
Saturday: WCW Saturday Night (1 hour), WWF Shotgun Saturday Night (1 hour)
Sunday: WWF Sunday Night Heat (1 hour)
WCW Pro was cancelled so WCW Worldwide became a recap show with an occasional match or two. I still enjoyed Worldwide, but I always wanted more matches. WCW Saturday Night became a traveling show, so they started shooting the exclusive matches during those tapings, instead of at the Universal Studios location. It ruined that small studio audience feeling that I loved so much and Worldwide and Saturday Night, and I began watching them less and less. WCW had its hand’s full now with adding Thunder to the mix and these third-tier shows suffered because of it.
Shotgun Saturday Night was also downgraded as the WWF left the nightclubs behind and the edgy storylines. Instead, Shotgun Saturday Night matches were taped before Raw and the show became another recap show. This show also soon fell off my weekly watch list.
The tides were changing in 1998 and my love of WCW slowly gave away to the WWF. I still enjoyed both products, but Stone Cold vs. Vince McMahon was new and fresh and the NWO was becoming bloated and stale.
Another huge element of my wrestling fandom that emerged in 1998 was the internet. I had been on the internet for several years, but it wasn’t until 1998 that I discovered the wrestling fans online. Message boards, newsgroups, rumor sites, and fantasy wrestling leagues were all over, and I spent my free time when not watching wrestling, engaging with other fans through this various avenues.
I was able to locate one post on the alt.horror newsgroup where I was asking people if they noticed similarities between Kane and Michael Myers. You’ll notice my emails were BSGIANTKJR which stood for Big Sexy The Giant Killer Jr and StoneCold316 something.
I was able to get a free email at prowrestling.net which I loved to use, despite being a horrible free email service. I spent a lot of time reading sites like RajahWWF.com, that reported on the latest leaks and rumors.
I joined two different types of fantasy wrestling leagues. The one that was the most common was fantasy role playing where you’d create a wrestler, his gimmick, and catch phrases, and then write promos each week against other wrestlers in the league. (Here is a great FAQ and guide on how to e-wrestle from back in the early 2000's.) You’d build up to a weekly pay per view that was usually simulated via a pro wrestling simulator that would determine how the match was won, sometimes even listing out each move line-by-line. It was a lot of fun to create characters and gimmicks, but the promo writing got old quickly and these types of leagues closed often.
The other type of fantasy wrestling I enjoyed was something done very similar to the current fantasy sport leagues. You’d draft a team of wrestlers who were then award points of their performance each week on television. You could trade wrestlers with other teams and pick up free agents based on a pool of wrestlers. This was all run via email and the points were manually calculated each week. Most of the deals were conducted via AOL Instant Messenger and it was a great way to get introduced to wrestlers that you didn’t see on a weekly basis. I ended up with several ECW wrestlers on my team during a trade this is what led to me seeking out my first ECW tape trade. I also managed to get a recently signed WWF wrestler by the name of Adam Copeland, who’d go on to score me a lot of points over the next year or two.
I’ve broken down the type of wrestling that was aired in my area in 1998, which was Dallas, Texas. Other parts of the country still had some regional organizations. In the northeast ECW was airing on some stations but there was no streaming video so you were limited to what was available locally. For us fans that wanted to see something different or something old, we had to turn to tape traders to provide us with some content.
It was always hard starting off with tape traders because they preferred to deal in trade rather than cash, but if you took some time and sent some emails you could usually negotiate something. After learning about ECW from my fantasy league and following some of the discussion on message boards I knew I really wanted to see ECW. So, I contacted a seller who hooked me up with Barely Legal 1997, a Rob Van Dam shoot interview, and a special treat. The special treat ended up being a multi-generation recording of Beulah’s Daydreaming, which was an audition video that Beulah McGillicutty shot for Hustler. It was not what I was expecting, but as a sixteen year old, it was appreciated.
I liked what I saw with ECW and wanted to check out more, but I wasn’t working yet and it was always difficult sending cash through the mail. I started building up my VHS wrestling collection through other means such as new releases from the WWF like Best of Survivor Series 1987-1997, Best of Wrestlemania I-XIX, Stone Cold Uncensored, and ‘cause Stone Cold said so.
My biggest VHS score actually happened at a flea market. There was a seller with hundreds of VHS tapes minus the boxes. I believe they were all from a video store that closed down. They were poorly sorted, but I spent over an hour and managed to dig out all sorts of wrestling tapes from the 80’s through 1996. They were mainly NWA, WCW, and WWF, but it was an awesome collection and was a great way for me to get caught up and re-watch the product with more mature eyes. I was able to finally see what the NWA was all about and appreciate it. I was able to figure out the beef between Shawn Michaels and Diesel. And I got to revisit an old favorite, The Night of the Skywalkers, a tape I’d rented several times as a child. It was an awesome score and I got to give it up to my dad for dropping fifty bucks on all those tapes.
In 1998, I also got into wrestling magazines for the first time. I was sitting in the Houston airport during a flight delay alone. I remember wandering the airport for hours and finally bouncing into a bookstore to browse a bit. I found a wrestling magazine and I bought it instantly. I had forgotten about wrestling magazines and this was a shocking find for me. I read through the magazine twice before browsing more stores and finding more magazines. I spent my entire trip hitting up every newsstand and bookstore that I could and buying every magazine that I could find. I also started a WWF and Raw magazine subscriptions which I had for several years. Over the next couple of years I’d also buy several issues of WCW, ECW, and WOW along with TV Guides and video game magazines with wrestlers on them.
By the time 1999 rolled around I had stopped watching WCW and was primarily watching the WWF. A kid at my school used to bring the pay per views taped the day after so I could go home and watch it and make a copy of my own. I was also thrilled when he said his uncle had a copy of the IWA King of the Deathmatch that I had seen bits of on WWF TV and read all about in Mick Foley’s autobiography Have a Nice Day.
Have a Nice Day might has well have been my bible. I read the book dozens of times and I took it everywhere I went. I usually read it on the bus ride to and from school and I looked at it as a blue print for how I should begin my wrestling career. I bought and read the other WWF autobiographies that came out but none of them lived up to Have a Nice Day and the unauthorized type books were not that good, although I owned a whole bookshelf full of them.
By advertising my fandom and wearing my shirts daily, I actually started to find other wrestling fans and made friends with them. I now had people to fantasy book my WCW vs. WWF events, and to trade tapes with. I was a freshman in high school in 1998/1999 and I made friends with a senior who’d drive me home so I didn’t have to take the bus every day. Of course, he refused to drive off our high school campus until he drove around in circles a couple times blasting WWF The Music Vol 3. We were so uncool.
The WWF musical releases became huge events for me over the next several years with Volume 3 and Volume 4 being the most memorable. I also purchased WWF Aggression which featured rap version of WWF entrance themes and a compilation disc called Stone Cold Metal which was a curated CD of heavy metal hits selected by Stone Cold himself.
To say my life revolved around wrestling would be an understatement. Everything I watched, read, listened to, and discussed was wresting related. I dropped all my other hobbies and interests and focused solely on wrestling. I had hoped to find a backyard league to join and eventually develop some wrestling skills so I could prepare for a career in the WWF. My parents were not amused with this idea but I was hell bent on it. I remember bringing out the line, “I don’t care if I need to go to Japan and destroy my body but I’m going to be a professional wrestler!” Ahhh... teenagers.
In 1999, we moved to Tennessee and I was finally able to start watching Power Pro Wrestling and Kick Ass Wrestling. We also signed up for Road Runner internet which provided higher speeds and allowed me to stream America One via Real Player. America One was great because it streamed Hardcore TV each week, so I was finally able to watch ECW along with NWA Wildside. I was also able to watch XPW and a few backyard feds via very primitive and pixelated streaming.
My thirst for ECW continued to grow as the WWF became complacent in their booking and WCW was going downhill fast. I thought my prayers had been answered at the end of the year when ECW began airing on TNN and in 2000 some authorized VHS tapes released. Little did I know that this would the end of ECW and ECW was already sinking.
I’d tune into WCW every once in a while, but it was bad. The excitement I had for the NWO and even the Wolfpac and LWO had died. The NWO was a joke and Nitro no longer began with fun luchador matches, but usually an Eric Bischoff/Hulk Hogan promo that went on entirely too long. Goldberg’s undefeated streak was well over and the booking was terrible. Looking back on it I rooted for WCW to go under so that the WWF could pick up their wrestlers, but once WCW was gone I regretted every thinking that. Because when WCW finally went under, my wrestling passion died a little with it.
The schedule of weekly wrestling shows in 1999 only increased with the addition of Smackdown on Wednesday nights and the new Memphis wrestling and streaming shows that I was able to watch. So while not a complete schedule of shows available my weekly viewing habits were something like this:
Monday – WWF Raw (2 hours)
Wednesday – WWF Smackdown (2 hours)
Friday – ECW Hardcore TV (1 Hour), NWA Wildside (1 Hour)
Saturday – Power Pro Wrestling (1 Hour), Kick Ass Wrestling (1 Hour)
My father actually got interested in what was going on in the WWF, so following Wrestlemania 15 we began ordering the monthly pay per view. It made things more enjoyable knowing that I’d get to see the payoff match live, instead of on tape delay from someone at school or worse, having to wait six months till it hit video store.
I was still buying VHS tapes whenever I could, but I was taping every wrestling show I watched. For years, I had taped Nitro while watching Raw so I could watch Nitro later, but eventually I just started taping Raw. At the end of the year, I had several box full of tapes, so I decided to edit together my favorite moments and create my own compilation tape. This became a ritual for me every six months for the next couple of years. I’d give just about anything to have copies of those tapes today. (Picture below are not my tapes.)
I ordered my first and only ECW pay per view, Anarchy Rulz 2000, which was a fantastic pay per view and one of my favorite ECW events. I was able to use this pay per view to trade for some older NWA and Memphis footage which helped me fill in some gaps in my wrestling history.
One of the most memorable pay per views I watched took place in 2000 during Wrestlemania 16, where I watched Wrestlemania All-Day Long. It was an eight hour event that took an in-depth look at all of the previous Wrestlemanias leading up to the day’s event. It was a marathon day with so much wrestling I could hardly contain myself. I had all my blank videos lined up on top of the VCR so I could swap them out and make sure I taped every second of this awesome event.
I was able to attend a few more events in 1999 and into 2000. Wrestling was still hot, but things were slowly changing. First Power Pro Wrestling turned into Memphis Championship Wrestling an then that closed. ECW eventually lost their TNN deal and closed down. WCW closed down shortly thereafter. At first it seemed like a wonderful turn of events with ECW stars and WCW wrestlers showing up on WWF TV. But then I realized that the wrestlers who were showing up were not ones that I cared to see and the way they were handled was not much different than how the previous WCW and ECW wrestlers who joined WWF were handled. They were immediately jobbed out and treated as inferior wrestlers and this pissed me off. It was hard to watch the strong and extreme ECW wrestlers neutered and for the WCW wrestlers to be treated like jobbers. This pissed me off and as much as I hate to admit it, damn near twenty years later I'm still not over it.
Once I realized that all my favorite wrestlers who weren’t originally on the WWF roster were going to be treated like crap, my interest in wrestling died almost overnight. I had grown bored with the WWF product by 2001 and I had new hobbies, a job, and other things in my life. If wrestling was still going to be a priority, it needed to be good, and what I was seeing was not good. Its ancient history by now, but the WWF mishandled the invasion and in doing so lost me as a fan. Ironically enough, my dad who was initially against my wrestling fandom but eventually became a fan, he and my stepmom continued watching the WWF well into 2002-2003, while I moved onto other things.
In late 2001, I was working at Blockbuster and a DVD box caught my eye.
It would be years before I’d start watch wrestling with any consistency again and to be honest, my fandom and love has never come back to the obsession that I had in the late 90’s. It was a different time to be a wrestling fan, but one I’m so glad I was able to experience. Today I can watch all sorts of new wrestling from all over the world, and most of all the old wrestling as well. The world truly is my oyster, but I’m still waiting for that one or two hour show that just knocks my socks off weekly and takes me back to that rabid fandom that I had in the 90’s. But if I'm honest with myself, I think I know that was just a special time in history, one that will never come again.