By no means was it a time of glory or riches in the world of professional wrestling. For the biggest company in the game, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, the Era of Hulkamania and Rock N’ Wrestling were all but over, and the looming threat of steroid investigations lingered on the horizon. After a failed run with the charismatic and unpredictable Ultimate Warrior on top, could an older, obviously smaller Hulk Hogan stave off the bleeding and keep the business afloat until a new superstar emerged to take his place?
Meanwhile, over in what was now officially known as Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, it was a time of transition. Jim Herd, Executive Vice President in charge of the company for Turner Sports, had witnessed his company hemorrhage money for years as aging has-been’s and young never-were’s performed before lackluster and sparse crowds even deep within the franchise’s homebase in the Deep South. Like his former tag-team partner up north, it was clear that Sting was not the draw that would lead WCW to the Golden Age, and the World Heavyweight Championship found itself back in the hands of the only true superstar the company had ever known, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Alas, though, even Flair’s act was getting old, and Herd and lead booker Dusty Rhodes (himself a longtime Flair rival) were desperate to find their next big stud, perhaps in the form of the current United States Heavyweight Champion and #1 contender, “Total Package” Lex Luger. So, while still on top in early 1991, Flair was asked to alter his character gimmick and undo all of the things that made Slick Ric who he was. Gone were the flowing golden locks up top. Also Sprach Zarathustra, the most recognizable ring entrance music in the game, was replaced with generic brass fanfare. All in preparation for turning Flair from the Dirtiest Player in the Game into … Spartacus, wise old gladiator of Rome? I know, I don’t get it either.
But in the “what could have been’s?” of the world, we never fully got there. Herd greatly underestimated his perceived foe and lowballed the champion during contract negotiations that ran through the first half of 1991. Eventually, frustrated and unwilling to entertain legitimate negotiations with the biggest star his company had ever seen, Herd outright fired Flair in the days leading up to the champion’s title defense against Luger at the Great American Bash 1991. The results proved to be a complete abomination. Luger did indeed finally reach the top of the mountain, and turned heel alongside new manager (and legend in his own right) Harley Race while defeating Flair-substitute Barry Windham in a cage match for the WCW World Title. The match and overall supercard, though, are considered to be among the very worst of all time, as the crowd in Baltimore, MD reacted with disgust and outrage at the ouster of Flair and shat over the whole card, repeatedly calling out the former champion’s name in protest. To make matters worse, the vaunted Big Gold Belt that had long represented the National Wrestling Alliance and World Championship Wrestling remained in the possession of the Nature Boy, who had put down a tidy deposit as security for its jeweled value and rightly requested that money be returned plus interest in exchange for the belt. With civil discourse all but impossible, Herd told Flair to figuratively fuck off, and Luger celebrated his big win by holding up a blurry and indistinct championship trophy that looked suspiciously like the old NWA World Tag Team Championship that someone stamped a new plate over top of.
As for Flair, the world was his oyster. Technically never defeated, he could still claim some air of legitimacy as being the true World’s Heavyweight Champion in professional wrestling. Heck, he even had the belt to prove it! He could tour the world on his own, taking on all comers and perhaps even establish a new brand and a new era in the world of traveling world champions. Or, he could firmly extend his middle finger towards his former employer and wind up in the arms of their greatest competitor.
In late August, 1991, we would learn the answer, as broadcast journalist Bobby “The Brain” Heenan closed out an otherwise routine episode of the syndicated WWF Wrestling Challenge program with a pretty blockbuster announcement.
Next: The Man makes his debut, and a First Challenge is set.