When wrestling fans are asked to name the industry’s most influential year, a few come to mind. There’s the 1985 Rock ’N’ Wrestling Connection with WWF on MTV, the same year WrestleMania debuted. There’s 1998 and the pinnacle of mainstream attention for WWF and WCW as they competed for ratings on opposite cable networks. Longtime fans might even point to 1950 when pioneer grappler Gorgeous George became one of television’s first major stars. But while all those years would qualify as high points for the industry, they can’t equal the seismic shift the wrestling word experienced in 1996.
Merch is one indicator of the overall health of the business, and twenty years ago the wrestling world experienced a flood of black-and-white t-shirts whose ubiquity was unrivaled by any late-'90s craze this side of South Park. And one of the leaders of the craze was a bald-headed brawler from Texas.
It’s telling how utterly unrecognizable the product in any company was in 1997 compared to where it was in 1995.
Before “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was a world champion, reality show host, and podcast favorite, he was another superstar looking for his breakout moment. He’d only been “Stone Cold” for about four months at this point, having first briefly began his WWF career as “The Ringmaster.” Due to a change in booking plans originally meant for a wrestler with a pompous Connecticut blue-blood gimmick named Hunter Hearst-Helmsley, Austin was slated to defeat newly born-again Christian Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the finals of the King of the Ring tournament on June 23. Playing off Roberts’ recent religious conversion, during a post-match interview Austin dropped the line “Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass,” giving birth to a catchphrase that would help propel him to the top of the entertainment world.
Two weeks later, during WWF’s leading competitor WCW’s pay-per-view Bash at the Beach, former WWF talents Scott “Razor Ramon” Hall and Kevin “Diesel” Nash promised a mystery partner for their in-ring debut. Insinuating in the storyline that they were sent by the Federation to lead a hostile takeover of the Ted Turner-owned WCW (which led to real legal action from the WWF themselves), their third partner was revealed to be former WWF icon Hulk Hogan. This turned The Hulkster heel for the first time in over a decade, as he, off the cuff, referred to his trio as “the New World Order of wrestling, brother.” Before you knew it, the bad guys became cool and black-and-white nWo shirts began filling WCW arenas coast-to-coast.
But 1996 was also the year of some of wrestling’s most critical debuts. Late in the year at New York’s famed Madison Square Garden, a young third-generation wrestler who had been competing in Memphis under the deliciously '90s name Flex Kavana was set to make his debut at Survivor Series. Re-christened “Rocky Maivia” as a nod to his father and grandfather, Dwayne Johnson’s auspicious debut would be the beginning of a WWF/WWE run for a man who would inevitably become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
But outside of the professional wrasslin’ realm, 1996 also had a monumental moment in Olympic wrestling as the United States took home the gold in freestyle heavyweight wrestling, thanks to Pittsburgh-native Kurt Angle. It’s true, Angle defeated Iran's Abbas Jadidi while having a broken neck, or, as Angle would say, a “broken freakin’ neck.” While his success here eventually lead him to the WWF as the most successful amateur/professional-crossover wrestler of all time, as well as paving a way for successful amateur wrestlers to enter modern sports-entertainment, his first appearance in a squared circle happened in a renegade independent company gaining serious buzz just east of him over in Philadelphia.
Extreme Championship Wrestling or ECW (or as louder fans lovingly refer to it “E! C! W!”) was in a lot of ways the last of the large non-WWF/WCW wrestling territories operating on a major level. An alternative adults-only counter-culture entity created to cater to wrestling audiences wanting a less family-friendly affair, ECW’s nationally syndicated weekly show was one hour of cutting-edge matches and envelope-pushing storylines edited with the speed of a post-grunge MTV program. Popular hard rock and hip-hop scored the mayhem. Boasting wrestlers drinking beer, luchadores defying gravity, and breathtaking dives from balconies through tables, its cult fandom quickly spread and inadvertently set the tone for how its larger competitors would stylize their television programming in the coming years.
One of the few names to perform for WWF, WCW, and ECW in the same calendar year was former football player Brian Pillman. While his untimely death one year later would prevent him from becoming a major star in wrestling’s upcoming peak, the ripples from angles and personas he’d introduce in 1996 are still being felt today.
Starting his year in WCW with a storyline that only he and one or two higher-ups in the company were clued in on before it aired, he’d begin using “insider” terms on television. This made even the most jaded fans wonder again what in wrestling was actually real. Bringing this character to ECW (complete with his own unaffiliated 1-900 number, a direct line of communication with fans a decade before social media) and then appearing in WWF where he’d pull out a gun on-air before the end of the year—which almost got Monday Night Raw canceled—Pillman established a new set of boundaries.
As fun as it was to immerse yourself in wrestling in 1996, there was no way to know the impact it would ultimately have. However, looking back 20 years later, those 12 months were the most consequential in modern North American wrestling history. It’s telling how utterly unrecognizable the product in any company was in 1997 compared to where it was in 1995. This was the year the course was changed. And that’s the bottom line.