Hulk Hogan and Sting – The Mess at WCW Starrcade 1997

With over a year of buildup, the stage was perfectly set. Hollywood Hulk Hogan and Sting were to finally face off in the main event of WCW Starrcade 1997. It only made sense for it to happen at this show, one with such history and prestige. Unfortunately, the finish was botched terribly. It was a demonstration of WCW’s difficulty in delivering a great finish, and it sits atop the mountain of ruined, lackluster climaxes to great WCW storylines.

Hulk Hogan and Sting face off at WCW Starrcade 1997.
Hulk Hogan and Sting face off at WCW Starrcade 1997.

Hulk Hogan and Sting – The Tan That Wasn’t

The story began with nWo Sting. The New World Order had welcomed in an imposter version of Sting — a tactic used to stoke division and distrust within the ranks of WCW. Sting was the hero of the promotion. If he couldn’t be trusted, the good guys were in trouble.

Sting was WCW’s strongest soldier, and the nWo took him off the board with pure mind games. It was a brilliant start. He’d soon change his look and retreat into the rafters to watch events unfold from afar, only to interfere when he was needed. He made saves, delivered beat downs, and looked like a badass while doing so.

The change in Sting’s demeanor was modeled after the main character in “The Crow” — a creative decision suggested by Scott Hall himself. It was a change that took a big star and made him even bigger.

As he transformed into “Crow Sting,” his motives were never made clear. He was merely keeping watch over WCW and the nWo.

However, at WCW Uncensored in March of ’97, descending from the rafter with a baseball bat in hand, Sting made his intentions known. After disposing of the nWo, Sting pointed his weapon at the WCW World Heavyweight Champion, Hulk Hogan.

Sting put into motion one of the most significant matches in WCW history without even saying a word.

In November, the match was made official.

We had WCW versus the nWo. Good versus evil. Sting versus Hollywood Hogan.

And it failed.

YouTube video

The Failure at Starrcade 1997

The ones who really suffered here were the fans. Sting should have put Hollywood Hulk Hogan down for a clean three count. Instead, we got some shenanigans.

To break it down, Hulk Hogan was supposed to get a clear fast count pin on Sting by referee Nick Patrick. Bret Hart would then come out and force the match to be restarted and contested under fair circumstances, leading to a clean victory for Sting. Executed properly, and it would have delivered a great ending to the nWo era in WCW.

In the proposed plan, Hogan would try to cheat to beat Sting and then bounce, only to get stopped from getting his way by Bret Hart. It would establish that Hogan couldn’t beat Sting without deception, making Sting look like the superhero he’s been built as, while also establishing Bret as a good guy not afraid to stand up to the nWo.

It was all there. All Nick Patrick had to do was count fast.

Why didn’t he?

Hulk Hogan has a legendary reputation for backstage politics. Did he get to the referee and pull off some shady maneuvering?

Not according to Eric Bischoff. Eric and Conrad Thompson discussed this event on their podcast "83 Weeks." During the show, Conrad read a report from Dave Meltzer and the Wrestling Observer. It talked about how bad Sting looked from the moment he stepped out for his entrance and how the myth of his character died in mere moments.

In response, Eric Bischoff said, "The mythical character and the illusions that we had spent sixteen to seventeen months creating kind of dissipating halfway down the aisle. I agree with that. And, actually, that’s the same way that both Hulk and I felt earlier in the day.”

Bischoff continued, “We knew what the finish was going into this thing, so there was no question about who was going to win and who was going to lose. We’d known that. We’d known that for twelve months. The question was, ‘How do we get there?’

“Sting showed up in my dressing room. Hulk was already there, and he walked in, and I don’t want to overdramatize this, and I’m also going to say I’m not going to share everything in this recall because some of the stuff is personal to Steve Borden, a.k.a. Sting. And since he [has] never shared it [publicly], it’s not up to me to do it. I’m just not going to do it, but I will give you as much information as I can. 

“So Sting walks in, and [Hogan] and I had the same reaction. We didn’t acknowledge it to each other, but we both had this similar reaction, which was, ‘Wow, he doesn’t look very excited about this.’

“Before we had one syllable of a conversation, about what the finish was going to be or how we were going to get there, Sting, during Sting’s walkout, he had the same lack of energy- or presence is an even better way of saying it. It was almost as if he was only half there when he walked into the room. Now, Sting had, I think he has acknowledged in the past that he was going through a lot of personal things in his life at the time."

The man known as ATM Eric would continue from there, eventually drawing the ire of Conrad Thompson and creating hilarity in the process. The following passage would lead to Conrad’s incredulous response to learning why Starrcade 1997 didn’t end the way it should have.

“I know this is going to sound ridiculous,” Bischoff began, “but none of us had seen Steve without his gimmick on, right? We didn’t realize that he had quit working out. We didn’t realize, for example, I know it sounds artificial or superficial, I should say, and childish, but he didn’t even bother to tan. I know that sounds funny to people who aren’t in the business, but I guarantee you that everybody that you love in WWE spends a certain amount of time maintaining their tan, whether they do it naturally or unnaturally.

“You’ve got to take care of your body. You’re out there in your underwear, for crying out loud. You’ve got to look the part. And when Steve came in, he was substantially smaller. He obviously had not been to the gym.

“There was no preparation, physically, on Steve’s part. He didn’t even bother spending twenty minutes getting a spray tan, for crying out loud. And Hulk and I talked about it after the fact, long after the fact, certainly not in that moment, but I think we both recognized the same thing, that this guy that just walked into the room, Steve Borden, is a shell of the Steve Borden that we thought we were going to see.

“And it was almost shocking in a way. What we expected, given the magnitude of what we had built, and where we knew where we were going to go, what we were planning on doing, we expected somebody to come in that room ready to play at the very highest level.”

Conrad Thompson responded, “YOU FUCKED THE FINISH OVER A TAN?!”

It is pretty wild to think that something so important would be ruined over the lack of a tan. But that doesn’t consider the whole picture. Steve Borden had over a year to prepare and showed up in poor condition. Until then, he was actually supposed to go over in the exact manner the fanbase wanted, according to Eric Bischoff.

“This is going to piss a lot of people off. The original finish was Sting was going to go over. How he was going to go over, that wasn’t my deal. I didn’t ever get involved, even at this, in the details of the finish. It just wasn’t my strength. I can’t emphasize that enough. And rather than engaging myself and involving myself in things that I knew I didn’t really know enough about, I let the talent have a lot of say, especially someone like Steve and Hulk Hogan.

“We knew what the finish we wanted was before we even got to the building. We knew before we got on a plane. We knew about it months in advance. We knew we wanted Sting to go over. How he went over, he had to go over strong. We had to end the story exactly how the audience wanted it to end, on the highest note possible. That was the finish going in. How we were going to get there on a step-by-step basis, I couldn’t tell you because I wasn’t involved.”

We can be upset as fans. We can rightfully think the story deserved a better ending, but the choice to adapt and adjust was the right one. The ending they tried wasn’t even a bad one. It was just completely botched.

Bischoff would speak further about the situation he was put in, saying, “The tan was one aspect of it. It may be a small aspect to you and the fans listening to this, but when you’ve got a talent that shows up and is totally not prepared or engaged, has had 12 or 16 months to get ready for this moment where we’re going to make this huge, huge change, in the direction of the company and the guy shows up like he just heard about the match 45 minutes ago. It tends to make you rethink your position. It makes you change your direction, and it wasn’t because of a tan.

“It was because of a combination of a whole lot of things that suggested to us that this guy’s head was not in the game, which, by the way, Steve has admitted later, after the fact, due to the circumstances in his personal life. He was going through a lot of shit, and his head was not in the game. We recognized it and made a decision afterward. That’s the truth.”

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There’s no getting around the fact that pro wrestling is an image-based sport. There’s plenty of reason to be put off by someone you’re about to give the world to showing up out of shape and acting like he doesn’t want to be there. The change wasn’t the problem. It all came down to the execution.

WCW could have stuck the new ending they had planned with all the dirty referee nonsense. All that needed to happen was for Nick Patrick to pick up the speed of his count. Due to him counting so regularly, the entire ending of the match comes off like Sting lost clean, and Bret threw a hissy fit to get the match restarted.

So why did Nick Patrick not do the quick count? On Sitting Ringside with David Penzer, he explained.

“Sting and Hulk Hogan were the two franchise guys, and the franchise guys were butting heads over what was going to happen. One guy came up to me and told me to fast count to give him some heat and give him an out, while the other guy said, ‘Don’t fast count it. Just keep it nice and slow.’

“The person in charge didn’t want to make a call. He didn’t want to decide. I could not find him to say, ‘Hey, what do YOU want me to do?’ This is the first time I’m telling the truth as I had to be politically correct as I was working for somebody every other time, you know? I just don’t give a darn anymore, man. I’m just letting it fly.”

The curse of WCW came in many forms. There was bad writing, sometimes caused by the old “too many cooks” adage, and other times caused by backstage maneuvering.

Then, of course, they brought in Vince Russo, and, boy, is that a whole other animal when it comes to bad writing.

There was also poor communication, and insane production mishaps, such as Halloween Havoc ’98 going off the air before Goldberg versus Diamond Dallas Page could even really begin. The promotion had myriad issues that sunk it.

We’ve seen multiple takes that credit Hollywood Hogan and Sting as “the beginning of the end” for WCW. Those will always pop up, but it’s objectively false. We know, at this point, that the company’s downfall came on the corporate end. The botched finish of Starrcade 1997 is likely a subject that we, as fans, think about much more than the participants. Both men went onto continue working and having big moments. Hell, Sting is currently back at it in AEW. Let’s just hope he shows up with a tan.

After all, pale skin sinks angles.

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Joseph Finnegan is a longtime contributor here at Pro Wrestling Stories. He is a published author and produced screenwriter who has earned a BFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University. He is currently working on a fiction anthology series titled, "Random Tales." You can keep up with the development of that series at the Twitter link below. Joseph's contact info can be found on his portfolio website linked above.