Once upon a time, World Championship Wrestling, and Jim Crockett Promotions before it, promoted Starrcade as its most prominent and preeminent event of the year. Originally held Thanksgiving night, pressure from the WWF in 1988 forced WCW to move its flagship event to the week of Christmas, which means if the event were being held today, well, it might be held today.
In fact, 20 years ago today, the 11th Starrcade was held in Charlotte, N.C., with the original plans pitting WCW Champion Big Van Vader against Sid Vicious in a bitter battle of former tag team partners who were, well, thrown together about six months earlier, um, because they were both big and, uh, they both used a power bomb as their finisher.
In December 1993, Vader was 18 months into a spectacular run as a monster heel champion, and Sid was, you know, Sid, the underachieving heel whose babyface turn was predicated on a fumbled, accidental double-cross by his comedic manager, Col. Rob Parker, and who could never connect with a crowd at-large beyond the pop he received on his entrance. (Never mind the fact that Dusty and I think he’s, as Sid himself used to say, “the man.”)
And then came the little issue of the night Sid stabbed Arn Anderson with a pair of scissors 20 times in a hotel in England that October, effectively removing himself from the main event of WCW’s biggest show of the year. This put Eric Bischoff’s team of bookers in quite a pinch, and what did WCW pretty much always do when they were in a pinch?
Paging Ric Flair.
Flair was programmed with Vader beginning at Battlebowl, a half-crocked concept launched by Dusty Rhodes at Starrcade 1991 that, somehow, got its own pay-per-view in November 1993. During the ceremonious final battle royal, Vader attacked Flair outside of the ring, eliminating Flair from the match.
Flair then went on a crusade, offering to put his 20-year career on the line against Vader for one shot at the world title that had remained out of his grasp for two years. To add to the drama, the “championship committee” or executive board or whatever it was accepted bids from potential host cities around the world (including Des Moines, Iowa, and I was pissed that my capital city didn’t win), and it was determined that this Starrcade would emanate from the queen city of Charlotte, which we all knew was Flair’s hometown. Ultimately, Vader and his manager – and long-time Flair opponent – Harley Race said yes, and the match was on, title vs. career.
Fast-forward to the night of the event, and then do yourself a favor and fast-forward through the event. Starrcade 1993 was largely a stinker, with matches like Sting & Road Warrior Hawk thrown together against the Nasty Boys, overstaying their welcome for 29 minutes before ending in a crowd-displeasing disqualification; Rick Rude vs. The Boss in a real dud that could have been the blowoff of a half-assed WWF feud from 1990 (not a word was spoken about the Boss Man’s mother); and a rehash of a Steve Austin vs. Dustin Rhodes match that was only slightly better at Halloween Havoc two months prior. Sprinkle in some Shockmaster vs. Awesome Kong and kick it all off with Paul Roma, and you’ve got a recipe that calls for a shitload of salt and a buttload of butter.
In between matches, we were “treated” to live snippets of Flair’s late travel and tardy arrival to the Independence Arena – Gene Okerlund chaperoned Flair, who said tearful goodbyes to his 14th wife and four very young kids – as well as Vader shadow-boxing with Race before the show, which was more effective than any crocodile tear shed by Ashley Fliehr (but maybe not as powerful as 5-year-old Reid telling his dad to “close the door” because it was cold outside). Seriously, fast-forward through the show, and just trust that the match encompassed all of the necessary drama.
Because it did. From the moment Vader charged through the glittery curtain, WCW presented a big-match feel it hadn’t been able to all year. For more context, 1993 was a rough one for WCW – leadership shifted from the ousted, rough-and-rugged Bill Watts to the slick and aspirational but unproven Eric Bischoff; a number of wrestlers were underperforming, demoralized, or just plain leaving either because of or due to losing the Watts regime; the roster itself was uninspiring and spotted with the likes of the Equalizer and Marcus Alexander Bagwell; and the talent who had talent were being booked in a very “treading water” fashion, probably while everyone waited for Hulk Hogan to show up a few months later.
Flair, of course, received a hero’s welcome in Flair Country. He could hardly contain himself as he strode down the aisle to be introduced by Michael Buffer, and he flew around the ring as though he had new legs, bumping his ass off for Vader for 21 minutes. When he did connect with a blow, the crowd ate it up. Flair, the king of color, bled hardway from the mouth after a clothesline from the mastodon, which only added to the unfolding drama.
By the end of the match, though, you’d have thought Flair needed a miracle to win. And that’s basically what Flair got: As Vader sold a tweaked knee, the veteran Flair chop-blocked the big man and rolled him up for the victory. Fireworks exploded, and a blood-, sweat- and tear-soaked Flair walked up the ramp, soaking in the adulation of the fans that had been keeping it bottled up all year.
Twenty years later, the match holds up, and, as though my opinion means anything, nestles itself comfortably in my top five matches of all time. The monster heel in professional wrestling is a character that’s all but lost. The “icon that can still go” depends on how you define “icon.” Hometowns are pessimistic about their heroes walking away victorious. For one night, 20 years ago, WCW got it right.