“Whose side is he on?!”
That was Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s question when Hulk Hogan entered “The Bash At The Beach” in 1996 to join Scott Hall and Kevin Nash — though no one knew it at that moment. Heenan’s natural hatred of Hogan led him to suspect something was up (in kayfabe) It’s hard to think of another announcer’s call that is as singular and remembered as that one in wrestling. Maybe JR’s, “As God as my witness, he’s broken in half!” Or Jerry “The King” Lawler’s, “That’s it, he’s dead” — when both were describing Mick Foley’s match with Undertaker at Hell In A Cell. Or maybe that’s just in my head. And it tends to be filled with The Brain’s quips anyway.
Before Heenan uttered those words, it was unthinkable that Hogan could go heel. This was HULK HOGAN, decades before we knew all that we know now. This was the guy who created the WWF, in a lot of ways. This was the guy that basically had every child worshipping him not 10 years before. While Hogan may have been juiced to the gills (as well as everything else we know he is), he certainly influenced a generation of boys to eat their vegetables. How could he go heel? Fuck, he had been synonymous with America. Baseball, hot dogs, Hulk.
We know now that Hogan did it basically to save his career, as Hulkamania had somehow run out of steam by 1996. And WCW needed him to, because they were still very much the junior to WWF at the time. They were seen as a retirement home for wrestlers that WWF considered over the hill, as well as Southern silliness (so in a lot of ways, a lot like MLS is now). As Vince McMahon liked to joke, they were in the “wrasslin’ business,” while McMahon was in the sports-entertainment one. And, as we also know now, it’s far more American to go heel to make yourself richer and eventually swallow up every facet of your industry until it chokes, as nWO did with WCW.
There are things that create so much buzz in wrestling that they attract a mainstream audience. Hogan might be the only one to have done it twice, first in WWF and then forming the nWO at Bash At The Beach in 1996. I only got back into wrestling in 2015 when Daniel Bryan was going on a historic run and everyone was taking notice. Generation DX was another, but DX was something of a response to the nWo in WCW. WWF hadn’t had a faction before, at least not one that was top of the company. And not one that was clearly branded and not just a loose collection of singles stars. The only thing similar was the Four Horsemen.
Hogan flipping to the dark side alongside Scott Hall and Kevin Nash immediately created something that people had to see. Hogan did what?! And the momentum from that propelled WCW beyond not just an annoyance to WWF, but an actual competitor — and, for (famously) 83 weeks, better, if you go by TV ratings.
The idea of Hogan turning heel instilled in audiences the idea that anyone can be on either side in wrestling. Only John Cena never worked heel, and there are a lot who would tell you he should have (maybe even Cena himself). While McMahon was vehemently against it for so long, his company now runs on Roman Reigns flipping in a way most never thought he’d give into before. The nWo has made anything possible in wrestling for a quarter-century running.
We know now that WCW was so beholden to nWo that they basically let that faction run the company into the ground (if you want the real dirt and some expert reporting, read “The Death Of WCW” by R.D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez). And the version that had to wash up in WWE was a shell of itself and something that McMahon was only too happy to openly mock while cashing the checks their name brought in.
But you can see the effect of nWO still today, 25 years later. The “Bullet Club,” whose shirts used to make up 55% at least of any punk or metal show you attended for about five years there, spanned two different companies on either side of the Pacific (NJPW and ROH) and dominated wrestling outside of WWE. Because of the Bullet Club’s popularity, and Kenny Omega’s and The Young Bucks’ within that, the formation of AEW became possible. And suddenly WWE had a competitor again, built on the back of a faction decked in black and “Too Sweet’ing” each other. In wrestling, everything comes back.
It’s also hard not to see the thread in AEW to The Inner Circle, but that was just a response to The Elite/Bullet Club really. Fuck, even Sting is around.
In the end, it wouldn’t be out of line to deride the nWo as a bunch of older wrestlers trying desperately to stay relevant in the lesser company, after their prime days were over. And maybe that’s all it was in the end. But the strength of it changed the industry forever, in ways we can still observe today.