365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.
The Monday Night Wars represent my favorite time period in wrestling, and it’s entirely for sentimental reasons. It was the summer of 1996 and, in the WWF, Steve Austin dropped his Austin 3:16 line while, in WCW, Hulk Hogan dropped the yellow and red to join the New World Order. The two biggest wrestling companies in the U.S. were going through major changes at the same time, and it was exciting to see. Meanwhile, I was starting college.
My Monday night ritual became flipping back and forth between Raw and Nitro, usually on the phone with my dad. One would watch one show, one would watch the other, and we’d let the other person know if something happened that warranted changing the channel. This was some great, and expensive, father-son bonding. I’ve written before about my dad’s own wrestling fandom and how it helped guide and shape my own. We spent hours on the phone every Monday. Keep in mind, this was before cell phones became widespread. Long-distance calling was still a thing. After a month or two of phone bills, they purchased a special 800 number I could call for unlimited minutes, at any time. It got plenty of use on Mondays for the next few years.
By the time of this match selection, the worm had turned once and for all in the battle between the two promotions. We just didn’t know it yet. Nonetheless, this match choice — Bret Hart vs. Booker T from the February 22, 1999, episode of Nitro — illustrated many of the issues WCW was facing.
Let’s dig in, OK?
We got a look at the Hitman as a participant in the house-show Royal Rumble watched as part of the January docket, but this is his first singles match in the project. By now, it’s been well over a year since Bret Hart jumped from WWF to WCW. At the time it happened, it looked like a move that potentially could cripple the WWF; instead it inspired the Austin-McMahon feud that anchored the Attitude Era. Hart, meanwhile, made an unfathomable heel turn just a few months after his no-compete clause expired, and has spent most of the past several months in the mix for the U.S. Title, rather than the WCW World Title.
Booker, meanwhile, is an up-and-coming singles star. After five tag title reigns with his brother Stevie Ray in Harlem Heat, Booker broke out in 1998, winning and losing the TV Title five times in about eight months. He also challenged Bret for the U.S. Title at the 1998 Bash at the Beach, with Bret inflicting a kayfabe knee injury.
Hart and Booker are wrestling to be the top contender to the U.S. Title, currently held by Scott Hall, who won it just a night earlier at Superbrawl.
It’s fitting that Larry Zbysko is one of the commentators for this match, because Bret Hart takes a page out of Zbysko’s book in the structure of this match. He stalls. He jaws at fans and the referee. He bullies Booker, maintaining a methodical pace of punishment and pretty much dominates the offensive flow of the contest.
Meanwhile, even considering who is in this match, or that it pairs someone who is (or should be) a WCW headliner with a fan favorite on the rise, so much of the match feels like an afterthought due to all the shenanigans happening around it. You see, the night before, at Superbrawl, David Flair turned on his father, Ric Flair, and allied himself with Hogan and the nWo. And later on this episode of Nitro, Tony Schiavone is going to moderate a sitdown between father and son. If you didn’t know that, don’t worry, because the commentary team of Schiavone, Zbysko, and Mike Tenay talk about it constantly during the match, until Schiavone leaves to prepare for the sitdown.
If that’s not bad enough, there’s a cut away from the match entirely as it’s happening to see Disco Inferno bribing someone in the production truck to hijack the feed for the end of the show. If the people airing the match don’t care enough to show it or even talk about it while it’s happening, why should the viewer?
The match itself is a solid if unspectacular throwback anchored by Bret Hart’s constant presence in control as the deliberate heel. The finish is solid. Booker throws a spin kick, and Bret provides an original and believable sell of it. Booker goes up top, gets cut off, and Hart delivers on a great-looking top-rope superplex. After a second attempt for the Sharpshooter sees Booker immediately make the ropes, Bret goes for a sunset flip, but Booker sits down on his shoulders and grabs his legs, pinning the Hitman in a callback to the exact same finish Bret used to defeat Davey Boy Smith at Summerslam 1992 in London.
Oh, and that number one contendership that Booker wins? It goes absolutely nowhere. Hall vacates the title a few weeks later due to injury, and Booker never gets his title match.
–The crowd really wants to cheer Bret Hart here, it seems. He’s heeling it up in spite of them, but the reaction when he first goes for the Sharpshooter is one of the biggest of the match.
–This was the sixth and final singles match between these two, all in WCW, but the first and only time that Booker got the pin.
–With such a large and varied roster (and no pesky brand split), WCW had unique matches like this one all the time even though most of them got lost in the ether due to bad booking.
–Every time the Flair angle comes up on commentary, Zbysko keeps going on back to the same point parents can’t use corporal punishment on their children. It starts out as strange and then just becomes obnoxious.
Final Rating: 5.2
This one missed the mark for me. The crowd is large and loud throughout, but relying on Bret to methodically control the pace on Booker for the bulk of a match that goes nearly 20 minutes bell to bell makes things drag. It’s an important moment in the build of Booker as he scores a clean win, but with all the proven veterans on the WCW roster, the Hitman really feels like the last guy who should be putting over the rising talent.
We go to Memphis for some tag team action.