Mount Rushmores of Wrestling is a series that breaks down the cream of the crop of professional wrestling in our quest to come to a consensus on the top four of any given category. In today’s edition, we’re looking at the best long-term storylines.
Sting Vs. the nWo
Jason: Though he now serves as some sort of goth step-dad trying to bond with his skateboarding film student stepson, Sting was once the bright and cheery posterboy for World Championship Wrestling. He was always near the top of the card, but the mid-’90s saw surfer Sting relegated to a tertiary position behind the likes of Hulk Hogan, Macho Man, and the Dungeon of Doom. Yes, really. Things only got worse when Hogan turned heel and the nWo became the talk of the town.
As the nWo became the biggest thing in all of wrestling, they did so at the expense of the main WCW roster — and no one took more of a beating than Sting. Sting was the first to stand against the Outsiders when they started interfering in matches, and he (alongside Lex Luger and Randy Savage) were the first to be crushed underfoot when Hulkamania went bad in the biggest heel turn of all time.
After a few weeks of wreaking havoc with his new Sharpied-on beard stubble, the now-Hollywood Hogan began insinuating that Sting had actually joined up with his crew of middle-aged dads cosplaying as a motorcycle gang. And despite his years spent as the golden boy of Ted Turner’s promotion, the rest of the WCW roster was all too quick to assume the worst about Blade Runner Flash. This wasn’t helped when the nWo showed up with their own ersatz Sting at War Games. The real deal showed up to get rid of Jumping Jeff Farmer in Crow paint, told off his coworkers for losing faith in him, and then took to the rafters to mope and loom ominously over the Nitro set for what felt like an eternity.
Eventually, though, the Stinger started showing up to disrupt the nWo’s segments, sometimes by descending from the rafters with his trademark baseball bat, and sometimes just by ominously staring. WCW officials tried to lure Sting back by getting him matches with other nWo members, but it was clear from the start that Sting only wanted one thing: to take the WCW title back from Hollywood Hulk Hogan. The entire storyline spanned nearly two years and led to the most anticipated Starrcade in history. The match would be a letdown due to a certain spray-tanned racist’s backstage politics (allegedly), but we’re not talking about the outcome.
We’re talking about the build, and from 1996 to 1997, there wasn’t anything wrestling fans wanted more than to see Sting kick Hulk Hogan’s ass and take back the WCW Championship. In silence, Sting became the avatar for all wrestling fans to project their heroic ideals onto, and with Hogan’s seemingly endless collection of stooges keeping the title around his waist (minus Lex Luger’s dalliance with the belt), all fans wanted was someone to end the reign of terror. Sting was that guy, and though the followthrough was bungled, the story of Sting being the one to take down the nWo was well built, well paced and had the right result…reached in a bad way.
The Rise and Fall of Evolution
Jay: Find me a wrestling fan that didn’t love Evolution back in the early 2000s and I’ll show you a liar. They were The Ruthless Aggression’s era coolest stable of heels that served as the backbone of Raw for the better part of three years. Purposefully modeled after The Four Horsemen before it, Evolution was designed to give Triple H the narrative flexibility to maintain longevity in his reign as top heel in WWE while also giving much-needed exposure and main event experience to emerging talents Randy Orton and Batista. Considering how much Raw flourished from a creative standpoint during Evolution’s heyday — how Randy Orton went on to become a multi-time World Champion and quasi-household name in pop culture, Batista went on to become a bankable movie star in Hollywood, and how WWE still references and revisits the trials and tribulations of this faction for dramatic effect some fifteen years later, I’d say, “mission accomplished.” But despite all the chicanery, the false finishes, the 20 minute promos from Triple H that consistently opened Raw between 2003-2005, Evolution’s primary goal to elevate Randy Orton and Batista was never forgotten.
Randy Orton was, clearly and obviously, positioned if not destined to be prince among princes in WWE as even blind fans could see that he had the look, the character, the ring work, and even the youth needed to be a top player in WWE for a long, long time. As such, Orton quickly built a fanbase and was strategically positioned in tag matches and multi-man matches alongside Triple H and company and was made to look formidable and rose through the ranks by winning the Intercontinental title, earned a victory over Mick Foley and The Rock at WrestleMania, and then, to the shock of many, won the World Heavyweight Championship, all in the span of one and a half years. He probably would have done it sooner if not for being on the shelf a brief period of time with an injury. But as much as WWE fans loved it, Triple H was livid. Not only had Randy Orton stolen his spotlight, but he actually did so by defeating the then-champion after Triple H been shown to be unable to. Triple H’s fragile ego could not take it and ordered Randy Orton’s ousting from the group.
Triple H went on to recapture the World Heavyweight Championship from Randy Orton and unwittingly sealed his fate. Batista, up to this point, had been the silent but watchful enforcer for the group. Rarely was he the focal point, but was always shown to be formidable. It wasn’t till after Orton was discarded from the group did he begin to emerge as his own man to the delight of the audience. Slowly but surely and rather forcefully, Batista began to make light work of most of the Raw roster, openly dissent with Triple H and the needs of the group as a whole, and finally won the Royal Rumble and subsequently won the World Heavyweight Championship at that year’s WrestleMania. I mean, listen to this crowd:
Evolution’s story was well planned, executed, and incubated, which is sorely lacking in today’s WWE. You can blame it on overcrowded writing rooms, contemporary audiences’ overbearing need for immediate gratification, or a lack of interest of utilizing this type of story, but find me another storyline since that was so potent in carrying the weekly load of creative for Raw or SmackDown for multiple years, building not one, but two, new stars, and that built so much equity and importance in the eyes of the fans that it was and is successfully referenced to excellent effect to this day? I’ll wait.
Bayley’s journey to the NXT Women’s Championship
Jason: I know NXT 2.0 is pretty much unwatchable, but if you cast your mind back about seven or eight years, you may remember a time when the (then) black and gold brand was a genuinely exciting place for future stars to cut their teeth. It was also the only place to go to see real women’s wrestling under the WWE banner. This was the home of the nascent Horsewomen, and their most underdog member, Bayley.
Bayley’s character was initially that of a good-natured superfan. Someone who was just lucky to be on the show, but didn’t really stand much of a chance in the ring with more established performers. As such, she spent a lot of those early days as something of an enhancement talent, taking loss after loss, but improving each time. She also became sort of NXT’s gullible kid sister. She was constantly placed in situations where she had to put her trust in one of her fellow horsewomen, only to then be betrayed and left lying.
Her story was that of struggle and perseverance, as every time she would get close to legitimacy, the rug would be pulled out from under her. There’s a new tournament for the title? Sasha blocks her finishing move to knock Bayley out in the first round. She earns her way into a fatal four way? Someone steals her win. She gets a 1-on-1 title match with (at the time) virtuous babyface Charlotte? Charlotte actually cheats to defeat the Hugger. Yet through all of this adversity, Bayley retained her vibrance and positivity and became the beating heart of NXT. She was a beloved homegrown babyface that was cheered by the adult fans, sure, but was iconic for little girls who needed someone to believe in. Here was a young woman, a lifelong wrestling fan pursuing her childhood dream, facing all the adversity the business can throw at you, retaining her smile, enthusiasm and drive.
She got better with every outing too, telling the tale of someone who can stick out the hardships and learn from their mistakes, until one day she slayed the first dragon of her young career by finally defeating Charlotte clean in a one-on-one match. Next she would finally beat Becky Lynch to earn a title shot at Sasha Banks’ NXT Women’s Championship. The stage was set for a clash between Bayley and the Boss at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn in what I personally believe was a perfect match. From the workrate, to the in-ring storytelling, to the result, Bayley’s win over Sasha Banks at TakeOver was the culmination of a character arc that had been running for roughly three years.
Go back and watch that match — you owe it to yourself to see a time when NXT (and WWE in general) could actually make you love wrestling again by telling a wonderful story of perseverance from a pure-hearted babyface who achieved her childhood dream through hard work, grit, and a firm belief in herself.
“Hangman” Adam Page vs. The Elite vs. existential angst
Jay: Hangman’s tale is the timeless story of a man crawling out of the abyss inside of himself. Hangman had been earmarked for years as a can’t-miss prospect within professional wrestling and was an obvious early signing for All Elite Wrestling. Thus, it was no surprise to find him challenging Chris Jericho to become the inaugural AEW World Heavyweight Champion but, to the shock of some and most definitely himself, Hangman found himself looking up at the lights at the end of that bout at 2019’s All Out. Hangman was expecting glory and pride but only found doubt and depression as he watched Jericho walk away (and then actually lose at an Outback Steakhouse) the championship.
Thus began Hangman’s downward spiral. Hangman began to second guess himself, and his anxiety infected his friendship with The Elite as he was insecure in his place amongst the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, and Cody Rhodes. He made the reckless decision to turn his backs on the Young Bucks by costing them a shot at the AEW Tag Team Championships, and was then defeated by Kenny Omega en route to Omega winning the AEW World Heavyweight Championship. Oh yeah, and he drank. A lot.
Fortunately, Hangman found friends and dark places and found a new support group in The Dark Order. These delightful weirdos gave Hangman the friendship he felt he lacked in The Elite, a safe environment to work through his anxiety, the confidence to challenge and successfully defeat Kenny Omega for the AEW World Heavyweight Championship, and, above all else, found the strength to love himself again. He forgave himself for losing his stature in the eyes of his friends. He made amends with the Bucks he, rather unjustly, betrayed. He made the fans chant “Cowboy Sh*t” if he so much as looked at them. And he made himself into a champion that wrestling fans can rally behind. It’s wrestling at its finest.
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