Wrestling Opinion: What If Hulk Hogan Hadn’t Been The Third Man?

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As part of an occasional series, we look at great What If scenarios in wrestling history which could indeed have changed the course of how major events may have occurred for wrestlers and companies. Today, we ponder the question: what if Hulk Hogan hadn’t been the third man alongside Kevin Nash and Scott Hall in WCW in 1996?

So, it has been suggested that it was no easy task to convince Hulk Hogan to turn heel in WCW, with Eric Bischoff having pitched such an idea only to be politely refused. When the Outsiders storyline began gathering steam in the summer of 1996, though, Hogan himself volunteered to be the centrepiece of the group by being revealed as the surprise third tag team partner for Hall and Nash at WCW’s Bash At The Beach 1996 card.

According to Bischoff, though, he still wasn’t 100% certain that Hulk would actually go through with it and could still change his mind, and given his influence at the time, he would have required a back-up plan just in case, which he has stated that he did have. Had this scenario transpired, things could have been very, very different, and so we’re examining what would have happened had Plan B become a reality in today’s article.

So, it’s worth noting that the storyline concerning Hall and Nash’s return to WCW had already become the most talked-about development within the wrestling industry prior to July 7 1996. The initial pretence, one that WCW was forced to categorically deny on the air after legal threats from the WWF, was that Federation stars were invading the company in line with the wrestling ‘war’ that had begun when Nitro debuted opposite Raw in September 1995. A key element was also the fact that both men had previously worked for the company in lesser roles as The Diamond Studd and both Oz and Vinnie Vegas respectively, hence them returning as big names to get revenge on a company that had not exactly used them in the best possible manner.

The realistic notion of their attacks, from Scott and Kevin using their given names to the references to the competition to the intense nature of their confrontations with on-screen personnel, is ultimately what made this so intriguing to fans. Indeed, the infamous 83-week run of ratings victories began during this time, from June 17 onwards. The culmination of the first part of this storyline would be a six-man tag team bout at Bash At The Beach on July 7, where WCW’s representatives of Sting, Lex Luger and Randy Savage would face Nash, Hall and a “surprise buddy”.

Though the match itself had a big-time feel to it, the impact of the PPV main event would ultimately be decided by the identity of the third partner. Depending on how WCW booked it (and bear in mind that the company wasn’t renowned for first-class storytelling at this point), it had the potential to be a huge moment that could allow the storyline to carry the company for months on end. But that would ultimately depend on who was chosen.

Hogan was the perfect candidate because of his past WWF experience, his iconic status, and because he hadn’t been a heel since 1981, with him being the country’s all-time top babyface for over a decade, meaning that his switch would be a massive shock. Not to mention that his act needed refreshing badly, at a time when fans were already starting to boo the stale red-and-yellow gimmick. But what if Hogan hadn’t put his name forward or if he pulled out late in the game, and Bischoff had to settle on an alternative partner for Hall and Nash?

On his 83 Weeks podcast, Eric has laughed off the suggestion/rumours at the time that mid-carders who had recently left the WWF around that period, namely Mabel or Jeff Jarrett, would have been allocated that role. Therefore, we’ll assume that the spot had to go to big name, one who WCW feasibly had access to. This rules out Bret Hart, who hadn’t yet began talking with Eric (even on a cordial level), and also The Ultimate Warrior, who had just walked out of the WWF but remained under contract for the time being. Meanwhile, Roddy Piper wouldn’t negotiate with the company for a few more months, and at that time, he seemed like a part-time veteran suited to an occasional big match (as a fondly-remembered babyface) rather than a full-on heel whose weekly television presence would be required (though if he had been ten years younger, he’d likely have jumped at such an opportunity). As a result, we will focus solely on WCW’s biggest names at that point to gauge their suitability for the role, and the consequences of them stepping into Hogan’s shoes.

As someone who had only worked for the Federation the previous summer (and as a previous employee of WCW himself), Lex Luger could have made sense as the third guy, with the story being that he had used his ten months back in the company as a way to scout the landscape for a full-on gang attack, so to speak. Though not renowned as a great promo man, he could have relied on his arrogance to carry interviews alongside The Outsiders, and he was a natural heel anyway. The last point may explain why he wasn’t a primary choice, though, because it would have been the safe option; it also wouldn’t have been that big of a surprise, partly cause Lex had already turned heel since he had returned to WCW.

Further down the card at BATB 1996 was Ric Flair. It was a fairly quiet time for Naitch, and this combined with his extensive experience as leader of The Four Horsemen could have allowed him to take the reins of the nWo. There are a few issues with this proposal, though. Firstly, he was already a heel, so it would have had less shock value than Lex being the third man. Secondly, the identity and ethos of the nWo would have conflicted with those of Ric and his gimmick, which may have made him stand out for the wrong reasons. Plus, what would have been Flair’s motive to go up against an organisation that he had been a part of for so many years? And also, Ric had been the top heel in WCW for so long in a variety of situations; for this particular tale to work, it had to be different. Flair as the third man might have made this feel like just another WCW storyline, even though he would have delivered awesome promos and superior matches to Hogan.

At that time, the reigning WCW World Heavyweight Champion was The Giant, who would be a babyface opponent to the newly-renamed Hollywood Hogan at Hog Wild in August (Giant lost the title, then joined the nWo a few weeks later in a strange development, but that’s another story). In theory, the monstrous heel titleholder as the group’s chief villain could have been a good move, but Giant was still relatively new to the industry at that stage. Plus, WCW’s babyfaces struggled to get heat on the nWo with Hogan in charge; might their efforts have been in greater vain with Giant at the helm? So, if Giant was going to be a member of the new World order, having him join at a later date, as enforcement for the top members so to speak, was probably the better option (it would have helped if his recruitment had made sense though).
Now, we come to one of the three babyface opponents to Nash and Hall on the night, Sting. Bischoff has gone on record many times saying that he would have picked Sting to be the third man, had Hogan not gone through with it (though Sting has suggested at times that he wasn’t aware of such plans). Therefore, he would have been the leading candidate to turn heel that night. Having never been a villain in WCW on a major scale, his switch to the dark side would have been second only to Hulk’s for shock value, and it certainly would have revitalised his career in the short-term. It would have conflicted with the idea of the nWo being made up of ex-WWF employees, though, since Sting wouldn’t work for WWE until the mid-2010s. On the night, however, it certainly would have been a real talking point.
The final major candidate would have been the third man (no pun intended) opposing Scott and Kevin at BATB, Randy Savage. The Macho Man would have been my Plan B selection due to his long WWF tenure, his excellent heel work in the past, the fact that he had remained a face since joining WCW in late 1994, and because his promos would have been incredible as the nWo’s front-man. His age might have been seen as a detriment compared to the younger Sting, but not by much given Hogan’s age at that point, and because Savage clearly still had it from an in-ring standpoint. To me, if Hogan  was not an option, Savage would have been the perfect alternative, though I could see why Sting would have been the top pick in Bischoff’s mind.
Now let’s consider the potential fall-out, assuming that it would have been either Sting or Savage (as they were the two most likely and feasible candidates). The storyline could have been largely the same with the Macho Man as nWo figurehead, but with Sting, the narrative would have required some tweaking, since he theoretically knew nothing about that “big organisation up north”. Perhaps the Stinger’s focus could have been that he has always felt held-down in WCW despite his obvious talent and popularity (he hadn’t enjoyed a proper World Title reign since June 1992 at that point, having had the belt for a matter of days during a European tour in early 1993), and that the “little Stingers” gravitated to someone else instead, so he decided to turn his back on all of them and destroy a company he helped to build. This could have allowed Sting to establish his association with the baseball bat a bit earlier, and he would have adopted an all-black look as opposed to the Crow, which still could have been unveiled at a later date, albeit as a frightening heel rather than as a mysterious, avenging babyface.
In either case, they’d have needed babyfaces to work with, and more importantly, a top opponent to mark the final destination of the story. In reality, a babyface Savage fought heel Hogan at Halloween Havoc 1996, just a few months into the tale. If the Macho Man had been the leader of the band, perhaps WCW would have slid Lex Luger into the role of contender on that occasion, or The Giant might not have joined the group in the interim and instead got a rematch there. The same would have applied to a heel Sting, who could have renewed hostilities with on-off enemy Luger or now-regular rival Giant. There’s a reason why I would keep Savage and Sting separate from one another at this point, regardless of who was wearing nWo colours.
To me, the ultimate finale of the storyline should have been one of three options: Savage vs. Sting, especially if Savage were the heel, or either man as ringleader facing a returning babyface Hulk Hogan. After all, only the almighty Hulkster could have sunk the nWo led by a bitter Macho Man (who could have called him out, and perhaps even concocted the whole scheme as a way to build an army capable of ending Hulkamania) or a vengeful Sting, who had taken down every other big name that WCW had to offer, but had never been able to defeat Hogan. A storyline like this needed a strong babyface to put the group to the sword, and in reality, Sting as The Crow was an ideal candidate. In our parallel universe, though, Hulk is still a good guy, and he personally wants the bragging rights of taking down the nWo in a huge, money-making match-up. Simply put, if Hogan was sticking around, then he has to be the guy to crush the nWo once and for all.
The key word is “if”, because Hogan’s contract with WCW would soon be up for renewal, and as stated earlier, he had been hearing some jeers in the spring of 1996. There was a real chance that Hulk, who hadn’t enjoyed the career revival of a Hollywood heel turn in this scenario remember, would have returned to the WWF in late 1996/early 1997, which could have opened the door for Bret Hart to go in the opposite direction. If Hulk wasn’t going to remain in WCW, then he couldn’t have played a role in the climax of the nWo saga, hence Sting stepping in to slay heel Savage, or vice versa. A defecting Bret could have done this too I guess, but there is no guarantee that he would have joined WCW at that stage, even if the Federation had brought back Hogan (in fact, he might have been more interested in facing Hulk in a WWF ring).
It’s possible that a Savage-Sting showdown could have been used under the false premise of being the last big challenge, only for it to actually serve as a bridge to an even larger main event in the future. This could only have been the case if Hogan was staying with WCW: a heel Savage cheating to beat Sting, for example, could have brought out a returning Hogan to declare war, thus allowing a long build to the real final showdown. Same if Sting, as a heel, were to defeat Macho under unscrupulous means and then declare that he’d beaten everybody, only for American Made to hit the speakers. Or maybe Hogan returns during their match and turns heel at that point (having realised in the interimhow big this storyline had became), thus sliding into the role of nWo figurehead, later claiming the WCW Championship for himself, and eventually losing the gold to either a retribution-seeking Savage or a now-Crow Sting down the line.
It would have been settled at a Starrcade, but whether that would be 1996 or 1997 is debatable. If Hogan hadn’t been around on television while all this was happening, I honestly don’t think that WCW could have effectively stretched this storyline into the whole of 1997, because they wouldn’t have had enough strong faces and heels to carry the company for an entire year to build to such a match without Hogan in the picture. With Hogan as the heroic babyface, a drawn-out hype job to the end of ‘97 was more feasible, but I still don’t think it would have happened (since everybody would have know the eventual outcome if Hogan was waiting for his big match), and instead Hulk would have wrapped it up to the presumed cheers of the remaining Hulkamaniacs at Starrcade ‘96. Only with Hogan returning in a heel role to breathe new life into an already-hot angle could this have ran well into the following year, in my opinion.
As for how successful the storyline would have been? Though Sting turning heel would have had a greater impact on the WCW fanbase than a Savage switch to the dark side, I think the company would have benefitted more from Macho being the leader of the gang, partly because he still could have potentially faced Crow Sting, whereas that version of Sting’s character might never have become a reality had he been the one to go heel. Hogan returning to slay the faction would have also drawn big numbers, and the final showdown between him and either Randy or Sting would have still drew a top buy-rate. With Hogan not at the helm of the nWo, it’s also possible that the group might have died a more natural death beyond that point, unlike in reality where it was squeezed for every last dime and revived multiple times to declining interest, which really did hinder the company in the long-run.
I don’t think the nWo would have been quite as successful as it became, though. The realistic nature of the storyline was crucial, as was the feeling that this was unofficially WWF vs. WCW, the latter of which would have been stopped in its tracks had Sting been the nWo’s main man. But it was also the novelty of Hogan as a heel, and a damn good one at that, which attracted great ratings. It was something new and fresh for an iconic figure, all with the belief (but not the certainty) that somebody at some point would take him down. Hogan as the conqueror rather than being the conquered would have allowed the story to end on a high, but I doubt that quite as many fans would have been turning the channel over from Raw to see that plot-line play out.
And as a result, how might this have changed the WWF? Contrary to popular belief, the Federation was already experimenting with swearing, mild sexual content and increasingly-strong violence prior to the birth of the nWo, and Stone Cold Steve Austin had already cut his famous “Austin 3:16” promo a few weeks before Bash At The Beach 1996 had taken place. But if any of these alternate nWo scenarios had only allowed Nitro to have a moderate ratings lead over Raw as opposed to a very comfortable and long-running winning streak, perhaps Vince McMahon and co. might have resisted in turning the envelope as much as they would have. I do believe that we would have still gotten WWF Attitude, but it may not have happened as quickly as it did, as heavily as it did, with Raw instead being a hybrid of a TV-PG programme and a TV-14 product, rather than a show which very nearly threatened to carry a TV-MA rating on multiple occasions. We’ll never know how the WWF would have responded to a less-successful nWo, but the assumption is that their reaction wouldn’t have been as strong.
In the final analysis, then, it seems that while the nWo still could have been successful, and perhaps very successful, with either Randy Savage or Sting as the leader and with Hulk Hogan as the man assigned with saving the day for WCW, it wouldn’t have had nearly the same level of impact, nor would the company have become as big a juggernaut as it did in 1996-1997, thus meaning that WWF Attitude may not have provided as big a transformation of that company because it wouldn’t have been as necessary. Ironically, a reduced legacy for the nWo might have helped WCW more in the long-run, since they may have found it easier to move on from that storyline and to establish a new direction from 1998 onwards, but it is impossible to really determine that in hindsight. What does seem clear is that the best possible scenario is what played out in reality, that being Hulk Hogan agreeing to turn heel, lead the nWo, and be the third man alongside Scott Hall and Kevin Nash at WCW Bash At The Beach 1996.

Of course, it is pure speculation and guesswork as to how WCW would have fared if Hulk Hogan hadn’t been the third man. Who knows, maybe Randy Savage would have been an even stronger heel than Hollywood Hogan. Hell, perhaps Sting would have been a more effective villain than Hulk was, and perhaps fans would have watched a Sting-led nWo in even greater numbers. Nevertheless, everybody has an opinion, and this is our take on how things might have panned out. It’s always fun to consider What If’s in wrestling, and so it has proven to be a lot of fun to speculate: What If Hulk Hogan Hadn’t Been The Third Man?

Keep checking out Writebase for another instalment of a wrestling-related What If in the near future!