Pro wrestling during the 1990s was a two-faced affair. On the one hand, between 1992 and 1996, the business entered one of its lowest periods in recorded history. Following the steroid abuse scandals and accusations of sexual abuse that rocked the WWE, the shine of the "Golden Era" had begun to dull. On top of that, booking during this period was objectively bad, with both Vince McMahon and WCW's Jim Herd trying to corner the adolescent market with outlandish characters and simple, easy-to-digest storylines that mostly drove teenagers and adults away in disgust.
However, with the coming of the nWo and Hulk Hogan's heel turn, pro wrestling became cool again. As part of the larger zeitgeist that included slasher films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, numerous teen sex comedies, raunchy daytime TV, and the brief moment when nu-metal ruled the airwaves (yes, kids--heavy metal was once very popular), pro wrestling during the late 1990s helped to bring back 1980s excess with a harder edge that embraced curse words, sex, and violence. As such, pro wrestling storylines became noticeably darker. The goofball days of wrestling repo men were replaced by storylines that were either adult or as horrific as anything dreamed up in Hollywood.
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16 The Black Scorpion
WCW's Black Scorpion storyline of 1990 was the exception to the rule that early 1990s wrestling was the pits. However, as good as the Black Scorpion storyline was, its disappointing ending ultimately tanked what had been a great idea. In short, the Black Scorpion was a mysterious man in black who wore a black mask. He claimed to be a man from Sting's buried past. The Black Scorpion storyline was at its creepy best when Ole Anderson voiced the character during those disturbing vignettes. When the Black Scorpion remained unknown and under a mask, the mystery of his true identity kept people watching. Occasionally, such as his appearance at Halloween Havoc in 1990, the Black Scorpion character became a little cartoon-y, but overall the storyline was engaging and pleasantly cinematic.
Finally, at Starrcade in December 1990, it was revealed that Ric Flair was the Black Scorpion. It made absolutely no sense. This deflating ending exposed the fact that WCW went into this storyline without having a clear-cut ending in mind.
15 Cactus Jack's Amnesia
WCW did not know how to properly use Cactus Jack. Although a once-in-a-lifetime talent, Jim Herd, Eric Bischoff, and head booker Ric Flair did not know what to do with Mick Foley, a slightly chubby wrestler who got over with the fans for his willingness to take insane bumps in and out of the ring. As evidence of this neglect, Cactus Jack's best storyline in WCW came late (1993) and mostly showcased him as a lost and confused soul.
During 1993 and 1994, Cactus Jack was locked in a brutal feud with WCW World Heavyweight Champion Big Van Vader. During a rematch for the world title on WCW Saturday Night, Jack suffered kayfabe amnesia after being Powerbombed on the concrete floor by Vader (Foley suffered a legitimate concussion after taking this bump). Afterwards, a clean-shaven Cactus Jack was found wondering the streets of Cleveland as a homeless man under the impression that he had once been a sailor. Cactus Jack remained a mental mess until the autumn of 1993, when his feud with Vader was rekindled.
If nothing else, this storyline is a not-so-subtle reminder that pro wrestling can seriously damage a competitor's brain. In the post-Chris Benoit and CTE world, it's unlikely that the WWE would repeat this storyline today.
14 Kevin Sullivan in Smoky Mountain Wrestling
Jim Cornette's Smoky Mountain Wrestling was a conscious throwback to the days of the territories. Carving out its niche in the states of Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, SMW's booking was mostly basic babyface vs. heel stuff. Cornette's babyfaces were smiley do-gooders, while his heels were vain, dastardly bastards who always cheated to win.
There were a few exceptions to this generic formula, however. Kevin Sullivan, for instance, brought an unusual brutality to the Appalachian promotion. Back in Florida during the 1980s, Sullivan had been a reviled "Satanist" (he actually never claimed to worship the Devil) during the age of the Satanic panic, when everything from Dungeons & Dragons to heavy metal were accused of turning American youth towards the occult. When he came to SMW, Sullivan re-booted this gimmick. At his side was Bryan Clark, who wrestled under the name of The Nightstalker. This just so happened to be the nickname of Richard Ramirez, a serial rapist and serial killer who terrorized California in the 1980s.
During a feud with Japanese wrestler WING Kanemura, Sullivan sliced his enemy's bicep open with his trademark spike. In truth, SMW TV viewers watched Kanemura intentionally cut himself with a scalpel that opened up a massive and massively bloody wound.
12 The Gangstas in SMW
As much as Jim Cornette gets excoriated by internet fans for his conservatism when it comes to booking pro wrestling, he deserves credit for booking one of the most controversial and potentially dangerous angles in wrestling history. As already stated, Smoky Mountain Wrestling's fanbase was primarily Southern, rural, and white. New Jack and Mustafa Saed, known collectively as The Gangstas, portrayed themselves as militant black nationalists from Los Angeles. When not calling the fans "geeks" and "rednecks," New Jack took to the microphone and mocked the brutal beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny during the LA Riots of 1992. On another occasion, Jack gleefully celebrated the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. The NAACP was not safe from New Jack's wrath, either.
The Gangstas pushed numerous envelopes during the racially charged days of the early 1990s. From claiming affirmative action in pinfalls (The Gangstas won matches with just two counts for a while) to cutting offensive promos, The Gangstas were involved in very real and very adult storylines in an otherwise old time-y federation.
11 The Arrival of Kane
Modern Kane is but a pale and weak imitation of the monster that arrived in 1997. At Badd Blood: In Your House, The Undertaker's long lost brother appeared and ripped the door off of the first ever Hell in a Cell. For the next few years, 'Taker and Kane feuded off and on and fought one another in several different gimmick matches.
One of the few genuinely great storylines crafted by Vince Russo, the Kane of 1997 was the crowning achievement of a storyline that had been festering for almost a year. After Paul Bearer turned on The Undertaker and began managing Mankind, he threatened to reveal The Undertaker's biggest secret. As it turned out, the big secret was Kane. Kane was 'Taker's half-brother who was responsible for the fiery death of their parents. The story was later altered to reveal that Kane had been led to believe that he was responsible for the blaze, when in fact it was Taker who had lit the murderous match. Either way, the original Kane storyline involved fire, death, and family secrets.
10 Austin Kidnaps The Boss
The long feud between "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Vince McMahon not only defined the Attitude Era, but it is also arguably the greatest storyline in pro wrestling history. A million viewers identified with the "Bionic Redneck" as he got a little revenge for the working man by thwarting the machinations of his evil boss. Sometimes, Austin's actions against McMahon were just as vile as the boss's own dirty work. On the October 19, 1998 edition of RAW Is War, "Stone Cold" committed a federal felony just in order to scare the piss out of McMahon.
On that night, Austin kidnapped McMahon and verbally abused him. At the time Vince McMahon was (kayfabe) bound to a wheelchair because of an injured knee. At the climax, Austin wheeled McMahon to the ring and forced him to read a letter that Austin said was intended for the Devil. In other words, Austin made McMahon think that he was going to kill him. He pulled out a large pistol (which automatically silenced the crowd), held it to McMahon's temple, then pulled the trigger. The fake bullet read "Bang 3:16" The audience howled with laughter when they saw that McMahon had urinate all over himself. Never mind kidnapping and criminal threatening; all is fair game when the victim is Vince McMahon.
9 The Artist Formerly Known as Goldust
Late in 1997, Dustin Rhodes, better known as Goldust, began undergoing an identity crisis. Just two years before, Goldust had been the most hated villain in the entire WWE (if not all of wrestling). As an androgynous and sexually ambiguous cinephile, Goldust was intended to make the heterosexual men in the audience uncomfortable--very uncomfortable. By 1997, the gimmick had gotten too familiar, and therefore had lost its edge. Therefore, Rhodes began getting personal by talking about living in the shadow of his father Dusty Rhodes, and, during a very tense vignette, told off his real-life wife Terri Runnels.
Following this break-up, Goldust teamed up with Luna Vachon and began calling himself The Artist Formerly Known as Goldust. As part of this new gimmick, Goldust would wear bondage gear to the ring or dress up like a giant baby. On one episode of RAW Is War, Goldust even came to the ring wearing blackface during a match with Flash Funk. Overall, this storyline was uncomfortable because it felt all too real.
8 Brian Pillman's Sex Slave
This little remembered storyline fed into the larger Artist Formerly Known as Goldust storyline. At Ground Zero: In Your House on September 7, 1997, Brian Pillman, then knee-deep in his "Loose Canon" gimmick, wrestled Goldust in an "Indecent Proposal" match. If Goldust won, Pillman would be forced to leave the WWE for good. If Pillman won, then Marlena (Terri Runnels) would be Pillman's sex slave for 30 days. Due to incompetent interference from Marlena herself, Pillman won the match.
For weeks afterwords, RAW Is War aired vignettes that showed Marlena and Pillman in bed together. Furthermore, Pillman would frequently bring Marlena, now dressed in black leather with a pierced nose, to the ring. The point was to show Goldust that Pillman was abusing his wife both mentally and sexually. Unfortunately, this storyline ended due to Pillman's untimely death in October 1997. Marlena's time in captivity directly led the public break-up of Marlena and Goldust.
7 Tommy Dreamer versus Raven
Along with the feud between Taz and Sabu, the long-running battle between Raven and Tommy Dreamer defined ECW during its golden age. However, while Taz and Sabu built their feud on real-life heat and egos, Raven and Dreamer had a fully developed and scripted feud. Not long after he arrived in ECW in January 1995, Raven claimed that Dreamer, the tough babyface with a penchant for using weapons during his matches, had tortured him when the pair were younger. Specifically, the two men had shared love and a summer camp with a once chubby girl named Beulah McGillicutty.
The Raven-Dreamer feud was nothing less than a grunge soap opera about an obsessive vendetta. The depressed and sociopathic Raven used Beulah to get to Dreamer, while Beulah drove a wedge between Raven and his chief lackey Stevie Richards when she revealed that she was carrying Tommy Dreamer's child. From here, Raven presented a new valet, Kimona Wanalya, who would later enter into a three-way relationship with Dreamer and Beulah.
Aside from all of this drama, Dreamer and Raven's feud worked because Dreamer did not defeat Raven in the ring for a full two years. When Dreamer finally pinned his arch nemesis in 1997, the ECW Arena erupted in legitimate euphoria.
6 Pillman's Got a Gun
1996 was a transitional year for the WWE. While the main event scene was still dominated by the likes of Shawn Michaels and Bret "The Hitman" Hart, the company showed signs of moving in a more daring direction. Integral to this transition were "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Brian Pillman. Previously, both men had been tag champions in WCW as The Hollywood Blonds. By late 1996 however, Austin was "Stone Cold"--a badass Texan who made a name for himself by beating Jake "The Snake" Roberts and claiming the good word of Austin 3:16. For his part, Pillman had become the "Loose Canon" and used this unpredictability to make his appearances exciting.
On one of the most memorable RAW episodes ever, Austin invaded Pillman's home in suburban Cincinnati on the night of November 4, 1996. With a nod to COPS, the WWE shot the angle like a live event. Kevin Kelly took a microphone and a camera crew to the scene. After beating the snot out of Pillman's old football buddies, Austin forced his way into the house. There Pillman pulled out a 9mm gun and fired. The WWE immediately cut to commercials, thus leaving the audience thinking that they had just witnessed a murder on live television. Although no one died in kayfabe, Pillman heightened the drama and the storyline's edginess by dropping a few four letter words before the censors could catch them.
5 Big Boss Man Does Titus Andronicus
In 1999, Al Snow and Big Boss Man entered into a very entertaining feud of the newly created WWE Hardcore Championship. A large part of the pair's feud centered around the issue of Pepper, Snow's pet Chihuahua. For weeks, Big Boss Man threatened to kidnap the dog and even went so far as to taunt Snow with the dog's cage during matches.
Then, two weeks after their match at SummerSlam, Big Boss Man kidnapped Pepper and told Snow to meet him at a hotel in Boston. Aired as a vignette on SmackDown, Big Boss Man invited Snow down to a special meal. Although agitated, Snow enjoyed the mystery meat prepared by Boss Man. Sadly, the meat was the remains of Pepper. This moment of Elizabethan cruelty ended in another painful spectacle--the awful Kennel from Hell match at Unforgiven.
4 The Ministry of Darkness
The third phase of The Undertaker gimmick debuted at Judgement Day: In Your House in 1998. The following night, on RAW Is War, The Undertaker, who had been a babyface for most of his eight years with the company, started talking about something called a Ministry of Darkness. Along with manager Paul Bearer, Taker claimed that a "plague" orchestrated by a Higher Power was coming to the WWE.
For the rest of the year and most of 1999, The Undertaker became a Satanic cult leader who brainwashed wrestlers into becoming his minions. As head of the Ministry of Darkness, The Undertaker began speaking in faux Latin, sporting a devilish goatee, and, infamously, started crucifying his opponents on his cross-like symbol. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was raised high above the arena on the symbol, while Undertaker kidnapped Stephanie McMahon and bound her to the symbol during a very dark wedding ceremony.
Before the entire gimmick fell apart when Vince McMahon was revealed to be the Higher Power, The Ministry of Darkness sowed seeds of havoc in the WWE. 'Taker tortured Vince McMahon by invading his house and burning Stephanie's toys, while, during a Hell in a Cell match, The Undertaker more or less lynched Big Boss Man.
3 Raven Brainwashes The Sandman's Family
Starting in the summer of 1996, Raven and The Sandman began feuding for the ECW World Heavyweight Championship. As a sort of Gen-X David Koresh, Raven began using mind games and psychological warfare against The Sandman. In particular, Raven "brainwashed" The Sandman's ex-wife Lori and son Tyler. Not only did Lori and Tyler begin dressing like Raven in flannel shirts and black leather jackets, but they also began brooding like the Edgar Allan Poe-quoting wrestler.
At one point, during a typically violent match between The Sandman and Raven, Tyler rushed to Raven's aid and blocked his father from hitting his adversary. When Tyler lifted his arms in Raven's trademark crucifixion pose, The Sandman broke down and began crying. It was high drama.
2 The Downfall of Road Warrior Hawk
After a celebrated return to the WWE in 1997, the legendary Road Warriors were reduced to a mid-card sideshow as the rest of the company began the Attitude Era. Although Hawk and Animal won the tag titles, they quickly lost them to a new team called The New Age Outlaws. Following this, The Road Warriors began losing and losing and losing. Eventually, Road Warrior Animal began noticing that Hawk was not acting like himself. Hawk, a former monster in the ring, was now sloppy and unsure of his abilities. He was also a drunk and a drug addict, in both the storyline and in real life. In order to salvage the team, Animal enlisted Droz to take Hawk's place.
Despondent, Hawk climbed to the top of the Titantron on a November 1998 episode of RAW Is War. Droz climbed up to meet him and pushed him off. The fake on-screen murder apparently rubbed The Road Warriors the wrong way, and the pair were soon out of the door.
1 Raven Crucifies The Sandman
You know a storyline is controversial when the hardcore crowd at the ECW Arena was shocked into angry silence. During the Raven-Sandman feud, Raven ratcheted up the intensity by using a novel method to attack The Sandman after a hard-fought match at the High Incident event.
On October 26, 1996, Raven and members of his Raven's Nest beat The Sandman to a pulp, then pulled a handmade wooden cross (which had been built by The Sandman himself) from underneath the ring. Raven's flunkies then tied Sandman to the cross. Raven topped off the shocking scene by placing a crown of barbed wire on The Sandman's head.
During the show, Kurt Angle was in the commentary booth alongside Joey Styles. According to Styles, Angle was so angered by the sacrilegious display that he stormed off and vowed to never wrestle for ECW. Even though Raven was forced to give a half-hearted apology, the mostly Catholic crowd in South Philadelphia was not too happy with the fact that a Jewish wrestler (Raven), a Jewish booker (Paul Heyman), and a Jewish owner (Tod Gordon) had made a mockery of Jesus Christ.
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