WWE is the biggest wrestling promotion in the world. It has been around longer than most other contemporary wrestling companies, and it both has a wider viewership and generates more revenue than any other wrestling company in the world. Particularly in the US, it’s not uncommon for the general public to equate professional wrestling and WWE—the average joe may not even be aware other promotions exist.
The only company to meaningfully rival WWE in the last 20 years was WCW. The Ted Turner-owned and bankrolled wrestling company assembled an enormous roster that included top stars of yesteryear as well as top up and comers. Looking back—particularly with WWE in control of WCW’s tape library now, and hence in control of the larger narrative of wrestling history, the temptation is to dismiss WCW. WCW was disorganized. WCW didn’t create new stars. WCW suffered from poor leadership. All of these points might be true, but it’s important to keep in mind that the prevailing sources of this information are WWE itself, and alumni of the company who have moved on to WWE.
It’s well documented that WCW took many of WWE’s top talents via bigger money contracts and offering an easier schedule, and that the company benefited from the history WWE had established with these performers. While few would deny that WCW cherry picked top players and top ideas from WWE, it’s nonetheless true that WWE did its share of borrowing from WCW, too. Whether it was taking ideas in the moment of the Monday Night War, or applying WCW’s storylines or business practices in the years to follow, there are a number of instances in which WWE took ideas from its supposedly inferior opponent. This article chronicles fifteen such cases.
15 The Rise Of The Cruiserweights
In the early 1990s, WCW began to build its light heavyweight division on rivalries like Brian Pillman vs. Jushin Liger. By the Monday Night War, WCW had rebranded and refocused on Cruiserweights. The effort included signing top-tier workers from Japan and Mexico, and bringing in talents from ECW and other independents like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, and Rey Mysterio.
The results? A positively electric division that WCW shrewdly deployed to open episodes of Monday Nitro and PPVs. While WWE had a handful of stars like The 1-2-3 Kid and Hakushi who worked a similar style to these guys, they couldn’t compare to the diversity or depth of WCW’s specialized roster.
WWE eventually signed a number of top, smaller wrestlers who had worked for WCW. While its efforts at marketing smaller wrestlers have been uneven, the 2016 re-launch of the Cruiserweight division bespoke the value of WCW’s idea, and the appeal of high-flying, smaller athletes.
14 Goldberg The Squash Machine
One of the few true homegrown stars of WCW was Goldberg—a guy who had never wrestled for another company who WCW built into a main event star. The key ingredient to his success? An undefeated streak, composed mostly of squash matches. WCW started by booking him against jobbers and Nitro, and had him work his way up the card until he became pro wrestling’s first undefeated star to win the World Championship.
WWE signed Goldberg two years after WCW closed, and his first year-long run with the company was uneven. Though he did reign as World Heavyweight Champion, he failed to get over with the WWE crowd like he had in WCW. Arguably, some of the blame lies with him being misused, competing in longer, less one-sided matches that failed to establish the aura of dominance he’d had in WCW.
Goldberg’s 2016-17 run made up for past errors, taking the old WCW template of a face who squashed anything that moved and applying it to a part time talent who crushed main event level stars. While not everyone loved the storyline, it made the most of what Goldberg, at 50 years old, could physically do, and set up his back-and-forth four-minute match with Brock Lesnar to feel epic.
13 Realistic Storylines
From the 1980s to early 1990s, WWE and WCW each had their distinctive styles. WWE was the more cartoonish promotion that leaned into occupational gimmicks and stayed kid friendly. WCW was more into portraying wrestlers as athletes, and booking blood feuds (with occasional foray into sillier programming like their infamous mini-movies to market some PPVs in 1993, and the later Dungeon of Doom).
While it could certainly be argued WCW was more realistic in its programming than WWE, the dynamic took on a harder edge with the launch of Monday Nitro and the subsequent introduction of the nWo. Wielding baseball bats and cans of spray paint, the nWo came to represent a grittier product even more geared toward teenagers and adults. After getting thumped in the ratings, WWE wound up following suit, embracing the more realistic booking style of WCW, and taking on some of the hardcore elements of ECW to shape its own Attitude Era with fewer frills and flights of fancy, more realism and adult-oriented programming.
12 Innovative Cage Matches
The steel cage match is a pro wrestling staple for blowing off big time rivalries. In the 1980s, WWE started using its big blue cage. It was easier for cameras to shoot through and easier to climb than the traditional fenced cage, not to mention that it looked more kid friendly—as much like playground equipment as an implement of destruction.
WCW stuck with the more traditional cage, but didn’t limit itself to just traditional cage matches. On the contrary, the company booked War Games matches that occurred in two rings with a supersized cage, the Thunder Cage was a bit of a precursor to Hell in a Cell, and the bizarre Chamber of Horrors that included not only a cage but an electric chair that lowered from it.
As WWE caught up with the times in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, they introduced their signature Hell in a Cell, to be followed by the Elimination Chamber, each of which borrowed elements of rules and structures from previous WCW concepts (and quite arguably improved upon them). WWE had its own less successful cage gimmicks as well, like the Kennel From Hell, Punjabi Prison, and Asylum Matches Regardless of how well the concepts worked, it’s noteworthy that WCW laid the groundwork for greater experimentation with an old gimmick.
11 Airing Live Every Week
In the early days of Monday Night RAW, the show alternated between live broadcasts with prerecorded ones. In the days before the Internet and before competition, that model worked well enough. However, once WCW started airing Nitro live every week opposite RAW, they had a competitive edge. To make matters worse, Eric Bischoff began the practice of giving away the results to pre-taped episodes of RAW before they could air.
The situation led to WWE adjusting and starting to broadcast live for RAW almost every week. Even without the same competition, WWE has continued the practice. Particularly in the era when live results get spoiled by fans in attendance all the time, the model has been successful and kept WWE attractive to advertisers eager for live programming that goes year-round. Moreover, the consistently live show adds a bit of flair and edge to WWE programming for the fans.
10 The Heel Authority Figure
There’s little debate that Vince McMahon is the greatest heel authority figure wrestling has ever seen. He wasn’t the first, though. While a number of companies had broached this territory, the most direct predecessor to the Mr. McMahon gimmick was Eric Bischoff in WCW.
In 1996, Bischoff slowly became more visible as more than just a commentator, but also a WCW executive. This set up a dramatic turn in the nWo angle when it was revealed Bischoff had been in cahoots with the stable for some time. From there, he became both a mouthpiece for the group and a figurehead to help tip the scales in their favor.
In the aftermath of the Montreal Screwjob, it’s entirely possible McMahon would have embraced the heel authority figure role anyway, but Bischoff offered up a baseline template to build from and improve upon.
9 The Granddaddy Of Them All
WWE celebrates WrestleMania as the biggest annual event in professional wrestling. While it certainly has become the biggest, longest running, and arguably best wrestling spectacular there is, it’s not the original wrestling super show. Three and a half years before the original WrestleMania, there was the original Starrcade.
Similar to the first WrestleMania, Starrcade predated pay per view, and thus was aired via closed circuit television, and its first iteration featured a steel cage showdown between incumbent champion Harley Race and younger main event star on the rise, Ric Flair.
While, technically, Starrcade also predates WCW. WCW was a pretty direct descendent of Jim Crockett Promotions, the dominant NWA territory of the day, and transitioning to WCW was more of a signal of changed ownership and branding than a different company. Regardless, the idea of an annual star-studded show of this nature set up WWE to put its own spin on the concept.
8 The Thursday Night War
WCW famously followed WWE into the Monday Night War, creating Monday Nitro to directly compete with Monday Night Raw two and a half years after WWE launched its flagship show. Two and a half years after that, however, WCW launched a second weeknight primetime show, Thunder. This time, it would be WWE that followed suit, producing SmackDown later in the week to stage the less heralded Thursday night war.
For most of the time Smackdown and Thunder aired opposite one another, WCW was already past its prime and trying to catch back up to WWE, which is part of why these shows squaring off doesn’t get the same level of recognition. They were also generally treated as secondary shows with some big moments, but not grabbing as consistent headlines.
7 The Big Gold Belt
The Big Gold Belt, otherwise referred to as the World Heavyweight Championship, started out as National Wrestling Alliance hardware for its top championship, before being repurposed as the WCW World Championship. It’s an impressive looking belt that looks simultaneously old school, classy, and opulent.
After WWE bought out WCW, the company wound up bringing the belt back, branded as the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The transition worked given it was RAW GM Eric Bischoff who unveiled and awarded the new title that unofficially carried WCW’s lineage. Furthermore, it made good sense in that Triple H was the original WWE recipient of the belt, given he’s a well-documented student of wrestling history who patterned much of his top heel game off of men like Harley Race and Ric Flair.
6 The nWo
While Eric Bischoff’s greatest brainchild, the New World Order, was, itself, derived from a Japanese wrestling angle, it nonetheless took on a life of its own became the dominant storyline fixture for the last five years WCW was in business. The arrogant, violent, realistic, and elite group arguably influenced WWE’s choice to assemble factions like The Hart Foundation, or more overtly D-Generation X.
All the more directly, after WWE bought out WCW, Vince McMahon elected to directly, literally bring the nWo into the mix, featuring the original trio of Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall, before gradually expanding and diversifying the group for a run that lasted most of 2002. While the group hardly had the edge or intrigue it did in 1996, it was nonetheless a successful enough stable to reintroduce Hogan, Hall, and Nash to the WWE audience, generate some new interest in Booker T and push him toward the main event, and facilitate Shawn Michaels’s return to in-ring performance.
5 Multiple Secondary Titles
WWE was traditionally a three-men’s-championships company, with a World Championship, Intercontinental Championship, and Tag Team Championship. Having just the three titles, and maintaining their lineage consistently lent a sense of stability and credibility to the titles and WWE. Meanwhile, WCW was a bit more generous with titles, consistently having World, United States, Television, and Tag Team Championships, with a Light Heavyweight or Cruiserweight Championship in and out of circulation, then adding its International Championship during an NWA-branding-related kerfuffle.
In the 1990s, as WCW grew competitive, WWE began to follow suit, adding the European Championship, their own Light Heavyweight Championship, and then the Hardcore Championship (a specific title concept that WCW ripped off from them). While WWE would settle down its title scene after the Monday Night War, retaining the separate United States and Intercontinental Championships has been a staple of running separate brands, as has having two world titles.
4 Steve Austin vs. Brian Pillman
By all indications, WCW haphazardly threw Steve Austin and Brian Pillman into a tag team in 1992. Austin in particular has spoken in multiple interview about anticipating a singles run only to be surprised when Pillman himself came to him to let him know they’d be teaming instead; apparently, no one in WCW management or booking remembered to tell Austin directly.
Austin and Pillman proved their mettle though, in transforming a makeshift pairing into one of the top tag teams of its day. Under the Hollywood Blonds moniker they took on a wonderfully obnoxious heel persona, picked on the establishment, and cut a hellacious pace in the ring. In typical WCW fashion, once the pair caught fire, they were separated with Pillman turning face and the two briefly feuding.
Austin and Pillman both made it to WWE at a similar time, and in 1996 WWE put them back together for a short feud that grabbed headlines for its cutting edge style, and particularly an angle when Austin went to Pillman’s house to attack him, only to find Pillman waiting with a gun. While WWE did little to play off of either man’s WCW storylines, the potential for the two to create magic together had already been proven there, and WWE capitalized on it.
3 Iron Man Title Matches
While Iron Man Matches have been around for some time and were used on house shows to fill time in the 1980s, the gimmick rose to much greater prominence in the 1990s. WCW got the ball rolling by pitting Ricky Steamboat agains Rick Rude in this style of match, and following up with Rude and Dustin Rhodes competing in a 30-minute Iron Man Match at Beach Blast 1993 for the vacant US Championship. The match ended in a draw, but went a long way toward establishing Rhodes’s credibility as someone who could hang at Rude’s level.
Three years later, WWE would have its first televised Iron Man Match, positioning Shawn Michaels against Bret Hart for the WrestleMania XII main event, with the WWE Championship on the line. The gimmick was built to showcase two world class workers with tremendous conditioning, as if to prove once and for all WWE had moved on from the era of main eventers like Hulk Hogan or The Ultimate Warrior who would never go an hour in the ring. Over the years, the Iron Man Match would become one of the ultimate ways to blow off a rivalry, used for matches between The Rock and Triple H, Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle, and John Cena and Randy Orton when it was time for these longstanding enemies to wrap up their world title programs.
2 Monthly PPVs
In the olden days, WWE stuck pretty strictly to its model of four PPV events a year, featuring the Royal Rumble in January, WrestleMania in late March or early April, SummerSlam in August, and Survivor Series in November. After a few years of running PPVs at a similar clip but less consistency, in 1991, WCW moved to six PPVs a year, seven the year after that, and then to one a month for most of the company's remaining years.
Whether WWE actively sought to compete, or saw they were leaving money on the table, they expanded to five PPVs, adding the King of the Ring in 1993, and then working in shorter, discounted In Your House PPVs. By the time the Monday Night War was in full bloom in 1996, WWE, too, had monthly PPV spectaculars, and has maintained a similar rate ever since, now for over two decades.
1 Turning The Top Guy Heel
In 1996, WCW made one of its most dramatic, and one of it most successful creative strokes in Hulk Hogan making a surprise heel turn to launch the New World Order with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. The turn was hugely attention grabbing for not only current fans, but past ones who tuned back in because the unthinkable had happened—the greatest hero of the 1980s and early 1990s had turned into the top villain.
WrestleMania X-Seven commemorated the unofficial end of WWE’s wildly successful Attitude Era, as well as the Monday Night War on the whole. Along the way, Steve Austin had been front and center as WWE’s top star, and in many ways the successor to Hulk Hogan’s throne as an explosive top name who drew fans and drew money like few had before or since. With the lights on bright and no real competitor left, WWE followed WCW’s example in making one more big grab for attention—Austin turning heel, and doing so by shaking hands with his arch-enemy, Mr. McMahon.
Retrospect tells us Austin’s turn may have been ill advised, as the fans weren’t ready to boo him and he arguably stunted his own creative and merchandise revenue by turning at that time. Just the same, you have to respect the boldness of WWE and Austin for going for such a dramatic, unexpected shift in programming.