By Jerry Chandler
To the victor go the spoils; not to mention the eventual writing of the histories. One of the things this leads to is everyone and their brother pointing to things that were “the beginning of the end” for the loser that weren’t seen as anything of the kind at the time and, frankly, may not have actually been anything of the kind. When it comes to WCW, the eventual postmortems on the company began to create narratives about many people and events; some of which have already easily been proven to be not wholly accurate.
Some of these are harder to definitively prove or disprove as there are no truly factual ways to do it. It’s all merely opinion claiming to be proof of cause and effect. But some of it might not quite be what the eventual post-WCW narratives and conventional wisdom has made them out to be. One such event is what has become known as The Fingerpoke of Doom.
The Fingerpoke of Doom is never going to win an award for being a great idea, but the reputation it’s acquired over time has really become a bit overblown. It has been cited as the starting point of the dominoes falling that eventually lead to the demise of the company, but this is somewhat of a dubious claim.
It was on the January 4, 1999 Nitro that we got to see this incident take place. The show that night had any number of other things going against it. There was a ridiculous angle that saw Goldberg being arrested and then conveniently released just in time to end out the program. It was in large part ridiculous because of what we saw after the arrest of Goldberg. Once arrested, he was at the station in no time at all. Once they had determined that he was framed by the n.W.o., it took seemingly forever for him to get back to the arena. Oh, and the police station was across the street from the arena.
The arrest of Goldberg was key to the overall angle as it allowed Nash to offer a title shot to his returning “retired” enemy, n.W.o Hollywood leader Hollywood Hulk Hogan. The night also saw the defection of Scott Hall from n.W.o Hollywood to n.W.o. Wolfpac. The Outsiders had been broken up as an official tag team since May of the previous year, but the two had been working together since then as Hall had assisted with Nash winning the belt from Goldberg a short while earlier.
The match was what it was. We got a few moments of faking out the fans before Hogan gently poked Nash on the chest and Nash threw himself onto his back as if he had been struck with a sledgehammer. Hogan went for a pin and the belt changed hands. We then got the n.W.o. reuniting in the ring and thus merging the Hollywood and Wolfpac factions back into one unit. Oh, and Goldberg got the snot beat out of him once he got to the ring.
Watching it back when it actually happened, I can say that I was less than thrilled as a fan. However, it wasn’t from feeling that I had just seen something that insulted my intelligence or slapped me as a fan in my face. It was just due to the realization that the n.W.o. was written to get one over on everybody one more time.
But I didn’t see it as a bad thing.
To be honest, most of the fans I knew back then didn’t see it as a “bad” thing either; they simply saw it as one go too many goes for the n.W.o. getting the band back together. But a lot of people liked the idea of what it seemed they were doing. It seemed like they were setting up an angle to have Goldberg chase the belt and fight Hogan one more time. More than a few people were up for that. How many people? Enough people were up for that angle to shoot a part of the standard narrative in the foot.
You see a lot of people talk about this incident today as something that was a huge slap in the face to the fans. It was something so stupid that even the loyal fans were throwing their hands up in frustration. It was, as is so often heard said about it, the beginning of the end.
Except that doesn’t seem to be the case. Did it contribute to the ratings woes of WCW throughout 1999? It possibly could have. Did it devalue the belt as some say? Not likely. A more likely culprit that year for devaluing the belt is the fact that the belt saw 11 title changes in 1999 alone. Some of the matches that saw the title change hands were probably more insulting to the fans than The Fingerpoke of Doom was. However, the biggest thing that hit the Nitro ratings and started the slide had likely nothing to do with WCW. This was the WWF.
We’re talking about early 1999 here. While WCW was spinning its wheels at the top of its card every week and driving away its young, talented, future stars, the WWF was (and had been) on fire. This moment in time is pretty close to dead center of the era that fans still talk about as some of the best television the WWF was producing and as the programming that won the Monday Night Wars for the WWF.
Additionally, The Fingerpoke of Doom wasn’t even the biggest “mistake” made in that episode of Nitro. This was the same Nitro that became infamous for the “butts in seats” moment on commentary. This was the same Nitro where they gave away the ending of Raw, pre-taped at that time, by informing their own viewers that Mick Foley (wrestling as Mankind) was going to win the WWF Championship from the Rock. According to the quarterly ratings for both shows that evening, fans actually changed the channel later in the evening in order to see the WWF title change hands. They literally sent viewers who may not have watched Raw that night over to Raw so that they could see the title change as well as see what the WWF programming was doing right by that point.
But did either of these things have the type of impact one might call the beginning of the end for WCW? Not if the ratings are any indication. The Fingerpoke of Doom incident took place on the first Nitro of January. It was not until March of that same year that Nitro saw a sustained, noticeable drop in ratings. As a matter of fact, the ratings had a very slight uptick twice in January and a jump up of almost a full ratings point higher in February.
People actually seemed even more interested by the tease of a storyline involving Goldberg hot on the heels of Hogan and the n.W.o. with the goal of reclaiming his championship belt. If anything out of this situation might be said to have truly turned off the fans, it was less the Fingerpoke of Doom itself and more the fans learning that there was no set in stone, coherent story leading to Goldberg facing off against Hogan for the big gold belt. Again, the WCW title changed hands 11 times in 1999. The first title change was in March and saw Ric Flair beat Hogan in a First Blood match. Less than a full month later, DDP was the champ. He lost the belt a couple of weeks later to Kevin Nash. Any belief by the casual fans of a Goldberg/Hogan championship feud died in March of 1999, and even the diehard believers had likely given up any hope of seeing such a feud by Randy Savage’s one day title run in July.
The Fingerpoke of Doom in and of itself had likely zero impact on the ratings decline of Nitro as 1999 wore on, and likely had even less of an impact on how fans viewed the program or the belt. If anything in 1999 could be called the beginning of the end for WCW, it was the one thing that fan after fan after fan laments whenever discussions about WCW from 1998-2001 come up. It was the poor planning, the hotshot booking, and poorly conceived and executed storylines.
But, I hear some of you saying, the belt had been devalued. The Fingerpoke of Doom spit on the legacy of the WCW title belt as well as the idea that it was a title belt that wrestlers coveted and fought for. After all, Nash treated it as so worthless that he simply laid down for Hogan after defeating Goldberg for the belt and facing various challengers throughout the second half of 1998. They made it something that no longer had perceived value with fans.
I can refute that with ease. Look at, among other wrestlers, DDP and Booker T. People often talk about DDP finally truly making it by citing his WCW title wins. All three of DDP’s title wins came after the Fingerpoke of Doom. People hype Booker T by referring to him as the five time WCW champion. Fans point to his being a five time WCW champion as a point of honor and distinction. All five times that Booker T won that belt came after the Fingerpoke of Doom.
Besides, if you want proof that such things really don’t matter, the WWF did the Fingerpoke of Doom with their title belt long before WCW did. On February 25, 1988, after a year of playing the heel and feuding with Hogan, Andre the Giant finally defeated Hulk Hogan for the WWF title on NBC and WWF’s heavily promoted The Main Event program. Andre and Hogan had clashed in and out of the ring on multiple occasions prior to this, but Andre had come up short whenever it came to actually pinning Hogan’s shoulders to the mat.
Then it happened. Andre gets the win against Hogan in front of one of the largest audiences of its time. He was given the belt by the referee, he was declared the new WWF Champion by the announcer, Mean Gene went up to interview him, and he then turned around and handed the belt to Ted DiBiase while telling Mean Gene that he surrendered the belt to the Million Dollar Man.
Everybody and everything had a price for the Million Dollar Man, and in this case the storyline proved that with him paying Andre to do what he couldn’t do. Andre was paid by DiBiase (who also bribed the ref for the match) to face Hogan and win the title for DiBiase. Andre then acted as if the most prized possession in the industry didn’t really matter.
You certainly can’t say that the storyline sprung out from the Andre/Dibaise title deal was better. If anything, it was kind of pointless. Jack Tunney ruled that the belt could be vacated by a wrestler at any time, but the wrestler in question could not choose the new title holder. As such, the title was vacated. One month later a tournament for the belt was set up where the final match saw Randy Savage defeat Dibaise to win the vacated title and become the new WWF Champion. For all the runaround, they could have simply had savage defeat Dibiase for the title.
Interestingly, less than a decade later the WWF did something much closer to the Fingerpoke of Doom. HHH won the European title from HBK in a match they were forced to compete in by Sgt. Slaughter. HHH and HBK did a ridiculous pantomime of a match with overblown, comedy effect moves before HHH pinned HBK. HBK would then fake sob all over Chyna as HHH acted as if he’d just won the main event at WrestleMania. They then made fun of Slaughter and crowed about getting one over on him. So, apparently, by WWF rules, you could in fact clearly throw a match to the person you wanted to give a belt to while admitting you did it and all was good so long as you bothered with the three count, but you just couldn’t hand the belt over to someone.
The Hogan/Andre/Dibiase thing was the Fingerpoke of Doom 1.0, but no one talks about like that. In part no one talks about it that way because the WWF didn’t go out of business a few years later. As such, no one spent years trying to assign blame- to designate incidents as the beginning of the end –to everything they could dig up and find to demonize while telling the story of the tragic final days of the company.
You also didn’t have the internet culture and home video market back then that we have now. But both- while usually awesome to have around in their present forms –have a drawback when it comes to creating narratives that become the common wisdom of the present time even if the narrative being told wasn’t the common wisdom back then. That becomes even easier to do when you’re talking about people like Hogan and Nash who many wrestling fans seemingly want to believe the worst about and always talk trash about.
There may well have been a number of people around the country who were completely outraged and turned off by the Fingerpoke of Doom, but I never met any of them at the time. I certainly never saw any of them on the early internet wrestling forums or, and, again, the ratings bear this out, none of us saw that in the general audiences at home or in the arenas at the time. If anything, everyone seemed to be looking forward to Goldberg taking the belt from Hogan one more time.
It’s hugely arguable that this incident devalued the belt. It certainly didn’t seem like it was to fans at the time like a slap in the face and an insult to their intelligence. Moreover, it was hardly a beginning of the end type of deal. The simple fact is that had we never seen a merger between AOL and Time Warner, had we never seen people who hated the idea of wrestling connected to their brand take positions of power over the Turner Cable television empire, we wouldn’t have seen WCW go off the air (at least not in 2001) and people would never be recasting the Fingerpoke of Doom as a major domino falling in the death of WCW.
The Fingerpoke of Doom was just a single chapter of a story that was a wrestling angle. It might not have been the best thing WCW ever did, but it certainly wasn’t even close to the worst thing they ever did. In and of itself, it likely had nothing to do with death of the company or the devaluing of the WCW title belt. That was done by the careless, slipshod writing the company saw in its final years and, much more importantly, the merger between AOL and Time Warner ensuring the death of WCW. It’s probably well past the time fans should stop making a mountain out of this particular molehill.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.