The Three Ring Circus: reliving WCW's World War 3 1997

We all know the events that happened Sunday, November 9, 1997 (something about a Screw job), and we know how the WWF used it as a springboard to dive headlong into the Attitude Era. However, just two weeks later, and five days before Thanksgiving, WCW held their World War III, and were on the road to the biggest show of the year, Starrcade. 

World War III?

WCW ran this show for four years. The show was named for the 60-man Battle Royale that was its main event. This was no ordinary over-the-top contest. 60 men competed and once you touched the floor, you were gone, regardless of whether you exited the ring over the top rope or not. The main difference between it and what you see from the WWE every January, this War was stretched into three rings.

The rules were tweaked every year. 60 men competed in three rings. When there were five men remaining in each of the three rings, all the action would be condensed into the middle ring. This rule was often ignored or blatantly disregarded more often than not.

The Giant (later re-christened by Vince McMahon as The Big Show), Randy Savage, and Scott Hall all claimed victories in this type of match. It was often confusing, as watching three rings was difficult, especially when WCW split the screen. The wrestlers would eliminate themselves by accident. The referees would ignore an inadvertent elimination, even if the crowd and cameras caught it. The announcers were confused. The crowd was confused. But hey, it was the 90s; it didn’t have to make sense. 

WCW's peak

The last two months of 1997 and the beginning of 1998 would irreversibly change the wrestling industry forever. The word "screwjob" would be commonplace in the vernacular of a wrestling fan. Battle lines were decidedly drawn. Predictions of the death of pro wrestling would be bantered about like scores of the most recent NFL game.

Whether Montreal was a work is something that some will debate with you forever. One thing we know, it happened. While some eyes were on Vince McMahon, humble play-by-play announcer, transforming into the evil owner Mr McMahon, more paid attention to WCW.

WCW was crushing the WWF in the ratings, and the gap was not getting any closer. The nWo was pretty much running the show on Nitro, with the head of WCW, Eric Bischoff, the face of the group. A former Atlanta Falcon, Bill Goldberg, was debuting. Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho, Rey Misterio Jr., Psychosis, and numerous others were giving the midcard some entertaining matches. WCW was doing no wrong. 

November 23, 1997

The Palace of Auburn Hills would house 17,128 WCW fans as they took in World War III 1997. The tagline was something you would expect from WCW - something that had a bunch of potential, and could have been interesting, but appeared kind of lazy: “60 warriors. 3 rings. 1 survivor. You do the math.”

Tony Schiavone, Mike Tenay, and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan were on the call for the televised audience. The arena was dimly-lit by WCW standards, but the fans were hot. The card was set to have nine matches, with the main event being the World War III match. The one match on the card that could have sold tickets on its own was Ric Flair taking on Curt Hennig (Mr. Perfect) for the WCW United States Championship.

And so it began

The first match on the card pitted the Faces of Fear (Meng and the Barbarian), accompanied by manager Jimmy Hart, against Glacier and Ernest "The Cat" Miller. Meng would later go by the name Haku in the WWF, while The Barbarian would become one of The Headshrinkers (his partner would later be known as Rikishi). Glacier was a knock off the Mortal Kombat character Sub-Zero, complete with the white-colored iris of his eye and face mask in his entrance. 

The match itself was dreadful. From the ref, to the moves, to the shoddy camera work, everyone involved in this match should have been ashamed it happened. Ernie Miller was able to land one decent move in the entire match that felt like it lasted for 20 minutes, but was over after nine.

It feels so long ago

For those of you who are old enough to remember what life was like before the world was at our fingertips, it seems strange to look back at something 20 years old and see an ad for the internet. Mark Madden was backstage interviewing Diamond Dallas Page for

Speaking of old, or things old people may enjoy, Disco, or more specifically, Disco Inferno. Who would have thought a man whose gimmick was a cheap John Travolta rip off from Saturday Night Fever would be kind of over?

But that is the thing very few people realize. As cutting edge as WCW was, and it was without question, it was still firmly rooted in its NWA history. Guys like Disco Inferno could get over by being fun, guys like Benoit and Malenko could get over for being tremendous athletes and mat technicians, and guys like Hogan, Hall, and Nash could get over by being the anti-everything. WCW in its heyday (and this was its peak) was almost a perfect mesh of everything.

Back to the topic in hand, Disco Inferno shucked and jived to the ring to take on a member of Raven’s Flock in Saturn, who would later add the first name "Perry" in the WWF. The match was kind of brutal, and Raven and his Flock got involved towards the end.  We found out from the commentary team that apparently Perry Saturn was an Army Ranger once upon a time. According to the WCW stat department, which was always a little loosey goosey with the facts, Saturn is a veteran of over 100 jumps with the Rangers. 

This match, for the TV Title, was won by Saturn after locking the man stuck in the disco revolution in the Rings of Saturn. Inferno submitted, and Saturn retained the TV Title for the Flock.

I can’t believe anyone called these

Mean Gene Okerlund had one of those voices like Howard Finkel, Jim Ross, and Michael Cole, that will always be synonymous with wrestling. He was one of the many that joined WCW about two years before this. While Mean Gene was one of the best backstage interviewers the industry ever saw, he spent a fair amount of time selling wrestling-related things, like magazines and hot lines.

WCW, like the WWF, had a hotline you could call to hear prerecorded messages and “insider” gossip and news. Much like the 1-900 sex lines that could be found in this time, the stuff on the hotline was nothing more than feeder info for uber nerds with too much money to hear a promo or facts that could be found in any dirt sheet. I should know - I called a few. For $1.49 a minute, you could call 1-900-909-9900 and hear this garbage.

However, Mean Gene was not just promoting a phone number. He had an interview to conduct with the 7’4” 460-pound Giant. I guess when he became the Big Show, he lost a few inches and gained a few pounds. The Giant cut a rather intense promo about the nWo and his injured thumb, which was broken by Scott Hall. The Giant, winner of World War III the previous year, was a favorite tonight.

Ah yes, the Grudge Match

Ultimo Dragon was once managed by Sonny Onoo. After a falling out between them, Onoo managed Yuji Nagata. Onoo made a habit of getting under the skin of Dragon, and the Grudge Match between Nagata and Dragon was signed. The kicker was that if Dragon got the victory, he would get five minutes in the ring alone with Onoo. The bad blood was intense.

The match itself was not near as crisp as what you would expect from two men of this caliber. The moves were there, just something was about a half of a beat off. It didn’t help that a botched (or at least what seemed like a botch) reversed back suplex was what did the Dragon in. Either way, Nagata and Onoo won the match, and Dragon’s revenge would have to wait.

Before they were stars

Before he was Sir William Regal, he was in WCW as Lord Steven Regal. He had a tag team partner in Squire Dave Taylor. Before Scott Steiner was Big Poppa Pump and hating on fat nerds in TNA, he was a tag team pure wrestler with his brother, Rick. The Brothers Steiner were managed by the Million Dollar Man, Ted DiBiase. At the time of World War III 1997, the Steiners were the World Tag Team Champions, defending their belts against Regal and Taylor.

Mind you, this was before Scott Steiner and Ted DiBiase were members of the nWo. Virgil, the longtime lackey for the Million Dollar Man, was already sporting the black and white of the New World Order. Detroit was also the hometown of the Steiners, who had quite the baby face reaction from the partisan crowd.

The match was a basic tag team affair. Neither team was playing within the rules. The Steiners were prepping for a major turn in their careers, and Regal was notorious for the dastardly deeds he performed. 

After the match went back and forth, the Steiners hit a Steiner Bulldog and Rick pinned the now-NXT Commissioner. Before the Steiners could celebrate, WCW aired a video package. As Rick and Scott were going back through the curtain, Mean Gene were on the ramp with JJ Dillon, the man in charge of WCW.

Raven: Oh, what could have been

Dillon would address the Raven situation. For those of you who don’t know, or don’t remember, Raven had been toying with WCW for months. He would refuse to take part in matches, sit at ringside, and even sub members of the Flock into his matches. WCW seemed to accommodate this, but Dillon had had enough. He said Raven had 24 hours (until the next night on Nitro) to sign his contract. As usual, this storyline did not pay off. 

If there was ever a word to describe the Raven character outside of ECW, underutilized would be it. In Extreme Championship Wrestling, he was free to do pretty much whatever Paul E. and himself thought up, even crucifying the Sandman.

Raven was to have a match on this night with someone who had repeatedly turned down his offer to join the Flock in Scotty Riggs. Riggs was a big boy and would have been a worthy addition to a Flock that included Billy Kidman, Perry Saturn, a big man, and what looked like Chris Candido or Bob Holly.

A squash, but with feeling

Before the match began, Kidman took to the mic and announced the match would be under Raven rules, which meant no disqualification. The crowd was into the match and popped large for the use of a steel chair, a weapon both Raven and Riggs had used in this ongoing feud.

Raven was always an innovator. That word gets used a lot, especially with his former ECW colleagues, but Raven always pushed the envelope and challenged the status quo. It would be almost blasphemy for a wrestler to get on the mic during a match. Not so for Raven, as he used to mic to ask Riggs why he didn’t join him and to inform Riggs he “felt his pain.” Three Evenflow DDTs later and the ref called for the bell.

For ECW, it would have fit right in. For WCW, it was a brutal display. The Flock would carry an unconscious Riggs from the rings as if he was some sacrificial virgin. With some different lighting and some much creepier music, it would have been much more impactful. This was before WCW put tons of money into production values, apparently.

Hut, hut, huh?

And this brings us to what was scheduled to be a showdown between former NFL defensive linemen. Steve “Mongo” McMichael was supposed to take on Goldberg. Goldberg, a former member of the Atlanta Falcons, was on the rise, and Mongo was on Da Bears team of 1985. 

This match would not be. Mongo came to the ring with a “lead” pipe. After McMichael brags about his dastardly deed, the cameras cut to the back, showing Goldberg laid out on his stomach. McMichael then throws out an open challenge. Who would answer this? Why it was none other than Alex Wright, a skinny blonde kid who was linked with Debra McMichael, Mongo’s wife.

When I say Wright answered the challenge, I mean he was dragged out by a gown- and crown- wearing Queen Debra. Wright, wearing hideous bright yellow ring gear mixed with a leather jacket combo. Speaking of hideous, this match was god-awful. Sad thing was, Mongo, who was not known for his skill between the ropes, wasn’t the terrible one.

Mongo would win the match. There were no other mentions of Goldberg in the entire show.

Remember how I referred to the internet show that was being run at the same time as the PPV? Well, now Saturn is on it. I am more than sure it was must-watch on Real Player.

Stealing the show

Speaking of must-watch, one of the best matches on the card featured a man who is in the Hall of Fame, and one who damn well should get there when he hangs up his mask. Rey Mysterio Jr. challenged Eddie Guerrero for the Cruiserweight Championship. 

Before the match began, as Rey was announced, he was hailing from San Diego. This was the first time, at least on WCW television, Mysterio was not announced from Tijuana, Mexico. This match happened almost 20 years ago, and the referee in the ring, Charles Robinson, looks the same now as he did then. It took place in ring number one.

Watching it, I expected it to be something special. It was not. Both men looked out of sync. It was still a good match, and great on a WCW scale, but the moves were not crisp and there were a few misses. The camera work did the men no favors. Eddie would retain.

So, the whole point of this book is to show how we were all spoiled as youngsters. The next match, the co-main event, is one of those dream matches.

What people came to see

13-time World Champion (at this time) "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair would challenge Curt "Mr Perfect" Hennig for the United States Championship. Hennig was a member of the nWo, and Flair was a tried-and-true WCW faithful talent. 

This match, like the Raven/Scotty Riggs bout, was fought under no DQ rules. The Dirtiest Player in the Game was taking on someone who may have been the best athlete in wrestling over some gold. You would think this would get a little dirty. You would be right.

Many young wrestling fans know Ric Flair primarily as Charlotte’s dad, or an aging legend who was retired by HBK at WrestleMania. However, Flair, even on the downturn of his career, was still one of the best. I have done a good amount of research into the career of Flair, and he still had a bunch left in the tank.

In all my research, I can count on my hand the number of times Flair left the canvas to go to the “high rent district” and do something off the top rope. For a long time, this was illegal in both WCW and the NWA.

Early in this match, Flair did just that. He landed a double axe handle from the top turnbuckle to Hennig on the crowd barrier on the floor. Just before this, a cable wire was used to choke out the other man by both competitors. Mind you, Daniel Bryan was fired for this exact thing 15 years(ish) later.

The match was very indicative of WCW at the time. It was very much rooted in the old NWA style; it had the attitude of the modern era; it had a guy who was made in the WWF (Hennig) and a guy who was made in WCW (and elsewhere); it was jammed with star power; it got hard to watch; it was fantastic. It was WCW.

What made it more WCW than anything was the odd ending. Flair had gotten creative with a steel chair and weakened the knees and legs of Hennig. Flair would then lock him in his signature Figure Four Leg Lock. Hennig, retrieving the belt that for some reason Flair brought into the ring, clocked the Nature Boy over the head.

In prior matches, this might spark Flair to be bleeding or to release the lock and sell an injury. However, Hennig hit him so hard, with such force, he knocked Flair out cold. An unconscious Flair released the hold and Hennig rolled over and pinned him to retain the US belt in a fantastic match with a head scratching ending sequence.

Llllllllllet’s get ready to [trademark infringement]

This brought us to our main event of the evening. And who else should be the ring announcer for such a star-studded spectacle? Michael Buffer, of course. According to Mr Buffer, these were the rules:

60 men split among three rings. They may move from ring to ring. 

The only way to be eliminated is to have both feet touch the floor. Going over the top rope doesn’t matter.

The match will continue until 15 men are left (Buffer said 5), at which time those men will move to ring two. 

Winner gets accorded the status of "mandatory challenger" for the reigning WCW Heavyweight World Champion at Super Brawl 1998 on February 19.

The guys came out all under the WCW theme. The nWo refuse to join. Two noticeable men were absent, Ric Flair and Sting. Sting is already going to challenge Hulk Hogan for the belt at Starrcade, but as you will find out later, that match kind of doesn’t matter. 

The nWo came out to their own entrance. Konnan, Buff Bagwell, Vincent, Scott Hall, Rick Rude, and Curt Hennig dancing and “too sweeting” their way down the ramp. Kevin Nash was absent. Apparently, the nWo were all to be in the same ring. Who didn’t see that coming?

Ding ding

The match began, and it looked like there was more talent in the middle ring than in the other two. The Giant, broken thumb and all, was in ring three. From my count, and from info disclosed later in the show, there are only 58 men involved. No Nash, No Flair, No Hogan, and No Sting. 

When the bell rang, the Giant goes to work. He picked up and tossed six men out of the match in the first minute of what would be a 30-minute match. Between ill-placed camera work zooming in on some phantom punches and guys who couldn’t go backward over the top rope, the match was bad, even for battle royale standards.

With five guys left in the third ring, the ref got in the middle and prevented them from eliminating each other. The same thing happened in ring one. It seemed as they were waiting for ring two to finish. However, the refs signaled everyone to go back at it. When it was all said and done, 10 men were left, or so we thought.

The nWo baited everyone to come into ring one. Let that sink in: a major rule that is essential for the match is completely disregarded because of the nWo. 

Slowly, it was filtered down to Diamond Dallas Page, the Giant, and Scott Hall. Hall retreated to ring two and then gave the nWo salute to the top of the ramp. Their song played but nothing happened. It replayed. Confusion was spreading in the home of the Pistons. 

This isn’t NASCAR; you can’t swerve like that

Finally, the air guitar playing World’s Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan enters the arena. It was divulged later that the reason Hogan was in the match was to make sure no one got the shot. 

The four men fought until Hogan racked DDP on the top rope, delivering a simple rake to the back to unbelievably pull DDP over to the next side of the ring and throw him over the rope. As this was happening, the crowd went wild - Sting, bat in hand, descended from the masters, but uncharacteristically wearing a mask. He entered the ring and brushed Hogan’s ear with the bat immediately after Hogan eliminated DDP. Hogan, now spooked, eliminated himself. As soon as Hogan made it to the floor, he smiled and began chit chatting with the crowd. 

Sting used his bat and, with one hit, nails the Giant in the back. The swing itself was about as powerful as a timid tee ball player with tears in their eyes, but was enough to knock the Giant, all 7’4” and 460 pounds over the top rope, eliminating him. Now, if you do the math (as WCW's poster asked us to), the match is over. Scott Hall wins.

That’s not Sting?!

“Sting” went outside and beat on the Giant a little more. He got back into the ring to stare down Hall and Hogan - until taking the mask off. The man under the mask is Kevin Nash. In his home town, Nash decided the match.

After the bell ran g signaling the end, the nWo all came out to party. They brought in DDP, who ate a few more finishers before the nWo celebrates. 

To summarize, the nWo buried a home-grown star, disregarded the rules to a match which the pay-per-view is named after, and made a mockery of one of the biggest stars in the generation. Yay, WCW.

Sad thing was, the show was highly thought of and sold so many buys. That is how hot wrestling was in 1997. Garbage got you paid, and in this case, the boys got paid well.

What are your thoughts on World War III? Should it come back? Let us know in the comments.

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