For pro wrestling fans of a certain vintage, the name “Starrcade” conjures a restless excitement. It was, in the Territory Era and then the Monday Night Wars, the biggest show on the NWA/WCW calendar, an alternative to WrestleMania. For most of its run Starrcade was a meaner, grittier show than WWE’s fare, shot in darkened Southern arenas in smaller cities like Greensboro (home to the first four) and Norfolk.
When WCW folded, that was it for Starrcade, until last year. WWE brought the name back for a large house show, 17 years after the last WCW version, back in Greensboro. Arn Anderson showed up in a glorious callback to the Jim Crockett Promotion days. And then, nothing. It was supposedly a one-off, or at best Starrcade would be used as infrequent branding for sometimes house shows in the Carolinas.
This past Saturday, WWE ran another Starrcade, signaling that the show might be back as some sort of annual mega-house show. It’s not the rebirth of the Southern rasslin’ tradition, but it’s something, and it’s worth a glance back at the history of Starrcade to understand why even half a show on the WWE Network can get people excited.
Here’s a nugget of history WWE doesn’t like to talk about: WrestleMania wasn’t the first pay-per-view style event. Starrcade was. The Crocketts got the idea to show the first Starrcade on closed circuit television and the NWA, pro wrestling’s waning but still strong ruling body, went all in. It was the first time a major event was available on a live basis to fans not in the arena.
It was a huge success, not just financially but creatively. The 1983 Starrcade has some legendary matches. Ric Flair beat Harley Race for the NWA world title after a months long feud, cementing Flair’s status as the best in the world and helped propel him to those rare heights where, after he returned to heel status, nobody could quite entirely boo him. The Roddy Piper-Greg Valentine dog collar match entered pro wrestling lore as a particularly brutal affair after Piper legitimately got his ear drum popped by a nasty blow to the head from Valentine.
Brutality and quality were the watch words of those first few Starrcades. There was a menacing quality about them, the way the camerawork and production values weren’t the bright, nearly glitzy approach of WWE (which, by the way, was always Vince McMahon’s real genius) and the sometimes ramshackle feel of a style of pro wrestling which already veered toward realistic violence.
Starrcade ‘86 is my favorite of all of them and is where my personal obsession with pro wrestling really took hold. Not all of the matches are classics, but each one in the back half has heavy stakes involved. The hottest match was a scaffold match between the Road Warriors and the Midnight Express. The feud had been simmering for months, with the high point—in which the Road Warriors work out in the gym to the strains of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” before climbing a work scaffold to shout and throw pumpkins representing their opponents onto the asphalt below—becoming one of the great pro wrestling vignettes of its time. The pumpkins descend in slow motion before exploding, while Road Warrior Animal shouts that this is what’s going to happen to the Midnight Express’s heads.
The Road Warriors did win the match and the Express did fall off the 20 feet or so height. So did their manager, Jim Cornette, a notoriously weaselly manager of the golden age for his type. The crowd roared in delight as Cornette fell and legitimately blew out both knees from the fall; as he’s helped to the back by Big Bubba, his kayfabe bodyguard, the camera zooms in on Cornette’s anguished face and you can hear him babbling in very real, very intense pain.
There were lean years in the early and mid 90s, after the transition from the Crocketts to Ted Turner’s ownership and the promotion’s rebranding as WCW. But those were rightly remembered as lean years for everyone except the coalescing alternative wrestling in ECW. Starrcade suffered as well, culminating with the 1994 vintage, which had a main event of Hulk Hogan versus his former best friend but never a main eventer, Brutus Beefcake (The Butcher in WCW).
Things turned again starting in 1996, and the 1997 Starrcade was arguably the biggest show in WCW’s history and marked the high point in its brief supremacy over WWE. Starrcade was supposed to be the night the nWo got their comeuppance. Sting had moved from a blond, happy-go-lucky neon icon to a brooding, Crow-inspired loner after Hogan's betrayal of the fans. For nearly a year, Sting stalked Hogan on WCW television, hitting members of the nWo with baseball bats in show-ending sneak attacks before disappearing again.
When Sting finally got his hands on Hogan, it was electric, except Hogan did most of the offense. Hogan won with what was supposed to be a fast count, except the referee didn’t do a fast count. Bret Hart walked out, fresh off the Montreal Screwjob, and demanded a restart. Sting won, but it didn’t feel quite right. Hogan was too strong, the story too disjointed. That was the start of a decline which wouldn’t fully materialize for three years and was only apparent in retrospect.
This is just a snapshot of big moments for me, as just a fan, from a long, rich history of Starrcade. There are too many names to mention, too many big matches to recap, for one column. The point is that Starrcade was big. The results from Friday’s revival aren’t important or even interesting; Bray Wyatt made yet another comeback which will inevitably fizzle out, the best matches weren’t put on the WWE Network for fear of spoiling more canonical matches in upcoming pay-per-views, and it generally had the laid back, off-beat vibe of WWE’s house shows, where the stakes are low and everyone is there to have fun.
But the fact that Starrcade is back, even if it’s in name only, reveals a tension somewhere in the WWE corporate ranks. WWE seems to strive to stamp out any notion that its competitors were good, sometimes better than WWE. Yet they are, for good and ill, the guardians of American wrestling history. They have all the tapes and all the trademarks, and there are times—maybe even a lot of the time—that they take that charge seriously. Because of that, WWE seems compelled to remember Starrcade properly. It’s magnetic, all that history and the rivers of shed blood. Starrcade was where a particular type of grimy, gritty pro wrestling got its due and where it eventually died. Slowly but surely, at least the name is coming back. Hopefully some of that style can, too.