On May 27, 1996, a man clad in an alarming amount of denim slipped through the crowd of World Championship Wrestling's first two-hour-long Monday Nitro, jumped the barricade, and entered the ring with a live mic.
"You people… you know who I am," the man said. "But you don't know why I'm here."
The man was Scott Hall, laying on the fake Cuban-but-not-Cuban accent he had used for four years as Razor Ramon, a hulking knock-off of Scarface's Tony Montoya, in WWE (then still the World Wrestling Federation). The words were the modern wrestling equivalent of "let there be light," a declaration of naissance, an incantation of the new. Everything we associate with modern wrestling—the Monday Night Wars and their aftermath, the late-90s wrestling boom, its obsession with the big surprise, the totality of internet coverage—starts here, with Scott Hall's promo.
First, some background. In the wake of a steroid trial that nearly brought down Vince McMahon in the early 1990s, WWE turned its focus to a "New Generation" of hyper-gimmicked wrestlers: grappling minotaurs, race car drivers, garbage men, and the like. At the top of the card, there was an obsession with the Hart family and Shawn Michaels and his friends, of whom Hall and fellow wrestler Kevin Nash were the most prominent.
Despite the cartoony gimmicks, the New Generation wasn't bad at all, particularly the upper card. It was, however, deeply unpopular, a fact that cut into both WWE's coffers and its willingness to try new things for fear of slipping further into irrelevancy.
So when Nash and Hall's WWE contracts expired in May 1996, Ted Turner's WCW, the heir of Southern wrestling and WWE's last major competitor, signed both men to huge deals. Their departure marked something of a nadir for the struggling WWE—if the savviest wrestling promoter in the country couldn't hang on to his big stars, there was no telling where it might stop.
This was WCW's standard modus operandi at the time: sign discarded WWE wrestlers and push them to the top of the card in the hopes that name recognition would close the gap between it and WWE (despite WWE's unpopularity at the time, WCW still consistently lagged in the ratings).
Unlike WCW's previous signings of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Ed Leslie, and other WWE castoffs, however, Hall and Nash were in their primes. What they might have lacked in recognition, they made up for in vitality. (Watching Hall's promo now, it's impossible to tell how much of the mostly silent reaction from the crowd was due to disbelief that a guy who had been in WWE two weeks earlier was on Nitro, and how much came down to not knowing who Hall was.) They were current, which mattered because, short of Hogan's later alliance with Hall and Nash as the New World Order, no amount of repackaging the old WWE guys could freshen up the WCW locker room otherwise.
The wild thing about it was that such a big debut was a genuine surprise. There had been no fanfare or vignettes to introduce Hall before May 27. What's more, there was no reference to Hall's previous run in WCW, when he wrestled as the Diamond Studd in the early 1990s. WCW simply trusted the fans to either know who he was or to figure out the implications of his arrival on their own.
This was a technique picked up from another promotion, Extreme Championship Wrestling. Big names on the outs with WCW or WWE, or young soon-to-be superstars were coming through ECW on short-term deals. You'd get Rick Rude or Steve Austin just before his Stone Cold persona, with scant introduction. Paul Heyman, ECW's hypeman and booker, seemed to make a calculation that if you were at an ECW show, you were into pro wrestling enough to know who everyone was.
WCW took ECW's style to the national level. Before, pro-wrestling introductions were formal. Take the way Ric Flair's 1991-93 WWE run or Hogan's WCW debut were handled. Despite having arguably the biggest pro wrestlers on the planet, both promotions started them off with slow burns. Flair gave an introductory promo in what looked like a scaled-down version of the Price is Right set, while WCW threw Hulk Hogan a ticker tape parade.
There was a way you debuted a big wrestler, and what Hall did on Nitro was not it. His through-the-crowd entrance and subsequent pretending that he still worked for WWE felt dangerously off-script, an injection of reality into the quasi-reality of pro wrestling. It defied expectations and, in doing so, established a new one: it wasn't enough to bring in big talent; it had to be a surprise, too.
With WCW willing to spend money on anyone who caught its fancy, and WWE willing to pick up young wrestlers like Chris Jericho who had been forced out of WCW, there were a lot of surprises during this era. It's no exaggeration to say that every week had the potential for someone moving between companies, or an ECW guy deciding that getting paid in WCW or WWE was a better deal than being a starving artist.
This new expectation and demand for the art of surprise warped how pro wrestling operated. The young internet had a hunger for spoiling the surprise, while promotions guarded their ability to truly shock with a debut ever more jealously. The pro wrestling media became obsessed with scoops, figuring out who was going where and when. Between 1996 and 2003, when pro wrestling was hyperpopular and internet ad money was still a viable business model for independent sites, spoiling a debut or even being wrong about a spoiler could make or break an operation.
We still get surprises and we're still obsessed with finding out what they are. A.J. Styles' debut at the 2016 Royal Rumble is one; the Shield is another. The most memorable debuts these days still have a whiff of Scott Hall about them, especially the way that the lack of preceding fanfare indicates that the debutant is particularly important. More than 20 years later, we almost always know who they are, but rarely why they're here, and that's just fine.
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