Each fall, speculation starts ramping up about who WWE is going to induct into their Hall of Fame in the spring. Like the turning of the leaves or pumpkin spice, the promotion’s need for a big headliner for the next year’s class starts to kick the machine into motion. Old timers need to be tracked down, contracts have to be signed, and egos have to be massaged.
This year’s search seems pretty straightforward. The nWo (Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Hulk Hogan) are hot money for induction. The three announced a reunion show back in August, with the idea that the retired mega-stars will tell old stories and have some of the lesser lights of the faction up on stage with them—former WCW executive Eric Bischoff and wrestlers like Ted DiBiase are confirmed to be there for the October 27 panel.
This, alone, isn’t worthy of much comment. Life for a retired pro wrestler can be tough, with even the well-to-do ones at the mercy of extended medical bills for problems the one-two punch of a life on the road and sparse to non-existent medical insurance can create. The chat, autograph, and take-a-picture show is a hoary tradition in pro wrestling, one which buoys the stars of yesteryear during tough times. That Nash, Hall, and Hogan would get in on the tradition as a trio, particularly when they’ve all worked the more general retirement circle in the past, is no surprise.
The tell that there’s something more going on is that WWE has taken an interest in the show and thrown their promotional power behind it. On October 17, WWE’s Twitter account tweeted a thoroughly professional video hyping up the show, including a plug for tickets at the decidedly not WWE affiliated hulkhogan.com.
This is a real rarity. WWE simply doesn’t push things they don’t control; WWE social media isn’t out there giving free publicity to Chris Jericho’s pro wrestling cruise, for instance. There’s also the matter that the nWo name is a WWE trademark.
It’s clear that WWE is involved in some capacity and the nWo are coming back, soon. A redditor at r/SquaredCircle wrote about meeting Nash at an event, where it slipped that the reunion is a means of gauging how an induction to the WWE Hall of Fame would go over.
A brief recap of what a big deal the nWo was when they debuted in 1996. Pro wrestling was in dire straits in the mid-90s. The steroid trial which rocked WWE in 1994 made the McMahons skittish about building up a second generation of vascular muscle men like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. The smaller guys they went with to carry the company, like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, were far better wrestlers, but were in a company where just about everyone else was incredibly corny. WWE settled into a doldrums which didn’t break until early 1998.
At the same time, the Ted Turner owned WCW had moved from being the inheritors of an alternate tradition of Southern blood and guts realism to aping the worst of WWE. It, too, had a variety of corny gimmicks, coupled with an obsession with bringing in has beens from WWE’s Hulkamania era. A mostly disinterested Hogan showed up, followed quickly by Savage, Brutus Beefcake (who had a variety of names), John Tenta, and a host of others, right down to “Mean” Gene Okerlund doing wrestler interviews to complete the 1986 feel.
Pro wrestling wasn’t good. Worse, it wasn’t cool. There were places it thrived—notably in ECW—but the big promotions were foundering.
Scott Hall arriving unannounced on WCW television in 1996 changed that. Followed by Nash and Hogan’s legendary heel turn, the formation of the nWo gave pro wrestling a cool vibe which had been missing for a decade. It was violent. It had the element of the unexpected; there was a run where there was a genuinely fun surprise every Monday for the better part of a year.
That spurred Vince McMahon to get out of his comfort zone, birthing the Attitude Era just to survive. Some of that hasn’t aged well, particularly in its appalling treatment of women, even by pro wrestling standards, but it’s very easy to see a world where pro wrestling was much diminished if the nWo hadn’t come along.
Putting the group into the Hall of Fame should be a no-brainer, but the looming figure of Hulk Hogan and that tape casts a shadow over what should be a straightforward process.
There’s no way to separate Hogan from the nWo’s initial success. Lost in the haze of 20 years are two facts: how genuinely shocking Hogan’s heel turn at Bash at the Beach was and just how quickly Hogan’s act as leader of the nWo wore thin as he won match after match or sandbagged his opponents those rare times he lost.
Regardless, he is a central figure in both the rise and fall of WCW in the late 1990s. WWE and pro wrestling more generally have been trying to figure out how to extricate Hogan from the racist tirade he delivered on the leaked sex tape which took down Gawker for years now. That’s if he can be extricated at all.
Hence the reunion and WWE’s fingerprints on it. The company began rehabilitating him over the summer in advance of a return; a second Hall of Fame induction for all three, with the likable Nash and comeback story of Hall next to him, might mitigate the distaste of seeing Hogan on stage one more time.
It looks like it’s coming. The nWo are back and it sure looks like they’re heading to WrestleMania weekend in 2019. As with so much of pro wrestling’s history, it’s a difficult task to figure out how to pay homage to the good while never forgetting the bad, and this particular reunion won’t be any different. It’s almost certainly better for Hogan to stay away, preferably forever, but that’s not what we’re likely to get.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.