The legacy of Starrcade and the disaster of Sting vs. Hulk Hogan in 1997

After 18 months of building up to Sting as the man worthy of toppling Hulk Hogan and the NWO, the events of Starrcade 1997 are a testament to the problems WCW faced as the tide began to turn in the "Monday Night Wars." Courtesy of WWE

Starrcade is a name that will always resonate with wrestling fans. The event, which debuted in 1983, in Greensboro, North Carolina, under the banner of Jim Crockett Promotions of the National Wrestling Alliance, evolved from an annual Thanksgiving Day supershow to become World Championship Wrestling's flagship pay-per-view. Starrcade was the stage that helped Ric Flair grow from a regional star into a national icon.

In its early days, Flair was the main event every year from 1983 through 1990 -- and almost every year, he faced off with a new challenger. Flair-Race, Flair-Rhodes, Flair-Luger, Flair-Sting and Flair-Vader are some of the most iconic matches in Starrcade's history. Yet the most memorable Starrcade match in the minds of many fans didn't involve the Nature Boy at all.

That distinction belongs to the main event of 1997's Starrcade, which took place 20 years ago this December -- pitting Hollywood Hulk Hogan against Sting. Though it stood as the moment that Sting and WCW finally turned the tide on the New World Order (NWO), that match is now remembered for all the wrong reasons. As WWE gets set to bring back Starrcade for the first time under their banner on Saturday in Greensboro, let's take a look back at how WCW reached that fateful night.

The build

Building a matchup months in advance wasn't new to wrestling in the late '90s -- Vince McMahon regularly, and still to this day, plants seeds for WrestleMania throughout the calendar year, and Starrcade often served as the blowoff to long-term feuds -- but for WCW under the Eric Bischoff regime, the idea of long-term booking was a novel concept. The likes of Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and, namely, Hulk Hogan had creative control of their characters written into their contracts, which made long-term planning almost impossible. Still, Bischoff knew he had to make fans wait to see the match between NWO's leader, Hogan, and the revitalized Sting until WCW's biggest event of the year.

The NWO was still hot in 1997, a year after Hogan was infamously revealed as the third man at Bash at the Beach in 1996, but the villainous faction badly needed a believable adversary to avoid losing steam. Goldberg was early on in his undefeated streak at the time, so he wasn't an option. The NWO had already either run through everyone else on the roster or turned them to join the black-and-white movement. That left Sting, a WCW star from its early days (having main-evented 1989's Starrcade opposite Flair), as the only reputable foe to battle the NWO.

But his white-meat babyface persona at the time was growing stale. Hall, after watching the 1994 movie "The Crow," gave Sting the idea to change his colorful look to a darker, more-ominous appearance. The idea breathed new life into Sting's career and gave WCW the modern face it needed to counter the NWO.

Sting came out to the ring on Monday Nitro on Sept. 16, 1996, and deliver a promo that hinted at the drastic character change that was about to come.

"I've carried the WCW banner, and I have given my blood, my sweat and my tears for WCW," Sting said to the Nitro crowd. "So for all of those fans out there and all those wrestlers and people that never doubted the Stinger, I'll stand by you if you stand by me. But for all of the people, all of the commentators, all of the wrestlers and all of the best friends who did doubt me, you can stick it. From now on, I consider myself a free agent. But that doesn't mean you won't see the Stinger from time to time. I'm gonna pop in when you least expect it."

The times Sting would "pop in" over the next year and a half were the most thrilling moments on WCW programming. Sting stopped talking and wrestling, instead choosing to antagonize the NWO week after week in segments that helped build a story more than any promo or match ever could. The combination of NWO's white-hot run atop WCW and Sting's mysterious, slow-burn approach made Hogan-Sting one of the most anticipated matches in pro wrestling history.

That wait finally came to an end on Dec. 28, 1997, at Starrcade.

The match

WCW did everything right in the 18 months leading up to the match, and in the moments before this clash of the titans finally happened, it seemed like that would continue. Sting's entrance was goosebumps-inducing to the 17,500 fans in attendance in Washington, D.C. The staggering lights display, sounds of crashing thunder and spooky narration enhanced Sting's already stellar entrance. The moment felt important, as it should have after so much build, but that feeling quickly dissipated as the match got underway.

"I don't really know what happened that day," Sting said in the 2015 documentary "Sting: Into the Light." "I'm not sure to this day."

From the onset of the match, something felt off, and with good reason -- a match that had been over a year in the making, with every step meticulously calculated along the way, didn't have a planned finish. Hogan, Sting and Bischoff never came to an agreement.

"There were nerves that day. A lot of politics going on that day too, so that made it even worse," Sting said. "Literally, as all this is going on, there's still some level of confusion in the back as to what we're gonna do. How are we going to end this match? We went into it believing one thing, and then suddenly there was trouble."

Bischoff, as he did during most of his WCW tenure, struggled to play peacemaker between the domineering personalities of Hogan and Sting.

"Once we finally got to the ring after agonizing throughout the afternoon in what the finish and the outcome was gonna be, Hulk didn't really want to commit," Bischoff said in the documentary. "I think Sting was disappointed in that. Hulk was disappointed and couldn't understand why Sting didn't see it. I was stuck in the middle of those two, and we had to make the call we made."

What ensued was one of the most puzzling sequences in the history of the business.

A little over 10 minutes into the match, Hogan hit Sting with his signature big boot, taunted for about 10 seconds and then landed his finishing leg drop. Referee Nick Patrick, who helped out the NWO in the past, was supposed to do a quick-count to give Hogan an unfair victory. Instead, Patrick counted the pinfall at a normal pace, making Hogan the clean victor over Sting. This led to confusion among fans throughout the arena and the millions who had ordered the show on PPV.

The match would freefall from there, as a debuting Bret Hart came out and refused to let the timekeeper ring the bell, which was no doubt a reference to the Montreal Screwjob that took place a month earlier. The match was restarted with Hart as the referee (with no explanation as to why he was allowed to officiate), and Sting quickly hit a couple of Stinger splashes before winning via the Scorpion Deathlock as Hogan submitted verbally. Sting was the new WCW world heavyweight champion, and the entire non-NWO locker room piled inside the ring to celebrate.

But amid all the chaos, it didn't feel that way.

The aftermath

The questionable booking decision didn't seem costly to WCW at the time. Starrcade '97 was the most profitable show in WCW history, with 17,500 paid fans in attendance (totaling a $543,000 gate) and a 1.9 PPV buy rate. But 20 years later, that moment would turn out to be the first sign of the dysfunction that would only get worse for WCW in the years that followed.

As everyone knows by now, WCW ceased to exist less than four years later. The company's last Starrcade in 2000, in the same venue as 1997's, drew an almost unfathomable 3,465 paid fans with a 0.11 buy rate. The unwillingness of the NWO to put over other talent, and Bischoff allowing it all to happen, worked as one of the biggest factors in WCW's swift demise.

Starrcade returns for the first time in 17 years this Saturday as a live event marked by two title matches inside of a steel cage, with appearances by NWA and WCW legends like Flair and the Rock 'n' Roll Express. The virality of WWE's version of Starrcade, even without the show airing on the WWE Network, embodies how many fans still identify with the Starrcade name after all these years.

If not for WCW's blown opportunity in the 1997 event, and a Chris-Jericho-sized list worth of missteps afterward, Starrcade might still be a WCW pay-per-view going head-to-head with WrestleMania. Instead, it's nothing more than nostalgia.

"Big, big buildup, and the thing that I worried about was that it wasn't gonna follow the build-up. It was right on the borderline of doing that," said Sting in an almost somber tone, as he reflected on his infamous match with Hogan. "But it's wrestling history now."

**Attendance/buy rate numbers according to "The Death of WCW."