The Nitro Files: Curt Hennig debuts, Chris Jericho makes first title defense (6/30/97)
The Nitro Files with Eric Bischoff will delve into a moment from WCW’s Monday Nitro era. Bischoff, who was the president of WCW during the company’s most successful years, also hosts his weekly “Bischoff on Wrestling” podcast with 120 Sports’ Nick Hausman, and has also created the IRW Network.
WCW was live from Las Vegas, Nevada at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 30, 1997.
The night was notable for three different reasons. First was Chris Jericho’s inaugural title defense as WCW cruiserweight champion, which he had won by defeating Sean Waltman at a house show two days prior that was broadcast over the internet as Saturday Nitro.
“We knew that the internet was going to be something big, but we did not know exactly how big,” said Bischoff. “We started experimenting in 1997.”
Jericho won his first title defense by making Juventud Guerrera tap to the Lion Tamer.
“In 1997, what impressed me most about Chris Jericho, even more than his look and his style, was his charisma,” said Bischoff. “He looked like an athlete but he had a baby face, and he was tough as nails. His style in the ring was really entertaining, and he had the ability to wrestle that cruiserweight style but also the technical skill and ability to really tell a story. His real talents were emerging, and they’ve evolved dramatically in the last two decades, but he was already an athlete with a tremendous amount of charisma. We just didn’t know then that he had this much charisma.”
The second major occurrence was the debut of Raven, who was shown sitting in the crowd.
“Realism was fundamentally at the core of everything I tried to do,” explained Bischoff. “The more we created the question of whether our content was real or fictional, then the more engaged the audience became. I did the same thing with Dallas Page when we added believability to his character by having him become the workingman’s character. We wanted him to be a man of the people, so we got rid of all the bling, the gimmicks, and the cigars. We put him in the audience, which is the same thing we did with Raven, and subconsciously, that made the audience part of the show. Once you make the audience part of the show, they engage at a level they otherwise wouldn't engage at, and that makes the crowd a part of the show.”
There was also a match that catered to the hardcore wrestling fans between two burgeoning stars in Dean Malenko and Eddie Guerrero, which saw Guerrero victorious after he hit his frog splash.
“I looked at our show as a buffet,” noted Bischoff. “If you wanted to open up the greatest buffet in Las Vegas, you’d need great seafood, you’d need great prime rib, great soups, great vegetarian sections, and great desserts. When everyone knows you can get exactly what you want at that buffet, you’ll have a great crowd, and that is how I turned WCW around and, more specifically, how I built Nitro.”
Although Nitro was rooted in reality, characters like Glacier, who appeared on the June 30 Nitro, did still exist, and for a reason.
“I am often questioned why, if my show was truly based in reality, then ‘why did I have that silly ass Dungeon of Doom?’” said Bischoff. “Well, you have to do that. The entire show cannot be all intense reality. It needs comic relief, and fantastical-type characters, and a variety of presentation to appeal to the broadest possible audience.”
The third major event occurred in the main event, which saw the debut of Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig during a brawl between the NWO and The Giant, Lex Luger, and Dallas Page as Nitro went off the air.
Bischoff’s negotiations with Curt Hennig took place in an office with Bischoff, Larry Hennig, and Curt Hennig.
“Curt reached out to Ric Flair, and it came to me indirectly,” said Bischoff. “I recall sitting down with Curt and Larry, and Larry was advising him during our initial negotiations.
“My wife, before I knew her, actually went to high school with Curt Hennig right outside of Minneapolis,” said Bischoff. “Although I didn’t know Curt, we frequented the same bars, knew a lot of the same people, and I ended up working with his dad, Larry The Ax Hennig, in the AWA. When I got a chance to work with Curt in WCW, although we’d never hung out before, we knew so many of the same people because of where we grew up and how we grew up and who we grew up with, so we felt like we knew each other for decades.”
Since Nitro took place in Las Vegas, the cast and crew made the most of the opportunity to enjoy the Vegas strip, WCW style.
“We used to hang out at the Betty Boop Bar,” said Bischoff. “It was a fun place to hang out, especially since we had plenty of evening ahead of us after ending the show at 8pm local time. That was a good chance to relax and get know one another on a non-working level. Vegas was an easy place to do that, because it was all self-contained. After the show, we’d change clothes and then be down at the Betty Boop Bar having a shot. It was a blast.”
Bischoff revealed that the two best men to share a drink with after the show were Ric Flair and–although he came with a caveat–Brian Knobbs of the Nasty Boys.
“Those were two guys who were at the top of that list,” said Bischoff. “Ric Flair is a walking, talking, 24-hour party. He loves to have fun, and he loves people around him to have fun. I've got to say, the other guy is Brian Knobbs.
“The thing with Brian Knobbs is it always started fun. After a couple hours, you were looking to make your way to the door. If somehow you got trapped after a couple hours, it turned into work. But for the first couple hours, Brian Knobbs was the life of the party. You couldn’t be in a bad mood around him.”