True Story Of The Fingerpoke Of Doom

Everything you need to know about the Fingerpoke of Doom

For the five and a half years that the Monday Night Wars lasted, any given Monday could have been labelled "A Tale of Two Shows", for whatever subjective reason one comes up with. You could contrast a Nitro from their glory years to a Raw during its sputtering doldrums, or a brilliant 2000 Raw to a Nitro hampered by Russo at his worst. 

However, no singular Monday head-to-head during the Wars is more fitting of the "Tale of Two Shows" handle than that of January 4, 1999. This was the night in which each show made history for very different reasons. One program delivered a feel-good moment for the ages, while the other was responsible for two of the most tone-deaf misfires in the history of professional wrestling.

The tables turned in the Monday Night Wars in 1998. WCW Nitro had run up a streak of 22 months without losing a single head-to-head week in TV ratings to WWE Raw, until April 13 of the year in the question. In the prior months, WWE began closing the gap on a dominant Nitro, as interest for Mike Tyson's involvement in Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels' world title feud made a few headlines, and piqued more than a little interest.

Wcw nitro logo

Nitro still won the weekly battles into the spring, but post-WrestleMania, Raw started inching closer. After losing by a full ratings point or so in many of the prior weeks in 1998, the head-to-head battle the night after WrestleMania 14 (where Austin had captured the gold) scored a 3.8 rating to Nitro's 4.2, the narrowest ratings gap since May of the previous year. The following week, a taped Raw scored a 4.4 to Nitro's 4.6.

Finally, on April 13, the dam burst. On the strength of Vince McMahon somewhat begrudgingly accepting a challenge from Austin to wrestle him for the title that night (an unheard-of, head-spinning development for the time), Raw beat Nitro 4.6 to 4.2, ending nearly two years of ratings futility.

Nitro won the following week by a .7 margin, but it would be their last victory for a while. Beginning April 27, Raw assembled an undefeated run that lasted until July 6, when WCW had Goldberg defeat Hollywood Hogan for the World title in front of 40,000 fans in the challenger's native Atlanta.

Raw won the four weeks that followed, before Nitro won three head-to-head contests in August, powered through mainstream attention brought by talk show host Jay Leno, and the anticipated, yet ultimately confounding, debut of The Warrior.

Following two weeks of preemptions due to tennis coverage on USA Network, Raw began rebuilding its momentum in the autumn, and the battles with Nitro were often close. On September 14, Nitro won 4.5 to 4.0, owed to Ric Flair's emotional return to WCW. Raw edged Nitro the following week 4.0 to 3.9, while Nitro regained control on September 28, winning 4.6 to 4.0.

Raw began taking over again in October with some close victories, before Nitro won on October 26, 5.1 to 4.6. This might sound impressive, but it was actually a source of embarrassment for WCW.

Goldberg halloween havoc 1998

The night before at Halloween Havoc, the show ran long, and many customers saw their feeds cut just as the world title match between Goldberg and Diamond Dallas Page was kicking off. Irate viewers demanded refunds, while WCW compromised by airing the main event match in full on Nitro the next night.

That 5.1 rating is in large part due to annoyed consumers finally getting the main event they'd paid for, as well as non-customers getting to see a pay-per-view world title match for free. The book 'The Death of WCW' claims that an estimated $1.5 million was lost in pay-per-view revenue due to the error.

Nitro won the ratings battle that night in a pyrrhic victory, but if WCW could see the future, they would've celebrated it. It was their last victory and Nitro would never defeat Raw again in the head-to-head, though nobody really would've guessed it at the time.

The next few weeks of ratings match-ups did indicate that Nitro was suddenly facing an uphill battle. Their product (outside of Goldberg and some interesting midcarders) was growing cold, while the Austin-McMahon drama and the pushing of fresher characters on Raw began bringing record viewership to the show.

The gap began widening in WWE’s favour. On November 16, the night after The Rock won his first world title in controversial fashion at Survivor Series, Raw pasted Nitro 5.5 to 4.3. Some weeks were closer than others, but Raw did enjoy a few instances of full point ratings victories over Nitro in this period. 

Something had to change in WCW and one unexpected change reared itself on Thanksgiving night 1998. Appearing on Leno's Tonight Show that night, Hulk Hogan announced that he was retiring from professional wrestling. At 45 and with an unparalleled legacy as a star wrestler, the announcement didn't seem terribly shocking.

Hulk hogan jay leno 1998

What *did* raise a few eyebrows is that, in the same sitdown, Hogan also announced he was running for president in the year 2000.

So with Hogan out of the picture for good, WCW had to focus on its other stars - which at this point consisted of new hope Goldberg (the reigning world champion) and a bunch of assorted forty-somethings that had seen better days.

Kevin Nash was only 39, which was basically college-age by WCW's standards of the time. He was also still quite popular in 1998 due to his leadership of the New World Order splinter group, nWo Wolfpac. Thus, Nash made a reasonable opponent to match up against the mighty, unbeaten Goldberg in the world title match at that December's Starrcade in Washington, DC.

To build Nash for the match, the near seven-footer won the fourth and final 60-man World War 3 battle royal in November, then defeated the towering Wrath the next night on Nitro. Wrath had a months-long unbeaten streak of his own going, so Nash was being painted as something of a streak-buster.

And he wasn't done busting streaks. That's because the decision was made to have Kevin Nash dethrone Goldberg to win the WCW World Heavyweight Title at Starrcade, vanquishing the 15-month, purported 173-match win streak in the process.

It's still somewhat debated who came up with the idea to have the streak end rather abruptly. Nash has been blamed, due to his perceived creative power at the time. However, head shot-caller Eric Bischoff not only doesn't believe that Nash put the idea out there, but claims Nash was hesitant about actually doing it. While Bischoff doesn't remember who suggested having Nash beat Goldberg, he decided to go with the idea, despite some protestations, namely from veteran booker Kevin Sullivan. Sullivan claimed Bischoff was worried about the people turning against Goldberg for winning too much, to which Sullivan noted how much money Goldberg was drawing as an undefeated superhero.

Ultimately, Goldberg did go down in defeat, though it did take interference at different points from Bam Bam Bigelow, Disco Inferno, and a cattle prod-wielding Scott Hall to do in "Da Man". One Nash powerbomb later, and an ineradicable "1" followed the dash in Goldberg's career record.

Starrcade 1998 cattle prod

Reaction was mixed, to say the least. Nash believes there were fans who thought seeing somebody beat Goldberg would've been a huge deal, but noted the harsh finality of actually seeing it happen, saying, "When he got beat, they went, "Oh sh*t, I'm not sure I wanted to see that."

Nonetheless, there was obvious buzz created by the shock title change. The following night, Nitro managed a 4.6 rating to Raw's 4.9, the narrowest gap since the October 26 head-to-head that Nitro won.

Overall, Starrcade 1998 was negatively received by fans - an uninspired undercard (save for two stellar Cruiserweight Title matches) led to a main event decision many termed shortsighted.

There would, however, be a chance to rectify matters in eight nights' time.

The January 4, 1999 episode of Nitro would emanate from the same Georgia Dome in Atlanta where Goldberg steamrolled Hogan in July to capture his first world title. With more than 38,000 fans on hand in Goldberg's backyard, he could defeat Nash to right the Starrcade injustice. The blemish on his win/loss record would remain, but at least he could win the title back in Atlanta once more.

In fact, the December 28 Nitro set the rematch up, as Nash cut a promo saying he lamented getting the belt in this fashion, disavowing Hall's crucial interference. Thus, he offered to face Goldberg in Atlanta for the title next week.

That same week, WWE Raw is War would air an episode taped six nights earlier in Worcester, MA. A live Nitro with a major title bout going head to head with a warmed over Raw seemed like a chance for WCW to kick off 1999 with a Monday night ratings victory, unless something big were to happen at those Raw tapings that would be must-see TV for any fan.

Sure enough, on that Tuesday night, WWE commissioned a genuine feel-good moment. Mick Foley, a beloved crowd favourite that greatly sacrificed his health and anatomy over the previous decade and a half, finally won the big one. In his role as Mankind, Foley defeated the hated Rock in a brief but action-packed Raw main event, scoring the pin after an assist from Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Few wrestlers at this point deserved to be a world champion more than Foley, for all he had given the fans through the years. WWE knew this too, which is why they took the uncharacteristic step of actually announcing Mankind's title win on their website the day after it was filmed. They wanted to get the word out to even the non-spoiler crowd that if they tuned into Raw on January 4, they were going to witness something special.

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So, the battle lines were drawn: Raw was promising the footage of the unlikely completion of underdog Mick Foley's long, arduous journey to pro wrestling's apex. Nitro was advertising Nash-Goldberg II, in front of a rabid crowd of over 35,000 fans, on the heels of their controversial first bout. Both shows did find huge audiences. But what those audiences got were starkly different from one another.

While many of those who opted into watching Raw knew how the show would play out due to spoiler availability, those that picked Nitro got a "mystery meal" of sorts. And most didn't find the main course to be all that palatable.

After a fairly pedestrian first hour to the card (complete with a jubilant yet pointless promo from Ric Flair, the new kayfabe showrunner after defeating Bischoff the prior week), an angle commenced that, in hindsight, really feels like an iceberg tip first appearing over the horizon.

At the Georgia Dome, police officers tracked down Goldberg, informing him that they had a warrant for his arrest. Strangely, they never read the charge to him, and he just went off with the cops.

This angle took place right as Raw went on the air, so if you were watching Nitro to see the big title match, half the main event's going downtown to answer a few questions.

The viewer eventually learned that Goldberg was charged with "aggressive stalking" of Miss Elizabeth (which was originally supposed to be a much more dire charge, but Goldberg shot it down). The interrogations of both Goldberg and Elizabeth continued through several mind-numbing segments.

Goldberg arrested january 1999

Meanwhile, Nash accused the erstwhile-retired Hogan of being behind the conspiracy to get Goldberg hauled away, so he wanted to wrestle him tonight to somehow make things right. Hogan (retired, remember) agreed to the match, eschewing the opportunity to name his presidential running mate that night to instead challenge for the title one last time.

So not only was Nitro's advertised main event in serious jeopardy of not happening (by creative choice, and not circumstances beyond their control), but what happened after the Hogan promo was something that entered the pro wrestling annals as one of the most asinine statements ever uttered - and it helped sully the reputation of a veteran announcer.

See, at one time, Bischoff as an announcer would take the liberty of revealing the results of taped Raws on the other channel, to both mock WWE’s offerings and to play up the fact that Nitro was live, whereas Raw was pre-recorded tripe. Though that practice hadn't been done in a while, WCW unearthed it for this historic night, but it wasn’t Bischoff who took the dig at Raw. It was current lead announcer Tony Schiavone, doing so at Bischoff's behest.

After Hogan's promo in which he accepted Nash's challenge, the WCW cameras panned the crowd as Schiavone said, verbatim, "If you're even thinking about changing the channel to our competition, fans, do not. Because we understand that Mick Foley, who wrestled here at one time as Cactus Jack, is gonna win their world title. Oh, that's gonna put some butts in the seats!", before concluding with a dismissive huff.

For one thing, Foley was almost universally respected in the world of wrestling, by peers and fans alike. For Schiavone to make Foley and his impending triumph sound like a joke didn’t sit well with many viewers. In fact, Foley himself was upset when he found out what Schiavone said, and even phoned his old colleague to discuss it. Regretful over his remarks, Schiavone revealed to Foley that he was under orders from Bischoff to say what he said.

While Foley was upset at Schiavone, others in WWE probably wanted to thank him: the insult backfired in spectacular fashion, as an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 fans switched over to Raw at almost that instant, wanting to witness Foley's big win.

Tony schiavone aew

At one point in the near-immediate aftermath of the "butts in the seats" remark, Raw took a commanding 6.2 to 4.1 lead in the nightly ratings. In fact, Raw defeated Nitro in all eight quarter hours they faced each other in. However, Nitro did gain one "victory" in the ratings: the overrun.

While under interrogations, Miss Elizabeth changed her story several times because the accusation was merely a ruse to get Goldberg pulled from the title bout. After she admitted to lying, Goldberg was free to return to the arena, where he could still face Nash if he made it back in time.

In some exquisite unintentional comedy, the police station was actually across the street from the Georgia Dome. However, the revelation of Liz's lie came roughly half an hour before the main event slot, thus the "race against time" that Goldberg was now faced with was nullified by the actual proximity of the two buildings.

As RD Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez quipped in The Death of WCW, "Goldberg was somehow unable to get back in time, even though he had thirty minutes to walk several dozen feet. Maybe the crosswalk light was broken." So yes, because Goldberg was theoretically at the mercy of a stubborn crossing guard or something, Hogan replaced him in the match with Nash.

The two took their places in the ring as Foley's prerecorded victory lap aired on the other channel. The bell sounded to begin the match, and the two heavyweights circled each other, exchanging trash talk. Then, after less than a minute and a half of elapsed time, without any prior contact, Hogan raised a solitary finger, poked Nash in the chest, and Nash fell back like he'd been shot. Hogan made the cover, scored the three count, and the ruse was complete; Hogan, Nash, and others were in on a conspiracy to consolidate power from both nWo factions, reforming with Hogan as lead dog once more.

Fingerpoke of doom aftermatch

Goldberg did make it to the ring post-farce, but was summarily beaten down by the New New World Order.

If giving away taped Raw results wasn't enough of a nostalgia trip for creatively-ailing WCW, the company was hoping to rejuvenate things by doing what worked in 1996: letting the nWo once more run roughshod over the company. Nash chalked up the reformed nWo to putting together a dangerous squad for Goldberg to have to run through, presumably to get to champion Hogan at the end.

Whatever the intentions were, the Fingerpoke not only failed to restore WCW's diminishing mojo, but it actively angered many fans who had been swerved out of an announced match, with the replacement match being a total joke.

The Rock-Mankind title bout did a 5.9 rating to a 4.6 for Hogan vs. Nash. However, once Foley got the belt and was in the midst of celebrating, many fans flipped back over to Nitro in order to see the Hogan-Nash finish.

Nitro won the overrun period with a 6.5 rating to Raw's 5.1, but it was hardly a true victory. All fans who flipped between shows saw was one company reward its audience with a storybook ending, and the other ignorantly swerve their already burnt-out audience with one more monumental sham. On the night, Raw won 5.7 to Nitro's 5.0.

Though many point back at this moment as the definitive death of World Championship Wrestling, Nitro's ratings didn't immediately sink following the so-termed Fingerpoke of Doom. Raw won the next few weeks by margins of under a full ratings point. By mid-February, however, the gaps began widening further. The night after St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Raw slaughtered Nitro 5.9 to 3.9. More victories of two-point differentials followed in March, leading to Raw decimating Nitro the night after WrestleMania 15 by three whole points, 6.5 to 3.5.

In most weeks going forward, Raw won by at least two points, if not three or more. By June, it was not uncommon for Raw to double Nitro's rating on a given week.

As far as the reformed nWo goes, they were pretty much a dead issue by March. Hogan veered into a feud with Flair, while Goldberg got sidetracked with Scott Hall and other opponents that didn't look like Hogan, not to mention he did miss some time with injury.

Creatively, ending the streak meant zilch long-term, except that it killed off one of the last original attractions WCW had. Nash used the Fingerpoke to demonstrate how it was most certainly not his idea, pointing out that if he'd booked himself to slay Goldberg, why would he just submissively hand the belt over to Hogan, and play second banana once more?

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Goldberg's streak ending, the "butts in the seats" comment, and the Fingerpoke were all bad optics for a WCW trying desperately to stay competitive while WWE surged ahead. It's not fair to say that all of the above "killed" WCW, though they did further harm the already-fraying image of the company.

1999 wouldn't get any better for WCW, as they lost valuable talents, cycled through head honchos, and continued to lose their grip on a once-loyal audience.

A year earlier, WCW came into 1998 holding almost all the cards, sitting far ahead of WWE in star power, metrics and perception. Things started turning for the worse long before Nash took the contrived dive inside the Georgia Dome, but the moment certainly didn't help matters.

The night of January 4, 1999 was a tale of two shows. Both of them promised a major happening in their main event. Each of them delivered just that, to wildly different receptions.

It takes a lot of work to build a thriving wrestling empire with a satisfied fanbase. And it doesn't take much exertion to burst the bubble. Sometimes, all it takes is the raising of a single finger.

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Written by Cultaholic