10 most stunning defections
Today, the Monday Night War is over. But in the late ’90s when WWE and WCW viciously competed to sign sports-entertainment’s top talent, seeing your favorite Superstar on an unfamiliar broadcast was a very real possibility. And that included more than just Raw and Nitro.
This wasn’t anything new in professional wrestling. In the mid-1980s, many of World Class Championship Wrestling’s competitors were lured away from Dallas to Oklahoma by Bill Watts to join his Universal Wrestling Federation. The UWF was Watts’ attempt to bring Mid-South Wrestling to national prominence, but the purging of WCCW’s roster eventually led to the downfall of the Von Erichs’ company. A similar series of incidents also brought down Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association that same decade. Sometimes one organization's champion appeared on a rival company's telecast with title in hand.
WWE Classics dug deep into the sports-entertainment archives to find the most impactful defections in the history of wrestling, from WWE, WCW, ECW and beyond.
Ric Flair: WCW to WWE
More than a year before Luger joined WWE, Mr. McMahon scored an even bigger coup when he signed not only one of WCW’s top competitors, but also their World Heavyweight Champion.
For weeks in summer and fall 1991, Bobby Heenan announced that the “real World Champion” — as opposed to WWE Champion Hulk Hogan — would soon be arriving in WWE. In a shocking moment, “The Brain” even brought the “Big Gold Title” to WWE programming and compared it and Hogan’s title to “ice cream and horse manure.”
Heenan finally brought Ric Flair to WWE on a September 1991 edition of Prime Time Wrestling. Entering to the familiar crescendo of “Also sprach Zarathustra,” Flair immediately made his intentions known: take down Hulkamania once and for all. “Naitch” kept his promise. He won the WWE Championship four months later by emerging victorious in the 1992 Royal Rumble Match. With or without Hogan in WWE, there was no denying Ric Flair had become “real World Champion.”
Lex Luger: WWE to WCW
Lex Luger joined WWE in 1993 and made a big impact by bodyslamming reigning WWE Champion Yokozuna on the USS Intrepid on Independence Day in 1993. Donning the colors of Old Glory, Luger touted that he was “Made in the USA” and began riding around the country in a tour bus called the Lex Express. Though The All-American came up empty-handed in WWE Title Matches at SummerSlam 1993 and WrestleMania X, he remained one of WWE’s most popular performers for the next two years.
At SummerSlam 1995, Luger evened the odds in the main event between Diesel and King Mabel and competed at several Live Events over the following week before quietly allowing his WWE contract to expire. One day after competing in the main event of a WWE show in New Brunswick, Luger shockingly appeared on the first episode of WCW Nitro.
WCW chief Eric Bischoff knew he needed to make an immediate statement that his show was must-see programming. Luger was discreetly signed to a contract and appeared on the entranceway to observe the main event between Hulk Hogan and Big Bubba Rogers. Later, he helped Hogan clear the ring of The Dungeon of Doom and announced he was coming for The Immortal One’s WCW Championship.
Luger’s defection to WCW drew the line in the sand and the Monday Night War was on.
Chris Jericho: WCW to WWE
Eight years after Ric Flair made the same move, Chris Jericho also split WCW for greener pastures. While Jericho had not won a World Title by 1999, his defection was seen as recognition of his talents by WWE. For years on WCW programming, the “Lionheart” had been one of the Atlanta-based organization’s most popular and entertaining performers. But despite obvious charisma, Jericho was met with roadblock after roadblock preventing him from rising to true main event level.
During summer 1999, a “Countdown to the Millennium” clock often appeared on Raw. On the Aug. 9 edition of Raw, the clock expired, smoke filled the arena and the name “JERICHO” flashed on the TitanTron. The capacity crowd in Chicago exploded with delight that the former WCW Cruiserweight Champion was revealed to be the “Y2J problem.”
Jericho first appearance wasn’t during just any segment. The Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla interrupted none other than The Rock. The two quick-witted loudmouths traded verbal barbs in a memorable moment that established Y2J as a bona fide star. Not long after his debut, Jericho would reach the main event level that eluded him in WCW as the former “Man of 1,004 Holds” became the first-ever Undisputed Champion.
Mike Awesome: ECW to WCW
Before The Miz ever made any sort of brash declaration, there was only one man who could strike awe in the eyes of sports-entertainment fans: Mike Awesome. A 6-foot-6, nearly 300-pound monster, Awesome accomplished athletic feats in the ring no other competitor his size had done, or have done since. Flying like a cruiserweight, but as powerful as the ring’s strongest big men, Mike Awesome was a phenomenon of professional wrestling.
In September 1999, Awesome captured the ECW World Heavyweight Championship by unseating longtime titleholder and fan favorite Tazz. But in April 2000, with ECW experiencing financial woes, Awesome made a jaw-dropping appearance on WCW Nitro and assaulted a man even bigger than he was, Kevin Nash. When he signed a contract with WCW, Awesome still held the ECW Title, but Paul Heyman was able to reach a compromise with his champion to defend it one more time.
On the night of the big match, tensions were running so high that Awesome never stepped foot in the ECW locker room and was accompanied by WCW’s own security force. In an unprecedented occurrence, Awesome — a WCW-contracted wrestler — lost the ECW Championship to Tazz — then a WWE-contracted wrestler — in an ECW ring.
After that historic evening in Indianapolis, WCW was handed a football full of talent, but they fumbled poorly. The extraordinarily gifted competitor was saddled with an awful “That ’70s Guy” persona. Even Awesome couldn’t be taken seriously as a dangerous threat while wearing embarrassing bellbottoms on Nitro each week. While the defection was one of the most stunning in history, the aftermath proved otherwise.
Hulk Hogan: AWA to WWE
Most members of the WWE Universe are aware of Hulk Hogan’s departure from WWE in 1993 when he landed in WCW and later formed The nWo. Hogan’s abandonment of the red and yellow for the black and white of Hollywood was, no doubt, a major sports-entertainment milestone. But Hulkamania would never have run wild in the first place if Hogan hadn’t returned to WWE in 1984.
Hogan briefly appeared as a villain in WWE in the late ’70s and early ’80s, where he joined forces with “Classy” Freddie Blassie and battled Andre the Giant in Shea Stadium, but he soon departed for Japan. After appearing as Thunderlips in “Rocky III,” Hogan became a major heroic star and household name in Verne Gagne’s AWA.
With The Immortal One’s popularity soaring to new heights each day, AWA fans clamored to see Hogan win Nick Bockwinkel’s AWA World Title. Although Hogan came close on several occasions, the championship was never his. On one such occurrence, Hulk even celebrated with the title only to have the decision reversed later by AWA officials. Hogan became frustrated with Gagne’s reluctance to give him a fair opportunity at Bockwinkel and was lured away to WWE by Mr. McMahon.
In Hogan’s re-emergence in WWE, he was brought to the ring by former rival Bob Backlund, who insisted that Hulk had changed his ways. Three weeks later, the big leg was dropped on The Iron Sheik and the rest is history.
Rick Rude: ECW to WWE to WCW
For all of sports-entertainment’s defections, no one did it more jarringly than The Ravishing One, Rick Rude. One of many legendary grapplers from Robbinsdale, Minn., Rude gained fame in the 1980s and early ’90s in WWE, WCW and beyond. After suffering a severe back injury in a match against Sting, Rude was forced to retire from active competition.
In 1996, Rude resurfaced somewhat surprisingly as a color commentator and ally of Shane Douglas in ECW. Rude taped several appearances for ECW and then began simultaneously appearing in both Philadelphia and in WWE as a part of the newly formed D-Generation X. But slick Rick — who was not signed to a full-time contract — didn’t stick around either organization for long.
On Nov. 17, 1997, a bearded Rude appeared alongside DX on Raw in a segment that had been taped six days prior. Also on Nov. 17, a mustachioed Rude appeared alongside The nWo on a live edition of WCW Nitro, delivering a scathing diatribe about his former employer.
To make matters more complex, Rude had appeared on a taped edition of ECW Hardcore TV two days prior, making him the only performer in history to appear for all three organizations within one week.
Raven: ECW to WCW to ECW
For more than two years, Raven stirred more controversy in ECW than any other extreme brawler. His rivalry with Tommy Dreamer solidified the grungy misanthrope from The Bowery as one of the ring’s most sadistic competitors. Everything Raven did was a possible PR nightmare, so it came as something of a surprise when the controversial competitor accepted a lucrative offer to join Ted Turner’s WCW in 1997.
The former ECW Champion adapted to the Atlanta style, forming The Flock and becoming a mainstay in the organization’s growing hardcore division. But as the company began to develop a series of backstage problems, Raven requested and received his walking papers. As shocking as it might have been to leave behind a fat Turner paycheck, even more jaw-dropping was where Raven appeared next.
On Aug. 26, 1999, at one of ECW’s favorite venues in Queens, N.Y., The Dudley Boyz won the ECW Tag Team Championship for a record eighth time on their final night in the company before heading to WWE. The two spectacled thugs were then challenged by Dreamer in an effort to keep the titles in ECW. Quickly outnumbered, the cavalry arrived in the form of Dreamer’s longtime bitter rival. Still with his leather jacket on, Raven stormed the ring and nailed Bubba Ray with a DDT to create one of the most unlikely Tag Team Champions in history.
Madusa: WWE to WCW
In the early 1990s, Madusa had some success in WCW as a member of Paul Heyman’s Dangerous Alliance, but she truly came into her own as Alundra Blayze in WWE. Blayze joined the McMahon-led organization in 1993 and quickly became the centerpiece of the relaunched Women’s division.
As tough as she was beautiful, her rivalries against Bull Nakano and Luna Vachon set the standard for female competition in North America. But in late 1995, WWE was struggling to compete with WCW and dismissed Blayze from the roster while she was still Women’s Champion. A big mistake, as Mr. McMahon would later learn.
Three weeks after appearing on Raw, Blayze appeared on Nitro with her WWE Women’s Championship. Having reverted back to being called Madusa, the competitor made a huge statement by dropping the title in a trash can on live television. It was a shocking sight, and it forced Mr. McMahon to consider his options with reigning champions in the future. Madusa was perhaps partially responsible for the controversial events that occurred two years later at Survivor Series 1997.
Scott Hall & Kevin Nash: WWE to WCW
No defection had as much of an impact on sports-entertainment as when the two men known as The Outsiders arrived in WCW. Taking place over the span of several weeks in spring and summer 1996, the invasion of the former Razor Ramon and Diesel changed the public’s perceptions of professional wrestling.
First, it was Hall. Then, it was Nash. They didn’t belong on Nitro. According to WCW commentators, they were still WWE employees. And their efforts to take control of the broadcast and overthrow WCW frightened announcers and competitors alike.
Nash and Hall’s presence in WCW led to the formation of The nWo and a ratings blitz that, for a time, made the Atlanta-based organization the most successful sports-entertainment company in the world. Together, The Outsiders declared war on WWE, WCW and everything in between. Their defection wasn’t just stunning. It was revolutionary.
Big Show: WCW to WWE
When Eric Bischoff began signing many of WWE’s stars to can’t-refuse contracts, Mr. McMahon was forced to retaliate by inciting a defection of his own.
Mr. McMahon, embroiled in his industry-changing rivalry with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, was set to battle The Texas Rattlesnake at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on Feb. 14, 1999. As fit as The Chairman was, he knew he likely couldn’t compete with Austin’s skills. The Boss needed a backup plan and called in former WCW Champion Big Show. Known in WCW as The Giant, he manhandled legendary competitors like Hulk Hogan before feeling overshadowed in the Turner-owned organization.
Just when it appeared as though “Stone Cold” would win the brutal contest, a massive individual tore through the canvas from underneath the ring and climbed inside the structure. Not since Andre the Giant’s prime had WWE fans seen a competitor of Big Show’s imposing stature. He lifted Austin with ease and tossed him into the steel bars, but the momentum broke the cage open and allowed The Rattlesnake to escape and win the matchup. It didn’t matter, though. Big Show had defected, and he meant business.