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By Tom Woods Aug 30, 2017 - 12:23 PM print

Twenty years ago, the WWE was locked in a ferocious battle with its rival federation, WCW. Vince McMahon and Ted Turner stood eyeball to eyeball, but eventually, it was McMahon who won the day. By the turn of the millennium, WCW was in its death throes, and today remains a footnote in wrestling history.

It is easy for the latest generation of WWE fans to disregard how much talent defected to the WCW in its mid-1990s heyday. So too is it easy for those fans to overlook how much hero-worshipped WWE talent was first nurtured by WCW. From an era where no quarter was given and none expected, these defections between the two main federations were pivotal to their respective fates – and those of the people involved.

Bret Hart (1997, WWE to WCW)

The ‘Montreal Screwjob’ is a story in itself, and one frequently revisited in wrestling fandom. A deliberately booked defeat for Bret Hart, believed to be for the Federation's greater good, it undoubtedly represented the darkest moment before the dawn for a WWE facing financial oblivion. It was a poor way for the former intercontinental champion and WWF championship belt holder to exit the Federation after 11 years of distinguished service.

After more than doubling his wages upon arriving at WCW, and having the additional benefit of a ‘creative control’ clause, Hart made an instant impact for WCW. He was the face of the company in its fight against insurgent group New World Order, headed by newly villainous ‘Hollywood’ Hulk Hogan and several others.

After two successful years in WCW, 1999 would represent a year of decline and great personal tragedy for Bret Hart. On May 23, his brother Owen died after falling 50 feet during a stunt. A period of bereavement followed, but shortly after returning to action, Hart suffered a career-ending concussion. He made a brief in-ring (but largely non-physical) return to the now-WWE in 2010.

Effectiveness rating: 4/5 – 2006 saw Hart inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, and his self-belief through the unglamorous ‘jobbing’ gigs of the 1980s have paid off in abundance.

British Bulldog (1994, WCW to WWE)

Davey Boy Smith successfully made a name for himself on both sides of the Pacific. Firstly, he made his New Japan Pro wrestling debut in 1983, embarking on a feud with future stable mate Dynamite Kid. In 1985, he joined the WWE and made much publicity for his ongoing feud with the Hart Foundation.

After a brief stint with the Stampede promotion, he returned to the WWE and continued where he left off. Bulldog’s Wembley Stadium appearance at SummerSlam 1992 was the highlight of his second stint with the Federation, with the event seeing him win the intercontinental championship in a match against Bret Hart.

Stints with the WCW and All Star Wrestling brands preceded a third period with the WWE, in which his career would finally be made or broken. In a bizarre twist, he would team up with former rival Bret Hart, as he engaged in a feud with fellow Hart Foundation members Owen Hart and Jim Neidhart. Being British might have put him at a disadvantage with an audience that craved an all-American hero to win titles, but the Bulldog still made a modest success of his third spell with the WWE.

Today, even American crowds may feel inclined to back a European visitor to the States if he is unfancied and resonates in a better way with those in attendance. For instance, ahead of his fight with Floyd Mayweather, some would argue that Conor McGregor fell into this category, and he remained a popular pick for those using free bet of £30 right up until the first bell. Back then, however, Shawn Michaels fitted the bill of that ‘American hero’ perfectly, and nobody was under any illusion as to which man the audience was rooting for when his rivalry with the Bulldog erupted in the mid-1990s.

By virtue of that feud, the Bulldog remained on the periphery of legendary status, but it would never be fully achieved, despite him becoming the very first WWF European Championship holder. With further defections and injuries in the late 1990s, his flow was disrupted.

Effectiveness rating: 3/5 – The fact that he was at his absolute peak in the 1995 Royal Rumble may mark his third stint at the WWE as his most pivotal period. Though the event itself was commercially disappointing, it is seen by many critics as a crucial part of the WWE’s survival in the face of WCW’s success.

For the first time in WWE history, the 1995 Royal Rumble saw the first two entrants outlast the other 28. Regardless of the titular event’s dramatic finish, nothing could prevent the whole evening from going down as a poor show.

Kevin Nash (1996, WWE to WCW)

Nash made his WCW debut in 1990 as one-half of the ‘Master Blasters’, under the moniker ‘Steel’, alongside ‘Iron’. After stints as a Wizard of Oz-themed grappler, followed by a gangster persona – topically based on Steve Martin's character in My Blue Heaven – he joined the WWE as a heel.

Now known as ‘Diesel’, his brash mannerisms and cocky demeanor provided something of a prototype for the game-changing ‘Attitude Era’ that was just around the corner. His presence resonated well with an audience that craved a newer, more relevant form of antihero, and the fact that he too entered a high-profile feud with Shawn Michaels speaks volumes. After a short title reign, his relationship with Vince McMahon was affected by the WWE’s poor financial situation. Despite acknowledging that the WWE had been the making of him as a true athlete, he was drawn back to a WCW with a firm upper hand over the WWE.

From a personal perspective, Nash’s timing was perfect. In becoming a part of the renegade New World Order faction, alongside long-term friend Scott Hall, he was able to seamlessly adapt his antihero persona to his new federation. Reigns as WCW world heavyweight champion would follow, before his return to the WWE in 2002 along with Hall.

Effectiveness rating: 4/5 – Nash only misses out on full marks by virtue of the fact that luck was on his side much of the time, and he duly took the opportunities that fell to him.

Stone Cold Steve Austin (1995, WCW to WWE)

Steve Austin finished that which Kevin Nash arguably began, prior to the latter’s defection to the WCW. After rising to prominence at the WCW as one-half of the Hollywood Blonds, Austin was considered surplus to requirements in 1995 and sacked by Eric Bischoff, with the vice president also claiming that Austin was difficult to work with. After a brief spell with Extreme Championship Wrestling, Austin joined the WWF, and Bischoff’s loss was McMahon’s gain.

Within a year of joining, Steve Austin was a fully fledged antihero, having felled Jake Roberts in an anti-climactic 1996 King of the Ring finale, subsequently birthing the term ‘Austin 3:16’. In 1996 through 1997, he was embroiled in a feud with Bret Hart, and by extension the Hart Foundation. His controversial defeat of Hart at the 1997 Royal Rumble , followed by Hart’s departure from the Federation altogether led him into a series of feuds that cemented him as the face of the organization. Most notably, there was his seemingly endless feud with Vince McMahon, which far transcended the belligerent promos that once enthralled the crowd.

On October 19, 1998, Steve Austin pulled a fake gun in Vince McMahon. Such a feat would have been considered way beyond the pale just five years previously. However, this moment was just one of many within the Austin vs. McMahon feud, which was a cornerstone of the ‘Attitude Era’.

Effectiveness rating: 5/5 – Stone Cold Steve Austin gets full marks. When ‘The Rattlesnake’ first began wrestling back in 1989, few could have envisioned the decade that lay before him. Though the identity of WWE’s true savior is disputed, Austin is rightly credited as the man who enabled the WWE to finally win a war with the WCW that, for the longest time, it lo

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