WCW icon defies the odds to become one of wrestling's most influential performers
From WOW Magazine, September 1999
By Steve Anderson
"I'm sure we are going to hear a lot from these two guys in the months and the years to come."
Bob Caudle, World Championship Wrestling color commentator, made that assertion at Clash of the Champions 12 on Sept. 12, 1990. The Master Blasters had just defeated Brad Armstrong and Tim Horner in their debut match, and Caudle predicted greatness for Blaster members Iron and Steel on that night.
Still, it was hardly a memorable debut, and only one of those two men ultimately went on to fulfill Caudle's prediction.
Kevin Nash went through several gimmicks in WCW before finally hitting it big in the WWF. (WOW)
Steel, also known as Kevin Nash, was in his first match as a professional. In the years to come, however, people would learn Nash's name. Watching a videotape of the rookie wrestler sporting an orange mohawk and a body covered in soot, it's hard to believe that Steel later would be world title material in both WCW and the World Wrestling Federation.
Steel was tentative and awkward. His moves were plodding. Still, he showed raw potential, and that coupled with his massive size made promoters take notice. The Master Blasters were WCW's response to the departed Road Warriors, who left during the summer of 1990 for the WWF. The newly formed tandem didn't last long, however, in a tag team division that boasted The Steiners, Doom and other more impressive duos.
Nash had not expected failure so soon. He seemed to be on the outside looking in at more successful and famous wrestlers. He was an outsider, even back then. Months before, he had been discovered working as a bouncer at an Atlanta bar and had been invited to WCW's training camp, an early version of today's Power Plant. Jody Hamilton trained Nash and other aspiring wrestlers, including former WCW manager Diamond Dallas Page.
So, with Steel never to be "forged," Nash needed a new gimmick, and the one that emerged was not necessarily custom-fit for him. Nash was "cast" as Oz, a resident of the Emerald City. The persona was an offshoot of WCW's desire to dig into Ted Turner's library of MGM movies. Since the rights were owned by the parent company, the licensing provided instantly recognizable gimmicks that cost little and promoted another part of the company.
Oz made his debut at the first Super Brawl on May 19, 1991, replete in an "old man" rubber mask. Accompanying him was a man called the Wizard (Kevin Sullivan) in an equally strange rubber mask. It was hardly a package that would strike fear in the hearts of wrestling fans. In fact, it brought more snickers than shrieks of terror.
After several defeats, Oz went the way of Steel, into the ever-growing WCW gimmick scrap heap of the early '90s. The last anyone saw of Oz was at Halloween Havoc 1991, when Bill Kazmeier defeated him.
Unbeknownst to most wrestling fans, there was a transitional period before Nash received probably his most successful WCW gimmick up to that time. For two months, he wrestled at house shows in a red mask and called himself Dr. X, exploring a persona more suited to who he really was. Away from the television cameras, Nash experimented with being himself, not merely some figment of a promoter's imagination.
In January 1992, Vinnie Vegas was born, a character loosely based on the Steve Martin role in "My Blue Heaven." Vegas was a tough-talking Nevada native, a true-blue Italian-American and gambler whose finisher was called "Snake Eyes." Nash has admitted that his Vegas persona is his second-favorite gimmick, behind the one that bears his given name.
For more than a year, Vegas changed managers and tag team partners. First, Harley Race served as Vegas' manager, teaming him with Mr. Hughes. Vegas then aligned himself with Diamond Dallas Page, who was splitting time between wrestling and managing. Page would accompany Vegas to ringside and wrestle as his tag team partner.
The two called themselves the Vegas Connection, forming a bond in and out of the ring and becoming close friends. Page recalled Nash always being there for him if he needed a friend or just a ride from the airport.
"We traveled the roads together," Page said.
Their "connection" represented more than just the name of their tag team. Unfortunately for Nash, he lacked a similar connection with WCW.
Nash's contract had expired, and WCW showed little interest in giving Nash a push or a new contract as Vinnie Vegas or any other persona. So, without informing any of his WCW comrades, Nash signed a deal with the WWF and headed north to Stamford, Conn.
"One day he left and he didn't tell anybody. He got his release and left," Page said. "That's when he showed up in WWF, which was the best thing to ever happen to him."
Vince McMahon has a way of taking wrestlers of so-called "mid-card" status who lack direction and putting them on a path to success. The Undertaker and Steve Austin are only two wrestlers who have benefited from McMahon's "magic."
Nash would stand alongside Shawn Michaels as his bodyguard. When he debuted on June 6, 1993, he was a man without a name, but by the King of the Ring pay-per-view he had secured a moniker that would launch him to the pinnacle of professional wrestling: Diesel.
Three months later, Michaels left the WWF due to a contract dispute, and Diesel became a bodyguard without a body to guard. Would this be yet another wrestling persona that would go by the wayside, a victim of circumstance?
Not if McMahon had anything to say about it. He responded to Michaels' absence by giving Diesel more ring time, and WWF fans started responding to him. Under the WWF umbrella, Diesel was improving every day. No longer sporting a mohawk, wearing a mask, or shaking dice, Diesel was emerging into a character that Kevin Nash could relate to best: himself.
Michaels would soon return, but the WWF saw potential in Diesel, envisioning him as the monster heel it had needed for so long. He was big, yet very agile. He was experienced, but still very malleable. Plus, there was a brain behind all that brawn.
Diesel emerged as a potential superstar at the Royal Rumble, and the WWF immediately put him on the title track. He eliminated six wrestlers, including Michaels, to the fans' delight. Diesel had not arrived yet, but he was very close.
A Big Stepping Stone
The Intercontinental title is considered either the pinnacle for a mid-carder or the stepping stone for a main eventer. For Diesel, it would be the latter, as he gained the belt from Razor Ramon on April 13, 1994. The victory came with a little help from Michaels, who had assumed the role, ironically, of Diesel's manager.
With the Intercontinental title wrapped around his waist, the haunting images of Steel, Oz and Vinnie Vegas vaporized for Diesel. One year after his uneventful entrance into the WWF, Diesel was a main eventer at the second King of the Ring, facing Bret Hart for the WWF World Heavyweight championship.
Diesel won that match by way of disqualification after Jim Neidhardt interfered. He also won the favor of even more fans and shined brightly under the fickle and sometimes cruel WWF spotlight.
The night before SummerSlam 1994, Michaels and Diesel won the WWF World tag team championship from the Headshrinkers. The victory caught most fans off guard since Diesel was rising in the singles ranks. The night of SummerSlam, Diesel lost the IC strap back to Razor Ramon thanks to an errant Shawn Michaels superkick. The seeds of a feud were sown.
After months of teasing, Michaels and Diesel went their separate ways on the night of Survivor Series 1994. Michaels also tossed his WWF tag belt in the garbage as a signal that his alliance with Big Daddy Cool and their reign as champions were over.
For the first time in seven months, Diesel was without gold. Three days later, that former-champion status would change dramatically.
Leading the New Generation
On Nov. 26, 1994, Kevin Nash achieved something many believed he never could have while mired in WCW mid-card mediocrity.
Bob Backlund had won the WWF world title from Bret Hart at the Survivor Series three days earlier. Backlund represented the antithesis of the WWF's "New Generation," and many thought his title reign would be lengthy and generate a great deal of heat before the torch would be passed to a member of that "generation."
Indeed, the torch was passed, just a little sooner than most people expected.
Word of Diesel's second title victory - the first world title change that did not occur at a television taping or pay-per-view since Hulk Hogan won the strap in 1984 - sent shock waves through the wrestling world. And while Diesel was showing promise, few expected him to be the standard bearer for the WWF so soon.
"I think he handled it well," said WCW's James J. Dillon, who was with the WWF at the time Diesel reigned as champion. "He was given the opportunity and he knew how to take advantage of it."
To say the length of Diesel's title reign exceeded Backlund's would be an understatement. Not since Randy Savage held the strap for one full year from 1989 to 1990 had anyone seen such a lasting reign.
Diesel was also becoming a spokesperson for the new, youth-oriented WWF. This was not the federation that your parents watched. This was a gathering of young, promising athletes with their best years ahead of them. In every way they could, they tried to contrast their efforts with those of the performers in WCW, which was in the process of signing several older and more established wrestlers.
Diesel wrestled in every pay-per-view main event during his yearlong reign. In doing so, he became one of the elite who competed in Wrestlemania as the top wrestler. Diesel faced Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 11 in a bout many thought Michaels would emerge from with the belt, forever labeling Diesel as a caretaker champion. That was not to be, however, as Diesel defeated Michaels as well as Sid, the British Bulldog and Bret Hart. With each pay-per-view victory came more respect for Diesel. Fans not accustomed to seeing the world title belt around his waist were beginning to accept it, and those who ballyhooed the decision to make him the champion were starting to watch with greater interest.
Bret Hart, in a third title encounter, ultimately ended Diesel's reign shortly before his one-year anniversary as champion. Hart's victory also spelled the end of Diesel's babyface run. The "corporate champion" who embraced the marketing suits and smiled for the camera lashed out at McMahon with bitterness and rebellion. He was back to the role as the rebellious "outsider," a character certainly more suited to Nash.
A Return to WCW
The dawn of 1996 saw new possibilities for a heel Diesel. He had turned on Shawn Michaels and was programmed for an upcoming feud with The Undertaker. But opportunities also came from a different source: WCW. The federation offered him a lucrative, multi-year contract to jump ship, and Nash accepted.
The man who had made a name for himself in the WWF and became so closely associated with that federation was returning to the place that offered him Oz and Vinnie Vegas. The rules, however, had changed. By then, Nash was a main eventer worthy of big money deals and title pushes.
Speculation abounded after Nash's WCW deal was announced. Could he keep his Diesel moniker or could he call himself "Big Daddy Cool?" Some thought he would go back to being Vinnie Vegas.
None of those assertions ended up coming to fruition, as Kevin Nash was getting ready to assume the one character he had wanted to play since he debuted as Master Blaster Steel.
When Kevin Nash returned to WCW, he could play a character that was more like himself as a cool outsider. (WOW)
He would be Kevin Nash.
Although they signed around the same time, Scott Hall would show up in WCW ahead of Nash, declaring the "war" that would do more benefit to WCW than any past angle. Although he did not say it outright, Hall implied that he was down from the WWF to "take over." He promised battles with his new home promotion and vowed to bring more men with him.
The New World Order
Kevin Nash was the second man to "invade" when he returned to WCW on June 10, 1996.
What started then was one of the most entertaining and longest-running angles in pro wrestling history. Hall and Nash, calling themselves the Outsiders, and Hollywood Hulk Hogan comprised the original New World Order (nWo). The invasion angle created interesting storylines for WCW and attracted more viewers than for the WWF's Monday night counterpart.
For Nash, it was a unique opportunity to not only wrestle under his given name, but also to fashion a "persona" similar to his own. He did not espouse the company line, nor did he wear the garb of a famous wizard. He was simply Kevin Nash, a free-speaking and rebellious "outsider" who was always quick with a retort or witty one-liner.
Kevin Nash the wrestler erased the memories of his previous characters and of being a mid-card competitor who put over the main event wrestlers. If you ask any wrestler, he or she will tell you that task is more difficult than it sounds.
"Once you get in that mode, it's really hard," Page said of re-inventing yourself as a wrestler. "You've got to go away. You've got to make it somewhere like New York or Japan to come back."
Referee Brian Hildebrand said of Nash, "He is one of the best big men in the business. He's very smart in what he does in the ring. There's no wasted motion. From when he first broke in until now, even through his WWF years, you can see how he's developed into a smart wrestler."
He also became a champion in short order when he and Hall won the WCW world tag team title at Halloween Havoc 1996. Once again, Nash would go on an unprecedented championship run, as he and Hall held the belt for nearly a year.
Singles vs. Team
Nevertheless, having Hall and Nash as a team deprived fans of seeing them as exciting singles wrestlers. WCW had a history of taking successful tag teams and creating feuds among the members, and it would do the same for Hall and Nash. Ultimately, with his behind-the-scenes problems and long absences, Hall made Nash a singles star by default.
As a singles or tag team wrestler, Nash was experiencing an all-time high in popularity. He was the modern-day heel who could commit any heinous action and have the fans clamoring for more. His scathing comments to WCW fan favorites were always laced with sarcasm and humor, and fans grew to love the smirking big man.
Some in WCW thought that Nash's "playing to the crowd" flew in the face of the nWo "credo" as a rule-breaking group. The compromise? An nWo in Nash's image called The Wolfpac. They would don different colors and become a rebel group that maintained relations with WCW. Joining that nWo no longer signified betrayal.
Nash had Konnan, Sting and Luger by his side, and Scott Hall stayed on Hogan's side. Nash's feud with Hall, however, was brief and somewhat sporadic due to Hall's personal problems. Still, Nash was a very popular and marketable singles wrestler who showed championship poise outside the ring and polish inside it.
Nash also increased his influence backstage and was named "head booker" of WCW around the time that Hogan announced his retirement in November 1998. Nitro was being pummeled by the WWF's Raw week after week, and Nash made a commitment to turn around WCW's television fortunes. His first major decision, however, caused great controversy.
Reforming the 'Pac'
Bill Goldberg was the undefeated rookie champion, his trademark cry of "Who's next?" on the minds of many wrestling fans. When Kevin Nash won the World War 3 Battle Royal, it automatically placed him in the Starrcade world title bout. But there was a difference between this title opportunity and the one in the WWF four years earlier.
Nash was now the head booker, placed in that role to turn around WCW's fortunes. Ratings and locker room morale were dropping. Something needed to be done. New ideas were needed, as WCW tried to find the formula to upend the WWF's momentum. Nash decided to take an active role as he took the position.
"I give him credit," Hildebrand said. "Instead of sitting back and moaning and complaining, he stepped up and said, 'Let me take a shot at it and see what's going to happen.' "
That new responsibility put Nash in a tough position. Would he set a so-called "example" to certain wrestlers and do the job to Goldberg, or would he try to revive WCW's flagging ratings by making himself champion?
Nash chose the latter, but not necessarily for his benefit. The title victory, with interference by Scott Hall, launched the storyline that would bring the original members of the nWo back together. Eight days later, Nash "laid down" on national television for the now-unretired Hollywood Hogan, who became the new champion. The Wolfpac - reborn with Nash, Hogan, Hall, Buff Bagwell, Scott Steiner and Lex Luger - was promoted as the primary nWo faction.
But the hoopla and excitement surrounding the reunion did not translate into higher television ratings. In addition, Hogan longed to play the fan favorite role again. Nash was simply a fan favorite by default. Luger was on the shelf, nursing an injury. Bagwell and Steiner were programmed into a feud with each other. Hall, meanwhile, went on another personal sabbatical. Any momentum gained was lost amid this unfortunate sequences of events, not to mention the less-than-stellar status of the nWo "black and white."
While Nash and other members may still wear the colors of The Wolfpac, there is little evidence of unity. They all have seemed to go their separate ways in WCW storylines, including Nash, who found himself (some would say placed himself) back in the title picture.
A Diesel-Like Dynasty?
At press time, Nash once again reigned as WCW world heavyweight champion, having defeated Diamond Dallas Page at Slamboree. Many fans think Nash is looking at a long-term reign as champion to restore some stability to the WCW world title, which has had many owners recently. It would also be a way to distinguish the championship from the one in the WWF that has been passed around like a proverbial "hot potato."
However long it may last, Nash's reign will certainly contrast sharply with the eight days he ruled earlier in the year. It will even differ from Nash's thrust into the WWF spotlight in 1994, when he rocked the wrestling world as the new WWF world champion. Being a champion in front of the camera and holding an influential behind-the-scenes role is a balancing act Nash must cope with if he is to succeed.
Nash has held many elite designations. He's won the WWF trifecta of world, Intercontinental and tag team titles and is one of only a handful of men to be WWF and WCW world champion. But when wrestling historians get to the chapter about Kevin Nash, what will they write? WCW's James J. Dillon offered his opinion on Nash's all-important place in wrestling history.
"I think he will be looked upon as one of the quality performers of this era who certainly enjoyed a tremendous degree of success," Dillon said. "He's always been a very smart, very bright individual. He quickly grasps the surroundings and environment he is in. He has learned to adapt and adjust as he's gone forward."
Master Blaster, Oz, Vinnie Vegas, Dr. X, Diesel. Whatever the name, Kevin Nash has given wrestling fans a decade of surprising and memorable moments. Whether outsider or insider, he has defied the odds and the predictions of mediocrity.
Kevin Nash has gone from bar bouncer to green rookie to one of the most influential men in sports entertainment. Most importantly, Nash has done it all his way.
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