Ringside Shadows #136: The Four Horsemen Complete History (part XII: 1998 and Beyond)
Just months removed from what could've become the strongest modern roster in the stable's history, the Four Horsemen found themselves scattered across the WCW landscape. Curt Hennig's nWo turn, an unexpected obstacle, had caught the group completely off guard and left them broken and directionless. For once, Ric Flair didn't have the answer and the four were quietly disbanded through a telephone interview. Though separated in body, the former members did their best to keep the stable alive in spirit. Chris Benoit still wore tights embroidered with the Horsemen logo to the ring. Mongo often rose the four fingers, disregarding the absence of their meaning in the group's absence. Though he wouldn't admit it until later, a part of Arn Anderson's heart was empty without the reassurance of the infamous stable at his back. It certainly appeared as though the nWo had effectively destroyed their enemies, but it was only a matter of time before the war would rage once again.
It all started in a roundabout way, on the eve of April 9th. Ric Flair claimed he'd been granted the night off months in advance. He'd planned to watch his youngest son, Reid, participate in an amateur wrestling tournament in Minnesota. Eric Bischoff, however, says Flair never asked for the time off, and booked the Nature Boy for a Thunder broadcast in Florida. In the weeks before, Flair had signed a letter of intent to stay with WCW. It served as a legally binding document, which basically stated Ric wouldn't show up on Raw while he was negotiating a new contract with Turner. The whole thing wouldn't have amounted to much of anything, had WCW not heavily promoted Flair's presence in the days before. Mean Gene told us on the Nitro prior that Ric had a "very important announcement in store, regarding the future of the Horsemen".
Naturally, the viewers tuned in to see what Flair had to say, but Ric had flown to Minnesota anyway, putting his family ahead of the business. Gene explained to the viewing audience that Flair had experienced flight problems and was stuck in Charlotte, which was the last time the Nature Boy's name would be mentioned on WCW TV for months. Bischoff had decided to make an example out of Flair, much in the same vein as he had with Vader years earlier. He sued, taking Slick Ric for nearly all he was worth. He teased reuniting the Horsemen without their centerpiece. He tried ignoring the weekly, thunderous chants that demanded "We want Flair!" It wasn't long before rumors hit the net, confirming his arrival on Raw almost immediately.
Meanwhile, Nitro carried on with the teased Horsemen angle, Flair or not. Chris Benoit became a constant thorn in Arn Anderson's side, reminding him that the legacy shouldn't die so easily. Despite the fact that Anderson wanted no part of any reunion without Flair, stating his opinion bluntly on several occasions backstage, Benoit would not be swayed. He fought the good fight, resuming the group's crusade against the nWo after defeating each member of Raven's flock in singles combat. Though he gave everything he could offer against the constantly growing heel faction, Benoit often found himself overwhelmed by the sheer number of his opponents. One evening, following a match with Stevie Ray, Benoit again found himself buried by the mob of nWo members... only this time help was on its way. Steve McMichael, who had taken months off from the ring, returned to save his long time teammate. The two shared a glance, turned to the audience and proudly rose four fingers to the air. The audience erupted, proving not even Bischoff's power could crush a legacy.
benoit and mcmichael unite, instantly
gratifying thousands of fans with a single gesture
Following their own realignment, Benoit and McMichael started in on Arn Anderson again, whose opinion still hadn't changed. Along the way, Benoit's friend and former partner Dean Malenko joined the crusade. After working so closely with the Crippler for so many years, Dean saw how important the group was to his friend. As a second generation wrestler himself, he also held tradition in high regard... and the Horsemen represented that tradition in every essence of the word. To see them defeated by the nWo debunked the years of suffering the original four had endured, and served as a slap in the face to all the men they'd beaten to gain their legendary status. Dean didn't want to see tradition dead, not yet, and joined the effort to reform the Horsemen. He was soon accompanying the Benoit and McMichael to the ring, saving them when the occasion called for it and occasionally tagging up with them.
Though he meant well, Malenko's addition to the movement bothered Arn, and the Enforcer became more and more vocally opposed to what they were trying to do. One particularly memorable Nitro speech saw Double A revealing the deep scar that runs down his neck, telling the Iceman that the mark was something he'd earned through his years with the Horsemen. Tradition wasn't dead, so long as he remained standing. The three youthful revolutionaries were moved by the speech they'd witnessed, and as a disgruntled Anderson stalked back to the locker room, a touch of doubt appeared on their faces.
Not long after, the nWo started in with their usual bag of tricks. When the new Horsemen movement was the subject of another nWo parody, Malenko took personal offense and embarked on a feud with the stable, focusing primarily on Curt Hennig. Though Hennig had the definite edge in terms of manpower (especially once Rick Rude began accompanying him to the ring), Malenko was always in charge and took multiple nearfalls, DQs and the like. That's not to say Rude and Hennig were helpless, however, and the inseparable duo had the Iceman at their mercy more often than not. Rumors swirled about Rude's imminent return to the ring, which were amplified when he used his old finisher, the rude awakening, on Malenko one particular Thunder. Fed up with the whole feud, Hennig invited the iceman into a steel cage on Nitro, where the two would settle things once and for all. When Stevie Ray joined Hennig and Rude in the ring, Malenko knew it was bound to be a rough night.
Hennig dominated the early goings, much to the delight of his friends on the outside. But once Malenko took a distinct advantage, Rick Rude played his trump card. He produced the keys to the cage door, climbing in with Stevie Ray right on his heels. Together, the three destroyed the man of one thousand holds, and drug his body to the cage door. Reminiscent of the move that ended the Horsemen of 1997, the three draped Malenko's head through the opening and prepared to slam the cage door on him... until Arn Anderson arrived from absolutely nowhere. Let me reiterate this: in a day and age when one can see a run-in coming a mile away (usually by watching the crowd, who turns in anticipation every time a stage hand moves on the entryway), this came from out of nowhere. The attention was so centered on Hennig and Rude's activities that Arn's lighting fast run-in was a necessarily unexpected surprise.
Double A tore down the entryway, clotheslined Hennig (who sold like a bomb had just gone off in his face) turned and decked Rude an instant later, and climbed into the ring to meet Stevie Ray. Both peeled off their shirts as the crowd went nuts, and Arn dared the former Harlem Heat member to make a move for him. Stevie obliged, and soon found himself greeting the cage wall with a kiss. Ray went down and the Enforcer put the boots to him, forcing him to the floor, where Hennig and Rude still didn't know what had hit them. It was Arn's first physical contact in the ring since his surgery, and he made it mean something.
The next week on Nitro, the WCW Executive Committee chairman, JJ Dillon, was spotted backstage in a tux. Moments later, he appeared in the ring. The Carolina crowd was already anticipating a possible Flair return, and even the most remote Horsemen reference would've been enough to send the roof off the place. Dillon introduced Arn Anderson, and the crowd had their excuse. An enormous "We want Flair" chant shook the arena, and Arn played it for all it was worth, telling us "everybody's gonna get what they want tonight." Clad in a tux himself, Double A kicked out yet another unbelievable speech. "Tonight is a new beginning for the four" he said, "About a year and a half ago, I laid down on an operating table, and when I woke up, Arn Anderson the wrestler was dead. And I thought to myself, 'How could I be a Horsemen if I couldn't be a wrestler?' Well, the fact is, I questioned my mind. When I thought I could no longer be a Horseman, Chris Benoit came to me... and he said, 'This could all happen.'"
With that, he introduced the new roster. McMichael, Benoit and Malenko. He took a moment to praise their particular talents, saying "the best thing in the world I can call you is a Horsemen. And I'm proud to do that now," before letting the anticipation get to him and rushing to the next segment. "I'm not going to be responsible for what happens next. Because we don't wear white hats. We are not nice guys. And I can tell you this: heads are going to roll. Greenville... I give you the champ." Seconds later, The Nature Boy was on his way to the ring. To say he got the pop of the night would be an understatement.
A humbled Flair tried to get a word in amongst the cheers, but it was no use. With the affection obviously having a profound effect on him, the best he could muster was "thank you." This is the kind of moment that makes your heart soar as a wrestling fan, the moment that sends a tingle through your body. Finally, Flair regained his composure and spoke of tradition, how the past twenty five years on the road were all worth it. Passionately, he turned his attention to Eric Bischoff and his crimes against the sport, recalling his words the night of Arn Anderson's retirement. Flair got so worked up in the process that he took a chunk out of his own tongue. Blood pouring from his mouth, he never missed a step and plowed right through what was arguably the most memorable interview of the decade. As he told us the disbandment of the Horsemen was Bischoff's doing, Eric stepped from behind the curtain. In an instant, Flair became a different man. While being physically held back by the Horsemen, out of his mind with rage, Bischoff announced the show was over. Flair called him an "overbearing asshole." Tearing his jacket off, the Nature Boy invited Eric into the ring, but Bischoff had already gone to the back. The show triumphantly went to commercial as Flair and company enjoyed the adoration of their public. The boys were back.
By the next week, Bischoff had wasted no time and began to flex his corporate muscle. He'd acknowledged Flair's presence as a personality, but wouldn't call him a wrestler. Flair wasn't allowed to work a match, and Eric proceeded to exact his revenge on the other three, through ridiculously one-sided matches. As his mouth ran the next week on Nitro, the Horsemen tried to approach the ring, only to be stopped by Doug Dillenger and the WCW security team. After a heated staredown, Dillenger stepped out of the Horsemen's way and ordered the security under his command to do the same. Bischoff was irate, but he soon had company in the ring. While Eric tried to talk the talk, he successfully walked the walk... right into a corner. He was at the Horsemen's mercy, and they made sure he knew it. Flair told us that he was the one who introduced Hogan to Bischoff, and the segment ended with all the Horsemen raising four fingers right in the little prick's face. It was a quiet message, but it delivered in spades.
One week later, Eric came out to tell us The Nature Boy wasn't in the arena, but Arn was right there to tell him he was wrong. Apparently a Flair was in the arena, in the form of young Reid. Anderson looked on as the ten year old styled and profiled in the ring, abruptly taking Bischoff to the mat on two different occasions. When Bischoff demanded Reid's father on the telephone, 2001: A Space Odyssey blasted on the speakers. Ric Flair was in attendance, and that was enough to send Eric out through the crowd. The nWo bad boys were quick to circle the ring, but the remaining three Horsemen were even quicker in chasing them off. Again, Flair and friends had the last laugh.
the horsemen of 1998.
In the weeks just after, Benoit and Malenko began to team on a regular basis with Arn Anderson serving as their manager. Their run as a team would lead to what was effectively the last hurrah for the WCW Tag Division, competing against teams such as Raven & Perry Saturn and Rey Mysterio, Jr. & Kidman.
Flair, meanwhile, came to the ring one Thursday night with a surprise for Mean Gene; a returning Barry Windham. The old school Horseman wasn't a new member, but Flair was simply glad to see him back. It wasn't long before Bischoff made his way to ringside, telling Barry there's no room for him in WCW. Later in the program, Bret Hart took on Chris Benoit in a fabulous little match that Chris took via DQ. When Hart didn't like the decision and clobbered Benoit with a chair, Malenko tried to make the save. When Hart flattened Dean with the chair as well, Diamond Dallas Page finally ran him off for good.
Only one week later, Bischoff called Flair out to the ring, accompanied by Windham. Eric was acting surprisingly submissive, and told Flair he wanted to mend fences. The old school Horsemen exchanged high fives, and Bischoff mentioned the irony, claiming Barry would be knocking Flair on his ass before the night was through. Flair laughed it off, and Easy-E slapped him directly in the face. When Flair made a move for the little man, Windham turned and floored his former teammate. The turncoat sat down on a chinlock, while Eric rained down the hurt with kicks to the head. The Horsemen tried a run-in, but that was just what Eric's men were waiting for. The nWo intercepted them midway and isolated Malenko immediately, targetting his knee. Angrily, Bischoff banned Benoit, McMichael, Anderson and Flair from the arena and put the injured Iceman in a match with Bret Hart. The two went sixteen minutes, before Hart reverted to the use of a chair again and found himself disqualified.
One week later, Flair had decided it was time he and Eric had a match. Calling the president out on live TV, Flair shouted "If you wanna fire me, fire me... but in your neighborhood tomorrow a twelve year old kid's gonna say, 'Ric Flair called you out - he's old, can't you beat him?' A 10-year-old down the block's gonna say 'Bischoff, Ric Flair called you out last night.' Ted Turner's gonna look across the board of directors and say 'Did Flair call Bischoff out last night?' They're gonna say 'yeah!' I wanna wrestle you here tonight, tomorrow, next week... you and I are gonna have it out once and for all. YOU. ME. COME. JUMP. ON. THIS. OLD. MAN! WOOOO!" Bischoff responded in person, flanked by Barry Windham. He accepted the challenge, under one condition: that Malenko beat Windham one on one later that very night. Dean had no problem with it, and even told the other Horsemen to leave the arena, as he wanted to do this by himself. When the Horsemen had agreed, Bischoff introduced the special referee: long time Horseman enemy Dusty Rhodes.
Though Windham didn't really give the previous week's Malenko vs. Hart match much of a run for its money, the fight was as strong as can be expected... considering it was two minutes long. Barry was viciously assaulting Malenko's leg throughout the match, and Dusty wasn't forcing a break in the corner. Dean went down and after a couple submission holds didn't net a finish, Windham started getting dirty. He hit low blows, illegal holds and whatnot... and Dusty turned a blind eye to it all. Windham wrapped Malenko's leg around the ringpost, and Duthtay quietly asked for a break. When Windham refused, Rhodes flat out disqualified him! An irate Eric Bischoff confronted the American Dream and fired him, but it was all that he could do; the match had been set for Starrcade, Flair vs. Bischoff.
In the weeks leading up to their meeting, Flair became even more animated and excitable in his promos. Though he wasn't allowed to work until Starrcade, that didn't stop him from dropping elbows on thin air and bouncing around on the ropes. On Nitro one evening, Ric was going through the same motions when something seemed to go wrong. After telling Bischoff he would rip out his heart, and "show the world," he grabbed his left shoulder and slumped to the mat. Mean Gene quickly wrapped the segment up, while Flair sat in the corner, staring blankly into the distance. It was a legitimately scary angle, as Arn Anderson, the WCW trainers and Dusty Rhodes came out to check on the Nature Boy. Doctors later told Flair he'd been "poisoned," and that was the last we heard of it.
Bischoff later tried to apologize to the fans and the Flair family for his actions. Later in the week on Thunder, Bischoff had David and Reid Flair in the ring, and told them both he was sorry... for kicking their asses. With one swipe, David was on the floor and the nWo's Brian Adams had restrained Reid. Eric continued the assault on an unconscious David, then made a quick move for Ric's wife, Beth. Bisch grabbed a quick kiss before Thunder ended.
That following Monday, Barry Windham and Van Hammer were ready to begin their scheduled matchup, and Flair stopped the action before it had even begun. He caught a surprised Windham from behind and immediately went cheap, hitting low blows, eye rakes and widening the various orifaces in his former ally's face a bit. Barry tried to fight back, but it was no use. When he fell back into a corner, Ric hit a kick square in the nuts before the nWo ran in to stop the violence. The Horsemen caught them before they got to the ring, and chaos erupted. The police eventually made an appearance and had to use mace to restrain the Horsemen. The night ended as Flair stared right through the camera, snarling "Bischoff, as God is my witness... I. WILL. KILL. YOU."
The Starrcade that followed was far from a good sign for the white-hot new group. Within the opening minutes of the broadcast, Bobby Heenan told us that the Horsemen had been taken from the building by force. Flair and Bischoff was a mini-main event, capping the middle of the card, and Flair held a strong advantage throughout, with the boss landing a solid kick or two when things got monotonous. The Nature Boy looked to have things wrapped up, when Curt Hennig made his return after a couple months off. Hennig handed a pair of brass knuckles through the ropes to the executive leader of the nWo and Eric put them to use, KO'ing Flair and covering him for the swerve that nobody wanted to see.
The very next night, Flair walked to the ring with his luggage in tow, apparently deciding to show on Nitro at the last second. He started the segment almost sedate, telling Gene and his fans that he blew a golden opportunity, and didn't deserve any of the praise he'd been given. It didn't take long before things got heated, though. He started slowly, taking off his coat, naming its maker and price and laying it in the center of the ring. Various accessories came off in the same fashion: his sweater, his watch, his shoes. By the time he was through, Flair found himself standing in the center of the ring in his boxers, telling Bischoff it could all be his. He handcuffed himself to the ropes, did a little dance, and told Eric to meet him face to face like a man. Before Bischoff was even in the ring, Ric had already decided on the stipulations: if he lost tonight, Eric could have all his worldly possessions, but if he won, he'd run WCW for 90 days.
Easy-E finally got near the ring, and said it was fun beating up his son. He loved kissing Flair's wife. But none of it would be nearly as exciting as taking all of his money. With an enraged Flair lunging for him, Bischoff said "you're on." It was all Flair needed to hear. Two and a half hours later, the man was already waiting in the ring. Backstage cameras showed us that Bischoff was having second thoughts, as he made a beeline toward his own limo. He opened the door and climbed in, immediately climbing right back out, face as white as a sheet. Mongo, Benoit and Malenko had been waiting for him inside. The three carried the evil promoter to the ring, where he attempted to beg off instantly. The crowd was all over Bischoff, as Flair peeled the skin from the front of his chest with brutal, backhanded chops. Minutes of absolute Flair domination led nWo flunkies Horace and Vincent to run-in. Not surprisingly, the four men on the floor were enough to counter any offense these two might have thrown together. With Bischoff apparently unconscious in the ring, the rest of the nWo flooded the ringside area. Amazingly, Benoit and company kept them from the ring, but when the Giant hit the Horseman blockade it became too much. He halfhazardly stepped into the ring and floored the unsuspecting Flair with a big headbutt.
As the locker room continued to empty, the Giant motioned for a chokeslam. When Randy Savage made his first appearance in months, the big man hesitated, but all seemed to be in order when the Macho Man flashed the "Wolfpac" hand signal. Wight went for the chokeslam, but Randy changed his mind, hitting a low blow and throwing the Giant back over the top rope. Flair lifted Bischoff into a big vertical suplex, then locked in the figure four. When Bischoff tapped, the entire arena was on its feet. Despite having already won the match, Flair dropped an elbow and covered for three just for the hell of it. It was a good time, and a superb up note upon which to end a sub-par year for WCW.
Unfortunately, the end of 1998 would also prove to be a climax for this incarnation of the Horsemen. With his newfound power, Flair spent less and less time with the stable he'd lifted to near-mythic proportions in the past. Not a month into the year, Ric was teaming with his son David on PPV, while Benoit and Malenko struggled in the tag ranks. They would eventually hold the Tag Team Championships, Benoit's first officially acknowledged WCW gold.
It's been said absolute power corrupts absolutely, and such was the case with Flair. After extending his reign as President further than the original ninety days, the Nature Boy seemed to lose his mind. Benoit and Malenko tried to remind him of the Horsemen's existence, but Ric remained ignorant. He put the US title on his son, and that was pretty well the straw that broke the camel's back. Dean and Chris made the break official, appearing as Roddy Piper's "mystery partners" in a match against Flair and Diamond Dallas Page a few short weeks later.
Benoit would go on to hold each title in WCW's rotation (with the exception of the cruiserweight belt), including a brief one day reign as World Champ before heading to the greener pastures of the WWF. Malenko's story reads much the same. After dropping the tag straps he shared with Benoit, Dean joined up with Shane Douglas, Perry Saturn and Benoit, in the Revolution. Dean also jumped to the wild frontier of the WWF. Steve McMichael suffered a foot injury at the beginning of 1999 and was released from WCW. His current whereabouts are unknown. Arn Anderson eventually sided with Ric Flair, advising him as best he could through the Presidential reign. He now works as a road agent for WWE. Flair himself has since won the World Title for a fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth time, returning from a short retirement as CEO of the company. Suitably enough, he worked the last match in WCW history against Sting and eventually jumped to WWE as co-owner of the company alongside Vince McMahon himself.
Though it was a shame to see the historic stable fall apart so quickly in 1999, none can deny the magical air that surrounded them mere months earlier, as Flair locked Eric Bischoff into the figure four leglock on Monday Nitro. The stable's been through much worse, come back from more debilitating a break, and stood strong through too vicious a hellstorm to let it all end like this, and it's honestly only a matter of time before those four fingers lift toward the sky once more. Though they've since jumped promotions, the legacy is still alive in Benoit and Malenko and I wouldn't be surprised to see the name alive and well another ten years from now. And don't think the idea of a Horsemen invasion of WWE hasn't crossed my mind. Now that Vince McMahon owns WCW and every trademark and videotape therein, such an angle could be huge. With four former members on staff, it's almost elementary. It's been fun, guys. Thanks for giving me something to write about.
..so that's it. Thanks for all the wonderful feedback, and for taking the time to wander through all twelve posts! Keep your eyes peeled, as I may just do another series in the same vein sometime in the near future. Until that time, though, I've got a suitable follow-up in mind for this time next week.
until next time, i remain