Twenty years ago, pro wrestling in the United States was on the precipice of the largest boom in its history; a boom the industry is still trying in futility to repeat.
A variety of contributing factors have prevented another, comparable boom, but one of the most significant is the lack of a viable No. 2 promotion competing with WWE. For those who either weren’t paying attention or don’t quite remember, much of what made the late ’90s special for wrestling fans was following two shows with their own stars, storylines and identities — well, sorta.
While 1997 in the WWF marked a pivotal time of change for the change, with new main-event stars like Mick Foley, The Rock, Triple H and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin rising to prominence, WCW primarily utilized previously established WWF stars.
That’s not to slight what WCW was doing at the time; 1997 showcased an astoundingly deep roster, with midcard acts like Eddie Guerrero and Rey Misterio tearing down the house. WCW was also in the midst of arguably the greatest storyline in American wrestling history, with the NWO wreaking havoc up and down the card, but especially in the main event.
The NWO angle overstayed its welcome, but in 1997, it was red hot. The invasion story arc transformed the industry and ostensibly ignited the boom. And it was built almost exclusively around former WWF stars.
It only made sense an invading organization that started with WWF transplants Kevin Nash and Scott, and built around the longtime face of WWF, Hulk Hogan, would come to a climax against a homegrown. And, until the payoff at Starrcade ’97, the build of homegrown star Sting to overthrow the invaders was done brilliantly.
But part of Sting’s build meant hiding him and reinventing his character. WCW needed another homegrown product to help carry the banner in the interim. Enter the unlikely hero, Diamond Dallas Page.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what DDP’s legacy is 20 years after he first erupted as a top-level talent during the height of wrestling’s boom. He’s most synonymous today with his DDP Yoga program, and his efforts to help Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Scott Hall rehabilitate from drug and alcohol dependency.
That’s a helluva legacy to have. But what of Diamond Dallas Page the wrestler?
He played a central role in the woefully executed WCW “InVasion” of WWF in 2001, and the laughable way in which he was portrayed set the tone for the most badly botched angle in the history of wrestling. His WWF/WWE run was goofy and unremarkable, the bottoming out of a bad few years for the character.
In WCW’s final year, when just about everything in the company was tough to watch, Diamond Dallas Page bounced around in silly angles. As one of the antagonists of the box-office disaster (and, admittedly, a guilty pleasure of mine) Ready to Rumble, DDP was at the center of the embarrassing David Arquette World Championship reign.
Until the InVasion a year later, the Arquette title reign may have held the top (bottom?) spot of worst executed angle.
Page’s celebrity involvement wasn’t limited to his part in the David Arquette championship, though. Two years earlier, he appeared on The Tonight Show to recruit Jay Leno into a match against Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan. It was as goofy as it sounds.
The Leno angle was an attempt to recreate the magic of Diamond Dallas Page’s tag team with Karl Malone the previous year, which was surprisingly excellent. DDP said in an interview with Sports Illustrated earlier this year that Malone could have transitioned to the squared circle full-time; I believe it.
While the celebrity angles produced mixed results, to be generous, Diamond Dallas Page being entrusted to work those high-profile storylines spoke to DDP’s prominence on the roster, at a time when the business was at its peak. Strangely, however, Page isn’t often mentioned in the same breath as the top stars of the era like Rock, Austin, Foley, Hogan or Sting.
Perhaps it’s due to DDP’s time on top running hot and fading quickly. However, he ascended into the WCW main event scene in early 1997 after emerging as one of the earliest, credible homegrown threats to the NWO. His main-event tenure in WCW lasted until summer 2000 for all intents and purposes, and he remained a big enough name that his debut on WWF Raw in 2001 elicited an explosive reaction.
Counting his main-event run at three years, that roughly matches the Ultimate Warrior from 1988 to 1991, and far exceeds Page’s WCW counterpart of the same year, Goldberg. Goldberg spent less than a full year on top due to various false starts throughout his WCW days. That he spent only five months in WWE this past year fit the arc of Goldberg’s career.
Nevertheless, both Ultimate Warrior and Goldberg are typically closer to the tips of wrestling fans’ tongues than Diamond Dallas Page.
It’s a strange phenomenon for someone who was, by my recollection, as beloved at the time as the biggest stars of the era. Page was involved in classic angles, starting with the aforementioned stand he took against the NWO at the angle’s apex.
The Karl Malone stuff garnered mainstream attention, and produced a memorable match.
The buildup to Diamond Dallas Page vs. Goldberg at Halloween Havoc ’98 was top-notch; WCW at its absolute best at a time that the company didn’t always (or often) present well-written TV. The only main-event feud I was more excited for that year was the Steve Austin-Undertaker “Highway to Hell” at SummerSlam two months earlier.
Page and Goldberg may well have delivered the better match between the two. Before Goldberg’s WrestleMania bout with Brock Lesnar this past April, Halloween Havoc was the former’s best match of his career by a significant margin.
And, indeed, Diamond Dallas Page often delivered in the ring. He had good bouts with Eddie Guerrero and Raven, and his matches against Randy Savage in 1997 and Sting in 1999 are two of the best WCW produced in the last half-decade of the company’s existence.
His might be the most fascinating legacy of the wrestling boom period.