If you asked a wrestling fan on December 31, 1989 what the 1990s would look like, odds are they would tell you that two guys with painted faces would be at the top of the two major U.S. promotions. Sting and the Ultimate Warrior are forever linked by more than teaming together in 1986 Mid-South. Both would win the world title in 1990 from their promotion’s defining star, both would have trouble maintaining attendance numbers on house shows, and both would drop the title back in January 1991. As we’ve learned over time, the Warrior was a very independent and erratic guy, while Sting was a consummate team player, going along with what was given to him. By the end of 1990, that would be a detriment.
As the decade began, Sting was riding high from winning the Iron Man tourney at Starrcade ’89. This included a victory over world champion Ric Flair to close the card, and a prize was a title match with the champion at a later date. At the end of 1989, Arn Anderson and Ole Anderson revived the Four Horsemen with Flair and surprisingly took on Sting as the 4th member. This tension was played up on TV in segments like Funk’s Grill where Arn would say that the Horsemen would prevail no matter who wins, even as it was implied that the Andersons would side with Flair over a newbie like Sting, who seemed very naive and unconcerned about the situation which is something that would become a trademark for that character.
It all came to a head at Clash of the Champions 10 on Feb. 6 when the Horsemen confronted Sting in the ring and told him not to sign a match with Flair, who stood in the background mostly as Ole did all of the talking. He said that Sting was never a Horseman and the Andersons were there to get rid of him, but spared the Stinger for saving Slick Ric from Terry Funk in late 1989. They gave him two hours, but once he laid hands on Ole the fight was on. They were supposed to tag up later in a steel cage main event against the J-Tex Corporation of Buzz Sawyer, the Great Muta, and the Dragon Master against whom the Horsemen were feuding.
Meanwhile, the U.S. champion Lex Luger complained in storyline that he should be getting the shot at Flair, even though he didn’t win at Starrcade. But his time would come. In the main event, Sting came to the ring to confront the Horsemen during this bizarre match where the hated J-Tex group was de facto cheered due to the Horsemen beatdown of Sting earlier in the night. At the end of the video, you notice Sting is not moving too well and that is because he tore the patellar tendon in his knee being held back from climbing the cage. The injury was chalked up to a Horsemen beatdown and this put all of WCW’s plans off the rails because Sting was going to win the World title at WrestleWar ’90.
Enter Lex Luger, who was added to the match six days later at a TV taping. The friendship of Sting and Luger was pushed on TV as Lex goes for the title while Sting rehabs his knee. This hurt Luger in a way because he was having a great run as a heel U.S. champion and had to shift course to be put in that spot against Flair. Personally I would have loved to see Brian Pillman get that chance just to elevate him even if he was too inexperienced to actually win.
Luger lost the match by countout at WrestleWar when he left the ring to save Sting from the Horsemen. Sting was kept on television at all times during his rehab, escorting Luger again for a non-title match with Flair on the May 5 episode of Worldwide. This led up to the final showdown at Capital Combat ’90 between Lex and Flair in a steel cage. Sting would be preoccupied with other nonsense on that night.
Sting was scheduled to appear with RoboCop on the show promoting the upcoming sequel RoboCop 2. This came off as a disaster for all involved: Sting was locked in a ringside cage by the Horsemen under eye-rolling circumstances, and out comes Peter Weller in the full RoboCop gear to save Sting by pulling apart the bars of the cage (in actuality, they were were rubber) and the Horsemen run away scared. So many problems: this made Sting look like a complete geek, RoboCop could barely move in costume so this was more of a walk-in than a run-in, and the Horsemen looked ridiculous running away from this.
In June, a new group being billed as “The Superheroes” was being pushed on WCW TV consisting of Sting, Luger, the Steiner brothers, Paul Orndorff, Junkyard Dog, and El Gigante. Sting did commentary on a match and said they were just a bunch of dudes with attitudes, which is the name that ended up sticking. The group would have a melee with the Horsemen at Clash 11 on June 13 after the atrocious match between Ric Flair and the JYD. Sting would return on house shows in June working mostly tag matches to shake off ring rust to get ready for the Great American Bash in July.
The match at the Bash against Flair would be no DQ, with Ole Anderson handcuff to El Gigante, and was like a lumberjack match with all the Dudes with Attitudes surrounding the ring keeping the Horsemen out of the area. This is completely against the concept of the “babyface overcoming the odds” to win and it would have made for a better victory for Sting if everyone was banned from ringside or if he overcame Horsemen interference to beat the Nature Boy. Winning the match via inside cradle for a guy promoted with a huge strength and size advantage also did not serve Sting well going into a title reign. Sting also gave a very strange promo in the arena after the match, mainly putting over Flair as the greatest ever instead of celebrating his achievement.
To start his reign, Sting did not have any viable challengers outside of Flair, and would work tag matches on house shows that would not include Slick Ric when he suffered from a staph infection in his knee. The initial house show attendance numbers were not good: only 4,000 paid in Greensboro for a Sting-Flair rematch. The longtime WWF model of the babyface champion was not working in WCW which had run with only heel champs for most of the prior five years.
Things would get worse for the Stinger on the Aug. 25 episode of World Championship Wrestling with the start of the infamous Black Scorpion angle, forever a monument to seat-of-the-pants booking. The Scorpion would say that he knew Sting from California in 1986, which led everyone to believe that this might actually be the Ultimate Warrior. That was a preposterous notion and a good reason why you need to have an endgame when booking wrestling angles. Sting would look very weak with lots of “I don’t what know I would have done” in referring to who this might be, instead of just kicking ass. At Clash 12, Sting defeated the Scorpion, only to have the real Scorpion appear in the aisle so that this disgrace would continue. Sting should have stood up as face of the company and told them to go in another direction and end this angle.
A dream match actually took place on Sept. 1 in Greenboro when Sting defended against Mean Mark Callous, who subbed for Barry Windham. Callous gave notice later that week and by the end of 1990 would become the Undertaker. The match was described as horrible before only 2,600 in Greensboro, so bad that 47 year old Harley Race would sub in as the challenger the next night. The attendance figures in September would reach new lows in historically good wrestling cities: 2,200 in St. Louis, 1,700 in Fort Worth, and a puny 750 in Houston to see Sting beat a Black Scorpion played by Wild Bill Irwin.
After Clash 12, the build to Halloween Havoc began. Sting would defend against Sid Vicious, who beat Sting up after his Clash victory over the Black Scorpion. As Sid was now a Horseman, Ric Flair was still lurking in the background working tags with Arn Anderson against Doom. It was the 4th Horsemen that would play a bigger role in the Sid-Sting main event. As the two brawled backstage, they came back to the ring, and Sting collapsed on a body slam and Sid got the 1-2-3. However the real Sting emerged from backstage as it was revealed that the one in the ring was Barry Windham with face paint and the same hair and tights. And thus, the long WCW obsession with Fake Stings was born on that night in October 1990, some six years before it would become a tired trope.
With business obviously in decline, WCW doubled down on the Scorpion nonsense at Clash of the Champions 13 on Nov. 20. The Scorpion did magic tricks to befuddle the champion, like spinning a man’s head around in a box and turning him into a tiger. Sting’s matches would be interrupted by the voice of the Scorpion over the PA. The whole thing was more cartoony than anything WWF was doing and the kind of thing true southern wrestling fans despise. It’s probably best summed up in this hilarious video made by “BlackScorpionFan” set to Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You”.
At Starrcade on Dec. 16 in St. Louis, Sting finally vanquished the Black Scorpion in a cage before 6,357 paid. And oh yeah, the guy under the mask is Ric Flair because they couldn’t get anyone else. Al Perez was the main guy, but he left. Guys like Bill Irwin and Randy Culley would not have been taken seriously. And it sure as hell wasn’t going to be the WWF champion. The only guy that it could have been that might have made sense in my opinion was Eddie Gilbert. At least we got Flair’s Black Scorpion story as told to Tony Schiavone on a recent episode of WOOOOO Nation podcast, which I suggest you check out.
It was clear that Sting’s time was almost up as 1990 came to an end. On the Christmas night show in the Atlanta Omni, Flair initially won the match with his feet on the ropes, but it was reversed and the match continued on with Sting winning via countout. Only 11 days into 1991, Sting would drop the world title back to Flair at a house show in East Rutherford, NJ that was sparsely attended due to a snow storm in the area. He’d be kept out of the title picture for the rest of the year and would never truly become the mainstream megastar that everyone expected. It was a fitting way for Sting’s initial reign to end: at a show with low attendance due in part to factors beyond his control.