Let the War Games, and the story of World Championship Wrestling, prologue and all, begin.
July 4, 1987
Jim Crockett Promotions
Great American Bash
In the Jim Crockett era, there was an outlook on the relationships between wrestlers that wasn't entirely unique, but it was definitely distinct from the WWF's approach. Dusty Rhodes booked a more tribalist wrestling offering than that of the WWF, one where feuds overlapped and the locker room was clearly divided into two warring camps.
Each side looked out for its fellow soldiers instead of focusing only on their own issues. If Dusty was attacked by the Four Horsemen, even if they were too little too late, other babyfaces at least attempted to make the save and stop the carnage. If Ric Flair and Ricky Morton ended up in an impromptu brawl, for example, the other Horsemen would quickly be there to put the numbers on Ric's side and aide in an attack. The big pop usually came when other babyfaces finally hit the ring to make the save. One of two things happened at this point -- either the heels immediately retreated or we had a pier-six brawl on our hands, often as the show was going off the air.
War Games as a concept was a way to shift the drama from angles and finishes with saves and counter-saves into a match all its own. By a simple coin toss, two heels could beat on one babyface, then the babyface would make the save. Then another heel would do the same, only for the babyface to come in yet again. Suddenly, a match was filled with what would have previously just been a really long hot angle, and 25 minutes had passed. It was the last hurrah for JCP, as War Games led to a summer run of house shows where they were outdrawing the WWF in many of the same markets, and it was probably Dusty Rhodes' last truly transcendent booking idea.
Without the time intervals, we'd merely have ourselves a Bunkhouse Stampede, which had many of the same brawling elements but never carried close to the same excitement. Outside of a company that prioritized double and triple-team angles building to a hot babyface save, War Games could never garner the heat it was capable of getting. In a company where all programs exist in their own silos, it's just another match.
Like most of wrestling's best ideas, this one was born from necessity. The previous year's Great American Bash tour was defined by Ric Flair's classic title defenses in every major market, but in 1987, Flair had a broken neck. The break wasn't severe to the point that he couldn't work, but he couldn't deliver a long series of world title defenses at the usual Ric Flair Standard, so they had to come up with a different selling point this time around. As hot as JCP was that summer, the WWF never panicked and was already looking ahead to their fall plans. JCP had none, and their own decline escalated rapidly with television ratings tanking when they changed the format of the Saturday evening TBS show (all 30-second squashes and 90-second promos), crowds rejecting Ron Garvin as champion, and the WWF sabotaging Starrcade '87.
The continued story of War Games over the next decade is the story of World Championship Wrestling itself. In 1989, they tried a fresher talent mix to recapture the magic of the glory years, and it worked on some level but ultimately fell short. In 1991, Dusty Rhodes was back in the driver's seat as booker and they went back to familiar territory, but it didn't work. By July's War Games at the Meadowlands, Flair was gone from the company and fans didn't respond well to the departure at all. In 1992, they were delivering their best in-ring action ever, but the promotional piece was missing to put it over the top. 1993 was downright embarrassing, but they rebounded briefly in 1994 until Hulk Hogan ruined everything. Suddenly, the NWO was red hot while Flair was being phased down, and 1998's drug-induced ideas were something else altogether. Hang on tight, though, because Vince Russo's ideas were even more out there. It's all there, the key points of WCW's history presented through one match type alone. Cries for WWE to bring back War Games (as they eventually did) failed to consider why the match worked in a specific time and place, as even more traditional wrestling companies didn't nail War Games when they tried it (these matches aren't supposed to have a lot of coming and going, as that's the whole point of the cage), despite the match being great otherwise.
The Crockett years of 1985-1988 are heavily romanticized, and rightfully so, because they were arguably the most formidable vision presented to a national American audience of what pro wrestling could be without using the WWF as a compass, something that even late 1990s WCW in all its popularity couldn't truly boast. To put in terms WWE producers might understand, the legacy of this gimmick match truly is a case where it's best to Leave The Memories Alone.