The New World Order's invasion of WCW in 1996 is one of the most iconic moments in the history of professional wrestling. The group's fourth-wall-breaking grittiness stood out in a world with cartoonish characters and soap-operatic melodrama.
Most importantly, the nWo was a shot across the bow in a heated wrestling war that elevated the industry into the mainstream and made WCW a true competitor for WWE.
WCW ultimately collapsed, but the impact of the nWo still reverberates today -- and the group's legacy will be recognized in April, when the nWo is inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2020.
WWE will recognize four of the core members of the nWo in its earliest days: Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Sean Waltman. They will be honored on stage April 2 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, as part of the festivities surrounding WrestleMania 36. Tickets for the event go on sale Friday.
It will be the second Hall of Fame honors for each of the four men recognized as part of the nWo. Hogan was inducted as an individual in 2005, followed by Hall in 2014 and Nash in 2015. Waltman was honored as part of D-Generation X in 2019.
There's a certain irony to the nWo's enshrinement into the WWE Hall of Fame. Hogan was the WWE's top star of the 1980s, in the first few years of the WrestleMania era, and Nash, Hall and Waltman made names for themselves in WWE in the early 1990s. They took their star power with them to WCW and gave the promotion legitimacy and buzz, and they were successful enough that WCW temporarily got a leg up in a bitter TV ratings battle.
"You've got four guys that were basically going at Vince as a shoot, pushing hard to actually try to take over," Hogan told ESPN. "Not put him out of business but basically take his spot and be the No. 1 company. All of a sudden, you're inducting four guys in the Hall of Fame that 20 years ago were trying to stab you in the back. It's like Vince says: In the WWE, never say never."
The nWo storyline started with Hall and Nash "invading" WCW to take over, portrayed not-so-subtly as though they were wrestlers still under contract with McMahon. Hall and Nash were top acts in the then-WWF, as Razor Ramon and Diesel, respectively. But they had legitimately signed free-agent contracts with WCW. Many of the viewers at home didn't know that, though, in an age before social media, high-speed internet and countless wrestling websites.
WCW's tactics with the nWo were so effective that they prompted WWE parent company Titan Sports to sue WCW, which was owned by media mogul Ted Turner and his conglomerate, in June 1996. Titan lawyers argued that WCW was attempting to deceive or confuse viewers into thinking that Hall and Nash were still working for the WWE and that they were still being portrayed as their WWE characters. The lawsuit went on for four years before it was settled in 2000.
The nWo, which was gaining mainstream interest, picked up steam when Hogan joined the group at the Bash at the Beach pay-per-view event on July 7, 1996. Hogan, one of the men credited with growing wrestling's popularity as a good guy or "babyface" with the WWE since the 1980s, turned on his WCW allies and stunningly joined Hall and Nash. That night was the first time "New World Order" was coined as the name of the group.
Hogan was -- and remains -- one of the biggest global stars pro wrestling has ever produced.
"The reason why this worked was the crowd was under the impression both Diesel and Razor Ramon from the WWE were going down to Turner and basically taking over, gonna take over their program," Nash said. "And then when Hulk joined -- he was basically the standard of WWE -- you couldn't have had a better situation. You had two top guys, and then you had the face of WWE all joining."
That moment at Bash at the Beach was so emotionally charged that Hogan's post-match interview after turning on Sting, Lex Luger and "Macho Man" Randy Savage saw fans throw garbage into the ring en masse, along with thunderous boos. Everyone knew then -- and had known for decades -- that pro wrestling wasn't "real."
But the shock that came with Hulkamania, the ultimate force for good, dying and "Hollywood" Hogan being born, was so great that fans completely lost control.
"I thought I could be the best bad guy ever," Hogan said. "I just really did. All the kids, the training, the prayers, the vitamins -- I did it for the money! Just that whole shock factor, 'Oh, my God.'
"I just went out and cut a Hulk Hogan promo and told the truth. I was selling out the world while the rest of you guys are trying to find gas money to get to high school. I was just on a roll, being myself. It all turned out great. We just went out, and we winged it."
The nWo started recruiting new members with Ted DiBiase, formerly WWF's "Million Dollar Man," The Giant (now Big Show in WWE) and Waltman joining the ranks. Waltman was called Syxx in WCW.
Spurred by the ongoing nWo storyline, which included real-life WCW executive Eric Bischoff joining the group on-screen, WCW Nitro won the Monday ratings war over WWE's Monday Night Raw from June 17, 1996, through April 6, 1998.
In Nash's estimation, not only did the nWo help WCW, but it also eventually helped McMahon and the WWE. With WCW trying to cater more to adults, McMahon's hand was forced. WWE's "Attitude Era," led by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock, was born thereafter.
"The nWo was kind of the epicenter of that Attitude Era," Nash said. "It was the first thing. It shifted Vince's way of thinking. We built the Saturn rocket, we put it on the launchpad, and Vince came and kicked us off. Before we got in the capsule, he said, 'I'll take this from here.' He took the Attitude Era, and he took it another step further."
The WWE took the lead in the ratings war on April 27, 1998, and WCW never won again from then until their demise in early 2001, when McMahon bought the struggling promotion and their assets in 2001. To put the golden age of the Attitude Era into perspective, there were 6 million or more people in the United States watching pro wrestling every Monday night. The current viewership for WWE is about a third of that.
The nWo's pop-cultural climax might have been when Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman blew off a practice during the 1998 NBA Finals to appear with the nWo on WCW Monday Nitro. Rodman, a member of the nWo for about two years, teamed with Hogan to face WCW's Diamond Dallas Page and NBA star Karl Malone in the main event of Bash at the Beach on July 12, 1998. Comedian and late-night host Jay Leno teamed with Page to face Hogan and Bischoff at the Road Wild pay-per-view event a month later.
"That was a blast," Hogan said of that time period. "It was so much fun. It was crazy. It was like you were out in the backyard with all the kids in the neighborhood raising hell. That's what it felt like."
The simple, rectangular nWo logo and "too sweet" hand sign were iconic in their own right. Every live and televised event for WCW or WWE featured an audience littered with nWo shirts, and pro wrestling penetrated the mainstream unlike it has in the 20 years that followed. Even today, it's tough to attend a wrestling event and not see at least a handful of nWo shirts. Kendall Jenner created buzz when she was spotted wearing one in 2017.
"You never know where those darn shirts are gonna show up," Hogan said. "They're still cool to wear around."
In 2002, the nWo, with Hogan, Hall and Nash, was reincarnated by McMahon in the WWE. The group had a storyline with Austin and The Rock, leading to a very memorable match between Hogan and The Rock at WrestleMania 18 on March 17, 2002, in Toronto. Hogan got an over-the-top positive reaction from the crowd, even though he was supposed to be a bad guy.
"It was like we were reborn again," Hogan said of the return. "It was fresh, and it was brand-new. And it was red-hot when we came in."
That reaction prompted McMahon to pull the plug on the nWo as a rogue faction, though. Hogan said he still thinks the WWE version of the nWo "could have gone on forever," given the chance. Nash said there were political reasons for the nWo not having a longer run in the WWF. There were people backstage who were uncomfortable with a push for the guys who were part of WCW during a war with the WWE just a few years earlier.
"The guys in the locker room didn't want us back," Nash said. "The way they looked at it was, 18 months after the Civil War, let's bring the Confederate soldiers back."
Any animosity in the WWE has faded with time, though, and the nWo will have its rightful place among the biggest names and groups in pro wrestling history in WWE's Hall of Fame. The stable's influence cannot go understated. Groups, invasions and hand gestures inspired by the nWo are still prevalent in pro wrestling today.
But Nash doesn't think the original version will ever be truly duplicated.
"It happened, and it's gone," Nash said. "And there won't be another one."