The Unlikely and Improbable Career of Steve "Sting" Borden

Originally published at The Unlikely and Improbable Career of Steve "Sting" Borden

The end of Sting’s career has been forecasted time after time, but this Sunday it ends for good.

In an industry such as professional wrestling, it is very hard to state a retirement is legitimate but as Steve Borden approaches his 65th birthday, this Sunday’s Revolution truly feels like the end of a remarkable, yet unlikely career.

Borden will be the first to admit he was not a wrestling fan growing up, nor was wrestling an industry he aspired to join. Instead, the future Sting was a bodybuilder who came across the right people at the right time when his look was the desired prototype.

In Southern California during the ‘80s, he was spotted by Rick Bassman, who had a concept for Powerteam USA. It was an idea where he would cast bodybuilders of different ethnicities and market through their looks with professional wrestling being the vehicle. The famous attachments to this idea were the future Sting and Ultimate Warrior (Jim Hellwig).

Later, Bassman would comment how neither Borden nor Jim Hellwig was even part of the original casting but they served as replacements to join Mark Miller, Garland Donoho, and Ed Brock – the latter three not lasting and become answers to a trivia question.

The idea of taking a pair of ultra-green bodybuilders with no pro wrestling background to speak of seemed ludicrous, yet, within five years, Hellwig and Borden would be deemed the heirs to Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair as the two major national promotions entered the ‘90s.

Borden would reflect on sending their 8x10s and promotional material to all the pro wrestling offices and their looks couldn’t open any doors, except for Jerry Jarrett’s in Memphis. He was the only promoter interested in using the green talent and allowing Borden and Hellwig to make their debuts in November 1985 – as The Freedom Fighters, Flash (Borden) and Justice (Hellwig).

It was only a two-month stint that they served in Memphis, but it was a relationship that paid dividends decades later when Sting joined TNA and cited the Jarrett family taking a chance on him as one of the factors in joining the upstart group.

Borden and Hellwig transferred to Bill Watts’ Mid South promotion in early 1986 under new monikers as The Blade Runners, Borden remained Flash while Hellwig assumed the identity of Rock several years after the Ridley Scott film was released.

The relationship between the hard-edged Watts and the defiant Hellwig was oil and water with Hellwig bolting from Mid-South after several months to set out on a singles career with World Class Championship Wrestling with a bigger stage to follow. It left Borden on his own in Mid South, a decision that created a “What if?” scenario had Borden tagged along with his partner to World Class and if both would jump to WWF after further seasoning.

Borden was in good standing in Mid-South/UWF as one of the first people in power to see something in him was Eddie Gilbert – a devout student of the industry, who was greatly advanced by his mid-’20s and holding a booking position in the territory. Borden was already attached to Gilbert’s Hot Stuff International stable and won the territory’s tag belts together.

In April 1987, the UWF was purchased by Jim Crockett Promotions, and Borden was among the talent absorbed. It was believed that this would create a superpower in the industry with two major companies forging their strengths as the WWF was on fire following WrestleMania 3.

Many of the UWF stars became afterthoughts under its new ownership, something that a young and impressionable Borden had to observe and potentially call back to when spurning various offers by the WWE after it had purchased WCW.

Despite the inter-promotional opportunities left untapped, Borden was still pushed as an undercard babyface and feuded with Eddie Gilbert. By late 1987, he wrestled NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair in several cities including Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, and the Omni in Atlanta. They became the go-to title match on the road in early 1988 and set the stage for the first Clash of the Champions show on March 27, 1988.

JCP was reeling from the previous November when its Starrcade event was compromised by WWF’s staging of the inaugural Survivor Series event on pay-per-view and an ultimatum placed on cable providers to choose between events to carry. JCP was financially devastated with merely five cable companies opting to carry Starrcade after the threat of the next year’s WrestleMania would be withheld to those that chose Starrcade over the Survivor Series.

By March, they decided to combat WrestleMania IV with a 2 ½ hour free special on TBS promoted around Ric Flair vs. Sting for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.

It was not only the “coming out party” for Sting as an emerging babyface but a sign from the company of where they viewed the performer and the audience the main event commanded. The match itself did a 7.8 rating with the show averaging five million viewers when the cable station was only in about 40 million homes. Flair and Sting was the most-watched pro wrestling match in cable history and held that distinction for the next decade.

More importantly, it was the match that made Sting in the fan’s eyes. He lasted 45 minutes with Flair and went from a promising underneath babyface to a “champion in waiting” as the audience bought into the notion that he could beat Flair had the time limit not run out. It was a remarkable performance and blew away everything that the WWF countered with on that day.

Sting’s coronation was delayed until 1990 after a brief affiliation with the Four Horsemen and being kicked out of the group in a memorable angle that year. The timing was delayed after Sting tore his patella tendon while scaling a steel cage and put off his showdown with Flair until the Great American Bash in Baltimore when he was crowned.

By July 1990, the champions of the WWF and WCW were Jim Hellwig and Steve Borden, Justice and Rock. Neither were meant to be transitional champions but within a year both companies would revert to Hulk Hogan and Flair for title runs.

Borden had to navigate a disastrous year of booking for WCW under the leadership of Jim Herd and Ole Anderson, which included the infamous Black Scorpion angle, which peaked at Starrcade with the identity reserved for Flair with no better option on the table to get out of a horrible program.

WCW entered a decade that began in tumult with the loss of Flair (and his championship) to the WWF in 1991 and a downturn in popularity where WCW was drawing terrible under various regimes that included Herd, Kip Frey, Bill Watts, and finally Eric Bischoff in 1994.

It was bleak times for the company, hitting rock bottom in 1993 when the company was averaging less than 600 fans per show from May through December.  

It was provided an injection of attention when Hulk Hogan signed with WCW in 1994 and immediately leap-frogged Sting as the top babyface and whom the company would be promoted around. It was also the man that Sting would draw his strongest business in the years to come with both men far removed from the personas of ’94.

WCW caught fire in 1996 with Hogan’s turn and the formation of the New World Order. It coincided with a story of Sting feeling betrayed by the company and audience when they falsely believed he had turned his back on the company, later to be revealed that imposter Jeff Farmer had misled the audience. It ushered in the “Crow” version of Sting, inspired by the role played by Brandon Lee and believed to be an idea pushed on Borden by Scott Hall.

In 1997, he didn’t wrestle on television with the shows heavily centered on the N.W.O. taking over WCW as Sting watched on from the rafters and stayed silent. It was an incredible exercise in patience and building to the big moment, which occurred at that year’s Starrcade as the culmination of an 18-month story between Hogan and Sting.

While the saying is, “Timing is everything”, the night of December 28, 1997, reminded everyone that “execution” played just as much a role. The timing was dead on for Sting to win the title in Washington, but the execution was beyond piss poor.

During the match, former N.W.O. referee turned WCW supporter Nick Patrick was named the referee for the important match. A key point in the match was for Patrick to execute a fast count when Hogan was on top of Sting to elicit fan revolt and the incoming Bret Hart – fresh off his own “screw job” – to save the day and overrule Patrick’s heel tactic.

It was not a fast count.

Patrick counted with the same cadence as a regular count and the audience saw Hogan pin Sting clean as a sheet in the middle of the ring. It gave no justification for Bret Hart’s save and the audience was left with no air in its sails when Sting triumphed moments later as the show left the audience with a dismal payoff to a year-plus promotion.

It was an all-time WCW gaffe, which has been debated and litigated to death but the result was a universal panning by the audience.

The next night, the title was deemed vacant and while Sting would get a win two months later at SuperBrawl 8, it was a woefully handled situation. By the spring, the ultimate WCW defender was part of the N.W.O. Wolfpac subgroup and Sting never reached the level of projections after the table was set throughout the previous year.

The feather in their caps is that both Starrcade and SuperBrawl did strong business and WCW as a whole had a terrific year of business but the wheels were loose as the on-screen product was diminishing weekly. The damage began in 1999 and self-destructed in 2000 with Sting along for the ride.

In March 2001, it was Sting and Flair closing out the final WCW broadcast in Panama Beach, Florida, and the last time Sting would appear on TNT for nearly two decades.

Like many of the major stars of WCW, Sting had a tremendous contract worth $1.5 million annually through January 2002 and would be paid in full while being able to stay at home.

One by one, they all signed with the WWF/WWE from Hulk Hogan to Scott Hall & Kevin Nash, Ric Flair, Bill Goldberg, Scott Steiner, and even Eric Bischoff. Sting remained the one who didn’t join.

His name was linked to various ideas and programs over the years from matches involving The Rock to The Undertaker but he didn’t go. Recently, Lance Storm recalled speaking with him when they were in WCW together about staying for so long, Borden’s response at the time was that he felt anytime he spoke with WWF he felt they were more interested in hurting WCW than helping their own company.

He resurfaced on several WWA tours of Australia on Europe, which had pay-per-view distribution and were crowds that didn’t get to see any major stars regularly.

In 2003, he worked a handful of dates for the newly formed NWA TNA and cited his ties to the Jarrett’s when he broke in as a reason for wanting to help them out.

Borden would embark on the next major run of his career in 2006 when he signed on full-time with TNA and became its top star. The promotion was no longer operating out of the Asylum in Nashville with weekly Wednesday night pay-per-views. Instead, it had national television distribution through Spike TV and Sting’s arrival complimented the recent signing of Christian Cage and a roster full of future stars on the rise.

Sting became a streak of winning the TNA Championship annually at Bound for Glory with title wins against Jeff Jarrett, Kurt Angle, and Samoa Joe from 2006-08. He won the title two more times in 2011 and would wrestle for TNA through early 2014 continually extending his contract by one year and prolonging his career annually.

The run included Sting playing the hits with programs involving his famous opponents, Hulk Hogan, Mick Foley, and Ric Flair while creating new rivalries and wanting to keep up with the likes of Kurt Angle, Abyss, AJ Styles, and Samoa Joe.

It was a signal to the audience when he left TNA in 2014 and where the company’s momentum was headed. By the summer, it was public knowledge that Spike TV would be dropping the show by the end of the year and relegated TNA to smaller networks including Destination America and Pop TV before its purchase by Anthem Sports & Entertainment.

The WWE run still eluded Sting, or at least it eluded the audience, who clamored for that marriage and specifically, a match with The Undertaker to pit the two mythological characters.

It was heavily teased in 2011 through a series of vignettes on WWE programming and the thought that Sting might sign, but it didn’t come to pass.

After inking a deal with 2K for his involvement in the WWE’s annual release, it was the first affiliation Borden had, even with an adjacent game developer.

Like his counterpart Jim Hellwig, the 2K relationship opened the door for business with WWE proper and Sting walked into a WWE arena for the first time in November 2014 as a surprise at the end of that year’s Survivor Series to aid the babyface team against The Authority, led by Triple H and Stephanie McMahon.

It was not the desired match with The Undertaker that Sting received, instead, he wrestled Triple H at the next year’s WrestleMania in Santa Clara, California in a heavily maligned match.

The lead-up to the match focused on Sting trying to subvert the power of The Authority, but on the day of the show, it was a time warp to 1998 and became WWF vs. WCW with Sting representing his former brand. The match had tons of smoke and mirrors including cameos from the N.W.O. and DX but more focused on, was the commentary that berated WCW and equated Sting to being a “big fish in a small pond”, commentary that producer Arn Anderson assumed was fed by Vince McMahon.

Triple H won the match and between the easy layup of a match with The Undertaker, the WCW burial, losing to Triple H, Taiko drums, and an altered theme song – the fanbase was left utterly disappointed with Sting’s handling.

Months later, they needed an opponent for champion Seth Rollins and called on Sting to headline the September pay-per-view Night of Champions which turned into a scary situation. After taking a buckle bomb and collapsing in the ring, Sting’s career appeared to be over. It was discovered he had spinal stenosis, and that the outcome of the match could have been significantly worse.

He headlined the WWE Hall of Fame class in April 2016 and would remain affiliated with the company until his deal quietly expired with no thought toward another run left in him.

At AEW’s inaugural Winter is Coming special in December 2020, Borden walked into Daily’s Place and a mission statement to end his career on a higher note than WWE provided.

He was an immediate ratings mover with a ton of genuine surprise and added questions regarding his health and ability to execute moves much less perform matches.

He was slow-rolled back with a cinematic presentation at the Revolution card in March 2021, which went significantly better than one could have imagined. It opened the door for regular wrestling matches with his secret ingredient being the pairing with Darby Allin to both capture some of his star power and carry out the ambitious parts of the match.

But, entering his ‘60s, Borden had no desire to rely on the younger talent to carry him through. Borden found a different fountain of youth and proceeded to engage in stunts that were stunning to witness from a guy who was deemed physically finished several years prior.

While not every match was a home run, there were far more successes than failures in the AEW run that left crowds red hot and spacing out his performances to several per year, which never wore out their welcome, were never nostalgia plays, and a guy in Borden that was out to impress and not just to blend into the background.

His booking has been nothing short of brilliant and beyond anyone’s expectation in 2020 when he entered AEW and that he would be in this position over three years into his tenure.

While many of his contemporaries have stayed too long, embarrassed themselves physically, or generated controversies to plague their legacy, Borden has done the opposite and only solidified his standing as he approaches 65.

Perhaps the WWE run was never meant to be and will go down as the least significant of his major runs. Sting was always the performer that represented the upstart, the competition, the runner-up, and the group that was inching toward the big dog and he found that in AEW.

Real wrestling retirements are few and far between in professional wrestling, but Sunday will be treated as legitimately as they come and will likely be AEW’s largest U.S. attendance of the year.

Few are reading this can recall a period of their fandom where Sting wasn’t part of it, but on Monday they will realize that one of the more improbable careers has really ended.


Wonderful writing as usual, John.