By Vijay Shah
The WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is one of the world’s most widely referenced and talked-about forms of wrestling entertainment. It’s United States-based parent company earns millions of dollars every year from ticket sales alone, bringing to screens and stadia an awesome collection of wrestling greats and gripping storylines. From John Cena’s illicit relationship with AJ Lee to the rivalry of deep hatred between Dolph Ziggler and Alberto del Rio, already this year has proved to be a blockbuster one for WWE, and the sports entertainment franchise has bounced back from a previous decline in quality caused in part by the departure of several big name superstars.
WWE, and its previous incarnation, WWF (World Wrestling Federation) have for nearly thirty years entertained its fans across the globe and launched the careers of some of the sport’s biggest personalities. To really understand how the WWE had become the behemoth of athletic entertainment that it is today, and how it keeps inspiring legions of fans to pursue their dreams of setting foot in the ‘square circle’, we have to take a trip back in time.
From about 1995 to the early 2000’s (the exact dates are disputed among WWE scholars), WWE experienced the Attitude Era, an age where it underwent a massive transformation from being a niche, little-known weekly show for die-hard wrestling fans into a multi-million brand whose characters soon overtook superheroes like Batman and Superman as the role model for thousands of children in playgrounds all over the world. WWE Attitude saw the rise of influential superstars. Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Texan Rattlesnake, famous for his quad bikes and consumption of copious amounts of beer. The Rock, the Brahma Bull – the people’s champion who made a lifetime’s work out of giving ‘jabroneys’ a candy-ass whooping. The tough, fearless man-mountain known as Triple H. All of them saw their careers take off in the Attitude days. Established superstars like the Undertaker (who has enjoyed a 30-year career with WWE/WWF) and his brother /on-and-off nemesis, Kane, also were re-invented.
Wrestlers with rival franchises like ECW and WCW (World Championship Wrestling) soon saw the new developments going on at WWF and decided that there was where the action was at. The Bigshow, the world’s biggest wrestler at 7 feet tall and weighing 500 lbs, alongside the late Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, decided to jump ship. Making the switch to WWE was a bold move, which took their careers to dizzying heights.
There was a massive change in the programming content. While wrestling enjoyed a boom in televised ratings during the 1980’s, competition with other sports, changing trends and a formulaic approach to setting up matches contributed to the sport’s declining popularity markedly. Attitude changed all that. Gone were the days where wrestlers would come to the ring with just a cheering crowd and a sweaty coach for company. With Attitude we saw a shift to adult-oriented storylines and content, with more violent matches (Tables, Ladders and Chairs & Hell in a Cell for example) being introduced. Characters which were controversially sexist, violent and abusive were created to add further shock value. While many wrestling purists criticised the move by the WWE brand’s owners, the McMahon family, its chief executive, Vince, soon sat back and laughed as ratings soared both in free television shows, and the exclusive pay-per-views made available to America’s rising numbers of cable and satellite viewers. While the purists felt Mr. McMahon was cheapening and devaluing a sport of ancient heritage, that celebrated masculinity and strength, the WWF’s boss knew in his opinion, and certainly in the opinions of many fans, that ushering in the Attitude Era was a solid business decision one which reverberates throughout the wrestling world to this day.
The Attitude Era, which some wrestling aficionados pinpoint at starting around the year 1997, took its name from the one-word “Attitude” slogan that appeared under WWE branding used at the time. WWF and rivals WCW were engaged in a bitter standoff that culminated in the Monday Night Wars. The era eventually drew to a close with the main event of Wrestlemania X-Seven which was held around 2008. After that milestone, the policy of gratuitous violence and over-12’s storylines was shelved in favour of PG-rated family friendly material, a move meant to silence critics of wrestling entertainment’s impact on young minds, but also one that disappointed many fans who were brought up on the tougher stuff that Attitude brought to the WWE.
Along with CEO Vince McMahon, the era’s other main architect was head writer Vince Russo. Russo’s dramatic storylines and match-booking style was dubbed by the media as ‘Crash TV’.
The two Vinces were responsible for the introduction of the effeminate golden-clad wonder that was Goldust. Despite his appearance, he had prowess in the ring, though his fortunes were not always as golden as his Lycra jumpsuit and face paint. The duo were also behind the controversial scene where Brian Pillman pulled a pistol out on Stone Cold, and they also are credited with introducing the WWE Divas, female wrestlers who, although often seen as eye candy to pull in male punters, also held their own in wrestling matches and often had personalities more developed than some of the male athletes they shared the ring with.
There was the feud between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, who hated each other even in real life. Russo exploited that, and had them both appear in on-camera interviews where they persistently laid into each other. The conflict, ironically, was over the changes that Attitude was ushering over the changing rooms. Hart disliked the increased sexual content being written into the shows, while Michaels, who once stuffed gauze down the front of his biker shorts while making dirty gestures, favoured the new approach. This rivalry led to Shawn Michaels forming a new collective with Triple H, Chyna and Rick Rude. Named “D-Generation X” and later reforming as just “D-X” minus previous members Triple H and Chyna, the disruptive quartet became legendary for their crotch pumping and X gestures (crotch chops) while shouting the catchphrase “Suck It”
Stone Cold Steve Austin was redubbed as Austin 3:16, also an accompanying phrase that became a marketing juggernaut for WWF, while helping create a very popular and strangely likeable character out of the leather-clad Texan among fans. Highly irreverent of both his fellow wrestlers and his paymasters, Austin once carried out his signature move, the “Stone Cold Stunner” on Vince McMahon during a special interview in 1997, leaving the CEO unconscious. His gritty humour and ability to call up beer tanker trucks at short notice made him many enemies in the locker room, but an anti-hero among WWE devotees.
Other highlights of the Era included a simmering feud between Shawn Michaels and veteran wrestler The Undertaker. Michaels found himself in the Undertaker’s revenge sights after incurring the Deadman’s wrath by mistakenly striking him with a chair. The Deadman had been wrestling during a crucial match between himself and Bret Hart at Summerslam 1997. Boxer Mike Tyson made a guest appearance at WWF’s franchise show Raw the same year, in which during a segment where Tyson was to be announced as a special referee, Stone Cold showed up and made an offensive middle-finger at the heavyweight boxer (another of Stone Cold’s characteristic signature traits, usually delivered to an opponent before a Stunner). Tyson objected and challenged Austin, leading to a televised scuffle that made media headlines and putting WWF in the spotlight.
Another Attitude Era personality who was strong with witty catchphrases and is still a widely loved legacy of the Attitude Era was the Rock. Born of mixed Samoan and African-Canadian heritage, the Rock, real name Dwayne Johnson, was the progeny of a succession of wrestling greats from the south Pacific. His uncles were Peter Maivia and Jimmy Snuka, who headlined the WWF in its 1970s embryonic days . The Rock made his début in the Survivor Series of 1996, where his novelty and baby face made him a target of booing by disgruntled event-goers Initially known as “Rocky Maivia” in honour of his illustrious relatives, the boos and chanting of “Rocky sucks” unnerved him, forcing a drastic change. The Rock shed his old personality and was reborn as the self-styled ‘People’s Champion’ and won the Intercontinental Championship belt a few times. He made an art out of ‘talking trash’ and like Stone Cold, would insult all and sundry, even referring to fans as “trailer park trash’ while he was aligned with the Corporation. The Rock soon endeared himself to fans however, thanks to his clever insults, proficiency with the guitar, and his widely emulated wrestling finishers. He was a strong rival of fans’ loyalty with the Texan Rattlesnake for many years, helping pave the way for his current movie acting projects.
The Attitude Era remade the fortunes of WWE and changed the face of sports entertainment. It helped introduce a wider audience to the sport and made massive far-reaching efforts for inter-communal relations, from including a powerful team of female wrestlers to employing athletes from all over the world – such as the Indo-Canadian Tiger Ali Singh, Carlito from Puerto Rico, the gruff and distinctively old-school Lancastrian William Regal and Japan’s diminutive Funaki – and moulding them together as a team in a common arena. Though the era is now very much a thing of the past, it still survives in the WWE’s current lineup, DVD sales fuelled by fans’ nostalgia of those golden days and a successful tie-up between the WWE’s merchandising wing and video games producers. But above all, the impact of the Attitude Era still persists most strongly as memories. Memories that will always remain as fresh as ever among WWE’s family and its fans, no less.
Many thanks to Sunny Atwal for suggesting today’s article.
RELATED NEWS from Zemanta
- WWE Payback: Ranking the Best Ambulance/Casket/Dumpster/etc Matches Ever (bleacherreport.com)
- The Attitude Era will NEVER be Revived!! (theringpostreport.wordpress.com)
- The Squared Circle: Wrestling’s Serialized Storytelling, The Mega Powers, and the nWo (thiswastv.com)
- Ranking WWE’s 10 Funniest Comedy Segments of All Time (bleacherreport.com)
- The Attitude Era (1997-2001) (siddharthkarki279.wordpress.com)
- The Two Sheds Review: WWE The Attitude Era (archantnorfolk.wordpress.com)
- Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart honoured for contributions to wrestling and Calgary (calgaryherald.com)