In the past 30 years we have seen such an incredible change in the WWE. If you were alive to witness it, or if you went through the archives, you’ll notice how unique and diverse each era has been, especially those eras of prosperity. With recent claims that WrestleMania 28 will become the most financially successful WrestleMania of all time, it seems that we are firmly entrenched in another upswing in WWE.
The two previous eras of major upswing in WWE were the “Rock N’ Wrestling” Era (roughly 1984-1991) and the “Attitude” Era (roughly 1998 – 2003). Depending on how old you are, you have fond memories of one era or the other (or both). Maybe some of you never watched during these eras and have only relived them through clips.
Jim Cornette once told me that professional wrestling operates on a seven-year cycle – what’s old becomes new again, what’s played out becomes cool again, including wrestling. Let’s compare these three eras and see what worked, what was similar and what was different.
ROCK N’ WRESTLING ERA
The era’s biggest stars were celebrities
There is no doubt that Hulk Hogan was the focal point of this era. He was the hero that vanquished multiple villains (this is a pattern that had been visible in the WWWF for years – long-tenured babyface champions such as Bob Backlund, Pedro Morales and Bruno Sammartino would be fed a steady stream of traveling heels into the WWWF territory). With the success of HulkaMania came other household names – Andre the Giant, Randy Savage, Junk Yard Dog, Ted DiBiase, Jake Roberts and countless others. The argument could be made that more names from this era can be recited among casual wrestling fans or non-observers than any other.
Improvisation was at its peak
The Rock N’ Wrestling era was built upon guys who honed their craft in the “territory” era, became stars around the world and landed in WWE. They didn’t receive, nor require, a full script from which to memorize their promos or vignettes. Only bullet points would suffice. Because of this, interaction felt more genuine and improvisational.
The highest-rated wrestling show in history
On February 5, 1988, Hulk Hogan faced Andre the Giant in their WrestleMania 3 rematch on NBC, which drew 33 million viewers and a 15.2 rating. It remains the highest-rated pro wrestling television show of all time.
Arguably the greatest in ring WWE performance of all time
At WrestleMania 3, everyone was in the building to see Hogan vs Andre. Everyone left talking about Savage vs. Steamboat. A match that stands the test of time and may have served as inspiration for several future wrestlers (Chris Jericho mentions in his first autobiography that he has the match memorized from start to finish). Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for many other matches in this era.
Most matches don’t stand the test of time
If you lived through this era and watched matches live, they likely excited you. Fast forward 15 years, and 80 percent of this era sadly becomes unwatchable. It’s far more entertaining to watch full events from the other two eras in question than this one. It is certainly a product of the WWE match style in that day (as there were great matches that hold up today in other organizations and countries), along with the emphasis on physical size vs. in-ring athleticism.
The death of the “Territories”
One consequence of Vince McMahon’s worldwide promotional expansion was the loss of the territory system. To give more context on my point above about improvisation, the territory system allowed wrestlers to hone their craft and make a living in multiple areas around North America and the world, giving them much more high-level experience in front of a live crowd. Today, Japan and Mexico are in the minority of wrestling “territories” -- you can pretty much put in an average-sized room the number of individuals in North America where pro wrestling is their only profession and they don’t work in WWE or TNA.
This era produced the biggest stars in WWE history
As big as HulkaMania was and as many household names that “Rock N’ Wrestling” produced, the two biggest names in the history of pro wrestling are “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock. Their worldwide popularity and merchandise sales were second to none – The Rock in particular was the first man to parlay his WWE popularity into becoming a successful movie star. The boom of the internet certainly helped with this, as more than ever people were able to learn more about their favorite superstars.
Bad is good, and hardcore is better
This era was the opposite of Rock N’ Wrestling – everything was a shade of grey, and fans loved it that way. On top of that, the matches became more gruesome, violent and bloody (certainly the original ECW had a say in influencing that). Fans, especially the male 18-34 demographic, who grew up watching Rock N’ Wrestling, couldn’t get enough of this new high octane product.
Perhaps the biggest positive of the Attitude era was WCW – not the product, not the nWo, but the fact that WCW existed as viable, on-the-level competition to WWE. The Monday Night wars were paramount for interest in pro wrestling. Competition is good (along with more places for wrestlers to work), which is why some wish TNA could grow to that level to be able to compete with WWE in every market.
I describe The Rock’s promos today like a Big Mac – the buns are catch phrases, what's in between is something funny and unique. For example. “Finally, The Rock has come back to (your city)” = top bun. “John Cena you look like a big fat bowl of fruity pebbles” = Meat, cheese, lettuce. “In front of the millions ... and millions off The Rock’s fans!” = middle bun. “Look at this, John Cena midget shorts ... it’s an insult to midgets!” = Meat, cheese, lettuce. “If ya smelllll ... what The Rock is cookin!” = bottom bun.
Every Rock promo today, and throughout the Attitude era, seemingly follows this pattern. In the Attitude era, most promos did. Half of RAW would be a sing-along across multiple promos.
From 1984 – 1991, the WWE title changed hands nine times. From 1998 – 2001, the WWE title changed hands 26 times. This did not end at just the WWE title; every championship fell victim to an abundance of title changes, which ultimately was a big factor in many losing interest in championships (recall that in 2003 the Intercontinental title, which was once revered as the second-most important title in WWE, went dormant for several months)
Much like the internet helping the Attitude era, Twitter has aided the wrestling industry move in a different direction. It gives you a perspective on the real lives outside the ring of these superstars, and sometimes you get completely unexpected tweets, like The Rock critiquing John Cena’s in-ring work to ROH wrestler Kevin Steen.
“Team vs team”
In an interview with “Entertainment Weekly,” Stephanie McMahon said that The Rock vs. John Cena will be marketed like “Team Jacob vs Team Edward” from Twilight. More than ever, it’s not about babyface vs. heel – here are two guys, this is who they are and what they’ve done, and you pick a team based on that information. This scenario will create more epic matches and moments.
More than ever and certainly more than the previous two eras, it feels as though many superstars feel contrived, constrained and robotic. CM Punk said in a recent interview that he feels the script is a suggestion. This may be the era, given the long-tenured success of WWE, where superstars feel the most afraid to take matters into their own hands to get over, especially early in their career.
This might be more a con for fans my age and gender. The Attitude era fed our testosterone, and that attention has now been shifted to MMA. Though there are glimpses of WWE moving away from “PG,” the core base of the product is still in that realm -- and the reasoning makes sense. It has been said publicly that with sponsorship in place, PG must stay. But to certain members of the WWE Universe, this limits interest.
At the end of the day, your favorite era may very well come down to when you were at the height of your fandom or your age. What is your favorite era? Comment below or tell me on Twitter.