Note: I originally wrote this back in 2015, but after watching the Steve Austin biography on A&E I felt like going back and revisiting it. I made a few revisions and swapped out some names and dates to make it current.
“It used to be better”
That is the battle cry of many fans above the age of 30 for everything from sports to Star Wars to of course, pro wrestling. And those fans have as their ideal version of the product some bygone era when things were supposedly executed better, had more substance, etc. For Star Wars fans saying this it’s the Original Trilogy, for sports fans it could be the Showtime Lakers or Jordan’s Bulls of the days when you could really hit people in pro football. For a lot of wrestling fans it’s the Attitude Era.
See the Attitude Era both coincides with a lot of people young or adolescent years AND it happens to be when wrestling was at it’s most popular on a mainstream level, which for these fans really means that you could go out in public with a wrestling t-shirt on without being looked at funny because people knew what WCW and the WWF were and accepted them as respectable forms of entertainment.
For a lot of us older fans, the Attitude Era is when they fell in love in wrestling or came back after some time away (with some help from the NWO of course). So it resonates in a way in way that the Ruthless Aggression Era did not and the current does not. I get that. But like with a lot of things from way back when, after close examination going back to it may not be the best idea. Now I loved and enjoyed the Attitude Era/Monday Night Wars when they were going on, and I’m not going to get all revisionist history and say that that time actually sucked. But that doesn’t mean I want to bring it all back, for a few reasons:
Violence against women
One of the staples of the Attitude Era that absolutely does not look so good in hindsight is the amount of outright violent acts that were routinely performed on some of the women on the roster. I’m talking Terri Runnels getting put through a table by the Dudley Boyz, or Lita catching a 3D from the Dudleys during the TLC 2 match at WrestleMania 17, or Stephanie McMahon catching a Rock Bottom from the Rock followed by a Pedigree from Triple H a few months later. There was a time when a woman being struck was either an accident to further some angle or something to get one of the bad guys over as a heel. But during the Attitude Era some of the things I mentioned were done by the good guys to the cheers of the crowd. Now I’ll admit that I wasn’t put off by that stuff when I was a 24 year old watching it, but at 46 years old with two kids who I’ve told that it’s not ok to hit women…..I’m not trying to have to explain why it’s ok to watch women get beat up for laughs after telling them that kind of thing is not cool in real life. Because there really isn’t a good explanation to be honest with you. ‘Well, she deserved it for getting involved like she did’ doesn’t work quite as well in practice as it might in theory….
Papering over mediocrity
Every week for over four years you had one or both of these guys driving Monday Night RAW and carrying the show, while over on Nitro you had the NWO doing the same before the wheels fell off. Two of the biggest stars in WWF/E history doing their best work while some of the other big stars from WWE history were doing the same on another channel. The Mount Rushmore of Vince McMahon Jr’s ownership tenure has both of these guys on it and they were there at the same time. Everyone else on the show save Degeneration X was boosted by having them around to play off of, especially in the early years. Mick Foley and Triple H would not have gotten where they did without the Rock and Austin to work against. Chris Jericho debuted in a back and forth on the mic with the Rock and immediately showedhe could hang. Kurt Angle became a certified main eventer working with Rock and later Austin. Both men would have a long promo segment (sometimes more), backstage vignettes, and a match almost every week. When Austin or the Rock came out it was a put down the remote and drop everything you’re doing moment. Sounds great, right?
Well, yes and no. Those moments covered for a lot of mediocrity on the rest of the show in the ring and out. Through to 2010s the overall in-ring work is much better than it was from 1997 to 1999; you no longer need matches that are are shorter than the mic work before them to cover for guys who weren’t even good workers, or garbage hardcore matches to cover for the same. A two minute match in 2021 is grounds for complaints because in all but a few places it’s shown as a sign that you’re not trusted to work, back then it was the norm because a lot of guys actually couldn’t.
Now the tradeoff is that ‘everyone was over’ back then. Well yes, but it wasn’t because their parts of the show were so well written or they themselves were so great, but because they were on the same show with two of the biggest draws in the history ofbthe business, who were working on the same show. And on the other side of the street you had two more of the biggest draws ever in Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, alongside Ric Flair and eventually Rowdy Roddy Piper. Everyone was over because the show itself was over and that’s largely because of those men I mentioned.
Yes, Austin vs McMahon was a great, mostly well done angle as was the early days of the NWO. But those angles got over like they did mainly because of who was in them – some already legendary guys in the NWO and a guy who was becoming one in Austin. We cannot overstate just how those guys were all otherworldly performers who’d also come along at the perfect time. Austin’s anti-authority gimmick was Taylor made for the 1990s as was Hogan’s disgruntled former hero act.
(One booking note on Austin vs McMahon, by the way. The anti authority gimmick has been done over and over since in several different places but a key difference is that Austin vs McMahon was about control and not holding him back from success. Vince wanted to control Austin because he embarrassed him and wouldn’t toe the line, he didn’t prevent him from succeeding in the first place. That’s not the same thing as what we see so much today, but to be honest I don’t think that can be redone. It was lightning in a bottle and we along with wrestling bookers everywhere need to accept that.)
The Booking wasn’t really that great
You had a lot of angles and characters that were jettisoned after a week or two, and some bad payoffs to ones that were allowed to run for a while. You had hostshot title changes, some which totally invalidated the results of Pay Per View matches the night before, that were put on the show just to counteract what was going on over on WCW Nitro on TNT at the same time. Half the stuff they did back then would get absolutely crushed if they tried it today so why do it again?
Imagine if will Wrestlemania 35, where Ronda Rousey or Charlotte Flair walks out the winner at the end and then drops both titles to Becky Lynch a month later at the next pay per view. That’s essentially what happened at WrestleMania 2000, but while we hated that result when the ship was righted the next month we didn’t care that the ending that should have be written in stone for the biggest show of the year was scrapped and moved to a B show.
Now think about the Higher Power angle, where weeks and months of the Undertaker hinting that he served some mysterious figure was paid off by that figure being….the guy who was already playing a higher power on TV for the past year and a half. That was groan inducing even then but we’ve gone all revisionist history because it gave us this gif:
Magic still happens today
Kofimania, anyone? Bianca and Sasha main eventing night one on this year’s WrestleMania? Becky Lynch, Edge returning? That’s all in the last two years. The yes movement, Brock Lesnar ending the Streak and decimating John Cena within six months? Within the last 10 years. The Sheild debuting? Also within the last 10 years. Things are happening if you stop and smell the flowers for a minute.
I loved the Attitude Era as much as anyone, but it’s not time to try and reclaim it. It was good for then but that time has passed. Instead all of us in the 30 years old and up age brackets need to face the same reality that we must face in every other fandom we’re a part of that dates back to our childhoods: that today’s version of things has to exist in today’s world and has to be catered the same two groups it’s always been: kids, and adults who can take it for what it is and always has been.
And that’s not to say that in 2021 things are perfect and don’t have creative shortcomings that need to be addressed. They obviously do, but it’s a different set of shortcomings than what existed before because that time sure as hell had it’s own as well. And we as fans gotta do some of the work on that front as well, but that’s a whole other conversation.