Ask anyone who’s ever told somebody that they follow wrestling, and they’ll get the same answer: “You still watch that? I mean, sure, I did, back in college, when everybody watched it, but you still watch it? Really?Ã¢â‚¬Â Seemingly, everyone we all know went to college in the late 90s. But these aren’t the only people stuck in the late nineties. A&E is still playing “The Unreal Story of Pro Wrestling,Ã¢â‚¬Â a documentary made that year that seemed to believe that wrestling was taped entirely in black & white until 1997. Chris Jericho’s autobiography ends when he joins WWE in 1999, as does Mick Foley’s first. More wrestling journalists than not have mentioned in their columns how much they wish that WWE was like it was back in that period. WWE 24/7 plays more stuff from the 1997-99 period than any other. Seemingly, the wrestling companies, the wrestlers, the fans, the nonfans, and the critics all wish it was still 1999.
The answer is, as it always is, painfully simple. Professional wrestling was pretty much at the highest point during that phase, and we have yet to see another period take our attention away. More books were published, more television was produced, and more attention was given to pro wrestling by the general public. This was all mostly negative, since wrestling was also at its most idiotically violent and aimed towards moronic teenagers. But the old adage of “any press is good pressÃ¢â‚¬Â has left its mark on wrestling, and it hungers for that kind of attention to this day. The problem is, this was only the best period in one category: mainstream attention. Yes, all the sports bars were showing wrestling; all the talking heads were clamoring for its doom; all the shows were selling out and the tshirts were flying, but this hardly means anything in terms of historical quality, and since we’re now 9 years removed from this period, historical quality is the only thing we’ve got left. Seen through a matured lens, late 90s wrestling (or the “attitudeÃ¢â‚¬Â era) is possibly the worst place to close the book on mainstream wrestling history. And while it’s perfectly fine to look back with rose coloured glasses by both wrestlers and fans alike, it’s also important to realize that wrestling has, in fact, grown significantly.
Consider the year 2000. You could essentially release that year on DVD and it would be of great quality. I can’t remember when there was a more streamlined vision put in place. Storylines were easy to follow, came to reasonably conclusions, and didn’t have to push the envelope as much to get its point across (whereas we had weekly envelope pushing in the 90s). The wrestling was also improved, mostly by the addition of several WCW cast-offs being put on the main stage, as well as the technical improvements of The Rock, HHH, and Steve Austin. If “The Unreal Story of Pro WrestlingÃ¢â‚¬Â had extended its history to the year 2000, the finale would have drastically changed in tone.
2001 is considered the year that wrestling lost touch with its audience, and this is largely due to the botched invasion story. However, the change in plot quality should not deter people looking for quality gems. Historically, early 2001 marked the official end of the “attitudeÃ¢â‚¬Â era in Wrestlemania 17, where Steve Austin betrayed his character and evolved into a far more interesting characterÃ¢â‚¬â€œa paranoid, backstabbing and all around nutty alternate version of his former self that had starred in every single great match of the year. Many people consider Austin’s heel turn a failure, but if you were to look at those eight months between April and November, you would find one of the most interesting pieces of character development to ever graze wrestling television. Austin himself was clearly proud of the character; he left the company only a few scant months after they hit the reset button and reverted him back to his pre-2000 persona of being a predictable fan favorite who beat up bad guys and the odd woman. You would also find several great moments that never really went anywhere (these are all too common in wrestlingÃ¢â‚¬â€œwonderful beginnings that never pan out), including the death of WCW, the second invasion of ECW on WWE tv, The return of Ric Flair, the firing of Mick Foley (which, according to “The Hardcore Diaries,Ã¢â‚¬Â held far more meaning than it’s out-of-context airing would lead anyone to believe), and the pre-Survivor Series rant by Paul Heyman toward Vince McMahon:
2002 would be the year where WWE formed a split personality, at once trying to hold onto the casual audience by reserving old ideas, while at the same time featuring new stars. We saw the reformation of the nWo as well as a final run for Hulk Hogan, a reinvigorated HHH, a set of cameos by the Rock, and a memorable title run for the Undertaker, who was playing a fantastic bad guy. On the other hand, a slew of new wrestlers (or old wrestlers with new characters) led by Brock Lesner began headlining shows. 2002 and 2003 sort of bled together, as quality wrestling appeared to be the feature above wacky antics (though there were odd attempts at this as wellÃ¢â‚¬â€œTorrie Wilson’s father comes to mind). Still, these were the years where it became oddly embarrassing to be a fan, much like it was in the early-to-mid 90s. Still, there was plenty worth documenting, including the rise of Eddie Guerrero, Edge, Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle, and Brock Lesner to believable headlining acts.
Oh, there was also the emergence of a new federation, NWA: TNA. Most fans treat TNA has at-best a commentary for WWE television, and at-worst a rehash of late-era WCW. This is not unfounded, but it is also important to realize that TNA has in some way altered the wrestling scene. This is largely AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels’ doing, who have a style of wrestling that isn’t at all embarrassing and actually quite cool to watch as a nonfan.
Outside of Wrestlemania 20, absolutely nothing happened in the world of wrestling in 2004.
In 2005, we were given the gift that just keeps on giving: John Cena as WWE champion. To a certain extent, nothing has changed in pro wrestling since Wrestlemania 21. The wrestlers still alive are still headlining shows (though some of them are in TNA now),the undercard has been left fairly unaltered, and the number of people watching the show has remained roughly the same. It is in all likelihood the same exact people. A number of injuries and deaths have plagued the wrestling scene lately, and it has left a kind of black mark on the industry. This is important to study, and not just defend or complain about. In the last 9 years, since wrestling was the de-facto thing in popular American culture, much has happened. It has crumbled in some ways, and expanded in others. It has continued down a familiar path while at the same time constantly trying to reinvent itself. The last 9 years are just as interesting to study as the previous 9. Just as much as happened, there just haven’t been as many people watching. Is this because the current product is worse than it was, or that the current wrestlers aren’t as appealing? I don’t think that’s the case. What the case is is what I’m going to discuss next week, because that deserves its own 1,200 words. Still, it’s important not to discount the last 9 years of professional wrestling history. Much more has happened than I’ve explained (some interesting things actually did occur in 2004), and many of it can be found on youtube for free, which is almost as good as the WWE 24/7 channel for historical footage:
Kyle David Paul is the author of the short story collection Everything We Haven’t Lost and is working on both a novel entitled No Chinook, which will be released in the fall of 2007, and an essay collection on professional wrestling and popular culture. The articles found on Inside Pulse are previews of what will be included in the work. It will be available spring/summer 2008.
The moss covered, three-handled family gredunza is the third of Chris Jericho’s 1004 moves, preceeded by an armdrag and armbar, and to be followed by an armbar and the Saskatchewan spinning nerve hold. It is a reference to the Cat in the Hat’s TV special.