Reading the comments sections of a number of columns on Inside Pulse and elsewhere, it seems a lot of the wrestling fans that bother to comment (or comment ad nauseam) want the WWE to return to the Attitude Era of the late 1990s. If we take the perceived wisdom of wrestling fans looking back most fondly on the wrestling that was popular when they were young, that would put these commentators in their 20s. These are not kids. These are adults. So why would they be still looking back so nostalgically on that one particular era and be comparing it so much with today’s televised WWE product?
There was one very strong thing to come out of the Attitude Era, and it is something every wrestler should thank Vince Russo for, because it is generally acknowledged it is he who brought this to fruition: everyone has a character. From the lowliest jobber to the highest superstar, everyone now has something about them. Back when I started watching wrestling, jobbers were names that got pummelled. Now they have something about them. Russo gave all the mid-card guys a character, and this made it easier for crowds to get behind them, and also made it easier to elevate someone. And we still see this today – just look at some of the promos Ryback’s opponents have been allowed to cut before being squashed like bugs.
The Attitude Era also saw a larger number of people on top of the heap. Prior to this, you had the champion, a main challenger (who would get shuffled down the card once he either failed to gain the title, or lost it) and a few other challengers. Come the Attitude Era and you had a number on top. Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart were quickly joined by Steve Austin and the Undertaker, then the Rock and HHH and even others like Kane and Mick Foley. This was in part a response to WCW, so poaching of a big name could easily be covered, but it also added an aura of mystique to the proceedings. Any of a large number of guys could be champion. Multi-man matches, hot-shot title changes, sudden turns, all of this just kept adding to it. And today, yes there is Cena at the top, with Orton, but we also have Punk, Jericho, Bryan, Sheamus, Del Rio and a few up-and-coming like Rhodes and Ziggler who could step up and be champion and it would not look like some sort of bizarre booking decision.
Also the image of the champion changed. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were not overly muscled steroid freaks, or six and a half foot (or more) tall abnormalities, all of who had a total of six moves. No, Michaels and Hart were wrestlers. They had good builds, but nothing abnormal. What they had were skills in the ring. And today we have CM Punk, Chris Jericho, Daniel Bryan, Alberto Del Rio and so many more who are not the stereotypical meat-head, and yet can get over. Yes, there are always going to be the standard “big men”, but the Attitude Era told us that anyone could be champion.
I am a fan of good female wrestling, all the better if they actually are pleasant to look at as well. But in the Attitude Era suddenly fitness models, Playboy centrefolds, wives and daughters were thrust into the women’s title scene, regardless of wrestling ability (or lack there of). Sure, some became good wrestlers (like Trish Stratus) and some came from a stronger wrestling background (like Lita), but most were just there as eye candy. Fast forward to today and, sure, we have wrestlers (like Natalya Neidhart), those who have become good wrestlers (like Beth Phoenix), and those who could be good wrestlers if they came back (Kharma), but what else? Kelly Kelly, Layla, and a bunch of other chicks that I can’t even be bothered remembering. They were hired because of their looks, and in many cases (see Kelly Kelly) the skill level has barely improved. Wrestling first, look second has gone out of the window. Think Moolah would have been a 20+-year champion today?
The thing the Attitude Era really gave us, though, was ridiculous soap opera storylines. From Val Venis having his manhood threatened, to Goldust and Terri, to who ran someone else over in a car… the stories belonged on Days Of Our Lives. I’m not saying there weren’t stories before – I’ve already talked in a previous column about how the Randy Savage story from Wrestlemania 4 through 7 mirrors Star Wars and was done brilliantly well – but the puerile nature of the stories and the fact that the stories took precedence over what happened in the ring is something that really happened in the Attitude Era. Prior to this, Rick Rude was the heel in going after Cheryl Roberts, and it made their matches that much more intense; today Rude would be the face, they’d fight in standard wrestling match, and then it would be forgotten (see Matt Hardy v Edge over Lita). This is still happening. Look at Zack Ryder’s burial for a perfect example of that.
The first difference is the whole blood thing. The Attitude Era probably saw too much blood being spilt, and some of it for no reason at all. It became passé. The modern era sees only hardway blood, so it is rarer and holds something special, but there are some feuds that lack intensity after all that has gone on before it with no blood. Maybe a middle ground is needed somewhere.
The next difference is the use of gimmick matches. In the old days (when I started to watch) things like cage matches were used to end feuds. In the Attitude Era they were used as props. My God, we had a Hell in a Cell match on a Raw that went nowhere! Today the gimmick matches are not used all the time, but they are used almost clinically. They have their own Pay-Per-Views, making them just another part of the PPV landscape. This is one time where I would say going back to the way things were pre-Attitude would be the way to go.
Then we come to the shades of grey issue. In the Attitude Era, there were an increasing number of ‘tweeners’, wrestlers who straddled the line between face and heel. Faces did not automatically back one another up; heels did not automatically stay away from one another. While it minimised constant turns, it also meant some wrestlers were treated as a face one minute, a heel the next in the same show (HHH and Chyna spring to mind here) and the crowds became confused. Now, like the pre-Attitude Era, we have much better delineation between face and heel, and turns seem to be kept to a minimum. This results in crowds having a clear indication of not only motives but also what to expect from their wrestlers. However, that does also mean that the crowd’s reactions to a character are not really taken into account, and some are forced into riles they are not really suited to (Sheamus, anyone?). Still, some prefer that shades of grey because it seems much more lifelike. Some prefer to know who their heroes and villains are.
And finally, the titles. The Attitude Era reduced all titles to the status of glorified props. Again, this is a Vince Russo idea, because he has taken credit for it in quite a few interviews (and he made David Arquette WCW world champion… and himself), and it meant that winning the title was secondary to any asinine storyline going on at the time. Today there are longer title reigns, sure, but the titles themselves don’t seem to mean that much. Cena headlines three PPVs, and the title is not involved in any of them. One of the World Titles was defended at Wrestlemania and lost in 18 seconds. The problem is, pre-Attitude, the titles were used as a political football, and the champion had too much say, and this all led to Montreal and other crap. I think the best use of Titles is the way TNA are doing at this very moment (not before, possibly not six months from now). Everyone wants the title. Aries has to give up a secondary title to chase it. Other storylines (like Daniels/Kazarian and Styles/Carter) intersect and affect the outcome of matches leading to the title matches. The title is the most important thing, and all roads lead to the title.
So, there you have it. Was the Attitude Era better than today’s Era? Personally, I don’t think so – it was just different.
And that’s the view.
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Tags: attitude era, Bret Hart, cm punk, HHH, john cena, shawn michaels, sheamus, Steve Austin, TNA, view from down here, Vince Russo, WCW, wrestling, WWE, WWF