Excuse me as a tidy up; it’s been quite a long while since I delivered a Squared-Circle Science column. Even then, it was a review of a WWE Blu-ray release. Yet as we approach WrestleMania 32, I felt inspired to flashback to how the wrestling game changed around this time fifteen years ago.
This is the year where wrestling’s Big 3 became one as Vincent Kennedy McMahon purchased World Championship Wrestling’s (WCW) assets, trademarks and contracts of selected wrestlers. The Monday Night Wars ended not with a bang but rather a whimper as WCW stalwarts and in-ring legends Sting and Ric Flair wrestled one another on Monday Night Nitro just as they did on the premier episode on September 4, 1995 from the Mall of America in Minnesota. The following month, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) shut its doors filing for bankruptcy.
In between the closings of WCW and ECW, McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF) would have arguably its greatest PPV wrestling card with WrestleMania X-Seven, which emanated from the Astrodome in Houston, TX – the same state that hosts this year’s WrestleMania. The event included such remarkable matches as Tables, Ladders, and Chairs II with The Hardy Boyz, The Dudley Boyz, and the team that totally reeks of awesomeness, Edge & Christian. We also had The Undertaker squaring off against Triple H, a match-up that would reignite a decade later on wrestling’s grandest stage as the two men would meet at WrestleManias XXVII and XXVIII. There was even a match pitting Shane McMahon against his father, Vince, which seems a little like deja vu at this year’s event, only with The Undertaker in place of VKM. But it would be the main event of The Rock defending his WWF World Championship against Steve Austin that would signal the end of an era. The Attitude Era.
The shift from the New Generation of talent in the mid-90s with the likes of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon and Diesel to the Attitude Era in 1997 intensified when stars Ramon and Diesel bolted for where the big boys play joining WCW as members of the New World Order (nWo) in the summer of 1996, along with Hulk Hogan, who left WWF three years earlier and was heavily pushed upon his arrival against Ric Flair at Bash at the Beach.
The Attitude Era was borne out of stagnating television ratings. The push for edgier storylines and risque content resonated with a culture that was tired of seeing traditional heels and faces on a weekly basis. This, plus syndicated programs like The Jerry Springer Show with lewd topics and subject matter, allowed WWF to develop talent that had once been employed with WCW, including Triple H (previously Jean-Paul Levesque), Mankind (aka Cactus Jack) and Steve Austin, as well as stables like D-Generation X (WWF’s answer to the nWo), The Corporation (that generation’s Authority), and elevate new talents Rocky Maivia (once he dropped Maivia and the “y” from Rocky and added a “The”) and former Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle.
As WCW was winning the ratings war with the success of Hulk Hogan going Hollywood and the rise of the nWo (plus an undercard that included Rey Mysterio, Jr., Eddy Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho – all of whom would go on to WWF/E and win heavyweight gold), WWF was betting the farm that Shawn Michaels’ boyhood dream coming true would help to mask a mid-card that included failed wrestlers/gimmicks like Aldo Montoya (who was far from Incredible), The Sultan (hey, it’s future Rikishi!), Faarooq (what was up with that outfit, Ron? DAMN!), Salvatore Sincere (Hey, Patriot, put your mask on), Kane as Fake Diesel (I said put your mask on), tag teams The New Rockers (Al Snow before he got Head), The Bodydonnas (Tom Prichard with a buzzcut!), and The Godwinns (WCW castoffs Tex Slazenger and Shanghai Pierce). Oh, and let’s not forget – actually, let’s do – the factions The Disciples of Apocalypse (not quite Hell’s Angels or even Sons of Anarchy) and Los Boricuas (a foursome that couldn’t lie, cheat, or steal like Los Guerreros).
WWF and WCW were like the inverse of each other. WCW had better undercards for their pay-per-views while WWF had the better main events. But who would have ever suspected that a single week separated the directions both companies would take. In June of 1996 you would have Eric Bischoff being powerbomed off the stage by Kevin Nash as Scott Hall looked on. A week later, Steve Austin would win the King of the Ring and give birth to “Austin 3:16.” Less than two years later, Austin would defeat Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania XIV. WCW countered with an Uncensored main event where Hollywood Hogan squared off against Randy Savage, a match that had been a WrestleMania main event back in 1989.
In the wake of WWF purchasing WCW you had a dream scenario of WWF vs. WCW matches becoming a reality, but that dream became a nightmare as booking was atrocious (no way WWF would have its established stars look weak against a bunch of new hires). Nevertheless, the influx of new talent brought about a dynamic change in the make-up of locker rooms with shows Monday Night Raw and SmackDown! becoming their own identifiable brands. In the age of monthly pay-per-views the brand extension was probably a bad idea, with WWE alternating months in which the weekly shows had their talent in the PPV spotlight (not including the Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam and the Survivor Series where talent from both brands were booked), but it did give rise to the “SmackDown Six,” which was the B-show’s answer to top heavy Monday night telecasts. SmackDown was the sport to Monday Night Raw‘s entertainment.
I bring this up because I have a feeling that there could be a seismic shift with the fallout of WrestleMania 32. We may be on the verge of another brand extension and involving NXT. A developmental league for WWE, this is the same promotion that has shown ladies can be more than valets or divas; they can main event wrestling cards (as what occurred at NXT TakeOver: Respect when Bayley defended her NXT Women’s Championship against Sasha Banks in a 30-minute Iron Woman match).
According to the Current Superstars page on WWE.com there are 97 personalities listed, including television commentators, backstage interviewers and ring announcer/songstress Lillian Garcia. On the NXT side are 41 personalities listed, including Rhyno, a former ECW superstar who was on WWE’s main roster in 2001 as part of the failed WCW/ECW invasion angle, and former Ring of Honor world champion and TNA superstar Samoa Joe.
It’s well within the realm of possibility that WWE get to a point where it will benefit from a brand split with the addition of NXT as a means to freshen up the product when it incurs a rash of injuries, such is the case with this year’s WrestleMania show where it lacks superstars such as John Cena, Seth Rollins, Randy Orton, Sting, Cesaro, and lastly Daniel Bryan, who retired from in-ring competition earlier this year. The combination of the WWE Network and Raw and SmackDown both being on the USA Network would help in having the fan universe keep tab of their favorite superstars while also elevating talent that is underutilized or not already getting exposure on television.
Regardless, it will be interesting to see what becomes of the state of WWE in the aftermath of WrestleMania 32. Fifteen years after WrestleMania X-Seven saw the end of the Attitude Era with Steve Austin allying himself with his once archenemy Vince McMahon, will history repeat itself if WWE decides to transition away from the current Reality Era and start a new one?
Tags: Shawn Michaels, Squared-Circle Science, Steve Austin, wrestlemania 32