Welcome back to the Road to Wrestling and today we go over the final part of the road up to where we are today, it’s a more disappointing time for wrestling fans, the high numbers of the Attitude Era disappear, WWF becomes WWE and changes it’s product to a more family friendly environment. A long running feud becomes the epitomy of wrestling fans disappointments and modern day booking leaves us all gasping for something new. Join me for the final part of our trip along the road to Wrestling, before we venture out into further topics.
Road To Wrestling: Final Part
We start out our journey into one of the more mixed reviewed times of the WWE…an Era that some love, some hate..and some don’t know what to think about it. Two words given by Vince McMahon to the entire roster and later repeated by the man that would become the face of the company…
This is where wrestling took a deep dive in popularity and this particular era in the WWF is one of debate for wrestling fans, some look at it fondly, others lampoon it and cite it as a terrible time in the industry. I’ve tried to understand why it was that the Ruthless Aggression Era is the wrestling equivalent of Marmite…you either loved it or you hated it.
Well at this time WWF was undergoing a lot of changes both on and off the camera, for one thing there was the need to change their name looming over their heads, for a lot of people the Monday Night Wars were long over, sure WCW was still around up until 2001 but let’s not fool ourselves, from late 98 onwards? WCW was a dying, struggling product and wasn’t up to par with what the WWF was going, 1999 and 2000 are cited as two of the best years for the WWF by fans of the Attitude Era, it was sort of like the last triumphant blow of the war trumpet before the armies involved signed the peace treaty and ended the war, yet only two years later we would see a tremendous dip in popularity, an mixed reaction from the fanbase and the Attitude Era officially dead and buried, so what spurred it on?
Well for one WCW was bought out in 2001, it had struggled, it had tried albeit very poorly to stay afloat but when Ted Turner lost control after a company merger, the writing really was on the wall..there were a lot of reasons WCW died and I mean a lot of reasons! Poor booking decisions, unorganized management, backstage politics, the misuse of celebrities in order to try and further mainstream attention, all the while disregarding the loyal fans that had made you popular in the first place, company executives demanding that the edgy attitude that WCW was once known for be toned down and everything they got away with before, now suddenly taken away from them. Guaranteed contracts granted to multiple people that would gladly take days off when they didn’t feel like wrestling….the list goes on. Vince McMahon bought his competition, the reasoning for that can be disputed, whether it was to stick it to billionaire Ted one last time and take pride in the knowledge he’d crushed the one company that actually managed to compete, or whether it was just a simple business acquisition, personally I just think it was a business venture, Vince had things in mind for WCW at the time, it all went terribly wrong within a very short amount of time, but still…they were plans and if it weren’t for terrible booking and plain bad luck, who knows where it would have gone, if it would have gone anywhere at all.
Then you had the other company, the outcast, the rogue, the rebel…ECW was stuck in a rut, financial troubles, Pay-Per-View carriers refusing to give them their money, stars had been poached and they were left with a very thin roster because of it, it claimed for bankruptcy and went out of business the same year as WCW had been bought out, 2001.
On top of all that in 2002, only a year after these two companies go out of the picture, WWF has to change it’s name because it gets hit with a copyright violation claim from the World Wildlife Fund over the use of the letters WWF and the branding of it all, now how exactly the Wildlife Fund had any actual claim to all of this is beyond me, the legal jargon behind all that is sort of confusing to me, I highly doubt there was much confusion between a wrestling company and a charity for wildlife, let alone the fact both organizations had been in existence for quite some time at this point and as far as I’m aware their were no legal disputes before this point. It really just seems like the Wildlife Fund got annoyed that wrestling got popular and this company with the same initials was all people talked about when the letters WWF came into the conversation.
So your competition is gone, you’ve been hit with a legal dispute and have to change your branding because of it, meanwhile you’re seeing the stars from the nineties slowly go away like Mick Foley who was heading into retirement, The Rock who everybody had called a sell out for venturing into Hollywood and Stone Cold who at this time walked out on his contract with the company, that’s a lot to deal with in a two year stint, you’ve got to create new stars and very much like “The New Generation” some people decided to give wrestling a break after their favorites up and left.
Another reason given is poor booking decisions, there was some weird booking going on during the early 2000’s that’s for sure, as much as people would love to point the finger at Vince Russo for things like Katie Vick and the Invasion angle, that rests on the writer’s and Vince McMahon’s shoulders and those weren’t the only “crimes” during Ruthless aggression we saw the return of The Undertaker in the strangely debated American Badass gimmick, he was a biker…that’s really all there was to the gimmick, he was just a guy who loved bikes…I thought it was weird but I didn’t exactly think it was terrible. I guess that’s the reaction a lot of people had to the changes going on, changes in character, changes in attitude, changes in product…it was all just sort of…Okay. Not good, not great, just…okay, it just sort of existed to a lot of people at the time…I think a lot of people were numb to it all after the Attitude Era and the Monday Night Wars.
None of that is the real reason in my mind though, they’re contributing factors, seeing characters you know and love change in strange ways or just outright go away, on top of all these changes being made to the product and storylines did drive some people away without a doubt but the main reason those huge numbers disappeared? The thing that has made wrestling promoter’s scratch their head in confusion as to where those millions of viewers went? Popularity, it really does come down to that, for the longest time wrestling had been seen as this hokey, family friendly fun show. People were genuinely ashamed to admit if they were wrestling fans back in the day because you’d get mocked for it, not because it was “fake” but simply because it was just seen as this silly little thing that was below so many of these “Intelligent” minds choosing to ignore it. Then comes the 90’s with this shift in attitude across the country, a war has sparked between two wrestling companies and both of them are providing this edgy entertainment aimed at teenagers and adults, rather than kids and families…as soon as just one person was willing to say wrestling was “cool” then believe me, at least ten others would tune in just to see if they were right. That’s where those millions of views came from, college kids, frat parties, young adults looking to fit in with the rest of the crowd…there was still the loyal viewers who had been through the best and the worst of the business but this new influx had never been seen before, the more mainstream it became, the cooler it seemed and the cooler it seemed? The more people felt the need to view it, otherwise they would become the outcasts that wrestling fans used to be back in the old days. Simple peer pressure to get in on the new cool thing, it’s what has spurred so many things in the past and will continue to do so in the future. I hate to say it to all of those that look back on that time in such a fond way, but The Attitude Era? It was just a fad and in the early 2000’s, other than the loyal fanbase that decided to stay and keep watching, the world had gotten over it.
It does make everybody grit their teeth, some for legitimate reasons, some for not so legitimate reasons, but really the only highlight after Ruthless Aggression was when the company changed back to it’s family friendly fun attitude that it originally had in the first place, it went PG. Now I will play Devil’s advocate right away, it’s not as cartoony as it was in the 80’s (thank god for that…don’t get me wrong I love the 80’s wrestling but if they were to do that today? It would not work at all) and the reasoning for it all, in my mind anyway isn’t as cynical as people would like to make it out to be. The reasoning for toning down the product for Ruthless Agression was because the WWE had angered too many of their sponsors, product providers and the network…so they toned it down before they got kicked off the air and lost their agreements. For what is dubbed the “PG Era” a lot of people point to Linda McMahon running for senate as the reasoning behind it all, I won’t argue that it might have had some influence…look in a system where people will actively try to dig up dirt on you and you are associated with a man that runs a company that has had steroid scandals, wrestlers die young, the sadness of the Chris Benoit Incident which need not be brought up any further in this article and the company in general is just sort of seen as this sort of circus by the media…playing it safe is the smartest thing you can do. I don’t know why but the media loves it when something goes wrong in wrestling. You can say that about any subject really but when it happens to wrestling in particular? They are almost ready to take that dog around the back of the shed and put an end to it’s like like it was Ol’ Yeller…It’s bad, it’s real bad and with how cut throat they can be with people running for political positions, I don’t blame the WWE a bit for playing it safe
There had to be more than that though, this is after all a business at the end of the day and a business needs to make money, this family friendly attitude, it was the best thing keeping the best relations with everybody to ensure WWE stayed on top, WWE wanted the best merchandise, the best toys, the best options for sponsors…you don’t get those options when you run a risky program, you still get options, but thy don’t pay as well and the risk isn’t always worth the reward. What need was there to be edgy? None…developing an Attitude over night after they had dropped it during Ruthless Aggression? Was that really going to get those mythical numbers of the 90’s back now? No, we can all pretend it will but not really, not in today’s society it wouldn’t. Too many people getting far too offended, playing it safe just meant you could capture more eyes, offend less people, get the most profit out of the situation. The best answer, was the most obvious one…that’s all there was to it.
That being said the main problem that smarter fans had that weren’t just begging for the attitude era to come back for over ten years was that the booking had taken a big nose dive in the WWE and I mean a big nose dive, it’s not as bad as it is today but this is really where it all started. This is where I have to talk about the elephant in the room that is John Cena. I’m going to try and give a new and original insight into this, I don’t hate John, I don’t hate him as a wrestler, but I can understand people’s gripes with the man and this era was when people started getting really sick of John Cena. Where people started wanting that change, not an Attitude Era, heck not even a Ruthless Aggression, all people wanted was something new, something different. PG Era was where the company just started selling you the same product and telling you it was something different. You can put up with that for a while, wrestling logic even dictates you should.
This is where I need to talk about the Cena and Orton feud, trust me I don’t want to, it’s been talked about already…so much so I even hear people in my circle of friends groan when yet another debate about this feud is brought up, but for this time period, it needs to be mentioned and explained in my own personal opinion as to why it has failed so badly. See back in the day a feud of that length was not rare by any means…what made people dislike it so much was how quickly they had shown us everything we could have possibly seen within a very short time frame. The story was done in such a way where people either didn’t care or didn’t believe in it, they weren’t willing to believe in it because it came across in a way where the wrestlers themselves didn’t believe in it and when that happens, regardless how long you want to go and what matches you have in mind, you have lost your audience.
Here’s an example I like to compare it to and I can imagine getting hate mail for doing it but here we go I compare Cena and Orton to Bret and Shawn. Now hear me out on this one ok? Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels, two totally different wrestlers from Cena and Orton I agree, but their situation is not so different when you look at it in terms of the storyline. Forget the legitimate hatred Bret and Shawn had, that’s not what this is about, it’s about the matches, the story, the pacing and the booking. Both sets of wrestlers start out with this subtle respect for each other, one is usually the top dog or is at least at a position to claim to be the top dog, the other is one that stays close by and is always part of the chase, when they face, regardless of the stipulation you’re supposed to feel that this is a big match, that both of these guys are willing to put everything on the line because they want to be the best. As time develops, what started as a sporting rivalry develops into what the crowd sees as genuine dislike and hatred towards each other the more they face each other, the rivalry becomes personal through jabs at one another both on the microphone and through their actions towards one another and we’re supposed to see that play out throughout the matches they have. What makes that story become special and intriguing is how well it’s done, it’s pacing the story in such a way where that story becomes believable, where that question of “Do they really hate each other?” is asked. That’s the point, whether we know it’s real or not…we’re supposed to be made to ask, to scratch our heads a little and wonder how much of it is art imitating life. If Bret and Shawn was a two year feud where within six months we’d have seen everything we could have possibly seen and Shawn was beating the heck out of Hart family members to get at Bret, we’d have been tired of it, probably even poking fun at it! That sixty minute Iron Man match would have meant nothing in terms of story. The fact both of those guys were great wrestlers helped that story so much and you believe every single minute of it because the way it was booked and the way it was paced made it look and feel as real as we would later find their dislike for one another to be. When those two fought it was a special occasion, fans would get on the edge of their seat because ok here we go these two are going at it again, what’s going to happen? Is one of them finally going to flip out? Then when you saw the personal attacks both on the mic and in the ring that just added to it, you felt it, you believed it, heck the smarter fans probably knew there was something legitimate to it all but even if there wasn’t? Even if Bret and Shawn were hugging it out in the back after every match they had we still would have bought into everything they sold us because of how well that was booked.
Back to Cena and Orton, it’s a similar situation, two guys battling each other for the top position, they may have respect for one another at the start, that’s arguable and up in the air but how soon did that feud become personal? I can’t even remember a point any more where those two didn’t hate each other…it’s perfectly fine to make a feud personal quickly, but if you’re going to have it be a long running feud, you’ve got to do it smartly, the way they paced it just made it chaos, I can understand if you want to make it seem like an all out war…but if you’ve got a two year plan for this and everybody is worn out from it all before you’ve even reached the halfway mark you’ve gone way too hard, way too fast. We saw every possible way this story could go and every possible match they could have before we should have done, it didn’t seem special when these two fought because, they did it every month, with bigger stakes and bigger stipulations until they had ran through every stipulation, then what do you do? You try telling the story again but this time you up the stakes in terms of story, let’s have Randy attack Cena’s dad. Ok, that is brilliant for a heel to do, you want to make a feud personal? That is the outright best way to do that if it’s done smartly, how do you that smartly? Well for one you need to make the build up immense and you need to make the pay off seem like there’s more than just a title match at stake here…and they didn’t! That’s what this story was lacking, you had the big matches, you had the narrative, but you didn’t have the pacing and you didn’t have the emotion that went into Shawn and Bret….what was supposed to be a slow Spaghetti Western where the big hero and villain have one big duel to end it all at the end turned into a Michael Bay movie and everything was thrown in our faces month after month after month, for two years or more! Eventually you just get sick of the explosive nature of it all…we should have been begging the WWE for more but instead we were begging for something else to come along and grace our television screens. That sort of is the image that you can use to capture the disappointment a lot of loyal wrestling fans like myself have felt for quite some time now, there’s so many chances this company has and yet…they never seem to do well with them in the long run.
I want to like Raw and Smackdown, I really do..there are things here and there that have opportunities for greatness but it just never feels like they can capture it. It’s sort of sad, they’ve lost sight of what it was that made them great, they forgot that in order to make us care about these stories that I admit, mostly tell interesting narratives, needs to rely on the matches…and WWE doesn’t really care about that any more at least in my view, there are plenty of good matches out there that they show today…but how many of them do you see the company using to forward their top stories? One or two we can name off the top of our heads right now are people I have big hopes for. Dean Ambrose, Bray Wyatt, Daniel Bryan if his injury trouble goes away…there are a lot of people I like, many who have become my modern day favorites, but does the company really believe in them? Maybe, Vince doesn’t and right now that’s the only man that matters…it doesn’t matter if every guy in the back believes in you, if Vince doesn’t, you’re stuck until he does and the man himself said on his interview with Stone Cold that the only person he sees grabbing at his brass rings, is Cena…which rightfully angered a lot of people. Some think Vince has lost touch over the years, some think he’s fallen into the trap of going back to things that worked in the past but doing very little to change it. I don’t know myself, Vince is a very complicated character, one I have immense respect for but to me, he’s always had that mindset of relying on one guy. In the 80’s it was Hogan, in the 90’s it was Stone Cold and now it’s Cena…so why does it feel so different today? Because somewhere along the way it just seems like they forgot about everybody else…like everybody else is just a face in the halls until they do something that puts them in the good books. Even the superstars are having enough of the booking, there’s word people are complaining, there’s apparently been silent protests, wrestlers losing faith in the product…it may not be as dire as thee reporters and dirt sheets like to make it out to be but regardless that isn’t a healthy situation to be in when it comes to those locker rooms and it certainly doesn’t help when they look over to NXT and see that world of difference.
NXT is amazing, trust me when I say it is worth the price of the Network alone, I’m so annoyed when people say they’ve cancelled their subscription and feel like they’ve stuck it to the man by doing so, you haven’t, you really haven’t. While true that when you want to send a message to a company, you do it with your wallet, there’s one thing that has remained true and tested that everything can be measured, they measure Raw and Smackdown in ratings, you think they can’t go to the Network and see how many clicks something has gotten? Now Vince may not care very much about what the internet likes, I imagine he rarely uses it as it is, but somebody must have to report to him about this right? I’m an optimistic person, I’d like to think if instead of cancelling the subscriptions we all just tuned into the things we liked and maybe they’d change their strategy because right now, their strategy for the Network? Total Divas and Legends House and while I for one like seeing Roddy Piper howl at the moon like a wolf as much as the next guy, that’s not what I’m paying my monthly subscription for. I’ve got every PPV I ever wanted, I got archives of shows to look through but most important of all to me and most worth it all to me is NXT because that product is one that has got it right and it is so nice to see.
It’s weird seeing NXT, a show that once had people playing musical chairs and doing promos about facial hair decide who was good at wrestling turn into what it is today…if you told me a couple years ago that NXT would be the best thing this company had to offer, I would have laughed in your face and don’t lie. You would have too, just look at this and tell me otherwise.
Triple H got put in charge of developing new talent and NXT just became the perfect storm really, it’s full of people wanting to prove themselves, including the man running it. You don’t think Trips wants to prove he’s going to be good at what he is eventually going to be doing for the whole company? He learned from Vince which some cynics may shrug their shoulders at but if there is one thing Vince loves, it’s being competitive and I’m sure whether he’s seen the numbers or not, he’s heard what people think of NXT, he has had to have heard that and that crazy old man is smiling at the fact his son in law is sticking it to the big dog right now because that’s the kind of guy Vince is, he likes competing so much he competed with himself! That’s what Smackdown was originally for! You have Trips wanting to prove the old man he can do a good job as well as every smart fan on the internet that has dubbed him the evil overlord of wrestling, you got young up and coming talent with chips on their shoulders wanting to show they can be on the main roster and you’ve got a back to basics style of booking that is so refreshing to see back in the spotlight that this very simple, very old school style show…that’s what wrestling fans are talking about, that and New Japan. Am I happy with the current product? No not really, there’s some bad decisions being made, the whole CM Punk situation definitely didn’t help my perception of their health care system or the way they do business with people they don’t like…and the effort they put into Pay-Per-Views is starting to become a little lackluster, but I’m not cancelling my subscription and I’m not going to stop watching. I’m a fan and being a fan of it means sticking through it, think of it like a football team…everybody has been through a down period…it happens and you just hope they get better. That’s sort of where we are today, just hope somebody steps up to wake this company up. As good as NXT is, its developmental…it’ll probably stay developmental and as long as it is, what threat does that really pose to Vince McMahon who owns it and can call any one of these wrestlers to the roster when he feels good and ready? Then there’s New Japan, which is starting it’s own project similar to the Network, which I honestly suggest people look into, sure it’s not in English but Japan isn’t big on promos like the WWE is, they’re more focused on the matches, it’s sort of like if NXT was on a much bigger scale.
Either way, right now things are bad yeah…but no need to cancel subscriptions and turn off the televisions, because who are we fooling? Every wrestling fan at one point or another says they’ll never watch again and they come back and that’s not a bad thing. More sarcastic minded people mock you for doing that but it’s natural for something that you love, you want to tune back in to see if it’s gotten better, to see if all you needed was that short break so you can get back into it. Me personally, I’ll keep paying my monthly fee, watch NXT, watch the Pay-Per-Views and the occasional Raw or Smackdown, just to see if the product is improving, times are tough for wrestling fans in terms of quality…but it could be worse. I mean, what if we didn’t have wrestling at all. I like to look back at what has been and gone that we all loved so fondly but I still have to watch what’s going on right now and so should all of you, because if you don’t, who knows what kind of future wrestling’s going to have? Sometimes tuning out, it does more harm then good…