“Sometimes we stare so long at a door closing that we see too late the one that is open.”
- Alexander Graham Bell, 1847-1922
Professional wrestling, like most other mediums of creative entertainment, has a distinct fondness for nostalgia. Similar to film and television’s reverence for works by artists such as Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and David Chase (The Sopranos), the industry takes every opportunity—usually in the pages of magazines and online newsletters such as Pro Wrestling Illustrated and Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter—to celebrate contributions from the past, from early 20th century grapplers (Georg Hackenschmidt, Stanislaus Zbyszko, etc.) to figures of the modern era (Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes et al).
WWE, “the leading brand of sports entertainment,” famously honours pro wrestling’s most decorated athletes with the annual Hall of Fame ceremony. Bar several notable exceptions like Bruno Sammartino and the understandably omitted Chris Benoit, the majority of true wrestling legends have had their accomplishments commemorated by the company.
Such is WWE’s high regard for the history books, these ceremonies are seen as the pinnacle of success in the American professional wrestling business, and they act as both an introduction to today’s audience and the final word on many fairy-tale careers.
This, however, is somewhat out of character, and for the 12 months between Hall of Fame ceremonies, WWE traditionally positions itself as a company that has a complete reluctance to look at the past. In fact, the organisation has developed a tendency to edit and blacklist sections of professional wrestling history if it is deemed beneficial to the cause.
This is usually a result of the often erratic rules of owner Vince McMahon (see the recent ban on namedropping “small-time” wrestling cities for an example), but it's also dependant on the WWE’s political standpoint (something of a similar unpredictability).
Oddly then, in the midst of Linda McMahon’s second run for a U.S. Senate seat, WWE’s focus has recently shifted toward a period of time that is considered the company’s most edgy and controversial.
This time period, of course, being the Attitude Era.
The Attitude Era refers to the well-documented business boom of the then World Wrestling Federation that occurred between late 1997 (post-Survivor Series) and early 2002, shortly after WrestleMania X8. During this period, the WWF—engulfed in a bitter ratings war with the Ted Turner-funded World Championship Wrestling (WCW)—successfully re-invented itself as must-see television aimed toward the coveted teen demographic (as opposed to the child-orientated product previously projected by the company).
Spear-headed by immensely popular characters such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and fleshed out by risqué acts like D-Generation X, the Attitude Era drew record TV ratings and pay-per-view buy-rates, boosting the pro wrestling industry to unprecedented heights in the process.
Performers such as The Rock found themselves in the pages of publications such as Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated. Mick Foley topped the New York Times Best Seller List.
WWF programming even achieved monstrous TV numbers during the prestigious halftime entertainment slot for the 1999 Super Bowl (WWF Halftime Heat garnered a colossal 6.6 rating).
Suddenly, after years of mockery and dismissal from the mainstream, it was cool to be a fan of professional wrestling.
“It has been said that anything can happen here in the World Wrestling Federation, but now more than ever, truer words have never been spoken. This is a conscious effort on our part to “open the creative envelope,” so to speak, in order to entertain you in a more contemporary manner. Even though we call ourselves “sports entertainment” because of the athleticism involved, the keyword in that phrase is “entertainment.” The WWF extends far beyond the strict confines of sports presentation into the wide open environment of broad-based entertainment…”
- Vince McMahon, RAW is WAR, December 15th, 1997
Vince McMahon’s words in December 1997 ushered in this new era of prosperity for the WWF, and they built the foundations for his company’s success for the next 15 years.
However, business since has not matched the highs that it embraced during the late '90s and early 2000s. Various reasons can be cited as causes for this downtur. A lack of true headline stars and the recycling of storylines, the emergence of the UFC and Mixed Martial Arts and a general dwindling interest in pro wrestling have all contributed to the decline in WWE fortune.
As a result, a significant amount of the core audience has come to the downhearted conclusion that the Attitude Era was the last great period of American professional wrestling, and that the company will never again flourish like it once did. Even new fans that were too young to truly embrace the Attitude Era at the time are championing it as superior to today’s product.
Bizarrely, WWE has inadvertently taken a similar stance by relying on gimmicks and superstars from the bygone era to boost its struggling buy-rates and waning popularity.
WrestleMania XXVIII from April of this year is an example of the company’s insistence on using past performers to sell its product. Out of the five participants in the two main marquee bouts at the event (John Cena, The Rock, Undertaker, Triple H and Shawn Michaels), only one came to prominence post-2002. Although the huge pay-per-view buy-rates (the 2012 WrestleMania drew a pro wrestling record of 1,217,000 buys) suggest that this is a successful business model, it also hints that the company has seemingly run out of creative and original ideas to boost sales.
This is echoed by the fact that November saw the release of two Attitude Era-related products—the highly anticipated WWE 13 video game (complete with Attitude Era story mode) and WWE The Attitude Era, the three-disc DVD set dedicated to the stories and events of 1997-2002. In light of this, it is fair to say that WWE currently has a complete focus on the past and has begun to indirectly disrespect its current talent pool.
Considering WWE’s current obsession with social media sites such as Facebook and Tout, it seems fitting that an example of this disrespect should occur on the micro-blogging website Twitter.
In late September, reigning WWE champion CM Punk responded to a fan who claimed that the only way in which Punk would earn respect amongst the fans was to “bring back” the Attitude Era. Although Punk dismissed the statement, the fact that fans are openly voicing their desire for professional wrestling of yesteryear, whilst performers such as Punk and others are risking their health and careers week in and week out, suggests that there is dissatisfaction with the current product.
This, generally speaking, is not CM Punk or his fellow roster members’ fault. The blame can be placed at the feet of Vince McMahon and the WWE creative unit, simply for the failure to produce programming that gives pro wrestling audiences a reason to forget about the Attitude Era and focus on the terrific performances being put on by the likes of Punk, Daniel Bryan and numerous others.
The formerly Brian Gerwitz-led team, at least since 2005/2006, has been unable to create programming that adequately showcases the current WWE roster as superior (or even equal, for that matter) to the talent of the Attitude Era (with the notable exception of John Cena, whom creative has pushed harder than anyone since Hulk Hogan in the late 1980s).
As a result, contemporary athletes such as Dolph Ziggler are pulling off exemplary matches in the ring whilst being constantly nudged out of the limelight by nostalgia for performers of the past. To then have the WWE marketing powerhouses ignore them and promote stars and events of years gone by (as was the case with WrestleMania XXVIII), it must be a metaphorical slap to the face.
Interviewed by Anthony Sulla-Heffinger of the New York Post, Paul Heyman—a man who can make a genuine claim to being the innovator of “attitude” in American pro wrestling with his now-defunct Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion—agrees with the notion that the Attitude Era nostalgia detracts from the admirable jobs that the current WWE roster produces regularly and, in turn, acts as a disheartening mark of disrespect.
I do think it’s disrespectful, and here’s why. As with anything else in life, you have to constantly re-invent yourself. I don’t think it’s any secret that the Attitude Era was spawned from the ECW days, and as the architect of the ECW experience, I can tell you that the 1990s are dead. That means that the extreme concept, the Attitude Era has run its course…The WWE can continue to look on the Attitude Era as its glory days and ignore the magnificent performances that are being delivered every week…These people who are hanging onto the past need to understand that by doing that they are not allowing the audience to sink into the future.
Under-appreciation in WWE has been a problem for several years now. Many have walked away from the company because of it (in the last two years alone, several promising young stars including Montel Vontavious Porter and Low Ki have asked for a contract release).
CM Punk even delivered his sensational June 2011 shoot/work promo as a result his frustration at WWE’s lack of acknowledgement.
However, the recent focus on the Attitude Era is a very public demonstration of the company’s neglect of its current superstars and ultimate refusal to try new ideas.
To put this issue into perspective, it is clear that the Attitude Era would not have flourished had the WWF of 1997 focused on bygone eras as much as the company has done recently. Imagine if WrestleMania XIV was not headlined by the passing-of-the-torch Steve Austin/Shawn Michaels bout and replaced by Hulk Hogan vs. Ric Flair? Or if Austin vs. The Rock was scrapped in favour of a revived Hogan/Randy Savage angle?
The natural progression of the young talent bursting into the WWF main-event scene would have been stalled and egos would have been damaged. The Attitude Era was such a forward-thinking period that the WWE could not afford to overlook its talent in such a manner because WCW had taken a strong lead in the ratings war and would snap up under-appreciated WWF talent in an instant (WCW President Eric Bischoff excelled at luring disgruntled performers to Atlanta: see Alundra Blayze, Rick Rude and countless others).
The situation in 2012, however, is completely different.
WWE is so far ahead of its competition in terms of popularity and financial success that talent has now become expendable (bar a certain few “untouchables”—John Cena, Randy Orton, etc.). Strong examples of this lie within the TNA defections of Jeff Hardy and Ken "Kennedy" Anderson.
Both men were in and around the WWE main-event landscape upon their departures in 2009, and they debuted in the Impact Zone shortly after. Although success initially came to fruition (both Hardy and Anderson achieved TNA World champion status within 12 months), the effect on the WWE in terms of ratings and buy-rates was so minimal that it could even be classified as non-existent.
Even Kurt Angle failed to make a difference upon joining Total Nonstop Action despite many insiders and experts citing Angle’s move as the boost that Dixie Carter’s company needed in order to compete with Vince McMahon and the WWE.
McMahon and the other Stamford bigwigs are well aware of these shortcomings, and therefore no longer feel the need to concern themselves with performers jumping ship. This translates into the fact that WWE has ceased to promote up-and-coming talent as aggressively as it once did and in turn has built a reliance upon the “old guard” in selling pay-per-views and boosting TV numbers (every WrestleMania—dating back to the turn of the millennium—has used either The Rock, Steve Austin, Undertaker, Shawn Michaels or Triple H as the main selling point).
However, a time will come when these veterans can no longer step into the ring, and at that point (as is starting to become visible today), McMahon’s company will suffer from a lack of true headliners that can repeatedly attract viewers. Essentially, WWE’s past successes (in this case, the Attitude Era) have somewhat clouded its preparation for the future.
The aforementioned Paul Heyman is known to be a keen advocate for promoting youth in professional wrestling. Rumoured to become a TNA backstage advisor in 2010, Heyman has since stated that he sees relying on veterans to improve business as only a short-term solution to a long-term issue.
While WWE’s current emphasis on the Attitude Era makes sense financially, under Heyman’s criteria, it is only a short-term answer to the company’s under-appreciation of its current performers. The Rock, Steve Austin and others may be attracting millions of dollars in extra income to WWE; however, it appears to be at the expense of a disheartened full-time roster who deserves more.
We can only hope that, in a decade or so, when the likes of Seth Rollins, Kassius Ohno and Dean Ambrose are atop of the professional wrestling industry, that the focus is not still on the past. However, if this is indeed still the case, maybe then CM Punk and his ilk will finally get the respect that they deserve.
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