Flaws and all, WWE's sizzling Attitude Era was special—a convergence of charisma and energy like no other.
Today's WWE outdoes the company's most popular period in various elements but can't win an overall era-to-era comparison. Former world champion Sheamus thinks otherwise. The Irish powerhouse stirred up a debate when contrasting the New Era to the late '90s.
Sheamus told Tom Fordy of The Sun:
The level of athleticism has evolved so much since we watched as kids. The athletes that WWE has now are far superior to anything that we had the 1980s or the 1990s. You look back at the Attitude Era and the level of entertainment we put in the ring now. The Attitude Era doesn't even come close. I'm not afraid to say that either.
Sheamus has valid points, but he's not giving the age of Stone Cold Steve Austin, of D-Generation X, of debauchery and intensity its due.
The Celtic Warrior is only partially right. Today's product features better moves, athletes and matches. The women's division right now is light years ahead of what we saw in the late '90s. The company relied too much on shock value and T and A.
The New Era is still lagging behind the Attitude Era, though.
WWE's hottest period was built around a surplus of star power like we've never seen before. Icons and legends graced the ring. Some of the greatest rivalries unfolded every Monday night.
Today's WWE has some catching up to do in order to accomplish all of that.
As deep as WWE's roster has become with the additions of the likes of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, it's hard to compete with the murderers' row the company trotted out during the Attitude Era.
The Rock, perhaps the most charismatic wrestler ever, was a top star at the time. Hall of Famer Mick Foley, all-time great Triple H and the iconic Undertaker all reigned as headliners.
And add Austin, who many consider the best ever.
The New Era is loaded with stellar performers. But other than John Cena, the current period can't claim a truly transcendent star.
Styles is a once-in-a-generational talent and in-ring artist, but outside of the wrestling bubble, how many people know who he is? What about Seth Rollins or Dean Ambrose?
It's hard to argue those men are nearly as culturally relevant as some of the Attitude Era's biggest names.
Shows like Mad TV did impressions of Austin, The Rock and others. Other than Cena, we don't see that kind of thing play out with today's stars.
There was a different level of popularity with those who occupied the Attitude Era marquee. Even today Austin and The Rock T-shirts are a common sight in arenas. Will we see Rollins' gear in audiences in 20 years?
Even the midcarders were extremely popular, as former NXT prospect Bull Dempsey pointed out. During an appearance on Vince Russo's The Brand podcast (h/t EWrestlingNews.com), Dempsey said of the late '90s: "Never was there a character who was on that show that wasn't an over character."
Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman and Finn Balor could all well balloon into megastars who rival The Rock and Austin's star power, but that's not the case just yet.
The New Era's matches outclass the Attitude Era's. As Sheamus mentioned, the level of athleticism is superior today.
But if you only listened to the crowd reactions to the two periods, it wouldn't sound that way.
The Attitude Era saw fans explode often. The Rock garnered thunderous cheers. The same goes for Foley. Every time Austin stormed down the entrance ramp, the crowd erupted.
And unlike today, there weren't crowd split on the top stars.
Both Cena and Reigns are booed and cheered at the same time. Crowds tell Reigns he sucks and Cena he can't wrestle. Some of that has to go on the snarkiness of today's audience, but that was never an issue during the Attitude Era.
Former NXT announcer Alex Del Barrio reflected on the crowd reactions from that time period:
There was a palpable passion during Raw. We see that from time to time today, but not as consistently. Electricity crackled throughout the product in the late '90s, making even the insignificant fare feel powerful.
Rivalries and Newness
WWE rewrote the rule book during the Attitude Era. It reinvented the product by making it edgier, replacing its cartoon elements with irreverence. It didn't always result in great stuff, but freshness and innovation coursed through WWE at the time.
It broke ground, even if that ground was ridiculous at times.
Today's era is often not allowed to find its identity as it relies so much on nostalgia. WrestleMania 33 just featured a 50-year-old Goldberg, an aging Undertaker and Shane McMahon, whose in-ring debut came back in 1998.
At WrestleMania 32, one of the biggest moments saw a trio of Attitude Era stars return to kick ass and take names.
WWE's love for the past has often watered down the present.
A chicken-or-the-egg argument has emerged thanks to the company not trusting its emerging talent to lead it into the future. Triple H, Undertaker and Brock Lesnar—stars representing a past era—headlined the last three WrestleManias. The Rock twice played that role in 2012 and 2013.
Does WWE not have the stars to fill those roles today because leaning on past names is preventing their stardom from growing? Regardless of the answer, that's an issue WWE wasn't dealing with during the Attitude Era.
The Authority's battles with Daniel Bryan, Reigns and Rollins all feel like knockoffs of an Attitude Era cornerstone—Mr. McMahon vs. Austin.
No wrestling story has been as engrossing as The Texas Rattlesnake's battle against the corporate tyrant. It resonated deeply. It led to some of the most memorable moments on WWE TV.
And it spun numerous successful subplots, from The Rock joining the corporate flock to Austin dealing with the devil himself after WrestleMania X-Seven.
Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross told James Orr of The Sun he believes The Rock vs. Austin was WWE's best rivalry. "If I had to pick out a series or a rivalry, I'd pick out The Rock and Austin because of what they meant to WWE at the time, and the business in general and where their lives have taken them since," he said.
When WWE released the DVD The Top 25 Rivalries in Wrestling History, four of the top 10 (including No. 1) came from the Attitude Era.
Maybe Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte Flair gets on a future edition of that list, but what else would?
Styles vs. Cena was plenty fun. Rollins vs. Ambrose thrilled. But one can't really compare those feuds with The Rock vs. Austin or Stone Cold vs. McMahon.
The New Era's story isn't written yet.
The rise of the women's division could propel today's product past what we saw in the late '90s. Flair, Nakamura and Reigns could all work their way into icon territory. There is potential for this era to be one of the very best.
Superior in-ring action or not, the New Era isn't yet on the same tier as the era when Austin reigned.