Debating the Real Golden Age of Wrestling
Several eras have been at one time called wrestling's Golden Age.
Only three time periods can legitimately lay claim to being the best. The late '80s, the late '90s and the early '00s all peaked in terms of both sport and entertainment.
Pro wrestling shifts and evolves with the years, shedding its skin like a snake and becoming a new creature.
Many fans may point to the '60s and '70s as wrestling's pinnacle, but the sport had not yet learned to harness storylines as effectively or to shower the audience in spectacle.
The territorial promotional split also divided the nation's talent across the country.
With the emergence of WWE and WCW as national powerhouses, denser concentrations of talent allowed for wrestling to progress to its full potential.
On the back of Hulk Hogan, Vince McMahon built the WrestleMania franchise in 1985. WWE grew into a financial behemoth by making wrestling cool and appealing to a wider audience.
Suddenly, wrestling crowds weren't just cigar-smoking middle-aged men anywhere.
Cable television and pay-per-view opened the sport to the country and it was stars like Roddy Piper, Randy Savage and Ted DiBiase who kept them coming back.
WCW afforded a less over-the-top alternative, leaning more towards the sports side and less of the entertainment side of the equation.
This period boasted one of the greatest performers ever in Ric Flair at the peak of his career.
Flair perfected the art of in-ring storytelling and oozed charisma.
His battles with Sting, Ricky Steamboat and Terry Funk are some of the sport's proudest moments.
New Japan Pro Wrestling also came into its own during this time.
Hiroshi Hase, Jushin Liger and Kuniaki Kobayashi made their light heavyweight division a must-see event.
The '80s were also a fantastic time for tag teams.
WWE had Hall of Fame-worthy teams like Demolition, the Hart Foundation and the British Bulldogs.
However, it's hard to top what WCW had going in that department with the Road Warriors, the Rock 'N' Roll Express, the Midnight Express and the Steiner Brothers.
The Attitude Era's successes are well documented.
Steve Austin did the unthinkable and became a bigger star than Hulk Hogan.
WWE delivered an edgier product that had fans frenzied. Every episode of Raw during that time felt like a pay-per-view; every win and loss felt momentous.
Vince McMahon was not the only one putting on amazing wrestling in this era.
Japanese wrestling saw its peak as well.
NJPW and All Japan Pro Wrestling put on unforgettable shows.
Icons Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada stockpiled five-star matches.
WCW should certainly not be left out of this conversation either.
Their cruiserweight division was overloaded with talent and consistently put on show-stealing matches with the likes of Ultimo Dragon, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, Dean Malenko and La Parka.
WCW caught up with and surpassed WWE in the ratings in large part thanks to the nWo angle.
While overreliance on Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Hollywood Hogan helped eventually put the company under, their peak was magnificent entertainment.
WCW's collapse led to WWE having an influx of star power. It's no surprise then that their best wrestling to date came during this time.
Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit and Rob Van Dam, as well as rising stars Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle, Edge and Christian composed masterpieces in the ring time and time again.
Arguably the greatest performer of all time, Shawn Michaels missed much of the Attitude Era because of back injuries.
The beginnings of this century saw him return, his game elevated.
Pro Wrestling Noah saw Kenta Kobashi along with Akira Taue and Jun Akiyama turn them into a highly productive and big-time wrestling promotion.
TNA conceived of the Ultimate X match, putting on the first one in 2003.
This gimmick may have seemed like an odd concept to old-timers, but seeing it in action had to convert them. The beautiful violence of those matches is hypnotizing.
2002 also marked the beginning of Ring of Honor.
Not armed with the production value or national reach of WWE, ROH focused on delivering great wrestling.
They have succeeded many times over in the regard.
The late '80s earns the award for innovation and influence.
Without Hogan, without Vince McMahon's brainchild WrestleMania, without the vision of the pioneers of that period, wrestling wouldn't be what it is today.
The early part of the 2000s wins on just wrestling. From TNA, ROH and WWE, fans grew spoiled on classic matches during those years.
In the '90s, WWE's Attitude Era entertained more than any other time frame.
Every wrestler on the card received enthusiastic screams or boos. Wrestling has never mattered to more people than that time.
What puts the late '90s above and beyond is the surplus of superb wrestling around the world.
Japan was knocking it out of the park with their men and women.
WCW shook the label of second-tier wrestling and contributed to a rich time period.
Looking back on wrestling’s peaks makes one hopeful for the future.
Pro wrestling has been a cyclical sport, where it must taper off in terms of success before arising anew out of the ashes, a glorious phoenix.