Examining the Evolution of the Role of a Top WWE Superstar

The Doctor Chris Mueller@@BR_DoctorFeatured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2013

Say what you will about Cena, but he is a great representative for the company
Say what you will about Cena, but he is a great representative for the companyMichael N. Todaro/Getty Images

Being a top WWE Superstar means you have a lot of responsibilities that have nothing to do with actual in-ring wrestling, and the role of a top Superstar has evolved many times throughout the years.

"Top Superstar" doesn't necessarily mean the one guy who represents the company the most. Top Superstars are the guys who are always getting TV time, doing press and getting projects outside the ring. WWE has many "Top Superstars."

Some of WWE's top stars have never even held a WWE or World title, or only held it once or twice for a short period of time. These are the ambassadors for WWE who are used because they are great role models or are very popular with the crowd.

Kofi Kingston is a great example of a Superstar who has never held the "big one," but does a lot of work for WWE's other ventures due to his popularity and clean image.

It took Mark Henry over a decade to win his first World title, but he has been doing a lot of outside work for WWE's charitable contributions and other various press appearances.

Not everyone is called upon to represent the company, and being chosen to speak on behalf of the biggest promotion in wrestling is not something anyone should take lightly.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Capitol Wrestling Corporation (1952-1963)

Roderick James "Jess" McMahon was the first McMahon to make a name for himself as a wrestling promoter, and he passed on his legacy to three more generations of McMahons.

The CWC was associated with The National Wrestling Alliance, which was a group that consisted of most of the major wrestling promotions in each territory.

This was during a time when wrestlers were not expected to have six packs or be the most charismatic. They were expected to be able to put a match together and make it look good.

Steroids hadn't become a major issue in the sport yet, but these men were not necessary the healthiest of athletes. They were burly bruisers who could take a beating. The CWC used the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, so they did not always have the top champion to promote.

The NWA Champion traveled from territory to territory to defend his title and bring in more fans to local shows. They were wrestlers, pure and simple.

They weren't expected to be angels outside the ring, they just had to show up and do their job better than anyone else to get a push.

The World Wide Wrestling Federation (1963-1979)

When pro wrestling went from a territorial carnival act to a big production that was worthy of Madison Square Garden, things began to change for the guys at the top of the mountain.

Vincent J. McMahon was extremely successful in promoting the best wrestling in the country, and some of the greatest names in the history of the sport made their name under the WWWF banner and Vince J's tutelage.

After separating himself from The NWA, VJM set in motion events that would make his family the most successful in the history of professional wrestling. 

New responsibilities came with being the name on the marquee. You couldn't just leave your character in the ring and go enjoy a drink at the bar before you slept in a motel and then drove to the next city.

Over the years the things WWE has required from its Superstars have changed numerous times. Ever since the McMahons became a major force in the business a pattern seems to have developed in the way they use and feature their top stars.

Each era marks major changes in what is expected of every Superstar in the locker room, and these changes to the job affect which kinds of wrestlers WWE will feature more prominently from year to year.

Bruno Sammartino was the face of the WWWF for many years, but he didn't carry the load for the whole entire 16 years the WWWF was owned by Vincent K McMahongreat wrestlers like Buddy Rogers, Stan Stasiak and Billy Graham helped too.

Many people would say Billy Graham was ahead of his time due to his high level of charisma and colorful gimmick, but he only paved the way for the man who would take the idea and become the biggest thing in wrestling.

The Rock 'n Wrestling Era/Golden Era (1980-1992)

Guys like Bruno Sammartinno, Gorilla Monsoon, Bob Backlund and Pedro Morales represented the old school champion. Hulk Hogan was the epitome of the new-school champion in the 80s and early 90s.

Never before had someone in the wrestling industry captured the hearts and imaginations of the world. Hogan wasn't just a star, he was a megastar.

As the man who Vincent K. McMahon decided to bet the fate of his company on, Hogan had more responsibility than any champion who had come before him. VKM decided to go national and take on every territory's top promotion, and Hogan was the guy who was leading the charge.

He not only had to be the charismatic hero on-screen and in the ring, but he had to maintain his image in public, especially since the television medium had started to see major growth right around that time.

The 80s brought us cable and satellite television on a wide scale, as well as much more affordable televisions than had been available in the past. As television expanded, so did the focus on celebrities and athletes. Hulk Hogan was in the right place at the right time to be the biggest thing anyone had ever seen.

Hogan was the ultimate company man. He did family-oriented movies and television shows, he made countless media appearances, he put his face on numerous products and he made an effort to be a positive role model to children.

Parents loved him. Kids loved him. Everyone else loved him. Hulk Hogan was one of the biggest names on the planet, and that meant having more responsibility than almost anyone else in the company.

Hogan was the best mascot WWE could have hoped for during the wrestling boom of the 80s, and he paid the price for overworking himself with tons of surgeries and a few personal issues.

But it wasn't just Hogan who was carrying the company. There were guys like Ric Flair, Randy Savage, The Undertaker, The Ultimate Warrior and Sgt. Slaughter doing a lot of work for WWE outside of the ring.

This period featured wrestlers with costumes that rivaled any comic book superhero, but they had serious responsibilities as a top talent.

We all remember Sgt. Slaughter's role on the G.I. Joe cartoon, Hogan's hilariously bad Thunder in Paradise, and it's worth noting that Savage was someone who rivaled Hogan's own popularity. But eventually this group began to leave for WCW, or departed wrestling altogether.

A new breed of wrestler came into WWE, and with them came new roles and tasks as the faces of the company.

The New Generation Era (1992-1997)

As the next generation of wrestlers began to take their place at the top of the roster, the role of a top Superstar continued to change and expand in unexpected ways.

A new group of wrestlers redefined the role of a top Superstar in WWE during the early to mid 90s. There was no longer a huge focus on talk show interviews and starring in other TV and movie projects. These guys were all about the wrestling.

There were some media and charity appearances, and the odd cameo on The Simpsons, but for the most part these guys focused their efforts completely on what they were doing in front of the live crowds.

Throughout most of the 90s it was a group of guys who were very different from one another who were at the forefront. A lot of people who call WWE the land of the musclehead seem to forget that much of the 90s was dominated by guys like Bret Hart, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels and Yokozuna, none of whom are known for their bodybuilder-sized physiques.

The Undertaker was still heavily involved throughout this period, and he continued to evolve his character as time went on to stay relevant.

The role of a top Superstar in WWE became more about what you could contribute as a performer and less about what you could contribute as a celebrity.

This was still a very character-driven business at the time, but many of the best wrestlers were just playing exaggerated versions of themselves, or a persona they crafted over several years (although there were some pretty wacky characters during this time as well).

As the 90s began to wind down, another new group came in replace the old guard, and they brought with them another new set of rules for what it meant to be one of the top guys in the company.

The Attitude Era (1997-2002)

Wrestling had leveled off in popularity for awhile due to its lack of mainstream appeal, but towards the end of the 90s there began to be a shift in perceptions again.

A few special talents would come in and change the whole game, and in the process they would save WWE from being overtaken by WCW in the Monday Night Wars.

It started with Stone Cold Steve Austin. The same handful of guys had been trading the WWE title back and forth for awhile, and in comes this redneck with a foul mouth, a cooler of beer and one of the worst attitudes you could ever imagine.

In the blink of an eye, it went from being about the wrestling business to being a global star again. Steve Austin proved that fans could be drawn in by being edgy and also being a great wrestler, and that is why some of the more outspoken people began to work their way towards the top of the ranks.

As the 90s turned into the 2000s the Attitude Era was dominated by the likes of The Rock, Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Triple H and DX, Kurt Angle, Kane and many more. And then you had the over-sexualized Divas division filled with women who belonged on magazine covers doing just about anything to increase the ratings.

The Undertaker kept evolving and kept staying among the top players in the company, this time taking on the image of a biker who didn't need an urn to beat his opponents.

These men and women were bringing back the outside interest in WWE by making more appearances in films and television shows as well as appearing on more talk shows to promote big events.

The huge personalities that helped make these wrestlers stars in the ring made them stars outside the ring as well, and many of them have gone on to have very lucrative careers away from wrestling.

If you wanted to be one of the top guys in WWE during this period it meant you had to be willing to cross your own boundaries of decency as well as do the grueling media schedule on top of your wrestling responsibilities.

WWE was beginning to turn into an entertainment conglomerate, and that meant being able to do the extra stuff outside the ring to keep your spot at the top.

But the edginess of the product could only be so much before parents began to ban their children from watching it. WWE saw the value of appealing to the whole family, and soon a shift began back to the ways of The New Generation Era.

The Ruthless Aggression Era (2002-2007)

As yet another group of wrestlers began to come in, with them came yet another new set of expectations for being one of the main attractions.

You still had guys like Triple H, Undertaker and Shawn Michaels at the top, but they were joined by new faces like Batista, Randy Orton, John Cena and Brock Lesnar.

There were also guys who had been toiling away in the midcard and tag team divisions who were starting to make big waves in the WWE and World title picture.

Edge, Jeff Hardy, Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio went from fighting for the IC title to fighting for the WWE and World title during this time, and they had to take on new responsibilities as they became bigger stars.

Less and less attention was placed on being a star outside the WWE and more and more emphasis was being placed on developing your wrestling persona.

This was also the period where WWE began to be more responsible and started developing programs to ensure their wrestlers were healthier than ever before.

Numerous drug-related deaths of Superstars who should have had many years in front of them pushed the people at Titan Towers to create The Talent Wellness Program. This monitors wrestlers for drug and steroid abuse to keep their wrestlers as healthy as possible.

This was also when WWE began to get more involved with charity work and supporting the troops, and being a top Superstar meant being able to keep yourself clean, do the charity stuff and keep performing at a high level in the ring and on the mic.

WWE still had some edge to it during this time, but they were clearly trying to shed the adult-oriented image of the past generation and go back to a more family-friendly format.

The PG Era (2007-Present)

The past several years have been known as the PG Era, and WWE has been putting their weight behind John Cena as its leader.

But like Hogan before him, it is not Cena alone who has carried WWE into the 2010s. The list of former champions who are still on the roster has never been bigger due to WWE having two top titles for the past several years, and all of them are expected to do the extra work to keep their spot as a top star.

With the PG rating also came the return of more outside projects being a major part of a top star's career. John Cena, Miz and Randy Orton have all done at least one movie for WWE, and the number of television appearances by WWE Superstars is far too many to list.

The men and women who WWE put on the PPV posters and in the PPV matches are the ones who basically work 24/7. it's hard to imagine living that kind of hectic schedule if you never have before.

Here is what I imagine the average day of a top Superstar in WWE consists of. Wake up really early, work out, do some press for the next show in the city hosting the event, get to the arena, learn what you're doing that night and plan out how to execute it, perform at the show, drive to the next city or airport and board a flight to the next city, fall asleep in a hotel bed if you're lucky, and wake up the next morning to do it all over again.

If they are lucky they will get to see their own home maybe a handful of days every month. Some of these people could literally live without a permanent address due to how much time they spend on the road as it is.

Being a PG company means these people have to be role models, even if they are heels. The anti-bullying Be-A-Star campaign often features heels talking to students about the difference between what they see on TV and how to act in real life.

The Future

WWE is on the cusp of entering a new era. The PG element will still be a major part of it, but WWE has began pushing Superstars who are known more for their wrestling ability than they are for their charisma.

CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and Sheamus are all awesome on the mic, but they are pushed more for what they do in the ring than for what they say.

Sheamus is the bruiser who is always able to push the boundaries of his own strength, while Bryan and Punk are the pure wrestlers who bring a unique approach to the sport. They are all great in and out of the ring, but what they do in the ring is what matters in the end.

Every single Superstar who has been called up from NXT/FCW in the past two years has been unique, and in a world of numerous carbon copies that is not an easy thing to accomplish.

When you look at Damien Sandow, Big E Langston, Fandango, every member of The Shield and The Wyatt Family, you see eight Superstars who are unlike anyone else in WWE.

Having a unique persona and being a great in-ring performer are going to be more important than ever going forward. WWE is no longer a place where a guy with the physique of a Greek god is guaranteed a push. You have to be able to put together a solid match with anyone.

WWE seems to go back and forth between wanting their top stars to be the best pro wrestlers and wanting their top stars to be big celebrities. Switching it up allows them to keep things fresh, and since every era overlaps with one another it gives every kind of wrestler a chance to succeed at one point or another.

Take Damien Sandow for instance. He first popped up on SmackDown towards the end of the Ruthless Aggression era in 2006 as Idol Stevens, and he did not make a big impact at all.

Flash forward to 2012 and he has become one of the most entertaining wrestlers on the mic WWE has. Time can allow for the business to change and give a Superstar the ability to improve and get a second chance at success.

Daniel Bryan first appeared for WWE over a decade ago, but he did not last long despite already being extremely talented in the ring. It wasn't until years later when WWE was more interested in great technical wrestling again that they realized his true potential.

Even big guys like Sheamus, Kane and Wade Barrett have proven that they can have great matches without needing to rely on the fact that they are bigger than most of their opponents.

The great thing about these eras usually being only 5-10 years is that it allows wrestlers with great longevity to span different periods and do different things for the company.

The responsibilities and pressures of top WWE Superstars change with every new generation of wrestlers. The history of wrestling is very colorful and interesting, and being able to track these changes in the business throughout the various periods in time is one of the things that makes the history of the business so intriguing.

The years for the different eras listed are based on the Wikipedia entry for WWE History, so take it for what it is. Thanks for reading, and follow me on Twitter @BR_Doctor.