Vince McMahon needs to listen to his own words, the ones he shared with the world when he ushered in the Attitude Era.
As WWE readied itself to go to battle with WCW, to remake itself into a more irreverent, envelope-pushing product, McMahon told fans on Raw that change was coming. It did. WWE's most successful period followed.
The chairman could learn a lot from rewatching that promo. WWE is again in need of change, although it has no WCW equivalent to push it toward that transition into a new era.
It was December 15, 1997. McMahon was slowly moving away from his role as commentator and becoming a full-on character.
WWE was without Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan, their last two centerpieces. WCW controlled the ratings thanks in large part to the Hogan-led faction that was the hottest thing in wrestling at the time: NWO.
WWE had to do something to combat its rival. McMahon would soon lean on Steve Austin, Mankind and The Rock. He would amplify the testosterone in his own product, increasing its violence and sex appeal.
But first, he told us exactly what he was about to do.
In a promo that saw him pull down the proverbial fourth wall, he said, "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. "
That speech offers lessons McMahon needs to relearn and provides insight into what WWE has become today.
Don't Forget the "Sports" in "Sports Entertainment"
McMahon wisely expanded on what fans had previously seen in a wrestling ring. He envisioned WWE as a much more varied art form. He said:
The WWF extends far beyond the strict confines of sports presentation into the wide-open environment of broad-based entertainment. We borrow from such program niches like soap operas like The Days Of Our Lives or music videos such as those on MTV, daytime talk shows like Jerry Springer and others, cartoons like The King Of The Hill on Fox, sitcoms like Seinfeld and other widely accepted forms of television entertainment.
WWE need not return to the days of hour-long grappling sessions with no color, flair or grandeur. However, in an effort to establish itself as something novel compared to wrestling's yesteryears, it has moved too much in the direction of the ridiculous.
The list of examples McMahon gives here makes perfect sense considering how much of these shows one can see in today's WWE.
Dean Ambrose's falling victim to an exploding TV and a man in a bunny suit would both feel at home in the cartoon genre.
The Jerry Springer connection is most obvious. He has actually been on WWE programming, with Raw and The Jerry Springer Show merging right in front of us.
There is no mention here of borrowing from boxing, from sports narratives, from the Roman gladiators. Those elements are just as key as the humor and over-the-top stuff WWE has implemented.
Even with all the frills and pageantry surrounding it, WWE at heart is about wrestling. That foundation can't be forgotten.
As WWE moves ahead, it has to better balance things toward its sports side.
Take NXT Takeover: R Evolution, for example. The powerful, captivating show had not a single person dressed in an animal costume, and the stories weren't reminiscent of what goes on inside General Hospital. Wrestling stories led to wrestling matches, and the results were fantastic.
Signaling a move to an era with more antiheroes, where traditional face and heel roles became blurred, McMahon talked of what WWE wasn't going to be anymore in that now-famous promo.
He said, "We also think that you're tired of the same old simplistic theory of 'good guys vs. bad guys.' Surely the era of the superhero urging you to say your prayers and take your vitamins is definitely passe."
It's funny to look at that statement now. McMahon eventually moved on to Hogan 2.0 with John Cena. He has been as clear a good guy as you can get. And WWE's squeaky-clean superhero has dominated the landscape for year.
Cena has to be classified in the same way McMahon did Hogan: passe.
Each hero has a shelf life, and then fans grow tired. The volume at which fans tell Cena he sucks each night speak to that. WWE has to slide him out of his throne and insert someone new.
Luckily, WWE has a number of potential megastar antiheroes waiting for their chance.
Dean Ambrose breaks the mold of what a good guy should look and act like. He's a haymaker-throwing madman with no regard for himself once the battle starts.
Cesaro, Dolph Ziggler and Roman Reigns offer WWE other alternatives for new faces as the company's foundation. Just as McMahon moved to centering his show around Austin and Company, he has to do that once more.
Cena is outmoded at the moment.
Adapt or Perish
The Attitude Era came at exactly the right time. Fans had soured on the cartoony version of WWE. A lot of the fans who grew up with Hulkamania were now more mature.
WWE thrived because it made that shift into something new, just as it had made the shift to the "Rock 'n' Wrestling" period in the '80s.
As McMahon told fans back in 1997, "One of the reasons for that longevity is: As the times have changed, so have we."
This is a mantra WWE has to keep repeating. Another evolution has to come. Another change must be made.
As hard as the wrestlers work each night and as good as some of the in-ring action is, the product feels stagnant at times.
Heading into WrestleMania 31, there is speculation on whether The Rock will return, if The Undertaker is healthy enough to compete and where guys like Cena, Triple H, Sting and Brock Lesnar are going to end up on the card. That shines a light on WWE's reliance on the past, on nostalgia and overly familiar faces.
The Attitude Era is long gone. So is the Ruthless Aggression Era. Cenamania had its run as well.
McMahon may have inadvertently spearheaded WWE's next stage. His comments about the roster's lack of ambition and no one grabbing the brass ring during his appearance on Steve Austin's podcast has already seen Superstars look to prove themselves.
Seth Rollins entered his bout with Cena with those words in his mind. He told Chris Van Vliet of Cleveland's CBS affiliate, "That really lit a fire under me."
On The Chad Dukes Wrestling Show (h/t ProWrestling.net), Bray Wyatt said of the "brass ring" comment, "As far as I'm concerned my fingertips are already grasping that sucker right now. And if I don't, if I never grab that sucker, I'm at least gonna yank it down and everyone's coming down with me."
Roman Reigns clearly listened to McMahon's interview as well:
If McMahon and WWE welcome the change that Wyatt, Rollins and others are set to bring, we will look back at that podcast interview in the same way we do the promo that lead in the Attitude Era.
It would be the precursor to WWE's next change of direction, its latest means to maintain its longevity.