WWE Attitude Era: Worst Elements of the Company's Hottest Period

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterFebruary 2, 2016

Credit: WWE.com

Thinking back to WWE's Attitude Era, to Steve Austin smashing two beer cans together in celebration, to the debauchery and chaos of that period, it's hard for a fan not to pine for the past. 

That was when WWE boasted the momentum, pop culture cache and electricity. Megastars sat atop the roster. Ratings were at their highest.

But it's human nature to block out all the blemishes from that lauded time period.

The Attitude Era is often deified. Its greatness is relayed, its failings forgotten.

Yes, it was the era that featured Chris Jericho's near-perfect debut, Austin spraying the McMahons with beer and Mankind celebrating a world title win on his friends' shoulders, but it was also home to poor wrestling and worse humor.

Dean Ambrose ripped the beloved era in an interview with Justin LaBar on TribLive Radio.

He said, "A lot of people talk about the Attitude Era being so great, but a lot of it was terrible crap, sex jokes and over-the-top terrible bad comedy. It was Jerry Springer-like. They made a joke about a woman's breasts. Hilarious, but where's the wrestling?" 

That's not the tone most folks take when remembering what WWE produced from 1998 to 2001. 

The Attitude Era is often talked about as what WWE should strive to be again. Fans often view it as "the good old days," pining for more cleavage and carnage in today's product. It is celebrated with its own video game modes, DVD collections and WWE Network specials.

Note what elements of the era those specials leave out. As much as The Attitude Era was an electric stretch of time powered by an uncanny amount of star power, it also had its garbage moments. 

With all the envelope-pushing that WWE did during that time, it was inevitable that the company took things too far at times.

"I Choppy-Choppy Your Pee-Pee"

The Attitude Era was about stripping away limits, turning a kid-friendly product into an edgier, subversive one.

At times, that worked beautifully. D-Generation X served as the flag-bearers for WWE's march into the obscene. Austin flourished as a middle-finger waving antihero.

This was also the time, though, when WWE trotted out a series of insanely bad ideas.

The company had Charles Warrington wear a propeller hat and a goofy grin as Beaver Cleavage. He appeared in black-and-white vignettes, lusting after his busty mother. The character was an irreverent take on to Leave it to Beaver. Not exactly a timely reference in 1999.

WWE wisely dropped the angle in a hurry. Warrington, however, couldn't escape ill-advised narratives. It was then implied that he abused his girlfriend, only to later prove that she was making false accusations.

A stable of Japanese wrestlers called Kaientai proved to be one of WWE's most racist endeavors.

Yamaguchi-San, the group's leader, played a caricature of the Japanese people. Kaientai and its foes had their dialogue dubbed over, a la old kung fu movies.

In the faction's seminal moment, the wrestlers tied down Val Venis while Yamaguchi seemingly castrated the towel-wearing beefcake. Before the act, Yamaguchi proclaimed in a Mr. Yunioshi-esque accent, "I choppy-choppy your pee-pee."

Kaientai, still one of WWE's worst ideas.
Kaientai, still one of WWE's worst ideas.Credit: WWE.com

With both Beaver Cleaver and Kaientai, WWE chose controversy over substance.

It had to get people talking in order to stay in step with WCW's surging ratings. Subtle storytelling required patience. Appealing to the lowest-common denominator was a more direct, instant route.

WWE, at this time, juxtaposed low-brow comedy (like Cleaver asking for some "mother's milk") with its darkest narratives to date. There's no better example of that when the company chose to pantomime a hanging.

At WrestleMania XV, Undertaker, whose gimmick had decidedly shifted toward a Satanic flair, hanged Ray "Big Boss Man" Traylor from the top of the Hell in a Cell structure.

David Shoemaker wrote in The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling, "This was so baldly offensive that the announcer immediately tried his best to disavow the play lynching by screaming, 'Is it symbolic?!?' over and over, even as Traylor played dead."

Undertaker attacks Big Boss Man during their Hell in a Cell match.
Undertaker attacks Big Boss Man during their Hell in a Cell match.Credit: WWE.com

It's a moment WWE doesn't have up on its YouTube page. It's not something that pops up in clips celebrating the Attitude Era.

WWE wants us all to forget about that image.

The company understandably doesn't celebrate the time it used Road Warrior Hawk's real-life alcohol issues as storyline fodder, or when it later had Terri Runnels fake a miscarriage for the sake of drama. That's the price of getting so close to the line so often: You inevitably cross it from time to time.

 

"You'll Have to Kill Me"

The audience's desire to see increased violence turned an already dangerous entity into an insane one. The pace at which Mick Foley, Edge and others pushed themselves during the Attitude Era was simply not sustainable. 

Just as WWE turned up the volume on its crudeness, it blared its barbarity during this time. Chair shots to the head were still allowed. Blading was commonplace. 

With everything we know about concussions and CTE at this point, The Rock vs. Mankind at Royal Rumble 1999 feels too much like a snuff film. As the savage "I Quit" contest drew to a close, The Rock handcuffed Foley and proceeded to pound the bloodied brawler with 10 chair shots to his skull.

When The Rock shoved a mic in Mankind's face, demanding that he quit, Foley said, "You'll have to kill me."

Thank God those words didn't prove prophetic. 

This level of risk wasn't worth the entertainment value.  The kind of punishment Foley took that night and during his famous Hell in a Cell matches could have easily left him paralyzed or worse.

In an interview with Off The RecordFoley said, "When you start having trouble writing down numbers, it says to me, 'I may have gone a little too far.'"

Foley was far from the only wrestler willing to take ungodly bumps, though.

Chris Benoit suffered a succession of thunderous chair shots, most notably the time Chris Jericho clocked him in midair during their match at the 2001 Royal Rumble. Benoit also hit a diving headbutt from off the top of a ladder.

That kind of stunt left him irreparably damaged. Tests by Julian Bailes of the Sports Legacy Institute revealed after his death, according to ABC News, that "Benoit's brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient." 

Remember too that the Attitude Era featured a number of bloody matches with Austin and McMahon himself cutting their foreheads open. The era also claimed Owen Hart's life, as he died from a botched entrance stunt.

WWE has since significantly cut down bleeding during matches. It has banned chair shots to the head. And we have not seen the company try a stunt anything like what it asked Hart to do in 1999. All that equals progress. 

Are those fans demanding that WWE return to an Attitude Era-like approach willing to welcome back those gruesome elements along with it?

Puppies

The booking for the women's division got so bad in 2015 that fans demanded change. 

The #GiveDivasAChance hashtag trended online. The outcry for a more balanced WWE ballooned.

The hurried, meaningless matches that inspired that outcry was miles better than how WWE treated it female performers during the Attitude Era.

At that time, the company found a niche for women as sex objects.

Women competed in Bra and Panties matches where the one stripped the opponent to their underwear to claim the victory. Announcer Jerry Lawler was as lecherous as Pepe Le Pew, slobbering over the idea of a woman possibly showing the crowd her "puppies."

Sable rose to prominence by way of revealing more and more skin.

WWE turned itself into a teenage boy's fantasy. It was softcore porn sold as sports entertainment. That complete disregard for women as athletes is often forgotten when exalting this time period.

While male teams had more nuanced storylines to work with, female factions like Pretty Mean Sisters (P.M.S.) were limited to innuendo and tantalization. A story featuring that stable centered on Terri Runnels exhausting her love slave Meat with sex before bouts.

Some would argue that those kinds of narratives shouldn't return because they are tasteless, but there is just as strong of an argument that they don't belong in wrestling because of their ineffectiveness. 

When WWE fans flash back to the best rivalries and moments, Runnels' sexual domination of Meat simply doesn't come up. The same is true for anything The Godfather's "hoes" were involved in or D'Lo Brown's part in the Runnels fake-miscarriage angle.

PMS (Pretty Mean Sisters)
PMS (Pretty Mean Sisters)Credit: WWE.com

As an audience, we tend to forget that sort of thing and instead focus on Austin and The Rock.

But when looking back at the Attitude Era in its entirety, as Slam! Sports' Dale Plummer pointed out when he reviewed the WWE Attitude Era: Vol. Two DVD, the less-than-stellar elements re-emerge.

Plummer wrote, "We are also reminded of the not-so-great things that happened, like Mark 'Sexual Chocolate' Henry going to sex therapy. Mark also makes the list with his whole story line of romancing Mae Young and having her give birth to a hand."

"You Can Tell a Haiku"

The angles were red hot and the personalities utterly captivating, but the matches from the Attitude Era were often subpar.

Watching WWE programming during that period meant wading through garbage at times. Take Pat Patterson vs. Gerald Brisco in an Evening Gown match at King of the Ring 2000. The crowd seemed to sigh in unison as it unfolded.

That was far from the only appropriate time to chant "Boring!" during the era, though.

Al Snow and Big Boss Man competed in perhaps the worst bout in WWE history. An inane concept and a silly storyline (Snow had cooked the Boss Man's dog) doomed The Kennel from Hell match at Unforgiven 1999. 

Luke Winkie summed it up perfectly for Sport Illustrated's Extra Mustard: "Any reasonable adult would realize that putting a bunch of dogs in a giant stadium full of screaming people would just lead to a lot of confused urination. That's what we got. Two dudes wrestling in a loose circle of frightened, peeing dogs."

Big Boss Man and Al Snow battle in the infamous Kennel from Hell Match.
Big Boss Man and Al Snow battle in the infamous Kennel from Hell Match.Credit: WWE.com

Fans complain about PPVs not delivering today, but that was the norm in the late '90s.

Compare two low-level shows, Breakdown: In Your House 1998 and Battleground 2015, for example. The former featured the atrocious offerings of Dustin Runnels vs. Val Venis, Gangrel vs. D-Lo Brown and The New Age Outlaws and X-Pac vs. Jeff Jarrett and Southern Justice.

All three matches earned less than one star from Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

WWF Breakdown: In Your House Star Ratings
MatchStar Rating (out of 5)Match TimeChampionship/Stipulation
Owen Hart vs. Edge2.759:18
Al Snow and Scorpio vs. Too Much2.258:05
Marc Mero vs. Droz.255:12
Justin Bradshaw vs. Vader1.57:55Falls Count Anywhere
D-Lo Brown vs. Gangrel.257:50
The Rock vs. Mankind vs. Ken Shamrock3.518:47
Val Venis vs. Dustin Runnels.759:09
D-Generation X vs. Jeff Jarrett and Southern Justice1.7511:55Steel Cage match, determined No. 1 contender to WWF title
Kane and Undertaker vs. Steve Austin2.2522:03WWF Championship, Kane and Undertaker could not pin each other
Wrestling Observer Newsletter (h/t ProFightDB.com)

Battleground, however, which occupies on a similar position on the PPV totem pole as Breakdown, didn't have such terrible lows. Overall, it fared far better in terms of Meltzer's ratings.

Battleground 2015 Star Ratings
MatchStar RatingMatch TimeChampionship/Stipulation
Randy Orton vs. Sheamus3.517:03
The Prime Time Players vs. The New Day2.58:52Tag Team Championship
Bray Wyatt vs. Roman Reigns3.7522:09
Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks vs. Brie Bella2.7511:29
John Cena vs. Kevin Owens4.2522:12United States Championship
Brock Lesnar vs. Seth Rollins29:00WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Wrestling Observer Newsletter (h/t ProFightDB.com)

Bad matches happened all the time, on both free TV and PPVs, during the Attitude Era. As memorable as guys like Gangrel were, they just couldn't touch the kind of in-ring skill even a low-rung wrestler like Darren Young is achieving today.

Minimal match time didn't help, either. In an interview with Alternative Nation, Edge compared the two eras in terms of that key element:

If you watch back, sometimes the matches weren't that great because we had 2 minutes. It's not possible to have a good wrestling match in 2 minutes, you can't tell a story, you can tell a haiku. Since the PG era, I know when I was in matches, I had half an hour sometimes, 20 minutes, there I can tell a story.

The Attitude Era was often too busy having women compete in bikini contests or wrestlers taking part in torrid plots to give much time to actual in-ring action.

Keith Elliot Greenberg wrote in Pro Wrestling: From Carnivals to Cable TV, "In 1999, Indiana University released a study of 50 separate episodes of Raw. The researchers found that, on a typical two-hour program, there were only 36 minutes of wrestling."

Shows instead had plenty of sophomoric humor and envelope-pushing.

Fans tend to focus on the times WWE hit the right notes, not the discordant failures in between. Some see returning to a PG-13 rating as a cure-all for WWE's creative struggles. One can add all the sex and violence in the world, but successful wrestling comes down to great characters, dramatic stories and spellbinding wrestling.

The Attitude Era leaned on that first element more than anything. 

Stick Mankind, The Rock, Austin and Undertaker in a PG environment, and they would be sure to succeed. John Cena had similar thoughts when reflecting on WWE's hottest period.

Cena told Muscle & Fitness that he didn't think WWE would revert back to those days. He went on to talk about what he believes drove that period of wrestling.

He said, "I think the great thing about the Attitude Era was not necessarily dropping an F-bomb, but just the passion that the guys had, the number of top-quality talent that the company had, the fact that we had competition. A lot of elements play into that." 

He's right. Talent and McMahon forced to be his best by WCW chasing him down formed the core of the Attitude Era, not the penis jokes and chair shots.

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