WWE's Evolution in the 1990s: A New Generation of Attitude

Joe MartelliContributor IApril 11, 2010


Over the last three decades the WWE and has provided events that have changed the wrestling world forever. 


My two favorite decades in wrestling are the '80s and '90s but in my opinion as memorable as the '80s were, no decade provided more memorable matches and moments like the 1990s.


In this article, I will take a look back at the decade that forever changed the wrestling world. If fans thought that what they saw in the '80s was unbelievable, then what they would witness in the '90s would be a whole different story.


Throughout the '90s new, younger superstars would be ushered into the spotlight and the older top stars of the '80s would leave the WWE and go to work for a rival company.


A Monday Night War would draw close to 10 million viewers each week and a new attitude would launch the WWE back into the spotlight by the end of the decade.


This is the 1990s.



The Beginning


By the start of the '90s, the WWE was trying to pick up right where they left off in the '80s. Right away the WWE would set a blockbuster main event for the first WrestleMania of the new decade.


On April 1, 1990 at WrestleMania VI Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior would face off in the main event. It would be the first time that two titles (The WWE Championship and the Intercontinental Championship) were on the line in the same match. It was also the first time that two fan favorites (baby faces) would face one another. 


Vince McMahon had decided that Hulkmania was starting to wear out so he proposed a "passing of the torch" to the Warrior. The Warrior would win the WWE Championship at WrestleMania and he would be the man that Vince wanted to carry the WWE into the '90s. Well, at least that was the plan.


After winning the title, the Warrior would be the WWE's top star, but the WWE felt that it just was not working out. Even though the Warrior had his cult following, he was still second to Hogan in popularity.


Warrior would hold the title for a year until January, 1991. Hogan would win the belt at WrestleMania VII from Sgt. Slaughter.


1990 also marked the first of many superstars that would debut in the decade. On Thanksgiving night at the Survivor Series, one of the most legendary superstars in WWE history would arrive.


The Undertaker would make his debut as a mystery partner on Ted DiBiase's Million Dollar Team. Today, the Undertaker remains one of the longest remaining and most respected superstars in the WWE.


Just one year after his debut, The Undertaker would defeat Hulk Hogan for the WWE Championship at the 1991 Survivor Series with the help of another legendary superstar who had just arrived in the WWE.


In the fall of 1991, Ric Flair would make the journey up north to WWE. Flair would bring the WCW title belt with him and proclaim himself "The real world's champion." Hogan would win back the WWE title from The Undertaker just one week later in controversial fashion. The title would be declared vacant at this time.


For the first and only time in WWE history, the winner of the 1992 Royal Rumble match was to be awarded with the vacant WWE Championship. Ric Flair would enter at No. 3 and outlast 29 other superstars to win the title. 1992 would also see the rise of new stars in the WWE.


Shawn Michaels would start his historic singles career and win the Intercontinental Championship after turning on his former tag team partner. 


Bret "The Hitman" Hart would have one of the greatest matches of the '90s as he and the British Bulldog would square off at SummerSlam in front of 80,000 fans in London.


After eight years of working his way to the top, Bret would then go on to defeat Ric Flair for the WWE Championship. The WWE was showing fans that these would be the new top main event stars for the company.


In January, 1993, the WWE would debut a brand new show that would become the most famous wrestling show in history and WWE's signature program that still airs today. It would forever change not only the WWE, but the entire wrestling world.


On January 11, 1993 Monday Night Raw would debut live from New York's Manhattan Center. Vince McMahon wanted to provide fans with a different feel and atmosphere for the WWE product and that's exactly what Raw did.


The building was small and the New York crowd was rabid, but it quickly became WWE's hottest new show.




Problems arise


As Raw was doing good ratings, it was at this time that problems began to arise. After a decade of being WWE's top star, Hulk Hogan would leave the company. In June of 1993 WWE created a new PPV called King of the Ring. It would be Hogan's last WWE appearance for nine years.


Hogan would be the first major WWE star to head down south and work for WWE's rival company, Ted Turner's WCW (World Championship Wrestling).


Things were about to get worse for the WWE.


In 1993, Vince McMahon was indicted after a steroid controversy engulfed the WWE. McMahon was put on trial in 1994, accused of distributing steroids to his wrestlers. He was acquitted of all charges though he admitted to taking steroids himself in the '80s.

The prosecution made Hulk Hogan its star witness, and his testimony in the trial severely damaged the two's friendship, even though Hogan's testimony defended McMahon.

Although McMahon personally escaped jail time, the WWE’s public image took a hit as pro wrestling began a slow descent from the spotlight.

In 1994, the WWE celebrated the 10th anniversary of WrestleMania. On March 20, 1994 WrestleMania X took place from where it all began, Madison Square Garden in New York City. This would mark the beginning of WWE's "New Generation" era.

On this night a new fleet of WWE superstars would usher in the new generation in the WWE. Vince McMahon would change the production of the show by adding fancy light shows and pyrotechnics for many of the superstar’s entrances. These were things that were not done in the '80s.

At WrestleMania X, WWE fans would witness two classic matches. In the opening match Bret Hart and his brother—the late Owen Hart—would represent the legendary Hart family (I strongly recommend the new Hart Family DVD) as they would battle in one classic wrestling match. Bret would then go on to win his second of five WWE titles that same night.

Later on that night, Shawn Michaels would put on a match that is considered one of the greatest of all time and cement himself as "Mr. WrestleMania.”

For the first time ever at a WrestleMania a ladder match would take place. Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon would steal the show in a match that many feel is not only one of the greatest matches of the '90s, but one of the greatest in WrestleMania history.

The spots that the two would do with the ladder were things that were amazing to see at the time because they had never been done before.


Competition with WCW

In the summer of 1994 Hulk Hogan would debut in WCW against Ric Flair. It would be the start of WCW's dominance throughout the next few years.

By 1995, the WWE really started to struggle. Vince McMahon was creating many crazy and weird gimmicks for superstars that were going nowhere and it just was not working. It was at this time that many former WWE stars would start to make their way down south.

On September 4, 1995 the Monday Night wars would begin. WCW would debut their new show called Monday Nitro which would air head to head with WWE's Monday Night Raw.

From the start WCW would take over the ratings wars. It was mainly due to the fact that Nitro was live every week and Raw was live once every three weeks at that time.

In what was a way to seriously hurt the WWE, WCW would go on the air three minutes early and frequently give away the results for Raw before it would air, because it was taped.

In the struggle with their ratings, WWE would not give in. In early 1996, two of the WWE's biggest stars would get ready to square off in one of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time.

On March 31, 1996 Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart would compete in a 60-minute Iron Man match for the WWE Championship. In a match that would determine the most pin falls in 1 hour, shockingly there were none. After one long hour (and a few minutes), it would be Shawn Michaels that would become the new WWE Champion.

Shawn would go on to defend the title over the next several months putting on some amazing matches and letting everyone know that he was indeed the showstopper. WWE was however still losing the ratings war with WCW and it was about to lose two of their biggest stars.

During this time many top WWE stars from the '80s such as Macho Man Randy Savage, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Ted DiBiase had been lured down to WCW along with Hulk Hogan.

WCW also took legendary announcer Mean Gene Okerlund and manager Bobby "The Brain" Heenan (The greatest manager of all time). WCW was literally starting to look like the WWE, but there was more to come.

In the spring of '96, Kevin Nash (Diesel) and Scott Hall (Razor Ramon) left the WWE and joined WCW. It would be these two guys and Hulk Hogan (who would turn heel) that would shock the wrestling world and form one of the most powerful groups in history, the nWo (New World Order).

At this point WWE would not win in the ratings until April of 1998. WCW would be the top wrestling company.


New Stars

The spring of 1996 also opened the door to a revolutionary superstar that would become the biggest of all time. At the 1996 King of the Ring he would utter a phrase that would plant the seeds for WWE's future success.

"You sit there and you thump your bible and it didn't get you anywhere. Talk about your psalms, talk about John 3:16. Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!"

Stone Cold Steve Austin had arrived.

By 1997 WWE and WCW were not alone. A revolutionary alternative wrestling company known as ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) was beginning to get noticed. ECW would invade WWE Raw in March 1997 and WWE would give them promotion for their first PPV.

ECW was different. It was where new up and coming stars would get their chance that the other companies would not give them and it is also where former legends would get another shot at fame.

ECW gave fans extreme hardcore matches and classic wrestling that fans of the decade clamored for.

1997 would be a very hard year for the WWE. WCW was killing WWE in the ratings and WWE came very close to going out of business. Despite the low ratings, WWE would continue to put on some memorable matches.

On March 23, 1997 at WrestleMania 13, Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin would do battle in a classic, brutal and bloody submission match. It would be on this night that the two superstars would switch places in the same match.

Allow me to explain.

Going into the match Bret was the baby face (Good Guy) and Austin was the heel (Bad Guy). Due to his performance in the match, the crowd was seemingly chanting for Austin and by the end of the match, they were booing Bret. It was clear that Stone Cold was going to be WWE's next big star.

By the end of the match, Austin would leave as the face and Bret would be the heel. The fans made the decision on this night.

1997 also saw the debut of a new match in the WWE. It was called Hell in a Cell. Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker would put themselves through hell inside this massive cage that surrounded the ring. Both men would fight in, around and on top of the cell creating a memorable match for the decade.


The Attitude Era

It was around this time that two controversial events would start to unfold.

Vince McMahon knew that he had to do something to compete with WCW. A new group known as D-Generation X would debut. Shawn Michaels and Triple H would create chaos every week by doing things that seemed almost X-rated.

Stone Cold would come out drinking beer and flipping the middle finger and the women were starting to wear less clothing. The Attitude Era had arrived.

One superstar that was not happy and in fact offended with this was Bret Hart. Bret was offered a lot money to go to WCW.

With the way things were going in the WWE, Bret decided after his 12 years in the WWE it was time to leave. There was only one problem; he was still the WWE Champion.

On Nov. 7, 1997 at the Survivor Series, the most controversial moment in history would take place. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels would face each other for the first time since WrestleMania XII.

Outside the ring, these two literally could not stand each other and Bret's relationship with Vince McMahon was drawing questions also.

It was agreed between Bret and Vince before the match that the match would end in a disqualification after the Hart Family would interfere. Bret would keep the title and come out the next night on Raw and forfeit the belt before leaving for WCW.

Well, that was what was supposed to happen.

At the end of the match Shawn would lock Bret in is own finishing move, the sharpshooter. Before Bret could do anything, Vince McMahon ordered the referee to ring the bell and end the match giving Shawn the title. Bret would be screwed.

The referee would bolt out of the ring along with Shawn. When Bret came to his feet he would spit in the face of Vince McMahon and spell out WCW in the ring before smashing TV monitors at ringside and eventually knocking out Vince backstage.

Shawn would reveal later on that he had a hand in planning the infamous screw job along with Vince. This would mark the beginning of Vince McMahon's evil on air character known as "Mr. McMahon." A new era was beginning in the WWE and from this point on it was clear that the WWE was not going down.



The Resurrection of WWE


1998 would prove to be the year that WWE would get back on top of the wrestling world. With stars like Stone Cold, The Undertaker, Triple H, DX, Mick Foley and The Rock the WWE's Attitude era was in full swing.


On March 29, 1998 Stone Cold would defeat Shawn Michaels for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania XIV.


It would mark the beginning of the Stone Cold era. Steve Austin would soar past the height of popularity that Hulk Hogan reached in the '80s. He was indeed WWE's biggest star.


One of the most famous feuds would take place this year that featured Stone Cold and WWE Chairman Vince McMahon. Austin and McMahon would seemingly hate each other and Austin would do everything he could to make his boss's life a living hell. It would be this feud that would help the WWE in the ratings war with WCW.


In April of 1998 Raw would finally defeat Nitro on the ratings after 84 straight weeks of being defeated. At this point WWE would never look back. Every week you had to tune in and see what was going to happen.


Between WWE and WCW fans would flip back and forth to each show to see what was going on between the two companies.


Superstars would continue to jump from one company to another. It was at this time that wrestling was back in the spotlight. The WWE, and wrestling itself would be more popular at this time then it was in the 1980s. I personally believe that 1998 was one of the most important years in the history of wrestling.


WWE would continue to push the envelope each week with over the top and edgy story lines that made for great TV. I can remember people coming up to me in high school and asking me, "What happened on Raw last night?" I would fill them in.


What surprised me the most was that these were people that were never wrestling fans and had never really watched wrestling before.


That is how big WWE got in the late '90s. Everyone was getting hooked on it.


In June of 1998, WWE would provide fans with a memorable match that is still talked about to this day. The Undertaker and Mankind would battle in a Hell in a Cell match at the King of the Ring PPV. No one knew that this would be the defining moment of Mick Foley's career.


The two would start the match on top of the cell. Less than five minutes into the match The Undertaker would throw Foley off the 20-foot high cell sending him crashing through the announcer's table below. Fans were in shock.


Foley would still climb back up to the top of the cell and then proceed to get choke slammed through the cell into the ring. The match would include chairs, thumbtacks and a moment that is forever associated with the Attitude Era.


The WWE would continue to put out huge ratings for the rest of 1998. By the end of the year one superstar was starting to get over with the fans. That superstar was none other than The Rock.


The Rock would fight over the WWE Championship with Mick Foley in late '98 early '99 in some memorable matches.



A Tragedy Occurs


WWE was riding high in early '99 as the Attitude Era was at its peak. It would not be long until tragedy would strike. On May 23, 1999 the WWE and entire wrestling would be brought to a standstill when Owen Hart fell to his death at a live WWE PPV event.


The WWE would be criticized in the media about their product being too over the top and that it was time for things to be toned down.


But the big story was that a great athlete was lost.


The next night on Raw the WWE would devote their entire show to Owen's memory. Superstars would share memories and stories about Owen throughout the course of the show.


To this day, Owen Hart is greatly missed by fans and whenever his name is mentioned, he receives a huge pop from the fans.


Put this man in the Hall of Fame.


After Owen's death, the WWE would resume their dominance in the wrestling world. By the close of the decade superstars like Triple H, Mick Foley and The Rock, whose popularity was beginning to soar, along with tag teams like The Hardy's and Edge and Christian would help the WWE get bigger heading into the new millennium.



In conclusion


The 1990s will always have a special place in the minds of wrestling fans. It was a decade that gave way to new and exciting superstars and so many memorable matches and events that are remembered to this day. It was a time when the wrestling world just got bigger then it ever had been at the time.


Just like the 1980s, I always enjoy watching matches and events from the '90s (I am an old school fan).


It was a time when wrestling was fun to watch and you just had to tune in every week to see what was going to happen next because every week provided new and exciting moments that will always be remembered.


In my next article I will look at the decade of the 2000s. It was a decade that would start out with attitude and end with entertainment.


Superstars of the '90s would leave making way for the new younger superstars of today, many legends of the past would return and one man would become WWE's new top star that would usher in the current PG era that many fans (including myself) wish would end.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.