You read the title, so you’re already taking your stance to argue or to agree with me. “Bro, the Attitude Era…” “Bro, the Ruthless Aggression Era…” I can hear it all now. Why even try to change your mind? Wouldn’t it be hilarious if I really did give up right now and change my mind and you read one paragraph of me conceding that this is an impossible endeavor and then ending it with a social media plug?
A few years ago TNA began running with a motto. “Wrestling matters,” they said. They plastered it all over their social media, trying desperately to appeal to the cries of die-hard wrestling fans who had become jaded by the WWE’s heavy emphasis on the “entertainment” aspect of “sports entertainment.” WWE opted for more promos and backstage segments and theatrics. TNA, in one of their many “let’s try this for like thirty minutes” schemes that remind me all too much of Homer Simpson trying to become a millionaire in 30 minutes, decided to go the opposite direction and focus entirely on their matches. Does anyone remember that? No? Me either.
What really sparked this was the fans clamoring that the match quality in WWE was slipping slowly down the proverbial toilet. Whether or not the fans were right or wrong is up for debate, but it’s hard to deny that it was a far cry from the days of Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, and Bret Hart putting on clinics in our living rooms. Adding more credibility to that cry was the rise of independent promotion, Ring of Honor. There were these guys like Seth Rollins, Cesaro, Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn who made a name for themselves, not by being overly theatrical, but by going into the ring and completely blowing the collective minds of all those crying that the action of the biggest promotion in the world just wasn’t doing it for them any more.
The thing about the Attitude Era and the “Ruthless Aggression” era that followed was that there were a lot of moving parts. Vince McMahon was met with some stiff competition from WCW and their creation of the NWO, and he was left with no other choice but to push the envelope in order to bring in more and more fans. We tend to look at life in retrospect with rose-tinted goggles, but let’s not deny that much of what lured us to the Attitude Era was the batshit crazy “entertainment” aspect. Those guys were driving trucks to the ring and covering their bosses in beer. They had a woman come out with nothing but handprints in black paint to cover her breasts. They had angles where elderly women were impregnated by a 400-pound black man who was nicknamed “Sexual Chocolate.” There was a character who carried a mannequin head to the ring and communicated with it while laying the fellatio double entendres on pretty thick.
All of that began to go away for “Ruthless Aggression,” which I would say was the WWE’s plan to build the company around Brock Lesnar’s ascension. Instead the focus became insanely fast-paced and technical matches. Guys like Jericho and Angle and Lesnar and Edge were put on the map because they were putting on amazing matches with each other, usually under the guidance of the head Smackdown writer, Paul Heyman. Yet, there was a tag team that’s finisher was to smash a man’s head between two chairs. There was blood and escalating violence and Lesnar even pushed a crippled man down some stairs and beat him up to get heel heat.
Next came the begrudgingly-named “PG Era,” in which, essentially, the characters were stripped of many of their freedoms. No more nudity. No more chair shots in the face. No more barbed-wire baseball bats. No more blood-soaked superstars. The shift toned down the over-the-top violence and sexuality and vulgarity that the two previous eras had been so free to play with. Instead we are left with a version of WWE that can’t rely on those tropes in order to get viewers and what’s left over is an overly politically-oriented company that scripts promos to prevent anything controversial from being said and who fire anyone on a whim for negative press. That’s the reality we live in now, even if we don’t love it.
Vince McMahon relied heavily on the aesthetic of guys like The Ultimate Warrior and…that other guy and then later on guys like John Cena or Batista. But, aesthetic isn’t enough when it comes to watching a wrestling match. Sure, oiling up a guy who looks like he’s been inflated with a bike pump looks cool under lights. What looks better? Daniel Bryan nearly in tears because he just beat three men in one night to overcome an entire company of people trying to hold him down while a crowd of 70,000 people chant for him and stand applauding. That’s called poetry in some cultures. Namely, the culture I’ve created in my head.
Now it’s coming to a point where the WWE has begun to realize that the over-the-top aspects of professional wrestling that used to work just aren’t working any more. The thing about a match like John Cena taking on young upstart, Kevin Owens, is that the match is a story. We don’t need to hear these two tell us their emotions as they demolish each other, even though the commentators are so dead-set on spelling them all out for us. The story is written in their actions. It’s written in how desperate they begin to look, by how long they sell an injury, by how emotional they get when they finally get a win, and by their actions and reactions as the match carries on. We don’t need a thousand promos to tell us their story because they told it to us right there, then the promos that follow are basically them summing up what they did in the ring. In truth, sometimes the commentators almost seem to be insulting the intelligence of the viewer by constantly spelling everything out. The subtlety of the action gets lost to a point where you could almost do a radio broadcast and get the same effect sometimes.
In place of bloody matches filled with ridiculous bumps off the top of steel structures and through tables and chair shots to the face and gallons of blood, we are left with the foundation of professional wrestling: Pure athleticism. That’s what tells the story in place of those “shortcuts.” CM Punk’s infamous “Pipe Bomb” promo wasn’t great because he came out and got a cheap pop from the crowd for mentioning the name of the city and how great their sports team was, but instead by his ability to use words and emotion to convey what he was feeling. In essence, that’s what makes this current era of WWE perhaps the best ever in terms of in-ring action. There are no endless shortcuts to a good match aside from the “let’s kick out of 300 finishers” thing they’ve been pushing maybe a tad too far. That “cheap pop” that would come from a guy threatening to smash another guy with a bat covered in barbed-wire isn’t there any more. Now, for that same reaction, you have to genuinely wow the crowd.
Roman Reigns has been plowing through endless heels on the roster, but it wasn’t until his showing against Daniel Bryan when he showed us that he could, in fact, put on a great wrestling match, that we began to accept him. John Cena, who has been one of the most hated guys amongst the internet wrestling fans, has had a 2015 that has almost completely rejuvenated his career in our eyes. Week in and week out he has wowed us with his abilities to put on a great match. Cesaro was a midcarder who seemingly had hit the glass ceiling and had nowhere to go, but, again, his wrestling ability won over the crowds. It wasn’t his promos or his crazy gimmicks that made us laugh or made him some insane badass. Hell, even Ryback, who in 2011-2013 we pretty much had pegged as a complete failed experiment, has begun to win us over by putting on better matches that make us take notice.
There’s no denying that previous generations had some amazing matches. Angle vs. Lesnar. Triple H vs. The Rock. The Rock vs. Steve Austin. Ric Flair vs. His Jacket. Macho Man vs. Ricky Steamboat. Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart. Make no mistake, those matches are basically legendary. But we are “gifted” with 3+ hours of Raw, two hours of Smackdown, NXT, PPV pre-shows, PPV’s every month, and even Network Specials, all on top of almost nonstop untelevised live events. Yet, consistently, 2015 has given us day after day, week after week, and month after month of matches that could all be considered “classics.”
The roster is incredibly deep with John Cena, Seth Rollins, Brock Lesnar, Dean Ambrose, Cesaro, Kevin Owens, Neville, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and so many more showing us that what truly matters is their ability in the ring. Meanwhile, guys like The Big Show and Sheamus and Kane get buried by the hive-mind that is the internet wrestling community because they haven’t put on those kinds of classic masterpieces in a long time. The quality of their matches just, honestly, cannot compete with the phenomenal talent pool that WWE has managed to put together.
Some of the talent from previous eras would thrive in the present company. People like Steve Austin, Trish Stratus, Randy Savage, or Kurt Angle would be beloved no matter when they laced up their boots because they were great storytellers and phenomenal athletes. Still, I can’t help but think that those men and women who you can find on the roster page of WWE.com right now represent a new generation of talent that is stripped of the easy paths to superstardom and left with only their ability to put on a show that causes us to stand on our feet and chant, “Holy shit!” in unison.
At the end of the day, that is why WWE in 2015 has the greatest pool of talent in the history of professional wrestling.
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