The Attitude Era was the absolute peak of WWE. It took the company into the stratosphere and made Vince McMahon a legitimate billionaire, becoming a massive corporate megalith in the process. In the years following the Attitude Era, WWE has constantly struggled to attain the heights they saw during that time period, while some fans pine for those glory days, when wrestling was “mainstream” and a significant part of the public discourse. And hey, we were right there with everyone else, at the time. However, looking back at the Attitude Era, there was a lot of really bad stuff underneath all the great memories. Sure, WWE could get away with a lot when they had “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock revolutionizing the wrestling business on the top of the card, but there were actually a large number of things about the Attitude Era that we’d be happy to never see in professional wrestling again.
10. Nonsensical Booking
The Attitude Era’s booking style was based upon the idea of throwing as many different things at people as you could in a short amount of time. The belief was that when presented with so much content, everyone would find something to like, and even if there was something they didn’t care for, it would be gone so fast that it wouldn’t affect your overall enjoyment. The problem was, a lot of the writing ended up not making any sense if you sat down and thought about it, and sooner or later, people did just that. It also didn’t help that because so many ideas were being presented on a regular basis, when combined with the far-too-fluid alignments of the wrestlers (which we’ll get to), it meant that a lot of storylines would be dropped without explanation, cut short because someone backstage had an idea that required using those wrestlers in a completely different story that had nothing to do with what they were already involved in. Does your head hurt yet? We know ours does.
9. Short, Bad Matches
Tying into the “car crash mentality” that went along with the rapid-fire pacing of Raw, the matches that you would see were generally either bad, short, or both. And we don’t mean “bad” by the old standard of Superstars squashing enhancement talent for hours at a time, we mean “bad” in the sense of half a dozen people running in to interfere thirty seconds into a match because WWE needs to promote sixteen angles every segment, since apparently nobody was actually watching Raw to see professional wrestling (unfortunately, this may have been more true than we care to believe). The other side of this is that there were a lot of truly terrible wrestlers on the WWE roster, especially in the early days of the Attitude Era (a combination of WCW stealing all the good talents and WWE signing anyone with a pulse in order to fill out their shows), so those ridiculously short matches were almost better than the alternative. Thanks, but we’ll take the modern WWE, where we get to see the best wrestlers in the world in good matches on a weekly basis.
8. The Light Heavyweight Division
So, WCW had their Cruiserweight Division, where they brought in the best luchadors in the world, as well as some stars from Japan and a few good American cruisers, then sent them out on Nitro to put on jaw-dropping matches in the opening hours of the show to hook viewers before the nWo-filled main events. In what should have been a smart decision, WWE tried to copy WCW’s success with their own Light Heavyweight Division, and that unwieldy name alone should be an early indicator of how badly WWE would bungle things. Part of it wasn’t their fault, since WCW had most of the best cruisers in the world under contract, WWE was left with whatever they could scrounge up. However, it likely wouldn’t have mattered if they’d had Rey Mysterio, Psychosis, and Jushin Liger in their primes, because WWE’s idea of a light heavyweight division was to take their cruiserweights and have them wrestle the exact same heavyweight style as the rest of the roster, which meant they didn’t really set themselves apart like WCW’s Cruiserweight Division. It was as if it was impossible for WWE, which was created on the idea of “larger than life” Superstars, to understand why fans would even want to see smaller wrestlers, and it’s a trend that continued for many years even after the Attitude Era ended. At this point, we’d much rather see the occasional smaller Superstar rise up in the heavyweight ranks than WWE try and shove all their wrestlers under a certain size into a separate division, especially one they’ve never booked well.
7. Montreal, Ad Nauseum
Listen, Montreal was a watershed moment in WWE that created the Mr. McMahon character and directly led into the greatest feud of the Attitude Era, Austin vs Vince. In fact, Montreal is so important to wrestling history that we can just say the word “Montreal” without explanation and any wrestling fan knows exactly what we’re referring to. With that said, while the Screwjob deserves to live forever in infamy, what we’d rather forget is the ridiculous number of times that WWE used the finish from that match in the years that followed, in order to attempt to put heat on evil authority figures for screwing over virtuous babyfaces. We’ll let them slide for the Deadly Game finish a year later because it was a perfect call-back, but any time after that when a heel has won a match due to someone ringing a bell without the babyface actually tapping out, anytime a wrestling announcer has screamed “X screwed X” or any number of variations of that phrase, we just want to find the people who decided to rehash the Screwjob for the umpteenth time and shake them roughly until they agree to stop doing that ever again.
6. The Ministry Of Darkness
Yeah, having the Undertaker basically turn into an evil Satan worshipper (okay, sure, he only crucified people on a giant Undertaker symbol, but the minute you have to justify your actions with a statement like that, you reveal that you know you crossed a line somewhere) was probably not the best direction for a major main event character, and not just because it forced us to watch weeks of matches involving Viscera and Mideon. Even without the disturbing overtones, the entire angle was ridiculous to the extreme, made no sense, and ended up wasting everyone’s time, because it turned out to all be an idiotically complex plot so that Vince McMahon could somehow get revenge on Steve Austin. In the meantime, however, we were forced to suffer through Stephanie McMahon being kidnapped (including the laughable “Where To, Stephanie?” line that would have been a huge Internet meme had they existed at the time) and nearly forced into a “Black Wedding”, the Undertaker-Boss Man Hell in a Cell match at WrestleMania XV, the horrible Corporate Ministry theme music, and of course, the ludicrous Higher Power reveal. If any storyline was a clear sign that somebody backstage had no idea what the hell they were planning when they started it (*coughVinceRussocough*) , the Ministry of Darkness was it.
5. Everyone’s A Jerk
Call it “shades of gray”, call it whatever you want, but the simple fact of the matter is that every single wrestler in the Attitude Era was a horrible person. In an attempt to be cool, WWE declared that there were no “good guys” or “bad guys” anymore (although they were lying), and everyone was simply just a wrestler trying to get to the top by any means necessary. And while someone like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was a perfect fit for that sort of designation, the overall effect was things like people turning on each other for no real reason, matches where there was nobody for the fans to really support because they were both jerks, and ridiculous storylines that threw character motivations right out the window. Hell, Mick Foley decided to take advantage of that and corner the market on “loveable”, but even he still had to morph back into the disreputable Cactus Jack when he wanted to be taken seriously. These days, we’re perfectly happy to return to a world where there are actual “good guys”, like Daniel Bryan, Sami Zayn, Bayley, and yes, John Cena, because at least it gives the fans someone to cheer for unironically. “Shades of gray” are fine for some people, but not for absolutely everyone on the roster.
4. The Gang Warz
We could have just written the word “Racism” here and left it at that, but the truth is, the terrible nature of the Gang Warz wasn’t just that it was a literally a race war between factions portraying militant African-Americans, Cuban street gangs, South African white supremacists, and redneck biker gangs (who were supposed to be the good guys, apparently), although obviously that part is pretty unforgivable. No, while that probably would have been bad enough, the Gang Warz (which, of course, have to be spelled with a “z” because that’s what we did to everything in the late 90’s) also involved many of the worst wrestlers on the roster trading wins back in forth in terrible matches that ate up far too much TV time. And then they just ended for no reason, not that anyone was complaining, with almost everyone involved slipping into irrelevance. Well, except for the Nation of Domination, which somehow survived the carnage and even became one of the more important WWE factions from a historical perspective.
3. Rampant Misogyny
The Attitude Era did give us Trish Stratus and Lita, two of the greatest female wrestlers in history. However, because 90% of the women’s division was full of bikini models and non-wrestling valets, it also gave us a truly ridiculous number of bikini contests, bra and panties matches, gravy/mud/whatever else they could put in an inflatable swimming pool and force women to catfight in matches, “accidental” wardrobe malfunctions, transphobia, homophobia, Jerry Lawler talking about how much he’d like to have sex with half the women on the roster, and generally every possible distasteful way you could possibly treat women as meaningless sex objects known to humanity. Listen, we were horny teenagers at one point too, and we still remember the days where we would have crawled over broken glass just to catch a glimpse of side-boob, let alone two women rolling around in lingerie, but in the modern world, there is no reason to have that stuff splashed all over what is, supposedly, a wrestling show. Come on, isn’t it so much nicer now that we can watch women being trained to be actual wrestlers, treated as if they are legitimate competitors, and putting on real wrestling matches?
2. Ever-Escalating Violence
Part of what made the Attitude Era fresh and exciting was the increased level of brutal violence. People went through tables on a weekly basis. Chair shots to the head were an accepted finish to any match. Hardcore matches were the norm, with weapons littering the ring during even the main events of Pay Per Views. Blood flowed like water, up and down the card, while the real wrestling daredevils attempted to one-up themselves by jumping off of higher heights, and falling through even more dangerous objects. It led to some incredible moments that fans still talk about today, but it also led to serious injuries, addictions, and even premature deaths in the wrestlers who were trying to top their previous efforts to incredibly risky degrees. These days, whatever blood that occurs is (supposedly) accidental, chair shots and other weapon use is extremely protected, and even when someone like Shane McMahon does something unbelievably stupid like jump off Hell in a Cell, it happens once a great while, at a huge event, as the payoff to a big angle, and all precautions are taken to make sure nothing horrible happens. By making these things rare occurrences again, WWE has given them greater impact when they do happen, and wrestlers are no longer trying to up the ante in meaningless lower card squash matches because the crowd expects every match to have a certain level of violence. That has to be considered a good thing.
That’s right, we said it. The fact of the matter is that WWE doesn’t need to be TV-14 in order to be good. Many of the best movies on the planet, including the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars films, are rated PG-13 or less. Disney and Pixar make a mint off animated movies that don’t even sniff a “mature audiences only” rating, but still take home “Best Animated Feature” at the Oscars nearly every year. Hell, Hulk Hogan made WWE an international powerhouse for years by exhorting children to drink their milk and say their prayers, and the most risque thing you saw in that era was Miss Elizabeth in a one piece bathing suit! Meanwhile, how much of the “mature” TV-14 Attitude Era could you actually show to people without feeling uncomfortable about your favorite hobby? Of course, the key to all those other franchises being giant successes while still remaining PG is good writing, which is something WWE regularly drops the ball on, but the point remains: It is entirely possible, and should be completely desirable, for WWE to be PG. This is because that means it is accessible for a mass market audience, which is the only way professional wrestling will ever be “mainstream” again. In the end, blaming the PG rating for WWE’s woes is a mistake we need to stop making.