When we last left the wrestling world at the end of volume one of DDTs and Trash TV, we dabbled with the idea that perhaps more than great booking and great talent, the tastes of the American people dictated the pace at which pro wrestling in America was welcomed with open arms and put into the mainstream of pop culture like never before. We often look back at the Attitude Era as some sort of pinnacle of wrestling writing and performance, when the reality may be an identical product today might not get the same sort of rub and explode all over our televisions, newspapers, magazines, t-shirts and into the pop culture lexicon. Make no mistake, professional wrestling is as healthy as it has ever been in this country, despite what we watch on TV. Our gripes and grievances with the on-screen product only tells a small part of the story in understanding how a professional wrestling company became a publicly traded corporation, with a movie studio, video games, in-house music production, stars on the front of Wheaties boxes and basketball arenas chanting “YES!”. The Attitude Era is quickly becoming nearly twenty years old. It’s undoubtedly the most important period of wrestling history and although much of the capital that has built the WWE Network and its imprint on cable and PPV is built off the back of the Attitude Era, a company could not last two decades after the fact on a handful of years alone. The timing was right and the product was hot, but the next wrestling boom period will likely be the next time the moon and stars align and for whatever reason, the people want to indulge openly into what now, is a guilty pleasure for some.
For the most part, WWF had kept many of the surface wounds that crippled the company for most of the early and mid 90s throughout 1996. Still, as we previously discussed, there were at least small, incremental attempts at revamping the on-screen product throughout 1996, the psychotic Mankind, the ambiguously…uh…whatever he was that week Goldust and the (inadvertent) choice to go with Steve Austin to win the year’s King of the Ring tournament, there was at least some small, faint sense of maturation in the TV product. Still, in Atlanta, WCW was going full speed ahead in providing a fresh, different and new age product for wrestling fans. If the WWF was crawling towards the Attitude Era, WCW was sprinting full speed ahead. As it happened, it was becoming harder and harder to remain faithful to the WWF product. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the WWF’s slow, deliberate pacing for much of early ’97 before they dug themselves into the dirt might have ended up paying great dividends. Much is said about risk. Winners, successful people, organizations, leaders, must be willing to take risks in order to succeed. What’s often forgotten in stories of dynamic risk takers who end up becoming world leaders or billionaires is that for most of us, there’s a good chance risk ends up in failure. In late 1996, the WWF put the world title back on a more “WWF” style champion, the imposing “Sycho” Sid Vicious. Sid was one of wrestling’s most interesting journeymen, his build, athleticism and charisma made him an instant fan favorite and title contender wherever he roamed, but Sid spent most of his career ping-ponging in between WCW and WWF for most of the 80s and 90s. For my money, this is the best run Sid had in the WWF, the company did a tremendous job in providing him a classic theme song, brilliant production and built a character that was unstable, violent and dangerous. It was almost as if Vince McMahon had cloned the same sort of champion that fans had grown tired of for most of the late 80s and early 90s and somehow fooled us into thinking we had something new and interesting. Much like Diesel, Sid had a relatively short shelf-life, it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t much he was doing on WWF TV that we hadn’t seen before once the pyro and theme music wore off. He was the textbook definition of a transitional champion, believable enough a threat to be the man, but not nearly interesting enough to make fans buy into his character long-term. Sid did play his role as foil to Shawn Micheals pretty well, defeating HBK at Survivor Series ’96 and relentlessly bullying Michaels and his mentor, Jose Lothario leading up to the Rumble. The entire affair was one of the more deliberate and invested storylines in the WWF since WrestleMania XII. At times, it was cheesy, but it was still promising that the WWF was putting effort into making fans care about the champion and challenger for a reason beyond it being a title match. If the WWF was going to stay true to its colors, it needed to execute as well as possible, because the promotion in Atlanta was providing something entirely different.
Remember what I said earlier about risk? The WWF had repackaged an earlier winning formula into a couple of new paint jobs, but WCW was heading into a much, much different position. Juxtaposed against the 1997 Royal Rumble, WCW offered Souled Out 1997, a certainly unique and one of a kind production, even today. The premise of Souled Out was the nWo had gained such a foothold into the promotion they had the ability to create their own PPV event, complete with black and white camerawork, heel announcing, commentating, pro nWo signs in the crowd and a main event that had the Dallas Cowboys as part of Hollywood Hogan’s entourage. The WCW front office had realized by 1997 that fans had eaten up the nWo like hot cakes and there could be a viable market in throwing those fans a bone. It was something that American wrestling fans had never seen before, a heel faction infiltrating an organization to the point they controlled an entire PPV broadcast. It seems like a considerable risk, but considering how popular the nWo was, what was there to lose? In January of ’97, perhaps it wasn’t much…but Souled Out 1997 was horrendous. The best match on the entire card was an underwhelming match between Eddie Guerrero and Syxx, who at this point in their careers, were certainly not moving the needle, despite being more than capable in the ring. The main event was yet another overbooked mess between two immobile objects and the camera work, announcing and overall aura around the entire show never seemed to gel. You can’t blame WCW for trying something new, since most of what they’d tried outside of wrestling’s very cookie cutter boundaries had caught on like wildfire at this point, but the failure of Souled Out might have been a reason why the company wouldn’t branch out into new and exciting things for the foreseeable future. For every nWo, there’s a nWo Souled Out ’97, an uninhibited mess that leaves people wondering what they just watched. Vince McMahon had already delivered more than a handful of those types of shows and taken them in stride, how would WCW react?
The WWF might have played it safe in some ways with the ’97 Rumble, but they also laid down the seeds for the slow burn that would shoot them over the moon in the next calendar year. As the PPV went to black, Steve Austin “won” the 1997 Royal Rumble, ousting Bret Hart in a controversial finish. The finish would lead to an awesome four way at February’s In Your House PPV, but more importantly, it was step one in legitimizing Steve Austin as a world title contender. Many reminisce on 1996 as the year Stone Cold was born and it’s technically true. Still, the Rumble and the subsequent IYH: Final Four PPV gave Austin a sort of traction he had never had before. And the coming months? As 1997 matured so did Austin’s character against a familiar foe. Bret Hart largely skipped the Attitude Era (more on that later), but he might have been the catalyst that started the whole reaction in the first place. Hart and Austin had feuded off and on since late 1996 and it’s any wrestling fan’s civic duty to watch the results for themselves, it should be mandatory study material in pro wrestling 101. The combination of Bret Hart and Steve Austin led to some of the most vicious, ruthless promos wrestling had seen since the territory days and two bona fide classic matches at Survivor Series 1996 and WrestleMania 13. After the excellent match at the year’s WrestleMania, the WWF decided to keep with their hot hand, Austin and Hart had fans involved in a way that even the world champion couldn’t muster.
Shawn Michaels losing his smile might not have made sense to a large portion of the WWF audience, but it was an example of Attitude Era lesson #1: what happened backstage is a hell of a lot more entertaining than what happens on-stage. Michaels dropped the belt and ducked out after the Rumble and wouldn’t reappear on TV until Hart and Austin had done much of the heavy lifting, HBK fought Austin at the King of the Ring in an entertaining, but confusing affair that led to a double DQ. The real story on newsgroups and forums wasn’t what happened on TV, it’s what DIDN’T happen at that year’s WrestleMania. Fans, myself included, had been licking their chops for Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart Part II for the WWF title, it was only natural after WrestleMania XII’s classic iron man match. Instead, we got one of the best matches to ever happen in a WWF ring between Austin and Hart, but someway, somehow fans connected the dots and uncovered much of Shawn’s behavior off camera. Bret and Shawn weren’t just enemies on camera, but they likely hated each other much more once the show was over. It was the sort of gossip that fans on a national level couldn’t really divulge in until the mid 90s, the internet had went from something we checked out at the local library to something we spent way too many hours on after school, or work, or on the weekends. By 1997, AOL had a dedicated channel for the WWF, a place where wrestling fans could unite and talk about the current product, bringing the community closer together. Until this point, the art of tape trading was mostly done the old-fashioned way, over the phone or by mail. Before the mid and late 90s, only a small portion of wrestling fans, in tune with sources like the Wrestling Observer, had any idea what was really happening behind the scenes. By 1997, we’d get all the reality we wanted and more.
Was the WWF listening to its fans, now that it could check their pulse with the click of a mouse? The WWF launched a new hour-long television show, Livewire, in 1996 dedicated to synchronizing the company’s product with the rapid growth of the internet in fans’ homes. It was a goofy, kayfabe-y mess, but it was also a trailblazer of sorts. The show relied heavily on user participation, not just through phone and fan mail, but fax, e-mails, polls and was in many ways the foundation of the WWE’s heavy reliance on their website in enhancing the fan experience. Throughout the web, the wrestling world was slowly meshing together the networks that had formed through pen pal programs in magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated into user groups and forums around the web. It seems almost unthinkable for most of us to imagine a world where forums and the internet didn’t at least indirectly influence our tastes in wrestling, but in 1997, this was slowly growing into what we know today as the internet wrestling community. More and more wrestling fans could realize why Shawn Michaels lost his smile, who was jumping ship to WCW, who was in trouble with the front office, who was supposedly fighting with who in the dressing room and much, much more (like the mythical naked Sunny pictures). For many wrestling fans, there was an entire world we had never seen before. One devoid of gimmicks, but real people and it was slowly becoming more entertaining than anything we had ever seen before.
This sort of “attitude” shifted into WWF programming in mid-1997. Cable television had become more and more obscene, with shows like South Park or HBO’s Oz changing our idea of what is and isn’t acceptable on our TV. Movies like Boogie Nights became blockbuster hits, full of nudity, sexual innuendo and vulgar subject matter. These entertainment endeavors went from cult classics to mainstream successes for many of the same reasons pro wrestling would the following years. The WWF was still wading through crap like the Truth Commission and the dying days of Ahmed Johnson, but the product began to mature at a rate never before seen. Bret Hart seemed to find his niche by the spring and giving the ball to Shawn Michaels and letting it roll once he decided to return presented the most brash, in your face product the WWF had ever seen. Profanity, sexual innuendo, a more and more violent product started appearing on the company’s TV programs while there was a significant cosmetic change as well. Gone were the red, white and blue of yesteryear, in were red and a million hues of black and grey, with plenty of flames and words ending in “z”. Raw was WAR, complete with a new intro and by the end of the year, the sort of roster that would carry the company into prosperity for the next 2-3 years. Sometimes, change isn’t so subtle, which was the case with the transformation of the Raw set into what would be the iconic look for the WWF for the Attitude Era. The change in scenery was an in-your-face reminder that the Federation was moving forward. The WWF was slow to change, but by July of 1997, very much, if any, of WWF programming or merchandise looked similar to that of January. The shift in the pure look and feel of the WWF product from January 1997 through the next year would be much more rapid than likely any other time in the promotion’s history.
It was also in 1997 that the Monday Night Wars (as they would be eventually known) took their first casualty. One doesn’t have to look far on the internet to find a mountain of information on the Montreal Screwjob. Still, while the ’97 Survivor Series went from being a disaster to one of the most important, and beneficial, nights in WWF history in the following weeks with the birth of Mr. McMahon and a glaring hole in the main event scene, things weren’t so easy on Bret Hart. Hart was one of many characters that would struggle with the growing pains of pro wrestling in America as it became more in tune with pop culture and less reliant on traditional booking strategies that had produced a myriad of Bret Hart-esque characters for decades. It wasn’t that the taste of wrestling fans, or Americans in general were maturing, instead they were feeling less and less cautious about indulging in excessive violence, profanity and sexuality…none of which were staple of Hart’s stellar career. It wasn’t the Attitude Era that made Hart pack his bags and leave for WCW, but it was certainly the Attitude Era that never let his character recover. It’s a shame, because Hart was in the best shape of his career and had embraced his heel character very well in 1997. His tirades against the United States were epic, his work in the ring impeccable, but as memorable as it was, surrounding Hart and Michael’s bad blood around the USA vs. Canada feud was trying to neuter what would have been much more entertaining…letting the two go at it without the auxiliary parts.
It was a year in which the WWF embraced technology, the internet, rapid changes in American taste and the appetite of wrestling fans. Not mentioned were the awful throwaway attempts at reigniting cliche, distasteful racial stereotypes that unfortunately took up much of the TV product throughout the year. Either way, the slow burn turned into a blaze and the company and the industry as a whole, were more than willing to embrace the loose restrictions on cable televisions and the hunger for more violence and sex on TV. If the population wasn’t getting it from their movies, TV or music, wrestling provided a great way to unabashedly combine physicality, fake racks and cursing. In the next installment, we’ll take a look at how WWF booking in the company’s biggest bread-winning years in history had much to do with shock television, extremely topical subject matter and why so much of it has aged poorly outside of our own nostalgia.