How pro-wrestling got attitude

This month, THQ launches their latest WWE video game; WWE ’13. For this year’s installment  THQ has chosen to concentrate on the WWE’s last big-time boom-period, the period that lasted from roughly 1997 to 2001, the period known to wrestling fans as the Attitude Era.Although almost any wrestling fan can tell you what the Attitude Era was, and most agree on when it ended (the McMahon family’s purchase of WCW), there’s still a large debate as to when it actually started.

In this article, part of a series looking at the Attitude Era in the build up to the release of WWE ’13, we’ll be looking at the five major flash-points that transformed professional wrestling forever.

Austin 3:16

In the mid-90’s, the WWF was in a state of turmoil. The departure of Hulk Hogan to arch-rivals WCW, along with various drug scandals involving both the company and Vince McMahon himself had forced a series of rapid changes, each of which varied somewhat in success.

One of the most instantly apparent changes was an almost over-night restructuring of the WWF main-event scene, not only in terms of talent, but also in terms of looks. Gone were the overtly steroid-ed physiques of Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior and, in there places were more naturally athletic looking talents like Bret “The Hitman” Hart, “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker.

In turn, this change had it’s repercussions, leading to something of a power vacuum. The famously unreasonable backstage attitudes of Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior had been replaced by the equally unreasonable backstage attitudes of Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, each of which represented non-televised, back-stage, borderline mythical factions.

These weren’t factions in the traditional wrestling sense. Although Hart’s group, The Hart Foundation, did, for the most part, also wrestle as a team, Michaels pressure group, known ominously as The Kliq, had few real in-ring connections. Their existence was entirely out of the spot-light, entirely behind the curtain. They functioned not to put on good matches, or to entertain crowds, or to make the WWF look good, they existed only to preserve the dominance of Shawn Michaels in terms of being the company’s major star, and to improve and maintain the standings of the group’s (at the time) less important members such as Triple H, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and the 1-2-3 Kidd. Some of The Kliqs most infamous moments included persuading the bookers to rewrite plans to have Michaels lose to Shane Douglas at Great White North 1995, and to have Kevin Nash lose to Jean-Pierre Lafitte at a house show in Montreal around the same time.

The group’s blatant disregard for the etiquette of wrestling reached it’s height at a house show in New York City on May 19th, 1996. Two of the matches on the card involved members of The Kliq wrestling each other; Triple H against Scott Hall (then known as Razor Ramon) and Shawn Michaels against Kevin Nash (then known as Diesel). After the later match, which ended the show, The Kliq entered the ring together and, in an almost unbelievably blatant disregard for kayfabe, hugged in the middle of the ring.

The reason for the show of affection was that this was to be Nash and Hall’s curtain call in the WWF, they were about to jump ship to the WCW like Hogan before them. This meant that any attempts by the WWF to punish Hall and Nash would be meaningless, whilst any attempts to punish Shawn Michaels would cause more trouble than it was worth thanks to HBK’s notorious reputation for self-destructive sulking. Soon, Triple H emerged as the only possible fall guy for the event that became known as “The MSG Incident”.

Hunter’s punishment was to be severe, but entirely off-screen.

For several months the plan had been for Triple H to win the up-coming King of the Ring tournament, resulting in a push that would end in him becoming, possibly, the WWF’s next main event talent. The choice to replace Hunter was easy. The choice of who to replace him with wasn’t.

A year earlier, in 1995, Jim Ross and, ironically, Kevin Nash had approached Vince McMahon and advised him to make an offer on a wrestler who, at the time, was a part of Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). The wrestler’s name was “Superstar” Steve Austin.

Austin joined the WWE and became The Ringmaster, a sidekick to super-villain manager “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase. With DiBiase as his mouth piece, The Ringmaster engaged in a forgettable mid-card feud with Savio Vega which was little more than an excuse to write DiBiase out of the company (he too was WCW bound).

The Ringmaster was nothing special, but he’d shown moments of true greatness, especially in his time with ECW. One of Austin’s first segments in ECW had been an unscripted reality-baiting shoot promo directed against WCW (who Austin also used to wrestle for) and one of the company’s most senior executives, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. To this day, that promo is still considered by many to be one of the greatest of all time.
In the eyes of the WWF, The Ringmaster had potential, and that was enough to gamble on. With the rise of WCW, the WWF needed a new star, and fast.

Freed of Ted DiBiase, The Ringmaster became his own mouthpiece, took the name “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and began using a new finishing move called the Stone Cold Stunner, a move he learned from former WCW co-worker “Gorgeous” Jimmy Garvin.

The stage was set, the WWF were betting all their chips on “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. King of the Ring 1996 was about to begin.

In the semi-finals, Austin defeated Marc Mero (injuring his mouth in the process thanks to a botched sleeper hold) and Jake “The Snake” Roberts defeated Vader. In was confirmed; Jake “The Snake” Roberts would take on “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the final.

Roberts was reaching the end of his career, certainly in terms of mainstream wrestling. Having left the WWF in 1992 to wrestle in other parts of America, Canada, Mexico and Japan, he had returned to the company earlier that year in 1996. Whilst wrestling outside of the WWF, “The Snake” had also become a born-again Christian and a travelling priest. He used this real life experience in his wrestling persona, performing the character of a Bible-bashing minister.

For the final match, Austin would be portraying the villain, whilst Roberts was booked as the baby face. Part of the storyline of the final was that Roberts had been badly injured in his match with Vader and it was teased through-out the show that the match would be cancelled, and Austin would win the tournament by default. “The Snake” refused to back down, and the story of the match mainly involved Austin brutally targeting Roberts’ injured ribs.

Eventually, it was Austin who proved victorious and, whilst the match wasn’t particularly note-worthy or memorable, the show wasn’t over yet. As is traditional after King of the Ring finals, Austin headed over to his new throne to talk with Gorilla Monsoon who, before the days of the Mr. McMahon character, played the role of President of the WWE, to conduct a post-match interview.

The first thing I want to be done is to get that piece of crap out of my ring! Don’t just get him out of the ring, get him out of the WWF, because I’ve proven, son, without a shadow of a doubt, you ain’t got what it takes anymore.

You sit there and you thump your Bible and you say your prayers and it didn’t get you anywhere. Talk about John 3:16, Austin 3:16 says “I just whipped your ass!”.

All he’s got to do is buy himself a cheap bottle of Thunderbird and try to dig back some of that courage he had in his prime.

As King of the Ring, I’m serving notice to every one of the WWF superstars. I don’t give a damn what they are, they are all on the list, and that is Stone Cold’s list, and I’m fixing to start running through all of them.

As far as this championship match is concerned, son, I don’t give a damn. If it’s Davey Smith of Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin’s time has come, and I get the shot, you are looking at the next WWF Champion, and that’s the bottom line, because Stone Cold said so.

With Austin playing the role of heel, most people booed. But they wouldn’t be booing for long. By the end of WrestleMania 13 the following year, Steve Austin would be the most popular baby face on the roster. The year after that, he became champion, beating Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 14, and, the year after that, he was arguably the most popular and historically important wrestler in history.

The WWF had it’s saviour.

The Attitude Era had it’s poster boy.

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They’re Taking Over

Wrestling, and, more importantly, the history of wrestling, is very rarely linear. It branches, with each event sparking off a multitude of other events, which, in turn, spark of even more.

When Scott Hall and Kevin Nash left the WWF in early 1996, it wasn’t out of the ordinary. Since 1994, WCW had been the promised land for older WWF talents scared of being replaced by the WWF’s so called “New Generation”. Over the previous two years, household names like Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Lex Luger and “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase had already swapped dwindling careers in the WWF for the newly rich WCW.

Nash and Hall broke the trend somewhat but only due to their age and status. Whilst most of the wrestlers jumping ship had been at their peak in the 1980’s, Scott Hall was little more than a mid-carder and Kevin Nash was still at the height of his career.

But that wasn’t the only difference, there was also presentation.

In the WWF, Hall and Nash went by the names of Razor Ramon and Diesel respectively but, upon arriving in the WCW, they began using their real names.

Just eight days after leaving the WWF, Hall (one half of The Outsiders), made his WCW debut, interfering in a match between The Mauler and Steve Doll. Taking the microphone, Scott Hall began what would become of the most famous and important promos in the history of modern wrestling.

Well, well, well. You people know who I am, but you don’t know why I’m here.

So this is where the big boys play? This is a joke. Where is the Nacho Man? That guy couldn’t even get in the building. Me? I go where I want, when I want. Where’s billionaire Ted, and where, oh where is Scheme Gene? ‘Cos boy, do I have a scoop for him.

You want a war? You got one. We’re taking over!

The message was clear. The Outsiders weren’t just a tag team, they were the WWF.

In the mid-90s, the WWF had broadcast several skits overtly poking fun at WCW, it’s stars and it’s owner. Characters included Billionaire Ted (WCW owner Ted Turner), Nacho Man (“Macho Man” Randy Savage), The Hukster (Hulk Hogan) and Scheme Gene (“Mean” Gene Okerlund). By referencing these anti-WCW skits, by interrupting matches, and by mysteriously referring to secret allies and unnamed organisations, The Outsiders alluded to a WWF invasion of WCW so heavily that Vince McMahon actually attempted legal action against the company to try and stop the storyline. (Although the lawsuit failed, it did take the wind out of the angle a little by forcing WCW to overtly state that The Outsiders were not agents of the WWF).

For months, The Outsiders terrorised WCW by invading matches and attacking staff, all the while teasing the identity of their mysterious third member. Eventually, a match was made to end the speculation. At Bash At The Beach 1996, Hall, Nash and their mystery opponent would represent The Outsiders against the WCW-sponsored team of Lex Luger, Sting and “Macho Man” Randy Savage in a six-man tag team match.

Despite the booking, the match began as a handicap match, with Nash and Hall deciding to start the contest without their mystery partner. However, early on, Luger suffered a story-line injury and was stretchered out of the arena, reducing the contest to a simple two-on-two tag match. The story of the match was Savage and Sting’s plucky heroism against Hall and Nash’s persistent cheating and, before long, all four men had reached their limits, resulting in a potential double knock out.

With seconds to go, the crowd erupted into joy as uber-fan-favourite Hulk Hogan, who had recently been absent from WCW programming, charged down to the ring, forcing Nash and Hall to flee. The Hulkster tore of his shirt, threw it at The Outsiders and, to the astonishment of wrestling fans the world over, hit a Leg Drop across the throat of his old friend Randy Savage.

The third man had been revealed. The third man was Hulk Hogan. Amid a hail of garbage and boos, Hogan took the mic.

As far as I’m concerned, all this crap in this ring represents these fans out here. For two years brother, for two years, I held my head high. I did everything for the charities, I did everything for the kids, and the reception I got when I came out here, you fans can stick it brother, because, if it wasn’t for Hulk Hogan, you people wouldn’t be here. If it wasn’t for Hulk Hogan, Eric Bischoff would still be selling meat from a truck in Minneapolis, and if it wasn’t for Hulk Hogan, all of these Johnny-come-latelys that you see out here wrestling wouldn’t be here. I was selling the world out, brother, while they were bumming gas to put in their car to get to high school. So the way it is now brother, with Hulk Hogan and the new world organisation of wrestling brother, me and the new blood on my side, what are you going to do when the New World Order runs wild on you?

The biggest baby face in the history of wrestling just became the biggest heel in the biggest wrestling company in the world. The cartoon era, the Golden Era, the Hulk Hogan era was over, and the new era, the nWo era, the “Hollywood” Hogan era had begun.

The first shots of the Monday Night War had been fired, and WCW had won the first battle. The lesson for the WWF was clear, stark and shocking; get Attitude, or get beaten.

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Earlier, we heard about The Kliq, and the demands that backstage faction made on the WWF’s creative team. But they weren’t the only ones. At the same time, Bret Hart and his extended group of family and friends, known in and out of the ring as the Hart Foundation, had some demands of their own.

In early 1996, Bret Hart effectively walked out of the WWF having lost a one hour iron man match to real life nemesis Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12. During his time off, Hart considered joining the newly financed WCW. WCW and, more importantly, Ted Turner, the billionaire media-mogul bank-rolling them, offered Hart over $8million for a three year contract, but Vince McMahon counter offered with an undisclosed 20 year contract, the longest contract in WWF or WWE history.

The deal was short sighted. Competition from WCW was costing the WWF millions, and the McMahon family’s plans to float the WWF on the New York Stock Exchange meant they had to get costs down, and fast, to improve their potential stock price. Due to this, rumours began to circulate that Vince had written a cheque he, both proverbially and literally, couldn’t cash, and that the Hart contract had been an unrealistic panic offer based more on McMahon’s hatred of WCW and Ted Turner than on realistic accounting.

At the same time, the relationship between Hart and Michaels, and between the Foundation and the Kliq, were as bad as ever. In Connecticut, Hart and Michaels got into a fight backstage, resulting in Shawn being suspended. The fight was over rumours that Bret Hart had stolen Michaels’ girlfriend, WWF valet Sunny (who Michaels had himself stolen from Chris Candido less than a year earlier).

What happened next is rather confusing, mostly due to the fact that everyone involved tells a different story, but the generally agreed upon chain of events is as follows;

On October 12, 1997, backstage, after a show in San Jose, California, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels agreed to “peace talks”, in hopes of ending their long and bitter personal rivalry. During their conversation, both men agreed to work together and to be professional in the ring whilst Hart promise that, if Vince McMahon asked him to, he would happily drop his WWF Title to Michaels. However, Michaels responded that, if things were the other way round and he was champion, he would refuse to lose to Hart.

This made Bret Hart extremely angry, and he instantly informed Vince McMahon that he had no intention of ever dropping the title the Michaels, and wanted to lose it to someone else. Eventually, Hart reduced his demands to simply stating that he didn’t want to lose the title in Canada (where Hart was treated as a baby face, and Michaels was a heel), but would, begrudgingly, lose it in America (where Hart was treated as a heel).

There are variations of that part of the story, with Michaels claiming that virtually none of that is true; that he would happily have lost to Hart, and had several times already, and that Hart never agreed to drop the title outside of Canada.

Toward the end of 1997, McMahon’s ludicrous promises to Hart finally became unsustainable. Unable to pay Bret the money he owed him, Vince recommended that Hart re-open negotiations with WCW, believing the future lay with less demanding, less expensive, younger talents like The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Mankind and Triple H. Vince told Hart that he had permission to enter into contract negotiations with WCW but, if he particularly wanted to stay with the WWF, or if WCW didn’t want him, the WWF would honour their promised 20 year contract.

At the same time, Hart and McMahon had other issues. Unable to achieve the universal success of Hulk Hogan before him or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin after him, Bret turned on Vince, blaming him for several creative decisions that had happened over Hart’s career including his Canadian-nationalist gimmick, which made it hard for him to either get over as a baby face in America or as a heel in Canada, and for the increasingly controversial subject matter that was starting to enter WWF programming.

Everything finally came to it’s logical climax on November 1st, 1997, when Bret Hart officially announced to the WWF that he was resigning, and had just signed a long-term, $3million a year contract with WCW.

The major problem now was that Hart was still WWF Champion, and was still refusing to drop the title to Michaels. Yet again, McMahon made a deal. In return for Hart promising to lose the title before joining WCW, McMahon promised that he wouldn’t mock Hart on WWF television like he’d mocked Hulk Hogan or “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and that he wouldn’t let anyone else take up Bret Hart’s “The Hitman” gimmick.

With the matter seemingly settled, Vince McMahon decided that Survivor Series 1997 in Montreal, Canada should be the location for Hart to lose his title. However, Hart had other ideas. He was fine with losing the title, but refused to lose it to Shawn Michaels. This apparently made Hart very popular backstage, because Michaels was almost universally hated for his unprofessional and childish attitude. There is also a persistent rumour that Hart didn’t want to lose the title to Michaels because he believed Michaels had refused to lose the title to him at WrestleMania 13, earlier that year.

Again, it was up to Vince McMahon to make a deal. It was decided that Michaels and Hart would wrestle for the title at Survivor Series, but the match would end in a disqualification victory for Shawn Michaels. The next night, on RAW in Ottawa, Canada, Hart would vacate the WWF Title, and make a speech apologising to the American fans for the insulting things he said about America so that he’d be able to go to WCW (which toured Canada much less than the WWF did) as a universally popular baby face.

The finish of the match would go like this;

During the match, the referee, Earl Hebner, would be knocked out. Michaels would put Hart in Bret’s own finishing move, the Sharpshooter, but Hart would reverse the hold, putting Michaels in the Sharpshooter and Michael would submit. The referee, however, would be unconscious, and unable to see the submission. Hart would break the hold to revive the referee, but Michaels would interrupt him, hit his finishing move, the Sweet Chin Music, and make the pin. A second referee, Mike Chioda, would enter the ring to make the count, but, on the count of two, he’d be pulled out by Hart Foundation members Owen Hart, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhat and “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith. The Hart Foundation would attack Michaels, leading to the second referee ending the match via disqualification, and Triple H, “Ravishing” Rick Rude and Chyna would then enter the ring to support Michaels, starting a four-on-four brawl to end the show.

That was the agreement.

But it wasn’t the outcome.

On November 8th, 1997, in his hotel room in Montreal, Vince McMahon held a meeting. Among those in attendance were Jim Ross, Jim Cornette, Gerald Brisco and Robert “Sgt. Slaughter” Remus. The group, without either Hart or Michaels in attendance, decided on a finish of their own.

The first to know of the changes was Michaels, then Hebner, who, depending on who you believe, either found out just before the match started, or during the match, just before it ended. Other than those two men and the people who met in Vince McMahon’s hotel room, absolutely no one knew what was about to happen.

Instantly, things became weird. Only a few minutes into the match, a large amount of the WWF’s creative staff began to enter the arena, including most of the men who had met in Vince McMahon’s hotel room. Instantly, Bret was suspicious, as was his younger brother, Owen, and his brother-in-law, “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith who were watching backstage, and both of who knew that Bret was paranoid that Vince McMahon was planning to change the ending of the match.

Fearing that he might simply be over thinking things, Bret continued with the match as planned. and, just as planned, referee Early Hebner was knocked unconscious. It was at this point that it became obvious to everyone that, somehow, the agreement had changed. Almost as quickly as he’d been knocked down, Earl Hebner got back up again.

Chaos erupted backstage. Mike Chioda was understandably angered, believing that Hebner had simply forgotten the plan for the match, or had missed one of his cues, road agent Pat Patterson was simply confused by the matter, and had no idea what to do and Smith and Owen were beside themselves with rage as to what was now clearly about to happen (as was Vader, who had experienced similar “changes of plans” during his time in the ultra-corrupt Japanese wrestling industry).

Strangely, it was only Bret Hart who was still unclear as to what was going on. As agreed, he allowed Michaels to put him in the Sharpshooter, having failed to notice that the referee was back up. Hart went for the agreed reversal, but Michaels refused to sell it, locking the hold in as hard as he could, and making it impossible for Bret to get out. Finally, it was clear to Hart what was happening, but it was already too late.

Ring the bell! Ring the f*cking bell!

Vince McMahon shouted those immortal words so loudly that the camera mics picked them up. Every actor played their part and without Hart tapping out, referee Earl Hebner called for the bell, timekeeper Mark Yeaton rang the bell, and specially hired French-Canadian ring announcer announced that Shawn Michael was both the winner of the match and the new WWF Champion.

The fall out is legendary. From Bret spitting in Vince McMahon’s face on live T.V., to Hebner and Michaels running away from the almost riotous fans, to Hart praising WCW in the middle of a WWF ring.

Backstage, fights broke out everywhere. The Undertaker stormed into Vince’s locker room demanding a public apology to Hart, Bret punched Vince McMahon in the face and sprained his ankle, Owen Hart and “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith brawled with Shane McMahon and Gerald Brisco, and Bret’s wife, Julie Hart, attacked Triple H.

Bret “The Hitman” Hart, Jim “The Anvril” Neidhart, “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, and Owen Hart walked out, making their own way home, and leaving McMahon, Michaels, Hebner and Triple H to explain themselves to an almost violently upset locker room. “Ravishing” Rick Rude, who was Shawn Michaels’ manager at the time, left the company in disgust along with Michaels’ ex-girlfriend Sunny, and Mick Foley, then known only as Mankind, boycotted the next night’s RAW, refusing to turn up for work out of respect to Bret. Of the entire extended Hart family, only Owen remained a WWF employee as he was unable to get out of his contract.

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The following night, on Monday Night RAW in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, the show where Hart had planned to vacate his title, Vince McMahon made an appearance, but not as the rather goofy WWF commentator everyone knew him as. He was now Mr. McMahon, the arrogant, conspiratorial, scheming, controlling, corporate evil-mastermind pulling the strings of the WWF.

Some would say I screwed Bret Hart. Bret Hart would definitely tell you I screwed him. I look at it from a different standpoint. I look at it from the standpoint of; the referee didn’t screw Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels certainly didn’t screw Bret Hart, nor did Vince McMahon screw Bret Hart. I truly believe that Bret Hart screwed Bret Hart, and he can look in the mirror and know that.

The most successful heel in the history of wrestling had been born and, not only that, but the WWF had rid itself of it’s mostly crippling contract, and one of it’s biggest stars. At the same time, the popularity and back-stage reputation of Shawn Michaels and been irreparably devastated. In one match, the WWF had effectively lost it’s top two stars, forcing the company to make some drastic changes.

The canvas was bare, the slate was clean, Bret Hart was gone, Shawn Michaels was hated, the money from Hart’s contract was freed up, and, in the wings, stood The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Mankind and Triple H.

The Cure For The Common Show

By late 1997, the Monday Night Wars were in full swing, and the WWF was very much in second place.

WCW Monday Nitro debuted on September 4th, 1995, but it wasn’t until mid-1996 and the debut of the New World Order that WCW really took off. From May 20th 1996, the day Scott Hall and Kevin Nash left the WWF, until April 13th, 1998, WCW Nitro beat WWF RAW in the Monday night ratings every single week.

The mid-90’s were a dramatic time in youth culture. The black and white heroism of the 1980’s was dead, and Generation X now had control over American pop-culture; Nirvana, South Park and The Jerry Springer Show. The 1980s were dead and buried and, with it, died the attitudes of the 1980’s; family friendly, smiling, cartoonish heroics. Perhaps the biggest single sign of this was the transformation of former pro-wrestling poster boy Hulk Hogan from a grinning, moralising role-model hero to a fan-baiting, rebellious villain. The popularity of cartoonish gimmicks and perfect baby faces was over. Wrestling was changing, and who ever embraced those changes the quickest would be destined to win the Monday Night War.

Throughout the mid-90’s, the WWF flirted with more adult programming, such as the infamously foul-mouthed “Pillman’s Got A Gun” incident, in which Brian Pillman repeatedly cursed on camera and throated to kill “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and a brief cross promotion with hardcore institution ECW. There were also more controversial or adult orientated gimmicks such as The Nation of Domination, a parody of both the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, lead by The Rock (who took over from Faarooq) who was, at the time, an overt parody of a young Muhammed Ali. Sexuality also became a main stay of WWF shows, with more sexually explicit female managers like Sunny and Sable.

However, these forays into PG-13 wrestling were rare, and, for the most part, the WWF stuck to the outdated attitudes that had made it so popular a decade earlier.

It wasn’t until Survivor Series 1997 that things truly changed.

With the acrimonious departure of Bret “The Hitman” Hart, things looked set for WCW to dominate. They now had arguably the biggest name in the WWF at the time on their books, but, the departure of their poster-boy, and the new and sometimes genuine loathing of owner Vince McMahon by the fans forced the WWF to make changes and to take risks.

It was the creative pairing of Vince McMahon and Vince Russo, alongside the talent scouting and moulding abilities of Jim Ross and Jim Cornette that was to settle on a new strategy. The WWF would no longer emulate itself and it’s own past glories, but would learn from other forms of entertainment that were successful at the time; the foul mouthed adult orientated cartoons of South Park and Beavis and Butthead, the anarchic personal traumas of Jerry Springer and Ricky Lake, the wacky schemes of Friends and Seinfeld and the anti-authoritarian rebelliousness of grunge rock and gangsta rap.

McMahon chose December 15th, 1997 to announce his proposed changes;

It’s been said that anything can happen here in the World Wrestling Federation, but now, more than ever, truer words have never been spoken.

There is a conscious effort on our part to open the creative envelope, so to speak, in order to entertain you in a more contemporary manner. Even though we call ourselves “Sports Entertainment”, because of the athleticism involved, the keyword in that phrase is “entertainment”. The WWF extends far beyond the strict confines of sports presentation into the wide open environment of broad based entertainment.

We, in the WWF, think that you, the audience, are, quite frankly, tired of having your intelligence insulted. We also think that you’re tired of the same old simplistic theory of good guys versus bad guys. Surely, the era of the super-hero urging you to say your prayers and take your vitamins is definitely passé. Therefore, we’ve embarked on a far more innovative and contemporary creative campaign that is far more invigorating and extemporaneous than ever before.

RAW… (is) definitely the cure for the common show.

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The Baddest Man on the Planet

During the Golden Era of the mid to late 1980’s, the WWF pioneered the concept of “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” which involved bringing in famous and influential figures from pop-culture into a wrestling context. Cross-promotion with MTV, which began in 1984, resulted in high-profile appearances from, amongst others, Cyndi Lauper, Muhammed Ali and Mr. T. The concept was a success. Not only did the celebrity endorsements help to bring main-steam attention to the formerly side-show world of professional wrestling, but they also made the WWF look like a more legitimate form of entertainment by association.

It was the scandals, trials and government investigations of the early 1990’s that killed the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling experiment, as ever-building controversy made “pro-wrestling” a dirty word when it came to getting press and publicity. In the era of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, wrestling was a relatively celebrity-free affair when compared to the era of Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper. It would be a long time indeed until a legitimate, current celebrity would be willing to show their face in the WWF.

In 1995, “Iron” Mike Tyson, a professional boxer known as “the baddest man on the planet”, was released from prison after a rape conviction. He began his comeback in style, defeating Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis, Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon without a single fight reaching the judge’s scorecards, and winning both the World Boxing Council and the World Boxing Association heavyweight titles in the process.

But the good times couldn’t last and, in late 1996, the most famous boxer of his era fell to Evander Holyfield in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, losing his World Boxing Association belt. A rematch was scheduled for seven months later, but that match ended in pop-culture defining controversy after Tyson was disqualified for biting off part of Holyfield’s ear in the middle of the fight.

Tyson was fined $30million, and the Nevada State Athletic Commission voted to strip him of his boxing licence. For the foreseeable future, Mike Tyson’s boxing career was dead and buried. For the next year, Tyson would be unable to earn a living in the boxing ring, but, at the same time, he was now one of the most famous, charismatic and legitimately feared athletes in the world.

The solution seemed clear; Tyson would need to cash in on his popularity in a non-boxing context and, out of all the possible mediums to do so, he chose professional wrestling, and he chose the WWF for a reported fee of $3million for a series of appearances in early 1998.

Tyson’s involvement in the WWF began in January, the night after “Stone Cold” Steve Austin confirmed his face-of-the-company status by eliminating The Rock to win the 1998 Royal Rumble. In the main segment of that week’s Monday Night RAW, Vince McMahon announced that Tyson would referee the main event of WrestleMania 14, which would see Austin face WWF Champion and leader of D-Generation X, Shawn Michaels, who was still riding the wave of unpopularity unleashed by his involvement in the departure of Bret Hart. (Tyson’s role would later be changed to the more ambiguous position of “special guest enforcer”.)

The segment ended with the entrance of Austin, who threatened Tyson, warning him to stick to boxing and stay away from pro-wrestling. Austin swore at Tyson and challenged him to a match, resulting a brawl between the two in the middle of the ring.

The scene repeated itself a month later, with Michaels, this time, being the wrestler to challenge Tyson. However, this time, no brawl took place, and it soon became clear that the challenge was a joke. Michaels and Tyson were allies, and The Baddest Man On The Planet was inducted as the newest member of D-Generation X alongside Shawn Michaels, Triple H and Chyna.

In the build up to WrestleMania, the WWF highlighted the rivalry between Austin and Tyson as opposed to the friendship between Michaels and Tyson, whilst Austin also targeted the villainous Mr. McMahon for bringing Tyson into the company in the first place, and for giving him preferential treatment.

The stage was set for the main event of WrestleMania 14, which ended with Tyson putting his personal feelings to one side, calling the match down the middle, awarding Austin both the victory and the title, and then knocking out Shawn Michaels for protesting the decision.

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Tyson left the WWF after WrestleMania and would return to boxing later that year, but perhaps the more important departure was that of Shawn Michaels himself, the last remaining pre-Attitude Era star the WWF had left. Having suffered some serious, career threatening injuries in a match against The Undertaker at Royal Rumble three months earlier, Michaels retired from professional wrestling for the first time, and wouldn’t return full-time for the next four years.

Two weeks after WrestleMania on April 13th, 1998, WWF RAW beat WCW Nitro in the ratings for the first time since the birth of the NWO almost two years earlier. Out of the next three years, Nitro would only beat RAW in the ratings eight times, compared to RAW’s 147 victories. It was the beginning of the end of WCW’s short-lived dominance over professional wrestling.

The attitudes and concepts pioneered by ECW, made main-stream by “Big Sexy” Kevin Nash, “The Bad Guy” Scott Hall, “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan and the New World Order and finally perfected by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin had filled the power vacuum left by the controversial careers and departures of Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels to create a new type of wrestling, a new form of entertainment. The Golden Era was forgotten, the New Generation was disgraced, and finally, the WWF had it’s attitude.

The Monday Night Wars were waging, the Attitude Era was here, and wrestling would never be the same again.


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