It’s interesting; in the peak of the second pro wrestling boom (when Nitro was good and Smackdown had yet to debut), WWF ran 2 hours of Raw each week, Nitro ran 3 hours, ECW ran an hour. Everything else (Heat, Thunder) was just filler. The best pro wrestling had to offer occupied six hours of TV time per week. Today, though WWE is the only legit game in town, we are still treated to six hours a week of prime wrestling content. Obviously Monday Night is the big three hour show, but the one hour of Main event each week usually features solid wrestling with some big name performers. Smackdown is the final two hours a week and though it is kind of purposeless at the moment (an idea to be explored in another article), it still provides a good dose of pro wrestling at the end of each week.
It’s the same amount of prime wrestling content that we had in the late 90’s, but it feels like so much more. It feels so much more exhausting. Maybe it’s because, due to the competition, things had to move at a faster pace back then. Trying new things was mandatory, not cautionary as it is today.
On the previous page, we discussed the Attitude Era in general terms, and how many fans today (some of whom weren’t even alive to enjoy it week-to-week) seem bent on recalling fondly the bygone years of chairshots and piledrivers. Far be it for me to question one’s motives or fond memories, but when I look back on the attitude era (the second half of which I enjoyed on a weekly basis, from 1999-2001) what I remember is not the edge or the brutality of some of the matches; I don’t think wistfully for the days of bra and panties matches or this or that gimmick object on a pole matches.
Do I remember the sheer joy that came with Austin and Rock’s antics when they shared a ring together on a weekly basis? Absolutely. But too many fans take their fond memories and recall them with a twist of bitterness toward the current product. Why do this? Why not just be happy that you go to experience two titans of the business occupying their roles as the best of the best at the same time, in the same place. I know when I watched Daniel Byran and CM Punk square off a couple years ago for the WWE title, I thought to myself “I’m going to remember this years from now.” I thought the same thing as I watched Punk blow Vince McMahon a kiss and leave with the title back in the summer of 2011. I thought it when Dolph Ziggler cashed in to win the World Heavyweight Championship in 2013. I thought it when Lesnar pinned Undertaker. I thought it when Seth Rollins betrayed his fellow Shield members. On and on I can go.
If you want a criticism about the current era vs the past, the place to look is not in the big magical moments; as was said on the previous page, there’s magic moments happening all the time. No, if you want a criticism, look to who is making those magical moments.
The problem with the WWE today vs. fifteen years ago, is in the weakness of the midcard.
People point fingers at Cena and Orton and compare them to Rock and Austin, circa 1999. But that’s an easy attack that Vince and co. can’t really do much about. The current crop of established main eventers is never going to reach the level of popularity that was found in the late-90’s. On the other hand, today’s roster of non-main event talent is at least on par with what was found in the attitude era, and in some cases surpasses it.
The talent is there, but it is being misapplied, misused and misdirected. When I first started watched WWF programming, the midcard (not counting mostly tag team guys) consisted of Chris Jericho, Chyna, Kane, Val Venis, Godfather, Al Snow, Test, etc. Soon to arrive was Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero. There was some talent there, and some who would go on to be Hall of Famers, but from top to bottom the mid card didn’t have much of an edge on today’s midcard. Today there is Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Cesaro, Jack Swagger, Sheamus, Del Rio, Big E, Dolph Ziggler, Rusev, Bray Wyatt. Mind you, I’m considering the mid card as the guys who don’t regularly wrestle for the WWE Championship, or would not be out of place wrestling for the US or IC titles.
Comparing the (sampled) list of names and you can see parity between the two rosters and possibly even an edge to today’s crop of mid card talent. The problem today, and the reason the past era is looked at so fondly is because the midcard in the Attitude Era was allowed to breath. Fifteen years ago, if you were on TV you had a gimmick. You had an angle. You had something to justify your being on TV. If two midcarders are wrestling on a PPV its because they had a legitimately developed feud build up over the past several weeks, either on Raw and Heat or later Raw and Smackdown. Sure the stories may have been asinine, but they were still something.
Today, with only a few exceptions (Ambrose and Rollins mostly), non-title midcard feuds revolve around two random guys who wrestle half a dozen times on network TV and then once more on PPV. That’s it. There’s rarely a story, rarely a grudge, rarely a hook to make the audience care.
It seems that steps are being taken to rectify this, slowly. The Rusev v Swagger feud is a great step in the right direction. Here’s a feud between two wrestlers the fans largely care nothing about once their manager’s stop speaking. They had floated around go-nowhere feuds for months until finally they came face to face. The crowds reaction to the initial staredown between Swagger (w/ Coulter) and Rusev (w/ Lana) was electric. And this is a feud between two guys who typified the go-nowhere feuds of the current era. Rusev debuted earlier this year and proceeded to squash one (black) jobber after another. There was no hook or angle to the matches, only Lana in the background hating on ‘merica. That’s cheap heat, not the kind of fan support that comes with a legit feud between two superstars. Swagger too had danced the same dance as Rusev in the recent past. Coulter would hate on “uh’leegals” and get some cheap heat and then Swagger would wrestle some nobody in a nothing match and the crowd would just sit on their hands. They’d boo Coulter just like they’d boo Lana, but the actual mid card wrestlers would get little reaction.
Then they faced each other. Peanut butter and chocolate. The crowd went ballistic, even openly and proudly cheering for Swagger (for the first time…ever?). Why? Because they were writing the story in their heads. They could see the angle. The understood the story. This wasn’t a matchup of two guys who have no relation to one another. This wasn’t just another random match halfway through a too-long episode of Raw. This was a faceoff between two guys who, in hindsight, were destined to fight.
That’s how you use your midcard wisely.
The attitude era had that in spades. Not always; it had its dud feuds too. But again, in those days, when Nitro and ECW were also on the air, it behooved WWF writers to be precious with their 2 hours a week on Monday nights. Wrestlers from the top of the card to the very bottom had to stand out or they were a waste of money, time and talent. That sense of urgency needs to return to today’s product. If it does, then the mid card will improve overnight.
The talent is more than there, it just needs the creative support to turn it loose. If they do, they will find it easier to make the current generation of fans forget about the past, and start celebrating the top-to-bottom fun that is to be had every week in this era of Pro Wrestling.