Wrestling is pretty damn stupid if you think about it. To the virgin eye, it’s sweaty men (and women) in tights rolling around in a ring, emulating a high-stakes combat sport, while rowdy onlookers drink beer and chant and heckle at these larger-than-life characters. But there’s something about it that has me absolutely addicted.
Many will be familiar with the mainstream juggernaut that is WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. You might have heard of meme sensation John Cena, and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, you know, only two of the highest earning celebrities alive.
I know many a casual viewer, who, on occasion, catch fleeting glances of the product from time to time, not knowing the full story, but content in the paradigm of alternative reality they have escaped to.
Maybe, you and WWE were well-acquainted as kids. Like me, you would recall the WrestleMania match between the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels in 2009 being one of the most rousing feats in sports entertainment of all time. If you’re a little older, you might have dark memories of bikini models adorning the relentless profanity of crotch-chopping and bird-flipping testosterone-fuelled men. Or that infamous live sex show from 2006. How far we’ve come.
But I felt the winds changing. Just as Peter Pan taught us, all children must grow up. My folks rejoiced the day I decided to pack away my replica spinner belt and re-enter society as a normal person. Six years went by, and I had no idea what I was missing.
The Glory Days
Being the dignified historian I am, I’ve travelled through the wrestling space-time continuum, discovering and re-living classic content from the different eras of WWE. You heard me. Eras. As if you didn’t think wrestling was ridiculous enough, WWE has moulded its foundations over the last 50 years on the premise of wrestling generations. But it’s actually pretty cool.
Each era compiles content ranging between a couple years and an entire decade, which personifies a different palate or attitude in popular culture. The whole ‘fake’ thing complements this, where personalities are crafted by the stories and characters that live in each era and define the movement, and vice versa.
The ‘Golden Era’ saw the birth of the ‘Rock ‘n’ Wrestling’ pop culture idiom – and the flag-bearer Hulk Hogan (before the whole Gawker thing) – which propelled newly appointed owner Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation onto the world stage. As the New Generation Era progressed, Vince had swallowed the pre-existing system of territories throughout the United States to eventually create one centralised zeitgeist.
His mission succeeded on the other side of the ‘Monday Night Wars’ of the ‘Attitude Era’ after World Championship Wrestling tried to compete with them on Monday nights, failing miserably. As the ‘Attitude’ tenure implies, everything was a little edgier – ‘real’ characters and stories became key, and parental discretion was always advised. This change brought in a whole new demographic of young men (and a handful of chicks) looking to get rowdy. Wrestling was the hottest thing on TV.
Then, there was ‘Ruthless Aggression’. With a little tang leftover from the ‘Attitude’ days, some of the best wrestling in the world landed on the small screen thanks to wrestlers such as Brock Lesnar, Eddie Guerrero, Kurt Angle all performing in their prime.
What Went Wrong?
At some point or another, WWE hit a crossroads with its most loyal fans. The introduction of the PG Era in 2008 ironically followed a loss of childhood innocence for hardcore fans, and to this day, it still doesn’t sit quite right in a lot of our tummies.
Some positives definitely came from this change. The WWE Wellness Policy was established in 2006, to protect its wrestlers. The death boom of the late 2000s was devastating. We lost Eddie Guerrero to an acute heart failure caused by an underlying atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Just eighteen months later, Chris Benoit committed a double-murder suicide, sending shockwaves through the wrestling industry. Doctors reported that Benoit’s brain resembled that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient, a result of years of concussions and head injuries.
It is at this point that I ask anyone who still has no respect for what wrestlers put their bodies through to find something else to read.
The PG Era has eliminated chair shots to the head and deliberate bleeding from its programming, a sacrifice that I for one have been more than willing to make. The consistency of such protocol in the fallout of the TV-14 Era is not always reliable, but it’s an ideology that most are in agreement with.
When I eventually returned to WWE, I had to come to terms with the fact that everyone HATED John Cena. The kids were all grown up and too cool to listen to what the connoisseur of ‘I always win’ had to say. In the influence of the digital age, fans openly resented the powers behind these decisions. The ‘Cena Effect’ would outlast the man himself, and latch on to others who were relentlessly pushed to the moon without our consent.
The Summer of Punk, and particularly the months prior to it in the lead to Money in the Bank 2011, were moments definitive of the simmering angst that existed in the philosophical disposition of the wrestling world. With the ever-increasing popularity of social media, and the ability to discover wrestling from elsewhere around the globe, men like CM Punk, and of course Daniel Bryan, inspired a burning desire to see their favourite indie darlings rise to the top. These men were more athletic, grass-roots wrestling performers who didn’t conform to the body-builder image that had become so stale to the hardcore fans. They wanted more consistent performers, not just aesthetically pleasing ones.
The unparalleled success of WWE NXT, a program that grew out of Florida Championship Wrestling – WWE’s developmental territory that trains its wrestlers in the WWE house style – has seen it become a worldwide phenomenon. It is a living and breathing success that has people invested in stories of hard yakka; regular Joes with a pocket full of talent and something to prove. It was time for a new breed to take over.
A New Era
So, here’s the low-down on the current landscape of WWE. As of May 2016, World Wrestling Entertainment was dubbed by Shane McMahon to have entered the New Era.
Guys like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens and Cesaro were carrying the torch over from the wrestling revolution in NXT and shining it on the main stage, where Ambrose, Rollins and yes, Reigns, were already leading the pack at the end of the PG Era.
Post-brand split, we have two distinctive rosters (one on Monday Night Raw, one on Tuesday Night Smackdown), buffered with men and women whose stories we journeyed with, be it through NXT or elsewhere in the world, and we now celebrate with them as they set out to prove why they’ve made it this far. That is the premise of this New Era; competition, and desire to be the best wrestlers in the business.
The biggest positive to come from the New Era has to be how women are presented. The “Four Horsewomen of NXT” – Charlotte, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks and Bayley – helped stir a movement that attracted mainstream attention in 2015. #GiveDivasAChance would turn into a Women’s Revolution, and that damned, tramp-stamp butterfly belt finally took the high road.
While all these catch cries and slogans of feminism have admittedly been gobbled up by marketers, there is merit to them. Gone are the days of “bra-and-panties” matches and pudding fights. They weren’t the first to shake the boat, as names like Lita, Victoria, Trish Stratus, Beth Phoenix, AJ Lee and Paige come to mind. These gals are pure athletes, and true inspirations to young girls and women in every way.
Where to Now?
Matt Sydal (WWE’s Evan Bourne) spoke with Jim Ross on the Ross Report Podcast, and his emphatic excitement for the direction of professional wrestling is infectious. “There’s more knowledge available, there’s more talent out there, and there are more guys everywhere. So it’s a global community now – it’s a beautiful time to be in the business.”
The New Era and the immediate future of professional wrestling looks promising. Kevin bloody Owens is our Universal Champion, god dammit – the belt is ugly as hell, but everything is okay as long it’s in the grasps of the ‘Prizefighter’.
We’re spoiled for choice, as every promotion around the world endeavours to bring a unique flavour to the eclectic mix. Cruiserweights, Strongstyle, Hardcore, Mixed Martial Arts influenced, technical, comedic and powerhouse – choose as many flavours as you can fit in your cone. Crazy caricatures, or people like you and me – The New Era is guaranteed to provide something that entices you back again next week.