Professional wrestling is one of those forms of entertainment that, according to a certain segment of the population, one is expected to "grow out of" at some age. The same has been said for video games, cartoons, comic books, and even genres of music ("When are you going to grow up and stop listening to Polka?!"). Ironically, for a lot of former fans, the era of wrestling they "grew out" of was the Attitude Era -- a period in wrestling history in which the product was designed for, and marketed to, an older audience.
Lately, however, pro wrestling has made a bit of a comeback in the public consciousness. WWE's attempt at a more "family friendly" image during the "PG Era" may have turned off some hardcore fans, but it helped them gain more mainstream approval. Let's not kid ourselves - ESPN would have nothing to do with WWE if it hadn't been for the "PG Era." Since then, however, the product has improved and now old fans who had once abandoned the industry altogether are slowly coming back.
A lot has changed in the last 15 years since the Monday Night Wars ended and WCW went out a business -- which is the point we imagine a lot of people stopped watching. So, if you're one of those old fans who are now new fans again, we'd like to offer you a list of things that will help you get back up to speed. We'll help you catch up with what other promotions are in the mix outside of WWE, who the "top dogs" are, and where you can go online (other than The Sportster, of course!) to meet like-minded fans and enjoy the pro wrestling of today!
For the purposes of this exercise, we'll be assuming our hypothetical lapsed fan quit watching sometime around the Invasion story line because, well, could you blame them?
15 The WWE Network is a returning fan's dream come true
For a company that has had so many dumb business ideas -- remember the WBF, the XFL, the Brawl For All and the Million Dollar Giveaway? -- the WWE Network has proven to be WWE's greatest idea ever. For a measly $9.99 a month, subscribers get access to every new PPV live and every past PPV on demand (including the live one you just watched) - and not just WWE, but WCW and ECW. It also features classic footage from older companies like the AWA and WCCW, and original documentaries and shows.
If you want to get caught up on what you've missed in WWE, the WWE Network is a pretty good way to go. After all, you'll have a bunch of new faces to memorize, since...
14 Very few of the wrestlers you remember are around anymore
Since we're assuming that you, our hypothetical returning fan, haven't kept up with the product since 2001 or so, it's not unreasonable to also assume that fifteen or so years takes a toll on a wrestler's career. So, a lot of the guys who were around then -- stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Undertaker, Triple H, etc. -- had already been working for quite a while at that point (Austin, for example, debuted in 1989).
Needless to say, most of the big names of the time are either retired (Austin, Shawn Michaels, Hulk Hogan), semi-retired (Triple H, The Undertaker), or have moved on to being the highest paid actor in Hollywood (we're being sarcastic -- there's clearly no way that a former wrestler would be that successful as an actor). It looks like you'll have to catch up on a whole new list of names.
13 The two biggest names in WWE started around the same time you stopped watching
Of course, if you had just stuck it out for a couple more years (and, again, no one blames you that you didn't), you would be familiar with the two biggest draws in the WWE right now. Well, actually, considering how they've actually made larger strides into the world outside of wrestling, you may actually already be familiar with them.
John Cena debuted with WWE in 2002 in a match against Kurt Angle. Originally just a tough newcomer with no real personality, Cena showed a different side of himself when he dressed as Vanilla Ice and rapped during a Halloween episode of SmackDown. He eventually took on a rapping "Doctor of Thuganomics" gimmick and became the biggest star in the whole damn company - and won the World Title a total of 15 times up to this point. He's also been in a few movies, hosted a few awards shows, been a guest host on the Today show a few times and also has an Internet meme based around him.
Also debuting in 2002 was Brock Lesnar, who would go on to win a number of WWE World Championships. We'll discuss Brock a little later but, needless to say, he's their other major draw.
12 The different WWE "brands"
Not long after you stopped watching, hypothetical returning wrestling fan, Vince McMahon and WWE realized two things: 1) now that we've absorbed a lot of WCW's old roster, we have a lot of talent now and 2) we don't really have any competition. So, in order to manufacture some competition, WWE started the Brand Split. Essentially, they turned Monday Night RAW and SmackDown into, essentially, their own wrestling companies.
Each show had their own set of champions -- including World Champions -- as well as their own brand-specific pay-per-views. It worked pretty well for a while, giving wrestlers who normally wouldn't gain exposure (some would say that John Cena wouldn't be the star he is now if he didn't have a chance to spread his wings, so to speak, on SmackDown). Eventually, though, it kind of petered out, much like many of WWE's ideas.
Just recently, however, WWE has attempted the brand split once again. This time, however, both shows are now aired live on the USA Network and both have a very distinct identity. So far, it's working. There's also another WWE brand you need to know about...
11 This little thing called NXT
For a while, NXT was a WWE branded reality/game show that attempted to find the next big WWE superstar. While it seemed kind of stupid at the time (there was more focus on wrestlers climbing monkey bars and singing karaoke than wrestling), some big names came out of it -- most notably, four-time WWE world champion Daniel Bryan.
Nowadays, NXT is an entirely different animal. Built from WWE's developmental territory, Florida Championship Wrestling, NXT is now where the superstars of the future get their start. Not only is NXT stacked with up-and-coming talent from WWE's Performance Center (their state of the art training center based in Orlando), but some of the most talented guys from the indies and other companies around the world have made their home there.
NXT's weekly show (Wednesdays at 8pm EST) is exclusive on the WWE network and is worth checking out as a returning fan.
10 WWE may not have direct competition, but there are still lots of alternatives
There are a number of wrestling companies working across the industry these days that, while not having the financial resources that WCW had back in the day, still provide a fun alternative to WWE's product. A lot of them are somewhat indirectly related to WWE's old competition -- WCW and ECW -- back in the day.
We could take entire articles describing these companies, and we don't really have that kind of time. So, here are the companies you need to know about.
TNA Wrestling - considered the second biggest wrestling company in the United States.
Ring of Honor wrestling - founded by Paul Heyman protege Gabe Sapolsky, the spiritual successor to ECW.
Chikara wrestling - a fun, family-friendly wrestling company.
New Japan Pro Wrestling - a company that has been around for decades, it's just now recently breaking through into the U.S. fan base - slowly but surely.
9 The Stars You Remember Still Come Back From Time To Time
Nostalgia is a drug. Metaphorically, anyway. And why shouldn't it be, especially in the case of pro wrestling? Being a wrestling fan during the Attitude Era/Monday Night War was fun! Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. And despite the fact that a lot of those stars aren't around anymore doesn't mean they aren't, you know, around any more.
Whether it's on an Internet podcast like in the case of superstars Austin or Tazz or Ric Flair or just through the WWE bringing out legends for the respect they deserve, fans from 20, 30 or even 40 years ago don't have to worry about their experiences being ignored. The past is still a profit driver for WWE, and they are still quite respectful about it.
8 The Internet Is A Huge Deal Now
Let's be fair here -- pro wrestling has always had a major presence online. Heck, I distinctly remember back in the days of dial-up when I would post on the Prodigy message boards under groups like "Wrestling For Smarts" and "Bonoville" (OK, that last one was one I started - anyone out there remember it?). The WWE and WCW would eventually catch on and launch websites and their own chat sessions and the like. Many "dirtshirts," like Wrestling Observer, would get an online presence.
These days, however, it is ridiculous. Let's for the moment not even take into account online presences of WWE and other companies. A search on Reddit for "pro wrestling" results in 111 different sub-reddits -- which is a lot. There's tons of websites (like us!), YouTube channels, podcasts, radio shows and more from which to choose than we could have ever imagined in 2001.
On top of that, so many wrestling feuds are played out on Twitter and other forms of social media that social media itself is sort of like its own WWE show. It's crazy, and so much fun, too.
7 If Interviews Feel More Scripted Than Before, It's Because... Well...
It may be the rose colored lens of nostalgia tinting your memories, but there's a good chance you're watching the current WWE product and thinking to yourself, "these interviews feel a lot more scripted than I remember." Well, you're not far off. They kind of are.
Now, to be fair, WWE has a lot more product out there than ever before. There's now three hours of TV on Monday, two on Tuesday, a staggering 19 PPVs a year -- not to mention "WWE.com exclusive" promos, as well as NXT and other content on the WWE Network. Scripting is almost necessary to keep things consistent (even if it seems like that's something about which the WWE doesn't worry). There's also another reason to keep things "on script" -- something we touched on earlier...
6 Things Are A Lot More "Family Friendly" In WWE Now
I mentioned the "PG Era" earlier -- the one in which the WWE dropped the hardcore violence and over-the-top sexual references of the previous couple of decades. It references a literal switch from the TV rating of "PG-14" to "PG." There have been plenty of arguments as to why WWE went in this direction, but it's pretty clear that it was a savvy business decision. After all, part of the reason that WWE moved closer to edgier content was the competition with WCW, which no longer exists.
Over the last few years, keeping a strictly "kid friendly" atmosphere has been less of a priority, especially once Brock Lesnar returned. It's kind of hard to have a puppy-dogs-and-rainbows-style TV show with that dude around. However, the days of middle fingers and bra & panties matches are pretty much done in WWE.
5 WWE And UFC Say They Aren't In Competition With Each Other, Even When They Are
Speaking of Brock Lesnar, you probably remember at least hearing his name once or twice on ESPN or sports talk radio during your sojourn from wrestling fandom. This was mostly because he was the UFC heavyweight champion for a while. You're probably at least familiar with UFC. In the Attitude Era, a number of UFC/MMA stars made their way to the pro wrestling world (Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn, Tank Abott.... hahahahaha Tank Abbott). These days, it's seemingly the reverse, with other wrestlers like Bobby Lashley, Batista and CM Punk all appearing in an MMA cage.
Both Vince McMahon and UFC owner Dana White have insisted that neither company is in competition with the other, but they sure don't act like it sometimes. Both White and UFC star Conor McGregor have earned the ire of wrestling fans with some dismissive tweets about WWE (with White calling WWE "fake" and McGregor... well... is McGregor). Meanwhile, UFC allowed Ronda Rousey to appear at WrestleMania 31, while WWE granted Lesnar permission to fight at UFC 200. So, you know, maybe they're more intertwined than they'd like to admit?
4 The Guys (And Ladies) You Want To Watch
Yow. Where to begin? Listing the current and future big names in the wrestling business could take an article this length all by itself, and this bad boy is already pretty wordy, so instead, I'm going to point you towards where to look. Sorry. I didn't set out to make you do extra work.
First off, file this under "D" for "duh": visit WWE.com. I know it's obvious, but the "superstars" section lists everybody on each brand (wrestlers, managers, announcers, etc.), as well as Hall of Famers and former employees (aka "alumni") -- so you can also see who you missed. Also, check out the websites I listed above and their rosters as well.
If you want to find out who else fans online are watching, head on over to Reddit. My personal favorite subreddit is /r/SquaredCircle but, like I said before, there's a lot from which to choose.
3 It's More Socially Acceptable To Be A Wrestling Fan Than Ever Before
There's still a chance that telling someone you're a wrestling fan will get you a snicker or a "you know it's fake, right?" type of response. First off, why are you going around telling people that? That's really random. Secondly, you'll probably get that response a lot less than you would have years ago.
The Attitude Era was arguably pro wrestling's most profitable period in history -- seeing both merchandise sales and TV ratings go through the roof. However, the edgier content as well as wrestling's history of being considered "low brow" entertainment really put a ceiling on how much mainstream acceptance it could get.
Nowadays, though, the world is coming around. WWE actually has a presence on ESPN -- look no further than John Cena hosting the ESPYs this year. It's actually cool to be a fan of independent US wrestling and wrestling in Japan. Lucha Underground on the El Rey network has combined pro wrestling with a narrative TV style seen in shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.
For once, liking pro wrestling is no different than liking any other TV show.
2 Vince McMahon Is Still Around
Since, at least, the very first WrestleMania, Vincent Kennedy McMahon has been, in one way or another, involved in the happenings of WWE (which is no surprise since he's pretty much owned the thing since 1982). You may remember him as an announcer or the man who screwed over Bret Hart or the man who fought tooth and nail against Stone Cold Steve Austin. In whichever way you remember him, he's been an important figure in pro wrestling, and he still is.
Nowadays, you don't see Vince on TV unless a story calls for it (or ratings take a dive -- let's face it, Vinny Mac = ratings). But, while he may not be a regular feature on the shows as he used to be, he's still behind the scenes, running things his way, like he always has.
1 You Picked A Great Time To Come Back!
Whatever the reason you had for dropping your fandom over 15 years ago, hypothetical fan, I think I can safely say that now is a great time for you to rekindle it. WWE's product is fresher than it has been in years, with NXT providing them a steady stream of new talent. International wrestling is easier to come by thanks to the Internet. Whatever your taste in wrestling style, you'll find a company specializing in it.
Wrestling t-shirt designs have also improved (well... kinda. Some of them have, anyway). Wrestling fans have grown up, and some of them have become talented graphic designers and some of them work for WWE and other companies. However, you won't just need those shirts to find other wrestling fans. Its one of the many ways to use the Internet.
So, welcome back, wrestling fan! We're happy to have you!