With each passing mention of WWE's 'New Era', which is said without shame several times per episode every Monday and Thursday night, it harkens back to a previous time WWE tried to aggressively promote a New Era. Back in 1992, the WWE roster went through a massive undertaking and ridded itself of many of the stars of the 80s for various reasons. Whether they were stars who just couldn't cut the mustard anymore, didn't fit Vince's vision, or were synthetically enhanced; there were gaping holes and a bleak outlook for the future of the promotion.
While the likes of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, and Ric Flair were no longer around, WWE developed a brand new nucleus built around Bret Hart, The Undertaker, and Shawn Michaels who each put away stalwarts of the previous era at WrestleMania VIII, when Roddy Piper, Jake 'The Snake' Roberts, and Tito Santana bowed in defeat to the aforementioned stars. Bret Hart would later win the WWE Championship in October '92 from Ric Flair, but the era didn't officially change over until the next summer which we'll be looking at shortly.
Conversely, The New Generation gets a lot of flack from people who weren't around to appreciate exactly what was happening. In the simplest terms, it was the story of Vince McMahon leaning on three performers in lean times and cycling everyone around them, at times even the champion. Yes, there was The Goon, T.L. Hopper, and a host of other guys with occupational gimmicks, but beyond the fresh coat of paint McMahon was attempting to slap on the promotion, were men trying to save their livelihoods and move the sport of professional wrestling away from what it was, and transition it to what it would become. Some would sacrifice their careers, and bank accounts to ensure the future of their sport.
13 Bret Hart Owns King Of The Ring 1993, While Hulk Sulks
"I was gonna show everyone what Bret Hart was all about, I was going to make sure everyone knew the difference between Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan." - Bret Hart's DVD (2005)
After WrestleMania IX where Bret Hart lost the World Title to Hulk, I mean Yokozuna, Bret Hart strolled into the first televised King Of The Ring PPV in June 1993 with a point to prove. With or without the title, his performance set the standard for what main event wrestling in the company would become with his three incredible performances against Razor Ramon, Mr. Perfect, and Bam Bam Bigelow. It was a clear unspoken declaration to not only Hulk Hogan, but Vince McMahon and fans worldwide that Bret Hart was the top wrestler in the world.
His three distinct matches in one night should be looked at as the genesis of The New Generation Era. He would wrestle a variety of opponents over the next four years, but it was here where we learned Bret could rise to any challenge.
12 Shawn Michaels And Bret Hart Competing For Match Of The Night
While this wouldn't start until WrestleMania X, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart essentially competed for the match of the night for a good three years. With them being strategically held apart until the time was right, Shawn and Bret took turns facing friends, family, and plenty of random guys like Jean-Pierre Lafitte, to compose classics that live in the memories of fans everywhere. From WrestleMania X, when both men had five star matches of different kinds, to Survivor Series '96 where Bret was in the position to steal the show from Shawn, Bret and Shawn's rivalry existed in a way that often isn't spoken of.
When they came together, we got some of the most defining matches of any time period, with the Ironman match and what turned out to be The Montreal Screwjob. The competition could be felt through the screen, as these two danced with and around each other for years.
11 Vader Assaults Gorilla Monsoon
Switching gears, Vader debuted in the 1996 Royal Rumble after a run in WCW where he was one of the most feared, and legendary monster wrestlers of all-time. While he didn't win, the foundation for his run was laid in that match and what followed afterward.
After a match where Vader destroyed Savio Vega, 'The Mastadon' turned his attention to several referees with clubbing blows and powerbombs, until he was confronted by on screen WWE President, Gorilla Monsoon. The long retired former commentator promptly suspended Vader indefinitely, infuriating the 400 lb beast. Shortly after, Vader and Monsoon faced off with Gorilla throwing several chops that had zero effect.
This led to Vader splashing Monsoon when his back was turned, elbow drops, and a Vader Bomb until Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon chased Vader off. The angle was designed because Vader entered the promotion with an injury and needed time off to recover, which sadly would be the story of Vader's run. Nevertheless, this was incredible at the time because authority figures weren't getting beat on by wrestlers back then. The crowd responded with thunderous roars, for a trope that would be later revisited when Austin started stunning anyone in a suit the following year.
10 The Undertaker Gets A Challenge
To say The Undertaker dominated his first few years in WWE would be an understatement. He rarely ever lost and if he did there were plenty of shenanigans involved. Who can forget the 1994 Royal Rumble, where it took Yokozuna and Mr. Fuji hiring over 10 guys to put The Undertaker away in a Casket Match?
When 1996 rolled around, a mysterious figure named Mankind showed up and immediately made himself a threat to The Deadman. His Mandible Claw neutralized The Undertaker in a way we'd never seen and led to the humanization of The Undertaker, where he became less of a cartoon character and more of a brutal fighter.
Furthermore, The Undertaker and Mankind would give us a rivalry that created a transcendent moment in the history of pro wrestling, when Mankind was thrown of the Hell In A Cell. Where was the foundation for that laid? The New Generation era.
9 Austin 3:16
It was June 1996, the previously silent Stone Cold Steve Austin had just rid himself of manager Ted DiBiase and was entered into the King Of The Ring tournament. Upon defeating Marc Mero in the semi-finals, and receiving multiple stitches in his mouth, Austin returned later that night to drop the Bible thumping Jake Roberts in the finals.
As Austin was announced the winner, he headed toward Dok Hendrix to say a few words. What we got was the promo which gave birth to the Austin 3:16 phenomenon which captured the imagination of WWE fans for the next five years. This promo was from a million miles away, but we never saw it coming. It had been burning deeply in the soul of a man who had been fired, under estimated, and creatively stifled in the years leading up to that very moment. With a look in his eye that would rattle Clubber Lang, Austin starred in the camera and gave us the first glimpse of the man that would take pro wrestling to another stratosphere.
8 The Curtain Call
The taboo moment that has enough what ifs attached to it to completely re-write history. As Diesel and Razor Ramon were on their way out of WWE, they along with Shawn Michaels and a young Hunter Hearst Helmsley, decided to have a celebration in the ring at Madison Square Garden to commemorate the last time they would be all be together. It's a moment that broke kayfabe in a time where that just didn't happen, which led to the de-push of HHH and the ascension of Stone Cold Steve Austin.
It ruffled the feathers of nearly every old-timer in WWE. Davey Boy Smith felt The Kliq flat out killed the wrestling business and, according to Jim Cornette, Gerald Brisco wanted to shoot on The Kliq which would have been an incredible story.
Being only captured on a fans video only further contributes to the legend of this event and began the opening of the door to the behind the scenes world of wrestling.
7 The Hart Brothers War
Perhaps the single best piece of storytelling during The New Generation Era occurred when Owen Hart and Bret Hart set off their feud which Started at Survivor Series '93 and peaked at SummerSlam '94. It gave us two classic matches and Bret Hart's greatest babyface promo ever, which came before the cage match. It was a story that resonated with anyone with a sibling; Bret had always been the star, but Owen's jealously and desire to be recognized for his own considerable talents ate him alive.
Even defeating Bret clean, at WrestleMania X could not swing the spotlight in Owen's favor, because of Bret's championship victory later that night. The feud gave us a legendary turn from Owen at the '94 Royal Rumble when he kicked Bret's "leg out of his leg" and the blueprint for what a cage match could be. The storyline animosity between the brothers even lasted after their feud was over, not fully settling down until 1997, nearly three years later.
6 Survivor Series 1996
Survivor Series 1996 was the day The New Generation era reached its peak. All the main characters of the past had matured, (Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, The Undertaker) and a few of tomorrow's major stars got to step on the grand stage in prime roles (Stone Cold, A debuting Rock, HHH, Mankind). It was a night where the fans in Madison Square Garden cheered Sycho Sid over Shawn Michaels in his prime and Bret Hart made his return for his final run with WWE.
Numerous stars, all at different points in their careers, crossed paths in a company which was just starting to find itself. Hart-Austin is the forgotten classic, which goes under the radar in their feud, while Sid played his role absolutely perfectly, in being the guy Shawn just couldn't topple after dominating the federation for months. Survivor Series 1996 was a glimpse of the past and the future; the crossroads of which 1990s wrestling would meet at.
5 The Rejection Of Rocky Maivia
At Survivor Series 1996, Rocky Maivia made his debut and was the Sole Survivor of the traditional Survivor Series match, establishing him as someone to look out for. It started earnestly, but quickly fans went into full revolt mode shortly after Rocky captured the IC title from HHH. The more we kept seeing Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas, it just felt like the future Rock was too clean cut for a changing wrestling landscape. It felt as if WWE still thought it was 1987, rather than 1997 and WWE was forced to abort its initial plan to create their next babyface superstar.
A timely knee injury forced Maivia to the sidelines and gave WWE a chance to present him in an entirely different fashion; unleashing the genesis of "The Most Electrifying Man In Sports Entertainment" in The Nation Of Domination. Good thing Rocky Maivia was booed out of the building.
4 Pre and Post Champion Diesel
Without a doubt a controversial figure in the New Generation is Big Daddy Cool Diesel. His title reign has been lauded as a failure in retrospect, but WWE was going to take its lumps no matter who was in that position. One thing that can't be denied though and that's how awesome he was before and after he won the championship.
Coming on the scene as Shawn Michaels' bodyguard, Diesel exploded in the 1994 Royal Rumble where he tossed seven guys out in dominating fashion, setting the stage for his run to the championship, which included winning the Tag Team and Intercontinental titles, and having memorable contests with Bret Hart, and Razor Ramon before ultimately Jackknifing Bob Backlund for the WWE Championship.
Conversely, his title reign suffered when not matched against Michaels or Hart, but what was Diesel expected to do with Mabel? Upon losing the championship to Bret at Survivor Series 1995, Diesel adopted a persona where he shot on his title reign and gave some of the best interviews in the world. He began blurring the lines and feeling much more dangerous than anytime during his title reign.
3 SummerSlam 1997 Main Event
The paths of the three cornerstones of the era collided in the main event of SummerSlam 1997. As Shawn Michaels inched closer to coming back as a regular competitor, he was set to referee a match between the men that would be recognized as his two greatest rivals. Michaels and The Undertaker barely had any interaction over this time, while his issues with Bret Hart had cultivated in storyline and real life.
Effectively, this was the end of what the New Generation Era was. Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker would radically become different men in the aftermath of this contest. Upon defeating The Undertaker, Hart while once again a champion, was being positioned as a symbol of the past. Gone was the 12 year old boyhood dream that was perpetuated by Shawn Michaels, as it was replaced by a man who was out to serve himself; rapidly morphing into a degenerate. As far as The Undertaker, it would lead him into battle with HBK, but into the hands of his next major story, Kane.
An errant chair shot from Michaels took one war to its final stage and gave birth to another one.
2 For Austin To Rise, He Had To Surpass Bret Hart And Shawn Michaels
As with all eras, there are incumbents and challengers. For Stone Cold Steve Austin, as a character there was no way to avoid The Hitman and The Heartbreak Kid. He was the perfect opponent for Bret Hart, but also the most dangerous. In the ring, they never failed to deliver anythnig less than something spectacular.
In interviews, the level of realism even exceeded Hart-Michaels. Austin was dynamic enough of a personality where he was able to push Bret Hart to the point of going outside himself to defeat him. Bret Hart's interviews told the story of a man who returned in 1996 to a place he no longer recognized, as his character was essentially assassinated by the lowest scum there was in his opinion; Austin. Bret's victories meant little and in turn he didn't know how to react which drove him to a breaking point as a hero at WrestleMania 13, after being screwed month after month.
Without ever defeating Bret, Austin ran past one rival into what was essentially a coronation by the time he met HBK at WrestleMania XIV. While HBK was a degenerate, he wasn't the badass at the level of Austin. Beating Stone Cold at his own game wasn't going to work, and Michaels (and his back) succumbed to Austin and the incoming era, going out a few months after Bret.
1 It Led To The Attitude Era
Ultimately, The New Generation is looked at as the time after Hulk Hogan, and the time before Stone Cold, but looking closer it serves as the perfect bridge. The main guys of this time were perfect to succeed what was and be defeated by what was to come. The majority of biggest stars of The Attitude Era lurked in the shadows of this time, trying and failing before hitting on what would make them legendary.
WWE figuring itself out during this period is fascinating, especially knowing what they were competing with in WCW's loaded roster, and the fact they would win after thoroughly being dominated during this time. The next time The New Generation is being run down by someone, this column should arm you with more than enough critical thinking to explain why not only did this time matter, but the trying periods during it led to the prosperous times that would come in its aftermath.