The WWE is a juggernaut. Its live RAW and Smackdown shows fill arenas while millions watch on TV, and its Network has helped create a viable third brand, NXT. If you’re a fan of professional wrestling--or sports entertainment--Vince McMahon’s baby is the 800-lb. gorilla. It’s just too big to ignore. And for most professional wrestlers, WWE is the gold standard. It’s generally seen as where a pro goes to become a star and make the big bucks. But like any business, the WWE has its ups and downs. Some years are better than others from a business or creative standpoint … and then some are god-awful, regardless of how you look at them.
When professional wrestling is clicking, it means an increase in ticket and merchandise sales, and it also often means an uptick in creativity. Compelling characters, interesting vignettes and interviews and believable physical altercations are usually the hallmarks of a successful year for WWE. But other years stand out, too--like 2001, when the ‘E put its last major competitor out of business.
And then there are the years when things are bad. As you’ll see, Vince and company have made bad decisions that have pushed their promotion to the breaking point--and very nearly past it--on multiple occasions. When the WWE falters, it’s usually because it loses focus on the ‘wrestling’ part of its name and concentrates instead on the ‘entertainment’ factor. Because professional wrestling is essentially live theater for the masses, it’s easy to tell when the talent--and management--aren’t putting their all into the product. That said, let’s dive in!
15 BEST: 2016
This one’s a no-brainer. AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Chris Jericho, Finn Balor, Nakamura, Samoa Joe, The Club, Austin Aries, and a host of others have brought the WWE’s in-ring product to a new level. The card is stacked from top to bottom, with more talent than fans have ever seen under one promotion before. Whenever Owens and Jericho are anywhere near a microphone, they’re golden, while the New Day has come into its own as a comedy act that can also get the job done in the ring.
Newcomers Big Cass and Enzo Amore mix well with established talent, and main-eventers like John Cena and Randy Orton were being pushed in new directions in order to keep up with the young talent. Add in the returns of Brock Lesnar and Goldberg, and 2016 was absolutely a top year for the E. When your main problem is that you have too much talent, and aren’t sure what to do with all of it, that’s just an embarrassment of riches.
14 WORST: 1991
Sergeant Slaughter was world champion to start the year, and Hulk Hogan won the title from him at WrestleMania. Yawn. Oh, you’re still here? Well, the same couldn’t be said for WWE fans, who were either put off by Slaughter’s Iraqi sympathizer gimmick or by Hogan taking the belt again. It was so bad that WWE had to book a smaller venue for WrestleMania. That had never happened before--or since.
Add in the rise of the awful gimmicks, like Jacques Rougeau’s ‘Da Mountie’, Barry Darsow’s ‘Repo Man’ and the retirement of Macho Man Randy Savage, and 1991 wasn’t looking good anyway. But then fans were subjected to a feud between Ted DiBiase and Virgil over the Million Dollar Championship belt, which no one--not even the participants--really seemed to care about, and 1991 blasé at best. The lone bright spot may have been the end of the Hart Foundation, which would eventually launch Bret Hart into stardom.
13 BEST: 1984
The first year of Hulkamania was an unqualified success for the then-WWF. In January, the Hulkster defeated the Iron Sheik for the WWF championship after the promotion formally severed all ties with the National Wrestling Alliance. Vince McMahon then took over the timeslot for Southwest Championship Wrestling on the USA Network, and then bought controlling interest of Georgia Championship Wrestling from Jack and Jerry Brisco, leading to Black Saturday, a one-weekend takeover of the NWA’s Saturday morning timeslot on TBS.
Despite southern fans’ rejection of the WWE’s cartoonish wrestling, quality territory wrestling mainstays like Paul Orndorff and the irrepressible (and irreplaceable) Rowdy Roddy Piper were the perfect foils for the ultra-babyface champion. Add in the Rock-n-Wrestling Connection with Cyndi Lauper and Lou Albano, and the WWE had the mainstream attention it desired, which led to #11 on our list! Keep reading!
12 WORST: 2002
Why in the world would this year make the list? Because during its hottest run, at a time when WWE was making more money than ever, and being seen on TV more than ever, with more live attendance than ever, the WWE was forced to change its promotional name from the World Wrestling Federation and stop using the initials ‘WWF’ due to a lawsuit brought by the World Wildlife Fund, which alleged the WWE didn’t keep its side of an agreement on the usage or the initials ‘WWF.’ In essence, the WWE failed to keep their end of a legal contract, and it nearly const them their corporate identity.
The promotion had to change its logos and branding on everything from letterhead to the ring aprons to the championship titles. The only good thing to come from the whole fiasco was a marketing campaign led by The Rock to ‘get the F out’ of the WWE product.
11 BEST: 1985
It was the year that birthed an entertainment icon, WrestleMania. But many people don’t know that despite its success, WWE was over-leveraged and dangerously close to going out of business prior to its signature event. Vince McMahon once stated that if the original WrestleMania had failed, the WWE would have gone out of business. But that show--studded with celebrities like Muhammad Ali, Liberace, Joan Rivers, and Mr. T--sold out Madison Square Garden and was seen by more than a million people on closed-circuit TV, the forerunner to pay-per-view.
While the event was successful from a financial and spectacle viewpoint, let’s be honest: the wrestling was not very good. At that point in the WWE, workrate wasn’t important--and it was easy to tell. However, that would change through the years.
10 WORST: 2001
With apologies to Charles Dickens, it really was the best and worst of times for WWE in 2001 (check out our #1 entry!). And I can prove it with three letters: XFL. The WWE always seems to get in trouble when it gets too far from its core business, and the ‘Xtreme’ football league founded by the McMahon family and backed by NBC was certainly far from its core business.
It was far from profitable, too. And although there were moments that were memorable and innovative (the spider-like camera operating on wires above every nationally broadcast NFL game was put into popular use by the XFL), the league lost a boatload of money and folded after its rookie season.
9 BEST: 1998
Greatness can only be held back for so long, and by the time WrestleMania XIV rolled around, Steve Austin could no longer be denied. After spending years toiling in USWA, WCW, and ECW, Austin finally broke out in the WWE by being a larger-than-life version of the redneck Texan he was in real life. Once that happened, all of the bad gimmicks and previous missteps by promoters didn’t seem to matter.
After overcoming a nearly career-ending injury due to a botched sitout tombstone piledriver from Owen Hart at SummerSlam 1997, the Austin-Vince McMahon rivalry was heating up and arenas were selling out again. Austin’s victory over Shawn Michaels for the WWE championship is often seen as the official beginning of the Attitude Era, which made Austin the biggest-drawing star ever in the wrestling business.
8 WORST: 1993
After a federal trial on the rampant use of steroids in WWE that cost the company more than $5 million (equivalent to $8.5 million in 2017) and sexual harassment allegations against several long-term behind-the-scenes employees, WWE was reeling financially.
It didn’t help that the WWE was at its nadir creatively, featuring acts like Doink the Clown, Papa Shango, and Duke ‘the Dumpster’ Droese. House shows were down and the WWE braintrust seemed creatively bankrupt. There were positive signs, however, with WWE debuting its flagship Monday Night Raw during the year, as well as having a heel Shawn Michaels feud with Mr. Perfect.
However, for every positive step, the promotion seemed to take two steps back, putting the WWE championship on Hogan again in a poorly conceived angle at the end of WrestleMania in an impromptu challenge to Yokozuna, who had just ended Bret Hart’s first title reign.
7 BEST: 2003
For a lot of fans, 2003 marks the last year when wrestling was truly enjoyable, and for good reason. The Attitude Era was on its way out the door and the PG era was about to waltz in. 2003 featured adult storylines like the feud between Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels, as well as the last meeting between The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIX.
Austin officially retired after that match. In addition, Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle were main-eventing shows, so the workrate was strong, as well as the gate receipts. A bloody feud between an aging Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon didn’t hurt, either, although most fans recognized this as McMahon trying to replicate the Austin-McMahon dynamic. But 2003 was also part of the WWE’s evolution toward favoring workrate rather than sheer size, as the promotion had done in the past.
6 WORST: 1992
Other than SummerSlam, where Davey Boy Smith won the Intercontinental title from Bret Hart in a packed Wembley Stadium … well, 1992 was pretty bad. In a precursor to 2001, Vince had branched out into bodybuilding in 1990, creating the WBF, the World Bodybuilding Federation. Now, Vince has always had a thing for muscular men… not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But again it was a case of WWE moving away from its core business and focusing on something else. Wrestling fans either didn’t care or understand about bodybuilding, and McMahon’s idea to inject wrestling-style stories into bodybuilding was a dud. The WBF was a disaster that cost the promotion money from the time it opened in 1990 until it finally closed its doors in 1992.
5 BEST: 1990
Like 2003, this year felt like the end of an era. The defining feud was Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior, a rare babyface matchup in that time period. But the top pairing was indicative of what was going on behind the scenes. Hogan was still the WWE’s top draw--as he had been since coming back to New York in late 1983--but attendance numbers were stagnant or declining with him at the top of the card, and the fans seemed to be going crazy for Warrior.
The WWE pulled the trigger on a title change at WrestleMania VI, and the Warrior era was set to begin. However, it didn’t last. Warrior lasted for about eight months at the top of the card before giving way to an over-the-hill Sergeant Slaughter. But the high points were Rick Rude and Curt Hennig, who were taking the WWE by storm. Jake Roberts and Ted DiBiase were putting on clinics in the semi-main events nearly every night, so business stayed lively. But by the time WrestleMania VII rolled around, Hogan was in the main event and reclaiming the title, which led to a ratings and box office nosedive.
4 WORST: 1995
Are you getting the idea that the early-to-mid-90s were a bad time in the WWE? Houses were down. The talent wasn’t happy. Management wasn’t happy. The fans weren’t, either--they were staying away in droves. The Attitude Era was still a few years away. Worse yet, WCW, the WWE’s main rival, was finally gaining some traction again with Hulk Hogan finally on board. WWE relied on guys like Kama (the repackaged Papa Shango), Jeff Jarrett, the Roadie, Thurman “Sparky” Plugg (Bob Holly) and the Smoking Gunns on the undercard, while Diesel (the worst-drawing champion in modern WWE history), Shawn Michaels and Sid Justice hung around the main event, not really doing a whole lot of anything.
Here’s how not-compelling 1995 was: the most talked about match of that year was Bam Bam Bigelow vs. Lawrence Taylor from WrestleMania XI. While the match was fine and brought WWE a lot of mainstream press, no one remembers that it was, in fact, the main event on the card, going on AFTER a WWE title match between Michaels and Diesel.
3 BEST: 1987
This year comes down to one thing: WrestleMania III, Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant for the WWE title, the Pontiac Silverdome, and the reported 93,173 fans in attendance. Mania generated $1.6 million in ticket sales, and $10.3 million in pay-per-view revenue (the equivalent of more than $26 million in 2017). But it wasn’t just WrestleMania--the entire promotion was hot, with feuds like Roddy Piper vs. ‘Adorable’ Adrian Adonis and Ricky Steamboat vs. Macho Man Randy Savage.
Tag teams like the British Bulldogs and the Hart Foundation were stepping things up, too, adding an element of speed and agility that many of the main event talents weren’t able to match. And near the top of the card, savvy veterans like Honky Tonk Man and Jake Roberts were able to rely on their ring psychology and solid work to keep the fans engaged.
2 WORST: 2007
The Benoit double murder-suicide would be enough to land 2007 on this list, but it was the aftermath--another steroid scandal that implicated talents ranging from Booker T, Edge, Randy Orton, to John Morrison--that gave the promotion an even bigger black eye. The WWE also handled the Benoit tragedy badly from the beginning, airing a live tribute on Raw even as investigators were discovering evidence that Benoit had murdered his wife and son and then taken his own life.
Then there were injuries, like Triple H tearing his quad (again), while WWE talents (or former talents) like Bam Bam Bigelow, Sensational Sherri Martel, Crush (Brian Adams) and Mike Awesome all passed away. To make matters worse, there was behind-the-scenes drama with stars like Carlito, Ric Flair and Orton that weakened the TV product and made the WWE something less than must-see viewing.
1 BEST: 2001
If the promotional wars between WWE and WCW were an MMA fight, the WWE would have won via rear-naked choke in the fifth round. After nearly being put out of business by Atlanta-based WCW during the Monday night wars, things began to turn around for WWE when Steve Austin, The Rock, DX, and Mick Foley led the promotion into the Attitude Era. Riding a wave of ratings and box-office success, the WWE capitalized on WCW’s lack of organization, bad booking, and general disarray to finally drive its main competition out of business by purchasing the promotion from AOL Time-Warner.
Shane and Vince McMahon appeared on simultaneously on Raw and Nitro in a surreal segment that will live on in YouTube infamy to announce the WWE’s takeover on the last Nitro ever broadcast on March 26, 2001. Anytime you can drive a stake through the heart of your biggest enemy, that has to be among the best years ever.
That’s the list. Did I miss anything? Get in touch via twitter: @bobbymathews.