The world has changed immensely over the last 18 years and professional wrestling is no exception to that. WWE’s most successful time period in the 90s, known as the Attitude Era, was of the style of “crash television” featuring violence, sex and controversy. Champions cursed each other out, women stripped topless on PPV, gimmicks of pimps and adult stars were made, the owner of the company urinated on himself – hard to believe this could happen in WWE but it did and it was all very successful. That’s what the fans of the Attitude Era and what society in general was captivated by.
In the current world of wrestling, fans look more towards action and simpler characters that they can relate to rather than look up to. Maybe it’s the superhero era of Marvel films telling the story of the human beings behind the costume but fans seem to care more about wrestlers’ real journeys to the top such as a Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens or Seth Rollins, rather than a story play out with a “Superman” character overcoming the evil odds. Regardless of what it exactly is, it’s the opposite of what the Attitude Era was.
Wrestlers all have different skill sets with varying strengths and weaknesses. Not all wrestlers could succeed in all eras and that’s not a negative as there’s no reason for a 90s star to have the traits of what would become popular 20 years later nor would it would make sense for a current star to live in the past. This list isn’t to demean anyone as most of my personal favorite wrestlers are on it but these are the 15 current stars in WWE that would not have been as successful if they had to make it in the Attitude Era.
14 Hideo Itami
Hideo Itami entered NXT as a highly respected Japanese wrestling star debuting with a world of hype and support by the WWE system. If you lived through the Attitude Era, you clearly remember the ridiculousness that was Kaientai. The original Japanese import was Taka Michinoku as WWE tried to create a light heavyweight division with him as the centerpiece. Shortly after, more Japanese wrestlers would join the WWE and form Kaientai. The gimmick was very stereotypical and full of low brow comedy. Itami wouldn’t have been given the opportunity that he is today and would have been saddled with a weak comedic gimmick.
13 Randy Orton
Even though he’s one of the best in the ring and has a superstar demeanor and presence to him, Randy Orton would have been a poor fit in the Attitude Era. Orton isn’t known for having a loud personality and he just doesn’t ooze charisma like the main eventers of the late 90s such as Steve Austin and The Rock. There’s also the RKO factor, as though we want to respect his overall skill, his finishing move was a huge part of his success. The Stone Cold Stunner was too similar and the RKO would have never existed, thus erasing the move that got him over in the first place.
Kalisto doesn’t look too out of place in today’s wrestling world despite being only 5’6’ tall and wearing a luchador mask. The business has changed for someone of his size and he's been able to make a living today's era. Kalisto’s best days aren’t even here yet as he’s primed to achieve more success in the near future. This wouldn’t have been allowed in the Attitude Era as a wrestler of that size would have been laughed out of the WWE. It wasn’t until Rey Mysterio became a huge money maker for WWE in the early 2000s that it became possible.
One of the more regretful facets of the Attitude Era was the rampant sexism that was portrayed by both the company and the fans, as that’s where society was at the time. The women in WWE were basically attractive women in little to no clothing that the male fans ogled on national television and at live events. Bayley’s success story in NXT is based off what today’s fans want from female performers in wrestling – genuine talent and a relatable personality in a character. Bayley inspires little girls around the world and is definitely going to be a star on the main roster soon, but in the 90s, she wouldn’t have been even given a tryout.
11 Bray Wyatt
As much as the Attitude Era was about characters, the fans were also more close minded about the characters. Bray Wyatt is one of the more unique and flat out weird characters in WWE history as he’s gotten over thanks to looking like a wrestler the world has never seen before. His gear of wrestling in a vest and white pants is part of what makes him so interesting. Wyatt’s cryptic promos would have been shouted down with “A**HOLE” chants and he would have been laughed out of the ring due to his look.
10 Sami Zayn
The reason Sami Zayn has become so popular in NXT, and was treated like a star in his Raw debut vs. John Cena, is because fans just see him as a good dude. Zayn doesn’t look like someone who you’d pick in a group of wrestlers as a Superstar and his character isn’t really defined with a gimmick. Fans love him because he comes off as genuine, passionate and relatable character. These traits weren’t what was important in the Attitude Era, as a tougher character like Roman Reigns or a more physically imposing guy like Ryback would have the connection that Zayn currently has with fans of wrestling.
9 The Usos
One thing during the Attitude Era that was far superior to today’s counterpart was the tag team division. With teams like Edge & Christian, The Hardys, The Dudleys, APA, New Age Outlaws and others, the depth was off the charts. Today, The Usos are the premiere tag team in the WWE when healthy because there are not many other candidates and they’re one of the few teams with actual chemistry. As talented as they are, they don’t have a world of personality, nor do they have a cool move set, which was less accepted back then.
8 Sasha Banks
Recently a guest on Chris Jericho’s podcast “Talk Is Jericho,” Sasha Banks admitted that she was more of a fan of WCW wrestlers like Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio and Jericho rather than the female performers in WWE because she despised the bra and panties matches of the wrestling world. Banks badly wanted to become a wrestler all her life but stated she has no desire to ever wrestle in those kind of matches that were prominent in the Attitude Era, where she'd basically be stripping rather than wrestling. Many would say she’s the best female wrestler in the world today, but she would not have fit in or been happy in the late 90s era of WWE.
7 The Miz
Following his stints on The Real World and Tough Enough, The Miz has had a very successful career in WWE with a secured job for the foreseeable future. It would have been extremely tough to see The Miz make it in the Attitude Era as he just doesn’t look “tough” or physically imposing, which is fine today but wouldn’t fly back then. With his personality and comedic strengths, The Miz may have succeeded as a manager but no way would he have ever been a WrestleMania main eventer or a WWE Champion. Given how much JBL harassed him in the locker room during the late 00s, imagine how much worse that would have been in the 90s.
Just a few months after debuting, Neville has already become a fixture on WWE TV and is being trusted enough to team with celebrity Stephen Amell in an attraction match at SummerSlam. If he were looking to make it in the WWE during the Attitude Era, too many things would have worked against Neville. His extremely short stature, his accent and his overall lack of charisma are overlooked today because of how awe-inspiring his talents are in a wrestling ringm but during the Attitude Era, it would have sunk Neville’s chances of succeeding in WWE.
5 John Cena
A very popular and highly debated topic on many wrestling forums and social media sites is wondering how John Cena would have done in the Attitude Era. Well, Cena originally got his big break in the WWE by playing an edgy character of a rapper that would make very adult oriented jokes in his rap freestyles. Cena’s skill and personality would have landed him a job in WWE but there’s no way he could have contended with guys like Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H and The Undertaker all being more suited for stardom. As great as he is, Cena would have been stuck in the midcard for life during the Attitude Era.
4 Dolph Ziggler
Many people compare Dolph Ziggler to Billy Gunn but Ziggler looks a foot shorter on camera and Gunn was a midcarder during the Attitude Era. Ziggler would deal with size issues but also his selling may have been a problem as he often goes over the top with his theatrics when showcasing the effects of a move. The bumps during the Attitude Era were dangerous in "hardcore" stipulation matches and wrestlers weren’t throwing themselves around like Ziggler does today, which is a part of his key attributes. Ziggler’s female fan following is also a big reason for his success today and the product was suited completely towards males at the time.
You may not view him as such but Sheamus is one of the bigger stars of the current era as he’s been a multi-time champion and a consistent lower main event act. Fans have grown disinterested in him at some point during each of his pushes but he continues to get opportunities. Part of the reason for that is because there aren't many top spots locked up after John Cena and Randy Orton. In the Attitude Era, the main event list was way too deep for someone like Sheamus to get a chance, let alone numerous ones. Sheamus also would have been mocked for his forced promos and weak character work.
2 Kevin Owens
It feels like just yesterday that WWE signed Kevin Owens, but he’s already been arguably the most successful wrestler in NXT history as he’s on the verge of main eventing a sold out Barclays Center with the developmental show, while still being an established star on the main roster. Two months into his WWE main roster career, Owens is already a respected presence on the show due to fans either absolutely loving or intensely hating him. During the Attitude Era, no one in WWE would have even glanced at someone like Owens due to his weight, his gear or his overall look. Luckily for Owens and wrestling fans, things have changed and he’s one of those causing that change.
1 Daniel Bryan
Similar to Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn in separate ways, Daniel Bryan currently represents everything this generation of wrestling fan wants and is the opposite of everything the Attitude Era fan wanted. Bryan’s look is very atypical of the average WWE wrestler at just 5’8’’ tall, along with a very ge nric look aside from his massive beard. The main factor for fans buying into Bryan as much as they do, to the point of rejecting Attitude Era-style stars such as Batista and Roman Reigns, is because they see love to see him leave it all out in the ring, they know he’s a genuine person who loves the wrestling business and when he performs, they see a lot of themselves, which is what people gravitate towards today.