Everything changes over time. It’s not only evident in nature with the changing of the seasons, but it's also seen in sports. The landscape of leagues and organizations usually evolves as the desires of the fans evolve. Franchises are added in expansions of leagues like the National Hockey League or the National Basketball Association.
Professional wrestling is certainly different from the major sports scene. There’s no offseason and matches are conducted multiple days in a week. Still, like the other leagues, evolution comes natural in World Wrestling Entertainment. The promotion was originally a regional territory company that started in the 1950s. When Vincent K. McMahon took over the company from his father in 1980, it would slowly become a national wrestling powerhouse that would evolve into the global entity it is today.
Each era of professional wrestling had its own identity, but none have had the highest peak of popularity as the Attitude Era from 1997 to 2002. It was during the heat of the Monday Night War with World Championship Wrestling, with both promotions pushing the envelope with their content. There were colorful personalities like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock and The Undertaker highlighting main events.
But the WWE has evolved to a much different form over the last decade. Many wrestling fans who stopped watching shortly after the Attitude Era might be surprised at the changes from then until now. Someone turning on Monday Night Raw for the first time in 15 years might be in for a bit of a shock. The following are 15 things that Attitude Era fans wouldn’t believe about today’s WWE.
15 Triple H Is an Authority Figure in WWE
For a perfect example of how a professional wrestler can successfully evolve over multiple decades, look no further than Hunter Hearst Helmsley, who is better known as Triple H. The Game has gone from the snotty Connecticut blue-blood to the leader of D-Generation X. The faction stood alone as the definition of WWE during the Attitude Era. They even drove a tank to a WCW show as part of the popular Monday Night War.
But Triple H is more than just a superstar with 14 world championships under WWE. He’s also been considered the heir apparent to Vince McMahon. Whether or not you think it’s a benefit from his relationship with Stephanie McMahon, he’s slowly transitioned into becoming one of the most powerful officials behind the scenes. It might be a shock for Attitude Era fans to see Triple H with a buzz cut and having the full corporate look.
14 The WWE Network
The internet was still an infant during the Attitude Era compared to the media force that it has become. Now, sports fans are able to stream live games and archived events through networks. There are streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Considering how vast the video library is at WWE headquarters, it just felt like a natural part of the company’s evolution to have a network of their own.
While it seems like a great idea, it might come as a shock for an Attitude Era fan to think of a network that allows you to see any match in WWE. Not only that, but fans can pull up matches from ECW, WCW and other promotions in wrestling history. Consider it a chance for Attitude Era fans to relive their favorite moments, especially if they aren’t fans of the current product.
13 How Jim Ross Left WWE
It was bound to happen that Jim Ross was going to retire at some point. Everyone has to enjoy the later years of life without having to go through the hustle and bustle of going to work. It can be strenuous to be an announcer in the WWE, but fans loved Good Ol’ J.R. for everything he did as the voice of the WWE. His voice was as much an iconic part of the Attitude Era as Mankind falling from the top of Hell in a Cell.
Many would have expected that Ross would have left on his own terms with a happy send-off. Unfortunately, his departure from the WWE came in the form of a pink slip. During a 2013 symposium to promote a WWE video game, Ric Flair was intoxicated. Ross was under fire for not being able to control the Nature Boy. Considering all Ross did for WWE, fans may feel he deserved better treatment.
12 WWE Recognizing The Independent Scene
There was once a time when it felt like the WWE was ignoring that there was any semblance of competition. Shortly after they had bought out their main rival in WCW, WWE was promoting themselves as the one and only show around. It makes some sense to not want to draw attention to a promotion like TNA Wrestling (even though they haven’t really been an actual rival like WCW was).
But over the years, the WWE has brought in more superstars that were established outside of the WWE. Their editorial department at WWE.com even did a story about Ring of Honor as the place where WWE main events like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan were seen before coming to WWE. The WWE has taken note of the independent scene in an effort to bring in new stars and recruit for the future of the WWE roster.
11 The Cruiserweight Classic
In 2007, the WWE Cruiserweight Championship was retired by Hornswoggle. The belt that was once an established part of SmackDown with great champions like Rey Mysterio, Chavo Guerrero and Tajiri slowly faded into obscurity. Thankfully, the Cruiserweight Division returned to WWE and fans are getting to see the high-flying and technical abilities that fans of the late 90s and early 2000s enjoyed. But while the division itself might not be hard to believe, how it was built in today’s WWE might come as a surprise.
The WWE opened up the first ever Cruiserweight Classic, with qualifying matches held at various independent promotions around the world. WWE fans were being introduced to the diversity of professional wrestling outside of the WWE. It also provided a unique 32-man tournament experience for the fan that included young rookies, independent veterans and even former WWE superstars.
10 Women Wrestlers Entering Hell in a Cell
The match between Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair was truly historic. As both women competed for the WWE Raw Women’s Championship at Hell in a Cell this week, they were the first two women to ever enter the structure made famous during the height of the Attitude Era. While the matches are not the hardcore affairs we remember with Mankind, they are still known as brutal.
Fans from the late 1990s would have never imagined seeing two women compete in that kind of fashion. Women’s wrestling has changed to where the female superstars are showing they are just as capable of putting on the kind of matches that their male counterparts can. The fact that women are now in the main event slot is a true sign of how wrestling has evolved in the WWE.
9 Coverage on ESPN
ESPN is no stranger to the world of professional wrestling. Even back in the 1980s, ESPN would regularly air matches from the American Wrestling Association (some episodes were seen on ESPN Classic in the wee hours of the morning). ESPN also had some reporters go to WrestleMania for a feature, or maybe a few highlights from the big event would creep into SportsCenter’s daily Top 10 segment.
In the past few years, former WWE announcer Jonathan Coachmen seems to have bridged the gap between the World Wide Leader in Sports and the sports-entertainment juggernaut. ESPN has a weekly segment that Coachman hosts called “Off the Top Rope.” ESPN has also sent him to report live from big events like WrestleMania, treating it like any other big sports championship. ESPN.com now opened up a WWE page for regular articles and columns. All of this didn’t seem possible 20 years ago.
8 The Transition Into TV-PG
Fans from 20 years ago were once teenagers and children who were able to sneak views of the TV-14 programming of WWE and WCW. The Monday Night War saw both promotions trying to push the envelope with innuendos and violence. Culture in today’s society has seen parents become more focused on the content their children are watching. That includes professional wrestling.
In an effort to bring in a new generation of wrestling fans, the WWE slowly transitioned from the TV-14 content to a bigger focus on family-friendly wrestling. That means less blood, the elimination of chair shots to the head (which is good for long-term health of wrestlers) and less innuendos. Attitude Era fans might lose interest more easily, but it is an understandable transition the WWE felt they needed to make.
7 Less Blood and Less Violence
Part of the transition to be viewed as “family-friendly” means there isn’t as much violence in professional wrestling as their used to be. Aside from a few moments like Shane McMahon’s failed elbow drop at WrestleMania 32, there are almost no moments that fans would consider “hardcore.” The more brutal style of wrestling that even had its own division during the Attitude Era has been left in the past.
It’s one thing to cut down on planned blood, but matches are even stopped if a wrestler is bleeding on live programming. Wrestlers are a little more limited in terms of what they can do in a Street Fight or No Holds Barred match. That’s not to say that the increased focus on actual wrestling abilities is a bad thing. As Diamond Dallas Page would say, it’s a good thing.
6 The Undertaker is Still Competing
Nothing lasts forever in professional wrestling, or anything for that matter. Fans have expected that there would be a time when The Undertaker would hang up the black trench-coat and hat for good. While his legacy spans multiple decades with his biggest height in popularity coming during the Attitude Era, The Undertaker is still seen competing in WWE – on a limited basis.
The past few years have seen the Deadman’s physical condition deteriorate, causing many to question if he is going to be healthy enough for a final match at WrestleMania. Many thought he would be done when his streak ended at WrestleMania XXX against Brock Lesnar. Still, despite not really having anything to fight for and nothing to prove, he’s rumored to have another match at WrestleMania 33, when he will be 52 years old.
5 The Image of a Main Event Superstar
There was once a time when fans would commonly joke about how Vince McMahon was more willing to put a muscular athlete in the main event picture. Just like in Texas, bigger was considered better in Mr. McMahon’s eyes. Wrestlers were expected to be no less than a specific weight and not be too small. Rey Mysterio might have been an exception in the Ruthless Aggression Era, but the WWE commonly pushed bigger talents.
But with the current landscape of the WWE bringing in more stars from the independent circuit, main event superstars in the WWE aren’t always the tallest and/or the largest. Recent main event stars include former indie superstars in Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose. There’s still some old habits of WWE pushing talents unpopular with the WWE Universe, but it’s still a different look than 20 years ago.
4 The Evolution of NXT
Aside from the National Football League, every sports league usually has some type of feeder program. There are minor league affiliates for teams in Major League Baseball, as well as the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. The WWE has always had development territories in Deep South Wrestling and Ohio Valley Wrestling over the years, but nothing that was heavily publicized by the WWE.
Since WWE ended Florida Championship Wrestling in 2012, they developed NXT as the new development brand. With the various independent stars that have come in before going to the WWE main roster, NXT started to evolve into a brand that some experts feel rivals Raw and SmackDown. Last year, WWE began having NXT live event tours around the country with sold-out shows across the country and overseas.
3 WWE Bringing in Diverse Talents
It was noted how the WWE has acknowledged that there is professional wrestling outside of the WWE Universe with the inaugural Cruiserweight Classic earlier this year. It shows that the WWE officials are sending their scouts to various independent promotions that can bring something different to the WWE. While there are several great promotions here in North America, the WWE is also seemingly recruiting more in other countries.
The WWE has also publicized whenever they sign international talents and not only when they sign someone like Japanese wrestling star Shinsuke Nakamura. There are various athletes from different parts of Europe, Asia and Australia who are constantly evaluated for the possibility of earning a WWE developmental contract. This type of scouting once again is part of the WWE’s overall evolution to a different kind of product seen in the Attitude Era.
2 Development of the WWE Performance Center
What has made the NXT development brand extremely successful is the innovative WWE Performance Center that is being used to create the next wave of WWE superstars. Their facility is a massive 26,000 square feet with no shortage of resources for future superstars in their efforts to prepare for the WWE. The center has seven wrestling rings for training, production facilities to help with wrestlers’ promo skills and even tools to help potential on-air commentators and announcers.
While the WWE has brought in a number of established talents across the globe, they have created the perfect training atmosphere for anyone who has the physical tools and the drive to start from scratch. When looking at the coaching staff that includes ring veterans like Matt Bloom and William Regal, aspiring wrestlers want to go to the WWE Performance Center.
1 AJ Styles is the WWE World Champion
For someone who hasn’t been watching WWE for the last five to 10 years, this sort of news could come as a shock, particularly for someone who last watched during the Attitude Era. Professional wrestling was a lot different during the end of the Monday Night War in 2001. Styles was in WCW in the tag team called Air Raid for a very short amount of time. He was in dark matches in WWE for an even briefer time in 2002.
Since then, Styles has been one of the biggest names of professional wrestling outside of the WWE. Most notably, he spent more than a decade as the top guy in TNA Wrestling before he decided to leave and go to Japan. Styles is an older veteran, but the WWE felt he could help boost their product. The end result is someone who has gotten over with the crowd to become the WWE World Champion. No one would have thought that was possible 15 years ago during the final days of the Attitude Era.