In the past 30 years we have seen such an incredible change in the WWE. If you were alive to witness it, or if you went through the archives, you’ll notice how unique and diverse each era has been, especially those eras of prosperity. With recent claims that WrestleMania 28 will become the most financially successful WrestleMania of all time, it seems that we are firmly entrenched in another upswing in WWE.
The two previous eras of major upswing in WWE were the “Rock N’ Wrestling” Era (roughly 1984-1991) and the “Attitude” Era (roughly 1998 – 2003). Depending on how old you are, you have fond memories of one era or the other (or both). Maybe some of you never watched during these eras and have only relived them through clips.
Jim Cornette once told me that professional wrestling operates on a seven-year cycle – what’s old becomes new again, what’s played out becomes cool again, including wrestling. Let’s compare these three eras and see what worked, what was similar and what was different.
ROCK N’ WRESTLING ERA
The era’s biggest stars were celebrities
There is no doubt that Hulk Hogan was the focal point of this era. He was the hero that vanquished multiple villains (this is a pattern that had been visible in the WWWF for years – long-tenured babyface champions such as Bob Backlund, Pedro Morales and Bruno Sammartino would be fed a steady stream of traveling heels into the WWWF territory). With the success of HulkaMania came other household names – Andre the Giant, Randy Savage, Junk Yard Dog, Ted DiBiase, Jake Roberts and countless others. The argument could be made that more names from this era can be recited among casual wrestling fans or non-observers than any other.
Improvisation was at its peak
The Rock N’ Wrestling era was built upon guys who honed their craft in the “territory” era, became stars around the world and landed in WWE. They didn’t receive, nor require, a full script from which to memorize their promos or vignettes. Only bullet points would suffice. Because of this, interaction felt more genuine and improvisational.
The highest-rated wrestling show in history
On February 5, 1988, Hulk Hogan faced Andre the Giant in their WrestleMania 3 rematch on NBC, which drew 33 million viewers and a 15.2 rating. It remains the highest-rated pro wrestling television show of all time.
Arguably the greatest in ring WWE performance of all time
At WrestleMania 3, everyone was in the building to see Hogan vs Andre. Everyone left talking about Savage vs. Steamboat. A match that stands the test of time and may have served as inspiration for several future wrestlers (Chris Jericho mentions in his first autobiography that he has the match memorized from start to finish). Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for many other matches in this era.
Most matches don’t stand the test of time
If you lived through this era and watched matches live, they likely excited you. Fast forward 15 years, and 80 percent of this era sadly becomes unwatchable. It’s far more entertaining to watch full events from the other two eras in question than this one. It is certainly a product of the WWE match style in that day (as there were great matches that hold up today in other organizations and countries), along with the emphasis on physical size vs. in-ring athleticism.
The death of the “Territories”
One consequence of Vince McMahon’s worldwide promotional expansion was the loss of the territory system. To give more context on my point above about improvisation, the territory system allowed wrestlers to hone their craft and make a living in multiple areas around North America and the world, giving them much more high-level experience in front of a live crowd. Today, Japan and Mexico are in the minority of wrestling “territories” -- you can pretty much put in an average-sized room the number of individuals in North America where pro wrestling is their only profession and they don’t work in WWE or TNA.
This era produced the biggest stars in WWE history
As big as HulkaMania was and as many household names that “Rock N’ Wrestling” produced, the two biggest names in the history of pro wrestling are “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock. Their worldwide popularity and merchandise sales were second to none – The Rock in particular was the first man to parlay his WWE popularity into becoming a successful movie star. The boom of the internet certainly helped with this, as more than ever people were able to learn more about their favorite superstars.
Bad is good, and hardcore is better