Saturday, December 17, 2011

How The Attitude Era Hurt The WWE

I was roughly four years old when I began to watch wrestling in the mid-80s, and what captured my attention was the characters that would fill my television screen. Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper, Jimmy Snuka, Junkyard Dog, King Kong Bundy, The Rockers, Legion of Doom, Ultimate Warrior, and so on, were some of the characters that made wrestling appointment television for me every Saturday night and Sunday morning.  I remember getting so excited when I heard the Ultimate Warrior's theme song that I would jump up and beat my chest like he did until it hurt. All I knew about the Ultimate Warrior was that he was....a ultimate warrior. I didn't know that his real name was Jim Hellwig or that he wasn't actually from Parts Unknown. He was just a badass who ran to the ring and smashed fools.

Look at him go.  How could you not want to gorilla press slam one of your siblings after that? That guy was the Ultimate Warrior. I believed it, the crowd at the arena believed, and most of all, he seemed to believe it. We believed he was some mysterious dude who trained at Parts Unknown to dominate inside the squared circle.  Even guys like Kamala made us believe they were who they said, or their trusty controller/manager said, they were. It didn't hurt that those guys LIVED their gimmicks. I mean when they stepped outside their houses and the locker room they weren't James Hellwig or James Harris, they were the Ultimate Warrior and Kamala the Ugandan Giant.

Mr. Perfect is another example of a guy who needed very little background to his character. Perfectly(no pun intended) set up by vignettes(shorts videos that introduce wrestlers for the uninitiated) we believed that Curt Hennig was just a awesome athlete who was just awesome at everything he did. Sure, some folks knew that he was the son of former pro wrestler Larry "The Axe" Hennig because Curt wrestled for other promotions that had TV deals. But to folks who only got to watch WWF he was who he said he was. Mr. Perfect. A guy who was so phenomenal at every sport he tried he HAD to try his hand at pro wrestling.

Great stuff, huh? Well, towards the mid-90s people grew tired of these type of characters after things like Hacksaw Jim Duggan and his supposed bitter rival The Iron Sheik were busted in a traffic stop while traveling together, reporter John Stossel got slapped by Dave Schultz for saying he thought wrestling was fake(for the record there is a difference between fake and pre-determined. Sure these guys try their best to not hurt whoever they are wrestling and pull punches but I refuse to believe that in any match guys are legit hurt by the moves they receiver..just not as hurt as the want us to believe. If you are skeptical, see why most of these guys can barely walk after they retire and why so many die so young.), and when their core audience, like myself, grew up wanting more realistic characters that we could relate to instead of guys who just seemed larger than life.

Enter The Attitude Era,

Ah, yes, we were tired of the old "good guy vs. bad guy" formula. We wanted bad ass anti-heroes like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Biker Undertaker, Mick Foley/Mankind/Cactus Jack/Dude Love(I just threw up a little), Degeneration X, The New Age Outlaws, Chris Jericho, and Doink. Not only did we want the badass anti-hero, we also wanted to see more chicks wearing next to nothing while doing their best to impersonate people who could wrestle. While fellas like myself wanted all that, the real reason Vince McMahon decided to get rid of the old formula and start pushing the envelope was because their main rival, WCW, started to kick their tails in the weekly ratings because it took WWE's old cash cow, Hulk Hogan, and turned him heel in a way that made even mainstream media outlets like ESPN mention it on television. So, instead of going the creative route, Vince went the lowest common denominator route and gave us all the stuff teenage boys like myself wanted. T&A, blood, cussing, guys walking out with regular names because this was REAL, we could relate to it!

We could relate to it alright, until those same teenagers grew up to be adults and started to have kids of their own. Then we're wanting to get the kids into wrestling but can't because you have wrestlers acting like they're having sex in a bed in the middle of the ring, and unless you were raised to think "Well, they gotta learn about it sometime!" you can't sit there and watch it with them. This is where Vince McMahon screwed the pooch. Sure doing that type of stuff helped him beat his biggest rival and make him insanely rich, but now  that the envelope has been pushed about as far as it can go the WWE is desperately trying to pull it back.

The problem with that is that while they are doing the less risque stunts, there are still guys running around with very little character development and, more importantly, very little character. You have guys like CM Punk, Zack Ryder, Daniel Bryan, Ted Dibiase, Sheamus, Mason Ryan, David Otunga, Sin Cara, and many others with no back story on who they are beyond "He's from Chicago and he's a straightedge punk..I guess" or "He's from Long Island and is a broski trying to get noticed!" and "He graduated form Harvard and married to Jennifer Hudson." and instead of relying on risque stunts to get them over they stuck doing and saying things that would have got them over with the crowd in the 80's but without the creativity and devotion to the characters that the performers in the 80's and early 90's had. Sure I am entertained to some extent by some of the guys I just listed, but they give me little to no reason to get as emotionally involved with their success or failures like the guys from the Rock and Wrestling era did. Sure, some will say that growing up and getting more intelligent(debatable) is the reason why I can't fully invest myself emotionally to storylines and wrestlers of today, but I have never thought of wrestling as a fake sport but rather a live dramaction movie where almost every problem is solved with a match at a pay per view.

The Attitude Era isn't the only one to blame. With the internet making everyone so accessible it is harder to invest in a fictional character you see every week when you can just log on to Twitter and basically conduct a Q&A with the person portraying the character, see their daily musings about travel, talk about playing video games against a guy he is in the middle of a feud with, and have no desire or intention to try to make you believe they are who they say they are on TV every week. While I'm sure some of you are asking yourself if I hold other actors from other TV shows to the same standard, I do not, but wrestling is a totally different beast than carefully crafted, taped episodes of normal television shows.

Wrestling is a show where you almost have to believe that the person portraying their character is EXACTLY like the character they portray every week on live television or else you just feel like "Oh here's this guy fake hitting this guy because he is mad for some reason.". There are a few guys who do this well, Dolph Ziggler(who has been around a while under different gimmicks), Cody Rhodes(Think American Psycho), Alberto Del Rio, Wade Barrett and Mark Henry, but they are still a far cry from making you believe they are Iraqi Sympathizers who turned their back on their country like Sgt. Slaughter did in the early 90's because the WWE is trying to have it's cake and eat it too with having Attitude Era storylines with almost no attitude and 80's and early 90's characters with little to no character development and character devotion from the guys who are portraying the characters.

I'd like to be able to say that I see signs of change in the current product so we can get the entertainment I know the WWE is capable of serving up, but with more and more Attitude Era stars showing up on a regular basis, probably to help a young locker room develop, I think the days of wrestling making us want to believe and get emotionally involved have retreated to Parts Unknown.

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