The late-1990s is a hallowed era for the professional wrestling industry. With the rise of characters like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock (now DWAYNE JOHNSON, currently of the biggest action stars in the world), Goldberg and factions like D-Generation X and the nWo, wrestling saw a boom in popularity that even overshadowed the heights of HULKAMANIA in the 1980s.
Many who were fans of the era have clung to that time, wishing the WWE of today was more like the WWF of what was known as “The Attitude Era.” There was a feeling of lawlessness, of anarchy that had people tuning into MONDAY NIGHT RAW and WCW Monday Nitro week after week. The idea that anything could happen may be a catchphrase for WWE now, but 20-plus years ago, it was a way of life on Monday nights for wrestling fans.
And it’s not just wrestling fans who are laser-focused on the Attitude Era. Despite a sea change that has significantly tamed the product, sanitized it and made it friendlier for advertisers and other licensees, the specter of the Attitude Era is never far from the decisions made by WWE executives.
There is no greater example of this than the news reported by Sports Illustrated today, that former WCW Executive Vice President Eric Bischoff and former ECW owner/operator Paul Heyman have been named executive directors of SmackDown! and Monday Night Raw beginning this fall.
Bischoff and Heyman were Vince McMahon’s chief competition during the Monday Night Wars of 1995-2001. When WCW debuted Monday Nitro in September 1995, it inadvertently kicked off a golden age for professional wrestling, forcing the WWF to up its game, become more creative and rely on new superstars to lead them into the 21st Century. Without Bischoff forcing change by beating McMahon at his own game, the WWF would have likely continued to trot out guys like Duke “The Dumpster” Droese and “Make A Difference” Fatu. Steve Austin may have never gotten past being “The Ringmaster” and the Rock would always be “The Blue Chipper.”
What Bischoff did with WCW was nothing short of revolutionary. He opened up the industry to different types of wrestling, making deals with lucha libre stars from Mexico and Japanese wrestlers to introduce many wrestling fans to new styles. His greatest creation, the New World Order, made people sit up and take notice when Hulk Hogan, wrestling’s greatest hero, joined and became wrestling’s greatest villain.
Heyman, on the other hand, forced both McMahon and Bischoff to take notice and change the way they told stories and presented matches to fans. His Extreme Championship Wrestling, a small independent promotion based out of Philadelphia, gained national exposure with an edgy television program filled with a mix of insane violence, elaborate storylines and great wrestling provided by athletes from all around the world.
The little-known promotion quickly became the standard-bearer for the independent scene, with fans chanting E-C-Dub at WWF and WCW events and gaining enough of a following that they even managed to make it to the big stage of pay-per-view. Under Heyman’s vision and care, the small promotion that started nipping at the heels of the “Big Two” forced its way into making it the “Big Three.”
In the end, though, neither were able to survive the day-to-day demands of running a wrestling company. Both ECW and WCW went out of business in 2001 and both eventually went to work for Vince McMahon after he became the only game in town.
Heyman and Bischoff were great idea men, and they left indelible marks on the industry. And there is reason to believe that they still have the ability to create great content with WWE’s production tools and talent roster. Heyman has been rumored to be instrumental in one of the best angles of the last couple of years – the rise of Becky Lynch, which led to the first WRESTLEMANIA with a main event featuring all women.
But it is slightly concerning to see a publicly-traded company, one that just made a billion-dollar deal to air SmackDown! of Fox, would look to the past for help instead of focusing on the strengths of the present and building towards the future. The announcement of Heyman’s and Bischoff’s new jobs comes on the heels of the return to the company of Bruce Prichard, a former WWE executive who was let go more than 10 years ago.
The world has changed dramatically since these three men have had the reins of a wrestling company. And as the world has changed, so has the landscape of professional wrestling. It’s shocking that over the last decade (or more), no one has managed to establish themselves as a voice for this generation, to gain the trust of Vince McMahon and manage creative change that can engage the audience. WWE has, for the most part since it went public, played it safe creatively. While this may have disappointed many fans aching for the days of bra and panties matches and hardcore violence, it has been wildly profitable for the McMahon family.
Are the two men who saw the companies they oversaw fold 18 years ago really what WWE needs as a shot in the arm? And does WWE really need a shot in the arm? Television ratings are down from the height of the Attitude Era, but television ratings are down across the board. Ratings are no longer the be-all, end-all that they were back then. And despite WWE’s current ratings, Fox agreed to give McMahon a lot of money to air JUST ONE of his shows on its network, in prime time.
Regardless of what naysayers may want to believe, WWE isn’t really in any danger of going out of business. I’m not sure if bringing in stalwarts of another time – which could be seen as pandering to a base of fans who will never be satisfied with the product again – is a good or even a necessary move.
I hope it works out for them. I like both Heyman and Bischoff and consider them to smart guys with a lot of ideas. But I’m afraid that bringing them into the fold is a nod to the past without focusing on building toward the future. And if anything can bring a company down, it’s not having a plan to adapt to a new age.