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Friday, July 31, 2015

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Life In The Attitude Era: WWF and WCW Vital Pieces

Last time round, we talked about the impacts that the nWo and DX had on their respective companies and the business, and how they wouldn't have stayed on top on their own.

Other men had a significant part to play in both companies and that's what we'll be looking at here - 2 men from each company. Men who were already on their way to being legends, and who eventually became icons of the industry.

WCW: Ric Flair

The Nature Boy. The limousine-ridin', jet-flyin', kiss-stealin', wheelin'-dealin' son-of-a-gun. When you think of WCW, you immediately think of two men - and Flair's one of them. Already a legend in the business thanks to his work in the NWA through the mid-late 70's and in the 80's, Flair was at the forefront of the greatest faction/stable of all-time: The 4 Horsemen.

He was already a multi-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion by the time the Attitude Era kicked off, and bar a short, ill-fated spell up in New York, stayed loyal to WCW right up to the end. Flair had amazing matches with the likes of Ricky Steamboat, Sting, Barry Windham and others before he became the man to take the fight to the nWo.

As a WCW original (for want of a better phrase), Flair stood up to the invaders- Hall, Nash and a man who's currently been wiped from wrestling history for being a complete and utter, absolute, self-confessed MASSIVE racist, Hulk Hogan.

Flair in the babyface role was unusual. He loved playing, and being, the bad guy. But it was obvious that the fans would get behind him because for all intents and purposes, he was Mr. WCW. He was synonymous with the company and he played the role to perfection. He ended up being betrayed by the late Curt Hennig at 1997's Fall Brawl, sending both men on a collision course for the following few months. Even given their ages at the time, Flair and Hennig always had chemistry and their matches were what we'd all come to expect from them - masterclasses.

Flair's main feud as the Attitude Era went on revolved around one man - Eric Bischoff. Yes. Flair feuded with Eric Bischoff for the Presidency of WCW. Eventually, Flair won and became "the man" once again. It wasn't long before Naitch got up to his old tricks though, and he turned heel once again, siding with the bad guys much to the annoyance of the fans. But seriously, what else did they expect - this is Naitch we're talking about!!!

Flair became WCW Champion again in 2000 and was involved in the last match ever seen on Nitro against the man who he'd had countless outstanding bouts with - Sting. It was a fitting end for their rivalry to essentially book end Nitro's run on TV.

WCW: Sting

The man called Sting...he's the man called Sting. Another man who became the face of WCW.

He was the first man I remember seeing on WCW as a 9 year old. He had the spiky blond hair and face paint, with the trademark ring gear. He went toe-to-toe with Vader. I LOVED those matches. Fucking loved them. Vader was SO fantastic back in the early 90s. A big, no-nonsense bad ass with quality music who barely ever cut promos (from what I remember). He was everything a wrestling heel should be - a giant who loved nothing more than kicking the crap out of people. He was immense in every sense of the word.

Much like Flair, Sting had wrestled in the NWA territories before becoming the franchise of WCW. Unlike Flair though, Sting was able to change his character up and evolve, keeping his character fresh while still maintaining the same core values that had made him such a popular figure with the fans.

The everlasting memory of Sting in WCW is that year he went without saying a single word, building towards his eventual match with the red-and-yellow racist. Sting's appearances, without saying a word, were enough to draw fans and viewers in to watch as he continued to appear towards the end of the main-events on Nitro, causing distractions or interfering in matches to strengthen WCW's position over WWF.

Sting's time with WCW will be remembered for his ability to change, and for his feuds with the nWo and Ric Flair. They were the driving factors in WCW's ultimately short-lived success and run as the number 1 promotion in the world. Given how huge of a star he was, it was amazing that until this year, Sting had never appeared for WWF/E. Arguably WCW's biggest name, it seemed strange that WWF/E didn't move heaven and earth to make Sting the star attraction of the Invasion storyline. If anyone epitomised the WCW spirit, it was the Stinger.

He stayed loyal to WCW even after the company died, and that tells you a lot about the character of the man. We've already touched on his last match for the company, but it was the only way for WCW to slip out of our consciousness before WWF/E wrote their own version of history. It couldn't have ended any better with the image of Flair and Stinger embracing as Nitro (and WCW) went off air for the last time.

WWF: The Undertaker

The Deadman. The Phenom. The Demon of Death Valley. Already a legend, this man became an icon during the Attitude Era.

It's amazing how similar his story is to Sting's. Two men with well-defined characters, but who were able to evolve, change, adapt and add new things to their character to keep them atop the wrestling world.

Undertaker was never really presented as the biggest star in the WWF. When he debuted, there was Savage, Hogan and Warrior. When they left, Ramon, Diesel, Michaels and Hart got their shot instead of the big man. Despite that, his very presence was - and still is - awe-inspiring. The way he carries himself, the sheer size of him alone, and the athletic things he can do (that he really shouldn't be able to do) made Taker a must-see attraction.

He'd always been a man of few words, but as the Attitude Era went on, we got to hear more from him because Paul Bearer was no longer aligned from him. To begin with, his words were short, but sweet. We didn't get 15-minute long monologues, just promos that got to the point and usually ended with him uttering his immortal line "Rest...In...Peace".

Taker's finest rivalries came against 2 men - Kane and Mankind.

To this day, I still maintain that WWF/E hasn't had a more perfectly-crafted, well-thought out, storyline than Taker vs Kane. That's almost 20 years ago now. And it's scary to think that.

Kane's debut at Hell in a Cell really ignited (pun intended) this new, fresh rivalry to heights we've never seen before, or since. Paul Bearer had hinted at a family secret: "Kane's alive Undertaker!" for weeks before, but from Hell in a Cell the story ran right through to WrestleMania 14. Kane always seemed to have the edge on his "brother", who was reluctant to strike him. Kane would go on to "set the Undertaker on fire" at the 1998 Royal Rumble, before the Deadman conveniently returned at that year's showpiece PPV. Kane dominated the match, but somehow, the Deadman came out on top. This was WWF/E at its best. Brilliant storyline, brilliant characters, great drama and perfect execution.

And then there's Mankind. Mick Foley. Taker's greatest opponent? Absolutely. From Boiler Room Brawls to THAT Hell in a Cell match, their rivalry took physical to a whole other level.

Their matches were brutal. Fugly even. But they were captivating. Two men who took everything the other could give, and more. It was fascinating. Both men exchanged victories over the other but once again, Taker came out on top. Decisively thanks to that Hell in a Cell encounter. It was magic whenever they were in a program, or the ring, together. The only thing missing from their feud was a big WrestleMania match. It's a shame we never got to see that at Mania, especially considering Taker's wrestled the Boss Man and Giant Gonzalez there, yet a Mankind match wasn't? Go figure...

Taker's character evolved and went through a sinister stage during the Ministry. At a time when factions like DX, The Nation and the Corporation, Taker had his own band of renegades under his control, dishing out his own perverse idea of justice. Remember when he crucified Steve Austin or when he kidnapped the virtuous Stephanie McMahon? Amazing, terrifying stuff showing another evil side to the Deadman's persona. Memorable for all the right reasons.

He might not have been presented as the biggest star alongside your Austin's, Rock's and HHH's, but Taker more than held his own with all those guys, and definitely cemented his legacy as the best big man of all-time.

WWF: Mankind (Mick Foley)

Mrs Foley's baby boy, you'd never have imagined the heights that Foley's career would have hit when he debuted as Mankind.

To put it bluntly, when you first saw him, you thought he was a complete weirdo. Go on. Admit it. If you don't, then you're a liar.

He rocked up with this leather mask, seemed to have an unbelievable tolerance for pain and would go through things that no normal human would just to kick the crap out of someone. But...at the same time, you couldn't take your eyes off him. He was spell-binding. His entrance and exit music were different, which is something we hadn't seen before, or since. He even walked to the ring differently, kind of shuffling sideways and always looking behind him. Then at the end, he rocked back and forth like a child, happy that he'd coloured something between the lines properly. In all honestly, it was a bit sinister.

Foley had a helping hand in shaping the careers of Kane, Undertaker, Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, The Rock, HHH and more. Seriously. Think about it. That's not just a throwaway comment.

Arguably Austin, Taker and Michaels were on the rise, but hadn't been physically tested like Foley tested them. Rock and HHH in particular were unproven, main-event commodities until they stepped in there with Foley. They talked the talk, but we discovered they could walk the walk too as Foley brought an unbelievable level of viciousness out of both men. Consequently, both men went on to become among the best we've seen in recent memory. Would they have got there without the Foley test? Doubtful.

You could argue that Foley himself is responsible for the WWF/E existing today. Without Tony Schiavone spoiling his title win in January 1999, would all those hundreds of thousands of fans turned WCW off and switched over to RAW to see Foley win the title? Probably not. Those fans more or less ended up sticking with the WWF from that point, and we all know what happened then.

To underestimate the role that Foley played in the Attitude Era would be criminal.

He played just as big a part as anyone, perhaps even the biggest of all, and sometimes, he doesn't get the credit he deserves sometimes.

Listen to the pop when he wins the title for the first time. It's monstrous. And that was on a taped show. Imagine how loud it must have been in the arena. That building fucking exploded when Foley won. Everything was perfect. From Shamrock to Billy Gunn, from Austin to the McMahons, from Foley and Rock and especially from (and it pains me to say it) Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler. They perfectly captured the emotion of the situation for those of us watching at home - Cole for Foley and Lawler for the McMahon's. It's one of the greatest moments of all-time, never mind just the Attitude Era.

Foley paid a price for the risks he took though. He destroyed his body to create memories for us, and he's got to be in severe pain most days. Without him doing that, and having crafted a perfect wrestling character, the Attitude Era would have been a lot less memorable without him around to create some of the best action we've ever seen, or are ever likely to.

That'll wrap up this edition of Life in the Attitude Era. Next time round, we'll focus on those stars who made their breakthrough in the Attitude Era - for both sides. Keep your eyes on the ring.



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