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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

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Life In The Attitude Era Part 4: The Evolution

By @GTAPeel

Last time round, we discussed four men who were already legends, but who became icons of the industry thanks to the Attitude Era.

This time, we're going to look at why some stars broke through and some didn't, along with examples of those who did - both in WCW and the WWF.

You have to remember that during the mid-1990's, WCW had raided and plundered WWF for their experienced, main-event talent. Men like racist Hogan, Randy Savage, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and the late Roddy Piper (among others) all left the WWF for the bigger contracts and more money that WCW could offer. The one thing that WCW didn't have was a man at the top to make all the decisions and filter out all of the bullshit. It may have been a richer - and more expensive - ship to jump to, but it was a ship without a captain my friends.

With guaranteed downsides and contracts aplenty, as well as creative control for certain guys, there was only one way WCW was going to go. Jim Herd, Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair and Eric Bischoff all took turns at the wheel, but in the end, the good ship WCW sank like the Titanic.

People were drawn in to WCW because they had the names. Flair, Sting, Hall, Nash and Anderson were all guys that wrestling fans knew and recognised as top-tier talents, so it was easy to get them to change the channel and watch the show.

On paper, they had the best roster. Behind the scenes, they had terrific wrestling minds like Dusty Rhodes and Jim Ross who should have been allowed to shape the future of the company. Instead, it was fucked into the ground because of two words - creative control.

When you have past their best but still marketable stars like Hogan, Hall and Nash, they're obviously going to politick their way to get to - and stay - at the top, and stifle younger, up-and-coming talent. It's no surprise that the more Hogan, Hall, Nash, Flair and others stayed at the top, the more their younger stars with more to offer eventually left the company.

Hogan and his cronies may have monopolised the main-event, but they weren't having the best matches. Unsurprisingly, it was credible workers like Guerrero, Mysterio, Malenko, Jericho and others who were having outstanding pro-wrestling matches. With the crowd ooh'ing and aah'ing at the near-falls, false finishes and brilliant ring psychology, it became clear to everyone that no matter how good these matches were, the guys having them would never amount to anything. Certainly not in WCW.

Eventually, those guys got pissed off at their lack of opportunities and ended up leaving - they all jumped to WWF much like Steve Austin and Brian Pillman did before them.

So where did the fresh faces in WCW come from? Well, other than guys who had been established mid-carders until then (like Booker T and DDP), there was only one fresh face that broke through. One "homegrown" talent that WCW ever produced - Bill Goldberg.

Cynics would say the bald-headed, goatee-sporting ass-kicker was a rip-off of someone that was riding the crest of a wave up in New York. There were similarities, but that's all they were. He wasn't a rip-off. He was entirely different to anything else in WCW.

He didn't cut long-winded, boring-ass promos. His matches weren't technical masterpieces. He came, kicked a severe amount of ass, and left. There was no fucking about. It was simple. And it worked. TREMENDOUSLY well. Goldberg was a fucking animal. Everything about him - the hype, the video package, his move set, his entrance, his look, everything was as close to perfection that WCW ever created.

He looked unbeatable. And he was. Until the red and yellow racist and his hangers-on became involved. In one moment, they undid all the great work WCW had done building Goldberg to become their guy. The new face of their company. When Goldberg's undefeated streak ended at the hands of Kevin Nash, so did his momentum. It was totally and utterly meaningless. Everything they'd spent years building came crashing down. And it hurt inside. Everyone except Hogan, Hall and Nash. What a set of dicks.

Just a week later came the Fingerpoke of Doom. The single most ridiculous thing that we've ever seen in wrestling (apart from Jeff Hardy completely off his face on drugs at 2011's Victory Road). This was the same night that WWF showed an episode of Raw that they'd taped the week before - the same episode that saw Mick Foley win the WWF Title.

It's no surprise that the Fingerpoke of Doom signalled the end of WCW as any sort of credible alternative to WWF. They never recovered from it and it's all thanks to Hogan, Hall, Nash and Tony Schiavone.

WCW never recovered from it because while they were relying on men that were past their peak, paranoid and worried for their spots, the fact they'd left meant that WWF had to rely on younger stars. They had to rely on smaller guys, who others would disrespectfully call "vanilla midgets".

Instead of seeing men like Hogan, Hall and Nash stinking up the joint, we got great matches from men like Bret and Owen Hart, as well as Shawn Michaels. They were eventually complemented by other established workers like Mick Foley, Steve Austin, Vader and Brian Pillman, not forgetting other well-crafted supporting characters like Undertaker and the very-underrated Goldust.

Steve Austin might never have got his chance if Hall and Nash hadn't have left, or if HHH hadn't have ended up in the doghouse that year. H was supposed to win the 1996 King of the Ring. But when the infamous curtain call happened, Austin was the right man, in the right place at the right time. Jake Roberts' sobriety story and the Bible-based promo he cut before the final gave Austin the perfect opportunity to reach for that glass ceiling. And we all know what happened from there.

Until then, nobody thought he could be anything other than a good mechanic. Austin's been honest enough himself to say that's what Vince McMahon more or less said to him upon signing with the company. WWF never had any intentions for Austin to be "the guy". But... they were smart enough then to push him to the moon when they realised the potential of what they had on their hands.

His rise to the top was meteoric. People loved him. He was a no-nonsense, "I don't give a shit what you think", type of performer. The greatest sports-entertainer of all-time. His record, and the money he drew, speaks for itself. During that 5-7 year run, nobody made more $$$ than Austin. He was untouchable. Yes he had his injuries that led to him changing his style, but the premise was the same. He went out and kicked ass. Raised hell. And the crowd reactions to him were insane.

The polar opposite actually to someone who went on to become Austin's greatest rival. The chemistry he had with The Rock was untouchable. It was electrifying. You could tell by watching them that there was something special between them - even when they were feuding over the Intercontinental Championship back in 1997.

Rock had to overcome a hell of a lot before he even got to that stage though. When he debuted, people weren't really interested in the blue chipper. They resented him. Remember Die Rocky Die? A bit harsh wasn't it?! Like Austin, Rock worked his ass off to earn the respect and adulation of the fans. Yes, fans. Not the "WWE Universe". Fans. That's what we are, you patronising dicks.

Rock was a brilliant heel. A smarmy, good-looking, incredible athlete who wasn't shy in telling us how good he was. Crowning himself "the People's Champion" was a smart touch. He could draw immense heat and putting him with established guys like Ron Simmons and the Godfather helped him to look even better.

It might not have seemed like it at the time, but the WWF did the right thing by sticking with Rock and keeping him as "a bad guy".His work with the Nation against DX was tremendous, then pairing him briefly with Austin (to test the waters for a later main-event program) was genius. Rock excelled as that dick heel. He was brilliant at it.

And then, just when the fans seemed to want to cheer Rock, they executed the perfect double turn with him and Mick Foley at one of my favourite PPVs of the entire Attitude Era - 1998s Survivor Series. It looked like WWF were going with Mankind - who had adopted Mr McMahon as his "father" - to crown a new champion, they switched it. They fooled all of us and it turned out that Rock was their guy after all. All you have to do is look back at the reaction after Rock won. People were MAJORLY pissed.

All it meant was that when the time was right for Rock to turn, it meant so much more. People were DESPERATE for Rock to be a babyface. They wanted to cheer him. He had it all. Charisma, mic skills and most importantly, his selling was spectacular - if a little over the top at times. The key thing for a babyface is that you have to BELIEVE that they're in peril. In danger. And with Rock, you ALWAYS believed that. His catchphrases are known all across the world, even to this day, which shows the mass appeal he truly had.

WWF were lucky to have two guys like Rock and Austin during the Attitude Era. You never usually get one of those guys in a generation, never mind two and while we'll each have our favourites between them, you can't deny that their chemistry and rise to the top is something that we'll never see again. EVER.

It wasn't just the likes of the Harts, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin and the Rock who broke through though. We mentioned Mick Foley last time round. There's also HHH. Add Undertaker and Kane into the mix and whereas WCW was stale as hell, WWF almost had an embarrassment of riches to choose from when it came to main-event calibre talents.

There's another man who we'll finish up talking about this week. A man who doesn't get anywhere near enough credit for being a fantastic professional wrestler - Kurt Angle.

We'd all be lying if we said we knew that Angle would be a successful pro-wrestler. Yes, he had the amateur background. Yes, he's an Olympic gold medallist. Hell, he even won the medal with a broken freakin' neck in case you didn't know!!

I don't often stick my neck out on the line, but Kurt Angle is my favourite pro wrestler of all-time. Without question. The body of work he's built up during his career is up there with the all-time greats. He can do it all, and he doesn't get the credit he deserves for being an excellent all-round performer. His athleticism was never in question. His credentials spoke for themselves. But the question was whether he could transfer his outstanding amateur skills over to the pre-determined world of pro-wrestling.

Angle has always had an unbelievable confidence in his own ability. And his character played into that fantastically well. He was incredibly versatile and while that might have pigeon-holed some wrestlers, it never had that affect on Angle.

He could fit in anywhere on the card - opening match, middle of the card or main-event - in whatever kind of match WWF needed. Whether it was in a tag-team, multi-man or singles competition, Angle always excelled.

The Attitude Era might have been dying by the time Angle rose to the main-event, but he still played a part in it. If we're including the Invasion, which was the beginning of the end, all I'll say is this. Just LISTEN to the crowd reactions Angle gets when he's going up against the turncoat Steve Austin. They go fucking insane. He was as over then as anyone has ever been. And hardly anyone ever talks about it.

He could work with all kinds of opponents - bigger guys like Big Show, Undertaker and Kane, to "smaller" guys like Mysterio, Guerrero, Michaels and Jericho - and his matches were always stellar.

Kurt Angle "got" pro-wrestling. He still does. He understood that having amateur skills wasn't enough. He'd need to add other strings to his bow - ring psychology, mic skills and to project his charisma over to not only a live crowd, but a TV audience. Angle was a natural, and while the crowd might have hated him to begin with, they grew to respect him - much like Rock.

The WWF's hand may have been forced when it came to untested and untried stars coming through, but once they got there, WWF were loyal and stuck with them. Of course, that was a time when Vince McMahon was brave, not spineless like he is now. He had to be brave. He had no other choice. He couldn't play safe. He had to take chances.

On the other hand, WCW didn't take chances. They did play safe. They stuck with the tried and tested. And look what happened. WCW became a toxic, politicised environment with those past their best refusing to do the right thing for the business. In the end, all they did was help the WWF to improvise, overcome and adapt. They tapped in to what was happening in society. People were rebelling. They wanted "out with the old, in with the new". And because of the way WCW was run, they had nothing new. That's why they died.

You live and die by the sword. To be honest, WCW got what they deserved. It's just a shame that wrestling fans are the ones who paid the price.



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