Library student worker Brennan Kress has loved professional wrestling since he was just a little kid. In a new blog series, Brennan will explore wrestling history and discuss a book by Union professor Ted Kluck.
The Winning Strategy
The WWF (turned WWE in the early 2000’s due to a legal dispute with the World Wildlife Foundation) by 2002 had won the Monday Night War. Vince McMahon actually bought the rights of WCW from Ted Turner. And he had won the war through several simple tactics. First, he was constantly bringing in new young talent, not old stars, and Vince could develop new talent into stars, something Eric and Russo could not do.
Vince kept a team mentality throughout his roster. The guys on the undercard and midcard knew that their role was just as important as the main eventers. Everyone on the roster, to both themselves and the fans, thought that they could be in the main event. There were no glass ceilings placed for most stars, unlike WCW where the main event was established and no one else could enter it.
Impressively, Vince McMahon did not panic at the supersonic rise of WCW. He held true to his roots, adapted his stories to fit the new generation, and came out on top. Thus the WWE had finally established itself as the single largest wrestling promotion in the world. Still to this day, though there are countless other wrestling promotions, WWE is the most, and many times only, recognized force in wrestling. They survived the war.
Aftermath and the Ruthless Aggression Era (2002-2008)
In the wake of the Monday Night War, WWE made two huge moves as they started their “Ruthless Aggression Era” in 2002. WWE bought WCW and ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling was a smaller niche wrestling company based out of Philadelphia that was renowned for its over-the-top violent matches). With these purchases, WWE found themselves with a multitude of talent. There were so many superstars that one show (Raw) wasn’t enough to give the talent space to work. So WWE decided to make Smackdown (a weekly show used during the Monday Night War to add more TV time to WWE) a major show with an exclusive roster and championships. They also made pay per views Raw or Smackdown exclusive and the two shows only came together for “The Big 4” pay per views (which were Summerslam, Survivor Series, The Royal Rumble, and Wrestlemania). This era was made famous by new major stars that appeared on Smackdown: most notably, Brock Lesnar.
Brock Lesnar was a huge collegiate wrestler but found greater success in the WWE. After only five months on the main roster, Brock Lesnar won the WWE Championship and became the youngest man to do so up until that point at the age of 25. After Wrestlemania 20 in 2004, Lesnar left the WWE and became a football player for the Minnesota Vikings, though he was cut before the beginning of the 2004 season. From there he went to Japan to wrestle and then became an MMA fighter. He would eventually become the first man in history to win both the WWE and the UFC Heavyweight Championship. He would return to the WWE in 2012. Most recently, Brock Lesnar has had the longest championship reign of the modern era of wrestling, as he held the Universal Championship for 504 days from April 2, 2017 to August 19, 2018.
Two other famous WWE superstars made their debuts in these years. John Cena and Randy Orton began to make a name for themselves throughout the Ruthless Aggression Era. These two also paved the way for the next era of professional wrestling.
The Ruthless Aggression Era marks a post-war time for WWE. They never again had the ratings success that they had captured during the Monday Night War, and have never had it since, but the WWE did establish itself as the most dominate wrestling promotion in history. Still, this era would lead to some much needed change in how WWE treated its wrestlers. New rules needed to be put in place.
Firstly, the practice of blading was stopped. Blading is a practice where a wrestler keeps a small, thin razor in their shorts or outfit during a match. At some point after taking a big hit, the wrestler, away from the camera and hiding from the crowd, would run the razor across their forehead. This would cause them to bleed without much pain and was used for effect in matches. However, after several horrible cases of wrestlers blading far too deep, Vince McMahon banned blading as a practice in WWE. In the PG Era, blood has almost been completely excluded from matches, except in the case of a real accident. Between that time, small blood packs were used instead of blading.
Tragedy also struck WWE during this time. The death of one of their best wrestlers, Eddie Guerrero, left people wondering about wrestling safety. Then in 2005 Chris Benoit committed a terrible murder-suicide. Though no cause for the incident was ever truly established, Chris Benoit’s brain showed signs of serious damage, probably due to the many concussions he had received in wrestling. So, to further protect his wrestlers, Vince McMahon banned many moves that were known to be high risk for causing concussions. These included all piledrivers (save Undertaker’s safer Tombstone Piledriver) and all chair hits to the head.
These tragedies that brought WWE into a new generation eventually lead to the USA Network asking WWE to change its content to a more stricter and family-friendly position. So in July of 2008, WWE switched to officially become a TV-PG show.
The PG Era (2008-2013)
The PG Era was marked by a new group of WWE superstars. Wrestlers who had become legends began to retire, including Shawn Michaels, who lost his last match to the Undertaker at Wrestlemania 26. New stars began to make a name for themselves. The stars with the most recognition in this era were CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. In the summer of 2011, during a rivalry with John Cena, CM Punk would deliver his famed “pipebomb promo.” This was a shoot promo, which means it wasn’t scripted like all other on-mic talks. CM Punk began to rant about how he felt genuinely mistreated by the WWE. At this time in kayfabe (kayfabe describes the character or “fake” part of wrestling. It’s the story being told in the ring, and not the reflection of the real-life events) CM Punk’s contract was expiring and he was still the WWE Champion, a title he would later hold for over 400 days, making him the longest reigning WWE Champion in over 25 years. In story, he was going to face John Cena for the WWE Championship, and if he won, he would leave the WWE with their title still in his grasp. In his shoot promo, Punk railed on WWE stars of the past who he thought were famous only because they were friends with the boss. After several minutes of ranting, CM Punk’s microphone was finally turned off. This talk defined the PG Era and would eventually take WWE into the next Era of wrestling.
CM Punk would defeat John Cena for the WWE Championship at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view. This match is the best wrestling match in the modern history of WWE, earning a 5 Star rating from the critically acclaimed Wrestling Observer magazine. Still to this day, less than ten WWE matches have been rated 5 stars. CM Punk’s real life feud with the WWE would come to a head in early 2014, after the Royal Rumble, when he finally cut ties with the WWE.
In the same way CM Punk tried to take hold of the spotlight, another young talent would use this era to gain traction in making himself a star. Daniel Bryan debuted along with a group of other young stars called The Nexus. After leaving The Nexus, Bryan tried to become a singles star. He won the World Heavyweight Championship but was booked to lose the belt in 18 seconds (which he did against Sheamus). Bryan, however, gained a huge following with fans. He beat John Cena for the WWE Championship in August of 2013, though his title reign was fairly short lived. WWE management thought that Bryan was not fit to be in the main event, but fan support soon forced their hand. At the 2014 Royal Rumble, Daniel Bryan was not even in the 30-man Royal Rumble match (the winner of the Royal Rumble gets a championship match at Wrestlemania). Fans were outraged and their push for Bryan soon forced WWE’s management’s hand.
The Reality Era (2014-2016)
Daniel Bryan’s popularity would coin the name of this short era of wrestling. WWE management realized like never before how fan involvement, via the internet, had greatly changed wrestling. Daniel Bryan, because of his endlessly supportive fans, was booked into the main event of Wrestlemania 30, where he won the WWE Championship in New Orleans. A person that WWE would not have chosen to be in their main event, was, and this empowered fans. Fans felt like they truly had a say in wrestling that could change the course of WWE stories, though nothing like this has happened since.
In 2014 WWE released their own streaming service called the WWE Network, and they started a talent development center called WWE Performance Center in Orlando. Using young talent that trained at the Performance Center, WWE started a weekly show on the Network called NXT that showcased developing talent. NXT was, and still is, broadcasted from Full Sail University.
The Reality Era would be capped off at Wrestlemania 32, which would boast the largest attendance record in Wrestlemania history with over 100,000 spectators. Roman Reigns, in the main event, defeated Triple H for the WWE Championship at that event.
The Women’s Revolution and the “New” Era (2016-present)
Wrestlemania 32 would mark the end of the Reality Era and the beginning of the New Era. The New Era’s primary difference was found in the Women’s Division of WWE. Up until this time, women’s wrestling in WWE was wrongly viewed as lesser than male competition, and the women were treated unprofessionally. This would change in 2016 as several new women wrestlers changed the face of the Women’s Division in WWE. At the head of this revolution was Charlotte Flair, who is the daughter of WWE Hall of Famer, The Nature Boy, Ric Flair. In 2016, Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks would be the first women to compete in a well-known match and would also be the first women to main event a WWE pay-per-view. The women’s revolution continues to this day as the first ever women’s only pay-per-view is set for October 28, 2018, called WWE Evolution.
Other major accomplishments of the New Era include another WWE brand split between Raw and Smackdown (which had been reunited in the PG Era), and the debut of the Universal Championship, which was won by Finn Balor. Brock Lesnar would return to win the Universal Championship and hold it for 504 days. The tag team, The New Day, would hold the WWE Tag Team Championships for the longest in history at 434 days.
Perhaps the New Era will start a second Golden Age of wrestling. As wrestling grows in popularity around the world, perhaps WWE will continue to conquer, or maybe some other promotion could come along to challenge the WWE. As a wrestling fan, I can only tune in to find out!
*written by Brennan Kress
**stay tuned for Brennan’s thoughts on Headlocks and Dropkicks by Ted Kluck