It's a New Era, Yes It Is?

If you’ve tuned into WWE since Wrestlemania, you might have noticed that there is a lot of talk of a “New Era”. New fans might wonder what the previous eras in the company’s history have been, and whether we can say that current WWE represents a significant departure from its pre-Wrestlemania form. I hope I can provide at least a partial answer to the How2Wrestling universe, and in doing so maybe fuel a healthy scepticism regarding whether we are indeed in a New Era.

It was so much easier to identify eras back when Vince McMahon Sr. was in charge and the WWE was called the WWWF.

I appreciate that everyone has their own ideas about what facets defined recent eras of WWF/WWE and when exactly they stop and start. They may be different to mine, and that’s to be expected. It was so much easier to identify eras back when Vince McMahon Sr. was in charge and the WWE was called the WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation). In terms of what wrestling companies do with their world title, you can identify two main types of booking: heel territories and face territories. If you look at the list of NWA world champions in the mid- to late-80s, the pattern was that Ric Flair, back when he was the top bad guy in America rather than a lecherous old man wanted in multiple states for outstanding child support, would be champion most of the time. He’d lose it to a fan favourite with momentum for a little while, then win it back to start the process again. It was the belief in the NWA that the babyface chasing the heel was what drew the crowds, not the face seeing off all comers. This has been how WWE has worked recently for the most part, though it’ll be interesting to see for how long the new-anointed ‘The Guy’ Roman Reigns is champion as a (alleged) face.

However, the old WWWF was a face territory. This meant that the top face was champion, almost all the time. Bruno Sammartino (with whom you may be familiar from the last few WWE Hall of Fame ceremonies) had an eight-year reign, then it was decided that Pedro Morales would be The Guy. So Bruno transitioned the belt to a heel for three weeks, and Morales had it thereafter for a thousand days. Then Vince Sr. decided to make Bruno his top face again, Morales lost to another heel, and just over a week later it was time for 1,237 days of Bruno (the Sacha Baron Cohen/Zooey Deschanel rom-com nobody wants to see). This all seems ridiculous now, but that’s how business was done in the McMahon regime at the time. If you’re one of the significant number of fans who doesn’t care for Reigns’ push, be glad they don’t still do things like that nowadays, otherwise we’d all be strapping ourselves in for about a decade-long title reign, suffering Roman’s succotash as he holds the WWE World Heavyweight Championship aloft and endlessly repeats that “I’m not a bad guy; I’m not a good guy” line that got old the second time he said it.

The last wrestler to have a long, multi-year reign with the WWF Championship (as it was then) was one Hulk Hogan, armed with his 24-inch pythons and his intimate knowledge of when it’s a work when you work a work and work yourself into a shoot. As with Bruno and Pedro, the top face defined the era, which is now known as Hulkamania. It wasn’t even as if the seeds of Hogan’s ascent were planted long before he won the belt, so the fans could get behind him organically like they did with John Cena, or like they were meant to with Reigns. Vince McMahon (Jr.) signed Hogan from the AWA, turned him face and within a month he was champion, with the full might of the WWF marketing machine behind him. Hogan did a great job of getting crowds through the doors, PPV buys, talkshow appearances, crap movie tie-ins: you name it. He headed a genuine global pop culture phenomenon. Then after nine years of dropping legs and keeping his latent racism to himself, he left the WWF for WCW. So long Hulkamania: 1984-1993.

Not only did Hogan sod off, but so did a lot of other WWF talent, including Macho Man Randy Savage, and quite a lot of the big, scary heels with whom the Hulkster had feuded under Vince. WCW was now the home of Hulkamania, redoing old WWF rivalries and angles as if the 80s never ended, brother. Vince felt that he needed to recapture the momentum, and started using new branding: “The New Generation”.

After nine years of dropping legs and keeping his latent racism to himself, he left the WWF for WCW. So long Hulkamania.

The idea was to emphasise that WWF was the home of young, athletic talent like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, rather than the old-timers who followed Hogan down south. The New Generation wasn’t too good for business, marred as it was by uninteresting storylines, largely awful wrestling, and gimmicks that were cartoonish even by WWF standards (including a wrestling garbage man, a wrestling clown, a wrestling monk and a tag team of hog farmers). Vince decided a change was in order, and thence came the Attitude Era. You might have heard of it. I think they mention it on Raw sometimes, and occasionally wheel out stars from that era to put over the new talent in a manner that doesn’t make them seem like impotent jackasses in any way.

As I’ve said, it can be tricky to define start dates for eras. There are many different ideas about when the Attitude Era began. Was it when Stone Cold, the face of the Attitude Era, won his first WWF Championship at Wrestlemania 14? Was it a few months earlier, when Vince McMahon established himself as a heel by (kayfabe and shoot) screwing Bret Hart out of the title and sent him packing to WCW, in shenanigans so complex that I couldn’t do justice to them in this short piece, or possibly even if I had 100,000 words to play with. Or was it a few months earlier than that, when Triple H and Shawn Michaels formed D-Generation X and started making edgy jokes about their genitals and those of others? For my money, it was when Vince took the drastic step of appearing out of character on Raw and flat-out telling the audience that the product’s direction was going to change, in a promo known as “The Cure for the Common Show”:

"We in the WWF, think that you, the audience, are quite frankly tired of having your intelligence insulted. We also think that you’re tired of the same old simplistic theory of “Good Guys vs. Bad Guys”. Surely the era of “The super-hero urges you to say your prayers and take your vitamins” is definitely passé. Therefore, we’ve embarked on a far more innovative and contemporary creative campaign that is far more invigorating and extemporaneous than ever before."

I’m sure you’re enjoying the irony of Vince McMahon telling his audience that he respects their intelligence. But the intent was clear. In the coming years, the WWF ramped up the blood, sleaze, sex and violence in a way that struck a chord with young male viewers who loved rude, boisterous ‘Crash TV’ like Jerry Springer and South Park, sent TV ratings through the roof, and eventually put Hogan’s WCW out of business.

Not since the Attitude Era has the WWE been so explicit in telling its viewers that the company as a whole is entering a New Era. But is there going to be a big change? A look at past eras suggests that it’s unlikely. The philosopher Michel Foucault argued that we should treat history not as archaeology but as genealogy; that we shouldn’t merely uncover discrete historical events and eras, but trace conjunction and disjunction, the ways ostensibly separate epochs actually bleed into each other. We can see this happening with regard to some of the eras I’ve mentioned already. The New Generation Era was trumpeted as a different direction, but this was true mostly in terms of personnel. The cartoony gimmicks weren’t too far removed from what Vince offered during the Hulkamania Era, and neither was the presentation or the quality of the wrestling. And while the Attitude Era most certainly was a sharp divergence from the New Generation, even after the universally recognised end of the Attitude Era (Stone Cold’s heel turn and alliance with his sworn enemy Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania 17), the WWF’s product continued in much the same vein. The same shock tactics, the same type of booking, the same awful, sexualised treatment of women; only this time it was to much lower viewing figures. Like I say, defining eras is tricky.

I’ve never heard of a corporately-mandated revolution in real life, put it that way.

One example from more recent memory is the Divas Revolution of last year. I tend to think of it as “the so-called Divas Revolution”, because I don’t believe it delivered what it promised. Just as Voltaire referred to the Holy Roman Empire as “not Holy, not Roman, and not an Empire”, the Divas Revolution was revolutionary in name only. Its introduction was all wrong. Rather than the performers showing agency – which I would have said was critical if you were trying to bring in a new era where women were taken seriously as wrestlers in the ring and in storyline – you had Stephanie McMahon belittling the entire division, introduce three NXT callups and place them into fairly arbitrary teams.

I’ve never heard of a corporately-mandated revolution in real life, put it that way. The team element exacerbated the problem, as the bookers seemed to think that having the teams feud with each other would, in itself, interest the fans in watching longer women’s matches, whereas what was needed were storylines and character development with some thought behind it. Faces and heels were poorly defined; another facet of the old women’s division, along with Jerry Lawler and Booker T’s profoundly unhelpful and sexist “all women secretly hate each other” comments on commentary. Things have picked up now. We have proper storylines, faces and heels, and a title belt that doesn’t look like something you’d find in a kid’s party bag. But still we have annoyances like Ric Flair being the deciding factor in the match to crown the first owner of the brand new belt, and this month’s Payback PPV, where an enjoyable title match between Charlotte and Natalya ended in a rehash of Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels from 19-bloody-97. It’s clear that despite all their talk of newly respecting women’s wrestling, and the great work they’ve done with the women’s division in NXT, WWE still don’t trust women’s wrestling to get over on the main roster without presenting it in relation to men’s wrestling. If this is a revolution in women’s wrestling, it’s still in a rather embryonic form.

So to conclude, is WWE in a New Era? There are a few promising signs. The last few Raws have been good, exciting new talent like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, AJ Styles and Cesaro are being given chances to shine and taking them, and Payback was a far better show than Wrestlemania, women’s match excluded. But I’m getting a sinking feeling following Payback that Shane McMahon’s on-screen declaration of a New Era is more of a plot device in the seemingly never-ending McMahon family psychodrama than a sea-change in the product. Declaring a New Era hasn’t fixed the repetitive 50-50 booking, the shoddy camera work, the overly scripted promos, the terrible commentary or Raw’s interminable length, and it would be naïve to suppose it will. Until that happens, we must inevitably see WWE’s present as we do its past: in terms of genealogy and continuity, rather than disjunction and genuine revolution.