Remember the Attitude Era? What a magical time it was to tune in to the Monday Night Wars with our friends and family. Some of the biggest names in the wrestling history made their mark. Yet, that was over twenty years ago now, and WWE is still going back to a well which all but dried up long ago. Although, can you blame Vince McMahon for wanting to go back to the glory days? Back when he could lift with the best of them, and dance with the flamboyance of a butterfly?
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Fans like to make up names for periods of time in WWE. Attitude! Ruthless! Reality?! I don’t like the last one, because WWE has never been based on reality. Since this year’s WrestleMania, I am looking back and referring to the period of 2012 to 2022 as the nostalgia era. We could also call it the era of the lucrative part-timer… but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. You might have already guessed where I’m going, but for those who haven’t, I’m talking about WWE’s over reliance on nostalgia acts and part-time stars to bump numbers for its flagship shows. Ironically, this began at what they dubbed the “End Of An Era” at WrestleMania XXVIII in 2012. Yes, it has been that long and we’re all getting old.
By the way, none of this is being said to slate the talent. You’d be stupid not to accept a big fat load of cash to main event PPVs (PLE still sounds wrong). It’s more about showing how WWE has carried itself through this time with Vince McMahon’s vision. Also, we’ll be looking at shows which focused on the younger, full-time talent, although I’m only covering the top four (WrestleMania, Royal Rumble, SummerSlam, Survivor Series) and a few “special” events.
Once In A Lifetime
With a considerable dose of false advertising, WWE went to WrestleMania XXVIII with the main event of John Cena vs. The Rock. The People’s Champ hadn’t wrestled in years and everyone looked forward to it, but it left many fans scratching their heads… “Wait a minute! Shouldn’t CM Punk vs. Chris Jericho for the WWE Championship be the main event??” As we know, WWE never thought Punk was a big enough draw, so it got on the blower to The Rock and set up the Cena match a whole year in advance.
Boy, they lived up to the hype! It was fun to watch, although having The Rock go over a full-time superstar remains questionable (luckily it was Cena). However, the success of this event turned a switch on inside McMahon’s head. You can imagine him in the board meetings the next day yelling at his management team: “Look at the money! We should keep doing this trick!”
On the same show, The Undertaker, Triple H and Shawn Michaels stood on the stage. All three could have retired right there, and it would have been an iconic moment. Well, it was iconic, but it certainly wasn’t the “End of an Era“. As we know, none of them were ready to call it a day. WWE played off of nostalgia by saying these guys are old… this is it, you won’t see anything like this again. You saw something special today! No, we really didn’t. We saw a bunch of buzzwords thrown together to make it sound extraordinary. Had they all decided at that moment to retire? Then I’d fully accept the tag line. I can’t complain too hard though, because the storytelling in that Hell in a Cell match was on another level.
Road To WrestleMania 29
The Rock went back to Hollywood, and who walked through the door? Brock Lesnar! Which was a seriously unexpected pleasure. However, fans were expecting a lot more from Lesnar’s return. He worked only two matches, the first being a loss to John Cena (which was right, but it was hated because of who beat him), and the second coming at SummerSlam against Triple H.
Many fans weren’t going for Lesnar vs. Triple H, because they were both part-timers, and The Game had become an authority figure. I’d say 2009 was the last time you could say that Triple H was a full-time superstar, but I guess Lesnar needed a win over somebody the fans know? But yeah, many will argue WWE could have built someone up to face him, which would have benefitted someone in their prime.
Survivor Series 2012 is one of the few exceptions. CM Punk retained his WWE Championship against John Cena and Ryback in a triple threat, which was one of the biggest wins of his reign. He had gotten over and deserved this spotlight. Still, WWE felt like it had to get Mick Foley involved, so they had him form a Survivor Series team to face Dolph Ziggler’s team. He wasn’t the focus and his team lost, so it worked out, although Ziggler’s the only one left who still wrestles in WWE (his partners were Del Rio, Sandow, Otunga & Barrett).
Just to make it painfully obvious, WWE booked The Rock to face CM Punk at the Royal Rumble for the title. In typical fashion, he didn’t earn this, and his character just decided he deserved it. When John Cena won the Royal Rumble, the predictability was such that you could have placed a $1,000,000 bet with zero worry. The Rock pinned Punk after a People’s Elbow (seriously?), and what was originally a ‘Once In A Lifetime’ deal became ‘Greatness vs. Redemption’. I love The Rock. I grew up on him, but I didn’t want this. We’d already done Rock vs. Cena, and him ending Punk’s record reign was a slap in the face to all the work he had done.
Luckily, Punk got a consolation prize by facing The Undertaker, which obviously stole the show. Rock vs. Cena wasn’t really worth the repeat, and Cena had to get his win back. I was so seriously sick of WWE’s booking. Nostalgia is fun, but it shouldn’t make me feel sorry for the present day talent. You shouldn’t be able to waltz in and take a spot like that, but it’s justified because WM28 and 29 made a ton of money. Rock vs. Cena was the obvious draw, but they could have still done the match and had it lower down the card, just to get someone else over.
The Rock went on record to say that it was originally scheduled to be him against Cena & Punk in a triple threat, but when McMahon changed it, there wasn’t anything he could do. It’s been over ten years, and I still remember how disappointed I was with the main event. The Rock picked up an injury during the match, but even without this limiting his ability, it was just repeating what we saw the year before.
Not only that, but they had Triple H vs. Brock Lesnar, again, but this time in a No Holds Barred. Triple H got the win, otherwise he would have been forced to retire. Have I told you how much I love predictable booking?! So with Undertaker, Triple H, Brock Lesnar, and The Rock, that’s four guys we’re rarely seeing in action after the show. I hoped this might be a phase and WWE would build new stars soon. After all, it made sense from a business standpoint to go back to what worked, but they couldn’t carry it forever. Eventually, they had to build for the future. Was I right?
Road To WrestleMania XXX
This was a controversial time in WWE for a few reasons. At least, not at first. Management noticed how fans were reacting to Daniel Bryan, and they reacted by pushing him in the main event scene. Hallelujah! It must be a miracle. At SummerSlam, while CM Punk continued to lose when it matters against Brock Lesnar, Daniel Bryan challenged John Cena for the WWE Championship. He won! The world rejoiced. And then Triple H screwed him over and Randy Orton cashed in Money in the Bank. Fair enough, he will get another shot later, right? WWE couldn’t possibly screw this up. After Randy Orton defeated Big Show at Survivor Series in one of the most forgettable title matches ever, the fans looked forward to the Royal Rumble.
Around this time, Batista returned, and the fans welcomed him. It was cool. Let’s spice things up. WWE had moved Bryan back in to the mid-card, but let’s have faith. They will correct what went wrong at SummerSlam. WWE always listens to its fans and would never disappoint them. Batista was heavily predicted to win the Royal Rumble, and many online fans told WWE how stupid that would be. So when it comes down to it, the match happens, Rey Mysterio comes out at #30, and Daniel Bryan isn’t even in the match! Poor Rey, he got booed something fierce. It got worse when Batista, who had worked no matches since leaving over 3 years prior, eliminated Roman Reigns (who fans were cheering for!) and pointed up to the WrestleMania sign.
How can you get it so wrong? You don’t set someone up like that and not even think to put them in the Rumble match. It showed how blatantly out of touch, and how little WWE takes notice of its audience. The backlash was so mighty they had to nix the plans of Randy Orton vs. Batista and add Bryan to the mix. In a rare moment of the past ten years, albeit doing so after serious backlash, WWE got it completely right. The build and the payoff to WrestleMania XXX was exceptional. However, it was also dampened because McMahon had Brock Lesnar break The Undertaker’s undefeated streak. Yeah, let’s not go in to whether or not that was the right decision. The important thing is WWE made progress by making a new star with Daniel Bryan.
Road To WrestleMania 31
SummerSlam was confirmation that Brock Lesnar was now regarded as WWE’s top star, as he defeated John Cena to retain the WWE Championship. That was fine, although many fans resented WWE and Brock Lesnar’s stance on keeping him part-time, as he was holding the WWE Championship “hostage”. It would have hurt Lesnar’s aura and marketability to have him around all the time, so I defended his contract while acknowledging how unfair it was to full-time talent.
2014 was the beginning of a tyrannical reign of Brock Lesnar, one which couldn’t be stopped until recently. Aside from Roman Reigns, who WWE began pushing not long after they broke up The Authority at Survivor Series, Lesnar always had a place. To a chorus of jeers and The Rock doing his best to put him over, Reigns won the Royal Rumble. He had taken over from John Cena as McMahon’s chosen one, and naturally the fans resisted because nothing about his rise was organic.
Eight years ago, at WrestleMania 31, Reigns & Lesnar fought for the first time. No other main event in the history of WWE’s flagship shows has happened more times than Reigns vs. Lesnar. Except this time, it was more remembered for Seth Rollins running in and becoming part of the match by cashing in his Money in the Bank. So, everything WWE did to build Lesnar up after conquering the streak, and to make Reigns out to be a big deal, didn’t matter because Seth Rollins won the WWE Championship with an unfair advantage. Was it an epic moment at WrestleMania? Absolutely. Did it springboard Rollins to the same level as Lesnar & Reigns? Kind of. At least it ended with WWE pushing someone who is there day in, day out.
Oh, I almost forgot! Sting lost to Triple H in his first and only WrestleMania match. Really? Did McMahon have to be that petty to put his son-in-law and D-Generation X over his former WCW rivals in Sting and the New World Order? It was over fourteen years ago. This was WWE’s chance to either show fans who have never seen The Stinger… look how much of a legend this guy is! Or they could have booked a young talent to beat him. Sting would have shook his hand afterward, congratulated him, and still got over because he hung in there (“You Still Got It!”) with a guy in his prime.
He couldn’t beat a part-time Triple H who got jack from beating him. All it did was highlight how petty McMahon is, because even fourteen years later, he just can’t let Sting have that one thing because he was WCW’s icon. With Goldberg? Sure, let him run over The Rock and whoever. Can’t have the same for Sting, who had a run in WWE, which was a borderline disaster.
With hindsight, WWE would never have booked that Rollins match, or they would have let Sting beat Triple H out of good faith. I’m sure if Sting could rewind the clock, he wouldn’t have bothered working what turned out to be a nostalgia act. Remember D-X and the New World Order?? Here you go, have them both. Let’s be honest, that’s what the match was really about. Sure, it was a very cool moment, but they’re all old and going nowhere. And of course, it didn’t go anywhere, because most of them are buddies. It was merely to get a cheap pop out of the older fans who grew up with them.
Road To WrestleMania 32
Remember that little thing called ‘The Streak’? Yeah, The Undertaker returned to get revenge on Brock Lesnar. They went to SummerSlam and hysterically laughed at each other in a very meme worthy moment. Somehow, that became the best thing to come out of it, because while The Undertaker won, it still had fans asking… “WHY DID YOU HAVE TO END THE STREAK??!!!”
Brock Lesnar had beaten everyone, but The Undertaker worked just one other match between this and WMXXX (Wyatt). Meanwhile, Seth Rollins went over John Cena and became the WWE & United States Champion. So he was still benefiting from his win at WrestleMania, but not enough to be plugged into the main event.
Fast forward to Survivor Series, and not much had changed. Undertaker & Kane predictably defeated The Wyatt Family, because how dare Bray Wyatt ever get a victory over the man he tried so hard to emulate. Meanwhile, Roman Reigns won the title in the main event against Dean Ambrose, and then Sheamus cashed in his Money in the Bank. Critics named this show the worst of the year, and rightly so, because WWE had their weaknesses in view for all to see. The draw of this event was Undertaker’s 25th anniversary and tag match. When the nostalgia act is the only worth thing of the show, any average promoter would be worried.
The Royal Rumble continued its controversial streak with Triple H, who last eliminated Dean Ambrose to book his place in the main event of WrestleMania. I don’t think this bothered fans as much, because WWE’s track record was speaking for itself. It was no longer shocking to see a part-timer going over a roster full of guys carrying the weekly programming. It had become so consistent that it was expected. Fans kept their hopes low to avoid disappointment. Luckily, the rest of the show was decent because the roster put in the work.
WM32 was the inevitable crowning of Roman Reigns, but the show was criticized and named one of the worst of all time. More critics were highlighting what I had noticed a few years before, that WWE were placing part-timers and nostalgia acts above its full-time talent. Triple H took one of the main event spots. The Rock squashed Erick Rowan… why? Well, because he can? I don’t know. Brock Lesnar inevitably destroyed Dean Ambrose in a No Holds Barred. Undertaker & Shane McMahon had a Hell in a Cell which ran for half an hour and probably only needed half of that? It was dull for most of it.
With Triple H, Undertaker, Shane McMahon, Brock Lesnar and The Rock, that’s five guys you’re very unlikely to see working Raw or SmackDown in the next month. Fans were really resisting Roman Reigns, and he was noticeably frustrated with the response when cameras weren’t around. WWE had done so much to build Reigns and little for anyone else, so there wasn’t much point in caring for anyone in the mid-card. McMahon already had what he wanted. Who cares so long as he pushed the guy he wants, right?
Road To WrestleMania 33
We’re on the last road in this piece, and we’ll continue when I post part #2 later this week. It’s important to go through this year on year, because the pattern of booking needs to be highlighted. Many of us might have forgotten or overlooked how frequent this has been in the past decade.
By SummerSlam 2016, Brock Lesnar had returned from a hiatus and headlined the show. He faced Randy Orton, which turned out to be an abrupt ending. The referee stopped it after he smashed Orton with elbows until he bled. It was later revealed to be Dean Ambrose’s idea for one of their earlier matches, but WWE instead used it for this. The biggest question, though, is what was at stake in the main event of SummerSlam?
Nothing. Wait, what? That’s right. No title or #1 contender shot. It was just a match. And this took precedence over Finn Balor becoming the first Universal Champion over Seth Rollins. It went on last over Dean Ambrose retaining the WWE title over Dolph Ziggler. Brock Lesnar was on the card, so naturally he goes on last. This continued at Survivor Series, except this time it was Goldberg returning to squash Lesnar in 1 minute, 26 seconds with no titles on the line.
So not only was WWE now sticking part-timers in the main event, they were having fans pay to see something which can’t even last two minutes, and has nothing on the line other than bragging rights. Sure, they are beasts. If the match ran too long, it makes their offense look weak. I get that, and the match was great for what it was, but it tells everyone that this is the pinnacle of sports entertainment. No one else working full time can hold a candle to these two unstoppable forces.
WWE made it more prevalent because it came just after a fun, nearly one-hour Survivor Series match. If we were to go back to the 1970s and 80s in the UK, we would see Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks crashing in to each other. They were enormous men, and kayfabe kept the fans super invested. Yet, this isn’t the 70s or 80s, everyone knows kayfabe is dead, and these two guys aren’t around most of the time. It’s a formula from a bygone era, when heavyweights were truly awe-inspiring.
Next up was the Royal Rumble, which surprised everyone because Randy Orton won it by last eliminating Reigns. Lesnar, Goldberg and Undertaker were in this match too. John Cena defeated AJ Styles for the WWE Championship, after he had done so well to build him up. But in all honesty, this was one of the first time in ages that WWE hadn’t purposely put part-timers or nostalgia over its roster. Sure, Orton had been around a long time and didn’t badly need the win, but at least he put in the work to earn it.
Didn’t last long, though! You guessed it. Randy Orton’s match against Bray Wyatt for the WWE Championship was in the middle of the show. Lesnar beat Goldberg for the Universal Championship, but it wasn’t the main event. What went on last was a match which The Undertaker deeply regrets. And not because he lost to Roman Reigns in a No Holds Barred match, but he wasn’t physically capable. He was in really terrible shape, yet he was being encouraged to go out there and work with a guy in his prime and put him over.
It’s bad enough when you bring back old timers, but when someone who is so obviously in pain. When someone must be injected and get special training just to go out and have a 25 minute match once a year. That’s when you think well… why? The fans didn’t need The Undertaker to work that match, or any match on the card. He didn’t need to do that for us, but he couldn’t say no to Vince. Loyalty is admirable. I completely respect him for wanting to do everything he could. But what happened if it turned nasty? What if a move went wrong, and he was paralyzed for the rest of his life?
Is it worth rolling out somebody who is so physically limited that it comes at the risk of the long-term health of himself, and possibly his opponent as well? I don’t think so. This was the straw, and Undertaker had to get surgery for his injuries. With that said, I’d like to thank you for getting this far. We’re only on 2017, so we’re roughly halfway in this journey. Please check back later in the week for the second half, and we will conclude by answering the question: Has WWE finally moved on from the nostalgia era? – Thank you for reading!
Also Read: How Is WWE Struggling To Make Top Level Superstars?
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