We didn’t realise it at the time, but the Attitude Era didn’t end with a bang. It didn’t end with a Stunner, nor did it end with a Pedigree, a Rock Bottom, or a chairshot. Wrestling’s biggest boom period ended with a handshake. Well, two of them.
One of them is now iconic, or perhaps infamous, given what happened in its aftermath: Stone Cold Steve Austin and Vince McMahon stood in the middle of the ring at the climax of Wrestlemania X7 in Houston, looking eye to eye, with hands extended.
Austin’s heel turn has been dissected ad nausea in the two decades since it happened on that day, so I won’t get into it here. But more than just ending an era, it marked the definitive end of wrestling as a cultural phenomenon, something it’ll sadly never attain again.
Younger viewers of wrestling can do all the research and compile all the stats of the records broken during the Attitude Era: the PPV buyrates, the weekly ratings on RAW and Smackdown, the merchandise sold, the VHS charts (remember those?), etc., however it’s difficult to convey in words (try as I might) just how truly popular the WWF was at the turn of the century. If you were a teenager, for a short – but golden – period, wrestling was the centre of the universe.
From my own experience as a teenager during that halcyon age, you tended to have three groups: The diehards who stuck by wrestling during the bleak years of the mid-‘90s, and knew why Bret Hart was no longer appearing on WWF TV; the second group were fans – either lapsed or new – who got swept along in the anarchy of the Attitude era and by its coverage on Channel 4 from early 2000; the final group was the average person who had merely a passing interest in the product, but knew who Austin and The Rock were.
I fell into the second category, a lapsed fan who became obsessed with the product once Channel 4 agreed to show weekly episodes of Sunday Night Heat and the sporadic PPV. I bought the tapes, the figures, the belts, the t-shirts, the video games. I went all-in, as did so many others.
WWF was so seeped into the cultural framework that everyone’s Friday night stopped at 9pm, in order to tune in to watch Monday Night Raw on Sky Sports (when it became cheaper to buy). The latest angles were discussed and broken down on the school playground the following week, tapes were traded back and forth. Wrestling was everywhere, and for the first time since the days of Hogan and his 24inch pythons, it was acceptable to be a fan.
Yet the minute Austin and McMahon shook hands on air, it became unacceptable. Fans left in droves. However it must be said that, in the UK at least, wrestling’s popularity was slightly waning prior to Wrestlemania X7.
Perhaps this was inevitable, after several years of flying too close to the sun, the appeal of wrestling was always destined to burn out. Within my own sphere, many friends had already tuned out by the time Austin and McMahon shared a beer over a beaten and bloodied Rock in Houston.
Austin has been on record multiple times admitting that his heel turn was a disaster, and if he could call an audible, he would’ve. Whilst the turn wasn’t the only contributing factor to wrestling’s decreasing popularity, it fast-tracked the process. Perhaps it was the manner in which Austin turned, aligning himself with sworn-enemy McMahon, rather than turning heel itself.
Whilst the majority didn’t want to see him as a bad guy, Austin’s assertion that his character had gone stale was on the money. From his return in the autumn of 2000, Austin’s persona felt slightly out of place. His ‘DTA’, show-no-vulnerability traits had been left behind.
It felt two-dimensional and Austin as a character hadn’t evolved since 1997. As insanely over as he was during the Attitude Era, it’s arguable that the company’s best run was actually when Austin was absent, when Rock and Triple H carried the ball for the first nine months of 2000. In terms of popularity, Austin was now playing second fiddle to The Rock, but only marginally.
The coalition between Austin and McMahon felt – even for wrestling fans often accused of mass amnesia – too forced. Surely there could’ve been another way to turn? It certainly shouldn’t have been executed in his home state.
The second handshake happened off-air a week prior. This was one we didn’t see, but equally as pivotal. It might’ve been Vince, or perhaps Linda, who performed the honours, but the agreement to buy WCW was the hammer blow from which the business has never recovered. As evident from the last two decades of a mostly sterile product, Vince McMahon operates at his best when facing competition, and the lack of it has seen them unable to recapture the audience they lost 20 years ago.
There’s always been the feeling that wrestling is cyclical; good times come and go, the business ebbs and flows every few years. This is no longer the case; the downturn has remained steady since those two handshakes in late March and early April 2001. Wrestling will never scale the heights of mainstream acceptability again.
The ‘Summer of Punk’ was perhaps the only time in the two decades since the end of the Monday Night Wars that people once again sat up and took notice. The buzz of Punk’s pipe bomb felt reminiscent of those glory days. It got people talking again. However, as we all know, the moment was fleeting.
As for me, I stuck around longer than most, staying faithful to the product until Wrestlemania 20, before being the last of my friends to check out. I’ve returned to watching sporadically in the years since, usually when a character from the golden age returns, like The Rock at WrestleManias 28 and 29, or Bret Hart at 26.
In some respects the wrestling of 2021 is superior to that of the Attitude Era: the athletes are better; drug use is now at a minimum, chair shots to the head are outlawed. Yet even without the empty arenas, the magic is gone: a stale product short on megastars and genuinely interesting characters.
Pro wrestling has returned to its niche status, and is seemingly destined to stay that way. All thanks to two handshakes that changed everything.