Once upon a time, wrestling was considered nothing more than pre-watershed fun for all the family, with an array of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ doing battle for the championship belts and to have their hands raised in glory.
As the World Wrestling Federation began to enjoy enhanced popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so too did that ‘knockabout fun’ feel with larger-than-life characters such as Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and the Ultimate Warrior becoming big money brands as much as they were professional performers in the ring.
Vince McMahon, as is his trademark, sensed an opportunity, and soon wrestling would be considered on the same level as other combat sports like boxing and, later, MMA. The McMahons finally had what they always wanted – credibility. It would be the start of the company’s inexorable rise into the hearts and minds of mainstream sports fans, and that is still en vogue to this day despite the WWE’s slightly dwindling TV audiences.
During the 1980s, there was an almost circus-like vibe to professional wrestling. Names like Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and Andre the Giant tell their own story, and fans were desperate to see the little guys beat the behemoths in what was essentially David vs Goliath in spandex.
While many stars of the era were in great shape, there didn’t seem to be any great demand for wrestling talent to muscle up – the likes of Kamala, Earthquake, Typhoon and Mabel enjoyed decent runs in the WWE in the early 1990s.
Indeed, it seemed as though McMahon had a fixation with big men when he took over the reins. Advancing The Undertaker to the top of his company in quick time while fetishizing the likes of Kevin Nash (or Diesel as he was known) and Big Show – who McMahon snapped up from WCW where he was known as The Giant. Remember, Vince has greenlit the likes of Giant Gonzales and the Great Khali playing prominent roles in WWE pay-per-view events – two huge men but both rather small on talent.
But as the company veered into the Attitude Era, there was a clear sea-change in how wrestling talent looked. Stars like The Rock and Triple H possessed tremendous physiques, and they were soon joined on the roster by the likes of Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar – both credible athletes with extensive amateur wrestling and martial arts backgrounds respectively.
Lesnar, in particular, has played a key role in converting fans of the all-out intensity and physicality of the UFC to wrestling, and some of his bruising matches in the WWE confirm Vince’s desire for ‘ruthless aggression’ during the noughties.
This more professional approach to conditioning heralded a new era of in-ring talent, with the likes of Jeff Hardy and Rey Mysterio Jr adding a high flying, adrenaline-packed style of their own into the sport. Backed by new match styles like Hell in a Cell and Money in the Bank, a whole new audience was warming to wrestling and its credibility as a combat sport in its own right began to increase.
While the change of name from the World Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Entertainment came about as a result of a lawsuit from the World Wildlife Fund, the new moniker that McMahon opted for was no coincidence.
In 2002, as the WWE began to creep into the mainstream consciousness, the emphasis shifted from pure in-ring action to a more narrative-based entertainment package. Feuds were given more time to build, and the stars were given additional mic time to hype their contests ahead of money-spinning PPVs – The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin, to name just two, and latterly John Cena took the mic and ran with it.
They, amongst others, became household stars, and suddenly more and more fans were tuning in to RAW and Smackdown to see their favourite wrestlers go at it. Merchandise sales increased and a host of side industries sprung up – some sportsbooks even began offering odds on the latest match-ups. Fans could put their money where their mouths were by wagering on outright winner Royal Rumble betting and other PPVs as well, and that helped to spread the conversation about the WWE principally, but about professional wrestling as a whole too. There was a level of legitimacy it didn’t have before.
A Numbers Game
As is usually the case, the proof of the pudding is in the numbers. Since 2001, eight editions of WrestleMania have recorded more than one million PPV buys, and each of the ten highest-grossing editions of the flagship event has come since the turn of the millennium.
As if to emphasise the point, eight of the ten highest attendances at live WWE events have come since 2007 – culminating in the eye-watering 101,763 attendees, that crammed into the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas for WrestleMania XXXII.
The numbers speak volumes – professional wrestling continues to grow exponentially in popularity.
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