For many the halcyon days of WWE were the much vaunted Attitude Era when a whole host of superstars became household names as some 20million watch wrestling week in week out. What is less remembered is the era that followed it: the Ruthless Aggression Era. Today we look at that era and the superstars it created.
One of the most talked about eras in WWE history has to be the much lauded ‘Attitude Era’ of 1997 to 2002. An era that launched the careers of Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mankind and the Rock. An era that blurred the lines between babyfaces and heels and essentially killed kayfabe. It was an era filled with raunchiness and shock TV. The era that went head to head with WCW during the Monday Night Wars and won. While the Attitude era gets praised often by many fans….it often eclipses the era that came after it…the Ruthless Aggression era.
The Ruthless Aggression era came about after the WWE conquered and bought out both WCW and ECW and with that much of their talent. It began in 2002 and lasted until 2007 when the WWE changed course and ushered in the PG era. What made the Ruthless Era different from the Attitude era? While there was still a sex element to the overall product…it focused more on the actual in ring content. There were less swerves and outlandish storylines and more character development with much better wrestling featured.
Out were the mega stars like Austin and the Rock and in were younger talent like Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton and John Cena. It also brought with it two of the minds that went toe to toe with Vince McMahon during the Monday Night Wars in Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff. While Eric was used more as an on screen authority figure…Paul Heyman was that…plus the head writer for Smackdown. With the extra roster spots added with the acquisitions of WCW and ECW…the WWE decided to do a brand split and a brand extension…splitting Raw and Smackdown up as two separate entities and also adding a new version of ECW.
With the brand split…more stars had an opportunity to shine as main event talent. Enter Paul Heyman’s “Smackdown Six,” which were six wrestlers who were featured prominently on the Smackdown brand and consistently had 5 star matches. The Smackdown Six were Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Chavo Guerrero Jr, Edge and Rey Mysterio….5 of the 6 went on to become world champions and the other..Chavo Jr won the ECW title.
Triple H grew to bigger and greater heights as a wrestler with the birth of Evolution. Young stars Randy Orton and Dave Batista were pushed hard and slowly developed into main event wrestlers. The era brought with it the re-emergence of the nWo (Hollywood Hogan, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash) Goldberg and Scott Steiner. The NWA/WCW summer pay per view..The Great American Bash was also resurrected.
Before he was a Beast…Brock Lesnar was “The Next Big Thing” becoming the youngest WWE champion of all time at the age of 25. Bradshaw broke off from the tag team ranks and quickly became a main event player as JBL. Speaking of tag teams…the Hardy Boyz broke off and separately Matt and Jeff achieved singles success. We saw the return of Shawn Michaels after a four year long absence.
Sex still had a place in the Ruthless Aggression Era as well as the WWE saw Torrie Wilson and a returning Sable pose for Playboy magazine. That led to a steamy angle between the two women on WWE television.
The era also saw two very significant matches come into creation for the WWE. First, was the Elimination Chamber match that came about in 2002. The other, was the Money in the Bank ladder match that was first used in 2005. Both matches eventually became so popular that they were eventually given their own pay per views.
The Money in the Bank matches allowed wrestlers who normally wouldn’t be considered world champion material and let them ride the wave of success. Guys like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and Rob Van Dam all got opportunities due to this Ruthless Aggression innovation.
Of course, it wasn’t all golden during this time period for the WWE. Like all other eras…the Ruthless version had its missteps along the way. For example, this era saw the sudden and tragic deaths of both Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit. It also gave us way too many pay per views because when Raw and Smackdown split…each brand were given their own events. The failure of the new ECW brand…the misuse of the nWo and Bill Goldberg…who no longer was able to run roughshod over the entire WWE roster. Many former ECW and WCW stars getting buried on a routine basis.
We also can’t forget that Paul Heyman was fired during this period. Heyman who helped make Smackdown at one point…more must see than Raw was let go after allegedly snooping trying to listen to a Raw creative conference call. Something Heyman admits to doing in the past…but not for the time when he was fired for it. It basically came down to a power struggle between Stephanie McMahon and Paul Heyman and Heyman lost.
It gave us the horrendous ‘Katie Vick’ angle where Triple H simulated having sex with a corpse. The response to it was so negative…they scrapped it entirely. We also were given the displeasure of former referee Tim White and his suicidal storylines. I guess nothing says entertaining more than a down and out individual attempting suicide each and every week. There was also the Jon Heidenreich raping Michael Cole segment and we mustn’t forget the Great Khali winning the World heavyweight title.
In the end though, the good far outweighed the bad…with the exception of the Guerrero and Benoit family deaths. Many of the younger talent got opportunities to shine and most did. The matches were mostly exceptional and ratings were solid. So why is it not as heavily regarded as the Attitude Era? Perhaps because it didn’t replace a dying product as Attitude did? Maybe the over the top storylines and sex fueled gimmicks were more memorable? Whatever the case is…the Ruthless Aggression Era has its place in history. It may not be the most memorable because quite frankly some fans consider it an extension of the previous era.
Rest assured though…Ruthless Aggression should be remembered fondly as a time when the WWE had it right…if only for a few years.