Wrestler turned movie star, Duane "The Rock" Johnson, gave fans a blast from the past Sunday night at The Royal Rumble by capturing the WWE Heavyweight Championship against CM Punk; a sight that was quite common to see for wrestling fans during 1998-2002, which is fondly remembered as 'The Attitude Era'; a time period when WWF (before the World Wildlife Foundation took that acronym) Raw dominated television ratings during the infamous Monday Night Wars against rival company, World Championship Wrestling…
But to see that in 2013? That is unheard of.
The Rock, by no means, needed to return and participate in the WWE so heavily. With five films in post production set for release in 2013 and another five films already in place for 2014, the man is doing just fine. It's not as if he was hurting for publicity or money and it's not as if he needed to validate his career. The man is easily the most popular wrestler of all time, winning eight WWF/WWE Heavyweight championships and the only star to successfully make the transition to film.
However, the WWE most certainly needed him.
WWE's ratings and popularity have never been able to duplicate the success it found during The Attitude Era. An era WWE CEO, Vince McMahon, would push the social boundaries to get ratings. The material McMahon and his writers came up with was very controversial at times. Shows often had vulgar language, hardcore violence, and even nudity at times. It was the complete opposite from the 1980s era when Hulk Hogan was telling children to say their prayers and to take their vitamins.
McMahon recognized how audiences had changed and catered to the young adult demographic, instead of children. All of a sudden you had wrestlers like Stone Cold Steve Austin giving the middle finger every week, drinking, and swearing. One famous incident involved Austin dragging the CEO to the middle of the ring at gun point and pretending he was going to blow his brains out in front of thousands of fans; just pure craziness.
But then times changed.
Facebook and Myspace came out and people grew up and cared more about their phones and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) became more popular. People found different things to do once popular stars retired and moved on to other things. However, what really hurt pro wrestling was the late wrestler, Chris Benoit, when he murdered his wife, son, and then committed suicide back in 2007.
Experts alleged and speculated that Benoit snapped due to steroid abuse and head trauma from decades of wrestling. There was a media frenzy with everyone blaming the deaths on pro wrestling so McMahon embraced a new 'toned down' product that rivaled the 1980s era. Its known as 'The PG era.'
As a result though, ratings, popularity, and pay per view buy-rates couldn't come close to the levels established during The Attitude Era. WWE shied away from developing risque stars of yesterday and decided to go with a modern version of Hulk Hogan in John Cena. It was great for the kids but the young adult demographic hated it. With that, the product had become quite stagnant.
WWE's roster didn't have the stars like it used to and needed something to re-capture fans. Sure, independent and internet wrestling fans jumped on board with the rise of CM Punk; a wrestler with mic skills that rivaled the legendary promos The Rock would dish out. His talent was welcomed and embraced and he just finished a 434 day reign as the company's top man with the main title belt. However, it wasn't enough.
Cue Duane 'The Rock' Johnson.
WWE approached Johnson to host Wrestlemania XXVII in April of 2011. He accepted and the fans were thrilled with the pay per view buy-rates proving it. The previous year, the same event only got a 885,000 buy-rate. With The Rock being a main focal point of the 2011 show, the buy-rate was 1,042,000. McMahon went one step further, trying to capitalize on The Rock's popularity and WWE fans desperate need for something exciting. He got The Rock to agree to come out of retirement for Wrestlemania XXVIII in Johnson's hometown of Miami, Florida and take on the company's new leading man, John Cena. The results? A buy-rate of 1,217,000. McMahon must dance around like a giddy school girl and see dollar signs any time The Rock is involved. Regardless, The Rock made his appearance and then disappeared again to film more movies only to be brought back this January.
When Johnson actually won the championship belt last weekend, ending the legendary streak of CM Punk, it was greeted with pure nostalgia. The fans from the 1990s and early 2000s had to feel good. Its almost as if thinking back to high school or hearing that old song that was your favorite. Most fans during that era have grown up and moved on and an event like this could actually make wrestling fun again. The industry itself has always been seen as kind of 'embarrassing' and has a stereotype attached to the fans that follow the sport..meh..industry.
When most think of wrestling fans, its always the image of a pudgy hillbilly living in his mother's basement who refuses to wear anything but wrestling shirts. Maybe that can change.
The Rock's comeback and new run as champion is very significant in possibly bringing back excitement to the industry. However, the return of former UFC and WWE heavyweight champion, Brock Lesnar might bring wrestling back to the forefront.
UFC dominates the interest of most males of today and wrestling has lost a ton of their target audience to 'real' combat sports companies. UFC President, Dana White, is a 'real' Vince McMahon and there are no fake punches thrown with his roster. Trying to entertain bloodthirsty UFC fans might be a tall task for McMahon but Lesnar might be his secret weapon. Here is a guy who actually did the 'real' thing. Lesnar was the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion in White's company and the top guy in 2008.
Landing a talent like Lesnar for a struggling product is significant. Will it capture the UFC demographic? Time will tell.
One thing is for sure, wrestling hasn't been this exciting in over a decade. Rock and Brock may just make WWE cool again. Now if you will excuse me, I have to go back to my mother's basement.
Joshua Caudill is a writer for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter@JoshuaCaudill85 or subscribe at Facebook.com/CraveOnlineSports.