Every few years the WWE goes through changes that are defined by shifts in tone, style of wrestling and type of wrestler. Each of these changes has produced wrestlers who have pushed the WWE forward.
In order for any product to stay fresh and relevant it has to change. This couldn’t be more true for professional wrestling, where gimmicks grow stale faster than leftover bread.
One of the reasons the WWE has been so successful has been its ability to adapt, change and create wrestlers who are reflective of the times. These wrestlers have been able to redefine the era that produced them, create more fans and drive the WWE forward.
The Rock n’ Wrestling Era of the ‘80s gave us, among others, Hulk Hogan as a baby face and Roddy Piper as a heel. Hogan was easily the biggest superstar of this era, and really, the biggest superstar of all time.
Hogan was the perfect baby face to cross over to the mainstream, to appear in movies and alongside musicians such as Cyndi Lauper. He made wrestling cool to the masses.
On the flip side, there was Roddy Piper, a new type of heel. He wasn’t just vicious and aggressive in the ring; he was extremely intelligent and could whip you just as hard with his words as his fists. He made heels more than two-dimensional characters.
The New Generation Era gave us Bret Hart and The Undertaker.
Bret Hart was the next generation of wrestler. Hart was not as physically imposing as Hogan, but was able to wrestle circles around the guys from the past era. He transformed the baby-faced wrestler into more than just a popularity contest winner and some catchy lines.
The Undertaker transformed heels, taking them from being weekly punching bags for the top guys into legitimate title threats. This wasn’t your Iron Sheik from years past. Or your Jesse Ventura, who was all flash and no substance.
The Attitude Era gave rise to Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.
Austin and The Rock blurred the lines between baby face and heel. Both men were pushed by the WWE as bad guys, the ones who broke the rules and got booed.
Instead, they redefined the times.
Austin perfectly captured the mood of the nation to thumb its nose at authority. Rock, so cocky and sure, created the wrestler who was too cool to be bad.
When this era ended, the battle lines between right and wrong were no longer clear.
Next, the Ruthless Aggression Era birthed Brock Lesnar, and shockingly, Eric Bischoff.
Lesnar was the wrestler who made things almost too real. His hard, reckless style, was at times painful to watch and yet, left you completely unable to look away.
Eric Bischoff, the former face of WCW whom no one ever thought would appear in the WWE, is responsible for changing our view of gimmick matches.
He created The Elimination Chamber. The sheer scope and magnitude of that match has redefined how we view any changes to a normal match.
Currently, the WWE is in the PG Era, where the violence and language are scaled back to appeal to a younger audience.
Sheamus is the perfect face for this era. Not only is he tough and scrappy, he can also take a beating in the ring and still come out smiling for the young fans.
He has made the baby face able to fight like a heel without losing his sheen.
Damien Sandow is the perfect heel for this era.
He is completely non-threatening to young children, unlike, say, Sid Vicious or Vader. His reluctance to engage in violence, while frustrating to older viewers, is a fantastic message to send to the younger ones.
Because of Sandow, heels can be hated for their words and actions inside the ring and can also step outside the ring and pose for pictures with young fans who aren’t afraid of the bad guy.
Each of these eras has defined blocks of time and the wrestlers created in these eras have continued to evolve the image of the WWE.