Professional wrestling played a huge role in the childhoods of many millennials (as well as older Gen Zs). Back when the WWF/E was more integrated with pop culture, we were thrilled on a weekly basis by fantastic storylines and ring action. This was especially true before the days of social media, when there was more mystery around what happens behind the scenes.
The Attitude Era (1997-2002) is regarded as the peak of the company’s popularity, but the Ruthless Aggression Era (2002 – 2008) and the PG Era (2008 – 2014) had a handful of iconic pro wrestling moments too. Let’s take a look back at some of those.
The Montreal Screwjob is one of the most infamous unscripted incidents in professional wrestling history. Bret Hart, who was one of the company’s top stars and the reigning WWF Champion at that time, was about to depart from the company. He was set to go to rival promotion WCW in less than a month.
In his last pay-per-view event in Survivor Series 1997, he was about to defend his title against Shawn Michaels. The event would be held in Bret Hart’s home country of Canada. WWF owner Vince McMahon didn’t want Hart leaving the company as the champion, but Hart was unwilling to drop the title in front of his home crowd.
An agreement was later made that the match would end in disqualification and Hart would retain the title. He would later give it up at a later date. However, McMahon was still paranoid that Hart might join WCW as WWF Champion, citing a previous incident with female wrestler Madusa when she won the WWF Women’s Championship.
The company neglected to renew her contract while she was holding the belt. As a result, she signed with WCW and in her first appearance with the company, she made fun of her WWF experience and threw the WWF Women’s Championship belt in a trash can. Vince didn’t want a repeat of that incident.
McMahon and Shawn Michaels decided to go on with the “screwjob.” Hart was already suspicious when he saw Vince McMahon standing at ringside instead of usually doing the commentary. Nevertheless, the match continued.
As the climax of the match was approaching, Michaels performed a strike on Hart, sending him to the canvas. He then proceeded to execute the Sharpshooter, which is Hart’s finisher.
As Michaels tightened his hold, Referee Earl Hebner commanded timekeeper Mark Yeaton to “ring the bell,” even when it was evident that Hart did not tap out. McMahon further reiterated the command by screaming “ring the f*cking bell!”
Michaels’ theme music started playing in the arena, to the ire of the crowd. He was commanded by Vince to “pick up the damn belt and get the hell out of here.” Hart immediately realized what happened, and he spat on the face of McMahon. He subsequently smashed cameras, monitors, and ringside equipment.
WWF eventually took advantage of the fan outrage. The event would give birth to the in-ring character of Mr. McMahon, a heel authoritarian boss who imposed his will on rebellious characters.
The Fingerpoke of Doom
During the late 1990s, the WWF and WCW were featured in a ratings war called Monday Night Wars. Both the company’s flagship shows (Raw and Nitro) aired at the same time on Monday nights. WCW dominated the early part of the wars, sending WWF to the brink of bankruptcy in 1996. WWF began to turn the tides in the following years, culminating on January 4, 1999.
On that particular Monday, WWF taped their Raw episode six days prior while WCW aired Nitro live. The Raw episode had Mankind defeating The Rock to claim the WWF Championship. WCW announcer Tony Schiavone gave away the results to the viewers to prevent them from switching channels. However, the opposite happened. About 600,000 viewers changed channels to tune in to Raw to witness Mankind’s championship victory.
Meanwhile, WCW held an underwhelming match featuring Kevin Nash and Hulk Hogan. Hogan jokingly poked Nash’s shoulder, and the latter deliberately sold the move. Hogan pinned Nash to win the WCW World Heavyweight Championship and it marked the reunion of the nWo as one heel faction. The nWo storyline was starting to get stale, and the fans wanted a fresh angle.
The incident is cited by wrestling journalists as the beginning of WCW’s downfall. Nitro never won in the ratings war again.
Undertaker vs Mankind’s Hell in a Cell match
The Attitude Era was known for its violence, and this match might be the pinnacle of it. The Undertaker and Mankind featured in a Hell in a Cell match at the King of the Ring pay-per-view on June 28, 1998. It is one of the most brutal matches in wrestling history, with both wrestlers taking significant damage. Both wrestlers wanted to give a “unique match,” and this is what we got.
One of the most memorable moments in this match was when The Undertaker threw Mankind off the top of the 16-foot tall structure. Commentator Jim Ross was unaware of this stunt, and he legitimately thought that Mankind had died. Medical personnel checked on Mankind at various points of the match. Mr. McMahon also broke character (he was supposed to hate Mankind) to take a look at him.
Mankind took a second fall from a chokeslam off the top of the structure, this time landing bareback on the ring. This time, Undertaker also thought that Mankind had legitimately died. The match nearly ended due to the incident, but Mankind urged for it to continue.
The curtain call came when Undertaker performed another chokeslam on Mankind on a pile of thumbtacks. He subsequently performed the Tombstone Piledriver finisher to win the match.
The match received critical acclaim, and it is considered the greatest Hell in a Cell match in history. The commentary calls of both Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler during the match are embedded in popular culture. Mankind suffered severe physical injuries from the match that would affect him long-term, and he retired soon after in 2000.
Stone Cold Steve Austin’s heel turn
The main feud that spanned the Attitude Era was the one between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Mr. McMahon. The feud ignited WWF’s popularity to new heights and was a catalyst to them winning the Monday Night Wars and purchasing a bankrupt WCW in 2001.
In WrestleMania X-Seven of the same year, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin faced off for the WWF Championship. Mr. McMahon was observing the match from ringside.
Stone Cold Steve Austin won the match, and at the conclusion of the event, he shook hands with McMahon. Jim Ross made one of his most famous calls, describing the incident as “shaking hands with Satan himself.”
The event was considered by many as the end of the Attitude Era, though WWF would still use the term for marketing purposes until 2002, when they switched their name to WWE.
Batista and John Cena taking the throne
WWE was in a bit of a limbo in 2005. Most of the top stars of the Attitude Era had departed the company. Stone Cold Steve Austin retired due to injuries and The Rock went making movies.
The guy that they pushed to be the next face of the company, Brock Lesnar abruptly departed too. They needed to create new stars to carry their product.
By early 2005, the company may have found them. In front of 20,000 fans in Staples Center, WWE crowned their new superstars in WrestleMania 21.
First was Randy Orton, who faced Undertaker. Although Undertaker kept his WrestleMania winning streak alive, it was clear that WWE was invested in Orton by putting him in such a high-profile match.
Rising star John Cena won the first of his many WWE Championship reigns by defeating John Bradshaw Layfield. The main event featured a passing of the torch, as Batista defeated his mentor Triple H to win the World Heavyweight Championship.
WrestleMania 21 is considered by many as a landmark event. It introduced the spotlight to the wrestlers that would carry the company for the next decade.
Undertaker vs HBK
Two of the greatest wrestlers of all time in Undertaker and Shawn Michaels faced off in two consecutive WrestleMania events in 2009 and 2010. The first one was during WrestleMania 25, where Michaels wanted to end Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak.
He claimed that Undertaker has never beaten him in a singles match. Undertaker would later foil this fact, as he defeated Michaels after more than 30 minutes of battle inside the ring. This match overshadowed the main event of the evening, claiming various Match of the Year awards.
Shawn Michaels would demand a rematch a year later, offering to end his career if he loses at WrestleMania XXVI. A Career vs Streak Match was held, and it was as good as last year. Both wrestlers showed their technical proficiency, and even after various finishers, each would kick out of a pinfall. Undertaker claimed the victory for the second straight year, ending HBK’s storied career.
The two matches are widely regarded as some of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time.
Jeff Hardy winning the WWE Championship
Jeff Hardy had been a long-time fan favorite since the Attitude Era. His high-flying moves, dangerous but thrilling maneuvers, charisma, and enigmatic character had endeared him to many fans. Despite the popularity, he failed to win the world title for years.
This all changed at Armageddon 2008, when he defeated WWE Champion Edge and Triple H in a Triple Threat Match to win the title. It was a crowning moment for the fan-favorite after his years of hard work in the business.
Hardy celebrated the achievement with his fans a week later, detonating all kinds of pyrotechnics in the arena. He would later go on and win the World Heavyweight Championship a year later.
CM Punk pipebomb
At the conclusion of the June 27, 2011 episode of Monday Night Raw, CM Punk delivered the most scintillating promo (speech) in professional wrestling in years. Although it’s still debated if the promo was off the script or a “worked shoot,” his message was clear.
Punk went off on various people, including The Rock by mocking him as an “ass-kisser” and being disappointed that he would headline the next WrestleMania event despite being a part-time performer. He also insulted WWE chairman Vince McMahon, saying that the company would be better off with him dead.
He then proceeded to add that the company would still be run by McMahon’s “idiotic” daughter (Stephanie McMahon) and “doofus” son-in-law (Triple H) if that was going to happen. His mic was eventually cut off.
The promo was lauded by several wrestling personalities, noting its realism. Punk remained with the company until 2014.
What is your favorite WWE moment?