During the late-1990s, WWE was in dire need of a change to its product, considering Eric Bischoff and WCW were breathing down Vince McMahon’s neck courtesy of the Monday night ratings war. McMahon’s company needed to take the next step, seeing that superheroes from the early-1990s like Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior grew stale, and the ridiculous gimmicks given to countless wrestlers needed to go.
McMahon decided to create an evil boss persona, an extension of himself born when he screwed Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1997, and buried the Canadian in a sit-down interview a week later. With help from iconic superstars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock and Shawn Michaels, the Attitude Era revolutionized wrestling, adding increased violence, foul language and sexuality into the mix. Not only was the Attitude Era brash, audacious, and sometimes overwhelming, it propelled WWE to new heights, and enabled storied Hall of Fame careers for the previously mentioned competitors and their peers.
The Attitude Era, however, may not have aged too well over the years. Unfortunate gimmicks were still the norm, most of the lower to mid-card matches were lackluster, and women weren’t exactly portrayed in the best of ways; though it gave wrestlers and managers a chance to shine and exceed expectations.
We could name a dozen heroes of the Attitude Era, including Triple H, Trish Stratus, Mick Foley, and the tag teams that competed in the death defying Tables, Ladders and Chairs matches, but this listing focuses on the athletes from that time frame that don’t get enough credit for their contributions.
Here are 10 unsung heroes from WWE’s most popular and revered era:
The “Bizarre One” emerged on the scene in the mid-1990s, his golden spandex gear and platinum blonde wig being his patented look. Credit Marlena for being Dustin Rhodes’ muse, but it was with Luna Vachon that Goldust became the freakiest act of the Attitude Era.
Embracing a new moniker and being known as The Artist Formerly Known As Goldust, the former Intercontinental and Tag Team Champion usually dressed in drag or mimicked pop culture icons like Marilyn Manson and even posed as Sable.
Still, he was seen primarily as a joke, and it wasn’t until years later that fans realized he was one of the best workers WWE had on its roster.
9 Val Venis
Only during the Attitude Era would WWE promote an adult film star as one of their best mid-card attractions.
Believe it or not, Venis was an integral part of the Attitude Era, based on the romantic relationships he had with numerous women, including Ryan Shamrock, Marlena, Mrs. Yamaguchi-San, and he even took part in steamy vignettes alongside Jenna Jameson.
Venis was no slouch, though, winning the Intercontinental title twice and having a decent run as European Champion, too. Looking back on Venis’ Attitude Era career, he was basically an edgier Rick Rude, and considering the amount of profanity WWE got away with during the time, it felt necessary to have a gimmick like the “Big Valbowski.”
8 The Hollys
The Hardcore Championship matches of the Attitude Era were an utter mess, taking place anywhere on a 24/7 basis. The belt was held by a plethora of superstars, from legends like The Undertaker and Mankind to some forgotten superstars like Johnny Stamboli and Pete Gas. Even Terri Runels and a woman billed as Godfather’s Ho were former champs.
Raven had the most Hardcore title reigns at 27, and right under him was Crash Holly (22). The Holly cousins were an underrated stable in WWE primarily for their contributions on the Hardcore title scene. Hardcore Holly, who transformed from a racecar driver to a no-nonsense bully was at the forefront of many popular hardcore matches in WWE, and often clashed with his little cousin. Even Molly Holly hoisted the Hardcore Championship once during her WWE tenure.
Apart from hardcore matches, both Hardcore and Crash Holly weren’t too shabby as a tag team either, winning the WWE Tag Team Championship over The Rock N’ Sock Connection, thanks to interference from Triple H.
It’s a shame Kaientai’s defining career moment is when they almost chopped off Venis’ member on live television.
Under the tutelage of Yamaguchi-San, the Kaientai members were decent workers, but it was Taka Michinoku – who still competes in Japan to this day – that was the crown jewel of the faction.
Along with Sho Funaki, who had a decent WWE career, Michinoku was loved by WWE fans as a face, and proved he was one of the best light heavyweight wrestlers on WWE’s roster courtesy of his refreshing style. When Dick Togo left the group, Michinoku and Funaki became a tag team, resorting to comedic skits which overshadowed their in-ring skills. Both Michinoku and Funaki were the only members of Kaientai that won singles titles in their WWE runs.
6 Ken Shamrock
Mixed martial arts stars have a storied history of being linked to pro-wrestling. WWE tried to employ a handful of stars from the combat sports world, yet none had greater impact than Ken Shamrock.
Unlike Brock Lesnar, who competed in the UFC after his first WWE stint, Shamrock left MMA to embark on a career in pro-wrestling, which became fruitful after he won the King of the Ring tournament in 1998. He was a feared Intercontinental Champion, too, and held tag titles with Big Boss Man as members of The Corporation in 1998.
What set Shamrock apart from his counterparts (most notably UFC legend Dan Severn, who had a brief stint in WWE) was his ability to transition from MMA to wrestling so easily. Maybe he didn’t have the best matches in WWE history, but he was a good worker and his feuds against The Rock, Val Venis and Owen Hart were up to WWE standard. His shootfighting pedigree certainly helped him in that regard.
5 Owen Hart
After the Hart Foundation exodus that saw Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart and the British Bulldog join WCW, Owen Hart was the lone survivor from the legendary Hart Family in WWE, often finding himself lost in the shuffle when it came to being a major main event player.
Hart was arguably the best wrestler WWE had at the time, yet creative felt the need to make him look like a human roadblock and lash out at the fans for calling him a “nugget.”
Partnerships with Jeff Jarrett and the Nation of Domination didn’t exactly do wonders for his career, and before his death in 1999, Hart was forced to resurrect the Blue Blazer gimmick of roughly a decade prior.
4 The Radicalz
WCW’s loss ended up being a huge gain for WWE when McMahon pinched four superstars from under Bischoff’s nose.
Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko were all underutilized while at WCW, and Perry Saturn was growing quickly as a strong mid-carder, yet he too didn’t have much direction apart from being in a feud alongside Raven.
The Radicalz made their debut in the beginning of 2000, attacking the New Age Outlaws from ringside. Guerrero and Benoit went on to world championship runs in WWE, while Malenko and Saturn were demoted to falling in love with Lita and a mop, respectively.
The WWE Divas were mostly portrayed as scantily clad women who took off their clothes more often than not, forced to partake in contests where one opponent would strip the other, sexual acts with each other, and so on.
After dishing out the punishment to her then real-life husband Marc Mero, Sable was promoted as WWE’s top star of the woman’s division, a must-see attraction for the male demographic to drool over. Perhaps her most defining moment in WWE was when she took off her shirt in a bikini contest at Fully Loaded 1998, only to reveal painted handprints over her breasts, and almost sent a chaotic Jerry Lawler into the 5th row.
2 The McMahon Children
On the other hand, his children Shane and Stephanie don’t get enough credit for some of the matches and storylines they were involved in. Shane was a vigilante in his own right, perhaps having no business in the wrestling ring. Surprisingly, he had one of the best European title runs in WWE when he went to war with X-Pac, and virtually everyone remembers his matches against Test, Steve Blackman and Big Show (not to mention helping out his dad against the “Rattlesnake”), where he took to the air and gained the respect of countless WWE fans.
The “Billion Dollar Princess” was Shane’s bratty sibling who at first was a fan favorite, innocent enough to be kidnapped and nearly crucified by The Undertaker and also fell in love with Test. She then turned on her father and joined her husband Triple H, and that’s when Stephanie truly became one of the most underrated heels in WWE history.
After all, her mean streak is still going to this day.
1 Kurt Angle
It’s true, it’s true.
When Angle emerged on the scene in 1999, it was hard for fans to get behind him. His extreme confidence and obnoxious mic skills didn’t go over so well with the audience, which helped his case as one of the most hated superstars on the roster.
Soon after, Angle would win both the Intercontinental and European titles, and after winning King of the Ring in 2000, Angle defeated The Rock for the WWE Championship at No Mercy 2000 to become the only athlete to win a gold medal and WWE’s world title.
After losing the strap, he had one of the best matches in WrestleMania history against Chris Benoit at WrestleMania X-7, and a competitor of Angle’s caliber also brought out the best in lesser workers. In a short period of time, Angle was playing with the big boys like The Undertaker, Triple H, Chris Jericho, and Austin, and truth be told, he had amazing matches against every single one of them, making it far too easy to take a trip down memory lane and rewatch those memorable duels from his early years.