ECW, Attitude Era & Sami Uso: Wrestling Is Art When It's Done Right
Updated: Feb 7
I love pro wrestling so much. It's one of those things I start thinking I’ve outgrown every once in a while till I fall in love with yet another layer of it. When I was a kid and I found out it was fake, I almost stopped watching because it felt like believing in Santa. Then I fell in the love with the storytelling and the backstage politics, the wrestlers, the stories, the movesets, the ability to make me mark out, the older I get the more I realize there’s literally nothing else like pro wrestling.
There’s no tv show that can duplicate the feeling. There is a reality to pro wrestling. As the Saudis who recently tried purchasing WWE realize, pro wrestling is a profitable industry. Despite the performers operating in kayfabe and the matches being scripted, there is a real competition, everyone is really vying for a top spot in the company because that means more money, the company is looking for top performers because that means more money, the fans pay money to see the greatest people perform and to get invested in stories, the performers dedicate their lives to honing & mastering the artform, it takes years off their actual lives, the promoter is always trying to grow the brand and compete with other brands, all of that is happening simultaneously, and that pressure has created some diamond performers and promotions.
Independent promotions like ECW have some of the most mythical inception stories, Paul Heyman went from teenage wrestling nerd and photographer to a visionary promoter creating the brand that started at a bingo hall with wrestlers getting paid $30 a night, that housed artists like Mick Foley, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Chris Jericho, giving them creative freedom, incubating them and unlocking their hidden potential. WWE & WCW took the ideas, characters and concepts that were created in ECW.
Wrestlers like Chris Jericho and Mick Foley are perfect examples of what makes wrestling great, and what helped WWE win the Monday Night wars during the attitude era. Those guys love pro wrestling so much, they really want to be the best that ever did it, even if it literally kills them. That’s not an exaggeration, Mick Foley actually lost an ear, he actually fell off a cell and had his tooth in his nose, all of those things actually happened, there’s nothing fake about it. There’s nothing fake about both Mick Foley and Chris Jericho’s abilities to create compelling characters that traverse decades and influence millions around the world,
Travis Scott's Cactus Jack brand is an ode to one of Mick Foley's characters which is just a small example of the level of influence wrestlers like Foley have in pop culture. Mick Foley would cut some promos in the 90s that could compete with some Shakespeare soliloquies, but Shakespeare never had to fight the Undertaker afterwards. These guys became some of the most loved and hated people in the world by telling compelling stories and putting their bodies on the line.
WWE ran both WCW & ECW out of business during the Monday Night Wars by poaching its greatest talents and concepts. The competition was very real. The competition between the promotions & performers, in their own company and other companies. This created a generation of performers that were dedicated to “stealing the show” every time they went on, which is a very accurate description of their intentions and incentives.
Stealing the show meant giving the best performance of the night. Usually the people expected to give the best performance would be put in the main event, and the lower on the card the people were, the lower the investment from the promotion and the fans. Usually there’s a lot of hype surrounding the main event, and a bunch of midcard segments. The idea of stealing the show involved performers who believed they deserved the main event spot and were really going for it, which isn’t necessarily everyone. You would think everyone wants a top spot, but some people are comfortable being wherever they are and getting paid for it, it’s like any other job. Some people are just cashing a check. But certain guys had that itch to outperform everybody, and every once in a while there’s an entire generation of guys with the same mission and it creates these eras in wrestling.
Eras like the 90s Attitude era were created by people like Paul Heyman, Mick Foley, Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, people like The Rock who were once in a generation level entertainers, spent their 20s pro wrestling and created some of the most compelling, dynamic, and entertaining media the world has ever seen. People like Edge, Christian, The Hardy Boyz & The Dudleyz were dedicated to stealing the show on every card they were on, because they wanted to outdo everyone on the show, they wanted to outdo everyone in WCW and they wanted to outdo every other television show. So many things have to align to create a great scene and a great era, but when the stars line up just right, you really know you’re witnessing something special.
A few weeks ago I watched the 2023 Royal Rumble and I remembered how special wrestling really was, and that without realizing it, I had just lived through another era where the stars aligned just right.
I was a teenager rooting for Daniel Bryan, watching The Shield and The Wyatts put on some of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, seeing Sami Zayn & Kevin Owens giving 5 star matches on NXT. I watched as Seth Rollins betrayed Roman Reigns & Dean Ambrose. As I got older I stopped being as invested, Luke Harper passed away, Daniel Bryan, Dean Ambrose & various wrestlers left the WWE, but recently the Sami Zayn-Bloodline feud had me hooked again. As I watched everyone on the card, from Seth Freaking Rollins' performance in the Rumble, to Bray Wyatt's incredible match, & finally the backstabbing of Roman Reigns by Sami Zayn after an incredible match with Kevin Owens, I realized this was yet another golden era of performers vying for the brass ring
There’s so many layers and narratives in that one story that WWE didn’t shy away from. There’s the reality of Roman Reigns actually being the biggest draw for the WWE, he is the champion and he hasn’t been pinned in 2 years. He sells the most merch and main events every pay per view. There’s the reality of the Usos being his actual cousins, the tag team champions and some of the biggest draws in the company. There’s the reality of Sami Zayn being an underrated performer, and his friendship with Kevin Owens is heavily documented.
Roman Reigns, despite being head of the table and WWE’s biggest draw outside of Brock Lesnar and other part timers, has never really been a fan favourite. He’s more on the heel side now, but even as a face he was never really liked, and just like his character, the performer just wants the fans to “acknowledge him”
Sami Zayn tried to join the bloodline, after a short lived and hilarious rivalry with Jey Uso, Sami was welcomed into the bloodline. Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens were the top independent wrestlers in the world before coming into WWE giving 5 star matches around the world before ever stepping foot in WWE. In NXT Sami Zayn was always the most over person on the roster as seen in his legendary crowning moment as champion. But ever since coming on the main roster, Sami has never really been treated like a top guy, this feud has put him in the main event scene, and in typical Sami Zayn fashion, he makes it the greatest segments on WWE television and steals the show. Sami Zayn is the most over person on the roster at the moment, and possibly the most over wrestler on Earth. Sami Uso & Ucey became fan favourite chants, all directed at the effortless babyface Sami Zayn. The talks of jealousy and Roman Reigns adviser Paul Heyman asking Sami not to steal the spotlight, all of that is happening in storyline and reality.
The final climax of the feud played out like Cinema at the Royal Rumble, after attacking Kevin Owens in some of the most brutal ways I’ve seen since the beginning of the PG era, Sami Zayn struck Roman Reigns in the back with a steel chair in the same way as Seth Rollins all those years ago, to defend his former best friend Kevin Owens. Jey Uso then left the ring and turned his back on the bloodline. Royal Rumble ended with Roman Reigns, Kevin Owens, and the remaining Usos in a puddle of flowers from Romans Samoan Lei. It was pure art and its exactly why I love pro wrestling. That was easily one of the greatest moments of wrestling I've ever seen.
Pro wrestling is truly an art form when practiced by its greatest practitioners. They’re more like musicians in an orchestra playing a symphony than caged fighters. These artists' movesets tell a story, their previous bouts add different layers, there’s an actual meta narrative, and their awareness of each other's moves allowed them to tell a story that no other genre can really pull off. The blend of reality and fiction is masterful, to the point where if you focus on whether or not it’s real, you’re missing the whole point.
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