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Twenty-five years ago, the very first episode of Monday Night Raw was broadcast on television. While sports entertainment was already a huge industry by 1993, most shows were pre-recorded, showing highlights from matches that happened days or weeks earlier. Raw, however, was revolutionary—the first episode broadcast live from New York City’s Manhattan Center.
On the 25th Anniversary of Raw, we look back at the show’s legacy, alongside quotes from iconic superstars like Kurt Angle, Mick Foley, and Paul “Triple H” Levesque.
For the first few years of its life, Raw enjoyed successful ratings, but the show didn’t really come into its own until it had some serious competition. Starting in 1995, Raw went toe-to-toe with WCW Nitro, and the two shows shared a heated rivalry. In order to compete against WCW’s beloved talent like Hulk Hogan, Sting, and Kevin Nash, WWE tried something new: “The Attitude Era.”
During The Attitude Era, WWE went out of their way to push the envelope in ways that had never been done on primetime television, from the vulgar, beer-chugging “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s rivalry with Vince McMahon to Triple-H and his crotch-chopping D-Generation X teammates going so far as to actually “invade” a WCW event. This era is notable for introducing a number of now-famous superstars, including Austin, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Angle, and Foley.
Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE superstar and current VP of Talent, Live Events and Creative at WWE: “It’s hard for me to not look at the Attitude Era and say how great it was, for us as performers, for the company [and] for the fans. Prior to the Attitude Era, we would talk in the locker room and be reminiscing, [saying] ‘You ever think it’ll get as big as it was in the ’80s?’ And [then] six months later, everywhere we turned, it was sold out and people were going crazy. But when I look back at that time…I go, ‘How could that era have not been a success?’ You had Sean Michaels and the Undertaker and Brett Hart. And you had Hulk Hogan at some point. You had Mick Foley, Rock, Austin, DX, me…you just had so many just legendary, unbelievable performers.”
Mick Foley, WWE Hall-of-famer and former superstar “Mankind”: “I don’t know if it was like a dramatic departure from what WWE had been doing. I think the characters became more believable, more relatable. And I think a key thing, more so than the word ‘Attitude,’ was that you had four or five characters all hitting their stride at the same time. And we played off each other really well. We pushed each other. There was a definite competition among each other, and we all seemed to bring out the best in one another. So it was a competition and a camaraderie, and I think it was more the chemistry of those top five or six guys than any one word.”
Kurt Angle, WWE Hall-of-famer and current WWE Raw General Manager: “We were able to say and do things that you normally don’t on TV and I thought that was kind of cool. I was able to stretch my character a little bit better. You know, it was just a lot of fun. There were things I said that, if we said it today, gosh, we’d get in trouble! [Laughs] But it was a lot of fun.”
The often-discussed turning point in the Monday Night Wars was something that no one could’ve seen coming. When Mankind (Mick Foley) won the WWE Championship in a surprise victory on Raw, the results were leaked early on WCW Nitro. Instead of helping WCW, the plan backfired spectacularly, as 600,000 viewers changed the channel to see Mankind finally get his due after years of being the underdog.
Foley: “I’m always flattered by it. I never expected it, because I just didn’t see myself as a WWE title guy. I saw myself as a guy who set up people for title runs, not as a guy who got one. And so I never put much importance in it, I didn’t realize how important it was until the moment I held that championship in the air. So it was highly unexpected, and it was just something that our fans really embraced, and kind of took on an added importance when WCW gave away the outcome to our show. And instead of staying away from WWE programming that night, people flocked to it. Overnight, my image changed, among wrestling fans to some degree, but changed dramatically within the business, as to what my importance was as a performer.
“The momentum really seemed to be in [WCW]’s favor, and they made a tactical error, and paid for it. And I think they underestimated how much stock the wrestling fans put into the hard work that I had put into the business for a long time. I think it really meant something to people to see that hard work being rewarded.”
When WWE finally bought WCW in 2001, it was time to change gears. Vince McMahon declared “Ruthless Aggression” the new era of Raw, and introduced a new superstar to face off against Kurt Angle—John Cena. Granted, the John Cena introduced in 2002 isn’t quite the John Cena we know today. (He touted “A degree in Thuganomics” and wore a Master Lock necklace), but his rise to stardom was swift. Soon, he became the “face” of WWE much in the same way as Austin and Hogan were in the past.
The era also highlighted a number of technical performers, including Randy Orton, Rey Mysterio, and (perhaps most famously) Brock Lesnar, the now-current Universal Champion. Says Angle, “I liked the “Ruthless Aggression Era, that’s when we switched from characters to wrestling. I really enjoyed the [breadth] of my athletic ability in that era.”
In the early 2010s, WWE’s developmental divisions got a huge overhaul. Rebranded as NXT, the league cultivated a number of now-famous talents, including Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, and Finn Balor. After a few years of Raw and its partner show Smackdown sharing WWE talent, McMahon reinstated the “brand split,” with each show having its own set of superstars. Notable superstars currently on the Raw brand include Reigns, Lesnar, Samoa Joe, and, of course, Braun Strowman. Strowman’s meteoric rise to stardom started in 2016, and his mind-blowing stunts on Raw have garnered millions of Youtube views.
The men’s division wasn’t the only part of Raw to get a huge facelift. In 2016, the “Divas” division got officially rebranded to the “Women’s division,” thanks to a combination of fan demand and the massive popularity of “The Four Horsewomen”: Charlotte, Bayley, Becky Lynch, and Sasha Banks. Banks makes it clear that she wanted to change the division from the very beginning.
Banks: “For me, that was always the goal. It’s so crazy, when I was getting signed, I was heading down to Florida Championship Wrestling, [a pre-NXT developmental brand]. They were still doing bikini matches and I remember just being so terrified [about them.] And I went out and I bought so many swimsuits. I’m not a model. I’m not a diva. So when I got actually signed, the first thing they said [was], ‘We’re not doing those matches anymore.’ And my heart was so happy. I was like ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ [laughs]. I had all my receipts and I returned those bathing suits right back.”
Levesque: “I think the world is in complaining state of mind about a lot of things. I feel like the era we’re in now, I feel like we’re sort of on the cusp of wildness. When I look at the talent base this year, when I look at the talent we have on the roster…Man, it’s deep. Is it fire on every single cylinder yet? Nope. But it’s right near there. And when it does, I think it’s just gonna explode again. The current era, all these things are happening right now. Raw, Smackdown, NXT—you just have all these crazy, great things happening. That’s never existed before. And I felt like this was gonna be one of those eras that sneaks up on you. Listen, when the Attitude Era was happening at first, it’s not like we all thought, ‘Oh, isn’t this magical?’ It was just crazy time frame. And you look at it later and go, ‘Boy, I didn’t realize how special that was.’”
Angle: “Back in the Attitude Era it was all about character. Nowadays, it’s about what you can do in that ring, and that’s what the fans demand these days. They want a legit world-class wrestler in that ring that can put on a four- or five-set match. The demand has changed, and you’ve got to really be able to roll with that demand. A lot of people ask me, ‘What is the best era of wrestling?’ [It’s] right now.”
Foley: “I don’t catch it every week like I used to, but in a way that’s fun, because I’ll turn on the TV and I’ll be like, ‘Whoa, when did Jason Jordan get be so entertaining? Or, ‘Wow, this Elias character is not only moving up as a character, but his songwriting skills are becoming more adept.’ And then I’ll say, ‘When did Drew Gulak become fun to watch?’ Every couple weeks there are surprises in store for me. I still enjoy it. I think it’s a credit to the show that they can take somebody who is watching every week, and give them something to look forward to every Monday. And then for people like me, and literally millions of other people, it’s just nice to know it’s there so that when we go by the channel, we find ourselves gravitating towards it.”
So what’s next for WWE Raw? It’s hard to say, especially with cable TV facing the cord-cutting era. But Levesque has made it clear that Raw will survive by adapting with the times, just like it did for the past 25 years. “Monday Night Raw has been on the air for 25 years. I know that we’re just getting started. I know that 25 years from now, no matter what format it’s in—where it lives, and where it exists, and whether it’s arriving through a new chip that’s directly in our head—we’ll be there.”
WWE celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Monday Night RAW on January 22 with a star-studded show featuring current superstars and past legends. Check your local TV listings.