It’s been just over 30 years since World Wrestling Entertainment’s Monday Night Raw made its debut, forever changing the entertainment landscape.
It might be hard for some to believe that a professional wrestling program could have such an impact on the larger entertainment world. For one, professional wrestling is a niche interest that many look down on because of its purported “fakeness.”
Yes, professional wrestling is a spectacle that leans heavily into performance art and athletic theater, but it is that aspect of it that makes it such an important part of the entertainment world.
Prior to Raw’s debut, wrestling shows were pre-taped on soundstages in front of small audiences as well as arena shows. Raw changed that formula and brought a cohesive show in front of a live audience with storylines and matches unfolding in real time.
Raw essentially became a serialized soap opera that entertained the masses for over 30 years. The show has affected both fans of wrestling as well as those outside of the industry.
Without Monday Night Raw, the entertainment world would not exist as it does today.
The Rise of the Antihero
When it comes to antiheroes, many point to Tony Soprano from the HBO show The Sopranos as the first one to grace our TV screens. That show debuted in 1999 and ran until 2007.
Monday Night Raw, however, predates The Sopranos in terms of antiheroes.
WWE, then called the World Wrestling Federation, was locked in a ratings war with rival promotion World Championship Wrestling. Every Monday night, then-WWF’s Raw and WCW’s Nitro would go head to head with Nitro winning for 84 weeks from 1996 until 1998.
The WWF needed a change so it shifted to edgier, more reality-based content in 1997, ushering in the famed Attitude Era. This was a time when wrestling became cool and much more mainstream thanks to the edgier direction.
It was during this era that many of the company’s biggest names came into existence but none were bigger than “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
Austin was the face of the WWF throughout the late ‘90s largely because of his attitude. He drank beer, he cussed, he flipped off everyone, and he beat up his boss. The best part was Austin was a good guy.
WWF broke the mold of what a traditional good guy looked like. Gone were the days of Hulk Hogan telling everyone to say their prayers and take their vitamins. The attitude of the late ‘90s was here and Austin was the biggest hero, or antihero, in the company.
Austin turned face (became a good guy) in 1997 and became WWF Champion in 1998. He feuded with villainous WWF owner Vince McMahon throughout the era, clashing with the “corporate champion” The Rock in ‘99.
Every Monday night, viewers knew when that glass shattered, they were in for a treat from a man who did things his own way. Whether it was beating up Mr. McMahon in a hospital room or driving a beer truck to the ring, we were all glued to Raw.
All this predated Tony Soprano’s 1999 debut and the alleged start of the antihero trend. I’m not saying Austin is the actual start of antiheroes because he and Soprano are completely different characters.
I do believe that he helped usher in the antihero trend as part of a wave that synced up with the attitude of the late ‘90s.You’ve got to remember that wrestling was huge at this time so Austin was highly visible and his attitude was not lost on anyone.
Raw Graduates Abound in Entertainment
Pro wrestling, at its core, is about acting. That can be acting in an athletic sense or carrying out a storyline outside of the ring. It should not come as a surprise that many of these wrestlers move onto Hollywood.
The biggest former wrestlers that grace our screens are Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Dave Bautista, and John Cena, along with numerous others in smaller roles. All of them have spent time on Raw.
Johnson and Bautista are arguably the most successful in their acting careers and both were mainstays on Raw at one point.
Raw was the only show for WWE until 1999 when Smackdown debuted. Johnson was on both shows as wrestlers were not exclusive during the Attitude Era. It can be a lot of fun to go back and see where The Rock got his start as an actor.
Bautista, then operating under the ring name Batista, had one of his biggest storylines on Raw. In 2005, he feuded with mentor Triple H and won the World Heavyweight Title, officially arriving on the main stage.
Cena spent many years on Smackdown before jumping to Raw in 2005. He was involved in a fantastic rivalry with Adam “Edge” Copeland, another wrestler who has gone on to acting, in 2006. Cena eventually became the face of the company throughout the 2000s and 2010s.
Without Monday Night Raw, these guys may have never gotten their starts. Sure, they could’ve worked their way up, but Raw gave them a platform to hone their skills and grow.
The entertainment landscape would look mighty different without those three in the acting field.
Raw Spectacles Influence All Manner of Entertainment
While we can look to the wrestlers as what made Raw so impactful, the entire production deserves some attention.
You can tune into any episode of Raw and see just how much WWE puts into the overall production. Even in the early days, it would lean into the spectacle of its production.
Fast forward to today and you can see the impact everywhere.
What politician hasn’t walked to the stage with a theme song blaring? What sporting event doesn’t utilize pyrotechnics in player introductions? There are a host of other practices that Raw helped innovate.
Paul “Triple H” Levesque, chief content officer for WWE, said he believes Raw has impacted the way the NFL and NBA are shot for TV. I don’t think he’s wrong in this assumption.
If there’s something the WWE does well, it’s spectacle. It’s the overall show and the production value both on stage and via video packages.
Sports, in particular, draw inspiration from Raw as it hypes games and athletes. The performance art found on Raw, I think, extends to entertainment as actors essentially cut promos to hype an upcoming movie.
It’s all there and we have Monday Night Raw to thank for it.
Monday Night Raw has left a lasting impact on the world of entertainment despite its niche following. That wasn’t always the case as pro wrestling used to be the cool thing throughout the late ‘90s and 2000s.
Without Raw, the entertainment world would look a whole lot different. The show and WWE’s other productions will continue to be a benefit to the entertainment world for years to come.
Here’s to another 30 years.
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