The late 1990s had a surge of popularity in professional wrestling. The WWF is a big reason for this surge and the Monday Night Wars was a great interprogram rivalry between the WWF and WCW. The ratings contest between the WCW and WWF was neck and neck until about June of 1996 when the WWF took a dive but then in March of 1998 the WWF and WCW got into a dead heat in ratings again until the WWF took the ratings by storm and flew past the WCW to never look back again in March 1999. What happened in that time period that went from the WWF's lowest rating at the time of about 1.5 in December 1996 to steadily increase to its highest rating of about 8.1 in June 1999?
Stone Cold Steve Austin: Originally came onto the scene much earlier in his career, Austin became a star in the WWF from 1996 up until his retirement in 2003. In 1997 the fans fell in love with his rule breaking antics when he was eliminated in the Royal Rumble but snuck back into the ring without the officials seeing. A rivalry with Austin and Bret Hart led to Hart defeating Austin in a Submission match at Wrestlemania 13, where Austin passed out in a puddle of his own blood as Hart relentlessly held onto his patented Sharpshooter. Austin's biggest contribution to the popularity surge is the rivalry between him and boss Vince McMahon in 1998-1999. Austin flipped off McMahon and gave him the occassional Stunner. He then kidnapped McMahon and held him in the ring at gunpoint, which was a toy gun that had a sign reading "Bang 3:16." Austin also soaked McMahon with a beer mobile driven up to ringside, poured cement into McMahon's car and much more. At Valentine's Day Massacre, Austin and McMahon squared off in a steel cage. This match began with a bloodied McMahon, after Austin hit his head off the cage causing him to fall through the announcer table.
The Ministry of Darkness: In my opinion this was the greatest group of WWF history. October 1998 (when the WCW and WWF were again tied in ratings) the Ministry began its formation. Led by the Undertaker, the Ministry was one of the most entertaining and contraversial groups of all time. The Undertaker's henchmen, the Acolytes (Farooq and Bradshaw), abducted other WWF athletes to convert them to the dark side. Dennis Knight and Mabel are 2 that were abducted by the Acolytes to become Mideon and Viscera, respectively. The Brood (Edge, Christian and Gangrel) was also recruited by the Undertaker at this time. The Ministry during this time crucified Stone Cold, abducting Ken Shamrock's sister Ryan and Stephanie McMahon, burned a crucifix on Vince McMahon's front lawn, hung the Big Boss Man from the Hell in a Cell, burning Stephanie McMahon's teddy bear, the torture of its own member Christian and the Brood's ritual blood baths.
The Hardcore Championship: The hardcore title was 1st awarded to Mankind in November 1998. This belt added much entertainment as wrestlers involved in these matches were able to use many varieties of objects to win the match. This belt began a rivalry between Al Snow and Hardcore Holly in which the 2 squared off in Feb 1999 at Valentines Day Massacre. The 2 wrestlers took the match into the Mississippi river where Hardcore Holly eventually won the match. The Hardcore title also sparked up one of the most disturbing rivalries of WWF history. Al Snow and the Big Boss Man in the fall of 1999. The feud began over Al Snow's dog Pepper. Boss Man went to the point where he kidnapped Pepper, cooked the dog and fed it to Al Snow. This led to one of the oddest matches, the Kennel from Hell match, where a cage and hell in a cell were combined as rottweilers were running around the outside of the ring locked inside the cell.
New Variety of Matches: The Hell in a Cell, Inferno Match, Hardcore Match, Buried Alive Match, TLC Match, I Quit Match, Ironman Match, Bra and Panties Match, Empty Arena Match, Boiler Room Brawl, 1st Blood Match, Kennel from Hell Match and Table Match are among the many popular matches either added or brought back in the late 1990s. Nobody can ever forget the Hell in a Cell Match between Mankind and the Undertaker when Mankind was thrown from the cell through the announcers table. Kane vs the Undertaker in the inferno match that ended with Kane being set on fire. The numerous Buried Alive Matches with Stone Cold vs the Undertaker, Vince McMahon vs Undertaker and Mankind vs Undertaker were very entertaining. The TLC match with the Hardy Boyz vs Dudley Boyz vs Edge and Christian in 2000 remains as 1 of the best tag team matches ever in wrestling history. The Rock made Mankind submit in the 1st ever I Quit Match in WWF history. Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels Ironman Match remains the most memorable match of all time in which Shawn Michaels held off the Sharpshooter for a grueling 30 seconds to drive the match into sudden death overtime. The Bra and Panties match between the WWF Divas brought on great reception among the male audience. The Rock vs Mankind Empty Arena Match during halftime of the Superbowl and Mankind vs Undertaker in the Boiler Room Brawl were great matches. Kane bloodied Stone Cold to win the 1st Blood Match while Al Snows rivalry with Big Boss Man sparked the Kennel from Hell match. The uprising of the Dudley Boyz table antics brought about the incorporation of the Table Match as well as many other matches incorporated into this grand time period of WWF history.
New Faces: Kane, Mankind, Stone Cold, Triple H, The Rock, Edge, Farooq, The Hardy Boyz, Al Snow, Ahmed Johnson, Ken Shamrock, The Big Show, Kurt Angel, Steven Richard, Mark Henry, Val Venis, Godfather and many many more joined the WWF during this time period. Kane, Mankind and Al Snow added a dark and deranged setting while Stone Cold and Triple H played in as the bad ****. The Rock was the fan favorite while Steven Richards was booed viciously. The Hardy Boyz brought on highflying exciting while The Big Show used his massive frame and brute strength. Farooq and Ahmend Johnson where big muscle men and Edge was a combination of power and agility. Former Olympic wrestler Kurt Angel and UFC fighter Ken Shamrock stepped foot inside the ring. The Godfather was the pimp while Val Venis was the lover.
The Divas: The Godfather's "hoetrain," Jerry Lawlor cheering to see "puppies" and the new sexual twist of the females in the WWF was huge amung male viewers. Sunny, Marlena, Sable and Chyna quickly eclipsed Jacqueline and Luna in popularity. Other Divas attracting the male viewers include Lita and Stephanie McMahon and later on include Trish Stratus, Molly Holly and Stacy Keibler.
These are some of the many reasons why I believe that the time period from 1996-2000 has been the best 5 year time period for the WWF and why from December 1996- June 1999 the WWF's ratings went up about 6.6 points from a 1.5 to an 8.1.