WWE’s influential Attitude Era is considered one of the best and most famous eras in pro wrestling history. From 1997 to 2002, WWE (then known as the WWF) entered a weekly ratings battle with their chief rivals, WCW, which became known as the Monday Night Wars.
To triumph over its competitors, the WWE altered its programming direction, gearing its show more towards older viewers and placing a heavier emphasis on violence, language, and subversive adult themes unseen in WWE until that point.
More than two decades later, the Attitude Era is still recognized as one of the most remarkable times to be a wrestling fan, with the WWE delivering entertaining matches featuring the likes of famed competitors like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and the Undertaker on a regular basis.
It was a time that required exceptional talent to rise to the top of WWE’s ranks — both to carry the WWE’s Attitude Era on their shoulders and to compete against WCW’s legendary wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and Randy Savage.
Fortunately, these WWE wrestlers were more than ready to rise to the occasion, delivering fantastic matches and promos that remain some of the best in the world of pro wrestling.
From Attitude Era forerunners like Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart to later arrivals like Kurt Angle, RVD, and Booker T, here are 15 of the best wrestlers of WWE’s Attitude Era.
1. Stone Cold Steve Austin
No wrestler better fits the Attitude Era climate than Stone Cold Steve Austin. Arriving in the WWF in 1995, Austin had a rocky start under his “Ringmaster” gimmick, although he quickly found success as the rough-talking, unpredictable Texas Rattlesnake, Stone Cold.
A far cry from the family-friendly personalities of Hulk Hogan, Austin was the complete antithesis of everything fans had come to associate with a world-class professional wrestler. Chugging beer, cursing profusely, and beating everyone up just for the fun of it, he literally put the attitude in the Attitude Era.
His feuds with every wrestler on this list have become practically legendary — especially his era-defining rivalry with Vince McMahon. His in-ring work was exceptional, but his promos and pure charisma led to him being one of the breakout stars of the ‘90s. Without him, it’s doubtful the WWF would’ve emerged victorious from the Monday Night Wars, giving the company enough of a much-needed edge to reign supreme over WCW.
2. The Rock
The Rock has had one of the most interesting and eventful careers of any wrestler inside and out of the WWE. Aside from his incredibly successful career in Hollywood after he left his full-time position as a wrestler in 2003, The Rock was one of the main players in WWE’s Attitude Era.
A gifted in-ring performer, The Rock’s charismatic mic work lifted him to stardom in WWE. Finding his voice during his 1997 stint in the Nation of Domination (which he eventually became the leader of), the Brahma Bull soon became an unexpected draw among WWE’s audiences, his popularity evident even when he was portrayed as a villain.
With his numerous catchphrases — one of which became the basis for WWE’s sister program, SmackDown — The Rock was one of the defining wrestlers of the WWE from 1998 to 2002. He perfectly occupied the role as WWE’s mouthpiece — a bold and forward trash-talker who dressed his opponents down before they even had the chance to step foot in the ring together.
3. Vince McMahon
Yes, technically, Vince McMahon wasn’t a full-time wrestler — and even when he did wrestle, he was mediocre at best. But still, we’re willing to excuse his subpar in-ring performance and look instead more fully on his contributions to the company outside of the ring.
As his Mr. McMahon character, McMahon was the corrupt onscreen authority figure of the WWF, using his position as the company’s owner to regularly interfere with matches and crown champions he felt best represented the company. More often than not, this put him in direct confrontation against the likes of The Rock, the Undertaker, and of course, Stone Cold, who (mostly) resisted McMahon’s pull in the late ‘90s — although each of them eventually aligned with McMahon at some point or another.
Through his feuds with his nemesis, Stone Cold, McMahon became the stereotypical onscreen boss everyone loved to hate. Like Nero leering over his own twisted version of Rome, McMahon seemed like a dictator driven mad with power, using it to his own sadistic advantage. True, he wasn’t much of a wrestler, but no list detailing Attitude Era personalities is complete without the devil incarnate himself, Mr. McMahon.
4. The Undertaker
There aren’t many wrestlers who have been as universally tied to the WWE as the Undertaker. Making his debut in 1990, the Phenom became one of the few wrestlers to remain 100% loyal to Vince McMahon, standing by his boss’s side throughout the turbulence of the Monday Night Ratings War.
For over 30 years, the Undertaker wrestled for McMahon’s company as one of the jewels of the WWE, using his creative gimmick and unparalleled athletic prowess as the basis for all of his success (seriously, the agility this man demonstrated in spite of his size is unreal). Moving with the grace and speed of a cruiserweight and possessing the strength to lift behemoths like Yokozuna, Vader, and The Big Show off their feet, few wrestlers could do what the Undertaker did in the ring.
With the several iterations of his character over the years, Taker managed to consistently stay relevant with the more brash tide of the WWE’s Attitude Era. It didn’t matter whether he was the Lord of Darkness, the leader of the Ministry, or the American Badass, the Phenom was always at the forefront of the WWE, and with good reason — he simply was that good.
5. Shawn Michaels
Like his in-ring and real-life rival, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels was only able to enjoy a small sliver of the Attitude Era before leaving the company owing to a near-catastrophic back injury. However, Michaels’ influence on the Attitude Era was plain, with few wrestlers so effortlessly mapping the era’s path as well as Michaels.
In the mid-'90s, Michaels was one of the premiere athletes in the WWE, getting massive heat from audiences as a heel and drawing stadium-wide cheers as a face. By the beginning of the Attitude Era, though, Michaels had tweaked his character to better suit the times, aligning with Rick Rude, Chyna, and best friend Triple H to form the famed D-Generation X stable.
As the first official leader of the group, Michaels popularized so many aspects of the faction that would become synonymous with the Attitude Era — the suggestive puns, the risque jokes, the brash, in-your-face promo styles. He was the perfect heel in 1997 and early ‘98, at the very top of his game. Fittingly, too, he would miraculously return to the WWE at the very end of its Attitude Era, feuding with his former DX partner, Triple H.
6. Kurt Angle
WWE lost a phenomenal talent when Bret Hart decided to leave the company and sign with WCW after the controversial Montreal Screwjob incident in 1997. With Hart no longer in the picture, WWE struggled to find someone to fill the Hit Man’s place as the top technical wrestler on the roster.
That is until Kurt Angle came along at the end of 1999. A former Olympic gold medalist, Angle was promptly booked as a smug, self-satisfied heel in the WWF who condescended to the fans at ringside.
It was an ingenious gimmick choice — especially when you consider that had Angle debuted in the early ‘90s, he would’ve been Vince McMahon’s star hero after Hulk Hogan’s departure to WCW. A gifted technician in the ring, he not only met the bar set by Bret Hart, he may have even narrowly surpassed it.
7. Bret Hart
Before the Attitude Era, Bret Hart was the main star of the WWF after Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and so many other faces left for the apparently greener pastures of WCW. Carrying the company on his back, the Hit Man was a world-class athlete who regularly competed for — and won — the WWF Championship off and on throughout the mid-'90s.
Arguably the smoothest technical wrestler the company’s ever seen, Hart was a precursor to later submission- and suplex-based performers like Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, and Bryan Danielson.
Unfortunately, due to Hart leaving the WWF in 1997, the Hit Man was only around for the very early stages of the WWF, leaving by the time things really started to take swing in 1998. As a result, we were forever robbed of the opportunity to see Hart compete against The Rock, Chris Jericho, or his American counterpart, Kurt Angle.
8. Mick Foley
The Attitude Era is practically synonymous with wrestlers known for taking physical risks in their careers, such as RVD, the Hardys, or Shane McMahon. But no one — and I mean, no one — comes close to the ridiculously dangerous bumps Mick Foley took throughout his time in WWF.
Foley’s lasting legacy will forever be the numerous death-defying stunts he pulled in his career — like taking numerous unprotected chair shots to his head at Royal Rumble 1999 or diving off the top of the Hell in a Cell in one of the WWE’s most famous matches.
But aside from his penchant for literally putting his life on the line again and again, Foley still did great character work when it came to his personas — like the juking and jiving Dude Love, the boiler room-dwelling Mankind, or the pain-loving street brawler, Cactus Jack.
9. Triple H
Triple H catches a ton of flack for marrying Vince McMahon’s daughter, guaranteeing his employer’s favor and his eventual rise to the top of WWE. But those same critics easily forget just how talented Triple H was from a character, promo, and in-ring perspective.
After abandoning his gimmick as the pretentious, tailcoat-wearing Connecticut blue blood, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Triple H came into his own after his tag partner Shawn Michaels’ debilitating back injury in 1998.
From that point on, Triple H became one of the main villains of the Attitude Era, especially when partnered with Vince and Stephanie McMahon. In many ways, he’s responsible for helping establish emerging talents like The Rock, Chris Jericho, and Kurt Angle, and continued to solidify the reputation of long-standing wrestlers like Stone Cold, the Undertaker, and even Shawn Michaels upon his return to the ring in 2002.
10. Chris Jericho
In contrast to RVD and Booker T, Chris Jericho was an established WCW wrestler who came to WWF at the right time. Sure, it took him a little bit to find his footing in the company, but Jericho’s undeniable talent in the ring and on the mic led to his first major WWF push in the 2000s.
Even today, Jericho seems one of the few wrestlers capable of working with anyone, elevating any opponent he appeared opposite of in a feud. His fantastic rivalries against Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle, and The Rock are pure evidence of this fact, showing just how wonderful an acquisition he was for the WWF.
While a popular face, it’s Jericho’s extraordinary heel work that continues to set him apart as one of the most underrated performers in WWF television at the time. It didn’t matter if he held a championship around his waist or not — like his lucrative musical career, Jericho was a rockstar on WWF programming no matter what.
It took some time for Glenn Jacobs to find the right character during his early days in WWE. Initially portrayed as a sadistic dentist and, later, a Diesel impersonator, Jacobs eventually came into his own as Kane, the demonic long-lost brother of the Undertaker.
With a backstory straight from a Stephen King novel that claimed he was severely burned from a childhood accident caused by the Undertaker, Kane seemed more like a slasher villain than he did your average wrestler.
Walking to the ring with the same intimidating stride as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, he seemed to embody all the characteristics that made the Undertaker such a memorable character in the early ‘90s. If he’d received a major push, he might even have had the same impact his onscreen brother had — but unfortunately, he was never fully utilized as a world champion contender after his single day as the title holder in 1998.
12. Jeff Hardy
One of the best aspects of the Attitude Era was the number of fantastic tag teams that came about at the time. From ECW veterans like the Dudley Boyz to the brash and arrogant team of Edge & Christian, there was no shortage of memorable duos to see wrestle — none more notable than the ultimate risk-takers, the Hardy Boyz.
One of the first “modern” high-flying teams in pro wrestling, Matt and Jeff Hardy provided a new definition to the word hardcore. Not content to bash their opponents with chairs or trashcans, the brothers took bigger, bolder, and drastically more dangerous bumps, soaring off the tops of ladders and crashing into table after table with regularity.
From a tag team perspective, Jeff was always great when paired with his brother, Matt, but you can’t overlook his impressive singles career beginning in 2001. While each of WWF’s tag team wrestlers is worthy of praise, few are more deserving than the younger Hardy brother.
13 – The Big Show
Upon entering the WWF in early 1999, The Big Show was immediately established as one of the company's dominant forces to be reckoned with.
He was placed in a similar super-heavyweight role previously held by André the Giant, The Big Show was billed as a force of nature — someone who could quickly destroy his opponents with minimal effort, fighting off entire groups with ease.
Between his work as a comedic face or a merciless heel, The Big Show was a consistently entertaining performer during his peak years (most especially ‘99). Some might consider him an underwhelming World Champion or a mediocre performer who relied too extensively on his size, but let’s face it: his feuds against the Rock, Mankind, or the Undertaker were consistently fun to watch.
14 – Rob Van Dam
Like fellow Alliance member, Booker T, Rob Van Dam was one of the many new faces to arrive as part of the Invasion storyline. Unlike Booker and the other members of the Alliance, however, RVD almost instantly won over audiences with his high-octane performances, benefiting greatly from his ECW background and hardcore reputation.
Through his extreme matches with Jeff Hardy, RVD became one of the Alliance’s key players and one of the most cheered-for wrestlers in the predominantly villainous faction.
However, as with Booker T, RVD never seemed to rise to the great heights of other WWF talent before him, failing to win the World Championship he so clearly deserved until 2006. If he’d signed earlier to WWE, perhaps his career might’ve been different — after all, imagine the matches he could have had against ‘99 Undertaker, Mankind, or pre-injury Shawn Michaels.
15 – Booker T
One of the late arrivals to the Attitude Era, Booker T transitioned to the WWE during the 2001 Invasion storyline.
A notable talent from WCW, it seemed Booker was an ideal choice to fit into the atmosphere of WWF during the time — clashing against the likes of the Rock, Chris Jericho, and Kurt Angle, among others.
While his feud against Stone Cold was underrated, Booker was quickly relegated to the upper midcard from 2002 onwards. If he had arrived at the WWF earlier, he might’ve made a more significant impact — however, Booker still managed to shine bright in whatever role he was expected to hold in the company.