Going back to at least 1937, the steel cage match was once promoted as being among the most dangerous matches one could participate in that could shorten a wrestler's career. It seems relatively tame compared to later variations done by Dusty Rhodes, the Memphis territories, Hell in a Cell, War Games, the Elimination Chamber, CZW's Cage Of Death, ect.
Accidentally invented by either Jake Roberts or Rick Rude, the DDT was once a devastating maneuver but it is now a standard move so watching an older match end with one stretches fan's willingness to suspend disbelief.
Ditto for moves like the Powerbomb, Superplex, Stampeder (running power slam), and — going back even further — the Thesz Press.
Several wrestlers who do use old school moves as finishers have their moves hyped up as "special", such as JBL's "Clothesline from Hell', Kevin Nash's Jackknife Powerbomb or Raven's Evenflow DDT.
Watching old AWA matches, moves like the clothesline and dropkick were also match enders back in the day.
The Tiger Mask vs. the Dynamite Kid series in the early '80s seems slow-paced and short by modern standards. At the time, those matches more or less established the notion of "high-flying" wrestlers.
Back in the 1980s, even title matches were considerably shorter than they are today (Hulk Hogan's famous victory over The Iron Sheik, for example, was barely five minutes long!) and were filmed in long shot, making you feel that you were actually in the arena, thus causing the novelty of watching a wrestling match at home on TV to come off as rather pointless. Add in the general lack of music, pyrotechnics, and so forth, and modern-day fans might think they're watching a Stylistic Suck!
This isn't universally true; Hogan title matches were short, but there were many long matches in the early days (especially at the arena shows). One of the WWWF (now WWE)'s early huge gates was a Shea Stadium show headlined by a rare babyface vs. babyface match. Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales went to a 75-minute draw. Also most television matches weren't filmed at the arena (WWWF was a rarity in that regard), but rather at local television studios, and featured quite a bit of camera play. Most of the "so forth" associated with modern TV wrestling was actually invented by the Von Erich Family in Dallas. In 1982.
Unless they go back and watch the 1980s stuff first, today's fans may never truly appreciate how game-changing a figure The Undertaker was. Debuting in 1990 right on the heels of a decade in which pro wrestling's style had been almost without exception family-friendly, colorful, and even corny, the sight of a seven-foot-tall, pale-skinned mute all in black who sought not only to defeat his opponents but to kill them (along with Paul Bearer and the "Dark Side" ring entrance theme, which was a lot more minimalist and less elegiac in the beginning, and thus creepier) was genuinely terrifying. Newer fans who may remember 'Taker as a blues-loving biker in the early 2000s might have a hard time picturing 'Taker's original image.
The 1992 Royal Rumble. While old school wrestling fans often consider it the best rumble for its ingenious and revolutionary booking of Ric Flair, these days, someone is booked to survive for almost the entire duration of the match in pretty much every single Rumble, and the match suffers from a notable lack of spots that modern day wrestling fans would expect.
The ladder match, became big to audiences in the 50 states at WrestleMania X. It was very exciting and revolutionary for its time. Fans from the same region who grew up watching TLC matches may find this match boring.(Of course, Canada, the UK and others had been seeing ladder matches for nearly two decades by that point and may have already come to that conclusion)
Fans of WWE's Brand Extension/Ruthless Aggression era got used to seeing main-event wrestlers - Eddie Guerrero, Edge, CM Punk - who don't have muscles on top of muscles. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels paved the way for all of them. Nether were small men by any means ( both 6-foot-1 and light heavyweights, which is still bigger than most American males), but they were frequently dwarfed by other "main event" opponents more often than not. It's hard to appreciate just how much of a big deal it was for Hart to become a three-time WWE Champion and then for Michaels to become the second (after Hulk Hogan) back-to-back Royal Rumble Match winner (and from the first-entrant position one of those times, no less!) and to defeat Hart clean for the WWE Championship in one of the longest WrestleMania matches ever at WrestleMania XII. Hard to believe now, but there was a time when people actually doubted the "Heart Break Kid."
And even this is nothing new. Smaller wrestlers have always had a more difficult time getting over in the US. Antonino Rocca and Bob Backlund were the exceptions rather than the rule. The only difference is the WWF took the big/muscular wrestler concept Up to Eleven by encouraging 'roided freaks so the difference between the bigger and smaller wrestlers was now that much more distinct.
The Montreal Screwjob, and the fierce personal/professional rivalry between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels that led to it. Nowadays (in large part due to the decline of kayfabe, something the Screwjob played a heavy role in) title belts are mostly seen as props, and the idea of a legitimate rivalry over one would seem ludicrous. At the time, almost all WWF Champions had been the company's top baby face, and had held their belts for considerable lengths of time.
Also common among lucha libre and cruiserweight wrestlers. As the style becomes more popular, more wrestles add more flippy stuff.
Speaking of the '96 Bash at the Beach, that show featured the now legendary "third man of the Outsiders" angle. (it was Hulk Hogan.) Watching that match today, in retrospect, you can see the supposed shocking swerve coming a mile away. This is probably because TNA now stages similar last-minute betrayals on a more or less regular basis.
Sabu these days is known more for screwing up his moves all the time despite nearly every major wrestling show from 1996 to 2012 copying them, often without credit.
The famous King of the Ring 1998 Hell in a Cell between the Undertaker and Mankind. Some fans conditioned to high-risk matches post-2000 view it as a two-bump spotfest, which would be missing the point of why it's famous. This was a time before TLC, et al. had opened up the WWE to potentially life-risking maneuvers, so a wrestler being thrown off the Cell through the announcer's table was truly mind-blowing (Shawn Michaels did a similar spot in the very first HIAC, but he was dangling off the cage and had a lot more control over where he was going). With that bump, it was assumed (correctly) that Mick Foley had done great harm to his body, which had Jim Ross apologizing that the match was being called off, only for Foley to get back up and continue, which culminated with Foley taking another breath-catching (unplanned!) bump through the cage (with a chair falling on Foley's face, knocking out his tooth). And yet he continued, with Jim Ross voicing legitimate concern to Foley's well-being and pleading for the match to end. The match was no longer a traditional bout, but a spectacular peek at what a wrestler was willing to put himself through for the entertainment of the fans, something that has been dulled away years later by other matches aping a formula that was born out of almost inhuman pain tolerance.
Even in The Attitude Era, few wrestlers would go to the insane lengths that Mick Foley was willing to go sell a match. The concept has been used up and most wrestlers won't make use of the cage in such ways anymore.This only serves to demonstrate how legendary Foley was.
The brawling-based "Main Event" style used by WWE. While trite and cliche now, and though its origins can be traced back to Bruiser Brody's then innovative style in the 70s, when WWE first began really using it in 1998 - primarily to cover for "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's neck injury - it was seen as revolutionary for allowing the sub-par wrestlers to have fast-paced, action-packed matches that the likes of smaller, more agile wrestlers like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels managed in early years.
Sable gets put down for being a "fake wrestler" (she had it written into her contract that she couldn't take front bumps at all for fear of damaging her implants, and she didn't bump much at all) and not as tough as today's Divas. Well, you have to understand that when she made her debut in WWE in the mid-1990s, the women's division had almost completely disappeared and it was rare to see females doing anything in the ring. The most famous Diva pre-Attitude Era, Sunny, was a manager who hardly wrestled at all). Sable also was a pioneer in proving that female wrestlers could be both blonde sex symbols and physical powerhouses. Jacqueline was WWE's first choice for new champion too, but Sable was popular enough for them to change their minds.
Trish Stratus was a huge success story during her career — WWE had brought in Sable as a valet in 1996 and she had a brief run with the revived WWE Women's Title before her ego took over and she made herself Persona Non Grata, but Trish herself was the first (in WWE at least) to develop onscreen from an eye candy valet with patchy mic skills to a charismatic star who is now regarded as one of the best female wrestlers in North America. These days at least 60% of the women's division in WWE (and some of TNA's roster too) is made up of former models brought in and trained to wrestle in the hopes of replicating Trish's success, and nearly all of them have failed to even get a fraction of Trish's popularity.
At the time of her debut in WWE, Lita's style of wrestling was very innovative for American female wrestlers at the time as moves such as headscissors, hurricanranas, and moonsaults were barely used by women in WWE (there were plenty of high-flying women in Japan, though). These days (see the Trish example above) due to having to work extremely short matches all the time, the models brought in by WWE will often learn flashy moves like hurricanranas to make their matches appear more exciting and cover up their lack of wrestling ability. If the models are former gymnasts this can work fine and they eventually develop into competent wrestlers (Eve Torres, Kelly Kelly) or they can just come across as sloppy spot monkeys (*cough* Ashley Massaro). When watching a WWE divas match, if a girl is doing only flashy moves and throwing weak punches and clotheslines then she hasn't been wrestling that long. If there's proper groundwork and chain work in there, she's a lot more experienced.
Also, moves such as moonsaults and hurricanranas are more staples of women's wrestling these days than men's in WWE at least due to the retirement of the Cruiserweight division.
This effect can also taint angles(or "story arcs" as the "writers" like to call them), gimmicks(or "characters") or gimmick matches("concept matches"), that have since been copied or recycled as per the seven year rule, or simply because those events have lost the context for what made them work so well at the time. Austin joining forces with Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania X-7 is far less of a shocking moment for viewers who are used to that kind of Shocking Swerve happening all the time in wrestling. And some of the baby faces of the '80s would likely be considered bland and without personality by modern standards, because clean-cut good guys were hugely popular in the '80s, whereas these days that's the sign of a Jobber with no gimmick.
Speaking of the Divas wrestling, the way the division was from late 2001 until mid 2004 was hugely groundbreaking. American women's wrestling had not been as competitive or hard-hitting since the 90s. For the first time in WWE in ages, women who could wrestle (and wrestle well) were being given competitive matches, storylines, characters and feuds. These days there are a whole slew of all-female promotions like SHIMMER and WSU that enable women wrestlers to shine so in an ironic way, these promotions that are now considered healthy alternatives to WWE's Divas actually owe their existence to the success of the division in the days of Trish Stratus and Lita. So these days a lot of the matches pale in comparison to the SHIMMER women but yet these were also the matches that convinced American crowds that women could go just as hard as the men.
Many women wrestlers active between 1995-2001 in the USA are often dismissed, while shows popular in 2002, such as Women's Extreme Wrestling, are derided as "smut" or such by fans who didn't know the rarity of seeing a woman in a good match for those 6-7 years. Dial up internet, no pay pals, no DVD sets, staple independent events not existing(no ChickFight, ect). Some wrestlers from this period eventually got more recognition in WWF's more serious women's division, SHIMMER, WSU and such but just how significant they were to the survival of women's wrestling in the country is usually lost on viewers when they find their earlier efforts online or on DVD. April Hunter is sometimes accused of "accomplishing nothing" or has fans insisting her presence added nothing to events but at a time there was a fan movement to get her hired by the WWF.note To put in perspective, in 2003 Hunter was voted "best Independent wrestler ahead of AJ Styles and second only to Sting in wrestler most requested by fans to get a WWE contract.
Addressed in this article with regards to Candice Michelle. Similar to Trish Stratus, WWE had buried its women's division and released most of its actual wrestlers. They brought in various models to be characters on TV and there were very few active wrestlers left. Candice was one such model that put in the work to improve her wrestling. Critics and fans were heaping praise on her for it. Watching her matches back now makes her come across as rather average in the ring but back in 2007, fans were shocked that a Diva Search contestant could evolve into a competent wrestler. This became old hat one year on as the article points out - Michelle McCool, Layla, Kelly Kelly, Maryse (and eventually Eve Torres who came along a little later) had also progressed in the ring and were outperforming Candice greatly.