In the world of professional wrestling, it all comes down to storylines. Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? And what are they fighting each other for?
Sounds simple enough. But to paraphrase a famous poem, even the best laid storylines can go awry.
Wrestlers get hurt unexpectedly, sidelining them for months. Sometimes they miss shows. Sometimes they get suspended or fired. And sometimes the bookers make last-minute changes based on any number of other factors not always within their control like the audience’s lack of enthusiasm.
For every WWE program that seemingly goes exactly as planned (CM Punk/John Cena, Randy Savage/Ricky Steamboat) or flat-out stiffs (Triple H/Kane during the Attitude Era, Red Rooster/Brooklyn Brawler), there are the ones that never happen at all (Bret Hart/Hulk Hogan, Daniel Bryan/The Undertaker).
Then, there are the happy accidents, the back-up programs that were implemented because the real plans fell apart. These Plan Bs, if you will, sometimes work out so well that you wonder why they weren’t the original storylines to begin with. In fact, had they not taken place, the history of WWE would be very different.
Here are five notable examples:
1. “The Natural” Butch Reed misses a TV taping (June 2, 1987).
Shortly after winning the InterContinental title from Randy Savage at WrestleMania III, Ricky Steamboat asked WWF boss Vince McMahon for some time off. McMahon would only allow it if The Dragon dropped the belt. After a series of cage matches with Savage on the house show circuit, a reluctant and disappointed Steamboat ultimately agreed to the demand.
The plan called for him to lose the strap to Butch Reed during a WWF Superstars taping on June 2, 1987. However, there was a big problem. Reed never showed up.
Then-WWF World Champion Hulk Hogan made a suggestion. Why not use his friend Wayne Ferris as a replacement?
Ferris arrived in the company in the fall of 1986. Originally booked as a Hogan-supporting babyface, he was floundering. Fans immediately rejected him. Things started to turn around for the Elvis impersonator when he asked for a vote of confidence (which he didn’t get) and hired “Colonel” Jimmy Hart as his manager. Now sounding delusional about having the fans on his side (he never acknowledged their boos), he started to generate heat, especially after whacking Jake Roberts in the head with a real guitar on the set of his interview segment, The Snake Pit.
At WrestleMania III, he got a cheap pinfall victory over The Snake by holding one of the ring ropes. A similar finish would be used in his IC title match with Steamboat.
Rightly considered an unexpected upset at the time, little did anyone realize how significant this title change would become. Ferris, billed as The Honky Tonk Man, would start declaring himself the greatest InterContinental Champion of all time, a catchphrase he would repeat in pretty much every promo he would go on to cut. This greatly offended Savage who would spent the rest of 1987 and early 1988 unsuccessfully challenging him for the belt.
Savage was supposed to win the title for the second time at some point but Ferris refused to put him over. That meant a change of plans for WrestleMania IV. Originally, Ted DiBiase was going to win the World title tournament. Savage, with an assist from Hogan, would pin The Million Dollar Man instead.
Ferris would move on to feud with Brutis Beefcake, the man he was supposed to drop the title to at the first SummerSlam in August 1988. But Beefcake was ultimately replaced by an unbilled Ultimate Warrior who would squash Ferris in less than a minute.
Because Butch Reed failed to show up for work that June afternoon in 1987, The Honky Tonk Man became the longest reigning IC Champion of all time and played a major role in the formation of the Megapowers.
2. Triple H gets punished for the MSG Curtain Call (1996)
It was a longstanding, unwritten rule in pro wrestling: no matter what, don’t break character when you’re performing. But on May 19, 1996, at the end of a house show in New York’s Madison Square Garden, it was openly broken.
In the early 90s, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall had found great success in the WWF as Diesel and Razor Ramon. But when rival company WCW guaranteed them more money in secure contracts, the lure proved too strong to resist. After wrestling their final WWF matches at the MSG show, along with their real-life pals Triple H and Shawn Michaels, they climbed into the ring, embraced and raised each other’s arms to the delight of the sold-out audience.
At first, this wasn’t seen as a big deal. But gradually, over time, there was internal grumbling. And someone needed to be punished.
Nash and Hall had already left. As for The Heartbreak Kid, he was a main eventer the company couldn’t afford to lose, even on a temporary basis. That left relative newbie Hunter Hearst Helmsley. He would spend the next year or so losing more often than winning.
The timing sucked because Helmsley was going to be pushed as the 1996 King Of The Ring. Instead, he put over a past-his-prime Jake Roberts in the first round. The Snake would make it all the way to the finals where he would square off against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Helmsley’s replacement.
After finishing off Roberts with the Stone Cold Stunner, Austin would do a post-match interview with Dok Hendrix. As Roberts was helped to the back by some referees, The Texas Rattlesnake would cut the promo of his life as he famously bragged, “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!” Although a heel at the time, in the aftermath of WrestleMania 13 the following year, Austin would go on to become one of the most unlikely babyfaces in WWE history, drawing huge money wherever he performed and being pushed for the world title on multiple occasions.
As for Triple H, he would be pushed as the 1997 King Of The Ring and eventually go on to become a 14-time WWE World Champion.
3. Edge unexpectedly retires, vacating the World Heavyweight Championship (April 2011)
Shortly after retaining his World Heavyweight Championship against Royal Rumble winner Alberto Del Rio in the opening match of WrestleMania 27, The Rated R Superstar shocked the wrestling world by suddenly announcing his retirement. Due to persistent neck issues and the serious risk of doing further, permanent damage, he ended his career and then officially vacated the WHC.
This put the WWE bookers in a bind. Edge was supposed to have a ladder match with Del Rio at the next pay-per-view, Extreme Rules. But with Edge no longer allowed to work, who would face the Mexican Aristocrat for the title instead?
In the end, it would be Edge’s lifelong pal Christian. Thanks to a last-minute assist from Edge, Captain Charisma would climb the ladder and snag the belt. Two days later, the babyface champion would drop the title during a Smackdown taping to Randy Orton which set up a series of entertaining rematches, more title changes and a heel turn. Three years later, Christian quietly retired himself.
4. The Rock gets seriously injured during WrestleMania 29 (April 7, 2013)
In 2011, The Rock was announced as the host of WrestleMania 27. During the main event, which originally ended in a double countout, he ordered the WWE title match between The Miz and John Cena to continue. After rock bottoming the challenger, The Miz retained. The very next night on Raw, Cena and Rock agreed to have a match at WrestleMania 28, giving themselves a full year to hype the encounter. Rock got the victory.
At the 2013 Royal Rumble, The Rock defeated CM Punk to become WWE Champion. Cena won the Royal Rumble match to get a title shot at WrestleMania 29.
During the match, Rock got seriously hurt. (Good thing Cena was scheduled to win back the strap.) Unfortunately, this affected The Rock’s next program.
On the April 8th edition of Raw, Rock was supposed to be attacked by Brock Lesnar. But because of his injury, he was instead sent to the hospital for successful emergency surgery. The Lesnar assault was supposed to begin yet another year-long build to WrestleMania. But with Rock hurt and eventually back to making movies, this left Lesnar without a dance partner.
Enter The Undertaker. Although he reportedly requested a match with Daniel Bryan, The Dead Man was ultimately booked to face The Beast Incarnate at WrestleMania 30. By this point, The Streak was still intact. Taker had won 21 straight matches at the event. There wasn’t much widespread expectation it was in any serious danger, despite the red flag promos of Lesnar’s advocate Paul Heyman and a new T-shirt with the slogan, “Eat. Sleep. Conquer The Streak.”
In what was one of the most closely guarded secrets in professional wrestling history, not even the referee in the match knew what the finish was. After three F5s, Lesnar gave The Phenom his first and only WrestleMania loss. If The Rock hadn’t gotten that injury against John Cena in 2013, would someone besides Lesnar been booked to break The Streak in 2014? We’ll never know.
5. A burned-out CM Punk walks away from the WWE after the Royal Rumble (2014)
The Straight Edge Superstar had accomplished a lot in WWE. Winning Money In The Bank twice. Becoming InterContinental Champion, a co-holder of the tag titles, and even a multiple-time World Champion. But there was one goal on his list he had yet to tick off: main-eventing WrestleMania.
The closest he ever came was WrestleMania 28, when he successfully defended the WWE title against Chris Jericho in the second-to-last match of the night. (Rock/Cena headlined the event.)
After losing to The Undertaker at WrestleMania 29, Punk requested some time off to heal from injuries, a sabbatical that lasted about two and a half months. At the end of 2013, there was a segment on Raw to hype the John Cena/Randy Orton world title unification match at TLC. At some point, with a whole bunch of former world champions in the ring, Punk got into it with former rival Triple H. It was no accident. According to reports later on, the WWE had big plans for him that potentially could’ve gotten him that long elusive WrestleMania main event booking.
While feuding with Corporate Kane, Punk became entrant #1 in the 2014 Royal Rumble and lasted almost the entire match before being tossed from the ring by an already eliminated Kane himself. Shortly thereafter, once again feeling like shit, Punk told the company he was temporarily walking away to recover.
But this meant he wouldn’t be facing Triple H for the first time in 3 years at the Granddaddy Of Them All. Nor would it mean being booked for the WWE championship match in the main event. On his way out the door, Punk suggested his replacement for both matches: old Ring of Honor pal Daniel Bryan.
By this point, Bryan was the most popular babyface in the company. Already a three-time World Champion, he never had longer than a three-month reign. (He had longer title runs as US and tag champ.) Here was now an opportunity to push him for a longer stretch. The problem was he wanted to face the retired Shawn Michaels. The company wanted him to face old nemesis Sheamus.
The 2014 Royal Rumble was won by the returning Batista who hadn’t wrestled in nearly four years. Originally pushed as a good guy, The Animal had to turn heel ahead of schedule because the audience preferred Bryan, an inevitability he had already privately warned the bookers about. Now the number one contender to Randy Orton’s newly unified WWE World Heavyweight Championship, the audience wasn’t thrilled about a main event featuring two former members of Evolution.
In the build to WrestleMania 30, Bryan kept demanding a match with Triple H who repeatedly turned him down. It wasn’t until the Occupy Wall Street-inspired Yes Movement on Raw that The Cerebral Assassin angrily gave in. Adding intrigue was the tantalizing stipulation that if Bryan actually won, he would be inserted into the main event, giving him another shot to regain his championship.
On the night of the show, Bryan and H had a tremendous 30-minute opener with the Yes Man getting the win. Despite a post-match beatdown, complete with vicious chair shots to his arm, Bryan would move on to defeat Orton & Batista to regain the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
On the day of his wedding that summer, Punk was officially fired. Bryan would have to forfeit the title two months later because of a persistent neck injury. After missing much of 2014, Bryan would briefly return at the start of 2015 hoping to get another title push. He had to settle for an InterContinental title run that would also be cut short because of another serious injury. After another long absence, Bryan officially retired on Raw in early 2016. Punk is now training for his first UFC fight.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, April 9, 2016