Wrestling can be an unpredictable sport, predetermined as we all know it is. Sometimes that talented midcard guy could, out of the blue, grab those brass rings Vince McMahon loves talking about, and do something that transforms them into an icon in the making. These may include, but not be limited to heel or face turns that reinvent a less-heralded character into someone spectacular. Wrestlers may break from the script in grand and controversial fashion. Debuts of future legends may take place with less fanfare than what one would think. Or we may not even know it, but we may be watching a wrestler compete for the very last time.
To put it in another way, wrestling history could take place in ways we don't realize at first. It could sneak up on us, and we may think back, years down the line, that we as fans were part of something historic all along, may it be positive or negative. So let's take a trip down memory lane, and look back at 15 times wrestling history was made, with most fans none the wiser at the time those events took place.
22 JOHN CENA SAYS HE HAS “RUTHLESS AGGRESSION”
Ruthless Aggression succeeded the Attitude Era on or around the midpoint of 2002, with Vince McMahon dropping the term late in June as a way of motivating his employees in storyline. And John Cena, an unknown young rookie from Boston, had sought to epitomize the term “ruthless aggression” on the June 27, 2002 SmackDown, where he answered an open challenge from Kurt Angle.
Cena would lose that match despite giving Angle quite a tough time, but as the storyline played out, the locker room loved him for standing up to the Olympic gold medalist. He also got a pretty nice push in the months that followed, but nothing that would suggest his becoming the face of WWE for most of the 21st century thus far. As far as most fans knew, he was another one of McMahon's musclebound prospects, but in hindsight, that comment where Cena told Angle he has "ruthless aggression" may have been a sign that McMahon saw him as a future WWE legend from day one.
21 THE UNDERTAKER'S DEBUT
At the 1990 Survivor Series, a towering man advertised as a wrestling mortician had debuted at the event as the mystery partner of Ted DiBiase's heelish Million Dollar Team. He was introduced by the red-faced kayfabe televangelist Brother Love, and while he easily eliminated Koko B. Ware and Dusty Rhodes on the babyface team, that was the end of his domination, as he would get counted out of the match. That was The Undertaker's WWE debut in a few sentences, and since he seemed to be as gimmicky as the average WWE Superstar of the time, he wasn't exactly expected to become a certified legend, the winner of 21 straight WrestleMania matches, and a surefire Hall of Famer when the time comes.
But that's what Mark Calaway is at this point in his career — 25 years after his debut, The Undertaker is routinely mentioned as one of WWE's all-time greats, and there's always great interest in the man whenever WrestleMania season comes around. Many may have seen future greatness in The Undertaker when he arrived in 1990, but few probably expected him to be that great.
18 SHANE DOUGLAS PUTS THE “EXTREME” IN ECW
Way back in the day, ECW stood for Eastern Championship Wrestling. There was nothing too “extreme” about the company at first, though the signs of something bigger and better were there, and the promotion wasn’t wanting for talent. One of those talents was Shane Douglas, a onetime kayfabe surfer/skater dude (as one-half of WCW's Dynamic Dudes) who was finally finding his niche in the world of professional wrestling.
On August 27, 1994, Douglas carried out a secret plan that was known only to two other men – Paul Heyman and ECW founder Tod Gordon. The plan, as ECW fans saw, was for him to cut a faux-thankful promo upon winning the NWA World Championship. In this promo, The Franchise would name-check several wrestling greats, before snarling that they can all “kiss (his) ass.” He then threw the NWA belt down and accepted the new ECW title belt, proclaiming the start of a “new era” in pro wrestling.
Far more than just an intense and compelling promo, it had mainly allowed ECW to become Extreme, and not Eastern Championship Wrestling, as it seceded from the NWA and carved its own cutting-edge identity as a promotion.
16 SHAWN MICHAELS TURNS ON MARTY JANNETTY
The Rockers were a great tag team. And WWE's announcers wouldn't let you forget that, referring to them frequently as the "tag team specialists." They were young, athletic, and fun to watch, and it was a shame that they never got to (officially) hold a tag team title during their years together in the WWE.
With Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty failing to get along in real life, the decision was made late in 1991 to disband the team, and to do so on Brutus Beefcake's talk show segment, The Barbershop. In that now-immortalized segment, Michaels superkicked Jannetty through the titular barbershop's glass window, ripping apart a photo of The Rockers to symbolize what seemed like a standard tag team breakup at the time.
As it turned out, it wasn't, as Michaels kicked off what would be a fantastic singles career as the Heartbreak Kid. Jannetty, on the other hand, became pro wrestling's equivalent of Art Garfunkel and John Oates — that other guy who isn't half as famous or successful as his partner.
14 ROCKY MAIVIA JOINS THE NATION OF DOMINATION
It's been established several times on TheSportster — Rocky Maivia was a rubbish gimmick. The first third-generation WWE Superstar was a smiling milquetoast whom the company loved but fans weren't too crazy about, mainly on account of his overly wholesome gimmick and the feeling that the then-WWF was forcing him on fans. (Just ask his "cousin" Roman Reigns about that last thing we said.)
Unlike what WWE is now doing with Reigns, the company had the good sense to turn Rocky heel in the summer of 1997, have him join the Nation of Domination, and turn him loose on the mic. That was, in effect, the end of the whole Rocky Maivia malarkey, and the birth of the most electrifying man in sports entertainment, The Rock. And boy, did the fans smell what The Rock was cooking when that jabroni Rocky Maivia dropped his goody-goody "Blue Chipper" gimmick.
13 WENDI RICHTER VS. "THE SPIDER"
Well before the events of Montreal, WWE had, in fact, pulled off quite a screwjob in the 1980s, back in an era when there was arguably one true household name in the world of women's wrestling — The Fabulous Moolah. In 1985, however, it was her onetime protege Wendi Richter who was WWE's Women's Champion, and WWE was apparently getting tired of her constant complaints about financial compensation. That's when the company orchestrated a plan to get the belt off of Richter, and put it back on a 62-year-old woman who had once held the title for decades.
Richter was defending her Women's Championship against a masked wrestler called The Spider in November 1985, and with The Spider surprising her with a pin attempt, the referee delivered a quick count, disregarding the fact Richter kicked out at one, and awarding the title to the mysterious masked lady. Angry at being screwed out of the title, Richter legitimately attacked The Spider, who was unmasked and revealed to be none other than Moolah herself. It would be decades before Richter was back on WWE's good side, and inducted into the company's Hall of Fame in 2010.
12 EDDIE GUERRERO AND CHRIS BENOIT'S LAST MATCHES
It's a rare occurrence for legendary wrestlers to die while still active, but it's always sad and unexpected when it happens. We're not including the death of Owen Hart in here, as it was painfully obvious something was wrong when he fell almost 80 feet into the ring when his Blue Blazer entry got botched at 1999's Over the Edge. But we are including the last times we saw Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit in a WWE ring, because nobody could have foreseen the tragedies that would soon follow those appearances.
For Eddie, this came on November 11, 2005, just two days before his death from a heart attack, as he defeated Mr. Kennedy and qualified for the Survivor Series. And for Benoit, he wrestled his last match on June 19, 2007, beating Elijah Burke in a qualifying match for the vacant ECW Championship at Vengeance. Both men had passed on so unexpectedly at such a young age, and it's even sadder to note that they were due for big things had they not died a few days after those wins.
9 MANKIND VS. THE UNDERTAKER: HE’S BROKEN IN HALF!
Oftentimes you know when a match is really, really good. But it’s very seldom when you think, right then and there, that that match will be talked about for years, even decades to come. Case in point would be the 1998 Hell in a Cell match between Mankind and The Undertaker. Now this was actually the second such steel cage match, but it’s definitely the one people still talk about close to two decades after it had happened.
The Hell in a Cell steel cage is purpose-built for punishing, brutal matches, and it was there where Mick Foley, a.k.a. Mankind, had taken the bumps of his life, working seamlessly with ‘Taker to make sure the match ended up as a classic. And it certainly helped that Jim Ross was in top form calling Mankind vs. ‘Taker, delivering the now-famous lines “Good God almighty! That killed him! With God as my witness, he is broken in half!” after Mankind took a 16-foot fall from the top of the cage to the Spanish announcers’ table.
8 SHANE AND VINCE APPEAR ON WCW NITRO
If you were still watching WCW's Nitro in early 2001, you were either a) a die-hard WCW loyalist, b) a masochist, or c) watching the show for the LULZ during RAW commercial breaks. By March 2001, fans had tuned out in droves, and it was in no small part due to the illogical storylines, myriad title changes, and the general feeling that WCW was a sinking ship whose days were numbered.
But no one had expected to see Vince and Shane McMahon appear on the March 26, 2001 Nitro, announcing that WWE had just purchased WCW, and effectively ending World Championship Wrestling as its staunchest of fans knew it. WCW would continue to exist within the WWE's canon, with Shane in control as part of the Invasion storyline, but when both McMahon men appeared on Nitro, that marked the death of WCW as a standalone company. One can argue, however, that the company had been dying a slow death since the Fingerpoke of Doom. Or any one of those other drivers of WCW's demise.
7 STEVE AUSTIN WINS KING OF THE RING 1996
No discussion of WWE's edgiest, most controversial era is complete without this man — "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Who would have thought that he was, at first, an eager heel who had a lot to say about the people in "TV land" as Ted DiBiase's newest protege, the Ringmaster?
We'll spare you the details of Austin's inauspicious debut as the Ringmaster and go straight to that moment when he won the 1996 King of the Ring tournament. The future Texas Rattlesnake had won the tournament by defeating an old, bloated Jake "The Snake" Roberts, who wasn't quite as born-again a Christian as he claimed he was, but nonetheless made that the center of his character during his short-lived WWE comeback. And Austin was more than happy to rub in his victory over a purportedly changed man, proudly declaring after the match that "Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!"
The victory, but mainly that now-classic promo, helped launch Austin into main event stardom before the year was over. By the spring of 1997, he was so over with the fans that the WWE turned him babyface at WrestleMania XIII, with the beer-swilling, authority-hating everyman becoming the unlikely face of the company, up until he "took his ball and went home" in 2002.
6 VINCE MCMAHON DOESN'T WANT YOUR INTELLIGENCE INSULTED
For a lot of wrestling fans from the '70s to the mid-'90s, Vince McMahon was that excitable, gravel-voiced announcer with the tacky suits. But as the mid-'90s hit, we got to hear more and more suggestions that Vinnie Mac was more than just a babyface announcer, but rather the man who runs the WWE. And by 1997, it was common knowledge to a lot of fans that McMahon was indeed that person, as more and more fans would "smarten up" to the reality that wrestling is a predetermined mix of athletics and entertainment.
That all said, McMahon cut a short, out-of-character video in late 1997 saying that fans, quite frankly, may be tired of having their intelligence insulted. As he promised more realistic characters and storylines, he was, in effect, introducing fans to the Attitude Era, which saw WWE transition from the kid-friendly storylines and gimmicks of old into an edgier, more mature product. Your mileage may still vary when it comes to the true birthdate of the Attitude Era, but as far as TV viewers are concerned, this Vince McMahon clip may have marked its birth.
5 SCOTT HALL INVADES WCW
Of course, the seeds first had to be planted before the nWo could wreak havoc on WCW and, in time, become so bloated that even Hulk Hogan's incompetent nephew Horace (among other goofballs) counted himself as a member. And it all started when the former Razor Ramon interrupted a match between two forgettable ex-WWE tag team guys — the former Blake Beverly (Mike Enos) and the former Steven Dunn (Steve Doll).
Entering the ring in a denim vest and sounding suspiciously like a certain kayfabe Cuban, Scott Hall identified himself as an "outsider,"asking for "Billionaire Ted" and the "Nacho Man" and asking WCW if they "want a war." And while Hall did make some hints that he wasn't invading WCW by his lonesome, it was quite the surprise when he was joined two weeks later by another big WWE name — Diesel, a.k.a. Kevin Nash. The nWo was on their way, and they would soon be helping WCW slaughter WWE in the Monday Night Wars.
3 WWE GETS THE “F” OUT
This writer remembers his younger days as a WWF fan, wondering why some non-government organization with a panda logo was calling itself by the same name. I had no idea back then that the World Wildlife Fund for Nature had been around as such well before the WWWF shortened its name to WWF, and I clearly remember thinking that the World Wildlife Fund may have been tampering on the World Wrestling Federation’s copyrights due to the use of the same acronym.
I was a teen back then, and didn’t know better. And neither did a lot of fans, who may have only found out that the World Wildlife Fund had been using the WWF acronym since the ‘60s when both WWFs went to court. Judges ruled in favor of the panda logo-sporting WWF, and that forced the wrestling company to change its name to WWE.
World Wrestling Entertainment debuted the new branding on the May 6, 2002 RAW, doing so with a short clip entitled "Get the 'F' Out." And fans found out soon enough what that clip meant — the promotion they knew and loved as WWF was officially going by another name now.
2 THE RISE OF HULKAMANIA
Casual fans may not realize that Hulk Hogan had wrestled in the WWE in 1979 and 1980 as a heel, working with "Classy" Freddie Blassie as his manager and doing despicable things like cutting a racist promo on The Junkyard Dog. (Given recent events, it's truly cringeworthy in hindsight.) The Hulkster then left the company for the AWA and New Japan, and gained a small measure of mainstream fame when he starred as Thunderlips in Rocky III. But he was back with a vengeance in early 1984, when he saved recently dethroned WWE Champion Bob Backlund from the Wild Samoans and established himself as a babyface upon his return.
What fans may not have realized at the time was that WWE wanted to push Hogan as its new franchise player. Less than three weeks after his return, Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik for the WWE Championship, and would hold on to that belt for a good four years. During that time, and up until the early '90s, Hulkamania would run wild on the WWE, but two years after he shocked the world by signing with WCW in 1994, he was back to his evil ways, leading a little faction called the New World Order.
1 THE MONTREAL SCREWJOB
Something seemed off when Bret Hart had seemingly tapped out to his own finishing move, the Sharpshooter, as he defended his WWE Championship against Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series 1997. After all, Shawn had just locked in the move, and it seemed odd that the Hitman would give up so easily as the timekeeper rung the bell. But as it turned out, there was someone (Vince McMahon) telling said timekeeper to "ring the f---ing bell," And as Bret looked on in disbelief and Michaels beat a hasty retreat backstage without even celebrating his win, it had dawned upon most fans that the match wasn't supposed to end that way.
That, in a nutshell, was how the Montreal Screwjob played out, and it was that one time when fans got to see what happens when a match's finish is changed on the fly, with the affected wrestler none the wiser. In this case, it was Hart who was affected, as WWE officials didn't want him taking his belt to WCW, where he was due to start in a few weeks. And when the dust had settled, this served as a moment when many fans realized just how real pro wrestling could get in terms of behind-the-scenes politics.