The backstage world of wrestling is almost as fascinating as anything that takes place in the ring. Major wrestling promotions always have major egos to follow suit. In any business with money and fame involved, there are bound to be a trivial world of backstabbing and politicking going on. Many top wrestlers have gained power through their rise in popularity or developing a close relationship with the promoter. If you’re in with Vince McMahon, you’ll likely have his ear to run down anyone you feel may be a threat or an enemy to your success. This has gone on for years and shows no sign of ending any time soon.
Shoot interviews, podcasts and social media make it impossible to keep things secret in the industry these days. The information has been revealed over the years through dirt sheets and resurface today with the news all coming out. It is one thing for wrestlers to use their influence to make more money but taking away from others on the roster is always a controversial manner. Some believe it is a cutthroat business for good reason but others find it immoral. We’ll look at both sides of the political landscape in pro wrestling. These are eight wrestlers that completely thrived on backstage politics and seven that just couldn’t survive it.
15 Thrived: Kevin Nash
The political brilliance of Kevin Nash helped give him one of the more lucrative careers in pro wrestling. Nash buddied up with the influential Shawn Michael instantly working as his bodyguard in WWE. Triple H, Scott Hall and Sean Waltman joined them to form The Kliq. Instead of being a faction in the ring, they did all of their work backstage. The Kliq held down others and made life miserable for anyone that opposed them due to their close relationship with Vince McMahon.
Nash continued to add his resume as a pro wrestling politician in WCW. After getting one of the rare guaranteed contracts and changing the market of wrestling, Nash became a powerful voice backstage. The New World Order was booming and Nash certainly used the popularity to his leverage. Somehow, Nash eventually got into the position of booker writing the shows when the company was in disarray. The big man found a way to politic into being the one to end Goldberg’s undefeated streak. Nash played the game perfectly in both companies.
14 Couldn’t Survive: Wade Barrett
At one point in time, almost everyone predicted Wade Barrett would become the next big star in the WWE. His look, presence and potential all showed the signs of a future World Champion. Barrett even debuted in the best of ways, by leading The Nexus faction who were trying to take down the WWE. Being the leader of an instantly respected faction led to him coming off as a star. Barrett’s first few months on the WWE main roster placed him against the likes of John Cena, Randy Orton, Edge and Chris Jericho.
The backstage politics would cause the demise of Barrett much faster than anyone could have expected. Barrett led his Nexus team against Cena and a squad of WWE All-Stars in the main event of SummerSlam 2010. The intelligent and obvious booking would have dictated Barrett’s team getting the win to make the young stars even more credible. They lost with Barrett tapping out to Cena to seal his fate. Edge and Jericho revealed they tried to talk Cena into having Vince McMahon change the finish, but he refused. Barrett felt the aftermath and saw his career trend downwards with no return to glory.
13 Thrived: Seth Rollins
We all appreciate the work of Seth Rollins and are glad he has become one of the top stars in the WWE. That doesn’t exempt him from playing the political game. Rollins’ contributions to the early years of NXT made him one of Triple H’s first pet projects in the developmental system. The fact that Rollins was the first person to hold the NXT Championship is no coincidence. Triple H believed in him and that carried over to the main roster.
The Shield became one of the most dominant factions in WWE history. The ending came with Rollins turning heel by attacking his teammates Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose. Many speculated Ambrose would have fit perfectly in the heel role but Triple H preferred Rollins due to their relationship. The on-screen product followed reality with Rollins becoming Triple H’s chosen one and winning the WWE World Championship at WrestleMania 31. Rollins has held a top spot since then and his close ties to one of the most powerful men in the booking meetings are very helpful.
12 Couldn’t Survive: Bam Bam Bigelow
Bam Bam Bigelow was one of the better big men workers in wrestling. The giant man could move around the ring as well as anyone else and had the size to appear physically intimidating against the majority of wrestlers he faced. Bigelow received a noteworthy push early in his WWE career. Life appeared to be great for Bam Bam until he ran into the political dark force known as The Kliq.
Bigelow had issues with the influential Shawn Michaels and Kevin Nash in the mid-90s. Michaels and Nash were two of the most popular rising stars. The natural reaction from those with political influence would be to harm the competition. Bigelow was turning face and saw his career sabotaged due to backstage drama between the both sides. The Kliq would ultimately force Bam Bam out of the company due to not wanting to deal with the politics in the company. Bigelow couldn’t outlast the negatives in the WWE landscape.
11 Thrived: Randy Orton
Randy Orton gradually skyrocketed to the top of the WWE. They wanted Orton to become a top star from day one due to his great look and pedigree as a third generation wrestler. Orton happened to have the in-ring magic that WWE looked for in their young prospects. After being given plenty of opportunities, Orton blossomed into a top star in the conversation with John Cena and Triple H as the top stars in the promotion.
Despite many of his own failures, Orton still held a great deal of power backstage. Many wrestlers have had negative relationships with him over the years. Kofi Kingston was on the verge of a major push after a big win over Orton. The following months would see Orton get his wins back and yell at Kingston for making a mistake during one of the matches. Kingston went back down into the midcard. Orton also was partially responsible for the firing of the next person on this list.
10 Couldn’t Survive: Mr. Kennedy
Mr. Kennedy had a tremendous start to his career in the WWE with wins over multiple former World Champions. Fans developed interest in the newcomer’s momentum and he became a big star on the SmackDown brand. His unfortunate luck was the biggest factor in his WWE career going downhill. Kennedy endured injuries during important stretches of his career with the most heartbreaking instance forcing him to lose the Money in the Bank briefcase and a likely title win.
Another horrible moment saw Kennedy fail a drug test and get suspended right when he was about to be revealed as the illegitimate son of Vince McMahon. The situations piled on with Kennedy starting to get heat from WWE management. It all came to a head when Randy Orton landed awkwardly after a back suplex by Kennedy. His WWE career ended shortly after due to Orton complaining about not wanting to work with him any longer.
9 Thrived: JBL
Vince McMahon developed a great relationship with JBL due to the latter’s years of service. Bradshaw worked primarily as a lower card act until forming The Acolytes tag team with Ron Simmons. Both men would become locker room enforcers. Bradshaw specifically picked on anyone in the locker room he felt was disrespectful and made their lives hell. McMahon appreciated his old school locker room mentality and rewarded him for the loyalty.
Bradshaw held a passion for Wall Street and the stock market, which was the final step to changing his character into a main event star. McMahon changed Bradshaw’s character into the JBL gimmick and he instantly won the WWE Championship on the SmackDown brand. Years of kissing up, staying loyal and being the model employee in McMahon’s eyes helped JBL completely change his career trajectory. The backstage politics helped evolve lifelong midcarder Bradshaw into WWE legend JBL.
8 Couldn’t Survive: Vader
Vader dominated the wrestling world for years with incredible stints in Japan and WCW. The latter made him an elite monster heel with memorable feuds against the likes of Sting, Ric Flair and Ron Simmons. The regimes were changing in WCW and Vader left the company in favor of trying his luck in the WWE. Vince McMahon unfortunately developed a strong dislike for Vader. The big man’s look and (reportedly) personality put him in McMahon’s dog house.
WWE never presented Vader like a credible main eventer and his career took a big decline. Vader’s only chance at making it to the top of the mountain was a WWE Championship title shot against Shawn Michaels at SummerSlam 1996. Following the loss, Vader slipped into the midcard and Tag Title divisions. The only times you would see Vader in a relevant program were when The Undertaker or Kane needed a big man to defeat. Not knowing how to win over McMahon hurt his career in WWE and in the long run.
7 Thrived: Shawn Michaels
No one can argue against Shawn Michaels being among the greatest in-ring performers in pro wrestling history. Vince McMahon saw something special in Michaels from the days of The Rockers tag team with Marty Jannetty. Their split saw Michaels get the bigger singles push and skyrocket into a huge position in the company. Michaels used his power as a McMahon favorite to hold down others and later formed The Kliq with Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Triple H and Sean Waltman to dominate the company.
Many wrestlers felt victimized by the super faction holding down the top spots and using Michaels’ power to harm the careers of anyone they didn’t like. Quite a few wrestlers have gone on the record of their disdain for Michaels but the biggest instance is absolutely Bret Hart. The rivals would see their television feud become personal backstage with Michaels creating tension in various ways. Hart would end his WWE in-ring career with The Montreal Screwjob, forcing him out with a loss due to Michaels not wanting to do the job as originally agreed.
6 Couldn’t Survive: Shane Douglas
Shane Douglas’ promos during his entire stint in ECW will tell you why he deserves to be on this list. Both WWE and WCW failed to utilize Douglas to the best of his abilities. Douglas claimed Ric Flair held him down in WCW. Douglas showed great potential and the seeds of big plans in WCW, but it just materialized into nothing. Douglas claimed Flair sabotaged him and used political power to ruin his career.
His WWE tenure followed the same path. Douglas believes Shawn Michaels and the rest of The Kliq were the reason for his downfall. With the moniker of Dean Douglas, his WWE backstage life was a living hell with the bigger stars harassing him. The odd booking of Douglas losing the Intercontinental Championship just minutes after winning the vacated title from Michaels added some proof to his stories. Douglas decided to leave WWE after once again failing to survive the political landscape of major wrestling companies.
5 Thrived: John Cena
Fans have always had polarizing reactions to every aspect of John Cena’s career. The response to him at live shows is well documented but his backstage reputation is also of the same ilk. Many stories have circulated stating he’s a great person that supports the other wrestlers and does right by them. Others have had negative run-ins and claim he’s a backstabbing jerk that uses his political power to hold down others.
Most of the wrestlers to criticize Cena for his backstage power are lower on the card, but still hold credible backgrounds. Tyler Reks stated Cena humiliated him and Alex Riley backstage at various times due to viewing them as threats to his post. It’s hard to believe but other second hand stories have harmed his reputation. Edge and Chris Jericho implying Cena refused to put over Wade Barrett is the biggest example of him abusing backstage power to politically hold down his peers.
4 Couldn’t Survive: Bret Hart
Bret Hart thrived in the WWE atmosphere in the transition period after Hulk Hogan reached the end of his run. WWE was desperate to find new talent to push to the top and no one had a stronger work ethic than Hart. The fans started to gravitate towards him with an organic rise to the WWE Championship picture. Bret held a WWE main event spot for years until the rise of Shawn Michaels started to change things for him.
Both men had similar skills as slightly undersized technicians with a tremendous body of work. Michaels became the bigger star with Vince McMahon’s support. The power of HBK caused him to try to hold down his competition and Hart was the biggest victim. At one point, Michaels went to the ring and claimed Hart cheated on his wife with Sunny. They would have a real backstage fight that basically led to the company having to choose one or the other. Hart refused to lose the WWE Title on his final night against his rival and saw his career end to the world of politics with the “Montreal Screwjob.”
3 Thrived: Hulk Hogan
Hulk Hogan's career will always be synonymous with backstage politics. Yes, wrestling has always had the political landscape effect performers but it went to another level with the ascension of Hogan. Vince McMahon made the decision to make Hogan the top star to lead the WWE into their next stage as a mainstream promotion. The popularity of Hulkamania made him a celebrity in pop culture and a star never before seen in the wrestling business.
Hogan also managed to manipulate the system to his advantage more than any other. WWE and later WCW would see many wrestlers held down due to Hogan refusing to work with them. The most popular story was Hogan flat out refusing to lose the WWE Championship to Bret Hart and dropping it to Yokozuna instead. Hogan also demanded many title reigns and dominated the WCW title picture during their glory years by using his influence to secure his desires.
2 Couldn’t Survive: CM Punk
The rise of CM Punk into the upper echelon of WWE is still something wrestling fans can’t get over. We wanted to believe he was the next top star to replace John Cena as the face of the promotion. Punk started showcasing his natural rebellious personality by cutting worked shoot promos against Cena, Vince McMahon, Triple H and anyone in his way. The momentum went downhill when he shockingly lost the WWE Championship to Alberto Del Rio thanks to Kevin Nash’s return.
This all culminated in Punk losing a big dream match against Triple H and he still holds a grudge to this day. Punk always believed Triple H resented him and attempted to hold down his career. Everyone could tell there was real life tension between them any time they were forced to work together. Punk eventually got sick and tired of the political climate in the WWE. We all know the story of him walking out, but he claims he flat out insulted Triple H on the way out. Punk will likely never return to the company after burning bridges out of frustration for the political aspect of the business.
1 Thrived: Triple H
No one has ever used political power more than Triple H during their wrestling career. Triple H’s reign of terror began after he started to date Stephanie McMahon in real life. His dominant title reigns would see many popular stars ready for the next step in their career suffer losses to Triple H. Rob Van Dam, Scott Steiner and Booker T are three wrestlers that were victim to the early political advantages used by Triple H to ensure his title reigns lasted longer than anyone wanted.
The latter stages of his wrestling career have been far more cordial with him trying to get younger talent over. Unfortunately, CM Punk fell on the wrong side of Triple H’s views. The two butted heads many times and Triple H defeated Punk during Punk’s hottest stretch in the company to completely kill his momentum. Obviously, Triple H now holds the second most powerful position in WWE behind Vince McMahon in the hierarchy of dictating the on-screen product and years of backstage politics helped get him there.
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