In wrestling, as in life, there is favoritism. Backstage politicking is practically the lifeblood of the entire industry, especially in WWE. As diehard fans, we tend to become just as fanatical, if not more so, about the company's backstage machinations as the in-ring product itself.
WWE has a mixed history of talent relations. For every current superstar smiling and saying it's the greatest place on the planet to work, there is another going off on a podcast about the mistreatment and politics that sapped them of their desire to ever work another match in their lives. It baffles the minds of many fans why their overtly talented favorites can sometimes be relegated to midcard obscurity while under-skilled muscle men and aging part-timers reign supreme in the main event.
The variations of favoritism in WWE are wide; some superstars work cushy part-time contracts while still out-earning full-timers, while others are booked on television as unstoppable forces, hot commodities, seat-filling spectacles. The spectrum of poor treatment is equally varied. Some wrestlers are booked into embarrassing angles, while others take issue with the physical and mental costs of WWE superstardom.
In many cases, the wrestler's backstage standing has had clear effects on their onscreen portrayal, while in others the opposite is true. Regardless of the specifics, the following 16 wrestlers exemplify the wildly different peaks and valleys of life as a WWE superstar.
16 Special Treatment: Braun Strowman
Braun Strowman bypassed NXT and debuted as part of the Wyatt Family. He was presented on the main roster as an unstoppable beast, nicknamed "the New Face of Destruction." Afterward, he accumulated an undefeated streak of over a year—his first singles loss against Sami Zayn was only by virtue of Zayn surviving the time limit.
15 Treated Poorly: Vader
Throughout his WCW run, Vader struck mortal fear into the hearts of all his opponents, including in the main event of Starrcade '93 when he faced Ric Flair. A series of backstage interviews and videos, including one in which Flair kisses his tearful family goodbye, played the angle that this match could end not only Flair's career but possibly his life.
Less than five years later, Vader joined WWE and was booked as lowly and impotent. At Over the Edge: In Your House in 1998, he lost to Kane in a mask vs. mask match, after which he was infamously scripted to call himself, “a big piece of s***, a big fat piece of s***.”
14 Special Treatment: The New Day
When New Day debuted as a faction in 2014, audiences yawned. Their characters consisted of little else besides smiling and clapping.
Turning heel in 2015, they proved to be very effective at generating heat. While audiences would jeer them as faces, chanting "New Day sucks!" in sync to their claps, this became part of the shtick when they turned, seemingly oblivious to the crowd's disdain. Ironically enough, as they ascended in popularity, the crowd finally agreed that New Day did, in fact, rock. The chants adjusted accordingly. New Day had become one of the most entertaining parts of the show.
13 Treated Poorly: Cameron
Cameron was never a popular wrestler. Her most notable in-ring moment is probably the pinning faux pas against Naomi, in which she attempted to pin her face-down opponent. Cameron seemed to forget for a moment how this whole wrestling thing worked.
When WWE released her last year, you could count the number of people who were surprised on exactly zero hands. However, this does not negate the bad treatment she received from WWE and fans. Shortly after Ryback aired his grievances about WWE, Cameron took to Twitter to support him. In the process, she seemed to corroborate the Big Guy's myriad of complaints about WWE creative, payscale, and workplace culture.
12 Special Treatment: AJ Styles
The Phenomenal One has been in WWE for just over a year, having risen to the top of the card at what has felt like light speed. He has received a massive push, holding the WWE Championship for almost half of the total time he's been on the roster. Not since Brock Lesnar's first year have we seen such a captivating, meteoric rise. His single reign with the title surpassed the reigns of legends like Daniel Bryan, Mick Foley, and Eddie Guerrero.
Even before his reign, Styles received top-talent hype. At 2016's Royal Rumble, he went toe-to-toe with the likes of Roman Reigns and Kevin Owens, fast-rising stars in their own right. A few months later, he headlined several pay-per-views opposite Reigns, in serious contention for the gold, before finally winning it himself from Dean Ambrose in September.
11 Treated Poorly: Ryback
Perhaps no other wrestler in recent memory embodies the highs and lows of WWE's backstage politics than Ryback. After several tumultuous years in developmental—from the high of winning the OVW Heavyweight Championship to the lowest low of having to wrestle under the name "Skip Sheffield"— The Big Guy finally made his main roster debut in 2010 as part of The Nexus, a group which met its demise at the hands of none other than John Cena. (This booking decision is rumored to have been Cena's idea, an oft-cited example of his backstage politicking.)
Afterward, Ryback disappeared to rehab from ankle surgery, returning in 2012 to a series of squash matches against jobbers and lowcarders. He built up some positive momentum here, including a run where he feuded with top talents like CM Punk, Cena, and The Shield. Somehow, though, it never spun into gold, save for a forgettable Intercontinental Championship run in mid-2015. When he dropped the strap, he moved onto mediocre feuds and a failed re-imagining as a trio with Big Show and Kane.
10 Special Treatment: Shinsuke Nakamura
Nakamura received a massive push in his debut year in WWE. He was allowed to use his birth name and debuted on WrestleMania weekend in a highly regarded match against Sami Zayn. Within four months, Nakamura was NXT champion.
Nakamura came to NXT hot on the heels of a near-legendary run in New Japan Pro Wrestling, the capstone of which was an exhilarating match versus AJ Styles at Wrestle Kingdom 10. His signing had been announced in January but was kept low key until February when WWE announced it officially via a full press conference, during which they also revealed he would face Zayn at Takeover: Dallas.
9 Treated Poorly: Colt Cabana
Long before he caught flack for hosting his buddy CM Punk's epic diatribe of everything wrong with WWE (more on that in a minute), Colt Cabana had a brief stint at the sports entertainment giant himself.
Although his time in WWE was short—a year in developmental and an un-noteworthy year on the main roster—he has gone on record to describe anti-Semitic comments directed at him both by audiences and even by trainers at Ohio Valley Wrestling.
8 Special Treatment: Asuka
Asuka's ascension through the ranks of NXT has been similarly powerful to Shinsuke Nakamura's. At her NXT signing, William Regal referred to Asuka's recruitment as one of the most significant in the brand's history. Her explosive rise to the top has reflected such confidence.
Asuka remains undefeated in all of her matches, having disposed of Bayley as the NXT Women's Champion and warded off such challengers as Nia Jax, Alexa Bliss, and Mickie James—some of WWE's top female talent.
7 Treated Poorly: Zach Gowen
Although Gowen was the first (and so far only) one-legged wrestler to appear in the company, his character, in the completely unsubtle way we've come to expect of WWE, revolved entirely around the amputation. It was the only character trait Gowen seemed allowed to have.
6 Special Treatment: Brock Lesnar
It would be hard to compile a list of wrestlers WWE has given special treatment without including the "Beast Incarnate." Lesnar skyrocketed to the top of the card, winning his first three WWE Championships against the titanic likes of The Rock and Kurt Angle. In doing so, he became (at the time) the youngest person to ever win the top title.
5 Treated Poorly: Ahmed Johnson
Ahmed Johnson came to the world of professional wrestling via football, an early traveler between the two sports in the then-World Wrestling Federation. He received an early push, presumably because he had a great look to compensate for his poor ring skills. Within a year of signing with the company, he won the Intercontinental Championship from Goldust.
4 Special Treatment: Roman Reigns
There was a great deal of truth when Roman Reigns claimed on Monday Night RAW that he was "the guy." It's hard to think of someone else who has received such favor in recent memory despite such mixed reactions from audiences.
Reigns is another football-to-wrestling refugee, and therefore is incredibly athletic. But of the three former Shield members, he is still the least nuanced in-ring and the flattest in promos. In an era of over-scripted and fake promos, his "suffering succotash" and "tater tots" lines are particularly bothersome. Of course, it isn't 100% Roman's own fault; it's hard to deliver such corny lines.
3 Treated Poorly: CM Punk
Punk's departure from WWE is the stuff of legends. Even now, close to three years after his walkout in Cleveland, Punk's legacy of maltreatment at the hands of WWE's higher-ups resonates with many a disgruntled wrestling fan.
Despite a 434-day reign as WWE Championship, Punk was sometimes relegated to lower spots on pay-per-view cards to make way for part-timers and John Cena. One such example is when, bafflingly, a match between John Laurinaitis and Cena headlined over Punk vs. Daniel Bryan.
2 Special Treatment: Triple H
Of all the targets of CM Punk's animosity, Triple H is perhaps the one who receives the most fire. But the backstage politicking that Triple H is infamous for has been a hallmark of his reputation since before Punk laced his first pair of boots.
As one of only two members of "The Kliq" to never defect to WCW (the other being Shawn Michaels), Triple H earned a rapport with Vince McMahon. Along with his eventual marriage to Stephanie, he's achieved a great deal of accolades during his run: 14 world championships, two Royal Rumble wins and seven WrestleMania main events.
1 Treated Poorly: Bret Hart
One of the landmark events that sparked the Attitude Era and the veritable birth of the evil "Mr. McMahon" character, the Montreal Screwjob is perhaps the most infamous, and public, mistreatment of a wrestler by WWE/F ever.
But Hart's contentious relationship with Shawn Michaels extends long before the screwjob. He viewed the HBK's flamboyant character as an affront to the business, as well as an extension of HBK's real-life personality that Hart, cool and reserved, was constantly at odds with.
Michaels, however, was one of Vince McMahon's favorites, an attraction that drew eyes to the product in a time when business was weak. So, McMahon spun the duo's real-life distaste for each other into a main event storyline. This forced Hart to work with someone he personally despised for months on end and could very well be the explanation for why the Screwjob happened at all.
One could argue that Hart's refusal to drop the WWE Championship despite his impending departure was unprofessional and immature, but one also wonders if the company could have handled everything in a less underhanded way.
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