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.
Strowman has received rubs from Kane and Big Show in a torch-passing moment at 2016's Royal Rumble when he eliminated both giants. He got it again this year when he eliminated Show and Mark Henry. Although he remains fairly green in the ring, he has steadily improved since his debut and has surprisingly beastly charisma. Watching him stare down with Brock Lesnar on RAW all but confirmed that Strowman has “main event” written all over his future.
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***.”
Vader was initially booked as WWE's next monster, but after the debacle of a match against Shawn Michaels at SummerSlam '96, he was never the same in WWE.
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.
Some have speculated that New Day play a part in scripting their own promos, including a memorable tête-à-tête with The Rock last year. This is during an era when legends like Steve Austin criticize the fakeness of scripted promos. This freedom allowed New Day to endear themselves to the audience and get over on their own terms.
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.
When the company's annual round of releases came that year, they unceremoniously let Cameron go. Later on, she would reveal that she was sick of being unused on TV and had been a victim of fans' cyber bullying.
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.
To further suggest his backstage favor, Styles was allowed to keep his original ring-name rather than adopt a new one, as Seth Rollins, Owens, Zayn, and Ambrose had to. When he was signed, there was a palpable anxiety among fans that he would be misused, tacked in midcard feuds for eternity, but those fears have since subsided in the wake of one of the best debut years in WWE history.
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.
The following May, just under a year after his only championship reign in WWE began, Ryback was sent home from RAW; the next day, he made the Tumblr post that spelled out his grievances, namely the unfair pay and creatively stifling environment WWE had become for him.
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.
By first keeping out of the public eye and then revealing his signing through such pomp and circumstance, and following it up with arguably the best match in all of WWE from last year, Nakamura's stock rose wildly. It has not yet even been a full year since his debut match, yet he's one of their most valuable superstars.
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.
Since being released from WWE in 2009, Cabana has gone on to continual success on the independent circuit. However, the heat from his days in the "big leagues" still follows him; in an episode of Art of Wrestling, Cabana explains how podcasts from legends like Steve Austin and Chris Jericho edged him out of booking interviews with current WWE wrestlers. Cabana continues to do the podcast, but the relative silence he and the company keep toward each other is almost as telling as a public dispute.
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.
At NXT Takeover: San Antonio, she defeated Peyton Royce, Billie Kaye, and Nikki Cross in a fatal four-way, which means she is set to surpass Paige as the longest reigning NXT Women's Champion. It's hard to see her reign coming to an end anytime soon.
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.
That wouldn't have been entirely bad if he had actually been treated like a legitimate competitor. Unfortunately, this was not so. Gowen was portrayed as incapable of winning any matches on his own. His highest profile match was a 2-on-1 encounter against The Big Show, where he teamed with, of all people, Stephanie McMahon. Vince McMahon crudely referred to it as the "first true handicap match." Even with the odds stacked against Big Show, Gowen had to rely on outside interference from Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar—the latter of whom would go on to throw Gowen down a flight of stairs shortly thereafter.
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.
After his MMA run, though, the WWE's special treatment of Brock Lesnar increased tenfold. Even after his lackluster final match against Goldberg at WrestleMania XX, Lesnar returned in 2012 to begin one of the most monstrous runs in modern WWE. He tore through top talents like John Cena, CM Punk, and Triple H. He received the ultimate rub by defeating The Undertaker at WrestleMania XXX and ending The Deadman's undefeated streak at the event, a decade after his poorly received departure.
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.
However, it was on this very night that Johnson would later reveal he had been subjugated to racist treatment in the WWE locker room. He was the first African American to win a singles title in the company's history, but on the night of his victory, he claims someone wrote a racial slur on his car. Although never confirmed, Johnson would go on to suspect Steve Austin as the culprit, describing how he always got a racist "vibe" from Stone Cold.
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.
There is something to be said for how joyously younger fans react to Reigns, but one has to wonder, if someone less handsome and well-toned were flubbing lines and entering weekly to such a dense cascade of boos, whether the plug would have been pulled on their push by now.
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.
Paul Heyman says Punk had simply lost his passion for the business. After leaving, Punk would go on to do the podcast with Cabana, exhaustively describing all the ways WWE mistreated him—favoritism for part-timers and muscle men, grueling schedule and the alleged shoddy medical treatment. But one suspects, beneath the surface, his bitterness stems from his self-described failure; he considers his professional wrestling career as a failure, never having headlined WrestleMania.
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.
He has gone on to have a significant role in the production and booking of WWE events, including NXT, the Cruiserweight Classic, and the UK Tournament. He is the heir apparent to head the company once McMahon retires or passes away. All of which is despite what some view as a career that pales in comparison to his contemporaries, such as The Rock, Stone Cold, and even his buddy Shawn Michaels.
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.