When WrestleMania rolls around each year, the eyes of the world turn to WWE. The event has been an institution for over 30 years. For hardcore fans, it’s all but a holiday, because even in the event of a bad WrestleMania, the show is nonetheless historically important. And even for casual fans, or people who don’t typically watch wrestling at all, it’s that rare event that transcends genre, earning WWE mainstream media coverage and perhaps luring person who doesn’t follow sports entertainment into a WrestleMania party or water cooler talk about the big show. House show happenings are typically limited to the fans in attendance, weekly TV shows are often as not forgotten or at least blur together, and mostly monthly PPVs often suffer the same fate. WrestleMania is documented, however, as the most watched, re-watched, discussed, and written about event in wrestling.
For all of this attention and for as much as WWE is an extremely public entity, the event nonetheless has a real history of strange, unethical, or downright messed up events that have happened behind scenes. These choices on the parts of wrestlers or management have had close calls for impacting wrestling history, or actually did have a very real effect on men and women’s careers and the show that fans actually wound up seeing.
In this day and age of podcasts, tell-all books, and documentaries, fans have greater insight than ever before into what’s happening behind the scenes. This article takes a look back at 15 especially surprising backstage dealings leading up to or at actual WrestleMania events.
15 Brock Lesnar Screwed Chris Jericho Out Of A World Title
In Fall 2016, Kevin Owens won the Universal Championship, and enjoyed a fairly long reign, right to the brink of WrestleMania season.
According to Chris Jericho, in a recent edition of his podcast, Vince McMahon told him Owens would carry the title into WrestleMania, where Jericho would beat him for it.
The longer term plan was for Jericho to drop the title to Brock Lesnar, at which point we would more or less resume the current WWE timeline. Jericho spoke about feeling excited for the opportunity, though, because he’s never actually reigned as a world champion as a face, rather than a heel.
Goldberg’s return to WWE marked a big shift, and when he expressed a willingness to hang out for more than one match, bigger changes were afoot. Lesnar pitched that he’d put over Goldberg decisively in their first match, in exchange for the long-term outcome of beating Goldberg clean, for the Universal Championship at WrestleMania.
We can read more into the situation. Rumor had it Lesnar was penciled in to face Shane McMahon at WrestleMania and didn’t like the matchup, besides which winning a world title at ‘Mania, even for a star of Lesnar’s caliber, remains a significant career moment. In the end, Owens lost his world title to Goldberg to facilitate that angle, while Chris Jericho won the United States Championship so that that belt would be on the line instead for Jericho and Owens’s less featured ‘Mania match.
14 Shawn Michaels Tried To Back Out Of Losing To Stone Cold
Mid to late 1990s Shawn Michaels is known for two things. First of all, he was untouchable as an in ring performer, executing at the highest level every night and against a variety of opponents. Secondarily, he was known to be an egotistical politician, who was very hard to work with.
Come WrestleMania XIV, Michaels was dealing with severe back injuries that would lead him to a retirement. Meanwhile, Steve Austin was an ascendant megastar on the cusp of becoming one of the most popular figures in wrestling history. The idea of heel incumbent world champion HBK passing the torch to Stone Cold in the main event of WrestleMania made perfect sense on just about every level.
The day of WrestleMania, however, Michaels reportedly tried to back out of putting over Austin.
To be fair, Michaels has publicly denied these claims, but enough of his contemporaries have suggested it was the case. The story goes that The Undertaker put Michaels in his place, and compelled him to do business that night.
13 Daniel Bryan And Sheamus Got Screwed Twice
Daniel Bryan’s history of being overlooked and passed over in WWE is well documented now, to the point that it became a focal point of his WrestleMania XXX angle. While Sheamus has generally been afforded more opportunities than Bryan, he has also succumbed to being underappreciated at several junctures of his career.
The two were booked against one another for WrestleMania XXVII, in a match for the United States Championship. However, as the event approached and WWE clocked out the show, there wasn’t time available for everything they had advertised.
Bryan-Sheamus wound up relegated to a pre-show Lumberjack Match, which morphed into a throwaway battle royal match after the lumberjacks got involved.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Sheamus and Bryan got the short end of the stick again one year later. This time, they competed for the World Heavyweight Championship, which you’d think ensured them a featured spot. Instead, they were booked in the curtain jerking spot, and were given less than a half minute to work. The comedic squash of Bryan was meant to pay off his heel heat and strap a rocket to Sheamus. It was a big miscalculation in front of an audience all too eager to cheer Bryan and, on the plus side, was a foundational step toward the Yes Movement.
12 Hulk Hogan Played Nice To The Ultimate Warrior In Front Of The Cameras
WWE released a good chunk of backstage footage from WrestleMania XXX weekend, in particular chronicling The Ultimate Warrior’s return to the WWE fold. Included in one documentary was commentary from Hulk Hogan, and a short clip of him reuniting with Warrior behind the scenes.
After her husband had tragically passed mere days later, Dana Warrior would call out Hogan.
She claimed that he only made a show of apologizing and making up with Warrior when there was a camera crew present, and claimed he hadn’t reached out to the family in the aftermath of their loss. It’s debatable what Hogan’s obligations were after Warrior passed, or if he thought Warrior’s family would want to hear from him. Regardless, at least according to his widow, it seems Hogan was only putting on a show to represent himself well on TV.
11 Management Decided Nathan Jones Wasn’t Good Enough For ‘Mania
WrestleMania XIX was to feature a hoss battle as the veteran Undertaker tagged up with rookie Nathan Jones against the monster heel duo of The Big Show and A-Train. The reasoning was sound enough, as WWE aimed to cash in on The Deadman’s clout by helping to get Jones over as a next generation big man.
Leading into the match, however, management reportedly decided Jones simply wasn’t ready for the primetime spot he’d been set up for.
The resulting choice was to stage a locker room beatdown by the heels against Jones, leaving The Phenom in a handicap match scenario. The Undertaker largely dominated the match anyway, and Jones had a brief moment to shine, charging the ring and helping paving the way to The Deadman’s victory. Jones would subsequently disappear from TV and only briefly return in the fall.
10 The Honky Tonk Man Cost Ted DiBiase A World Title
Rumors and real stories from behind the scenes at WWE are less well documented from the pre-Internet days. Nonetheless, the story comes up quite often about The Honky Tonk Man having a surprisingly profound impact, if indirect impact on the main event scene. The story goes that he rejected the idea of dropping the Intercontinental Championship to Randy Savage (some stories suggest a beef with The Macho Man, though the more prevailing theory is that he just felt there was more juice left in his record-long title reign). WWE reportedly shuffled the deck of its plans from there.
Savage not only entered but won the WrestleMania IV WWE Championship tournament.
Word is that Ted DiBiase was originally slated to win, only to drop the title to Savage at SummerSlam, or back to Hulk Hogan sometime down the road.
With Savage more immediately out of the Intercontinental title picture, however, he got the nod over The Million Dollar Man in what might have otherwise been his only world title winning scenario.
9 Cody Rhodes And Company Lost Their Spot At The Last Minute
WrestleMania XXIX was to feature an eight person tag of Cody Rhodes and Damien Sandow (The Rhodes Scholars) teaming with The Bellas against Brodus Clay, Tensai, and The Funkadactyls. There’s certainly an extent to which this was a cram-everyone on the card match. It was only fair, though, for the heel team in particular to get its WrestleMania spotlight after each of its component tag teams had put in months of stellar work, making the most of limited opportunities.
While it always stinks for performers to lose their ‘Mania spots, these eight had their match cut late in the actual show due to time constraints.
It was particularly sad after participants posted a photo of themselves huddled backstage, about their excitement to perform for the stadium crowd, only to get the bad news mere minutes later. The two teams would get plenty of time, and get their special entrances the next night on the Raw after WrestleMania, but it certainly wasn’t the same.
8 Vince McMahon Fudged The Reasons For Moving WrestleMania VII
As WWE settled into the 1990s, WrestleMania was becoming a pop culture fixture. WrestleMania VI drew not only a huge PPV audience, but a legit stadium crowd in Toronto. For WrestleMania VII, the objective was to put on an even bigger show in Los Angeles.
At the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, WWE envisioned breaking its own live attendance record from WrestleMania III by broaching 100,000 fans in attendance.
Early ticket sales reportedly floundered, though, leading the company to scale back and place the show at the much smaller L.A. Memorial Sports Arena.
WWE has never officially conceded the low ticket sales, instead insisting on a narrative that Sgt. Slaughter, was getting too much heat with his Iraqi sympathizer gimmick. This version of the story suggested threats against WWE and Slaughter, which compelled the company to transition ‘Mania to a smaller venue, where security might be easier to manage.
7 Shawn Michaels Told The Ref To Get Bret Hart Out Of The Ring
It's well documented how ugly things got between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels in the '90s, as their on air feud transcended into real life jealousies, politicking, and at least one fight in the locker room. Both sides claim they were originally friends, and it would seem WrestleMania XII was one of the key junctures at which their relationship deteriorated past the point of no return.
The two squared off in the main event of that show in an hour long Iron Man Match for the WWE Championship. Despite some reservations about how he was portrayed, Hart put Michaels over cleanly in overtime.
In Hart’s book, however, he wrote that there was a particularly nasty moment right after the final bell had rung.
While HBK has indicated more recently that he doesn’t remember, and Hart has dialed back his accusations over time, the suggestion was that Michaels referred to Hart as a piece of crap, and told the referee to get him the F out of the ring so he could have his moment of celebration. This was a huge show of disrespect toward the former champion, and cemented Hart’s hard feelings toward the man he’d just passed the torch to.
6 Mickey Rourke Got Ready For A Real Fight
It has been widely rumored that at WrestleMania XXV, WWE intended to cash in on Mickey Rourke’s box office success from playing the lead in The Wrestler by casting him in an actual wrestling match opposite Chris Jericho. All the pieces looked to be in place, with Jericho not only a big name, but one of the most talented and professional guys possible to take care of visiting celebrity, and Rourke riding a wave of renewed fame and having real life boxing skills to give him some credibility in a match.
Word is that Rourke’s people got cold feet about the match when the actor started getting serious awards buzz, and they didn’t want to jeopardize his credibility at WrestleMania.
Thus, things shifted to Jericho facing a collection of Hall of Famers, and Rourke only having a post-match confrontation with Y2J. The interaction was simple, brief, and one-sided in Rourke’s favor. Nonetheless, Jericho has reported afterward that Rourke wasn’t actually sure of how much of a work or shoot he was getting into, and brought an entourage to have his back in case Jericho or other wrestlers actually tried something on him.
5 Kurt Angle Encouraged Brock Lesnar To Go For The Shooting Star Press
One of the most memorably uncomfortable moments in WrestleMania history at came during the main event of WrestleMania XIX. Young Brock Lesnar challenged veteran Kurt Angle for the WWE Championship and, at the match’s climax, Lesnar uncharacteristically climbed to the top rope to go for a shooting star press.
The writing was on the wall that things might go badly given how far across the ring Angle was positioned. Still, Lesnar took flight, leapt impressively, made nearly a full rotation, and then landed inches short of Angle’s body, head first on the canvas.
The spot easily could have paralyzed, or at least knocked out Lesnar, and it’s a testament to his toughness and freakish physicality that he carried on.
In the aftermath, fans were quick to blame Lesnar for making a youthful mistake of going for an unnecessary and unsafe spot. Angle would reveal later that he’d actually egged Lesnar on to go for the big move in his own foolish attempt at giving the two of them an unforgettable WrestleMania moment.
4 Yokozuna Skipped Most Of A Match
At WrestleMania IX, fighting champion Bret Hart took on his greatest test, defending the WWE title against 500 pound Yokozuna. Most fans don’t have much positive to say about that year’s WrestleMania—a show short on star power without a single truly great match to hang its hat on. Hart is one of the few stars to have emerged looking good because, even though he lost his title, he put on a dynamic performance that carried Yokozuna to one of his best matches.
Despite Hart’s fine craftsmanship, he revealed in his book, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, that the match didn’t go according to plan at all.
Hart claims that whether Yokozuna was tired or genuinely forgot, he skipped half of what they had planned—including a portion of the match when Hart would get in most of his offense—in favor of finishing up early for a main event match that lasted under 10 minutes.
3 A Ladder Match Running Long Cut The Main Event Short
Looking back, some fans question how short the main event to WrestleMania X was at barely over 10 minutes. To be fair, Yokozuna wasn’t known for working marathons, and both he and Bret Hart had already worked longer matches in the same night. Still, for the final match of the tenth ‘Mania at Madison Square Garden, you’d expect something a little more epic.
According to Hart, as he wrote in his book, his main event triumph got cut short because another match ran long. That same show featured the first PPV ladder match, with Shawn Michaels battling Razor Ramon for the Intercontinental Championship. That match is considered a classic and wildly influential, but Michaels and Ramon purportedly took it upon themselves to almost double their allotted time to make the match special, thus shortchanging the main event.
2 Randy Savage Drove Ricky Steamboat Nuts
Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat from WrestleMania III is considered an all-time classic, and was quite arguably the first truly great match WWE ever put on PPV. For all the fanfare the match gets, there’s an uncomfortable truth—by his own account, Steamboat hated it.
That’s not to suggest Steamboat didn’t think they’d put on an excellent match, but he’s made no bones about commenting in interviews that Savage insisted on meticulous planning and even rehearsal to make the match perfect. Compare this with Steamboat’s other classics from this era with Ric Flair, which were mostly called in the ring, with only a few key spots and the finishes pre-arranged. Savage was notorious for planning like this, which worked for some his colleagues, like Diamond Dallas Page whom the Macho Man would famously put over later in his career. For Steamboat, however, this approach robbed the match of spontaneity and didn’t let them feed off the crowd, instead making them slaves to a script.
1 X-Pac Rejected A Match With Chris Jericho
From 1999 to 2000, one of WWE’s more fun storylines was the humanization of Kane. By now, the Big Red Machine’s gimmick has been retooled and recycled enough times to feel awfully tired in just about any situation. In that era, however, Kane was fresh off a very successful monster heel run. His follow up angles saw him turn face, fall in love, and look to join DX only for his friend and mentor X-Pac to stab him in the back and steal his girlfriend.
By WrestleMania, the program was pretty much played out, and X-Pac explained in a visit to Steve Austin’s podcast that management pitched that he shift direction to work newcomer Chris Jericho at the biggest show of the year. X-Pac thought he knew better and insisted on continuing to milk the Kane angle for all it was worth, resulting in a tag match with X-Pac and The Road Dogg putting over Kane and Rikishi. X-Pac conceded it was an error in judgment, particularly considering the legacy Jericho would ultimately build for himself in WWE and at WrestleMania.