Professional wrestling operates on storylines—scripted journeys that include match results, promos, and other segments to add weight later matches or broader narrative arcs. There are times when critics come down on the contemporary wrestling world for seeming to book on the fly rather than plan long term, and with good reason. Classic rivalries like Hulk Hogan vs. Randy Savage or Sting vs. Hollywood Hogan were built on patient, purposeful storytelling as opposed to plotting week to week.
However, even the best-laid plans are subject to real-life considerations. Not least of all, wrestling is a physical endeavor and does involve talents getting hurt from time to time. This article takes a look at ten occasions when a real-life injury derailed major plans for a wrestling promotion at the top of the card.
10 John Cena Goes Down In 2007
The mid-to-late 2000s saw WWE plagued by injuries. John Cena came across pretty extraordinary for staying healthy even while he worked a more intense schedule than anyone between regularly wrestling as WWE Champion and making appearances on behalf of the company. However, in fall 2007, he finally was proven human when he succumbed to a torn pectoral muscle and had to relinquish his title.
Cena was not only the top champion but the face of WWE at this time. WWE rushed Triple H into the title picture to compensate for Cena’s absence. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, however, came when Cena returned to the ring months earlier than expected to win the 2008 Royal Rumble.
9 Goldberg Punches A Car Window
Goldberg was running hot, warring with the New World Order in late 1999. A critical spot saw him go after his enemies by attacking their limousine on an episode of Thunder. Accounts vary as to whether there was a mistake in how the car windows were gimmicked, or if Goldberg got overzealous in his physicality. Whatever the case, he wound up badly injuring his arm in the process.
Goldberg wound up out of action for nearly half of a year, forcing WCW to shift directions with its top star suddenly unavailable.
8 Finn Balor’s Title Reign Ends Before It Properly Starts
The summer of 2016 looked like the start of a truly historic push for Finn Balor. Fresh out of NXT, he promptly defeated Seth Rollins to be crowned the first Universal Champion.
However, Balor got injured on a powerbomb into a barricade during his SummerSlam match. Consequently, he had to forfeit the title the very next night, and would scarcely reach bona fide main event status again on Raw. Instead, WWE moved ahead with Kevin Owens as Universal Champion for the months to follow.
7 Triple H Out Of The Two Man Power Trip
In the aftermath of WrestleMania 17, a newly heel Stone cold Steve Austin formed an unholy alliance with former top rival Triple H. The wicked duo racked up gold in the weeks to follow.
Triple H tore a quadriceps in a now-famous bout opposite Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit. His injury scrapped the Two Man Power Trip angle altogether. The Game was consequently missing from the entire InVasion angle. While it was heavily rumored he would have gradually turned face and challenged Austin for the title at the following WrestleMania, he instead turned face more abruptly upon returning and challenged Jericho.
6 Edge Forced Into Retirement
From the outside looking in, Edge seemed to be riding high coming out of WrestleMania 27. He had just worked his fourth straight WrestleMania in a world title match and retained his World Heavyweight Championship over Alberto Del Rio. The Edge-Del Rio angle looked to continue until Edge announced that neck and spine issues were forcing him into retirement.
In the short term, Christian stepped into Edge’s place to finish business with Del Rio and take the title, before segueing into a program with Randy Orton and a heel turn. It’s difficult to say now what would have happened if Edge hadn’t gotten hurt, but there’s little question he’d have figured into the World Heavyweight Championship picture for at least a month or two to follow.
5 Daniel Bryan Relinquishes The WWE Championship
Daniel Bryan enjoyed one of the most inspiring runs in WWE history from 2013 into 2014, culminating in winning the WWE Championship in the main event of WrestleMania 30. He couldn’t celebrate for long, though, as concussion issues came back to haunt him.
Bryan’s run with the title was short, underwhelming, and ultimately anticlimactic as he had to vacate the strap. All indicators would suggest that the plan was for Brock Lesnar to have crushed him for the title at SummerSlam, but in Bryan’s absence, WWE turned to its most reliable main eventer, John Cena to fill the spot and put over The Beast.
4 Sting Vs. The Horsemen Set Off Course
Sting and Ric Flair had a way of gravitating to one another in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1990, Sting actually became a part of Flair’s Four Horsemen before being set up to fracture from the group and challenge the Nature Boy for his NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
Just as the program was getting going, Sting suffered from a real-life knee injury that took him out of action. WCW scrambled and plugged Lex Luger into his place in the short term. The band-aid fix did little capture the imagination of fans at the time.
3 Shawn Michaels Loses His Smile And Shuffles The Deck For WrestleMania 13
Early 1997 saw Shawn Michaels struggle with knee issues that ultimately led him to vacate the WWE Championship. He publicly claimed to have “lost his smile,” which got a pessimistic response from the locker room. More importantly, Michaels having to step aside forced major changes to the card for WrestleMania 13. As Bret Hart wrote about in his book and has discussed in a variety of shoot interviews, he expected to get his win back over HBK from WrestleMania 12, but that main event was no longer in the cards.
While the Sid vs. Undertaker main event that did follow was on the underwhelming side, there was one clear advantage to WWE being forced to change its plans. Hart worked Steve Austin in an I Quit Match that is widely regarded as one of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time. It also marked the turning point of Austin turning face and Hart turning heel, an important change of course that be instrumental in making WWE white-hot for the months to follow.
2 Batista Vacates The World Heavyweight Championship
After beating Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 21, Batista was established as a bona fide main event guy. WWE shuffled the deck to move him to SmackDown and implicitly position him as the second biggest face of the company behind John Cena. Nonetheless, The Animal was clearly set up for an extended run at or around the top of the company.
Batista suffered a legitimate triceps injury at the hands of Mark Henry in a spot gone wrong. Not only did he have to vacate his title in the short term, but WWE clearly had to rearrange plans for his extended absence, which included being out of action straight through WrestleMania 22.
1 Seth Rollins Can’t Pass The Torch To Roman Reigns
Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania 31. In so doing, he not only won the WWE Championship but became the focal point of WWE main event booking for over a half year to follow, supplanting Roman Reigns, whom many expected to fill that role.
When Reigns became Rollins’s challenger for Survivor Series 2015, it looked as though the writing was on the wall that The Big Dog would at last capture his first world title. Rollins got hurt just before the PPV, leading WWE to change things up and feature a tournament for the vacant title. Reigns still had his crowning moment, Reigns wound up pinning Dean Ambrose to take the title, and then feuding with Sheamus and Triple H. While WWE may have arrived at a similar series of events either way, it’s hard to imagine Rollins not figuring into the main event picture more prominently in those months to follow if he hadn’t been out of action.