When Eric Bischoff took over as Executive VP of WCW, he famously ordered a study to investigate what wrestling fans most appreciated about the product. In what probably shouldn’t have been an enormous surprise, but nonetheless crystallized an entire philosophy around booking, the study showed that fans wanted to be surprised. So it was that it became a signature part of WCW programming to have wild twists and turns in stories—in wrestling vernacular, swerves. There were, of course, some hugely successful swerves to justify this being a part of the company’s bedrock. There were others that came across as random and illogical, to the point that it reflected poorly upon the company that it would be so inconsistent with its characters and storytelling just for the sake of surprise.
WCW was notorious for swerves right up through its final months, but was hardly the only company to embrace this style of booking. Indeed, as Vince Russo gained influence in WWE (en route to WCW) one of his biggest contributions was to push more modern, dramatic, and volatile storytelling there as well. Long before that point, too, fans observed moments like Michael Hayes slamming a steel cage door on Kerry Von Erich’s head to launch a years long war between The Von Erich family and The Freebirds in World Class Championship Wrestling, not to mention Larry Zbyszko turning on his mentor Bruno Sammartino and Andre the Giant turning on his friend Hulk Hogan in WWE.
Indeed, swerves are a part of the foundation of wrestling that may have become more common in modern times, but nonetheless have a longer history. This article takes a look at swerves across time that have saved wrestling storylines, as well as ones that have hurt booking.
20 Hurt The Storyline: The Big Show Joins The Authority
While some fans were tired of the angle of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon presiding over Raw as The Authority as soon as the angle launched, many more fans had grown weary of it by the time Survivor Series 2014 rolled around.
If The Authority was played out, the idea of The Big Show turning heel was even worse for its redundancy.
The two pieces converged in Show betraying his team to help The Authority in a match with the stipulation that Triple H and McMahon would be deposed if the team representing them lost.
As a silver lining, the face team won out in the end, with a big assist from a debuting Sting. Nonetheless, The Authority regained control at the end of the year and resumed with Show as a key henchman for an angle well past its expiration date.
19 Saved The Storyline: Dean Ambrose Turns On Seth Rollins
For weeks, WWE teased that Dean Ambrose might break off from The Shield.
WWE foreshadowed this turn enough that some fans suspected it wouldn’t actually happen lest the company come across as predictable. Then, on the night when Roman Reigns relinquished the Universal Championship to focus on his battle with leukemia, Ambrose and Rollins won the Raw Tag Team Championships, and to the legitimate surprise of fans, Ambrose turned.
Above all else, the timing of this turn was stunning, for the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding Reigns, let alone his attack coming right after Ambrose won a title with Rollins. Rather than dwelling on a sad story, though, WWE charged ahead, and positioned Ambrose with the potential to become the hottest heel in the business.
18 Hurt The Storyline: Vince McMahon Revealed As The Greater Power
In The Undertaker’s long career, one of his most buzzworthy times saw him heading up The Ministry of Darkness. The angle included turning the whole McMahon family de facto face for a time, as The Phenom and his minions targeted Stephanie McMahon and her father at home.
The Undertaker referenced serving a greater power. A lot of the electricity of this angle evaporated when that power turned out to be Mr. McMahon himself. McMahon was, at once, a predictable heel mastermind, and it was completely illogical given the storyline implications of how he had scarred his own family and even himself. Worse yet, WWE tried to justify these machinations as a way of costing Steve Austin the world title—a title he didn’t even have when this angle started.
17 Saved The Storyline: Hulk Hogan Is The Third Man
The New World Order created buzz from the start, with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash capturing fans’ imagination as cool heels, with an implied connection to WWE. There was added interest in the group’s early days for The Outsiders saying there was a third man who would join them for their debut match against three of WCW’s finest.
That the third heel was Hulk Hogan totally justified the buzz, as Hogan was still the biggest star in the business and this was on the short list of the biggest heel turns in wrestling history.
The moment was legitimately stunning, and well-delivered as a surprise in the closing moments of the main event match at Bash at the Beach.
16 Hurt The Storyline: Kevin Nash Costs Samoa Joe
Twelve years after Kevin Nash was instrumental in one of the greatest heel turns of all time, he turned heel himself in Impact Wrestling when he cost Samoa Joe his world championship in the main event match of the Bound for Glory PPV.
Joe was one of the most over acts in the world to have never worked for WWE at that time, and it felt like a huge step backward for him to drop his title to Sting, a legend well past his prime. Nash’s heel turn seemed as though it were set up to salve fans’ disappointment with the electricity of a big turn, and setting up a new heel faction in the Main Event Mafia. Rather than feeling fresh, however, this largely felt like Impact retreading familiar ground with Nash doing what Nash does in swerving a kayfabe ally.
15 Saved The Storyline: Chaos Reigns In The SummerSlam 2018 Main Event
WWE booked itself into a corner time and again with Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns. At WrestleMania 31, there was a monster heel fans wanted to see lose versus a corporate chosen one no one thought was ready to win the big one. Seth Rollins’s Money in the Bank cash-in offered a way out. The next two iterations at WrestleMania 34 and The Greatest Royal Rumble lived down to expectations as plodding matches with unfulfilling conclusions.
At SummerSlam 2018, however, we finally got the ideal version of this match. Braun Strowman asserted his presence to cash-in his Money in the Bank opportunity, adding immediate excitement. From there, we got a hard hitting sprint between Reigns and Lesnar, Strowman offered a fun distraction and detour, and Reigns finally collected his win. The chaotic scene made for by far the most fun match the competitors involved had ever had.
14 Hurt The Storyline: Buff Bagwell Is A Bad Guy After All
In 1998, Buff Bagwell sustained one of the worst injuries seen in live TV in his era off of a bulldog gone wrong from Rick Steiner that badly hurt his neck. WCW did the reasonable thing and, as it became clear Bagwell would be able to return, began building a story of him valiantly working his way toward recovery, while old nWo ally Scott Steiner belittled him.
Bagwell was a younger star that WCW was, at least theoretically, trying to build up.
While injuries are never a good thing, this appeared as though it might have set him up for the push of his career.
Instead, his very first night back, Bagwell teamed back up with Big Poppa Pump, heeling on his brother Rick, and basically hitting the reset button to swerve the fans and squander the good will fans had generated around him.
13 Saved The Storyline: Triple H Fakes Out Shawn Michaels
Throughout his first retirement from the ring, Shawn Michaels appeared on and off for WWE in various authority positions and other non-wrestling roles. The year 2002 saw him join up with the New World Order and, after that group dissolved, implore Triple H to reform DX with him.
Triple H obliged, but promptly turned on his old ally, planting him with a Pedigree. The idea of DX without Michaels actually wrestling was a little lame, but things took a much more interesting turn with this swerve. It turned out HBK was ready for another run in the ring, and his friend betraying him offered a totally logical reason for him to get back in the ring to get his revenge.
12 Hurt The Storyline: Rikishi Ran Over Stone Cold
Survivor Series 1999 saw a stunning development as Stone Cold Steve Austin got run over in the parking lot, taking him out of his scheduled Triple Threat with The Rock and Triple H. The incident was a kayfabe excuse for Austin to take time off to heal from injuries, but also invited an intriguing path for his return as he went hunting for whomever took him out of action in the storyline.
The reveal that Rikishi was responsible was pretty underwhelming.
To be fair, Rikishi was a star and this swerve set him up for a huge push. Unfortunately, he wasn’t over at a main event level (especially as a newly serious heel), and the turn came from so far out of nowhere it was hard for fans to buy it. The result was a lukewarm comeback program for Austin and a middling upper card heel run for Rikishi.
11 Saved The Storyline: An Evil Twin Costs Hulk Hogan The Title
Hulk Hogan was a dominant champion for WWE throughout the early years of the company’s national expansion. There came a point, however, when WWE needed to get the title off him to freshen stories and justify Hogan going missing while he filmed No Holds Barred without the title, too, disappearing.
The factors lined up. Andre the Giant was Hogan’s most credible challenger. Ted DiBiase was a new major heel act. Randy Savage was ready for a world title run.
So, WWE orchestrated a huge swerve with DiBiase paying off an evil twin ref to count Hogan down for a phantom pin, after which he’d buy the world title from Andre. The whole scenario protected Hogan as WWE’s top star and established a reason for the title to be vacated to set up a world title tournament for WrestleMania IV, where Savage would win his way to title glory.
10 Hurt The Storyline: Steve Austin Joins Forces With Vince McMahon
Stone Cold Steve Austin was the most popular star of the Attitude Era, and one might even argue that some of that popularity is owed to the many swerves his character endured that kept his overarching storylines so exciting. However, WWE mad a major miscalculation when Austin turned heel to partner up with Vince McMahon at the end of WrestleMania X-Seven.
There was a certain logic to an aging Austin, back from injury and unable to beat Triple H at the PPV before, going rogue for another chance to be on top. However, fans simply didn’t want to boo Stone Cold, and wanted to see him stunning McMahon, not toasting beers with him. The angle largely squandered much of Austin’s final stretch as a top in-ring performer.
9 Saved The Storyline: The Rock Goes Corporate
The year was 1998 and a lot had changed in the year following the infamous Survivor Series '97. Bret Hart had gone to WCW. Shawn Michaels had retired. Vince McMahon has grown into a fully realized heel authority figure. Steve Austin was the man and The Rock had risen as special talent.
WWE pulled off a masterful swerve in setting up The Rock as one of the stars McMahon and his henchmen targeted in the '98 Survivor Series WWE title tournament.
By the end of the night, it was clear The Corporation had actually conspired on Rock’s behalf. In McMahon calling for the bell on a phantom submission to award The Brahma Bull the title, WWE had established its new top heel and reclaimed the narrative of 'Montreal' once and for all.
8 Hurt The Storyline: Brock Lesnar Ends The Streak
Wrestling has seen its share of undefeated streaks. Nothing compares to The Undertaker’s record at WrestleMania though. The Deadman wrestled across over two decades without losing. More than a gimmick, the streak became a testament to the man and character’s greatness and longevity. If it were to end, pundits hypothesized he’d have to lose to a star unestablished enough to have his career made by the win, but also solidly enough a part of the WWE landscape for the company not to fear him leaving and squandering the victory of a lifetime. This unlikely combination of factors made it unlikely WWE would ever pull the trigger.
Brock Lesnar got the win at WrestleMania XXX. It did set him up for a unique monster heel run, but it’s also arguable he didn’t need that win, and it served up one of the most uncomfortable and unsatisfying moments in WrestleMania history.
7 Saved The Storyline: Mark Henry’s Salmon Blazer
In 2013, Mark Henry looked to be in the twilight of a fine career, and fans readily believed him when he hinted he was retiring. The World’s Strongest Man showed up on Raw in a now famous salmon blazer and gave an emotional speech about his career, before John Cena came out to congratulate and salute the big man. Then, in a big swerve, Henry decimated Cena to reveal it was all a ruse to lure him out, and he meant to take Cena’s WWE Championship off of him.
The moment was effective because of how completely surprising it was, and for setting up a compelling world title program for its time, when neither competitor had had a clear creative direction.
6 Hurt The Storyline: Curt Hennig Betrays The Horsemen
Being a part of The Four Horsemen represented excellence in the ring, swagger, and loyalty. Curt Hennig fit this mold perfectly, and when Arn Anderson handed Hennig his spot in the group, it made for quite a moment, and suggested that the old school faction might meaningfully stand up to the nWo, particularly working against the nWo in one of their traditional environments—War Games.
When Hennig entered the War Games match, however, he turned on the Horsemen and revealed he was a part of the nWo.
On principle, the swerve made sense for the Horsemen getting a dose of their own medicine after years of running similar schemes, besides which the nWo was built on surprise betrayals.
The swerve ruined a feel good moment, though, besides crippling a legendary stable, and ultimately not doing Hennig any good as he got lost in the shuffle with his new faction.
5 Saved The Storyline: Vince McMahon Wins The Royal Rumble
In 1999, WWE introduced a fun dynamic for the Royal Rumble in Vince McMahon and Steve Austin being the first two entrants in the match. Befitting his character and this rivalry, Stone Cold used the opportunity not to eliminate McMahon, but rather to keep him in the ring as long as he could to continue a merciless beatdown until McMahon’s henchmen evened the odds.
That McMahon would ultimately eliminate Austin from the match personally and win the Royal Rumble was a stunner that justified the Chairman’s inclusion in the match, and really sold the concept that McMahon controlled WWE and could make life a living hell for Austin.
4 Hurt The Storyline: Vince Russo Wins The WCW Championship
Vince Russo garnered a fair amount of credit for WWE’s Attitude Era. Indeed, the consensus is that the guy could think outside the box, wasn’t afraid of radical turns, and pushed WWE toward an edgier product. Russo’s limitations were exposed when he went to WCW, though, and without Vince McMahon to oversee his work, Russo’s creative efforts really went off the rails.
In one of the worst moments in WCW history, Russo was the unlikely winner of the WCW Championship. While it was an unexpected moment for sure, it got remembered for all the wrong reasons. While Vince McMahon winning the WWE Championship featured one of wrestling’s most famous figures and even David Arquette winning the WCW title featured a legit celebrity, Russo wasn’t a big enough name to justify the booking, and this title win for a non-wrestler only tarnished the championship.
3 Saved The Storyline: The Undertaker Comes Back For Brock Lesnar
WWE seemed to have booked itself into a corner when Brock Lesnar challenged Seth Rollins for the WWE Championship at Battleground 2015. It seemed clear WWE meant to run with Rollins as champ for a while.
Lesnar was the ultimate monster, though, whom Rollins couldn’t very well defeat cleanly.
Enter The Undertaker to cost Lesnar his title opportunity and in so doing launch a war of a feud that would reasonably keep The Beast Incarnate distracted from his title pursuits. The Deadman’s intervention made sense, too, to avenge Lesnar ending his WrestleMania undefeated streak and bragging about it.
2 Hurt The Storyline: Santina Is Miss WrestleMania
Long before the Women’s Revolution of today, WWE hinted that it would pay its proper respect to female stars past and present at WrestleMania XXV with a 25-women battle royal to crown Miss WrestleMania.
A number of legitimate top stars of yesteryear declined to participate and it’s a bit of a chicken and egg question whether their abstention made WWE not take the match seriously, or they declined because they could see the Battle Royal was a joke.
Regardless, the match ended with Santina—Santino Marella in drag—standing tall, making a mockery of what should have been a more earnest tribute to women’s wrestling.
1 Saved The Storyline: Seth Rollins Cashes In At WrestleMania
WrestleMania 31’s main event presented WWE with a paradox. Roman Reigns has won the Royal Rumble and been positioned as the next WWE Champion. Fans had rejected him en masse, though and, at least at that time, he didn’t have the pure talent to overcome a hostile crowd reaction. Meanwhile, reigning champ Brock Lesnar was a heel who’d defeated every other credible challenger, and it would have felt like a let down for him to win the WrestleMania main event, too.
Enter Seth Rollins executing the unthinkable Money in the Bank cash-in, by crashing the WrestleMania main event. The insertion of Rollins protected the other competitors, offered an electric moment, and set WWE on a new course.