Wrestling isn’t fake, but it is pre-determined. A wrestler's career is divided into arcs, they gain popularity or notoriety and attempt to “get over” with the fans. Getting over is the first rule of wrestling; if the fans don’t respond, you’ll be out of a job. The second phase is the push. Wrestling promotions decide which wrestlers get the important matches and wins in an attempt to elevate their status. There is only so much room at the top, so pushes must be carefully managed. For a wrestler to win and “get over”, another must lose and “put them over”. Most wrestlers don’t like losing but recognize it as a part of the job, hence the nickname to “job”. The timing of winning and losing is incredibly important. Steven Spielberg learned from Jaws that you only get one chance to make the audience jump, the same can be applied to wrestling. The payoff from a feud, or the snapping of an undefeated streak can only happen once. When a wrestler is on the rise a loss is far more devastating than if they are already established.
Some refusals are based on real-life dislike. Many losses are refused because the guy at the top doesn’t feel it’s his time to come down. Appearing in the main event is the biggest payday so it’s in a wrestlers best interest to keep their run at the top as long as possible. For some on the downside of their career, holding the title belt secures employment, so they fear that losing will leave them on the outside looking in.
The etiquette for wrestling states that the older veterans who have had their time in the sun should lose to the upcoming talent, to give back and keep the business healthy and fresh. The Undertaker, at the end of his career shocked the world when he allowed Brock Lesnar to break his undefeated streak at WrestleMania. The Undertaker had made all the money he was going to make and whether he lost or not, his legacy remains strong. Allowing Lesnar to win, gives his character power, and he will in turn pass that power to whomever beats him.
Of course wrestlers and bookers can have vastly conflicting ideas, and here are the top ten times it happened.
10. Bruno Sammartino over Everyone
Bruno came from a far different era of wrestling. In his time, there was a lot more actual shoot wrestling and the athletes could control the outcome if they desired. Sammartino hated losing and was as tough as they came. If a promoter demanded he lost, he told them that he’d take a loss only if the challenger could actually beat him.
In an interview with David Block of blindfilmaker.com, Sammartino admitted to having a hard time losing.
“I wouldn’t cooperate with promoters,” Sammartino said. “I told them ‘if anybody can really beat me, fine. But that’s the only way I’ll go down.’ I was a real young guy, and I wanted to establish myself. I didn’t want to be a preliminary boy, so the promoters took a negative stand against me by black balling me all over the country.”
He won a lot.
9. Ric Flair over Lex Luger
Ric Flair was the definition of "the man" in the NWA days. He was the champion and face of the company, defending the title amongst the territories. There are many stories from this time surrounding Flair, Luger, and WCW executive Jim Herd. Flair and much of WCW talent were not getting along with Herd, as he had zero wrestling experience, and made ludicrous suggestions such as Flair shaving his hair and becoming “Spartacus” (another idea being a hunchback tag team that could not be pinned (due to the hunches). Herd wanted the belt to go to Luger, but Flair refused, stating they had previously agreed it would go to Sting. Herd decided if Flair wouldn’t play ball, he’d fire him, which eventually sent Flair, and the big gold belt, over to Vince and the WWE.
Although fans didn’t get the anticipated Hogan versus Flair match they did get one of the best Royal Rumbles in 1992, in which Flair entered third, and lasted just over an hour to win the vacant WWE title.
8. Rey Mysterio over Dolph Ziggler
The validity to this one has been debated, so I’ll just say it’s a rumor that has been reported several times. The story goes that Rey Mysterio was booked to lose the IC title to Dolph Ziggler at SummerSlam 2009. Rey felt he should have more time with the belt since he had just won it a few weeks prior. I agree with this, as I’m not a big fan of constant title changes. If you want fans to care about the belt you need to let the champion have a nice run, and establish momentum. Rey being a former World Heavyweight Champion would be the perfect choice to carry the IC belt, giving it some major credibility.
Whether the story is true or not, Rey got the win, although he lost a month later to John Morrison.
6 John Cena over Wade Barrett
A match involving Edge, Jericho, Cena, and Wade Barrett among others was detailed on Jericho’s great podcast. Jericho and Edge stated they were trying to get the new guy Barrett over, but John Cena had his own ideas about the match. Cena planned to take a devastating DDT to the floor from Barrett, kick out, and beat two men for the win. Edge and Jericho both told Cena it was a terrible idea, not believable at all, and would kill Barrett’s momentum. Cena went with his plan and it was terrible, but to his credit, he later came back to Edge and Jericho, admitting they were right and he was wrong.
Hopefully he had the same conversation with Barrett and Vince.
6. Shawn Michaels Refuses to Return the Favor to Bret Hart
HBK has never admitted to this one, but he also said he wouldn't be surprised if it was true. After Hart gave Michaels his first World Title at WrestleMania 12, Michaels told him that he would not be returning the favor. Bret took this as unforgivable disrespect, and it would start them both down the dark path to Survivor Series ‘97.
But before that, the rumored plan in 1997 was for Hart to win at February’s In Your House for a shot at Michaels and the title at WrestleMania 13, which Bret would win cleanly. The infamous “lost my smile” promo happened, as Michaels claimed a knee injury could force his retirement, and he vacated the title. Hart felt the injury wasn’t as serious as claimed and Michaels used it as an excuse to avoid returning the favor. Even fishier, Michaels returned shortly after, in time for him to win the belt again. Let’s compare this to Curt Hennig in 1991. Hart had just spent a year losing to IC Champion Hennig, and the time had come for Hart to win the belt. Hennig was legitimately out with a back injury, but he did the honourable thing and wrestled through the pain to give Hart the win at SummerSlam '91, launching Hart as a Champion. As a testament to the legacy of Hennig and Hart, injury or not, the match was an absolute classic.
Again, controversy can create interesting circumstances. With Michaels out, Hart wrestled Austin at WM 13, in another classic that also launched Austin to stardom.
5 Hulk Hogan over Bret Hart
Around WrestleMania IX the WWF was changing. The steroid scandal put pressure on Hogan to leave, and the transition to smaller, more natural wrestlers like Bret Hart was in full swing. The rumored plan was for Hogan, who had won the belt from Yokozuna at WretleMania IX in a ridiculous 30 second match, to drop the belt to Bret Hart at SummerSlam. A dream match, since Hogan’s greatest bout was arguably his face versus face loss to the Ultimate Warrior, a passing of the torch to Hart could have been a classic. Allegedly, Hogan refused to lose to Bret at the highly publicized SummerSlam. Instead, he gave Yokozuna a dirty win at the much lower-profile King of the Ring after a photographer “blinded” him.
Hart versus Hogan eventually did happen on WCW Nitro, Sept 28, 1998. Needless to say, it was far too late and the match didn't mean anything.
4 The Shield over John Cena
Dean Ambrose and the Shield were at their absolute peak. After hitting their stride they were ready to go on a real nice run, the fans were behind them, they had a lot of heat, the time was right. The booking had been made for John Cena to beat all three of his opponents, and Ambrose and the Shield flat out refused to do it. They stated that in time they would lose to Cena whenever needed, but at that point they needed a win to establish their power. If they lost to Cena, they would be knocked down to the level of everyone else, throwing away their heat and momentum. The Shield and Ambrose were at the peak of their power, and got their way, refusing the job. Rightly so.
3 Roddy Piper over Mr. T
WrestleMania was all about mainstream crossover appeal. McMahon brought in recognizable stars like Mr. T to entice new fans and give his event a glamorous importance. Roddy Piper was tasked to box Mr. T at WM II and felt a great deal of pressure and responsibility. He had the tough job of creating a convincing match with T but he also had to protect the business from looking foolish. Piper was asked to lose cleanly to T but he refused. Piper fought hard with Vince as he felt he needed to protect the integrity of wrestling from an outsider. Piper did lose the match but did so with a DQ.
Mr. T was so exhausted and out of his depth in the match he couldn’t offer much. Piper snapped, whipping his corner stool with full force at T, and proceeded to lay a bodyslam on T, causing the DQ.
2 Steve Austin over Brock Lesnar on RAW
Austin admits at this period he was tough to work with. At the time he was still a massive draw, and Lesnar was coming up in the WWE. Austin had no problem with Brock and saw a ton of potential in the genetic freak, but when McMahon asked him to lose to Brock on TV, in a King of the Ring qualifying match rather than a PPV with a proper build, he refused.
McMahon stuck to his guns and Austin stuck to his, leaving the company, which he regretted, stating he should have shown up and found another solution. Other than leaving, Austin is in the right about not losing to Lesnar on a near meaningless TV match. Wrestling is all about building anticipation for the PPV, where they can make a significant amount more than giving away a match like that for free. With Austin being the draw he was, and Brock's potential as a box office draw at the time, it made no sense to throw away a Brock/Austin match for free on RAW. That's a WCW-esque move.
In the end, it didn’t hurt anyones career, and exists only in shoot interviews and wrestling articles.
1 The Montreal Screwjob
As mentioned earlier, when Michaels told Hart he would never put the belt on him, Hart took it as the ultimate disrespect. Hart was leaving the WWE and was adamant that he not lose to Shawn in Montreal at Survivor Series. Hart offered to drop the belt to Shawn another night, drop it to someone else like Austin, Undertaker or Shamrock or that he vacate the title as Michaels had done. Vince, perhaps worried Bret would either take the belt to WCW or that the WWE would lose face by having their champion walk away, ultimately decided to go ahead with the Montreal Screwjob.
While it seemed like a public catastrophe for the WWE, Vince capitalized on this brilliantly, as his Evil Boss persona sprung from his public perception after screwing Bret. While Hart set himself up for life with his WCW paychecks, the company failed to capitalize on his momentum, waiting months to debut him in a match, and over a year before giving him a world title shot. That's the equivalent of a Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky joining your team, and having them ride the bench all season.