It goes without saying that the wins and losses in professional wrestling are pre-determined. Before each competitor walks the aisle to stand in the squared circle, they know their orders, and in big match situations, they can feel the weight of the moment; built to reach a point of a large payoff. For fans who invest their energy in these competitors and storylines, watching a soul crushing defeat can feel as authentic as watching their favorite sports team lose a championship game.
In looking at the most soul crushing defeats in WWE history, they can be viewed on two fronts. One, from a character standpoint and whether it's a last great match, that sends off a favorite WWE Superstar on a bittersweet high note. Two, from a fan standpoint, where the losing result sends fans through the seven stages of grief, as they try to make sense of what they just witnessed.
When witnessing an art form where the winners and losers are predetermined, it's always more compelling to look at the factors surrounding and encompassing defeat. There's a reason Shawn Michaels was called Mr. WrestleMania with a 6-11 record. It was because no matter what the finish was, he ensured the ride which always led to an unforgettable moment. Soul crushing defeats make just as much as an impact as epic victories. Let's look at 15 of them.
15 Bruno Makes The Garden Go Silent
In the 1960s and early 70s in WWE, one thing was certain, Bruno Sammartino was going to crush the bad guy. From 1963 to 1971, Bruno turned back a list of men who included a who's who of legendary names including Gorilla Monsoon, Giant Baba, Classy Freddie Blassie, The Crusher, Ernie Ladd, King Curtis Iaukea, and more.
For the equivalent of two presidential terms, Bruno Sammartino was the man in Madison Square Garden, until a fateful night where he met Ivan Koloff. Upon his defeat, the announcer described the crowd as likely to riot. Officials sensing the magnitude of the moment, did not hand the championship to Koloff in fear of a riot. This is the spiritual predecessor to The Streak being broken, as silence permeated the arena, and people were said to have been crying over Bruno's defeat. A soul crushing defeat indeed.
14 The Shield Squashes The Attitude Era
At WrestleMania XXX, it was a night of change within WWE and nothing personified it more than seeing The Shield destroy The New Age Outlaws and Kane, in what could be argued to be the greatest squash match of all-time.
With one Triple-Double Powerbomb, JBL promptly proclaimed, "There goes The Attitude Era." In a character sense, this was the essence of a soul crushing defeat as three relics of the past were shown to be nowhere near the three men who would define WWE's next era, in Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and Dean Ambrose.
In just under three minutes, The Shield showcased all of their greatest individual traits, the brawling of Ambrose, the athleticism of Rollins, and the explosiveness of Reigns, while delivering a soul crushing defeat along the way.
13 Bret Hart Loses the Ironman Match
Bret Hart was never the same after losing the Ironman match to Shawn Michaels in 1996. Prior to this he was the unquestioned top face, with or without the championship. Following that defeat came a long hiatus where he would return to a wrestling promotion that was radically different in November than it was in March.
While Bret was still as incredible as ever in the ring, from November '96 to November '97, there was a feeling that he was part of what had been the standard in WWE, rather than what it would continue to be. The countdown for his eventual departure had begun, as he was turned into a character who eventually had no opponents left. Bret Hart putting Shawn Michaels over clean not only handed Michaels the championship, but it handed him the mythical glow of being the man in WWE.
12 John Cena Was Suplexed Out of the Main Event
The main event of SummerSlam 2014 wasn't even supposed to happen. With an untimely injury to Daniel Bryan, John Cena was put in his place to take on Brock Lesnar who had been elevated to a God-tier level following his conquest of The Undertaker's WrestleMania Streak.
In that match, John Cena was German Suplexed 16 thunderous times, en route to losing the WWE World Heavyweight Championship to Brock Lesnar, who was as unstoppable of a force at that moment as there has ever been. While the savage beating of John Cena was cheered by the Los Angeles audience, it should be looked at as a symbolic change of John Cena's status in WWE. Yes, he would compete for the WWE Championship in the months following, but Cena kept the narrative in tact that began at SummerSlam '13, where he was no longer at his zenith.
For the John Cena character, it wasn't his first soul crushing defeat, but it may wind up being the defining one.
11 The Macho King is Forced to Retire
When Macho King Randy Savage met The Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VII, it was a match that has essentially become the playbook on how to steal the show, or have a big-time match on a grand stage. Through the numerous false finishes, to the thrilling conclusion and post match, all the elements were there. So why was this a soul crushing defeat?
From WrestleMania V on, Randy Savage transformed into someone else. Even losing the WWE Championship didn't slow down the literal savage he had become. On his quest to regain the championship, he dubbed himself The Macho King and replaced Miss Elizabeth with the ruthless Sherri Martell as his manager. From partnering with Zeus, to running afoul of The Ultimate Warrior at Royal Rumble '91, when he cost Warrior the championship with a well placed scepter shot to the face, those moments led to a duel which was "bigger than the belt" at WMVII: a Retirement match.
After years of doing things his way, Savage would bow to the Warrior, in spite of delivering five elbows from the top rope, doing the honors by letting Warrior pin him with a foot on his chest, as truly a soul crushing defeat. However, not all was lost. Following the match Savage would reconcile with Elizabeth in one of WWE's all-time most emotional moments.
10 Hulk Hogan Loses to Brock Lesnar
In 2002, the Hulkamania nostalgia train was in high gear, as Hulk Hogan returned to WWE and had a series of big matches at WrestleMania and beyond. Hogan took on everyone from The Rock, to Kurt Angle during this time and even captured the Undisputed WWE Championship from Triple H.
However, there was one man who wasn't here for any of the good feelings Hogan's return brought. He was the 25 year old Brock Lesnar, who was on a bullet train to the top of WWE. In a bloody affair on SmackDown, Lesnar and Hogan met to see who would challenge The Rock in the main event of SummerSlam. Hogan was destroyed in short order, as Lesnar showed a level of brutality that would permanently change the view of Hulk Hogan. Never had he looked more regular than after this moment. Lesnar ended the match by submitting Hulk with a Bearhug that squeezed the soul out of Hogan.
9 Rock Gets Brocked
Continuing Lesnar's stretch of victories that crushed souls, Brock walked into SummerSlam 2002 for his biggest challenge to date, defending Undisputed WWE Champion The Rock. The build-up profiled both men as elite pure athletes, who trained and pushed themselves beyond what normal humans would. This contest is memorable for the crowd turning on The Rock even though he was the face, which became a theme around this time.
Additionally, Lesnar became the man of the people that night and he fed on the energy he was given by the fans to deliver a thunderous F-5 that would conclude Rock's time as a full-time major character in WWE. Lesnar was now the king and had it not been for Stone Cold Steve Austin walking out in 2002, he could have feasibly ran through Hogan, Austin, and The Rock in a two month period.
8 British Bulldog Loses to Shawn Michaels in England
The British Bulldog was the WWE's first European Champion. He won the title in a tournament final in early 1997 against his brother-in-law Owen Hart. After holding the championship most of the year, he rolled into a match with Shawn Michaels in September of that year, dedicating the match to his sister Tracy, who had been struck with cancer and defending the pride of his home country against a long time rival.
The British crowd was as lively as ever, as they booed Shawn Michaels vociferously and cheered The Bulldog. However, the match was an exercise in getting heat for Shawn Michaels, as he and DX ruthlessly cheated at every turn, and worked over the injured leg of Davey Boy Smith until the referee was forced to stop the match. Following this, Bulldog was never the level of performer he was again. Not only did he lose the championship that night but he left a bit of himself there. The fans in England were furious, watching one of their own be sacrificed to the extent that he was.
7 Booker T Falls to The Game
In a storyline with serious racial undertones, Booker T squared off against Triple H at WrestleMania XIX with the World Heavyweight Championship on the line. Booker T, who was making his second 'Mania appearance, was getting a shot as a major player after years in WCW playing every role possible. From legendary tag team wrestler, to mid-card stalwart, to World Champion, Booker always seemed to connect with the crowd and was an easy wrestler to root for.
Subsequently, when the time came to see Booker T get his star-making moment in WWE, it just didn't happen for whatever reason. Triple H and WWE made Booker into one of the most sympathetic figures ever, then flat out beat him clean as a whistle at WrestleMania to the disappointment of many.
While Booker T would recover to become a champion in WWE, it took him three years to get there after this loss.
6 Roman Reigns Loses in The Main Event of WrestleMania 31
Roman Reigns walked into WrestleMania 31 under a heap of pressure. After winning the now infamous 2015 Royal Rumble, he faced backlash from a fan base who wanted him no where near the main event against Brock Lesnar. Reigns was forced to rise to the occasion and play a role in what would become one of WrestleMania's finest concluding contests.
Conversely, what was thought to be his coronation as the future franchise of the WWE, was not to be, to the delight of many. Still, this was a soul crushing defeat for Reigns, being that Lesnar was not the man to put him away. Seth Rollins cashing in Money in the Bank ended up the enduring of WrestleMania 31, but the dejection on the face of Roman Reigns from photos that night shows someone who was trying to find his way in an industry where he was roundly rejected.
5 Shawn Michaels Loses the Title to a Sycho
Throughout 1996, Shawn Michaels was the WWE Champion and having incredible main event matches month after month while on top. However, he was slowly self-destructing, due to the pressures of being the man tasked with carrying the WWE, and his well documented personal demons. His title reign was brought to a sudden stop at Survivor Series 1996, shocking fans in the process.
Watching it back may seem a bit hokey right now, due to the fake heart attack angle and Vince McMahon's commentary blatantly begging for us to feel sorry for Shawn Michaels, but seeing Shawn run into a guy he just couldn't beat that night, coupled with the boos he received in Madison Square Garden, made him a little less invincible in the minds of fans. Sid was a destroyer that night as well.
4 CM Punk Loses the WWE Championship to The Rock
Coming into this match as the longest reigning WWE Champion of the modern era, CM Punk not only carried the championship, but seemingly a chip on his shoulder that was the validation for his entire time as champion. After a reign where he had to turn heel to get back into main eventing, even while being the WWE Champion, this unique dream match wound up impacting WWE much further than ever anticipated.
After 434 days, CM Punk lost the WWE Championship to The Rock, a move that is still sure to divide the critical community of wrestling fans to this day if mentioned. Coupled with John Cena's Royal Rumble victory, this was a double-edged sword, as fans looked toward WrestleMania. CM Punk would never be the same after losing the title that night and the fans of CM Punk resented WWE for having him lose the championship to a part-time performer. While Punk would go on to face The Undertaker, it wasn't the main event he desired and WrestleMania XXIX would have a dark cloud over it. This loss was the beginning of CM Punk's departure from WWE.
3 Daniel Bryan Loses to Roman Reigns at Fastlane 2015
One of the most depressing losses of all-time here.
Following WrestleMania XXX, where he pretty much saved the event, Daniel Bryan's life and health began to betray him. The death of his father, and the beginning of the injury woes that would eventually force him to retire got underway shortly after. In June 2014, Bryan forfeited the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and would miss six months with fans holding out hope he could return in time for the Royal Rumble.
After being unceremoniously dumped early at the Rumble, controversy followed, as fans revolted against WWE, making #CancelWWENetwork trend for days on Twitter. The controversy led to WWE booking Daniel Bryan vs. Roman Reigns in the main event of Fastlane, to determine the #1 Contender for Brock Lesnar.
In what was Daniel Bryan's last great solo Pay-Per-View match, he turned Roman Reigns into a made man at the main event level and handled it about as well as he could facing an unjust demotion. However, watching Bryan take the pin that night was absolutely devastating for most fans.
2 John Cena Loses the Match He Couldn't Lose
In what was promoted as a "Once In A Lifetime" contest, John Cena, the biggest star of the post Attitude Era, faced off against The Rock who was making his return to WrestleMania for the first time in eight years. It certainly is on the short list of biggest matches ever and did an $8.9 million dollar gate, setting the record at the time for a WrestleMania. But someone had to lose this match.
The buildup for this match lasted just over a year, turning it up and cooling it off at certain points. When it came time for this match to happen though, the anticipation was at an all-time high.
The post match photo of Cena tells the story of this match better than most could describe. It told the story of failing on the biggest stage possible, due to one's own gluttony, and watching a victory which was so close slip away. Just look at how disappointed Cena looks.
1 The Streak is Conquered
Without question, the most shocking and soul crushing loss belongs to the man who supposedly didn't possess one. After 21 consecutive victories at WrestleMania, The Undertaker winning on the grandest stage was as safe of a bet as there was in WWE. Well, until Brock Lesnar showed up to The Superdome in New Orleans.
Lesnar, who would be elevated to a God-tier level after this win. was everything a potential streak conqueror wasn't. He wasn't young and he wasn't a full-timer. In hindsight, the decision is understandable but it's the most soul crushing moment in WWE history. Entire childhoods were ended in a flash and the stadium was dead silent as shock permeated each level of seats. The only thing comparable to this was the previously mentioned moment with Bruno Sammartino, and its doubtful we'll ever get something more shocking than the moment The Streak was ended. Soul crushing to the highest order.