WrestleMania is the most famous and most watched annual wrestling show any company has ever run. It’s a show that hardcore fans start salivating over months in advance, and a show big enough to draw in casual or former fans, if just for one night, to see what’s happening in the wrestling world at that moment.
Accordingly, the results of matches at WrestleMania matter. What happens at a house show, or even TV tends to be forgotten. Heck, amidst a 30-plus year catalog of PPVs and special events, even bigger shows tend to get lost in the shuffle unless something truly momentous happens to go down. But WrestleMania is different. These are the matches that go down in wrestling history, if for no other reason than because so many people are watching.
So, WrestleMania has been the stage for progress, including the inception of Ladder Matches in WWE canon via Razor Ramon vs. Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania X, the innovation of Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 21. More over, ‘Mania has seen the coronation of so many major stars. It’s where Hulk Hogan ascended from star to legendary status by body slamming and pinning Andre the Giant in front of a crowd of 93,000 at WrestleMania III. It’s where Shawn Michaels won his first world championship over Bret Hart. It’s where Stone Cold Steve Austin reached the top of the mountain winning his first world title at WrestleMania XIV. It’s where John Cena and Batista mutually ascended, each winning their first world championships at WrestleMania 21.
WWE has done a lot right at WrestleMania. But what of those times when the company got it wrong? There were those opportunities to pay off storylines, to take the next logical steps in long-term angles, to give guys big pushes, or to send the crowd home happy—those times when hindsight tells us WWE made the wrong call. This article looks back at 15 times when the wrong guy went over at WrestleMania.
15 Chris Jericho Over AJ Styles At WrestleMania 32
After an incredible career on the independent circuit, in TNA, and in Japan, AJ Styles finally debuted in WWE at the 2016 Royal Rumble. He was instantly over with the fans and went on to a solid TV program with Chris Jericho. The two played respectful rivals, tag team partners, and finally bitter enemies.
Throughout the program, Styles came across as the better wrestler and typically got the better of their exchanges, to the point that their WrestleMania match seemed a bit superfluous. Just the same, fans of The Phenomenal One hoped for the best—that the match would permanently etch Styles’s name in WWE lore and lay the foundation for him to move on to bigger things.
But then Jericho won.
The thinking at the time was that WWE would probably line up Jericho as a challenger to new world champ Roman Reigns. That scenario seemed to fall into place with a Fatal Fourway on Raw to name a new number contender. Except Jericho lost. Styles won.
And it was Styles who would spend the year to follow challenging for the WWE Championship, getting the best of John Cena, and then winning the WWE Championship for a lengthy reign. So, Jericho’s win was not only disappointing in the moment, but illogical given Styles’s upward trajectory to follow.
14 Triple H Over Booker T At WrestleMania XIX
In the build to WrestleMania XIX, Triple H suggested Booker T wasn’t a worthy challenger to the World Heavyweight Championship. The way in which Helmsley picked on Booker T’s prison record in particular came across as, at the least, elitist, and in the opinion of many fans, racist.
Triple H’s trash talk may have been excusable had it paid off in Booker T beating him decisively and taking his title. Instead, however, Triple H picked up a decisive pin fall victory of his own, suggesting that the story’s jerk had been right all along.
Hindsight tells us that Goldberg was on his way into the company, and that WWE had already earmarked him as the guy who would unseat Triple H for the title. Fair enough, but Goldberg wasn’t getting his hands on the title for five months. That would have offered plenty of time for Booker T to have a feel good moment that fans would remember as the appropriate conclusion to that feud, before losing the title back to Triple H if that’s what WWE wanted to do, and resuming as planned.
13 The Ultimate Warrior Over Randy Savage At WrestleMania VII
This entry is a tough one. I rank The Ultimate Warrior vs. Randy Savage—for its star power, in-ring performances, and epic conclusion and aftermath—one of my favorite wrestling matches of all time. But when you look back with a little historical perspective, it’s nuts that The Ultimate Warrior won.
The stipulation going into this match was that the loser would need to retire—epic stakes to blow off an epic rivalry between two larger than life performers. When The Ultimate Warrior won, in the moment, it seemed fair enough as Savage moved on to the broadcast booth and Warrior remained active toward the top of the card.
The thing is, come the end of summer The Ultimate Warrior would be gone from WWE after an infamous incident in which he held up Vince McMahon for money before he’d work the SummerSlam main event. Meanwhile, WWE, was ready to bring Savage back into the ring via feud with Jake Roberts, and would go so far as to position him to win the world title at the following year’s WrestleMania. While Warrior would re-enter the WWE fold, he’d only do so for about half of a year in 1992, before leaving for four years. The Macho Man would remain a steady part of the show well into 1994.
So here you have a Retirement Match in which the winner’s WWE career was all but done and the loser would spend years to come at or toward the top of the card. Given how things turned out, the wrong guy clearly went over.
12 The Miz Over John Cena At WrestleMania XXVII
Over the course of 32 years, the list of heel world champions who’ve successfully defended their world titles at WrestleMania is surprisingly short. In fact, it’s limited to just five names: Yokozuna, Triple H, Randy Orton, Chris Jericho—and The Miz.
I don’t mean to hate on The Miz. He’s grown a lot as a performer, and I’d even go so far as to say his 2011 world title reign gets a rougher shake than it ought to. But while the other names on that list were main event level guys through and through, The Miz was a guy who got pushed too far too soon and has spent the rest of his WWE tenure as a solid mid-card act.
Miz winning the main event match at WrestleMania felt like a token of sorts, after he got shunted to the background upon The Rock’s return to WWE. But when winning the main event of WrestleMania is an afterthought, something has gone seriously wrong. While Cena winning would have fit right in with both his resume and lore of ‘Mania, Miz’s win comes across more as an anomaly and something that will need to be explained in wrestling history for future generations.
11 Santino Wins The Miss WrestleMania Battle Royal At WrestleMania 25
Some of the entries in this countdown are up for debate. I have a really hard time understanding any disagreement on this one.
While 2009 was a down period for women’s wrestling in WWE, the Miss WrestleMania Battle Royal provided a glimmer hope. It was billed as a 25-woman match, featuring stars from yesteryear alongside current stars. According to rumors, WWE did actually plan for this to be a big-time, serious match but then ran into scheduling conflicts for some of the top talents considered for a return in the match. Moreover, after hearing about the thin roster of serious wrestlers booked, and reading the writing on the wall that this was not going to be a serious match, the remaining serious stars from the past pulled out as well.
So, by the time the match happened, it consisted of mostly current female roster members, a handful of the less popular stars from the past like Molly Holly, and returning legends who didn’t have much to offer in the ring like Sunny. WWE might have salvaged the match by at least putting a feather in the cap of a current budding star. Instead, the win went to Santino Marella, dressed in drag to pretend he was his own sister, Santina. The win turned the whole match concept into one big, unfunny joke.
10 Triple H Over Sting At WrestleMania 31
After over a decade of speculation, delays, and hemming and hawing, in late 2014 Sting finally arrived in WWE, and at WrestleMania 31 he finally had his first WWE match. It was clear enough that The Stinger wasn’t going to have a lengthy tenure. He was in his mid-50s by that point and his body was largely broken down. Were he booked against a young up and comer, I’d have been all for Sting putting over the new star as one last bit of service to the wrestling industry.
However, Sting was booked against Triple H. While Hunter was younger and in better shape than Sting, he’d nonetheless already settled into a very part-time wrestling role, his in-ring career essentially done as he focused on management. In short, as a part-timer and bullet-proof legend, he’s the kind of guy it would have made sense for Sting to go over to put a cap on his career and give the fans a feel-good moment. This is all the more true given Triple H was playing the villain.
The match itself was as good as it could have been, full of smoke and mirrors in the form of DX and nWo run-ins to mask the limitations of the men involved. But when it came time to deliver the finish, it was Triple H who stood tall, picking up a win that didn’t add anything meaningful to his legacy. Moreover, the loss put an awkward asterisk next to Sting’s name, that when he made it to the WWE, he lost every PPV match he was involved with.
9 The Boogeyman Over Booker T And Sharmell At WrestleMania 22
The initial vignettes for The Boogeyman suggested a horror character—maybe a throwback heel in the style of Papa Shango or The Undertaker when he first debuted. In practice, he was more of a comedic face who made sport out of scaring heels. The guy won the overwhelming majority of his matches, but never seriously chased any titles or got involved in any meaningful feuds.
At WrestleMania 22, he got paired up against Booker T (with his wife Sharmell).
I’m not a big fan of comedy segments getting full-blown matches at WrestleManias, where time is so precious, and well-qualified talents tend to get crammed into big battle royals or left off the card altogether. This instance was particularly egregious because the heel who absorbed the decisive loss was a world-class, main event level talent. True to form, while The Boogeyman would continue to aimlessly wander the WWE landscape in the months to follow, Booker T would move on form this non-sequitur feud and loss to win the King of the Ring tournament and become World Heavyweight Champion that summer.
8 John Cena Over Bray Wyatt At WrestleMania XXX
Some WrestleMania results feel good in the moment, but don’t show very much forethought. Such is the case for this WrestleMania XXX showdown, when John Cena squared off against red hot new heel Bray Wyatt. Cena won the match. Sure, the outcome probably made kids happy and you can argue that Wyatt would need to pay his dues before he could pick up a win of that magnitude. Unfortunately, the loss shattered Wyatt’s aura of invincibility and set the character back from being a main event player. Add this loss to his loss one year later to The Undertaker, and Wyatt walks into his first world title match at WrestleMania this year with zero WrestleMania wins under his belt and a credibility gap that he’s still trying to compensate for three years later.
John Cena didn’t have much to lose, already a legend in 2014. Besides that, the card was already largely a feel-good one, given Daniel Bryan’s two wins. Neither Cena, nor WWE needed this outcome, but Wyatt sure could have benefited from the win.
7 Edge Over Alberto Del Rio At WrestleMania XXVII
Upon Alberto Del Rio’s debut, word leaked that WWE higher ups wanted him to look like a big deal very quickly. Sure enough, he debuted on TV with a clean submission victory over Rey Mysterio. From there, he won the first 40-man Royal Rumble to earn a world title shot at WrestleMania.
While there’s a long tradition of faces going over at WrestleMania, if WWE truly wanted to make the most of Del Rio’s run, there would be no bigger way to do it than a world title win at the biggest show of the year. But then Edge won.
The merits of Edge winning would, in and of itself, be subjective, but with the benefit of the hindsight, this turned out to be Edge’s retirement match due to neck and spine injuries. While Edge’s victory gave a great wrestler a happy ending, the win could have done much more to establish Del Rio as a top guy. Moreover, if WWE was dead set on paying things off with Christian winning a world title, Del Rio still could have dropped the title to him the following month, but have had his ‘Mania title win to preserve credibility. As it stands, it’s little surprise Del Rio never got over at the highest level, and ended up leaving WWE not once, but twice under heated circumstances.
6 Triple H Over The Rock, Mick Foley, And The Big Show At WrestleMania 2000
Going into WrestleMania 2000, The Rock seemed like an obvious choice to win the Fatal Four Way main event. In the absence of Steve Austin, he’d risen to the occasion, and become a bona fide “top guy.” What better coronation for the People’s Champion than this huge victory?
And if WWE wanted to surprise fans, there was another viable option. Mick Foley had come back for one last match as a full-time talent, and winning this match could have offered a truly historic WrestleMania moment and send the fans home happy.
Instead, Triple H retained his world championship. The outcome was disappointing both for the heel winning in the biggest match of the year, and the underwhelming fashion in which he won—the swerve of Vince McMahon turning on The Rock. While Rock got a little of his heat back with a Rock Bottom on Stephanie McMahon after the match, it was too little to late to redeem this main event.
5 Mark Henry Over Ryback At WrestleMania XXIX
The year was 2013 and Ryback was a star on the rise. Sure, The Big Guy had lost some of his momentum when he couldn’t take the WWE Championship from CM Punk. But a win at ‘Mania was just the ticket to shore up his spot toward the top of the card. Mark Henry posed a near perfect obstacle for Ryback to overcome. Henry was big. Henry was a former world champ. Henry looked ready to recede from the main event scene himself, and so was in prime position to put over a guy on the rise.
And yet, Mark Henry defeated Ryback at WrestleMania XXIX, in one of those outcomes that seemed to serve no purpose besides a directionless surprise, or perhaps throwing off people who bet on pro wrestling matches. Ryback would go on to become the number one contender to John Cena’s championship shortly thereafter. It was an unsuccessful run, and one can only speculate getting The Big Guy on a roll at ‘Mania would have helped at least a little.
4 Greg Valentine Over Ricky Steamboat At WrestleMania IV
The early WrestleManias weren’t chock-full of dream matches or epic in-ring encounters. At the time PPVs and super cards were still in a fledgling state, and with four or fewer per year, the bar was lower to send the crowd home happy. Just the same, WrestleMania IV tends to get a particularly bad rap because, out of a record 16 matches, it didn’t feature a single match that anyone could rate higher than “good.” Most of the matches were bad—too short to be memorable or, like Rick Rude and Jake Roberts’s tournament match, painfully dull as the guys worked their way to a heatless time-limit draw.
There was an opportunity for one shining star of an encounter. At WrestleMania III, Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage had put on one of the highest regarded matches in WWE history. The tournament brackets were set up for them to collide again in the second round, except Greg Valentine ended up beating Steamboat in the first round to move on to challenge Savage.
The Valentine win makes some sense in that it preserved the face vs. heel dynamic that WWE favors. Moreover, Steamboat purportedly hated working with Savage because of the degree to which he insisted on planning matches. Just the same, Savage-Steamboat 2 could have gone a long way toward saving WrestleMania IV, not to mention that an epic win in that match could have gone further in legitimizing Savage as the new champ.
3 Sheamus Over Daniel Bryan At WrestleMania XXVIII
There’s an argument to be made that it ended up being beneficial that Daniel Bryan not only lost his World Heavyweight Championship to Sheamus at WrestleMania XXVIII, but also that he lost that match in an 18-second squash. The live crowd booed, and the jeers intensified the next night on RAW. This groundswell of support set up the foundation for Bryan’s “Yes Movement” and main eventing WrestleMania two years later.
But it still sucked.
Sheamus was an establishment guy who the general fanship may have liked well enough, but few were really passionate about. Meanwhile, Bryan had already shown glimmers of the special connection he’d cultivate with the fans, and was quite arguably the best in-ring performer in the world at that time. With the benefit of five years of hindsight, Bryan goes down on the shortlist of greatest WWE stars of all time (especially if we evaluate on a pound-for-pound, year-for year basis). While Sheamus still has some years left in the tank, his legacy seems established as an upper mid-card, fringe main event guy with a great look who never quite took off.
2 The League Of Nations Over The New Day At WrestleMania 32
New Day got about as over as a tag team can in WWE, putting on great matches, delivering even better promos, and moving merchandise. They came a long, long way from being an afterthought in the WrestleMania 31 pre-show to being one of the tip-top full-time acts in WWE a year later. It would only make sense of them to successfully defend their tag titles at the biggest show of the year, or to at least win a six-man tag.
But no. They lost.
And did they lose to a red hot up and coming act that would use the win to vault to bigger stardom?
No, New Day lost to The League of Nations, a directionless heel stable out of which half the members (Alberto Del Rio and Wade Barrett) would be gone from WWE inside half a year. The remaining members? Rusev would go in a totally separate direction in the US title scene, while Sheamus would end up being part of the team that ended New Day’s record-long tag title reign, but it was a complete non-sequitur from WrestleMania as he was situated in a different angle teaming with frenemy Cesaro.
This match adds a weird asterisk to New Day’s historically great run, didn’t lead to anything from a storyline perspective, and disappointed the live audience. Not a great choice.
1 Triple H Over Brock Lesnar At WrestleMania XXIX
When Brock Lesnar returned to the WWE landscape in 2012, it was huge. The guy not only had a UFC pedigree and sensational look, but really was a gifted pro wrestler, and so promised to be a game changer.
You can say that losing his first match back to John Cena was foolish. I disagreed with the choice, but it at least it was a protected loss because Lesnar was so dominant for most of the match, and Cena had to punch him in the face with a chain to steal the win. Lesnar moved on from the loss nicely, forcing Triple H to submit in the main event of that year’s SummerSlam.
The trouble was that Triple H just had to get his win back, and did so at WrestleMania XXIX.
Lesnar was a special talent and losing for a second time did mean a hit to his credibility. Moreover, in losing to Triple H at the biggest show of the year, Lesnar had effectively gone 0-1-1 in programs since his comeback. Sure, Lesnar would beat Triple H in the rubber match, but only with the aid of Paul Heyman and a sledgehammer.
A part-timer himself, Triple H in no way needed this win, It would take ending The Undertaker’s WrestleMania undefeated streak a year later, and positively squashing Cena in the main event of the next year’s SummerSlam to get Lesnar back on track as a dominant force.