Is wrestling real? Nowadays, most wrestling fans laugh at this question. We understand that the fix is in—we know the outcomes of matches are predetermined, and that decides wins, losses, and draws and storylines over periods of time.
There are those times when fact and fiction interact, however, and they can represent some of the most intriguing developments for this form of entertainment. Sometimes it’s a matter of fan reaction causing a change in booking direction, or sometimes it’s a matter of backstage politics necessitating a shift. Other times, injuries might require a change on the fly or a finish was booked in response to someone leaving the promotion sooner than expected. In some instances, the booker might decide that someone needs to be punished for an real-world infraction (and sometimes that means that somebody else reaps the rewards originally earmarked for another performer).
This column looks back at fifteen times when real-life developments and considerations had an impact on how a match played out on screen. Some of these entries represent historically important moments and are thus already well documented, while others may have escaped the everyday fan’s attention, and it might surprise you who suffered the consequences and why, and which performers garnered unexpected opportunities. The common thread through each of these instances is that there was some sort of breakdown backstage which meant that wrestling’s creative heads or the performers themselves could not proceed as originally planned, and something interesting happened in the ring as a result of real-life developments.
15 Lita Loses The Women's Title To Trish Stratus At New Year's Revolution 2005
Trish Stratus and Lita had one of the most celebrated feuds in WWE, and particularly for women’s wrestling. At the end of 2004, the rivals had a rare opportunity to main event Monday Night RAW, and made the most of it when Lita won her second World Championship off a moonsault.
According to the WWE Network show Rivalries, the long-term plan was for Lita to hold onto the title for an extended run. However, when the two had their rematch at New Year’s Revolution just a month later, Lita injured her knee on a Thesz press off the apron to the floor. Seeing that Lita was clearly injured and would be out of action, WWE changed plans on the fly. Stratus scored the pin fall and regained her championship, and Lita was relegated to a role of antagonizing Stratus on the mic and standing in the corner of her challengers for the months to follow.
14 Goldberg Beats Brock Lesnar At WrestleMania XX
While the rivalry between Goldberg and Brock Lesnar is big news in WWE today, the two first clashed over a decade ago. During the first WWE brand split, Goldberg and Lesnar were on separate brands, and each were former world champions. Their beef built slowly over a series of interactions during co-branded PPVs before the two were finally booked to square off in a big man battle at WrestleMania.
By most accounts, the plan was for Lesnar to win the match. Goldberg had been just been buried as a main event talent and looked to be on his way out of WWE, so putting over Lesnar was a sensible enough way to get the most out of him on his way out the door. However, Lesnar ended up deciding to leave, too, to pursue an NFL tryout.
The smart crowd at Madison Square Garden was aware of each man’s status and gave the match a lousy reception, which led to an awkward stall-fest between the two powerhouses. With no upside to the match, all signs pointed toward WWE changing creative directions to at least punish Lesnar a little for his premature departure, by jobbing out to Goldberg in what would be both men’s final appearances in a WWE ring for eight and 12 years.
13 Kurt Angle Wins The WWE Championship Post-9/11
While no one has come forward for sure with the original plans, it seems likely that the WWE intended for Steve Austin to have a long, uninterrupted run as WWE Champion during the InVasion angle. Multiple sources have confirmed, however, that after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the powers that be felt compelled to do something special.
Through a near perfect set of circumstances, Unforgiven was the first PPV after 9/11, and featured patriotic face Kurt Angle challenging top heel Austin for the title. To make matters even more perfect, the show was scheduled for Angle’s hometown of Pittsburgh, where the already popular star would be even more celebrated. Angle picked up the submission victory to an incredible response from the crowd, in an all-time feel-good moment.
Angle would lose the title back to Austin just a couple weeks later on Monday Night RAW, meaning that long-term plans didn’t have to change, but in the short term, the WWE made the choice to do right by the fans who needed something to feel good about.
12 Daniel Puder Gets Crushed At The 2005 Royal Rumble
While I won’t suggest that Daniel Puder was ever going to win the Royal Rumble, popular theory holds that the way he was booked for the match was very much by design. On a November 2004 episode of SmackDown, Kurt Angle challenged the Tough Enough finalists to shoot wrestling exhibitions, with the prevailing logic being that none of them would stand a chance against former Olympian Angle. Puder, however, shrewdly snuck in a kimura arm lock that threatened to break Angle’s arm or legitimately force him to submit, which wouldn’t fit at all with WWE’s creative designs at the time (Angle ultimately gained a spurious pin, with the help of the ref, to survive the moment unscathed).
Puder was scarcely used on WWE television from that point forward, and his last main roster appearance came at the Royal Rumble where he suffered stiff body shots from Chris Benoit, Hardcore Holly, Eddie Guerrero, which are generally accepted to have been corporal punishment for Puder previously running afoul of WWE’s plans.
11 Chavo Guerrero Jr. Beats JBL on SmackDown, 2005
Whether you love him or hate him, the fact is that Chavo Guerrero Jr. never got much of a shake in the WWE, often relegated to embarrassing storylines and gimmicks like jobbing to Hornswoggle and playing golfer Kerwin White. But in late 2005, after his uncle Eddie passed unexpectedly, Chavo did get a moment to shine, in the main event of an episode of SmackDown dedicated to Eddie’s memory.
In that match, Chavo squared off with Eddie’s on-air arch-rival and real-life friend JBL. The two put on a solid match that stood out for Chavo getting the rub as if he were genuine main event talent and cleanly pinning JBL who, outside that much, was placed much higher on the card. The bout didn’t have any lasting ramifications, but nonetheless offered a moment of solace for the Guerrero family and their fans.
10 The Spider Beats Wendi Richter For The WWE Women's Title in 1985
In a moment that has retroactively been labeled “The Original Screwjob,” The Fabulous Moolah took the Women’s Championship off of Wendi Richter in a match for which Richter was not tipped off about the outcome, and did not cooperate.
While the exact details vary, the consensus summary is that, after rising to stardom, Richter thought she was worth more than the WWE was compensating her for. After some level of disagreement with Vince McMahon, a plan was hatched. The Spider—Moolah in a mask—challenged Richter for the title in Madison Square Garden and legitimately held her down to pin her and take the title (though accounts vary about to what degree Moolah actually had the pin, or whether the referee counted the pin regardless because of the plan).
Richter left the WWE in a huff, not to be seen again until she was inducted into the Hall of Fame nearly 25 years later.
9 CM Punk Wins The Money In The Bank Ladder Match At WrestleMania XXIV
After steadily climbing the kayfabe ranks in 2007, all signs suggested that Jeff Hardy was primed to break through the glass ceiling into the main event in 2008, and Money in the Bank seemed like a natural opportunity for him to do so. The problem was that, after qualifying for the match, he ran into a Wellness Policy suspension.
WWE has never spoken openly about the original plans for Hardy, the match, or CM Punk, but given Punk’s comparable place on the card, unexpected victory, and largely directionless insertion into the main event scene that summer, popular opinion holds that Punk was gifted Hardy’s push. If it’s true, what better pick could there be to substitute for the drug-afflicted Hardy than straight edge Punk?
Punk wound up being a much bigger star in years to follow—winning another Money in the Bank, and breaking through to a whole new level via his Pipebomb Promo. But all signs suggest he got his first opportunity at the top of the card, reaping the rewards originally intended for Hardy.
8 Brock Lesnar Pins Kurt Angle After An F-5 At WrestleMania XIX
There’s little question that WWE planned for Brock Lesnar to defeat Kurt Angle for the WWE Championship in the main event of WrestleMania XIX. Lesnar was increasingly shoring up his place as the new face of WWE, and Angle was on his way out of action altogether for a neck surgery. But the execution did not go as planned.
At the climax of a very good main event match and at the former Olympian’s prodding (by Angle’s own account in his podcast interview with Steve Austin) Lesnar went to the top rope to finish the match with a Shooting Star Press—an aerial maneuver he had pulled off in developmental, but not yet shown the fans on TV. Whether Angle was too far away, Lesnar was unexpectedly fatigued at the end of the match, or it was sheer bad luck, Lesnar landed poorly—well short of his target—and injured himself in the process.
It’s a testament to both Lesnar’s awesome physical stature and Angle’s ring generalship that they carried on, improvising a new finish that saw Lesnar F-5 Angle one extra time to get the win minutes later than intended.
7 Rey Mysterio Wins The World Heavyweight Championship At WrestleMania 22
While Rey Mysterio has long been well-respected as an awesome athlete and terrific babyface performer, by most accounts, his diminutive size initially disqualified him from the WWE brass taking him seriously as a world champion. However, when Eddie Guerrero passed away unexpectedly in late 2005, it both left an upper card space vacant, and paved the way for a feel good story if Guerrero’s real-life friend and on-screen frenemy Mysterio were to climb to the top of the ladder at the biggest show of the year.
So, Mysterio got the best of Randy Orton and Kurt Angle in a Triple Threat Match, for which WWE leaned heavily into the narrative that Mysterio was dedicating the performance to his fallen friend. The match told a beautiful story, even if Mysterio’s title reign to follow was short and not nearly as satisfying.
6 The Montreal Screwjob
By fall 1997, long-time colleagues Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart were at their throats as professional rivals, both on-air and off. After Vince McMahon conceded he couldn’t pay out Hart’s contract, Hart signed a deal to reluctantly defect to WCW, and agreed to drop the world title on his way out the door, under the conditions that he didn’t want to drop the title, in his home country of Canada, to his arch-enemy Michaels.
In Hart’s memoir Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, he goes into detail about the plan as he understood it—for their final match in Montreal to be a no contest, and for Hart to relinquish the title on RAW the next night before he left to the promotion. As has been confirmed in multiple interviews, another plan took shape behind his back—purportedly at Triple H’s initial suggestion—for Hart to lose in Montreal without his cooperation.
The Montreal Screwjob is the most famous shoot incident in pro wrestling history, and a moment when real life overtook storyline to cause Hart to lose the title in a manner that was wildly confusing to fans at the time, and that led to him bitterly leaving the WWE, not to return to fold for eight years, and not to properly return to WWE television for another four years after that.
5 Sting Squashes Jeff Hardy At TNA Victory Road 2011
At the Victory Road PPV, TNA World Champion Sting was set to defend his title against Jeff Hardy. The match ended in little over a minute, with Sting hitting the Scorpion Death Drop for the clean pin. Speculation the night of the show suggested maybe that Sting—well past his prime—wasn’t up to a full match performance, but in the aftermath, multiple online sources reported that Hardy came to the ring in an altered state during a period when he had been abusing drugs and alcohol, and that TNA’s powers that be felt they had to cut the match as short as possible for the safety of everyone involved.
This understanding of the series of events is supported by Hardy departing for rehab immediately after the show, and TNA uncharacteristically offering several months of free access to their online on-demand platform to customers who had bought the show, by way of apology for the unsatisfactory main event.
4 Steve Austin Wins King Of The Ring 1996
In multiple WWE documentaries and podcasts it has come up that Triple H was originally slated to win the King of the Ring tournament in 1996, until the Curtain Call.
The Curtain Call saw members of the backstage Kliq, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, and Diesel come to the ring to celebrate together, regardless of kayfabe face-heel alignment, at the Madison Square Garden show directly before Ramon and Diesel departed for WCW, effectively splintering the group of friends.
While accounts vary as to whether and to what degree The Kliq got permission for this display, the powers that be nonetheless felt the need to punish somebody. With Ramon and Diesel off the roster, and Michaels representing the company as its world champion, Triple H was left shouldering that particular burden. The beneficiary of this situation? One Stone Cold Steve Austin who won the tournament in Triple H’s place and afterward delivered his iconic Austin 3:16 promo. The victory was a key step in Austin’s march toward unparalleled superstardom, and its fascinating to think that it wasn’t originally supposed to happen.
3 Mankind Wins The World Title At SummerSlam 1999
While exact accounts differ, and Steve Austin has claimed on his podcast that he doesn’t remember the specifics, the general consensus is that the WWE wanted the world title on Triple H coming out of the summer of 1999, but either Austin wasn’t interested in dropping the title to him, or the powers that be didn’t want Triple H beating Austin.
Regardless of exactly how things played out backstage, the result was Mankind scoring an upset main event victory at SummerSlam 1999 in a super high profile world title Triple Threat against Austin and Triple H, with Governor Jesse Ventura as the guest referee. All signs point to the backstage friction being true, because Triple H ended up bating Mankind and winning the title anyway by pinning Mankind the next night on Raw.
2 The Big Show Beats RVD for ECW Title, 2006
In 2006, WWE relaunched the ECW brand. To coincide with this development, Rob Van Dam won the Money in the Bank Ladder Match at WrestleMania 22, and used his title shot to beat John Cena at the ECW-themed One Night Stand PPV. RVD was immediately christened a double champion—the WWE Champion, yes, but also the champion of the new ECW.
There’s every reason to think RVD was planned to drop the WWE Championship sooner than later to remove any complications or reason for him to straddle brands, in favor of heading up just the ECW show. However, news broke shortly thereafter that RVD was, in real-life, busted for drug possession by police in Ohio. Promptly, Van Dam lost the WWE Championship to Edge and, the very next night, lost the ECW Championship to The Big Show before entering a 30-day Wellness Policy suspension.
While it may have been in the cards for The Big Show to win the title in time, the booking was abrupt, with Paul Heyman on screen turning on RVD quite suddenly, and with Big Show’s title reign seemingly lacking direction in the immediate aftermath, mostly defending the title against visiting stars from WWE’s other brands.
1 Sting's Wonky Win Over Hulk Hogan At WCW Starrcade 1997
In December 1997, WCW looked to close out a monster year of business by blowing off its single biggest one-on-one rivalry—heel champion Hulk Hogan versus reclusive hero Sting, who hadn’t appeared in a televised match in well over a year.
Conventional logic dictates that Sting would have won this match, and won it decisively, but things grew very complicated. One factor: immediately after the Montreal Screwjob, Bret Hart joined WCW, and the WCW brass felt compelled to capitalize on his high-profile departure from the competition by referencing that event at Starrcade and involving Hart in the main event. Another factor: Sting showed up looking in relatively poor physical shape. Another factor: Hogan may or may not have gone into business for himself, collaborating with referee Nick Patrick.
By most accounts, the intended finish after Hart entered the mix was for Patrick to fast-count a pin that seemingly gave Hogan the win, after which Hart would intervene to restart the match so wrestling wouldn’t see another injustice, and Sting would win. This plan is a little convoluted but by WCW standards of the day, not unreasonable.
In practice, whether he made a mistake or did so at Patrick’s instruction, or whether Sting was supposed to kick out that time but endure the quick count later, Patrick counted a totally legit pin for Hogan over Sting, after which Hart looked directionless, if not insane for demanding that the match restart, and Sting won in anything but decisive fashion after a horribly confusing final sequence.