There’s nothing that hardcore WWE fans love more than to be surprised by what happens next. Too often, WWE falls into a rut of predictable booking that makes calling their next shot as easy as predicting that John Cena isn’t going to lose to a single finisher. While part of the issue has to do with the company’s tendency to rely on the same booking methods, the predictability of WWE is even more apparent to those who constantly watch the product and have become “smart” to the ways that WWE operates. Many of these fans feel immune to the kayfabe nature of modern professional wrestling.
Every once in a great while, however, WWE does something that doesn’t just shock the average viewer but their hardcore fans as well. Actually, shock isn’t even necessarily the right word to use in this instance. No, when you’re talking about these occurrences, the only word is “fooled.” Yes, there are rare times when WWE manages to play against the expectations of their most dedicated fans and simply fool them with a moment that catches everyone off-guard. They don’t come around often, but these are the top 15 times WWE fooled their smartest fans.
15 CM Punk Disguises Himself As Jeff Hardy
One of the oldest tricks in the big book of pro wrestling tricks is to make fans think they’re seeing one wrestler when they’re really watching another. Most of the time, this illusion is achieved through some kind of mask. You have a “masked wrestler” come out, do something shocking like beat a star, and then have them take the mask off to reveal that they’re someone else. It’s a cheap way to trick the audience, but this instance of the technique is special because of how long it worked.
During CM Punk’s feud with Jeff Hardy, Punk once came out to Hardy’s music dressed just like him. Because this was a time when Hardy wore face paint and came out to a darkened stage, Punk was able to convince many people in the live audience - as well as many watching on TV - that he really was Hardy. You have to respect how long this illusion was maintained.
14 Daniel Bryan’s 2010 Firing
Here’s one that’s low on this list simply because it's still not entirely clear what happened. In 2010, Daniel Bryan was fired from WWE. According to WWE, they released Bryan over a televised incident involving him choking out Justin Roberts with a tie. They claimed that the sponsors got upset so they were forced to release him. Two months later, fan support allegedly brought Bryan back.
This whole story is full of holes. First off, the tie choke was nothing WWE hadn’t really done before on RAW and elsewhere. Second, guys like John Cena immediately took to social media to publicly speak against WWE over their decision, which is out of character for top performers such as him. Third, since when does WWE throw sponsors under the bus over business decisions? Add all that up and throw in the fact Bryan was back only two months later, and you’ve got the makings of a work.
13 Seth Rollins Is The One That Betrays The Shield
This one was shocking in a couple of ways. To be sure, there was a section of the audience that did not expect The Shield to break up. Even if they did, they certainly didn’t expect it to happen on an otherwise uneventful episode of Raw just as the group was at their popularity peak. However, what really shocked the company’s smartest fans was the fact that it was Seth Rollins who betrayed the group. Prior to The Shield’s breakup, some fans had predicted that WWE were preparing to split up the group. However, nearly every report suggested that it was going to be Dean Ambrose or Roman Reigns that did the deed. Almost nobody thought that it was going to be Seth Rollins. Remarkably, this isn’t even the most surprising moment in Rollins’ career.
12 Mankind’s First Hell in a Cell Fall
It’s one of the most iconic moments in WWE history. Near the start of their much-anticipated grudge match within Hell in a Cell, The Undertaker and Mankind go to the top of the cell. At that point, The Undertaker throws Mankind off the cell and onto the tables below. It was by far the most devastating wrestling spot most fans had seen up until that point. Many were not surprised, then, to see the medical staff rush out and put Mankind on a stretcher.
What did surprise people was watching Mankind return to the match against doctors' - and a concerned Vince McMahon's - wishes. At the time, many people didn’t know that this entire section of the match - including the prolonged medical interruption - was staged. What wasn’t staged was Foley’s brutal second fall through the top of the cage.
11 The Early Days of the Matt Hardy/Edge/Lita Story
Incorporating real-life stories into wrestling can be a dangerous thing. More often than not, a company’s attempt at fooling the audience by using actual events as the basis for a staged story fails because the fans who pay attention to such stories know that the entire thing is a work. What makes this real-life story so incredible is how WWE played it. In 2005, word started to get around that Edge had “stolen” Matt Hardy’s real-life girlfriend Lita from him. This event, as well as the release of Matt Hardy, turned Lita and Edge into huge heels. During this period, fans didn’t know what to make of Matt Hardy’s sporadic - seemingly unscripted - appearances. They were presented so awkwardly that some people really bought into the possibility Matt Hardy was invading WWE shows. Eventually, everyone came to realize the truth.
10 Big Show and Brock Lesnar Break the Ring
Brock Lesnar arrived on the WWE scene like an asteroid hitting the Earth. His combination of size, strength, and speed made him a unique athletic prospect. He was the kind of guy that fans felt could legitimately lift a grown man off his feet and toss him around. People were willing to believe Lesnar could do things that no other wrestler could do, including shatter the ring itself. Yes, in one of SmackDown’s most famous endings, Brock Lesnar and Big Show did a superplex spot that ended with the ring collapsing. At that moment, nearly everyone watching felt that these two behemoths really had broken the ring. Even afterwards, it was generally accepted that such a thing was possible. It wasn’t until some time later that Big Show confirmed the whole spot was rigged.
9 Jim Ross' 2005 On-Air Firing
Jim Ross had an interesting career in WWE. To millions, he was the voice of the company. The one announcer that could make any match seem larger than it was. To others, he was the guy that helped WWE sign some of their biggest talent and generally help the company stay on track. Despite all of this, Jim Ross has always had a strained relationship with the company. He’s been fired several times, including one time in 2005 when he was fired on air. This firing came after Ross announced he was cutting back on his duties and before Ross disappeared from television for months. As such, many fans felt Ross had legitimately been let go on television. The truth, however, was that Ross had serious health issues and had to take a leave of absence that WWE turned into a storyline.
8 Brock Lesnar Ends The Undertaker’s Streak
While “fooled” might not be the perfect word to describe this one, you do have to remember the hype that preceded this match. Up until this point in his WWE return, Lesnar had been treated as a force to be reckoned with, but not someone that was unbeatable. In fact, his overall record since the return wasn’t that great. WWE billed this match at the ultimate test for The Undertaker, but fans weren’t buying it. “Smart” fans felt that there was no way WWE would let a veteran, part-time performer beat The Undertaker at WrestleMania. It was the perfect set-up for a shocker. Almost nobody saw this one coming for the simple fact that it went against how everyone felt WWE booked their matches. WWE used that supposed knowledge to work everyone.
7 Lesnar Squashes Cena at SummerSlam 2014
Following Lesnar’s upset win over The Undertaker at WrestleMania, you would think that nobody would ever bet against Lesnar again in terms of what WWE would let him accomplish. Even still, WWE’s smart fans felt that there was no way that the company would let Lesnar do to John Cena what he did to The Undertaker. This belief was based on Cena’s status as a superhuman figure in the industry and the fact that the last time these two met, it ended with Cena performing one of his late match comebacks. So when Brock Lesnar started to beat the living hell out of Cena at the start of their SummerSlam 2014 match, fans everywhere waited for the comeback. This time, however, it never came. Up until the point that Cena cleanly lost, fans everywhere waited for him to miraculously win the match. Nobody was willing to accept the beating for what it was.
6 Kevin Owens Betrays Sami Zayn
Kevin Owens is a rare piece of talent. People have been saying for years that he’ll never make it to the top of the business because he doesn’t have the traditional look, but Kevin Owens has used his untraditional qualities to his advantage. He looks like a schoolyard bully all grown-up, and he tends to act like one too. Still, fans that followed his indie career were thrilled to see him come to NXT and were ready to cheer for him. On his very first show for the company, however, Kevin Owens ended the night by betraying Sami Zayn.
Again, the brilliance here had to do with how WWE played with fan’s expectations. Even those who suspected that Owens and Zayn might eventually feud never figured that Owens would betray him on his first night, just as the show was going off-air.
5 John Cena’s 2008 Royal Rumble Return
When it comes to the Royal Rumble, fans have learned to expect any possibility. Oh sure, there’s usually only a select group of performers who could reasonably win the match itself, but when it comes to what happens during the Rumble, it’s impossible to rule out the appearance of any superstar. Still, nobody thought that Cena would return to the 2008 Royal Rumble given that he had just suffered a torn pectoral muscle that could have theoretically put him out of action for a year.
The injury was very much legitimate, but up until the return itself, WWE pretended that Cena was going to be out well past WrestleMania. There was nobody who called his early return at the Rumble. Now, however, we know that Cena heals differently than normal people.
4 Seth Rollins Saves WrestleMania 31's Main Event
Although smart fans typically earn that title because they have a basic understanding of how the wrestling business works, the truth is that they’re really just immune to obvious professional wrestling booking tactics. If the creative team at WWE is really trying to do so, they can easily book the storylines in a way designed to fool that particular group of fans by playing with their expectations. That seems to be what happened when Roman Reigns took on Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 31.
A certain section of WWE’s audience were furious that Reigns had been rocketed to the top of the WrestleMania card. They revolted by booing Reigns and cheering Lesnar. These fans were so blind with rage, in fact, that nobody accounted for the possibility of Seth Rollins cashing in his Money in the Bank contract and winning the WrestleMania main event that he wasn’t a part of in the first place. Yet, that’s exactly what happened.
3 Neville's Epic Near Fall Against Seth Rollins
Sometimes, WWE has a tendency to overplay their hand when it comes to false finishes. Generally, fans know that they can expect a few two-and-a-half counts before a match actually ends. Every now and then, though, a false finish will still catch everyone off-guard. While there are quite a few examples of that happening, this one makes the list because of how beautifully it was executed. During a rare RAW match for the WWE Championship, it looked like Neville was going to pull off the upset of the century after he hit the Red Arrow against Seth Rollins.
The WWE production team shot the finish in a way that made it difficult for fans watching on TV to see that Rollins had his foot on the rope. Even those in attendance, however, were so caught up in the moment that they had shouted “three” before realizing that the match wasn’t over. It was a beautiful moment.
2 CM Punk's "Unplanned" Pipe Bomb Promo
From the moment CM Punk signed with WWE, hardcore fans waited for the moment that the company would realize he was a special wrestler who could one day become the face of the company. As Punk’s career went on, those same fans kept waiting. Eventually, it became relatively well-known that Punk and WWE had some creative differences as it related to his potential. So, when Punk ended an episode of RAW by sitting down at the top of the ramp in a Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt and proceeded to cut a vicious promo about his time in WWE, many felt that he was actually going against the script.
Eventually, fans realized that the speech itself was part of the show, but even then, some people argued that CM Punk went too far and legitimately had his microphone cut by the company.
1 Mark Henry’s Fake Retirement Speech
By the time 2013 rolled around, Mark Henry appeared to be at the end of his career. This was a couple of years after Henry’s run as the dominant “Hall of Pain” champion, and Henry really hadn’t been given anything interesting to do since his days as the ultimate big man heel. While it came as something of a surprise to many that WWE promoted Henry’s retirement early into the June 17th episode of RAW, nobody was too surprised to see Henry come out in his trademark salmon jacket and begin to cut a heartfelt promo about his time in WWE.
If it would have been Henry’s actual retirement speech, it would have been one of the all-time great retirement speeches. Instead, it turned out to be the absolute greatest swerve in modern WWE history. When Henry beat down John Cena at the end of his speech to set up a title match, he shocked absolutely everyone that was watching.