When a youngster hits the rink at sunrise on Saturday or the football field on a cold Sunday morning, it's with their lifelong dream in mind, hoping to one day be in the Stanley Cup Finals or The Super Bowl. Professional wrestling is no different. While the endless miles of the journey can take a wrestler to vastly different places and territories, the goal is to be front and center at the biggest extravaganza, dreaming of a victory in front of the many onlookers.
In today’s day and age, there are two grand spectacles left in pro-wrestling. One is Japan’s Jan. 4 Tokyo Dome Show (though not extensively covered or as popular in North American), while the other is the “granddaddy of them all,” WrestleMania.
WWE’s mega show has survived many years since Vince McMahon’s gamble to take the sports entertainment company to new heights in 1985. The most decorated wrestlers in the world have appeared at the “showcase of the immortals,” known as a place where stars are born. Look no further than Hulk Hogan’s career-defining moment against Andre The Giant at WrestleMania III, Shawn Michaels’ triumphant win over Bret Hart at WrestleMania XII, or most recently, Daniel Bryan’s supremacy at the 30th anniversary edition.
Looking at WrestleMania 31, Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns isn’t quite doing it for everyone as the headliner, while certain individuals like Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler shouldn’t be far off from the main event grid in years to come. Truth be told, many deserving wrestlers never had a chance to headline the big shebang, and it wasn’t as accessible for everyone, seeing how both WCW and NJPW had its shares of opportunities in the 1990s, too. Mixed with the inevitable celebrity emphasis WWE desires and the buildup of long-lasting storylines, some legends have seen the moment slip past them, while others, like perhaps The Miz or Lawrence Taylor, benefited greatly from creative decisions. Also, WWE had two major titles for a while (WWE Championship and World Heavyweight Championship), which played a role in matchmaking too. Some main event stars were forced to accept an undesirable place on the card.
On the other hand, some wrestlers have just been unlucky. Here are 15 deserving headliners of the past that could have main-evented WrestleMania:
15 Rick Rude
For some reason, Rick Rude wasn’t recognized as a true main event talent in WWE (despite high profile feuds against Jake Roberts and Roddy Piper). Rude’s encounters against The Ultimate Warrior weren’t great matches, yet that feud was as close as he was going to get, seeing how they were topping shows in 1990. It’s not like Rude was going to be put in main events in favor of Hogan, although it must be stressed that the late wrestler was incredible in the ring, and had all the makings to be one of the best heels WWE of the late-80s and early-90s.
14 The Iron Sheik
By the third WrestleMania, it was apparent The Iron Sheik wouldn’t have the opportunity to be in the famous last match. You could argue he was just one of the many legends that never had a chance to headline. In terms of stories, the very first WrestleMania would have been his golden ticket.
“Sheiky Baby” had done the job for Hulk Hogan at Madison Square Garden in early 1984, handing the title over to “The Hulkster” and did his part to create the entity known as “Hulkamania.” Since WrestleMania would turn out to be a global phenomenon, the inclusion of Mr. T in the main event a year later was understandable; however, in retrospect, it would have been the Iranian’s best chance, not to mention a rematch filled with significant storytelling.
13 Scott Hall/Razor Ramon
While Razor Ramon’s WWE run could have lasted longer had Scott Hall not been bombarded with money from WCW (and been a tad healthier, too), his showdown against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania X in a classic Ladder Match was a showcase that Hall could have excelled in a feature contest. He was one of WWE’s hottest commodities before leaving for WCW, and had another WrestleMania moment at WrestleMania X8 against Steve Austin before his eventual release.
12 Owen Hart
Maybe it’s fair to say Owen Hart was never in the proper feud in order to main event WWE’s biggest show. The Canadian, though, had an excellent match against his brother Bret Hart at WrestleMania X, remembered for being arguably the hottest opener to a Mania ever. The three-way mess between Bret, Lex Luger, and Yokozuna had reserved its place as the showcased matches for the rest of the night, and it’s shameful WWE never put Owen in a position where he could have escaped the lower to mid-level card years later.
11 Lex Luger
It's often noted that he could have been better in the ring during the course of his career, but regardless,“The Lex Express” movement in 1993 saw Lex Luger become WWE’s showcased talent, but he didn’t exactly dazzle the board, either.
At WrestleMania X, Luger was involved in the first WWE Championship match alongside Yokozuna, and since Luger had lost to the Samoan in favor of “The Hitman,” it was apparent he wouldn’t be the go-to guy in WWE. Luger opened WrestleMania a year later in a tag team match with The British Bulldog as The Allied Powers tag team, which also didn’t quite work. The rest of his career was spent at WCW afterwards, never having another Mania moment.
“The Mastodon” enjoyed great success in WCW and Japan. You’d think he was a worthy candidate to headline WrestleMania multiple times, but never did.
During the latter half of the 1990s, Vader had feuded with Michaels, Hart, and The Undertaker, to name a few, which are all worthy quarrels for the main event scene. Instead, Vader would partake in a six-man tag match at WrestleMania XII (the first match on the PPV card), followed by tag team match for the WWE Tag Team Championship a year later. One month prior, Vader was in an excellent Fatal-4 Way against Hart, Austin, and Taker at In Your House: Final Four for the WWE Championship, which was as close as he was going to get to the main eventing WrestleMania.
9 Alberto Del Rio
Alberto Del Rio is a perfect example of a worthy headliner who suffered from card placement. His match against Edge for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XXVII served as the curtain jerker, even though the man now known as Alberto El Patron had won the 2011 Royal Rumble Match.
It’s tough to argue against the idea that Del Rio was pushed too quickly, as he never really connected with the WWE faithful and turned stale for some. Still, a wrestler of his caliber can put on a good match against anyone who is willing to make an effort, and that speaks volumes in terms to his in-ring abilities.
8 John Bradshaw Layfield
He wasn’t the greatest or most talked-about practitioner of the squared circle, though John Bradshaw Layfield’s run in the mid-2000s should have steered him to the main event of WrestleMania. Although JBL was one of SmackDown’s top heels during that timeframe and main evented a number of pay-per-views as a titleholder, he never got the close out Wrestlemania.
A co-main event at WrestleMania 21 was as close as he ever got, losing to John Cena and dropping the WWE Championship before Batista and Triple H closed out the show.
7 Booker T
When the stars of WCW crossed over to WWE in 2001 during the Invasion, Booker T couldn’t have been more over, being the final WCW World Heavyweight Champion that won the belt on the last episode of Nitro. But WWE failed to capitalize on his hype, and to make matters worse, they chose Triple H as the victor in their WrestleMania XIX showdown when “The Game” had no business winning (Booker even lost to Edge the year prior). It’s safe to say the former Harlem Heat member merited a main event moment, whenever it would have made sense to do so.
6 Kevin Nash/Diesel
A WrestleMania main event for Kevin Nash seemed inevitable considering WWE pushed his Diesel character to the moon. That being said, the promotion had other plans for WrestleMania XI, where he really should have closed out the show.
Diesel was in a hot feud with “The Showstopper,” and while their match was unquestionably the one to main event the card (with the inclusion of Pamela Anderson and Jenny McCarthy at ringside), it was decided that NFL legend Lawrence Taylor would battle Bam Bam Bigelow in the final match. Diesel lost to The Undertaker the following year in the co-main event, before he left for WCW.
The thought of Kane headlining a future WrestleMania card seems laughable now, yet there was a time when “The Big Red Machine” was as hot as hell (no pun intended). Maybe he wasn’t exactly the prime candidate to be the focal point of the grandest spectacle of them all, seeing how he was on the come up while The Rock, Michaels, and Austin had reserved their places at the top. But the early days of The Undertaker-Kane feud could have headlined any event, and looking back on Kane’s lengthy career, he simply never had the right opportunity arise.
4 Rey Mysterio
Rey Mysterio was the kind of wrestler who could either woo a crowd in the opening contest or steal their hearts in the final frame.
Recently released from WWE by mutual consent, the legendary cruiserweight has appeared at over a dozen Manias, but never was he put in the final match of the night. His best shot was when he defeated both Kurt Angle and Randy Orton in arguably the biggest title win of his career at WrestleMania 22. Unfortunately for Mysterio, that match paved the way for a Playboy Pillow Fight (Torrie Wilson vs. Candice Michelle), followed by John Cena vs. Triple H for the WWE Championship.
3 Eddie Guerrero
The late Eddie Guerrero appeared at a handful of WrestleMania events, battling the likes of Mysterio, Angle, Chris Benoit, and others. WrestleMania XX was Guerrero’s defining moment, defending the WWE Championship against Kurt Angle, before embracing his best friend in the middle of the ring after the latter defeated Triple H and Shawn Michaels for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
Had Guerrero not suffered a tragic death in 2005, there’s no question “Latino Heat” would have seen himself in a main event down the line.
2 Ric Flair
Spending the majority of his time in WCW, Flair was supposed to headline WrestleMania VIII against Hulk Hogan in a dream match for the ages, consisting of wrestling’s two biggest stars that carried their respective promotions. The match was never made, as WWE opted to place Flair against “Macho Man” Randy Savage with rumors swirling that Hogan didn’t want to lose to the Charlotte resident or be overshadowed. Flair had a couple of Mania encounters since then, none of them extremely important in the grand scheme of things, or better yet, making sense in a headlining position.
1 CM Punk
Battling the likes of Mysterio, Randy Orton, and Chris Jericho over the years at “The Showcase of The Immortals,” not to mention winning the Money In The Bank ladder Match two years in a row (WrestleMania XXIV & XXV), the former Ring of Honor stud had some pretty epic performances, but was forced to watch John Cena do battle with The Rock at WrestleMania XXVIII while he was in the co-main event. A year later, Punk would drop the title to The Rock at Royal Rumble 2013, forcing a rematch between “The Great One” and Cena, while Punk put over another part-timer in The Undertaker on the same card (WrestleMania 29).
It’s not like health didn’t have a huge role to play in the future UFC debutant’s departure. Even though Punk was distraught with his exclusion from WrestleMania 30’s main event (the unlikely dream match being Punk vs. Bryan in the main event) and watched another part-timer Batista win the 2014 Royal Rumble Match, deciding to call it quits one night later, he was upset nobody listened to his medical issues.
By now, you’ve heard his interview on Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast and for someone who wanted it so bad (and deserved it after being passed up so many times), Punk could have easily headlined WrestleMania on more than one occasion. If only he’d been given the confidence -- and concern -- from the brass.