Every year, WWE touts the road to WrestleMania. This period typically involves major storylines coming to a head or dream matches suddenly coming together. Sometimes fans can see these stories coming a mile away. Sometimes the stories are more surprising. In either case, WrestleMania has become WWE’s signature event on a lot of levels, not least of which is paying off the most important, most exciting storylines in the wrestling world.
But what of those bumps in the road? For all manner of reasons, plans can change en route to WrestleMania. Sometimes it’s a matter of fans not responding to one performer slated for great things, or getting behind another performer organically in ways that WWE can’t ignore. Other times, guys suffer injuries that take them out of the action, or political issues arise backstage that cost someone a big spot. On other occasions, WWE has big plans for bringing in a guest but can’t come to terms on a contract.
For all kinds of reasons, the best laid plans can change. The result is that WWE books matches it hadn’t originally intended to. Sometimes, the new matches pale in comparison to the original plans. Other times the substitute is better than original ever could be. In either case, when fans look back at WrestleManias past, it more often than not becomes hard to imagine how things ever would have played out any other way.
This article looks back at 15 noteworthy WrestleMania matches that were not originally supposed to happen, ranging from opening bouts, to the mid-card, all the way to the tip-top of the card in WrestleMania main events that took strange turns.
15 Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin - WrestleMania 13
Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels have each publicly acknowledged that, to their knowledge, the plan going into WrestleMania 13 was for them to have a rematch of their WrestleMania XII main event one year later, with the world title on the line. Hart, in particular, has been insistent that he was to get his win and his title back.
In the months leading up to ‘Mania, however, Michaels 'lost his smile'—suffering from a knee injury and feeling the need to step away from the business for a minute. Hart openly speculated that the injury was entirely fake, and Michaels had gone to absurd lengths to avoid putting over Hart, thus drawing a wedge even deeper between the two men who already had their tensions.
So, WWE completely revamped its plans, winding up with a world title main event of The Undertaker vs. Sid, while Hart was put back together with Austin whom he’d feuded with in the fall, in a Submission Match. Hart and Austin have each said they were reluctant about it, both for the redundancy of the match up, and because Austin wasn’t working a submission style at all at the time. Despite their reservations, they of course wound up putting on an absolute classic.
14 Shawn Michaels vs. John Cena - WrestleMania 23
At WrestleMania 22, John Cena picked up a clean win over Triple H in the main event that was huge in legitimizing his WWE Championship reign. Triple H and a number of other parties have noted what fans suspected at the time—that WWE’s plan was for the two to have a rematch at WrestleMania 23, this time with both men as faces, and in all likelihood with Triple H going over in this iteration.
The plan was shot when Triple H tore a quad in a match with Rated RKO and was out of action from January to August. In the meantime, Shawn Michaels ended up taking his place pretty seamlessly—the other member of DX, the other guy in the running for top face of Raw, and the other guy with the long-term main event cred to hold up his end opposite Cena for another WrestleMania main event.
While Cena-Michaels wouldn’t necessarily be an all-time classic, it was probably at least as good as Cena-Triple H would have been, and a worthy enough addition to each man’s deep WrestleMania resume.
13 Roman Reigns vs. Triple H - WrestleMania 32
Of all of the WrestleManias, number 32 may have been the most profoundly affected by injuries. Seth Rollins got injured in November, in a match with Kane. John Cena was out, too. Bray Wyatt was on the bubble, and thus was left out of any major angle leading into the show. The Rock’s filming schedule kept him from committing to a program leading up to WrestleMania.
The prevailing theory was that Seth Rollins was going to battle his mentor, Triple H at the show, but Rollins wound up out of action before any such angle could get off the ground. Another theory saw Triple H and The Rock going head to head, to build off their confrontation from ‘Mania the year before. Meanwhile, Reigns was rumored to clash with Cena, or perhaps Brock Lesnar.
In reshuffling the deck, Triple H wound up firmly entrenched in a feud with Roman Reigns. So, Hunter became the proving stick for Reigns to finally get his big WrestleMania win, taking back the world title from The Game in the main event of the show.
12 Tatanka vs. Shawn Michaels - WrestleMania IX
After The Rockers split up, Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty were set up for a major feud in the mid-card. While they had very good matches at the Royal Rumble 1993 and on Raw, Jannetty has suggested in interviews that the two were supposed to blow off their issue first at WrestleMania VIII, and after those plans fell apart, at WrestleMania IX.
Jannetty’s WrestleMania VIII destiny got derailed when he was placed under house arrest for allegedly getting physical with a police officer, and was consequently released from his WWE contract. The feud picked up when Jannetty came back to WWE, but before ‘Mania, Jannetty was suspended on suspicion of drug and alcohol abuse, and particularly the allegation that he worked a match under the influence. So, Michaels wound up with less climactic, though still good matches opposite Tito Santana in 1992, and the undefeated Tatanka in 1993.
11 Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna - WrestleMania X
After Bret Hart’s first world title reign failed to set the world on fire, and Hulk Hogan’s return to WWE was widely considered a flop, Vince McMahon went looking for a new face of the company. He settled on recasting Lex Luger as an All-American hero, and essentially Hogan 2.0 for his physique and ability to body slam five hundred pound men the way Hogan once had. Luger got off to a hot start, slamming Yokozuna to celebrate Independence Day then went on a crowd-rallying bus tour, en route to beating Yokozuna by count out at SummerSlam. The plan was for Luger to go on to have his big championship win in the main event of WrestleMania.
Plans changed, however, when the crowds grew lukewarm on Luger and he failed to put on electrifying matches. Meanwhile, Bret Hart enjoyed a groundswell of support from the fans. In the end, plans shifted and both Luger and Hart got a crack at the world title at WrestleMania X.
Many fans have suggested that Hart getting the main event match and title win over Luger is as close as Vince McMahon has ever come to apologizing for an error in booking judgment. The win, in many ways, reset the clock to a year earlier, and Hart picked up where he’d left off as the top guy in WWE.
10 The Big Show vs. Floyd Mayweather - WrestleMania XXIV
Floyd Mayweather’s brief foray into WWE was widely considered a success. A natural athlete, he held up his end of the bargain against The Big Show at WrestleMania XXIV, including enduring his share of physical punishment for the good of the match.
Unbeknownst to fans at the time, this match was not WWE’s original plan. On the contrary, Shane McMahon had championed bringing in boxer Oscar De La Hoya to work a tag team match paired with Rey Mysterio, booking the two as a Latino dream team. Rumors suggest the two would go up against some permutation of MVP, The Big Show, or Shane McMahon himself. When Rey Mysterio wound up getting injured leading up to WrestleMania XXIV, the plan transmogrified and the big wrestler vs. little boxer angle took shape.
9 Randy Savage vs. Greg Valentine - WrestleMania IV
WrestleMania IV featured a single-elimination tournament for the vacant world title. The brackets looked set up to, among other things, revisit the glory of WrestleMania III, with Randy Savage locking horns against Ricky Steamboat once again.
To the surprise and disappointment of fans, Greg Valentine wound up defeating Steamboat in the first round, and was put up against Savage instead. The story of Valentine—a heel who was known to wear down opponents—facing Savage as a leg in Savage’s iron man run to the title made sense. Just the same, there’s little question fans would have rather seen Savage-Steamboat II, particularly on a show without many great wrestling matches to speak of.
So why didn’t we get a Savage vs. Steamboat rematch? Steamboat has spoken openly about the fact that he did not like working with Savage. Savage insisted on meticulously planning every step of big matches, while Steamboat preferred to feed off the crowd. Steamboat says that it drove him up the wall having to memorize elaborate sequences. Needless to say, he wouldn’t have been happy working his second match of the night against The Macho Man at WrestleMania IV.
8 Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H - WrestleMania XXX
In a visit to Colt Cabana’s The Art of Wrestling podcast, CM Punk openly acknowledged what many fans suspected—that he was slated to face off with Triple H at WrestleMania XXX. Punk claimed that it was pitched to him as a “main event match,” but Punk was a traditionalist, and wasn’t going to be happy with anything but working the last match on the show. This was one of a number of grievances that led Punk to walk out on WWE two months before WrestleMania.
Daniel Bryan wound up as the beneficiary of Punk’s absence. While there’s never been conclusive word on if Bryan was always planned to win the WWE Championship at the show, there’s no question that he wasn’t planned to have his cake and eat it, too—both defeating Triple H one-on-one and winning the triple threat main event to walk out champ. Punk’s departure paved the way for Bryan’s historic performance, and for Bryan and Triple H to arguably put on the best match of the show.
7 Hulk Hogan vs. Yokozuna - WrestleMania IX
Based on all accounts, when Hulk Hogan returned in the build to WrestleMania IX, the plan really wasn’t for him to get wrapped up in the main event scene, or at least not right away. Rather, he’d focus on the tag division with partner Brutus Beefcake, and otherwise make special appearances to help sell tickets and pop PPV buy rates.
According to Bret Hart, in his book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, he was told the plan was for him to hold the world title for an extended reign. The picture shifted, however, through some combination of Vince McMahon changing his mind and Hulk Hogan wanting a bigger role. In the end, Yokozuna relieved Hart of his title, only to move on to an impromptu match with Hogan at the end of the show, which saw Hogan emerge the unlikely champion.
6 Chris Jericho vs. Ricky Steamboat, Jimmy Snuka, and Roddy Piper - WrestleMania XXV
One of the feel-good stories of WrestleMania XXV, and of its most memorable sub-plots was the return of Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. Injuries had forced him to retire over a decade earlier, but there he was in all his glory, delivering deep arm drags, high-flying offense, and selling his butt off to the fans' chant of, “You’ve still got it!”
But Steamboat was never supposed to make this return.
No, the original plan was for Chris Jericho to square off against actor Mickey Rourke, fresh off starring in The Wrestler. However, Rourke and his people purportedly got cold feet—worried that actually wrestling would hurt Rourke and the movie's reputation, and particularly rob them of credibility for Academy Award consideration.
So, WWE scrambled to assemble a trio of legends to fight in Rourke’s place. According to Jericho, the original slate had Snuka and Piper teamed with Greg Valentine, but Jericho championed Steamboat—who had just started working for WWE again behind the scenes as a better pick. Not to take anything away from Valentine, but boy was Jericho right. While it was fun to see Piper and Snuka in the ring for nostalgia’s sake, Steamboat was undoubtedly the star of his team in its losing effort. The Dragon was well-received enough to justify another performance on the following night’s Raw, and a follow up one-on-one bout with Jericho the following month.
5 Steve Austin vs. The Rock - WrestleMania XV
Steve Austin vs. The Rock is quite arguably the greatest WrestleMania rivalry of all time. They main evented WrestleManias XV and X-Seven in the world title matches, and then worked Austin’s retirement match together at WrestleMania XIX. For as iconic as the feud was, it’s fascinating to think the first iteration wasn’t even supposed to happen.
While The Rock got over quickly and to a high degree from 1998 to 1999, he wasn’t yet the megastar he’d become. The plan original plan was therefore to pit top guy Steve Austin against the next top two stars, both The Rock and Mick Foley. According to several accounts, Shawn Michaels interjected his opinion that the WrestleMania main event ought to be one-on-one, which led to Foley being the odd man out.
Other, unconfirmed reports suggest that Michaels meant Triple H should have been the one opponent to Austin. Of all of these scenarios, Rock-Austin was not the original pick, but in hindsight, I’d say things worked out just fine.
4 Bart Gunn vs. Butterbean - WrestleMania XV
It’s widely reported that 1998’s unconventional Brawl for All shoot fighting tournament was designed to put over incoming Steve Williams, a veteran tough guy who WWE management—particularly Jim Ross—sought to establish as a challenger to Steve Austin. The plan fell apart, though, when Bart Gunn turned out to have some serious pugilistic prowess. Gunn scored the huge KO upset in the second round, taking Williams out of the tournament and thus crippling his main event potential. Gunn would go on to win the whole tournament.
It was never planned for Gunn to be a big star, and the company couldn’t have predicted that it would make sense to book him in a shoot boxing match with visiting super heavyweight Butterbean. Nonetheless, that’s the scenario that took shape for WrestleMania XV. It’s never been clear whether WWE saw this match as a platform to further prove Gunn’s toughness, or aimed to punish him for fouling up management’s plan. Regardless, Butterbean made short work of Gunn. We can imagine a parallel universe in which WWE might have really gotten behind Gunn had he somehow managed to win. As it stands, the match put an uncomfortable punctuation on mark on the whole Brawl For All enterprise, a concept WWE has wisely never revisited.
3 Rey Mysterio vs. Kurt Angle vs. Randy Orton
There are a lot of rumors about what WWE originally intended for the World Heavyweight Championship scene at WrestleMania 22. The most popular theory saw Batista squaring off with Randy Orton for the title—a plan that got put aside when Batista got injured in January and wound up sitting out WrestleMania season. Kurt Angle wound up essentially taking his place for the months to follow, unexpectedly bouncing from Raw to SmackDown, turning face, and winning a battle royal to take the title.
Another unexpected development: Eddie Guerrero tragically passed in November 2005.
So, plans changed altogether. Rey Mysterio got thrust into the main event picture via a Royal Rumble victory. Maybe he was taking the spot WWE had intended for Guerrero. Maybe he was getting a feel-good push because of his connection to Guerrero. Or maybe WWE just decided to reward one of its best and brightest stars, and it just happened to coincide with the passing of his friend. Regardless, we wound up with Mysterio winning the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 22, by pinning Orton.
2 Jeff Hardy vs. Matt Hardy - WrestleMania XXV
From late 2008 into early 2009, WWE started a story in which Jeff Hardy was the victim of repeated unfortunate incidents, including suffering from a pyro malfunction that injured him, enduring a car accident, and having his house burn down. The prevailing theory at the time is that WWE planned to assign the blame to Christian, who had just re-signed with WWE and had a long history with the Hardys. The story would culminate in Christian and Jeff Hardy squaring off at WrestleMania.
Rumors have abounded that management grew wary of fans being a little too aware of Christian’s pending return, and so switched directions midstream to instead cast Matt Hardy as his brother’s saboteur. WWE followed this storyline all the way to an Extreme Rules Match at WrestleMania XXV, while Christian got entrenched in the ECW Championship scene and fought in the Money in the Bank Match at ‘Mania.
There’s a lot of speculation with little confirmation on this one. There does seem to be some support for the idea Matt Hardy wasn’t originally intended for the heel mastermind role. He didn’t exactly thrive in this gimmick at the time, and wound up turning face again a few short months later to more or less pick up where he left off in the mid-card.
1 Triple H vs. Chris Jericho - WrestleMania X8
WrestleMania X-Seven ended with an epic heel turn for Steve Austin. Immediately afterward, he struck up an on-air partnership with former rival Triple H as The Two-Man Power Trip. Collectively, they briefly held the World, Intercontinental, and Tag Team Championships. A variety of sources have discussed the intended end-game of this angle—that Triple H would eventually turn face and that the Power Trip would explode at WrestleMania X8 for the WWE Championship.
A lot can change in a year.
That May, Triple H suffered his first torn quad injury and was out of action until January. Meanwhile, The Invasion happened, and then the nWo arrived. Everyone decided they liked Stone Cold better as a face and Chris Jericho earned his shot at playing the company’s top villain.
The upshot of all of this was that Triple H still wound up the conquering hero, but this time unseating Chris Jericho in the main event. Meanwhile, Austin battled Scott Hall in the undercard, and The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan wound up overshadowing both matches.