Professional wrestling is a unique business. As much as the outcomes are predetermined and the fighting isn’t real, wrestlers nonetheless have a stake in whether they succeed or fail. It’s in quality of performance, ability to connect with the crowd that a wrestler distinguishes himself. Moreover, ability to hold up to pressure and evolve to fit the circumstances are essential to a wrestler’s long term success.
For a wrestler to have made it to a company like WWE or WCW is, in and of itself, an indicator of a successful career. However, there are those performers that had the chance to reach an entirely different stratosphere. These are the performers that had the chance to be marquee players and legends, but instead wound up also-rans and afterthoughts.
Think back to Steve Austin knocking out of the park with the original Austin 3:16 speech, or Shawn Michaels going an hour with Bret Hart, or Hulk Hogan bodyslamming Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III. Think about The Rock joining The Corporation, and Eddie Guerrero’s inspirational world title win over Brock Lesnar. These are moments that made careers and set up excellent performers to be remembered as all time greats.
It's a stretch to say that anyone has just one shot at immortality, but there are those times in professional wrestling when you can pinpoint a wrestler’s big chance at becoming something truly special, and that moment when it went wrong. This article looks back at 15 wrestlers, each of whom blew his or her best shot at greatness.
15 Buff Bagwell
Buff Bagwell evolved quite a bit over his time in WCW from young white meat baby face an mid card, and sometimes even upper mid card jerk heel character. Along the way, he came to demonstrate more charisma. Despite never being a world class worker, it’s that personality factor that made many fans believe he would thrive in WWE. The guy did have the tools in terms of talking, mannerisms, and look to hack it as a Miz-type performer.
So Bagwell did get his shot, working the first ever WCW match aired on WWE television, in a Raw main event against Booker T.
The match flopped. Hard.
Some parties have argued WWE set them up to fail ranging from the instructions they were given before giving the ring, to the city where the match was booked. Regardless, in his big opportunity to extend his career on the national stage, Bagwell had a terrible match. While Booker would overcome that and become a WWE mainstay, Bagwell was never seen on WWE television again.
14 Davey Boy Smith
Davey Boy Smith was a main event talent in the sense that feuded with world champions and main evented PPVs in both WWE and WCW. He even won a title in one PPV, besting Bret Hart for the Intercontinental Championship at SummerSlam 1992, in a match likely booked last because The British Bulldog was so over in front of his countrymen at Wembley Stadium.
Smith never won a world title, though, and despite multiple opportunities, he was never taken that seriously as a threat to a world champion. Smith got his biggest opportunity working Diesel in 1995, in what was arguably his only world title program when he was solidly the more experienced, better in ring performer. The match exposed Smith’s limitations, because counter to his matches with Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, or even Vader, it was a flop, proving that Smith, not unlike Diesel at the time, needed a dance partner to carry him.
Lana was a bit of a throwback as a pure manager who was not a wrestler, accentuating Rusev’s heel foreigner character with a sidekick that made him feel a bit more like an Ivan Drago style villain of the 1980s. Reports indicated that Lana wanted to be a wrestler, too, though, and had ambitions of being more than just eye candy for a wrestling star.
By stages and degrees she’s gotten her shot before most recently getting a SmackDown Women’s Championship match against Naomi at Money in the Bank. Expectations were pretty low for the Ravishing Russian. She surprised many by doing competent promo work and performing adequately in her first big singles match. Nonetheless, she didn’t knock it out of the park the way she might have really shocked the wrestling world and capitalized on an opportunity at greatness.
12 Muhammad Hassan
Muhammad Hassan was a white hot property in WWE in the mid-2000s, playing an Arab American who felt discriminated against and who consequently turned sinister in attacking American wrestlers. It’s widely rumored WWE meant to push him as a challenger to Batista’s World Heavyweight Champion, and to possibly even crown him as champ, until things got derailed.
This is one point in the list in which a guy’s failure to reach his potential isn’t so much the fault of the wrestler himself as the booking and happenstance in the world. WWE gave Hassan a group of masked henchmen who looked conspicuously like stereotypical terrorists. They stormed the ring and choked out The Undertaker on an episode of Smackdown that happened to air on the same day as a major terrorist attack in London. The incident became a PR disaster and through little fault of his own, Hassan weathered the worst of the storm. UPN, which aired Smackdown at the time, didn’t want Hassan on its shows any more so the character was essentially scrapped. Hassan himself wound up walking away from wrestling altogether in the aftermath.
11 Nathan Jones
Nathan Jones was a big man with some semblance of athleticism. Every indication is that WWE had big plans for him after he was given a plum spot tag teaming with The Undertaker at WrestleMania 19 to take on the tandem of The Big Show and A-Train.
To be fair, WWE was putting Jones in a very protected situation, with a tag match surrounded by veteran performers to give him some exposure. It became clear just how little faith WWE really had in the guy, though, when the y worked an angle that he’d been jumped backstage, which limited his involvement in the match to run-in in the final stages of the bout.
Jones never really recovered from that moment, resurfacing as a heel sidekick for Brock Lesnar for Survivor Series season, but disappearing again after that, never realizing the potential his impressive frame seemed to suggest.
In today’s era of celebrating women’s wrestling, female performers are getting more attention and more opportunities than ever before. Years before this movement got underway, there was Kharma. The former Awesome Kong who had run wild internationally, on the indies, and in TNA, surfaced in WWE as an imposing monster who came to the ring to destroy other women and slowly terrorize Kelly Kelly.
The storyline collapsed when Kharma became pregnant in real life and abandoned the push of a lifetime that had the division being built around her. Even more sadly, Kharma would end up losing the child. She’d make one more appearance—a rare female entrant into the Royal Rumble, but the ship seemed to have already sailed on her being a WWE great.
9 Jack Swagger
At WrestleMania XXVI, Jack Swagger came out of nowhere to win the Money in the Bank Ladder Match. Sure enough, he followed in the footsteps of other briefcase holders, cashed in and won a world title.
Then he did nothing.
To be fair, the booking was probably more to blame than Swagger himself for his lackluster first world title reign. Still, it was a short, forgettable run on top that led Swagger back to the mid card ranks.
Of greater interest for the purposes of this list, Swagger got another opportunity at the top heading into WrestleMania XXIX, rebranded as a Tea Party heel, paired with Zeb Coulter. Swagger shot into world title contention and looked like he might even take the title, only to get busted with pot before the push fully took off. Swagger wound up a lame duck World Heavyweight Championship contender, having blown what was probably his biggest opportunity.
8 Lance Cade
Lance Cade spent most of his WWE tenure paired with Trevor Murdoch in a solid enough tag team that got a little extra push on account of operating during a time with very few real tag teams. When Cade went out on his own, it looked like he was in line for some big things. He decisively beat Murdoch, and ended up paired with main eventer Chris Jericho.
Then he was let go. Interestingly, the details still haven’t come out about what went down to cause the dismissal, though Jim Ross has made cryptic comments about Cade’s behavior being the cause. Regardless, just as he looked as though he might break out to at least solid mid card, if not upper mid card status, the guy disappeared from WWE. He would tragically end up passing away just two years later.
7 Charlie Haas
Charlie Haas had the makings of a star—a guy with good size, good athleticism, and a legitimate amateur pedigree. After the untimely passing of his brother whom he had tag teamed with in WWE’s developmental system, he stormed ahead in an excellent team with Shelton Benjamin.
In the aftermath of the team, Benjamin would get a push to the upper mid card, while Haas was away for a period. By the time Haas came back, Benjamin was an established heel Intercontinental Champion, and Haas returned, looking like he’d be quality challenger, who could play the card of knowing Benjamin better than anyone, and have a personal issue between them. Maybe Haas would end up Intercontinental Champion, and maybe the two of them would move up the card together.
Haas’s comeback was a flop, though, highlighted by bounding off the ropes and accidentally knocking Lillian Garcia off the apron. It was all downhill from there, and the most he made of his big break was a reunion with Benjamin as a fun tag team with a twinge of nostalgia attached to it.
6 Dolph Ziggler
Dolph Ziggler is one of the best wrestling talents of his generation. He’s athletic. He cuts a wicked pace in the ring. He has a legitimate amateur training. While his talking style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, there’s little argument against him at least being a competent promo. Yet for all of these talents, WWE has never gone all in on him.
The closest Ziggler got to a full bid of confidence was his Money in the Bank run that saw him win the briefcase and work his way up the card, peaking when he beat John Cena to retain the briefcase at TLC. He built an entourage with Big E and AJ Lee as his partners in crime and he finally cashed in, for an electric moment the Raw after WrestleMania XXIX.
It’s not Ziggler’s fault that his big chance got squandered, but his body gave in on him with a debilitating head injury that put him out of action for most of his short reign. He’d drop the title back to Alberto Del Rio in a double turn that seemed to promise Ziggler chasing and someday regaining the strap. Unfortunately, the original brand split all but disintegrated around that time and Ziggler wound up lost in the shuffle behind Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, John Cena, and The Big Show in the face ranks, never to get a meaningful shot at the top again.
Mabel was a reasonably athletic five hundred pounder, which in and of itself could qualify him for a main event run in the tradition of guys like Andre the Giant and Earthquake. After middling run as half of Men on a Mission, Mabel became a heel singles star, and got his chance, challenging Diesel for the WWE Championship in the summer of 1995.
While Kevin Nash was a competent worker, he was stilling coming into his own at this point, and his generic face character didn’t allow him to show off what was arguably his greatest strength—an ability to play the cocky, cool heel. Had Mabel been up to the challenge, and managed a great match at SummerSlam with Big Daddy Cool, he may still not have ever won a true world championship, but he probably would have had a more extended run at the top of the card and be remembered more favorably today.
The match flopped, though, with Mabel exposed as limited and inexperienced. WWE would reboot the man’s character multiple times, and he did arguably show some improvement in his final gimmick as Big Daddy V, but the ship had sailed long earlier on a run as a top guy.
4 Marty Jannetty
It has become something of a wrestling cliché to talk about tag teams having their Shawn Michaels and their Marty Jannetty. The reference goes back to The Rockers, a popular, successful team that thrived in the AWA and WWE in the 1980s and early 1990s before moving on to singles careers. Despite the two ostensibly being equally talented, with more or less equal potential, Michaels would go on to be widely considered an all time great. Meanwhile Jannetty never scaled higher than the mid card and bounced around between other tag team partners.
Jannetty did work a good off and on feud with Michaels early in their singles tenures, with multiple very good matches. The trouble is, Jannetty was let go or suspended at key moments for substance abuse issues, and the feud never got much of a flow going. When Jannetty had his head on right he was still a great performer, but never was able stay on the straight and narrow long enough to string together a run befitting his potential.
3 Steve Williams
Steve Williams earned the nickname Dr. Death for his stiff, rough style in the ring. A big bruiser of a man, he thrived in the mid-south, in Japan, and to a lesser extent in WCW before finding his way to WWE. With the backing of then-vice president of talent relations Jim Ross, Williams looked prime for a main event run opposite Steve Austin.
The Attitude Era was on and WWE tried something really outside the box with the Brawl For All tournament—a legit shoot fighting tournament, purportedly designed for Williams to get himself over as a badass in a non-traditional way. Had Williams won—and won with brutal ease as WWE managements supposedly expected, he may well have been a WWE main eventer, and maybe even world champion. In reality, though, he got knocked out by mid carder (but legitimately tough guy) Bart Gunn in the second round and his big push was more or less dead on arrival.
Paige was briefly the face of women’s wrestling in WWE. After starring and putting on great matches on in NXT, she debuted on the main roster with a Divas Championship win over AJ Lee and proceeded to either hold the title or be in the title mix for most of the year to follow.
Despite her skills and reasonable popularity, Paige started to get pushed aside with the arrival of Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch on the main roster. Paige still hung around near the top of the women’s card, but things took a turn even further south when she ran into a combination of Wellness Policy suspensions, injury, and political difficulties connected to her relationship with Alberto Del Rio, who fell into a great deal of disagreement with management.
Paige’s story was sad because she in many ways kick started the evolution of women’s wrestling in WWE alongside AJ Lee, and were the political issues in particular not an issue, you have to wonder if she might have gotten more opportunities, and be gearing up for a hero’s welcome upon her return, rather than serious questions about whether WWE will ever let her in one of their rings again.
1 Rob Van Dam
Rob Van Dam was a star on the rise in ECW, and there’s little question he would have wound up the company’s top champion had it not gone out of business before he could peak. He made his way to WWE where his popularity did translate, but he faced both a more dense roster and more traditional business sensibilities at the top of the company.
After years of toiling in the WWE mid card, RVD finally got his shot at the top when he won the Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania 22 and went on to challenge John Cena for the WWE Championship. Van Dam won and in so doing relaunched the ECW brand, too, as duel world champion.
RVD was on top of the wrestling world, only to get busted for marijuana possession. WWE subsequently rushed to get both titles off him so he could serve his Wellness Policy suspension. While RVD would remain a star in the years to follow, he never again got the opportunity to be the man in WWE.