Leo Tolstoy said that there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. While most of us would agree that he’s oversimplifying a little, the central point remains that, at their core, there are only so many stories to tell, just different audiences to tell them to, different details, and different wrestlers to plug into different roles.
Professional wrestling has seen its share of repetition and recycling stories. In some cases, a new angle improves upon its predecessor via some additional nuance, better in-ring work, or finding itself in a new time. In other instances, the newer version pales in comparison to the original. Maybe it’s the timing or the sense of familiarity. Oftentimes, it’s a matter of wrestling’s creative people booking themselves into , corner and having to choose between truly repeating a story with the same outcome, or doing something different just for the sake of being different, even though the new conclusion is less satisfying.
This column looks back on times when it was clear the ideas weren’t fresh, but rather wrestling was borrowing from its own past. Some of the knockoffs occurred within the same company, and some went across promotional lines. Some involved one or more of the same performers reprising a role while others involved stand ins from a new generation of wrestlers. Sometimes there were years in between knockoffs, and sometimes they appeared in eerily close succession to the point that it appeared one booker was capitalizing on another’s success. The common thread is that the storylines have clear enough overlap that the fans just can’t accept it as coincidence and know, instead, that they’re watching something derivative play out.
15. John Cena vs. The Miz / Goldberg vs. Chris Jericho
In 1998, Goldberg was about as hot as any wrestler has ever been, working an undefeated streak gimmick during WCW’s most watched era. Meanwhile, Chris Jericho, for all of his talent and potential, was a mid-card talent at best, mostly working in the Cruiserweight Division at the TV Championship level. A strange dynamic developed between the two, though, when Jericho repeatedly called out Goldberg on nights when he knew full well Goldberg wasn’t in the building or was otherwise occupied. Because Goldberg didn’t report to the ring, Jericho claimed he was scared of facing him, and began claiming victories by forfeit over the main event star. The two never really blew off their issue in WCW (though they would have matches in WWE years later), but Goldberg did finally spear Jericho to shut him up.
In 2009, a strikingly similar dynamic developed between WWE main eventer John Cena and The Miz, who was a budding mid-carder. In kayfabe, no one could really take The Miz seriously as a threat to Cena at that point, but Miz strategically challenged Cena when he was injured, and declared himself winner via forfeit when Cena didn’t report to the ring. After two months of running this angle, it was finally announced that The Miz would face Cena at The Bash, where Cena promptly squashed his heel antagonist in a five-minute match.
14. Immortal / The nWo
The nWo was one of the most successful storylines in pro wrestling history, particularly at its inception. Early on, it was all about Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash running wild as heels—a combination of repackaging top guys, giving them a cool gimmick, and adding the intrigue that they were outsiders who didn’t just want to win titles, but actually wanted to take over WCW. As the group grew, WCW took advantage of the dynamic of fans never knowing who to trust, with heel turns coming fast and furious as figures like blue chip youngest The Giant and WCW Executive Vice President Eric Bischoff joining the fold.
TNA has arguably tried to revisit the big heel stable angle too many times, and Immortal marked one of the most obvious nWo knockoffs. The angle launched at Bound For Glory 2010, when Hogan and Bischoff—already playing on-air authority figures—turned heel to help Jeff Hardy win the TNA Championship. While Immortal would have overlapping membership with the now (Jeff Jarret was an early member, Scott Steiner joined later) Immortal felt a lot like the now more so for having insinuated themselves into the TNA power structure, and for growing at a massive rate to ultimately have about 20 members. Each heel turn was supposed to be shocking, while few them actually registered much surprise for those fans who had been watching over the years, and recognized the old nWo patterns reemerging.
13. Jack Swagger vs. Alberto Del Rio / JBL vs. Eddie Guerrero
When Eddie Guerrero won the WWE Championship, he faced a grave challenge from JBL—recently rebranded as a wealthy businessman, who quickly espoused the budding real-world rhetoric about needing to protect the U.S.-Mexico border against illegal immigrants. JBL looked to be a well cast villain specifically to push Guerrero and further endear him to the Latino fan base. According to multiple sources, Guerrero was intended to win the rivalry and move on, only to feel too much pressure as champ and asked to be relieved of the title.
Nine years later, Alberto Del Rio was a new Mexican world champ in WWE. Recently recast as a face, Del Rio was over with the crowd, and met a complex nemesis in the form of Jack Swagger—newly returned and rebranded as a Tea Party heel with manager Zeb Colter who spouted anti-immigrant rhetoric. While the angle had a lot of potential to explore shades of gray between wrestling and the real world, it ended up as its simplest version of itself, and got derailed when Swagger was busted for possession of marijuana and the WWE brass cooled on him. Del Rio won their match at WrestleMania XXIX, but rather than seeing the story through to a real conclusion, it all but evaporated the next night when Dolph Ziggler cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to steal the title and shift everyone’s focus.
12. Sid Justice vs. Hulk Hogan / Paul Orndorff vs. Hulk Hogan
The story of friends turning on Hulk Hogan was revisited a lot in WWE, and to a lesser degree in WCW. One of the earliest and most successful instances came when Paul Orndorff turned on The Hulkster, based on jealousy and a series of perceived snubs like when Hogan wouldn’t interrupt his workout to take a phone call from Orndorff, and when Hogan accidentally knocked Orndorff off the apron in a tag match. The two went on to a heated rivalry between two men with fantastic physiques.
The last time WWE went to this particular well came in 1992, when new face Sid Justice buddied up to Hogan, only for Sid to eliminate Hogan from behind at the Rumble, leading to a WrestleMania VIII match. Hogan-Justice never had the heat or the match quality of Hogan-Orndorff, but nonetheless followed a strikingly similar pattern of jealousies and a sense of being wronged leading Hogan’s best friend to overreact and launch a violent feud.
11. Mickie James vs. Trish Stratus / Tori vs. Sable
With the exception of Sunny, Sable was WWE’s original true sex symbol. After a memorable face run, she slowly turned heel, and the most identifiable turning point was the debut of Tori as an obsessed fan who was repeatedly shown at ringside for Sable’s matches before she became physically involved in helping Sable win. Sable disrespected Tori time and again before Tori went full-on face to challenge Sable for her title at WrestleMania XV.
Seven years later, the landscape for women’s wrestling had changed, but one consistency was that there was a dominant shining star on top of the division—in this case, Trish Stratus. Lo and behold, she wound up having an obsessed fan of her own in the form of Mickie James who debuted to help Stratus, before it gradually became more and more clear she was unhinged and wanted to be more than just friends with the champ.
The knockoff obsessed fan angle in the women’s division worked here not only because the story was compelling, but all the more so because the latter version featured better in-ring work from two of WWE’s all-time great female wrestlers.
10. Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler / Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler
Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler developed an on-screen relationship like few commentators before or since, built on longevity, mutual respect, and in particular the dynamic of Lawler having come to Ross’s defense physically more than once, most memorably when Ross was bullied by newcomer Tazz, and Lawler stood up for him, only for Lawler and Ross to ultimately collaborate in defeating Tazz at SummerSlam 2000.
When Michael Cole replaced Ross, longtime fans were understandably miffed to have lost a long-time favorite and particularly to go from Ross’s unique personality to Cole’s more cookie-cutter style. In an effort to get Cole over, WWE made a pass at recreating the Ross-Lawler magic, including Lawler coming to Cole’s aid against Kane and later against Legacy when they picked on the helpless announcer. The reaction was lukewarm, though, and WWE ultimately shifted directions, instead turning Cole heel to actively feud with The King.
9. Eric Young / Daniel Bryan
While many entries on this list have years between the knocked off storyline and the original, in 2014, TNA seemingly directly knocked off WWE in a concurrent angle. At the time, Daniel Bryan was red hot as the new top guy, paying off a year as a never-say-die underdog whom the fans couldn’t get enough of with a virtuosic showing at WrestleMania XX, in which he beat Triple H, Randy Orton, and Batista in the same night to emerge as world champion.
Less than a month after ‘Mania, TNA had bushy-bearded long-time underdog Eric Young win a battle royal and go on to win the their world title in the same night. The cosmetic similarities and tones of the victories were too noticeable for fans to ignore, and only accentuated when on-air authority figure MVP turned heel and started targeting Young, much the way WWE’s Authority had Bryan in the preceding months.
Ultimately, both big pushes fizzled—Bryan’s due to injury, Young’s when he didn’t catch fire in the role and wound up dropping the title to Bobby Lashley a couple months later.
8. The Main Event Mafia vs. Immortal / The Four Horsemen vs. The nWo
One of the most engaging subplots of the original nWo run saw Ric Flair reunite with Arn Anderson and friends as The Four Horsemen to make a pass at the old school super group rivaling the newer stable and threatening to bring them down. The angle ultimately fizzled with the nWo getting the better of Flair and company in short order, but nonetheless offered a bit of reprieve from nWo dominance and fun bit of nostalgia for long-time fans.
TNA pulled on its own shorter history during Immortal’s nWo-like run as dominant heels, when old heel group The Main Event Mafia threatened to return to give the new stable its comeuppance. Whether it was coincidence or purposeful meddling, would-be key players Kevin Nash and Booker T wound up signing with WWE shortly after the angle launched, leaving Kurt Angle and Scott Steiner holding the bag. While we’ll never know the original plans for sure, all signs point to TNA calling an audible when Steiner quickly switched gears from threatening Immortal to joining the team and abandoning any further mention of The Main Event Mafia until a new version of the group took shape two years later (the fact that they came back then to challenge Aces and Eights—another heel super group—does not come across as a coincidence).
7. AJ Styles’s 2013 / Sting’s 1997 and CM Punk’s 2011
This entry involves not one, but two iconic original storylines. The first saw Sting renounce his status as hero in favor of his murkier Crow gimmick, stalking the nWo to lead to a showdown with Hulk Hogan. The second involves CM Punk in a complicated worked shoot that saw him look to leave WWE, only to win the world title on his last night and throw the title scene into disarray. Things culminated with Punk returning to challenge the new champion to a match with both the old and new versions of the title at stake.
AJ Styles had a strange 2013. He started the year in a variation on the old Sting gimmick—an outsider who didn’t ally with anyone and scarcely talked, but who seemed like he was ultimately on a collision course with the leader of Aces and Eights, Bully Ray. Styles made good on the key parts of that storyline—defeating the arch-villain at the biggest show of the year. Unfortunately, Styles’s contract was up and TNA entered an elaborate worked shoot angle in which Styles walked off with the title—forcing TNA to crown a new champion in his absence, only for Styles to return to challenge him.
That Styles wound up leaving TNA for real in the aftermath of all of this shouldn’t be a shocker. The storylines were not just derivative but pretty blatantly ripped off, and Styles would go on to better things first in Japan, and ultimately with WWE.
6. WCW vs. The nWo / NJPW vs. UWFi
As much the nWo angle felt cutting edge to American fans at the time, the creative head at the time, Eric Bischoff, has openly conceded in multiple shoot interviews that the concept of guys like Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash—ostensibly representatives of WWE—banding together to invade WCW was directly inspired by a Japanese angle that pitted New Japan Pro Wrestling against the Union of Wrestling Forces International.
Though UWFi was actually its own independent promotion, unlike the nWo that was consciously created by WCW, the key consistent factor was the sheer excitement of seeing wrestlers from another established promotion bullying their way through the door to force a full-scale war—not to mention a bevy of never-before-seen dream matches—with another company.
5. Lex Luger: American Hero / Hulk Hogan
From the mid-1980s to early 1992 Hulk Hogan was the undisputed face of WWE, and one of the defining elements of his character was that he was a flag-waving American hero who conquered foreign threats like The Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, Sgt. Slaughter (when he was cast as an Iraqi sympathizer), and Andre the Giant.
So, when Hogan left for a year, came back to a lukewarm reaction from fans, and left again for the long haul, it was understandable that WWE saw the need to replace him. When Bret Hart—in many ways, the underdog antithesis of Hogan—didn’t catch fire, the powers that be went back to the patriotic well to rebrand Lex Luger as an all-American good guy, complete with red, white, and blue tights and patriotic theme music. Oh, and he launched the push by body slamming a five-hundred-pound main event heel foreigner—in this case, Yokozuna, representing Japan.
As is so often the case, the imitation paled next to the original, and while Luger was popular for a spell, a combination of factors, largely beyond his control, meant he’d never compare to Hogan’s star power.
4. CM Punk vs. The Undertaker at Breaking Point 2009 / The Montreal Screwjob
At Survivor Series 1997, WWE infamously pulled off the Montreal Screwjob, a shoot incident within a work that saw Bret Hart lose his world title to Shawn Michaels via submission, though he had never surrendered. WWE successfully revisited and in some ways capitalized on the incident a year later with Mankind losing to The Rock in similar fashion, and returned to variations on the theme for years to follow.
By 2009, I think most of us assumed the Screwjob trope was dead, and maybe that’s why WWE figured it could revisit it. WWE painted itself into a corner when it booked CM Punk vs. The Undertaker in a Submission Match. All indications were that they wanted to keep the title on Punk for the time being, and yet it was unthinkable that The Undertaker would submit at that point, and particularly to heel Punk at that stage in his career. So, The Undertaker won the match only for authority figure Theodore Long to restart it for spurious purposes. Punk applied his signature Anaconda Vice and the ref quickly called the match, though The Deadman hadn’t actually tapped, all revisiting the controversy and conspiracy elements of the Montreal Screwjob in contrived and profoundly unsatisfying ways. Oh and Breaking Point just happened to take place in Montreal.
3. Triple H’s Bounty on Goldberg / Harley Race’s Bounty on Ric Flair
It’s no secret that Triple H is a student of wrestling history and both shoot interviews and his storylines—particularly as head of the Four Horsemen-like Evolution—have revealed him to have a particular interest in old school Jim Crockett Promotions/NWA Mid-Atlantic booking. Thus, it should be no surprise he was familiar with the old angle in which veteran Harley Race put a $25,000 bounty on up-and-coming main eventer Ric Flair’s head in the build to the original Starrcade, after Race couldn’t beat Flair straight up for the world title.
Over two decades later, established main eventer Triple H used similar staging when he put a $100,000 bounty (adjusted for inflation?) on the head of Goldberg—the new face on WWE’s main event scene who’d just taken his world title. The simple angle made logical enough sense in both instances and paid off in similar ways—with another heel seemingly collecting on the bounty by injuring the top-level face, only for that face to not only come back, but still defeat the heel who had dared to organize an effort to put him out of action.
2. The Ascension / The Road Warriors
You can argue that a lot of tag teams have been knockoffs of The Road Warriors, ranging from Demolition, to The Powers of Pain, to The Blade Runners, to Chikara’s Devastation Corporation. These are all power-based teams that tend to wear face paint and leave a path of destruction behind them. Long-time fans recognize the imitation or the homage, but rarely has a promotion been more direct or explicit about it than in the case of The Ascension.
The Ascension was a dominant monster heel team in NXT and when they took the act to the main roster, WWE didn’t hesitate to have the characters draw comparisons to The Road Warriors on the mic. The move was wildly denounced by critics who saw making the connection explicit as aggressively inviting comparisons, and all the worse because the commentary booth immediately proclaimed The Ascension was not at the level of the great teams they compared themselves to. It may be little wonder then, that the fumbled imitation plus the young team’s limitations as in-ring workers spelled disaster, and they slipped to all-but jobber status in contemporary WWE.
1. The Summer of Punk II / The Sumer of Punk I
CM Punk is known for being outspoken and skilled at navigating worked shoots. He got to push each of these skillsets to the limit when he left ROH for WWE, as discussed in his WWE documentary Best in the World.
The angle came to be known as the Summer of Punk. Punk capitalized on the fact that he knew news of him signing with WWE would break for the kind of hardcore fans who followed ROH. So, he pitched a fresh angle that saw him win the world title in what looked to be his last match with the company. From there, the chase was on, with challengers pursuing Punk to make sure he didn’t leave with the ROH Championship, and Punk going so far as to literally sign his WWE contract using the title belt as his writing surface. Punk would ultimately drop the title and leave on schedule after this hot angle.
Fast forward to 2011. That year saw Punk and WWE recreate this storyline. His WWE contract was expiring and word was out that he intended to leave. He cut an iconic worked shoot promo on RAW, airing grievances against management and other wrestlers, en route to one last title match—which he won in front of his hometown crowd. WWE was a grander stage, and Punk wound up sticking around another two and a half years, but the angle was undeniably similar to his ROH swan song, including everything down to the meat of the story going down during the summer.
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