The modern WWE audience has evolved into something of a unique breed. More than in any other era, their over-all response to the product is also influenced by not only what is happening on Raw or Smackdown, but the booking influence that dictates on-air happenings. The booing of recent top baby-faces John Cena and Roman Reigns stands as a direct rejection of the booking that has shoved these invincible, muscled-up superhero-types down fans' throats at the expense of countless talented opponents.
This type of rebellious behaviour on the part of fans may seem unprecedented, but it's actually been done in a more passive manner for much of WWE's history. The company has long relied on fan response - through live reactions but also, of course, through television ratings - to measure the success of their top acts at any given time. Superstars like Hulk Hogan, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin have carried the company through its most successful periods. But that type of era-defining anchor is a rare find. More often, WWE has put its money behind talent that look the part but don't have all the tools.
Of course, being "the Guy" comes down to more than mere in-ring talent or mic skill. The most successful top stars benefited from excellent timing and effective booking. Hogan came along when wrestling fans needed a larger than life hero, just like Austin fed the need for an anti-hero to usher in the Attitude Era. As WWE hopes that one day Reigns will ultimately be embraced as top dog in the company, it bears reflection on a group of impressive stars who, for reasons alternately within or beyond their control, just didn't have what it took.
15 Bobby Lashley
One look at Bobby Lashley makes it abundantly clear what WWE saw in the former amateur wrestler, MMA fighter and US Army sergeant. Too bad he just didn't have much more going for him. While his initially raw in-ring ability gradually improved, his utter lack of charisma did not.
At first, WWE tried to ignore his inherent blandness. They moved ahead with giving him a US title and, later, an ECW title reign and even handpicked him to be the first man to break out of Chris Masters' dreaded Masterlock. Soon thereafter, Lashley earned a major WrestleMania role as Donald Trump's in-ring representation against Umaga in the Battle of the Billionaires between Trump and McMahon. This allowed him to be featured while Trump and McMahon handled the mic work. Even still, it had become apparent that Lashley was never going to have the charisma required for a main event talent in WWE.
14 Rey Mysterio
As Daniel Bryan's journey to the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XXX illustrated, WWE has mastered the art of bringing an underdog story to its dramatic culmination. Where they take that story after the fact, however, is another story. Eight years prior to Bryan's big WrestleMania moment, another undersized babyface superstar reigned supreme on WWE's biggest stage. Rey Mysterio was long an endearing and popular mid-card performer limited by his diminutive stature until he finally enjoyed his moment in the sun.
But as satisfying as his WrestleMania 22 triumph over Randy Orton and Kurt Angle was, Mysterio's ensuing title reign did little to solidify the company's faith in him as the No. 1 babyface. His whole title reign - all three months of it - was, perhaps, best summarized by a consecutive three-week stretch in which he lost to Mark Henry and The Great Khali before wrestling Kane to a no-contest.
13 Sid Justice / Sycho Sid
You could find cats that had fewer lives than the monstrous Sid Eudy had as a professional wrestler. Known as Sid Vicious, Sid Justice and Sycho Sid, Eudy tantalized WWE, WCW and ECW with his massive 6'9", 317-pound frame and rabid intensity. In WWE, his main event programs with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker read like a who's who of superstars of the company's modern era.
Personal problems coupled with backstage issues and some unintentionally hilarious moments on the mic kept Eudy from capitalizing on the numerous chances that his size afforded him. In the meantime, however, he brought an underwhelming work rate to no shortage of marquee match-ups that could likely have been better filled by more deserving, talented competitors. In fact, his feud with Hogan leading into WrestleMania VIII strangely preempted a long-awaited battle between the Hulkster and the recently arrived Ric Flair.
12 Jack Swagger
Jake Hager arrived in WWE back in 2006 as a bona fide blue chipper. The 6'7" Hager had been an All-American wrestling standout at the University of Oklahoma and boasted the type of size that WWE looks for in a main-event star. Just 26 when he debuted on the ECW brand, the newly named Jack Swagger won his first world championship a mere four months later and looked to be on the fast track to superstardom.
As is so often the case in WWE, Swagger fell victim to the Peter principle, being promoted to the level of his own incompetence. While perfectly capable looking dominant under the radar in ECW, he grew more exposed after winning the Money in the Bank ladder match at WrestleMania and cashing in his briefcase to win the World Heavyweight Championship on Smackdown. That left him open to criticism and ridicule of sub-par mic skills that were, unfortunately, underscored by Hager's real-life lisp.
11 Ken Kennedy
In a prime example of life imitating art, Ken Anderson, probably best remembered as Ken Kennedy from his WWE days, now works as a ring announcer for Top Rank. This is particularly ironic given his memorable signature of performing over-the-top announcer duties ahead of his own matches. Announcing the arrival of "Misterrrr Kennedy... Kennedy!" helped showcase a gift for gab that helped him rise the ranks as a charismatic, egocentric heel.
Anderson's gift for gab apparently carried over into the backstage area, where it was decidedly less charming that on-air. The big-talking blonde rubbed locker room leaders John Cena and Randy Orton the wrong way, making enemies out of two main event players you probably don't want to make enemies with. Sure enough, it was Orton's complaints of Anderson's in-ring recklessness - and Cena's subsequent agreement with Orton - that precipitated his WWE release.
10 Scott Steiner
Like so many other WCW alumni, WWE dropped the ball with Scott Steiner on a number of occasions. For one thing, they miscast the one-time main event heel and strangely introduced him as a babyface. Then, by going up against Triple H and Evolution, they placed him in the problematic position of losing his first major feud.
WWE wanted to fill the vacuum of having a top babyface to oppose their main heel stable. But even in that role, Steiner was never going to be put over the group. So, without a meaningful, established foothold in WWE, the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was instantly diminished and presented as inferior. Regardless of what was planned for Steiner in WWE, skyrocketing him into the title scene and having him fail was a blow he simply couldn't recover from.
Despite his popularity and his run as the franchise player in ECW, Rob Van Dam was never really the "top guy" type. Ironically, the qualities that separate him from the traditional notion of a headlining hero - his laid back demeanour, under-sized stature and martial arts-inspired move set - have inspired fans to demand he be pushed to the top of the card. While WWE got behind RVD enough to give him two stints and a whopping 16 title reigns with the company, it took five years for them to fully get behind 'Mr. Monday Night'.
Already an ECW champion, Van Dam once cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase and defeated the WWE-approved hero John Cena for the WWE championship. His time on top was short-lived, however, after an arrest for possession one month later prompted his championship reign to be instantly snuffed out.
One universal truth has remained in WWE across generations – size matters. Even as the big man known as Mabel, Viscera, Big Daddy V and other monikers developed a reputation as a reckless and dangerous performer, he managed to get about as many chances as he had aliases. It helped that he was 6’7” and listed at 500 pounds.
Most notably, he got a heel run as Mabel in which he received a mega-push, winning King of the Ring and even being pitted against Diesel in what remains one of the worst SummerSlam main event matches in history. McMahon lost his patience with the big man following injuries to Diesel and the Undertaker. The real-named Nelson Frazier Jr. would get two more shots with WWE and even challenge for the world title on the ECW brand before being released in 2008, a little over five years before suffering a fatal hear attack.
7 Ahmed Johnson
Ahmed Johnson essentially served as the living embodiment of Vince McMahon's idealized concept of a larger than life superstar. From his jacked physique to his NFL background and athletic ability, Johnson was supposed to be the transcendent African-American megastar that The Rock ultimately became. After getting a reportedly lucrative contract to join WWE, the former Dallas Cowboys linebacker made a celebrated debut, winding up on the victorious side of his Survivor Series matchup alongside Shawn Michaels and The British Bulldog.
So what went wrong? Johnson's raw in-ring ability led to untimely injuries for both himself and opponents. Not only did the reckless mistakes hinder his backstage reputation among other wrestlers, but his own injuries sidelined him at any point where he was building momentum. This injury-prone perception, coupled with steroid suspicions, sealed Johnson's fate in WWE.
Every once in a while WWE gets its booking right, even if it takes a mistake or two along the way to get to that point. As it stands, Sheamus is right where he belongs within the WWE landscape. The Raw tag team champion (alongside Cesaro) remains an upper mid-card mainstay, retaining enough credibility to mix it up with main event stars without actually being much of a title threat. This hasn't always been the case.
The Celtic Warrior enjoyed one of the most dominant debuts in WWE history, winning the World Heavyweight Championship twice at the expense of John Cena within his first year on the main roster. That impressive stretch even saw him booked to orchestrate an attack on Triple H that wrote him off TV for nearly a year. But an impressive power arsenal and some charisma just wasn't enough for the Irishman to hold the interest of the WWE Universe.
How could the push of Bill Goldberg, something that even struggling WCW got so right in the late 1990's, have gone so wrong in WWE? In WCW, Goldberg was pushed as a largely silent but unstoppable force of nature, amassing an impressive win streak thanks to his power-based move set while hooking fans in with a dramatic ring entrance and a memorable "Who's Next?" catchphrase.
It wasn't that WWE didn't try to protect the aura of Goldberg. They preserved most of what made him a star in WCW and even put him over The Rock in his first feud before setting him on a six-month unbeaten streak. Inevitably, though, he was poised to come up against Triple H. By the time Goldberg came up against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XX, fans knew it was the last WWE match for both men and, thus, booed both competitors loudly.
4 Lex Luger
We've seen WWE superstars relentlessly pushed to the moon in the past (and in the present), but rarely has the company gone all in on a single wrestler in quite the same way as they did with Lex Luger. Originally tabbed with the heel Narcissist gimmick, Luger was hand-picked to assume the babyface role of proud US patriot to counteract the Japanese foreign menace heel act of Yokozuna.
The only thing that could get in the way was the man, himself. And he did. Reportedly, a late night at the bar ahead of the company's biggest night of the year resulted in Luger drunkenly boasting about the fact that he was set to win the championship. After catching wind of his overt bragging, the company opted to change course, putting the title on Bret Hart instead and relegating Luger back to mid-card status before he jumped back to WCW one year later.
Okay, you'll have to hear me out on this one. Of course the Undertaker is one of the most iconic superstars to ever grace a WWE ring. But there's a reason why he was never really the main centrepiece of WWE programming at any time of his illustrious career. While the Deadman has held a world title on seven occasions, no reign has lasted more than 140 days. At his best, 'Taker was always a mesmerizing attraction and spectacle that existed outside of the realm of usual storylines and title chases.
WWE audiences had long been trained to accept that the motivations of The Undertaker centred solely on getting his opponents to "Rest in Peace", so it became jarring to see him either pursue or carry gold. It's not that he wasn't a credible champion, but the mythology of his character simply never jived with wanting to be champion or defend a title.
2 Sean O’Haire
The disappointing Invasion angle of 2001 saw WWE awash with ex-WCW and ECW talent that, for the most part, Vince McMahon didn’t view as being on the same level of his own superstars. One man who seemed to avoid the stigma of not being one of Vince’s “guys” was Sean O’Haire. He even scored victories over world champions Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Mr. America, the masked alias of Hulk Hogan.
While it’s unknown exactly how far O’Haire was set to be pushed, no one goes over Hogan – masked or not – if they aren’t on a fast track to the top. So what went wrong? Sadly, personal problems plagued the one-time hair stylist, resulting in numerous arrests and struggles with drugs and alcohol. Those troubles prevented him from ever truly realizing his potential and ultimately lead to him tragically taking his own life in 2014.
1 Ultimate Warrior
ESPN's recent 30 For 30 documentary on Ric Flair drew critical acclaim and prompted discussion over which other wrestling greats might make for a compelling 30 For 30 doc. With that in mind, I'd like to provide backing for the argument of the Ultimate Warrior. Few personas were as quick to catch on with the Universe, even rivalling Hulkamania at one point. Unfortunately, the popularity of the Warrior was constantly undermined by Jim Hellwig, the man behind the face paint.
From steroid scandals to contract holdouts to a toxic backstage reputation to outspoken homophobia and xenophobia, Hellwig was a tireless saboteur of his own career. The Warrior's first run with the company came to an abrupt end when he held out for more money ahead of SummerSlam and was subsequently fired soon after the PPV. Later stints with the company ended on account of steroid abuse and no-showing live events. Strangely, much of that seems to have been swept under the rug since his 2014 Hall of Fame induction and passing, with the Warrior Award being created to honour those "with the courage and compassion that embodies the indomitable spirit of the Ultimate Warrior."