Professional wrestling is built on kayfabe. Maybe it’s those fictional elements that make a sliver of anything real so intriguing to fans. Whether it’s a real injury, a real falling out between colleagues, or a real contract negotiation, nowadays fans flock to the Internet for coverage of news and rumors about what’s truly happening behind the scenes at WWE.
For as much insight as fans do now have, there are still those storylines, current or historical, for which the real world motivations have mostly slipped under the radar. It’s fascinating to consider why WWE management gets behind a specific performer at a specific time, or why we see oddball turns in storylines that feel as though they’re coming out of nowhere.
Storylines can be a result of punishments. Wrestling is unlike the worlds of more legitimate professional sports. There, management can suspend, fine, bench, or waive a player, or lowball him or her on their next contract offer. They can’t directly change how the athlete is presented, though, in terms of identity and personality. Wrestling has that potential through its booking of angles, matches, and promos.
This article takes a look at 15 times a WWE storyline was rumored, if not substantiated, to have been intended as a punishment for a wrestler. In some cases, the wrestler made a faux pas in etiquette, while in others the performer simply wasn’t living up to expectations, or the punishment even seemed to proactively get at an issue. Whatever the reasons, these were unusual booking choices that make a lot more sense with backstage context.
15 Daniel Bryan’s Heel Leanings
A strange dynamic has taken on shape on SmackDown. The whirling rivalry between Shane McMahon and the unit of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn has started to suck in other talents around them. That includes AJ Styles and the WWE Championship. That also includes SmackDown Live General Manager Daniel Bryan.
WWE has established some intriguing shades of gray with Bryan speaking up in support of heels Owens and Zayn. Bryan’s character started more conflicted and has started to lean a bit more heelish, however, including booking Owens and Zayn to challenge Styles as a team for the WWE Championship in a handicap match at the Royal Rumble.
Rumors came out amidst these storyline shifts that WWE was consciously turning Bryan heel not because it was the best story to tell, but as a punishment to devalue him.
At present, Bryan is on the very short list of WWE’s most popular performers. He’s made it clear he wants to wrestle again, and that if WWE doesn’t let him, he’ll go elsewhere when his contract is up. The rumor goes that WWE wants Bryan as lukewarm as possible as his time with WWE winds up, so that he’ll have less name value on the indie circuit, and thus find leaving less appealing (or at least enjoy less success after he does).
14 Enzo Hangs In The Shark Cage
The use of a shark cage hanging above the ring is actually a pretty old concept, and has consistently been used to keep a heel from interfering in a match. The build to SummerSlam 2017 saw an unusual dynamic shape up as WWE booked Enzo to be suspended in the cage, while his former partner turned rival faced The Big Show. Given that Enzo was still being booked as a face, the whole storyline seemed a little backwards.
There were a lot of claims that Enzo had heat at that point, including a story going around that Roman Reigns had kicked him off of the WWE tour bus. Enzo debunked these rumors in a Straight to the Source interview for the WWE Network, though it was unclear at what points in the interview he was speaking truthfully, and when he was in character. While some of the heat on Enzo was probably a myth, or at least an exaggeration, it remains a popular theory that Enzo was booked in the shark cage to embarrass him. He’s purportedly afraid of heights, so the match stipulation put him in an uncomfortable spot. From there, he still got involved in the match, only for his efforts to be thwarted quickly by Big Cass. The Certified G was thus totally ineffectual in helping and dispatched handily by his rival at one of the biggest shows of the year.
13 Triple H Goes On A Losing Streak Instead Of Reigning As King
In 1996, Triple H was getting groomed to ascend up the card. The move made sense. He was a good looking kid with a solid work ethic, who had steadily improved as an all around performer. As the Monday Night War started heating up, he was exactly the sort of talent who might have thrived as a leading new face for WWE. The story goes that management planned on giving him a big push as the King of the Ring tournament winner.
However, Helmsley was part of the infamous Curtain Call incident at Madison Square Garden. Diesel and Razor Ramon were on their way out of the company for WCW, and on their last house show, they celebrated in the ring with real life friends Shawn Michaels and Triple H, totally breaking down face and heel lines in a then-rare breach of kayfabe.
Accounts differ as to whether or how much Vince McMahon knew about the Kliq’s plans for that night, and to what degree he may have approved. Regardless, when others in management, and other wrestlers took exception, it was decided that someone needed to be punished for the incident. With Diesel and Ramon gone from the company, and Michaels the world champion wrapped up in main event storylines, Hunter was left bearing the responsibility. The result was that, rather than winning King of the Ring, Steve Austin got that honor instead. Helmesley languished in the mid card, losing more than he won, until he was deemed to have paid his penance in the fall.
12 Baron Corbin’s Cash-In Fails
Winning the Money in the Bank briefcase is largely considered a first class ticket to the main event scene. Almost every cash-in has resulted in a world title reign. In fact, prior to 2017, the only failed attempts came at the hands of John Cena (a controversial loss, and one that Cena was a big enough star to weather) and Damien Sandow (a kiss of death that WWE would never elevate him). Thus, when Baron Corbin one the briefcase in 2017, it looked like WWE was at least going to try him out on top.
Corbin would cash in on Jinder Mahal shortly before SummerSlam. While there were extenuating circumstances—namely, Cena distracted Corbin, whom he was feuding with at the time—Corbin got rolled up and pinned in short order, becoming just the third man to fail as Mr. Money in the Bank.
The story broke not long after that Corbin had been involved in awkward situation backstage.
WWE brought in a guest speaker to educate the locker room about concussions and their ramifications. Little did the company know that Corbin had a history with this speaker and his work with the NFL, and was actually involved in a class action suit against them. Rather than an educational seminar WWE could feel good about, the visit turned into an embarrassment for Corbin asking questions and loudly vocalizing criticisms. It’s possible the failed cash-in was a coincidence, but given the timeline, it seems like Corbin’s behavior backstage at least temporarily made WWE management cool on him.
11 JBL Berates Cody Rhodes
In fall 2013, Cody Rhodes looked to be the on the rise. After a face turn, he was booked to ally with his half brother Goldust and father Dusty against The Authority and The Shield. The brother team even got a rare victory over Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns to win the tag team championship. There were smatterings of rumors that WWE would finally make good on the Rhodes name and the young man’s charisma and in ring skill to push him to the main event.
Along the way, the Rhodes brothers provided guest commentary for a tag match on Raw. The segment quickly turned awkward as JBL, on color commentary, vocally bullied Cody.
Word broke later on that Vince McMahon had JBL rail on the young star because he wanted to fire him up and have him stand up for himself.
It seems to have been a case of McMahon having a specific hang up about a performer and testing him. The general consensus seems to be that Cody didn’t pass to McMahon’s satisfaction, and consequently never enjoyed much progress in his WWE tenure.
10 The League Of Nations
Despite having a world championship victory and a WrestleMania victory to their name, the League of Nations is generally remembered as lackluster stable in WWE history. The group didn’t really follow pre-existing storylines, just happening to plant four guys who weren’t from the US in a heel stable.
The group was a fair enough fit for Sheamus, who didn’t have much momentum, and who enjoyed the group’s lone title win. While there were almost certainly better uses for Rusev, he wasn’t exactly pulled out of any better storylines to participate.
The League did, however, thoroughly squander and quite arguably punish Wade Barrett and Alberto Del Rio. Barrett has, since leaving WWE, commented that management was upset with him for getting over with his Bad News gimmick, and stripped away everything popular from it to keep him heel. Wedging him into this stable made the least of his considerable personality as he rode out his contract. Del Rio had fallen into even worse political alignment for butting heads with Triple H—perceived to be lazy, disrespectful, and a bad influence on his girlfriend Paige and other talents backstage.
9 Piggy James
Mickie James looked to be the face of her era of women’s stars, taking the mantle from Trish Stratus and Lita in the era before her. Despite demonstrating tremendous in ring skill and personality, WWE cooled on her. Rather reigning as champion, she was shunted down to be just another woman on the roster, including getting shifted from a higher profile role on Raw over to SmackDown.
The story has come out in bits and pieces over the years to follow that James was involved in a real life affair with John Cena while he was still married, and while she was dating Kenny Dykstra.
When Cena cut off their relationship, the rumor goes that James didn’t take it well. The result was her move away from Cena’s brand, and getting booked into the embarrassing Piggy James angle, for which LayCool poked fun at her body. The angle was all the worse—and more clearly a punishment—for James never really getting her proper revenge in it. Though she’d pick up a win over Michelle McCool, she’d ultimately drop the Divas Championship back in short order and lose the program.
8 Public Enemy Gets Clobbered By The APA
Public Enemy was signed to WWE based on their success in ECW. Despite becoming popular with the crowd in Philly, the tag team wasn’t particularly skilled, getting by on a mix of charisma and legitimately wailing on their opponents with reckless abandon. It turns out that it’s easy to look violent when performers are actually, literally hitting people with all of the force they can muster.
Public Enemy’s style didn’t get over so well with WWE management. Bubba Ray Dudley has said he would go on to have a similar experience when he and D-Von made it to WWE.
Management decided to punish and/or test Rocco Rock and Johnny Grunge by subjecting them to a real on air beating from the APA.
While The Dudleys took their beating bravely and said thank you for it, the stiff shots sent Rock and Grunge fleeing from the WWE locker room.
7 The Rock Doesn’t Know Who Booker T Is
Few pro wrestlers have ever been able to compete with The Rock’s gift for gab, or more particularly his ability to deliver a verbal smackdown. In one of his earlier appearances for WWE, Booker T fell victim to The Great One in a promo segment. The Rock threw the ultimate shade at the WCW star when he openly acted as though he had no idea who Booker was.
You can attribute some of this segment to pure kayfabe and the mannerisms of The Rock character. You can chalk up some of it to Dwayne Johnson looking out for his spot and putting a potential insurgent in his place. On top of all of these moving pieces, though, there’s little question WWE put Booker T in a position to look bad. A number of WCW alumni, including Booker, have acknowledged that the company was very stiff with incoming talent from WCW after the buyout, wanting them to prove themselves time and again before they were accepted as WWE guys.
6 Dusty Wears Polka Dots
When Dusty Rhodes for debuted for WWE, he sported a new look. Unlike his more conservative aesthetic from his days competing for the NWA World Championship, in WWE he sported yellow polka dots. Some will attribute the look to WWE’s more colorful style and Vince McMahon wanting to make everyone a little more cartoonish in that era. To be fair, no one has spoken officially about the polka dots being a punishment, and Rhodes didn’t seem to begrudge it. Just the same, it’s widely theorized that McMahon gave him the outlandish attire as a rib.
Rhodes had long been a competing star and competing booker, and now that McMahon had him in his grasps, he wouldn’t hesitate to embarrass him.
Whether it was meant as a punishment, rib, challenge, or just outlandish sartorial choice, it’s a testament to Rhodes’s unparalleled charisma that he unequivocally made the look work as part of his WWE gimmick.
5 Bart Gunn Gets A Fight For WrestleMania
The Brawl For All is on the short list for the worst ideas WWE has ever pursued, in part because it went against pro wrestling tradition in favor of actually having guys fight each other for real. The popular theory is that the shoot boxing tournament was designed to get over presumptive winner Steve Williams as a legit tough guy. Those plans got scrapped when Bart Gunn proved to be a boxing force—beating Williams en route to winning the whole tournament.
WWE might have changed courses and celebrated Gunn’s real life toughness with a big push. Instead, the company seemed disgruntled at Brawl For All failing—generating little buzz among fans, causing a number of injuries to workers, and seeing the wrong guy going over. While Gunn didn’t do anything wrong, he was nonetheless punished when WWE put him in a totally unfair fight against super heavyweight boxing star Butterbean at WrestleMania XV. Butterbean made short work of Gunn—KOing him in 30 seconds—thus shunting Gunn back down to relative obscurity.
4 Bret Hart Won’t Break The Sharpshooter On Jerry Lawler
Bret Hart spent quite a bit of time feuding with Jerry Lawler, in a WWE rivalry that started when The King arrived in 1993 and continued off and on for two years. One of their most famous matches went down at SummerSlam 1993. Lawler had spent the preceding weeks goading Hart and picking on his family, and fans were ready for the revenge narrative to play out in the ring. The booking was fairly clever for this match. Hart made Lawler submit to the Sharpshooter, then refused t release the hold until he was disqualified. As such, each man could claim a victory of sorts, retain momentum, and have a reason to continue feuding with the other man.
The post-match scene saw a variety of officials come to the ring to try to pull Hart off of Lawler. Hart discussed this moment in his book.
The Hitman detailed that Lawler, at best, was reckless, and at worst took liberties with Hart previously, including hitting him with stiff, unprotected shots. So, when Hart applied his signature hold at SummerSlam, he really cranked it for retribution.
Hart claims the officials who were ostensibly restraining him were actually pushing down to add pressure and further punish The King.
3 Mr. Kennedy Anticlimactically Beats William Regal
2008 saw the concurrent rise of William Regal as King of the Ring, Raw General Manager, and all around heel authority villain, and of Mr. Kennedy as a new anti-establishment face. The angle had poor man’s Austin vs. McMahon written all over it. Unlike more clumsy attempts at such knock off storylines, however, this one seemed to have some legs, built on Regal’s diverse talents as an all around performer, and Kennedy’s burgeoning personality. Things started ramping up and it was easy enough to envision Regal throwing obstacle after obstacle in young Kennedy’s way en route to their inevitable collision, and perhaps setting up Kennedy for a proper main event run.
Then, out of nowhere, Kennedy and Regal squared off on Raw, and Kennedy picked up the clean pin. While the match itself was good, it felt abrupt, and like it squandered what might have been a special rivalry between two excellent talents.
Word broke shortly thereafter that Regal had gone on a Wellness Policy suspension. The punishment was to lose the biggest push of his WWE career. Unfortunately, it was another in a string of Kennedy facing bad timing when he had big opportunities. The push opposite Regal never amounted to anything of consequence.
2 DDP Can’t Stop Smiling
Diamond Dallas Page got over huge in WCW as the People’s Champion. His charisma and accessibility as an everyman made him wildly popular, and it looked as though he’d be a compelling fit when he made his way to WWE.
Despite expectations, DDP was largely a flop in WWE. He was saddled with a generic stalker gimmick right off the bat that totally squandered his unique personality. After the InVasion angle wrapped up, and Page was one of the few WCW alumni remaining with any credibility and name recognition, WWE might have rebooted him as a face character similar to the one he’d played in WCW.
While he did turn face, he got wedged into a lame motivational speaker gimmick that saw him offer a wide smile compulsively.
While we could read this as poor creative on WWE’s part, it's consistent with a pattern of WWE sabotaging WCW talent. It’s little coincidence that Booker T was the only WCW to have any staying power in WWE, as the company seemed dead set on punishing talents who had dared compete with them earlier on.
1 RVD Loses Everything At His Peak
2006 saw WWE capitalize on one of ECW’s most popular talents, who still in his prime. Rob Van Dam won the Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania 22, and went on to become the face of the newly relaunched ECW brand. After beating John Cena, Van Dam briefly reigned as both ECW and WWE Champion, truly standing on top of the wrestling world.
RVD lost it all soon after, though. It wasn’t such a shocker for him to drop the WWE Championship, as John Cena and Edge were primed to feud over it, and Van Dam was moving away from Raw brand. RVD lost the ECW Championship, too, in a greater surprise as The Big Show became the unpopular choice to head up the brand.
The reason for Van Dam’s demotion? The guy got busted by police for marijuana possession. This was not only a black eye for the company, but a violation of the Wellness Policy that got him into hot water and seemed to confirm management’s original impulse that he couldn’t be trusted with a top spot.