10 Shocking Surprises That Changed Professional Wrestling Forever
Today, I have rounded up what I feel are the 10 of the biggest surprises in wrestling history.
These are things that not only shocked us at the time, but which also left a mark on the wrestling industry that could be felt for years and years afterwards.
Some of these moments were completely out of left field, and some we really should have seen coming, but each of them changed the very nature of this industry from that point forward.
10. Brock Lesnar Leaves WWE for the NFL (and Later MMA Also)
Brock Lesnar was the surest thing imaginable.
The most absurdly jacked and credible-looking performer that the WWE ever got their hands on, who got a reaction from the crowd as a face and a heel, and who soaked up wrestling at an absurd rate, the man seemed to have absolutely nothing standing in the way of becoming the single biggest star of this generation.
So when WrestleMania XX rolled around and we learned out of nowhere that he had decided that he didn't like wrestling anymore and instead wanted to live out his dream of becoming a professional football player, people were shocked.
Sure, guys like Hulk Hogan and the Rock had gone into movies, but that was a connection people could make. Lesnar was willing to give up being the biggest star in professional wrestling to be a walk-on for an NFL team? With practically no football experience? People were livid.
So with that debacle behind him, he went to the NFL and, well, he didn't make it. He briefly returned to wrestling, in Japan, but it was also a disaster and he soon left there as well.
After that he went and only became perhaps the biggest draw in the history of mixed martial arts, using his pro wrestling experience and incredible athleticism to help UFC to grow to completely unheard of heights.
In the end, the sudden departure of Brock Lesnar led to the rise of John Cena and Batista to fill the void he left, and initiated a restructuring of the WWE that still goes on today. Not only that, but his fame and status there helped him become the biggest name in Mixed Martial Arts, and the UFC in particular, a sport that is now one of the nation's biggest.
So while he left after WWE's decline had begun and joined UFC after their rise had already begun in earnest, he took both to extraordinary new levels, and became one of the few pro wrestlers to ever be a household name. Take that for what you will.
9. The Continued Existence of Total Nonstop Action
Total Nonstop Action opened its doors on May 10, 2002. By May 11, people were certain that it was about to go bankrupt and close. Now here, over a decade later, you still hear the same thing on a nearly daily basis. So what makes this surprise stack up against the others on this list? Simple. The naysayers were right.
In the 10 years that TNA has been an active promotion, they have made incredible leaps of progress, going from a weekly PPV model to a television show and monthly international PPVs, but they have also had hideous failures.
The move to Monday nights, the booking regimes of Vince Russo and Dusty Rhodes, and the family feud between Jeff and Jerry Jarrett that nearly buried TNA before it even got started. Somehow it has persevered through all of this to continue existing and being the lightning bolt of controversy it is today.
So we know that it's surprising that it has lasted in a post-Monday Night Wars wrestling world where nothing is thriving, even the WWE. But why is it important? Simple. If TNA didn't make it, if one single thing had gone wrong at the wrong time, then think about how different the wrestling scene would look today.
Sting might well have faced the Undertaker, guys like Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels and Bobby Roode could be working for WWE right now, or might be out of the business entirely, and it's almost certain that another promotion would have grown up to challenge WWE in its place. It may even have done a better job of it.
Actually, now that we mention it, this may be one of the more depressing parts of this countdown when I put it like that.
8. The Montreal Screwjob
It's hard to believe that any wrestling fan could possibly have not heard the story of what happened nearly 13 years ago now in the city of Montreal, but I'll summarize. Bret Hart, the WWE champion at the time, signed a contract to go to WCW. The trouble for WWE was that he refused to lose it to only one man on the entire roster, and it was the only guy they wanted to put it on.
Bret Hart hated Shawn Michaels, and the feeling was very much mutual, so they worked out a plan to have them have a match right before Bret left, but to have Bret lose the belt on Raw the next night before he left. Especially central to this was the idea that Bret Hart desperately did not want to lose the title in Montreal, where he was hailed as a national hero.
Handshakes were made, promises were promised, and they went out to have their match. Shawn and Bret had a good little match for awhile, until finally Shawn put Bret into Bret's own Sharpshooter submission move. Within seconds of him applying it, referee Earl Hebner called for the bell, awarded the match and the title to Shawn, and they named him the new champion. Only one problem.
Bret Hart hadn't tapped out.
Then chaos erupted. Shawn looked incredibly confused by all of it, (which was later revealed to be an act since he had known about it all along), and Bret immediately spit in Vince McMahon's face, knowing that he was behind it. After the match, Bret punched Vince directly in the face, left for WCW, and didn't step into a WWE ring again for a decade.
Was it surprising? Shoot, for some people this was the first time that wrestling had truly broken kayfabe and been part of real life. No casual fan could possibly have expected what they saw that night, or that Bret Hart, a hero to many for over a decade, would disappear without a trace immediately after.
It was so confusing and shocking that people would not let it go, talking about it in every corner or the wrestling world right up until Bret and Shawn's tearful reunion on Raw.
I probably don't have to tell you that it's pretty important that this took place. The power void led to the rise of Steve Austin, and the heat led to the rise of Mr. McMahon. And together they obliterated the entire rulebook for how a wrestling show could be done.
7. Eddie Guerrero Dies of Heart Failure in Mid-Main Event Push
Welcome to the saddest entry in this article.
Throughout his career, Eddie Guerrero had a stigma attached to him. He was widely recognized as one of the greatest wrestlers in the world, maybe one of the best of all time, but a combination of drug and alcohol issues and a lack of personality kept him from ever truly reaching the big time.
He was the straight man in Los Gringos Locos with Art Barr, he toiled in the midcard in WCW, and when he made it to WWE and started to show some life as "Latino Heat," he got busted for drugs and fired.
Along the way he had marital issues, survived a horrible car accident, and fought his demons within and without, somehow managing to make a reputation as one of the kindest and best men in the wrestling business in the process.
Nobody had a harder road to make it to the top than Eddie Guerrero. Nobody seemed like a longer shot to achieve the highest honors in the wrestling business. Nobody thought that it would ever happen. But it did.
His historic title reign didn't last too long, but it didn't matter. Eddie had made it, and he was a main eventer finally after all of his struggle, and the fans embraced him like they had rarely done for anyone in wrestling history. They let Eddie Guerrero into their hearts, and made him their hero.
He was on a roll, and about to enter into the storyline that would grant him his second World title, when on Nov. 13, 2005, Chavo Guerrero found him unconscious in his hotel room. Eddie was taken to the hospital but could not be revived. And just like that, Eddie Guerrero was gone.
A lot of wrestlers have died over the years, many of them due to drugs or other kinds of drugs, but nobody who was this beloved had ever died while in their prime and at the top of the wrestling business, and the shock of it sent waves throughout the wrestling business as a whole.
From the advent of the Wellness policy, to WWE's constant search ever since for a Hispanic hero to replace him, to the birth of one of the greatest heels of our generation in his wife, Vickie Guerrero, Eddie Guerrero's death impacted a lot of things that would come later in the future (including another entry later on this list).
But ultimately none of that is what is important. The truth is that when Eduardo "Eddie Guerrero" Llanes died, he took something magical with him, that can never be replaced. And to this day whenever the fans hear the name "Eddie Guerrero" they will spontaneously, and passionately, chant the name of their hero.
6. Hulk Hogan Turns Heel and Changes the Wrestling Industry
Hulk Hogan. A name synonymous with wrestling and synonymous with the WWE, he was the man who really put the whole deal on the map.
Hulkamania in the '80s was a period of unparalleled success and prosperity as Hogan almost single-handedly carried professional wrestling into the mainstream on his back, putting his red-and-yellow mark on the heart of every little boy in this country.
It was a great time, he was a great babyface, and he was the biggest star in the world. But that was the 80s.
The 90s saw ever diminishing returns for Hulk Hogan, as made movies like Suburban Commando and Santa With Muscles that were not only reviled by anyone with a pulse, but which left him nothing outside of wrestling to pursue. That was also a problem because wrestling wasn't going so hot for him. Hulkamania had run its course and time was passing him by.
He was on the outs with WWE and Vince McMahon, and WCW wasn't even an option at the time for anyone who wanted to make actual money. So with nothing much to do, he retired and swore off of the business forever.
That is, until he got a phone call from WCW's new executive producer. An enterprising young hotshot named Eric Bischoff. Bisch, with liberal doses of Ric Flair's persuading, convinced Hulk Hogan to sign with WCW, and all was well again for a little while. But eventually even this new fanbase tired of Hulkmania, and interest dipped again. Faced with the decision to change with the times or become irrelevant, Hulk Hogan did the only thing he could do.
He turned heel.
This turned out to be exactly the jump start both Hulk Hogan and WCW needed, and with his new stable the New World Order, Hulk Hogan proceeded to lead WCW to conquer WWE in the ratings, become the number one promotion in the free world, and change the wrestling business as we know it.
His later babyface resurgence, and his continued status as a household name, are testaments to the success of both that heel turn, and his ability as a character.
But the important thing is that when he was revealed as the third man on that fateful night at Bash At The Beach 1996, the wrestling world lurched and shifted with the times. And it had some growing up ahead of it.
5. The Success of WrestleMania
After Vince McMahon took over control of the then-WWWF from his father, there weren't a whole lot of people who were pleased with the development. The new Vince was a brash young man with new ideas about shaking up the way that the entire country, nay, the entire world saw professional wrestling.
Namely he wanted them to see it through him. He bought up all the best talent from all of the top territories, he convinced regional television markets to replace the territory's shows with his nicer and glitzier ones, and he started experimenting with cable and television on a national level as a means to grow his business.
But despite his successes towards making the newly christened WWF a national product, he still needed one big punch to send it into mainstream awareness and to put him definitively ahead and above of the competition.
That punch, he decided, would be WrestleMania. The first true wrestling PPV.
PPV, as a concept had been flirted with before, but nobody, especially nobody in the wrestling world, had ever attempted to do anything with it on so grand a scale as this would be. Vince McMahon put all of his eggs in one basket and gambled the future of the WWF on the success of one incredible supershow. He rolled the dice, and he won. Now, coming up on WrestleMania XXIX, it's safe to say that WrestleMania has been professional wrestling biggest, and most enduring, success story.
But way back before March 31st, 1985 nobody could have expected something with so many questions to have even the slightest chance of succeeding. Would PPV reach enough homes to make it worthwhile? Would people come to the stadiums to watch it on closed-circuit television? Would a main event featuring Mr. T, a non-wrestler, have any hope to draw wrestling fans? Could this concept actually succeed in the long term?
Yes, yes, yes, and you get the idea.
4. Magnum T.A.'s Career-Ending Car Accident
Many of you reading this are probably barely old enough to remember when Cory and Topanga finally got together on Boy Meets World, (and if you're younger than that, then I'm going to feel so old, you guys), much less dramatic events that unfolded in the mid-1980s.
So you can be excused for not being aware of this event or its significance at the time. But let me make this clear to you, Magnum T.A. was going to be a huge star. Heck, he was already halfway there.
His steady push throughout the early 80s gave him all the hallmarks of becoming one of the biggest stars of his, or any, generation.
He had fire, he had the fans, he had balls, and he was the first man ever to lay hands on an authority figure when he decked Bob Geigel, NWA president, for reprimanding him after he attacked Koloff in a press conference in defense of his wife. I believe the quote "Reprimand this!" reverberated through the galaxy that day.
It was planned for him to be groomed for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, and an epic win over Ric Flair and a feud with his best friend Dusty Rhodes seemed to be crystal clear ahead of him.
And then tragedy struck. On Oct. 14, 1986, Magnum T.A. lost control of his Porsche, and veered off the road into a tree. Two of his vertebra virtually exploded upon impact, and doctors were certain that he'd never walk again, much less wrestle.
While he was holed up in the hospital in near coma-like conditions, the hospital was besieged by well wishers both via the phones, (which were actually disconnected for the night to discourage people from calling,) and people camped out in the parking lot by firelight waiting for any word of their hero.
Never before had such an incredible showing of love and support been shown to a wrestler's misfortune, and it would not again for some time.
Oh, and as for Magnum, he may never have wrestled again, but one year later he made his return, confounding doctors and family alike, by walking perfectly, and delivering a promo on the news in a serious segment about his inspirational story. Imagine that today. Just try.
Eddie Guerrero's death was during a main-event push may have been more shocking in the moment than this was, and it's entirely possible that it could deserve to move ahead of this on another man's list.
But this was going to be the NWA's answer to Hulk Hogan, and was showing every possible sign of working, until tragedy struck. Who can say how the wrestling world would look today if Magnum T.A. had caught a ride with a friend that day?
Nobody knows, and nobody ever will.
3. WWE Purchases WCW
It was a sight that nobody ever could have dreamed of.
Actually, that's not quite right, because nearly everyone had dreamed of it, but nobody could possibly have expected it to actually happen. But on March 21, 2001, the impossible happened.
Shane McMahon stepped out into an arena, live on the final episode of WCW Monday Nitro and announced that the company now belonged to him, and they were declaring war on the WWE. And from that point on, things started changing rapidly.
To understand what made this a big deal, you have to understand the outlook of wrestling in the United States in the 80s and 90s. It was a two-horse show, all the way through wrestling's two biggest boom periods. First the NWA and the WWF and then WCW and the WWF butted heads in a never ending feud over supremacy of the wrestling business, and boy was it tense.
Attempts to sabotage one another were common, and their lawyers must have sent Christmas cards to one another after all of the time they spent together.
But throughout it all, the fans are the ones who profited from having two wrestling promotions competing and bringing out the best (and raunchiest) in one another. All throughout that time fans of each promotion dreamed of the matches that might take place one day. Steve Austin vs. Goldberg, The Rock vs. Hollywood Hogan, DX vs. The Outsiders.
Entire magazines stayed afloat simply by eternally perpetuating these fantasies, and as WCW fans watched their product slowly slide into oblivion as 2000 slipped into 2001, those dreams seemed about as far away as The Orion Nebula.
But oh how fast things can change. Vince bought WCW, and within months the dreamed of Invasion was on in force, followed by a ton of new talent, which then prompted the brand split, which brought about the new generation getting a healthy push which led to...you get the idea.
If you want to find the one branching point from which all of WWE, and perhaps all of professional wrestling, have grown in the 21st century, look no further. No modern act has had such a profound impact on the wrestling business as this one...
2. The Wellness Panic
...unless maybe it's this one.
This is going to be a hard entry to talk about, because the issue still continues on today, and we can't even imagine what the ultimate outcome of it will turn out to be. And that's not even mentioning the very real emotions that a large percentage of people still have wrapped up in these events. I will try to explain as gently as I can.
On June 27, 2007, police entered the home of Chris Benoit after he and his wife had failed to adhere to contact demands required of couples with a history of domestic-violence violations. Inside the home they found Chris Benoit's lifeless corpse, and the bodies of his wife, Nancy, and their son, Daniel.
Benoit, who had been one of the single most loved and respected wrestlers in the history of the business, had been scheduled, to the best of our knowledge, to win the ECW World Championship that weekend.
The WWE even ran a tribute show to Benoit on Monday, before the details were fully clear on what had happened. The truth did come out, though. One of the biggest stars of the modern era was not only shockingly dead, he was a murderer. The impact was immediate and catastrophic.
Overnight, the mainstream media outlets picked up on the story of the murderous wrestler. Did he have roid rage? Couldn't WWE have seen this coming? Why didn't WWE do more to prevent this? Even worse, ex-wrestlers like Marc Mero crawled out the woodwork to point the finger in Vince McMahon's direction and at the wrestling business in general, vilifying it as a soul-crushing, body-killing death trap.
WWE found itself besieged on all sides by hostile and condescending attention, proving the adage that "there is no such thing as bad publicity" wrong once and for all. They expunged Benoit's name from the record books, from the histories, and even from their publications. Chris Benoit disappeared like a ghost, never to be seen or heard from again.
Fast forward to today, and we are still in the midst of one of the biggest and most comprehensive shifts in philosophy and talent in wrestling history. WWE went PG and toned their product down. They eliminated chair shots to the head, (believed to be a leading contributor to Benoit's brain damage at the time of his death), they have done away with blood and cut back hugely on dangerous spots.
They've extended an open invitation to any wrestler to ever pass through their doors to come get treatment for addiction, and the roster is now openly and clearly much less muscular and ripped than at any other time in the company's history.
As a result smaller guys are getting bigger pushes, new talent is getting a chance to shine, and WWE is targeting an entirely new audience while TNA strains to collect the audience they've left behind as the 18-30 demographic flees in droves for the crystalline shores of mixed martial arts.
It is impossible to see where this is all taking us for here on. But for sheer shock in the moment, and long-ranging effects, this was a life changer for nearly everyone who experienced it. Luck willing, we will never see the need to repeat it.
1. That It Is Still Here at All.
Because seriously. What HASN'T it survived so far?
A century of everything from World Wars to economic recessions. From steroid scandals, to the revelations that the matches were fixed. From the territories to MMA, and from drugs to backyard wrestling, professional wrestling has weathered every storm imaginable.
As time goes on and wrestling continues to...well...continue, it becomes more and more clear that there may very well be nothing that could put a definitive end to this sport/hobby/obsession of ours, and that will ever remain the hope.
That one day we will be able to sit grandchildren on our knee and introduce them to wrestling the way we were.
The never-ending tradition of men in their underwear pretending to fight.
I hope you liked the countdown of the 10 Shocking Surprises That Changed Wrestling Forever, and indeed, it's almost certain that you are fuming and full of things I left out and things I let in.
Naturally since I'm the writer here, it would be easy for me to thumb my nose and say "Na na na na na" with associated tongue-sticking-outtedness. But hey, let your voice be heard.
Because when it comes to professional wrestling, hardly a day goes past without some kind of turbulence. So you tell me what I missed, and keep an eye out for the sequel.
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