Every wrestling fan has visualized their dream matches and feuds. For example, even though it may never happen, there's a lot of support for a Steve Austin vs CM Punk match at a WrestleMania. The storyline is obvious, with sanctimonious straight-edge heel Punk dueling on promos with beer-drinking, ass-kicking babyface Stone Cold. One would think that if it ever happens, it would be hard to screw up.
Sometimes, though, they get screwed up. No matter how simple the story should be, it can be muddied up with needless complication. Even worse, it has happened with what should have been the biggest and best feuds in the history of pro wrestling.
Let's go over some of the lowlights...
In early 2002, Chris Jericho had recently turned heel, won a one-night mini-tournament to unify the WWF and WCW World Titles, and was one of the best all-around performers in the business. Meanwhile, Triple H was returning from six months off due to a torn quadricep muscle and, as was customary in the company at the time, he came back as a babyface even though he was the number two heel before his injury.
Soon, Triple H won the Royal Rumble and they were booked in an Undisputed Title match at WrestleMania, where it was (theoretically) the co-main event with Hulk Hogan vs The Rock in a standing room only Toronto Skydome. Their previous feud was awesome, with great matches and angles. This was the opposite.
Jericho was the third most important person in the storyline. Triple H came to hate his wife, Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley, and soon asked her for a divorce. She became Jericho's manager and he became completely subservient to her.
The nadir was when Triple H's beloved pet bulldog Lucy was introduced. Somehow, Jericho had to take care of her. When he took her for a walk one night, he tied her to a limousine so he could take a phone call and the car backed up onto Lucy (don't worry, she ended up being ok). This is how the WrestleMania world title match was built.
The match didn't come close to saving the whole sorry affair. Triple H had gotten too big and deteriorated terribly in the ring. The match was too methodical. Maybe most importantly, they had to follow Hogan vs Rock, which drained the crowd. Triple H won the title and nobody really cared.
The next month, the title was hot-shotted onto Hogan to try to capitalize on his WWF comeback, freeing up Triple H to blow off the Jericho feud in a Hell in a Cell match the month after that. Triple H won another disappointing match out of nowhere with a pedigree on top of the cage. This was the first and only time that this was allowed in Cell matches.
Just a ton of miscalculations all-around.
Bret Hart vs Vince McMahon should have been the easiest thing in the world to book. Bret finally returns to WWE after over 12 years away from the company in the wake of the Montreal Screwjob, tries to make amends, Vince ambushes him, they cut promos on each other for weeks and Vince gets destroyed at WrestleMania.
It started well enough. It started the way you'd hope. Bret showed up to host Monday Night Raw, tried to make amends and Vince cheap-shotted him with a kick to the groin. It kept going fairly well for a few weeks, with other heated confrontations—Bret flipping out when Vince said he'd never induct Stu Hart into the WWE Hall of Fame, Vince agreeing to a match at WrestleMania 26 and chickening out when Bret attacked him, etc.
Then the car accident happened.
Car accidents are poison for good storylines. In this case, Bret announced that with Vince refusing to agree to the match, he was best off just cutting his losses and leaving, only to be hit in the leg by a car. In light of this new development, Vince decided he might as well agree to the match since Bret was injured.
With Steve Austin having authority the night of the contract signing as Raw guest host, he announced that Stu Hart would in fact go into the Hall of Fame and that the WrestleMania match would be no holds barred. After Vince signed the contract, Bret revealed that the accident had been staged with John Cena's stunt coordinator friends (yup) to get him to agree to the match and then hit him with his cast.
It was a cute payoff to the accident, but this was a feud that needed to be boiled down to the bare essentials. Still, the match itself should have been simple enough to get right, but it didn't turn out that way.
Nobody had any illusions about the match being good. Bret retired in 2000 after suffering a series of concussions in a few weeks, and subsequently had a stroke a few years later. He made a remarkable recovery, but had no business having a regular match. Going into WrestleMania, it didn't seem to matter since he just needed to beat up Vince.
However, Lloyd's of London felt that no matter the circumstances, the match was a violation of the terms of his permanent disability insurance settlement. Vince wouldn't be able to do anything to Bret—He couldn't even rake his eyes or put him in holds. Again, you'd expect this not to matter too much since ideally Bret could just punch Vince and put him in the sharpshooter.
I don't know if they felt that wouldn't give the fans' their money's worth or what, but the match went on for eleven minutes even though one wrestler couldn't be touched. It felt interminable, with Bret methodically beating Vince up the whole time. What should have been a great moment ended up being really depressing.
In 2000, WWE's head writer was Chris Kreski, who had mostly written for various MTV shows, including Beavis and Butthead. Having replaced the departing Vince Russo in late 1999, Kreski quickly developed a good reputation for keeping an eye out for continuity, plotting out long-term plans on storyboards and writing great comedy segments.
The big, slow-burning long-term storyline that year was the love triangle between Triple H, his "wife" Stephanie McMahon (as opposed to now where the quotes aren't necessary) and Kurt Angle. As Angle made more of a name for himself, Stephanie took an interest in him. This went on for months, going somewhere from flirting to mutual crushes to something more.
It picked up after a misunderstanding between Stephanie and Triple H when she saw him teaching Trish Stratus wrestling moves and thought something more inappropriate was going on. This all built to the Smackdown before SummerSlam, where Angle teamed with Stephanie and accidentally knocked her off the ring apron.
After the match, he ran to the locker room to check on her while apologizing profusely and going on about he much he cared about her. And then he kissed her. After some "wait, no..." hand gestures that Kurt couldn't see, she put her hands down and caressed his back. They separated and Kurt had a victorious look on his face while Stephanie's expression was more along the lines of "What have I done?"
At Summerslam, The Rock disposed of both of Stephanie's man friends, leading to a Triple H-Kurt Angle singles match at Unforgiven. For the next month, the direction seemed obvious—Stephanie wasn't really repenting to her husband and would turn on him to officially become Angle's paramour. Triple H would become WWE's top babyface, Kurt Angle would be the top heel and the feud would carry WWE TV for months...right?
Wrong. Right before Unforgiven, Stephanie replaced Chris Kreski as head writer. At Unforgiven, she hit Angle with a low blow and sided with her husband, who never turned. For the next month or so, she entered into a platonic relationship with Angle as his manager, which ended when The Rock attacked her in the match where he lost the WWE Title to Angle.
Read whatever you want into all of that. I think it's fairly obvious what happened, don't you?
During the first phase of the WWF vs WCW promotional war, the world champions were usually Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, respectively. In the eyes of the fans, both stood as symbols of what each company represented—Hogan was a talentless muscleman who pandered to children, while Ric Flair was a brilliant all-around performer whose character made him the idol of teenage boys and adult men.
By 1991, Flair had been fighting his own war with WCW management for years. Former Pizza Hut executive Jim Herd believed Flair was too old to be WCW's top star, but attempted replacement Sting fared even worse at the box office and dropped the title back to Flair in January. By the Summer, there was a contract dispute and Herd fired Flair.
Herd, in his ineptitude, didn't realize something very important—Flair was technically also the champion of the National Wrestling Alliance, though NWA branding had been stripped from WCW TV at the start of the year. The NWA Champion put down a $25,000 deposit on a belt that was paid back when he lost the title. Herd refused to pay when he became aware of this.
Flair was soon off to the WWF, where his belt showed up on TV in Bobby Heenan's weeks before he did. They immediately started building the Hogan vs Flair dream match. While the belt was back in WCW's hands within a few months thanks to a precedent-setting lawsuit, Flair was still the self-proclaimed "Real World Champion," using a WWF Tag Team belt that was blurred out on TV.
The standard practice back then was for the big feuds to go around the country at house shows and then be blown off on "Saturday Night's Main Event" specials on NBC, but that show had been cancelled a few months earlier. The only way to see the Hogan-Flair feud was live at the nearest house show or to watch broadcasts of their Madison Square Garden matches on cable in the New York area/satellite in the rest of the country.
The series ended inconclusively and they were being shifted into new feuds at the end of the year. Flair helped The Undertaker beat Hogan for the title, which was soon held up, and won the 1992 Royal Rumble match to become WWF Champion. The finish of the match was used to set up Hogan's new feud with Sid Justice, and that was it.
The feud was given more gravity a few years later in WCW, but it was never as special as it would have been if handled correctly the first time.
In theory, this should have been easier to book than Vince McMahon vs Bret Hart. The key words there are "in theory."
In 2001, the biggest wrestling war in the history of the business ended when what was then the WWF bought WCW from Turner Broadcasting (parent company of Bleacher Report). Immediately, fans fantasized about the ultimate inter-promotional feud, which promised to be the hottest storyline of the modern era.
There were a few immediate hurdles. On the TV end, the WWF got WCW because their TV deal was canceled and no other buyers made sense. Viacom (then the WWF's cable partner like NBC Universal is now) had exclusivity on their programming and wouldn't let them put WCW shows anywhere else, as well as not wanting to give up a new time slot for WCW. Viacom didn't want to give the WWF any airtime for a separate WCW show, so the plan was to turn Raw into a WCW show with WCW as a second touring "brand" that WWF stars would be drafted to. Sound familiar?
On the talent side, most of WCW's top stars were actually under contract to other divisions of Turner Broadcasting and thus their deals weren't part of the sale. They had big guarantees and most were content to sit at home to collect their paycheck. Anyone who wanted to go to the WWF had to take a buyout at a discount and sign new deals with lower guarantees.
After a few weeks of run-ins by WCW stars, that's where things stood when Linda McMahon declared that Shane's WCW talent would start appearing on WWE shows. A Raw in Tacoma would be headlined by WCW Champion Booker T vs Buff Bagwell, as they were two of the biggest names to take buyouts. Stacy Keibler was ring announcer, Scott Hudson and Arn Anderson did commentary, WCW graphics replaced the WWF graphics and they even used similar lighting to WCW.
The match, to be blunt, sucked. The crowd was tentative to start (showing that the fan-bases were very different, as Tacoma had been a good city for WCW) and when the match was a boring parade of chinlocks, they completely turned on it. Vince McMahon immediately scrapped all plans, and WCW turned into an invading stable (merging with ECW a week later as "The Alliance") where most of the "WCW" stars were WWF guys who turned heel, including Shane and Stephanie McMahon (as WCW and ECW owners).
It was all downhill from there. What could have done record breaking business (the "Invasion" PPV event is the biggest non-WrestleMania wrestling PPV ever, even after it became clear what the direction was) quickly became just another feud, and it was wrapped up less than five months after Booker vs Bagwell.