Wrestling angles need to strike a delicate balance: Surprises are good, but they shouldn't be surprises for the sake of having surprises. They need to mean something.
Some of the surprises on this list were actually the best thing for business. Others were cheap stunts, while a few were good ideas that got screwed up along the way. Good ideas that were part of bad overall angles, good angles that were part of bad storylines, etc.
Regardless of quality, though, it was hard not to have a visceral reaction to them.
In chronological order (so nobody complains), let's take a look at the most shocking moments in WWE over the last 15 years, which puts us right in the middle of the "Attitude Era" in late 1998...
Most of the storylines that re-enacted the Montreal Screwjob of Bret Hart weren't very good.
This was not one of them.
Instead of just coming out of nowhere as a cheap way to get heat, this was presented as part of a long, complicated conspiracy of a storyline that went something like this:
- After being cheered during his Ladder match against Triple H at SummerSlam '98, The Rock turned babyface and left the Nation of Domination.
- The next month at Breakdown: In Your House, Rock defeated Mankind and Ken Shamrock in a cage match to become No. 1 contender to the WWE Championship. In the main event, Kane and The Undertaker simultaneously pinned Steve Austin in another Triple Threat match, leading to the title being vacated.
- The following month at Judgment Day, Kane and Undertaker fought to a no-contest due to shenanigans involving special referee Steve Austin, so the title remained vacant.
- A single elimination tournament for the title was scheduled for Survivor Series with Kane and Undertaker getting a bye to the second round.
- During all this, Shane McMahon turned babyface, so his dad demoted him to a role as "a lowly referee." He wouldn't just officiate matches relevant to his storyline, instead fading into the background like the other referees.
- In addition, Mankind had tried to remake himself in a "corporate" mold (hence the dress shirt and tie he wore for the rest of his career as Mankind) for months, leading to Vince giving him the Hardcore title and gifting him an easy first round in the tournament.
- Mankind won his semifinal match when Shane turned on Austin, leading to him taking on The Rock in the finals. The Rock's path included a three-second win over the Big Bossman and a tainted win over Ken Shamrock (both were "Corporation" members loyal to Vince) when Bossman accidentally threw his night stick to Rock instead of Shamrock.
- Finally, Rock "beat" Mankind by putting him in the Sharpshooter while Vince ordered for the bell to be rung.
The Rock became the "corporate champion," shocking the fans (who initially cheered his win) when he hugged the McMahons and cutting a scathing promo on "the people." While there were hints dropped, it was still impossible to see coming but largely made sense within wrestling logic (as in "don't think about why there had to be a tournament because your head will hurt") in the end.
For about a year-and-a-half starting in December 1998, WWE took the "Attitude Era" to its logical extreme: actual topless women on pay-per-view events. I'm consolidating these into one entry because there's no way I'm going to do four slides of "here is where there were boobs and how."
During this period, the following happened:
- At the UK-only "Capital Carnage" event, Sable tore Jacqueline's cut-up/tied-off tank top as she jumped on the referee's shoulders to attack him, leaving her exposed for several minutes. At the time, it was believed to be both a concession to the UK market (where it wasn't considered nearly as big a deal culturally) and a way to hype the following week's internationally broadcast Rock Bottom show to Internet fans who knew what happened (since stipulations dictated that Debra McMichael was to strip if Goldust beat Jeff Jarrett).
- A year later at Armageddon '99, Miss Kitty (Stacy Carter, soon to be renamed The Kat) stripped after winning the Women's Championship. At the time, WWE claimed it was not planned by management, and unlike with Capital Carnage, the home video version was censored.
- The following month at Royal Rumble '00, a bikini contest featuring the Kat and other women was advertised as part of the show. More subtly, the TV Parental Guideline rating for the show was "TV-14-LVN" even though "N" is not actually a standard descriptor in the system ("S" is, for "sexual content"). It was obvious that this time, WWE was hinting at nudity instead of going for a surprise, and it delivered...sort of. Mae Young, then 77 years old, entered the contest and stripped to reveal prosthetic, saggy old-lady bosoms similar to what was used in There's Something About Mary.
- At another UK event, Insurrextion '00, Terri Runnels pulled The Kat's top off after losing an arm-wrestling match. The idea was Kat stopped hiding herself and didn't care. On the home-video version, WWE edited around what happened with different camera angles from those used live.
That was the end of it, as the product was heavily toned down that year, both due to outside pressures and the overall creative direction slowly shifting with Chris Kreski having replaced Vince Russo as head writer in late 1999.
In March of 2001, the investors that planned on buying WCW pulled out when the promotion's TV shows were cancelled. With the company being of no value without TV to anyone else, Vince McMahon bought its assets in a fire sale. The next episode of Monday Night Raw (live from Cleveland, Ohio) after this went down was the go-home show for WrestleMania X-7, with the second hour of the last Nitro (live from Panama City, Fla.) airing opposite the first hour. Both shows were built around the sale.
Everyone knew that the WWF was buying WCW by this point, but nobody saw the big storyline twist coming.
At the end of Nitro/start of the second hour of Raw, Vince McMahon came out at the Raw taping for a segment simulcast on both shows. He famously threw out the names of WCW wrestlers to gauge crowd response (allegedly, WWE signed Buff Bagwell because he got a big reaction on this night) before getting to the point: The sale had been agreed to but was not offical yet. He would only sign it if Ted Turner agreed to finalize the deal at WrestleMania.
At that point, Shane McMahon's music started playing (well, sort of, it was still Vince's "No Chance in Hell" theme song, just with a different TitanTron video). He was feuding with his dad and they were to square off the following Sunday at WrestleMania. Nobody came out on the stage, and Shane didn't attack his dad from behind, either. Instead, he walked through the curtain at Nitro in Panama City. Vince wasn't buying WCW because Shane swept in and pulled the deal out from under him.
It was a brilliant angle, but it wasn't followed up on very well, as it took months for the WCW invasion to start and in the end, it was just another pawn in the McMahon family drama instead of its own thing. Speaking of which...
After the WCW invasion angle got off to a disastrous start in 2001 with an awful Booker T vs. Buff Bagwell match, it was rebooted. Out were any plans for WCW as a second touring brand that would take over Raw. In was ECW...sort of.
During a Kane and Chris Jericho (team WWE) vs. Lance Storm and Mike Awesome (team WCW) match, Rob Van Dam and Tommy Dreamer ran in to attack the babyfaces. Soon, a group of WWE wrestlers consisting of the Dudley Boyz, Rhyno, Tazz and Justin Credible ran in to make the save...or so it seemed. They joined up with Van Dam, Dreamer, Storm, and Awesome (since the latter two were also ECW alumni) in beating down Kane and Jericho while Paul Heyman left the announcers' desk to announce that ECW was back.
In a vacuum, it was a great angle: Nobody saw it coming because the trademarks were still assets in ECW's bankruptcy case (and WWE had to make a deal with the trustee to use them), the execution of the moment where all of the ECW guys turned toward the WWE guys to beat them up was great, Heyman's promo was fantastic and so on.
Unfortunately, it lost its impact because many important angles happened on that one Raw (Shane McMahon turned heel, ECW joined up with WCW to form "The Alliance" and Stephanie McMahon bought ECW), and the invasion feud quickly fell off a cliff, quality-wise.
Another wasted opportunity.
In mid-2002, Eric Bischoff had largely been out of wrestling in the year-plus since the deal for his investors to buy WCW fell through. In 2001, he had been involved with a plan to market Tyson Kidd, the other Hart grandkids and their friends as part of MatRats/Next Generation Wrestling. The idea was to appeal to teenage girls with handsome young guys doing high-flying moves. It never really picked up steam, and he had been in seclusion since then.
After the end of the Invasion storyline, Ric Flair was brought in as WWE "co-owner" because he was allegedly appointed the head of the consortium that bought Shane and Stephanie McMahon's shares in the company. When he and Vince McMahon couldn't get along, WWE was split into the Raw (Flair) and SmackDown (Vince) brands for each to control. The separate owners storyline was blown up for some reason when Steve Austin left the company, as Vince beat Flair to win 100 percent control on the episode of Raw that Austin walked out on.
From there, Vince announced new general managers in charge of each brand. Stephanie McMahon got SmackDown, while Raw was to be a big surprise: Eric Bischoff.
It made sense that he'd eventually show up somewhere as a performer, but nobody had any idea when that would happen. Anyway, in the moment that took the segment from famous to infamous, they hugged as soon as Bischoff walked out.
Vince hiring Bischoff is one of those things that you could excuse in storyline ("best for business" and all that jazz), but Bischoff would've been best off starting as a heel feuding with Vince as a babyface. WWE could have at least teased that, but it didn't.
He served as GM through December 2005, where he was "put on trial" for his transgressions and then fired by Vince, who threw him into a garbage truck.
And here's another waste of a good idea.
It was fairly obvious to wrestling fans that the wedding of "gay" tag team Chuck Palumbo and Billy Gunn would go off without a hitch. Just how it fell through was a mix of a clever angle and a weird storyline that fizzled out badly and led to WWE's losing favor with GLAAD, which had endorsed the angle initially under the premise Chuck and Billy were a caring gay couple.
Anyway, the wedding was officiated by an elderly man who was referred to as a "justice of the peace" (there was no legally recognized same-sex marriage in the United States in 2002). As the wedding inched closer to completion, both Chuck and Billy got cold feet: They were actually straight men engaging in a publicity stunt with Rico, their stylist, and decided to call it off as Rico seethed.
The "justice of the peace" interrupted the arguing, seemingly oblivious to what was going on: "The love that Chuck and Billy have is sacred, and that will never change! It doesn't matter if it lasts 15 years, 16 months or three minutes." Some of the fans in the crowd audibly started chattering, and the old man spoke again, only with a much more familiar voice coming out: "Wait a minute...Did I just hear myself say, 'three minutes'?"
The elderly man pulled at his face, revealing that he was actually Eric Bischoff under some impressive prosthetics. You see, Bischoff had recently made a habit of interrupting "boring" Raw segments after three minutes and sending out Three Minute Warning (Jamal, AKA Umaga, and his cousin Rosey) to attack whoever was in the ring. Rico turned on Chuck and Billy while Three Minute Warning ran in to lay out the reluctant grooms and interested observer Stephanie McMahon.
Bischoff had officially declared war on SmackDown, so the entire locker room emptied, led by Kurt Angle.
While Bischoff under the makeup was a brilliant idea for an angle, it went to waste here. Chuck and Billy fizzled out in their new gimmick of a tag team who constantly talked about how heterosexual they were; this actually made them seem more likely to be gay than the actual "gay" gimmick did. The Raw vs. Smackdown feud also ran out of steam quickly, completely disappearing after the Halloween edition of SmackDown that year, where Bischoff kissed Stephanie for reasons that were never explained.
You know the story by now.
CM Punk had planned on leaving WWE in 2011. His contract was up, he wasn't being used well and he wanted to rest up. Someone decided to put him in the main event of the next pay-per-view event—Money in the Bank in his home town of Chicago—with the idea he would leave as champion.
From there, everything exploded.
Two weeks before the PPV at a Raw taping in Las Vegas, Punk attacked his PPV opponent, WWE champion John Cena, and headed to the stage to cut a promo. Just watch the video if you somehow don't know or don't remember what happened, as I can't do it justice. For the first time in a very long time, WWE was doing a sort of "shoot angle," with Punk famously "breaking the fourth wall" while also carefully staying within the realm of kayfabe, as he never implied in any way that pro wrestling is not a legitimate sport.
Two Raws were taped that night, with Punk "suspended" in between shows. Cena got him reinstated, becuase his title didn't mean anything if Vince was afraid of him losing it. Vince gave him one condition: If Punk left Money in the Bank as champion, Cena was fired.
Going into Money in the Bank 2011, the conventional wisdom was that Punk would win the title but lose it to the Raw Money in the Bank winner. After all, the stipulation was worded as Cena being fired "if he [Punk] left as champion," not if Cena lost the title.
Having a feeling that something would happen is a lot different from knowing it intellectually. As soon as the PPV started, it seemed like there was no way WWE could let Punk go out like that. The fans in Chicago that night were too passionate for their hometown hero. That feeling was made stronger as the main event started.
Still, Punk was leaving, even if he obviously had signed some kind of deal binding him to WWE while he took time off. Plus, the stipulation with Cena was right there. It felt like Punk would win the title and keep it, but it just didn't seem possible.
Clearly, someone in WWE anticipated the reaction. Punk won cleanly, knocked out Money in the Bank winner Alberto Del Rio with a high kick, blew a kiss at Vince McMahon and ran out of the arena through the crowd.
While in the end, Cena wasn't "fired" and Punk returned a week later since there was no SummerSlam main event in play with he changes that were made, it remains one of the most perfect, pleasantly surprising moments in WWE history.