When a fan buys a ticket to a WWE event, they know they will see suplexes and spectacle. At any given TV taping or pay-per-view, though, they may be a witness to history too.
A conquering hero may win his first world championship. A game-changing narrative may emerge. A momentous debut could happen.
One's enjoyment amplifies upon seeing those key points on the WWE timeline from the stands.
Ellis Mbeh knows the power of seeing those moments from up close. He became an internet sensation when his jaw dropped and his eyes widened at the sight of Brock Lesnar ending Undertaker's WrestleMania undefeated streak in 2014. Mbeh, a social media strategist for Geico, became known to WWE fans everywhere as "Shocked Undertaker Guy."
For him, watching WWE from the audience rather than in front of the TV forces him to take off his critic's hat and truly immerse himself in fandom.
"You're not thinking about writing or creative. You're thinking about what's happening in front of you," he told Bleacher Report.
You can't overthink while that much electricity is surging through the building.
Greg Freedland can appreciate that sentiment, too. Freedland, who works for Millersville University in Pennsylvania as a communications director, happened to be there for D-Generation X's famous invasion of World Championship Wrestling in 1998. He bought a ticket to see Monday Night Nitro and ended up seeing a pivotal moment in the Monday Night War live.
"The place was just going nuts," he recalled.
Kate Foray, a graphic designer and the creator of the Raw Breakdown Project, attended NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, allowing her to see a groundbreaking match in women's wrestling history alongside over 15,000 other fans. Her proximity, the performance and the narrative brought her to tears.
"It was beautiful," she said. "It was a beautiful story."
There is added power to those kinds of stories one when sees it in person, when one can say they were there when WWE history unfolded.
The Montreal Screwjob
Montreal (Nov. 9, 1997)
It was supposed to be just another chapter in Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels' intense rivalry. It was supposed to be another WWE Championship match and PPV headline bout.
But The Heartbreak Kid's title win that night instead became one of the most talked-about events in WWE history, a moment of chaos brought on by reality crashing through the fiction happening in the ring.
Headlocked Comics creator Mike Kingston traveled 250 miles from Syracuse, New York, to Montreal to attend Survivor Series 1997. Rumors rumbled ahead of the show about WWE champ Hart potentially leaving for World Championship Wrestling soon. He and his buddies read the "dirt sheets" to get the latest backstage news reports.
One of his friends even called a wrestling insider hotline, now an archaic relic of the industry, to get more info.
Nothing they found told them WWE owner Vince McMahon would collude with Michaels and referee Earl Hebner to yank the title out of Hart's hands. Nothing told them that Hart would end his WWE run in a storm of fury and confusion.
"You kind of knew something was going on behind the scenes," Kingston said. But I don't think anyone expected what happened to happen."
Kingston, a fan of Michaels, watched on with the rest of the world as the challenger put The Hitman in his own Sharpshooter hold. Hebner hurriedly called for the bell. An angry Hart exploded afterward, spitting at McMahon and cursing at everyone within earshot.
"It definitely felt wrong watching it," Kingston recalled. "It felt like something was going on, especially when [Hart] spelled 'W-C-W' with his hand. Everything felt weird."
"It definitely felt like they did him dirty. It felt like what it was, but you never would imagine that was something that was going to happen in this day and age."
Kingston remembers fans booing for the heel Michaels, going through the normal motions of being a fan. But this was no normal tale of the villain taking down the hero.
"It definitely blunted the reaction. I think people were watching Bret. He wasn't acting in a very babyface manner," Kingston said. "I could see why the reaction was dulled.
In what became known as the Montreal Screwjob, backstage politics had bled into the onscreen performance. A promoter outmaneuvered one of his talents in a callback to the carnie days, going against what he told Hart was the script.
Kingston saw one of the men involved in that infamous plot fleeing the scene. While he was getting autographs outside the building after the show, he caught a glimpse of Michaels making his escape.
"We saw Michaels and Triple H come flying out of the parking garage in a black SUV, shooting out," Kingston said.
This was before everyone had internet access everywhere they went. Word traveled slowly about what had happened. The audience, unsure of what it had seen transpire between Hart and Michaels, had to later read about it at home.
That fog of confusion would have been lifted far more quickly in today's WWE. "It would have lit up social media like a son of a bitch," Kingston laughed.
D-Generation X Invades WCW
Norfolk, Virginia (April 27, 1998)
Any time an event came to the Norfolk Scope or the southern Virginia area, Greg Freedland was often there with his friends in tow. It didn't matter if it was a WCW or WWE show. They just loved wrestling.
In the late '90s, he found himself present for one of the most memorable battles in what was dubbed the Monday Night War between those rival companies.
That night in 1998, Freedland chose to go see a WCW Nitro taping. As a longtime Randy Savage fan, he was excited about seeing The Macho Man live.
After parking and grabbing a bite to eat, he saw something curious outside the building.
"There was this weird commotion," Freedland said. "We just thought the crowd was a little rowdy, but as we turned the corner, it was Triple H barking into a bullhorn. He and the other members of DX were in full camouflage riding around downtown Norfolk with a huge crowd around them."
Triple H, X-Pac and WWE's irreverent D-Generation X stable had invaded WCW turf. Cameras followed the group as it rode around outside the arena on a tank, mocking WCW and time and again delivering the faction's trademark crotch-chop gesture.
Fans stirred in excitement.
"We were shocked they were there. It was crazy. They [the fans] were going nuts around them," Freedland said.
He remembers heading into the building to see the show and seeing D-Generation X knock on the glass of the lobby. Triple H's crew lingered outside, making everything that went on in the arena secondary.
"That's all people were talking about. Are they going to acknowledge this at all?" Freedland said. "I remember it being the buzz of the building all night."
He can't remember details of the Nitro he saw. The results of the bouts that night remain hazy. Only DX's surprise arrival stands out.
Even after Nitro wrapped up, Freedland and his friends had the tank-riding posse on their minds.
"I remember spilling out, people thinking they would still be there," he said.
It's a moment he talks about with giddy excitement today, one that remains one of the highlights of Freedland's fandom.
"Never in a million years would I think I would be telling my boy about that," he said, looking back on that night.
Benoit and Guerrero Celebrate at MSG
New York (March 14, 2004)
On the way to Madison Square Garden for WrestleMania XX, driving to The Big Apple from upstate New York, anticipation ran through Andy Malnoske's bones. He and his friends buzzed over the idea that the workhouse and technical master Chris Benoit may come out of the PPV as world heavyweight champion.
"I can remember driving down, talking about those matches and the excitement we had going to the event, thinking, 'This is Benoit's time,'" Malnoske, the sports director for NBC Elmira, said.
He ended up being right.
Benoit clashed with Shawn Michaels and Triple H in the night's main event. The Wolverine outlasted his foes, clamping on the Crippler Crossface until a writhing Triple H tapped out.
This was more than a standard championship win. This was a win for the underdog.
Benoit was smaller than the standard wrestler. He seemed like a long shot to make it to this level. And his long ride to world-title status captivated Malnoske and the rest of the WWE fanbase.
"His journey was really something to watch," Malnoske said. "The genesis of where he began, from Pegasus Kid to him rising up the ranks. He did every move 150 percent. You wanted to cheer for him. You had no choice. He was special."
Once Benoit had the gold in his hands, tears slid down his face. His good friend Eddie Guerrero joined him in the ring as confetti rained down on them, sticking to their sweaty, bulging muscles as they embraced.
"To quote Gorilla Monsoon, 'It was pandemonium' in Madison Square Garden," Malnoske said of the crowd's reaction to WrestleMania XX's closing image. "The energy was off the charts. It was this feel-good energy of accomplishment."
That moment, though, is one WWE does not celebrate.
The tragic tailspin Benoit took at the end of his life has forced the company to shy away from his memory. In 2007, the wrestler killed his wife and young son before committing suicide.
The incident left a black eye on wrestling that has never fully healed.
Looking back on Benoit's win and the joy in the Garden that night brings up mixed emotions for Malnoske. Like many fellow fans, the news about Benoit's final hours haunted him.
"When the truth came out, it just hit me like a ton of bricks," Malnoske said. "I remember being so sad and shedding tears."
And though it's impossible to separate the wrestler from his dark history, Malnoske strives to focus on the better side of Benoit.
"You want to remember that person for who they were," he said. "I like to remember him as someone who changed the game of wrestling, a pioneer, not this cold-blooded killer that he ended up being."
Bryan Completes His Cinderella Story
New Orleans (April 6, 2014)
Daniel Bryan, WWE's everyman and resident underdog, ascended the throne in a kingdom so often ruled by behemoths. The hard-charging warrior had to defeat Triple H in WrestleMania XXX's opening bout to earn a shot at the WWE Championship against Randy Orton and Batista.
Those three foes outweighed him by an average of over 50 pounds. Each had been world champ before. Each was a prototypical WWE star. And Bryan had to beat them all.
Ellis Mbeh saw Bryan do the impossible that night from the front row.
As a Triple H fan, he was conflicted. He wanted to see this great Cinderella story reach its climax, but he also just wanted to see his guy win.
Before the bout, Mbeh met Bryan at an autograph signing. The wrestler's genuineness struck him.
"If you talk to him, he is the same human being," Mbeh said.
Bryan was a nice guy. He was down-to-earth. He was easy to root for. "It's definitely like watching your buddy do his thing," Mbeh said of seeing Bryan wrestle.
And fans watched that friend suffer in the main event. He entered the battle drained from a hard-fought victory over Triple H with his shoulder taped. Orton and Batista wailed on him.
Triple H soon appeared with his trusty sledgehammer, ready to finish off the hero.
Mbeh, like many other fans, doubted Bryan's chances at this point. As "The Shocked Undertaker Guy" put it, "When Triple H hits you with that sledgehammer, it's over."
But Bryan prevailed in a comeback flush with drama.
As the babyface battled back, Mbeh found himself drawn in, Triple H allegiance be damned. He was a part of a single entity, one that seemed to play a role in Bryan's rise.
"It almost felt like [the audience cheering] is what was feeding Bryan," Mbeh said. "Feeding him that energy."
A flying knee and a crossface earned Bryan the improbable victory and the WWE world title. As he hoisted it in the air, confetti fell down and the arena erupted.
Mbeh began chanting along with everyone else in the Superdome—"Yes! Yes! Yes!"
"It just felt right. At the very end, you're sucked into what's happening," he said. "Everyone in my section had the Yes! paper in their hands. They were all waiting for it to happen, and when it did, it was like their dream came true."
This was the ending fans had long hoped for. The man they had long pulled for was finally standing atop the mountain.
As such, the celebration was not short.
"No one was stopping," Mbeh recalled. "If you get to the point that you're tired, you're not. Everyone around you is making you 'Yes!" still."
It was the best WrestleMania Mbeh has been to. The complete, compelling story is one he will never forget. And it was an edition of The Show of Shows that was built around one man.
"In essence, that was his WrestleMania," Mbeh said of Bryan and WrestleMania XXX. "YestleMania. That's what it was."
Sting Ousts The Authority
St. Louis (Nov. 23, 2014)
Sting did not sign with WWE during the Monday Night War. He didn't cross over after WWE bought out World Championship Wrestling in 2001. The Icon instead existed and thrived on an alternate plane.
That was until he strode into Survivor Series 2014, making one of the biggest debuts in WWE history.
Austin Hough, a recent college graduate from Missouri, didn't expect to see a legend show up that night. He had heard the rumors of Sting eventually joining the WWE ranks. He thought there would be some sort of deal worked out after The Stinger agreed to be in that year's WWE video game.
And he saw something strange that stirred up his curiosity as the Survivor Series card unfolded.
"There was a random spotlight up in the rafters all night. And every five minutes, I'd look and see it still there," Hough said.
John Cena led a team of babyfaces against the tyrannical Authority. If Cena's squad won, Triple H and his cronies would be out of power. If they lost, everyone who sided with Cena would lose their jobs.
Dolph Ziggler was instrumental in not letting the good guys lose. He mounted a comeback against Team Authority when only he remained in the Survivor Series elimination match. And his valiant fight hooked the audience.
ELIMINATION: @HEELZiggler def. @LukeHarperWWE! It's Ziggler vs. @WWERollins 1-1 for the match!! #SurvivorSeries http://t.co/QejNjnrRpe2014-11-24 03:42:41
"The crowd was white-hot for Ziggler," Hough explained. "The crowd was already feeling it."
Triple H clubbed Ziggler, took out one of the referees and tried to swing things in his team's favor by any means necessary. It looked for a moment as if darkness would win that night, that injustice was inevitable.
Until Sting arrived.
The black-clad antihero burst out onto the entrance ramp. The crowd thundered.
"That moment, that pop was insane. People next to me died," Hough said. "It was unbelievable. The energy in that building was insane. You couldn't sit. I lost my voice. It was nuts. Absolutely nuts."
Sting and Triple H stared each other down for a long stretch before The Icon floored the corrupt executive to the delight of the St. Louis fans.
Caught up in the energy of the crowd and the shock of the moment, Hough didn't even catch everything that happened. He didn't realize Triple H had bowled over the referee, for one.
"I didn't see that live because I was losing my mind," Hough said.
Hough is too young to have seen Sting in his early WCW days. He didn't follow wrestling when Sting donned gear inspired by The Crow and began terrorizing WCW's bad guys. He'd only seen his work on the WWE Network and watched him some in TNA.
Still, he and everyone else felt how special this unannounced arrival was.
"I knew who he was. I knew the legend of Sting. I knew how important it was that Sting was here," Hough said. "I think everyone in that arena over the age of 12 understood the magnitude of the moment. No one was sitting. We're all standing."
Talking to him about it nearly three years later, one can hear the unbridled excitement in his voice. It was an experience like no other. It was history happening right in front of him.
"It was the craziest rush of adrenaline," Hough said.
Bayley and Banks Ignite Women's Wrestling
Brooklyn, New York (Aug. 22, 2015)
When NXT made its first major venture out of Full Sail University and traveled to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, Kate Foray made sure to drive in from Richmond, Virginia, to see the show in person.
Little did the graphic designer know, Bayley and Sasha Banks would put on a historic match at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, one that helped launch the ongoing revolution in women's wrestling and landed a spot in WWE's 100 Greatest Matches book.
There was a lot of talk onscreen at this time about giving women more spotlight, more ring time, more stories. But after years of WWE undervaluing its female performers, it was hard to buy into that talk.
"It felt a lot like lip service," Foray said.
WWE announced Banks vs. Bayley's NXT Women's Championship would be a co-main event that night. That and the especially electric crowd in Brooklyn signaled the bout would be special.
WWE Universe @WWEUniverse
THE FIGHT IS ON as @itsBayleyWWE takes down @SashaBanksWWE to kick off this match! #NXTTakeOver #SashavsBayley http://t.co/0vPbErWJqe2015-8-23 02:21:04
"I knew there was going to be this air of importance," Foray noted.
And so Bayley's quest to prove she belonged at the top of the division climaxed in a stellar showing. The happy-go-lucky babyface leaned on her guts and heart in her battle with The Boss.
Seeing Bayley reach this point was especially moving for Foray.
"I love Bayley. The whole concept breaking down barriers, redefining women's wrestling was really important to me, but Bayley in particular, I adored her," she said. "She's the little girl who grew up wanting to be a wrestler and she got to be a wrestler. That's amazing to me."
That grown-up girl and Banks beat the hell out of each other. They slapped and slammed and suplexed until the crowd was frothing. Each time it looked as if Bayley was going to topple the champ, the energy surrounding the match intensified.
"New York is a good wrestling crowd in general," Foray noted, but the fans were especially active that night.
"The crowd was on their feet, screaming, chanting. They were cheering for Bayley, for Sasha and for wrestling," she recalled. "The crowd lived and died with Bayley. It felt like you were right there, even if you were in the nosebleeds, it felt like you were right there in the match."
Banks clamped on her famous Bank Statement submission. She crushed Bayley's injured hand under her boot. But it didn't matter.
Good conquered evil, and the dreamer came away with the win.
Foray said the fans ate it all up. "People were losing their minds. You could hear it," she said.
Banks and Bayley represented more than just the standard babyface-heel dynamic. They were providing a spark for women's wrestling. They changed the conversation around that division with this stunning performance.
"This is something we'd all been waiting for," Foray said.
An ovation followed Bayley's title win. Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair joined Banks and Bayley in the ring, celebrating this milestone match right there along with the fans surrounding them.
The Big Dog Reigns in Philly
Philadelphia (Dec. 14, 2015)
The WWE story in recent years has often centered on the much-maligned Roman Reigns.
The company has looked to push him into the spotlight. A vocal, defiant part of the crowd has responded with pushback. Much of Reigns' early solo run was met with jeers.
For a short while, though, he was able to sway the crowd, to get the hero's welcome WWE had tried so hard to elicit.
"@WWERomanReigns is ON TOP of the Mountain!!" - @MichaelCole #RAW https://t.co/xvQHpCm8Vs2015-12-15 04:13:41
Jordan Chaffiotte, a freelance writer from New Jersey, was attending Philadelphia University on the night Reigns rolled into town on the hunt for the WWE Championship. Like many fans, she has complicated feelings about The Big Dog.
"I always wanted him to do well, but I always thought the booking was so lopsided. It feels like they'll do anything to get Reigns over, including throw other people under the bus," Chaffiotte said.
She thought she was going to walk into a situation where everyone around her would shower Reigns with boos.
"No one here like Sheamus. No one really likes Roman," she thought. "And we were expecting that to be the response."
That was especially true because they were in Philly, the sight of Reigns' 2015 Royal Rumble win that was met with audible distaste, cursing and boos. And The City of Brotherly Love has a reputation for being a harsh crowd.
"That Philly crowd is rough. They're not easygoing whatsoever," Chaffiotte noted.
But during the course of the night, something shifted. A story of a man rebelling against an empire clicked. Reigns clashed with the tyrannical Authority and his own boss, WWE chairman Vince McMahon.
When The Big Dog leaped into the air and cracked his fist against McMahon's jaw, the crowd turned.
"That crowd popped so hard," Chaffiotte said. "It became more about what Reigns was doing. Roman was allowed to be a badass, and that somehow resonated with that crowd."
With his career on the line in a WWE Championship match against Sheamus, Reigns faced interference from The League of Nations, McMahon and The Authority. He refused to fall, though.
Blood smeared across his mouth, he toppled Sheamus to become champion.
This time, Philly didn't reject him. Instead, it rejoiced.
"Everyone in my section was chanting, 'You deserve it!' Everyone was on their feet cheering for him," Chaffiotte recalled. Her friend relayed to her that he had never heard it that loud in the Wells Fargo Arena until that moment.
Reigns' story of redemption left the WWE world buzzing, at least temporarily.
"We left really joyful. To leave the building and feel that energy...[it] was so opposite of the way Philly had felt about him before." Chaffiotte said. "We were walking out to the parking lot. Everyone was so excited. Everyone had that energy."
Some of the audience has since soured on Reigns again, however.
The magic of that night faded. His detractors rediscovered their dislike for him. And The Big Dog is climbing uphill once more.
Looking back at when Reigns was Philly's favorite son for an instant, Chaffiotte said, "Roman is Cinderella. They got it right for one night. They got it perfect, and the clock struck 12."
For Chaffiotte, Foray, Freeland, Hough, Malonske, Mbeh, Kingston and the rest of the WWE fanbase lucky enough to see something truly special happen right in front of them, they will never forget those moments.
When WWE airs clips of those classic matches and images, they're transported back to the seats they had that night. They were a part of WWE's story, the spectators who helped provide the soundtrack of cheers and screams.
"We knew we were witnessing history," Malnoske said. "We knew this would never be duplicated."
A big thanks to all of the fans who participated in this story and shared their memories: Jordan A. Chaffiotte (@_LikeJordan_), Kate Foray (@makeitloud), Greg Freedland (@BigDaddyFreeds), Austin Hough (@Austin_Hough29), Mike Kingston (@headlockedcomic), Andy Malonske (@18SportsAndy) and Ellis Mbeh (@EllisMbeh).