Had a number of decisions made at WrestleMania turned out differently, pro wrestling history would have veered from the path we know. Like The Watcher from Marvel's What If comics, it's hard not to look back and wonder how things would have changed with one adjustment of the past.
WrestleMania's biggest what-ifs range from questions about new victors emerging in certain matches to what the wrestling landscape would look like had the event not taken off like it did.
For some, pondering these questions is maddening, with too many variables and possibilities to absorb. For others, it's an intriguing exercise in exploring all the paths history could have taken.
Before one begins to discuss Flair, Sting or Orton's role in WrestleMania's timeline, one has to consider where WWE would have gone had the first edition fell on its face.
WrestleMania I: What If the 1st WrestleMania Wasn't a Success?
In 1985, Vince McMahon birthed a supercard unlike any other. He was out to change the wrestling industry wholesale, to reconfigure an infrastructure that had existed for decades.
In an attempt to make the then-World Wrestling Federation a global enterprise, he created WrestleMania.
It turned out to be the perfect move at the perfect time. It launched Hulkamania, helped wrestling become a part of pop culture and later became the centerpiece of WWE's calendar. But what if it had bombed?
In the first edition of WrestleMania Rewind (subscription required), McMahon said that creating WrestleMania "was a huge gamble, the biggest gamble I've ever been involved with. It was a roll of the dice."
McMahon poured a good chunk of his fortune into what became The Showcase of the Immortals.
Had he lost money and WrestleMania been a failure, there's a great chance that McMahon would have gone out of business. The wrestlers would have dispersed, heading to whatever territories would have them.
The business would not be what it is today.
Without Hulkamania taking off, pro wrestling wouldn't have become such a big part of the national consciousness. The regional system would have held up, at least for a lot longer than it did.
The American Wrestling Association, Jim Crockett Promotions and World Class Championship Wrestling would all still exist. Wrestling would be segmented, as it was pre-McMahon. It would be far more of a niche product, never reaching the million-dollar heights that it has.
WrestleMania's failure and WWE's subsequent tapping out would have stunted evolution of the industry.
Taking WrestleMania out of wrestling's timeline would also rid it of a plethora of key moments. There would be no Hogan slamming Andre the Giant, no Money in the Bank, no Steve Austin vs. The Rock trilogy.
WrestleMania VI: What If Zeus Had Main Evented?
By the sixth WrestleMania, the event was an institution. WWE was a national powerhouse, Hogan a pop culture icon.
The Show of Shows would only grow from this point, but one bad move could have changed that. The headline attraction of course was Hogan against an emerging star: The Ultimate Warrior.
That could have changed if WWE's first movie, No Holds Barred, had done better. Tom "Tiny" Lister Jr. played opposite Hogan in the picture, one centered around a battle between the two. WWE would use Lister's "Zeus" character outside of that format, having him tangle inside a cage with Hogan and Brutus Beefcake at SummerSlam 1989.
The movie drew searing reviews.
Had it not, things may have been turned out differently once WrestleMania rolled around. In Tagged Classics, James Dixon writes, "if No Holds Barred was a hit we might have gotten Hogan-Zeus as the main event at WrestleMania VI."
Imagining that possibility brings to mind Lawrence Taylor headlining WrestleMania XI.
At least Taylor was a world-class athlete. Lister was an actor who happened to be large. Building a WrestleMania around him would have been a disaster.
The match would have stunk and been a cold sore on WrestleMania's face.
In addition, it would have taken away a critical moment for Warrior. He wouldn't have defeated the immortal Hulkster that night. Instead, an actor might have. Perhaps he'd get a chance to rise to championship status again, but WWE may have decided to have any number of men pass him up for the gig in later years.
Strangely enough, Zeus taking Warrior's place could have ended Edge's career before it began.
The Hall of Famer, as noted on WWE.com, "sat ringside at WrestleMania VI" with a Hogan T-shirt on. What if he had seen the worst main event in WrestleMania history rather than one of its most memorable? What if he had lost his love for the business after seeing Zeus win the WWE title after a dumpster fire of a bout?
Edge may have chosen to get into another racket, robbing fans of all his in-ring accomplishments.
WrestleMania VIII: What If Ric Flair vs. Hulk Hogan Had Actually Happened?
On the list of no-brainer matchups, Hogan vs. Flair has to rank at or near the top. The former was WWE's biggest attraction, a transcendent star. The latter was the top wrestler for WCW, a massive name in the grappling world.
It would be a story of power versus smarts, a showman against a more pure wrestler. It never happened.
WWE instead went with Hogan vs. Sid Justice while Flair took on Randy Savage.
Flair states in To Be the Man that Hogan vs. Flair was the original plan for WrestleMania VIII. He writes, "Vince's relationship with Hogan had deteriorated by then, and Hogan was aspiring to become a full-time actor so the WrestleMania VIII line up was switched around."
Former WWE executive J.J. Dillon tried to explain the decision when he spoke with Arda Ocal and Jimmy Korderas on R.A.W. Radio (h/t WrestlingInc).
He said, "It didn't have the box office sizzle that we all would assume that it would. And after a run that was disappointing in markets where it should have done well and it didn't—it's like Vince said—that match got booked 5 years too late."
WCW would disagree about the amount of sizzle it had. The company pitted the two megastars against each other several times over years after this would-be dream match.
WWE would get around to it long after the clash had any juice left.
Had it happened, it would still rank as one of the biggest wrestling matches of all time. It would have had far more significance and buzz than it did when they eventually met at WCW.
It would have also made WWE the best company in the world and sped up WrestleMania's growth.
That was a rivalry with the potential to become the next Andre vs. Hogan. And just as all eyes pointed toward WWE when McMahon battled Steve Austin, wrestling fans would have flocked to see the best against the best.
WrestleMania XIV: What If Shawn Michaels Refused to Drop the WWE Title?
Few calls have remained so vivid in fans' memories as Jim Ross announcing Austin's win over Shawn Michaels: "Stone Cold! Stone Cold! Stone Cold!"
Before that career-defining moment, the curtains hid backstage turmoil. Rumors rumbled about The Heartbreak Kid not wanting to lose that night.
In Wrestling for My Life, Michaels talks about how Undertaker caught wind of this and gave him a warning, telling him that he better do the right thing. Michaels says now that he was only bluffing.
He writes, "My whole intention at WrestleMania XIV was to drop the belt to Steve, but I was going to make everybody sweat it out and make them think I wasn't. Obviously, I got that accomplished. That's extremely unprofessional, but that's exactly who I was and what I was doing."
What if he had took things even further? What if on the night of WrestleMania XIV, McMahon wasn't sure if his champion would willingly let Austin take the belt from him? What if he wasn't actually bluffing?
There's a strong chance that McMahon would have turned to the "screwjob" method that he did to yank the WWE title from Bret Hart a year earlier. There would be a certain poetic justice to the moment considering Michaels' role in Hart's forced relinquishment of the gold in 1997.
It wouldn't have been nearly as perfect a kickstart for Austin.
Rather than the focus being on Austin's rise, the headlines the next day would have centered on McMahon cheating Michaels. It would have felt like deja vu rather than the dawning of a new star.
WWE shafting Michaels like that would have changed his relationship with the company forever too. Perhaps he would have been too upset with McMahon to make his comeback in 2002.
Maybe Mr. WrestleMania would have pulled a Sting and waited around until TNA emerged before entering the ring again. Thinking about how that choice would have altered WWE history is mind-numbing.
Rather than Michaels' litany of classic bouts against John Cena, Undertaker and Triple H, he would be tangling with Sting, Kurt Angle and AJ Styles in another company, one that would have received a tremendous boost having added Michaels to the mix.
WrestleMania X8: What if Sting Had Come to WWE?
Sting's first steps into the WWE world came in 2014, when he interrupted the injustice Triple H was trying to carry out at Survivor Series. That arrival came close to happening a lot earlier in his career.
A former member of WWE Creative, Dave Lagana, wrote (h/t ProWrestling.net) the following about the situation:
Sting was approached that year to make his WWE debut and wrestle on the big event. Once he was introduced to the brand, it was pitched that at Wrestlemania 18 Sting would face Kurt Angle. If you remember, Kurt was eventually thrown into a match with Kane with little setup. The deal apparently fell apart as Sting wasn't willing to work the full WWE schedule.
Had The Stinger said yes back in 2002, he would be wrestling for WWE for the first time at 43 years old rather than 55.
That match against Angle would have been excellent. Those two put on some good performances against each other when they were much older for TNA.
Sting could have also gone on to have the dream match that is no longer that: Sting vs. Undertaker. Rather than the snoozer that was Undertaker vs. A-Train and Big Show at WrestleMania XIX, it could have been the pinnacle of an incredible rivalry.
Sting's career would have changed forever had he chosen to roll with WWE starting with WrestleMania X8. He could have taken on Shawn Michaels and The Rock. He and Undertaker could have formed a sinister duo.
His decision to forego WrestleMania in 2002 altered TNA's history as well.
Sting was the centerpiece of that company for a long time. TNA would have had to find a new world champ for the 300-plus days he held that title. The company would have had to find another star to make the first inductee in its Hall of Fame.
While he would have left a hole in TNA's timeline, he would have been filling up his resume with WrestleMania moments, including that purposed showdown with Angle in '02.
WrestleMania 21: What if Randy Orton Had Ended Undertaker's Streak?
Before Undertaker had morphed into a WrestleMania immortal, he was set to do battle with Randy Orton. The Streak hadn't been turned into a storyline up until that point.
The Deadman being 12-0 was simply a stat beforehand, not a show-within-the-show as The Streak later became. It could have all ended that night in Los Angeles in 2005. WWE couldn't have known how valuable Undertaker's undefeated status would become and could have easily had The Legend Killer scheduled to take him down.
Stopping The Streak then wouldn't have caused any uproar. It would have, though, pushed Orton into top-tier status faster.
Orton could have begun a streak of his own. The year before, he, Batista and Ric Flair defeated The Rock 'N' Sock Connection. He would then go 1-3 in his next four WrestleManias.
Orton coming off a big win over The Phenom would have allowed WWE to consider making him reach and perhaps surpass Undertaker's 12-0 mark.
Ending what ended up being a 21-0 run early would have sucked some of the life out of future WrestleManias. Undertaker vs. Triple H, Edge, Shawn Michaels or CM Punk wouldn't have had the same meaning or energy had his streak not been on the line. Those classics against Michaels would be lessened; the "End of an Era" match wouldn't have been nearly as dramatic.
The mystique and intrigue surrounding him defending The Streak each year would be gone, hurting the appeal of future editions of WrestleMania.
It's become an integral part of his and WrestleMania's legacy. Luckily, WWE chose to have Orton lie down that night, allowing the phenomenon to grow into the massive creature it became.
WrestleMania XXX: What if the Streak Didn't End?
When the referee's hand hit the mat for the third time, 75,000 people stopped breathing at the same time. The Superdome sounded like a library.
Brock Lesnar stood up to celebrate his win over Undertaker at an event where the legend had never lost before. Dropped jaws and widened eyes surrounded him.
McMahon chose to end The Streak as a means to give back to the business, to give Lesnar the boost of having knocked off a deity.
That choice will be debated for years to come. Would it have made more sense to extend it another year or two? Would have letting Undertaker walk off into the sunset with a zero in his loss column been the better move?
If Undertaker had won that night, pushing his record to 22-0, it wouldn't have been the headline-generating win that Lesnar's was. It would have been the expected outcome.
With as unimpressive as the action was that night, this clash would have been labeled a bust.
For Lesnar, he would have not have had the same heat following WrestleMania that he did. Paul Heyman would spend the next series of months bragging about The Beast Incarnate's dominance.
Lesnar would have just been victim No. 22.
The discussion following Undertaker's win would have then turned to WrestleMania 31. WWE would still have the option to go with the Sting vs. Undertaker streak-against-career match that so many fans envisioned. Had Bray Wyatt stepped into the ring as Undertaker went for 23-0, it would be far more powerful.
Otherwise, Undertaker could walk away, his streak intact. That route couldn't do anything for WWE going forward. It would only add to Undertaker's legendary status.
For as long as he stayed retired, speculation about him having one last match would emerge each year. His unblemished record would remain a holy grail, a possible way to boost some new star's career.
It would be perpetual inspiration for a new what-if, fans imagining a variety of would-be slayers going after the immortal dragon flying in the clouds.