Back when WrestleMania 32 was on the way, one thing I had seen discussed is how similar the main event was to ten years earlier. Ten years earlier, John Cena was being thrust into the status of being The Guy of WWE and the fans hated it. After feuding with opponents like Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle, Cena’s response from the smarkier crowd was a sharp contrast to the idea that he was supposed to be the #1 beloved good guy. Triple H, a major heel at the time, stepped up in hopes of making the audience cheer Cena at WrestleMania 22. It didn’t work and Triple H was seen as a hero, even in his defeat.
Fast-forward and we were given Roman Reigns. He too was being shoved into the #1 spot despite vocal antagonizing from the WWE fans. He too was being stuck into a main event title program against Triple H. He too was being booed against the top heel in the company.
Wrestling is funny like that. With a narrative style that’s repetitive by design, it’s easy to see parallels in stories and events. Sometimes the similarities grow bigger and more notable. Like, for instance, the ten-year curse of WrestleMania. Three separate paths starring three similar wrestlers who stand tall in similar fashion at WrestleManias ending in “X,” are swept away in the same way, and suffer in the long term.
Their endings, oddly enough, read like choices in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, though all are tragic in their own way.
PART ONE: BRET HART
We begin with WrestleMania X in 1994. It’s an event that would crown Bret “The Hitman” Hart as WWF Champion for the second time, but much like his first time being champ as well as the third and fourth, it isn’t entirely about his hard work and ability to connect with the crowd. In fact, it’s more about necessity.
Bret spent years in WWF as part of the Hart Foundation with tag partner Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart. Even though he was fantastic in the ring, Vince McMahon was wary about using him as a singles star. It wasn’t that bad, since this was during an era when the tag team division mattered. It took three years for the Hart Foundation to turn face and another two years for them to go their separate ways.
Bret was finally on his own and did extremely well for himself, becoming one of the more iconic Intercontinental Champions in WWE history. He dropped the belt to the British Bulldog in the main event of SummerSlam ’92 (it was in England, you see) and shortly after became WWF Champion by defeating Ric Flair!
On paper, it sounds fantastic, but he didn’t so much score it by winning Vince’s heart. It was more because Ric Flair suddenly needed to drop the belt due to an injury (thank you, Ultimate Warrior) and Bret was the best choice due to his size. See, there was a whole steroid scandal thing going on and while Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior were both potential champs who made sense, they didn’t really have the best appearances for a company under fire for steroid use.
But Bret? Bret was small enough to make it work.
Truth be told, they really did get behind him as champion by playing up a new dynamic. For nearly a decade, the champion never really defended the belt other than PPVs, house shows, and episodes of Saturday Night’s Main Event (which had already been phased out by this point). Bret Hart was a “fighting champion” and it was new and cool. He’d defend his title against whoever, whenever. Even if he was taking on someone like Virgil, it still seemed like a ballsy move on his part and a treat of importance to the viewer.
With Hulk Hogan coming back from vacation, they put together a great idea for an angle that if done correctly would have made Bret. At WrestleMania IX, Bret would lose to the unstoppable Yokozuna via cheating. Hulk Hogan – who had an earlier match – would show up and get challenged by Yokozuna. Through backfired cheating, Hogan would win the title in seconds. Then he’d face Bret at SummerSlam, lose, and pass the torch to the new generation.
Well…Hogan didn’t go through with that after winning the title. He wanted out so he could do more movies. He instead dropped the belt to Yokozuna at the first King of the Ring PPV and Bret looked like crap because of it. Bret did win the King of the Ring tournament as a consolation, but that merely brought him into a seemingly never-ending feud with Jerry Lawler.
I know Lawler’s considered a legend in the business, but since WWF didn’t like to mention anything that happened outside the company, Lawler came off as little more than a somewhat more formidable Bobby Heenan. Bret spent months battling a shlub that he couldn’t shut up. By the time they were about to reach the payoff, Lawler got caught up in some legal issues and had to be taken off TV.
Meanwhile, even though Hogan was gone, McMahon decided that the next big face in the company would be Lex Luger as an all-American cover version of Hogan.
Survivor Series ’93 laid the seeds for a rivalry between Bret and his younger brother Owen. Owen got eliminated from their match because of Bret’s screw-up and resented him for it, claiming that he was stuck in Bret’s shadow. Things were smoothed over until Royal Rumble ’94, where they lost a shot at the tag titles against the Quebecers. Bret was reluctant to make a tag and because of the damage done to his leg, the ref stopped the match. Owen lost his mind, attacked Bret, and turned heel.
Bret reappeared in the Royal Rumble match itself. It ended with he and Lex Luger eliminating each other at the same time. The original plan was to have a mini-tournament at WrestleMania X where Luger would win and finally be champion.
Problem was, the fans were WAAAAAAY more in Bret’s corner. McMahon paid attention and changed plans.
At the show, Bret would face Owen in a warm-up match. No matter the winner, Bret would advance against the winner of Luger vs. Yokozuna. In a wonderful opener, Bret got pinned by Owen. A bit later, Yokozuna defeated Luger via a really lame disqualification spot. A hurt Bret took on an overpowering Yokozuna in the finals and mainly due to Yokozuna’s incompetence, Bret was able to take advantage and pin him.
Bret Hart was champion. Despite being screwed over by politics and shoved to the sidelines for Luger, the crowd’s love for him earned him a second run as champ. Even better, this loss to Owen gave him a smoking hot title program to jump right into.
The Unfortunate Aftermath
Bret Hart would not main event another PPV for a year and a half. Yes, even as champion. As champion, his title defenses ended up at the middle of the card so such classics as Roddy Piper vs. Jerry Lawler, Undertaker vs. Undertaker, and Undertaker vs. Yokozuna with guest enforcer Chuck Norris could rule the main event spot.
He ended up feuding with Bob Backlund, which led to a Throw in the Towel Match at Survivor Series ’94. It was like a submission match where it could only end with either British Bulldog quitting on Bret’s behalf or Owen quitting on Backlund’s behalf. It’s kind of like the opposite of a John Cena I Quit Match in that the face can’t win because, really, why the hell would the heel ever give up? The whole point is that Owen’s a sociopath!
Bret lost due to chicanery, mainly because McMahon had another man in mind to be the top star of the company. At Survivor Series, he turned Diesel face and gave him a ton of momentum. As part of the angle, Diesel was announced as an injured Bret’s replacement against Backlund at a Madison Square Garden house show. Diesel proceeded to demolish Backlund in seconds and became a champion.
On paper, this should have worked out. In theory, everyone from Diesel to Bret to Owen to Backlund to Michaels were main event players, not to mention names like Undertaker, Yokozuna, Lex Luger, and King Kong Bundy on the side.
Instead, WWF fell into a crater both financially and creatively. Bret himself spent his PPV matches taking on such midcarders as Hakushi and Jean-Pierre Lafitte. More notably, his never-ending Jerry Lawler feud continued and evolved into a feud with Dr. Isaac Yankem, DDS, played by one Glenn Jacobs, who would one day become Kane. Keep that in mind for later.
Anyway, Diesel’s reign was such a failure that they put the belt back on Bret again. Of course they did.
The Tragic End
Everything involving Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels in the next couple years was a bit of a clusterfuck, but in the end, Bret’s fifth and final title win was the only 100% intentional one he had. Vince even had him sign a 20-year contract that would net him $10 million!
Buuuuut WWF wasn’t doing so great at the time, so Vince suggested he just go to WCW. Bret agreed, the Montreal Screwjob happened, and WCW welcomed a man who was legitimately screwed over on a very public level. That should have been the golden ticket for WCW.
WCW famously botched their use of Bret from day one. Granted, there were some bright spots mixed in there, but things didn’t exactly work out so well.
They did thrust him into the title picture eventually, and it went very wrong. In a match against Bill Goldberg, Bret took a nasty kick to the skull that gave him a bad concussion. Rather than take time off and have it treated, Bret continued to wrestle for a few more weeks. That only made it worse and he had to stop wrestling completely.
Sometime after, Bret suffered a stroke.
As an upside, Bret did eventually make amends with Vince McMahon and Shawn Michaels. He even took part in a couple of matches, which had to cover up the fact that he literally couldn’t fall onto the mat without risking death.
But he did do better than this next guy.
PART TWO: CHRIS BENOIT
Yeah, this guy. Chris Benoit was a solid hand in WCW for about five years, but was in no position to succeed. While a master of his craft as a technical wrestler and definitely holding his share of intensity, Benoit was neither tall nor did he have any real charisma. He got a role in the final incarnation of the Four Horsemen, but he would be lost in the couch cushions as big shot WWF stars of yesteryear made WCW their own.
WCW’s high became a chaotic low and Benoit’s perseverance finally started to pay off. For what it’s worth. Benoit started to inch higher and higher up the card, even if new head booker Vince Russo thought Buff Bagwell was the real future of the company. Russo soon got the axe and several names wanted out of the company. Benoit especially.
Benoit’s real-life enemy Kevin Sullivan was going to be the head writer and that didn’t bode well, considering Sullivan’s ex-wife Nancy left him for Benoit. WCW tried to butter Benoit up by having him win the WCW Championship on PPV, but he still wanted to get out of there. Somewhat miraculously (the new guy in charge didn’t realize how hurtful this would be to the company), Benoit and his friends were granted a release.
In early 2000, Benoit appeared on Raw alongside Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, and Perry Saturn. Although they never played up his status as WCW Champion, Benoit was seen as the leader of the foursome and the most formidable. He was in a better company, but his prospects were still limited.
As good as he was, he was still in WWF during their renaissance of quality. He still had to contend with Steve Austin, the Rock, Triple H, Undertaker, Kurt Angle, and many others. He was capable of amazing matches and got some midcard title wins, but he was never going to break out into the top spot with all those big names around.
Benoit sniffed the main event, but he could never get farther than the occasional failed title match. Not to mention, he had his share of injuries putting him on the shelf, all while WWF’s assimilation of WCW happened. With the death of WCW, WWF (and then WWE) became a haven of dream matches. They had the heroes of the Attitude Era, the tasty scraps of the Monday Night War, and later their homegrown talent Brock Lesnar.
Benoit held on throughout. As he did, the company started to transition. Austin’s health deteriorated and he had to retire. The Rock left for Hollywood. Hulk Hogan had returned and quickly wore out his welcome. Chris Jericho fell deep into the midcard. Undertaker was on vacation. Bill Goldberg was on the way out. The main event was beginning to open up while the company had yet to plug in more new names outside of Lesnar.
Meanwhile, WWE at least had some names coming up the pipeline. Guys like John Cena, Randy Orton, and Batista. While they appeared to be on their way up, none of them were ready for the main event come WrestleMania XX.
While Benoit’s rise to the top wasn’t as radical (heh) as the other two guys in this article, we were still given a name that wasn’t exactly the first choice to get the highest profile WrestleMania match. He hit the sweet spot by kicking ass in-between the Attitude Era and the Cena Era.
On SmackDown, Benoit was booked with the usual face tropes. He was a target for the corrupt authority figure (in this case, SmackDown GM Paul Heyman) and he was constantly put in situations with the odds against him. Coincidentally, his storyline also led to him giving the rub to newly-turned face John Cena.
Benoit earned his way into the 2004 Royal Rumble, but Heyman made sure he had the #1 spot. That didn’t make him a definite winner, since Kurt Angle played the “dedicating this to all the troops” card, and Goldberg was there. Regardless, he did indeed last to the very end, where he took out the Big Show in one of the all-time best Royal Rumble endings.
In an inspired bit of booking, Benoit took his guaranteed shot for a world title and jumped ship. Rather than go after Brock Lesnar’s WWE Championship, he went to Raw to challenge for Triple H’s World Heavyweight Championship, thereby making Paul Heyman look like a total fool for chasing away one of his biggest players. At the time, Triple H was in an endless (and I. Mean. Endless.) feud with Shawn Michaels, so not getting to fight Triple H for one PPV made Michaels all antsy. Michaels ended up barging into the match regardless, making it a Triple Threat.
Benoit winning made sense storywise, but there was so much doubt. Triple H is notorious for holding down talent. Would he put Benoit over? At the same time, Michaels could win and give us the feel-good face victory, even if it wasn’t as desirable.
In the end, Benoit won. He made Triple H tap out to the Crippler Crossface after an amazing main event match. Four years after signing with the company, Benoit was the World Heavyweight Champion, having fought through two men in one night. His fellow Radical Eddie Guerrero showed up at the end, brandishing the WWE Championship belt. The two embraced and then posed in a shower of confetti.
Victory. Friendship. The catharsis of years of hard work paying off. It felt like the final shot of a Hollywood film.
The Unfortunate Aftermath
Benoit’s five-month title reign was less-than-stellar. It started off well enough. He had a rematch against Michaels and Triple H at Backlash ’04, where he made Michaels tap to the Sharpshooter. Then he moved on to feud with Kane. While Kane was certainly revitalized at the time, having recently become more fearsome after losing his mask, there was very little actual story.
Kane won a chance at being #1 contender, he beat up Eugene, Benoit came to Eugene’s rescue and…yep. That’s about it.
When it came time for them to battle it out at Bad Blood, they didn’t even get the main event slot. That went to Triple H and Michaels, who proceeded to have an excruciating and long Hell in a Cell match that went about 45 minutes. Coincidentally, Benoit got blamed when the show didn’t do so well.
Benoit continued to retain against Triple H at Vengeance, which was more about building up the feud between Triple H and Eugene. Benoit came off as a third wheel in his own world title defense. In fact, there was very little emphasis on Benoit as champion in general. It was still Triple H’s show.
During this time, the next crop was finally starting to show fruit. Not only were Cena, Batista, and Orton on the cusp of the main event, but WWE also repackaged Bradshaw from the APA into John Bradshaw Layfield and had him dethrone Eddie Guerrero as WWE Champion. Benoit was the next victim of the era shift when he lost to Randy Orton and dropped the World Heavyweight Championship at SummerSlam ’04.
Benoit floated between being a low-ranking part of the upper card and being a midcarder. He’d get the occasional title shot, but usually it was in multi-man matches and scenarios where he didn’t have a real chance.
The Tragic End
Benoit had a role of being the great hand who could have awesome matches with near everyone. He wouldn’t be champion again, but he’d at least be preparing the next generation of potential champions.
He was always seen as an intense man, but the loss of Eddie Guerrero in 2005 due to heart failure is said to have put Benoit in a different gear. He was more dedicated to his work than ever, even to the detriment of his own health as well as the health of his opponents.
In 2006, WWE reintroduced Extreme Championship Wrestling as a third show and separate roster. In 2007, Benoit was drafted to ECW while the show’s champion Bobby Lashley was sent to Raw. That meant the title had to be vacated.
A four-man tournament was held. The two finalists, Benoit and newcomer CM Punk, ended an episode staring each other down. At the next PPV Vengeance ’07, they were going to crown a new ECW champion in a match many had been wanting to see for years.
At Vengeance, Punk was instead challenged by Johnny Nitro. The commentators said Benoit couldn’t make it due to a family emergency, though they weren’t sure what the full story was.
In truth, Chris Benoit killed his wife Nancy and their son Daniel. Although he genuinely considered going to Vengeance anyway (he had his ticket changed to a later flight), he ended up killing himself instead. While we will never know the truth of Benoit snapping, it’s accepted by many that years of head trauma sent him over the edge. Steroids were probably involved to, but an autopsy had shown his brain to be in horrifying shape, leading a doctor to compare it to an 85-year-old with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
If there was any silver lining in that terrible situation, it’s that WWE put an end to chair shots to the head and other moves that asked for concussions. The emphasis on preventing another Chris Benoit may have saved the life of our next subject.
PART THREE: DANIEL BRYAN
In the post-WCW wrestling world, you could either get built from the ground up in WWE or become a big name in the indies. Since Bryan Danielson was a small man and based his style on being one of the best technical wrestlers in the world, his stage was the independent wrestling circuit.
His hard work got him in the door in WWE and he impressed the upper brass by asking to work in dark matches to shake off some ring rust rather than go directly into the main roster. In 2010, he was rechristened Daniel Bryan and was one of the main names on the brand new show NXT.
WWE had a real hate-on for indie darlings and Bryan got the worst of it (okay, maybe not quite as bad as Colt Cabana/Scotty Goldman). Not only was he booked to lose every single match, but Michael Cole was told to make fun of him at every opportunity. They did briefly lay this to rest when the first season ended and all the contestants formed a team on the main roster called the Nexus, but Bryan was then fired immediately for choking announcer Justin Roberts with a tie, which was deemed too extreme to show on a TV-PG program.
Bryan came back after that blew over and became a fixture in WWE, but continued to lose a lot while taking lots of verbal abuse from Cole and never getting any revenge. Things seemed to be promising when he won the Money in the Bank briefcase, but that just meant he lost at an increased rate.
The plan was even to have him lose the cash-in, but he never got to that point. World Heavyweight Champion Mark Henry was too hurt to continue his reign, so he dropped the title to Big Show, and Bryan immediately cashed in and pinned the new champ.
Now a world champion, Bryan proceeded to turn heel and show far more personality, based on his obsession with screaming, “YES!” This came to an end at WrestleMania XXVIII, when he lost to Royal Rumble winner Sheamus in 18 seconds. The outrage from fans who wanted a match with some more meat on it consumed the following Raw, which didn’t even feature Bryan, but did feature thousands of people chanting for him.
Bryan turned face as the tag partner and best friend of Kane. After a lengthy run as tag champs, they became enemies of the unbeatable trio the Shield. Bryan shed his own comedic self-hatred to be the one who finally led a team (he, Kane, and Randy Orton) to defeat the Shield. He and Kane went their separate ways as Bryan was interested in going after the WWE Championship.
Originally, Vince McMahon wanted to have Bryan lose to John Cena at Money in the Bank ’13, but Cena was against it. He saw Cena vs. Bryan as the biggest money match WWE had. Vince took the advice and booked it for SummerSlam. Cena was still planned to win, but he had a massive growth on his arm and needed to take some time off.
Bryan defeated Cena cleanly with his brand-new jumping knee finisher (constantly called “The Knee That Beat John Cena”), but was immediately taken down by guest referee Triple H and Money in the Bank holder Randy Orton. Orton cashed in and won the title.
WWE saw Bryan the same way they saw Bret Hart and Chris Benoit. Someone the fans could get behind and someone who could spend a cup of coffee in the main event, but not someone who would actually get a real reign as champion. That was more for someone like Cena or Orton.
They spent several months with Bryan feuding with Orton over the title, which was repeatedly vacated. Then Big Show showed up and cried a lot while punching people. It was dumb. All the while, they explained Triple H’s distaste for Bryan in a way that fully mirrored how WWE as a company felt about him: he was strictly a B+ player and could never truly be the face of the company.
Orton got the best of Bryan in the end and Bryan was too distracted by a feud with the Wyatt Family to go after Orton yet again. The company had Orton (WWE Champion) and Cena (World Heavyweight Champion) unify their titles, but the fans were still way into the idea of Bryan being champ instead. WWE figured Bryan was only “chant over” and had Big Show co-opt the “YES!” chant as his own thing, but that fell flat on its face.
The WrestleMania XXX plans for Bryan kept changing at a rapid pace. First, he was intended to be in a tag team match alongside Bray Wyatt, but the “YES!” chants were getting enough mainstream attention that they felt the need to break Bryan away from Wyatt as soon as possible.
Then they figured they would have Bryan wrestle a heel Sheamus at WrestleMania while CM Punk would face Triple H and a returning Batista would challenge Orton for the title. If you know anything about Royal Rumble ’14, you know how that idea turned out.
The fans rejected Batista as the top face and behind-the-scenes, Batista agreed with them. Between that and CM Punk leaving in a huff over mistreatment, WWE had no choice but to push Bryan.
And so, Bryan was put into a match against evil Authority overlord Triple H. The winner would get to be inserted into the Batista vs. Orton match at the end of the show for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
After losing for years and being treated like a joke for his size and status as a beloved indie name, Daniel Bryan went over Triple H, Batista, and Randy Orton in one night. He fought through all three men and made Batista tap out. He was the star of the thirtieth WrestleMania and ended the show with a stadium of people joining him in the “YES!” chant.
The Unfortunate Aftermath
While his WrestleMania opponents got sidetracked into a beautiful feud with the Shield, Bryan was tossed into a feud with…wait for it…Kane!
It was really silly and made Bryan look like an idiot in a horror film, being stalked by a Jason Voorhees-like Kane, who proceeded to scare and manhandle Bryan until the time came for their match at Extreme Rules ’14. While not an especially fantastic match, Bryan defeated Kane via his flying knee.
Sadly, that was it for Bryan’s title run. He was having some serious nerve issues and while they gave him a lot of leeway to see if the doctors would let him return to the ring, it was decided that he needed surgery on his neck. He had to drop the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, which was soon picked up by John Cena.
As Bryan’s title run was cut short, it was easy to see what the original plans were. Even though he got everyone pumped with WrestleMania XXX, he wasn’t meant to be champion past SummerSlam ’14. He was going to be demolished by Brock Lesnar, the same way Lesnar ended up demolishing John Cena. Only while the Cena squash was seen as shocking and ballsy, Brock squashing Bryan would’ve been seen as the same old shit.
The Tragic End
Bryan returned to the ring in time for the next Royal Rumble. Once again, the fans wanted him to be the top guy, especially because it meant getting to see a dream match of Bryan vs. Brock (in a non-squash fashion, natch). This time, WWE was dead set on giving that spot to Roman Reigns and time has shown that they were probably right, even if for the wrong reasons.
Bryan won the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania 31. Soon after, he started feuding with Sheamus. During a tour, Bryan was removed from all of his dates and sent home. Eventually, he had to vacate the Intercontinental Championship like he did with the WWE World Heavyweight Championship a year earlier.
Bryan’s doctors claimed he was fit to compete. WWE’s doctors said differently. Bryan sat on the sidelines for a long time, increasingly frustrated that he couldn’t wrestle. Even if he could come back, the longer he was off TV, the more fans would move on and forget about him.
Finally, Bryan’s doctors relented as they saw that years of concussions had messed up his brain extensively. Later, Bryan admitted to suffering seizures. He had no choice but to step down for his own sake.
On February 8, 2016, Bryan emotionally announced his retirement on Raw. At only 34, he had to leave his dream job behind and find a new life. Everything he worked for was something he could no longer be a part of.
But we know that it’s for the better. He could have kept wrestling like Bret, causing a stroke. He could have kept it all under the radar until doing something truly self-destructive like Benoit. Instead, he at least got to walk away before it was too late.
Anyway, I’m getting ready for seven years from now when Chad Gable is coming off winning the title from a Triple Threat at WrestleMania XL and has to follow it up with a PPV match against a 56-year-old Kane.