As performance art, professional wrestling is reliant on the competitors in the ring cooperating in order to achieve the most potent reactions from a live, paying audience. Before walking through the curtain, wrestlers work alongside a team of agents and production staff to create a finish that is safe, sensible, and will elicit excitement from the crowd. This way, everyone is on the same page to follow the action in the ring — camera operators assume their positions, referees complete their count, and the performers know how to sell the finish. The outcome of a match pushes the story in the next phase, getting the wrestlers over and leaving the fans wanting to return.
However, things go wrong in the world of live television. Whether it’s because of an on-screen botch or behind the scenes drama, outcomes that are predetermined are bound to change. An unplanned finish can have repercussions over the rest of the show, turning into a future angle and impacting the performer’s place in the company. Here are some of the most notable.
Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns
In January 2015, Roman Reigns won the Royal Rumble match in controversial fashion in front of a venomous Philly crowd. Fans didn’t want to see the former Shield heavy be pushed so inorganically, thus Reigns’ road to WrestleMania 31 was paved with controversy. The buildup to the match was lukewarm, including an infamous tug-of-war for the championship on the go-home episode of "Monday Night Raw." In spite of the low expectations going into the show, Reigns and Lesnar delivered with a hard-hitting hoss affair that displayed both men’s natural athletic blend of speed and strength. Lesnar’s forehead was cut after being pushed into the ring post by Reigns, with Cageside Seats reporting that the cut was unplanned after inquiring with WWE officials. During the match, Seth Rollins stormed the ring and cashed in his Money in the Bank contract, making it a triple threat.
The Wrestling Observer Newsletter reported that Rollins was made aware of the title change part way through the show. Michael Hayes formulated a finish with the participants, where Rollins would cash-in and take home his first WWE Championship in "The Heist of the Century." WON later reported (via Sportskeeda) that, after the event, members of the Anoa’i family were furious at the finish. Among them was Reigns’ father, Sika of the Wild Samoans, who was talked down by the rest of the family.
AJ Styles vs. Kevin Owens
At Battleground 2017, AJ Styles defended the United States Championship against Kevin Owens. During the match, Owens reversed a Styles Clash and threw AJ on the referee to cause a ref bump. Exchanging holds, Styles locked Owens in a crossface with the Prizefighter reversing the submission into a pinfall attempt. The dazed referee counted the pinfall resulting in Owens winning his third United States Championship much to the surprise of audience members.
Ryan Satin revealed on "The Sheet Podcast" (via IWNerd) that Owens was booked to win via cheating but the match would be restarted by "SmackDown" GM Shane McMahon. After the planned restart, Styles was to retain. However, since Styles was pinned fairly there was no need to bring in McMahon. The unintended title change capped Styles’ first US Championship reign at only 16 days. The Wrestling Observer (via WrestlingNews.co) reported Styles being upset at the finish, as he didn’t raise his shoulder up on time while referees are instructed to count pinfalls legitimately.
Styles invoked his rematch clause on the following episode of "SmackDown," with Chris Jericho redeeming his own rematch to make it a triple threat. Pinning Jericho, Styles went on to win his second United States Championship reign.
Owen Hart vs. Steve Austin
A star on the rise in 1997, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin engaged in multiple feuds involving members of The Hart Foundation. Setting his sights on the Intercontinental Championship, Austin challenged Owen Hart for the title at SummerSlam. In the penultimate match of the night, Hart had Austin positioned for a Tombstone Piledriver. Rather than dropping on his knees like The Undertaker’s version, Hart performed a sit-out and dropped Austin on his head. Austin was temporarily paralyzed and couldn’t move his extremities. Hart hotdogged to buy Austin time, with the Texas Rattlesnake winning with "the worst-looking roll up in wrestling history," as he described in "The Stone Cold Truth."
The injury had major ramifications for Austin’s career and the promotion, with him relinquishing the championship in September. The WWF banned piledrivers in 2000 as a safety measure to prevent further neck injuries. Returning to the ring at Survivor Series 1997 to a massive pop, Austin regained the championship from Hart in their rematch. Hart and Austin never feuded from here on, with Owen tragically dying in 1999 and Austin expressing remorse for not squashing their beef.
Royal Rumble 2005
At the 2005 Royal Rumble match, the final two competitors were on the helm of their kingmaking moment: John Cena and Batista. Both had been rising stars parallel on "SmackDown" and Raw with a previous encounter Ohio Valley Wrestling under their belts. Cena entered the match at 25 and Batista at 28, with Batista booked to win. In a freak accident, Cena reversed a Batista Bomb attempt with both landing on the floor for a double elimination. Such a situation had happened in 1994, except that spot was worked (per Bruce Prichard) unlike this instance. Jimmy Korderas recalled to Wrestling Inc the two finalists landing in a "pretty much simultaneous" manner and improvising through earpieces with backstage staff. Emerging from the entrance ramp, an irate Mr. McMahon berated the performers and slid into the ring, tearing both quads. From a seating position, McMahon hawked orders at the performers with the contest being restarted with Batista overpowering Cena to win the match.
The finish is remembered as quick thinking from the performers and production, managing to carve a great moment in spite of bad luck. The seventh entrant, Edge, humorously retold of the tense locker room air as McMahon walked backstage and refused assistance with "two torn f***g quads." Batista fondly remembered the rite of passage, describing that stage of his career in a 2017 interview as "Very surreal, so hectic … so exciting."
Triple H vs. Cactus Jack
Embroiled in a blood feud for the WWF Championship, Triple H and Cactus Jack were set to face each other in a Street Fight at Royal Rumble 2000. The two engaged in a brawl throughout Madison Square Garden, with Foley suplexing Helmsley onto a wooden pallet. The jaded edge of the broken pallet stabbed Triple H in the calf, causing him to bleed throughout the match. On "WWE Untold," Foley recalled Mr. McMahon refused to showcase thumbtacks in the match. Against The Chairman’s wishes, Foley produced a sack of thumbtacks and laid the contents on the canvas. Triple H threw Foley on the tacks with a back body drop and seemingly finished him off with a Pedigree.
To the surprise of many, Foley had kicked out and called an audible to be Pedigreed onto the tacks. Sportskeeda reports that Foley and Triple H were scared during the spot, with Foley’s last thought being "I could lose an eye … but think of the pop!" Triple H won and, despite retaining, was dealt with a post-match beatdown by Foley.
The match turned Triple H into a main event threat. On the match’s 20th anniversary, Foley and Triple H reflected on the match with endearment on "WWE Backstage." Triple H recalled the star-making performance and shared satisfaction with his opponent, saying "I remember Mick and I being very proud."
Shinsuke Nakamura and Rick Boogs vs. The Usos
Opening night one of WrestleMania 38, the Usos defended the WWE "SmackDown" Tag Team Championship against Shinsuke Nakamura and Rick Boogs. Reconciling after Jimmy returned from injury in May 2021, the Usos won the titles from the Mysterios at Money in the Bank. A homegrown talent of the NXT farm system, Boogs debuted in May as Nakamura’s guitarist backup. Attempting to lift both Usos with a fireman’s carry, Boogs’ leg gave out and he retreated ringside. The Usos retained via pinfall after hitting a 1-D on Nakamura. Medical officials tended to the injured Boogs who was dismissed from the arena with their assistance. At 6 minutes and 55 seconds, it was the shortest match of the night, and decidedly not how a marquee matchup was supposed to end.
In an Instagram post, Boogs revealed he had torn his right quadricep and has been on the shelf since. In May 2022, Boogs posted a video on his personal YouTube channel detailing his positive physical therapy journey. Boogs looks to be in better health, tweeting a video of himself lifting weights in his home gym.
CM Punk vs. Chris Benoit
After the ECW Championship was vacated in 2007, a tournament was held to crown a new champion. CM Punk and the newly drafted Chris Benoit were booked for the finals at Vengeance: Night of Champions. Leading up to the event, Benoit missed the weekend house shows, a rarity given his punctual attendance. Benoit told officials his family had food poisoning and he’d make it to the show. Chavo Guerrero reflected on the incident on "Talk is Jericho," where he remembered being concerned for Chris in their final conversation and noticed his abnormal demeanor. With Benoit’s absence at the pay-per-view, Johnny Nitro was cast as a last-minute replacement where he’d beat CM Punk for the ECW Championship.
Atlanta authorities found Benoit and his family dead in their suburban home during a wellness check made on behalf of WWE, according to the New York Times. Speaking with the House of Representatives regarding substance abuse in wrestling, Stephanie McMahon claims Benoit was booked to win but "didn’t show up at the pay‐per‐view because he was dead." When asked about plans for the match, Punk tweeted in February 2021 "All we talked about was beating the piss out of each other."
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The Rock vs. Kurt Angle
The last roadblock towards WrestleMania X7, No Way Out 2001 saw Kurt Angle defend his WWF Championship against The Rock. The two had met in previous encounters, with Angle winning the title off The Rock at No Mercy and surviving the Armageddon Hell in the Cell. The two athletes wrestled a crisp, competitive match that highlighted Angle as a fighting champion and The Rock as the challenger hellbent on reclaiming his championship. The plan was to have The Rock win with two Rock Bottoms, but when the time came for the match to end referee Earl Hebner hesitated to complete the fall. The crowd gasped in confusion, with The Rock reining it in with a third Rock Bottom to win his sixth WWF Championship.
411Mania covered Angle’s recollection of the match on "The Kurt Angle Show." Angle blames Hebner’s mistake on him miscounting Rock Bottoms, with The Rock telling him to "Count the m********g finish." He credits the performance with morphing him from "the funny, goofy Kurt Angle to a more serious competitor," and praised The Rock for making him look good. Jim Ross cut Hebner some slack on "Grilling JR," believing he wasn’t given the finish and said "That wasn’t his match … Hebner is only gonna work by what information is provided."
Wrestlemania 2000 Hardcore Battle Royal
WrestleMania 2000 saw Crash Holly defend his Hardcore Championship in a 13-man battle royal featuring The APA, Mean Street Posse, and Hardcore Holly. The segment was full of car-crash brawling and weapons use throughout the arena as the title was hot-potatoed amongst the competitors. The final seconds of the match saw Tazz lock in his Tazmission on Crash, nearly getting the tap out until Hardcore Holly smashed a jar of candy on his cousin’s head. Referee Tim White counted the fall but awkwardly stopped right before two, with Holly getting the visual pin and being declared the winner by an unsure Howard Finkel. Later in the night, Holly cut an heated promo vowing to defend the title and called Michael Cole a "little s***head."
In a 2003 shoot with The Smart Marks, Crash discussed the original finish of the match, which saw him retain by beating the clock. White was miscued by production, meant to end the match with an incomplete pinfall but started too early. Upon returning to the back, White was lambasted by McMahon and a group of road agents. WrestlingRecaps notes that, according to his 2010 YouShoot interview, Hardcore believed he would be chewed out, but didn’t get any heat as it was a production error. On "Grilling JR," Jim Ross gave his take on the situation saying "I felt bad for Timmy White … I thought it was b***t." Crash regained the championship the next night on "Raw."
Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart
Mounting tensions in the locker room put the main event of Survivor Series 1997 in precarity, as WWF Champion Bret Hart was set to defend against rival Shawn Michaels in Hart’s stomping ground of Montreal. In an interview with Bruce Prichard, Gerald Brisco recalled Vince McMahon’s meeting with Hart discussing the WWF’s inability to follow through a 20 year agreement made the year before. McMahon was set on keeping his championship on his turf, concerned Hart would take the title in his defection to WCW a la Alundra Blayze. In the finish of the match, Michaels had Hart locked in the Sharpshooter with McMahon calling for the bell despite Hart not tapping. An enraged Hart spat on Vince and traced "WCW" for the hard cam, saying goodbye to fans.
The original finish to the Montreal Screwjob has been debated among backstage personnel from the time. Jim Cornette, a member of the creative team, pitched having Ken Shamrock win the title. Mike Chioda, in an interview with Inside the Ropes, revealed that he was supposed to be involved in the finish with Owen Hart throwing him out the ring during a pinfall attempt. Sports Illustrated dived into a contingent of the wrestling community believing the Screwjob to be an elaborate work, with all involved being in on the ruse. VICE TV explored the controversy in an episode of "Dark Side of the Ring." Hart made his return to WWE in 2010, burying the hatchet with Michaels.
D-Generation X vs. Rated RKO
First meeting at Cyber Sunday in 2006, Rated RKO handed D-Generation X their first loss since reforming in June. The two teams engaged in a blood feud in the closing months of 2006, meeting at New Year’s Revolution 2007. With Edge and Randy Orton’s World Tag Team Championships on the line and the shared history among the four men, they wrestled a competitive match. Landing a spinebuster on Orton, Triple H legitimately injured his right quadricep paralleling a similar incident in 2001. In spite of the debilitating injury, Triple H pushed forward favoring his left leg. The Sports Daily claims Rated RKO were to go over, but a new finish needed to be called. Thinking on the fly, Shawn Michaels kept the energy of the match with a suicide dive and attacked referee Marty Elias. Producing chairs from ringside, DX bludgeoned Edge and Orton causing them to bleed. The match ended in a no contest after Triple H hit the Pedigree on Edge and HBK elbowed a blood-soaked Orton on the announce tables.
Inside Pulse reported WWE’s announcement of Triple H’s injury, estimating a recovery time of four to six months. In an interview with Sportskeeda, Elias remembered a grateful McMahon thanking him for watching out for his son-in-law. Triple H spent the first half of the year rehabbing the injury, axing his planned rematch with John Cena at WrestleMania 23 according to Wrestleview. He made his in-ring return at SummerSlam, dethroning King Booker.
The Vaudevillains vs. Enzo and Cass
The Vaudevillains and Enzo and Cass jumped to the main roster the week of WrestleMania 32 after very successful careers in NXT. Meeting at Payback 2016, they opened the pay-per-view in a number one contender’s match for the WWE Tag Team Championship. Simon Gotch and Enzo Amore were the legal men, leading to a spot where Gotch chucked Amore under the ropes. Amore was meant to perform a baseball slide and land safely at ringside, but due to the spacing of the competitors, his head whipped off the bottom rope and hit the canvas. Referees observed Amore, rendering him unable to compete and ended the match in a no contest in favor of the Vaudevillains. Diagnosed with a concussion, Amore returned to TV on the May 23 episode of "Monday Night Raw."
The two teams continued their feud throughout the summer, recreating the spot in a future match where an incensed Cass steamrolled over The Vaudevillains leading to a disqualification. Gotch was released from his contract less than a year later in April. In the infamous shoot interview with Title Match, Gotch recalls the Payback match stating that if there was any direct heat towards him, it wasn’t apparent as the locker room knew Enzo was a "clod" in the ring. Enzo responded in a shoot, noting he had done the spot many times before with Aiden English but the only time he had done it with Gotch he ended up in the hospital.
Day 1 Fatal Five Way
In the inaugural Day 1 premium live event, Brock Lesnar was set to challenge Roman Reigns for the Universal Championship. The main event was put in jeopardy as Reigns tested positive for COVID-19 on the day of the show and was unable to compete. Lesnar, having been advertised for the event since the previous summer, was seemingly left without an opponent. WWE announced Lesnar’s inclusion in the WWE Championship match, originally a fatal four way between Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Bobby Lashley, and the defending champ Big E. Lesnar made short work of his opponents, utilizing his repertoire of German suplexes to maintain control and pinned Big E for his sixth WWE Championship win.
Original plans for the event saw Big E retain and Lesnar to defeat Roman (per Talksport). Backstage reports from Fightful Select (via Wrestletalk) reveal the locker room was dissatisfied with the title change, feeling Big E’s booking "wasn’t consistent," and there was more to be done.
Lesnar’s victory had massive ramifications for the world title picture, with him dropping the championship to Lashley at the Royal Rumble event later in the month.