Pro Wrestling’s Biggest ‘What Ifs’: WrestleMania, Bret Hart & Shawn Michaels, WCW & More

By any calculation, Wrestling has a prestigious history. Looking back at certain times, one can trace points where something happened that changed the direction of the industry. The question “what if”, can be applied to just about every walk of life.

What if Jordan never retired in the 1990’s?

What if Tupac and Biggie were still alive?

What if you didn’t drink everything in sight that one night?

It’s one of the best questions to ask yourself, because you’ll never really know the answer. Wrestling is no different. Whether through injuries, risks taken, or behind the scenes controversy, opportunities to shine are often created or taken away because of those moments.

Certainly, even changing a minor detail can often derail the future, as fantasized about in science fiction films. But changing a major happening would cause history to be re-written altogether. In wrestling, entire eras could be compromised; making this column literally go a million different ways. Wrestling has undergone changes since it became a national cable powerhouse in the early 1980’s. The focus will be on some moments from that point forward, with more editions of this article to come in the future.  

Here are questions that just missed the cut and a short answer:

What if The Undertaker took a bogus Wrestlemania loss early in his career? (We obviously would have no talk of a Wrestlemania Streak, and a major part of Taker’s legend would not exist)

What if Ric Flair never returned to WCW in 1993? (He doesn’t have his confidence killed by Eric Bischoff, gets positioned by Vince McMahon as the Babe Ruth of Wrestling a lot faster, and never endures years of bad storylines in WCW)

What if Vince McMahon had WCW’s roster during the Monday Night Wars? (There wouldn’t have been a war. WCW seemingly had a 4 to 1 ratio of talent on its roster. Meaning for a guy like Triple H, WCW had 4 guys to match his talent)

What if Brock Lesnar was content with WWE? (We would have to re-book 2004-2012 to show Lesnar as more of an all-time great than he already is)

Ok those are just a few what ifs; let’s get to the real ones!

What if WCW was not mismanaged?

World Championship Wrestling

Mismanagement and WCW seem to go hand in hand. Stories of a guy named Jim Herd wanting Ric Flair to cut his hair and call himself Spartacus are well known by longtime fans. But the mismanagement of talent and booking was nothing compared to what WCW wasted money on people contract wise, and behind the scenes. We’ll get back to the talent in a minute.

According to the R.D Reynolds book, “The Death Of WCW” The WCW pay-per-view Road Wild, held in Sturgis, South Dakota, was run as a FREE OF CHARGE event.  Reynolds wrote;

“The matches took place in the middle of a field of thousands of drunken bikers who WCW did not charge to attend the event. In other words, the gate was zero dollars. Despite this lack of revenue, the company would hold the event over the next several years; primarily due to the fact Eric Bischoff was such a huge motorcycle enthusiast.”

Turning a profit for a pay-per-view usually would be paramount to staying in business. This was only one of the starting points on the road to losing 62 million dollars in the year 2000. Another head scratching occurrence was when WCW once saw fit to pay Master P’s bodyguard, “Swoll” $400,000 a year, despite any semblance of wrestling ability. Meanwhile WCW declined to retain the services of Chris Jericho who went on to be one of the greatest wrestlers to ever enter a ring. Had WCW been in control by someone who was an actual boss and not a mark to the wrestlers himself, WCW could still be here today. For every good thing WCW did, there were 5 bad decisions coming behind it.

What if Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart Got Along?

Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels

The Holy Grail of wrestling rivalries is Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart. From their matches, and the genuine dislike between the two, they were ideal opponents. They probably were also ripe for implosion. At their simplest they were two rivals that rose to prominence in the New Generation Era of WWE, due to their exciting matches, charisma and contrast to the dinosaurs of the golden age. In their more complicated sense, they were two polar opposites, with egos that were too big to often share the same room or work together for the better of WWE.

Initially they had a cordial relationship that was brought down due to backstage politics, their own agendas, and competition for the top spot. If Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart got along a number of things change course.

First, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels would have continued to have classic matches during the years of 1996-1997. Surely, Bret never takes a hiatus to see if Shawn can carry the company. For a rivalry that organic and the lack of roster depth at that time, to produce only two zenith level matches is unforgivable. Bret and Shawn could have worked rematches of the ironman match, and done stellar business in the process. Does anyone else feel robbed as a wrestling fan?

Second, the known plan was to have Shawn drop the title back to Bret Hart at Wrestlemania 13. Depending on whom you believe, Shawn found a way to forfeit the title, by way of injury, as a way of saying he didn’t want to lose to Bret. Bret understandably was not happy with this, and had to settle for another rivalry with rising star Stone Cold Steve Austin. Had HBK and Hart been on the same page, we may never have gotten the classic submission double turn contest that launched Stone Cold into mega stardom.

Finally, The Montreal Screwjob could have been avoided. Retrospectively, it was one of the greatest things to ever happen to wrestling. There are enough stories breaking it down on documentaries so I will not do so here. However, if Vince never has to screw Bret, due to Bret’s resistance of losing the title to Shawn, we never get Mr. McMahon to kick start the attitude era. To think, the 4 year wrestling boom can be attributed to two guys who just couldn’t get along. Maybe it all worked out for the best? Who knows?

What if the Curtain Call Never Happens?

In May 1996, Razor Ramon and Diesel were headed to WCW. Armed with guaranteed money these men changed the business of contracts within professional wrestling. Hall and Nash were part of a backstage group that was known as “The Kliq.” Other members of The Kliq were a young Triple H, Sean Waltman, and Shawn Michaels. They were a group of main event caliber wrestlers, who protected their own and influenced booking decisions.

These men along with Bret Hart & The Undertaker, helped WWE regain its footing after Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Jake Roberts and more marquee names from the late 80’s left the company. On their last night together in Madison Square Garden, the defacto home of WWE, four members of The Kliq decided to give fans a final goodbye to Hall and Nash by breaking Kayfabe (which still was protected then) and hugging in the ring and raising their arms in a triumphant moment.

Naturally there were going to be repercussions. Wrestlers backstage were outraged, alleging The Kilq was killing the business, and someone had to be punished. With Hall and Nash on the way to WCW, and Shawn Michaels the World Champion, Vince McMahon turned his fury to a young Triple H, who was on track to win that years King of The Ring tournament and begin a massive push. Triple H says Vince told him, “He had to learn to eat s**t and like the taste of it.” A prompt burial if there ever was one.

Upon HHH’s burial, Vince turned to his backup plan and had Stone Cold Steve Austin win the 1996 King of the Ring. Stone Cold cut the “Austin 3:16 SAYS I JUST WHOOPED YOUR A**!” promo directly after winning the crown, and went on to be the biggest superstar ever.

In reprimanding HHH, he created the platform for Austin 3:16 to be launched. The lesson as always, Vince never loses.

What if Shawn Michaels never missed the Attitude Era?

Shawn Michaels injured his back in a casket match against The Undertaker in 1998, and was forced into early retirement. He was at the top of his game physically, but mentally he was in a dark place. Years of drug abuse, and stress of being the top guy created a difficult guy to work with for many in the WWE. Michaels recharged his batteries and healed enough to return in the year 2002, and go strong until his final retirement in 2010.

The question is what would have happened had Michaels not missed 4 years of going down the same road, and competing in the attitude era?

Ironically, as much as Shawn personified the attitude era on screen, his actions back stage probably would’ve not been tolerated much longer. Could you see 1998 Shawn Michaels willingly moving out of the top spot to allow the rise of The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin?  Even Undertaker had to threaten to beat Shawn’s drum, if he did not do the job for Austin at WM 14. He could have derailed the entire movement with his selfishness. HHH wouldn’t have got the chance to blossom as the leader of DX, and there would have been no reason to bring in The New Age Outlaws and X-Pac.

However, there weren’t all bad possibilities. We may have gotten the true dream match of Shawn Michaels vs. The Rock, or Shawn and Undertaker facing off at Wrestlemania when they were younger.

Conversely, Shawn Michaels may have broken down faster physically, and not created so many of the Wrestlemania classics that defined the 2000’s.  Does Shawn get to Wrestlemania 24 to retire Ric Flair? Or does he set a date for Wrestlemania 25 to face Taker in the best match ever?  He probably burns out around 2004 in memorable fashion. While still an all-time great, but not the consensus best ever. What do you think?

What if Wrestlemania 1 Failed?

WrestleMania I

Quite frankly if Wrestlemania 1 failed, Pro Wrestling would have adhered to the same fate in the long term. According to the 50 years of WWE documentary; Vince McMahon put his entire bank account on the line. Had ‘Mania been a failure, he would have been in tremendous debt, the Wrestlemania performers would have been blackballed by other territories, and there would be no true leader in sports entertainment.

At that time the NWA was still in existence, but it’s easy to see Jim Crockett botching being the top dog based on how he handled being #2. What separated the WWE’s vision for Wrestlemania was the forward thinking of Vince McMahon to make it more of a show, than a “Wrasslin event.” Vince rode the Hulkamania craze and combined it with Cyndi Lauper and Mr.T, who drew many eyes that would have had no reason to ever watch wrestling.

Wrestlemania was a corner stone of pop culture in 1985. Had it failed with the celebrity involvement, and sports personalities that were part of the card, Wrestling would have NEVER had a chance to get over.  If Wrestlemania 1 fails, they never do another one. No Hogan/Andre, Austin/Rock, Bret/Shawn. Instead the wrestling business would be left to smaller regional promoters, that didn’t have the resources or creative ideas to capture the world’s attention. Sort of like boxing.

Submit “what if” questions below in the comment section, or on Twitter @DangerRich32, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

What do you folks think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.