It's WrestleMania season, which always gets me thinking about nerdy things having to do with the Showcase of the Immortals. I previously wrote about WrestleMania Demotions, citing ten examples of a particular star going from a position of great prominence one year to an afterthought the next (poor Randy Savage suffered this fate twice). But in the spirit of positivity let's take a look at ten examples of the opposite situation. There have been times when a given talent either opens the show or only gets scraps at the WrestleMania table one year and is then catapulted to a potentially career-making moment the following year. Here are ten such scenarios...
1. King Kong Bundy - WrestleMania 1 to 2
The monstrous Bundy made a statement in his WrestleMania debut, literally squashing jobber to the stars S.D. Jones in what was meant to be a record-setting nine seconds but actually went more like 24. Still it was a one-sided, dominant appearance that helped establish the 450-pound monster with a wider audience and groom him as one of the company's top heels. Just one year later Bundy would challenge WWF Champion Hulk Hogan in a steel cage match at the second WrestleMania, enjoying a career peak as Hogan's most forbidding opponent to date. Bundy was sadly never positioned at that level again, and if you refer to my Demotions list, he found himself way back down the card a year after this. But going from a 24-second undercard squash one year to a huge main event the next is quite a promotion.
2. Chris Jericho - WrestleMania 17 to 18
WrestleMania X-Seven is considered by most to be the apex of the Attitude Era, a culmination of everything the WWF product had evolved into during the Monday Night War, as well as a celebration of their total victory over WCW. Chris Jericho arrived in the WWF late in the ratings war and wasn't yet positioned as one of the very top guys by early 2001, more a beneficiary of the WWF's dominance than a factor in getting them there. Thus his match at WM17 was a brief Intercontinental Title defense to open the show. But one year later he found himself the company's top champion, seemingly being groomed as one of the next class of main eventers. On paper everything looked great; Jericho would defend the Undisputed WWF Title (just unified with WCW's version) against Triple H in the main event of WrestleMania X8. Unfortunately egos and bad booking got in the way, and this feud was horribly botched from start to finish. Jericho was booked as a fluke champion, and worse, he was the third wheel in Hunter and Stephanie's recent onscreen breakup, presented as Steph's whipping boy instead of as the company's top heel. The resulting match was an underwhelming foregone conclusion, and Jericho quickly fell down the card over the next several months. Still, Chris Jericho went from WrestleMania curtain jerker to main eventer in the span of one year - no small feat.
3. Kurt Angle - WrestleMania 18 to 19
The same year Chris Jericho was headlining the show, Kurt Angle was thrown into the midcard against Kane, in a serviceable but fairly forgettable affair - frankly a rather shabby way to have treated one of the more important figures in the Invasion angle. But 2002 was the year Angle really proved himself as a main event player, delivering stupendous PPV matches against Edge, Chris Benoit, Rey Mysterio, and Los Guerreros (the vaunted Smackdown Six Era). By year's end Angle had won the WWE Championship, and the WrestleMania plan was for him to put over WWE's newest main event sensation Brock Lesnar. This dream match of collegiate wrestling champions was almost derailed when Angle discovered he needed neck surgery, but he opted to tough it out for the one match before going under the knife. The result was a classic 'Mania main event (and the first PPV main event in over five years to not include Austin, Rock, Triple H or Undertaker) that showcased both men's grappling skills and climaxed with a horrifyingly botched shooting star press from Lesnar. In just over 365 days Kurt Angle went from a secondary player to a WrestleMania elite.
4. Chris Benoit - WrestleMania 19 to 20
The first half of the double-aughts is represented four times on this list, and the third instance is about He Who Shall Not Be Named. Chris Benoit's role at WrestleMania 19 was fairly minimal, as part of a triple threat Tag Team Title match where he partnered with Rhyno against Team Angle and Los Guerreros. The bout was quite good for what it was, but not a very prominent spot for Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, two of the company's best workers at the time. One year later however they'd close WrestleMania as WWE's top two champions; Eddie having successfully defended the WWE Title against Kurt Angle in a fantastic semi-main event, and Benoit, Triple H and Shawn Michaels weaving together an all-time classic. In 2003 Benoit was an also-ran. One year later he and his best friend were World Champions.
5. Batista - WrestleMania 20 to 21
2004 was the year WWE got serious about pushing three rising stars. Priority #1 was Randy Orton, #2 was John Cena, and #3 was Dave Batista. All three had their WrestleMania debuts that year, with Cena defeating Big Show for the US Title in the opener, and Orton and Batista teaming with Ric Flair to face the reunited Rock n' Sock Connection. Throughout 2004 it was clear Randy Orton was being groomed as The Next Guy, as he dropped the Intercontinental Title in July, and in August dethroned Chris Benoit for the World Title. But then the company abruptly turned him babyface and his push flopped hard. A month later he'd lost the belt to Triple H, and the crowd began to turn on him. Enter Triple H's "other" henchman, Batista. Big Dave started to catch on huge in late '04 despite being a heel, and by January of 2005 it was clear he was slated for a babyface turn and a feud with Hunter. Batista won the Royal Rumble and opted to challenge his mentor, setting up the WrestleMania 21 main event, a pretty entertaining teacher vs. student match that ended with Dave standing tall as the company's new top man. Going from an undercard handicap tag match in '04 to the main event in '05 is quite the jump, and Dave was a made guy from then on.
6. Edge - WrestleMania 23 to 24
The R-Rated Superstar had already enjoyed a solid main event stint by the time he and seven other guys opened WrestleMania 23 with a Money in the Bank Ladder Match. Hell, Edge himself had already been Mr. MITB two years earlier. And given his recently-ended partnership with Randy Orton it seemed like Edge vs. Orton easily should've been one of the top singles matches that year. But instead both men were shoved into the Ladder Match and both came out losers (Ken Kennedy won the briefcase only to lose it to Edge shortly thereafter). Fast-forward a year and The Ultimate Opportunist had regained the World Title from Batista at Armageddon, survived multiple challenges from Rey Mysterio, and would now face The Undertaker in the main event of WrestleMania 24. What could've been a fairly one-sided affair ended up being one of Edge's defining matches, as he more than held his own against the Deadman, nearly ending the vaunted Streak multiple times before finally succumbing to Hell's Gate. In a year's time Edge went from an underutilized top star to one of Taker's best 'Mania opponents.
7. The Miz - WrestleMania 26 to 27
One of the most unlikely WrestleMania main eventers of all time, Mike Mizanen first gained notoriety on MTV's The Real World of all shows. He made it clear during his reality TV tenure that he was a diehard wrestling fan with aspirations of being a WWE Superstar, and in 2004 he got a chance of sorts, as part of the Tough Enough competition (That Miz was actually able to parlay this awful version of TE into a WWE career is a miracle in itself). Two years of development later Miz was a full-fledged member of the main roster, with terrible ring attire and little credibility. But then in 2009 he got a makeover and a real chance, winning multiple tag team championships and becoming one of the best heel characters in the company. WrestleMania 26 saw him team with Big Show in the Tag Title opener against John Morrison and R-Truth, a forgettable affair but nonetheless a 'Mania debut (He and Morrison had been bumped to the pre-show the year before). Then something crazy happened throughout the rest of 2010 - Miz caught on big as a top-flight heel everyone loved to hate. A US Title run and a Money in the Bank win led him to a shocking RAW cash-in on Randy Orton (leading to the hilarious "Miz Girl" image below), and the former Real World contestant was now the company's top champion. Cue John Cena as Miz's WrestleMania challenger, and we had WWE's top dog against its prospective next "It Guy" (Yes, in 2011 many of us actually had Miz pegged as the next top star). Quite a leap, from tag team opener to WrestleMania main eventer. But two things derailed Miz's big push. The first was the return of The Rock, who was already being set up to face Cena the following year, thus making Cena-Miz an afterthought. The second was that the 'Mania 27 main event was a stinker; an anticlimactic 16-minute free TV-quality match that ended with a double countout, only for The Rock, as WrestleMania Host, to order it restarted and Rock Bottom Cena, allowing Miz to retain. The show then ended with The Rock standing tall over both main event participants. Miz's stock plummeted greatly over the next year and he hasn't been near a 'Mania headliner since. Regardless though, in 2010-2011 Mike the Miz had one helluva year.
8. Daniel Bryan - WrestleMania 29 to 30
The most organically over star since the Attitude Era turned WWE's relationship with its audience on its ear in 2013-2014, after the fans revolted to his treatment at WrestleMania 28. Vince thought he'd be cute by booking the 2012 Daniel Bryan-Sheamus World Title match to only go 18 seconds, but what happened instead was a groundswell of support for the former indie sensation. Nearly two years later the company was forced to overhaul its plans for 'Mania 30 to accommodate the now white-hot babyface underdog (with an assist from an abruptly departed CM Punk). But let's backtrack to 'Mania 29, where Bryan and Team Hell No partner Kane successfully defended the Tag Titles against Dolph Ziggler and Big E, criminally Bryan's first real WrestleMania match since he arrived on the scene three years prior. The tag match was brief but entertaining, and further established THN as the company's top tandem. A run-in with The Shield ended their title reign however, and Bryan was now free to climb the singles ranks again. Throughout the summer of 2013 Bryan was THE hot star in WWE, and at SummerSlam he captured the WWE Title from John Cena only to have guest referee Triple H attack him and allow MITB holder Randy Orton to cash in. Over the next several months Bryan feuded with Hunter and Stephanie, or The Authority as they called themselves, who saw Bryan only as a "B+ Player" and did all they could to keep him away from the championship. By year's end the company had dumped him back into the midcard, much to the fans' chagrin, and it was only after a backlash to 2014 Rumble winner Batista and Punk's aforementioned walkout that WWE relented and added Bryan to the WrestleMania main event picture. Bryan staged an Occupy RAW segment where he and dozens of fans swarmed the ring and refused to leave unless Triple H agreed to face him at 'Mania, with the winner being added to the Orton-Batista main event. Bryan proceeded to defeat the three Evolution mates singlehandedly in one night, becoming one of the most unlikely WWE Champions in history. His title run may have been cut short by injury, but Bryan's 2013-14 rise to the top was an incredible climb, spurned on by an audience that demanded exactly what they wanted.
9. Roman Reigns - WrestleMania 30 to 31
Contrast the previous entry with this one. When the Daniel Bryan saga was derailed by his months-long absence, Vince handpicked a new top babyface in the form of Roman Reigns and spent the next year grooming him for the WrestleMania main event slot. Reigns only two 'Mania matches under his belt at the time, both with his Shield partners, with a combined in-ring time of under 14 minutes. Now the company was all-in on making Reigns a star, but there was one problem - the people still wanted Bryan. At the 2015 Royal Rumble Bryan was unceremoniously eliminated after just ten minutes, while Reigns went the distance and met the wrath of a hostile Philly crowd. It was to be Reigns vs. WWE Champ Brock Lesnar at 'Mania, and the audience was not pleased. Their ensuing match defied expectations however, a smashmouth affair with loads of brutality and a rare dose of blood. But MITB holder Seth Rollins crashed the party and pinned Reigns to capture the Title, pulling off "the biggest heist in WWE history." Still Reigns' ascent stands as a major WrestleMania promotion, from an undercard six-man tag to the most coveted spot in the business, and he went on to headline the next three consecutive 'Manias.
10. Becky Lynch - WrestleMania 34 to 35
Of all the examples on this list, this may be the most significant in terms of card placement from one year to the next. In 2018 Becky Lynch wasn't on the main card at all, relegated to the pre-show women's battle royal, from which she was eliminated somewhere in the middle. She could not have been more of an afterthought on this card if her name were Aiden English. But over the summer something interesting happened - the company turned her heel, and the fans refused to boo her. Becky suddenly became the biggest anti-hero since Stone Cold Steve Austin, her no-bullshit promo style and willingness to break rules endearing her to the audience. At Hell in a Cell she captured the Smackdown Women's Title from Charlotte, and the fans rejoiced. Her next big challenge was to be Ronda Rousey at Survivor Series, but an errant punch to the nose from Nia Jax put Becky on the shelf for weeks, and Charlotte took her place. And like Stone Cold before her, the injury made her a bigger star than ever, as the fans were livid that she was robbed of her big matchup. An ensuing Ronda-Becky Twitter feud caused her stock to surge, and after dropping the Smackdown Women's Title to Asuka she was then positioned to win the Royal Rumble and challenge Ronda in the main event of WrestleMania. Charlotte was later added to the match, having her own unfinished business with Ronda stemming from the Survivor Series bout, but Becky Lynch was now the hottest star in the company and part of the first women's main event in WrestleMania history. In one year she went from barely being noticed in a pre-show schmozz to helping set a new WWE precedent in the main event of the biggest show of the year. Becky Lynch's jump from pre-show to first-ever women's 'Mania headliner has to be considered the greatest WrestleMania promotion of all time.
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