Poor Roman Reigns. He's always getting picked on by the internet and booed by crowds. Believe it or not, he’s far from the first person to be selected as a “chosen one” and then soundly rejected by the paying customers. He’s the most egregious example of late, but Vince McMahon trolling his own fan base dates back pretty far.
To keep things somewhat simple, the list below is only of people who were intended as “main eventers” (thus, no X-Pac, the poster child for this sort of thing), and we’ll just stick with WWE because if we include WCW, then that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Also, I’m not including Rocky Maivia, because that was never supposed be a main-event character.
I also reserve the right to go back in and add WWE champion Jinder Mahal to this list if that abomination comes to pass next month.
1. Bob Backlund (1982)
As noted, the McMahon family's tone-deafness to its own audience dates all the way back to the early days of the promotion. Bob Backlund won his first world title in WWE (then known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation, or WWWF) way back in 1978, and he held it for an amazing six years.
This kind of title reign wasn’t entirely unprecedented at that time (Bruno Sammartino held it for an incredible eight years straight, for example), but that’s still a long time for one guy to be champion. Vince McMahon Sr. could be just as stubborn as his son turned out to be. By comparison, Hulk Hogan held his first world title for four years and he was the most popular wrestler in history while he was champion. Even then, people were getting burned out on him by the end.
Imagine, then, Bob Backlund, a pasty-white babyface superhero who never cheated and tended to only wrestle a clean, scientific style. After about four years of that, WWF fans were pretty sick of seeing the same guy doing the same match. Even worse, Backlund was mostly out of challengers and spent much of the early '80s doing boring midcard matches with guys like the Wild Samoans night after night. In fact, much of the early output of Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter was dedicated to burying Backlund at every opportunity in 1982, with a fan base that would today be the equivalent of the internet (the so-called “hardcore fans” of the time) bashing poor Bob week after week.
Finally, by 1983, Vince McMahon Jr. was ready to take the business over from his father, and he knew Bob wasn’t the guy to excite the fans any longer, so the world got Hulk Hogan instead. Vince actually asked Bob to change his image with the times, offering him a main-event run against Hogan in exchange for dyeing his hair black and playing a punk-rock heel. Bob declined and largely disappeared from the business for a decade.
2. Ultimate Warrior (1990)
After Hogan’s run was done and he was ready to strike it rich in Hollywood, Vince needed a new guy on top: a guy who was just as bad in the ring as the Hulkster was, but younger, and with more hair and maybe tassels on his arms. Ultimate Warrior fit that bill perfectly, and so in 1990 we got The Ultimate Challenge at WrestleMania 6, with Warrior defeating Hogan cleanly in the middle of the ring to win the WWF title and carry the promotion as the new top guy.
One problem: People still wanted Hogan. Oh, they thought they wanted someone new, but it turns out that when push came to shove, having Warrior go out there and cut bizarre promos about journeying into space and carrying people on his back up the mountain just wasn’t a particularly good way for fans to relate to him. Not to mention that whereas Hogan was a tireless self-promoter and media machine, Warrior was much more of a loner who was perceived as being aloof and didn’t want people prying into his personal life.
Most damaging, however, Warrior had already soundly beaten everyone who could possibly be a serious challenge to him as champion. While Hogan got the juicy story line of having to stop the unstoppable Earthquake all summer, Warrior was stuck with dead weight like ice-cold heel Dino Bravo or career midcarder Rick Rude for his opponents. Warrior didn’t find anyone he had chemistry with until the very end of his title reign, when his feud with Randy Savage suddenly caught fire. By then it was far too late, however, as Warrior’s popularity as champion plummeted and attendance dwindled under his watch. Crowds that went crazy for Hogan’s act sat in silence for his, and the desperate WWF had to give out thousands of Ultimate Warrior masks and T-shirts for TV show tapings to provide the illusion of rabid Warrior fans on camera. Even then, only a fraction of the crowd bothered to wear any of the free merchandise.
You can watch episodes of "Saturday Night’s Main Event" from late in 1990 where the majority of the crowd has already gone home after the Hulk Hogan match, leaving a half-empty building to see the “main event” of Warrior squashing some geek like Haku. Although there was less open hostility to Warrior than some of the other people on this list, the numbers for the WWF dropped so dramatically by the end of 1990 that it had to put the title back on Hogan in 1991 to stop the bleeding.
3. Shawn Michaels (1996)
In another case of Vince McMahon not knowing how to read the room (see also: Reigns, Roman), we got Shawn Michaels fulfilling his boyhood dream at WrestleMania 12 and beating Bret Hart to win his first WWF title. This would normally have been a fantastic idea, but the WWF marketing machine immediately decided to change everything about Shawn that people liked about him. Michaels was the edgy, flamboyant bad boy who represented the antithesis of everything that had gone wrong with Diesel in 1995, and that’s what turned him into a star.
As soon as he got the big belt, he suddenly had Jose Lothario at ringside as his sidekick, and he was doing a wishy-washy babyface act where he fought for truth and justice like a sucker. Before, he danced ironically to play the bad guy; now, he was trying to portray exactly the kind of cliche baby-kissing nerd that was intended to appeal to every demographic. He’s a ladies’ man! He’s a dangerous bad boy! He’ll mix it up with the rough-house fisticuffs, as Vince would say. It was all too much, and clearly his buddies Hall and Nash (who had jumped to WCW and were playing exactly the characters that people wanted Shawn to be) were far cooler than him.
By November, months into his failing title reign, Shawn was clearly burned out from the pressures of carrying the WWF and fans were completely sick of him. The smart fans cheered supposed monster villain Vader at SummerSlam, delighting in Shawn getting beat up. Finally, Vince pulled the plug at Survivor Series. Sid Vicious got the biggest reaction of his entire career slaughtering Shawn to win the title, despite being portrayed as the heel. Thankfully, Shawn was a smart enough wrestler to completely reinvent his character by 1997, basically by just being himself “turned up to 11,” as Vince likes to say. Gone was the family-friendly image and the pandering to the women in the audience. Of course, by 1998 people were sick of him being a jerk in general, but that’s a different list.
4. Muhammad Hassan (2005)
Here’s a bit of a different one. Hassan was never world champion, although not for lack of trying on WWE's part. Hassan was an Italian-American wrestler named Marc Copani who was given the gimmick of Arab-American while training in OVW in 2004, and it was a very different type of gimmick. Previous Arab gimmicks had been stereotyped as sheiks and sultans out to spit on the American flag or act as terrorists; Hassan was something of a deconstruction of that idea. He claimed to be the victim of discrimination by fans just because of his heritage, and his character was someone trying to be a babyface but portrayed as a heel because of who he was.
Interesting enough, but cerebral doesn’t really work for successful WWE gimmicks. Not to mention that his debut match on the main roster was against retired announcer Jerry Lawler, a terrible match that went over like a fart in church. Hassan was seemingly DOA as an act, but WWE had big plans for him, so suddenly out went the nuances of the character and by WrestleMania 21 he was waving the Iranian flag and challenging Hulk Hogan. Clearly, in a post-9/11 world this wasn’t really something fans were comfortable watching, and Hassan started getting what can only be described as a really uncomfortable reaction from fans. They didn’t really hate the character as such; they hated the idea that the promotion would be so manipulative as to use anti-Arab feelings as a wrestling gimmick. In other woeds, people didn’t boo; they just kind of grumbled.
Hassan stumbled through a losing streak on “Raw” while the company tried to figure out what to do with him. Turned out, the next phase was to have him be a full-fledged Islamic terrorist, because why not? The plan was to have him win the world title from Batista at Summer Slam 2005 in Washington, and to set him up as a serious contender, Hassan was put into a feud with Undertaker. On the July 4 episode of “Smackdown,” Undertaker faced Hassan’s equally stereotypical manager Daivari, during which Hassan knelt in prayer and summoned what appeared to be Islamic terrorist figures clothed in black. They kidnapped the Undertaker after delivering a realistic beatdown, using clubs and piano wire as weapons. To say that this was an uncomfortable scene for fans to watch would be a massive understatement, and as soon as the show was taped there was criticism it was going to bite the company sooner rather than later.
Before the show aired on UPN, the London bombings occurred, and suddenly the UPN network no longer wanted to be associated with this kind of character. Hassan was quickly dropped from the show after getting squashed by Undertaker, his impending title shot dropped and forgotten, and he was sent back to developmental after being cut from the main roster. Copani eventually disappeared from the business because he was unable to escape from the shadow of the controversy. So maybe his character had a point?
5. Batista/Roman Reigns (2014/2015 Royal Rumble)
These are two different incidents, but they’re both essentially the same. Each one is a case of “Not being Daniel Bryan” and both backfired on WWE spectacularly. First, Batista made his return to WWE after filming “Guardians of the Galaxy” by winning the 2014 Royal Rumble. The issue was that the fans in the building that night didn’t want that; they wanted Daniel Bryan and had made that quite clear for months.
Despite months of teasing Bryan winning the WWE title from Randy Orton, the company still didn’t see Bryan as anything but “a B-plus player” and instead slotted him into a feud with Bray Wyatt for the Royal Rumble. This only served to make Bryan even more of a cult underdog figure, and the assumption from the crowd was that he would do double duty and work the Rumble match itself. This proved not to be the case, and as the Rumble match progressed, the crowd got more and more impatient, leaving Batista’s big return to go completely flat when Bryan failed to appear. In fact, his big win was booed out of the building simply because he wasn’t Daniel Bryan. This is where the “Bootista” meme came from. Thankfully, everyone came to their senses and Bryan won the title at WrestleMania 30 in a famous ending, tapping out Batista to assuage the fans.
You’d think the company would have learned by the next year. This time, Bryan was clearly advertised as being in the match, but the designated winner was to be Reigns. The Philly crowd wouldn’t buy into that, so the idea was to have Bryan come into the match early and get tossed out with a minimum of controversy so the hostile crowd could boo the elimination and get it out of its system. Then the fans would cheer on Reigns on and everyone would be happy and make millions of dollars.
That’s not what happened, The crowd, amazingly, turned on the entire match for close to 40 minutes straight, booing Reigns relentlessly no matter what he did and chanting for Bryan. By the end, the reaction was so vitriolic that the anti-American heel Rusev was cheered as a hero for nearly throwing out Reigns. The crowd even booed the Rock when he came out to endorse Reigns. In the ultimate act of tone-deaf stubbornness, WWE booked a match for the February PPV in which Reigns beat Daniel Bryan cleanly so that Bryan could also endorse the almighty Roman. You can imagine how well that went over.
But hey, fans will eventually forgive Reigns .… right?