In a business whose televised product is prone to predictability, it can be rather refreshing to take the unexpected bucket of water to the face like that. Unexpected title changes in wrestling have the power to be pleasantly startling, as much as they can also be frustratingly maddening. The same can be said for any sort of deviation from the status quo, depending on how you personally feel about business-as-usual.
Throughout their half century of existence, WWE has had their championship belts swap waists whenever they saw fit, with some title changes opening more eyes than others. This list will look back at those title changes that shocked fans, and even the locker room inhabitants themselves. It is a history of belt-oriented surprises, some that provoked happiness, and others much different types of emotion.
And as a footnote, this list does not include any Money in the Bank cash-ins. That'd be *too* easy to compile.
10. Marty Jannetty Defeats IC Champion Shawn Michaels (Monday Night Raw, 17 May 1993)
That particular episode of Raw was the same one in which 20-year-old Sean Waltman upset Razor Ramon in perhaps the most famous "jobber match" in history. The 17 May 1993 Raw was the night that WWE truly discovered the show's potential, one of those first times that the new tagline "Anything can happen here in the World Wrestling Federation!" rang true.
Michaels had essentially issued an arrogant open challenge for his IC title, which was answered by a well-disguised Jannetty, who was making his return after a four-month layoff. Jannetty had failed in prior chances at Michaels, and a title change on free TV didn't exactly seem all that likely. When Mr Perfect interfered in the conclusion, allowing Jannetty to cradle a stunned HBK, it sent the Manhattan Center into an unrestrained frenzy.
9. Bret Hart Defeats WWE Champion Ric Flair (12 October 1992)
What made this title change so shocking is the fact we saw Ric Flair drop the WWE Championship in an untelevised bout at one of WWE's TV tapings to "The Hitman". The fans in Saskatoon that night were very surprised to see Hart force "The Nature Boy" to submit to the Sharpshooter, ceding the belt to his younger foe. Perhaps nobody was more surprised than Hart himself - he didn't find out he was winning the belt until 10 to 12 hours before showtime.
McMahon had reportedly been keeping a short list of potential flagbearers to carry the WWE belt for an extended run, and had decided it was Hart's time. That morning, Hart was told to meet with McMahon early, but the reason for the conference wasn't told to him. After McMahon met with Flair, he then met separately with Hart and told him he was winning the belt that night, to Hart's uncomprehending shock. "The Hitman" quickly placed a call to his wife for her and other Hart relatives to catch a charter flight to the show, so that they could be there. To put it mildly, this title switch was wholly unexpected.
8. The Iron Sheik Defeats Bob Backlund (26 December 1983)
Other than an unrecognized title switch in December 1979 in which Backlund briefly lost the belt to Antonio Inoki, Backlund reigned with the WWE Championship for close to six years. It was a Sammartino-esque reign that didn't appear to have any end in sight, the red-haired, no-frills grappler turning back every challenger from February 1978 until the end of 1983.
By this time, WWE reportedly asked Backlund to drop the strap to their new flavour, Hulk Hogan. Per the story, Backlund was asked to turn heel and put Hogan over, and he refused. Part of the reason is that he didn't respect Hogan's in-ring acumen, and would only lose the belt to someone with a legitimate wrestling background. That someone was Sheik, who was once an Olympic hopeful in Greco-Roman wrestling. The fans inside Madison Square Garden were horrified when Backlund's manager Arnold Skaaland threw in the towel on his behalf, after Backlund (reportedly wrestling with an injured neck) was hopelessly trapped in Sheik's camel clutch. Then four weeks later, Hogan hits the big legdrop, and yada yada yada Rock 'n Wrestling.
7. The Honky Tonk Man Defeats IC Champion Ricky Steamboat (Superstars, 2 June 1987)
In those days, lengthier reigns with the belt were much more commonplace. Hulk Hogan by this time was more than three years into his run as WWE Champion, while Steamboat's IC title win ended the reign of Macho Man Randy Savage, who himself had held the belt for 14 months. The wildly-popular "Dragon" seemed destined to clutch the IC belt for a long time.
His reign barely lasted two months, and came to an end at the hands of someone thought to be vastly inferior. While Honky today is remembered as the consummate antagonist, his victory over Steamboat was booked as a freak upset - commentator Vince McMahon expressed utter disbelief that Honky could beat Steamboat. The fans mirrored the sentiment - imagine if Seth Rollins dropped the belt to someone like Mojo Rawley. Not that Mojo has the charisma or selling abilities of Honky, but fan attitudes toward him were how fans saw Honky in 1987 - not anywhere near championship level. And *that* is why Honky worked as champion - because people paid to see him get his ass beat.
6. The Ultimate Warrior Defeats IC Champion The Honky Tonk Man (SummerSlam 1988)
For close to 15 months, even the best guys on WWE's roster couldn't wrestle the gold away from Honky. Ricky Steamboat, Randy Savage, Brutus Beefcake, and others would have the gold at their fingertips, but ultimately the wily Honky would find some sort of escape.
Originally, the plan for SummerSlam was to see Honky defend the IC belt against Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake. However, plans would change, as Beefcake was written out of the match following a bloody assault at the hands of "Outlaw" Ron Bass, which aired SummerSlam weekend. McMahon had told Honky that Warrior was going to be the man going forward, and at SummerSlam, Honky was made to issue an open challenge to anyone that thought they could beat him. You know how it went - Warrior stormed the ring, cut Honky to pieces, and won the gold in 30 seconds. Fans who attended the TV tapings the prior week may have developed an inkling about the Warrior surprise, but no internet presence means most of the viewing audience would be pleasantly bewildered.
5. Big Show Defeats WWE Champion Brock Lesnar (Survivor Series 2002)
Early in Lesnar's WWE tenure, crowds had taken to chanting "GOLD-BERG" at the muscular brute, and the similarities were numerous. Lesnar even had an unbeaten streak not unlike the former WCW Champion, and it seemed as though it would take somebody monumental to bring Lesnar to his knees.
That's why it was so astonishing when a fairly-heatless Big Show was the one to fell Lesnar, after Heyman had turned on his client. The match itself felt unbefitting of how Lesnar should've been slain, especially since Show had absolutely zero momentum at that stage of his career. While other streak-breakers have been controversial in the eyes of many (Lesnar vs. Undertaker, for sure), this one had nowhere near the resonance - it just felt like business-as-usual.
4. The Spider Lady Defeats Women's Champion Wendi Richter (25 November 1985)
It's been called "The Original Screwjob", and it took place inside Madison Square Garden. Despite Richter's elevated profile due to her connection with pop icon Cyndi Lauper, she had found herself at odds with Vince McMahon. Some sources have said that McMahon had tried to get her to sign a new deal under duress, without any involvement from her representation, while Richter claimed that she already had a contract, but had clashed with Vince over payoffs.
Nonetheless, Richter defended her belt against a masked Spider Lady on an innocuous Monday night at the Garden, having no clue that it was The Fabulous Moolah under the hood. Per McMahon's plan, Richter was held down by Moolah for a BS three-count (Richter actually kicked out on one, but the referee ignored it) in order to switch the belt. A furious Richter peaceably left the arena in her ring gear, and immediately booked a flight out of New York, leaving the company behind. She also reportedly never spoke to Moolah again.
3. Andre The Giant Defeats WWE Champion Hulk Hogan (The Main Event)
You can say that professional wrestling is popular today, but call me when a primetime WWE TV special draws 33 million viewers (weekly Raw's struggle to do one-tenth of that) for a record 15.2 TV rating. One in every six or seven American households was glued to their sets, jonesing to see the long-awaited rematch for the WWE Championship pitting Hulk Hogan against Andre the Giant live on a Friday night.
Words can't even begin to describe the disbelief of seeing Hogan's four-year reign as champion crumble as the result of a Ted Dibiase-masterminded conspiracy, which involved a crooked referee, and Andre agreeing to hand the championship over upon his victory. To see Hogan defeated for the belt (like Richter, he had his shoulder up on one, but in this case, that was part of the work) was almost unfathomable, even in screwy circumstances, even if it was a 500-pound Giant putting him down.
2. Ivan Koloff Defeats WWE Champion Bruno Sammartino (18 January 1971)
For 2,803 days (or seven years, eight months), Bruno Sammartino reigned as WWE Champion, turning back all comers with the guile and power of a true superhero. That vaunted reign seemed like it would only end if Sammartino chose to abdicate it upon retirement. Who could possibly possess the might and fury necessary to take down "The Living Legend"?
The answer would be "The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff. Sammartino's reign had been taken for granted so long, that few could comprehend the relatively straightforward finish to the title change, in which Koloff pinned Sammartino with a flying knee drop after 15 minutes of action. The reaction from the Garden crowd was not anger, but rather stunned silence. Sammartino would since claim that he thought his hearing had been damaged because he expected noise and got none. The mood felt like a funeral, as the air was filled only with muted shock, save for a few true-believer fans openly weeping. Those who were there insist that they'd never felt anything like it otherwise.
1. Shawn Michaels Defeats WWE Champion Bret Hart (Survivor Series 1997)
Well, you knew this had to make the cut. When Jim Ross groaned, "Wow, you talk about controversy!" in the post-match confusion, he understood full well what he had just witnessed: the WCW-bound "Hitman" losing his WWE Championship without truly losing it. It was Richter/Moolah in a pay per view setting, and Hogan/Andre minus the kayfabe.
Tellings, re-tellings, and the spawned conspiracy theories have burned out most fans on the original story, but it still is quite a visual shock: per a carefully-laid plan, Michaels snares Hart in Hart's own Sharpshooter, and referee Earl Hebner (under orders from McMahon and Gerald Brisco) calls for the bell, without Hart actually submitting. The caustic reaction not just from fans, but Hart and Michaels' peers in the locker room, created a riotous mood. Fans in Montreal roared when Hart smashed WWE's TV monitors after the show faded to black, and would later hear of how Hart punched McMahon out backstage in the most talked-about unfilmed confrontation in wrestling history. You know a moment is monumental when fans are still discussing it with frequency 20 years later.