Within professional wrestling, a fascinating hierarchy of talent exists, from legendary champions to the unsung heroes of the ring. Often overlooked but vital to the show are the mid-carders, wrestlers who, despite not always basking in the championship limelight, have occasionally seized the spotlight in the most unexpected ways.
In this journey through the annals of WWE history, we highlight thirteen unanticipated instances where mid-card wrestlers transcended their usual roles, stepping into the main-event spotlight of WWE pay-per-views.
1. Dolph Ziggler – TLC: Tables, Ladders, and Chairs 2012
Dolph Ziggler spent the majority of his WWE life as a mid-carder.
A notable instance occurred in late 2012 during a feud with one of WWE’s top stars, John Cena. This rivalry culminated in a high-stakes Ladder Match at the TLC (Tables, Ladders, and Chairs) pay-per-view event on December 16th, 2012, held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
The match was booked by the Raw Managing Supervisor at the time, Vickie Guerrero. The stipulation was unique: the winner would secure a Money in the Bank contract for the World Heavyweight Championship. It would lead to a Ladder Match between Ziggler and Cena at TLC 2012.
In the match, Cena almost won until AJ Lee appeared and pushed the ladder. This caused Cena, who was on the verge of victory, to fall.
This twist provided Ziggler the opportunity to execute his signature superkick on Cena, leading to his win and the retrieval of the Money in the Bank contract.
Ziggler held on to the Money in the Bank briefcase for 274 days before he finally cashed it in. He did so in memorable fashion at the first Raw after WrestleMania 29, where he defeated Alberto Del Rio to become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion.
2. Shinsuke Nakamura – Payback 2023
Shinsuke Nakamura was considered one of the best in the world during his New Japan Pro-Wrestling run, with him being a former three-time IGWP Heavyweight Champion.
When he signed with the WWE, the fans were sure he would be one of the faces of the company, thanks to his impressive record in NXT, where he became a two-time NXT champion as well.
But sadly, Vince McMahon didn’t see that in him.
“[Vince] gave [Nakamura] opportunity after opportunity,” Road Dogg Jesse James claimed on the “Oh You Didn’t Know” podcast in April 2023.
“Vince saw that you don’t have to see Nakamura perform too many times before you see what everybody else sees.”
Road Dogg continued, “I think the argument can be made that, ‘Can he, could he be a top guy?'” suggesting at the time that the language barrier may have gotten in the way of Nakamura’s ascension to the WWE top ranks.
This sentiment was no longer the case by 2023, when Nakamura feuded with and attacked the then-reigning World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins, turning heel for the first time since 2021.
They fought in the main events of Backlash 2023 on the 7th of May 2023 at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico José Miguel Agrelot, in Puerto Rico, where Rollins defeated him after a Curb Stomp and in a rematch in Fastlane that took place on October 7th, 2023, at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he lost once more.
3. The Miz – The Bash 2009
The singles match between Miz and Cena would take place at The Bash (the sixth annual Great American Bash produced by WWE and 20th overall) on June 28th, 2009, at the ARCO Arena in Sacramento, California.
In the lead-up to this event, The Miz had been challenging John Cena, often claiming victories by forfeit when Cena was either already in a match or injured.
This led The Miz to accumulate a record of 7-0 against Cena under these circumstances.
The ongoing confrontations, including an ambush by Miz with a steel chair, culminated in the announcement of their official match at The Bash on the June 22nd, 2009, episode of Raw.
The match itself was a decisive victory for John Cena, who managed to defeat The Miz after executing an Attitude Adjustment and then applying his STF submission hold. The contest concluded in just five minutes, with Cena successfully silencing The Miz’s verbal assaults that had been ongoing for several weeks.
4. Jey Uso – Clash of Champions 2020
In 2020, Jey Uso was starting to get “over” with the fans individually.
When Big E was injured in the storyline, Jey took his place and won in a fatal four-way to main-event a Universal Championship match against Roman Reigns at Clash of Champions on September 27th, 2020, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida.
During the Universal Championship match, Reigns, who is Jey Uso’s cousin, maintained control for most of the bout. Reigns’ dominance in the ring led to a victory by technical knockout.
The match’s intensity escalated when Jey Uso’s brother, Jimmy Uso, intervened, throwing in a white towel for Jey after Roman had beaten Jey unconscious.
5. Samoa Joe – Great Balls of Fire (2017)
During his time in the WWE, Samoa Joe flirted between the mid-card and upper-card. One such instance took place in 2017.
After Brock Lesnar won the Universal Championship at WrestleMania 33, many wrestlers expressed a desire to fight him for the title.
So a Fatal Five Way at Extreme Rules in Baltimore, Maryland, on the 4th of June, 2017, was scheduled between Samoa Joe, Finn Balor, Bray Wyatt, Roman Reigns, and Seth Rollins.
Joe won, and a match between him and Brock was set for Great Balls of Fire on July 9th, 2017, at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
The match at Great Balls of Fire began abruptly, with Samoa Joe attacking Lesnar even before the bell rang. Lesnar’s resilience then came to the forefront. He countered one of Joe’s Coquina Clutch attempts into a sidewalk slam and managed to deliver a series of suplexes.
In the end, Lesnar overcame Joe’s assaults and executed an F-5 to win the match and retain the WWE Universal Championship.
6. Cesaro – WrestleMania Backlash 2021
Cesaro was always a wrestler everyone knew could become one of the biggest WWE stars, but sadly, we never saw that.
In 2021, Cesaro began a brief feud with Roman Reigns for the Universal Championship.
The angle involved that if he managed to defeat Seth Rollins on Smackdown, he would face Roman for the championship at WrestleMania Backlash on May 16th, 2021, in Tampa, Florida.
He did just that, and the bout was signed.
During the match, Reigns focused on injuring Cesaro’s right arm, which proved to be a strategic move, preventing Cesaro from executing his impressive maneuvers.
The climax of the match saw Reigns applying the Guillotine Choke on Cesaro.
Despite Cesaro’s valiant effort to fight off the submission, including slamming Reigns in an attempt to break free, Reigns maintained the hold, leading to a referee stoppage and Reigns retaining the Universal Championship.
7. John Morrison – Extreme Rules 2011
Despite winning the ECW Championship once and the Intercontinental Championship three times, John Morrison spent most of his WWE career in the mid-card.
But in 2011, he was given a significant opportunity at Extreme Rules 2011, which took place on May 1st, 2011, at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida.
Morrison earned his spot in the main event of this pay-per-view by defeating R-Truth, setting the stage for a high-profile Triple Threat Steel Cage Match.
In the main event, Morrison faced his former partner, The Miz, who was the reigning WWE Champion at the time, and John Cena.
He almost escaped the cage, but R-Truth intervened and attacked him.
The climax of the match saw John Cena execute an Attitude Adjustment on The Miz from the top of the cage. This move allowed Cena to secure a pinfall victory, thus winning the WWE Championship.
8. Shane McMahon – Hell in a Cell 2017
Shane McMahon was never a full-time wrestler, but he had so many important bouts throughout his WWE career.
One such notable match was The Falls Count Anywhere Hell in a Cell match between Shane McMahon and Kevin Owens, which took place on October 8th, 2017, in Detroit, Michigan, as the main event of WWE Hell in a Cell 2017.
Shane and Owens battled in this hard-hitting bout to end their feud.
In a thrilling moment, Shane executed a Leap of Faith from the top of the cage to Owens, who was lying on the announce table.
The climax of the match saw McMahon climb the cell again to take a further leap of faith. However, in a shocking turn, Sami Zayn, Owens’ longtime friend and enemy, intervened, pulling Owens to safety and causing McMahon to crash through the table.
Zayn then placed Owens on top of McMahon, securing the victory for Owens.
9. Vladimir Kozlov – Survivor Series 2008
Vladimir Kozlov, despite receiving a big push during his first months in WWE, was never considered a main eventer.
This storyline led to a Triple-Threat Match scheduled for Survivor Series. The event was set to take place on November 23rd, 2008, at the Banknorth Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, and would feature Kozlov, Jeff Hardy, and Triple H competing for the WWE Championship.
However, the bout turned into Triple H versus Kozlov because Hardy was found unconscious in a hotel in Boston.
But out of nowhere, Edge appeared and was inserted by Vickie Guerrero. After a chair shot to Triple H by a returning Hardy, Edge pinned him to win the WWE Championship.
10. Mr. Kennedy – Armageddon 2006
Mr. Kennedy was the third-ever winner of the WWE Money in the Bank briefcase. However, afterward, he received little attention in the WWE main event scene.
But back in 2006, he feuded with The Undertaker. Kennedy first faced The Undertaker at No Mercy 2006, which took place on October 8th, 2006. In this match, Kennedy was declared the winner by disqualification, although The Undertaker clearly dominated the encounter.
The feud escalated to a First Blood match at Survivor Series on November 26th, 2006, held at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia. Kennedy emerged victorious in this match under controversial circumstances.
The rivalry reached its climax at Armageddon 2006, on December 17, 2006, in a Last Ride match. This rare match type took place at the Richmond Coliseum, and it involved placing the opponent in a hearse and driving them out of the arena.
The Undertaker dominated this match and defeated Kennedy by delivering a chokeslam and a Tombstone Piledriver on top of the hearse before throwing him into the hearse to win the match.
11. Mike Knox – No Way Out 2009
Mike Knox participating in an Elimination Chamber match for the World Heavyweight Championship on June 26th, 2009, at the ARCO Arena in Sacramento, California, was something out of left field.
Knox was able to hold his own but, unfortunately, was the second to be eliminated by Chris Jericho after a Codebreaker, lasting 14:42 minutes.
The match concluded with Edge emerging victorious, capturing the World Heavyweight Championship after delivering a Spear to Rey Mysterio.
Edge’s win was notable as it marked the first time both the WWE and World Heavyweight Championships were defended within the Elimination Chamber on the same night.
12. Chris Masters – New Year’s Revolution 2006
Nicknamed “The Masterpiece,” Chris Masters was once considered among the strongest wrestlers on the WWE roster.
He won a match against Viscera to qualify for the Elimination Chamber at New Year’s Evolution.
The main feud of this pay-per-view was for John Cena’s WWE Championship, and Masters was among those aiming for him, alongside Kane, Kurt Angel, Carlito, and Shawn Michaels.
The New Year’s Revolution event took place on January 8th, 2006, at the Pepsi Arena in Albany, New York. In the Elimination Chamber match, Masters was the fifth participant to enter.
He quickly formed an alliance with Carlito, working together to eliminate Kane. However, their partnership ended abruptly when Carlito betrayed Masters, delivering a low blow while Masters had Cena in the Master Lock and then pinning him with a roll-up. He fought for a total of 28 minutes and 16 seconds.
13. R-Truth – Capitol Punishment 2011
Before joining WWE, R-Truth won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship twice. However, after signing with WWE, R-Truth was often relegated to mid-card matches or comedy acts.
In 2011, he went heel and entered a feud with the then-WWE Champion John Cena.
A match between them for the championship was scheduled at Capitol Punishment 2011 on June 19th at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
In the bout, Cena tried to submit R-Truth with the STF, but Truth defended himself well throughout, performing his facebuster named “Shut Up” on Cena for a near-fall.
For the finish, Truth stole a drink from a fan, and after handing it back, the fan threw the drink in Truth’s face.
This distraction allowed Cena to take advantage, ultimately performing the Attitude Adjustment on R-Truth to secure the win and retain his WWE Championship.
The world of professional wrestling is a dynamic realm filled with diverse talents, from iconic champions to the often-overlooked heroes in the mid-card.
While these above thirteen wrestlers may not have always enjoyed the glory of the spotlight of WWE’s main event, they were given the chance to shine in the final match of a WWE pay-per-view card.
These unexpected moments remind us that in the world of wrestling, underdogs can sometimes become legends, adding layers of excitement and unpredictability to the sport we love.
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- 13 WWE Mid-Carders Turned World Champions After Departure!
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