The initial run for John Morrison in WWE was full of athletic exploits, starts and stops, name changes, and a backstage controversy that led to him asking for his release from the company.
When former TNA/Impact World Champion John Morrison appeared from behind a dressing room door on SmackDown in January of 2020, it came as a surprise how low-key his reemergence back to WWE television was. With the Royal Rumble fast approaching and fans longing for surprise entrants and crowd reactions, it was a bit odd how his return was handled. At first glance, the now 40-years-old Morrison did not appear any different to the former Johnny Nitro that had last graced WWE screens some nine years earlier. In a contradiction to the very undramatic return, Morrison’s first WWE run was full of athletic exploits that stunned the viewing audience. Here, we look back at that time full of name changes, stunts, title wins, tag team exploits, and backstage drama.
John Morrison – Early Years in the Business
Born John Hennigan in late 1970 Los Angeles, Morrison’s first encounter with professional wrestling was with a training school in Sacramento, California. Morrison would later audition for the WWE reality-based show Tough Enough in 2002 but did not make the final cut. However, the following year was a different story as Morrison won the competition along with the late Matt Cappotelli. The win and prize ensured Morrison’s first wrestling contract, and he arrived in the developmental territory of OVW shortly afterward.
After a couple of under the radar appearances on shows such as Sunday Night Heat, Morrison made his Monday Night Raw debut in 2004 as General Manager Eric Bischoff’s assistant. Here is where the first of many name changes came about, as Morrison initially appeared as Johnny Blaze before becoming Johnny Spade and eventually Johnny Nitro, all in the space of a few weeks. The Nitro name, perhaps more of a wrestling fit than Spade, was a nice touch in the story as he was working for former WCW Nitro head Bischoff and at this point, Morrison even used the old Nitro theme as his entrance music. This on-screen role was not a long tenure as Morrison soon found himself back in developmental after a few months.
MNM – The Tag Team of Johnny Nitro and Joey Mercury
While back in OVW, Johnny Nitro started working in a tag team with Virginia native Joey Mercury. With fellow Tough Enough contestant Melina working as their valet, the young team looked fantastic and screamed star power. This led to being called back to the main roster for Nitro, but on this occasion, he found himself on SmackDown as part of the team MNM with Mercury and Melina. Their first match on the blue brand saw MNM win the tag team titles from the soon-to-split duo of Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio. While perhaps overshadowed by Guerrero’s charisma and an impending feud between Eddie and Mysterio, the short series of matches between these two teams were entertaining and worth going back and revisiting.
Watch: MNM win tag team gold for the first time against Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio
Mercury and Nitro, along with ringside assistance from Melina, were making a mark on the fairly weak tag team division on SmackDown at this time with their athletic ability and exciting matches. Added to the in-ring excellence were huge elaborate fur coats, photographers, and even a red carpet as part of their entrance, which helped the brash and cocky (yet charismatic) team stand out.
MNM went on to have several title reigns over a short period, trading the belts with odd couples such as Animal and Heidenreich (who were somehow getting away with a Legion of Doom reference) and the little and large combo of Mysterio and Batista. However, it was the third and final MNM title run that stands out. Defeating Mysterio and Batista in late 2005, the pairing went on to hold the belts for several months, with most of it spent working against the excellent yet underutilized pair of Paul London and Brian Kendrick.
Both teams put on exciting matches during this period, including some singles contests between the four. Their feud concluded at Judgement Day 2006, where MNM would eventually get dethroned by their smaller yet equally athletic counterparts.
In a match going almost 20 minutes, this show opener was a fast-paced aerial battle. Melina was her crazed, screaming best at ringside, and the display put on by the four competitors still stands up very well in today’s more elaborate tag team-orientated world, some 14 years later.
Ultimately, this was to be the MNM swansong. With Mercury bumping into Nitro and sending him crashing onto Melina at ringside, the two fallen members of MNM blamed Mercury for the loss. After a brief verbal confrontation, Melina slapped Mercury, and when it looked like he might retaliate, Nitro ran through his partner. A short brawl at ringside ensued and was split up by the usual crew of WWE backstagers, but the team was finished for now.
The angle, done in part to allow Nitro to enter the singles ranks, also had another motive as Mercury had recently failed a drug test and was due to serve a suspension. The brawl at the pay-per-view saw SmackDown GM Teddy Long pushed to the floor, coupled with a backstage confrontation in which Melina slapped Long led to her and Nitro’s "firing" from SmackDown.
Johnny Nitro as a Singles Competitor
The on-screen unemployment of Johnny Nitro and Melina did not last long, however, as they resurfaced the following week on Monday Night Raw. Nitro was thrown straight into a high profile contest with WWE Champion John Cena in his first appearance on the red brand. Morrison was on the losing end of this match, as many were with Cena in this era. Still, his involvement served its purpose in establishing Nitro as a credible competitor on the Monday Night show straight away.
In mid-2006, the WWE title scene was tied up with John Cena defending against Rob Van Dam, Booker T, and Edge. Due to this, Nitro, somewhat predictably, dropped into the Intercontinental Championship picture. In that area of the card on Monday Night Raw were performers perhaps more similar to Nitro’s in-ring style. Smaller competitors like Carlito, Shelton Benjamin, and Jeff Hardy were also capable of keeping up with the high-speed aerial offense Nitro brought to the table. Morrison would win his first WWE singles title by defeating the above mentioned Benjamin and Carlito in a triple threat match for the Intercontinental Championship at Vengeance 2006 in a good, if maybe too short, contest worth going back and revisiting.
Watch John Morrison (then known as Johnny Nitro) become Intercontinental Champion for the first time:
Nitro would continue to defend the Intercontinental title for the next few months before ultimately losing it to Jeff Hardy in another excellent outing on Monday Night Raw, before reclaiming the belt a few weeks later again on an episode of Raw. However, in perhaps the best example of how WWE was treating this championship at the time, Nitro lost the title, and it was back in the hands of Hardy a mere seven days later. Morrison, Benjamin, and Hardy’s excellent in-ring showings were making the mid-card title scene fantastic viewing and raising the stock of all involved. However, somewhat sadly, the belt’s constant switching between these individuals devalued the historic title during this period.
Perhaps deciding that Nitro had accomplished all he could with the Intercontinental title, for now, WWE moved him onto his next program. Oddly, this would not start Morrison’s ascension up the card directly, but rather have him acting as the "A-List Friend" of rapper Kevin Federline as he entered into a mini-feud with John Cena.
Debuting on the October 16th episode of Raw, K-Fed, as he was sometimes known, would be unveiled as a special guest by Nitro and Melina. After a short segment where Morrison praised his friend’s new album in the ring and Federline demanded that people stop booing Nitro, WWE Champion Cena arrived and rapped a promo slating the trio. The following week, Nitro took on Cena with Federline and Melina at ringside in a match that furthered the Cena/K-Fed angle when Federline slapped Cena. The aim for all this was to build hype for the main event of that year’s Cyber Sunday pay-per-view, an event which saw Federline interfere in the World Title Triple Threat match while Nitro was not wrestling on the card at all.
MNM Revival – Johnny Nitro Teams with Joey Mercury Once Again
While Johnny Nitro was prominent on WWE television at this time in training Federline for a match with Cena on New Year’s day, his in-ring career was somewhat stalled. Seemingly viewed as outside the Intercontinental title picture but yet not elevated to main event status, the Nitro character seemed to tread water as a singles star. In November, a slightly surprising MNM reunion with Joey Mercury led to some above-average tag team contests with The Hardy Boys before Nitro headed to the Armageddon pay-per-view with his partner to challenge for the tag-team titles once again in an absolute classic.
At Armageddon, old foes Brian Kendrick and Paul London were scheduled to defend their tag team titles against William Regal and Dave Taylor, once known as "The Blue Bloods" in WCW many years previously. However, as the referee went to start the match, SmackDown GM Theodore Long entered the arena. Long first declared that this match would now be a ladder match. Teddy Long then elaborated that two more teams were to be added to the contest in the shape of MNM and The Hardys. Perhaps only really remembered for the terrible injury Joey Mercury suffered, what followed was a gripping and stunt-filled brawl worthy of 25 minutes of anyone’s time today. The Richmond crowd lapped it up, cheering loudly as each crazy high-risk move exceeded the previous. Eventually, Kendrick and London would retain, but this match is well worth another visit.
Recommended reading: Joey Mercury – The Broken Face That Brokedown a Promising Career
The injury would stall the MNM reunion. Suffering a broken nose and orbital bone, Mercury could not compete. This led to Nitro returning to singles competition where he would aid Kevin Federline in defeating John Cena in the match on the New Years Day Raw he had been "training" K-Fed for. He would also return to the Intercontinental title picture again by challenging Jeff Hardy in a steel cage at New Years Resolution.
Once Joey Mercury returned, MNM resumed their rivalry with the Hardys. After losing to Matt and Jeff at both the 2007 Royal Rumble and then the following month’s No Way Out, MNM was through once again as Joey Mercury was released from the company.
With Mercury gone, Nitro also parted ways on-screen with Melina. The pair, a couple off-screen for a while at this point, had been synonymous with each other since Nitro’s early days in OVW. In a somewhat unusual move, WWE did not capitalize on Nitro’s return to the singles ranks right away. Instead, they paired him with Kenny Dykstra, a former member of the "Spirit Squad" group. However, this tag-team was short-lived as the pair would soon get drafted to separate shows in the summer of 2007. Dykstra would compete on SmackDown, while Nitro was moving to the WWE re-branded ECW show.
Johnny Nitro Transitions to John Morrison in ECW
It didn’t take long for Johnny Nitro to make his mark on the ECW brand. After making his debut on June 19th, 2007, Nitro would become the opponent who would face CM Punk for the vacant ECW title at Vengeance one week later. He would be a replacement for Chris Benoit (who was not at the event due to the infamously horrific double murder-suicide tragedy of that weekend.)
Nitro would defeat Punk here to win his first "World Title," as it was described. Shortly after this, on an episode of ECW television, Johnny Nitro was repackaged as "John Morrison" and went on to feud with CM Punk for a few more months. Morrison, complete with new entrance music and look, would defeat Punk again at both the 2007 editions of The Great American bash and SummerSlam, before ultimately dropping the title to Punk on the Sci-Fi channel weekly programming. While this was very much CM Punk’s time and a title switch made sense, Morrison was also heading into a suspension for a breach of WWE’s Wellness Policy.
The Tag Team of John Morrison and The Miz
Upon returning from a wellness suspension, John Morrison would continue his issues with CM Punk and start working against The Miz in a step that would influence Morrison’s WWE career even into his 2020 return.
While competing against each other regularly for the number one contendership of CM Punk’s ECW title, he and Miz would find themselves thrown together on an episode of SmackDown in November of 2007 to take on the tag team champions, Matt Hardy and MVP. While not getting along or functioning as a team, the ECW pair was still in better shape than the champions as MVP turned on Hardy, costing them the titles. Whether they liked it or not initially, Morrison and Miz were legitimized as a combo by the championship they now shared.
The on-screen rivalry between the title carrying pair continued up to the Survivor Series of 2007, where they both competed against CM Punk for the ECW World Title once again in a triple threat match. After an entertaining battle, Punk again emerged victoriously, and the animosity between The Miz and Morrison started to subside.
In February of 2008, Morrison and Miz started streaming their own show on WWE.com entitled "The Dirt Sheet." Mainly used as a comedic venture to criticize or poke fun at other wrestlers, the show was seen as a success by WWE. This added weight to Miz and Morrison’s creative abilities as writers.
Like the tag team division Morrison faced when part of MNM, the 2008 tag scene was very thin on talent. Genuine contenders were hard to find, with many teams just experimenting or single wrestlers getting thrown together to see what stuck. While this approach worked for the championship duo of Morrison and Miz, the competition for the pair was weak. However, the Miz/Morrison team still managed to produce some entertainment. Whether through the Dirt Sheet segments online (and later on television) or sheer work-rate against challengers such as Jesse and Festus, the charismatic team clicked. This made it even more surprising when the duo dropped the titles to Hawkins and Ryder in a very rushed effort at the Great American Bash that year.
The pairing would regain the titles at a house show, defeating future WWE singles champions CM Punk and Kofi Kingston, but again opposition was sparse. Perhaps realizing just how thin the tag team options were at the time and struggling to maintain interest for two sets of separate titles on Raw and SmackDown, respectively, the WWE decided to unify the tag team championships at WrestleMania 25.
In perhaps the most damning display of the WWE tag team scene at this point, the tag team championship unification under "Lumberjack" rules was not even on the main card. Miz and Morrison lost their titles to the Colons of Monday Night Raw on the WrestleMania pre-show. Adding further to the tag team woes in 2008, Miz was drafted to Raw less than two weeks later, splitting the team as Morrison stayed on SmackDown. In an odd surprise, The Miz then attacked his partner after the draft.
John Morrison – A Singles Competitor Once Again
Now back in the role of a singles competitor, another change for Morrison was fast approaching. After a backstage altercation with Chris Jericho and subsequent issues with Shelton Benjamin and "Y2J," Morrison found himself very much in the fan-favorite bracket. For the first time in his WWE career, Morrison was garnering cheers from the crowd. The high-risk aerial offense Morrison is famous for only added to this popularity, as the paying public could now cheer for his incredible athletic feats.
In early September of ’09, Morrison would hold WWE gold again as he defeated Rey Mysterio to win the Intercontinental Championship. After some excellent matches with Dolph Ziggler, Morrison retaining the title in each, this set up a contest against his former partner, The Miz.
At the aptly named "Bragging Rights" pay-per-view, representatives of Raw and SmackDown would face off for just that: the brand bragging rights. As Intercontinental Champion on SmackDown, Morrison would square off against whoever held the Raw secondary title, the US Championship. That was in possession of The Miz, which set up an interesting contest between the two former allies and the first real meeting since Miz attacked Morrison after the draft.
Watch: John Morrison vs. The Miz at WWE Bragging Rights 2009
Morrison returned to the blue brand with his championship in a slightly disappointing match and neither title on the line. The Miz was ultimately victorious. This rivalry between the two brands and two former partners continued to Survivor Series that year, as "Team Miz" defeated "Team Morrison" in a traditional Survivor Series elimination match.
Morrison found himself again with no significant direction after losing the Intercontinental title to Drew McIntyre at the TLC pay-per-view in December. Viewed by many (your author included) as now above the Intercontinental and tag-team divisions due to his in-ring prowess and popularity, the obvious option would be to move towards the main event picture. However, this opened up a problem as the SmackDown World Title picture was already looking relatively full with champion Chris Jericho, The Undertaker, the ever-popular Rey Mysterio, and fast-rising star CM Punk all more established in these roles. With WrestleMania 26 fast approaching and Morrison effectively with nothing to do, he found himself again thrown into a tag-team match on the pre-show of the year’s biggest event. On this occasion, a familiar face would stand across the ring from him in the form of The Miz, currently holding the Unified Tag Team Championships with The Big Show. However, Morrison would encounter defeat for the second year running as he and his partner R-Truth failed to dethrone "ShoMiz."
With prospects looking bleak on SmackDown, Morrison was drafted to Raw after WrestleMania but lost straight away to Jack Swagger. After more time spent toiling away in the mid-card, things started to look up for Morrison as the summer approached. Firstly, he was named a mentor to an NXT rookie for the show’s return after a successful first series. However, Morrison’s rookie Eli Cottonwood got eliminated early in the show. Morrison also had a part to play in the main event of SummerSlam 2010 as the original NXT rookies, collectively calling themselves the Nexus, faced off against a WWE team in a seven vs. seven elimination match. Again, this did not last long as Morrison was the first member of the WWE team to be eliminated before the ten-minute mark.
Morrison would then find himself in a program with Sheamus, which included a losing effort in the final of that year’s King of The Ring tournament. Sheamus and Morrison would clash again at the TLC pay-per-view in December, this time with our hero coming out victorious in a ladder match that would earn Morrison the number one contender spot for the WWE Championship.
That title match would then open the first episode of Monday Night Raw in 2011, as Morrison once again squared off against old friend turned foe, then WWE Champion, The Miz. In another incredible showing by Morrison, the Miz would again retain under falls count anywhere rules. However, that is not the story here. In a match that often gets overlooked, John Morrison put on an amazing display. Crazy high spots such as a cross body off the WWE sign, a Starship Pain off the top rope through a table on the floor, and an impressive jumping knee to Miz’s aide Alex Riley, Morrison showed why he should be considered for main events and perhaps should have much earlier. A wild crowd bought into every near fall and false finish before The Miz hit a vicious Skull Crushing Finale to collect the three count. Another John Morrison match worth looking back on, and surely the crowning moment of Morrison’s ascent into the main event scene. Or, so you would think.
Watch: John Morrison vs. The Miz Falls Count Anywhere for the WWE Championship, January 2011
After this beautiful showing, John Morrison found himself in wrestling limbo yet again. Heading into the Royal Rumble that year, the crowd reactions were still very strong for the charismatic risk-taking John. Still, Morrison found himself out of the title picture again as Randy Orton challenged The Miz at 2011’s Rumble show. Alberto Del Rio went on to win the Rumble itself, ruling out another avenue for a title match for Morrison, but the lasting memory of the match itself still belonged to the LA native. His incredible escape from elimination by first landing on the guard rail and walking along it before jumping to the ring stairs and back into the ring is truly a sight to behold.
Morrison’s last route into a world title match heading towards WrestleMania that year, as unlikely as it may have been, was The Elimination Chamber. Predictably, John Cena would emerge victoriously and go on to face The Miz, leaving Morrison heading towards a tag match at that year’s showpiece once again.
However, this time the circumstances would be quite different. Morrison would not find himself competing for tag team gold, nor would he even be on the pre-show as he was in the previous two years’ events. Instead, he would compete in a mixed six-person tag with Trish Stratus and Jersey Shore star "Snooki" against Layla, Michelle McCool, and Dolph Ziggler. Again entrusted with the celebrity involvement as he was with Kevin Federline, Morrison did his best to make this contest watchable and even emerged on the victorious team. However, with Snooki as a partner and a match time of fewer than four minutes, this bout is best forgotten.
Backstage Issues for John Morrison and Departure from WWE
During this time, rumors of backstage issues surfaced. There were online rumblings that Morrison’s real-life partner Melina was not happy with the returning Trish Stratus supposedly taking "her spot" in their WrestleMania XXVII match. Reports of Morrison then not wanting to work with any of Stratus’ ideas for the match arose. Further rumors of the two where Morrison gave Trish the "cold shoulder treatment" also came out and were later confirmed by Trish Stratus herself on Busted Open Radio.
"I got a bit of cold shoulder action, correct," Stratus explained. "[John Morrison] ’s into doing his thing and just didn’t think I should be a part of his thing, I guess, but I still admire him as an athlete."
At a later date on Lilian Garcia’s podcast, Stratus would elaborate further. "I guess it was on Raw, we won the match, we were raising our hands, and I went to go raise his hand, and he threw my hand off or gave me the brush and went on the other side of Snooki. I was like, okay, that was on live TV."
On Melina, Stratus said, "He was mad because [Melina] was his girlfriend, and I was taking her spot. And she really had nothing to do with it. So we’ve had this weird kind of thing, we haven’t talked for years. And we were fine before this incident, and we would chat here and there, and then we just didn’t talk. So I thought, wow, I don’t know if it’s related. Never chatted with her, she never talked to me, and it was just this quiet thing, and life goes on."
In the same interview, Stratus explains lines of communication between Melina and herself reopened after the passing of Ashley Massaro, citing they had a pleasant conversation and that the bottom line was, "Hey, we’re cool, right? There was nothing, and there was no heat whatsoever."
After a short series with R-Truth, John Morrison underwent neck surgery to correct a pinched nerve. Returning on June 13th, 2011’s Raw, Morrison was attacked by R-Truth and written off television again until the July 25th Raw. Upon his return, Morrison attacked R-Truth seeking retribution. Morrison would then work against Truth in a tag match at SummerSlam as well as other matches on Raw, before taking part in another multi-man match on the Night of Champions pay-per-view. Morrison would struggle to collect a win on television after a losing effort against Cody Rhodes at the Hell in the Cell show but still found himself in a US Title match at Survivor Series against Dolph Ziggler. Ziggler would retain his title, and Morrison would be gone from WWE by the end of the month.
Written off television initially after taking a Skull Crushing Finale on the entrance ramp from his old friend The Miz, John Morrison was released from his contract on November 29th, 2011.
While on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast in 2015, John Morrison stated that WWE wanted him to sign a multi-year contract, but due to not liking his character’s creative direction and wanting to rest his neck injury, he turned it down.
John Morrison went on to work for various other promotions for the next few years. Wrestling as John Morrison or under his real name of Hennigan on the indies and as Jonny Impact for Impact Wrestling, Hennigan also worked for Lucha Underground (as Jonny Mundo), Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide, among many others. While working for Impact Wrestling, Hennigan met his future wife, Taya Valkyrie. The pair were married on June 1st, 2018.
WWE Return and Beyond
On September 26th, 2019, it was reported by Mike Johnson of PWInsider that Hennigan had re-signed with WWE. This was later confirmed on December 3rd on Fox’s WWE Backstage. He made his return to WWE on January 3rd, 2020, in an episode of SmackDown under his John Morrison ring name, resuming his alliance with The Miz soon after.
Where John Morrison’s second run with WWE will go is anybody’s guess. However, his in-ring ability and charisma are evident for all to see when looking back on his first run.
Despite often carrying weak tag team divisions with different partners or putting on very memorable matches as a singles competitor in the mid-card, that real top main event run eluded him. Whether through poor timing, a top-heavy talent roster, or even perhaps backstage issues, Hennigan never had a world title run in WWE that his evident ability would seem to hint he deserved.
That aside, as fans, we will always have the memories of this crazy, athletic, flying man doing his best to entertain us all.
And we will always have the 2011 Royal Rumble.
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