wrestling / Columns

The Magnificent Seven: The Top 7 WWE Talents Whose Careers Were Better Off After An Injury

December 19, 2018 | Posted by Mike Chin
Tommaso Ciampa NXT Takeover: War Games II

In the world of pro wrestling, no wrestler nor fan with a conscience wants to see anyone get injured. Sure, we might want certain wrestlers off TV, or even released from a WWE contract so that our favorites can prosper in their place, but it’s a shame for someone to get legitimately hurt.

There are those times, however, when an injury can wind up being the best thing for a performer, at least at the time, as it affords time to reinvent themselves, miss certain periods in WWE programming, or simply freshen up both personally and in terms of their characters. This article takes a look at seven occasions when a WWE talent actually wound up better off for having missed a little time due to injury. (Note: the focus is on the success of the performer’s character, not the performer’s actual health, which may have suffered in the longer term in some of these cases.)

#7. The Undertaker, 2000

The Undertaker is one of the longest tenured major stars WWE has ever had. A part of that success can be attributed to an ability and willingness to reinvent himself over time. On a connected point, he has also benefited from having a number of stretches off of TV en route to his part-time status, that have helped keep him a special, protected act.

In 1999, The Undertaker suffered one of the worst injuries of his career with a torn pectoral muscle. His trajectory at the time wasn’t altogether clear. His feud with Kane, followed by his dark, Ministry-leading take on his old gimmick had helped him stay relevant in the Attitude Era. However, The Dead Man was beginning to feel a little tired after nearly a decade on the WWE landscape.

In the most dramatic character rehaul he’s had, The Undertaker returned after an eight month absence in his Biker gimmick. Not everyone loves his more humanized take on the character, but it did allow the performer to freshen things up, and to make it feel more genuinely special when he mostly transitioned back to his old character in 2004. In the meantime, The American Badass was a fine challenger in the WWE Championship scene, and got even better with a heel turn to a bully character.

#6. Shawn Michaels, 2002

When Shawn Michaels went down to a debilitating back injury in 1998, it seemed like a cruel twist of fate for one of the most gifted in ring performers of his generation to have to step away from the business, just as it was turning white hot.

However, behind the scenes, Michaels was falling apart due to substance abuse and attitude issues. In his time away from the ring, he cleaned up his act and found religion while his body healed, all setting him up to be in a mental and physical space such that he could come back in 2002.

It’s debatable whether Michaels was as good after his first retirement as he had been before, but he was still on the short list of the most talented in ring performers in the world. His run from 2002 to 2010 would shore up his legacy as an all time great, including some of the very best matches of his career in a new era when WWE was generally more open to giving great matches time to fully blossom. Both from a fan’s perspective and for his own good, Michaels having to step away from WWE for those four and a half years was likely the best thing that could have happened to him.

#5. Tommaso Ciampa, 2018

Based on the Cruiserweight Classic, it would have been easy enough to dismiss Tommaso Ciampa as a talented professional wrestler who was nonetheless an also-ran among guys WWE wasn’t 100% committed to featuring. Fast forward, and he and Johnny Gargano proved themselves through sheer intensity and skill in NXT’s tag team division. Fast forward a little further and the duo got the main event spot to challenge The Authors of Pain for the tag titles at a TakeOver special, only for their violent breakup angle to close the show.

When it was revealed that Ciampa was legitimately injured during that match, and amidst what looked like the push of a lifetime, it seemed borderline tragic. However, Ciampa spent the time away both cultivating his vile heel persona and working out like a maniac to legitimately come back better than ever. Meanwhile, Gargano rose up the singles ranks of NXT and arrived as arguably the best in ring performer on the brand. Thus, when Ciampa did come back, he was ready to step right back into the main event, hotter than ever on his way to winning the NXT Championship. Now, an overlooked talent with spurious hopes of ever making it to the main roster is a player, and it’s hard to imagine him not being at least an upper mid-carder for a spell on Raw or SmackDown.

#4. Steve Austin, 1997

Stone Cold Steve Austin caught fire when his serial killer inspired gimmick took a left turn and became the beer swilling, anti-authority, anti-hero most fans came to love. SummerSlam was to see him win the Intercontinental Championship in a key step along his journey to the top of the card.

Owen Hart infamously dropped Austin on his head in a botched piledriver spot, temporarily paralyzing the Texas Rattlesnake, and leaving him in a bad way in the aftermath.

It’s hard to really call this injury a blessing given its adverse effect on Austin’s health, and that it may have contributed to his eventual early retirement. These factors keep Austin a few spots lower than he might otherwise fall on this countdown. Just the same, Austin getting used sparingly in the ring, with the kayfabe implication that the powers that be were holding him down worked magic for taking his heat to the next level. Austin may well have wound up one of WWE’s all-time great icons regardless, but this injury played out about as well as it could have for the purposes of storytelling around Austin at the time, and by the WrestleMania to follow, he was well positioned to win his first WWE Championship.

#3. The Rock, 1997

Today, the Rock is a megastar without a peer, but it’s a well-known part of his journey that he failed before he succeeded in wrestling. In spite of—or perhaps because of—what a complete package he looked to be as a legacy wrestler, with great looks, personality, and athleticism, fans rejected him early on.

Rock hurt his knee and missed a few months of action, and having that cool down, reset period turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to the young star. He went from a relatively generic face to aligning himself with the Nation of Domination upon his return. Once he got to show his personality in earnest, and in over the top ways as a heel, he began to surge, suddenly looking like exactly the inevitable main event attraction WWE had originally hoped for him to be.

#2. Randy Orton, 2003

Randy Orton’s story isn’t so dissimilar from The Rock’s when it comes to an injury followed by a heel turn allowing a dead in the water, vanilla face to reinvent himself. Heck, one might even go so far as to say that Orton’s reinvention was downright patterned after the third-generation main event star to precede him.

After a lukewarm better part of a year as a face, Orton got hurt and spent his time off shooting over the top, arrogant promos sharing news about his recovery to fans who didn’t care. It was clear soon enough that the level of self-importance Orton communicated in those promos was signaling a heel turn, and when Orton came back, he promptly partnered with Triple H, Ric Flair, and fellow young stud Batista in the Evolution stable.

While there’s more of a sense that The Rock was too hard working and unique to not eventually make it in the wrestling business, Orton taking this time away feels more central to his journey and arriving as a player for WWE. Besides getting off TV and turning heel, the time away set him up to come back when the Evolution faction was ready to go, and that timing was key to Orton taking the pivotal next steps in a top-shelf WWE career.

#1. Triple H, 2002

Triple H got injured in a tag team match on Raw, teamed with Steve Austin in their hot new Two Man Power Trip unit, against hot rising stars Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit. At the time, the injury felt pretty disastrous for a top talent and a guy involved in such a key angle to go down to serious injury that would keep him out of the ring for most of a year. With the benefit of hindsight, tearing his quad may well have been one of the luckiest turns of Triple H’s career.

Helmsley wound up sitting out the InVasion angle. Sure, it’s possible that with him around, he might have contributed to saving the angle, but with the lack of top names and WWE’s seeming commitment to pushing home grown talent over WCW guys at every opportunity, this whole storyline was probably damned from the start. Triple H managed to avoid the confusing fray that likely would have entailed him flip-flopping face and heel, and perhaps pushed up his kayfabe marital strife with Stephanie McMahon.

In missing this time, Triple H got to return a conquering hero, not just a top star fans were happy to see come back from injury (bolstered by inspirational videos about his rehab), but a guy who felt like a breath of fresh air to see back in WWE after the convoluted InVasion mess. He came back and stepped straight into a face role and a WrestleMania world title program with Chris Jericho. Particularly as The Rock inched closer to Hollywood, and as Steve Austin inched toward retirement, Triple H was uniquely positioned to both carry the torch of top Attitude guys forward, and to hang around as a top star into the next generation of WWE programming.

Who would you add to the list? Let us know what you think in the comments.