To say that Vince McMahon is a petty man would be a bigger understatement than saying the Big Show is…well, big. Over the decades, Vince has proven to be the prime example of a ruthless businessman: he has disregarded his father’s handshake agreements with other regional promoters, he has played his employees off against one another as if they were marionettes and he their puppet master, and he has shown on several occasions that he isn’t above damaging someone’s wrestling career in the name of stroking his own ego.
When things haven’t gone his way, or when Vince believed he had been betrayed in some way by his current or former employees, Vince got downright vicious. He’d tear down the same wrestlers he helped build up over the years, as a painful reminder that he was the master of his domain and no one got to the top without his explicit approval.
But sometimes, fate has other plans, and throws a monkey wrench in Vince’s master design. There have been plenty of cases where, no matter how much Vince tries to push someone down because they don’t align with his plans, somehow, those wrestlers either stay popular or become more popular than they could ever imagine. Even if Vince tried to demolish these wrestlers’ careers in the most vengeful ways possible, they proved to him that he didn’t have all the cards in his hands.
Ultimately, these ten wrestlers proved that, no matter how much power he might think he has over his wrestlers, Vince doesn’t always get the last laugh.
10 Dean Ambrose
If WWE’s booking choices actually had realistic consequences, then a guy like Ambrose, who loses far more often than he should, would be floundering in irrelevance without any fan support whatsoever. But Ambrose has always been arguably the most charismatic of the three Shield brethren, and that has translated into an unyielding fan following that supports him no matter what.
Even when WWE has tried to make Ambrose seem like a lesser star in comparison with the more technical Rollins and the more ‘management-friendly’ Reigns, his popularity has continued to grow. Fans love his character so much that nothing, not even a high-profile losing streak, could taint their perceptions of him. Ambrose is destined for big things in WWE, whether WWE’s most powerful decision-makers like that or not.
9 Rob Van Dam
RVD managed to do one thing that few other WCW & ECW stars could - survive the "Invasion" storyline with positive momentum. He was arguably the only Invasion guy that was getting noticeable cheers, which led to a huge push for him afterwards. Unfortunately, Van Dam botched a Frog Splash onto HHH that could’ve killed him which, while both he and HHH agreed that it was a mistake, led to Vince trying to destroy RVD’s career for that error.
Yet even though RVD soon found himself in throwaway feuds and tag teams, he was still loved by his fans and remained a key fixture of WWE programming until his departure in 2006. He has since made several returns, and each time he did so, he received a thunderous ovation from a crowd that still loves him, despite previous attempts by WWE’s management to discredit him in one way or another.
8 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin
Austin left WWE in 2002 in a whirlwind of controversy. As new storylines and rivalries were being put together, Austin began causing WWE a lot of problems. By June 2002, Austin had shot down any and all storylines for him and ultimately walked out on the company. Though these problems could’ve stayed hidden behind the scenes, Vince & Jim Ross attempted to besmirch Austin on-air, claiming such things as, ‘he took his ball and went home’.
Despite such provocative statements, the WWE fans refused to turn their backs on Austin. Even though the company was in the midst of an explosion in new and more exciting characters, ‘Stone Cold’ was one that would never fall out of the fans’ good graces. Though he did manage to come back to WWE on good terms, Vince did try to make him look bad for that short period during which he was gone. Needless to say, it failed miserably.
7 CM Punk
No matter how many times WWE tried to make him look bad, including calling him a quitter on live TV, fans refuse to forget Punk and chant his name anyway. He was the living mirror image of what Vince saw in a star, and through his own determination (or arrogance, depending on who you ask), Punk reached the very top of the mountain in WWE…twice.
It wasn’t without hurdles, however. Vince (and to some extent, Triple H) didn’t see eye to eye with Punk and tried to derail his main event career on multiple occasions. Even when he left on the worst of terms, and after Stephanie McMahon called him a quitter on live TV, that didn’t stop many people from seeing Punk in a positive light. So even if silence is more deafening than vocal condemnation in this case, WWE’s continued dismissal of anything CM Punk related hasn’t shaken the faith of many of his loyal followers.
6 Daniel Bryan
Despite many scripted moments and backstage influence suggesting Bryan would never become ‘the guy’, popular support for him was so overwhelming that fans forced Vince’s hand and made him put Bryan in the main event of WrestleMania XXX. Yet that was after multiple attempts to convince the entire world that Bryan wasn’t worthy of the main event, and that Randy Orton vs. Batista was a main event that the fans did want to see.
The thing is, Bryan didn’t really have to do anything; he was so beloved by people around the world that nothing Vince did to convince them that he wasn’t good enough worked. The whole ‘B+ player’ was so thin an argument that no one bought it whatsoever, and only amplified Bryan’s fan support. Nothing could stop the juggernaut that was Bryan’s ‘Yes Movement’; not calling him a ‘troll’, not mocking his lifestyle choices, not exposing any of his flaws, nothing.
He survived a barrage of McMahon-led attacks and walked away with the biggest prize in professional wrestling.
5 Zack Ryder
Zack Ryder’s creativity and entrepreneurial approach to getting over with the audience is to be commended. When he realized that WWE’s management didn’t care about him, he did things on his own with his YouTube show, turning him into one of the most popular wrestlers on the roster.
Unfortunately, Vince hates the idea of someone in his company being successful without him being directly involved, and proceeded to punish Ryder whenever possible. After a short time in the spotlight, Ryder’s wave of momentum soon ended, and he was back on the lower card, barely seen on TV or in any high-profile matches.
But Ryder didn’t give up, and neither did his fans. His popularity remained intact no matter how much WWE’s power-brokers felt that he had gone beyond his ‘spot’ in the company. The success he had at WrestleMania 32, however short, was proof that fans never forget someone who defies the authority for real and proves their worth the old- fashioned way.
4 Brock Lesnar
When Brock Lesnar left WWE out of the blue in 2004, he was still such a huge star that Vince knew he’d be a big draw wherever he went. Yet instead of attacking Lesnar’s character on-screen or burying him live, Vince used WWE’s legal juggernaut to prevent Lesnar from doing anything wrestling-related following his departure.
But Lesnar being…well, Lesnar, he still went to NJPW and wrestled, proving that he didn’t care what Vince thought about him. Vince did whatever he could from a legal perspective to prevent Lesnar from achieving success anywhere outside WWE, but Lesnar still did, by becoming IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
No matter how many injunctions, lawsuits, and allegations WWE threw at Lesnar, he kept brushing some off and winning others, proving that even the law is too scared to challenge Brock Lesnar.
3 'Macho Man' Randy Savage
As one of the biggest stars of WWE’s first "Golden Age," ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage’s defection to WCW dealt a savage blow (no pun intended) to WWE during a highly difficult time. Although a lot of his success was due to the man’s own skills and natural assets, Vince felt betrayed by his sudden departure and proceeded to mock him whenever possible.
Savage was mocked in cheesy, over-the-top skits such as the ‘Nacho Man’, in an attempt to portray him as a shadow of the megastar that he was in WWE. Of course, the overwhelming majority of fans didn’t fall for those lame segments, especially since Savage would go on to enjoy great success in WCW.
The truth is, WWE could’ve used his departure as an opportunity to elevate a big star without having to resort to mud-slinging. Sadly, Vince simply couldn’t resist the urge to try and take down someone who had helped make his company successful in the first place.
2 Hulk Hogan
When Hulk jumped to WCW, Vince tried to smear his reputation by portraying him as a decrepit old man in those infamous ‘parody’ skits from the mid-1990s. It was Vince’s way of telling the rest of the world that Hogan was nothing outside WWE, and that he couldn’t do anything in the wrestling business anymore.
Hogan took that plan and threw it in Vince’s face by becoming one of the freshest and most interesting stars of the 1990s with the NWO. Not only did Hogan’s star power stay where it was when he arrived in WCW, but by 1996, he was the biggest star in all of wrestling in North America. As the leader of the NWO, Hogan managed to stay on top of the wrestling business for at least another seven years after leaving WWE, proving to the world that he didn’t need Vince to show what he was capable of.
1 Bret Hart
Despite being one of Vince’s most loyal employees, Vince tried to destroy Bret’s momentum after he left WWE following the "Montreal Screwjob." With his infamous ‘Bret screwed Bret’, and the subsequent promos he made his wrestlers cut about the Hitman, it was obvious that Vince was trying to demolish Bret’s career.
But if there’s one word that could describe Bret’s fans, it’s ‘loyal.' They saw right through the smoke and mirrors that Vince was throwing at them, and followed Bret to WCW. Even if his career over there was lackluster compared to his WWE career, he still had a loyal fan following around the world. Ultimately, it was a series of bad decisions on WCW’s part and devastating injuries that ended Bret’s career, and not any malice on the part of Vince McMahon.