Pro wrestling is a business that is rife with intrigue and controversy. But unlike the intrigue and controversy we sometimes get in other sports, it’s a bit different in the world of wrestling, where one’s push is often determined by who you know, and not what you know, and where substance abuse was, at a time, far more prevalent than it was in other sports. And in the many decades since pro wrestling evolved from shoot fighting to a predetermined work, with entertainment taking more and more of a precedent in more recent times, the business has seen more than its fair share of events that get people talking.
These controversial events may be something as simple as universally derided or mocked gimmicks, or the rise of a game-changing faction. They may also include surprise defections from one company to another, screwjobs, or sadly, wrestler deaths. And while a lot of these aforementioned incidents — the debuts of The Gobbledygooker and The Shockmaster, the rise of the nWo, the Montreal Screwjob, and the deaths of wrestlers such as Owen Hart — are well-known to many fans, there are some details behind them that we tend to take for granted.
Without further ado, let’s take you to 20 of the most controversial events in pro wrestling history, and some facts about them that you might not have been aware of.
20. Original Plans For Daniel Bryan At WrestleMania XXX
For WWE’s 30th WrestleMania, the company was obviously booking with the casual fan in mind, having brought back Batista as a conquering hero who’d defeat the villainous Authority’s chosen one, Randy Orton, for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. CM Punk was scheduled to face Triple H in yet another non-main event ‘Mania match, while super-fan favorite Daniel Bryan… was supposed to go up against Sheamus in a rematch of that infamous 18-second match at WrestleMania XVIII. Sounds just about right for a solid B+ player like the “Yes!” man, doesn’t it?
Of course, fans weren’t going to have any of it, and they let WWE know about it by turning Batista into “Boo-Tista” at the 2014 Royal Rumble. Seeing no hope of winning the fans back, they turned the Animal heel shortly thereafter and aligned him with The Authority. CM Punk walked away from the company after the Rumble, while intended opponent Triple H became part of the gauntlet Bryan had to go through to win the WWE WHC. And with Sheamus resigning himself to the first Andre the Giant battle royal, everything was set up for the eventual Cinderella story — “B+ player” Daniel Bryan winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship against Batista and Orton.
19. Vince McMahon Wanted Titus O’Neil Fired For Hugging Him
Well, it looks like our favorite Florida Gators football star-turned wrestler is in the news again, having posted a kayfabe-breaking photo of a mixed group of faces and heels (Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman included) hanging out as friends during a WWE European tour. We still don’t know how that’s going to play out, but for the moment, it’s not as controversial as the time Titus did his best (or worst) Bayley impersonation and tried to hug Vince McMahon following Daniel Bryan’s retirement speech last year.
You’d think that a man with a sick enough sense of humor to greenlight Katie Vick, “choppy choppy your pee pee,” and the Attitude Era in general would condone onscreen horseplay, but he didn’t. In fact, reports suggest Vince had actually wanted to fire O’Neil for his supposed unprofessionalism. He would settle on a 90-day suspension for Titus, but was mollified to the point that he knocked that down to 60 days. Even with that mitigation, you can still argue the punishment did not fit the crime.
18. The UnderGooker? Not So, Says The Actual Gooker
A list of controversial moments can’t be complete without some levity in the form of gimmicks gone wrong, and one such example is The Gobbledygooker, who was played by Eddie Guerrero’s older brother Hector in what can only be called a disservice to the Guerrero family legacy. There have also been a lot of stories suggesting that The Undertaker was the man WWE originally had in mind to play the Gooker. We’re glad that never came to pass, but as Hector Guerrero recalls it, Mark Calaway was NEVER on anyone’s Gooker shortlist.
“How can you put that beautiful big guy… he’s very tall and very strong… how can you put Mark in the turkey outfit? No, you don’t,” recalled Guerrero in a 2015 interview with WrestleZone, where he explained that the Gooker costume was designed for a smaller guy like himself. Given that ‘Taker is about a foot taller than Hector, we can certainly see where he’s coming from.
17. Big Show’s Father Was Dead Long Before Boss Man Angle
It’s one of the more cringeworthy storylines of the Attitude Era — Big Show, then a relative newcomer to the WWE, was continually being tormented by the Big Boss Man, even as his father lay in a hospital, dying of cancer. And when Show’s dad had died, Boss Man added insult to injury by a) mocking the future World’s Largest Athlete as he cried in mourning, b) interrupting Paul Wight Sr.’s funeral by insulting him in a poem, c) towing the coffin away as Big Show clung to it in desperation.
In reality, it had been years since Big Show’s father had died. There’s no information as to when the elder Wight had passed on, or the cause of his death, but either way, we can surmise that he was rolling in his grave as WWE allowed one of its longtime (albeit returning) midcard talents mock his memory.
16. WCW Trolls The Shockmaster
If Fred Ottman could relive one day in his life, it would definitely be the day when he was supposed to debut in WCW as The Shockmaster, only for him to trip and crash through the wall, with his face visible as he tried to put his Stormtrooper helmet back on. With a few unscripted profanities mixed in, Shockmaster’s 1993 debut on A Flair for the Gold was met with gales of laughter, not only from fans, but from his fellow wrestlers.
Ottman would still compete as The Shockmaster in his WCW run, but this time he was using his real voice (and not Ole Anderson’s), he wasn’t wearing a mask or helmet, and was portrayed as a complete and utterly clumsy oaf. And he had a matching ring theme — a thinly-disguised (as was Jimmy Hart and Howard Helm’s style) version of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” We see what you did there, WCW.
15. Vince McMahon Punished Someone For Smiling Before He “Died”
It’s been almost ten years since Vince McMahon “died” on live television, seemingly getting blown to smithereens as he stepped into his limousine. That onscreen death didn’t last too long, as Vince and the WWE had to deal with a real-life tragedy in the form of the Benoit family murder-suicide, which wasn’t thought to be Chris Benoit’s doing at first. But what slips many of our minds is what happened to that one guy who was smiling as McMahon made that fateful power walk to his limo.
That one smiling guy was Paul London, who was mainly a tag team specialist with Brian Kendrick, but a young up-and-comer nonetheless. Seeing that London might not have been conducting himself professionally in what was supposed to be WWE’s biggest angle of the year, McMahon reacted by killing his push, turning him into a jobber until his late-2008 release. London now works for Lucha Underground, though you can’t help but think that he might have been a bigger deal had he made like Lady Gaga and put on a poker face like the rest of his colleagues during the Vince “death” angle.
14. Lex Luger’s Desperate Defection From WWE
By 1995, the writing had long been on the wall — Vince McMahon’s attempt to remake Hulk Hogan’s success with the similarly well-built Lex Luger was an abject failure. As he couldn’t connect with the fans at half the Hulkster’s level, the onetime WWE Championship contender was shuttled down to the midcard, where he teamed with Davey Boy Smith in The Allied Powers. That wasn’t what Luger had hoped for, and he was willing to do anything to get out of his WWE deal. Anything — including accepting a ridiculously lowball contract from WCW.
As the story goes, Eric Bischoff was no fan of Luger’s, and deliberately offered him 20 cents on the dollar compared to his old WCW salary, hoping he’d be insulted by the offer and turn it down. Desperate men do desperate things, and Luger surprisingly agreed to the deal, and did so without letting anyone in WWE know. You can imagine the shock and anger backstage when Luger appeared on the first WCW Nitro, with WWE none the wiser.
13. Melanie Pillman Loses Control After Husband’s Death
When Brian Pillman died in October 1997 at the tragically young age of 35, he left behind a pregnant widow, Melanie, as well as five young children, including four from previous relationships. And you can leave it to WWE to sensationalize the untimely death of one of its Superstars, as we saw when Vince McMahon ambush-interviewed Melanie on live TV, asking her the most insensitive questions imaginable. But what happened in the years that followed?
Last year, Brian’s now-adult daughter Brittany revealed exactly what happened — the WWE and its talents pitched in to provide financial aid to the Pillman family, only for Melanie to squander the money and spend it on her drug addiction. That resulted in a childhood of poverty for Brittany and her siblings, with Brian’s sister Linda serving as more of a mother to the kids than Melanie ever was. Not surprisingly, the Pillman kids are basically estranged from Melanie as of present-day.
12. The Reason Why Kurt Angle Didn’t Sign With ECW
When he eventually established his character in WWE, while also making the headlines for his battles with personal demons in both WWE and TNA, it clearly appeared as if Kurt Angle was anything but a saint, may it be onscreen or offscreen. But he’s always had some firm Christian beliefs, and it was these beliefs that had caused him to react with shock and outrage during a 1996 guest spot on ECW.
Then known solely for his exploits as a “legitimate” gold-medal-winning Olympic wrestler, guest commentator Angle took offense to a, well, angle that featured Raven “crucifying” Sandman in the presence of his once-brainwashed son, Tyler. With his Christian sensitivities offended, and seeing that his prospects as a pro wrestler may suffer if he was shown on the same ECW episode featuring this segment, Angle threatened to sue ECW, and it would be another two years before he ultimately made his debut in the squared circle.
11. The Insane Logic Leading Up To The Fingerpoke Of Doom
The Fingerpoke of Doom is, almost two decades later, still one of the most intelligence-insulting angles in pro wrestling history. And while we all know how this angle may have amounted to yet another Hulk Hogan power play in WCW, we often get to neglect how asinine the lead-up was on the January 4, 1999 episode of Nitro.
Goldberg, then scheduled to face Kevin Nash in a rematch for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, was arrested for the “aggravated stalking” of Miss Elizabeth, but released after authorities found inconsistencies all over Liz’s statements. Still, he was released a bit too late, as 30 minutes wasn’t enough time to make it to the Georgia Dome from the police station.
Indeed, Goldberg didn’t make it in time, and Hogan took his spot in the match against Nash. But you have to wonder why he’d take so long, as the police station was clearly right in front of the stadium.
10. Bruiser Brody’s Killer Remains A Hometown Hero
Now there’s no excuse for killing your fellow wrestler, regardless if he was a big backstage bully, as some have alleged about Bruiser Brody. That’s supposedly the reason why Jose Gonzalez, a.k.a. Invader 1, had fatally stabbed Brody on July 17, 1988 — it was an argument turned ugly, and it appeared as if Gonzalez had had enough of his American colleague’s behavior. And when it was all said and done, the Puerto Rican wrestler was acquitted after saying he stabbed Brody in self-defense.
Once again, that doesn’t change the fact that one wrestler had killed another backstage. But as Dutch Mantel recalled, what made things worse was how Puerto Rican police, seeing Gonzalez/Invader 1 as a hometown hero, initially refused to believe the stories told by American wrestlers such as himself and Tony Atlas. Even worse, Gonzalez was inducted in 2015 into the Salón de los Inmortales, Puerto Rico’s World Wrestling League’s hall of fame, as an inaugural member.
9. New Jack’s Racist Tirade During The Mass Transit Incident
It’s a well-established fact that the ECW wrestler called Mass Transit was actually a near-400-pound, yet underage, untrained high school kid named Eric Kulas. And we probably remember how New Jack savagely attacked Mass Transit in the ring, legitimately beating him up and blading him so badly that he nearly bled to death in the ring.
Although there is video of New Jack supposedly asking Mass Transit if he was alright, he also said some pretty uncalled-for things in a post-match promo:
“I don’t care if the motherf***er dies! He’s white. I don’t like white people. I don’t like people from Boston. I’m the wrong n**** to f**k with.”
Sadly, neither Eric Kulas nor his father Stephen (who desperately screamed out to demand the match be stopped) are with us anymore. Eric was only 22 when he died following gastric bypass surgery in 2002, while Stephen passed away 10 years later.
8. Billy Corgan Saved TNA From Going Belly-Up… Thrice
As a big fan of the Smashing Pumpkins since their album Siamese Dream made up a big chunk of my high school soundtrack, I was even more pleased later on to learn that their frontman, Billy Corgan, was a lifelong pro wrestling fan like myself. And he’s been making big wrestling-related moves as of late, reportedly buying the NWA, while also serving as president of the oftentimes-floundering TNA, or Impact Wrestling as we call it these days.
When Corgan sued TNA in the fall of 2016, there were some some shocking revelations made as legal documents began to leak out. And one of the most shocking was how the rock star/wrestling executive bailed TNA out three times, and wasn’t repaid for his selfless acts of trying to save a dying company from going under. One still can’t help but think what could have happened if Corgan ended up buying TNA, as he had originally planned.
7. Jeff Jarrett Gets Fired From WWE On Live TV
Even if Jeff Jarrett and Impact Wrestling fall out from each other once again, we think there’s no chance in hell, pun intended, that we’ll ever be seeing him in a WWE ring again. Much of the bitterness stems from Jarrett’s demand to be paid a whopping $300,000 to extend his contract another day so he could put Chyna over for the Intercontinental Championship at No Mercy 1999. Add to the fact that he and WWE never seemed to get along, and the day when Double J appears on WWE TV is probably the day when Vince McMahon admits he’s out of touch and ends his love affair with big, sweaty men.
Back in 2001, when WWE was buying WCW on live TV, Vince decided to let everyone know what he thought of Jarrett, saying that “J-E-double-F” would be best-spelled as “G-double-O-double-N-double-E.” Doesn’t have the same ring as Mr. McMahon’s signature “YOU’RE FIIIIIIIRRRRRED,” but it worked just as well in sending the message.
6. The nWo’s Third Man Alternatives
When Hulk Hogan revealed himself as the New World Order’s third man at Bash at the Beach 1996, it was a shocking reveal like no other. Nobody expected this wholesome, goody-two-shoes American hero to turn his back on his fans and head to the dark side, but he did, and for a while, Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall were the biggest names in all of professional wrestling, helping WCW dominate WWE in the Monday Night Wars.
However, Hogan wasn’t the original “third man” WCW had in mind, as the company was aggressively courting a disillusioned Bret Hart, hoping that the Hitman would defect from WWE and leave the then-sinking ship. Despite Nash and Hall’s best attempts to convince Bret, and despite a pretty tempting deal from Eric Bischoff, Hart turned down WCW’s offer. And while the Hulkster would ultimately agree to turn heel and join the nWo, Bischoff had a rather surprising backup plan should Hulk flake out — Sting as the third man. Good idea for a swerve, but let’s face it — Sting in the nWo (the real one, that is) would have defeated the purpose of nWo looking like “WWE invading WCW.”
5. Did Steve Austin Have Beef With Owen Hart?
It’s hard to find anyone from mid-late-’90s WWE who’s had a legitimate bone to pick with the late Owen Hart. While Owen was well-known for his backstage ribs, the “King of Harts” was never malicious in his actions, and he was well-respected as a man who genuinely loved his family. But if there’s someone who might not have liked Hart, it may have very well been one of the biggest stars, if not the biggest star of the Attitude Era — “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
The apparent beef dated back to the botched piledriver that broke Austin’s neck at SummerSlam 1997, and how, as Austin related in his autobiography, Owen never visited him in the hospital as he recovered. And while the Texas Rattlesnake did down one of his patented Steve-Weisers in memory of his old rival on the Owen Hart tribute episode of RAW in 1999, Bret Hart’s autobiography claims that Austin was a no-show at Owen’s funeral, suggesting that death may not have been enough to end the grudge Austin might have had for Owen in the last two years of the latter’s life.
4. This Man May Have “Killed” WCW
When trying to determine who gets the most blame for the death of WCW, several names are mentioned. There’s Kevin Nash, who booked himself to break Goldberg’s winning streak. And while he denies involvement in booking the Fingerpoke of Doom, legendary locker room politician Hulk Hogan may have been behind that too. Vince Russo, on the other hand, booked week after week of nonsensical, “somebody pass me the Ritalin” programming, while making an actor (David Arquette) and himself reign as the company’s top champ.
All those men may have contributed to the hastening of WCW’s demise, but one man, and one man alone had hammered down the final nail in the company’s coffin — Turner Broadcasting System CEO Jamie Kellner. See, Kellner had no time nor interest for Ted Turner’s wrasslin’ business, and he believed teen and family dramas drew ratings. Seeing how the money-hemorrhaging WCW didn’t fit in with the TBS image post-AOL/Time Warner merger, Kellner cancelled Nitro, and didn’t lift a finger when WWE purchased WCW for a pittance in March of 2001.
3. Earl Hebner Swore On His Kids Before The Montreal Screwjob
Bret Hart must have been feeling mighty relieved when he learned that the otherwise-trustworthy, veteran Earl Hebner was going to officiate his WWE Championship match against Shawn Michaels at the 1997 Survivor Series. And he seemed pretty confident in Hebner when the referee swore on his kids’ lives that he was going to officiate the match fair and square, no funny business, no unscripted hanky-panky whatsoever.
Well, we all know how that turned out — with Vince McMahon at ringside screaming at timekeeper Mark Yeaton to “ring the f**king bell,” Hebner called for the bell in unison, allowing Michaels to win the WWE Championship in what we now call the Montreal Screwjob.
We’re not calling it karma, but it bears mentioning that Earl Hebner suffered a brain aneurysm months after swearing on his kids’ lives, though he successfully recovered. Meanwhile, Brian Hebner has gone on to become a successful referee like his dad, while younger half-sister Katie keeps a lower profile, but lists herself on LinkedIn as a “model/actress/aspiring wrestler.”
2. Martha Hart Vs. The WWE
At this point, it’s sadly hard to imagine Owen Hart making it to the WWE Hall of Fame in the near future. It’s been 18 years since Hart tragically lost his life after a stunt at WWE’s Over the Edge pay-per-view went wrong, and his widow Martha (and by extension, their kids Oje and Athena) still hold a bitter grudge against the company that greenlit the dangerous stunt that resulted in Owen falling to his death in the ring.
We can understand how a young family could hold it against WWE for so long, even now that the children left behind by their father are now adults. But what’s shocking, and arguably a case of taking things too far, is how Martha Hart is so adamantly against WWE as much as bringing up Owen, and believing that the best way to remember him is to never bring him up again. Certainly the man deserves his place among WWE’s greatest, and we can only hope Owen’s family’s stand on the issue softens up in the coming years.
1. Chris Benoit May Have “Found God” Shortly Before He Snapped
No surprises here — there’s still no incident in WWE’s history that tops the tragedy that took place in June 2007, as Chris Benoit killed his wife Nancy, his seven-year-old son Daniel, then himself. It was three days of madness as one of the brightest technical minds in WWE history had committed such unspeakable crimes, but not long before that, he had seemingly embraced religion, hoping to follow his best friend Eddie Guerrero on a similar path to redemption.
Some accounts suggest that Benoit had done the opposite — turning his back on church after more of his wrestling friends (and not just Guerrero) had died at a young age. But three weeks before the double murder/suicide, Nancy Benoit had given her husband a silver cross, “a sign of his religious devotion,” as Maxim wrote in 2007.
Somehow, that wasn’t enough to stop Benoit from doing what he did, and as a sign of his continuing descent into mental instability, he placed a Bible next to his wife and his son’s bodies shortly after killing them.