There are a lot of everyday things people do and like for which they overlook dark truths related to them. People eat fast food that might make us sick in the long run, and that involves cruelty to animals in its production. People download music and other media in ways that take money out of the pockets of the original artists. Wrestling fans don’t escape these ethical issues related to the form of entertainment they love.
It’s embedded in the DNA of wrestling that it involves people getting hurt. Even wrestlers who were fortunate enough to rarely suffer any significant injuries and got to retire on their own terms still typically suffer from chronic back issues and other aches and pains that are a necessary evil on account of taking falls and absorbing physical punishment to please fans. Well beyond the essential aches and pains that come with the sports entertainment business, wrestlers have notoriously gotten mixed up in using illegal substances that include painkillers, sleeping pills, and steroids to cope with their lives in wrestling or try to get the most out of their physicality. All of that’s not to mention the brutal travel schedules to make it from town to town, and psychological and political issues that have, in particular come up with major promotions at some points in their histories.
This column looks at 15 particularly dark truths that wrestling fans generally try to overlook, rationalize, or downright forget when they sit down to enjoy their favorite wrestling product. Some of them are tied to individual instances or people in the wrestling business, while others are more emblematic of systemic issues in the business. Regardless, they’re uncomfortable realities that aren’t exactly secrets, but that we choose not to think about.
15. ROH Was Founded By An Alleged Predator
Ring of Honor is widely regarded as a top tier independent promotion, to the point that some fans wouldn’t even call it an indie promotion anymore for its TV exposure and caliber of stars involved. Indeed, before stars like Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn and others ever showed up in WWE, they sharpened their skillsets and shined in ROH.
The dark truth about ROH, though is that its founder, tape peddler Rob Feinstein, had some unsavory pastimes. Three years after he’d launched ROH, he was caught in a sting operation. Feinstein was allegedly soliciting sex from what he thought was a minor, only to get busted because the people on the other end of the line were law enforcement officers. The scandal threatened to kill ROH in the early going, before Feinstein sold off his stake in the company.
14. ECW Fans Called For Child Abuse
Fans tend to glorify ECW for being a little company that overachieved and became incredibly influential. After all, the hardcore style and frequently explicit promo style the company highlighted helped shape both WWE’s Attitude Era and a number WCW’s angles. There were points in time, however, when ECW went over the line, or came dangerously close to doing so.
One such time was when fans rallied to “Cane Dewey.” The Singapore Cane had become a weapon of similar stature to the steel chair in the company, capitalizing on the controversy when American Michael Fay was to be subjected to the punishment for vandalism in 1994. Dewey referred to Mick Foley’s real life son.
Foley would turn the suggestion into raw material for an inspired heel promo about the depravity of ECW and its fans. Still, the fact that the idea came up, and that fans grew more enthusiastic in calling for child abuse was pretty disturbing, especially when we look back on it, out of the haze of ECW’s original popularity.
13. WWE Ripped Off The Summer Of Punk Angle
The summer of 2011 saw CM Punk rise from an upper card star and occasional WWE main eventer, to a guy second only to John Cena on the full time roster. The push was based in WWE playing with the lines between reality and storylines as Punk was largely underappreciated, and truly on the verge of choosing not to re-sign with WWE. An iconic Pipe Bomb Promo and great match with John Cena in front of his hometown crowd in Chicago, and Punk got over big time.
As much as this angle, particularly in its early stages, was a creative success, the fact is that WWE stole a lot of it from ROH. When Punk left ROH for WWE, it looked like he was going to lose one last match to Austin Aries and go out on his back. Instead, he won the ROH Championship in what was thought to be his last match, before a hellacious summer long angle. The increasingly pompous Straight Edge Superstar threatened to leave for WWE with the title in hand. The ROH roster chased him with a fervor so he wouldn’t embarrass them.
The WWE version of the Summer of Punk was probably the best thing he did with the company, and certainly witnessed by more fans. Nonetheless, it wasn’t WWE’s creative success, but rather a knock off of a story that had already worked.
12. Ashley Massaro Alleged She Was Inappropriately Harassed As A WWE Employee
Ashley Massaro was briefly the de facto face of WWE’s women’s roster. After winning a Diva Search competition, she worked high profile programs with Mickie James, Melina, and other top female stars of the day. Though she never collected championship gold, she did get featured in Playboy and the accompanying WrestleMania push of that era.
Massaro was popular enough, though she never really came along as a polished in ring worker. After she left the company, however, she came out with a particularly dark secret. Massaro indicated that, while the company was in Kuwait, she was sexually assaulted, then persuaded by management not to file a formal complaint. Massaro also joined a class action suit based on WWE concealing information about head injuries. The truth of the matter isn’t entirely clear to this date, but at minimum, it seems that Massaro had some terrible experiences based on her time with the promotion.
11. Reid Flair Was On a Rough Path Before He Passed
Before Charlotte Flair dazzled fans as a legitimate heir to the Flair family wrestling legacy, and after David Flair had fallen far short of that mark, Reid Flair looked like a future megastar. Not only did he have the Flair family name behind him and a good look for the business, but he was legitimately talented amateur wrestler who might have brought a new, contemporary scientific style to the mat.
While no one denies that Reid Flair died of a drug overdose, the prevailing narrative nowadays seems to be that he was a star on the rise who died on a fluke. There’s plenty of conjecture that he was on his path to ODing well before he passed, though. Most recently, Triple H spoke to this point on the ESPN 30 for 30 episode dedicated to Ric Flair, discussing that Reid had failed drug tests in developmental. Hunter says Reid was afforded more opportunities on account of who his father was, but simply couldn’t clean up his act.
10. The Great Khali Accidentally Killed A Fellow Wrestling Trainee
The Great Khali was widely dismissed by a large swathe of fans for never progressing into much of an ring worker. Just the same, he did grow into one of the most recognizable figures in WWE in the early stages of the PG Era—perhaps even a begrudging cult favorite. He was a significant enough star that WWE could bring him back in 2017 for a high profile cameo in support of Jinder Mahal’s big push.
While folks may have transitioned to remembering the Punjabi Playboy fondly nowadays, there remains the uncomfortable reality that he accidentally contributed to the death of a fellow wrestler in training, Brian Ong, under the auspices of All Pro Wrestling. Ong had purportedly suffered an earlier concussion and had trainers push him to go on, only for a flapjack from Khali to ultimately do him in.
9. Chris Benoit Lost His Mind Due To Wrestling
There’s no doubt that Chris Benoit left a black eye on the wrestling industry when he killed his wife and son, before committing suicide in 2007. It was a horrific turn of events, and particularly troubling because he was a current WWE wrestler, whom it was rumored WWE planned to put the still new ECW Championship on mere days after this turn of events.
In more recent times, colleagues seem to have softened a bit on Benoit, in no doubt partly because over a decade has passed and some of the stigma around the Rabid Wolverine has faded by degrees. Chris Jericho in particular dedicated an episode of his podcast to remembering Benoit as the great wrestler he was before his final life choices turned so damning.
The dark truth here? Whether it was the steroid fueled rage originally theorized to make him snap, or the more widely accepted collection of head injuries, the net result lands in a similar place. Benoit’s pro wrestling ambitions created a monster, and one who ultimately became a murderer.
8. Triple H Cheated On Chyna To Start His Love Story With Stephanie McMahon
Triple H and Stephanie McMahon’s romance has evolved into a bit of a pro wrestling fairy tale. The story features Triple H as a hard worker who grew up a fan and worked his way into the business. He arrived as a top tier performer, then happened to fall in love with the boss’s daughter to set him up as the heir to the throne of running WWE’s creative.
While claims that Triple H plotted his personal life around his professional gain feel like a stretch, it remains noteworthy that his romance with Stephanie wasn’t all pure and innocent. The timelines pretty clearly suggest overlap between his coupling with kayfabe bodyguard Chyna, and with Steph, meaning that the ultimate wrestling power couple go its start based on Hunter cheating on his other girlfriend.
7. Jerry Lawler Screwed A Lot Of People Over
Jerry Lawler is generally looked at as a harmless old man nowadays in WWE. He’s a legend of the business, best known to the WWE faithful as a color commentator, but an important wrestler for decades before that. On top of those areas of involvement in the business, Lawler was also a noteworthy booker and promoter for the Memphis territory that he starred in for so many years.
Along Lawler’s time in power, he worked with quite a few high profile stars on their way up or down the card, in one of the longest surviving and thriving regional promotions in wrestling. While he had some classic rivalries and built friendships and professional partnerships across generations, he also had more than his share of enemies. Lawler has explicitly articulated that he took liberties in intentionally breaking young Paul Heyman’s jaw with a stiff punch to penalize the manager. Southern veteran Eric Embry pulled no punches about his thoughts on the King when he visited Steve Austin’s podcast, vocalizing a long stewing hatred for him because of the way he did business. So, despite the accepted story of Lawler as a beloved figure, he was no angel in using his power in wrestling.
6. WWE Introduced Survivor Series To Screw The NWA
Survivor Series is second only WrestleMania among WWE’s longest running annual events. The Thanksgiving tradition launched in 1987, and WWE has largely pushed the story that they created the show to get the most out of the white hot Hulk Hogan-Andre the Giant rivalry that had climaxed in a one on one match at the preceding WrestleMania.
While drawing on a huge rivalry by introducing a tag team elimination match formula to mix things up was reasonable enough, and there’s little doubt the logic is true, there was a more insidious sub-narrative. WWE also reportedly scheduled Survivor Series very intentionally to run opposite the NWA’s biggest show of the year, Starrcade. Moreover, WWE allegedly made cable providers choose between broadcasting Survivor Series, or being blackballed from getting to broadcast the following year’s WrestleMania. The move hurt the NWA big time, and forced them to reschedule their flagship show to December in years to follow.
5. Verne Gagne Killed A Fellow Resident In A Nursing Home
Verne Gagne was a legend of wrestling out of the Midwest, who was notably both the in ring face of and behind the scenes head of the American Wrestling Assocation. Gagne was a popular champion and promoter, who would put up about as good a fight as anyone against Vince McMahon’s national expansion with the WWE. Gagne would justly wind up in the WWE Hall of Fame based on his multifaceted legendary career.
It’s an uncomfortable truth, however, that late in Gagne’s life he was responsible for killing a fellow resident at a nursing home. Both men were in rough enough mental shape to not give a clear account of the incident, but it would seem an argument led to Gagne throwing him to the ground, which ultimately caused the other man’s death. It was a dark and sad final headline for a once great champion, and an uncomfortable addition to a legend’s life story.
4. Dynamite Kid Was A Bully Who Became A Bitter Old Man
Wresting historians tend to remember The Dynamite Kid as a world class worker who was in many ways ahead of his time. He’s the kind of guy who might have gotten a main event push a decade later, but as it was, was relegated to the tag team ranks for his time on the main roster.
For all of Dynamite’s talent and innovation, most of his contemporaries also suggest that he was a mean son of a gun. While playful ribbing is a part of wrestling culture, Dynamite has been cited by a variety parties as actively bullying, or going so far as to hurt his colleagues with his jokes. While he certainly deserves a place in wrestling history for his talent, he also hasn’t exactly endeared himself to anyone since back injuries forced him to retire from full time ring work. By most accounts he came a mean, bitter old man living back in England. In his book, Bret Hart recalled a particular sad encounter when The Hitman visited as world champ, and it was clear Dynamite was jealous and angry he’d never attained the same feat.
3. WWE Manipulated Fans For Survivor Series 1999
WWE famously advertises that all cards are subject to change. The disclaimer comes with the acknowledgment that wrestlers might get hurt, creative plans might change, or the company might be heading in a different direction before a particular show goes down and doesn’t want to show its hand too soon. Usually changes in the card are moderate, trading out stars of comparable magnitude, or only going down in big match situations when absolutely essential. Such was the case when Kurt Angle needed ot replace Roman Reigns at the last minute at TLC 2017.
For Survivor Series 1999, WWE planned a big angle that would see Steve Austin run over in the parking lot. The incident would offer a kayfabe rationale for Austin sitting out the year to follow while he had surgery and recovered, besides setting up his next rival via a mystery angle to reveal who had hit with the car. To make it a true surprise, the angle included booking Austin in the main event—a highly anticipated Triple Threat against The Rock and Triple H, pitting the top three stars of the era against one another. Austin went down to the kayfabe attack, and The Big Show got subbed in. While Show was a big star at the time, he really couldn’t compare to Austin. For as much as fans love the Attitude Era in retrospect, this was a real bait and switch to renege on a dream main event that never would end up actually happening.
2. Owen Hart Died Because Of a Comedy Gimmick
Owen Hart famously fell due his death in a tragic accident midway through the Over the Edge PPV in 1999. While we can point fingers at whomever we like, the only real conclusion was that it was a complete accident and case of horrible misfortune.
While wrestling fans on the whole have come to terms with this tragedy, There remains a particularly sad sub-plot. Hart’s death wasn’t a part of some impressive spot, nor a serious angle but rather as part of a throwaway comedy gimmick. Hart, one of the best all around performers of his generation, was being squandered as a masked faux super hero. It’s truly a shame that this was the end of Hart’s legacy as a pro wrestlers and as a human being.
1. WWE Screwed Wendi Richter Long Before They Screwed Bret Hart
The Montreal Screwjob is probably the single most famous worked shoot incident in wrestling history, in which WWE forcibly took its world title off Bret Hart on his last night with the company to ensure he didn’t abscond to WCW with it. While opinions are split about who was in the right or wrong, or how justified WWE may have been, the general consensus was that Hart did, indeed get screwed.
This wasn’t the first time WWE “did business for” someone, however. In the 1980s, WWE manufactured women’s icon Wendi Richter got over huge, and demanded pay commensurate with her new stardom. In response, WWE had The Fabulous Moolah pin her down for a shoot, and the referee give a fast, sloppy count to get the title off of her and exile her from her company.
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