When a wrestler or personality who had worked in WWE passes away, the company offers quick tributes to that individual on its weekly television shows, either by means of video package or a graphic. WWE also posts short articles on the official website confirming these talents’ passing. Most recently, the company used these methods to recognize the tragic deaths of George “The Animal” Steele and Ivan Koloff, who died within days of each other earlier this month. (For some reason we may explore later on down the line, they didn’t make a single mention of Nicole Bass, who had also passed away that same week.)
But sometimes, WWE chooses to go a different route when “paying tribute” to those who have entered that great big Royal Rumble in the sky. If someone had died surrounded in controversy, they could choose to go the tabloid route and focus on sensationalist details. They could also exploit a recently-deceased main eventer for more than one year, and even have one of their top talents suggest he’s trading wrestling holds down there with Satan. Or if someone died in a freak accident that shouldn’t even have happened, they could turn their flagship show into a tribute episode in an attempt to deflect accusations of negligence.
You probably know the examples we’re referring to above even without us mentioning any names, but those are just a few of them. Today, we shall be looking at 15 times the WWE exploited dead wrestlers, or, in some cases, wrestling managers/valets, and see how low the ‘E was willing to go in those cases.
15. ROAD WARRIOR… HEIDENREICH?
When Mike Hegstrand, a.k.a. Road Warrior Hawk, was still alive, WWE exploited his real-life struggles with substance abuse by having him threaten to kill himself, only for Droz to push him off the TitanTron. But in 2005, it had been two years since Hegstrand’s tragic death, and WWE decided to pair Road Warrior Animal up with a new Legion of Doom recruit — Road Warrior Heidenreich.
Yes, you read that right — that same Heidenreich who read angry poetry, committed “Heidenrape” on Michael Cole, and often came about as a younger, even less-talented and less-charismatic version of Sycho Sid/Sid Vicious. This huge stiff was paired up with Animal as they reformed the Legion of Doom in 2005, and while we understand Animal wanting to dedicate his WWE return to his late friend and tag team partner Hawk, the LOD revival seemed unnecessary at best and exploitative at worst.
14. MARK HENRY SPITS ON THE GUERRERO NAME
We sort-of warned you earlier that this list would be very heavy on the Eddiesploitation because there were so many separate instances of it. So why don’t we take you back to the June 30, 2006 episode of SmackDown, where Mark Henry and Chavo Guerrero were cutting promos on each other, with Chavo accusing the World’s Strongest Man of dissing his family to coerce him into coming out of (kayfabe) retirement.
In response to this, Henry told Chavo that he “spits on the Guerrero name,” and that if his uncle Eddie was alive, he’d spit on him too. No, not as bad as Randy Orton’s “Eddie’s in hell” comment to Rey Mysterio (which is also in here), but just another egregious Eddiesploitation example that may or may not have made Latino Heat turn in his grave.
13. THE HART OF GOLD DVD
I would personally not mind a DVD retrospective on the career of the late Owen Hart, which WWE released in 2015 under the title Hart of Gold. But there was a little snag that came with that DVD release – WWE allegedly did not run its plans by Owen’s family, and may have made it appear as if Owen’s widow Martha and their children Oje and Athena were all in favor of the project.
In a statement issued months before the release of Hart of Gold, Martha said that she and her children were only made aware of Hart of Gold after the fact, and they did not endorse or approve of the DVD tribute, contrary to what was originally claimed by several dirt sheets. She added that the best way for WWE to honor Owen’s legacy was to “let him rest in peace,” which means not including him in any video compilations, mentioning him on air, or maybe even considering him for the Hall of Fame, a honor which this writer and many others feel he rightfully deserves.
One can argue that Martha Hart is taking things too far by requesting WWE not reference her late husband in any way. But WWE could have at least asked her permission first before proceeding with Hart of Gold.
12. WWE CONFIDENTIAL’S FEATURE ON MISS ELIZABETH
In the ring, Miss Elizabeth exuded that kind of wholesome sex appeal that didn’t cause parents any concern when their kids had boyhood crushes on, or wanted to emulate her. But behind the scenes, Elizabeth Hulette was a troubled woman, first as she dealt with an ultra-possessive husband in “Macho Man” Randy Savage during their WWE days, then as she battled substance abuse later in life. She was just 42 when she fatally overdosed on painkillers and vodka in May 2003.
So what does WWE do to pay tribute to someone who was the female face of the company in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s? WWE Confidential, that’s what. This Gene Okerlund-hosted documentary series took the tawdry, sensationalist route when reporting on Elizabeth’s death, going as far as suggesting she may have been murdered, or that she may have killed herself. Why WWE couldn’t just focus on her onscreen legacy and not on her marriage to Savage or her troubled relationship with Lex Luger, we couldn’t quite understand.
11. GAME TIPS FROM THE MACHO MAN
Earlier this month, WWE teamed up with mobile game maker Scopely to release WWE: Champions for iOS and Android devices, a match-3 game where the gem matches you make pretty much dictate the moves of your wrestlers. Personally speaking, I love the game because a) it’s WWE-based, and b) the match-3 mechanics are comparatively unique and challenging. Yeah, it’s pay-to-win like a good many mobile games that you can download for free, but it’s got this writer and lots of other players hooked.
There is, however, one rather unsettling thing about WWE: Champions. While there’s nothing wrong with being able to unlock characters representing dead wrestlers such as Big John Studd and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, it seems a wee bit off that WWE and Scopely are having Savage’s likeness “offer” game tips with the likes of Sting, The Undertaker, and Vince McMahon during the load screens. Certainly there are better ways to pay tribute to someone whose Hall of Fame induction in 2015 was way too long overdue.
10. THE CLUB VS. A DUSTY RHODES TEDDY BEAR
Before his death in 2015, WWE Hall of Famer Dusty Rhodes had played an integral part in the development of NXT’s young male and female talents. One of those NXT kids was Bayley, who was called up to the main roster in 2016 and immediately given a good push. And, in a late-2016 episode of Monday Night RAW, she had given a Dusty Rhodes teddy bear to Dusty’s son Goldust, as he and R-Truth prepared for a match against Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson.
This time, though, Gallows had more to say and do than to call The Golden Truth “neeeeeerds,” as he and Anderson grabbed the Dusty teddy bear from Goldust and ripped its head off. They would go on to beat The Golden Truth soon after. And when it was all over, the angle and its eventual payoff had offended Dusty’s younger son and Goldust’s half-brother Cody Rhodes, who tweeted his disappointment in WWE running such an offensive angle so soon after his father’s death.
9. EDDIESPLOITATION LIVES ON WITH THE BOSS
Just to make it clear, we don’t believe Sasha Banks is the type who’d want to do something like this, out of respect to her childhood wrestling hero. But WWE higher-ups? Most definitely. If you thought Eddiesploitation had long been consigned to the many things WWE wants you to forget, you thought wrong in 2016, as that was when announcers would mention, on every possible opportunity, that Sasha Banks grew up idolizing Eddie Guerrero. And they’d double down on the modern-day Eddiesploitation each time Banks would go for the frog splash. Which, as you may know, was one of Eddie’s finishers. We get it, Cole! Now can you, Byron, and Corey call the rest of the match, please?
Sasha Banks is truly one of the most talented female wrestlers in WWE today, and she deserves to stand out for her in-ring talent, and with her own “Boss” attitude and gimmick. But at the rate things are going, you shouldn’t be shocked if WWE gives Sasha a similar “lie, cheat, and steal” gimmick if and when they turn her heel.
8. PAIGE DESECRATES REID FLAIR’S MEMORY
We can probably pinpoint that one precise moment where Paige’s push went down the tubes, and that was in November 2015, as WWE was trying to build up Charlotte Flair as the next top female babyface in the company, despite most fans realizing she’s so much better as a heel. In an attempt to make the beloved Paige more despicable in her villainous role, the company had her take things to a personal level with Charlotte by telling her during a WWE Divas Championship match contract signing that her younger brother Reid “didn’t have much fight in him.”
Reid Flair died early in 2013 from a drug overdose at the tender age of 25, and his passing had clearly taken its toll on his Hall of Fame father Ric Flair. But WWE never bothered to inform him or his ex-wife Elizabeth that they were planning to have Paige reference Reid’s death, which made them understandably furious as they took to social media to express their disgust at the angle.
7. ‘TAKER TAKES A BATH IN PAUL BEARER’S “ASHES”
When William “Paul Bearer” Moody passed away in March 2013, his most notable charge, The Undertaker, was embroiled in a feud with CM Punk. And being that he had always worked a macabre gimmick, not to mention worked at a funeral parlor in between independent wrestling stints as a younger man, Bearer’s sons gave WWE their blessing when they wanted to invoke his death in the Taker vs. Punk storyline.
What WWE did here was take the ball and run way, way, way too far with it. It was bad enough that Paul Heyman had impersonated Bearer, but the kicker here was Punk emptying Bearer’s urn and spilling his “ashes” on The Undertaker to send a message to the Deadman. At that point, Michael and Daniel Moody were both uncomfortable with what WWE was doing, but if it’s any solace, ‘Taker did end up beating Punk at WrestleMania XXIX, keeping his streak alive at 21 wins… until Heyman’s other client Brock Lesnar ended it just one year later.
6. THE ANDRE THE GIANT MEMORIAL BATTLE ROYAL
In theory, there’s no problem with the WWE holding an Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal each year at WrestleMania since 2014. Andre had some of his finest moments in battle royals. As the WWE’s first-ever Hall of Fame inductee and the largest wrestler of his time, it’s just right that this 20-man (originally 30-man) match is named after the Eighth Wonder of the World. Until last year, though, it mostly felt like a disservice to Andre, and borderline exploitative.
The problem has been WWE’s choice of Andre Battle Royal winner, or what they do to him after he outlasts all those other (mostly midcard) talents at ‘Mania. In 2014, Cesaro became the first-ever Andre Battle Royal winner, but WWE followed that up by making him a Paul Heyman Guy, which clearly didn’t work. And in 2015, WWE went with the largest man in the match (Big Show) despite his decreasing relevance and advanced age, rather than having Damien Mizdow win and giving his looming feud with The Miz much greater meaning.
5. “EDDIE’S IN HELL”
In the aftermath of Eddie Guerrero’s death on November 13, 2005, WWE took a rather unusual route in paying tribute to the late Superstar. The tribute show was fine, and was genuinely touching, but soon we got to see memorial lowriders, “Viva La Savings!” banners on the WWE Shop, and more Latino Heat references on TV than you can shake a stick at. This was Eddiesploitation alright, and it made for some awkward moments on WWE television.
On February 3, 2006, things went from awkward to downright uncomfortable when Randy Orton was cutting a promo on Royal Rumble winner Rey Mysterio, one of Eddie’s best friends in real life. As Mysterio was talking about how he wants to win the WWE World Championship in honor of Eddie, Orton blurted out nine of the most cringe-worthy words ever uttered on WWE television – “Eddie ain’t in heaven. Eddie’s down there – in hell.” For good measure, the Viper added that Rey had as much of a chance to beat him than Eddie had a chance of coming back to life.
That wasn’t the last time WWE would treat Eddie Guerrero as if he was still a living, breathing member of the roster. But it was arguably the worst case of Eddiesploitation in all the time WWE kept milking the memory of Latino Heat.
4. THE ASCENSION
Though it’s true that Road Warriors Animal and Puke (a.k.a. Droz) and Demolition Ax and Smash are still alive, we’re including this in the list because Road Warrior Hawk and latter-day Demolition member Crush are no longer with us. Originally a full-fledged stable in NXT, The Ascension was eventually pared down to two men — Konnor and Viktor — who were so dominant in developmental that they held NXT’s Tag Team Championships for close to a year. They were called up to the main roster late in 2014, and expectations seemed to be high.
That is, until JBL, despite his heel alignment being consistent with that of The Ascension’s, started burying them as cheap LOD and Demolition knockoffs. He’s probably right, but he didn’t have to say it on air, as his comments amounted to a proper burial for The Ascension, or should we say, a trip to the lower-card “Wasteland,” where they still regularly lose to the likes of American Alpha and other SmackDown Live babyface tag teams.
3. THE WARRIOR AWARD
The Ultimate Warrior was not a very pleasant individual to be around, though he did show signs of a kinder, gentler Warrior in the days leading up to his death in 2014. He was widely disliked in the locker room, he repeatedly held WWE up for more money and would no-show events when he didn’t get his way financially, he brushed off a dying fan, he no-sold Triple H’s Pedigree, you name it. Plus, as a “motivational speaker” at colleges, he made inflammatory comments about the LGBT community and asked an Iranian student to “get a towel.”
So what does WWE do to honor Warrior following his death? They launched the Warrior Award in 2015, which honors courageous, plucky people who “live life with the courage and compassion” synonymous with The Ultimate Warrior’s spirit. Last time we checked our dictionary, “courage” didn’t mean ditching house shows over pay disputes, and “compassion” didn’t mean telling audiences that “queering doesn’t make the world work.”
2. VINCE INTERVIEWS BRIAN PILLMAN’S WIDOW
When you lose a loved one who had been in the public eye at the time of their death, the first thing you want to do is mourn in private. That may have been what Melanie Pillman had wanted to do after the unexpected death of her husband Brian on October 5, 1997. Only 35 at the time, Brian Pillman had died of a heart attack while still actively wrestling for WWE, and the company did the right thing at first by having all its wrestlers out on the ramp, bowing their heads in silence for their fallen brother.
Then came Vince McMahon’s interview with Melanie Pillman. Not only was he out of line by interviewing the grieving widow one day after her husband’s death, he also asked her pointed questions about how she’d support their five children with Brian now gone. It was an exploitative, offensive question that had many fans crying foul, and it’s also sad to note that Melanie had descended into drug addiction in the years that followed, with her now-adult stepchildren (Brian’s kids from an earlier relationship) not wanting to have anything to do with her.
1. RAW IS OWEN
Eighteen years later, watching the Owen Hart tribute episode of Monday Night RAW still brings a few tears to my eyes. I’d grown up idolizing both Bret and Owen Hart, and Owen’s sudden death at the age of 34 at the Over the Edge pay-per-view in 1999 was almost as tragic for the many fans of the “Black Hart” as it was for his family. And to pay tribute to Owen, WWE had a special episode of RAW where all storylines were temporarily dropped, and several wrestlers, many of whom were openly weeping, shared their memories of a colleague who had left the world way too soon.
But there’s a reason the RAW is Owen tribute episode tops the list, while the Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit tribute episodes aren’t included. In the cases of Guerrero and Benoit, these were done with no arguable ulterior motives, and WWE had yet to learn the specifics of the Benoit family murder-suicide when they aired that tribute show. RAW is Owen, on the other hand, was seemingly an attempt at damage control, considering that Owen Hart didn’t want to do the stunt that ultimately killed him, and that WWE made the controversial decision to continue with Over the Edge even as one of its top talents was dying.
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