Professional wrestling has long been rife with controversy and alarming incidents which have elicited ridicule from mainstream culture. As fans of this modern day popular culture art we are forced to both celebrate the iconic moments and deride the shameful ones. Our sport is produced in a sheltered world, a modern day travelling circus that often feels like it is operating on the slippery edges of societal norms. This is the very reason that we love it as fans – it offers an escape from the monotonous grind of everyday life, an outlet for all the things in life that we feel frustrated with. Pro wrestling is by its very nature, one of the purest forms of iconoclastic escapism.
Having said all that, for every moment that reminds us why we love our guilty pleasure, there are times where we feel truly ashamed to be wrestling fans. This week’s disgusting treatment of Paige on social media is a stark reminder that pro wrestlers operate in a world that most of us do not understand, but that they are still normal human beings who deserve to be treated respectfully and with privacy. Throughout the past, there have been times where the scripted nature of the show has become far too real, where backstage stories have become more important than what’s portrayed on television. This list will provide a rundown of some of the most infamous incidents in pro wrestling history, how they contributed to the death of kayfabe, and how they changed the industry forever.
15 WWE Steroid Scandal
The first time that the WWE were really rocked by a significant scandal was during Vince McMahon’s federal trial regarding illegal drug trafficking in 1993. Vinny Mac was genuinely looking at an eight-year prison sentence and the strong possibility of his empire collapsing underneath his feet. Industry secrets were exposed as Hulk Hogan was forced to testify that he shared an apparent friendship with wrestlers who were his sworn enemy on screen. The long held public suspicion that wrestling was predetermined was finally confirmed and the industry was changed forever.
Luckily for McMahon, he was acquitted on all charges laid before him due to the legal equivalent of an original Sin Cara match, as botches piled up everywhere. The wrestling annals have long since forgotten the first major incident that nearly brought an empire to its knees, and thankfully McMahon’s roster is no longer supported by juiced-up former bodybuilders.
14 Bruiser Brody Murder
Bruiser Brody was an innovative “big man” in pro wrestling and became renowned for his brawling style. He was notoriously difficult to work with, though, and often refused to sell his opponents offense. Brody is also famous for his long-term feud with another extremely violent former wrestler, Abdullah The Butcher.
Bruiser was a highly educated man and this often contributed to him disagreeing with promoters over booking decisions which he saw as questionable. One of these many disagreements ultimately led to his demise when he was stabbed by a booker, Jose Huertas Gonzalez, prior to a scheduled match in Puerto Rico.
Brody was discovered in the shower by Tony Atlas, and Atlas was required to assist the paramedics in lifting Bruiser to the waiting ambulance due to his huge frame. After it took paramedics nearly an hour to reach him, they were unable to revive him. Incredibly, Gonzalez was acquitted after a jury ruled he was acting in self-defence. The fatal stabbing of Brody will live on as a great loss of a legend who still had many fantastic years ahead of him.
13 Fingerpoke of Doom
When it became apparent that WCW was losing the ratings war as WWE ramped up the Attitude Era, gaping holes began appearing in their storytelling and the very fabric of the company began to fall apart. This incident is widely regarded as the moment that WCW lost the Monday Night Wars. A live broadcast of Nitro was scheduled to feature a world title match between the champion and leader of nWo Wolfpac, Kevin Nash, and the leader of nWo Hollywood, Hulk Hogan. In a horribly booked segment, Hogan pushed Nash to the floor with his index finger and pinned him to win the title. This brought to an end a long feud between the two factions and the reunion of the original nWo stable.
12 WCW Bash At The Beach 2000
Eighteen months following the Fingerpoke of Doom, WCW was in all kinds of trouble from a creative and financial standpoint. As the company reached its tipping point, another incident involving Hulk Hogan provides a glimpse into the complete mess that engulfed Ted Turner’s baby at the time. In a surreal display of kayfabe being broken, Vince Russo ordered the World Champion, Jeff Jarrett, to lie down in the ring so that Hogan could pin him. Hogan reluctantly placed his foot on Jarrett and won his final world title in WCW in the most extraordinary circumstances. Before he left, he offered a tirade of insults to Russo on the mic and the Hulkster was never seen in the company again.
Later in the evening, Russo created a championship match between Jarrett and Booker T. This placated the live crowd as Booker won the match to claim his maiden world championship, but the damage to the struggling company’s already threadbare reputation had already been done. A few months later the company ceased to exist as it was bought by WWE.
11 Shane Douglas Gives Up The NWA Title
Paul Heyman’s original incarnation of ECW will remain etched in the history of professional wrestling as an industry game-changer. Originally the company was known as Eastern Championship Wrestling, a fairly standard NWA territory. Once Heyman began to assume creative control and exert his influence, a move was made behind the scenes to move towards edgier content and break away from the NWA. The day that changed everything for ECW and when it became “Extreme Championship Wrestling” was August 27th 1994.
At the conclusion of a championship tournament, Shane Douglas was crowned the new NWA World Heavyweight Champion. In an incident that shocked the wrestling world, he gave a promo where he proceeded to throw down the NWA belt, calling it a “dead promotion.” He declared himself the ECW World Champion and the company moved to remove itself from the NWA in a shocking move.
10 Muhammad Hassan As A Terrorist
At only 22 years old, there were plans afoot to crown Muhammad Hassan as the youngest WWE World Champion in history. Those plans were abruptly scrapped and Hassan was consigned to being only a footnote in WWE history after one of the most controversial angles in company history was aired on an episode of SmackDown in 2005. An extremely tasteless terrorism angle was produced following a match between The Undertaker and Hassan’s right hand man, Daivari. Following the match, Taker was attacked by five masked men who choked him out with piano wire before hoisting the fallen Daivari above their heads and escorting him out of the arena. The incident was taped three days prior to the London bombings and inexplicably it aired without being edited.
The angle received widespread media attention and was universally criticised for its lack of sensitivity. Hassan was soon released and never made it back to a WWE ring. The WWE has since stopped using the “evil foreigner” gimmick so often, although Rusev has still been saddled with this unfortunate tag.
9 MSG Curtain Call
Only three years removed from the steroid trial that appeared to expose the scripted nature of WWE programming, the company was further rocked by an incident involving the backstage group known as The Kliq. The group consisted of Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Triple H and Sean Waltman (X-Pac) and they were heavily involved in many of the creative decisions made by WWE during the time. Seen by the powers that be as a problematic influence, it is alleged that Nash and Hall’s contracts were allowed to expire which led to the two signing for WCW.
As something of a parting gift, four members broke kayfabe during a live event at MSG. Following a match, Nash and Triple H, who were heels, embraced the babyface duo of Hall and Michaels. Vince McMahon was reportedly furious with the incident despite it not being televised and Triple H received the brunt of the punishment, being relegated to jobber status for many months following this.
8 Plane Ride From Hell
The recreational habits of pro wrestlers has often been a cause for an equal amount of amusement and sadness amongst wrestling fans. One of the more light-hearted stories on this list involves the now notorious plane journey following a European tour in 2002.
After the plane was delayed for over an hour and, with a heavy drinking session going on during the delay, the restless group began to descend into chaos when the late, great Curt Hennig challenged Brock Lesnar to an amateur wrestling contest. The two battled up and down the aisle prior to being separated and ultimately this led to Hennig’s release from the company. Several other incidents followed including Dustin "Goldust" Runnels serenading his ex-wife, Terri, over the plane’s loud speaker. He was also subsequently released from the company.
Amongst other incidents, it is alleged that Michael Hayes punched JBL and then had his ponytail cut off by X-Pac while asleep! This particularly rough ride has definitely seen the company tighten up their policy regarding recreational drug and alcohol use!
7 Jeff Hardy Inebriated At Victory Road 2011
After finally becoming a headliner in WWE and securing three world championship reigns, Jeff Hardy left the company to deal with several nagging injuries and some personal demons that wouldn’t go away. Without fully taking the required recovery time, he signed with TNA and was quickly thrust into the main event spotlight. This was to prove disastrous for Hardy who was in need of a significant amount of time to rehabilitate his personal issues.
Jeff’s very real problems were exposed to the live audience when he was scheduled to wrestle Sting for the world title at Victory Road at 2011. After failing to appear for several minutes as his theme music played, Hardy eventually appeared and it became very clear very quickly that he was heavily intoxicated. Upon noticing this, Eric Bischoff made his way to the ring to attempt to resolve the issue quietly. Only 90 seconds after the match started, Sting forcefully pinned Hardy to retain the title. A furious Sting left with his title in tow and the once reputable alternative to WWE began its descent into irrelevance. Thankfully, Jeff has recovered and alongside his brother Matt, is doing his best work in years.
6 Daniel Puder Tries To Break Kurt Angle’s Arm
Kurt Angle is legitimately one of the toughest men ever to set foot in a professional wrestling ring and there is no greater example of this during an impromptu match with Daniel Puder on an episode of SmackDown in 2004. The match took place during a segment where Angle issued an open challenge to the Tough Enough contestants, which included Puder. With a background in MMA, Puder ignored the scripted nature of the contest and managed to lock Angle into a kimura submission hold.
The quick thinking of referee Jimmy Korderas is the only thing that prevented Angle suffering a horribly broken arm on live television as he quickly counted a pin on Puder. After the match, a visibly angry Angle can be seen berating the young upstart. Angle had no intention of tapping out and would have allowed his arm to be snapped had Korderas not noticed what was happening. Despite winning Tough Enough, Puder faded into insignificance and his last notable appearance in a WWE ring was being mercilessly beaten in a chop-fest at the Royal Rumble by Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit and Hardcore Holly.
5 Brawl For All
In a strange attempt to legitimise WWE wrestlers as fighters, a shootfighting tournament was created by head writer Vince Russo in 1998. The concept was flawed from the beginning as it only served as a platform to allow for a major push being awarded to “Dr.Death” Steve Williams, the only competitor with any real fighting experience. The company were preparing for a major pay per view main event match between Williams and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. However, when Williams was knocked out by Bart Gunn in only the second round of the tournament, plans had to change.
Gunn went on to win the whole tournament, but rather than receiving a push he was jobbed out to knockout specialist and actual boxer Butterbean at WrestleMania 15 and subsequently released. Several wrestlers received significant injuries during the tournament and were forced to miss considerable amounts of TV time. It goes without saying that the company learned their lesson and have never tried to repeat anything similar to this debacle.
4 Mass Transit Incident
Former ECW wrestler New Jack could probably fill up this whole list with incidents that he has been involved in. It could be argued that New Jack is legitimately unhinged and is probably one of the most dangerous men ever to wrestle professionally. And in an incident that has plagued the history of ECW, New Jack was responsible for blading an under-age wrestler so deeply in the forehead that the boy passed out in the ring.
The incident took place at a house show where Eric Kulas had lied about his age in order to perform as the character “Mass Transit” during a tag team match. While he had reportedly asked New Jack to help him “get colour”, Jack decided to punish the youngster for his apparent lack of respect in the dressing room. As blood spurted from the 17-year old’s head, Jack spouted a profanity-laden verbal tirade claiming no remorse for his actions.
A lawsuit followed later where Jack was acquitted of charges due to Kulas’ request to be bladed. A sad story in professional wrestling ended when Kulas, then only 22, died in 2002 due to complications following gastric bypass surgery.
3 The Montreal Screwjob
Without a shadow of a doubt, the Montreal Screwjob is a very infamous incident that is still regularly spoken about in pro wrestling. The incident took place at the 1997 Survivor Series in front of a highly partisan Canadian crowd during the world title bout between champion Bret Hart and his challenger Shawn Michaels. Hart was due to leave the company to sign with WCW and had reportedly requested to drop the title to HBK the following evening on Raw and not at the pay-per-view.
Concerned that Hart may leave the company with its flagship title, Vince McMahon concocted a plan with Michaels and referee, Earl Hebner, to ring the bell without Hart’s knowledge and award the title to HBK. The incident sent shockwaves throughout the industry with a legitimately bemused Hart spitting in McMahon’s face after the match. This incident spawned the evil Mr McMahon character and is viewed by many as the catalyst that led to the boom period of the Attitude Era.
2 Owen Hart's Death
Professional wrestling has long been plagued by the large list of performers who have died well before their time. One of these deaths was tragically witnessed by many fans during the Over the Edge PPV on May 23rd, 1999. While being lowered to the ring with a harness as part of his superhero-esque Blue Blazer gimmick, Owen Hart fell 24 metres and landed on the ring rope.
The incident was not seen by the live television audience as a pre-taped vignette was playing, but Jim Ross later informed the viewers that Hart had died as a result of his injuries. Hart had reportedly used a “quick release” function of the harness too early, but a settlement in 2000 still saw the WWE award his family $18 million.
Hart’s tragic passing has seen a significant shift towards safer in-ring practices during the PG-era. Extravagant ring entrances, blading and dangerous foreign objects are rarely seen on WWE programming nowadays. A potentially great career and future world champion was taken far too soon due to an overly theatrical ring entrance.
1 Chris Benoit Double Murder Suicide
The incident that forever changed the face of professional wrestling is undoubtedly the unspeakable horrors undertaken by Chris Benoit in June 2007. Once adored worldwide as a true wrestling great, Benoit murdered his wife Nancy and their 7-year old son, Daniel before committing suicide.
In a horribly mistimed act, WWE initially devoted a whole episode of Raw as a tribute to Benoit prior to the truth being revealed about what had occurred. When it became apparent what had actually happened, Vince McMahon made an announcement on TV distancing the company from Benoit and they have since effectively erased him from their history.
While there are many theories floating around regarding why these tragic events took place, the recurring theme is that Benoit’s brain was severely damaged due to the effects of multiple concussions suffered during his wrestling career. Following this revelation, WWE have made a conscious effort to reduce the amount of spots that can lead to head injuries including banning chair shots to the head. The Benoit incident will sadly always cast a very long, dark shadow over the WWE regardless of how much they distance themselves from the man.