In 1997, WWE began the most successful era in all of its long history — the Attitude Era, where hardly anything was too sexual, too violent, or too controversial. Teenage and young adult fans loved it, parents didn't want their younger children to imitate it, and sponsors were holding on to the edge of their seats each time Monday Night RAW went on air. Pro wrestling was no longer kiddie-oriented for the most part, and when Attitude gave way to Ruthless Aggression in 2002, there was still lots of room for controversy to be stirred up.
Then in 2008, WWE launched into what is still a very divisive era for a lot of fans — the PG Era. Seeing that they could do good business with younger fans, to say little of Linda McMahon's planned Senate campaign, WWE toned things down quite significantly, and took a much safer approach when it came to characters and storylines. But that didn't stop the company from having more than a few moments that seemingly hearkened back to the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression Eras.
To be clear, not everything non-PG in the PG Era was bad. Some of these moments were straight-up awesome, just as some of them were cringe-worthy, tasteless, and/or unnecessary. But none of these moments truly fit the parameters of PG, and that's why they're on this list — 15 times WWE was able to sneak some edgy content into PG Era programming, and how they were able to get away with it.
16 ENZO ASKS LANA HOW SHE'S DOIN'... IN THE BUFF
It all started when Enzo Amore was locked out of the locker room after showering, looking as naked as Eric Arndt was when he entered the world almost 30 years ago to that date. Forced to walk around in the buff, with his naughty bits conveniently blurred for TV viewers, the Certified G got himself an invite to a nudist resort in Puerto Rico (as peddled, of course, by The Shining Stars), got chastised by Titus O'Neil, and found himself right in front of a seemingly interested-looking Lana. How you doin'?
This was the catalyst for a feud that had Enzo and Cass against Lana, Rusev, and ultimately Jinder Mahal. And what a poor attempt it was to revive the spirit of the Attitude Era in PG times. By continuing to seduce Lana (and getting lured into a trap for it), Enzo (and Cass, by proxy) looked like the heel in the feud, while Rusev, despite being a bad guy, was mostly justified as a concerned, and rightfully angry husband. Everyone involved in this feud, even designated pin-taker Mahal, deserved better than that. Much better.
15 R-TRUTH STICKS IT TO THE SURGEON GENERAL
With today’s WWE Superstars keeping their bodies in much greater shape than they used to, it may come as a surprise that some of them smoke cigarettes from time to time, usually when there’s some (or lots of) booze involved. For example, there’s Chris Jericho, Jack Swagger, Alicia Fox, Big Show before he apparently switched to vaping… and there’s R-Truth, who celebrated his heel turn on John Morrison in 2011 by smoking a cigarette on live TV.
This might not seem so un-PG compared to many of the other entries on this list, but it goes without saying that smoking has come a long way from those old, oftentimes cheesy advertisements that portrayed cigarettes as manly, glamorous, or classy. It's a habit that people generally frown on, and the fact that R-Truth lit up a ciggie to blow smoke in JoMo's face isn't something you'd want your kids to imitate.
14 AJ GOES CRAY-CRAY
Recently, former WWE Divas Champion AJ Lee took to her blog to announce that she's been dealing with bipolar disorder since her early-20s. And it makes you wonder whether WWE had an inkling of this when they decided to write her as the "crazy chick."
This all started after that infamous moment where she kissed storyline boyfriend Daniel Bryan, distracting him and making him lose to Sheamus in just 18 seconds at WrestleMania XXVIII. With Bryan using this to fuel a heel turn, fans were supposed to sympathize with AJ, but she was so heartbroken that it wasn't long before she snapped, turned heel, and became a full-blown caricature of the "crazy chick," jumping from storyline beau to storyline beau. And the skipping. Oh, the skipping.
On one hand, these storylines were largely entertaining. But on the other hand, hindsight now tells us that WWE might not have been awfully sensitive to mental health issues, while exploiting AJ's bipolar disorder, assuming they did know about it before we did.
13 A.W. COMPARES TITUS TO KOBE
You remember A.W., right? That’s Abraham Washington, whose ECW talk show was responsible for some of the worst comedy moments of the PG Era. After the ECW brand was shut down, A.W. returned to FCW, working primarily as a wrestler. And when he returned to the main roster in 2012, he was back as a manager, initially managing Primo and Epico before dumping them in favor of The Prime Time Players – Titus O’Neil and Darren Young. Let the bad comedy begin... again.
Alas, it wasn’t just bad comedy, but some tasteless bits as well, primarily that time on a July 2012 episode of Monday Night RAW, where A.W., in an attempt to put O’Neil over, said that he’s “like Kobe Bryant at a hotel in Colorado.” That was a reference to Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case, where the recently-retired Lakers superstar allegedly assaulted a hotel employee. And it was such an awkward, uncalled-for remark that heel Michael Cole had to apologize on-air for it.
Technically, WWE was able to get away with such a reference, but A.W. wasn’t. He would be released a week and a half after the Kobe joke, and we don't think WWE is eager to bring him back, even as ex-Prime Time Players Young and O'Neil flounder in RAW's lower card.
12 EVA MARIE'S "WARDROBE MALFUNCTION"
Last year, WWE had a brilliant idea for how to capitalize on the nuclear levels of heat Eva Marie got from the WWE Universe — have a male voiceover give her the longest intro this side of The New Age Outlaws and Enzo and Cass, and keep on delaying her SmackDown Live debut at the last minute. But one of the most memorable delays came when Marie suffered a "wardrobe malfunction," with the straps of her top breaking off, and the referee scrambling to get her covered up with a towel.
As this took place in 2016, with SmackDown Live still very much rated PG, no puppies were shown in the shooting of this angle. But the fact that WWE would write in a wardrobe malfunction as Eva Marie's latest excuse for not debuting was rather edgy by today's standards. And all part of a clever storyline that sadly ended when Marie got suspended for a Wellness Policy violation.
11 ROMAN REIGNS SPEARS STEPHANIE
A lot of us fans would like to forget WrestleMania 32 ever happened. With WWE World Heavyweight Champion Triple H defending his belt against Roman Reigns in the main event, everyone knew what was coming next, and they reacted with boos, apathy, or a combination of both. And there was the hideous costume Stephanie McMahon wore as she introduced her husband to the ring, as well as Trips' ring introduction in general. Was this woman auditioning for a role as Rita Repulsa in Saban's Power Rangers, and doing a bad job at it?
So let's summarize that main event match — it was downright boring, Steph was annoying, and Reigns thought it would be a good idea to prevent the Billion Dollar Princess from interfering by hitting a spear on her. Male-on-female violence on a non-wrestler in the PG Era, as initiated by a babyface. While not as bad as the other Stephanie McMahon entry in this list, it didn't help make Reigns vs. Triple H any better, nor did it help Roman's credibility as a good guy, especially THE good guy WWE wanted to force-feed to its Universe.
10 PIGGY JAMES
Bully characters and bullying storylines have been a staple of wrestling for time immemorial, but due to the touchy nature of the subject, they’re often hit-or-miss. Sheamus’ 2015 heel turn was fine, as the smaller “underdogs” he picked on won more often than he did. Ryback was okay in this role in 2013, as his bully character was more of a parody than anything else. But Mickie James in her feud against LayCool? Not cool.
This feud started late in 2009, as LayCool – Michelle McCool and Layla – took to calling Mickie “Piggy James,” despite the fact that she wasn’t anywhere close to fat. This was classic schoolyard-style bullying and fat-shaming, and the irony isn’t lost on the fact that McCool had worked as a schoolteacher before she joined WWE. Worse, James had ultimately lost the feud, having briefly held the Women’s Championship at Royal Rumble 2010, before getting screwed by SmackDown consultant Vickie Guerrero and losing the belt back to McCool when the soon-to-be Mrs. Undertaker used her rematch clause about a month later.
In short, there's nothing worse than a bad bullying storyline than a bad bullying storyline that ends with the victim mostly on the losing end.
9 THE ROCK AND LANA’S “SPECIAL EXERCISES”
The Rock loves his pie. He loves it so much that he recorded a song about it, and he would often talk about that love for pie way back in the day. But that was in the Attitude Era, where wrestlers were encouraged to be as raunchy and/or controversial as possible. On one Monday Night RAW early in 2016, The Rock probably forgot that he was coming back to the PG Era, and not the good old Attitude Era where he became one of its biggest, most electrifying stars.
In an angle with Lana, The People’s Champion proceeded to remind her of the “one-legged Russian vacuum,” the “Wisconsin wheelbarrow,” and other “special exercises” they previously did in his hotel room. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he wasn’t talking about household appliances, garden tools, and physical fitness respectively, but rather about sexual positions.
No shocker here – Rusev wasn’t thrilled to hear The Rock’s allusions to a previous one-night stand with the Ravishing Russian, and neither were a lot of viewers and wrestling journalists, who described the segment with terms such as "uncomfortable" and "sexist."
8 MATT HARDY, ARSONIST
In real life, Jeff Hardy had lost his home in a fire early in 2008, and while he and his girlfriend were lucky not to have been at home when their house burned down, their dog Jack didn’t make it out alive. That was a real-life tragedy which WWE sought to exploit in the early days of PG, as Jeff was feuding with his brother Matt slightly less than a year after the fire.
There wasn’t anything too off-putting when Jeff suffered a series of “accidents” that were revealed to have been set up by Matt. Brothers feud, and older brother tries to get into baby brother’s head by sabotaging him. Fair enough. But what crossed the line was the time when Matt suggested that he had started the fire that burned Jeff’s house down and killed his dog. Not only did this make the future “Broken” Matt look like an arsonist; it also made him look like somebody so jealous he’d commit a heinous crime against his brother.
6 COLTER AND SWAGGER VS. ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS
Remember the last time Jack Swagger was relevant? You should, because he was also controversial at that time. In 2013, WWE decided to give the All-American American’s career a jump start by pairing him with Zeb Colter (or Dutch Mantel, as he’s known everywhere else), and having them work an anti-illegal immigrant gimmick that a certain WWE Hall of Famer with the initials DJT probably would have loved. It was WWE’s way of parodying the Tea Party Movement, and it was so controversial that it earned Glenn Beck’s ire, and forced WWE to have Colter and Swagger use their real names (Wayne Keown and Jake Hager) as they cut a sorry-not-sorry apology video for Beck.
This anti-illegal immigration storyline didn’t stop with Swagger’s feud against Alberto Del Rio for the World Heavyweight Championship. It kept going, even as it jumped the shark when Colter introduced his new protégé – the decidedly non-American Cesaro – and had him team with a fast-falling Swagger. Thankfully, we’ll stick to this controversial, button-pushing storyline alone, and spare you the details of Colter and Del Rio’s inexplicable MexAmerica partnership, which wasn’t non-PG, but just plain awful.
5 THE MOCKERY OF PAUL BEARER’S DEATH
Leave it to WWE to take advantage of the real-life death of someone who managed a “Deadman” and parlayed his actual background as a mortician into an enduring pro wrestling gimmick. When The Undertaker’s manager Paul Bearer died in March 2013, WWE decided to give CM Punk even more heat ahead of his match against ‘Taker at WrestleMania 29 by emptying the urn carrying Bearer’s ashes and dumping it on the Deadman. And that came after a similarly tasteless angle wherein Paul Heyman essentially cosplayed as Paul Bearer, in an attempt to get into ‘Taker’s head.
The angle was supposedly approved by Bearer’s (real name William Moody) sons Michael and Daniel Moody, but even then, they complained that WWE took too many liberties with it, to the point where it ended up looking disrespectful to the memory of their late father. We can certainly agree to that.
4 RANDY ORTON RKO’S STEPH IN THE NAME OF IED
There’s nothing wrong with intergender wrestling. The late Chyna proved during the Attitude Era that women could hold their own in the ring against their male counterparts, and many an indie promotion has male vs. female matches that could be quite competitive. But when a man physically attacks a woman outside the boundaries of a wrestling match, that’s a completely different story.
The Attitude Era was able to get away with a lot of male-on-female beatdowns outside of matches, but there was a particularly notorious one that took place early in 2009, as Randy Orton feuded with the entire McMahon family. (Except Linda, of course, whose decision to run for Senate was arguably the motivating factor behind the PG Era in the first place.) This feud had the Viper take out Vince and Shane with his trademark punt kicks, but also had him delivering an RKO on Stephanie, following it up with a DDT, then kissing her to spite her husband Triple H.
Why’d Randy do it, pray tell? As he explained after the 2009 Royal Rumble, it was because he had Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or IED. Real classy, WWE – justifying post-Attitude Era male-on-female violence with an actual behavioral disorder.
3 THE BEAST MAKES THE VIPER BLEED "THE HARD WAY"
It was supposed to be a special match to main event last year's SummerSlam, a rare inter-brand affair that would have Brock Lesnar of RAW and Randy Orton of SmackDown Live in a brutal match to close things out. Thing is, it was too brutal — way too brutal — and way too one-sided, as Lesnar clearly dominated Orton, beating The Viper up so badly that he ended up bleeding on pay-per-view. In the end, officials had no choice but to give The Beast the TKO win, as fans all around the world wondered whether the attack was a shoot or a work.
It turned out to be the latter, as WWE wanted to blur the lines in an effort to further build Lesnar up as a threat. But the fact that Brock had viciously elbowed Orton in the head to the point that he began to bleed came about as off-putting, what with WWE facing a lawsuit from dozens of wrestlers claiming to have suffered brain injuries during their time in the company. And it obviously wasn't very PG due to all that blood and brutality.
2 CM PUNK’S PIPEBOMB
One of the hallmarks of the Attitude Era, or should we say anything involving Vince Russo, was the ability of reality to bleed into kayfabe, or, in many cases, eschewing kayfabe so much you’d actually hear “shoot” terms mentioned on television. By the summer of 2011, Russo was long gone from WWE, but there was little kayfabe to be had as CM Punk interrupted a match between John Cena and R-Truth, sat down on the ramp with a mic in hand, and launched into a worked-shoot promo he helpfully described as a “pipebomb.”
That pipebomb had it all, as Punk, then frustrated in real life over the politics of WWE, complained about his spot in WWE, threatened to leave the company with the WWE Championship belt, referred to Triple H and Stephanie McMahon as idiots, called John Laurinaitis a “d-bag yes man,” and accused Cena of being as good as Hulk Hogan was at kissing Vince McMahon’s behind, if not better than “Dwayne.” It was a very realistic-sounding promo, and it would be two and a half years later before everyone realized that Punk was coming from a very real place when he cut that “pipebomb,” and was finally walking away from WWE, maybe for good.
1 THE NEXUS' DEBUT
We know what happened to The Nexus after their hot main roster debut in 2010. Whether it was by design or by accident, they got buried big-time, and it took gimmick changes for some members (Skip Sheffield/Ryback, Husky Harris/Bray Wyatt) to achieve success, with the most successful Nexus alumni (Daniel Bryan) having been fired by WWE one day after their invasion of RAW, only to be rehired by popular demand. But speaking of D-Bry, that moment where he strangled ring announcer Justin Roberts with his tie was just one of the reasons why The Nexus' debut was so controversial, and so un-PG.
There's The Nexus' take-no-prisoners beatdown on WWE talent — everyone from main eventers John Cena and CM Punk right down to the aforementioned Mr. Roberts and timekeeper Mark Yeaton. Then there's the fact that they did to the WWE ring and other props what The Who used to do to their instruments back in their '60s-'70s heyday. It was pure, unadulterated violence that was certainly out of the realms of PG, and it was wonderful. Too bad it took one Super Cena for the stable to start losing their heat just months after debuting.