Pro wrestling fans, especially those who’ve been around the product for a while, have a kind of sixth-sense ability to sniff out the difference between a botch and a stunt, a shoot and a work, an accident and well-scripted surprise.
Even viewers who are relatively new to the product can sometimes notice when things go off-script. As trained as the WWE pros are (not just the wrestlers, but the referees, cameramen and commentators), there’s an unmistakable frenzied response that they have when they’re suddenly called to improvise. It’s the dark side of working such a well-oiled TV production machine. WWE runs three-hundred shows a year, about a third of which are televised for all the world to see. More often than not the show runs like clockwork, and because of that—because everyone there is so used to everything going smoothly—when things suddenly don’t go according to plan, things can get very crazy very quickly.
Sometimes the WWE rises to the challenge and brushes off their misstep with the grace and experience that comes with being a thirty-year TV giant; sometimes they run around like chickens with their heads cut off. It all depends on the situation.
Here are 15 times when the WWE not only had a problem, but had such a problem that they couldn’t hide it from the millions (and millions) of fans watching, either at home or in the arena. Some of these are injury related, some remind us that WWE can’t control everything and sometimes the winds blow against you, and some of these are terrible tragedies. All of them, however, are times when fans knew something had gone very wrong…
14 THE MONTREAL SCREWJOB
Let’s just get this one out of the way as it’s the one most probably think of when this topic comes up, but it’s also the one that really doesn’t belong in the list. Every other incident listed features something that happened that WWE didn’t want or anticipate. In this case, the finish to Survivor Series 1997 happened exactly as Vince hoped it would. What makes it so fascinating is that it no one else knew about it.
As everyone watched the finish, either at home or in the area (or even in the ring itself, if you’re Bret Hart) everyone no doubt thought something or someone went wildly off script. That’s an easy assumption to make; it’s not every day a match ends as abruptly and awkwardly as that one. But again, unlike everything else that follows, this time the “very wrong” thing went exactly according to script; it’s just that Vince McMahon had the only copy.
13 14.CENA/BATISTA DO A BRET/LUGER...BY ACCIDENT
The finish to the 1994 Royal Rumble was a classic example of scripting something that felt like happenstance. The final two competitors, Bret Hart and Lex Luger, were going neck and neck to win the Royal Rumble and main-event WrestleMania X. In the end, both tumbled over the top-rope and both men were declared winners. It was an original idea and one that hasn’t been replicated on that show since.
In 2005, Batista was scripted to win the Rumble and face Triple H at WrestleMania 21. Standing between victory and defeat was then-upstart John Cena. Cena and Batista wrestled and brawled, and in the end, Cena…oops AND Batista went tumbling over. Again, you can always tell when something goes off script because the usually fluid and in-control referees suddenly start spazzing. That happened here, and the confusion was not resolved until Vince McMahon himself came out to fix things in-person on the fly…
12 VINCE NO-SELLS PARALYZING PAIN
…The last thing Vince did before storming down the ramp was instruct the two referees (one each from SmackDown and Raw) to take turns raising the hand of their respective-presumed winner (Cena on SmackDown; Batista on Raw). This helped smooth the feelings among watchers that the whole thing was a botch. In truth it was a botch and Vince, soon-after, came power-walking out, finger-wagging and grumbling who knows what to no one in particular.
And then it happened, the cherry on top of this whole farce.
As Vince slid into the ring to sort things out, he tore both his quads simultaneously. Tearing just one quad is an injury that puts normal men into the fetal-position, crying in agony. Vince refuses to be normal: He sat there, physically unable to stand, barking orders like Aerys II. In the end the match was restarted and Vince was (moderately) helped to the back. What a finish.
11 WRESTLEMANIA VIII ENDS WITH A WET FART
The conclusion to Hulk Hogan vs Sid Justice was such a fiasco it could be a master-course on how to ruin a PPV main-event. First, you need a missed-spot, second, you need terrible improvising, third, you need a loooooong entrance ramp (for someone who gets winded on his normal entrance) to run down, fourth, you need a voodoo witch doctor.
This had it all.
The finish was supposed to see Papa Shango interfere, causing a DQ finish. Shango and Justice would then double-team the Hulkster until Ultimate Warrior made his big return and saved the day. Instead, Shango missed his cue and, being forced to improvise, Justice kicked out of the nigh-unbeatable Hogan Leg Drop. Eventually Shango sauntered down and then, amidst the confusion, Warrior came sprinting after him, huffing and puffing down the long Hoosier Dome ramp. It was never supposed to be hilarious. But it was hilarious.
And so very wrong.
10 TRIPLE H TEARS HIS QUAD (TWICE)
In a white-hot tag title match against the white hot babyfaces Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit, Jericho had Steve Austin in the Walls of Jericho, when his partner-in-crime Triple H jumped onto him to break the hold. When he did: Torn quad. It was obvious immediately that something was wrong; Triple H was limping and wincing, but still he told Jericho to put him in the Walls for the finish…which took serious toughness.
Fast forward to 2007 and Triple H was in the middle of a placeholder feud with Randy Orton and Edge (teaming with HBK as the revived DX). His sights were set on main-eventing WrestleMania 23, but an awkward landing on a spinebuster tore his quad again. Again he finished the match, kicking out on what could have been an easy-way-out finish. He even hit a Pedigree on the announce table! Say what you want about the Son-in-Law; you can’t question his grit.
9 SHANE MCMAHON EATS CONCRETE
Kurt Angle competed in three separate matches at the 2001 King of the Ring, but all anyone remembers is Shane McMahon. The duo met in the penultimate match of the night, in a street fight. The match was laid out, like almost all Shane matches are, to show how much punishment the Boss’ son could endure.
Turns out it’s quite a lot.
Angle led Shane up to the stage in front of the glass façade bearing the PPV’s logo, wrapped his arms around him, and tossed McMahon behind him in a belly-to-belly suplex. The impact was supposed to send Shane crashing through the glass. Instead, there was a thud-thud that sent the crowd into a collective “OH!” Shane smacked into the glass and dropped straight down, his head driven into the concrete. Watching it live, many thought Shane had just broken his neck. The kid’s tough, no doubt about it.
9. ANGLE EATS A PEDIGREE (AND A CONCUSSION)
Speaking of “oh no I think he just broke his neck” moments, Kurt Angle found himself concussed right out of his first big PPV main-event. The Rock’s in-ring feud with Triple H, and Triple H’s out-ring feud with Kurt Angle (who had been putting moves on Stephanie for months) all came to a head in a triple threat match at SummerSlam 2000.
Early in the fight, Triple H brawled Angle up to the announce table and set him up for a Pedigree. The move was supposed to break the table upon impact but unfortunately, the table broke early and Angle was driven awkwardly to the ground below, slamming his head onto the concrete upon impact. Amazingly he managed not only to recite some backstage segment lines, but also return to finish the match. The interim, however, was filled with people wondering just how bad he really was hurt. Angle has since revealed he was in fact concussed from the incident.
8 BATISTA WINS THE ROYAL RUMBLE TO THE JEERS OF EVERYONE
It’s not all about scary injuries and botched finishes. In 2014 Batista made his big return to WWE after four years away. He was set to star in Marvel’s next summer blockbuster (Guardians of the Galaxy) and the company was looking to cash-in preemptively on his upcoming fame. Big plans were made for an Evolution implosion where Batista would challenge Randy Orton for the title in the main event of WrestleMania XXX, with Triple H caught in the middle.
Unfortunately all anyone wanted to see was Daniel Bryan.
And when Bryan was held out of the Rumble, the crowd went bananas. The wrong kind of bananas. What was supposed to be Batista’s big homecoming celebration turned into an awkward fan-hijacking of the show, so much so that plans had to be rewritten almost immediately thereafter. Watching at home or in the stands it was clear that something was very wrong with WWE’s ability to know what fans wanted…
7 ROMAN REIGNS WINS THE ROYAL RUMBLE TO THE JEERS OF EVERYONE
Oh look it happened again!
In 2015 Roman Reigns was in the middle of his big singles push. He was supposed to defeat Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 31 and be crowned the next big thing. The road to his coronation was to begin at the Royal Rumble.
Unfortunately all anyone wanted to see was Daniel Bryan.
And when Bryan was eliminated unceremoniously early on, the crowd went bananas. The wrong kind of bananas. What was supposed to be the beginning of Roman Reigns’ ascension to the “John Cena” spot on the roster turned into an awkward fan-hijacking of the show, so much so that plans had to be rewritten…though not immediately (Vince was more stubborn in 2015 than he was in 2014). In the end things did change (Seth Rollins walked away with the gold), but at the Rumble, it was clear to everyone that something was (still) very wrong with WWE’s ability to know what fans wanted…
6 LESNAR ALMOST BREAKS HIS OWN NECK
The genuine-one-of-a-kind freak athlete Brock Lesnar was capable of doing some pretty amazing stunts for a guy his size. While in Ohio Valley Wrestling (the WWE’s farm league at that time), he’d been known to use the Shooting Star Press as a regular finishing move. It’s one thing to see the diminutive Billy Kidman do it, but when Brock Lesnar does it, it’s something else.
Naturally he wanted it to be the big finish to his first WrestleMania main-event.
The only trouble was Kurt Angle was about five-feet too far away. Lesnar—athletic but not always the brightest bulb—tried it anyway, and drove his head right into the mat. Everyone immediately knew something bad had happened, but the veteran Angle walked Brock and the referee through an improvised finish that saved the match. Still, there were about 10 seconds there where everyone held their breath and just hoped for the best.
5 LESNAR DOES BREAK HARDCORE HOLLY’S NECK
Speaking of Lesnar and broken necks, there was one occasion where he actually went through with breaking a neck...only it wasn’t his own.
Early in his WWE career, the rookie Lesnar went up against Hardcore Holly in a throwaway TV match. Holly was meant to make Lesnar look good and then lose with dignity, but Holly was an old school bully and intended to make the new kid “pay his dues.” That meant sandbagging when Lesnar tried to lift him up for a powerbomb. Instead of helping him, Holly went limp like dead weight.
So Lesnar dropped him on his head.
The crowd, who had been crescendoing their cheer as Holly was lifted up, instantly deflated as everyone started watching closely to see if he was okay. Commentary stuttered for a moment before recovering and salvaging the moment, but there was no denying that Holly was badly hurt.
4 BRAWL FOR AHHHCRAP
Vince Russo had this idea to do a legitimate fighting tournament on a scripted pro wrestling show. And no one told him he was stupid.
Welcome to the WWE, circa 1999!
Thousands of words could be written about why “Brawl for All” was a colossally-bad idea, but to summarize: The WWF presented a series of fights they didn't script and couldn't control. They wanted "Dr. Death" Steve Williams to win it all, and have a summer feud with Steve Austin. Instead Bart Gunn won the tournament and faced Butterbean in a legit-fight at WrestleMania XV. Butterbean, a 400 lb, bona fide heavyweight boxer and mixed-martial artist, wiped the floor with him in 34 seconds, making Gunn, the WWE and all of pro wrestling look terrible in the process. Watching the WrestleMania fight was like watching a beaver fight a gorilla: You can’t look away, but you know the whole thing is seriously wrong.
3 JERRY LAWLER SUFFERS A HEART ATTACK LIVE ON RAW
The final three entries are nothing to joke about.
In late-2012, during a run of the mill episode of Raw, Jerry Lawler suffered a heart attack right in the middle of commentating a tag match. The USA Network footage doesn’t show anything, but you can hear Lawler suddenly struggle to breathe. Michael Cole’s commentary stops-and-starts as front-row spectators jump to their feet to watch the table. Even Kane, standing on the apron waiting for a tag, is shown clearly watching what was happening.
WWE’s production crew did a remarkable job not showing the EMTs racing over to Lawler, and Cole continued calling just enough of the match to make it almost sound like nothing was the matter. Later in the show, they did cut to a very obviously rattled Cole who, with a trembling hand, motioned to the empty seat next to him and informed the audience that Lawler was receiving CPR at that moment. As we know, Lawler pulled through, but it certainly brought back memories of other tragedies.
2 BENOIT NO-SHOWS A PPV AND TRAGEDY ENSUES
If you weren’t watching WWE at the time, no amount of YouTubing can accurately convey how surreal things were between the 2007 Night of Champions PPV and the following ECW tapings.
It started on Sunday, with Chris Benoit set to wrestle CM Punk for (and win) the ECW title. Instead he no-showed, which, to anyone who followed Chris Benoit over the years knew how highly irregular that was. Johnny Nitro subbed-in and won the title, and all that was said was that Benoit had a “family emergency.”
The next night on Raw, WWE announced Benoit had died but offered no details. They went ahead with a tribute show, paying great respects to him.
One day later the truth came out and…it’s impossible to appreciate the aftermath. All that can be said is, as a fan watching on Sunday night, it was clear that something was wrong, and the unanswered questions on Monday night only made things more bizarre. Tuesday felt like a bad dream.
What can be said?
His harness was not attached properly and the stunt which should have made everyone smile (fitting for a man who seemed to make that his life’s mission), instead ingrained an unforgettable image into the memories of the live audience. Fortunately for everyone watching at home, the In Your House PPV was in the middle of a backstage segment, so no one watching their TVs were immediately aware something had happened.
But as soon as they cut back to the arena, even before JR spoke, it was clear something had happened. Ross told the viewers that Owen had suffered an accident that was “not part of the show” (a break in kayfabe reserved only for terrible circumstances). Later, Ross reported the grim news that Owen Hart had died. The home audience never saw the accident and the arena crowd was never informed of his passing, but everyone knew the worst had happened. It was palpable.
Let’s hope it never happens again.