Every wrestling fan has heard some variation on the same question: “You know it’s fake, right?” While there are still children and probably even some adults who refuse to believe pro wrestling is predetermined, by and large fans understand that the fix is in. While we can still respect or even marvel at the athleticism, power, and skill of WWE performers, we understand that the outcomes of matches are preplanned and when we hear someone speak, he or she is delivering lines in character rather than their actual, true thoughts.
Every now and again, however, WWE has succeeded in fooling even serious, long time fans. Whether it’s someone saying something we don’t expect WWE would approve, or something physical happening in the ring or backstage that seems out of sync with WWE’s ordinary ways of doing business, these are the moments that make us pause and question whether that was really supposed to happen and if it’s possible that something from behind the scenes leaked through and we caught a glimpse of something real.
WWE has toyed with this line for decades now, whether it’s a worked shoot, or an incident designed to raise questions. While the Montreal Screwjob is widely considered a dividing line after which WWE grew more aggressive in playing with the “smart” fans and This article looks at 15 different occasions when something on WWE TV caught at least a segment of the audience and made them think that pre-planned programming they were watching was real.
15 CM Punk’s Pipebomb
In 2011, CM Punk delivered what would come to be one of the most famous promos of all time. The fame came less from him working within an inspired storyline or outlandish antics than from the very genuine sense that he was speaking the truth. In a bizarre moment for WWE programming, he cast character aside, had a seat and began articulately tearing into WWE with the gusto of an Internet pundit and explaining why the company was not as good as it could be.
Fans bought in, suspecting that Punk, whose contract was legitimately almost up, had nothing to lose and the fact that mic was cut off mid-anecdote was emblematic that what he was doing really was unscripted. In reality, Punk and a number of WWE higher ups have explained afterward that they gave Punk the mic and invited him to speak his mind. He was not going into business for himself so much as delivering a largely shoot promo on command, with the caveat that he would eventurally be cut off if WWE elt he was going too far, or simply for time.
The promo was a smash success that even got Punk some mainstream exposure, besides planting at or near main event status for the last two and a half years he spent with WWE.
14 Shawn Michaels Collapses Post-Concussion
In 1995, Shawn Michaels took a real life beating from anywhere from one to a half dozen Marines whom he’d mouthed off to at a bar, and hit on a girlfriend of. WWE spun the story of Michaels legitimately getting hurt into an angle unlike any in its time. Michaels returned to the ring and looked good at first in his match with Owen Hart, only to suddenly collapse in the ring.
As Michaels discussed in the WWE produced Heartbreak & Triumph documentary, it was a work, but a strategically directed one for which Michaels pitched the idea that Vince McMahon not run play by play over it, but rather scramble into the ring to check on him, selling concern. In doing so, Raw went off the air with an off beat, realistic angle, particularly in an era before the Internet had really caught on, many fans were left to assume Michaels was down for real.
13 Brock Lesnar Bloodies Randy Orton
SummerSlam 2016 ended with Brock Lesnar taking on Randy Orton. More specifically, the show ended with Lesnar mounting Orton and delivering stiff elbow shots to Orton’s head until he was a bloody mess and the referee called the match. The sudden, non-traditional ending, paired with bloodshed—uncharacteristic of the PG era—left even the jaded Internet savvy fans of the era wondering if it were real. Purportedly, even Chris Jericho backstage bought in and confronted first Vince McMahon, then Lesnar himself about it, leading to a brief confrontation between the two.
McMahon cleared up that it was all a work meant to look realistic and help reestablish Lesnar as a monster. While the ending was memorable, the match and its finish were largely panned by critics for both being unentertaining and for needlessly exposing Orton to a real and brutal risk of injury in the ring.
12 Alexa Bliss Dislocates Her Elbow
At the Great Balls of Fire PPV, Alexa Bliss squared off with Sasha Banks and at a key moment in the match, appeared to suffer a horrible injury. She showed her arm and her elbow looked badly dislocated. The whole match paused as the referee checked on her and it looked as though we might be headed for a stoppage. Then, all of a sudden, Bliss popped her arm back into place and went on the attack against her distracted opponent.
Bliss is actually double jointed. While the manipulative act probably won’t be very effective the more its used, she had utilized it to similar effect in NXT before and it remains attention grabbing and convincing in making the audience think she really is injured.
11 Donald Trump Buys Raw
Today, Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America. With that, it’s wild to think of his multiple deals with WWE, including an angle from eight years ago when he showed up and “bought” Monday Night Raw.
To be fair, for serious wrestling fans, there was little question this was an angle, because how could someone buy a single TV show from a company and why would Vince McMahon sell it even if he could? The USA Network issued a press release about the sale, though, leading a number of media outlets to think that it was real news and report on it. The most absurd part of all? WWE’s stock actually dropped seven points in response to the angle.
Trump would sell kayfabe sell back Raw just a couple weeks later, and the whole angle was a conduit for the story of Raw having celebrity guest hosts for a time.
10 Mark Henry’s Retirement Speech
In 2013, Mark Henry got a promo segment on Raw and, in the lead up, WWE and Henry both hinted that he was going to announce his retirement. The big man wore a glorious pink blazer the ring and proceeded to deliver what came a cross as a heartfelt speech about how much he had loved the wrestling business, his colleagues, and the fans, but he was heading home to spend more time with his family. John Cena arrived to cap the segment and handed Henry the WWE Championship as a symbolic gesture that he was going out on top.
Moments later, Henry flattened Cena.
It was all a set up for one last main event push for Henry as he would challenge Cena for the WWE Championship. The segment was memorable for just how believable it was in Henry’s delivery, and in that it felt perfectly reasonable for someone at his stage of his life and career to hang up his boots. It wound up easily one of the greatest moments of Henry’s career.
9 Matt Hardy Jumps Edge
2005 was a wild year for Matt Hardy and Edge. Based on text messages, Hardy grew jealous that his girlfriend Lita might be having an affair with Edge and developed an intense, real life thirst for vengeance. WWE would end up releasing Hardy out of concerns he’d create an unsafe work environment. Hardy, well connected even then to the Internet fan base would stir up righteous indignation about getting fired because he’d been cheated on. Lita wound up booed like a heel to the point WWE finally had to turn her, before cashing in on what smart fans knew and aligning her with Edge.
Then, in a backstage segment, Hardy jumped Edge.
The moment was electric, in part because it happened with no music or pyro, no hints that Hardy was coming back, and thus was reasonably convincing in suggesting Hardy really had snuck into the arena and gone on the very real attack. Sure, there had to be some suspension of disbelief about him getting to Edge when the cameras were on him, but it was possible Hardy had planned it that way.
In reality, WWE had rehired Hardy and Hardy and Edge had mended fences to the extent necessary to work together for a summer-into-fall program.
8 Joey Styles Gets Fed Up
After legitimately getting pushed to the side in favor of Jim Ross calling WrestleMania 22 and Backlash 2006, Joey Styles seems justifiably agitated. A bit of verbal jabbing and bullying from WWE Superstars, and eventually his broadcast partner Jerry Lawler finally seemed to tip Styles over the edge. He would storm backstage before returning, not to the broadcast booth, but to a live mic to cut an inspired, angry promo about how disgusting WWE and its whole concept of “sports entertainment” were.
While a lot of fans understood this was an angle from the beginning, there were seeds of doubt, particularly because Styles himself was not a wrestler nor an established manager, so no one knew exactly why WWE would book this angle. The segment was shrewdly scheduled to occur before the official announcement that ECW was getting a reboot, and served as a nice harbinger of that movement which would take shape in the weeks to follow.
7 Pillman’s Got A Gun
In 1996, Monday Night Raw included a strange series of segments in which Steve Austin promised to show up at Brian Pillman’s house to beat him up, and Pillman was shown at home brandishing a gun. While the angle wasn’t necessarily completely realistic, it was completely outside the box for WWE programming up to that point to both have footage from someone’s home and to involve a firearm. The strange but riveting scenario inspired questions from the viewers as to what on earth was happening.
Things only escalated when Austin showed up at the house, the cameras cut to black, and a gunshot was heard. It was all storyline, of course, but the segments led to a lot of speculation and concerns. In the end, WWE got an unfriendly reaction from the USA Network and had to both apologize and recognize they’d crossed a line by the network’s standards.
6 Brock Lesnar And The Big Show Break The Ring
In a summer 2003 episode of Smackdown, Brock Lesnar and The Big Show got the main event spot. Their battle went to a no contest after Lesnar superplexed Show, and the ring seemingly imploded.
The size of both men, and in particular Show getting slammed that hard from that high, it seemed entirely possible that this was a real life accident, and even the referee seemed to legitimately lose his footing in a spot gone horribly wrong. Insiders would reveal, however, that for as realistic as the spot may have looked, it was completely rigged to sell the immensity of the clash between them behemoths. As if to underscore that it was planned, WWE has revisited the spot twice more, each time with Show getting superplexed by an opponent with super human strength, the first repetition by Mark Henry, the next and most recent by Braun Strowman to close out an episode of Raw.
5 Vince McMahon’s Limo Explodes
Speaking of closing out episodes of Raw in shocking fashion, a June 2007 episode billed as Vince McMahon appreciation night closed with a frustrated McMahon climbing into the back of his limousine, only for it to explode on live television.
To be fair, I don’t know that any serious fan thought this to be a true life incident. While it was over the top and unconventional, a limo explosion was within the bounds of something WWE would pull, and it happening right at the end of Raw felt far more like a cliff hanger than happenstance. Not unlike Donald Trump buying Raw, however, the incident generated media attention as news outlets and WWE’s business partners didn’t all seem know how to separate fact from storyline on this one. WWE held true to the story with ten-ring-bell salutes on TV broadcasts to follow, before the Chris Benoit family tragedy occurred and McMahon scrapped the story, recognizing it was in poor taste to have a death angle when three real life deaths had rocked the wrestling world.
4 The Severity Of John Cena’s 2007 Injury
In the fall of 2007, the unthinkable happened. For over three years, one of John Cena’s calling cards had been that he was the top star who never got hurt, and he rode that wave of momentum to become the definitive face of the company. Cena tore a pectoral muscle, though, and was projected to be out for the better part of a year.
Come 2008, entering WrestleMania season, Cena was not on anyone’s radars, because no one expected him to return to the ring before summer, and he had not appeared on WWE TV to suggest anything to the contrary. At the Royal Rumble, however, Cena was surprise entrant number 30, throwing the match and the Raw main event scene into complete disarray as Cena emerged as the Rumble winner and top contender for the WWE Championship.
It's not entirely clear how much of this issue was related to Cena recovering very, very quickly, but there appears to have been at least an element of WWE exaggerating how hurt Cena really was. They’d pull a similar arrangement two years later with Edge, but it was decidedly less shocking when Edge made his Rumble return.
3 Road Warrior Hawk Plunges
It’s hard to call a segment in which one man pushes another off of the TitanTron subtle, but WWE does deserve some for this strange piece of business. In 1998, Hawk from the Legion of Doom suffered from real life substance abuse issues, and WWE decided to incorporate them into storylines that saw him grow unreliable and appear to the come to the ring in no condition to wrestle. Puke was introduced as a new LOD member to help stabilize the group, only for dissension to emerge from Hawk for understandably feeling replaced. This led to an angle of his depression that led to him climbing the Tron, and Puke climbing after him.
If you rewatch the segment it’s easy enough to think that Hawk takes a fall, but you can also read Puke reaching for him as actually shoving him down. That’s the storyline WWE ran with, spinning the kayfabe tragedy as Puke purposefully sabotaging and trying to kill Hawk. It was all a stunt but, particularly for fans in live attendance, it was a convincing enough spectacle that WWE rigged to look like he really was taking a tremendous fall.
2 The Miz Talks Smack To Daniel Bryan
WWE introduced Talking Smack after the relaunch of the brand split. The talk show quickly became an intriguing mix of kayfabe and shoot, for which performers mostly stayed in character, but nonetheless spoke off the cuff in largely unscripted segments. Things rose to a fever pitch when The Miz went after Daniel Bryan, blasting him for retiring early and calling him a coward.
It was a confusing segment, and particularly so for Bryan walking away in a huff. Was the segment meant to foreshadow Bryan returning to the ring, and was that even possible after his history of head injuries? If Bryan weren’t returning what was the purpose? And in any event, was Bryan walking off part of the show, or did he truly become emotional during the confrontation, regardless of how much of it had been preplanned?
By their own accounts, Bryan and Miz did get emotional for this segment, but were acting within parameters they had planned. Just the same, heated segments may have been a part of WWE ultimately deciding to cancel Talking Smack, with rumors citing that Vince McMahon was uncomfortable with its unscripted nature.
1 CM Punk Leaves WWE With The WWE Championship
After lighting the wrestling world on fire with the Pipebomb promo, CM Punk followed it up with an electric performance in the ring at Money in the Bank 2011. He had announced it was his last WWE match. Just the same, he was challenging John Cena for the WWE Championship in front of his hometown crowd in Chicago, and may have been more over in that night than he’d ever been before. It seemed as though WWE might have booked itself into a corner. How could Cena lose when Punk was on his way out? How could Punk lose when he’d gathered so much momentum and was in front of that crowd?
Punk won the match. The finish wasn’t entirely clean, but he collected the pin over Cena nonetheless. It looked as though WWE had its backup plan in line, when Alberto Del Rio attempted to cash in the Money in the Bank briefcase moments later. Punk kicked him in the head as soon as he got in the ring, though, incapacitating Del Rio long enough to escape through the crowd with the title.
It was a particularly shocking moment for how unresolved and exciting the whole scene was. Later in the Best in the World documentary WWE produced about Punk, it was acknowledged that Punk would up re-signing with WWE earlier that day set up the chaotic and unpredictable finish of the match.