You've probably heard it before — kayfabe is deader than disco. Kayfabe is, or should we say was, the grand illusion wrestling promoters and wrestlers used to make people think that their sport was legitimate athletic competition, with a healthy dose of hatred between the good guys and the bad guys. It's carny speak for the words "be fake," and was the justification for people in the wrestling industry to make sure everyone around them, even their own families, weren't "smartened up" to the fact that pro wrestling is pre-determined competition where faces and heels don't necessarily hate each other outside the ring.
In the best interests of kayfabe, rules were much stricter back in the day. Faces couldn't be seen riding the same vehicle, or even drinking in the same bar/eating in the same restaurant as heels. Wrestlers would live their gimmicks offscreen, and if you were billed as a Samoan savage or an Eastern European heel, for instance, you couldn't even be caught speaking clear, coherent English at a public event. But to paraphrase Vince McMahon's video statement from 1997, wrestling evolved to a point where fans grew tired of "having their intelligence insulted."
If kayfabe really is dead, it was killed by a variety of things. And a plethora of wrestlers helped deliver the death blows to what was once the most sacred thing in the business. So let's now look at 15 (or 15-plus, as some entries represent multiple people) wrestlers who participated in angles, promos, or storylines that made you wonder whether it was all part of the script or not, or openly referred to industry terms or trends on live television.
In 1997, WWE saw it fit to reveal Dustin Runnels as the man behind Goldust, and later on aired a series of ostensibly candid video packages in late-1997 featuring Dustin, his wife Terri (a.k.a. Marlena), and their daughter Dakota seemingly the picture of a happy family. In the last of those videos, a makeup-free Dustin angrily, and quite convincingly dumped Terri, accusing her of bringing about the estrangement he had with his legendary father Dusty Rhodes, and saying he "found somebody" who understands him. All things considered, it was quite a realistic angle that made you wonder if it was really splitsville for the couple.
Dustin and Terri would divorce in real life in 1999, and it was around that time that Dustin left WWE for WCW, where he was to debut as the creepy Se7en. But when Se7en's debut finally came, he thrashed that gimmick and Goldust as being unrealistic, immediately transforming into the more realistic, yet heelish "American Nightmare" Dustin Rhodes.
20 FAKE RAZOR RAMON AND FAKE DIESEL
It was Jim Ross who was crossing the line between kayfabe and reality in here, but since he's not a wrestler, we're "shooting the messengers" and listing his two proteges instead — Razor Ramon and Diesel. And no, we're not referring to Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, though you'll want to read on a bit if you want to see an entry on The Outsiders in this list.
With Hall and Nash having left for WCW and teamed with Hulk Hogan to form the nWo, Jim Ross kept teasing the "return" of Razor Ramon and Diesel until he took to the ring in September 1996 to cut a worked-shoot promo, turn heel, and out Vince McMahon as WWE Chairman in the process. As promised, Good Ol' JR brought out Razor and Diesel, but the two men playing the roles obviously weren't Hall and Nash. Fans knew they weren't the real deal, and pilloried the gimmick until Fake Razor and Fake Diesel quietly disappeared from TV screens.
If there was anything good to come out of that storyline, it was Fake Diesel being Glenn Jacobs' last gimmick before his final, and most successful repackaging as Kane.
19 MICK FOLEY
Admit it. If you watched Mick Foley's (as Mankind) 1997 interview series with Jim Ross, you probably thought the poor guy had such an unhappy childhood, one where he got picked on in school for being strange, one where he ate worms, and one where girls wouldn't want to kiss him even if he was a good kisser. That interview series sought to reveal the tormented man behind Mankind, and it's a testament to Foley's talent that he was able to make the interview feel so realistic. (Foley's own stories in his autobiography Have a Nice Day, on the other hand, point to a geeky, albeit well-adjusted youth where he had lots of friends.)
As an aside, Foley was also terrific in this area as Cactus Jack in ECW. Search for the "Cane Dewey" promo on YouTube and listen to Cactus Jack beg Tommy Dreamer to sign with WCW and "Uncle Eric (Bischoff)," while calling out a fan for holding up a sign that read "Cane Dewey," in reference to his then-three-year-old son.
18 MARC MERO
Our next example is a rather obscure one, considering how little fans thought of Marc Mero in comparison to his then-wife/valet Sable. But in 1997, "Marvelous" Marc broke wrestling's fourth wall as he feuded with glorified jobber Salvatore Sincere. At that time, Mero had just turned heel, jealous of all the attention Sable was getting from fans. And for some reason, WWE Creative decided to have Sal pull a fast one on Mero and score an upset win.
The setup for that was for Mero to call out Sincere and refer to him as a jobber, or as we all know, a guy who always loses. Not only that, Mero also outed Sincere's real name — Tom Brandi — on that episode of Monday Night RAW. This led to a quick feud between both men, and while it wasn't that memorable, the use of wrestling jargon and the reveal of a wrestler's real name on live TV were both very unusual for the time.
17 SCOTT STEINER
Remember the mullet-sporting Scott Steiner who briefly competed in WWE in the early-'90s alongside his brother Rick? That mild-mannered young man had morphed into a much larger, much stronger "Genetic Freak" in WCW by the time the late-'90s rolled around, and his brown mullet was replaced by a short platinum-blonde 'do, coiffed by chainmail as he now fancied himself as "Big Poppa Pump." And everyone could hear him when he hollered.
Not everyone could understand him due to his tendency to sound so angry he'd get marble-mouthed, but when you could understand him, it was hard to tell whether he was ranting as part of a storyline, or shooting legitimately on his fellow WCW wrestlers. As it turned out, he had legit beef against Ric Flair and Diamond Dallas Page when he cut promos on them (and DDP's then-wife Kimberly), and WCW promptly suspended Steiner for those outbursts. With pay, of course, as was the company's style in those times.
16 SCOTT HALL AND KEVIN NASH
The 1996 departures of Razor Ramon and Diesel were big losses to the WWE at a time when they could ill afford it. But with WCW offering bigger money, lighter schedules, and an escape from the creative black hole that was plaguing WWE, Eric Bischoff's offer was one that Razor and Diesel couldn't refuse. But how would WCW debut these two top ex-WWE guys and build them up as a threat?
It was simple — bill them by their real names as WWE owned the rights to Razor Ramon and Diesel, and make them two-thirds of the most dominating faction in WCW history. Before Hulk Hogan's reveal as the mysterious "third man" in the soon-to-be-named New World Order, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash debuted on WCW as The Outsiders, dubbed as such because they were implied to be invading WCW on WWE's orders. And boy, did they make a lot of fans wonder what the hell was going on.
No line epitomizes the kayfabe-breaking potential of the nWo invasion better than the very first words uttered by Scott Hall upon his arrival — "You know who I am, but you don't know why I'm here."
15 CHAZ (a.k.a. BEAVER CLEAVAGE)
After an injury to Thrasher temporarily disbanded The Headbangers, the man behind Mosh was repackaged in the spring of 1999, as Chaz Warrington grew his hair out a bit and traded his heavy metal shirt and plaid skirt for something your typical young kid of the 1950s would have worn. Headbanger Mosh was gone, and in came Beaver Cleavage, a Leave it to Beaver-esque man-child who appeared in vignettes with his buxom "mother" (actually Warrington's then-girlfriend, the late Marianna Komlos) and exchanged sexual double-entendres with his "mom."
Fortunately for Attitude Era fans, Beaver Cleavage essentially ended with the black-and-white vignettes. Identifying himself for the first time by his real name, and introducing "Mrs. Cleavage" as his real-life girlfriend, Chaz thrashed the Beaver Cleavage gimmick, and settled into a nondescript role in the lower midcard. Well, almost nondescript, as Chaz and Marianna did take part in a rather tasteless domestic abuse-themed storyline in late-1999.
14 CM PUNK
More so than anyone else, CM Punk is probably the best example of how modern-day WWE Superstars are amplified versions of their off-screen selves. Always one to call things as he saw them and not give two bleeps about what others think, Punk shocked fans on the June 27, 2011 RAW, cutting his now-famous “pipebomb” promo, where he ranted about the state of WWE, about his status in the company, about how part-timer The Rock was in the main event of WrestleMania XXVIII, about wanting to jump to Ring of Honor or New Japan once his contract expires. Then his mic was cut off just as he called Vince McMahon and his family a bunch of idiots.
This all led to the broader “Summer of Punk” storyline of 2011, a kayfabe/reality-blurring storyline through and through where the drama surrounding his contract and his unhappiness with WWE and its management was fully explored. Heck, it even featured Punk and Triple H calling each other by their real names! Still, it was nothing compared to the real-life drama surrounding Punk's legit WWE walkout in early-2014.
11 SGT. SLAUGHTER
Once a proud soldier fighting for America, Sgt. Slaughter left WWE in 1985 on bad terms with the company, allegedly over a dispute regarding Slaughter's crossover into the G.I. Joe cartoon series. Moving to the AWA, the real-life former Marine drill instructor continued to wrestle as a babyface, fighting foreign heels for the love of his country, just like he did in WWE. That's what made it such a surprise that when he returned to WWE in 1990, he had returned as a turncoat, aligning himself with Iraqis Col. Mustafa (a repackaged Iron Sheik) and General Adnan and chasing after Ultimate Warrior's WWE World Heavyweight title.
Slaughter was a transitional champ as WWE sought to get the strap back on Hulk Hogan, but what a hated transitional champ he was. As a lot of people still thought wrestling storylines were as real as headline news back in the day, there were security concerns ahead of the Slaughter vs. Hogan title match at WrestleMania VII. Apparently, many fans thought Slaughter was a real-life Iraqi sympathizer at a time the Gulf War was still raging.
9 SHAWN MICHAELS AND BRET HART (1997)
You had to know something was up between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels in 1997. It wasn't just the Hitman's only-in-America heel turn, or HBK forming D-Generation X later on that year. As it turned out, the feud between both men was very much colored by real-life hatred. When Bret called Shawn out for posing on Playgirl, Michaels took offense and retaliated by saying that Hart lived his "Hitman" gimmick 24/7. This was all borne out of their mutual disgust for each other, though it was definitely uncalled-for when Michaels accused Hart of having "Sunny Days" with Tammy Sytch, and we all know what that really means.
Of course, the Hitman vs. HBK beef culminated at Survivor Series 1997, where the Montreal Screwjob took place almost two decades ago to this day. That, in itself, was a kayfabe-breaking moment that, for most of those who were around at that time, was as real as it could ever get.
8 DAVID SCHULTZ
"Dr. D" David Schultz could have been Stone Cold Steve Austin well before Austin's then-wife told him to drink his tea before it became "stone cold." He was a tough, ornery SOB who joined WWE in 1984 and immediately became one of its most promising new villains, and unlike most other well-built physical specimens Vince McMahon had lusted over back in the day, Schultz could actually wrestle AND cut a fantastic promo. He had all the tools needed to become a main event heel in the Hulkamania era. Then the 20/20 incident with John Stossel happened.
Toward the end of 1984, Stossel was in the WWE locker room, hoping to get the inside dirt on pro wrestling. Committing the mortal sin of confidently calling wrestling “fake,” Stossel paid for his ill-timed comments, as Schultz hit him twice, also tearing into him verbally for using wrestling’s equivalent of the F-word. Schultz had always claimed that WWE had asked him to act antagonistically toward Stossel, and it’s still debated to that day whether that’s the reason he was soon fired by the company, never to return again.
6 VINCE RUSSO
Technically, he’s not a wrestler. But the man many blame for hastening the death of WCW did wrestle for them briefly and even held their world championship belt, so we’re listing him in here as well. As WWE’s head writer at the time the Attitude Era was getting underway, Russo had a lot of hands-on input from another Vince – McMahon – and that’s arguably what made Attitude work so well for WWE. But when Russo jumped ship to WCW, he was left to his own devices, and he ended up adding more weight to a sinking ship, instead of being the man who’d save the company from its Fingerpoke of Doom/nWo saturation-related doldrums.
One can even argue that as WCW’s creative guru, Russo didn’t just kill kayfabe in the company, he also took a flaming hot dump on its corpse. His bright ideas included, but were not limited to: frequent use of wrestling business jargon on commentary and in angles, outright clues that people were watching scripted, predetermined shows, and countless worked-shoot promos. One promo, though, turned out to be an actual shoot, and it came from Russo himself, as he openly slandered Hulk Hogan at Bash at the Beach 2000, calling him a "big, bald son of a b----," among other things.
3 THE KLIQ
We've had quite a few two-man nominations in this list, and three of the members of this real-life group of friends were just mentioned above. But this time, we're listing The Kliq as a group, and naming that notorious incident at Madison Square Garden in 1996, where the group's four primary members gave zero regard for kayfabe, infuriating old-school wrestlers everywhere.
That incident, of course, is the Curtain Call, where babyfaces Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon and heels Diesel and Hunter Hearst Helmsley hugged it out in the ring in front of an MSG house show audience. And it goes without saying that a lot of old-timers weren't thrilled about this outright display of friendship among four men of different in-ring alignments. Though Vince McMahon allegedly approved the farewell sendoff for the departing Diesel and Razor, he acknowledged things had gone too far, and de-pushed Hunter as he couldn't punish two wrestlers on their way out and couldn't punish WWE Champion Michaels either with a weaker push.
In the end, it was just a small bump in the road for Helmsley, who would go on to drop his snob gimmick, shorten his ring name to Triple H, and become a powerful man in wrestling in his own right.
2 BRIAN PILLMAN
The late Brian Pillman seemingly lived to blur the lines between kayfabe and reality. As early as 1995, he was cutting worked-shoot promos on WCW, calling then-head booker Kevin Sullivan "booker man," and grabbing announcer Bobby Heenan by the neck so violently that the Brain dropped the F-word on air. He doubled down on his "loose cannon" shtick when he moved to ECW in 1996, and when he joined WWE later that year, he let loose with a worked, yet authentic-sounding meltdown during a press conference for his signing.
Pillman's best kayfabe/reality-blurring moment, though, came in late-1996, when he responded to former friend Stone Cold Steve Austin's break-in attempt by pulling out a gun and pointing it at Austin. What ensued was a couple minutes of chaos — crying, screaming, and even a few snippets of uncut Pillman profanity. The "Pillman's got a gun!" angle was so controversial that WWE was forced to apologize for its shocking content and context.
1 NEW JACK
Brian Pillman may have let his "loose cannon" flag fly to further storylines and establish his character, but New Jack was a loose cannon in the truest sense, storylines be damned. So where do we start with this guy? How about the time in ECW when he legitimately beat up and bloodied untrained 17-year-old Eric "Mass Transit" Kulas for lying to him about his age and pro wrestling background? You can also try fast forwarding five years later to 2000, when he and Vic Grimes fell off a scaffold at ECW's Living Dangerously PPV; Jack later claimed he wanted to seriously injure, or even kill Grimes during that spot. Try 2003 at XPW, when New Jack, upset that his 69-year-old opponent Gypsy Joe was stiffing him, used all sorts of weapons to legitimately attack his much older foe. Or 2004, when he actually stabbed opponent William Jason Lane nine times at a Thunder Wrestling Federation show.
Although hardcore matches are meant to be violent affairs, competitors in such events always talk things over before the match to make sure nobody gets seriously injured. Those things were obviously of no consequence to New Jack, who has shown little remorse in shoot interviews where he'd relate those kayfabe-defying stories years after they happened.