The problem with professional wrestling is that it’s way too easy for the lines to be blurred and for events that seem so “real” to not be. It took nearly 20 years for it to come out the entire Andy Kaufman/Jerry Lawler “feud” had all been planned out by both guys. Likewise, a surprise on their 2011 DVD was how so much of the supposed real-life heat between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels was all a massive work by both men to boost their feud (with Bret nicely summing it up as “we worked ourselves into a shoot.”) Wrestlers are almost always “on” no matter what so even a shoot can come off as a promo of sorts to try and boost themselves.
But there are times where the lines become more than blurred, they become invisible. It’s easy to imagine how tempers can flare and even guys who know and respect each other can lose it. But when it’s two guys who don’t really like each other at all…well, things can get ugly. There’s also the case of when a veteran tries to show a newcomer the ropes with a “welcome to the big leagues” beat-down that gets out of hand while said rookie tries to show himself off by going off-script and trying to win favor the wrong way. Too often, these things can explode beyond anyone’s anticipation and lead to some really ugly affairs. In a few cases, it’s led to firings, in others twists that may affect a worker and even shake up a career. While there are a few cases from modern times, a lot are from older days, including the pre-McMahon era that shows “the Golden Age” had some tarnish to it. Here are ten cases of when wrestling blurred those lines, whether by intention or design, and when the fighting became all too real.
To be clear, this list only involves matches that turned into legit fights in the ring, meaning the Montreal Screwjob is left off this list, as Bret and Shawn didn't actually come to real blows in the ring.
18 Tony Kozina vs. Ryan Kidd
This one is difficult to watch, as Ryan Kidd was just 17 years old when wrestling this match and took a brutal beating from Tony Kozina. At Magnum Pro Show in 2012, Kozina grabbed the mic prior to the match and said it was going to be a "real wrestling contest".While this incident wasn't quite as infamous as the Mass Transit incident in ECW, this was utterly ridiculous as something that stemmed from what was perceived as 'disrespect' from Kidd towards Kozina.
16 Bruno Sammartino vs. Antonio Inoki
We'll have to take Bruno Sammartino's word on this one, but the Italian Strongman claims that in a match back in the 1970s, the legendary Antonio Inoki began shooting on him during a match. Inoki was Japan's biggest star at the time while Bruno was America's.
During a tag match while working on opposing teams, Inoki began trying to out wrestle Bruno. Sammartino responded by slapping a front face lock that damn near incapacitated Inoki. The two reportedly never got along, but despite this incident, both men left it in the ring and didn't have any further professional complications.
14 Steve Ray vs. Steve Williams
Herb Abrams was the promoter of the UWF back in 1990 with the promotion's aim to be to return pro wrestling to its roots. Things turned disastrous in 1991 when Abrams thought one of his wrestlers, Steve Ray, was sleeping with his wife. Rumor also has it that Ray had cheated Abrams out of some money. As a result, Ray offered to pay Dr. Death Steve Williams an extra $100 if he broke Ray's nose during a match. The match turned shoot would air on the Fury Hour.
12 Masahiko Kimura vs. Rikidozan
This was supposed to be seen as the duel of the century in Japan, with both wrestlers having backgrounds in martial arts, or fighting in some form. Kimura had a judo background, even inventing what we know today as the Kimura Lock. Rikidozan had a background in sumo wrestling. Their rivalry was to be booked as a series of matches, with the first scripted to end in a draw. However Rikidozan soon broke script in the middle of the match and began chopping and striking him. With Kimura being stomped in the corner, he was able to stand up, but Rikidozan knocked him out with a chop to the neck.
11 Steven Regal vs. Goldberg
Goldberg was in the midst of his historic undefeated streak in WCW and when a match was announced for Nitro in February of 1998, it seemed like it would just be another routine victory for WCW's hottest rookie. However Steven (William) Regal decided that rather than a routine squash match, he'd test the rookie to see if he could actually hang in a match.
Goldberg seemed lost in the match, not knowing how to handle more than his usual spear and jackhammer match.
The stories vary as to if the competitive six minute match was planned or if Regal was going into business for himself. One side says Regal sabotaged the plans of a quick squash, but Regal says he was told to have a six-minute match. Either way, the fact that these two weren't on the same page in this match shows a real struggle between the experienced veteran and the green rookie.
10 Koji Kitao vs. Earthquake
While he’s best known in the U.S. as Earthquake, John Tenta had a big following in Japan, a country that’s always enjoyed big guys and his real sumo experience also won him a lot of fans. When he was set against Kitao during a tour of the country, fans were eager for the bout, although it was a rough affair with Tenta hitting his Earthquake splash for the win. However, Kitao was not happy with that outcome in the least and in the rematch two days later, he refused to adhere to the script of losing again and went out of his way to maintain victory. Earthquake did his best, including the very astounding feat of suplexing the massive Kitao without the other man’s cooperation (which is harder than it sounds). A finger poke to Tenta’s eyes led to both men yelling at each other in the middle of the ring as the fans, realizing something was wrong, booed loudly. Seeing the mess this was becoming, the referee took advantage of having been kicked earlier to disqualify Kitao and end this debacle.
9 Perry Saturn vs. Mike Bell
It may be a bit unfair to say but Saturn was considered sort of the odd man out when the Radicalz jumped to WWE in 2000. A great worker, he seemed a little too oddball to really fit in with the WWE scene and was relegated to mostly second-tier show stuff. In early 2001, he was set against jobber Mike Bell for a taping of the show “Jakked.” The match was going okay until Bell hit a sloppy armdrag that nearly dumped Saturn on his head.
Never known for his calm demeanor, Saturn lost it against Bell, hitting him with real blows that sent him to the outside, nearly landing on his own head. Saturn then grabbed Bell and slammed him hard against the steel steps. Thankfully, Bell wasn’t seriously injured but the front office wasn’t happy with Saturn’s behavior. The good news was he wasn’t fired. The bad news was that as punishment, they came up with the storyline of him getting a head injury and believing a mop was his girlfriend. That’s right; if Saturn hadn’t lost his temper, we would never have been subjected to the horror of “Moppy.” Funny how things work.
8 Kurt Angle vs Daniel Puder
“Tough Enough” never quite worked out the way WWE hoped. It takes a long time for a wrestler to be ready for the big time so trying to boost these guys as instant superstars didn’t click. At first a stand-alone MTV show, it was later integrated into “SmackDown” tapings with Kurt Angle issuing an open challenge to the contestants to face him. In came Daniel Puder, a mixed martial artist who had been undefeated in his previous matches. Angle no doubt felt Puder wouldn’t be too much trouble but Puder instead decided to use this opportunity to show Angle up. Angle tried to take him down but Puder managed to fight back, including slipping out of a facelock and then reversing a suplex attempt into an armlock and almost a pin.
Backstage, officials realized they were about to see a total rookie defeat one of the company’s biggest stars which was not the plan at all. They thus ordered the ref via earpiece to count a pin despite the fact Puder’s shoulders weren’t down and he clearly had Angle in a submission hold. The crowd loudly booed the decision with “Bulls---t” chants and Puder was clearly pushed more for them. He would go on to win “Tough Enough” but was let go in early 2005 in a wave of firings with many suspecting that his near-win here might have cost him in the end.
7 JBL vs. The Blue Meanie
Throughout his wrestling tenure, John Bradshaw Layfield was known for taking control in the locker room and during his time as WWE Champion, could be a damn huge bully. Nothing sums that up as well as this infamous bit at the first “One Night Stand.” The storyline of the show was a bunch of WWE guys trying to crash the card, not happy with ECW (which, like the best wrestling storylines, was based on real life). JBL was one of the leaders, doing a great promo slamming the crowd to fire things up more. The show came down to a massive brawl between the WWE and ECW guys, during which JBL specifically targeted the Blue Meanie. No one is exactly sure as to why; some claim Meanie was trashing JBL online, others say JBL just targeted him at random. Regardless, it wasn’t shown totally in the big fight but when things settled, cameras caught Meanie bleeding hard, even by ECW standards. It didn’t take long for the story to spread and rather than walk away from it, WWE actually put JBL and Meanie in a match together on “Smackdown” during which Meanie struck an unprotected chair shot that opened JBL up and stated “he had it coming.” Once more, a bizarre situation where reality and wrestling clash too much.
6 Andre the Giant vs. Akira Maeda
Recipe for disaster: Andre the Giant, one of the biggest (literally) stars in wrestling, a man known for not putting up with crap or people trying to talk him down from things. Akira Maeda, one of the stiffest workers in Japan and known for taking his aggressions out on opponents. Put them together and it’s no wonder things turned out as they did. Some say Antonio Inoki wasn’t happy with Akira and wanted Andre to teach him a lesson while others claim it was just neither guy wanting to job to the other. Andre didn’t appear wanting to be in this match at all, completely no-selling every one of Akira’s hard kicks and blows and when Andre refused to work, it was damn hard for anyone to get him to go along.
Indeed, it’s speculated Andre showed up drunk and did seem out of it during the bout. Akira would take Andre down with various submission holds which Andre just shrugged off before kicking Akira in the face. Both just flopped around on the mat before an angry crowd so Inoki himself came to the ring to get this to end. Andre just lay on the mat, openly saying “pin me” but Akira was too infuriated by this performance to do it. Eventually, it became a big brawl of others to give an excuse for a double-disqualification. Just goes to show that working with a drunk Giant is never a proposition that ends well.
5 Lex Luger vs. Bruiser Brody
Lex Luger always had the molding to be a wrestler with a great physique and skills but the problem was that he was pushed far too quickly by promoters trying to find “the next Hogan.” He was given the Florida championship just two weeks after his debut, never got to “pay his dues” and that led him to a big ego. But he was still going well, just signed on to Jim Crockett Promotions and ready for a grand debut as the new member of the Four Horsemen. Thus, in one of his final Florida matches, Luger was set against legendary wildman Bruiser Brody. Brody was smart in how he built himself up, going from territory to territory for big paydays and was thus not happy with the plan to lose to Luger in a cage match.
It’s hard to cut through the various stories (which include the claims of Brody having thumbtacks taped to his fingers to blade Luger) as some claim it was Luger’s fault, others that it was Brody or both were tricked by the promoter. But what fans saw was clearly Brody refusing to sell anything Luger was giving him, without a single blow even making him flinch. Luger, used to being treated as the Superman figure, was clearly lost and openly asking the ref what to do. As Brody finally unleashed an attack of stiff blows, Luger made his move. Again, this depends on how you see it; some may see Luger running off in fear while others see him just tired of Brody’s act and leaving by climbing out of the cage. Reportedly, Luger didn’t even shower, just grabbed his bag, hit the car and was at Crockett the next day. Regardless of who was at fault, it’s still a classic example of what happens when lines get blurred and a guy refuses to do the task right.
4 Mildred Burke vs. June Byers
Mixing business and personal life rarely ends well and Mildred Burke proves that. She and Billy Wolfe had been a long-time couple which aided Burke in her reigns as women’s champion during the heyday of women’s wrestling in the golden age. But when they split, it was ugly with Wolfe doing all he could to crush Burke’s own wrestling promotion and creating his own women’s title, given to his daughter-in-law, June Byers. Burke still claimed she was the true champion and so a two-out-of-three falls match to unify the belts was set.
However, rather than let it be planned, the two women decided to make the match a real contest. Burke had done plenty of shoot fights and never lost so, despite a knee injury, felt confident. However, Byers won the first fall by forcing Burke to submit to a kneelock. Supposedly pushed on by Wolfe, Byers refused to release the hold and actually dislocated Burke’s leg. Despite that pain, Burke was able to hold Byers off for the time limit of the second fall and they fought it out for another 30 minutes before the state athletic commission put an end to the contest. Burke assumed she had won because of the two falls but it was ruled Byers “won on points” and was given the title although Burke continued to insist she was the true champion. Just goes to show how the women can get as ugly in wrestling antics as the guys.
3 Wendi Richter vs. The Spider Lady
Long before Bret Hart, the biggest screwjob WWE had ever seen took place in Madison Square Garden. Wendi Richter had been one of the biggest stars the women’s wrestling scene had seen in years. Beautiful and flashy, she’d defeated the Fabulous Moolah for the Women’s title, ending Moolah’s (in storyline) record nearly 30-year reign. Moolah would manage Leilani Kai to beat Richter for the belt with Richter winning it back at the first WrestleMania. She was riding pretty high and thus found it only natural to demand bigger money from McMahon. Bigger as in Hogan-size paydays and threatening to leave the promotion with the title. As with so many before and since, Richter learned too late that you don’t pull that with Vince McMahon.
It was supposed to be a simple filler match, Richter against long-time masked journey-woman “The Spider Lady.” However, alert fans noticed the Spider’s physique was quite familiar and Richter obviously saw it too. But she went on with the planned match, both ignoring the rising “Moolah!” chants among the crowd. Finally, The Spider got her into a small package which Richter clearly kicked out of at the count of one and a half but the ref counted three and rang the bell. Richter kept going, tearing off the mask to reveal Moolah and then a backbreaker and pin, clearly still thinking the match was ongoing. But the ref told her it was over as Howard Finkel (as confused as most) announced Moolah as the new champ. Richter left the ring clutching the belt and it had to be taken from her forcibly backstage. Richter quit the company immediately, her career never recovering and her in-ring talents are all too forgotten in favor of one of the more surreal “matches” the company has ever shown.
2 Antonio Inoki vs The Great Antonio
Despite the names, there were no real similarities between the two Antonios. The first is one of the greatest stars in the history of Japanese wrestling, a technician and proud fighter. The second was a Croatian strongman who boasted of amazing feats that could almost never be backed up. When they met before 9,000 fans in Tokyo, Antonio refused to sell Inoki’s attacks, brushing off a drop kick and more, acting as if Inoki didn’t belong in the same ring with him.
Never known for his humility, Inoki didn’t take too well to this and when the beefy wrestler clubbed him with sloppy blows on the neck, he lost it. In a fantastic display, Inoki took Antonio down with as single-leg sweep and then proceeded to stomp him down, knocking his opponent out for real and keeping it up. His manager raced in to stop the carnage as Inoki proved that he was one guy it was never smart to try and shoot against.
1 Stanislaus Zybsko vs. Wayne Munn
Historically, this is one of the first major cases of a guy going into business for himself and remains one of the biggest. Zybsko was a major star in the early years of wrestling, a fantastic worker but his reign as NWA champion had been considered a failure. The real power of the time was Toots Mondt, Ed Lewis and Billy Sandow, known as the “Gold Dust Trio.” They decided that the next big thing was ex-football player turned wrestler Wayne Munn and pushed him as champ against Zybsko.
What the Trio didn’t know was that their arch-rival, promoter Joe Stecher, had promised Zybsko a big payday if he sabotaged the match and Zybsko, not happy with the Trio already, agreed. Poor Munn had no idea what he was getting into as Zybsko went to his old-school wrestling methods, taking him down easily, giving Munn no offense and openly pinning him time and again. The referee was as jarred by this as everyone else and tried to come up with excuses not to count the pins. However, as the match went on and Zybsko dominated, the crowd began cheering him on and, knowing that going by the script could cause a riot, the ref had no choice but to finally count a pin and give Zybsko the belt. As per their agreement, Zybsko would drop the title to Stecher a few weeks later, leaving the Trio rocked hard. It was a huge shift for the wrestling world, showing how hard-ball some promoters could be and how being out for oneself could be a bad thing for a lot of folks.