We know the matches have predetermined results, and that the on-air rivalries are about as real as the Lannisters and Tyrells hating each other on Game of Thrones. But we still watch it anyway. Such is the life of a pro wrestling fan, and while we are conditioned to suspend our disbelief and talk about what went down on television or pay-per-view knowing that wrestlers do as the bookers and creative tell them to do, there are some moments that couldn't help but leave you thinking; did so-and-so go into business for themselves, or go off-script, in simpler terms?
In the pre-internet era, this was even more true, as it took a while for a lot of fans to cotton on to the fact that wrestling wasn't as on the level as promoters once wanted us to believe. And as we prepare to look at some examples when fans thought what they were watching was real, only for everything to be a work all along, we'd like to point out that most of the examples here took place before the 21st century. That's right, millennials; there was a time when Gen-Xer fans (such as this writer) and maybe some from older generations weren't quite sure whether they were watching a work or a shoot.
That said, let's count 'em down, and look back at 15 of those wrestling moments you may have mistakenly thought were for real, and not part of a storyline, match, or angle.
15 "Outlaw" Ron Bass Introduces Brutus Beefcake To His Spurs
As a child watching this brutal match on television in 1988, I was one of many who thought that the late "Outlaw" Ron Bass, midcard cowboy heel, was such a violent man that he made Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake bleed big-time by gouging his forehead with his spurs. You can thank WWE for that, as the company underscored the violence of Bass' actions by placing a big red "X" on the TV screen as the attack happened.
Fans in their late-30s and beyond can now look back on this match as a sign of the kid-friendly times, but back then, many people still believed that pro wrestling was a shoot, and WWE did what it could to preserve that illusion. Sadly, this was Bass' last major feud, and after Beefcake beat him in the blow-off match (hair-vs-hair, and via sleeperhold, of course), the aging Outlaw was shuttled down the card, and was out of WWE by early-'89.
14 Ken Patera and Bobby Heenan's "Debate"
No joke – Olympic weightlifter-turned-wrestler Ken Patera spent time behind bars for throwing a rock at a McDonald's after being denied service, then attacking his arresting officers. Shortly after he was freed, WWE brought him back in 1987 to compete as a babyface, but since he was a hated heel before his incarceration, he had to claim that his old manager, Bobby Heenan, had "sold him down the river" and failed to stick up for him.
With Heenan understandably irate over his former protege's claims, the two men settled their differences in a "debate" that got so intense that entire passages from Heenan were bleeped out for TV viewers, due to their "slanderous" content. With the Brain at his "weasel"-ish best, this hinted at a potentially explosive feud, but it never was to be, as Patera, then 44 years old, proved to be an injury-prone and ineffective shadow of his old self in the ring.
13 Jim Ross Brings Back "Razor Ramon" And "Diesel"
For weeks, he had been teasing it – Jim Ross was telling WWE fans that Diesel and Razor Ramon were coming back. If you also watched WCW then, you would have guessed that that would be impossible, as Kevin Nash and Scott Hall were on a roll with the nWo. But if you were a WWE-only fan back in September 1996, you may have been fooled into thinking that Good Ol' J.R. was indeed bringing these two fan favorites back for another run.
You also may have been fooled by J.R.'s uncharacteristic outrage when he was to deliver what he had promised – he outed that bowtie-wearing announcer Vince McMahon as WWE's big boss, and accused him of treating him horribly, especially when he was battling Bell's palsy. Then he dropped the bombshell – Razor Ramon and Diesel were back, but in name only. Hey, look! It's that dentist guy playing the role of Diesel! And how come Razor's Cuban accent went from passable to terrible, to say little of that dad-bod?
The angle may have fooled many at the start, but in the end, Ross' first of two WWE heel turns was so poorly-received that the whole thing was dropped in a matter of months.
12 Shane Douglas Trashes The NWA Belt
ECW (the OG ECW, not WWE's bastard version) wasn't always known as Extreme Championship Wrestling; it was once called Eastern Championship Wrestling. And on August 27, 1994, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, as new NWA World Heavyweight Champion Shane Douglas cut a victory promo, shouting out to old-time greats and modern-day legends alike. Then he up and told all these greats that they can kiss his behind, angrily throwing down the NWA belt. Soon after, he raised the new ECW World Heavyweight Championship belt, and declared the beginning of a new era.
It all seemed so real, but as it turned out, there were only three people who knew it was a work – Douglas, Paul Heyman, and Tod Gordon. And It was all an attempt to spite NWA President Dennis Coralluzzo, who apparently wasn't a fan of the Franchise. Coralluzzo reacted by demanding that Douglas be stripped off his titles, but it wasn't a problem – Gordon reacted by having ECW secede from the NWA, with Douglas remaining as its champion, and replacing the old ECW with something decidedly more extreme.
11 Brian Pillman Goes Nuts At WWE Presser
Given that the late Brian Pillman actively tried to push the envelope and make people think he was legitimately off his rocker, he's got two entries in this list, starting with the time he had joined WWE as the first wrestler to sign a guaranteed contract. His 1996 signing was heralded with a press conference, which started out normal...until Pillman stood up and began gruffly screaming at everyone in attendance, telling them to "shut the hell up," because it was now "Brian F**kin' Pillman's press conference."
With Pillman seemingly melting down, reporters were presented as scared to ask him any further questions. Heck, even WWE's own Dok Hendrix (a.k.a. Michael Hayes) didn't seem to know how to proceed! But in the end, it was all part of WWE playing along with Pillman's "Loose Cannon" gimmick and building him up ahead of his debut.
10 Vader Attacks A Kuwaiti TV Host
There are some things you just don't ask a pro wrestler, and one of those things is whether wrestling is fake or not. It seemed that the host of Good Morning Kuwait found this out the hard way in 1997, as Vader, who was then guesting alongside The Undertaker (in a very rare out-of-character appearance), angrily flipped over a table and roughly grabbed the host by the collar, asking him if "that f**king feels fake." It was almost as if the Jim Everett/Jim Rome and David Schultz/John Stossel incidents fell in love and had a baby.
This led Vader getting arrested, spending some time in jail, and ultimately paying up to the tune of a whopping $164 fine. But Vader recently admitted that the show's producer put him up to it, and told him to act angry when asked the "is wrestling fake" question. Thing is, the Good Morning Kuwait host wasn't told about the plan beforehand, which led to the whole incident getting blown out of proportion.
9 Owen Hart Turns On Bret
These days, seeing two wrestling siblings feud on television is very, very obviously a work. (Isn't that right, Bella Twins?) But you've got to give special consideration to pre-internet sibling feuds, such as the time Owen Hart turned on big brother Bret at the 1994 Royal Rumble.
The way the whole sibling feud played out was brilliant, from the time the seeds of dissension were first planted at Survivor Series 1993, to the time Owen, feigning concern for Bret, tearfully convinced their mother Helen to throw in the towel, allowing "Mr." Bob Backlund to beat Bret for the WWE Championship the very next Survivor Series. Then, of course, laughing hysterically at having conned his mother into cheating Bret out of the title.
As for why this feud felt so real, it was simply because Bret and Owen Hart were very tight away from the camera, while also committed to making sure the rivalry was played out flawlessly.
8 Andy Kaufman Vs. Jerry Lawler On David Letterman's Show
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the late Andy Kaufman's career that the Taxi star was a huge pro wrestling fan, and as his edgy comedy act included him wrestling women, he wanted to taste the business for real. As such, he was put into a feud with beloved Memphis-area babyface Jerry Lawler that included a violent on-air fight on Late Night with David Letterman in 1982. And a broken neck ostensibly suffered after the future King would land a vicious piledriver on the comedian.
With mainstream media reporting the Letterman incident as 100 percent shoot, almost everyone thought that both men really hated each other so much that they'd take their rasslin' feud to late night TV. It was only well after Kaufman's death in 1984 that everything was revealed to be a work – the inter-gender wrestling matches, the broken neck, and the Letterman brawl.
None of this happened within the scope of WWE, but Andy Kaufman deserves a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame's celebrity wing, more so than anyone else in there except Mike Tyson.
7 Last Call For Scott Hall
There's no doubt that Scott Hall became a bigger star in WCW when he and Kevin Nash jumped ship in 1996 and helped form the nWo. But toward the end of his run, the former Razor Ramon was a hot mess, as he dealt with a bad drinking problem that made him highly unreliable. And to WCW fans, it seemed as if Hall was taking his booze problem to the ring, as he'd sneak out of matches to drink a beer. He was so wasted one time that he actually threw up on Eric Bischoff! Even Jeff Hardy didn't throw up on Sting at Victory Road 2011, for your information.
Like all the other examples in this list, this was all part of a storyline – the infamous "Last Call for Scott Hall" storyline. And don't feign surprise at WCW being behind all of this; as WWE began to beat them in the ratings war, such tasteless, and dare we say, desperate storylines were part and parcel of Nitro programming.
6 Pillman's Got A Gun!
As promised, the Loose Cannon is back.
Back in 1996, the internet was already around, but this was still a point in time when WWE tried its best to keep kayfabe alive, with wrestling dirt sheets still in their infancy. As such, it almost seemed believable when WWE covered what was presented as real-life drama taking place at the Pillman residence, as Brian and his wife Melanie braced themselves for a home invasion, Texas Rattlesnake-style.
After "Stone Cold" Steve Austin handily beat down on Pillman's friends (actually local indie talents), he had Pillman right where he wanted him. That was something the Loose Cannon wasn't going to take sitting down, and as he pulled out a gun, hysterics ensued. He even let out some uncensored profanities to make the angle feel even more real.
In the end, many viewers were duped, and were irate over the controversial angle, forcing both the WWE and Pillman to apologize for it.
5 Introducing: Mrs. Foley's Baby Boy
In 1997, the deranged Mankind sat down for a four-part interview with Jim Ross, revealing himself as a man by the name of Mick Foley. And he happened to be an outcast as a kid who ate worms on the playground and couldn't get girls to like him, ultimately chasing his pro wrestling dreams as a teenager with the "Dude Love" tapes. This outcast, however, was a now grown man twisted by his troubled youth, and he hammered that home with a Mandible Claw on Good Ol' J.R. to close out the final part of the interview.
It was the genius of Mick Foley as a performer that made the interviews so believable. And I'm sure that not a few people were shocked to read, just a few years later on Have a Nice Day, that Mrs. Foley's baby boy was actually quite the class clown growing up, and as far removed as you can get from the teenage outcast he portrayed himself as two years prior. (Though he did admit to his share of failures with the opposite sex, at least until he met his wife Colette in the early-'90s.)
4 Stone Cold Flips Off Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson's WrestleMania XIV appearance as "special guest enforcer" and the hype leading up to it arguably helped tip the pendulum in WWE's favor during the Monday Night Wars. And why not? Although Tyson was, at that time, still recovering from the bad PR that resulted from his decision to eat Evander Holyfield's ear for dinner, he was still the Baddest Man on the Planet. And WWE signing him for 'Mania to officiate the WWE Championship match between "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels was considered a major coup.
There was one man, however, who disputed all this, and that man was none other than Austin, who did so by showing Iron Mike "a bit of sign language" – flipping two birds at Tyson and sparking a near-brawl between both men. It may sound ludicrous today, but many people back then thought it was serious business, only for everything to obviously turn out to be a work, when, at WrestleMania, Tyson turned on HBK (and DX) and proved to be on Austin's side all along.
3 Brock Lesnar Makes Randy Orton Bleed
In the weeks leading to SummerSlam 2016, Brock Lesnar was fresh off defeating Mark Hunt at UFC 200, and Randy Orton had just recovered from an injury. With both men scheduled to meet at SummerSlam in a match that was "15 years in the making," fans were at least expecting a competitive inter-brand face-off one month after the 2016 brand split. Instead, what they saw was the one-sided annihilation of the Viper at the hands of a pissed-off (and recently busted by the USADA) Beast.
With Orton legitimately bleeding from repeated elbows to the head, and the match awarded to Lesnar via TKO, many fans thought Brock had gone too far. Heck, even Chris Jericho thought so, having angrily confronted Lesnar over what he thought was a shoot attack. But it was no shoot – it was simply WWE's way of making Lesnar look strong. Which, of course, was nullified when the returning Goldberg beat Brock in 86 seconds at Survivor Series. Talk about "much ado about nothing."
2 CM Punk's Pipe Bomb
The man himself had said it – his contract was expiring soon, and he had every intention of leaving WWE with the company's top belt around his waist. Smart fans knew it was a crucial time for CM Punk in the summer of 2011, but even they had to wonder whether the things he said after interrupting a John Cena vs. R-Truth match on Monday Night RAW were coming from CM Punk as a character or from Phil Brooks himself. That "pipe bomb" promo was delivered with such conviction, and with WWE cutting Punk's mic off in the middle of his spiel, it had the feel of a legitimate shoot from someone going rogue after having it up to here with what he saw as WWE's B.S.
Making things even more realistic is that the pipe bomb contained everything you expected to hear from Phil Brooks as a person. But we now know that WWE had him cut that promo to add even more drama to the "expiring contract" storyline (in real life, his contract was expiring in September, and not in July), and gave him free reign to say whatever he pleased. Even if it must have made more than a few people backstage really, really uncomfortable.
1 The nWo Is Born
If you were a wrestling fan in the mid-'90s, chances are you would have thought Razor Ramon, and later on "Big Daddy Cool" Diesel, were invading WCW television when they made unannounced appearances on Nitro in May 1996. Although they were identified by their real names, it was obvious that Scott Hall still spoke in a fake Cuban accent, and Kevin Nash, as he'd long shed himself of his bad initial WCW gimmicks, was instantly recognizable as a near-7-foot-tall ass-kicker. Did WWE send these two men down to Atlanta to take over WCW from within? Many people couldn't help but wonder in those days.
Of course, the arrival of The Outsiders on WCW television was the precursor to the birth of the nWo at the 1996 Bash at the Beach, where Hulk Hogan revealed himself to be the mysterious "third man" Hall and Nash kept talking about. And it definitely wasn't a shoot: the nWo was the brainchild of Eric Bischoff, who had watched a similar "invasion" angle play out in New Japan, and wanted to offer WCW viewers his own twist on things.