Onscreen, they are heroes and villains, the fighters who clash in epic battles of good versus evil. They can dazzle with their death-defying stunts, enrage audiences into rioting, inspire their fans in moments of victory and share their distress in times of defeat. They are larger than life, titanic, and unbelievable to behold. They are wrestlers.
But behind it all, they are people. Human beings with complex emotions, who live their lives toiling in cramped rental cars and dusty gyms, searching for a good, hot meal and a comfortable bed at night. They live their lives on highways and in hotel rooms, connected to their loved ones by telephone calls.
Anyone who claims the life of a professional wrestler is a piece of cake has never lived it, but that’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom. Throughout their perpetual travels and physically demanding nights at work, wrestlers are just as capable of having a blast as the rest of us. It is in these trials that these men and women forge the strongest friendships of their lives, a camaraderie that is not unlike that of army buddies or a rock n’ roll band.
This collection of photos offers rare looks at the backstage lives of the wrestlers who portray the iconic characters throughout WWE history. In them, we see moments of joy and humor, moments of pain, and, ultimately, moments of humanity in those who otherwise seem superhuman.
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25 Big Boss Man and Mr. Perfect Goofing Around
Big Boss Man and Mr. Perfect may have feuded for the Intercontinental Championship, including in a match at WrestleMania VII, but here they appear to be having a great time goofing around at a photo shoot in 1991. WWE Superstars have long been called upon to possess the skills of athletes, actors, and sometimes even models. During these hours-long photo shoots, during which hundreds and hundreds of photos are snapped, there’s likely to be a few goofy outtakes.
One wonders, where did those reindeer horns and big red nose come from? What were their intended purpose at the photo shoot? Did some assistant forget to clean up the props from a different session? Whatever the case, Boss Man took the chance to get a laugh from his buddy as the photo shoot continued.
24 Davey Boy Smith Devours a Giant Lobster
Life on the road often evokes thoughts of fast food, diners, and catering tables—not necessarily fine dining. But here is Davey Boy Smith, the British Bulldog, holding aloft a ridiculously huge lobster on the left and picking its last remains from his teeth on the right. Considering Smith’s own billed height was 6’3”, the fact that this lobster is as long as the man’s torso is astounding. With claws the size of the Bulldog’s face, one can only guess how much the crustacean weighed.
It’s interesting to consider this scene of decadence, since Davey Boy would pass away in 2002 of a heart attack. The cause of his heart attack was never definitively determined; the autopsy considered the effect of steroids, and Bruce Hart would later allude to the British Bulldog’s drug habits.
Whatever the case, the smile on his face as he hoists his lobster is genuine; this is the face of a man who knows he will soon enjoy quite the meal.
23 Vince and Shane McMahon Meet Hayabusa
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Pictured here after his retirement due to an in-match neck injury, which paralyzed him, Hayabusa clearly did not completely disappear from the wrestling world. He continued to travel and attend wrestling events, mostly in Japan, but also some WWE events.
In 2006, Hayabusa visited backstage at SummerSam in Boston, meeting the likes of John Laurinaitis, Sabu, John Cena, Edge, Victoria, and, as pictured above, even Vince and Shane McMahon themselves. The following night he traveled to Monday Night RAW to meet other superstars and watch the show. This followed with a visit to WWE headquarters in Stamford, as well as tapings of SmackDown and ECW.
His whirlwind tour of WWE and its traveling circus was due to Hayabusa’s name being pretty much universally respected throughout the industry. Upon his passing last year, WWE released a statement referring to him as an “innovative high-flyer” and acknowledged his influence on wrestlers like Seth Rollins. Although he never competed in WWE—the closest he came was a match in ECW in 1998—Hayabusa’s legacy and the respect the industry held for him is evident.
22 Demolition Without Face Paint
Before an ongoing lawsuit against WWE caused the company to begin erasing their legacy, Demolition was among the most dominant and legendary tag teams of all time in the company. Their legendary run with the WWF Tag Team Championship was the longest tag team reign of any title in WWE’s history until The New Day broke it this year. Even when they weren’t champions, Ax and Smash were monstrous competitors, running the ropes with the likes of the British Bulldogs and Hart Foundation.
Pictured here the weekend of WrestleMania IV, in semi-formal attire and possibly on their way to or from a press event, the pair looks a bit bombarded, as if they weren’t expecting a camera around that corner they’d just turned. This confusion contrasts sharply with the monster heels they portrayed in the ring, including hard-fought win they earned against Strike Force at ‘Mania.
21 Edge Hanging Out With Alter Bridge
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From the earliest days of The Fabulous Freebirds coming to ring to the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Willie Nelson, through the Rock n’ Wrestling era, to the present day when WWE houses its own resident composers that create the majority of the wrestlers’ theme songs, music has played a major role in the production of wrestling shows for decades.
Throughout his highly decorated run, Edge has always had great music, but perhaps no other theme is as synonymous with the Rated-R Superstar as the one performed by Alter Bridge. From the opening bars of this thrashy tune, the epic scale of the song’s sound is appropriate for a self-aggrandizing character like Edge’s. In an interview with Journey of a Frontman, Edge tells of how he met Alter Bridge guitarist Matt Tremonti, who also plays in Creed, at a Metallica show, after which Tremonti showed Edge the song “Metalingus," and Edge instantly fell in love with it. On returning from an injury later, he used the song as his theme until he retired.
Here, Edge is seen palling around with Alter Bridge backstage at a show, laughing at something someone has said as the photo was snapped. Edge has spoken in various interviews of his deep love of music, as evidenced by his passion for the band.
20 15-Year-Old Brock Lesnar
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It’s almost reassuring to see that even the Beast Incarnate, Brock Lesnar, was kind of an awkward looking teenager. But don’t tell him we said that. Even at 15, Lesnar, who would later become one of the most decorated athletes in WWE’s history, towered over his teammates and coach. If his eventual 106-5 college record is any indication, he was probably one of the most commanding forces on his wrestling team even in high school.
Absent the tattoos, the further definition of his muscles, and the cauliflower ear he earned in college, one can still easily imagine this hulking teenager grappling his way to dominance and, slowly, forging a career for himself as a fighter. He has said, most notably in Steve Austin’s WWE Network interview, that he did not grow up a professional wrestling fan, so one wonders if the kid in this photo could ever have imagined himself winning the industry’s top title just ten years later.
19 Papa Shango, Paul Bearer, and Undertaker
Two giants of an era, captured just before what many consider their primes. The Undertaker and Papa Shango, later known was The Godfather, standing alongside Paul Bearer in an empty stadium before SummerSlam ’92. When this photo was snapped, Shango was relegated to a dark match after feuding pointlessly with The Ultimate Warrior for months. Undertaker, meanwhile, was scheduled for a squash match against Kamala.
It’s an interesting image, showing the two giant men sized down by the vast emptiness of the stadium around them, yet towering above the fairly squat Paul Bearer. A few hours after the photo was taken, the stands filled up with over 80,000 people, the fourth-largest event in WWE’s history. It was well-received, especially for its main event, where The British Bulldog won the Intercontinental Championship from Bret Hart, in a rare instance of the secondary title headlining a pay-per-view.
Although the men pictured here played small roles in this event, in just a few short years they would both evolve into major Attitude Era characters.
18 Early-90s Superstars Having a Laugh
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If you thought the photo shoot between Boss Man and Mr. Perfect must have been goofy, imagine cramming seven wrestlers together in one studio. Here, we see some of the biggest heels of the 90s pretending to beat up, intimidate, or choke out an unidentified man.
From right we have Tatanka clubbing his knee, Bret Hart and Razor Ramon choking him, Mabel dropping a heavy elbow on his head, Alundra Blaze hiding from the chaos, Doink the Clown attempting to punch his heart, and Lex Luger staring at the camera as if he wants no part of this nonsense.
In the midst of a long photo shoot, it’s funny to see these otherwise hard-nosed bad guys having a laugh together. This must be a prized photo in this man's house.
17 The Infamous Bone Street Krew
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The Bone Street Krew were a backstage posse of WWE Superstars throughout the ‘90s, which included an unexpected cast of characters comprising it. The group included The Undertaker, Yokozuna, Rikishi, Savio Vega, The Godwinns, The Godfather, Paul Bearer, Brian Adams, and Mr. Fuji. They were perhaps the most notable backstage clique of WWE in the 90s besides, well, The Kliq.
Pictured above are most of the members of the Bone Street Krew. The camaraderie on display here is evident, like a group of guys who would be willing to do anything for each other. They were not as controversially known as The Kliq, as their main focus was simply to watch each other’s backs. Unseen here are the tattoos they would later get to commemorate the group, including the most prominent: Undertaker’s “B.S.K.” on his stomach.
16 Great Khali, Umaga, and Big Daddy V
Three big men from WWE’s mid-2000s era: The Great Khali, Umaga, and Big Daddy V , formerly known as Mabel. Seen here on a couch backstage, presumably killing some time before or during a show. Khali takes a phone call, appearing as if he’s trying to tune the other two out as they smile and pose for the camera.
This is a bittersweet photo, as within a few years, two of the three men in this photo would be dead. Umaga passed away in 2009 and Mabel in 2014, both of heart attacks. Umaga’s was triggered by a lethal combination of various medications; he had been released from WWE earlier that year when he refused to seek treatment for wellness policy violations. Mabel’s, on the other hand, seemed sudden and unexpected. His wife later tried and failed to sue WWE for wrongful death, suspecting that he suffered from CTE.
Regardless, the hard lives these men lived seemed to be on hold for just a moment here.
15 Daniel Bryan's Yearbook Photos
Daniel Bryan has known for most of his life that he wanted to be a professional wrestler. As early as high school, he was making serious attempts to find the right training, eventually landing under the tutelage of Dean Malenko, Shawn Michaels, and Rudy Gonzalez. He had his debut match when he was still 18 years old, quickly getting signed to a developmental contract in then-WWE and working as enhancement talent before being released.
He would make his way back in due time, becoming one of the most prominent superstars in recent memory, but it’s actually not too surprising that he was released when he was 20—can you imagine a kid not much older than the one pictured in these angsty yearbook photos on Monday Night RAW? The multi-time world champion and surefire future Hall of Famer may have an unconventional look now, but it was tenfold when he was younger.
14 Vintage Magazine Spread Featuring "Rick" Flair
Like many wrestlers before and after him, Ric Flair once apparently appeared under a different name than the one which made him famous. Meet “Rick” Flair—with a k—posing for a vintage magazine early in his career. The burly, young, and coif-haired Flair is about 25 years old here, the photo published two years after his 1972 in-ring debut.
Around this time, Flair was a star player in the American Wrestling Association in Minneapolis, going head to head with the likes of Dust Rhodes and Andre the Giant. According to the blurb that accompanies this photo, Flair titled himself “Rookie of the Century.” Considering the storied career that followed in the next three and a half decades, the estimation may not be so far off.
13 Jim Neidhart, Fast Asleep Beside His Daughter
As we’ve mentioned, the hours of travel and physical exhaustion of wrestling can really pile up on a person, wearing them down. It’s no surprise that, in the rare instances of getting to spend some quality time at home with their family, a worker might be caught nodding off in the middl of the proceedings.
In this photo, Jim Neidhart is fast asleep beneath a fluffy pink blanket and his daughter, who looks a little peeved that Dad’s gone and fallen asleep on her. Any kid vying for their dad’s attention can relate to the demeanor the little girl, probably no older than five years old, is displaying here. That little girl, by the way, is Natalya Neidhart, who would go on to win the WWE Divas Championship about 20 years later.
12 CM Punk, AJ Styles, Evan Bourne, and Daniel Bryan at Cracker Barrel
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In the early 2000s, there was a time when Ring of Honor was booming and the following wrestlers were in the company all at once: CM Punk, Matt Sydal, Daniel Bryan, and AJ Styles. Within a little more than a decade, all except Sydal (known later on as Evan Bourne) would go onto win the top championship in WWE.
Here, though, they are merely young hopefuls, early in their careers and just starting to flirt with success, grabbing a bite to eat on the road at a Cracker Barrel. As Bryan and Sydal play a game on the table and AJ watches, Punk has caught sight of the photographer, giving him/her a hammy grin.
Sydal had a reasonable run as tag team championship, Daniel Bryan main evented WrestleMania XXX, CM Punk set a staggering modern record with his 434-day reign as champion, and AJ Styles had one of the most remarkable debut years in history. And back during their respective ROH runs, this foursome set the place on fire on a near-constant basis.
11 John Cena and CM Punk Rock Their Zubaz
John Cena and CM Punk are serious contenders for each other’s greatest feuds in their entire careers, which is a remarkable accolade since they have both feuded with some of the top names in the entire professional wrestling industry. It is also interesting that, despite their onscreen animosity, that Cena was one of the few top brasses in WWE that Punk had a fairly good relationship with.
Here, in their ridiculous Zubaz pants, Punk and Cena pose for the camera in order to add some levity to the locker room after an exhausting tour of Japan. They would go on to wear the pants during their tag team match against Kevin Nash and The Miz that night. Also featured are their Ribera Steakhouse jackets. They are both rites of passage in Japanese wrestling culture; the Ribera Steakhouse is a wrestling, boxing, and MMA themed restaurant in Tokyo, which popularized the varsity-like jackets and Zubaz combo.
It’s pretty poignant to see Punk and Cena clearly enjoying each other’s company backstage here, knowing the contentious relationship Punk would go on to have with WWE.
10 Tyler Breeze and Kevin Owens Backstage Selfie
It’s been said that the best wrestling characters are extensions of the performer’s real-life personality. Here, we see some suggestion of that, as the selfie-snapping, Periscope-broadcasting, pretty man himself, Tyler Breeze, grabs a backstage selfie with Kevin Owens.
Having come up together through NXT before their main roster debuts, the fellow Canadians continue their country’s storied wrestling legacy. Each continues to entertain on the main roster in their own ways, Owens as a main event heel on RAW and Breeze as a surprisingly hilarious tag team with Fandango on SmackDown. Seen here early in their main roster careers, it’s almost a little sad to think of the NXT main event these two could have had. It's clear that Canadian wrestlers usualy share an unspoken bond.
9 Bray Wyatt and Curtis Axel With Some Legends
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Bray Wyatt is perhaps the closest thing present-day WWE has on the full-time roster to the stringently kayfabe non-breaking Undertaker. He rarely appears in interviews, and when he does he rides the line between his real-life personality and the cultish bayou character he portrays on television.
That abidance to kayfabe may very well stem from a deep-seated respect that Bray holds for the business, being a third-generation wrestler. He is the son of Mike Rotunda, better known to WWE fans as IRS, and the grandson of the late Blackjack Mulligan. Similarly, Curtis Axel, standing on the far left, is also a third-generation wrestler, son of “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig and grandson of Larry Hennig.
You can imagine the amount of respect Wyatt and Axel have for the men they’re posing with here, three legends in their own right: Diamond Dallas Page, Mark Henry, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. It’s a touching portrait of the past, present, and future of the industry all in one.
8 JBL and Funaki
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Sometimes a backstage photo surfaces revealing two people you didn’t expect to be buddies are in fact just that, like JBL and Funaki pictured above. Of course, it makes sense that these two would know and respect each other. JBL is a Texas native, and Funaki has become a longtime resident of San Antonio. They were both undercard fixtures of the Attitude Era, and have since transitioned from an in-ring career to announcing—JBL offers color commentary on SmackDown and Funaki provides Japanese commentary during pay-per-view and network specials.
It’s nice to see that, despite his sometimes less than stellar reputation, JBL continues to maintain respect and admiration for the folks he came up with. Perhaps he's turned a new leaf in recent years or it's just impossible to hate Funaki.
7 Big Show Polishing Charles Robinson's Shoes
There are certain nuggets of wisdom that apply no matter whether you’re a first-year rookie or a seasoned veteran: respect those who came before you, and don’t have a huge ego, for example. Keep a clear head on your shoulders and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
Seen here, Big Show is practicing all of the above and more. Graciously sitting before veteran referee Charles Robinson, affectionately referred to by fans as Lil Naitch due to his fandom of and similar haircut to Ric Flair, Big Show polishes Robinson’s shoes. Did Show lose a bet, or owe the ref a favor? In the background, you can see CM Punk laughing at the scene, suggesting that this is yet another of the ways wrestlers amuse themselves during downtime before a show.
Regardless, Robinson hams up the camera as Show quietly gets to work, ensuring that the black sneakers are camera-ready.
6 The Shield With a Make-A-Wish Recipient
The Shield were one of the most dominant factions in WWE history, as prolific and powerful as legendary teams like The Fabulous Freebirds and D-Generation X. Meanwhile, whether they were rebellious babyfaces or calculating heels, they remained one of the most popular fixture of the WWE roster, spinning off three top-tier talents into the main event once the faction dissolved.
So, it’s no surprise that they were a frequent request from recipients of Make-A-Wish, the charitable organization that WWE frequently works with to bring special experiences to children with life-threatening medical conditions or terminal illnesses. The young boy pictured here with Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and Dean Ambrose wears an uncontrolled grin here; this is clearly a remarkable day for the child. Just a couple of years later, the three are now some of the biggest singles stars in the business.
5 CM Punk Shares A Laugh With The Rock
CM Punk and the Rock have had a contentious relationship. Punk has criticized The Rock, referring to him famously as a “pretty good ass kisser.” After his unsavory split from WWE, he also bemoaned Rock’s championship run in 2013—a title he won by defeating Punk at the Royal Rumble that year—saying, “I can’t help it that I have so much old school engrained in me that the champ works every show.”
The Rock, for his part, reached out to CM Punk following Punk’s Art of Wrestling appearance, in which he asked why all of Punk’s fans were shooting him angry Tweets. According to Punk’s version of the events, the pair exchanged a mostly civil series of texts talking about it, and apparently Rock was “super cool about it.”
This contradicts the common perception that Punk and Rock don’t get along, but nevertheless it would be a massive stretch to consider these two close friends. Regardless of anything that has happened between them during or after their championship feud, this photo shows them sharing a private laugh backstage. Based on their attire and Rock’s headphones—he often uses music to pump himself up—this was very likely taken moments before a match.
4 Jerry Lawler and Bruno Sammartino
Jerry Lawler is widely considered one of professional wrestling’s modern legends. Having a long in-ring career—he still wrestles to this day, at 67!—and an arguably even more storied run as color commentator throughout the Attitude Era.
And yet, here we see him standing next to someone who is a legend even to him: none other than Bruno Sammartino. This is a fascinating image, showing two of the most respected men in the industry, and certainly of their respective generations, having a conversation backstage at WrestleMania XXIX. Sammartino is in the midst of telling a story, probably one of any of his countless tales from his nearly 30-year career, and Lawler’s posture is just about reverent.
For perspective, Sammartino’s debut year was 1959, when Lawler was only 10 years old. It’s not unreasonable to assume that, during the elder’s massively long title reign, a young Lawler could have been watching, taking note, dreaming of doing such a thing himself.
3 Sheamus And His Battle Scars
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One needs to watch no more than 10 seconds of a wrestling match to understand that it is a physically demanding job, with some pain inherent to its spectacle. No matter how often non-fans will decry it as fake and insist that the wrestlers are not really hitting each other, there is no true way to fake getting slammed through a table or falling off of a ladder.
The evidence of such can be seen across Sheamus’s back in the above photo. One would assume that these red marks aren’t too serious, considering the casual demeanor with which the Celtic Warrior poses, but considering the size and girth of this massive man, the fact that these lashes extend almost the entire width of his back is astounding. It is potent visual evidence that Sheamus, like him or hate him, is one of the toughest guys in the business.
2 John Cena and Goldberg
No, not that Goldberg. Whoopi Goldberg.
Cena is the modern guru of TV and movie appearances, including an appearance on The View last year. There, he talked about his weight regiment, his TV show American Grit, and even more personal subjects like marriage and children. He also makes sure to, in true John Cena fashion, poke some fun at himself saying, in reference to his theme song, “That was done a long time ago. Hip-hop is a young man’s game.”
After the show, he and Goldberg stopped to take a photo together, after having some playful banter onstage. It’s easy to understand, seeing how well Cena plays off any crowd in any situation. That's why WWE continues to invest so much in him. He’s a true media ambassador for the company.
1 Brie Bella Consoles A Newly Retired Daniel Bryan
On February 8 last year, Daniel Bryan announced his retirement on Twitter and then gave his farewell speech to the WWE fans in the main event segment of that evening’s Monday Night RAW. It was a bittersweet, yet celebratory speech, in which he extolled the audience’s ability to make him feel like a superhero. Concluding with the onscreen congratulations of most of the entire roster, with Bryan leading an ovation of Yes! chants, it was a proper, rowdy and raucous sendoff from a rowdy and raucous industry.
Throughout, Bryan’s composure was remarkable. He met the fans and the cameras with a smile, even as he evoked memories of his father getting to see him wrestle one last time before passing away, though one could tell he was feeling a great deal of sadness over this. This was a man whose entire life was professional wrestling.
Captured in this photo is a closer look at the former American Dragon’s final day as a professional wrestler; here he crouches with his head in his hands, eyes scrunched up tearfully. Beside him, his wife, Brie Bella, crouches and consoles him. On paper, it is hard to imagine two people whose journeys into professional wrestling were more different—Bryan working his way up from independent obscurity, Brie being discovered through “Diva Search”—but this intimate moment between them shows a touching moment between two people brought together by the industry, on the day one of them is forced to leave it behind.
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