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.
25 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.
24 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.
23 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.
22 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.
21 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.
20 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.
19 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.
18 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.
17 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.
16 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.
15 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.
14 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.
13 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.
12 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.
11 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.
10 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.
9 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.
8 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.
7 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.
6 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.
5 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.”
4 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.
3 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.
2 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.”
1 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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