In the year 2017, just about anyone who follows professional wrestling understands that what they’re seeing is not an athletic contest. There’s no denying that pro wrestling, performed at the highest level requires tremendous athletic prowess and skill, but we understand that what we’re watching is an exhibition rather than a competition, and that the athletics are largely a backdrop or device through which to tell stories rooted in fiction.
But what about those times when the lines get blurry? Would anyone doubt that the men who play WWE tag team partners Enzo and Big Cass are friends in real life? Moreover, is it not possible that opponents like John Cena and The Rock didn’t experience some level of tension or professional jealousy while they were beefing on screen.
The fact of the matter is that pro wrestling can have a razor thin line between reality and fiction, and particularly over the last twenty years, the powers that be have enjoyed playing with that line. Gone are the days of sticking to kayfabe at all costs, to the extent that storyline enemies won’t be seen in public together. Just the same, pro wrestling still enjoys toying with the occasional worked shoot situation, or using real life news that has leaked onto the Internet as fodder to build intrigue for a larger storyline.
Sometimes art imitates life. Sometimes life imitates art. This article looks at eight different occasions when real life, backstage issues led to on screen stories, and eight times when totally fabricated storylines wound up leading to real life issues.
16 Real Life First: Carlito Seen As Lazy
Carlito was a second-generation wrester, whose father, Carlos Colon, was wildly influential in Puerto Rico, and made a handful of appearances for WWE. got a red hot debut, including a series of old school vignettes to introduce his character, followed by beating John Cena for the United States Championship in his debut. Before long, the guy had moved up to the fringes of the main event, in an Elimination Chamber match for the WWE Championship, and challenging monsters Kane and The Big Show for the tag titles at WrestleMania 22.
For all his opportunities, though, Carlito neither broke the glass ceiling, nor ever appeared deadest on doing so. He purportedly developed a reputation with management for being lazy. WWE wound up transitioning this issue into an on-screen story when Ric Flair called him out for being lazy and the two went from rivals to tag team partners. The logic was sound—that Carlito would not only get the rub with fans by being associated with The Nature Boy, but that Flair might also mentor the kid and really light a fire under him backstage.
The story ended with Carlito turning heel on Flair. Life may have wound up imitating art after all in this case, as Carlito subsequently drifted back to his uninspired ways.
15 Storyline First: Animosity Between Batista And Booker T
In 2006, newly returned Batista was lined up to challenge reigning World Heavyweight Champion Booker T for the World Heavyweight Championship at SummerSlam. The two had worked together before and not had issues, but things took sharp turn when the two were participating in a commercial shoot to promote their match.
The general consensus seems to be that Batista came across poorly to his colleagues when he came back. The perception was that he was arrogant in putting himself over, noting that SmackDown had been a less successful show in his absence due to injury. Booker T spoke up to Batista, which resulted in an argument that turned into a physical altercation. Booker T more visibly got the worse of the exchange with a black eye, though most suggested that Booker T won the short fight.
14 Real Life First: The Matt Hardy-Lita-Edge Love Triangle
Matt Hardy and Lita rose up together, as two thirds of Team Extreme, along with Jeff Hardy. When Matt went out to injury, his real life girlfriend Lita wound up spending a lot of time with Edge.
Though Edge was an on screen nemesis of The Hardy Boyz, he was a real life close friend to both of them, and so there was little reason for suspicion about his close connection with Lita. That is, until Matt saw text messages on his phone from Edge, saying he loved her.
Accounts vary as to whether Lita and Edge were actually involved in an affair, if Edge’s overtures were a one way proposition, or if he may have even meant them more innocently. Regardless, Matt went ballistic, threatened Edge and wound up being let go by WWE to avoid causing an unsafe environment in the locker room.
Against all odds, WWE not only brought Hardy back soon after, but immediately cast him in a feud with Edge, making their real life issues very, very public. The rivalry ran for several months, and was revisited here and there in the years to follow, whenever the two found themselves in the same multi-man matches.
13 Storyline First: The Undertaker Mentoring The Big Show
Early in his WWE tenure, WWE paired The Big Show with Undertaker in The Unholy Alliance. The duo was certainly physically imposing, but came with it the storyline of The Undertaker training The Big Show, often yelling at and bullying him.
Though the tag team had its storyline logic, it turned out that the real life quickly followed suit. When The Big Show arrived in WWE, the general consensus from his colleagues and management was that he was green. Despite having worked for years in WCW, including reigning as world champion in WCW, they didn’t feel he knew how to work or to make the most of his physical gifts. So The Undertaker began critiquing Show’s performances, giving him advice, but also proving unafraid to give the young big man a tongue lashing about everything he’d done wrong. Show spoke in interviews years later about feeling like trash every time The Undertaker was done talking to him. The mentoring does seem to have been effective, though, as Show followed in The Deadman’s footsteps as not only a successful big man in WWE, but one with tremendous longevity, coming up on 20 years with the company.
12 Real Life First: Steve Austin’s “What?” Chant
Steve Austin’s 'what' chant was so iconic and so infectious that 15 years after he first started staying 'what' to bully other wrestlers during promo segments, fans still chant it during heel promos or segments they’re displeased with.
The chant started behind the scenes, though, when Austin was leaving a silly voicemail for fellow wrestler, Christian. Something about the taunt must have resonated with Austin—perhaps recognizing its repeatability, or how annoying it might be, as a few months later it became part of his heel persona working with The Alliance, before becoming part of his face act, too, as he picked on heels and lower card guys while the cameras were rolling.
A lot of stars from Austin’s generation have talked about finding gimmicks via turning up their natural personalities, or taking what entertained the boys and figuring it would pop the fans, too. The “what?” chant—as annoying as some fans find it—was a prime example of this dynamic working.
11 Storyline First: Kevin Sullivan’s Wife Leaving Him For Chris Benoit
On and off throughout the 1990s, Kevin Sullivan was the lead booker for WCW. As the Internet took hold and fans got wise to various backstage dynamics and relationships, Sullivan decided to toy with their perceptions by booking an angle in which young Chris Benoit stole away his wife, Woman. Sullivan purportedly went so far as to push Benoit and Woman to go so far as to hang out and hold hands in public, regardless if fans were around.
The angle wound up blowing up in Sullivan’s face when his wife Nancy actually did leave her husband for Benoit while the angle was happening. True professionals, Sullivan and Benoit saw through their on-screen rivalry, which included working in the ring together a number of times despite their personal differences. Of course, this would all ultimately give way to the Benoit family tragedy a little over a decade later, when Benoit would murder his wife and their child, before committing suicide.
10 Real Life First: Randy Savage Protecting Elizabeth
When he came to the WWF, Randy Savage had the bright idea of casting his wife as his manager. The pairing was extremely successful, with Miss Elizabeth’s beauty and the dignity with which she carried herself making her a crowd favorite. Savage was reportedly fiercely protective of Elizabeth backstage, leery of other wrestlers making a pass at her, and purportedly going so far as to have her hide in the back when he couldn’t be with her.
As Savage’s character progressed on screen, he became more and more protective of Elizabeth, fueling an early rivalry with George “The Animal” Steele, and later providing fodder for a jealous Savage to turn heel on kayfabe buddy Hulk Hogan, claiming, “You’ve got lust in your eyes.” Savage tended to walk a razor thin line between fact and fiction as he reportedly grew jealous of Hogan in real life, too, and at one point blamed him for the dissolution of his marriage.
9 Storyline First: Bret Hart And Shawn Michaels Compete For The Top Spot
It was only natural that Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels—uber-talented young stars on the rise in the wake of WWE’s steroid trial—would become in-ring rivals, and from 1992 to 1997 they revisited their rivalry quite a few time across an array of great matches. Little could anyone expect how heated their real life personal rivalry would get.
Hart and Michaels started out as friends with professional jealousies, and ostensibly vying for the same top spot created tensions between the two. The issue got more personal across a series of sleights—some which were surely intended, some of which may have been misunderstandings. Hart claimed Michaels yelled at the ref to get him out of the ring so he could celebrate alone at the end of WrestleMania XII. Michaels thought Hart milked a Raw ending promo to purposefully run out of time for Michaels to offer a comeback. Hart’s marriage was strained after Michaels went on TV to allude to Hart having an affair with Sunny (particularly irksome because Michaels was the one actually sleeping with her around that time).
The real and storyline rivalries both culminated at Survivor Series 1997 in the famous Montreal Screwjob. Hart was sent packing for WCW, and it would take over a decade before he mended fences with WWE and Michaels.
8 Real Life First: Vince McMahon Gets Power Hungry
There’s little question that Vince McMahon is power hungry. When he took over his father’s business, he promptly pursued national expansion, violating age-old gentlemen agreements about respecting other promoters’ territories in favor televising and touring his product across North America, and before long the world.
On screen, however, McMahon played a humble play-by-play commentator. That is, until the Montreal Screwjob pulled back the curtain on his backstage power and machinations. While fans in the know had a sense of McMahon’s professional identity, his real life personality soon exploded upon the fictional product in the character of Mr. McMahon. On screen, he wanted absolute control over WWE and conspired against people like Steve Austin who dared stand up to him.
Despite his early reluctance to play a more pronounced character, McMahon wound up defining a whole archetype of the heel authority figure.
7 Storyline First: Kurt Angle Picks A Fight With Daniel Puder
Toward the end of the fourth season of Tough Enough, WWE ran a segment in which Kurt Angle challenged the show’s finalists to real wrestling matches on SmackDown. The concept was sensible enough—that the former Olympic gold medalist could handle pretty much anyone in the locker room, let alone a couple of rookies. So, while it was rare for WWE to broadcast any form of shoot fighting or wrestling, the segment looked as though it could easily fit into WWE programming without a need to script anything.
Things took a nasty turn, however, when Daniel Puder—a legitimately trained mixed martial artist—surprised Angle with a kimura armlock. While Angle expected to win with ease, he was very quickly trapped in a situation that could have forced him to submit or an endure a real broken arm. Experienced referee Jim Korderas saved face for Angle and WWE by counting a phantom pin fall on Puder.
As one might expect, Angle was pissed afterward. Puder, despite not really doing anything wrong besides actually fighting the best way he knew how, didn’t make any friends with management based on the incident. He wasn’t treated like much of a star, and wound up demoted to developmental for most of his time with the company. It’s unclear whether his limited success was more a result of WWE not seeing much in him, or a direct result of this incident.
6 Real Life First: Jerry Lawler Hates ECW
Jerry Lawler has been open and vocal about his distaste for Extreme Championship Wrestling. He’s spoken in a number of interviews and retrospectives about not thinking much of the way the promotion valued blood and hardcore violence of traditional wrestling. This attitude carried over to WWE broadcasts, when Lawler hammed it up upon ECW talents visiting Raw, calling their company “Extremely Crappy Wrestling.”
Lawler’s involvement with ECW would only escalate when Vince McMahon sent him to Philadelphia to make a surprise appearance for the smaller company. From there, upon WWE’s relaunch of the ECW brand, Lawler played the on-screen part of their most vocal critic. The storyline paid off in Tazz, representing ECW, choking out Lawler on the new brand’s launch point PPV, One Night Stand 2006.
5 Storyline First: Owen Hart Vs. Steve Austin
As Steve Austin found his footing in his rebellious Stone Cold gimmick, he found an arch-rival in Bret Hart. By extension, Austin started feuding with Bret’s whole family, and not least of all Owen Hart.
Owen was a good rival for Austin to overcome—an established veteran with good credibility, not to mention a gifted in ring worker who could keep up to put on great matches. By all accounts, the two got along fine in the early stages of their rivalry, up to SummerSlam 1997, when they squared off over the Intercontinental Championship.
In the match, Owen delivered a sit-out, inverted piledriver, but positioned Austin’s body incorrectly so his head actually hit the mat. Austin was hurt badly—he was briefly unable to move his extremities, and he suffered long-term neck issues related to the move. To make matters worse, Bret Hart wrote in his book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling about how Owen neglected to follow up appropriately with Austin to apologize and check in. From there, at least from Bret’s perspective, Austin held a grudge and never fully trusted Owen again.
4 Real Life First: Miss Elizabeth Leaves The Macho Man
Miss Elizabeth and Randy Savage divorced in real life in 1992. WWE didn’t do much to acknowledge the separation. Perhaps the company was wary they’d squander all of the good will of the high profile kayfabe wedding the two had had at SummerSlam 1991, and all of the storylines to follow. The furthest the company went was for Savage to give a brief statement about he and Elizabeth no longer being together for WWE Magazine.
Years later, WCW signed Elizabeth and she was immediately paired with Savage. In a case of art imitating life, Elizabeth would leave The Macho Man, in this case to align herself with Ric Flair and later the nWo. The character lost a lot of its appeal as a heel, but she nonetheless stuck around for years to follow, including largely forgotten brief stint when she was actually booked to wrestle toward the end of her run.
3 Storyline First: Big Van Vader Brutalizes Mick Foley
Big Van Vader was one of the best celebrated monster heels of the early 1990s, and he built a fair bit of that legacy off of his work with Mick Foley. It started with Vader battering Foley in the ring and then powerbombing him on the cement floor on an episode of WCW Saturday Night, and continued with the two engaging in a memorable Texas Death Match at Halloween Havoc 1993.
Ironically, things went to a whole different level after the rivalry was ostensibly over for an American audience, in a non-televised match that took place in Munich, Germany. Foley’s head got caught in ropes that were far tighter than in the rings he was used to, and in an unintentionally brutal segment, his ear was torn loose. It’s unclear whether the ear would have fallen off anyway, but Vader’s clobbering, stiff head shots to follow certainly didn’t help matters as kayfabe mauling turned more real than either man intended.
2 Real Life First: Shawn Michaels’ Concussion
From a variety of accounts, in the early-to-mid-1990s, Shawn Michaels had twin bad habits of substance abuse and mouthing off to the wrong people at bars. Most of the time, he had his on and off screen buddy Kevin Nash to have his back and keep him safe. One night in Syracuse, New York, however, Michaels had only scrawny Sean Waltman by his side. While the exact details vary, the gist of the story to follow was that Michaels disrespected the wrong person, and wound up getting beaten up badly by real life Marines. He suffered a real life concussion in the process.
In the aftermath, it was purportedly Michaels’s idea to make the concussion a storyline. Mid-match with Owen Hart, he collapsed in the ring, selling the results of the concussion. He discussed the angle in the Heartbreak and Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story documentary, and how he convinced Vince McMahon and other commentators not to call the action, but rather to fall silent to really sell the drama of the situation, and make even the most jaded fans question if he was really hurt.
1 Storyline First: Everybody Hates Muhammad Hassan
Muhammad Hassan was, in reality an Italian-American man, but WWE played off of his ambiguous ethnicity to cast his as an Arab-American. The character’s heel shtick centered on him feeling persecuted for his heritage, only to actually become more heelish in response. One of his crowning moments saw everyone in the ring for the 2005 Royal Rumble stop fighting when he came in the ring, so they could team up to throw him out of the match.
WWE would push the envelope with the character, building to his feud with The Undertaker in which a bunch of masked men choked out the dead man with piano wire, looking conspicuously like they might be emulating terrorists. The segment was in poor taste, but was the victim of even poorer timing when it aired immediately after the 2005 London bombings.
Hassan played a character who had grown increasingly villainous because he felt everyone hated him. Ironically, he really would be hated from there on, as the UPN network that aired Smackdown issued an ultimatum that the character could never appear on their network again. While many have theorized WWE was grooming Hassan for a main event run, the character only lasted a few more weeks. He was kayfabe suspended to appease UPN before The Undertaker absolutely demolished him at The Great American Bash PPV. Not only was the character never heard from again, but the man who played the part opted to retire in the aftermath of the controversy.