Professional wrestling is a complex business. It’s a world of staged combat with predetermined outcomes, that none the less requires a ton of athleticism and skill to pull off effectively. It’s a world in which bookers determine the fates of the men and women in the ring, but there are nonetheless big egos at play between men who feel they are more skilled at their craft, or have more potential to be big money stars. On top of all of these dynamics, wrestlers are and are not like their on-screen characters in surprising ways. Sometimes on-screen rivals are the closest of friends. Sometimes the biggest villains have the biggest hearts behind the scenes, and sometimes the purported heroes are jerks.
In the early 1990s, Vince McMahon openly conceded that wrestling was more athletic exhibition than actual combat. The advent of the Internet, followed by the Monday Night War and the Montreal Screwjob all blew the lid even further off of backstage dynamics and their interplay with what we see on screen.
There are pieces of what happens backstage that WWE understandably wants to keep hidden, scandals that look bad for the wrestling business, or developments that bely the credibility of a specific performer. There are other times when real life incidents cast a positive light on an individual or even the entire company. This article looks at ten backstage facts, stories, and developments that WWE would rather keep hidden, and ten that the company is all too eager to leak to the public.
20 Don’t: Jimmy Snuka Was Suspected Of Killing His Girlfriend
The recently deceased Jimmy Snuka was a bona fide legend in WWE. WWE wants you to remember leaping off the top of steel cages. They want you to remember his iconic visit to Piper’s Pit that saw Hot Rod smash a coconut over his head, and that he was the first man to put over The Undertaker at WrestleMania. They don’t, however, want you to remember Nancy Argentino, Snuka’s girlfriend who died under suspicious circumstances in 1983.
Snuka’s story allegedly changed a number of times over the years, but there were long suspicions that Snuka’s physical abuse may have resulted in her untimely demise in a hotel room. The case remarkably stretched for over 30 years before Snuka was deemed unfit to stand trial weeks before he passed due to illness last month.
Because Snuka was never proven guilty, WWE never felt compelled to cut ties altogether, but many believe the suspicions around Snuka kept WWE from pushing him further during the WrestleMania era.
19 Do: Triple H Is One Of The Hardest Workers In WWE History
While Triple H did marry into the McMahon family, and that connection may have a hand in his status as both a WWE legend and behind-the-scenes power broker, his legacy isn’t all about nepotism. No, by all accounts, Triple H is one of wrestling’s hardest workers. As discussed in his Thy Kingdom Come documentary and a number of other WWE produced specials, he was a clean cut young performer who didn’t drink or use drugs when he partied with The Kliq. Instead, he walked the straight and narrow, hit the gym, and soaked up wrestling knowledge like a sponge.
Triple H’s work ethic hasn’t faded. In recent years, he’s doubled up as both an on-air performer and an executive, heading up NXT and working as the Executive Vice President of Talent Relations. In repeated WWE Network specials, including the Breaking Ground series, WWE hasn’t shied away from demonstrating just how much Triple H has on his plate. The company is clearly proud he’s one of the busiest, hardest working individuals in the business.
18 Don’t: Michael Hayes Got In Trouble For Using The N-Word
It’s an incident that has become quite infamous, to the point WWE felt compelled to acknowledge it when Michael Hayes went on Legends with JBL on the WWE Network. Hayes complained to Mark Henry that he wasn’t showing enough 'Attitude', culminating his claim that “I’m more of an [n-word] than you.”
Many accounts suggest Hayes is far from racist. All concerned parties seem to agree that Hayes was suggesting a need for Henry to show more attitude, rather than to carelessly throw around a racial epithet. Just the same, the verbiage was deeply problematic, and particularly so from a high ranking WWE official. Hayes retained a job with WWE, and remains well respected as one of wrestling’s great minds. Just the same, the incident did seem representative of a larger issue of Hayes having questionable professional judgment when it came to how he spoke and how he conducted himself in an office role.
17 Do: Brock Lesnar And Chris Jericho Nearly Got In a Fight
SummerSlam 2016 ended with the troubling image of Brock Lesnar beating Randy Orton bloody, and forcing a referee to stop the match. While fans have varying opinions of how good the match and its finish were, it did encapsulate an important dynamic in how WWE uses Lesnar. The moment was violent, realistic, and created genuine questions about whether things were really supposed to down that way.
The questions extended to the locker room, where Chris Jericho has explained he thought Lesnar might have taken liberties with Orton. While the principle of the matter was a misunderstanding, Lesnar was offended at Jericho getting into his business and got in Y2J’s face. Jericho’s response? He told Lesnar if he was going to stand so close he ought to kiss him or hit him.
Vince McMahon and other officials defused the situation before things got ugly. While WWE generally wants backstage altercations to keep quiet, this is the type of story WWE doesn’t mind getting some coverage. Jericho came off looking like wildly courageous to not back down from a monster the scope of Lesnar. Meanwhile, Lesnar regained some of his realist, genre-bending credibility for the incident.
16 Don’t: Hulk Hogan Helped Vince McMahon Squash A Wrestler’s Union
Jesse Ventura has spoken at length in interviews and in writing about his attempts to get a professional wrestler’s union going when WWE exploded on a national level. In the same breath, he’s identified Hogan as the man who could have made the union given his credibility and importance to management at the time. According to Ventura, Hogan not only didn’t back the union, but ratted out Ventura’s plan to Vince McMahon. McMahon quickly disposed of Ventura and made it clear he wouldn’t allow a labor union to take shape in his locker room.
Part of what’s at stake here is that WWE doesn’t want fans to think about a wrestlers union. It calls attention to the odd contract structure of the company in which wrestlers are billed as independent contractors, but also barred from working elsewhere, and receive inconsistent levels of compensation and benefits. Moreover, the incident certainly casts WWE in shades of gray from the perspective of business practices. WWE doesn’t want fans thinking about this ethical dilemmas in its business models, or that McMahon so aggressively went after a guy who dared stand up for himself and the boys.
15 Do: John Cena Has Done A Lot Of Charity Work
A little while back, the Make A Wish Foundation announced that John Cena had broken the record for most wishes granted to ailing children. While fans can knock all of the storyline opportunities Cena has had over the years, and some of his alleged backstage politicking, this work suggests The Champ is a good guy both on camera and off.
WWE has made no bones about publicizing Cena’s efforts. In the History of WWE: 50 Years of Sports Entertainment documentary, it’s noted that the company has made charitable efforts for decade. The McMahons indicate they were at first reticent to publicize their efforts, lest these efforts look like a public relations move, rather than acts of good will. In time, they saw it as important to let fans know that the company made an effort to help their community and fans. Cena has been at the forefront of both doing that work and getting that message across.
14 Don’t: Randy Orton Used To Bully The Female Roster
Randy Orton has been one of WWE’s best celebrated stars over the last 15 years, a main event mainstay and often a hero. The guy has a checkered past backstage, though, where there are a lot of reports of him being arrogant, disrespectful, and unprofessional.
Some of Orton’s less than ideal behavior focuses on his treatment of female performers, who he purportedly saw as less serious performers and easy prey for some mean-spirited ribbing. The most infamous case of Orton taking liberties is the rumored incident when he defecated in female wrestler Rochelle Lowen’s bag. In subsequent interviewers, the victim has clarified Orton didn’t actually put excrement in her bag, but rather a mess of lotion and baby oil. Nonetheless, it seems The Viper was a handful back in the day—a fact that WWE would just as soon have fans forget about the multi-time WrestleMania main eventer.
13 Do: The Undertaker Presided Over Wrestler's Court
WWE has grown more regimented, organized, and generally corporate over time. There’s a time not so far back when members of the locker room held their own kangaroo court, though, to address misconduct or breaking from wrestling tradition. Out of this makeshift institution, The Undertaker was typically the judge. The Deadman was responsible for finding others guilty or not guilty, and assigning consequences like having to carry someone else’s bag for a period of time.
Given his longevity, loyalty, and greatness as a performer, WWE loves to tout The Undertaker as one of its most credible performers. Therefore, the company has no problem touting the fact that he was a well-respected locker room leader. While I’m sure there were plenty of cases heard in Wrestler’s Court that WWE would rather keep quiet, it’s no coincidence that the court and The Phenom’s role in it has surfaced on so many WWE-produced documentaries and talk shows.
12 Don’t: Sin Cara Is Taking Anger Management Classes
As reported by Forbes, Sin Cara has been involved in multiple backstage confrontations, including getting physical with Simon Gotch and Sheamus. He most recently got into it on a tour bus with Chris Jericho.
While the details around each incident are hazy, Sin Cara seems to have a short fuse. Along those lines of thinking, WWE has reportedly mandated that he take anger management classes to reel in his temper. WWE certainly doesn’t want fans thinking of a violent guy who might go off any minute when he plays a good guy luchador on TV. Moreover, there’s reason to believe WWE might be going to extra lengths and helping to keep the story quiet. The company only wants to promote good news for its Latino audience, which was rubbed the wrong way based on Alberto Del Rio and Rey Mysterio leaving the company under rough circumstances.
11 Do: The Kliq Was Influential Backstage
By a variety of accounts, The Kliq—the backstage group of Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Sean Waltman—could be a pain in the 1990s. They were purportedly arrogant, insular, and prone to making political moves to look out for their respective self-interests. On the surface, that might seem like something WWE wants to keep quiet. On the flip side, the group’s component parts turned out wildly popular and successful in the wrestling business, and their tendency to the blur the lines between stories on TV and reality helped revolutionize the business in the late-90s.
Add in Triple H’s current role, high on the corporate ladder in WWE, and the company has all but gone out of its way to celebrate this group’s legacy, and particular the controversial elements of it. The group has been the topic of multiple WWE Network specials and gets discussed often on such shows, even when they’re not the focus. In the words of their contemporary, Eric Bischoff, “controversy creates cash,” and thus WWE has enjoyed getting their story out to the people and raking in the profits.
10 Don’t: Joey Styles Got The Better Of JBL
In an incident that looks bad for WWE on multiple levels, but has nonetheless become the subject of folk lore, nerdy play-by-play guy Joey Styles, who was never a wrestler, once punched out former world champion JBL. The story goes that JBL was picking on Styles and other non-wrestlers on an overseas tour. Styles got fed up and finally confronted JBL, punching him out and giving him a black eye.
JBL is a corporate favorite—a vaunted businessman who has thrived on screen as a wrestler and commentator. He’s been known as something of an enforcer on both ends, roughing up guys with his body or his words at the direction of WWE brass. It was unthinkable that he would get put in his place in this fashion. Smaller non-wrestler, non-athlete Styles. who never seemed quite at home in the corporate structure of WWE (he’d risen to fame calling the action for ECW), decking JBL was an embarrassment for the big Texan and the company at large.
9 Do: Kane Is An Intellectual
Kane’s on-screen character has more often than not been that of a mentally unstable monster. It has, however, come to light in a wide a variety of accounts—not least of all Daniel Bryan’s farewell speech on Raw last year, and Mick Foley’s book, Have a Nice Day!—that The Big Red Machine is also an intellectual. He’s well-read, a deep thinker on politics, and by all accounts, very, very smart.
While the character and the man may have their inconsistencies, this is the kind of secret WWE likes leaking. It demonstrates that the wrestlers are not easy to judge or dismiss. Despite stereotypes about wrestlers being dumb, Kane is an example that some are actually quite bright, and very well might surprise a skeptic with what they have to say.
8 Don’t: Ashley Massaro Says WWE Covered Up Her Sexual Assault
Amidst joining a lawsuit against WWE for allegedly withholding information about the long-term effects of head injuries, another startling bit of information came out from Ashley Massaro. She claimed that she was sexually assaulted when WWE visited military personnel in Kuwait, and that the company steered away from reporting what had happened.
The details are fuzzy—including whether Massaro’s claims have merit. Regardless, the story is certainly not one WWE wanted to reach its fans. If Massaro’s account is true, it implicates the company in some very shady dealings, and the situation is all the uglier for being tied up with WWE’s outreach efforts in supporting the US military. The alleged incident happened in 2006 and Massaro left the company in 2008, but the whole situation garnered renewed attention because of the lawsuit, filed in late 2016.
7 Do: Wrestlers Suffer From Real Injuries
Over a decade ago, WWE began releasing video disclaimers at the start of DVD releases, and during some live broadcasts, to explain that wrestlers got hurt in real-life on account of their actions in the ring. More importantly, that fans shouldn’t try wrestling moves at home.
A cynic could attribute these public service announcements to WWE seeking to avoid mounting lawsuits based on fans—particularly kids—imitating what they saw on TV. A more altruistic outlook might suggest they were just doing the responsible thing, and especially in service to their young fan base. Regardless, WWE has not shied away from the fact that wrestling moves can very easily go wrong, and that even fully trained, experienced professionals wind up injured all the time.
6 Don’t: Vince McMahon Screams At The Commentators During Broadcasts
In 2008, Mick Foley had a stint as a color commentator on SmackDown. His time in that role was short, and he went public afterward to discuss that he was hurt by Vince McMahon yelling in his ear throughout the broadcast, criticizing his work and insulting him.
It’s become relatively common knowledge that McMahon, and sometimes other higher ups, are in their commentators’ ears while they call matches. McMahon feeds them information and tells them storylines that they should emphasize to ensure viewers are getting the impression he wants out of each match and moment caught on camera. There are accounts of this being an act of kindness, like McMahon reportedly feeding Michael Cole the exact verbiage to use after Jerry Lawler had a heart attack at ringside. More often than not, though, McMahon’s known to be belligerent and controlling in this role.
5 Do: David Otunga Is An Attorney
Despite having a great physique and a grand introduction to the WWE audience as part of The Nexus faction, David Otunga never enjoyed all that much success as a wrestler. The company kept him under contract, though, and may have given him his opportunity as a commentator on account of his real-life credentials as an academic and a professional.
You see, Otunga graduated from Harvard Law. Not only that, but Otunga went on to work as an attorney. In so doing, Otunga became the quintessential pro wrestler with a backstory more interesting than his on screen persona. For all of the folks who might dismiss wrestlers as illiterate jocks, Otunga’s WWE’s answer—an accomplished intellectual and professional who chose a life in wrestling for his love of the business.
4 Don’t: The Original Sin Cara Didn’t Work Out
When WWE originally signed Sin Cara, it was a name applied to Mistico. Mistico was an absolute sensation out of Mexico who WWE thought would be a megastar, possibly the successor to Rey Mysterio’s legacy as the top high-flying luchador.
Mistico purportedly didn’t catch on to the WWE style of working, and claimed in interviews afterward that WWE management wouldn’t let him work his style. Regardless, his three-year run with WWE was largely considered a disappointment. The most memorable part was a confusing feud in which there were two Sin Caras, before the heel version was unmasked to introduce Hunico.
Ironically, when things didn’t work out, WWE didn’t acknowledge it on screen, but rather plugged Hunico back under the Sin Cara mask and had him resume as if nothing had happened. Mistico is reportedly unhappy with the whole situation, including a claim that he actually owns the rights to the Sin Cara character.
3 Do: WWE Has Paid For Rehab For Alumni
It’s no secret that a certain generation of wrestlers had a startlingly high mortality rate. Some of the deaths were a result of natural causes or unavoidable accidents. Just the same, the volume of deaths that seemed connected to drug use, head injuries, suicide, or a combination of the three was pretty startling.
While wrestling has lost some legends in recent years, the pace seems to have slowed. Part of that can be attributed to better education and resources, and part of that is a credit to WWE.
WWE has made it known that it has paid for rehab for old stars like Scott Hall, Jake Roberts, and Sunny. While the kind and amount of help seems to vary, and perhaps be a bit arbitrary, the company has nonetheless offered a hand to some of the people who needed it most, and has let it be known that they are trying to do right by the fans’ old heroes.
2 Don’t: CM Punk Accused WWE Of Negligence
In November 2014, CM Punk went on his friend Colt Cabana’s podcast, The Art of Wrestling and broke his silence about the reasons he had left WWE earlier that year. Some of the reasons, like creative frustrations and his culture clash with management were to be expected. Things took a turn, however, when Punk began to talk about a lump on his back he claims to have brought to WWE doctors, only for them to brush it off and have him continue working without treatment. Punk claims the infection was far more serious than WWE made it out to be, and ultimately meant he’d been unwittingly risking his life.
WWE, and particularly Dr. Chris Amman, who Punk called out by name for negligence, have countered, claiming Punk never informed anyone of his infection. The two sides have been locked in legal disputes ever since. While Punk was an important star for a particular period of WWE programming, it’s clear the company would just as soon have fans forget he exists now.
1 Do: The Outcomes Are Predetermined
While, on a surface level, one might think WWE still wants its fans to think the action in the ring is all legitimate sport, this isn’t exactly true. The company surely wants fans to be engaged with matches and respond loudly to heroes and villains when they attend live shows. Just the same, Vince McMahon has openly acknowledged that pro wrestling is an athletic exhibition for decades now, since he found he could avoid paying unnecessary fees to some state sports commissions once he did so.
Beyond the practicalities of cost, though, in this day and age it’s hard to find a bona fide mark who fully believes wrestling matches and storylines aren’t predetermined. WWE seems to have embraced that dynamic and made it a part of its business model. Real fighting is tough to sell as family entertainment. In acknowledging its product is written and performed under PG guidelines, however, WWE makes itself appealing to exactly that audience. Appealing to kids and adults alike allows the company to retain a wide viewership and maintain its status as a merchandising juggernaut.