There’s no question being a fan of Pro Wrestling is an acquired taste. One does not just pick it up and start watching it the way you can, say, a network TV sitcom or a cable TV drama. There is an initial shock factor that comes with actually sitting down and sitting through a Pro Wrestling show. Your first reaction is likely to say “what is this…besides stupid?”
But it’s insidious, wrestling is, the way it creeps into your subconscious. Without wanting to you can find yourself rooting for a particular hero or against a particular villain. A certain character may break through that wall you’ve erected---the one that separates what you laugh at from what you laugh with---and before you know it you’re buying a light-up unicorn headband you wondering what happened to your life.
It’s easier to become a fan in younger years, where kids who share in the fandom can band together, talking up their favorite superstars and speculating about what will come next in the saga of whoever is champion at the time. In the late-90s it was high schoolers who defined a generation of pro wrestling fans; we were drawn to the helter-skelter plotting, with sudden twists and turns and betrayals and alliances, oh and all the boobs probably had something to do with it.
That said, there are a few black marks in the (somewhat recent) history of the pseudo-sport that made it nigh-impossible to claim allegiance to “sports entertainment.” Here are fifteen of the most facepalm-inducing moments that made even the most die-hard fan cringe and, if not swear off the product entirely, then at least pretend he was over it. These are 15 moments that simply made us ashamed to say “oh yeah, I watch him/her/that every week. Sometimes twice!”
14 HOGAN HAS A SEXTAPE, GOD HELP US ALL
Hulk Hogan is the Babe Ruth of pro wrestling. He’s our Michael Jordan. Our Wayne Gretzky. If you know nothing else, you know at least that name. Even after hanging up his boots and retiring from regular performing (basically in 2003, though none of the old timers ever really stayed away from the ring), Hogan remained the default ambassador of the medium. He is pro wrestling’s biggest celebrity, so when it came out that the 60-year-old man had filmed a sextape it created quite a stir. Hogan was not the first celebrity to have such a film leaked (or “leaked” wink-wink) but he was the first (male) superstar from the world of pro wrestling. Unfortunately, Hogan had been a bit of a joke for the past couple decades and the release of the tape only made him more so. Wrestling fans could only say “Hulk? Hulk who?” and hope people left them alone.
13 THE GRAVY BOWL MATCH
These days, women’s wrestling is treated with a measure of class but it wasn’t too long ago that the so-called “divas” of WWE were relegated to being strictly eye-candy for the critical 18-25 male demographic. More will be said later about how women were mistreated but there’s one particular embarrassment that deserves its own consideration: On Thanksgiving, SmackDown---which aired on the holiday for a number of years--- there would occasionally be a “Gravy Bowl” Match, wherein two scantily-clad divas would wrestle in a kiddie pool filled with the stuff. Think “mud wrestling” but tastier and more seasonally-appropriate.
These weren’t just pointless excursions either; the Women's Championship would be defended in these things. Ivory and Jacqueline had a go, as did Miss Kitty and Ivory. Most famous was the thrilling bout between Trish Stratus and Stacy Keibler. Woe to the fan whose grandma was visiting and who decided to flip over to SmackDown to see what was going on.
12 MONDAY NIGHT SHATNER!
If you’re an old school fan who believes in the pageantry, theatricality, passion and drama of traditional pro wrestling (Rhodes vs Flair, Sting vs Vader, Savage vs Steamboat) you probably quit watching RAW a long time ago. But if you stuck with it, you probably watched in horror during the 2009-2010 years, when the show featured a revolving door of guest-hosts. Occasionally there would be a gem, such as an old legend who would make a one-week comeback (like Ted DiBiase Sr. or Roddy Piper), and a few celebrities managed to make it work (Bob Barker and Shaq), but for the most part it was a weekly embarrassment as the show focused on either a D-list celebrity or a B-lister who clearly was working for a paycheck (Remember Jeremy Piven promoting the “Summerfest” PPV?). Seeing the flagship of the sport whored out for cheap publicity was certainly a terrible embarrassment for prideful fans.
11 THE PLANE-RIDE FROM HELL
The infamous “plane-ride from hell” deserves a spot on the list because it represents a dark side to the life of pro wrestlers. The plane-ride in question happened on the way back from an overseas tour. Vince rented out a whole plane for the entire WWE crew and the booze was flowing. Ric Flair exposed himself to…well, everyone. Brock Lesnar and Curt Hennig turned a shoot wrestling match into a near plane-crashing brawl. Goldust hijacked the PA system to drunkenly-serenade his (ex)-wife. Kurt Angle and Vince started wrestling in the aisle and the commotion woke up Undertaker, who mistook the jostling as a fight. He leapt up from his seat and nearly choked Kurt to death. Scott Hall got so hammered he stumbled over to a flight-attendant and tried to sexually assault her. The event reminds us how unhealthy the pro wrestling environment is and how many lives the hard-traveling days nearly ruined (and sometimes did).
10 THE STEROID SCANDAL
In the 1980s if you wanted to make it in the business you had to juice. World champions had to be big enough to wow the audience in the upper-deck seats. You can lift all the weights you want but if you want to reach that second level of bulk, a needle was the easiest way to make it happen, and in that so-called golden era of the sport, everyone was doing it. Top guys did it to keep their spot. Mid-carders did it for the chance to move up. Referees did it, road agents did it, Vince did it. The resulting scandal and trial that ensued (the buying, selling and trafficking of the drug was illegal and McMahon himself was federally charged) essentially marked the end of the first pro-wrestling boom, exposed the business, and---though Vince was ultimately acquitted (due to sloppy prosecution)---wrestling became a shameful thing to publicly support.
9 DAVID ARQUETTE, CHAMPIONSHIP MATERIAL
WCW gave their World Heavyweight Championship to a guy famous for being married to one of the stars of Friends. If you want to know why WCW failed, there’s a dozen different “one sentence” explanations that will suffice (Chris Jericho’s go-to is to say “they once sent me a Fed Ex package with nothing in it.”) but for many there’s nothing more facepalm-inducing that to remind newer fans that the pride of Turner Sports once put their most precious commodity around the waste of a D-list movie star simply because he was staring in a movie that happened to feature a few key WCW superstars (Goldberg, Sting, DDP, Rey Mysterio). The Ready to Rumble movie made $12 million on a $24 million budget and WCW would be out of business less than one year later. So, in hindsight it was a bad idea. In the moment…yeah, it was a bad idea then too.
8 WOMEN ARE OBJECTS...GOOD LUCK BOYFRIENDS!
The Attitude Era frequently featured Bra and Panties Matches, Evening Gown Matches, Cat fight Matches, Mud Wrestling Matches, and more. Any opportunity to get the Divas either (A) wearing as little as possible, or (B) soaking wet (or both!) was worth whatever self-esteem sapping happened as a result. Even when the company switched to TV-PG, the mishandling of the female roster continued. For years a divas match was a short, pointless excursion, designed to give the live audience at home a bathroom break and the home audience a chance to see the opposite gender in their underwear for a change.
The running gag was that all Divas feuds were about sexist things like jealousy over men or looks, and the matches were all five minutes long and ended with a surprise roll-up. Try introducing your girlfriend or wife to pro wrestling with that on the screen and see how long she tolerates it.
7 PIGGY JAMES, FARTING NATTY AND MORE
One last point to make about how poorly the divas were treated for so long: It was not uncommon for some divas to fall out of favor with the creative team and/or Vince McMahon. Such things happened with the male performers too, but with the men, they simply slid down the card and jobbed out to lesser performers. With the women, their punishment was more personal: Mickie James’ feud with Michelle McCool led to the moniker “Piggy James” being stuck to her, in a mockery of her weight (which is stupid since she’s gorgeous).
Before that Molly Holly suffered similar hazing, despite being far from “overweight” (as they called her). Just before the so-called “Divas Revolution,” Natalya was stuck with a gimmick where she randomly and loudly farted in backstage segments. If you were hoping to introduce pro wrestling to your friends, nothing shows off how terrible and embarrassing it can be like a farting gimmick.
6 MICK FOLEY GOES BEYOND THE MAT
At the time the Beyond the Mat documentary was released, the word “embarrassing” was not the word tossed around to describe it. “Shocking” was more likely to be the audience’s reaction. The sight of broken down old Terry Funk and drug-addled Jake Roberts trying not to die was tough to sit through, but the real eye-opening moment came from seeing Mick Foley take a dozen unprotected chair shots to the head during his I Quit Match with the Rock at the Royal Rumble. Beyond the Mat goes a step further to record the horror-struck faces of Foley’s family as they sat and watched Mick take his beating.
Knowing what we know today about concussions, as well as seeing what it did to the brain of someone like Chris Benoit, makes the match a source of shame for all teenagers who ate it up in 1999.
5 HULK HOGAN IS RAAAACIST
The real story to come out of Hogan’s sextape fiasco was not his “python” (brother), it was his very foul mouth. The tape in question (which included more than the, eh hem…main event performance), contained a minutes-long rant by the Hulkster, who goes off on the fact that his daughter was dating a black man. A portion of the dialogue included this statement: “I mean, I’d rather if she was going to f–k some n—r, I’d rather have her marry an 8-foot-tall n—r worth a hundred million dollars! Like a basketball player! I guess we’re all a little racist. F–king n—r.”
So…yeah. The idea that old fart Hogan did a sex tape was embarrassing enough, but only in the eye-rolling kind of way. The idea that he was everyone’s embarrassing uncle going off on “the blacks” during Thanksgiving dinner took things to a new and much much worse level.
4 WWE IS RAAAACIST
After Hogan’s racist rant was leaked the company moved swiftly to terminate their relationship with him, scrub any non-historical reference of him from their website and forbid commentary or performer from uttering his name. Obviously they didn’t want to be associated with a known racist. Except for Michael Hayes, who once (drunkenly) told Mark Henry, quote: “I’m more of a n---r than you are!” That’s the same Michael Hayes (of Confederate Flag-toting Freebirds fame) who used his primo spot in the upper echelon of WWE to give the same Mark Henry the nickname “The Silverback Gorilla” (which was repeated multiple times, on camera, by commentators…for months!).
Hayes ended up being suspended for 60 days for the “n---r” comment but he’s back at work behind the scenes and was inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier this year. Hogan is still on the outs with the company, by the way.
3 "9/11 IS LIKE THE STEROID TRIAL, HEAR ME OUT..."
The 9/11 attack happened on a Tuesday so naturally that day’s SmackDown taping was cancelled. Two days later, however, the WWE hosted a live version of the show, making it the first sporting event to air since the attack. The show was essentially the prototype for the Tribute for the Troops specials, with safe humor and good guys prevailing over bad. It was all fine and good except for Stephanie, the insulated billion dollar princess, who decided to get on the mic to try and give America a pep talk about how we can endure after such an attack. She then proceeded to compare the attack to the U.S. Government’s 1993 indictment of Vince McMahon. Vince beat the government so the U.S. will beat the terrorists. Or something. It was a terrible, eye-rolling moment that reminded us that the McMahons have an almost pathological need to inject themselves into everything possible.
2 VINCE McMAHON vs. THE CHRISTIANS' GOD
A freak accident in 1998, broke (literally) Shawn Michaels and forced him to retire from pro wrestling. During his time away, Shawn “found Jesus,” gave up his hard-partying and mean-spirited ways and settled down to a contented, married life. When he was healthy enough, Michaels returned to wrestling a newer, happier, kinder man and embarked on a second Hall of Fame career, proving that people can change and that good men can still have success.
Vince McMahon, on the other hand, was as constant as the northern star. He was the same irreverent, egomaniac in 2006 that he was in 1996 or 1986, and promptly looked for a way to exploit Michaels’ new-found faith to make a buck. This culminated in a 2006 tag team match between Vince (with Shane) and Michaels (with…God Himself). Needless to say, God no-showed and Vince booked himself to defeat the Supreme Sovereignty of existence.
1 BENOIT, OBVIOUSLY
In mid-2007 Chris Benoit snapped, killed his family and then committed suicide. From the facts available you can piece together enough of the jigsaw puzzle to maybe have an idea of what happened, but we'll never know everything for sure. The autopsy showed Benoit had the brain of something like an octogenarian Alzheimer's sufferer. Repeated chairshots, headbutts, and working matches across the globe with few of the safety considerations now in place took its toll. You’ve heard horror stories of a Vietnam vet going nuts in the middle of the night when he hears a car backfire. You've heard how someone suffering from PTSD can have a flashback and just snap. It’s been speculated that something like that happened. We'll never know. What we do know is the event placed a dark cloud over wrestling and, perhaps more than any singular event, made it where saying you were a fan was very taboo indeed.
1. ALL OF IT, AND ALWAYS AT THE WORST POSSIBLE MOMENT
In the end, let’s be honest here: Pro Wrestling fans are desensitized to what it is they watch every week. We don’t even notice anymore that we’re staring at oiled-up, muscled-up, male models rolling around, pretend-fighting in their underwear. Growing up, seeing two bikini-clad supermodels throwing hands in a giant tub of gravy was as normal a Thanksgiving tradition as watching the Cowboys and Lions on TV. You just don’t notice it anymore…until you invite a non-fan over to your house.
Then suddenly every promo by a midget in a bull costume has to be talked-over by you, so you can explain just why a midget in a bull costume is on TV at all, and also so that they don’t actually listen to the cringy and awkward promo. There isn’t one show in the history of pro wrestling that doesn’t feature something a non-fan would laugh at. It’s a silly and occasionally terribly embarrassing fake sport.
And I love it.