Despite most of the action and drama of professional wrestling being kayfabe, there’s still a certain level of expectation that fans have, and a certain standard of performance and production they should receive. A makeshift ring can be constructed by any bum off the street (sometimes literally), but when there’s a legitimate business involved in a match, the people involved should act a certain way when they’re on the clock.
Yet throughout history there have been numerous incidents perpetrated by wrestlers that have failed to meet the mark. (For the record, we’re defining a “wrestler” as anyone who has ever physically participated in a match, even if their primary role is/was as owner, writer, etc.) This includes times when the performers didn’t show nearly enough skill, preparation, or enthusiasm, as well as times when they went way too far and/or legitimately and purposely injured someone. We’re also counting things said while the cameras were rolling, incidents backstage before or after a match, and even events that didn’t occur in the ring, but directly affected a bout or bouts.
The people, settings, and details of each of these displays may vary, but the point is the same: they’re all actions that were completely unprofessional.
15 Hulk Hogan vs. Shawn Michaels - SummerSlam 2005
Although many fans thought it would never happen, Hulk Hogan and Shawn Michaels finally faced each other at SummerSlam 2005, with much anticipation leading up to the match. The plan was for them to have two “Icon vs. Legend” bouts, with each wrestler winning one (leaving the possibility of a third match open), and Michaels pulling off a bit of a heel turn beforehand, at Hogan’s request - and apparently to Michaels’ dismay. However, prior to the first match, Hogan (using his creative control clause) informed the WWE that he would only be doing one match, which he would, of course, win. A frustrated Michaels ended up putting on a performance that saw him completely overselling Hogan’s moves to the point of hilarity, which made for a lame (and slightly insulting) but nevertheless memorable SummerSlam. Still, you could easily call Hogan unprofessional for refusing to take part in a second match, and also Michaels for refusing to perform his job in an acceptable manner.
14 Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg - WrestleMania XX
Despite being only one of a dozen WrestleMania XX matches, the seventh bout, between Brock Lesnar and Goldberg, was probably the best-promoted and most highly-anticipated match of the night, as both wrestlers were set to leave the WWE afterward. However, it ended up being an enormous disappointment. Both men spent the first few minutes staring each other down and jawing back and forth, with no physical interaction. An exasperated Steve Austin had to enter just to coax the two into actually wrestling. After the fans started booing and chanting “goodbye,” “you sold out,” “boring,” “this match sucks,” “we want Bret,” and other criticisms, Goldberg eventually pinned Lesnar and won.
Brock responded by flipping off both the crowd and Austin, which led the latter to execute a Stone Cold Stunner on both wrestlers. Although the general storyline was mapped ahead of time and followed, the lack of enthusiasm on the parts of Goldberg and Lesnar during the match itself was likely not part of the plan. Sure, it could have been a work, but why would two departing wrestlers intentionally tarnish their images during their last match? It’s much more likely they both just checked out a bit too early.
13 Hulk Hogan vs. Jeff Jarrett (and Vince Russo) - Bash at the Beach 2000
The details of this one are still debated, but here’s what we know: Hulk Hogan was initially slated to lose to Jeff Jarrett (who would retain his WCW title) at Bash at the Beach 2000. Hogan allegedly had a last minute change of heart, as he wanted to finish his expiring contract as a champion, and told Vince Russo about it. When the match occurred, at Russo’s orders, Jarrett simply laid down in the ring and allowed Hulk to pin him - which was followed by a filmed “shoot” in which Hogan trashed the company for allowing such a lousy match. After Hulk left, Russo came in and declared the victory void, setting up a new title match between Jarrett and Booker T for the end of the show.
Russo, as expected, later claimed that the whole thing (the last minute change, the shoots, etc.) was part of one big work. Hogan, however, said he never agreed to the final part, and thought he would actually depart as a champion. Eric Bischoff even said he and Hogan celebrated immediately after the match, only to find out about the unexpected addition. Hulk apparently thought he would return to the WCW at that year’s Halloween Havoc, but upon finding out that the promotion (and Turner exec Brad Siegel) had no intention to rehire him, Hogan sued the company. Although it’s not known how much of this was a work and how much was actually a shoot, most people believe it to be an instance of the former that unprofessionally morphed into the latter.
12 Sting vs. Jeff Hardy - Victory Road 2011
TNA’s Victory Road PPV event in March 2011 culminated in a World Heavyweight Championship match that pitted Sting against Jeff Hardy. However, on the day of the event, things didn’t go quite as planned. Hardy, who was struggling with drugs and alcohol at the time, was deemed unfit to perform just prior to the match. In response, the referee threw up the “X” sign during Sting’s entrance (signifying legitimate trouble) and Eric Bischoff called an audible. Sting forcefully pinned Hardy, and the match ended after a disappointingly-short 88 seconds. In response to this travesty of a fight, TNA went as far as to apologize to fans for “falling short of a standard” and offered six months of free access to the TNAondemand.com library as consolation.
Hardy was subsequently sent home from the Impact! tapings the following week because of the incident, and went on to complete a 120-day rehab stint during his time away. He eventually returned at the end of the year, admitting he had “hit rock bottom during Victory Road,” but was now on the road to recovery.
11 The “Sunny Days” Comment
One of the most famous real-life rivalries between wrestlers was the ongoing feud between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. What started as a minor disagreement when Michaels accused Hart of attempting to steal the spotlight following the former’s victory at WrestleMania XII, only grew when Hart accused Michaels of only wanting to work with his friends. The conflict started to boil over when Hart botched a promo by berating Michaels when Hart was the one who was supposed to receive the brunt of the abuse. However, it was a later promo that really made things personal, in a moment that was deemed by many to be the tipping point. Hart was slated to appear in the ring with the Hart Foundation, with Michaels interrupting halfway through for a rebuttal. Everything seemed according to plan at first, but then Michaels starting slurring his speech and went on a tirade against his opponent, getting overly personal with the details. The rant culminated with Michaels famously quipping, “Even though lately you’ve had some sunny days, my friend, you still can’t get the job done.” This was seen as implying Hart was having an actual affair with WWE Diva Sunny - and since he was married at the time, it created some real-life tension in the Hart Household.
Although many saw it as a work, Hart and Michaels engaged in an off-camera, backstage brawl three months later, with Hart specifically citing the comment, solidifying the fact that these two were carrying on a completely unprofessional feud. However, there was still more to come…
10 The Montreal Screwjob
After the fight allowed both Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels to blow off some steam, the former attempted to bury the hatchet with the latter by saying he was willing to put Michaels over at the upcoming Survivor Series (Hart’s final match before his contract expired), if that’s what Vince McMahon wanted. Michaels responded by saying he appreciated the sentiment, but wasn’t willing to do the same if the positions were reversed. When the pre-match meeting occurred, McMahon informed the two wrestlers that Michaels would be winning Survivor Series and be the champion for the foreseeable future. Upon hearing this, Hart reneged on his previous offer and put his foot down (exercising his creative control clause), refusing to give up the belt. A plan was put into place where Hart was told the match would end in a brawl involving interference, but instead, halfway through, Michaels got Hart into the sharpshooter, and the ref rang the bell to signal the end.
Hart was furious, and he spat in McMahon’s face, legitimately trashed thousands of dollars worth of equipment, and later attacked Vince backstage in retaliation. Although some fans suspect this was a work, Hart has maintained that he acted in earnest and legitimately knocked his former boss out.
9 Kane and The Undertaker vs. KroniK - Unforgiven 2001
WWF Unforgiven 2001 was the perfect opportunity for KroniK (Brian Adams and Bryan Clark) to make a name for themselves. The duo had only joined the WWE a few weeks prior, and were set to face Kane and The Undertaker in the fifth match of the evening. With a chance like this, you’d better do your homework. Apparently no one told KroniK this fact though, as they proceeded to completely botch the bout from start to finish. Adams was totally uncoordinated, walking into neckbreakers like they were backbreakers and missing a cue for a chokeslam. Clark, for his part, also fouled up a few incredibly basic maneuvers, some by as much as a foot. Kane and ‘Taker were reportedly very upset afterward (and some signs of this showed through during the match itself) at the lack of professionalism displayed by their peers, and apparently so was the promotion. The WWE let KroniK go after only two matches.
8 The MSG Curtain Call
Throughout the mid-90s, Scott Hall, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash, and Sean Waltman made up a WWE backstage alliance known as The Kliq (or “The Clique”) in order to yield more power and creative control. However, Nash and Hall signed contracts with direct WWE competitor WCW in 1996, and had their final match, a house show, at Madison Square Garden on May 19 of that year. As the night came to a close, Michaels (a babyface) and Nash (a heel) squared off in the ring, which was immediately followed by Hall (also a face) entering the ring to hug Michaels. This was a sweet sendoff for the Hall, but then Triple H (then a heel) joined in by hugging Hall and Nash as well, and the four ended up embracing each other in front of the MSG crowd.
Since kayfabe was tirelessly preserved during this era, the so-called “curtain call” scandalized the WWE, especially after two bootleg video recordings of the incident emerged afterward. Although the departing wrestlers couldn’t be punished for their unprofessionalism (and Michaels, as reigning heavyweight champion, was untouchable), Triple H was demoted within the promotion. He accepted his punishment, which actually ended up improving his image overall.
7 Who Mocked J.R.?
In professional wrestling, it’s often difficult to determine where the line of appropriateness is. Numerous figures (especially heels, for obvious reasons) have said and done some terrible things throughout history, but most can be dismissed as being part of an angle. But when bits of reality are weaved into storylines, things begin to get tricky. What’s fair game and what’s in bad taste? Although wrestlers in the past have mocked legitimate injuries suffered by opponents and gotten away with it, poking fun at someone’s illness is a bad call, and this has occurred on numerous occasions. The person who received the brunt of this abuse? Jim Ross, after he became afflicted with Bell’s Palsy.
Not only did WCW’s Ed Ferrara create a distasteful character named Oklahoma that was basically a mockery of Ross, Palsy and all, back in 1999 (Ferrara has since apologized profusely), but Vince McMahon himself mimicked Ross’ condition in a backstage segment on Raw SuperShow back in 2012. Ross apparently wasn’t in on the gag, but even if he was, this would still be insulting to others suffering from the condition. As the head of a company (even one that plays an outlandish version of himself), McMahon should know to be a bit more professional. Still, this wasn’t the worst thing McMahon has said while trying to make a joke.
6 Rationalizing Racism
Looking past all the moronic decisions Vince McMahon has made throughout his career (even the sexist actions his character personally perpetrated in order to establish himself as a heel) and the stories and dialogue he approved as head of the company, there’s one that was unquestionably over the line - even though it was so simple and quick. During a backstage segment for Survivor Series 2005, Vince walked up to John Cena and casually asked, “What’s good in the hood?” When Cena responded that he’s just taking care of business, Vince replied, “Keep it up, my n***a!” As McMahon walked away, the camera panned to an incredulous Booker T and Sharmell, with the former stating, “Tell me he didn’t just say that.”
What was Vince thinking? That it was okay, because he left off the -er at the end? That he could get away with it because Booker T and Sharmell were in on the “joke”? The incident didn’t get a lot of attention right away, but when the WWE cut ties with Hulk Hogan in 2015 for repeatedly using the same word on a private video, the incident resurfaced. The WWE’s response was that it "was an outlandish and satirical skit involving fictional characters, similar to that of many scripted television shows and movies.” I get that it wasn’t Vince McMahon the real person, and that it wasn’t even used in a derogatory way, but this was still an offensive and pointless comment that once again showed McMahon’s lack of professionalism. No excuses.
5 Andre the Giant vs. Akira Maeda
We’ve often praised Andre the Giant, for good reason, but the guy wasn’t perfect, and his match against Akira Maeda is proof of this fact. At the time - May 26, 1986, to be exact - Andre was at the peak of his fame in America, just as Maeda was in Japan (for the record, Akira is actually Korean, but the wrestling market never really took off in his homeland). The matchup between these two legends was highly anticipated by fans, even though Andre wasn’t exactly thrilled to battle Maeda, who was notoriously difficult to work with and didn’t much care for American wrestlers. Once the match began, it was clear something was off. Andre’s moves were slow, sloppy, and awkward, and Maeda responded with an excess of force - especially in regard to his legs. At the end of the fight, the giant just laid on the canvas, beckoning for Maeda to pin him as officials and executives stormed the ring for a no-finish. To this day, we still have no idea what really happened. It’s possible the big man was drunk or simply trying to make a fool out of his opponent - either way, it was a completely unprofessional performance by Andre, and the same goes for Maeda’s excessive use of force.
4 JBL vs. The Blue Meanie, One Night Stand 2005
When reflecting on his two-plus years (1998-2000) with the WWE, Brian Heffron (a.k.a. The Blue Meanie) viewed the time as positive, but said, “The only thing is, JBL [John Layfield] is kind of an a**hole.” In retrospect, burning this bridge was a poor choice, especially considering the two would meet again in the ring for the ECW One Night Stand in 2005, and JBL would exact his revenge. After breaking open one of Meanie’s fresh scars with a legitimate punch, JBL pulled Blue’s shirt over his head hockey-style and really laid into him. Heffron answered in kind, landing some legit blows of his own.
The beating was so bad that Johnny Ace confronted Meanie backstage, thinking he had executed an unauthorized blading due to the amount of blood. When he explained the true situation, Johnny was shocked. “That’s unacceptable,” he said. “We don’t do that here.” In the end, the WWE stitched him up, doubled his pay, and extended him a contract offer in order to let the drama continue to play out in the ring. The two eventually worked out their differences.
3 The Great Antonio vs. Antonio Inoki
This is one of those matches where it’s hard to tell who was more in the wrong. It took place on December 8, 1977, when Antonio Inoki was in his prime in Japan and famous for the rough, “legit” style of wrestling learned from Karl Gotch. On the other side, The Great Antonio was well past his heyday, but still freakishly large and unbelievably strong. When the match began, something wasn’t quite clicking, and at one point the Great Antonio completely ignored a dropkick leveled against him. Calling this a no-sell would be too generous. The fight slowly turned into a shoot, with The Great dishing out sloppy and dangerous forearm clubs, and Inoki responding with a legitimate barrage of punches to his opponent’s face, a single-leg takedown, and numerous brutal kicks to the head. The resulting violence knocked The Great Antonio completely out and left his face bruised and bloody. His manager came into the ring under the guise of protesting the fight, but in reality he was probably trying to keep his man down to avoid further destruction in this complete mess of a match.
2 The Mike Bell Incident
Mike Bell was a career jobber for the WWF who was probably most famous for legitimately getting the crap beat out of him in a 2001 videotaped dark match against Perry Saturn. After Bell botched a snapmare armdrag of Saturn, the latter ended up landing on the mat head-first. Furious at the perceived unprofessionalism and lack of in-ring etiquette of his opponent, Saturn began legitimately laying into Bell. Perry went as far as throwing Bell out of the ring, causing the wrestler to land on his head too, before spearing him into the metal stairs beside the ring. Despite all this physical abuse, both wrestlers finished the match without the crowd even realizing what they had just witnessed. Upon examining the video, it’s hard to decide which aspect is more shocking: the brutality purposefully perpetrated by Perry Saturn, or the fact that both wrestlers somehow managed to escape serious injury.
1 The Mass Transit Incident
Most of the entries on this list deal with unprofessionalism on the part of wrestlers, but here’s one that rests on the shoulders of management as well. During an ECW house show on November 23, 1996, Axl Rotten dropped out of his tag-team match against The Gangstas (New Jack and Mustafa Saed) and a 17-year-old amateur wrestler named Eric Kulas volunteered to fill in. He told ECW owner and booker Paul Heyman that he was 23 and trained under Killer Kowalski, two statements that were both false. Prior to the match, Kulas agreed to have his Ralph Kramden-esque bus driver character, Mass Transit, bladed by New Jack, something an amateur should never agree to.
After Mass Transit was bladed too deeply, severing two arteries in his forehead, New Jack proceeded to brutally beat him with every object imaginable. Once the kid laid bleeding profusely on the canvas (blood could actually be seen spurting out), New Jack used the opportunity to shout racist remarks, while Kulas’ father pleaded with officials to stop the fight. In the end, Kulas acted recklessly, New Jack acted dangerously, Heyman was a moron for allowing a fan to fight, and all three were the complete opposite of professionals.