The overwhelming majority of what you see and hear at a professional wrestling show is predetermined. That ranges from the pre-planned outcomes of matches, to the overarching directions of storylines, to the scripts men and women speak from when they get on the mic to address the crowd.
Over the last 20 years in particular, though, promoters have tip toed on the line between fact and fiction in wrestling. The time had come that wrestling promotions more openly acknowledged that the business was not so much sport as athletic exhibition and a storytelling platform. But then came a twist—the worked shoot--those incidents when what happened in the ring seemed to be real, but was actually part of the show. As such, wrestling became a post-modern art form that provided commentary on itself, and forced fans to question whether what they were seeing had been part of the show, a mistake, or if someone had decided to go into business for himself.
Some of the worked shoots throughout wrestling history have been so believable, so in line with real life happenings, or chaotic that fans couldn’t help believing they were real. Yes, sometimes even the most jaded fan could be given pause, or even duped into thinking what had happened wasn’t part of the plan. Real-life developments like the Montreal Screwjob and the accident that killed Owen Hart offered further doubt, because clearly there were times when very real, very unfortunate things happened within the sphere of pro wrestling.
This article focuses on events that were planned, but that might have fooled you as they were happening.
15 Hulk Hogan And Jeff Jarrett Unleash Mass Confusion At Bash At The Beach
At Bash at the Beach 2000, Jeff Jarrett was set to defend his WCW World Heavyweight Championship against Hulk Hogan. The match went down strangely, most notably including Jarrett laying down for Hogan—visibly annoyed—could pick up the pin. Hogan went on to complain about backstage politics.
In the aftermath of the match, Vince Russo came to the ring to shed some light on the baffling situation, in short indicating that Hogan had enforced his creative control in a way that was counterproductive to the company. He went on to say Hogan would never work for WCW again.
While Russo was known to love worked shoots, the entire situation came across confusingly enough that the audience at the time thought something had to have gone wrong, and this segment couldn’t have been planned to go down the way it did. Lo and behold, Russo has spoken time and again afterward about how everything was planned and constructed to build intrigue. It was only the aftermath—Hogan really leaving WCW and filing a lawsuit—that wasn’t intended from the start.
14 Shawn Michaels Collapsing In The Ring Post-Concussion
In 1995, Shawn Michaels got beat up in a Syracuse bar and wound up concussed. When Michaels returned to action, he squared off against Owen Hart on Raw. With no clear, immediate cause, Michaels collapsed mid-match and was tended to by medics. From the unusual, abrupt end to the match, to the way the commentary team fell silent, viewers were left to believe that this moment was very real.
As discussed in WWE’s Heartbreak and Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story documentary, Michaels collapsing in the ring was part of the show. While getting beat up in the bar was a real, unfortunate happening, Michaels helped come up with the follow up angle designed to create buzz and build sympathy for his character. Michaels was instrumental in planning the execution, too. He not only effectively sold that he was hurt, but even gave Vince McMahon the idea not to call the action from the broadcast position, so fans would really wonder if the boss himself was in shock.
13 CM Punk Delivering The Pipe Bomb Promo
In 2011, CM Punk closed an episode of Monday Night Raw with what has been labeled The Pipe Bomb Promo. Punk openly aired his grievances against John Cena, Vince McMahon, fans, and WWE’s creative and marketing teams.
Punk spoke uncomfortable truths at the expense of the company, and, by all indications, shared his real opinions about a variety of matters. So, fans were led to believe that he had gone off script and, as he prepared to leave WWE, was really airing his grievances whether management liked it or not.
While Punk’s promo was largely a shoot Punk explained in the Best in the World documentary that it was not unsolicited. Rather, to build to his PPV main event match opposite John Cena in Chicago, WWE actively instructed him to speak from the heart, essentially offering carte blanche to say what he wanted. In retrospect, this all adds up, given that if Punk really had gone into business for himself, you’d have to assume WWE production staff would have cut off his microphone much sooner.
12 Brock Lesnar Bloodying Randy Orton
SummerSlam 2016 ended on an uncomfortable visual of Brock Lesnar raining down unprotected elbows on the increasingly bloody skull of Randy Orton. The referee stopped the match and yet still, Lesnar delivered more shots. Given the unusual manner of ending the match, not to mention the volume of blood for a company that steered clear of it, there were a lot of questions about whether the match went down as intended, or if Lesnar had gotten angry and actually beat up Orton.
The scene was realistic enough that Chris Jericho himself got fooled. Jericho reportedly questioned Vince about whether what he’d seen was real and got into a confrontation with Lesnar backstage about it before McMahon and Orton cleared up that everything had, in fact, gone according to plan.
11 Matt Hardy Attacking Edge
Matt Hardy and Edge were friends as they rose to prominence in WWE. But then Hardy discovered text messages between his girlfriend Lita and Edge, which led him to think they were having an affair. Accounts vary as to what extent anything appropriate was going on, but the upshot was that Hardy was pissed and WWE was uncomfortable having him and Edge in the same locker room. With Hardy the more volatile agent, not to mention the less valued star at the time, he got released.
The fan backlash was loud and clear after the story leaked. WWE was forced to turn Lita heel to match the reactions she was getting, and before long paired her with Edge. Then, out of nowhere, Matt Hardy showed up on TV to beat the tar out of Edge.
The segment was electric, and fans who had been following the backstage series of events had every reason to believe Hardy really had returned to really fight his former friend. As the attacks repeated themselves, it became increasingly clear that reality had conformed to storyline, but the sizzle of that first attack added an extra spark to the on-screen feud to follow, including questions about whether the two really could stay professional, or might get into a real fight before our very eyes.
10 Joey Styles Denouncing Sports Entertainment
After an up-and-down role as a play-by-play man, Joey Styles endured a particularly rough episode of RAW in which colleague Jerry Lawler, and multiple in-ring talents poked fun at him. Finally, Styles seemed to have had enough, walking out on his announce position, only to return to the stage area with a microphone in hand.
Styles went on to cut an incredibly harsh promo. He criticized WWE for disrespecting pro wrestling by calling it sports entertainment, and then blasted the company for having Jim Ross replace him on commentary for PPV shows. While the set up for the incident came across as clearly planned, as Styles got going, airing his grievances and denouncing his employer, the lines got much murkier until fans had to question if this was the plan. The matter was particularly unclear given Styles was no wrestler, so it was unclear why WWE would tell an elaborate, reality-bending story centered on him.
As it turned out, Styles’s outburst was part of rolling out the company’s new ECW brand, for which Styles would resume his post as a counter-culture commentator.
9 Brian Pillman Addressing Kevin Sullivan As “Booker Man”
In the mid-1990s, Brian Pillman transformed from a mild-mannered light heavyweight, to a sleazy heel, back to a face, to an unorthodox Loose Cannon character. The whole idea was that he was unpredictable. Eric Bischoff discussed the gimmick in his book, Controversy Creates Cash, claiming that the two schemed all sorts of ways in which Pillman could grab fans’ attention through outlandish behavior well beyond a wrestling ring.
Part of the intrigue of Pillman’s new character was that there were points when it was difficult to tell whether Pillman were following a script or was actually crazy and doing whatever he wanted. One of the key incidents came about in a match with Kevin Sullivan in which the only way to win was to make the other man say, “I respect you.”
Sullivan was the real-life booker of the company at the time—a fact more and more fans were aware of with the advent of the Internet. Thus, while a lot of fans were confused, there were glimmers of understanding when Pillman abruptly surrendered the match, telling Sullivan, “I respect you, booker man.” Was it possible Pillman had really lost his mind or was actually angry enough with Sullivan to forego the planned match and blow his cover?
Bischoff and Sullivan each acknowledged afterward that the match did go as planned, and the execution was all part of selling Pillman’s unpredictability.
8 Andy Kaufman And Jerry Lawler Battle On David Letterman’s Show
In an incident that predates any other in this article, in the early 1980s, Andy Kaufman went to war with Jerry Lawler. Their story started innocuously enough with the comedian espousing a bit in which he’d wrestle women and proclaim himself the Intergender Champion. The shtick led to Kaufman wrestling Lawler, and smart fans surely accepted this all as part of the show.
Things took a turn when Lawler hit Kaufman with a piledriver, and the latter had to be stretchered out of the ring and transported to a local hospital. Things escalated further on Late Night with David Letterman, where the two got into a heated exchange that saw Lawler slap Kaufman hard across the face, and Kaufman throw coffee at him.
Given the action spilled out of the ring onto mainstream media, fans were led to believe that the animosities between the two were real. Lawler has discussed it all at length in retrospect, though, including in his book It’s Good To Be the King… Sometimes! that every piece of the story was carefully planned between he and Kaufman, who developed a real-life friendship.
7 Roddy Piper Hitting Accidentally Hitting Vince McMahon With A Chair In 1991
In 1991, Roddy Piper got into a wild altercation with Ric Flair, and the battle culminated in Piper swinging a wooden chair wildly only to wind up hitting Vince McMahon.
In the late 1990s, fans might not have given this moment a second thought. By then, McMahon getting physical had become part of the show. But in 1991, he still portrayed himself as merely an announcer, and had never really gotten physical with the wrestlers. Thus the unpredictability of the spot, paired with how reckless Piper really looked in the moment, meant fans weren’t sure what to make of it.
We know that that the spot was planned, and that McMahon was preying upon fans who knew he owned WWE, which made it all the more shocking and chaotic to see him get hit. This may have been the first, but certainly wasn’t the last time McMahon put his own body on the line for the entertainment of the fans.
6 Dustin Rhodes Dropping The Se7en Gimmick
After he left WWE, Dustin Rhodes re-entered the scene in WCW, introduced by a series of vignettes in which he played the creepy Se7en gimmick. Management at Turner purportedly grew wary of the vignettes, because peering through children’s windows not only made him look scary, but also suggested he might be a child molester. So, before he could debut in the ring, Rhodes’s gimmick was dead.
He nonetheless arrived at Nitro, using special effects to look as though he levitated to the ring before abruptly dropping the Se7en gimmick and announcing himself as Dustin Rhodes. He delivered the news via a worked shoot promo, eschewing his work as Goldust in WWE, and rejecting another over the top gimmick. In reality, this was all a part of the rewrite, as the bookers scrambled to transform a supernatural new villain into a returning heel with an edge and propensity for straight talk.
5 Ric Flair Calling Eric Bischoff A S.O.B
In 1998 after a lengthy legal battle, Ric Flair returned to his spot as an on-air character for WCW. The stage was a Horsemen reunion, and just as Flair got going on the mic, Eric Bischoff came down the aisle.
The line between fact and fiction was razor thin as Bischoff represented WCW management in reality and had bucked against Flair for real backstage. Meanwhile, on screen, Bischoff represented the nWo in opposition to Flair’s Four Horsemen. Flair yelled at Bischoff, calling him a scam and a son of a b***. Given the strength of his language, fans thought he really had flown off the handle and was speaking his mind on Bischoff. While Flair’s real emotions may have reinforced his character’s, though, the segment was all planned and Flair and Bischoff both knew what would be said in advance.
4 Fritz Von Erich’s Heart Attack
Long after he retired from full-time wrestling, Fritz Von Erich garnered his greatest success as the owner of World Class Championship Wrestling. The territory was well received regionally and beyond, based in no small part on the popularity of Fritz’s sons. But as tragedy struck in the form of a series of deaths, and as time marched on, Fritz felt the need for fresh, attention-grabbing stories. He went with staging a heart attack (or, more precisely, a collapse most fans interpreted as such).
Given Fritz’s stature in the community, and the number of tragedies the family had already endured, the World Class audience was, at first horrified, then disgusted that he would choose this route to generate buzz. While the promotion’s fortunes had already taken a turn for the worse, the poor taste of this angle is widely looked at as representative, if not the cause of, its problems toward the end.
3 Eddie Guerrero Pouring Coffee On Himself
In WCW, the New World Order got a lot of screen time and a lot of opportunities to reign victorious over the rest of the roster. Eddie Guerrero was never a part of the group, and was among those supremely talented young performers who wasn’t seeing meaningful career progress.
Guerrero would wind up defecting to WWE, along with Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit, and Perry Saturn, but at the height of his real life frustrations, he cut a promo in which he threw coffee in his own face, claiming that’s what Eric Bischoff would do on account of his complaints at lack of opportunity. The moment made for extremely uncomfortable television. It did seem to represent Guerrero’s real thoughts—to the extent that WWE has used the footage as a stand-in to represent his dissatisfaction with WCW. The fact of the matter is, however, that the promo was scripted as another in a series of worked shoots that WCW put on in that era.
2 Chris Jericho Punches Out Shawn Michaels’s Wife
At SummerSlam 2008, a confrontation between Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels gave way to Jericho punching Michaels’s wife, Rebecca, in her face. The hit was solid enough to give her a fat lip and fans at the time had to assume that the open display of a male wrestler punching a female non-wrestler on live PPV was not intentional.
The truth is that the incident was mostly planned. Jericho and Michaels concocted the scenario together. Jericho has reported his own reluctance multiple times, but Michaels insisted and Rebecca was apparently fully on board. The idea of heel Jericho punching Michaels’s wife seemed like a prime way of generating heat for their program, and specifically to get the fans fully against Y2J. The intention was for Jericho to throw a punch, Michaels to dodge, and for Jericho to land a glancing blow on Rebecca. The storyline would play out precisely according to plan, though there was apparently an accident in the form of Rebecca moving into the punch and Jericho landing the strike more flush on her face than he intended to.
While Jericho was apologetic afterward, Rebecca apparently wasn’t upset in the slightest, and Michaels understood that what damage did happen was an accident. Everyone remained on good terms and moved on from the incident.
1 Ric Flair Discussing His WCW Pride On The Nitro Finale
On the last episode of Monday Nitro, Ric Flair cut an impassioned promo about his pride and love for WCW and his hatred of WWE. At the time, I remember thinking that he was speaking from the heart and that we’d likely never see him go to WWE, despite the buy out.
Little did we know that the promo was a complete work designed to build the drama of WCW’s final night. In reality, as Flair discussed in his WWE tribute documentary, he was very pleased WCW was selling to WWE. After years of legal turmoil and frustrations with management, he was excited to see the business go down, and didn’t seem to hold any ill will at all toward WWE. Some of those sentiments could have been revisionist history given the working relationship Flair went on to have with WWE. Just the same, it seemed that what looked like The Nature Boy shooting from the heart was really a short-term story device to get over the immensity of the last episode of Nitro, not to mention setting up Flair for one last showdown in the main event with Sting.