Wrestling isn’t real. At least that’s what just about anyone who doesn’t watch wrestling will tell you when you announce your wrestling fandom. We always hit back with our extensive knowledge of gruesome injuries or the realities of taking a slam onto a wooden mat, but nothing will ever convince those who don’t want to be convinced. It’s childish and barbaric, and that’s the only opinion they care to have.
But then there’s a child in all of us who likes to occasionally forget that the show is staged to any degree. To those of us whose lives have been deeply enriched by the suspense and deep community immersion found only in a world like that of professional wrestling, we do tend to get lost in the moment occasionally. When WrestleMania comes around once per year, for example, all bets are off, and so are the ringers. No disturbances shall be tolerated because we need to cheer our heroes (or our villains) to victory!
The word for this idea that wrestling storylines and the fights that result from them are legitimate is “kayfabe.” We all know the infamous tales of wrestlers breaking kayfabe, such as the “Madison Square Garden incident” or the “Montreal Screwjob,” but there’s a flipside to all of that. Keeping kayfabe is all well and good, as for the better part of a century the territorial wrestling years upheld it to great success. But what about when kayfabe starts affecting what’s happening in the real world?
Sometimes kayfabe benefits the personal lives of wrestlers who prefer to keep to themselves, while other times it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Here are 15 incidents when kayfabe resulted in real-life consequences, for better or for worse.
16 Daniel Bryan Gets Fired
Bryan Danielson was a megastar on the independent wrestling scene long before he showed up in NXT as a “rookie.” His arrival in WWE was heralded as a monumental happening and considered one of the company’s best decisions in recent times, and although Danielson, under the ring name Daniel Bryan, would go on to be wildly successful in the biggest wrestling company in the world, it didn’t appear that he was going to make it all that far.
In June 2010, Daniel Bryan showed up on Raw as a part of the debuting group The Nexus, which consisted of several NXT rookies including Wade Barrett, Darren Young and Heath Slater. During the segment, in which the stable assaulted John Cena, Bryan specifically stood out as being committed to making the scene count. He spat in Cena’s face and then choked ring announcer Justin Roberts with his own tie, two things which apparently upset some of WWE’s family-friendly sponsors as Daniel Bryan was subsequently released from his contract. He was rehired a few months later, sparking the Yes! Movement.
15 Triple H Makes a Kid Cry, Then Comforts Him
Triple H wasn’t always scary. In fact, his early work with WWE in the 1990s as a snobby aristocrat who entered to opera music paints him as just about the least scary wrestler to ever lace up a pair of boots. However, in the decades since then, he’s made a career of being "The Cerebral Assassin.” As a calculated, cold-blooded, jacked-up freak of nature, Triple H has become one of the most ruthless wrestlers the WWE Universe has ever known.
Fortunately for most of us, we know it’s all an act. The younger viewers, however, aren’t always so keen on the inner workings of pro wrestling, as evidenced by a January 2015 edition of Monday Night Raw when Triple H made a small fan in the front row break into tears by shouting in character. The future WWE Hall of Famer, who was sitting at ringside playing the excellent heel we know him to be, turned to yell at the boy, who had been chastising him. The scene resulted in a wrestling rarity, even for 2016, when Triple H noticed him crying, broke character and consoled the boy, then invited him backstage after the show.
14 Stone Cold Podcast Over-Hypes WrestleMania
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin has a reputation for not caring whether or not he upsets anyone in WWE, which is why the periodic, live “Stone Cold Podcast” interview on the WWE Network does such a good job of bringing in the viewers. But things got kicked up a notch when Steve Austin interviewed Paul Heyman live on June 1st, 2015. Heyman, famous for managing Brock Lesnar, turned the tables near the end of the show to ask Austin himself a few questions. One of those questions was if Austin would consider facing Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 32. In a strange merging of fiction and reality, Austin went into Stone Cold mode and got really upset, as Heyman seemed to legitimately become the snarky heel he’s known for playing. Once the words “Texas Death Match” got thrown around, the wrestling world started talking and everyone assumed the legendary Stone Cold would be returning for one final showdown at WrestleMania 32.
Unfortunately, it was all in good fun for Austin and Heyman, and those plans were never in place. As a result, fans’ expectations were high and absolutely nothing could have begun to live up to that excitement the WWE Universe felt for a few brief months before we all started to realize it was nothing but a ruse and WrestleMania 32 could only disappoint.
13 Blood at Backlash Gets WWE in Legal Trouble
In 2006, WWE was in the midst of its final years before the rise of the PG era, which is still in effect today. It was ten years ago and blood was still commonplace, as was evident if you watch Backlash from that year on the WWE Network and note that both Shawn Michaels and Triple H intentionally bladed themselves in their respective matches.
Backlash emanated from Lexington, Kentucky, and was already noteworthy for a strange “tag team” match between the team of Vince and Shane McMahon and the team of Shawn Michaels and “God.” But the addition of the blood got WWE into some legal trouble as the state of Kentucky had a blood ban in place for wrestling events and required a match to be stopped in the case of accidental bleeding. Since 2006, WWE has held significantly fewer events in the state as the company doesn’t stop televised matches unless it's absolutely necessary.
12 Storyline Affects Real-Life Engagement Of Rusev And Lana
For a few years now, Rusev and Lana have terrorized WWE, often targeting Superstars who proudly flaunt their American pride. Rusev is an athletic beast, but the star of the couple is Lana, whose beauty and charisma have captivated the WWE Universe from day one and, as evidenced by a failed 2015 storyline, both are stronger as a double act than apart.
In the storyline, Lana got herself a new boyfriend in Dolph Ziggler after Rusev began getting jealous of all the attention she was getting. Rusev, in turn, became an item with Summer Rae, and a trashy soap opera-style struggle for couple dominance ensued over the course of a painstakingly long time. Despite the horrendous response of the crowd to this angle, WWE seemed committed to making it work. So much so that when Lana and Rusev announced their real-life engagement, chaos ensued.
The storyline was abruptly dropped and the rumor mill suggests that the couple was punished by WWE for breaking kayfabe. This was a case of WWE’s storylines making the personal lives of its employees unnecessarily difficult.
11 Muhammad Hassan’s Terrorism Angle
In 2005, one of WWE’s fastest-rising Superstars was Muhammad Hassan, an Arab American character who complained that America was misrepresenting people like him. Night after night, Hassan and his manager Daivari berated America and the WWE Universe, often attacking the crowd’s heroes. Hassan quickly became the most hated man in WWE and it was widely rumored that he was set to become World Champion, but that never happened.
Hassan was in the middle of a rivalry with The Undertaker and scheduled to face the WWE legend at the upcoming Great American Bash pay-per-view. However, on an episode of SmackDown, Hassan and Daivari were involved in a scene where they and some masked accomplices brutally beat The Undertaker and used a piano wire to choke him. The timing was ill, as this was about the same time the July 7th terror attacks occurred in London, England, and WWE was shunned for airing the SmackDown“terrorism” angle.
Hassan still faced The Undertaker at the pay-per-view, but due to the poor way the situation was handled, the character would never be seen again. In fact, Hassan's wrestling career was pretty much over after being demoted back to the WWE's developmental territories before being released a little over a year after the SmackDown controversy.
10 Madusa Trashes The WWE Women’s Title
Throughout the 1990s, WWE’s women’s division saw very inconsistent representation. The Women’s Championship was active on and off, but one woman is seen to have practically carried the torch. Her name was Alundra Blayze and she’d go down as one of WWE’s more underappreciated employees of that era.
When Alundra’s contract expired with WWE, she was still their Women’s Champion. WCW had interest in signing her, but the man running the show, Eric Bischoff, saw an opportunity. He wanted Blayze, now known by the ring name she used earlier in her career, Madusa, to throw the WWE Women’s title belt in the trash on live television. She was uneasy with this, but decided to go through with it and as a result had a falling out with her former employer.
Rumors exist to this day that she was blackballed from WWE for two decades until her Hall of Fame induction in 2015.
9 JBL Goes Too Far
Sometimes it's difficult for wrestlers to tell where the line is. However, this was not one of those times. During a tag team match at a live show in Munich back in 2004, JBL was trying to generate some "heel" heat when he began doing nazi-salutes on the apron. Luckily for Bradshaw, it's only illegal to the do salute politically, so doing it to for the sake of entertainment left him off the hook with the German government.
However, it didn't spare him from the wrath of CNBC, where he was appearing as a financial analyst on top of his WWE duties. They immediately fired JBL, saying: "We find his behavior to be offensive, inappropriate and not befitting anyone associated with our network."
WWE released a statement to apologize, but didn't punish Bradshaw at all, which is kind of hypocritical when compared to the next entry on our list...
7 Chris Jericho’s Flag Incident
By now, we’re used to the idea as wrestling fans that there are good guys and there are bad guys. In order to be really good bad guys, the “heels,” as they are known, sometimes need to get into a verbal confrontation with a fan or grab a sign from the crowd and rip it to shreds. Other times, a really committed villain will go one step further to generate heat and it’s not always clear where the line should be drawn.
WWE travels all over the world, so it’s understandable that Superstars may have a hard time keeping up with the customs of various cultures. This was surely a matter in play in 2012 when Chris Jericho, playing an antagonist at the time, disrespected the Brazilian flag by kicking it in front of a live audience. This, at the time unbeknownst to Y2J, is a serious offense in Brazil and almost got him thrown in jail. Jail or not, Chris was suspended from WWE for 30 days and ultimately apologized.
6 Cops Get Called To Monday Nitro
These days it seems absurd for a fan to think anything in professional wrestling is legit. Even in the middle of the Monday Night Wars when WWE and WCW were both at their peaks, most fans knew the whole thing was an act, but there were some holdovers from previous eras. Sometimes the line between fact and fiction could still be blurred enough that some viewers were fooled.
When the New World Order, a stable of “invaders” made from former WWE stars, was on the rise, there was an episode of WCW Monday Nitro that nearly got out of hand. During an outdoor brawl which saw the nWo’s Kevin Nash launch masked wrestler Rey Mysterio head-first into the side of a truck, police were called to the scene.
It was a thrilling time for wrestling fans, but maybe not so much for the officers whose time was wasted that night.
5 Short Divas Match Leads To A Revolution
Women’s wrestling still has quite a ways to go in WWE, but to see where it is today, it seems like a lifetime ago that the Divas, as they were called for many years, were struggling to get a three-minute match on a three-hour episode of Monday Night Raw. It was less than two years ago, however, that the Bella Twins defeated Paige and Emma in under a minute and set the internet wrestling community on fire.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for WWE’s women, as it was that night the #GiveDivasAChance hashtag was born, the first shot fired in a war fans would ultimately win with WWE for more equal representation for the Divas. Former Diva AJ Lee got in on the fun, calling out Stephanie McMahon publicly for the company’s mistreatment of women, and then WWE would call up the incredibly popular Sasha Banks, Charlotte and Becky Lynch from NXT.
The ultimate sign of change, however, came at WrestleMania 32 when the term “Diva” and the Championship that accompanied it were retired in favor of reinstating the Women’s Championship as well as the official decision to refer to both male and female WWE talents as “Superstars.”
4 Billy & Chuck’s Fake Wedding Causes Trouble
Billy Gunn was no longer wrestling as “Mr. Ass” and Chuck Palumbo was looking for a successful niche in WWE. It was 2002 and these two guys needed new storylines, so WWE saw fit to bleach their hair, give them matching outfit, an effeminate manager, and kick off a not-so-ambiguously gay duo shtick.
What started off as slightly offensive tongue-in-cheek comic relief quickly spiraled into an obvious same sex love story when the tag team of Billy & Chuck became engaged to be married. WWE enlisted the assistance of LGBT advocacy group GLAAD, who was completely fooled into thinking this storyline might actually go someplace meaningful in the year 2002. GLAAD was even lied to, apparently, as they were told two days after the wedding had been taped that it went perfectly, so they gave the couple a wedding gift.
But the wedding never happened at all, as both “grooms” exposed their manager and revealed that it was all a publicity stunt, offending the entire gay and lesbian community and causing GLAAD to sever ties with WWE. The two didn’t work together for another decade.
3 “Million Dollar Mania” Changes Lives
The year was 2008 and WWE’s ratings were not stellar to say the least. So what’s the billionaire CEO of a world-renowned wrestling organization to do? Pay people to watch, of course! Vince McMahon’s “Million Dollar Mania” was born and Vince himself was calling viewers live on the air to dole out random chunks of money. Some of those chunks were measly while others were fairly large sums, large enough to change someone’s life.
“Million Dollar Mania” would only last a few weeks, ending in another wacky storyline that saw the Mr. McMahon character nearly die when the entire stage collapsed and buried him beneath it. But before it was all over, several members of the WWE Universe were loaded with enough cash to make a major difference in their lives, so much so that WWE caught up with some of them one year later to ask how they’d used their winnings. So this is a case of kayfabe resulting in good real life consequences!
2 Daniel Bryan Being Held Back
Years after being fired by WWE for being too violent during an attack on John Cena, Daniel Bryan was rehired and on top of the world. He’d just come off a hugely successful run with Kane as the WWE Tag Team Champions and was ready to slingshot to the main event of WrestleMania. Bryan was, by leaps and bounds, the most popular wrestler on WWE’s roster and it was obvious to everyone in the WWE Universe reigning as World Champion to close WrestleMania XXX was the only place he could go next.
Except WWE did not see Daniel Bryan as a star, as became evident after months of under-booking. And when the returning Batista won the Royal Rumble and, by extension, the main event spot at WrestleMania, he was booed relentlessly from the building. Wrestling fans were beyond furious and caused such uproar that WWE was forced to add Daniel Bryan to the WrestleMania XXX main event and he went home with the WWE Championship.
WWE’s lack of appreciation for Daniel Bryan led the WWE Universe to demand change that rippled throughout the company and altered the course of its history.
1 The On-Screen Romance Between Triple H And Stephanie McMahon
In 1999, something was about to happen that would define everything we know about WWE today. The adorable, sweet Stephanie McMahon was about to turn on her entire family and join Triple H, the McMahon arch nemesis, in marriage. The following months saw the happy couple rampage through the WWE, defining the closing years of the famed Attitude Era as part of what would come to be known as the “McMahon-Helmsley Regime.”
The on-air chemistry between Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, however, bled into real life. After a lengthy program that ended with their fictional divorce, the fake couple actually became a legit one. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon were married in the real world and over the course of a decade and a half brought us to where we are now.
Vince McMahon is still at the helm of the biggest wrestling organization in the entire world, but Triple H and Stephanie are set to inherit all of it.
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