Once upon a time kayfabe - the act of portraying staged events as real - was an unbreakable tangent, used to try and get the audience as invested as possible in the clashes of heroes and villains. Some wrestlers refused to even break kayfabe when put in peril outside the ring, resulting in wrestlers even being stabbed for refusing to break character. 'Mr Wrestling' Tim Woods even refused to break character after breaking his back in a plane crash he was on with his kayfabe rival Ric Flair.
At current, WWE is firmly sat in what they have dubbed 'The Reality Era', with the lines between reality and kayfabe frequently blurred. On one hand, the characters and storylines on Raw, and on the other, there are backstage 'reality' shows like Total Divas. Some wrestlers break kayfabe seemingly for fun, often dropping in their opponents real names without actually having a point to doing so (Triple H and CM Punk for example). Real life relationships are openly acknowledged, even when they are between a face and a heel (e.g. John Cena and Nikki Bella).
Some breaks of kayfabe are considerably bigger. Often airing genuine grievances either for storyline purposes (a worked shoot) or someone going legitimately off-script and going into business for themselves. The results vary in success, some simply get forgotten, some are viewed as imitation of previous efforts, and some have changed the industry forever. Here we take a look back at the best times wrestlers have shattered the illusion of kayfabe. Whereas we recently published a list centered around "worked shoots" this one will strictly deal with moments that weren't supposed to happen.
15 Mean Gene Drops The F-Bomb
It was SummerSlam 1989 and WWE were preparing for what was expected to be a standard backstage interview. The arrogant duo of Ravishing Rick Rude and Bobby 'The Brain' Heenan were to comment on their upcoming Intercontinental Championship defence against The Ultimate Warrior, in a heavily anticipated WrestleMania rematch.
The man to do the big interview was the WWE's go-to man, Mean Gene Okerlund. And it would be Okerlund who ended up being the big talking point, as the clean-cut professional had a moment to forget.
The SummerSlam sign behind the three men fell down as Mean Gene was introducing his guests, causing him to lose his cool and exclaim "F*** it!" Heenan immediately walked off, either to laugh or simply knowing that the segment was unusable, and commentator Jesse Ventura made light of the situation on commentary.
14 Dustin Rhodes Hates Gimmicks
For weeks WCW aired vignettes of a man - who looked a lot like Uncle Fester - staring creepily through the windows of children. Finally Dustin Rhodes debuted as Seven on an episode of Nitro, floating to the ring to eerie music. When he grabbed a microphone though, Rhodes soon shot through the terrible gimmick and said that he was sick of playing ridiculous characters. He stated that "the powers that be" felt that Dustin Rhodes was boring and had no respect for him or his father.
This wasn't the first time that Rhodes had done such a stunt, in fact it was seemingly ripped off from a moment during his WWE run when he denounced the Goldust gimmick. A year before Seven, Rhodes walked out during an episode of Monday Night Raw and set his Goldust attire on fire. He then proceeded to say very similar things to his WCW return, saying that Vince McMahon had stripped away his dignity - and in turn cost him his family - with the controversial Goldust gimmick.
The WCW Seven moment is easily the moment that is remembered better, perhaps because Rhodes returned to the Goldust gimmick again a few months later, but it is almost a carbon copy of his original WWE one.
13 William Regal Shoot Wrestles Goldberg
When Goldberg started in WCW, he made a habit of squashing his opponents in a matter of minutes. Until he met one Lord Steven Regal. When the man who now goes by William Regal stepped into the ring with Bill Goldberg, their match stretched for roughly six minutes.
What is clear when watching the match is that Regal is legitimately trying to wrestle Goldberg into holds and Goldberg isn't playing ball. The actual cause for this seemingly cannot be agreed upon, with some saying that Regal disagreed with being squashed and wanted to show up Goldberg, or Goldberg didn't want to bump for Regal so he went into business for himself, etc. The match was seen as the reason why Regal was fired from WCW.
Regal himself spoke about the match on WCW Live, the company's version of WWE's online show Byte This, when he returned to the company. His account is that the two were told they would be wrestling a longer match than Goldberg was used to, something Regal said Goldberg wasn't ready for. Regal tried to fit holds into the match to help prolong it, but Goldberg tried to resist them. Whether this match is as controversial as it seems or not, the legitimacy of it has sparked a lot of conversation amongst fans and is notable as such.
12 Paul Heyman, JBL And The Blue Meanie At One Night Stand
When ECW returned for a tribute/reunion show in 2005 at the Hammerstein Ballroom for One Night Stand, WWE decoded to tie it into the usual WWE roster by having a group of WWE superstars attend as an anti-ECW protest.
When Paul Heyman took to the ring during the event he decided to address the group but not from a character perspective. He first singled out the man who he had the most beef with: Eric Bischoff. He pointed out to the former WCW owner that you didn't see him attending a tribute to his old company, and that Bischoff was in his house now. He also singled out Edge and acknowledged the real life issues with Matt Hardy, who at the time was no longer a WWE employee. Finally he singled out a man who in turn would break kayfabe himself later in the night, John Bradshaw Layfield, telling him that the only reason he got his championship reign is because Triple H didn't want to work Tuesdays (the night of Smackdown's tapings).
As for JBL, his break would happen later in the night when the ECW wrestlers would brawl with the group of WWE superstars and send them packing. During the scrap, JBL would legitimately attack The Blue Meanie allegedly about some heat they had from back when Meanie worked for WWE. Meanie had gone on record several times calling Bradshaw a bully and blaming him for losing his job, but JBL denies the claims. The two have supposedly even patched things up in the years since, but their part of the brawl was undeniably real.
11 The Kliq's Curtain Call
In what was probably the first high profile breaking of kayfabe, four of the biggest names in wrestling pulled back the curtain at the end of a live event in Madison Square Garden. The Kliq was a group of top stars who decided to band together to gain backstage power, consisting of Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall (also Sean Waltman). Their power plays burst into the mainstream upon the final night of Nash and Hall in the WWE.
After the main event between Shawn Michaels and Diesel (Nash), Razor Ramon (Hall) came to the ring to hug Michaels. Nothing was weird about this as both were wrestling as babyfaces but when Hall's opponent from earlier in the evening, Triple H, came to the ring to join in the embrace things became interesting. All four men hugged for a lengthy period of time, and then celebrated for the crowd.
There are conflicting reports as to Vince's reaction and acceptance of the incident, but what was unexpected was fans capturing footage from camcorders. WWE ceased all footage for themselves, but would later air it themselves as Michaels and Triple H would use it as D-Generation X to annoy McMahon.
The incident did have massive repercussions though, as with Michaels one of WWE's top guys and Nash and Hall left, only Triple H could take the punishment and would lose his place in the King of the Ring tournament. His spot would go to the winner, Stone Cold Steve Austin who would deliver his Austin 3:16 speech and go on to be the top guy of the Attitude Era.
10 Vince Wishes Farewell To Savage
Vince McMahon and the WWE are notorious for ignoring anything that is going on in the wrestling world outside of the company itself. There are occasional memorable exceptions, such as DX invading WCW and recent NXT signees having their previous career acknowledged, but the vast majority of the time WWE exists in a bubble.
On the night of November 7, 1994 things went a little differently. Vince McMahon himself, serving then as commentator, chose to take a moment out of the broadcast of Monday Night Raw to announce to the viewing audience that 'Macho Man' Randy Savage had not been able to come to terms with the WWE for a contract extension (he had moved across to competitor WCW).
Vince would thank Savage for all his "positive contributions" and wish him the best in his future, even going as far as to label himself the biggest fan of the star. No other superstar can say they received such a public and heartfelt goodbye from the company, and it was fitting for the truly unique superstar.
9 The Montreal Screwjob
Some still believe the whole thing is the longest running work in wrestling history, but to the majority, The Montreal Screwjob is the tale of a backstage betrayal that took place on a stage for the public. Survivor Series 1997 in Montreal, Shawn Michaels challenging for Bret Hart's WWE Championship. Vince wanted Bret to drop the strap because he was leaving the company to WCW and didn't want a repeat of Alundra Blayze taking the championship to the competition to trash it. Bret didn't want to drop it in Montreal, and wanting instead to drop it the next night on Raw to Michaels. Neither man would budge, although Vince told Bret he had.
In the final stretch of the match, Michaels locks in Bret's signature Sharpshooter hold and goes to feed him his foot to roll the move through to a Sharpshooter by Bret for the finish. Instead, Earl Hebner called for the bell and the screwjob was in place. Michaels was the new champion, without Hart having actually submitted.
The following night the kayfabe breaking continued, as Vince McMahon began his Mr McMahon character in the iconic "Bret screwed Bret" interview. JR may have outed Vince as owner a few months prior but this was the completion of the transition.
8 Shane Douglas Shoots On The NWA
In September 1993, ECW was the only televised branch of the National Wrestling Alliance. Yet NWA President Dennis Coralluzzo was still attempting a power play when a new NWA World Heavyweight Champion needed crowning. Coralluzzo feared that ECW owner Tod Gordon and collaborator Jim Crockett were looking to monopolise the championship the way Crockett had when he was WCW owner.
The power plays resulted in Paul Heyman and Tod Gordon deciding that their new champion Shane Douglas, and in turn ECW, would turn their back on the NWA after winning the tournament final. As Heyman would later say, NWA needed ECW more than ECW needed the NWA.
Douglas's post-match speech would reel of a list of former NWA Champions, before he threw down the championship and told them all to kiss his ass because he didn't want to represent a company that "died seven years ago." Instead he would declare himself the ECW World Champion, and from there a new "extreme" attitude was born.
7 Ric Flair And Mick Foley's Genuine Feud
Two of the most revered legends of all time may be friends now, but there was a time where the two were not on great terms. Their problems with each may have started earlier, but they entered the public conscience thanks to the autobiographies of both men.
First off in Foley's 'Have a Nice Day!' he stated that "Flair was every bit as bad on the booking side of things as he was great on the wrestling side of it." This was in reference to Flair's time in charge of WCW, during which time Foley felt he was misused by the company. Flair returned the criticism in his own autobiography 'To Be The Man' saying "I do not care how many thumbtacks Mick Foley has fallen on, how many ladders he's fallen off, how many continents he's supposedly bled on, he will always be known as a glorified stuntman."
This heat spilled over onto TV a year later, igniting a two month rivalry between the two that saw Flair win both matches in the series - a two of three falls match and an I Quit match.
6 Tony Schiavone's Spoilers
The line may have come from Schiavone's mouth but the idea came directly from Eric Bischoff, with an idea that would backfire spectacularly. WCW was trying to take advantage of the fact that at the time WWE taped Raw ahead of airing, as opposed to Nitro airing live. WCW were very confident about their show, with Hollywood Hogan coming out of retirement, and a promised Starrcade rematch seeing Goldberg trying to get revenge for his controversial streak-ending title loss against Kevin Nash. The show ended up being a complete mess, not delivering on any front, and ending with the infamous 'Fingerpoke of Doom' and it is hardly surprising that it was the night that swung the momentum against WCW.
Even Schiavone himself admits he would've changed the channel after the reveal of a title change, as many might expect.
5 Daniel Puder Tries To Break Kurt Angle's Arm
Towards the end of 2004 WWE held a special version of their Tough Enough competition. Taking place on Smackdown rather than its own show and with a $1,000,000 prize, it was an attempt to bring it more in line with the ordinary shows and create a ready made star of the winner. One of the weekly contests saw Kurt Angle tasked with hazing each contestant in turn, but when the eventual winner of the competition, Daniel Puder, stepped up, the plans were changed. Puder was a legitimate mixed martial artist and chose to go off script and go into business for himself after seeing Angle rough up the first contestant (who had three of his ribs broken).
Puder and Angle would proceed to unexpectedly shoot wrestle, with Angle getting caught in a Kimura armbar hold. If you're a wrestling fan who doesn't know MMA, you may recognize the name of the move as the one popularized by Brock Lesnar since his return - promoted as a move that can break arms. That is because in reality, a Kimura armbar CAN break arms. Referee Jim Korderas made a three-count to end the hold (despite Puder's shoulders not being down) because Angle was not going to break character and tap out.
4 Brian Pillman's "Respect"
Flyin' Brian Pillman may have made his name with a Cruiserweight style ahead of his time, but his lasting legacy was forged later in his career when he became known as 'The Loose Cannon'. He would develop the reputation with a series of worked shoots, designed to create an air of unpredictability around him.
The first instance of which came at the sixth annual SuperBrawl pay-per-view event when he faced The Taskmaster (Kevin Sullivan) in an "I Respect You" Strap Match. The rules were identical to an I Quit Match, with an equally humiliating phrase. However, instead of wrestling the match, Pillman instead sarcastically stated "I respect you, booker man" before making his exit. This move publicly revealed Sullivan as the booker (head writer) of WCW and would see Pillman fired - something that even Sullivan wasn't clued in on.
Only two men created and knew about the stunt; Pillman and Eric Bischoff. However it would be another plan that would backfire on the latter, as instead of returning to WCW after a stint in ECW to further his edgy reputation, Pillman instead took the act to the WWE where he took it as far as the infamous gun incident with Stone Cold Steve Austin.
3 Paul Heyman Hijacks Raw
Sometimes breaking kayfabe is less of a choice and more of a reaction. March 3rd 2014 was one of those moments. With WWE fans everywhere getting more vocal with their displeasure at WWE's booking, led principally by the mistreatment of internet favourites like Daniel Bryan and CM Punk. Punk famously walked on WWE but the company wouldn't give a definitive answer on whether he was truly gone. So with WWE set to head to his hometown of Chicago late into the road to WrestleMania, fans were at a fever pitch in an anti-WWE mentality and chose to protest in the form of #HijackRaw.
Knowing that the issue could no longer be ignored on television, WWE chose to tackle it head on and opened the show with CM Punk's music. The crowd went crazy, but soon a different madness set in as Paul Heyman instead made his way out and would sit in the ring, à la Punk, and "tell the story of a Paul Heyman guy."
Heyman's storytelling would begin a shoot that would eventually switch to a kayfabe version of reality, but this was one of the most daring and flawlessly executed opening of the backstage curtains in history and only a man of Paul Heyman's talking ability and reverence could have pulled it off. A once in a lifetime moment that was absolutely enthralling television.
2 Edge, Lita And Matt Hardy
Matt Hardy and Lita were the Attitude Era version of Randy Savage and Elizabeth. The fans adored the relationship between the two, and naturally the fans would be upset if they split. The way that they split caused a much bigger impact that expected. Lita cheated on Matt with Edge, and soon after, Matt found himself unemployed. Thanks to the shared knowledge of the internet, the new couple received "You screwed Matt" chants from crowds despite not being associated on TV and Lita playing a babyface.
The topic would finally be addressed on television when Paul Heyman mentioned it during his shoot on ECW One Night Stand, and WWE would eventually embrace reality and pair the two up. Meanwhile, fans would start an online petition to get Matt rehired that amassed 15,000 signatures.
WWE themselves would fully acknowledge the love triangle during Edge and Lita's on-screen wedding, having Hardy's music hit when the priest asked if there were any objections as a prank from the couple. The rivalry would include Matt phoning in to Byte This! when Lita was a guest, Matt doing a couple of run-ins when (kayfabe) not under contract and eventually Vince McMahon himself announcing his rehiring on Raw, kicking off a very intense feud between the two.
1 Roddy Piper Blames Vince Russo For Owen's Death
What can be more serious and uncomfortable than blaming someone for a death?
In the early days of TNA, it was commonplace for unexpected guests to show up from time to time thanks to the format of weekly pay-per-view events. On one very memorable occasion, Rowdy Roddy Piper turned up to the Asylum in the middle of a promotional tour for his book. In typical Hot Rod fashion, this would not be a stereotypical plug for a new book.
Instead, Piper immediately took TNA's head writer Vince Russo to task. After calling him talentless and saying that he kills the dreams of wrestlers, he turned to a considerably more sombre issue. Piper said that Russo has never been taken to task and made to pay for the death of Owen Hart. Saying that Russo sent him 90 feet in the air for no reason and without any knowledge of the technicalities, it is he who is responsible for the terrible accident.
When Russo finally came out, Piper actually outright asked him "Did you kill Owen Hart?" to which he got no answer. He would also ask him about how he managed to turn WCW round from a company $60 million to the good, to a company $80 million in debt - another question that would not receive an answer, but none cut as deep as the blame for Owen.