Pro wrestling depends upon intense and emotional conflict, much like the legal system. Wrestling involves (normally) two adversarial forces starring across the ring surrounded by spectators, while in courtrooms often there’s just an audience of one judge. But unlike a ref in a worked wrestling match, this neutral official won’t be bumped, miss the hot tag, or hold up the hand of the winner. Yet, in the history of wrestlers suing promoters most often the hand raised in triumph belongs to the nearly unbeatable champion: Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
World Wrestling Entertainment / Federation, Titan Sports, and even McMahon’s father’s old Capital Wrestling Corporation are no strangers to receiving legal smackdowns from talent. While there are some mid-card talent who have sued the McMahon family empire, more often it’s been men (and one woman) pushed to the top of the cards who’ve employed shark-like lawyers to bite the hand that once feed them.
The lawsuits were mostly won by the McMahon Empire because of deep pockets and also a tenacious legal team headed up by Jerry McDevitt. He’s a shooter; a legit legal bad ass who counter-sues and pre-emptively sues talent before they can make claims. McDevitt, who saved McMahon from prison by successfully defended McMahon in the mid 1990s when the Feds tried to take down the owner of the (Word Wrestling) Fed for steroid distribution, has raked up victory after victory like a new superstar getting pushed from the prelims to the main event.
What follows, from opening match chumps to mid card talent to main event champions, are fifteen of the most interesting cases of talent going one-on-one with the McMahon legal team in knockdown drag-out brawls fought not in the squared circle, but in the legal arena.
15 Charles Austin
Back in the day before the Monday Night wars, McMahon’s TV, both cable and syndicated shows, consisted of squash matches where a no name, literally often not even introduced, jobbers lost to pushed talent. In December 1990, The Rockers (Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels) squared off against Lanny Poffo and such a jobber. The squash hit a snag when Jannetty used the rocker dropper, a standing leg drop across the foe’s neck driving his face DDT-like into the mat. But when the jobber took the move wrong and broke his neck leaving him partially paralyzed, the McMahon family learned the injured jobber’s name (Charles Austin) expensively and quickly. Austin successfully sued winning $26.7 million.
14 Doug Somers
13 Nicole Bass
12 Raven / Kanyon / Mike Sanders
Raven/Scott Levy was a huge star in ECW and a lesser one in WCW. About all he did in the WWE was win the Hardcore title numerous times, but then again, who didn’t? Unlike previous suits about injuries and insults, Raven, his NJ buddy Kanyon and Mike Sanders (who?) went for the jugular in 2009. They claimed they were not “independent contractors” but WWE employees and thus employment laws and benefits should apply, such as things like health insurance.
11 Billy Jack Haynes
When the concussion lawsuit parade began rippling than roaring through former NFL and NHL players, it wasn’t long before former WWE talent banged their head against that wall. In 2014 Haynes sued, claiming WWE’s “egregious mistreatment of its wrestlers for its own benefit, as well as its concealment and denial of medical research and evidence concerning traumatic brain injuries suffered by WWE wrestlers.” Haynes, who had a cup of coffee mid-card career, found others to turn his case into a class action suit.
10 Larry Zbyszko
9 Jesse “The Body Governor” Ventura
8 Ricky Steamboat
While McMahon liked to create his own characters, sometimes he listened to talent like Randy “Moondog Rex” Colley who pitched the Demolition idea. The good news for the WWE is the team stayed on top for years as both heels and faces. The bad news for Colley is that fans, despite the face paint, recognized him and changed Moondog at him.
What a roller-coaster ride! Coming in as a valet for Triple H, but then switched to accompany real life husband Mark Mero, Sable became the hottest Diva ever during the Monday Night Wars. Her segments, normally involving her wearing fewer and fewer clothes (or those she was wearing stripped off in evening gown matches) moved ratings. Her Playboy spread moved mountains of money. In June 1999, she moved against McMahon claiming sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions, namely for being asked to do all the things that made her famous in the first place. McMahon counter-sued and they settled out of court.
5 Ivan Koloff and two WWE Hall of Famers
The Russian Bear was a one week champion moving the belt from Bruno Sammartino (#2) has not yet sued the WWE. Instead, he sent an intention to file suit letter in 2015. On his Survivor Series team of five as co-defendants are Blackjack Mulligan (WWE Hall of Fame, really?) and his son Barry Windham, Koko B. Ware (another Hall of Famer, seriously?) Dynamite Kid, and several “John Doe” defendants, no doubt jobbers from back in the day.
4 Brock Lesnar
Before he married Sable, Lesner was involved in a messy divorce with McMahon. Lesnar hated the WWE lifestyle and wanted out of his contract in spring 2004. The WWE agreed except for one little condition; you can’t do pro wrestling anywhere in the world for the life of his contract, meaning almost six years. When Brock’s attempts to play in the NFL failed, Lesnar sued to get out his contract.
3 Superstar Billy Graham
2 Bruno Sammartino
Bruno was on top for Vince’s father for years and years and years. He took time off, but with business down, Bruno came back drawing more sellouts. Sellouts, he learned later, that he’d not been paid what was owed. Vince, now running his father’s company, settled out of court with Bruno, in part by adding him to the color commentary team. This provided Bruno with lots of days off and plenty of money. Perhaps the bitterness of the suit, or the lack of push for his son David, led to Bruno’s virulent assault on the WWE dominated industry but McMahon in particular.
1 Ultimate Warrior
With more lawsuits than title reigns, Ultimate Warrior aka Jim Hellwig aka Warrior easily comes in here as number one guy, as he would in a poll of least amount of talent paired with most charisma. After leaving on bad terms (several times), Hellwig tried to change the game by legally changing his name to Warrior in 1993. Lawsuits flew back and forth like clotheslines, in particular when Warrior returned to wrestling in WCW in 1998. After that disaster, Warrior disappeared until 2005 when WWE resurrected, or rather crucified him, in the 2005 DVD The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior which resulted in Warrior suing the WWE for libel. With the case dismissed in 2009, Warrior went AWOL again until WWE brought him back into the family for his 2014 induction in the Hall of Fame. This was followed by an appearance on live Monday Night Raw, just a day before he passed away of a heart attack.
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