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.
Like 1-2-3 Kid going over Scott Hall on an early Monday Night Raw, Austin’s victory was the upset of the decade. While McMahon versus Charles Austin would lose McMahon money, a different Austin versus McMahon conflict a few years made Vince a millionaire many times over.
14 Doug Somers
Somers, who never worked for the WWE, decided to sue them anyway in 2012. His suit was based on use of footage of him wrestling in the American Wrestling Association which was used in various DVDs. He claimed, among other things, that use of his image was both an invasion of his privacy AND violation of the right of publicity. This was somewhat related to what former AWA alumni Jesse Ventura (see no.9) had tried earlier. Somers, however, came up, as he often did in most of his matches, on the losing end looking at the lights, not a fat paycheck.
13 Nicole Bass
Bass was typical of the Attitude Era freak show: a hugely muscled female bodybuilder who came to the WWE via the Howard Stern show. In 1999, she sued the WWE and employee Steve Lombardi, alleging “sexual harassment, retaliation, sex discrimination, assault, battery, and negligence.” And maybe kitchen sinks. After a decade of litigation, she lost the case in 2010 in part because despite warnings from the judge, she continued to file “duplicative, vexatious or clearly meritless appeals, motions or other papers.” And maybe kitchen sinks.
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.
They attacked the bottom line, but did they win? Hell, no. Unlike others who sued and returned to the WWE flock, this trio never were invited back to become independent contractors for a company that wouldn’t allow them to work anywhere else. Huh?
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.
The other names would be noted by the only the most hardcore wrestling fan, such as Vito LoGrasso who wrestled s Skull Von Crush. Really, somebody named Skull Von Crush didn’t think he could get a concussion wrestling? Given Haynes wrestled for 14 years total, but only two under McMahon’s watch, his suit is most likely to get busted open like Haynes did at WrestleMania III in his only memorable WWE moment.
10 Larry Zbyszko
Or as it actually says in court documents, “also known as Larry Zbyszko also known as The Living Legend.” Larry Whistler began calling himself “Living Legend” after his feud with a real legend Bruno Sammartino, not his role in the AWA’s Team Challenge Series. In 2002, when Chris Jericho began using the LL nickname, Zbysko, rather than his trademark stalling, sued the WWE and Jericho with all due speed. Jericho’s take can be found on the silliness of this suit in his second book while the outcome can be found in Zbysko humbly joining the 2015 WWE Hall of Fame. Like any good heel, Zbysko took his loss in stride.
9 Jesse “The Body Governor” Ventura
This was a big one, but it belongs in the intermission spot as Jesse sued as an announcer, not wrestler. His logic was simple, persuasive and victorious; you get paid to do commentary, but if you use that commentary in other platforms, back then on something called “VHS”, you need to pay me. The argument worked as Ventura’s team convinced a judge that WWE (then Titan Sports) had lied to him about such residuals. The case, decided in 1995 saw Jesse collect over $800,000 while his case broke legal ground. It caused the WWE to change its contracts. If not for this change, there would be no WWE network and thus dental drilling shilling of the $9.99 price tag.
8 Ricky Steamboat
Why did real life Richard Blood sue the WWE in 1994? Was it over atrocities liked never winning the WWE title, losing the IC title to Honky Tonk Man, and/or holding kerosene in his mouth to get his fire-breathing dragon gimmick over? No, like most suits, it was about money, Blood money. Or rather, money Steamboat thought he was owed from VHS sales. The three year plus suit, like a Steamboat/Flair match featured near falls, twists and turns leaving onlookers exhausted.
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.
The chants didn’t play into McMahon’s idea of Demolition as killer heels, so Colley was dropped from the team. Colley, along with the other original Demolition member Bill Eadie who helped developed the character sued McMahon unsuccessfully in 1992 for ripping off their ideas and not paying them any merch money. But to the outsider, it appeared they ripped off the gimmick from the Road Warriors. So, maybe Ole Anderson and Bill Watts, who came up with the Road Warrior gimmick, should have tagged themselves into this one.
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.
Sable returned to the ring in 2003, leaving soon after although not with Triple H or Mark Mero, but with Brock Lesnar who in 2006 pinned a wedding ring on her finger.
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.
The WWE fired back right away perhaps leading to his suit lasting just a little longer than Ivan’s title reign. Like Billy Jack Haynes, Koloff and the others wrestled most of their careers outside of the WWE, so whatever unfortunate injuries they may have suffered were not all in a WWE ring. As of yet, Ware’s pet bird Frankie is not named.
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.
The WWE counter-sued when Lesnar wrestled for New Japan in 2005. By June of 2006, both sides agreed to drop the suits. This landed Lesnar in the UFC Octagon in 2008, back in McMahon land in 2012 and the WWE title around his waist in 2014.
3 Superstar Billy Graham
Graham’s love hate relationship with McMahon is well documented. When it was good, McMahon was the Superstar’s biggest fan. When it was bad, Graham was person non-grata as he jumped head first with his twenty four inch arms into the mid 1990s sex and steroid scandals accusing McMahon of all sorts of evils. He turned his accusations to litigation as he sued Doctor George Zahorian and WWE for his physical ills due to his use of steroids. His suit was dismissed as Graham’s steroid use/abuse pre-dated his WWE days. After years apart, Graham and McMahon reconciled and Graham joined the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. He repaid McMahon by suing over book royalties and selling off his Hall of Fame ring on eBay.
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.
Not only did Bruno bash McMahon in the press, he even appeared against McMahon as an expert witness in the Charles Austin case. Another Bruno victory! The bitterness remained until Bruno agreed to buy the hatchet and join the 2013 Hall of Fame class, for his wrestling, not commentary career.
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.