When professional wrestlers talk during a professional wrestling show, you can rest assured that whatever they’re saying is in service of the show. After all, wrestling storylines are carefully plotted in order to build greater excitement for the predetermined matches that go down in the ring, so there’s no reason to believe anything that a wrestler says on air.
Just the same, there have been exceptions to this rule. Particularly since the Montreal Screwjob, bookers have often flirted with the line between reality and kayfabe to create additional intrigue and get the audience members—most of whom understand the fix is in—to wonder, was that really supposed to happen?
And sometimes it wasn’t. While there are plenty of “worked shoots” that only have a semblance of reality, while still being scripted, there are also those times when tensions have boiled over. Wrestlers have made their own calls on the fly, or sometimes wrestlers have even been instructed to actually speak their minds for the crowd’s entertainment. Every wrestling fan is intrigued when the fourth wall is broken because it's genuinely a shock when it happens, as wrestling is far more predicatable today than it used to be.
This column looks at some of the most memorable instances when wrestling segments got real.
On a 1998 episode of WCW Monday Nitro, Eddie Guerrero vocalized his frustrations at his limited opportunities in WCW, and famously threw a cup of coffee on himself to save Eric Bischoff the trouble. From a variety of accounts, this incident reflected a real life instance when Bischoff spilled coffee on Guerrero (besides the obvious reality that Guerrero was relegated to the mid-card with no sign of kayfabe advancement).
In his book, Cheating Death, Stealing Life Guerrero wrote that the promo was a work, and that the incident when Bischoff spilled coffee on him was actually an accident, but in other shoot interviews—most notably on WWE’s Monday Night War documentary, he seems quite sincere in his frustrations and animosity at the time towards Bischoff. In all likelihood, this promo does fall under the category of segments that were planned for the show and approved by the powers that be, but heavily tinged by Guerrero’s real thoughts and feelings.
Bash at the Beach 2000 featured one of WCW’s most infamous worked shoot angles, in which Jeff Jarrett let Hulk Hogan pin him, and Vince Russo went on to cut a promo about how Hogan had, in reality, demanded the win, was a pain to work with, and would never be allowed to work for WCW again.
In multiple shoot interviews, Russo has said that it was all supposed to be a work, but whether it was Russo’s fault, or the responsibility of any other combination of higher ups, Hogan took offense to Russo’s words (which he claims he never agreed to, and Eric Bischoff has supported that story in shoot interview of his own) and wound up suing WCW over them, and actually never set foot in a WCW ring again.
On a summer 2011 episode of Monday Night Raw, CM Punk was called upon to speak his mind about the way WWE did business and his own place in it. In the WWE-produced documentary Best in the World, Punk discusses his incredulity at the instructions, after butting heads with the powers that be for years over speaking his mind.
Punk went on to deliver one of wrestling’s most famous promos of the last decade, running WWE management, John Cena, and The Rock, while offering shout outs to ROH, New Japan, and his friend Colt Cabana at a time when it was not yet common practice for WWE to acknowledge a wrestling word beyond its own boundaries. While the promo was sanctioned, it was by all indications almost entirely real and was quite arguably the key ingredient in getting Punk over as a top-level star for the rest of his time with WWE.
In the build to WrestleMania XXVIII, John Cena and The Rock faced the oddball challenge of building a year-long rivalry while one of the principle players (The Rock) spent more time away from WWE than with it (note: this was also in the nascent days of WWE regularly employing part-timers). A lot of the feud happened via social media and pre-taped interviews, but when Cena and The Rock were both in the same building, things tended to get heated quickly.
The twosome walked a razor thin line between giving traditional wrestling promos and actually calling one another out, with Cena emphasizing that The Rock had left wrestling behind for years and his heart wasn’t in it anymore. Things reached a fever pitch when Cena pointed out that, in a preceding interview, The Rock had written some of his lines down on his arm so he wouldn’t have to memorize them.
Doubts remain as to whether this was a worked shoot all its own—if The Rock having his script in front of him might have itself been a plot device. Cena and The Rock certainly have certainly mended any fences since, but this moment remains one of intrigue in a program that was otherwise criticized for, if anything, being a little too polished.
Long before the Pipebomb and teasing walking out of WWE with its top championship in tow, CM Punk played out a similar angle in his final stretch with ROH. News leaked he was on his way out the door, and in what looked to be his last match, he won the ROH Championship.
The months to follow billed as the (original) Summer of Punk, the ROH roster chased him, desperate to not accept the insult of Punk leaving with the title. To build some extra heat, Punk went so far as to actually, literally sign his WWE contract on top of the ROH belt in front of the TV cameras. He confirmed the moment was for real, not just symbolic, in the Best in the World documentary.
Tensions built between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels in the mid-1990s. What started as a purely professional rivalry based on each man wanting to be recognized as the best of his generation grew into a personal beef. In his book, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling Hart discusses at length Michaels growing more conceited and unprofessional, while Michaels wrote in his book Heartbreak & Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story how he felt Hart undercut him backstage and on camera.
One of the most heated points in their very public personal issue came when Michaels gave a promo referencing Hart having “some Sunny days.” In retrospect, both parties agree that the implication—that Hart had slept with Sunny—was unfounded, and particularly problematic because Michaels himself had engaged in an affair with Sunny, and the comment led to problems in Hart’s real life marriage when she took what Michaels had to say seriously.
In the early days of TNA—when the promotion aired its product via weekly PPVs, Roddy Piper was booked for a thinly veiled reworking of Piper’s Pit, known as In the Pit with Piper. In his first appearance, he called out Vince Russo and openly blamed him for the death of Owen Hart in WWE.
While the moment was clearly sanctioned, if not explicitly scripted by TNA, the fact remains that Piper may well have been speaking his mind. Hot Rod did have real life close connections to the Hart family, and worked for WCW on and off throughout the Monday Night War, while Russo started out as a major creative contributor for WWE and while there’s not a clearly documented tie between him and the incident that led to Owen Hart’s accidental death during the Over The Edge 1999 PPV, it’s reasonable to think Russo may have contributed to the choice for Hart to have been up in the rafters. Thus Piper might legitimately have had a gripe against Russo.
It’s arguable whether this angle was a success, given it put the spotlight on two guys who wouldn’t be wrestling and fizzled quickly, but it did succeed to the extent that it was a worked shoot that got people talking. It led to speculation if it was just a creative device, or if we were actually watching real life tensions play out on screen.
In the immediate aftermath of the Pipebomb promo, CM Punk made some additional worked shoot comments, but that part of his character faded before too long, and particularly after his heel turn as WWE Champion.
In the build to Punk defending the title against The Rock at Royal Rumble 2013, however, Punk went shooting again, this time in a much shorter snippet, but breaking the fourth wall to attack WWE creative decisions. In his tirade, he blasted the powers that be for under-utilizing Tyson Kidd, and for Brodus Clay beng cast as a lovable dancing big man when he should have been booked as a monster.
The fleeting moment got a big reaction from the live crowd and on the Internet afterward if for no other reason than because the criticisms rang true—similar to the appeal of Punk’s first Pipebomb.
On the The Nature Boy Ric Flair: The Definitive Collection documentary, Flair describes how after a series of contract disputes and legal troubles, Ric Flair decided to put aside his real-life differences with Eric Bischoff and WCW management aside in favor of returning to the business he loved. It started with reuniting with his Four Horsemen stablemates on an episode of Monday Nitro that aired live from Greenville, South Carolina.
Flair was visibly emotional, and after he thanked the fans, Bischoff made an appearance in the aisle to yell at Flair, only for Flair to tell him off. While the two having a conflict was clearly part of the planned show, based on Flair’s level of emotion and use of strong language—ultimately calling Bischoff “a no-good son of a bitch” there was a lot of speculation that Flair was speaking from the heart, and he has confirmed as much in subsequent shoot interviews.
While her eventual real-life husband CM Punk was better known for his genre-bending Pipebomb promo, AJ Lee delivered a promo of a similar ilk on RAW in 2013, blasting her colleagues who were featured on the Total Divas television show, and putting herself over as a real professional wrestler who’d earned her spot based on hard work, not looks or nepotism.
The segment was planned, but by all indications Lee’s words came from the heart—they resonated with hardcore fans who balked at Total Divas, and didn’t take the overwhelming majority of the women’s roster at the time seriously—the same fans who supported Lee.
Regardless of where the reality/kayfabe line rested on this promo, it sparked plenty of attention from fans and even former WWE performers like Maria Kanellis who chimed in on Twitter to back Lee at the expense of the Bella Twins who she’d targeted in the promo.
In late 2005, Joey Styles joined the announce team for Monday Night RAW, ostensibly replacing fan favorite and legend Jim Ross as the play-by-play guy. While he was reasonably successful in this role, there were signs that WWE didn’t fully trust him, including when the promotion brought back Jim Ross to sit in what would have been Styles’s seat for most of WrestleMania 22, and when they did it again at the Backlash PPV a month later.
In May 2006, after getting kayfabe humiliated by Edge, Jerry Lawler, and The Spirit Squad over the course of an episode of RAW, Styles delivered a classic worked shoot promo. No doubt the interview itself was sanctioned, but all indications were Styles was speaking from the heart, blasting WWE for its commitment to the term “sports entertainment” over wrestling, and complaining violently about not getting to call WrestleMania, much less Backlash, before he kayfabe quit, to resurface soon after when WWE properly launched its ECW brand.
After time away in WCW and on the independent scene, Jake Roberts returned to WWE a changed man. He’d last been seen as a particularly evil heel, but returned quoting scripture and openly discussing his real-life struggles with substance abuse.
The character itself bent the lines between reality and kayfabe, and got drawn into sharper relief when Roberts entered a program with Jerry Lawler. Lawler relentlessly poked fun at Roberts’s struggles with alcoholism culminating in an instance when, after a scripted attack, Lawler poured real whiskey on Roberts and down his throat, which Roberts was reportedly very upset about at the time.
Roberts has since said that it’s water under the bridge in multiple shoot interviews, but the fact remains that this was a strange instance of an attack truly going too far and beyond one of the performer's consent in WWE.
As he started to be taken seriously as a professional wrestler, and along his march to his first WWE title reign, The Miz openly discussed his past on air, including his struggles to gain respect in the WWE locker room. In a program with MVP, in particular, Miz delivered a promo in which he cited getting kicked out of the locker room for a period of months on account of making a mess eating chicken there, all to build to the point that he’d taken his licks and worked his way up in the company.
The notation not only made sense in the story Miz was telling, but offered a rare peak behind the curtain for an anecdote that many other wrestlers have confirmed was the real deal from Miz’s early days on the main roster.
This Miz also provided a dose of his real feelings last year on a segment of Talking Smack. After getting called out by Daniel Bryan for being a 'safe' worker, implying Miz is very vanilla, Miz snapped, saying unlike Bryan he never got hurt and he worked his ass off to get where he was. The passion in this promo clearly showed The Miz believed everything he was saying, and that's when promos are at their best.
When Dustin Runnels returned to WCW in 1999, he was reintroduced via a series of vignettes portraying the character of Seven, a face-painted villain who, among other things, was shown hovering outside a child’s bedroom window.
The angle quickly failed as concerns arose that the Seven character was a child abductor or molester, and the powers that be at Turner Broadcasting were not on board. WCW took a sharp turn upon the character’s debut—though Seven entered to a lot of theatrics and in full costume, he quickly dropped the gimmick and entered a worked shoot to reintroduce himself to the audience as Dustin Rhodes. The promo included plenty facts, blasting outlandish gimmicks in the wrestling business, and expressing some beef with WWE over his booking when he worked there.
Mick Foley had a strange relationship with ECW. Though he’s known as a The Hardcore Legend and his most memorable moments include instances of extreme violence under the WWE and WCW banners, when he was with a promotion that made hardcore violence its calling card, he played a heel who was put off by over-the-top bloodthirst and wanted to be welcomed back by his “Uncle Eric” (Bischoff, representing WCW).
The crux of his kayfabe anti-hardcore sentiments revolved around his then-three-year-old son, Dewey, and seeing a fan hold a sign demanding that someone “Cane Dewey.” In an interview with WWE.com 18 years afterward, Foley said that he wasn’t rattled by the sign at first, but his wife at the time was, and steered Foley toward understanding that the sign- essentially threatening a three-year-old - was over the line. Foley channeled this real-life indignation about the sign into an impassioned promo about why ECW and its fans disgusted him.