Wrestling was better in the '90s and it was down to one thing: Competition. The two greatest companies in wrestling had arguably their greatest eras (Attitude and nWo) collide at the same time to launch the epic Monday Night War. DX and the nWo were major pop cultural phenomenons that you still see in arenas today. At the same there was ECW who with their ultra-violent brand of wrestling were pushing boundaries as far as you could go in the ring, massively influencing the product WCW and WWE would be showcasing. The fact that these three companies were at the top of their game meant they were all constantly trying to find new ways to shock and surprise fans in order to boost ratings.
The '90s was a time when Wrestling was genuinely ahead of the fans, producing WTF!? moments almost on a weekly basis on TV and at Pay-Per-View events. Fans expected to be see things that had never been done, and all three promotions strived to find creative ways to shock them.
Tensions and creative differences backstage would often find themselves being played out in story-arcs, blurring the line between what you saw as real and fake. The industry will likely never see another decade filled with quite as many moments that truly stunned the fan-base than the 1990s. The role of the internet also means that reveals and comebacks almost always find themselves online first, making it much harder to surprise fans. Here are the top 5 most shocking incidents for WWE, WCW, and ECW that took place in the 1990s.
15 WWE: The Stunner Heard Around the World
Before the character of “Mr. McMahon” emerged as dominant figure in wrestling storylines and arguably the greatest heel in WWE history, Vince McMahon was known to fans as little more than a “babyface” play-by-play commentator. Towards the end of 1996 there began to be occasional references to the fact that Vince McMahon was the Chairman of the company, but no one figured he would play a dominant role in any story-arc.
In September, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was coming back from a broken neck injury at the hands of Owen Hart, and was raising hell because WWE officials wouldn’t clear him fit to fight. On September 22, 1997 at the first episode of RAW ever to be held at Madison Square Garden, Stone Cold entered the ring to attack Owen Hart while being chased by five NYPD officers. McMahon rose from the announcer table to tell Austin that he was simply unfit to wrestle and he must respect the system. In a classic moment for "The Rattlesnake," Austin pretended to care that the company cared for him before showing that he would never conform to the “system” and delivered a stunner to McMahon, before being arrested and taken away by the NYPD. It established Austin as a blue-collar hero who would literally give one finger to the establishment.
The incident was shocking because at this point McMahon wasn’t the villain in the wrestling world that he would become. He was a commentator who happened to be Chairman of the company. No one would have believed that the Chairman could be assaulted in such a way. In that one moment the greatest feud in wrestling history had begun, and RAW, which was currently being trounced by Nitro in ratings, would start to dominate Monday nights once again.
14 WCW: Lex Luger Arrives On Nitro
In his book “Controversy Creates Cash,” Eric Bischoff describes how in his early involvement with WCW he was trying to work out what people liked about wrestling. The answer was people liked it when it was unpredictable. For the first ever Monday Night Nitro he was given the gift of one of the biggest surprises in wrestling history.
In 1995, the WWE Lex Luger was being pushed as the heir to Hulk Hogan as the organizations heavyweight babyface. It wasn’t quite working out. Luger was apparently still reasonably happy with WWE but due to disagreements he had never officially signed a new contract. For most of 1995 he was literally working for the WWE on a “handshake agreement.” Luger’s good friend Sting was shocked that his friend would be working in such circumstances. Sting spoke to Bischoff and negotiations between Luger and WCW began.
A week before the September 4, 1995 debut episode of Nitro filmed at the Mall of America, Luger had appeared for WWE at SummerSlam. The night before that he had worked a taped house show for WWE in Minneapolis. But there he was being kept hidden in a hotel room waiting to be revaled. Only a select few within WCW knew Luger would be appearing. Luger hadn’t even handed in his notice to Vince McMahon. Midway through a fight between Sting and Ric Flair, Luger appeared, with mullet in full flow, staring at the ring with arms folded to a stunned crowd. Later in the night he returned for a stare down with Hulk Hogan. Absolutely nobody expected to see Luger there. It was a huge moment for the WCW brand, and announced to wrestling fans that Nitro could be a serious contender to Raw.
13 ECW: Raining Chairs at Hardcore Heaven
That ECW was able to exist for nearly 10 years is partly due to the bloodthirsty nature of the fans. They came to see Extreme Wrestling and they expected to see boundaries pushed. They were a different breed to the fans content with the Monday Night War. No two wrestlers pushed those boundaries more than Cactus Jack and Terry Funk.
You never knew what to expect in one of their matches: wire, fans being set on fire, the only thing you could rely on that it was going to end in a bloody mess. At Hardcore Heaven in 1994, Funk and Cactus were interrupted by tag-team duo Public Enemy and teamed up briefly. Funk indicated to the fans that he needed a chair. The rabid crowd were perhaps a little more generous than Funk intended as it literally began to rain chairs into the ring. The officials helplessly called out to the fans to "stop the chairs,” but there was nothing they could do as Public Enemy were buried under a mass pile of chairs. Luckily serious injuries were avoided, but it was a sign of how easily things could get totally out of hand at an ECW match, and remains one of the most iconic moments in ECW history.
12 WWE: The Rock Is The "Chosen One"
By Survivor Series 1998, one year after the “Screwjob” in Montreal, Mr. McMahon as head of The Corporation was a full-fledged heel. What better way to enrage the fans than to recreate that moment from the 1998 Survivor Series. Of course it doesn’t come close to matching the infamous moment in Montreal, but the sight of The Rock revealing himself to be the “Chosen One” of The Corporation was a shocking incident. The Rock’s rise in the past 12 months from the failing Rocky Maiva character to the most electrifying figure in sports entertainment had helped the Attitude explosion in the WWE.
It was a stroke of genius from McMahon because it helped establish The Rock as a legitimate heel and set-up the rivalry with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin that would lead to an epic match-up in the main event of WrestleMania XV, and dominate Pay-Per-View main events for the next few years.
11 WCW: Goldberg Defeats Hulk Hogan
Backstage, the atmosphere was toxic. The nWo storyline was becoming overbearing in WCW angles. The rapid rise of Bill Goldberg provided the shock the company needed at that time with the Attitude Era in WWE starting to really take off. Yes, Goldberg was by no means an impressive wrestler from a technical standpoint, but he knew how to get a crowd hyped. And those who were there at the Georgia Dome on July 6, 1998 describe an atmosphere like no other. The closest thing it could be compared to would be the reaction Hogan himself got in the mid-80s.
What made this incident particularly shocking came down to two things. First, that Hollywood Hogan agreed to take a clean loss to Goldberg. The second is that it took place on a Monday Night Nitro. WCW received a lot of criticism at the time that they chose not to capitalize on Goldberg’s popularity by using his first title shot for a Pay-Per-View. But let’s be honest, a match between Goldberg and Hogan is never going to be a genuine classic. This match was short, barely six minutes, and all the fans really needed to see was Goldberg sell a bit for Hogan before taking him out with a Spear and a Jackhammer. The moment undoubtedly brought in new fans who would never have bought the Pay-Per-View, and gave WCW one of their last great moments of the Monday Night War.
10 ECW: Kimona and Beulah Kiss
When Kimona revealed that it was her having an affair with Beulah McGillicutty on Tommy Dreamer at the ECW Arena on April 20, 1996, it was the first time a lesbian kiss had ever appeared before a wrestling audience. There was immediate fallout as ECW was dropped by several networks and social groups protested. Wrestling, and America as a whole, has moved on a lot since then, with many subsequent homosexual themed angles that elicit much less shock. ECW had to be the company that would first suffer the initial negative consequences of presenting such a moment.
Those involved would say that the moment showed that ECW was ahead of it’s time in forwarding LGBT representation in the media. But unfortunately the manner in which the moment was executed looks degrading to the females involved. The way Tommy Dreamer holds the ladies arms up and says “I’m hardcore, I’ll take them both,” shows that the angle was aimed at the typical ECW base of young hetrosexual males. Shocking absolutely, but not ECW’s finest moment.
9 WWE: Ric Flair Appears with Big Gold Belt
The reason why McMahon was so paranoid in 1997 and orchestrated the infamous Screwjob in Montreal to prevent Bret Hart from taking the WWE Championship to WCW was because there was a precedent. On September 9, 1991, Ric Flair appeared on an episode of “Prime Time Wrestling” with the "Big Gold Belt" and declared himself the “Real” World Heavyweight Champion. Flair called out Hulk Hogan, and many wrestling fans salivated at the idea of the two biggest names in wrestling headlining WrestleMania.
Flair was still the man in WCW, but had clashed in contract negotiations with new executive Jim Herd (incredibly Heard also thought Flair’s persona needed an update and wanted him to become “Spartacus” complete with a shield).
Inexplicably the WWE decided not to push the Flair-Hogan rivalry. After a brief lawsuit the belt was returned to WCW, and the whole angle was downplayed by the WWE. Flair was back at WCW in two years. The sight of seeing such a big name on TV with a rival companies Championship belt still stands as one of the most shocking incidents in wrestling history.
8 WCW: Rick Rude Appears on Raw and Nitro
The WWE, post Montreal Screwjob, was an unsettling time for the company. The way in which one of their biggest stars left the company left a bitter taste in the mouth, and many people worried that backstage morale could ruin the company. WCW in the meantime were riding the wave of the nWo Era and were presented with an opportunity to display their dominance in the market.
“Ravishing” Rick Rude was in contract negotiations with Vince McMahon in late 1997. As well as being the sexiest man alive and former Intercontinental Champion many forget that Rude was an original member of D-Generation X. During the November 17, 1997 episode of RAW, which was taped a week earlier, Rude was seen in the ring introducing the DX to the arena. Then later that night he turned up at a live taping of Nitro.
In the aftermath of the debacle in Montreal, Rude had agreed with Bischoff to jump ship and join the nWo. With a smirking Bischoff by his side Rude delivered a sanctimonious speech deploring the actions of Vince McMahon, saying he was abandoning the sinking ship of the WWE to the “refuge” of the nWo.
If something like that was to happen today, the internet would actually break.
7 ECW: Raven Crucifies The Sandman
ECW had gained popularity by pushing the boundaries to the extreme. In that sort of environment things are inevitably going to get out of hand. In fact, it often seemed like Paul Heyman encouraged things to go to the limit. One such moment occurred on October 26, 1996. That event resulted in an a rare apology to the fans from the wrestler responsible.
Raven and The Sandman had been feuding for more than a year and were looking for an epic way to conclude the rivalry. Somehow Raven decided it was a good idea to literally “crucify” The Sandman after a World Heavyweight Championship Match. After defeating 2 Cold Scorpio in the main event, Raven entered the ring and attacked The Sandman with a kendo stick. With the help of Stevie Richards and The Blue Meanie, Raven pulled out a cross from under the ring and tied up The Sandman, leaving a barbed wire crown on his head. The crowd, not sure quite how to react, simply looked on in silence.
The angle was shocking and offended many. Raven was forced to publicly apologize. The biggest cost to ECW was that the angle was enough to convince Kurt Angle, fresh from Olympic glory, to have nothing to do with the company. He had been invited to the event by Shane Douglas and was considering signing with ECW, and delivered some commentary at the event. After the crucifixion, Angle, a Christian, went straight to Paul Heyman and said if his face was used on the program then he would be hearing from his attorney.
6 WWE: The Montreal Screwjob
“Ring the F**king bell,” were the infamous words Vince McMahon said to the timekeeper. Shawn Michaels had just regained the WWE Championship from Bret Hart in the most chaotic of circumstances. After locking Hart in his own submission, The Sharpshooter, referee Earl Hebner, a little too eagerly, called that Hart had submitted even though Hart had clearly not tapped out. Hart had no idea what was going on and apparently, neither did Michaels. HBK was handed the belt and he scurried backstage with McMahon away from the furious Montreal crowd.
"The Hitman" had been a mainstay of WWE for over a decade, and one of the few credible Superstars of the stale mid-90s Era. Vince did not see Hart as being central to the what would become known as the “Attitude Era” so Hart decided to sign with WCW. The difficulty was Hart had just won the Championship from The Undertaker at SummerSlam. Hart had a well-known dislike for HBK and The Kliq who were responsible for backstage tension, and refused to forfeit the title to Michaels, particularly in his homeland of Canada, but would lose the belt before he jumped ship. Knowing how much of a coup it would be for Eric Bischoff to have Hart to turn up on Monday Night Nitro holding aloft the WWE Championship, McMahon just couldn’t take the risk. Hence the decision in Montreal.
Hart, understandably incensed at the deplorable treatment he had received, found McMahon and punched him, knocking the WWE Chairman out cold. It would take more than a decade for Hart and McMahon to reconcile.
5 WCW: Scott Hall Invades Monday Night Nitro
The dominance of the internet has made it very difficult for wrestling organizations to truly surprise fans. But on May 27, 1996, Scott Hall was able to genuinely shock everyone in the arena and watching, when he interrupted a mid-card Nitro match by striding into the ring wearing all-denim. Scott demanded a microphone and announced that there was going to be an invasion and that he wouldn’t be the only one coming over from WWE. Two weeks later Hall was joined by Nash and the two became known as The Outsiders
Vince McMahon had grown tired of Nash, but Hall, who was known as Razor Ramon, was seen as a potential big star of the organization, and would have gone on to be one of the key players in the Attitude Era had he stayed.
This particular episode of Nitro, on June 10, 1996, would be the last WCW would lose in the ratings for the next 84 weeks as the rise of Hall and the nWo would take the wrestling world by storm.
4 ECW: The Sandman Canes Tommy Dreamer Ten Times
Early on in his career, pretty boy Tommy Dreamer had the kind of face ECW fans loved to see get punched. On August 13, 1994 that all changed when he faced a psychotic man known as The Sandman in a Singapore Caning match where the loser must take 10 hits of the Singapore cane. Dreamer lost the match. With a twisted grin on his face The Sandman took delight in whacking Dreamer on the back. Dreamer went down and the crowd cheered, assuming that was all the punishment he could take. But then he got up. And kept getting up. Things began to suddenly look way to real when Dreamer’s back was lashed open and pouring blood.
At one point even The Sandman started to look like maybe enough was enough. But Dreamer, with adrenaline pumping, grabbed the mic and said, “Thank you sir, may I have another.” After the tenth hit Dreamer got up one final time and faced down The Sandman. In an era where everyone knew wrestling was “fake,” ECW thrived on creating moments like this that captured real emotion. This incident was a turning point for Dreamer, who would become a fan favorite, and for ECW as a whole.
3 WWE: The Undertaker and Mankind, Hell in a Cell
Apparently Terry Funk and Mick Foley were trying to think of a way of topping the inaugural Hell in a Cell match between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker, when Funk jokingly said that Mick should let ‘Taker throw him off the top. Foley didn’t take it as a joke.
At the start of the match Mankind went immediately to the top of the Cell. You can hear a genuine unease in JR’s voice as he calls the fight when he says, “I don’t like this one bit.” Part of the reason for his unease, was he, and everyone in the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, knew that Mick Foley was willing to do more than any other wrestler to entertain the fans.
“That killed him! As God is my witness he is broken in half,” shouted JR, genuinely in shock as Mick Foley’s body hit the Spanish announce table with a terrifying thud after The Undertaker hurled him off 16 feet high structure. JR's description of events is some of the most iconic wrestling commentary of the Attitude Era.
Mark Calloway (The Undertaker's real name) said it was the first time in his life he had ever had an out-of-body experience. He had no idea what the fall had done to Foley, and thought maybe he had killed him. Foley had decided that the stunt would basically be like dropping an elbow off a “higher-than-normal” structure. And in that sense and he and 'Taker pulled it off perfectly. There was no rehearsal, no practice. If they had got it wrong Mankind was inches away from hitting the barrier or even one of the Spanish announcers, and causing serious injury or worse.
"Will somebody stop the damn match?!" JR shouted again after Foley climbed back to the top only to be Choke-Slammed through the roof onto a chair and knocking him out. The match eventually ended with a Choke-Slam onto some thumb-tacks. Somehow Foley was able to walk away from the ring.
It was the incident that defined the Attitude Era. A line had been crossed and Mick Foley became a legend.
2 WCW: Hulk Hogan Turns Heel
In retrospect it made a lot of sense. But in 1996 it was unthinkable that Hulk Hogan, the ultimate “Say your prayers, eat your vitamins” babyface of wrestling could turn heel. But at the 1996 Bash of the Beach, Hulk Hogan shocked the world by revealing himself to be the “Third Man” and siding with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall.
“You fans can stick it, brother," Hogan announced standing with Nash and Hall in the middle of the ring as a shower of debris was hurled at them from the fans. Fans couldn’t believe their eyes. Younger fans were devastated.
It was a big risk for Hogan. Had the nWo angle failed, the “Hulkamania” brand may have been tarnished forever. With creative control written in his contract, Eric Bischoff knew Hogan could back out at any moment, and had Sting ready to be his “Plan B” heel turn. It turned out to be one of best decisions of Hogan’s career as the nWo became the most iconic wrestling stable in history, and a huge merchandise coup for the WCW and Hogan.
1 ECW: Shane Douglas Throws Down The NWA Title
1994 wasn’t a vintage year for professional wrestling. Post-Hulkmania, WWE was growing stale, and WCW was relying on old-timers like Flair and Hogan for ratings. However, something was happening in Philadelphia. Eastern Championship Wrestling, owned by ambitious promoter Tod Gordon, joined the NWA in June 1992 and made a name for itself pushing a risk-taking, violent style that Philly wrestling fans couldn’t get enough of. While WCW pushed 80’s steroid-loaded dinosaurs, and the WWF had Doink the Clown, ECW pushed new talent. Pretty soon they outgrew the need for the NWA.
The fledging NWA however, saw the ECW as its last chance for relativity, and gave the ECW the chance to crown the vacant NWA Heavyweight Championship as part of an eight-man tournament. They had Paul Heyman working behind the scenes and he saw the event as the perfect opportunity to announce ECW’s independence. After Shane Douglas beat 2 Cold Scorpio to win the belt, he was handed a mic. He then delivered one of the most sensational in-ring promos in wrestling history.
Apparently only Douglas, Heyman, and Gordon knew what was going to happen next. Douglas started out with a brief tribute to past great NWA Champions, such as Ric Flair, Lou Tesz, and Dusty Roads, before dramatically telling them all to “kiss his ass” and throwing the belt to the floor.
“I am not the man that accepts the torch to be handed down to me from an organization that died, R.I.P., seven years ago,” Douglas announced to a stunned crowd. “We have set out to change the face of professional wrestling. So tonight, let the new era being.” The NWA was all but dead, and the next day the ECW changed their name to Extreme Championship Wrestling. A new era had truly dawned.