The world of pro wrestling is a combination of an often violent competitive sport and a kind of live theater, complete with characters who have sometimes over-the-top storylines meant to promote the wrestler and/or the brand. The WWE, ECW, TNA, and other pro wrestling groups have built large audiences for their products by both blurring and exaggerating the line between the real and the scripted and by turning the wrestlers into larger-than-life "heroes" or "villains" the audience can root for or against.
Because pro wrestling is presented as this blend of reality and scripted spectacle, it shouldn't be a surprise that the sport has received more than its share of backlash over the years. From storylines that crossed the lines of good taste to steroid scandals to faked deaths and real-life murder-suicides, here are some of the most controversial events in the history of the sport.
- 12,568 VOTES
The Montreal Screwjob Is Still The Biggest Backstab In Wrestling History
In 1997, Bret Hart was arguably the biggest name in professional wrestling. Having worked for the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) since 1984, Hart reluctantly signed with the rival World Championship Wrestling due to contract issues and disagreements with WWF head Vince McMahon; his new deal was set to begin in December 1997.
Hart was the reigning WWF champion when he faced his bitter rival, Shawn Michaels, on November 9, 1987, in a pay-per-view event called the "Survivor Series" in Montreal, Canada. McMahon needed Hart to lose his crown before joining the WCW, but Hart - a Canadian - refused to lose to Michaels in his home country, as he believed that would majorly damage his reputation.
In the lead-up to this scheduled match, alternatives were suggested - Hart could instead lose his crown to Steve Austin, or he could drop his November 6 match to Michaels in Detroit. But McMahon and Hart couldn't come to an agreement on any of the alternate ideas. This disagreement resulted in what is known as the "Montreal Screwjob." About one week before the scheduled November 9 match, Michaels took part in a phone conversation with McMahon and another WWF executive to come up with a secret plan that would result in Michaels taking the title away from Hart.
Michaels and Hart met up with producer Pat Patterson before the match to discuss how it would go down. In a 2019 interview with ESPN.com, Michaels spoke about how he felt about his involvement in the secret plan to basically stab Hart in the back:
[It] was just an uncomfortable day knowing what you know, [how others] assume it's going to happen, and then you having to be the one to orchestrate it all... It's one thing to make the decision to do this. It's a whole 'nother thing to actually have to be the person to make it happen and not have any idea about how you're going to go about doing that. And then, even if you are successful, it's absolutely going to be the worst thing that could ever happen to you... From a professional standpoint, reputation standpoint, even though I wasn't the most lovable guy back then, it was still just an absolute miserable day, [a] very uncomfortable day.
The plan that Hart was aware of was meant to go like this: Referee Earl Hebner would be knocked down, Michaels would slap on the sharpshooter - which was Hart's signature finishing move - a second referee would enter the ring, and then the Hart family and another wrestler named D-Generation X would start a melee.
But that's not what actually went down. Instead, after Hebner got knocked down, he rose slowly to his feet as Michaels executed the sharpshooter, and as soon as the wrestler had the move locked in, the referee called for the bell, signaling that Hart had lost the match - and his WWF title - to his bitter rival.
Hart quickly realized he had been betrayed by his soon-to-be former boss. Backstage, Michaels - as directed - acted as if he hadn't been involved in the plan. Although it was McMahon, not Michaels, who ended up getting punched by Hart, the wrestler told ESPN.com that he had been prepared to have to take on Hart or his family after the match, and that he wished he had been able to tell the truth about his role in the plan.
Hart's relationship with McMahon was badly damaged; the two men did not speak for more than five years. In 2019, the wrestler, who essentially retired in 2000 due to a head injury (he did appear in a few matches in later years), revealed that the two men began their reconciliation in 2002 after the WWE boss called Hart in the hospital while the latter was recovering from a stroke. Hart was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006 and resumed working for the organization in late 2009.
On December 28, 2009, Hart was the guest host for Monday Night Raw. On that episode, he and Michaels seemingly settled their long-running feud.
"My impression was that (Michaels) was actually pretty sincere," Hart told the Calgary Herald in early 2010. "He apologized for a lot of what happened... I think it was like a million pounds off of his back... There was a couple of times when it looked like he was going to start crying. There was a lot of real emotion in that little segment... I think it was a surprise to him as much as to me."
- 22,098 VOTES
Triple H Simulated Necrophilia In The 'Katie Vick' Storyline
One of the strangest and most controversial storylines in WWE history occurred back in 2002 and involved the wrestlers Kane and Triple H, as well as a woman called "Katie Vick."
It all started on the October 7, 2002, episode of Monday Night Raw when Triple H confronted Kane backstage and asked if the name "Katie Vick" meant anything to the other wrestler, implying he knew Kane had a secret involving the woman. On the following week's episode, Kane revealed Vick, a high school friend of his, had died but "it was an accident." The wrestler stated they had gone out one night and he offered to drive Vick home because she had had too much to drink. Unfamiliar with driving a stick shift, Kane crashed Vick's car when an animal jumped in front of them. Although Kane was okay, Vick was killed.
But Triple H didn't buy that story - or at least not all of it. After he implied Kane had also been too drunk to drive and needled his rival about his supposed unrequited love for Vick, he then accused Kane of having sex with the dead woman - an accusation that caused Kane to leave the venue. If that wasn't controversial enough, on the October 22 episode, Triple H - wearing a Kane mask - was shown trying to seduce a mannequin that resembled Vick lying in a casket. The storyline finally concluded the following week.
Reportedly, the "Katie Vick" storyline was originally meant to be comical, but WWE boss Vince McMahon wanted it to feel more like a soap opera. This wasn't well-received by staffers - in fact, several reportedly quit because of their distaste for the storyline. Triple H was also supposedly uncomfortable with the story's direction - he had wanted to make it much more comical.
Years later, David Lagana - a former writer for the WWE - tweeted that the lowest price ever for WWE stock ($7.10) occurred in October 2002 - or at the time of the Katie Vick necrophilia storyline. Coincidence?
- 31,307 VOTES
New Jack Hurt His Opponent For Real In The 'Mass Transit' Incident
By 1996, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) was well-known for its counter-culture storylines and its extremely violent, often bloody, matches. But on November 23, 1996, the ECW got far more violent than usual.
Seventeen-year-old aspiring pro wrestler Eric Kulas had a gimmick known as "Mass Transit," which was a spoof of Jackie Gleason's bus driver character on the old television show The Honeymooners. On this night, Kulas had shown up at the ECW house show with his gear, as it wasn't unusual for wrestling promoters to need an extra person or two for an event. That was the case on this night - Axl Rotten turned out to be a no-show, which left ECW booker Paul Heyman without a tag team partner for D-Von Dudley for his scheduled match against the Gangstas (Jerome "New Jack" Young and Mustafa Saed). With his father's support, Kulas volunteered to take Rotten's place. In order to get the gig, Kulas lied about his age and about how he had been trained by legendary wrestler Killer Kowalski.
Before the match, Kulas was told that he would "get color" - or bleed - at some point during the match. As he had never "bladed," or cut himself, before, he reportedly asked New Jack to do it for him. This was a bad idea, as the Gangstas were well-known for their violence in the ring. Kulas received the brunt of the savage beating New Jack and Saed laid on their opponents - at one point, they hit him with a toaster and crutches.
Near the end of the match, New Jack held Kulas down and used a surgical scalpel to cut him across the forehead. The cut went too deep, severing two arteries and sending blood spurting over some of the fans sitting ringside. Even as Kulas screamed in agony and his father yelled for the match to be stopped, New Jack and Saed continued beating on him until medics rushed into the ring.
The match wasn't televised, but there was video footage captured by the ECW's "FanCam." Although the footage caught New Jack asking Kulas if the latter was okay, it also showed damning footage of the former yelling into a microphone, "I don’t care if the motherf****er dies!"
In the aftermath of this incident, the Kulas family appeared on the TV show Inside Edition, which portrayed the teenage wannabe wrestler as a victim and blamed the ECW for not properly protecting him. As a result, the ECW's pay-per-view provider refused to broadcast Barely Legal, which was meant to be the ECW's first-ever PPV event (the provider did relent and aired the event a few months later).
Although a threatened lawsuit against the ECW never came to pass, the Kulas family did sue New Jack a few years later, charging the wrestler with assault and battery with a weapon. He was acquitted after his testimony that Kulas had actually asked New Jack to cut him was corroborated by other trial witnesses. Kulas's lies about his age and wrestling training were revealed during the trial; when New Jack learned about the deception, he stated he didn't have any remorse about what he had done to the teenager.
And his feelings about Kulas didn't soften over the years. His response when learning that Kulas had died at 22 from complications of gastric bypass surgery?
"I hope he rots in motherf***ing hell, that fat b****rd."
- 41,072 VOTES
Jeff Hardy Wrestled While Clearly Intoxicated
In February 2011, Jeff Hardy lost the Total Nonstop Action (TNA) World Heavyweight Championship to Sting. But since it was declared that Hardy hadn't prepared for the match since he was given no advance warning about who he'd be facing, a No Disqualification rematch was set for March 13 as a pay-per-view event called "The Victory Road."
From the moment Hardy showed up late for his entrance, it seemed clear to many in attendance that there was something wrong with him. Referee Brian Hebner even put up the "X" sign before the match started, signaling that Hardy was in no condition to wrestle.
Still, the match went on - but not for long. Within two minutes of the start of the match, Sting forcefully pinned Hardy to the mat. The referee counted Hardy out, and just like that, the match was over, with Sting retaining his title.
Neither the crowd nor his opponent was happy about Hardy's behavior or performance. When a fan yelled out, “Bullsh**!” Sting responded, “I agree! I agree!”
The day after "Victory Road," TNA sent Hardy home from that week's Impact tapings. A few days later, "Immortal," a TNA alliance for wrestlers headed by Hulk Hogan and Impact's executive producer, Eric Bischoff, cut ties with the wrestler. Hardy wasn't seen in a ring again until the September 8, 2011, episode of Impact. He addressed the crowd directly:
The last time I was seen in this ring, I was pathetic. I was messed up! I had a main event match with a guy I’ve looked up to for a long time, and I failed miserably. I let everybody down...
Admitting that he almost felt hated and that people were right to be mad at him, he continued:
I can’t change what happened at Victory Road, but I can admit that at Victory Road, I had hit rock bottom. I can’t expect you [the fans] to forgive me and give me another chance... All I can do is ask. Give me one more shot.
The crowd then showed their support for the embattled wrestler by chanting, "One more shot!"
Hardy has continued with his wrestling career despite still struggling with his addiction. In 2020, Hardy's alcoholism was even introduced into his storyline.
His "Victory Road" opponent, meanwhile, held no grudge against Hardy.
"Jeff was in a bad way that day, and he was deteriorating as the hours went on. It got to a point where he was just not ready to wrestle," Sting commented in a Q&A session at the 2017 Wales Comic Con. "But you know what, since then, he’s turned around, and life is great, and I respect Jeff and love his work and love Jeff, period. So I don’t hold anything against him. I don’t harbor anything against him, and I wish him the best."
- 51,113 VOTES
The WWF Steroid Trial Changed Wrestling Forever
When one thinks about Hershey, PA, the first thing that likely springs to mind is chocolate - not anabolic steroids or human growth hormones. But in the late 1980s to early 1990s, a doctor operating out of Hershey was the central figure in a federal drug trafficking trial that nearly took down Vince McMahon, the head of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF).
Dr. George Zahorian first became involved with McMahon and some of the WWF's wrestlers when he worked as a ringside physician at wrestling matches in Pennsylvania. By 1984, he had started to supply both McMahon and wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, and the Ultimate Warrior with steroids, human growth hormones, and other drugs. A Justice Department investigation found documentation revealing that from 1984 to 1989, Zahorian had supplied a total of 43 wrestlers - 37 of whom were employed by the WWF - with various drugs, some of which were given out without a prescription. The doctor sent the packages to the wrestlers' homes, to venues, and even to the WWF headquarters in Connecticut.
In 1988, trafficking steroids became a crime. Federal investigators started investigating Zahorian, who, unbeknownst to McMahon or anyone connected to the WWF, had started to sell the drugs to amateur bodybuilders - one of whom was a secret government informant named William Dunn. After being caught on tape bragging that he was giving Dunn "better prices than the wrestlers," the doctor was arrested. In March 1990, he was indicted on 15 counts of drug trafficking. In June 1991, he was found guilty on 12 of the charges.
Zahorian's trial attracted major media coverage due to the doctor's connection to the WWF. Four WWF wrestlers, including Piper, testified. Hogan's name appeared in many headlines suggesting he used steroids. With his organization under attack, in July 1991, McMahon announced the WWF would start testing its wrestlers for steroids. This announcement did not stop the government from pursuing a case against him; in 1993, he was indicted on two counts of distributing steroids and one count of conspiracy to distribute steroids (three additional charges were thrown out prior to the trial).
The trial began in July 1994. The prosecution hoped to prove McMahon had required his wrestlers to use steroids. Its main witness was Hogan (who now worked for WWF rival WCW), but Hogan refused to implicate his former boss, stating that while he had used steroids (with a prescription) for medical purposes and had received them from Zahorian, McMahon had never asked him to take the drugs, nor had McMahon ever bought any steroids on Hogan's behalf. In fact, of the 11 wrestlers called to testify, only one - Kevin Wacholz, AKA "Nailz" - claimed the WWF boss had pressured him into using steroids. McMahon's attorney dismissed Wacholz as someone looking for revenge after being fired by the WWF.
In the end, the judge dismissed the two distribution charges, saying there was insufficient evidence to show the distribution happened within the court's jurisdiction. The jury deliberated for 16 hours before coming up with a "not guilty" verdict on the conspiracy charge.
- 6805 VOTES
Muhammad Hassan Caused A Terrorism Controversy
In 2004 and 2005, Marc Copani portrayed a Muslim-American WWE wrestler named Muhammad Hassan. The character was portrayed as a villain, taking on the likes of opponents like Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker. In July 2005, the wrestler found himself at the center of a controversy due to a skit that aired on the same day of a major terrorist attack.
On July 7, 2005, London was targeted by Islamic terrorists who pulled off four suicide attacks - three bombings on the tube (subway) during the morning rush hour and one on a double-decker bus later in the day. In addition to the terrorists, the attacks killed more than 50 UK residents and injured approximately another 700 people.
That same day, US television aired a WWE program that included a skit in which the Undertaker got attacked by five masked individuals and Hassan's manager was treated as a martyr. Although the skit didn't air in the UK and the US broadcast included a content warning, the backlash it received in the aftermath of the real terrorist bombings was immediate and harsh. The controversy marked the end of Muhammad Hassan - the WWE killed the character off later that year.
In a 2020 interview, Copani admitted he didn't think the WWE would be able to get away with portraying a character like Hassan now. Copani told Chris Van Vliet:
I think [the way Hassan was portrayed] was insensitive. It became very insensitive towards Muslim Americans and Arab American people. The way that the character changed from being this Arab-American who was upset at the unjust treatment of his people to a more radicalized Muslim and Arab young man who was lashing out violently, I don’t think that would be appropriate at this time. I don’t think that would be fair to portray any Arab American or Muslim American in that way.
As for Copani, he quit pro wrestling and became a junior high school principal.