Wrestling has always been controversial, for many reasons. The main reason is that wrestling actively attempts to court controversy as part of their ongoing story lines, in an attempt to receive mainstream attention. Theoretically, wrestling operates under the theory that any publicity is good publicity, because it gets people talking about what is generally seen as a niche product. Unfortunately, that line of thinking can backfire, sometimes disastrously, as even a company as big as WWE has found out repeatedly over the years. Here are just a few of the times that WWE tried to get people talking, only to have it blow up in their faces.
10. Fake Razor Ramon and Diesel
With the WWF New Generation failing on pretty much every level (beyond Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels having great matches), and WCW taking off with the nWo, Vince McMahon decided to strike back. However, they way in which he chose to do so was baffling, to say the least. First of all, he sent respected announcer Jim Ross, who is one of the best play-by-play commentators in wrestling history, into the ring and had him denounce WWE for treating him badly since he came into the company. It was an odd move, since as mentioned, the fans loved Jim Ross and seemed inclined to take his side. The second part of this plan, after promoting it for a few weeks, was to have Ross claim that he had brought back Razor Ramon and Diesel, even though the wrestlers who had portrayed them, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, were under WCW contract (in fact, in a move so dumb it could only be true, WCW gave them new contracts with nice raises, just to make sure they were locked down). Ross proceeded to bring out two wrestlers dressed like Ramon and Diesel, except clearly played by different people. As a joke, it might have been okay, but this was pushed as if they were legitimate replacements. The logic behind it, apparently, was that Vince was trying to prove that Hall and Nash were nothing special and he could make stars out of anyone with the same gimmick. Of course, that was absolutely not true, and the fans rejected pretty much every aspect of the angle. It did lead to several months of Jim Ross making sarcastic comments to Vince on commentary about how bad an announcer the owner of the WWF was, but that wasn’t enough to make it worthwhile.
9. The Crucifixion of Steve Austin
As great as the Attitude Era was, looking back there were a lot of things that make people scratch their heads and say “Why was this considered cool?” Actually, this whole idea was pretty much considered a bad idea at the time, too. You see, The Undertaker had adopted a decidedly…let’s say “evil” quality to his persona, assembling a group of wrestlers into a cult-like Ministry of Darkness and waging war against, among other people, Stone Cold Steve Austin. And since he had both a massive numerical advantage and magic powers, one week he managed to trap and subdue Austin. At which point, he had Austin tied to a giant Undertaker logo and hung up in front of the Titantron for the world to see. The symbolism was readily apparent, and you can bet that a lot of people got more than a little upset at the imagery. It may not have immediately cost the WWF anything other than outrage from special interests groups (most of which probably already hated wrestling anyway), but it remains an easy and memorable angle that, to this day, people use against WWE whenever they try to paint themselves as “family-friendly entertainment”.
8. WWE Confidential Episode About Miss Elizabeth`s Death
The short-lived program WWE Confidential was intended to be a show in the style of Extra or Entertainment Tonight, showing little peeks into the lives of Superstars while also promoting upcoming shows and projects outside the wrestling ring. For the most part, it was full of harmless fluff pieces, and no real “hard news”. However, after the death of former valet Miss Elizabeth due to a drug overdose, somebody decided to turn WWE Confidential, for that week at least, into a program about investigative journalism into both her life, and her unfortunate death. In addition to the laudatory promo packages of her time as the manager for Randy Savage, WWE somehow got access to the 911 tapes from the night of Elizabeth’s death, and played them on the air. They said that while Elizabeth had been part of a family in WWF, once she left and went to WCW, things would have been a lot different, suggesting that she might have been better off if only she had stayed in WWF. The show went so far as to insinuate that her death might not have been accidental, and while they stopped short of accusing her current boyfriend, former wrestler Lex Luger, they certainly heavily implied that he might have been involved. The entire show was not well-received, and WWE was seen as acting in a classless and trashy manner about the whole thing.
7. Eric Bischoff Promises H.L.A.
Here we are, in mid-2002, and the brand split is underway, with Eric Bischoff, former WCW President, as GM of Raw, and Stephanie McMahon, who you might also know, as GM of Smackdown. And in the early days of the brand extension, when the brands were truly separate and the ongoing story line was about wrestlers jumping between shows and actual competition between Raw and Smackdown, Bischoff and Stephanie were constantly trying to one-up each other with ridiculous stunts. This was also part of a general decision by WWE to bring back “controversial television”, citing shows like Six Feet Under and The Sopranos as examples to be followed. So, with that in mind, Eric Bischoff came out one Raw and promised the crowd that if they behaved, they could have H.L.A. later in the show. Apparently, that is an acronym for “Hot Lesbian Action”, and yes, you are correct to cringe. Of course, since WWE is not on HBO, the chances of anything actually happening were minimal, but they did bring out two women in bikinis who proceeded to dance around a bit. And then Eric Bischoff had them beaten up by his team of gangster Samoans, Rosey and Jamal, because he was bored with the whole idea. Why yes, this did get negative reactions from nearly every media outlet and special interest group on the planet, how did you know? And yet, WWE kept up the whole H.L.A. idea for weeks, and even had t-shirts planned (don’t ask), despite everyone pretty much hating it and nobody ever expecting to actually deliver on the promise in the first place!
6. Vince McMahon Fakes His Own Death
You know what? This one isn’t even WWE’s fault. Although the story line was ridiculously stupid, it was still well within the bounds of pro wrestling stupidity. To sum it up, Vince was going nuts under the pressure of having been in charge of WWE for so long (and also after losing the ECW Championship the week prior…don’t ask). In an attempt to cheer him up, Vince McMahon Appreciation Night was held on Raw. Except, of course, Vince’s character is a slimy heel, and nobody actually likes him, so instead, many former Superstars returned in order to dump all over Vince about how horrible he was. At the end of the night, looking thoroughly beaten, Vince walked out of the arena and got into his limo. Which then exploded in a massive fiery display. The plan was to run a “whodunnit” story over the next few weeks, with Vince ultimately revealing he’d faked his death. Yes, WWE stock dropped slightly because some people believed he was really dead, but the ultimate reason why this ended up being a disaster was timing. The next Monday, just before Raw was set to air a “memorial’ episode for Vince, it was revealed that Chris Benoit had killed his wife and son before committing suicide, putting WWE under a massive microscope and a black cloud that they still have not fully recovered from. The story line was, obviously, immediately cancelled, and Vince’s condition was upgraded to “alive”.
5. Sergeant Slaughter, Iraqi Sympathizer
In 1991, two things were happening that related to the WWF: the Ultimate Warrior was floundering as WWF Champion, and Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to Operation: Desert Storm and what is now known as the first Gulf War (but not the last). If the second thing seems completely irrelevant to wrestling, well, you’re wrong, because Vince McMahon saw an opportunity to appeal to American patriotism, and also get the title off a failed experiment, just in time for WrestleMania. Enter Sergeant Slaughter, an incredibly popular wrestler who represented the US Armed Forces and was such an American hero, he even had a G.I. Joe action figure. So Vince brought Slaughter in and had him denounce America over the Gulf War, becoming an evil Iraqi Sympathizer who dressed like Saddam Hussein. Slaughter won the WWF title from Warrior at the Royal Rumble, and an obvious confrontation against another American Hero, the Immortal Hulk Hogan, was signed for WrestleMania VII, which was to take place at the gigantic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Except, the Gulf War ended in roughly three days and as a result, people weren’t interested in watching Hogan vs Slaughter. And it showed, as ticket sales for WrestleMania were so poor that the WWF was forced to move the event to the much smaller LA Memorial Sports Arena. At the event, Hogan won the WWF title as expected, and a few months later, Slaughter repented and resumed his face role. And WWE learned a lesson about attempting to exploit a war in a foreign land for profit, right?
4. Muhammad Hassan
Let this be a lesson to you: WWE never learns. With America caught up in two wars after the events of 9/11, WWE, in all its infinite wisdom, decided the time was once again right to fan the fires of jingoism and introduced Muhammad Hassan. Hassan was an Arab-American character (the wrestler portraying the character was actually of Italian descent) who was upset with his unfair treatment in the wake of September 11th. Actually, the character could have been an intriguing one if done correctly, as initial promos by Hassan attempted to shine the light on the fact that not all Arabs were evil terrorists, but they were being treated that way by an uninformed public. Of course, all that nuance pretty much went out the window shortly after his debut, and he quickly became your traditional evil foreign (despite being, as mentioned, an American) heel. But that wasn’t quite far enough over the line for WWE, and during Hassan’s feud with The Undertaker, they introduced a gang of masked thugs who did Hassan’s bidding, looking for all the world like a terrorist group. Oh, and the day before they debuted on Smackdown, a tragic series of terrorist bombings occurred in London, England, and WWE allowed the segment to air anyway. In the aftermath, UPN, which aired Smackdown at the time, heavily pressured WWE to remove Hassan from their programming. After briefly resisting, WWE agreed, and Hassan’s run came to an end after he was defeated at the next Pay Per View (unconfirmed rumor has it that the original plan was to have Hassan win and subsequently challenge for the World title), and was never seen on WWE television again.
3. Donald Trump Buys Raw
So in 2009, out of nowhere, Vince McMahon came out on Raw and announced that he had sold it to Donald Trump. Not WWE, just Raw (this was during the brand split era, so it kind of…no, it still doesn’t make sense). Which, okay, it’s an intriguing idea to have somebody new as the ultimate authority, even though nobody who had watched wrestling before at any point in their life believed that Donald Trump had actually purchased Raw. Except, apparently, for WWE shareholders, who reportedly saw a press release from the USA Network about Trump being in charge and panicked, leading to WWE’s stock value plummeting 7% in a single day. To make matter worse, during the next Raw, which was presented “commercial free” (though heavily sponsored by KFC Grilled Chicken, which, like this entire angle, was a horrible business idea), Trump announced that everyone in attendance would have their ticket money refunded at the end of the show, costing WWE roughly another $250,000. At that point, WWE had already decided to cancel the angle entirely, and Vince bought back Raw at the end of the show for twice what Trump had allegedly paid. Shockingly, that did not cause the stock to drop even further.
2. Billionaire Ted’s Wrasslin’ Warroom
Here we have another entry from the list of bad ideas that the WWF came up with in an attempt to fight World Championship Wrestling. Yes, they mocked Ted Turner, portraying him as some sort of simple-minded but evil businessman who could only steal or copy other people’s ideas, and who was hell-bent on destroying the WWF and everything it allegedly stood for. The irony of the WWF claiming “unfair and predatory business practices” when Vince McMahon’s entire business plan for taking the WWF national was through buying up other wrestling companies and forcing out anyone who wouldn’t sell was apparently not brought up when they decided on this course of action. But they were mostly harmless, at least initially, attempting to make WCW seem old and un-cool while the WWF “New Generation” (starring Diesel and Razor Ramon, who were not that much younger than Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage) was the place to be. And then they got increasingly mean, encouraging fans to try and stop Turner Broadcasting’s (completely legal) merger with Time-Warner by writing to the Federal Trade Commission, and making the Billionaire Ted character hold a press conference where he talked about having daddy issues that made him the way he was. The WWF came off as horribly petty and cruel, and absolutely none of it helped improve the on-air product, which was the entire reason why fans were choosing to watch WCW over WWF in the first place.
1. Pillman’s Got A Gun
This particular stunt was one of the most well-known moments of The Attitude Era, involving its biggest rising star in Stone Cold Steve Austin. It all took place during a live-via-satellite interview emanating from the home of Brian Pillman, whose leg had been broken by Austin. In the middle of the interview, Stone Cold arrived at the house and seemed intent on breaking in and continuing his assault on Pillman. In response and on-camera, Pillman pulled out a gun and pointed it at the intruding Rattlesnake. The camera cut away at that point, but audio interviews with WWE announcer Kevin Kelly, who was at the house conducting the interview, mentioned “explosions” (due to WWF apparently deciding not to say “gunshots” on the air). To make matters worse, when the video feed returned, Pillman began to curse loudly, before remembering that he was on live TV. The entire angle was so needlessly controversial that the USA Network threatened to cancel all WWE programming on their network, including Monday Night Raw, if the WWF ever pulled something like it again, and WWF was forced to publicly apologize on Raw.