The Biggest Public Controversies In Wrestling History

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Surrounded on all sides by negative press and internal disputes, no period of time in the past decade has been as tumultuous for World Wrestling Entertainment than right now. Regularly pilloried for their 10-year-deal with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and their history of human rights violations, the fallout from this month’s Super Showdown in Jeddah continues to rage on. Aside from the mural dubiety of the deal itself, fans and pundits were also left incensed by the disastrous main-event of the show which pitted two ailing legends against one another. Billed as a “dream match,” the resulting contest between 50+ year old icons The Undertaker and Goldberg was one that never should’ve happened as a couple of botched manoeuvres could’ve paralyzed either man for life.

On top of that, the meteoric rise of All Elite Wrestling-- a new company of independent superstars and former WWE mainstays financed by Shahid Khan’s son Tony-- has weakened WWE’s unfaltering grip over the industry’s purse strings and resulted in many of their under-utilized workers pining for pastures new. In fact, it’s rumoured that wrestlers ranging from Sasha Banks, Gallows & Anderson and a whole host of other undisclosed but high-profile names are simply running out their contracts before making their way to the fledgling alternative brand. Coupled with the continually spiralling ratings for Raw and Smackdown, it’s safe to say that things are likely less than harmonious at their Greenwich, CT base of operations.

The singularly-minded chairman Vince McMahon, who is often cited as the leading cause of acrimony in today’s WWE, is likely taking this groundswell of negative publicity and internal unrest better than most. After all, he-- and the wrestling industry at large-- are no strangers to chaos ensuing in ways that they cannot control. Prone to firefighting PR storms, tragedies and legal proceedings with any and all weapons at their disposal, the highly chaotic world of sports entertainment has had its fair share of controversies that have shook the very fabric of the profession. Now that the WWE is on the backfoot in a way that it hasn’t been in many years, it seems like an ideal opportunity to look at some of the other furores that turned the industry on its head.

As a sidebar, this article will examine incidents that played out in the public domain as opposed to internal issues. If you’d like a rundown of those, feel free to check out this list from earlier in the year.


Stone Cold’s Domestic Abuse Charges

The Biggest Public Controversies In Wrestling History

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At the height of his Attitude Era fame, Stone Cold Steve Austin could do no wrong even when he seemed to be breaking every role known to man. Bald, beer-guzzling and quick to take decisive action against anyone and everyone, his every-man persona gave him free reign to wreak havoc on national TV in a way that few could ever dream of. Airlocked within the confines of a storyline, it didn’t matter whether it was Vince McMahon, Santa Claus, the current President of the United States or women such as Lita, Stephanie McMahon or her aging mother Linda that was on the receiving end of a “Stone Cold Stunner” as the response would always be rapturous applause. But for a brief period in 2002, Steve Austin’s fictionalized hell-raising was supplanted by the real-life indiscretions of the man lesser-known as Steve Williams.

Just five days after he’d fled WWE TV tapings in light of a creative dispute, Stone Cold turned himself into police due to a warrant that charged him with “misdemeanour charge of assault with bodily injury.” The recipient of this attack was none other than Austin’s then-spouse Debra Marshall.

By November 25th 2002, the incident was resolved with a $1000 fine and 80 hours of community service but accusations of WWE placing a gagging order on Austin’s ex-wife to curtail any further revelations has made it something of a lingering black cloud over Stone Cold’s legacy. While Austin is now happily remarried, Debra has been less willing to let the alleged three instances of abuse slip unknowingly past the public eye and provided a detailed account for Hannity & Colmes back in 2007. "The last time Steve attacked me, alcohol was involved. He jumped on me. He's on my back with his knee in my back, pounding me in the back and in my face. I thought I was going to die," she said. 


The Mass Transit Incident

Positioned as a rebellious, counter-culture entity that was the antidote to wrestling’s more pantomimed presentation, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) was always willing to provocatively push the boundaries of taboo & bloodletting. Covertly funded by WWE as a means to compensate them for taking their biggest stars, it’s safe to say that WWE were even more eager to keep their affiliation under wraps after the infamous Mass Transit Incident. The subject of news reports, investigations and court proceedings, it all sparked from an underaged and untrained 17-year-old known as Eric Kulas finding his way into their notoriously lawless ring under false pretences. Kulas falsified a gimmick and background that allowed him to be booked against the hyper-violent tandem of “The Gangstas,” as a last-minute replacement. Comprised of New Jack and Mustafa, it was the former that was all too happy to oblige Kulas-- clad in a bus driver’s attire and billed under Mass Transit-- and his request to be cut open during the match.

Due to a mixture of Kulas’ inexperience and New Jack’s overzealousness, the ensuing cut with what was rumoured to be an X-Acto knife was deeper than he’d anticipated and led to a pool of blood emanating from his head. The subject of a CNN Inside Edition, the fallout nearly derailed the entire company due to the proposed cancellation of their first pay-per-view, was the subject of a fruitless lawsuit from Kulas’ family and almost landed New Jack in jail for up to 5 years. To this day, New Jack insists that he did exactly what Kulas permitted him to, while the one-time wrestler died in 2002 from complications arising from a gastric bypass surgery. Footage of the match can be found here but be warned, it is not for the faint of heart.

 


Sable Sues WWE

Once a marquee attraction for the company that quickened pulses at every turn, Rena “Sable” Mero was a cornerstone of the WWE during its late 90s boom period. Never particularly gifted from an in-ring standpoint, the appeal of Sable corresponded with their move towards an edgier, debauchery-fuelled direction that adhered to the concept of “sex sells.” As a result, Sable became one of their biggest draws and would bolster their TV ratings with every sultry appearance but the relationship between the woman that would become Mrs. Brock Lesnar and the company’s top brass would sour by 1999. In June of that year, Mero sued the company for $110 million as a result of “sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions.”

Taken from transcripts of the trial and filing documents, the details of the case have since been unveiled and hinge around “the humiliation that she was constantly facing” due to "tee-shirts depicting Mrs. Mero in a degrading fashion offering sexual favors; Mrs. Mero was requested to display affection to women to promote a 'lesbian angle'; Mrs. Mero was asked to have her gown ripped off repeatedly (notwithstanding promises to the contrary), and Plaintiff was asked to expose her breasts by 'mistake' on national television during a wrestling contest."

Complete with allegations that "men would routinely walk into the women's dressing room as if by accident," it’s remarkable that not only did they settle out of court but Sable would return as a fully fledged member of the roster in 2002.


The Billy And Chuck Scandal

In recent times, artists varying from Ariana Grande to Taylor Swift have all found themselves lobbied with accusations of “queerbaiting” in order to profit from the LGBTQ+ community. However, what goes under-publicized is that WWE were early proponents of this unscrupulous marketing strategy. Both left to languish on the mid card, former D-Generation X member Billy Gunn and WCW import Chuck Palumbo soon found themselves saddled with a gimmick that portrayed them as a same-sex couple. Never made explicit but alluded to time and time again, the storyline eventually came to a head with a “commitment ceremony”-- but when it came down to going through with the nuptials on an episode of Smackdown, the pair revealed it all to be a ruse and in doing so, dispersed all of the goodwill that WWE had garnered from gay rights activists along the way.

In a statement published during the aftermath, GLAAD admonished WWE for their actions:

"We supported the representation of Billy & Chuck, NOT the called-off wedding. The WWE lied to us two months ago when they promised that Billy & Chuck would come out and wed on the air. In fact, I was told (lied to) the day after the show was taped in Minneapolis that the wedding took place and all was well. The WWE also lied to The Today Show, the New York Times and other media outlets. Many have contacted me to express their disdain for the WWE's unprofessional marketing machine."

In the years since, Billy Gunn has claimed that he has “no regrets” over the storyline.


Defending The Business

While there’s a wealth of tales that could constitute a list in of itself, it’d be impossible to mention public controversies without touching on the longstanding tradition of wrestlers defending the legitimacy of the business through any means necessary. Whether it’s Vader grabbing a Kuwaiti TV presenter by his neck and subsequently ushering in a 10-year-long ban on sports entertainment in the country or Meng-- also known as Haku-- biting off the nose of a man who referred to it as “fake,” many stars of the past were willing to go to any length to preserve the integrity of wrestling as a genuine sporting contest. In the case of WWE, two of their biggest court battles in the 80s and 90s came as a result of this exact duty. While being interviewed by 20/20’s John Stossel, “Dr D” David Schultz retorted to accusations of fakery by open-hand slapping the journalist on the head twice. As a result, WWE would have to award Stossel $425,000 and the journeyman wrestler was released from the company.

On the other end of the spectrum of fame, it was none other than Hulk Hogan that would embroil them in a legal battle after he choked out comedian Richard Belzer live on Lifetime Network’s Hot Properties after a series of snarky remarks. Gripped in a front chin lock, it took only a matter of seconds for the bleached blonde behemoth to knock Belzer out and left him in need of nine stitches in the back of his head. The case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed fee but an interview with Howard Stern from 2008 revealed that it was somewhere in the vicinity of $450,000.

 


The Muhamad Hassan Debacle

Billed as a Muslim man that was disgruntled with the continued discrimination that he faced in post 9/11 USA, the character of Muhammad Hassan, portrayed by Italian-American Marc Copani, seemed to be tastefully handled when he first debuted. Rather than acting as a foreign heel in the conventional sense, his grievances all came from issues that people in the Islamic community were facing and he seemed poised for a run at the main event scene. Or at least that was the plan until WWE plunged themselves into the murky waters of jihadism for promotional gain. During the climactic stages of a feud with The Undertaker, Hassan was involved in an in-ring confrontation with “The Deadman” that eventually lead to the WWE legend being subdued with piano wire by assailants in combat gear and balaclavas. Filled with terrorism-inspired imagery, the timing couldn’t have been worse as the segment aired just three days before the 7/7 bombings in London. Faced with widespread backlash from the UPN network, The New York Post and others, the character was quickly written off TV and Copani hastily departed from the wrestling industry up until April of 2018.


The $10 Million Rocker Dropper

In December of 1990, a young preliminary wrestler’s life was altered forever and his career left in tatters before it could ever get off the ground. Despite his claims of familiarity with the move, it was Marty Jannetty, who at the time was the tag team partner of GOAT contender Shawn Michaels, and his “rocker dropper” finishing manoeuvre that would paralyze Chuck Austin for life. In Jannetty’s account, the accident stemmed from the fact that his opponent "wasn’t that good… but he lied and said he was." Nevertheless, Austin’s head colliding with the mat would cost the WWE a grand total of $10 million, $100,000 of which came directly out of Jannetty’s pocket.

As for who was to blame, you can take a look for yourself below.


The Steroid Trial

The Biggest Public Controversies In Wrestling History

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Although he seems almost invulnerable to all public scrutiny, the closest Vince McMahon ever came to losing more than just market share was during 1994’s Steroid trial. Pitted against the federal government, wrestling’s own oligarch was accused of acting as the head of a drug-trafficking ring that supplied competitors in his organization with illegal anabolic substances and growth hormones. Sparked by a slip-up from Pennsylvanian urologist Dr George Zahorian, the court proceedings made for a fascinating web of conflicting evidence and testimonies from Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper and other stars that threatened to derail WWE and send its chairman to jail.

For anyone that’s after an in-depth guide of what transpired, check out long-time WWE producer Bruce Prichard’s retrospective on his Conrad Thompson-hosted podcast Something To Wrestle With below. 


Owen Hart’s Death

Throughout his tenure in the company, Owen Hart wasn’t just one of the most uniquely gifted entertainers on the roster but one of the most intensely liked individuals in the WWF. Prone to amazing feats of athleticism and backstage pranks in equal measure, it only seemed like a matter of time until he’d finally follow in his brother’s footsteps and capture the organization’s top prize. Sadly, any plans that he had for his future were brought to a heartrending end at Over The Edge 99 in the Kemper Arena in Kansas City. Owen Hart, primed to descend from the roof as his superhero-indebted character The Blue Blazer, fell 78 feet and died in the ring of his injuries as paramedics frantically attempted to revive him. Controversially, the pay-per-view went on with the Calgary legend’s passing being announced live on-air by Jim Ross. In the years since his untimely demise, Owen’s wife Martha has sued WWE on the grounds of wrongful death and refuses to allow his induction into the Hall Of Fame despite pleas from fans and even his fellow wrestlers such as Mark Henry to allow him to be celebrated. Footage of Owen’s death has never been released to the public and remains in WWE’s vault. 


The Benoit Family Tragedy

Often regarded as the darkest day in the history of professional wrestling, the actions of Chris Benoit on the 24th June 2007 have reverberated through the industry ever since. The catalyst for new concussion protocol and his name being largely expunged from the history books wherever possible, the former WWE champion’s heinous actions transformed him from one of wrestling’s most heart-warming success stories to a vilified figure. Although no one knows exactly what happened in the confines of the family’s Georgia home, the end result was the murder of Benoit’s wife Nancy and his seven-year-old son Daniel before he hung himself from a weight-lifting machine. Regarded as a “family man” and a “quiet” individual, many of his contemporaries remain unable to come to terms with his unforgivable crimes to this day. Accredited to “roid rage” or potential marital problems, an autopsy of Benoit revealed that his brain had been so decimated by his years of wrestling a high-velocity style in the ring that it resembled that of an 80-year old with “very severe” Alzheimer’s disease.

Although there’s plenty of supplementary content out there, this podcast between Chavo Guerrero and Chris Jericho provides one of the most compelling insights from one of the last men ever to talk to Benoit.