Given that one of the greatest WWE superstars of all time is The Undertaker (an undead zombie), maybe it isn’t too surprising that the wrestling community doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to respecting the sanctity of life. Throw in the fact that Vince McMahon and his family have made it clear that they’ll do anything to increase their already vast bank accounts and it should almost be expected that the company would take advantage of their dead employees whenever possible. Not every deceased superstar has been dragged through the mud by their former employer, but enough have that the problem is hardly relegated to unique cases. Perhaps to make up for the fact that WWE doesn’t do it to every time, there have actually been certain superstars unlucky enough to be repeatedly exploited since their death, despite objections from their families.
While the obvious motivation behind these incidents has always been money, there can sometimes be positive (if not entirely pure intentions) involved in some of the moments we’re about to describe. There can often be a fine line between tribute and exploitation, so we’ve done our best to weed out any genuine attempts at honoring the dead, and kept it to moments that were outright mocking or offensive. The sad thing is, there were more insincere examples than tributes, and the list could’ve been made without that distinction. Vince McMahon is a man who deeply cares about looking good in the public eye, and would probably do his best to write all of these moments off as tributes, but discerning eyes can easily tell the difference. Keep reading to learn about 15 times WWE exploited deceased superstars.
15. Roddy Piper Never Killed Anyone (Or Any Rumors)
Before WWE was open about the concept of kayfabe, rumors could quickly turn into “facts,” at least as far as the more gullible wrestling fans were concerned. If a wrestler did nothing to dispel a rumor and the company they worked for merely distanced themselves from it, more people are bound to believe the rumor over time. One of the craziest rumors of the 1980s was that “Rowdy” Roddy Piper killed fellow wrestler, Rick McGraw, in a match on Championship Wrestling the day after McGraw died of a sudden heart attack. The news wasn’t reported quite as fast at the time, (and McGraw was a minor star to begin with), so his death wasn’t widely reported until after the match aired. Considering the severity of the beating Piper gave McGraw, some fans (and even wrestling news publications) reported the story that McGraw died due to injuries suffered in the ring. In reality, the match wasn’t even McGraw’s last, as he wrestled two non-televised matches on house shows between the Piper match and his passing. WWE almost gets a pass on this one for not perpetuating the rumor themselves, but it deserves mention anyway for the fact that the company did nothing to clear up the confusion, let alone honor McGraw’s passing in any way.
14. The Road Warrior Revival
Whether called The Road Warriors, The Legion Of Doom, or simply Hawk and Animal, few tag teams were as destructive or as important to wrestling history as the duo from Chicago, Illinois. Despite this, WWE had a history of treating The Road Warriors worse than any of the other companies the team worked for, even continuing the trend after one of the original members passed away. First, WWE took the most feared tag team in wrestling and gave them a puppet to carry around, followed by exploiting Hawk’s real-life substance abuse problems for a highly controversial depression gimmick. Considering this poor treatment while Hawk was still alive, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the company kept exploiting his name after he died of a massive heart attack in 2003. Less than two years later, Animal returned to WWE to bestow the Road Warrior spikes upon Jon Heidenreich, who he went on to win the WWE Tag Team Championships with. Once the cash-in had worn out, both Heidenreich and Animal were released from their contracts in less than a year.
13. Owen, Martha, And Bruce Hart
Hopefully, the McMahon family will never again be faced with a decision like the one during Over The Edge 1999. Owen Hart tragically fell to his death during a stunt, and Vince McMahon had mere seconds to decide whether to cancel the show or let it continue as soon as Owen was taken out of the building. Vince chose to continue the show, and members of the Hart family already started to feel like he was exploiting Owen’s death in doing so. Owen’s widow, Martha, has been particularly vehement over the years that WWE attempted to profit from Owen’s death, made all the worse by the fact that Owen died while performing a stunt the company forced him to do. Given the circumstances, it’s hard to blame Martha for attempting to block WWE from ever mentioning Owen again, although she hasn’t always succeeded. In late 2015, the company released a DVD retrospective of Owen’s career titled Hart Of Gold, with initial reports claiming that Owen’s family approved of the release. Within days, Martha Hart and her children sent statements to wrestling sites to spread the word that they, in fact, did not approve in the slightest, and strongly wished WWE would let Owen rest in peace. Owen’s brother, Bruce Hart, later agreed with Martha’s statements.
12. The Giant, Son Of Andre
As WWE reminds us every time he appears on television, The Big Show is one of the largest athletes in sports today. However, he’s hardly the first giant in professional wrestling. Amazingly, this didn’t stop WCW from simply calling him The Giant. To add something creative to this stunningly generic name, WCW also decided to pretend The Giant was so named because he was the son of wrestling’s previous giant, Andre The Giant. In reality, Paul Wight and Andre Roussimoff are in no way related, and never even met. WCW realized the potential Paul Wight had and wanted to push him to the top of the card instantly, starting his career with a feud against Hulk Hogan that saw him become WCW World Champion in his first ever match. To make this scenario more palatable to fans, the lie was created that The Giant was Andre’s son, and therefore successor to the Hogan-Andre feud, and a worthy main event contender. Only through sheer luck did The Giant go on to such success as The Big Show. To Vince McMahon’s credit, the fake connection to Andre was never mentioned in WWE.
11. The Vincent J. McMahon Legacy Of Excellence Award
There have been dozens of awards and championships named after past superstars, and they generally fell more into the tribute category than the exploitation category. What separates the sincere from the cash-ins is usually in regards to prestige, which can be difficult to measure in the scripted world of pro wrestling. One of the biggest clues to whether or not an award is given honestly to who receives it and why, and in both of these categories, the Vincent J. McMahon Legacy Of Excellence Award reveals itself to have been a complete farce based on the entire McMahon family exploiting the name of their forefather. The award has only been bestowed once, in 2016 by Vince McMahon to Stephanie McMahon in February of 2016, as a conduit for the return of Shane McMahon. Another hint that the award was meaningless exploitation would be the fact that it was never again mentioned and interest differed from the elder McMahon instantaneously, proving that there was absolutely no respect intended when using his name.
10. Paige, Charlotte, And Reid Flair
Few people are as important to wrestling as “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, and you would think that would mean that he deserves a decent amount of respect. Contrary to this assumption, WWE has repeatedly mocked Flair for a myriad of personal and professional reasons, often with his own daughter complicit in the affair. In November of 2015, Charlotte Flair was feuding with Paige over the WWE Diva’s Championship when the women and/or their bosses decided to bring up Ric in the feud, as they often do with Charlotte. They took things a step too far, however, when they also included Reid Flair in the mockery. Reid is Ric’s youngest son and Charlotte’s brother, who was also a wrestler himself. Reid made several appearances in WCW and was once signed to a developmental deal with WWE, although it didn’t turn into a job on the main roster. Even despite his lack of full time employment, Reid was referred on WWE television by Paige, who asked Charlotte, “your little baby brother, he didn’t have much fight in him, did he?” Ric and his ex-wife both took to social media to claim that they had no prior knowledge of the reference and that they were deeply offended to have heard it.
9. CM Punk, Paul Heyman, And Paul Bearer
If WWE has ever produced any characters tailor-made for post-mortem activity, The Undertaker and Paul Bearer would be the two. Therefore, we found nothing wrong with the simple idea of The Undertaker and CM Punk using Paul Bearer’s actual death in a storyline, and Bearer’s immediate family were generally in agreement that there was nothing wrong with it. According to Bearer’s children, their father was a consummate businessman who would have wanted the company to keep making money off of him however they could. Despite this, WWE still managed to reach a level of exploitation that was beyond what Bearer’s children found acceptable, and the line was crossed when Paul Heyman dressed up as Bearer less than one month after he died. Things were made even worse when Punk poured out Bearer’s infamous urn, giving the usual desecration of the dead an unsettlingly literal edge. In the very least, The Undertaker avenged Bearer by defeating Punk at WrestleMania 29 to continue the streak. However, the fact that Heyman got the last word by managing Brock Lesnar to end the streak one year later served as a painful postscript that undid any revenge Bearer’s memory earned.
8. The Miss Elizabeth Confidential Episodes
The so-called “First Lady of Wrestling” Miss Elizabeth was given her honorific title due to her consummate grace and beauty, and for her historic status as the first woman to bring a touch of class into the WWE Universe. In stark contrast to Elizabeth herself, the manner in which her former employers treated her after her death was anything but classy, and closely resembled a tabloid news show like Hard Copy than any sort of tribute. Granted, her death wasn’t particularly graceful either, as she died due to an overdose, having mixed painkillers and vodka. While tragic, this doesn’t excuse the two reports on Elizabeth made by WWE Confidential, the short-lived documentary series hosted by Gene Okerlund. One segment recounting her death and paying tribute would have been acceptable, but especially by the second episode about Elizabeth, it was clear that WWE was using her death for ratings. Rather than waiting for an autopsy or official report, WWE irresponsibly claimed Elizabeth’s cause of death was unknown, even speculating that it may have been a homicide or suicide, in addition to playing Lex Luger’s actual 911 call when he found her body. If the goal were actually a tribute, Elizabeth would probably have gone into the Hall of Fame, which she still hasn’t as of 2016.
7. The Melanie Pillman Interview
Years before the Eddie Guerrero or Chris Benoit deaths, Brian Pillman was the first WWE superstar to die suddenly while still employed by the company. Pillman died on October 5, 1997, due to an undetected heart condition leading to a fatal myocardial infarction. That night, Pillman was scheduled to wrestle Goldust in a match that was obviously canceled on the news of his death. The next night, WWE attempted to make good on that canceled match by giving the full details of Pillman’s death, which they presented through an interview between Vince McMahon and Pillman’s widow, Melanie. It was reasonable for fans to want answers, and WWE may have been well intentioned in trying to give them. However, McMahon seriously crossed a line when he started talking about Pillman’s children, asking Melanie how they would survive without a father. Chances are, McMahon’s incredibly poor treatment of Melanie is the reason he almost never again would interview grieving family members, and the reason some of the families of the other people on this list don’t like it when he brings up their lost loved ones.
6. The Graham Family And The Fabulous Freebirds
Eddie Graham was far more than a mere wrestler. He performed that role from the late 1940s until 1980, though more importantly was his work as a promoter along the way. Graham started to make his way towards wrestling history working for the Capitol Wrestling Corporation in tag teams with his kayfabe brothers Dr. Jerry and “Crazy” Luke Graham, winning the NWA United States Tag Team Championships on four occasions. Once the team broke up, Graham began performing as a solo act and became a big star, and more importantly, head booker. Graham worked his way through territorial management to briefly become NWA President, but alcoholism and personal problems forced him to step down. His problems continued until 1985, when he committed suicide. Less than two months later, his son, Mike Graham, was interviewed about his father’s death by Gordon Solie, breaking down in tears as he described his plan to extend his father’s legacy by winning the NWA Championship. Mike was never nearly the star his father was, and he essentially exploited his father’s death to make himself a championship contender. Making matters worse, The Fabulous Freebirds called him out for doing so, mocking both Grahams as cowards while they did. Mike never won the NWA Championship nor came close to doing so, making it clear that there was no justification for him using his father’s name in this way.
5. Ox Baker And The Heart Punch
Earlier in this list we covered Roddy Piper taking advantage of the kayfabe era to make himself look like a greater threat in the ring, and yet he has nothing on Ox Baker in terms of utilizing coincidence to earn a reputation as a killer. Despite being known as “The Friendly Arkansas Ox” during his one stint in WWE, Baker was mostly known as one of the most vile and hated heels of his era, thanks largely to his promo style and devastating finishing maneuver, The Heart Punch. Granted, even at the time, a simple punch to the chest didn’t look particularly impressive as a wrestling move, until a tragedy of happenstance took place in the summer of 1971. Baker and The Claw were wrestling Cowboy Bob Ellis and Alberto Torres when Torres suffered a ruptured appendix, which ultimately lead to his death three days later. The next year, Baker wrestled Ray Gunkel, and though Gunkel won that encounter, later that day he died from injuries determined to have been suffered during the match. In both instances, Baker used the accidents as part of his character, claiming his Heart Punch was the sole cause of their deaths.
4. The Warrior Award
WWE had a long and combative history with The Ultimate Warrior, once a great superstar who dominated the wrestling universe, and later in his life a bitter homophobe known more for his real-life insanity than in-ring exploits. WWE and the Warrior came to peace with one another days before his death, honoring him with an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2014. During Warrior’s speech, he suggested that the company create “The Jimmy Miranda Award,” which would honor backstage WWE employees who never got the credit they deserved. The next year, WWE instead announced “The Warrior Award,” with a mission statement of recognizing those who “exhibited unwavering strength and perseverance, and who lives life with the courage and compassion that embodies the indomitable spirit of the Ultimate Warrior.” There were at least two huge problems with this award: first, it wasn’t at all what Warrior wanted, and second, a man known for making hateful statements against gays hardly left behind a statement of “courage and compassion.” As if the award weren’t offensive and exploitative in and of itself, WWE has done themselves no favors in who they’ve honored with it, which is the segue to…
3. Connor “The Crusher” And Justin Roberts
The fine line between tribute and exploitation becomes even finer when there are genuinely altruistic results, which is why Triple H and Stephanie McMahon using Connor “The Crusher” Michalek in the very name of their charity is a controversial subject in and of itself. The person most upset with how WWE have used Connor’s memory is Justin Roberts, who was a ring announcer for the company when he introduced Connor to the other wrestlers. Roberts felt his position as first contact between Connor and the company has never been sufficiently noted, not even when WWE entered Connor into the Hall of Fame in 2015. Making matters worse was that Connor entered the Hall as the recipient of the Warrior Award, which very implicitly had nothing to do with sick children. Nonetheless, Roberts appreciated that the company was honoring his young fallen friend, or at least would have if not for one particularly damning tweet made by Stephanie McMahon claiming “philanthropy is the future of marketing.” With that statement in mind, it isn’t unreasonable to retroactively view her every charitable effort as exploitative, including everything with Connor and especially the existence of the Warrior’s award.
2. Rey Mysterio And Eddie Guerrero
The careers of Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio were intrinsically linked years before Guerrero passed, ever since their epic feud in WCW throughout the fall of 1997. The two had recently rekindled their war in the summer of 2005, albeit under the highly maligned auspices of battling over the custody of Rey’s son, Dominic. Disappointing as the revival of their feud was, fans were happy to see them working together again, and as real-life best friends, the two wrestlers themselves were also happy to be working together. Naturally, fans extended deep condolences to Mysterio after Guerrero suffered his fatal heart attack, and the WWE writers responded in kind by allowing Mysterio to win the 2006 Royal Rumble. Mysterio went on to win the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania, dedicating just about every match wrestled in this era to the memory of his lost friend. At first, the constant mentions to Guerrero were more of a tribute than anything else, and it was hard to blame Mysterio for wanting to remember his friend. However, the references went on so long that it reached a point of exploitation, especially when wrestlers other than Mysterio started mentioning his connection to Guerrero for heat. Worst of all was Randy Orton, implying Guerrero was “burning in hell,” perhaps the most controversial sentence spoken by anyone on this list.
1. Sasha Banks And Eddie Guerrero
Nine times out of ten (if not more), in order to become a wrestler, someone needs to have a favorite wrestler who inspired them to step into the ring. For Sasha Banks, this person was Eddie Guerrero. He passed away when Sasha was only 13-years-old, and through sheer coincidence she happened to be in the audience for Raw the next night, completely unaware that her hero had passed on. Slightly more than a decade later, Banks was herself one of the top stars in WWE, and she made the decision to start honoring Guerrero in her ring gear and performances in general. The first time she danced to the ring felt like a tribute. Her addition of some of Guerrero’s moves to her repertoire didn’t necessarily cross any lines, either. Unfortunately, Banks and WWE couldn’t leave things there, and instead had Michael Cole and the other members of the announce team mention Guerrero at almost every opportunity possible, pushing the idea well into the level of outright exploitation. Considering this practice is still ongoing, chances are that Vince McMahon has no regrets about it yet, nor will he until enough people complain.
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