Eric Bischoff has famously stated his motto as “controversy creates cash,” and though Bischoff’s fame in wrestling mostly came by trying to take down WWE, there’s no doubt the most successful sports entertainment conglomerate in America has been applying that principle for decades. Indeed, controversy can draw fan intrigue and increase ratings in the short-term, but in the long-term there are often serious side effects to the most controversial ideas people have tried to broadcast on television. If the idea is controversial enough, it might not even earn that fan interest, and the whole affair will just blow up in WWE’s face.
More than a few times, WWE has shot for mildly controversial and ended up with downright offensive. Sometimes it was obvious from the word go, and other instances took a few years before people realized how truly offensive the ideas were, but thanks to the WWE Network, almost all of these moments can be viewed for a low price online. WWE have since apologized for some of these incidents in one form or another, and they certainly try to distance themselves from admitting any of them were an important part of company history. Keep reading if you’d like to find out 15 times WWE completely crossed the line.
15. The Melanie Pillman Interview
Brian Pillman was an increasingly noteworthy wrestler in the late 90’s in part by developing his “Loose Cannon” persona, and in part thanks to his association with The Hart Foundation. In October of 1997, Pillman tragically became one of the first wrestlers to pass away while still under contract with WWE. Pillman’s cause of death was stated to be a heart attack, and while the company obviously had to address the situation in one way or another, they chose just about the worst way to do so. The night after Pillman’s death, Vince McMahon interviewed his widow Melanie live on Raw. Even putting her on television at all in this state was horribly offensive, but Vince’s line of questioning, blaming drugs for Pillman’s death and asking his wife what this would mean for their children made things significantly worse, and nearly caused Melanie to burst into very real tears.
14. Stephanie McMahon Doesn’t Understand 9/11
WWE received a great deal of positive press for the September 13, 2001 live episode of SmackDown. Only two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, WWE turned SmackDown into a tribute to the fallen Americans and the people affected by the tragedy. By and large it was an emotional and passionate night when many wrestlers talked about their love for their country, until Stephanie McMahon got her minute in the sun. Stephanie’s response to terrorists attacking her country and ending the lives of hundreds of people was that America was just like her father, who got attacked once and survived, so America will survive, too. Virtually everyone who heard this found it an incredibly spoiled and self-centered reaction to a national tragedy, and most find it hard to take Stephanie genuinely to this day knowing how insular her world obviously is.
13. JBL Beats Up A Family of Immigrants
Even casual fans probably know by now that JBL is an openly racist bully, and his constant negative presence doesn’t get enough credit for being part of why Monday Night Raw has been getting record low ratings since he became the permanent color commentator. Despite all that being in the open, fans might forget the most racist, bullying moment of his career, and somehow it was kind of responsible for his long-term success. JBL’s first main event feud was against Eddie Guerrero, and although JBL had plenty of source material to take from Guerrero’s wrestling character to help him form his own personality, JBL instead focused on the fact Eddie was Mexican and became a huge racist to justify their battles. The worst example didn’t even have anything to do with Eddie, and saw JBL film himself going to the United States-Mexico border and literally kicking out a family of immigrants. Some people still try to pass it off as a comedy segment, but we can’t figure out why it’s funny.
12. Muhammad Hassan Martyrs Daivari
Mark Copani is one of the few wrestlers able to say he retired while at his absolute peak as a performer, and the reason is WWE firing him for doing exactly what he was told to do. Copani’s character Muhammad Hassan was one of the most reviled villains of 2005, when Copani was only 24 years old. The Hassan character was a proud Muslim offended by Americans unfairly stereotyping him and his people in the wake of 9/11, and in the xenophobic world of wrestling that made him the biggest heel on the planet. Because wrestling doesn’t understand subtlety, Hassan eventually had his manager Daivari martyred after he failed to defeat The Undertaker. That already crosses a few lines, but it leaps right over any semblance of decency when you learn the episode of SmackDown it took place on aired the same day of the 2005 London bombings. While the whole thing was in terrible taste, it’s worth remembering none of it was Copani’s fault, as he was just doing what WWE told him to, but he took all the blame and was ultimately the only one to lose his job over the angle.
11. Friar Ferguson Is God Awful
While most of the items on this list are individual moments, a few wrestlers had gimmicks that simply crossed the line in general. Arguably the most blatant example was Friar Ferguson, the wrestling Catholic monk. Mike Shaw, who is also known for other horrible and disgusting gimmicks, portrayed the character, and it was unquestionably his worst. Ferguson’s first appearance on Raw was a meaningless victory against a jobber, but his few minutes of airtime were enough to inspire the rage of various Catholic rights groups, who felt the mere idea of a man of the cloth stepping in the ring was going too far.
10. Val Venis…Just In General
Look, most of us are adults here, and so were wrestling fans during the Attitude Era, so we get it. We’re not trying to say there’s anything wrong with an adult film star moonlighting as a professional wrestler, but the fact the dude continued to make adult films with almost all of the female talent on the roster and broadcast it on national television was actually pretty damn risqué, even for the era. His raison d’etre upon his debut was stealing his opponents’ wives, and as if that wasn’t R-rated enough, the manner in which one of his foes tried to get revenge on him is on another level entirely. After Venis made a film with Mrs. Yamaguchi-san, her outraged husband Mr. Yamaguchi-san and his friends in Kai En Tai kidnapped Val and tried to cut off his penis. John Bobbitt was already old news when this happened, so not only was it bizarre and offensive, it wasn’t even topical like they tried to pretend it was.
9. The Dudley Boyz Hate Women
Bubba Ray and D-Von Dudley debuted as two backwoods hillbillies of confusing relation in late 1999, but it wasn’t until a few months later they actually started to become one of the most noteworthy teams in WWE. And they did it by beating the hell out of women. Bubba would go into a trancelike state and the announcers would assume he was deriving perverted sexual pleasure as he power-bombed women like B.B., Molly Holly, Terri, Lita, Torrie, Trish Stratus, and even Mae Young through tables. Later, the Dudleyz would pair with Stacy Keibler, but that would end with them violently attacking her as well. Violence against women is almost always extremely uncomfortable in wrestling due to its terrible nature in reality, but the Dudleyz especially crossed the line by making it part of their gimmick.
8. Triple H Humps A Mannequin In A Casket
This moment comes up on virtually every list of WWE’s biggest mistakes, and with good reason, as it’s arguably the lowest scripted point in company history. The late 2002 feud between Kane and Triple H crossed the line from the word go, when instead of the feud focusing on the World Heavyweight Championship which Triple H held, the main point of their battles was the fact Triple H jokingly accused Kane of murder and necrophilia. Not that it would’ve been any better if it weren’t played for laughs, the exact moment endless Attitude Era fans realized wrestling had passed them by was probably when Triple H climbed into a casket and humped a mannequin while wearing a Kane mask to prove his accusations. It’s hard to think of anything more distasteful without real world events getting involved. And therefore…
7. Vince McMahon Goes Out In A Blaze Of Glory
An unfortunate number of wrestlers have faked serious injuries, but a couple of those faked injuries in particular seriously crossed the line. The first on our list isn’t an injury per se, but rather a fiery exploding death. On June 11, 2007, Monday Night Raw ended with Vince McMahon walking into his limo, and that limo subsequently exploding in multiple blasts. WWE.com immediately reported a story that McMahon was actually missing and presumed dead. The idea of faking any kind of injury is dicey territory, but to fake murder and death and then try and pass it off as real takes it a step further and gets seriously offensive. Making matters significantly worse, the Chris Benoit tragedy occurred only two weeks later reminding everyone just how fragile life is, and all storylines related to the incident were immediately dropped and forgotten.
6. Droz Murders Hawk
The majority of The Legion of Doom’s penultimate storyline in WWE crossed several lines in wrestling that WWE has regularly been criticized for crossing. Namely, if a performer has serious personal problems, they should not be exploited for their wrestling character. Hawk struggled with painkillers and alcoholism for years, and WWE arguably only made things worse by making this struggle the focus of hours of television in late 1998. Hawk showed up “drunk” or “high,” and the character of Droz was introduced as LOD’s dealer. On November 16th of that year, Hawk climbed up the Titantron for no particular reason, and Droz followed. Once they reached the top, Droz pushed Hawk to what was presumably his death. The Legion of Doom themselves forced WWE to drop the angle, and they were in turn forced out of the company a few months later.
5. Michael Cole Fakes A Fatal Injury
WWE can’t be blamed too harshly for faking McMahon’s death so close to Benoit’s tragedy, since that couldn’t have been predicted. The fact death is so prevalent in wrestling should have been clue enough, but a more recent incident proves they must not really pay attention to that fact, either. In the middle of March in 2015, Brock Lesnar kayfabe attacked Michael Cole and took him off Raw for a couple of weeks. WWE.com chose to claim Cole was injured with a “possible cervical fracture.” While fake injuries are nothing new in wrestling, a Mexican wrestler named Perry Aguayo, Jr. actually died in the ring during a match with Rey Mysterio due to a fractured vertebrae—virtually the same injury. WWE really should’ve checked to make sure they weren’t mocking the dead with their storylines, but then again, they have a history of that, too…
4. Randy Orton Mocks Eddie Guerrero
The death of Eddie Guerrero in November of 2005 remains one of the most shocking and sudden events in WWE history. While Guerrero’s demons were well known, his life seemed to be on an upswing, and his connection with the fans was unmatched by any other wrestler in WWE at the time. While endless wrestlers have been taken from us far too soon, many saw Guerrero as perhaps the most talented in the world up to the day of his death, and all of that makes what Randy Orton said about him only a few months later significantly more painful to Eddie’s biggest fans. On February 3, 2006, Randy Orton told Rey Mysterio he thought Eddie wasn’t in Heaven, but rather burning in Hell. Regardless of where you stand on religion or the whole Friar Ferguson thing, this is clearly crossing all sorts of lines. It’s also worth noting Eddie was and Rey is deeply religious, so the implications of the lines were hurtful on a deeply personal level, as well as the general insult to wrestling fans and human life in general.
3. Paige Mocks Reid Flair
WWE is receiving a great deal of positive press lately for their women’s revolution, and their attempt at refocusing their product to promote female superstars as equal talents to their male roster. While many of the women working for WWE are indeed talented on a level equal to or surpassing their male co-workers, less positive things can be said about the WWE writers telling these women what to say. Two of the forefronts of the so-called revolution, Paige and Charlotte Flair, were feuding in November of 2015. Instead of Paige focusing on the fact Charlotte was the Champion at the time, she insulted her by saying her brother Reid “didn’t have a lot of fight in him.” Reid died of a heroin overdose at the age of 25 just two years earlier. Charlotte and Reid’s famous father Ric was deeply hurt by the comment, and so were legions of fans.
2. CM Punk Mocks Paul Bearer
William Moody, who famously portrayed Paul Bearer for over a decade in WWE, passed away of a heart attack on March 5, 2013. Six days later on Raw, CM Punk and his manager Paul Heyman mocked The Undertaker for daring to grieve the actual death of his long time friend. The duo would continue mocking Bearer’s death, culminating with Heyman dressing up like the deceased while CM Punk poured the ashes out of his urn. Unlike in the other instances, Bearer’s family actually approved of the segments, but fans still were left with a bad taste in their mouths. Even though The Undertaker got his revenge, it still hurt to see such a beloved performer so summarily mocked in the immediate wake of his death, and proves that certain subjects just shouldn’t be touched in wrestling.
1. Vince McMahon Makes Trish Stratus Bark Like A Dog
While every other moment on this list was extremely controversial, there’s one segment in particular that stands out as unquestionably the lowest point in professional wrestling history. When ran for the United States Senate, clips from the decade old episode of Raw were brought to national attention, since even if you didn’t think her wrestling business precluded her from politics, her opposition correctly assumed nobody could possibly condone this. In early 2001, Linda’s husband Vince, CEO of WWE, forced a crying female wrestler to strip to her underwear and bark like a dog in front of a rapid, screaming audience.
It isn’t too hard for a wrestling fan to defend the segment, as Trish eventually got her revenge and became a bona fide legend in WWE. However, given Vince’s authority, Trish’s vulnerability, and the fact the crowd totally missed the point and cheered like they’ve never cheered before pushes this so far over the line it’s almost as though WWE didn’t even realize the line existed. Say what you will about the PG era, but at least nothing like this could ever happen again.