No one in the history of professional wrestling has been better at turning a profit with sports entertainment than Vince McMahon. Sure, a few small time businessmen made decent livings with regional promotions, but none hold a candle to McMahon’s WWE Universe, which has always been filled with more memorable characters than most other wrestling companies combined. Obviously, Vince isn’t the only one who makes bank in this scenario, as he pays his superstars pretty well for their work — so long as they basically sell away their soul and let him make whatever money off it he possibly can.
While it’s all well and good for Vince to exploit everything about his talent with their consent, there’s a line to be drawn when the wrestlers are no longer able to speak for themselves, like for example, if they were to pass, which wrestlers are known to do at younger ages than people in almost any other profession. Unfortunately, McMahon doesn’t always take a wrestler shuffling off this mortal coil as a sign he should stop promoting their name, or using it however he can to keep making money long after they pass away.
Understandably, even some of McMahon’s most loyal fans tend to find it a bit questionable when he blatantly exploits the memories of deceased former superstars. Others are outright disgusted, with more and more people changing the channel and never looking back each time another dead hero has their name dragged through the mud. If you need more information before deciding how you feel about the trend, keep reading to learn about 15 wrestlers Vince McMahon and the WWE Universe keeps trying to cash in on who are long gone.
15 Literally Anyone They Can Think Of For WWE Video Games
The first thing that should be pointed out regarding the fact virtually every WWE video game in history has exploited a wrestler or two who have passed is that Vince McMahon probably neither knows or cares about it.
WWE obviously sponsors dozens of games, and likely has people involved in their creation, but Vince himself certainly doesn’t have time for it, nor do any of his highest ranking executives.
With that out of the way, it nonetheless can’t be ignored just how often these games use dead wrestlers as a selling point. Sure, the cover stars are all recent wrestlers, and they’re used in the majority of the advertising. However, it’s always a big deal when the latest WWE 2K releases new DLC featuring wrestlers from yesteryear. Some games even included full playable storylines based entirely around performers who are all gone. Because fans genuinely like playing as their fallen icons, this isn’t really as bad as most other items on this list, but it’s still rampant enough it deserved mention.
14 Roughly One Hall Of Famer Per Year
Such is the nature of a Hall of Fame that a handful of dead people are going to wind up honored amongst its ranks. While this is excusable for a truly merit based organization, the unclear qualifications to the WWE Hall of Fame makes things more questionable.
By and large, inductees are chosen on Vince McMahon and Triple H’s whims, with a strong emphasis on names they believe still have money value.
What this has meant is cashing in on at least one dead name per year. In 2016, the number ballooned from one to a whole dozen when WWE introduced the “Legacy Wing” for long gone superstars who were famous before Vince McMahon changed wrestling. For the main group, the past five years alone has seen deceased inductees including Buddy Roberts, Terry Gordy, Rick Rude, Big Boss Man, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and Paul Bearer, and we’re sure there are more to come. If WWE could handle the situation gracefully, there would be no problem, but the way things have gone so far, it still feels exploitative.
13 Mae Young Became An Icon
Easily the strangest name on this list, the irony of Mae Young’s life and career is that she really wasn’t all that special until WWE retroactively decided she was a legend for being willing to go through a table in her late '70s. True, such a feat deserves a bit of praise, but it didn’t change the fact Young was a middling wrestler in her prime, never rising above the level of NWA United States Women’s Champion, a title that’s otherwise entirely forgotten today. Young barely wrestled for WWE at all until the aforementioned tables incident, with her entire mainstream career a weird, gross joke about how old and disgusting she was.
And yet, for some reason, she’s now revered as the preeminent icon of women’s wrestling in the 20th century.
WWE loves Mae Young’s name and image so much they named a tournament after her, making the superstar who died in 2014 perhaps the most talked about female wrestler in 2017 on a technical level.
12 Paul Bearer Was Exploited
Okay, so the exploitation of Paul Bearer’s death was pretty much a one-time thing, and it happened five years ago now, but it was such a flagrantly offensive act that we can’t leave it off this list. While WWE usually waits a little bit prior to looking for ways to cash in on the dead, in Bearer’s case, they literally couldn’t even wait a full week. Six short days after Bearer died in 2013, his longtime client The Undertaker seemingly hit the ring to give him a farewell tribute, only to be interrupted by CM Punk.
In the ensuing weeks, Punk’s manager Paul Heyman would dress up as Bearer for increasingly offensive segments, the sole point of which was to desecrate the Hall of Fame manager’s legacy.
Sure, Undertaker got his revenge at WrestleMania, but he and Punk could have feuded over literally anything else and achieved just as much attention and intrigue. Dragging Bearer’s name into things the second he passed was the laziest and most exploitative route they could possibly have gone.
11 The Von Erich Family Had DVDs
In all fairness, nothing Vince McMahon ever did to exploit deceased workers comes anywhere near the sort of stuff Fritz Von Erich pulled with his own children. Fritz was the owner and booker of World Class Championship Wrestling, a top Texas territory in the days before WWE went national. WCCW’s top stars were Fritz’s sons, especially David, Kevin, and Kerry, none of whom necessarily wanted to be wrestlers. Fritz didn’t even stop pushing his kids after they started dying off, first with David due to an overdose, followed by Mike, Chris, and Kerry, all to suicide. Though not nearly as bad as Fritz driving his family into depression and misery,
Vince McMahon would dredge up all that pain years later to release multiple DVDs about the Von Erich family, a story everyone in wrestling apparently loves to tell.
Granted, it is a unique, tragic, and compelling case of an overbearing father, so it’s hard to blame WWE for talking about it. However, to sell it as a DVD with “tragedy” in the title reaches a level that feels like exploitation.
10 Eddie Gilbert's Family Got Gypped
Truth be told, “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert probably doesn’t belong on this list. Not that he wasn’t a great wrestler in his own right, with great charisma and a handful of incredible feuds, most notably one wrestled against Jerry Lawler in Memphis. That said, Gilbert’s success was largely found outside of WWE, and the little appearances he did make in the company aren’t exactly promoted, even on the WWE Network. At most, he pops up on a few WWE clips from the 1980s, plus a handful of shows from the first year of ECW. It’s also worth noting Gilbert died almost 20 years before the network existed.
However, none of this stopped his father Tommy Gilbert from trying to sue Vince McMahon for royalties, with the whole Gilbert family agreeing they deserved money over the ordeal.
Gilbert’s connection to Lawler also means his work appeared in a few WWE DVDs, for which the family also wanted restitution. Ultimately, though, Gilbert’s low profile and the fact his father also died shortly after filing the suit probably means McMahon isn’t going to have to pay for this one.
9 Rosey's Legacy Isn't Honored The Way It Should Be
At this point, it’s very clear Vince McMahon would do absolutely anything within his power to make people actually cheer Roman Reigns. Apparently, this even includes using the fact Roman’s brother died to garner a little sympathy. Thankfully, WWE was much more subtle about doing this than usual, but the fact remains things happened within the company that definitely wouldn’t have if Rosey were still alive, mostly to make Roman look better. First up, right after Rosey passed, WWE.com posted an emotional interview with Roman some fans felt was a little too blatant about trying to make him sympathetic and likeable.
Months later, Rosey’s former WWE Tag Team Championship winning tag-team partner The Hurricane made a surprising return at the Royal Rumble, leading to a few more “emotional” WWE.com posts about the fallen superstar.
Most notable was a picture of Hurricane and Reigns together, again showing that the only reason WWE brings up Rosey is to make fans like Roman, thus exploiting his image rather than honoring his legacy.
8 Dusty Rhodes Wasn't Treated Well By Vince McMahon
Few names have meant more to professional wrestling than “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, so even if WWE weren’t constantly using his name, the Texas Outlaw’s legacy would remain a huge part of sports entertainment. Dusty’s boundless charisma and unique ability to get a crowd on his side are still highly influential to this day, and his role as NXT’s original head writer meant the current batch of WWE superstars directly learned from his experience.
That said, Dusty wasn’t that big a deal in WWE specifically until he was working behind the scenes, and Vince McMahon actually kind of mocked and insulted the guy during his proper career.
Once Dusty passed on, though, Vince suddenly started treating the Dream’s name with reverence and respect, able to make a quick buck from it without admitting his influence. Vince achieved that goal by promoting Dusty in a confusing way, plastering his name on the annual Tag Team Classic tournament, even though he was never personally involved with a significant tag team in WWE.
7 “Rowdy” Roddy Piper's Biggest Fan Is Rousey
At this point in the list, maybe we should acknowledge the fine line between tribute and exploitation. Many examples seen on these pages are at least partially meant to honor the legacy of the deceased wrestler in question, and that’s definitely the case with Ronda Rousey’s constant references to her idol, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Boisterous, opinionated, and full of an always rage fire, Piper is generally considered one of the best wrestlers in history, and Rousey understandably wants to follow in her friend and mentor’s footsteps now that he’s gone. However, there’s got to be a limit to how many ways she can shout him out before that becomes her whole gimmick, and WWE reached it the second her name was plastered all over the entrance ramp in the same typeface as Piper’s classic “Hot Rod” shirt.
Rousey’s own shirts are also directly based on Piper’s, a lazy design that could easily get older fans confused.
The strangest part of it all is that in the modern era, Rousey’s name is more marketable to the mainstream than Piper’s, making this exploitation of his image pointless.
6 Owen Hart's Wife Has His Back
Try as some people might to blame Vince McMahon directly for every death on this list, the truth is that the WWE CEO had very little to do with most of his employees demises. However, the tragic death of Owen Hart was one case where professional wrestling was blatantly responsible, as the 2-time Slammy Award winner never would have attempted the stunt that killed him were McMahon not insistent he did. Naturally, Owen’s widow Martha was furious and deeply hurt by what happened, immediately suing WWE for wrongful death in a case that settled out of court.
Martha’s legal issues with the McMahon family wouldn’t end there, though, as she’s also quick to threaten action whenever WWE mentions her husband’s name in any way.
DVDs about Owen in particular have always been a hot button issue, even as others in the Hart family approved of the idea. Quite frankly, it’s hard to argue Martha’s point, as any widow would be mad about a company that contributed to their spouse's passing is still profiting from his work.
5 “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka Doesn't Have The Best Rep
This entire list is a testament to the fact there’s Vince McMahon sees no reason to deny a money making opportunity, and yet the example of “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka somehow manages to take things even further than usual. On top of the fact McMahon is exploiting the deceased each time Snuka’s daughter Tamina hits the ring and Corey Graves or one of his cohorts is forced to mention her parentage, this whole process is also glorifying an accused murderer. Literally days before Snuka passed away in January of 2017, he was on trial for a serious crime many believe he committed way back in 1983.
This made it extra distasteful for WWE to keep using Superfly’s image and some fans even booed the tribute package they aired in his name.
Despite this reaction, the company is sure to keep reminding audiences about Snuka and his career each time Tamina is in line for a minor push.
4 Eddie Guerrero's Shouldn't Have Been Treated That Way
With the hard and fast way Eddie Guerrero blazed through his short life, even reaching the age of 38 truly could be called cheating death. Of course, this didn’t change the incredible loss felt by Guerrero’s millions of fans when he suddenly had a heart attack in 2005. It also didn’t take the sting away from what Randy Orton said on television just a few months later to Rey Mysterio. To paraphrase, Orton said Mysterio should stop dedicating matches to Eddie in heaven, because Latino Heat is burning in hell. No matter how a person felt about Guerrero, that’s an outrageously callous way for a WWE superstar to mention a former coworker, and the company rightfully received a great deal of flak for it. Not enough, however, to stop them from dredging Eddie’s image out of the grave 10 years later, having announcers refer to Latino Heat virtually every time Sasha Banks enters the ring.
Thankfully, WWE has at least calmed down on the offensive remarks about Eddie,
but by having Sasha dance just like him, they’re still calling upon his legacy to win over fans.
3 The Ultimate Warrior Wouldn't Approve
Of all the deceased names WWE treats with reverence and respect, the strangest is most certainly The Ultimate Warrior. Once a massive star who held both the WWE and Intercontinental Championships, the Warrior quickly fell out of favor with McMahon and the wrestling audience in general throughout the 1990s. The icon of destruction also seemed to fly off the rails behind the scenes, making highly inflammatory remarks between lawsuits where he sought to get any money out of McMahon he possibly could. And then, Warrior died, allowing WWE to completely rehab his image and treat the guy like a saint. One year after Warrior’s death,
the WWE Hall of Fame went so far as to introduce a special award in his image, honoring wrestling fans overcoming incredible struggles with disease or disability. Of course, anyone who knew anything about Warrior’s actual belief system understands this makes no sense whatsoever,
and is just a blatant cash in on the fame and aura Warrior once had before he went bonkers. Now that he’s dead, WWE can bring that image back without the real guy messing with it.
2 André The Giant's Name Is Constantly Dropped
Truly larger than life in every sense of the expression, André the Giant will always be one of the greatest icons in professional wrestling history. More than 25 years after André’s death, his look still exemplifies everything a wrestler should be: big, bad, and dangerous, with just enough humanity and personality fans could easily get on his side. Gigantic wrestlers will keep following André’s formula of destruction forever, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there is a bit of a problem in WWE using the Giant’s name on a yearly basis for almost no reason. Had the André the Giant Battle Royale been a one time affair for WrestleMania XXX, it might even served a fitting tribute. Unfortunately, though, now that the event’s winner being instantly forgettable is a major part of the tradition,
it feels like a desperate name drop used to fill time and make the so-called Grandest Stage of Them All feel artificially important.
Looking at the sort of wrestler who enters them, the real André probably wouldn’t even think his battle royales were worthy of his participation.
1 Vincent J. McMahon Is Brought Up For Marketing Purposes
Nothing makes it clear just how far Vince McMahon will go for a dollar quite like the fact he has invoked the name of his own deceased father to do just that on more than one occasion. Granted, just about every company in the world pays due respects to the people that founded them, and sometimes even uses their imagery in advertising and marketing. That said, Vince McMahon doesn’t bring up his father’s name on a consistent enough basis that it could be considered merely honoring the old man’s legacy when he does.
Instead, Vince only brings up Senior’s name on a very rare basis, always making a huge deal out of it in an effort to get all eyes on his product.
The most recent example was the Vincent J. McMahon Legacy of Excellence Award, a made up honor WWE hoped would pop a decent rating for Raw. Being Vince, Sr.’s heir, perhaps it's in Vince, Jr.’s right to use his name whoever he so pleases. Nonetheless, the other examples on this list make it clear he’d still do that even if they weren’t related.