It’s very easy for people who aren’t fans of wrestling to sit back and call everything to do with professional wrestling is fake. While it's commonly accepted in the modern age of Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment that professional wrestling is a performance art, what non-fans don’t seem to grasp that in addition to being performers, many of today’s top wrestlers are world class athletes.There are former NFL linebackers, UFC champions, Olympic gold medallists, championship level strongmen, and the list goes on, all perfect examples of the physical talent that’s required to make it in the big leagues.
However, unlike the rest of the world's elite athletes, professional wrestlers don’t get off-seasons, three to six-month gaps between fights, and they often have to work through injuries on tight schedules jumping from one location to the next for the majority of the year.
Such an intense schedule can naturally lead to tension between a lot of the wrestlers backstage, as does the politics that goes on behind the scenes. Unfortunately, there are times when the tension can spill out into the squared circle, especially as the ring is their only true outlet for their aggression. So with that in mind, here are 15 occasions where the wrestling got very real between the competitors.
15 Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki
In light of all the media craziness and hype surrounding August’s fight between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of watching one of the world's greatest boxers take on the 155 lb UFC champion and mixed martial artist. However, it’s not the first time one of the greatest fighters of all time has climbed into the ring with a non-boxer.
Over 40 years ago, a fight between Muhammad Ali and Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki was sanctioned in Tokyo, Japan. Unfortunately, fight fans and boxing writers considered the fight an embarrassment, because Inoki spent the entire 15 rounds on his back kicking Ali’s legs. The strategy was a sound one, and Ali looked visibly hurt with a wound opening up on his leg, and only managing to throw 6 punches in the entire fight. The disastrous fight was declared a draw, but following the contest Ali suffered such a serious infection in his leg that amputation was discussed.
14 Vader vs. Cactus Jack
Back in WCW, Mick Foley as Cactus Jack had quite the rivalry with Vader and it was those matches which pushed him into stardom. After working as a heel for quite some time, the writers at WCW decided Cactus Jack should become a good guy. Unfortunately, Mick had trouble getting over with the fans because the announcers used to repeatedly say how much he enjoyed the pain, and as a result was unable to obtain any sympathy from the audience.
That would all change in his feud with Vader. In the first match, Vader knocked Foley all over the ring, breaking his nose and splitting him open from underneath his eye, but it wasn’t that match that left Foley disfigured for the rest of his life. During a tour in Germany, Foley got his neck stuck in between the ropes in a hangman's maneuver, in a panic he managed to free his head but ripped off his ear in the process.
13 Brock Lesnar vs. Hardcore Holly
Hardcore Bob Holly was always known for being a legitimate tough guy, but also had a reputation as a bully, and loved pushing the new guys around in their matches with him whether he was supposed to put them over or not. Brock Lesnar’s star was already rising, and young as he was certainly wasn’t the sort of guy you’d try pushing around during the match, but Holly tried anyway.
From the outset of the match, there looked like there was some possible heat between the two and you could tell Holly was trying to lay into Lesnar, but after Brock got in a few hard hits of his own, the match seemed to go as planned. That is, until Lesnar went for a powerbomb that either went wrong in the heat of the moment, or Holly didn’t cooperate. Either way, Holly landed hard on his neck, and even though he finished the match he needed surgery, which sidelined him for months.
12 The British Bulldogs vs. Mick Foley & Les Thornton
The tag team of the British Bulldogs were megastars in America, Canada, and Japan during the 80s, but they also had a reputation of being very hard on other wrestlers with their intense and high impact style. The Dynamite Kid Tom Billington, in particular, was considered a quite the hard man and a bully resulting in many backstage incidents and real-life grudges.
Very early in Mick Foley’s career, he teamed with Les Thornton to take on the Bulldogs in a tag team match. Living up their fearsome reputation, the Bulldogs were incredibly brutal, and by Foley’s own account Billington manhandled him so badly he couldn’t eat solid food for a week and tore a ligament in his jaw.
11 Lex Luger vs. Bruiser Brody
The Lex Luger vs. Bruiser Brody match was bizarre and ludicrous to watch. Luger was still green but because of his size and big muscular look, he was being groomed for stardom very early on in his career. This may have been the determining factor as to why Brody stopped cooperating with him halfway through the match. The contest started out well enough, but things seemed to take a turn for the worst when the fans started chanting for Luger, leading to Brody to no-sell for Luger.
Apparently, both wrestlers were faces in Dallas, and Brody didn’t think that the match was working at all so he simply stopped working. Instead of communicating with Luger at the time, though, he just spent the remainder of the match intensely staring at Luger. Knowing Brody’s already ferocious reputation, Luger got the referee to disqualify him and scrambled out of the cage and left the arena as fast as he could.
10 Dr. Death Steve Williams vs. Steve Ray
The late Herb Adams founded the UWF in 1990 and was the head booker of the company until 1992. During this time, Herb Adams booked the match between “Wild Thing” Steve Ray and Dr. Death Steve Williams. Unfortunately for Ray, a paranoid Herb Adams wrongly accused the Wild Thing of having an affair with his wife and stealing his cocaine.
So before the match, Adams apparently paid Dr. Death an extra $100 to hurt Steve Ray in the match. Although the two wrestlers worked through the match they were clearly hitting each other with some solid shots. When the match was over you could visibly see Herb Adams taunting Ray, prompting the Wild Thing to take a swing at him.
9 Kurt Angle vs. Daniel Puder
The original Tough Enough series started out well and its format was very similar to that of the UFC’s Ultimate Fighter reality series, and with the exception of John Hennigan (Morrison), it hasn’t produced many stars or many memorable moments to speak of. Although he didn’t make much of an impression in the WWE, the mixed martial artist Daniel Puder certainly left an impression with Kurt Angle.
In an unscripted segment back in 2004, Kurt Angle called out all the TE participants and proceeded to challenge Chris Nawrocki to shoot for him and try and take him down. The Olympian easily won with a neck crank, and legitimately broke Nawrocki’s ribs in the process. Kurt Angle then (rather obnoxiously) called out a second volunteer, to which Puder answered. Angle immediately shot for Puder, but found himself deep in a kimura, and would have had his arm broken had the referee not stepped in and awarded Angle the win – unsurprisingly Angle was furious at the humiliation.
8 Antonio Inoki vs. The Great Antonio
Antonia Inoki is a major star in his home country of Japan, not just a famous wrestler but a cultural icon too. As already mentioned, he was a big enough name to set up a boxer vs. wrestler match with not just Muhammed Ali but Leon Spinks too -- the latter of which he won in the eighth round. Inoki loved to set up special matches with major stars from the west, so he set up a match with a Croatian-Canadian strong man and heel wrestler known as the Great Antonio.
Before the match, Inoki and Antonio agreed to a back and forth match with Inoki ultimately coming out on top in front of his home crowd. However, as soon as the match began the Great Antonio decided not sell any of Inoki’s moves and hit him with some hard shots. It was a decision he would soon come to regret, as Inoki slapped, chopped, kicked and stomped the strongman into unconsciousness.
7 Andre The Giant v Akira Maeda
Andre The Giant is one of the all-time greatest big men in the wrestling business. In his prime, he was one of wrestling's biggest attractions and drew huge numbers especially in Japan. He also had a bit of a reputation for being quite stubborn, and if there was something he didn’t agree with when it came to a match he'd refuse to cooperate. In addition to his stubbornness, Andre was a very a heavy drinker and would sometimes show up to matches either severely hungover or drunk.
This would be the case when Andre wrestled rising Japanese star Akira Maeda. Apparently, Andre felt disrespected by Maeda’s attitude toward the business, and after showing up drunk he completely no-sold Maeda’s entire offense throughout the whole match. Andre’s actions led to Maeda kicking the Giant’s legs and even taking him down. However, he didn’t capitalize, and the debacle of a match was brought to a standstill leaving fans angry and bewildered at what transpired.
6 Vader vs. Stan Hansen
Big Van Vader and Stan Hansen certainly earned their reputations as two of the meanest and stiffest men in professional wrestling. Both guys have hurt people in the past with their clubbing blows and wild swinging haymakers, but this match was on another level.
Considering the battles these two guys had with each it’s almost hard to believe these two guys were friends despite being violent rivals in the ring. Vader even inducted Hansen into the WWE 2016 Hall of Fame.
Apparently, Hansen suffers from terrible eyesight issues, and he often threw hands at very close range, but both he and Vader were hitting each wildly at each other until Hansen gouged Vader’s eye of out its socket. A huge credit to Vader is that he managed to pop it back in and finish the match.
5 Harley Race & Nick Bockwinkel vs. Stan Hanson & Bruiser Brody
A match between four very stiff and legit tough old school wrestlers was never going to be the kind of technical display of chain wrestling that you would see from a Dean Malenko or Stephen Regal match.
Apparently, Bruiser Brody, who was known for taking liberties with wrestlers, started getting more and more difficult with Bockwinkel. Of course, Harley Race was never one to be intimidated by anyone -- not even Brody -- and took exception to this and gave as good as he got. Additionally, when Stan Hanson tried to sit down on a suplex with Race, Race powered him up and suplexed him anyway. In Harley Race’s own words “you had to assert to these guys that wouldn’t tolerate that kind of bulls**t.”
4 Rick Steiner vs. Konnan
The Steiner Brothers Rick and Scott were always what some would consider hard-hitting wrestlers, and that was with the guys they liked. So when either of the legitimately tough brothers takes a disliking to any of their opponents in the squared circle, you can be pretty sure they’ll be waking up sore in the morning. This would be the case for when Rick stepped into the ring with Konnan back in the WCW days.
Rick apparently never cared for Konnan’s reckless style of wrestling, and he considered him dangerous and, worst of all, lazy in the ring. So when Steiner’s friend Lex Luger was injured as a result of Konnan’s recklessness, Steiner made him pay by knocking him all over the ring. In addition, Steiner did very little to sell any of Konnan’s offense, and he didn’t look in the slightest bit competitive for the duration of the match.
3 Goldberg vs. Steven Regal
Although it would seem the match was meant to have been a planned squash match between rising WCW megastar Goldberg and the Blackpool veteran Steven Regal, Regal was meant to help Goldberg look like he had some technical prowess rather than just being a three move wonder.
The match certainly started out well enough with Regal allowing Goldberg to pull off a few surprising submissions and leg locks, but it seemed that Regal wasn’t content with the match being over in mere minutes and forced Goldberg to work a little harder for his paycheck that night.
It was an odd looking match because there were times when Regal didn’t sell some of Goldberg's offense and tied him up in some awkward looking holds. Even the finish didn’t look as powerful as it usually did when Regal tried to resist the Jackhammer, but he still took the loss and left the company soon after.
2 Brock Lesnar vs. The Big Show
Brock Lesnar and the Big Show had a quite a few showcase moments early in Brock's career. One of the more memorable things about the matches was how easily "The Next Big Thing," or the Beast as he's known now, could throw the then 475 lb giant around the ring like he was a normal athlete.
In Brock Lesnar's autobiography, Death Clutch, Lesnar mentions an incident that happened between the two during one of the earlier feuds. Prior to house show match, The Big Show apparently told Lesnar that they were going to have an easy match with no big bumps. So after taking exception to being told what to do, Lesnar began the match by running at the Show like a bull and started suplexing and slamming him all over the ring. In a recent interview, the Big Show states that Lesnar is easily the strongest and most explosive guy he's ever wrestled, and we can see why.
1 Act Yasukawa vs. Yoshiko
The total brutalization of Act Yasukawa by Yoshiko may be one of the most violent shoot matches in recent times. There were rumors that Yoshiko took issue with the rising popularity of Act Yasukawa and that she was meant to drop the title to one of the company’s so-called "glamour girls." This apparently lead to get things getting personal behind the two.
As the match got underway, Act started throwing a couple hard shots at Yoshiko’s face, but instead of just giving her a stiff shot back, Yoshiko went berserk, punching and pulling at her hair while on the ground. The mugging continued until Yoshiko’s corner found a way to throw in the towel, but the damage had already been done. Act Yasukawa suffered from a fractured cheek and nasal and orbital bones, and required surgery. The damage suffered eventually led to Act’s early retirement.