As with any person in any profession, most wrestlers don’t publicly reveal each and every detail of their contracts or financial situation in general. However, as with fans of any person in a public profession, wrestling fans have done the sleuthing required to unlock some of those mysteries. Some people seem to have the assumption that wrestlers are paid extravagantly, leading excessively glamorous lives like buffed up rock stars. Unfortunately for the wrestlers, this is only really true of the best paid guys on the roster, and in fact a lot of them aren’t paid terribly well at all. Wrestlers are “independent contractors,” meaning they all have very specific personal contracts, and some are compensated far better than others.
What exactly makes a “bad contract” is almost entirely subjective and based on the goals and abilities of the individual who signs it, but there are a few clear-cut signs someone got a raw deal. In certain cases, wrestlers were promised huge things that clearly never happened. In other cases, no great promise needed to be made, but things still went so horribly for the wrestler we can’t leave them out. Ask any wrestler before 1990 and they’ll probably tell you they were all screwed by their contracts, and that might be true. More recently, however, a few people in particular have come up with some concrete proof they were screwed by their contracts. People like…
10 Booker T
Booker T is a WWE Hall of Famer and former wrestler who currently sits at the announce booth during Pay-Per-View and Network special pre-shows. For many years, he was also one of the co-announcers for SmackDown, and has filled in on Raw plenty of times whenever Jerry Lawler had health issues. Regardless of his legend status and equal footing on the announce team, when WWE contracts were leaked in 2014, it was revealed Booker was the lowest paid announcer by a pretty significant margin. Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler were earning $109K and $104K per year respectively, while Booker was only making around $73K. Longevity alone clearly wasn’t the issue, since Matt Striker was somehow topping them all at one point, despite having by far the least experience. This is especially concerning given the various accusations of racism WWE has received over the years.
9 Jack Swagger
Jack Swagger is a former WWE World Heavyweight Champion. That fact kind of gets glossed over these days, considering Swagger hasn’t really been a big deal in the company since then. The All-American may have dropped pretty far down the card, but it’s still amazing that the former world champ is allegedly only making around $75K per year. It’s not that he should necessarily be making millions, but most former world champions are at least pulling six figures, and that’s only if they’re not actually clearing all seven digits. The Big Show, Randy Orton, and Sheamus all break the million-dollar barrier, and Mark Henry and the Great Khali are pretty close. Even lower carders like Tensai and Brody Clay were doubling Swagger’s pay or more.
8 CM Punk
A huge point of controversy in the world of professional wrestling is the fact WWE and other major wrestling companies generally don’t provide health insurance for their workers. In addition to this, WWE has a longstanding policy of not necessarily forcing, but at least heavily suggesting, that top name talent should try and work through their so-called “lesser” injuries. Punk claimed WWE forced him to wrestle despite suffering an MRSA infection, along with potential broken ribs and injured knees, not to mention multiple concussions and a serious loss of appetite. Punk has also accused WWE of refusing to answer his questions in relation to how contracted wrestlers would be compensated after the rise of the WWE Network, which may hint at a whole lot more wrestlers showing up in lists like this one in the near future.
7 The Von Erichs
Prior to the 1990’s, very few wrestlers even had guaranteed contracts outside of very short-term engagements. The only true exceptions were wrestlers who had financial ties to a given company, or wrestlers who had obvious familial ties to a given company. Such is the case with the Von Erich family. David, Kerry, Kevin, Mike, and Chris may never have even signed official contracts with their father, Fritz Von Erich, but it’s obvious after working for him, four out of five of the boys ended up dead. Fritz was extremely demanding on his boys, who didn’t particularly want to be wrestlers in the first place, and barely paid them due to the mentality they were “helping the family business.”
6 Wendi Richter
We’ve covered before how The Fabulous Moolah systematically controlled and destroyed women’s wrestling for nearly thirty years. Wendi Richter in particular has spoken out on the subject, claiming that the contract she signed to be trained by Moolah included a clause that Moolah would receive 25% of her earnings throughout her entire career. The contract also dictated that Richter, and all of Moolah’s other “students,” had to pay Moolah an additional fee to live in an apartment complex she owned. Other students of Moolah would claim their contracts got so unfair Moolah would end up taking ALL of their money, and it would be several years before they saw the slightest profit from their work. Moolah still gets most of the credit for women's wrestling, regardless of the fact she did her best to kill it.
5 The KISS Demon
This entry is an extremely strange and specific case, even in the strange and eccentric world of professional wrestler. Dale Torborg is a professional wrestler signed by WCW in the late 1990’s. With only about one year in the wrestling industry under his belt, WCW for some reason decided Torborg was perfect to portray “The KISS Demon,” a character who acted as a carbon-copy of Gene Simmons, lead singer of the rock band KISS. Torborg wasn’t ready to appear on mainstream television to begin with, and the wrestling audience reacted to the character extremely negatively. The real KISS performed a mini-concert on an episode of Nitro and received some of the lowest ratings in the history of the show. WCW’s contract with KISS dictated that the character would appear in a “Main Event match,” which took place in the middle of the show and saw the Demon job in under four minutes. We don’t feel too bad for Torborg, though, because the one good thing to come out of the ordeal was that he met his wife, Asya, during their time in the company.
4 Rob Van Dam
ECW has a rich history of incredible matches, groundbreaking gimmicks, and extremely creative angles, but their track record with paying talent left a hell of a lot to be desired. This entire list could be made of people promised money by Paul Heyman they never received, but we’ll settle with arguably the worst example in Rob Van Dam. By 2001, RVD was unquestionably the top star in ECW. It could actually be claimed RVD was the top star in ECW since at least 1998. It therefore makes a certain kind of sense that when ECW went out of business and it was revealed exactly how much certain people were owed, nobody had a higher amount owed to them than Rob Van Dam. While most wrestlers were claiming Heyman owed them from a few hundred to a few tens of thousands, Van Dam was owed a whooping $150,000. Especially considering the kind of things ECW performers did to put their bodies on the line, it’s downright despicable Paul would withhold such incredible amounts of money from them.
3 Shawn Michaels
In 1996, Shawn Michaels was on top of wrestling world, reigning as the WWE World Champion for several months. Unfortunately for him, he was also addicted to a large number of painkillers, doing an unknown combination of drugs, and a good number of his friends were leaving the company. Kevin Nash and Scott Hall were leading the new World order in WCW, and HBK badly desired to get fired from WWE and join his friends. Michaels even went as far as to go to Vince McMahon directly and asked to be released, only for McMahon to explicitly tell Michaels his contract absolutely forbade it. Not only did McMahon tell Michaels no, he dove into his role as a consummate wrestling politician, explaining to Michaels how he could never be quite as successful anywhere else other than WWE. HBK would eventually admit Vince may have had a point.
2 Al Snow
Al Sarven finally settled into his place in wrestling history in the late 1990’s when he revived the Al Snow name in ECW. Snow eventually brought the character and his decapitated mannequin friend, Head, to WWE and had a couple years of success in the midcard and as a trainer. However, prior to that, few people were jerked around by bookers and promoters on quite the level he was. Snow had a quick success in ECW in the early 90’s before moving to SMW to team with Kane, finally getting hired by WWE in 1995. Snow actually found himself in the strange position of being offered deals from both WCW and WWE, and he chose to go with WWE after he felt WCW executives were already treating him poorly before he even signed.
Although his debut came after a booking war, Snow was then forced to perform in horrible gimmicks including the fake luchadore Avatar, the wrestling ninja Shinobi, and the “new Rocker,” Leif Cassidy. Snow was openly unhappy the entire time and desperately attempted to get writers and bookers to listen to his ideas, but his position on the card made it impossible for him to do anything other than shut up and do the job. His frustration was later referred to when he lead his own stable of low carders, The J.O.B. Squad.
1 Owen Hart
Survivor Series 1997 will forever be one of the most shocking and important events in WWE history. Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon famously “screwed” Bret Hart out of the WWE World Championship, but ultimately, Bret wasn’t the only person affected by their actions. Bret’s brothers-in-law, Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart, alongside family friend Rick Rude, all walked out of the company in protest. Mick Foley tried to do the same, but changed his mind when he realized that would be a breach of contract. So, why did we put Owen on the list instead of Mick? Well, it’s probably a given Owen wanted to do the same thing and couldn’t for the same reasons, and considering he was even closer to the situation, it must have been worse for him. On top of that, WWE spent the next year having him lose to lesser and lesser opponents, before ultimately forcing him to participate in a stunt that cost him his life.