The World Wrestling Entertainment company (formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation before a certain wildlife fund stepped in and made them give up the title, pun intended) is no stranger to controversy, nor is the sport of pro wrestling, in general.
For decades, the WWE has provided questionable-at-best storylines that reek of discrimination and homophobia, or otherwise tasteless content. This ranges from a planned romantic storyline between a real-life brother and sister, and exploitation of everything from the concept of an “Islamic terrorist” to "Leprechauns," among other things.
It should come as a surprise to no one, then, that not only are the fictitious plots of the franchise laden with controversy and disgrace, but there’s a hefty helping of the same issues backstage.
While the WWE plainly states they’re “family friendly” entertainment, comprised of real athleticism mixed with scripted storylines, the same can’t be said of their behind-the-scenes antics.
Divorced from their wrestling product, the WWE has multiple skeletons in their closet, whether it’s white-washing history, screwing over talents they have real-life issues with, or dealing with straight-up lawsuits.
It's time to take a look at some of the most heinous things that the company has ever been involved with, with The 15 Most Controversial Things The WWE Has Ever Done.
15 CM Punk's Shoot Promo And Subsequent Mistreatment
In pro wrestling, a “shoot” is when something goes “off script.” While the majority of wrestling is scripted, in a sense, sometimes wrestlers, announcers, or events take a turn that’s a little too real, and deviate from what was expected.
This is exactly what happened when CM Punk delivered a “pipe bomb” promo.
During it, he tore into the company, spurred by the WWE’s, and Vince McMahon’s, failure to give him the proper push he deserved.
While Punk admits that some of the comments he made were approved in advance, the rest was a genuine rant, where he complained about Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, Vince, fans and the failure of the company to give him the spotlight.
So they helped him out slightly, but soon retaliated by poorly booking the wrestler and breaking various promises, forcing Punk to leave in angry disgrace to MMA.
14 JBL's Backstage Bullying
John “Bradshow” Layfield, also known as JBL, is an icon of SmackDown! as a live commentator for the program.
Unfortunately, Layfield has a reputation as something of a belligerent bully backstage at the WWE, and it’s this controversy that spurred fans to call for his expulsion by the company.
Former fellow commentator, Justin Roberts, alleges that JBL would constantly harass him and ask him to end his own life, but it wasn’t limited to just him. Mauro Ranallo, another commentator, needed an absence from social media and television, and the reason is allegedly because of JBL’s antics.
To top it off, various big-time talent in the industry have all alleged the same thing: JBL constantly terrorizes and bullies those around him.
The pressure got to JBL, thankfully, and he has stepped down from his position. Let’s hope he doesn’t bully the at-risk kids he’s supposedly helping at his charity.
13 The Fabulous Moolah Battle Royal Debacle
WrestleMania 34 was set to have a “Fabulous Moolah Memorial Battle Royal,” but after a massive outcry from fans, plans have changed.
Moolah was a pioneering figure in the realm of women’s wrestling, and that can’t be denied. It’s important, however, to recognize that, despite her role, she wasn’t exactly the best mascot for the Battle.
She trained countless women, but raked in 35% of their (already miniscule) earnings. Most despicably, her wrestling school seemed to be more or less a front for adult workers, with students being coerced into serving male associates.
This isn’t hearsay, either, as multiple people have corroborated these practices.
Thankfully, with fans screaming at the top of their lungs regarding the WWE’s blatant overlooking of these disgusting practices, the company excised Moolah from the match, removing the stain from something that will be an historic first.
12 Failing To Push New Talent
The WWE, as told by Vince McMahon, is supposedly in the business of making new stars. Such a statement couldn’t be less true.
Sure, in the 1990s we were blessed with extremely successful pushes that created icons left and right: Stone Cold Steve Austin, to name one, but also others like the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Following their meteoric rises, there were plenty of other well-loved and well-remembered superstars being born, but once John Cena entered the picture, things seemed to come to a screeching halt.
Yes, there have been some notable pushes, but the WWE seems to fixated on a stagnant main roster, with far less real, or sustained, pushing for new talents.
You can only have a standstill for so long, and without adequate replacements for long-time (if not over-stayed) icons, you’re in a heap of trouble.
11 Turning Real-Life Tragedy Into Plot Fodder
Eddie Guerrero was nothing short of beloved in the world of professional wrestling.
Skilled, likable and a favorite, whether he was a face or a heel, Guerrero made his marks in WCW and WWE, with legions of supporters following his every move.
Sadly, Guerrero passed away in 2005, to the great sorrow of the wrestling world.
Of course, since we’re dealing with the WWE, they couldn’t wait to get their grubby paws all over the tragedy, and transform it into an excruciatingly reprehensible line of money.
Following some genuine tribute episodes, it wasn’t long before Eddie’s passing was used in hackneyed plots, such as Rey Mysterio praying to his departed friend and carrying his memory into matches.
Then we had Randy Orton claim that Guerrero wasn’t in Heaven, but actually in Hell, and WWE followed up by pumping out countless products bearing the late wrestler’s likeness. Classy stuff.
10 Completely Erasing History
When you’re generally the only game in town, you have the power to alter your history and reputation as you see fit, and Vince McMahon has chosen to do some selective editing of the WWE’s checkered-past, mostly in the form of talent that he had a grudge against, or who left on not-so-great terms.
For example, the company seems bent on keeping Chyna, one of their biggest stars, female or otherwise, in the shadows. One of the Attitude Era’s most popular wrestlers, she was just as recognizable as the Rock or Steve Austin.
Sadly, after being dumped by her cheating boyfriend, Triple H, she was released by the company, and has nary been mentioned since.
She eventually had a short stint in adult movies, which only galvanized the censorship from the “family friendly” WWE, but their treatment of one of their most important icons is unfair and appalling.
9 Vince Shatters Kayfabe
Wrestling isn’t “fake.” Sure, there is a script and pre-determined outcomes, but the athleticism on display is very real. That said, these athletes are performers, and they’re adhering to a written storyline, and that illusion is a longtime tradition called “kayfabe.”
In 1989, though, Vince McMahon decided that he’d break that tradition.
Speaking before New Jersey Senate, Vince declared that wrestling was a “work,” with its matches set-up for mere entertainment rather than actual competition.
This lead to a huge backlash from fans who hated having the fun mystery of the sport stripped away.
He did this again during the start of the Attitude Era, where during an actual broadcast, he talked about “sports entertainment,” comparing his product to soap operas and even King of the Hill, admitting once again it’s all a work, and that he wants to stop “insulting the intelligence” of fans, by evolving the product.
8 The "Lunchtime Series"
Like we mentioned earlier, despite Vince’s insistence on WWE being “family entertainment,” they’ve dabbled with some genuinely distasteful bits.
Not just relegated to crass storylines for their talent, or trying to capitalize on the real-life death of a popular wrestler, the WWE sanctioned a horrid little series of skits that portray referee Tim White trying to end his own life-- you know, as a joke... for the laughs.
Dubbed the “Lunchtime Su*cide Series,” these crass bits of “humor” featured despondent Tim White attempting (and failing) to end his own life. The “comedy” series ends with White shooting SmackDown! reporter Josh Mathews.
As a surprise to no one, this obvious apex of comedy writing and production was widely hated by fans, and considered extremely distasteful. Gee, we wonder why.
7 Threatening Legal Action Over A Hand Gesture
With the WWE’s immense hold over the pro wrestling industry, and the power that comes with it, they’ve done their fair share of obnoxious lawsuits and buyouts, with varying degrees of success. This particular case, however, is a prime example of just how petty the omnipotent WWE can be.
The Young Bucks, a tag team consisting of Matt and Nick Jackson, are members of Ring Of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling, and have worked for independent US promotions.
They also happen to do a little hand gesture called “Too Sweet.”
Well, the WWE didn’t like the gesture, and they claimed ownership of the maneuver (despite the fact that the company didn’t invent or pioneer it.)
In fact, they were so displeased that they sent a cease-and-desist letter to the team, threatening the duo with a six-digit fine unless they stopped doing “Too Sweet” and removed it from their merchandise.
6 Vince's Steroid Trial
Steroids and professional wrestling were as synonymous with peanut butter and jelly for quite some time. Following countless controversies, the WWE officially banned their use, and implemented a rigorous substance abuse and drug testing policy.
Of course, that wasn’t always the case, and no matter how hard Mr. McMahon tries to forget about it, a 1993 trial almost toppled the king of the ring over this very subject.
McMahon had been using a urologist with steroid connections to get a steady supply of the substance to his roster of jacked wrestlers.
The doctor was convicted on fifteen charges of substance trafficking, and Vince himself was nearly convicted regarding criminal conspiracy, but thanks to Hulk Hogan’s testimony, some slick lawyers, a possible cover up, and some other uncouth practices, he avoided the heat.
5 Hogan's Racist Tirade
While not technically a controversial thing that the WWE themselves did, Hulk Hogan is almost completely synonymous with the company that made him a household name, and easily one of the most iconic wrestlers of all time.
Sure, his time in the WCW was also legendary, but the countless matches that Hogan had during the classic era of the WWF are incredibly attached to him.
It was a major shame that the Hulkster himself was caught on tape dropping racial slurs so casually that he may as well have been talking about Hulkamania.
The situation is made even more bizarre by the fact that it’s part of a love tape, in which Hogan apparently had no knowledge of.
The whole thing culminated with Hogan suing Gawker into oblivion and the WWE, to their credit, almost entirely cut ties with the man.
4 "The Curtain Call"
Within the world of professional wrestling, many of the larger-than-life characters and personalities are divided between “faces” and “heels,” or heroes and villains, respectively. Of course, those lines have significantly blurred over time, but back in the mid-'90s, they were still fairly clear.
In 1996, the WWE was performing at Madison Square Garden, and two fan favorites were participating in their final match as members of the company. They were Kevin Nash and Scott Hall.
Following a match between Nash and Shawn Michaels, Hall jumped into the ring to give Michaels a hug, and Triple H followed suit, all as part of a “curtain call” for the exiting heroes.
This was a mix of “faces” and “heels,” which was absolutely unheard of, causing confusion amongst the crowd, and anger for Vince McMahon, who punished Triple H severely for the act, though Michaels’ popularity spared him.
3 The Horrible Healthcare
The WWE has a mentality of “the show must go on,” regardless of what’s holding it back. This was apparent in the heartbreaking, tragic accidental death of Owen Hart during a pay-per view, and it continues to this day in their horrific stance on healthcare.
Essentially, wrestlers are encouraged to “work hurt,” so even if they are ailing, they’re expected to perform any way. This also extends to recovery periods after surgery, which is unacceptable.
Even the doctors on staff are guilty of not properly diagnosing or treating injuries and illnesses, all for the same, foolish reasons.
This dangerous attitude and lackadaisical approach to the performers and their health is likely a major contributor to the untimely deaths and personal issues that affect so much of the roster.
That, coupled with the hours of extreme physical activity, is a recipe for disaster.
2 The CTE Lawsuit
The intense physical actions of wrestlers, and the lax (at best) healthcare from the WWE staff, coupled with the whole “show must go on” mentality, is a terrifyingly awful combination, and it seems to have culminated in the current CTE lawsuit against the company.
CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a degenerative neurological injury that occurs after long-term concussions and lack of proper care.
Dozens of wrestlers, including big names like Chavo Guerrero and Joseph Laurinaitis, have brought their anger to point, targeting the company and Vince McMahon for failing to care for the injuries sustained in their line of work, and not adequately explaining the severity of said injuries.
Just this past January, a WWE-funded CTE study seems to prove the case of the wrestlers involved in the lawsuit, so we’ll have to see what, if anything, comes of the proceedings.
1 "The Montreal Screwjob"
While other entries on this list contain far more legally dubious acts, or an otherwise appalling lack of morality and ethics, it’s the “Montreal Screwjob” that stings the most for many fans.
Vince McMahon’s on-screen persona as a power-hungry despot isn’t entirely a fiction, and he’s been known to engage in petty acts of revenge against his roster of superstars and even staff. This was at the forefront during the infamous “Montreal Screwjob.”
Bret “The Hitman” Hart was set to leave the WWE for the WCW, but he was also the holder of the WWE Championship belt at the time, and after failures to compromise his relinquishing of the title, Vince forced a solution during the 1997 Survivor Series.
Hart was up against Shawn Michaels and, while stuck in Michaels’ Sharpshooter, Vince called for the bell to be rung, Shawn was given “victory,” and it was all off-script, shocking everyone.
Can you think of any other controversial things that the WWE has done? Sound off in the comments!