"WWE SmackDown" comes to FOX on Oct. 4, 2019. To mark the occasion, Wonderwall.com is taking a look back at some of the biggest wrestling controversies and scandals from over the years, starting with John Oliver's headline-making takedown of the WWE on the March 31, 2019, episode of "Last Week Tonight." Throughout the episode, the British comedian detailed the allegedly horrible treatment professional wrestlers receive from the WWE and boss Vince McMahon — which the wrestling exec (pictured) has denied. His biggest gripe? That the WWE essentially forces their wrestlers to sign as independent contractors as opposed to full-time employees (making them ineligible for company-provided health care benefits, paid leave or pensions) and makes them sign exclusivity contracts barring them from wrestling for other organizations (meaning their ability to make money is limited to what they can squeeze out of the WWE). Oliver also pointed out that because there is no off-season in professional wrestling, it's incredibly difficult for wrestlers to recover from injuries — especially considering they can't always afford the best treatment options! The comedian argued that these factors have contributed to the recent wave of professional wrestlers dying young. Keep reading for more wrestling controversies and scandals…
In 2015, the WWE fired Hulk Hogan after becoming aware of the existence of old recordings of him making racist remarks. "WWE is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide," the organization said in a statement. The wrestler (née Terry Bollea) released a statement to People magazine apologizing: "Eight years ago I used offensive language during a conversation. It was unacceptable for me to have used that offensive language; there is no excuse for it; and I apologize for having done it," he said. Three years later, Hogan made his big return to the WWE with the already-controversial Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia. More on that later…
In May 1999, two-time WWF Intercontinental Champion Owen Hart died from injuries sustained while falling from the rafters of Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, during the WWF's "Over the Edge" pay-per-view event. The fall took place as the Canadian wrestler was entering the ring as part of an elaborate stunt — he was being lowered from the rafters via cable and harness when the equipment somehow malfunctioned, triggering an early release that dropped him prematurely to the floor. At-home viewers were spared from witnessing the fall — they were watching a reel of highlights from Hart's career when he fell — but more than 16,000 fans in the arena had front-row seats to the tragedy. Hart's family sued the WWF — which courted controversy by continuing with the event following the fall — over the dangerous stunt. "You don't get up 60 or 70 feet in the air without being properly anchored down," Hart's father told CNN. "Somebody was careless or missed something or else Owen would still be here." The WWF ultimately settled for $18 million.
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In late 2018, the WWE made headlines when it decided to go ahead with the Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia despite pressure to cancel the event following the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi (pictured) at the hands of Saudi agents under the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. "WWE has operated in the Middle East for nearly 20 years and has developed a sizable and dedicated fan base. Considering the heinous crime committed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Company faced a very difficult decision as it relates to its event scheduled for November 2 in Riyadh. Similar to other U.S.-based companies who plan to continue operations in Saudi Arabia, the Company has decided to uphold its contractual obligations to the General Sports Authority and stage the event," the WWE said in a statement.
In 1993, Vince McMahon was indicted in federal court for regularly distributing anabolic steroids to his wrestlers, as well as employing a shady doctor, George Zahorian, to help them acquire various drugs without legitimate prescriptions. Dr. Zahorian was indicted for selling steroids to 37 WWF wrestlers and convicted of 15 charges of drug trafficking, but the prosecution wasn't able to prove that McMahon was guilty of criminal conspiracy — even though former wrestler Kevin Wacholz alleged in court that McMahon ordered him to use steroids. Ultimately, he was acquitted. Years later, according to Vice, it was reported that an unnamed state official tipped off an attorney for the WWF that Zahorian was under federal investigation for drug trafficking, allowing the organization to cut ties with the doctor before McMahon could be implicated. But that's not the end of his alleged criminal activity…
In 1992, former WWF wrestler Rita Chatterton, who wrestled under the name Rita Marie and was the WWF's first female referee, claimed that Vince McMahon raped her in 1986. He accused her of slander, and it was never made clear what actually happened between the two. In 2006, a 22-year-old woman accused the wrestling exec of sexually assaulting her in the Boca Raton, Florida, tanning salon where she worked. According to The Daily Beast, there was probable cause to issue a warrant for McMahon's arrest, but prosecutors cited lack of evidence to charge him, so nothing ever came of it.
Back in 1985, Vince McMahon conspired with The Fabulous Moolah — who was the first woman to wrestle in Madison Square Garden in 1972 — to strip Wendi Richter (pictured) of her championship title. Why? The wildly popular wrestler refused to sign a contract extension until she felt adequately compensated for her efforts. McMahon booked Richter to face off against a mysterious newcomer known as The Spider Lady — who turned out to be The Fabulous Moolah in disguise. During the match, which has since become known as "The Original Screwjob," The Spider went off script, pinning Richter to the mat. Although Richter successfully broke free, the referee — who was in on the hit job — threw the match in The Spider's favor. That's when Richter unmasked her opponent. (Adding insult to injury, the younger wrestler was a Moolah protégé of sorts — she trained at Moolah's Lillian Ellison School of Professional Wrestling.) After the match, Richter hightailed it to the airport in full gear, effectively ending her relationship with the WWE. She never spoke to McMahon or Moolah again.
The Fabulous Moolah, who was born Mary Lillian Ellison, might have broken barriers for women in wrestling, but she's also one of the most controversial figures in the history of the sport. Wendi Richter alleged that Moolah didn't actually do any of the training at her wrestling school, instead accepting tuition payments while her colleagues trained the new recruits without receiving payment for their work. She also allegedly took a 25 percent cut of all booking fees earned by anyone who trained at her school. Those trainees, meanwhile, were required to rent properties owned by Moolah — meaning most of what they earned went straight into her pockets. Mad Maxine reportedly said that Moolah "controlled" her trainees' lives, describing it as a situation that was "ripe for abuse." In their book "Sisterhood of the Squared Circle," Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy wrote that Moolah's "tactics could be just as ruthless and cutthroat as those of 'The Godfather.'" Worst of all, multiple people have accused Moolah of pimping out her female trainees to various male wrestlers and promoters.
In 2007, Canadian wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his second wife and their 7-year-old son before taking his own life. When the WWE found out that the one-time WCW World Heavyweight Champion had died — before learning the grisly details and under the assumption that his death had been an accident — they aired a three-hour tribute to his life and career. Fans were outraged by the organization's reaction when they learned the truth about the murder-suicide. The WWE has since distanced itself from Benoit, who was later determined to have severe brain damage, which likely contributed to the violent act, from years of suffering concussions in the ring.
In 2016, more than 50 wrestlers sued the WWE over brain damage caused by the head trauma they suffered in the ring. In the lawsuit, the wrestlers accused the WWE of failing to properly provide care for injured athletes and of placing "corporate gain over its wrestlers' health, safety and financial security, choosing to leave the Plaintiffs severely injured and with no recourse to treat their damaged minds and bodies." Among the biggest names suing the WWE were "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff, "Road Warrior Animal" Joseph Laurinaitis, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka and Christopher Alan Pallies (pictured), who wrestled under the name King Kong Bundy and died in March 2019 at the age of 61. In 2018, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, which is currently in the appeals process.
Professional wrestlers have a tendency to die young, with many suffering from depression and addiction issues in their finals years — perhaps because of brain damage suffered in the ring — or from heart problems caused by prior steroid use. Chyna (pictured), who suffered from depression and addiction issues, died of an accidental overdose in 2016 at 46. Crash Holly (Michael John Lockwood) committed suicide in 2003 at 32. Davey Boy Smith (David Smith) suffered a heart attack in 2002 at 39 — an autopsy revealed that past anabolic steroid use may have contributed to his death. Chris Kanyon, who was the first openly gay WWE wrestler, committed suicide in 2010 at 40. Andrew "Test" Martin died of an accidental Oxycodone overdose in 2009 at 33 — an autopsy revealed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by repeated head injuries. Eddie Guerrero died of heart failure in 2005 at 38. Randy Savage died of a heart attack in 2011 at 58. Rockin' Rebel (Charles Williams) murdered his wife and then killed himself in 2018 at 52. And Ashley Massaro committed suicide in 2019 at 39. Speaking of Ashley…
In May 2019, Ashley Massaro committed suicide following a lengthy battle with depression. Following her death, the former WWE star's attorney revealed Ashley's claims that during a 2007 goodwill tour of U.S. military bases in Kuwait, a soldier drugged and raped her. She also alleged that WWE management, including Vince McMahon, told her to keep the ordeal quiet because it would "ruin the relationship between the WWE and the U.S. military." The WWE released a statement denying the claims, insisting that if Ashley "ever articulated such a claim to WWE, we would have reported it immediately to the Base Commander." The organization added that "at no time was there ever a meeting with Vince McMahon … or other company executives in which she told them of such a claim and was instructed to keep it quiet." Ashley was also part of the 2016 class action lawsuit against the WWE.
Sable, who was born Rena Marlette Lesnar, became one of the most popular female wrestlers of the '90s, but she parted ways with the WWF in 1999 after refusing to go topless in a match. She sued the wrestling organization for $100 million for sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions but ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Here are some of her wildest allegations about the WWF: Men cut holes in the walls of the female wrestlers' dressing rooms to spy on them as they changed. Men regularly bragged about their sexual conquests without regard to the women present. The WWF produced merchandise featuring Sable "in a degrading fashion offering sexual favors." She was asked to "display affection to women to promote a lesbian story angle." She was asked to have her gown ripped off repeatedly and to expose her bare torso by "mistake" on national television.
The WWE fired CM Punk (Phillip Jack Brooks) on the day he married fellow wrestler AJ Lee (April Jeanette Mendez) in 2014. He then accused WWE's Dr. Chris Amann of medical malpractice for failing to properly diagnose a potentially deadly staph infection from which he suffered in 2013. In early 2015 — with the support of the WWE — Amann sued the wrestler for defamation. Ultimately, the jury ruled in favor of Punk. But he's not the only member of the family who's had issues with the wrestling organization… Lee parted ways with WWE in mid-2015, just two months after she lashed out at Vince McMahon's daughter Stephanie McMahon on Twitter. After Stephanie, who's now the chief brand officer of WWE, tweeted in support of Patricia Arquette's 2015 Oscar speech demanding equal pay for women, Lee tweeted, "@StephMcMahon Your female wrestlers have record selling merchandise & have starred in the highest rated segment of the show several times … And yet they receive a fraction of the wages & screen time of the majority of the male roster."
The WWE's messy dealings with Saudi Arabia continue… In April 2018, the organization blocked Canadian wrestler Sami Zayn from participating in the Greatest Royal Rumble event in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, because he's of Syrian descent. "WWE is committed to embracing individuals from all backgrounds while respecting local customs and cultural differences around the world," the organization said in a statement. Women were also barred from participating in the event, which female fans were only permitted to attend if accompanied by a male chaperone.
The WWE has long faced criticism for its treatment of female wrestlers, who receive less pay and fewer opportunities than their male counterparts — and face rampant sexual harassment. In a 2014 post on a chat forum, former WWE writer-producer Alex Greenfield called "Smackdown" executive producer Kevin Dunn — Vince McMahon's right-hand man — "a misogynist influence" on the organization. Of one former storyline featuring two female wrestlers, Greenfield wrote that Dunn "wanted both protagonist and villain to be sexier and stupider." Greenfield added that after Kelly Kelly wrestler Barbie Blank made her debut and failed to make a huge first impression with fans, Dunn suggested that the problem was her chest size. "This kind of thing? The tendency to present women as only softcore objects? Those conversations came every single day, and [Dunn] was the WORST about [rejecting] any serious woman's program," he wrote.
Need proof of the rampant sexism within the WWE? Look no further than Vince McMahon's daughter, Stephanie McMahon. As the chief brand officer of the WWE, she's arguably the most powerful woman in professional wrestling. But as a former wrestler herself, she's faced an absurd amount of degradation and abuse over the years. She started dating Triple H (Paul Michael Levesque) in real life in 2000 — in the midst of his relationship with Chyna. They tied the knot in 2003 and now have three daughters. True love, right? But their WWE storyline saw Triple H drug, rape and force Stephanie to marry him. After that, several more of her storylines involved threats of rape from male wrestlers. In 2006, there were reports that three years earlier, Vince pitched an incest storyline starring himself and his daughter, who was frequently referred to as a "$2 slut" in the ring, prompting the live audience to chant "slut" at her.
In late 2018, a Reddit user unearthed a trove of racist, sexist and homophobic comments made by wrestler Lars Sullivan on the website Bodybuilding.com between 2007 and 2013. In May 2019, the WWE responded to the scandal by issuing the wrestler (née Dylan Miley) a fine of $100K and ordering him to undergo sensitivity training. "There is no excuse for the inappropriate remarks that I made years ago. They do not reflect my personal beliefs nor who I am today, and I apologize to anyone I offended," he said in a statement.
Another wrestler accused of racism? In 2018, Charlotte Flair's ex-husband, Riki Paul Johnson, accused her of making "disparaging and racist comments" during an incident with the police in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, back in 2008. The allegations were part of a $5.5 million lawsuit he filed against the wrestler and her father, wrestling icon Ric Flair, over statements they made about him (that he emotionally and physically abused Charlotte during their marriage) in their joint 2017 autobiography "Second Nature." Riki alleged that during the 2008 incident, his ex-wife was the "aggressor in a physical and verbal tirade … directed at the responding police officers, as well as disparaging and racist comments being directed at the Afro-American community in Chapel Hill." (In 2008, she was arrested for assaulting a police officer during a fight between Ric and Riki.) "We recently received what appears to be a meritless lawsuit and we will vigorously defend ourselves," the WWE said in a statement.
In June 2019, Insane Championship Wrestling 2018 World Heavyweight Champion Adrian McCallum, who was known as Lionheart in the ring, took his own life. The British wrestler, who was 36, earned the Union of European Wrestling Alliances' Heavyweight Champion title just days before his death.