In case the subject of this column wasn't blatantly obvious... these are a series of public-relations gaffes over the past quarter-decade or so that hurt wrestlers, promotions, or the industry in general. And in some cases, all three.
And to be perfectly clear, this isn't just a list of wrestlers or promoters doing dumb things, because that list would probably extend into a series of columns; possibly a book. These are just the ones that were publicized outside of the wrestling community and, in many cases, picked up on by the mainstream media.
This is part one of what will be a three-part series. Feedback, as always, is appreciated.
"Is That Fake?!?"
Background: 20/20 was preparing to air a segment on the popularity of professional wrestling. The World Wrestling Federation invited the show's cameras to their steroid-riddled locker room to take a little look-see behind the curtain.
The Incident: Noted tough guy "Dr. D" David Schultz didn't take kindly to interviewer John Stossel's claims that wrestling was fake, so he opted to slap Stossel silly (the fun starts in at about 4:30 in the attached clip, although it's all worth watching).
The Aftermath: Schultz was forced to apologize to the New York State Athletic Commission for his actions, because apparently wrestling wasn't fake just yet and still had to answer to a real athletic regulator. Stossel sued the WWF and reportedly won $425,000 out of court. Oh, and Dr. D was blacklisted from wrestling and never really surfaced again on a major stage.
Bye Bye, Belzer
Background: The first WrestleMania was just days away, and main eventers Hulk Hogan and Mr. T were running around like crazy to publicize their match with Rowdy Roddy Piper and Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff. Someone booked Hogan and T on the not-at-all popular or relevant Lifetime Network talk show "Hot Properties" starring actor Richard Belzer.
The Incident: Responding to the host's knocks against the legitimacy of pro wrestling (what is it with these guys?), Hogan offered to put Belzer in a wrestling hold. Belzer quickly lost conciousness, and The Hulkster sensitively dropped Detective Munch's head on the ground, while B.A. Baracus yukked it up in the background.
The Aftermath: Belzer sued Hogan for $5 million (which was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum). Hogan claimed in one of his books the lawsuit proceeds were used by Belzer to build a French villa dubbed "Chez Hogan".
"HOOOOOOOO... I mean, D'OHHHHHHHH!"
Background: The wrestling business was still fiercely protected at the time (and no, this isn't another case of a wrestler beating up a television personality). Still, storyline archenemies Hacksaw Jim Duggan and The Iron Sheik thought it would be cool to travel together in between house shows where they were invariably placed on opposite sides of the ring.
The Incident: A police officer in New Jersey pulls over the vehicle containing the Wacky Mismatched Partners That Hate Each Other. Hacksaw is charged with possession of marijuana and drunk driving; Sheikie is charged with holding both dope and cocaine.
The Aftermath: Vince McMahon was reportedly livid, not so much for the bad Cheech and Chong impression, but more because his hated rivals were sharing a car together, and the press had picked up on it (implying that wrestling may be all - you know - fake! Where's Dr. D when you need him?). Duggan was suspended by the WWF and received a conditional charge from the cops; The Sheik was fired and received a one-year probation from the po-po's, proving the following scientific theory: "USA, number one. Iran - hock, ptooey!"
Bruiser vs. Stabber
Background: Bruiser Brody, a huge grappler that enjoyed success in Japan and the U.S. Southwest, was preparing for a wrestling show in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. Fiercely independent, Brody had a reputation for being difficult to work with and didn't stay in many territories for very long.
The Incident: Booker/wrestler Jose Gonzales (who worked under a mask as Invader # 1) called Brody into the locker room washroom to discuss business. Brody obliged and was stabbed by the masked man to death.
By the way, how often do you get to see a 'Victim vs. Alleged Murderer' match on YouTube?
The Aftermath: For starters, the wrestling world lost one of its most talented big men, and Brody left behind a grieving wife and young son. The story played out huge in the press (I remember Entertainment Tonight, of all places, covering it). Gonzales was charged with murder but let off after a judge found he was acting in self-defense. Less importantly, Puerto Rico's reputation as a hotbed for wrestling cooled considerably.
Say Your Prayers, Take Your Vitamins, Train Real Hard and Lie Your Ass Off
Background: Dr. George Zahorian, the infamous doctor who acted as ringside physician for over a decade at WWF shows, was on trial for allegedly trafficking drugs (although over the past few decades, several wrestlers have admitted they lined up to "place orders" with Zahorian and receive a brown bag full of goodies on their way out of the arena). As part of the investigation, the names Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan were brought up frequently.
The Incident: To do damage control, Hogan appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show and explained how he never abused steroids, despite the lies those bastards in the media were telling. The Hulkster's only brush with these evil drugs were when he was rehabbing an injury, he said.
As a fun little drinking game, catch how many times Hogan says the word "basically" in the clip below:
The Aftermath: Hogan was -- quite obviously -- lying, and testified as much a few years later when under oath (more on that in a bit). Hogan's character as an All-American role model to millions took a serious hit, as no one could believe he'd tell such a blatant lie in a public forum. The WWF looked dumb by association by letting its top star make an ass of himself on late-night television (there are reports that McMahon urged Hogan not to make the appearance at all). It didn't make Arsenio look great, either, though his reputation as a serious talk-show host was questionable to begin with. And of course, it gave the federal government tons of ammunition to use at a later date.
Tomorrow on Donahue: People Who Simulate Having Sex With Mannequins To Get Revenge On Their Undead Monster Rivals
Background: By the time Hogan had spread his Hulkaganda on Arsenio, the wrestling industry was already facing lots of public scrutiny. In addition to the steroid trials, you had wrestlers, underage crew members and even a ring announcer claiming that WWF officials had sexually harassed them. What better fodder for legendary daytime talk show host Phil Donahue?
The Incident: Donahue gathered what would have to be considered a stellar panel by any measurement - former WWWF World Champions Bruno Sammartino and Superstar Billy Graham; WWF owner (and future World Champion himself) Vince McMahon; Barry O, the WWF jobber and uncle of future WWE Champion Randy Orton; Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer; and John Arezzi, host of a popular New York wrestling radio show (and business partner of future WCW World Champion Vince Russo).
There's tons to be gleaned from the following three clips, so I'd suggest watching them each of them at your leisure:
The aftermath: Wrestling's innocence (if there truly ever was such a thing) died quite a bit that day, as people got to see for the first time that Vince McMahon was more than just a loud suit-wearing commentator and had some pretty significant skeletons in his closet. Sammartino and Graham were publicly identified as enemies of the WWF (in the days before Superstar lost all credibility, at least). Meltzer gained quite a bit of notoriety as an industry spokesman (and to his credit, he didn't come across as anti-McMahon, but came at things from a very neutral standpoint). And as he predicted, Barry O was effectively blacklisted from the wrestling industry from that point forward.
Tonight, Right Here, In This Very Courtroom...
How could anyone think this guy has anything to do with steroids?
Background: Remember when I told you that the federal government wasn't going away? Turns out, I was right (of course, I had the benefit of not only living through this event, but I also knew what I was going to write later). Anyhoo.... Vince McMahon was indicted in 1993 on charges of distributing steroids to wrestlers and when it went to trial, the feds offered Hulk Hogan immunity to testify against Vinnie Mac.
The Incident: The trial was seen by many as a "media circus" because of all the attention it received (as a reporter, I never covered this trial, though I would have loved to). Everyone from Tom Zenk to Ultimate Warrior, and from Moondog Rex to Big John Studd testified about past drug use and whether McMahon was indeed a drug pusher. Suffice it to say, a lot of information came out at trial (for an excellent recap, I would recommend reading Counterfeit Hero), but here are a few highlights:
While Hogan said he had picked up packages of steroids from Titan HQ, he stopped short of saying that McMahon or anyone else within the WWF told him to take them.
Former McMahon receptionist Emily Feinberg (yes, the woman Jesse Ventura referenced in his commentary as being Jack Tunney's secretary) muddied the timeline of when drugs were FedEx'd from Stamford to various arenas, harming her credibility as a witness.
Nailz spoke harshly of McMahon and the company's drug trafficking, but later admitted he hated Vinnie Mac (hurting his testimony as well).
At the end of the day, the government didn't have enough evidence to convict McMahon, and both he and parent company Titan Sports were found not guilty.
The Aftermath: Where to begin? While wrestling was forever tainted in the media after this trial, they could no longer refer to Vince as any type of drug pusher. As for McMahon, he gets to say he took on the federal government and won, which I think he's mentioned once or twice. And of course, had he gone to jail, it's safe to assume the wrestling industry could have changed forever.
Background: Extreme Championship Wrestling was on the verge of having its first pay-per-view when they held a spot show in Revere, Massachussets. Axl Rotten was set to team with D-Von Dudley against The Gangstas (New Jack and Mustafa Saed), but a substitute was needed when Rotten no-showed due to a family emergency.
The substitute was an untrained 17 year-old named Eric Kulas, who convinced ECW owner Paul Heyman that (a) he was older than 17 and (b) he had wrestled before using the name Mass Transit and was trained by Killer Kowalski.
The Incident: Before the bout, Kulas didn't endear himself to the "boys in the back" by telling The Gangstas what kind of spots he was going to try -- a no-no for any wrestling rookie worth their salt. Then Kulas asked New Jack to cut him open during the match -- a strategy I probably wouldn't have employed. Just sayin'.
Shortly after the match began, Jack cut him, all right. In fact, he was cut dangerously deep and needed medical attention for a wrestling shtick that typically does as much damage as a paper cut.
(WARNING: Do not watch the clip below if you're even the slightest bit squeamish. Trust me on this!)
The Aftermath: Due to a huge public backlash and negative media, Request TV cancelled ECW's first scheduled PPV (it was only put back on the schedule after much pleading and prodding by Heyman). The Kulas family sued New Jack, although he wasn't found guilty in the civil trial and avoided criminal prosecution as well.
What - time - is it? It's time! It's time! It's - Threaten The TV Host - Time (time time)!
The Year: 1997
Background: WWF Superstars The Undertaker and Big Van Vader, in town because of an overseas tour, were guests on the television program Good Morning Kuwait.
The Incident: GWK host Bassam al Othman (isn't that Tugboat's real name?) asked Vader if wrestling was fake. Geez - you'd think the guy would have asked John Stossel or Richard Belzer what happens when you ask a wrestler that? Anyways, Vader grabbed Fred Othman by his tie and otherwise threatened him.
The Aftermath: Apparently, Kuwaitis aren't as familiar with worked shoots as Americans are. Vader was placed under house arrest and fined a whopping $164 for his actions. The mainstream media picked up on this and it certainly didn't help WWF's international relations.
The Loose Cannon
I still remember this etched on the Titantron.
Background: Brian Pillman was riding high in the wrestling world as a "Loose Cannon" character who said and did whatever he wanted. For a time, he was actually the hottest free agent in the business, receiving the first guaranteed contract in WWF history. Even though a car accident destroyed his ankle and limited his mobility in the ring, his character was still red-hot at the time as he aligned himself with The Hart Foundation and feuded with Stone Cold Steve Austin and Goldust.
The Incident: Incident probably isn't the right word here, but Pillman died in a hotel room in Bloomington, Minnesota several hours before he was to appear at a WWF pay-per-view. Although the autopsy declared him dead from a previously undetected heart condition, it's believed that years of painkiller abuse contributed.
The Aftermath: Some say this was Vince McMahon's worst nightmare come true - admitting on PPV that a wrestler died on his watch and that drugs were likely involved. As expected, the mainstream media had a field day. Footage from the previous year of Pillman (in storyline) screaming and waving a gun around probably didn't help the public perception. And although it didn't really force anyone's hand to take action for several years, it was the beginning of regulated drug testing in the industry.
Tune in next week for The 30 Worst Wrestling PR Disasters Of The Last 30 Years (Part Two).