Unforgettable Scandals That Stained WWE

Pro wrestling is one hell of a business. While the entertainment aspect can never be denied, there have certainly been a litany of backstage and onscreen issues over the years that have left a sour taste in the mouths of those involved in the industry. 

At the center of some of the biggest scandals has been WWE, with some of the biggest stories surrounding the company in their lengthy history being negative in nature. From the deaths of beloved figures in horrifying circumstances to Vince McMahon's various misdeeds and legal battles, the sports entertainment juggernaut has never been able to keep a clean slate.

Some such issues have even resulted in a permanent stain on the reputation of the promotion as a whole or certain individuals. In this piece, we will look at the most unforgettable scandals that rocked WWE and left a noticeable black mark for years to come. 

Vince McMahon's sexual misconduct allegations

Let's start with the most recent scandal that has plagued WWE, and that relates to the executive chairman, Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Over the years, the head honcho of the company has found himself in hot water numerous times due to sexual misconduct allegations, beginning in the 1980s with former referee Rita Chatterton, who accused McMahon of sexually assaulting her inside of a limousine. Her story has since been corroborated by former wrestler Mario Mancini in a 2022 piece from "New York Magazine," and Chatterton filed a lawsuit in December, with the issue settled financially out of court with a multi-million dollar sum. 

In 2006, McMahon was accused of sexual harassment at a tanning salon in Florida, but the 78-year-old would ultimately escape any charges for the alleged incident. At the same time as the Chatterton lawsuit, a separate tanning spa employee from California filed sexual assault claims in court according to "Wall Street Journal"

However, the most detrimental acts from McMahon to his own career and business came from a "Wall Street Journal" investigation, which ultimately led to revelations that the company's long-standing CEO had paid an estimated $19.6 million in unrecorded "hush money" payments to settle sexual misconduct claims between 2006 and 2022. The controversy ultimately led to McMahon retiring from his position for six months, before returning to WWE ahead of their recent merger and move to the TKO Group banner. He now holds the title of Executive Chairman, but has been removed from day-to-day creative duties relating to the onscreen product. This won't be the last time Vince's actions will be featured on this list, but we'll get to that later. 

CM Punk's exit and legal battles (2014-2019)

One man that always finds a way to make news is CM Punk, who has had his share of controversy over the years both inside and outside WWE. While the 45-year-old is a polarizing figure, the majority of dramas involving the Chicago native have been wrestling-related and could hardly be labelled scandalous. But the one issue from Punk's career that has lingered for close to a decade relates to his messy exit from WWE and the legal battle that ensued.

After a successful run with WWE, Punk walked out in January 2014 and refused to return, leading to him receiving his termination papers on the same day as his wedding to AJ Lee later that year. After his non-compete ended, Punk would partake in a now-infamous "Art Of Wrestling" podcast alongside close friend Colt Cabana, where the pair discussed his departure and the reasons behind it. However, in the midst of their conversation, Punk would take aim at WWE doctor Chris Amann, who would sue the former world champion for defamation in 2015. The case would go to trial three years later, and the court battle continued to air plenty of dirty laundry relating to Punk's tenure with WWE. The jury would eventually rule in favor of both Punk and Cabana, but that wasn't the end.

In 2018, Cabana filed a lawsuit against his now-former friend, alleging breach of contract and fraud over Punk's alleged agreement to pay legal fees. Punk would then file a counterclaim against Cabana, before both cases were settled in 2019 without compensation, according to "PWInsider". The breakdown in the pair's relationship would eventually spill over into AEW, leading to Punk's well-documented outburst at a post-show media scrum in September 2022 following All Out. All's well that ends well however, with Punk returning to WWE at Survivor Series 2023 after almost a decade away, earning a raucous ovation from his hometown Chicago crowd.

Owen Hart's death (1999)

It would normally be unusual to refer to a person's death as a scandal that stained a company, but the situation involving Owen Hart and his untimely passing has remained one of the most devastating and controversial in WWE history. In the prime of his life at just 34 years old, Hart would die suddenly after a horrific accident during the 1999 Over the Edge pay-per-view. As part of his Blue Blazer gimmick, Hart was slated to be harnessed down from the rafters and into the ring, but after the quick-release trigger was set off, he would fall 78 feet and land chest-first on the top rope. Despite several attempts to revive him, Hart died in the hospital from internal bleeding due to blunt force trauma, with the sudden impact severing his aorta.

Despite one of the company's performers dying in the ring early in the broadcast, WWE opted to go through with the event in a highly-controversial decision that has been criticized in the 24 years that have followed, forcing on-air commentator Jim Ross to announce his tragic passing to the fans watching at home. Hart's family would later sue WWE due to the dangerous nature of the stunt and were awarded $18 million, while the manufacturer of the harness system was also a defendant against the Hart family, but they were dismissed from the case after the settlement was reached.

On "Dark Side of the Ring", Hart's death was detailed by his widow Martha, who explained the mistakes and negligence that led to the accident. Martha has remained critical of WWE over the years, and has been reluctant to allow the promotion to use Owen's name or likeness, while also shutting down the potential of a Hall of Fame induction and instead linking up with AEW to honor his contribution to the wrestling industry. 

Vince McMahon steroid supplier trial (1991-1994)

The second time McMahon features on this list relates to a court case beginning in November 1993, which saw the chairman indicted over steroid supplying allegations concerning a number of wrestlers in the company. In 1991, Dr George Zahorian III — a former ringside doctor for WWE — was convicted of the illegal supply of anabolic steroids and during his trial, it was alleged he had supplied the drugs to WWE directly via McMahon at his Titan Towers office. 

After this revelation from Zahorian, US Attorney Zachary W. Carter charged McMahon with conspiring to distribute steroids, possession of illegal steroids with intent to distribute, and embezzlement for allegedly using money from the company to purchase illegal steroids. McMahon would stand trial in 1994, which saw a number of high-profile wrestlers take the stand to testify including Hulk Hogan, Rick Rude and The Ultimate Warrior, with the majority denying their boss had ever supplied them with steroids. The only wrestler who claimed McMahon had "pressured" him into taking steroids was Kevin "Nailz" Wacholz, who wrestled for the promotion in the early-'90s. However, he was fired after a heated confrontation with McMahon, and ultimately the latter's defense used the personal issues between the pair in their favor. After 16 hours of deliberation from the jury, McMahon was found not guilty of the conspiracy charges, while the distribution charges were dismissed due to insufficient evidence. 

At the time, McMahon was forced to hand over control of WWE to his wife Linda as he stood trial, but would regain his duties once he was acquitted. Despite being found not guilty, the use of performance-enhancing drugs remained prevalent in pro wrestling, leading to WWE introducing an official Wellness Policy in 2008. 

Plane Ride From Hell (2002)

One of the most scandalous moments in WWE history centred around an infamous plane ride from England back to the United States in 2002, with a large portion of the roster travelling abroad for the Insurrextion pay-per-view. There were a litany of dramas that occurred during the course of the seven-hour journey, which both the roster and management attributed to a heavy consumption of alcohol onboard the aircraft. One of the first incidents that made the news and had major ramifications was a shoot fight between the late Curt Hennig and a then-rookie Brock Lesnar, with the pair scuffling down the aisle-way of the plane. A number of other WWE stars, including Triple H, Finlay, and Paul Heyman ultimately had to intervene to separate them, but it wasn't enough to save Hennig from being released shortly after the incident. 

Other incidents on the flight included Dustin Rhodes allegedly "serenading" his ex-wife Terri, while road agent Michael Hayes and John "Bradshaw" Layfield became embroiled in a physical confrontation that ended with the former having his mullet cut off by Sean Waltman. Scott Hall was also fired as a result of the plane ride, after becoming intoxicated and reportedly making sexually vulgar comments towards flight staff before passing out. 

But the worst incident on the trip centered around Ric Flair, who was alleged to have sexually harassed two female flight attendants — Taralyn Cappellano and Heidi Doyle — exposing himself to the women and allegedly grabbing their hands to touch his genitals. A lawsuit was filed by both Cappellano and Doyle two years later, but WWE settled out of court with both women. The allegations again surfaced in 2021, with an episode of "Dark Side Of The Ring" recounting the events of the trip and centering primarily around Flair's misconduct. 

Saudi Arabia travel woes (2019)

The infamous "Plane Ride From Hell" isn't the only travel-related drama in WWE history, with another airplane incident staining the company's reputation four years ago. After the 2019 Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia, a flight back to the United States carrying close to 200 wrestlers and other employees was stuck on the tarmac for an extended delay period due to "mechanical issues". However, as first reported in "The Hindustan Times," former WWE commentator Hugo Savinovich explained a different side of the story, which detailed a monetary conflict between WWE and the Saudi government that saw an estimated $60 million unpaid to the sports entertainment juggernaut prior to the show. 

Due to the issues, Vince McMahon ordered that the TV feed in the country for the event be cut, which resulted in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman demanding the company's flight be stopped from leaving the airport and returning to the United States. While the back-and-forth resulted in the agreed money eventually being paid to WWE, the damage had already been done between the two parties and the performers and staff were essentially collateral damage.

After being stranded for almost 24 hours, the members of the roster who were on the Saudi show — aside from 20 employees including McMahon, Kevin Dunn and Paul Heyman that managed to leave on private jets — missed out on a "WWE SmackDown" taping, which forced a major reshuffle to the program. A number of WWE stars took to social media throughout the delay, while some performers have been reluctant to work events in Saudi Arabia in the years that followed.

The Montreal Screwjob (1997)

The only real wrestling-centric scandal on this list rounds it out — and it's one of the most controversial, infamous and iconic moments in WWE history. WWE Champion Bret Hart was slated to take on longtime rival Shawn Michaels in the main event of Survivor Series 1997, ending a lengthy feud in the title-holder's home country of Canada. However, a week out from the show, Hart inked a deal with competing promotion WCW, and Vince McMahon wanted him to lose the belt to Michaels, as opposed to leaving the company with their coveted prize still in his possession. Hart refused to put over The Heartbreak Kid due to their real-life animosity, and the fact the event was in Montreal.

The planned finish was agreed upon as a disqualification, allowing Hart to retain the championship before likely losing it prior to his departure. However, under the direction of McMahon, select company employees put together and executed a plan which would see referee Earl Hebner call for the bell when Hart was locked in the Sharpshooter, despite the champ not actually submitting, declaring Michaels the new champion as chaos erupted inside the arena. The unscripted moment resulted in an infuriated Hart spitting at McMahon at ringside, before drawing the letters W-C-W in the air. Backstage after the match, an enraged Hart would become embroiled in a heated locker room altercation and punch McMahon, with the likes of The Undertaker and Bruce Prichard reportedly present at the scene.

Hart would exit WWE, and on the following episode of "Raw", McMahon would utter this famous line: "Vince McMahon didn't screw Bret Hart. I truly believe that Bret Hart ... screwed Bret Hart." The WWE roster would begin to question McMahon's leadership at the time, given the untrustworthy and underhanded tactics he displayed at Survivor Series. Hart would ultimately return to the company 13 years later, reconciling with both Michaels and McMahon — but The Montreal Screwjob will live on in infamy as one of the most unforgettable scandals the business has ever seen.