These days, WWE Superstars send tweets out of character. Babyfaces and heels vacation together on Instagram. WWE even encourages this in-character/out-of-character dynamic. On WWE-produced shows like Total Divas, wrestlers use their real, civilian names (Naomi, for example, calls herself Trinity) and discuss their on-screen characters, separately from themselves.
But 30 years ago--before the Internet and before everyone and his cousin knew professional wrestling was scripted--wrestlers lived their gimmicks to convince the general public that what they were doing was "real." These public displays could be minor, such as responding exclusively to one's stage name or wearing a neck brace in public to sell an injury. Or, they could be extreme, like refusing to speak in any language but Russian.
Which brings us to this list. Here are seven times that WWE Superstars went to extreme lengths to legitimize their characters. And if you like this article, you can also read about the times that wrestlers were punished backstage and the times that wrestlers were beat up for real.
Randy Orton Bleeds From A Hard Way Elbow
This is commitment. Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Orton was the main event of SummerSlam (2016) And to get Brock Lesnar over as a legitimate threat--more dangerous and unpredictable than any other Superstar--Orton allowed Lesnar to elbow him in the head, for real. Lesnar hit Orton so hard that he concussed him. Orton would later need ten stitches to close his wound.
The elbows looked so unscripted was so legit looking that Chris Jericho almost got into a physical confrontation with Lesnar after the show. Triple H had to separate the two men, but the fight resumed shortly afterwards. At that point, Vince McMahon himself had to step in and tell Jericho the elbows were scripted so that he would back down.
Jerry Lawler Keeps Andy Kaufman's Secret
One of the greatest, most famous hoaxes in professional wrestling history was the "feud" between Andy Kaufman and Jerry "The King" Lawler. As an entertainer who specialized in cringe comedy and testing people's boundaries, Kaufman took to wrestling like a duck to water, and performed as a heel by beating up women in the ring. In storyline, Lawler took offense and performed a piledriver on Kaufman, severely "injuring" his neck.
The peak of their feud came on the David Letterman show in 1982, when both men appeared on air, and Lawler slapped the soul out Kaufman. Of course, the entire feud was scripted; Kaufman and Lawler were actually friends in real life. But Lawler kept the secret. Even when Kaufman passed away in 1984, Lawler kept up appearances; he even cut a promo that reiterated his dislike for Kaufman. It wasn't until 1995, on an Andy Kaufman tribute special for NBC, that the entire feud was finally revealed to be scripted.
The Big Boss Man Feels No Pain
Before Ray Traylor performed as the Big Boss Man in WWE, he was a menacing bodyguard for manager Jim Cornette at Jim Crockett Promotions in the mid-80's. Cornette actually needed a bodyguard--angry fans would jump the rail and attack the heels in those days--and at 6-7 and 330 lbs, Traylor looked appropriately intimidating. He was re-christened Big Bubba Rogers and followed Cornette around like a shadow.
Part of his "Bubba" gimmick was to be silent and stoic at all times, and Traylor took that directive to heart. On Steve Austin's podcast, Cornette recalled a time when he and Traylor were getting out of a cab in Atlanta, and the cab driver slammed the trunk on Traylor's hand. The trunk latched, with Traylor's fingers trapped inside. Because he was in front of fans, Traylor said calmly, "Hey brother, hey brother, the door," until the driver realized what happened and unlatched the trunk. It wasn't until Traylor was inside the arena and out of earshot from fans that he started screaming at the top of his lungs.
Dusty Rhodes Fools His Own Children
"The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes is best known to younger WWE fans as the spiritual father figure of NXT-- a mentor to everyone from Seth Rollins to Paige to Bayley to Kevin Owens. But before that, he was a multi-time champion and wrestling legend in NWA, Jim Crockett Promotions. He even had a memorable, polka-dot clad run in WWE.
Like many wrestlers from the old days, Rhodes never clued his sons, Cody Rhodes and Dustin "Goldust" Rhodes, into wrestling's scripted nature. And even when the cameras were off and no one was watching except for his sons, Dusty pretended his injuries were real. He wore his casts and used crutches around the house, sometimes for months. As a result, both Dustin and Cody worried about their dad's health; it wasn't until they were teenagers that they finally figured out what was going on.
The Wild Samoans Stay Silent
Afa and Sika, also known as The Wild Samoans, are the patriarchs of the Anoa'i wrestling family, a collective of wrestlers related through blood or marriage that includes Rikishi, Yokozuna, Roman Reigns, Umaga, and The Usos.
The Wild Samoans' gimmick was that they were semi-feral wild men. And thus, they never spoke in English in front of fans; instead, they grunted a lot while chowing down on raw fish and chicken. Hulk Hogan discovered their absolute dedication when he and the Wild Samoans were pulled over by New Jersey police in 1979. The cop found an unregistered gun in the glove box; Hogan bought it for protection but didn't know that it would carry an automatic year-long sentence in New Jersey. When he appealed to Afa and Sika to help him explain, they stayed in character and refused to say a single word as their friend was hauled off to jail.
David Schulz Slaps John Stossel
When investigative reporter John Stossel did a story on professional wrestling in 1984, he went backstage to a WWE house show at Madison Square Garden to conduct interviews. There, he told wrestler David Schulz, to his face, that he thought professional wrestling was "fake." Schulz responded by slapping Stossel twice, for real, across the face, knocking him to the ground both times.
It's hilarious and well-deserved, but Stossel filed a lawsuit against WWE, later settling out of court for $425K. Since then, Schulz has claimed that Vince McMahon put him up to the stunt. He would be dismissed shortly afterwards for an unrelated backstage incident with Mr. T. In an interview with the Two Man Power Trip podcast (via Wrestling Inc.), Schultz claimed that McMahon would later sue him for the $425K paid to Stossel.
The Million Dollar Man Lives The High Life
The most dastardly WWE heel of the 80's was the "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, a greedy, smarmy, self-serving rich guy who tried to buy the WWE Championship. In one on-air segment, he closed down a public pool for his personal use. In another on-air segment, he cut the line at an expensive restaurant by bribing the maitre'd.
In an interview with Rob Feinstein (via Kayfabe Memories) DiBiase recalls being told about the gimmick for the first time. Vince McMahon was so proud and protective of his idea that he insisted DiBiase sign with WWE before being told about it.
The Million Dollar Man was, according to McMahon's right-hand man Pat Patterson, the gimmick that McMahon would have chosen for himself. And McMahon took it extremely seriously; he gave DiBiase first class accomodations, put him up in luxury hotels, drove him around in limousines, and booked him in fancy restaurants to convince fans that DiBiase was, in fact, wealthy beyond measure. And DiBiase meanwhile, could hardly believe his good fortune. Not only was he getting a massive push to the top of the card, but he was doing so in the most decadent manner possible.
Honorable Mention: The Undertaker Rarely Breaks Character
This is more a matter of consistency than a single, defining moment. But Mark Calaway, who has performed The Undertaker for three decades, does a better job of maintaining his character than any other active performer. Aside from the brief time that he took on a biker gimmick, Undertaker stays in character during all of his public appearances for the company. And every year at the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony--the one night where nearly everyone is out of character--the Undertaker never appears in the audience or onstage to maintain his aura of mystery.
He broke this rule only once to pay tribute to his manager Paul Bearer in 2014. And even then, he remained completely in character and didn't speak a word.
Honorable Mention: Goldust Considers Getting Breast Implants
This doesn't make the list because he never went through with it. But believe it or not, this happened at a particularly low point in Goldust's WWE career. Dustin Rhodes, the man behind the character, wanted to get breast implants because WWE Creative didn't have any decent storylines for his character.
On the Something To Wrestle with Bruce Prichard podcast (via Wrestling Inc.), Prichard recalls that Runnels pitched the idea to everyone backstage except for WWE Chairman Vince McMahon. And after McMahon heard about it, he talked Runnels out of it; he considered augmentation surgery to be one step too far.