Pro Wrestling's 7 Biggest Superstar-Management Disputes of All Time
CM Punk disappearing from the WWE world over issues with management is just the latest chapter in the history of Superstars colliding with their bosses.
As dramatic is that exit has felt, his relationship with Vince McMahon and company is not as strained or as violent as examples from the past. Champions have left for rival companies, an angry wrestler choked his superior and another attempted a coup.
The following is a look at these momentous clashes between executives and wrestlers, ranked on the intensity of the conflict, the star power of the individuals involved and the effect the dispute had on the Superstar and the company.
Jesse Ventura's issues with McMahon are not considered as he was a commentator when he brought a lawsuit against Titan Sports and WWE.
CM Punk and WWE
CM Punk's exit was tame compared to Superstar-management disputes from the past.
As reported by PWMania and various other sources, Punk quit WWE the night after the Royal Rumble. The sudden nature of his departure had the wrestling world buzzing. WrestleMania was just weeks away.
According to TMZ, Punk took issue with being booked against Triple H at that event.
Bigger stars and more combative exits rank above his departure, though.
Keiji Mutoh and Nobuo Shiraishi
Keiji Mutoh was both performer and president at All Japan Pro Wrestling at one point. A change in management inspired him to leave last year.
As reported by Wresting Observer Newsletter, via WrestleView.com, Speed Partners bought the company in 2013. Mutoh didn't like what new president Nobuo Shiraishi had in mind for the promotion.
According to Dave Meltzer, via CagesideSeats, Mutoh wanted to "start a new wrestling promotion of his own with the other disgruntled All Japan wrestlers that want out."
He did, founding Wrestle-1. A dispute leading to a new company forming is certainly newsworthy, but history boasts more intense versions of that story.
7. Vince McMahon and Ultimate Warrior
The story that most folks heard about in regard The Ultimate Warrior's disputes with Vince McMahon are worse than the truth that has since come out. There is still plenty of animosity here to land this dispute on the list.
Before SummerSlam 1991, the two men didn't agree on the wrestler's worth to the company. The commonly told version of what happened was that Warrior blackmailed McMahon for more money the night before the event.
Either McMahon had to pay up or the face-painted powerhouse would no-show.
A series of leaked letters (h/t PWMania.com), which include NSFW language, has made the incident seem slightly less dramatic. In the letters, Warrior gives McMahon a long list of demands, from a cut of merchandising to earning the same pay as Hulk Hogan.
He's whiny and long-winded, but his tone isn't quite blackmail.
Still, McMahon was angry about being pushed around. He suspended Warrior afterward, per The Baltimore Sun. That led to Warrior quitting the company for several months.
From what fans have heard of the CM Punk situation so far, it feels rather cordial compared to this one.
6. Paul Heyman and Mike Awesome
The Paul Heyman-run ECW flourished in terms of creativity and innovation, but it often stumbled when it came to finances. Money issues were at the heart of Mike Awesome's sudden departure, one that was made more newsworthy because he was ECW world champ when he left for rival WCW.
ECW wrestlers didn't get paid as much or as regularly as the folks at WWE and WCW. Eventually, that drove Awesome away, title belt in hand.
His departure angered many of the ECW faithful.
Semi-retired wrestler Lance Storm explained his friend's side of things on StormWrestling.com: "The true story is that Mike was owed a significant amount of money from ECW and he refused to sign his contract until he received all money due him."
Even so, Heyman and ECW fumed about seeing Awesome appear on WCW TV with their company's championship. John Powell wrote the following about the situation on Slam! Sports:
Awesome is still in possession of the ECW title belt. Worried that their current champion could appear on Nitro with their strap, it is expected that ECW will contact police in Denver, Colorado, to retrieve the title belt which ECW sees as "stolen property" unless Awesome voluntarily turns it over.
Other champions of higher stature walked a similar path as Awesome, and their star power has them ranked higher on this list. The animosity between Awesome and ECW makes this conflict a bigger one that CM Punk's, though.
5. Vince McMahon and Nailz
So much of the history of wrestler and management conflicts centers around a top star pushing back about the direction of their character or wins and losses. The case of Nailz (real name: Kevin Wacholz) and Vince McMahon colliding is decidedly different.
The immense man with the horror-movie voice was a midcarder with a convict gimmick for WWE in 1992, but what his clash with management lacked in star power, it made up for in ferocity.
Mike Johnson writes on PWInsider.com that Nailz "...had an issue with the SummerSlam 1992 payoff he received and got into a spat with Vince McMahon about it backstage, leading to him striking and going after McMahon."
Nailz clearly overvalued his contributions to the company, and his outbursts cost him his career. He was far busier in the courtroom than the wrestling ring from that point on, testifying, per The New York Times, that McMahon told him to use steroids.
He had only a handful of matches with other promotions after the incident.
4. Steve Austin Leaves WWE
Steve Austin didn't rant in a series of letters or choke Vince McMahon, but his departure's suddenness made it a gut punch to the company.
In 2002, Austin was WWE's biggest star when he famously took his ball and went home, suddenly leaving the company. The SunSentinel's Alex Marvez wrote for SunSentinel, "Austin walked out on WWE hours before this week's Monday Night Raw."
In an interview with Jay Mohr (complete with NSFW language), Austin explained he left over WWE wanting him to lose to Brock Lesnar without a storyline to follow it. As he explains it to Arsenio Hall in the above video, "I didn't like what they had to tell me."
That sounds eerily parallel to the current CM Punk situation.
The main difference is that Punk isn't as high on the company ladder as Austin was then. John Cena remains the face of WWE, and Daniel Bryan is arguably ahead of Punk as well. Add WWE placing such a high value on Brock Lesnar and Batista, and Punk's exit has less of an impact.
WWE lost its centerpiece when Austin left, but other top stars of the past have had more contentious departures.
3. Ric Flair and Jim Herd
Ric Flair was to WCW what Hulk Hogan was to WWE.
Executive Jim Herd didn't agree, and he and Flair's conflict led to a major embarrassment for his company. Flair left WCW for WWE in 1991 and took the world title with him.
WrestleZone's Nick Paglino recalls that "Ric Flair had finally arrived in WWE after a contract dispute with WCW boss Jim Herd who, among other ideas, wanted Flair to become 'Spartacus,' a Roman gladiator.
Flair flaunted the WCW World Heavyweight Championship on WWE TV. Manager Bobby Heenan referred to him as the "real world's champion."
The immensity of Flair's star power made this a huge story, one company plucking the other's franchise player. Like WWE with Steve Austin in 2002, WCW lost its top draw. Austin didn't then appear for a rival company with the WWE title, though.
Flair's story here is like Mike Awesome's, only magnified by being a bigger star on a bigger stage. There's certainly reason to believe that this situation led to Herd losing his job just a year later.
2. Antonio Inoki and Japanese Wrestling Alliance
Had Antonio Inoki and Japanese Wrestling Alliance (JWA) been able to work together, pro wrestling history in Japan would look dramatically different.
A tag team champion in 1971, Inoki wanted more. As Erich Krauss and Bret Aita wrote in Brawl: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Mixed Martial Arts Competition: "Japan's most famous wrestler, Antonio Inoki, was kicked out of the JWA in 1971 when it was discovered that he was plotting to take over the promotion."
Imagine if Vince McMahon found out that John Cena was attempting to take control of WWE.
Following the attempted takeover and mutiny, Inoki would go on to form rival company New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). NJPW became hugely successful. JWA went out of business in 1973.
Inoki's star power and the dramatic turn of events that led to his departure make it one of the biggest wrestler-management conflicts ever, but another clash has it beat in terms of intensity and fame.
1. The Montreal Screwjob
Wrestling fans have heard various tellings of what happened in Montreal in 1997, and every version is drenched in drama.
Bret Hart had replaced Hulk Hogan as WWE's top star. He held the WWE Championship when WCW came calling, offering him millions of dollars.
Hart accepted the deal but had yet to drop the title. Depending on who tells the story, Hart was either selfish or selective about how he would eventually lose the belt.
Concerns about losing the championship in his home nation of Canada and personal tension with Shawn Michaels had "The Hitman" unwilling to make Survivor Series 1997 his last night as champ. Vince McMahon wasn't about to take a chance that Hart would do like Ric Flair did in 1991 and take the title with him.
As David Shoemaker (The Masked Man) writes in Grantland, "McMahon decided to sneak the championship away from Bret." Earl Hebner prematurely called for the bell, leaving Hart confused and irate in the ring.
Hart spat at McMahon and punched him backstage.
This story has the violence of Nailz's issue with McMahon, features a top star leaving for a rival like Flair and is rich with clandestinity like the tale of Antonio Inoki and the Japanese Wrestling Alliance. Due to all of these factors, it is the proverbial perfect storm of wrestler-management conflicts.