How WWE Reacts When Workers Leave the Job

Last Monday night, the wrestling world was blindsided by the news, announced during Monday Night Raw, that Sasha Banks and Naomi, the WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions, had walked out on the show over creative issues. And though the underlying story was big enough, it blew up even bigger because of WWE’s immediate scorched earth response, like a statement that night burying the two women while trying to sow discord with co-workers and an even more personal burial on SmackDown. WWE’s public relations strategies have shifted over the years, to the point that such innately venomous public statements have been incredibly rare in the last two decades or thereabouts.

Under the “right”circumstances, though, their claws can still come out. And there’s nothing that Vince McMahon loves quite like burying a wrestler for walking out on him.

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The first time that the company that’s now WWE publicly buried a departing wrestler was when Tom Zenk quit the company during the Summer of 1987. Almost 35 years later, it stands out for just how strange it was. Zenk and Rick Martel, as the Can-Am Connection, were clearly on a track to be pushed as the WWF’s new top babyface tag team, only for Zenk to suddenly disappear after a house show match on July 9 in Hartford, Connecticut. What made this instance stand out was how the WWF, which, by this point, never acknowledged talent departures, handled this on TV.

“Well, Rick Martel, some major news here,” began announcer Craig DeGeorge while standing next to Martel in a pre-taped segment on the episode of Superstars of Wrestling that aired the week of July 25 (taped July 15 in Glens Falls, New York). “Unbelievable! Your partner, the Can-Am Connection, the other part? He just quit. Out of the clear blue sky, he leaves, and I’m wondering, I know this hurts you deeply, both emotionally and physically, and if you can get it out for us, will The Islanders bring out the quit in you?”

“Well, right now, it hurts me deep inside, what has happened,” Martel replied. “Y’know that when times got tough, my partner left me, but I’ll tell you something, and I’ll tell you something to you, Islanders! I am not a quitter, I’m a fighter! And yes, if I have to take on you one by one, I will! Because I’m gonna finish what you started!”

Uh… what? In case that wasn’t strange enough, it was followed by a functionally identical interview in front of the live crowd the following week, which was also taped in Glens Falls. At the time, there wasn’t much to find in the way of answers, even among the most dedicated hardcore fans. “Tom Zenk walked out because he was tired of the constant travel & may be out of the business completely,” wrote Dave Meltzer in the issue of his Wrestling Observer Newsletter cover dated July 20. The July 27 issue added that “[f]olks in the WWF are saying that Zenk quit because he was tired of the beatings Haku was giving him,” while the August 3 issue confirmed the obvious: “As you can tell by the TV show that aired this past week, there are some bitter feelings toward Tom Zenk’s quitting the promotion.”

Zenk would not give his side until almost five years later, when he appeared on the May 10, 1992 edition of John Arezzi’s Pro Wrestling Spotlight radio show. “I had a real bad contract from Vince, and I was advised [that] before they made any dolls or t-shirts, before they invested any money in me, [I should] get out,” he explained. “There are a few other things which [just] came out in the news,” he continued, referring to the then-ongoing coverage of allegations of sexual harassment in the company. “I knew what was going on. Not with any teenage kids or anything, but there were innuendoes when you walked out of the shows. There was…an incident the last night I worked, um, I just never said anything. I went my own way. I knew I was going to work in Japan. I lost the best job I ever had. I went to the office to Vince McMahon and his wife Linda. I just said it was the money. I didn’t feel like bringing up anything at that time. My goodness, five years later, and look at everything that has happened. I guess I knew.”

(Zenk would, in 2000, add that the money issues were Martel being paid more than him, though Martel insisted on a shoot interview DVD this wasn’t true, just the result of Zenk extrapolating from his personal policy of not discussing pay with other wrestlers.)

The next such on-air burial, the handling of the Ultimate Warrior 1996’s walkout, is, in fairness, one where WWE comes off a lot more favorably. Though Warrior would claim that he had gone home to mourn the June 30 death of his estranged father, he had started no-showing house shows on June 28. That came immediately after he had also gotten into a heated argument over what he deemed misuse of his “always believe” catchphrase at the International Licensing and Merchandising Exposition in New York, which ran from June 25-27. Warrior did, in fairness, claim on his 900 number/pay-per-call phone hotline that he “got a phone call that things were taking a turn, and I took the appropriate steps, made the appropriate phone calls, informed the appropriate people in regards to what I was preparing to do, and what I had to do.”

That said, he had a track record of walking out in the past, so given the context of the other disagreements, the WWF’s skepticism was understandable. On TV, they basically told the truth: That Warrior no-showed multiple live events and would not be returning until he posted a $250,000 appearance bond. He didn’t, and that was the last time he appeared on WWE programming for almost 18 years, although that didn’t stop them from releasing a wonderfully spiteful hit piece of a DVD about him in 2005.

“Damn right I’m unhappy!” exclaimed Steve Austin on the May 31, 2002 episode of Byte This, WWE’s streaming talk show at the time, when host Kevin Kelly asked him about internet rumors that he was not happy with his role in the company at the time. He added that he felt like the creative direction for both his character and WWE in general was “pretty shitty” at the moment, to put it bluntly. Vince McMahon, meanwhile, would respond on the following week’s show, calling Austin “probably the most demanding superstar that I can ever recall working with” while conceding that “he does need some decent material to work with.” From appearances, relations had gotten contentious, but not irreparable.

That changed three days later when Austin showed up at Philips Arena in Atlanta for the June 10 Monday Night Raw broadcast.

“Before Raw on Monday afternoon, Steve Austin went home against management’s wishes for the second time this year,” reported Wade Keller and Jason Powell in the Jube 16 edition of the Pro Wrestling Torch. “WWE management had proposed to Austin on Sunday that he wrestle Brock Lesnar on Raw. Austin apparently didn’t like the storyline as proposed and believed that they were using the equity he had spent years to build up on a hotshot match with Brock Lesnar in order to try to pop a ratings increase. He didn’t want his hard-earned equity to be used to make up for their weak storywriting [sic] in recent months.” Keller would also add the following week that “[w]hen he felt games were being played by people with differing agendas, he went home.”

How much the Lesnar booking was a hotshot stunt as opposed to a retaliatory move is in the eye of the beholder. What came next, though? That was more obvious.

“He took his ball and went home and obviously I’m pissed off,” McMahon said on the next edition of the WWE Confidential TV show. “I think this was the single most selfish act that Steve Williams, Stone Cold Steve Austin, could have ever done in World Wrestling Entertainment.” In time, “he took his ball and went home” would be recycled for other bitter departures, seemingly a tell that McMahon was speaking.

Regardless of why the Lesnar match was booked, much less with Austin losing, Austin was not wrong that it was egregiously bad, short-sighted creative. That was a major match that should have been saved for a major pay-per-view, not a barely-hyped King of the Ring qualifier on Raw. Either way, the relationship was repaired early in 2003, with Austin retiring as a wrestler after that year’s WrestleMania.

There have been other public burials, but they’re not quite as on-point. “Took his ball and went home” got brought back by Seth Rollins after Jon Moxley left WWE, but all that Moxley did was let his contract expire and go elsewhere. That’s weird and it felt like Vince McMahon speaking through Rollins, but it’s absolutely not the same thing.

CM Punk’s departure might feel like an on-point example, but his 2014 disappearance was barely acknowledged publicly by WWE, at least at first. Details were limited in the first place, and from WWE’s side, it was even more limited than that: Vince McMahon saying on an investor call that Punk was on a “sabbatical” and Paul Heyman doing Punk’s entrance to troll the live crowd a few weeks later at the first Monday Night Raw in Chicago since the walkout. Pretty much everything that you remember was revealed on the episode of Colt Cabana’s podcast where Punk bared his soul, with the most infamous public burial coming after. Specifically, when ringside physician Dr. Chris Amann sued Punk and Cabana for defamation (he’d lose at trial), WWE released a statement supporting him. And it included a slow motion video of Punk’s butt to try to dispute the notion that he had a large staph infection in that area when he last wrestled.

Perhaps the strangest and most insidious public burial, though, came at the start of 2007, and it didn’t even involve a wrestler who quit the company. Claudio “Cesaro” Castagnoli had been signed to a developmental contract, was being paid, and was about to report to then-developmental territory Deep South Wrestling in Atlanta when he was fired for no apparent reason. The resulting spin was, at best, curious.

“Castagnoli was in the U.S. on a tourist visa as opposed to a working visa,” wrote Dave Meltzer, citing “sources within WWE,” in the Observer cover dated January 8, 2007. “WWE signed him before checking this out. Mike Bucci (Simon Dean), is the one who got the blame for not having checked it out before signing him up. When John Laurinaitis found out, he basically called off the agreed on developmental deal because to get him a working visa would cost several thousand dollars, and Laurinaitis didn’t think Castagnoli was worth that added investment. Internally, there was a lot of heat on Bucci and Castagnoli because they felt Castagnoli should have let them know he didn’t have a working visa before signing the contract. Having written all that, Gabe Sapolsky, who has used Castagnoli for a long period of time, said that Castagnoli has a green card so he can’t see how any of this could be a problem.”

If you know much about Castagnoli’s career, then you know where this is going: As has since been clearly established, Sapolsky was telling the truth, as the Swiss wrestler was living in the U.S. because he had won a green card lottery. If “WWE sources” were so willing to bury a wrestler who didn’t even do anything to them, much less accuse him of immigration fraud, then you can only imagine what they’d say about someone they thought had unprofessionally wronged them.

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