Former WWE writer details being fired by Vince McMahon after changing lines for PAC

Photo Courtesy: WWE

Michael Leonardi speaks about his exits from WWE. 

Former WWE writer Michael Leonardi took to his LinkedIn and candidly spoke about his exits from WWE. He started off part one of his video by mentioning the allegations against Vince McMahon. 

Michael added that he loved working at WWE and the people he worked with. His first go-round with the company was from June 2001 through September 2005. He worked in the on-air promotions department in the TV studio. Leonardi gave a preview of a later explanation regarding why he left: 

I left (WWE) in 2005 for reasons I’ll get into in another video. But, it was something that there was major misalignment with my own morals and ethics and what the company decided to do in the face of some controversial stuff around terrorists and beheading and certain things.

Leonardi returned to WWE in April 2015 and finished up in January 2016. He was a member of the creative writing team for the second stint. He dove into his 2016 firing and said it still rubs him the wrong way. There had been multiple rewrites of Monday Night Raw on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There was a segment on the show involving R-Truth, Titus O’Neil, Mark Henry and PAC f.k.a. Neville. PAC had been scripted to say he ‘had a dream too’ and that was to win the Royal Rumble. 

PAC relayed to Leonardi that he did not feel comfortable saying the line and Truth, Henry and O’Neil called it out as well. Leonardi was not on board with the verbiage either and said he did not think it was an option to say. They all brainstormed about how they could pull it off and decided to have Truth say it to make it ‘warm’ and ‘not insensitive’. Leonardi had to report to Dave Kapoor and Kapoor approved the changes, but wanted Leonardi to talk to Vince McMahon about it. He went to Gorilla to tell Vince and said the former WWE CEO chewed him out. 

So I was fired over a very particular segment which quite frankly still rubs me the wrong way and I think about it all the time and I always think about what I could have done better if anything to have not gotten fired. So, essentially I was given a segment and this had already gone through a couple of rewrites and this was one of the days where there was a lot of late-minute rewrites, there was a lot of backup with shooting segments. We had another big segment that was being shot at the time with New Day and they were doing a eulogy for their trombone that got destroyed or something. My segment though was involving four talent; three African-Americans. It was R-Truth, Titus O’Neil and Mark Henry and Neville, a Caucasian guy. So this happened to be the Martin Luther King edition of Monday Night Raw. It took place in Columbus, Ohio and it was on a Monday, whatever. It was like January 16th or something like that. I forget the date. Anyway, when I finally got the new script and brought it in, we did not have a lot of time to shoot it and essentially, the script called for Neville to speak up and tell everyone else that, well, he’s got a dream too and that dream is to win the Royal Rumble, and I remember Neville coming up to me after he read it and he was like, ‘Mike, man, I can’t say this.’ For anyone that is trying to understand this, trying to compare — these things are comparable and some face, he was a good guy, a wrestler who wants to one day win the Royal Rumble to one of the most iconic speeches in American history about civil rights and how important that was. To try to play on that was dumb. It was poor writing and I’ll tell you why, number one, it doesn’t make Neville look like a face. That would be something that a heel would say, right? That would be something that a bad guy would say in that way to undermine the importance of that speech at the end of the day. So not only was Neville not comfortable saying it, the other three guys in the room, Titus and R-Truth and Mark Henry were like, ‘Yeah, this is f*cking terrible and so we did not have time to go back and get rewrites and I was not comfortable at all, nor did I even think this was an option quite frankly to try and get them to do it as is. The talent didn’t wanna shoot it that way. So what do you do? So, we worked together and we tried to find a way that we could pull this off and it not come off racially insensitive or to basically mock, to some degree, one of the most prolific speeches of all-time by a guy who’s supposed to be a good guy too. There was no way that was gonna be pulled off. So we ended up having R-Truth say it who R-Truth is a Hall of Famer. He is so incredible about delivering things and so we had R-Truth say it for Neville in a way that made it fun and warm and not insensitive in any way or not basically making light of just an — on the day of M.L.K. Day! So we shot it that way, we shot it that way, we are running out of time and everybody — my boss, Dave Kapoor was in the room and he approved it and afterwards, Dave said to me, ‘Hey Mike, why don’t you just go down to Gorilla and tell Vince what we did here, and just give him a heads up.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So I go down to Gorilla and Vince (McMahon) is sitting in Gorilla where he always used to sit. I mean he’s got his headphones on and I said, ‘Hey, Vince, just wanna give you a heads up. We shot this thing. Talent had a little bit of an issue with how this was written and so we had R-Truth say the line as well. We think it felt good, we’re happy with it. I know it’s my responsibility. But, just wanted to let you know,’ and I’ll never forget this. He’s staring at the screen, he takes off his headphones and he turned to me, he said, ‘So you didn’t give me what I wanted?’ And my eyes got big and I’m like, ‘Umm…’ and I said, ‘Yes sir, I know, I understand.’ I explained it again, what we did, the circumstances around it, the limitations that we had. I took full responsibility for it and then he just chewed me the f*ck out, pardon my French. Chewed me out…

Michael continued in part two of his video. The following episode of SmackDown, he worked with Titus O’Neil and Vince McMahon ordered that the verbiage given to O’Neil must be said verbatim. Leonardi said it took two hours to film. Leonardi added that he never broke through with McMahon when it comes to personal interactions. 

Circling back to the Truth, Henry, PAC and O’Neil segment, he thinks he could’ve told PAC that they have to go with what McMahon wants or they could have shot what he wanted and then filmed what they did to have an alternate on hand. Regardless of that, Michael said there were four talents who were not okay with the verbiage so they came up with their own solution and he was ultimately fired for it. 

Imagine getting chewed out by Vince McMahon. He got really heated and it’s funny, I remember when it was over and I’ll get into the details, Brian James, Road Dogg was right next to me… basically, he’s waiting to talk to Vince and I’m turning around and the look he gave me was like (an I don’t know how to react look). When he does that, when Vince does that, what do you do? There’s nothing you can do to even — it’s clear that he’s been in that position before. I’m not the only one that was on the other end of a lashing. But yeah, so Vince was just chewing me out and I’m saying to him, ‘Yes sir, yes sir.’ I’m just trying to tell him I acknowledge, I’m listening, I’m trying to learn and man, he goes, ‘Stop saying that! You’re only saying that because you just wanna get out of here!’ And I’m like, what do you want me to say? I’m just listening, I’m acknowledging you. It was a disaster and you know, I remember the next day, we were at SmackDown and he had basically given me another thing with Titus (O’Neil) and basically, the assignment was, Titus has to say this and do this whole segment literally word-for-word. Not one word in the two paragraphs that he had to memorize and say, he had to deliver it. Every single word exactly the same. Every word that was written on that paper had to be said. It ended up taking us two hours to shoot it. Because here’s the thing, so many times, this is the double standard. There have been people that have ad-libbed in these things over and over. There’s been times when things have been changed. It happens all the time but for some reason, in this scenario and look, I had gotten to a place with Vince — the way people say it, so you have to break through this wall with Vince. If you don’t, you’re gone, you’re done. You have to kind of break through this wall with him to not be almost a threat of being fired, right? And I had just never gotten there with him and clearly… I think it was something that I think he was just really pissed off that the script was changed and even despite explaining the circumstances and the fact was, we were all just trying to protect the company. We’re trying to protect the company from putting out a segment that was racially insensitive that just was poor, that just put us potentially in a bad light, over nothing… I have replayed that moment thousands of times in my head and I’ve asked myself, could I have done something to have not gotten fired? And the only thing that I could have potentially, potentially have done, although quite honestly, I wouldn’t have even known that and my boss didn’t say — he didn’t bring this up as an idea, nobody else did; was I could have gone to Neville and said, ‘Hey man –’ if I had even knew this. I’m like, listen, this is what Vince wants. This is what’s on paper. We have to shoot this. However, why don’t we shoot it as Vince told us and then why don’t we shoot an alternative with the way that myself and you and the rest of the talent thought was the best version. The segment comes off funny and fun and warmhearted. It puts everyone over at the end of the day and doesn’t put the company in bad light. I can tell you, that would have been the best outcome. But, when you have a talent that is like, ‘I’m not saying this. I’m not comfortable saying this’ and you have three Black guys on a racially insensitive thing, they’re like, ‘This is terrible. We can’t put this out’ and you have no time to go back and get rewrites or anything else like that, you gotta make calls on the fly sometimes and what did we do? We collaborated, we all put our heads together, my boss included and you know, we put together what we thought was the best possible thing. But, Vince thought that was a major, major no-no and I got fired for it, and it is what it is.

Leonardi then circled back to the early 2000s to chat about his exit from WWE in 2005. It had to do with the presentation of Muhammad Hassan. Leonardi wanted to make changes to said presentation, specifically the mock-beheadings seeing as how there were real videos circulating of execution-style killings. 

He was asked to create a video package for Hassan and The Undertaker’s match at The Great American Bash 2005. Leonardi could not go through with it and asked to create a package for another match. He was demoted from his position afterwards. 

He shared that when U.P.N. stepped in which led to the Hassan character being scrapped, he was promoted back to his prior position but he was at a point where he was ready to leave. 

I’ll tell you the other story real quick of why I left in the first place in 2005… This was voluntary. I left for a couple reasons but, I left because we had a character called — his name is Muhammad Hassan and in fact, I had helped with a lot of his vignettes which we would shoot. I think Barry Bross was the one who was doing all the vignettes. I was actually in the vignettes. I’m actually in them but I was also… I was an Associate Producer at the time because it was ‘05, and then he had gotten into this angle with The Undertaker and at this time, this was 2005, in July of 2005, there were — I don’t know if some of you remember, there were these bombings that were going on in London. These bus bombings and there was a lot of stuff in the news about these terrorists that were beheading people and airing it or whatever and so things like beheadings were really triggering probably to some people or whatever that was but, Muhammad Hassan would do these kind of mock-beheadings in leading up to his match with The Undertaker and stuff like that… I was like, ‘We gotta pull this, we gotta do something. Stop doing that.’ Clearly, it’s hitting too close to home right now for people. It’s probably not the best thing to do, and then I was asked to produce a promotional video promoting that match. It was the Muhammad Hassan-Undertaker match and I was like, ‘Dude, I can’t cut this. This is wrong.’ I said, ‘Can you give me something else? Can I take one of these other ones?’ And interestingly enough, I asked to cut an Eddie Guerrero versus Rey Mysterio match which involved Dominik (Mysterio) when he was a little kid which is crazy to think now that he’s like a major superstar now. I end up cutting that promo and for that, they gave me that promo and then they demoted me. They didn’t demote me financially but they took away pretty much all of my responsibilities at the time and this was from my boss, John Gaburick, who… that’s a whole other conversation about his position in the company and how he got that position. I think ‘Big’ is a good guy and everything else like that but, how he was put into that position and the way that he managed our department, I did not agree with at all obviously and so, for me to go in there and speak up and say, ‘Man, this is wrong. I don’t wanna cut this. Please give me another project. I’ll do one of the other pay-per-view promos,’ which they did, but then, they demoted me for it and it wasn’t until U.P.N. put all this pressure on WWE that says, you guys need to pull this, or else we’re dropping you or whatever it was. It was a very real thing. They ended up dropping the storyline and then once that came in, like oh, so, now our network that pays hundreds of millions of dollars says this is too much, we gotta pull it and they pulled it. They ended up killing the storyline. The Muhammad Hassan character was gone forever and I was reinstated with all of my responsibilities after that. After that happened, I was like, F you guys. This is not how you treat people and so I left.

Following up on that, Leonardi explained why he went back to WWE after his exit in 2005 and he said the following: 

I went back a decade later because I love the company. I understand that was something I had a problem with at the time with executive leadership with my boss but, I still loved that company. Again, I said this in the first video, you gotta separate the leadership from the actual product and the people around it and that’s what I love and believe in and entertaining people… providing joy to millions upon millions of people. It’s a wonderful product.

The latest on the allegations against Vince McMahon and the culture that existed under McMahon’s watch was covered on the 2/21 edition of Pollock x Thurston. POST Wrestling’s N.W.A. podcast covered the allegations as well. 

If the quotes in this article are used, please credit the original source with an H/T to POST Wrestling for the transcriptions.

About Andrew Thompson 8246 Articles
A Washington D.C. native and graduate of Norfolk State University, Andrew Thompson has been covering wrestling since 2017.