History Repeats Itself?: How Wrestling Regards Its Performers

Curator's Note

Of the many reasons that various pro-wrestling companies have gone out of business over the last 100 years, one that stands out, particularly over the last two decades, is an inability to learn from past mistakes.

On Tuesday, August 17th, an article was published in the New York Times talking about head injuries, and how there is a possibility that Lou Gherig never even had the disease that was named after him; he may have died due to brain injuries suffered on the field during his long career.  While the theory about Gherig is brand new, you’d almost literally have to have been living in a cave to not be aware of the studies being done on concussions over the last four or five years.

Even if you don’t follow sports, it’s impossible as a wrestling fan to be unaware of this given the the biggest wrestling story of this generation, Chris Benoit’s brutal double murder/suicide over the June 24, 2007 weekend in which he killed his wife and young child and then hung himself with the cables on the lat pulldown machine in his home gym.  An autopsy found an astoundingly badly-damaged brain, chock full of the tau proteins signaling a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

In plain English, it is no mystery, particularly in wrestling, that head injuries are bad news.  Which is why it is very disconcerting to watch the vicious chairshot that Rob Terry takes in the accompanying video, which happened not in the 90s or even pre-Benoit, but on April 5th, 2010.

It’s one thing to bury your head in the sand and not realize that Hulk Hogan in his late 50s isn’t going to be the kind of draw that he was in his mid-30s, or even mid-40s.  This is not learning from history, but at least it's an example that involves things like ratings and PPV buyrates.

To not seemingly be aware of the dangers of concussions, to allow a guy to take a full-force chairshot to the head, and to care so little that you don’t suspend either guy or even edit the chairshot off the television program shows a lack of regard for the safety of the performers that borders on criminal.  Wrestling often comes across like a Road Runner cartoon where guys get beaten up and come back two hours later without a scratch on them.  But the wrestlers aren’t cartoon characters.  They’re real people, they have families, they get hurt and all too often they die.  To see a wrestling company in 2010 allow something that is so obviously unsafe is extremely disappointing.


Bryan writes about the current conflict in professional wrestling very clearly: how can wrestling give the fans the kind of show it expects when there is such a high price to pay for the wrestlers based on the impact of the moves performed? Obviously the chair shot in the video is gruesome, but it is not "fake"--it is a real high velocity collison of a physical object to a man's head. Repeated head trauma has real consequences and drastic impact on their overall health and immediate future, as countless studies from Chris Nowinski and Sports Legacy have shown not just for professional wrestling but for other impact sports as well, such as professional football.

In particular, The Rob Van Dam vs. Abyss match from last week (or any Abyss match actually) where so many weapons and table bumps and violent weapons hits to the point where one could become numb to the violence suggests that perhaps there is a line that needs to be drawn when it comes to the practice of such hardcore style matches. Yet as Bryan suggests, history repeats itself and it seems that TNA is intent on being the promotion that puts on that style of match as a method of differentiating itself from the current WWE-PG model.

Unfortunately, TNA is not the only promotion to have chair shots to the head used in the past year--Ring of Honor is also guilty of having chairs to the head involved--specifcially in the El Generico vs. Kevin Steen program, which is a bloodfeud and perhaps one of the more intense wrestling angles done in that promotion in some time.  The program began in December 2009 when Kevin Steen used a high-velocity chairshot to the head to "turn" on his former tag team partner Generico. Over the last eight months, there have been several hardcore style matches, some of which have involved the two hitting each other directly in the head with a chair as well as the usage of other hardcore items such as barbed wire, baseball bats, ladders, tables and thumbtacks.

True, most of the other matches in ROH don't involve such weapons and most of the other wrestlers don't use or take chair shots to the head. However, it must be said that the Steen / Generico program is one of the bigger creative successes in the past year for ROH, with several of those matches especially the hardcore style matches receiving rave reviews and appreciation from fans. Does that somehow mitigate or excuse the usage of the chair shots in those specific moments? Can there be one or two shots done as a way to "take one for the team" if it means that a program becomes that more marketable and gains more notoriety (and hopefully at some point more money through DVDs and tickets sold)? Or is there such a high price to pay for a wrestler's health that there is no excusing the usage of chairs to the head or other violent impacts whatsover?

Even if all matches were not to include chair shots and extreme spots from this point on, there is still the danger of injury in any professional wrestling match, including head trauma and concussions. It is so difficult to change an entire industry's outlook on violence when it's premise is based on the usage of that violence and repeated impacts to the body.

Just my frame of mind, I guess.

Cornette's quote (and this is actually verbatim):  "What we've done is is we've taken a business where grown men pretended to hurt each other but really didn't and people believed that they were and paid to see it, and turned it into a business where grown men really do hurt each other and nobody believes they are and fewer of them pay to see it."

One of the many things that made wrestling work pre-"hardcore wrestling" and pre-Internet, I believe, was *not* that anyone really necessarily thought wrestling was "real" or "on the level."  Rather, wrestling was like a magic trick:  you knew it wasn't on the level, but you really didn't quite know how.  The simulacrum became the hypperreal because you didn't know enough to become lost in the details of the artifice.

The Internet and "hardcore wrestling" teamed up, I believe, to destroy this, the latter much to the detriment of the wrestlers' health.  The Internet made the Meltzer'ish knowledge once limited to a few accessible to all and suddenly it was like trying to watch a magic show after seeing Penn & Teller:  you couldn't move to the hyperreal as often, the tricks were dissected for you.

"Hardcore wrestling," on the other hand, made it more difficult to lose yourself in the "violence" of the older wrestling.  Once you saw Tommy Dreamer clobber Raven with a chair head-on.......watching someone lay a "softie" like the 1980s didn't work anymore.  Thus wrestlers went to (and many still do) absurd lengths to push things to the hyperreal.  "We've gotta make this chairshot vicious so the fans will buy it."  

But, as Cornette pointed out, one fissure in the hyperreal has collided with the other, leaving nobody believing anything even as the wrestlers are purportedly trying twice as hard to make the violence real.

 It's the Kentuckian in me, but I am with James E. on this one. One of the most impactful ECW storylines in its history was Cactus Jack Versus the bloodthirsty ECW fans who claimed they cared about their wrestlers and their promotion more than any other but who seemed to have little to no regard for the health of their performers. Of course, that's not exactly true, but it's more true than we would like for it to be. And, of course, Mick has been guilty of upping the ante on what people expect over the years but...as he points out many times...it's especially hard to see those big risky moments taken regularly, becoming mundane. Instead, now, we're seeing people risk their lives for fans to go, "Oh, and what's next?"

Bryan definitely brings up the most controversial aspect of professional wrestling with this post, and also points to the element of wrestling that is the most "real." The murder/suicide of Chris Benoit seems like an eternity ago, and at the same time like yesterday in many ways. It certainly haunts many of the most ardent fans of wrestling, making them uncomfortable when faced with wrestlers sacrificing their bodies for our enjoyment. Chris Benoit, a personal favorite of mine prior to those tragic events, now stands in for the realities of a genre that seems to exhibit far too little care for its performers.

We have explored many fascinating aspects of how the wrestling genre plays with reality throughout this week, and now at the conclusion we face that very reality - that these performers are dying at a horrifying rate and at a very young age, that there is no healthcare provided for wrestlers, that brain injuries and drug abuse (including steroids, painkillers, and recreational drugs) are a prevalent part of this industry, and that because it happens in wrestling it seems almost inconsequential. I couldn't help but notice how Congress this very week is going after Roger Clemens while the investigation into the wrestling industry post-Benoit is practically forgotten - a sort of "reality" check for the industry.

Bryan and Ari both pointed out how instances such as unprotected chairshots are still happening within wrestling, even with the specter of Benoit and concussions permeating the world of sports media. And I agree with Bryce and Sam in terms of how these extreme examples mean much less since they have become overused, meaning that the performers face horrifying risk while offering little in the way of actually pulling the viewer into the narrative in a meaningful way in a post-Benoit wrestling landscape.

One thing I've been wondering about, especially since Andrew Martin's post-mortem brain exam, is how big of a problem the flat-back bumping style used outside of Mexico in terms of concussions (well, other injuries too, but right now, let's stick with head injuries)?  Remember, a concussion is the brain slamming into the skull.  One doesn't have to hit their head to do that.  Whiplash can do it.  Martin wasn't known as a guy who took a lot of punishment, and he still had a profoundly damaged brain.  What does that say for everyone in wrestling right now in terms of brain damage?

In Mexico, wrestlers take rolling bumps and when you combine that with the prominence of trios matches, the country has a lot more wrestlers who can work at a high level much later in life.  Black Terry (almost 58), Negro Navarro (53), and Solar I (54) are all having great matches on a regular basis in 2010.  Satanico was one of the best in the world well into his 50s, including being the cornerstone of a long feud that drew lots of money and critical acclaim when he was 52 in 2001.  In the US, the 2 most notable wrestlers who didn't bump flat, Ric Flair and Diamond Dallas Page, were able to work at a much higher level than most past middle-age.  There has to be something to it.

David, I think you make a really important point in this discussion that raises even more questions.  Bryan's example is horrifying in the wake of what we have learned about head injuries, standing out as extreme, and not in a good way.  However, what are the implications of something as routine as a flat-back bump potentially causing similar harm, especially as they build up over time?  It really adds a whole other layer to the conversation over whether wrestling is "real" or not, when even the most routine and "fake" aspects of the performance may have very real consequences.

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