You might think the following scene is pure theatrics, but the reality is much scarier.
It’s June 28, 1998.
The Undertaker is delivering a flurry of punches to a sweat-soaked and woozy Mankind. The two men are standing on a chainlink roof 20 feet above the wrestling ring during a WWE Hell in a Cell match.
In one swift motion, Undertaker grabs a fistful of Mankind’s shirt and hurls his 287-lb. adversary clear over the side of the cell. He plummets. As the debris settles, we see Mankind’s limp body crumpled next to the table that broke his fall.
Mick Foley, the man behind the mask, later reported he had almost no recollection of that match.
What he does remember are the two teeth he broke, the lip he busted, the kidney he bruised, the jaw and shoulder he dislocated, and the concussion he sustained. These injuries, while accidental and extreme, are anything but “fake.”
Professional wrestling is the the last bastion of performance art. It is highly choreographed maximalism — bone-crunching theatre in which the players put their bodies, and sometimes their very lives, on the line, just so the show can go on.
Wrestling fans already know this. Insiders call these viewers “smart marks.” Kids may buy into the storylines, but no smart mark actually thinks grown men are resolving disputes with body slams and piledrivers.
Once you accept the first layer of the illusion, known in the wrestling biz as “kayfabe,” the sport’s true genius comes into focus.
As screenwriter and director Max Landis recently explained, in many ways wrestling is like “The Muppet Show.”
“Just like on ‘The Muppet Show,’ you would see the sketches, but then you would also see the anarchy going on backstage of them trying to put on the show,” Landis says. “And that’s exactly what pro wrestling is.”
But wrestling is especially unique because the players, unlike film and TV actors, actually execute death-defying moves. A feigned punch to the head might not do damage, but some moves are unavoidably painful.
When Mankind fell 20 feet onto a wooden table, the injuries he sustained weren’t fake. Nor are the deaths suffered by the pro wrestlers who pump themselves full of steroids and supplements to recover from their matches.
While the WWE formally opposes the use of steroids (and dozens of other performance enhancers), the reality is that to stay in the game, drugs are often a wrestler’s best friend.
The consequences can be fatal.
In 2004, USA Today conducted an investigation that found more than 65 of the 1,000 active wrestlers between 1997 and 2004 had died. Of those, 25 were heart attacks — a rate far surpassing the national average for men their age.
Autopsies showed steroid use in five of the wrestlers and other illicits substances, like cocaine and testosterone, in dozens more.
Just last year, former WWE superstar CM Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, explained on the podcast “The Art of Wrestling” how lightly his injuries were taken.
“I got a concussion in the Royal Rumble. I knew I had a concussion. Everyone knew I had a concussion,” he said. But the results said he was clear to compete. “I was like so your test is worthless. I’m not going out in the f—— ring like a two-week rookie to run the ropes in front of everybody. Let’s just call it [a concussion] now.”
Heart attacks claimed the lives of Randy “Macho Man” Savage at age 58; James “The Ultimate Warrior” Hellwig at 54; Raymond Traylor Jr. aka “Big Boss Man” at 41; and Davy Boy Smith, better known as the British Bulldog, at just 39.
Not all wrestlers meet these fates. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has led a successful post-wrestling career as a Hollywood actor and bulldog rescuer. Brock Lesnar made the transition from wrestling to MMA and back to wrestling.
In that way, wrestling is like football — not all athletes will sustain traumatic injuries, but some will.
Unlike football, however, wrestling injuries have zero visibility in the public eye. Wrestlers don’t have teams of lawyers fighting for compensation, nor a federal campaign advocating to make it safer
All the sport has is the devoted support of its fans and the upturned noses of the critics, who will never listen — no matter how many times they hear wrestling is real. It is so real.
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