At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, professional wrestling used to be different. What was once simply a case of ‘getting your bell rung’ now requires immediate medical attention and brings serious questions regarding the possibility of associated concussion symptoms. Now, let me be clear – this most certainly represents advancement and progression as we grow more mindful of the alarming impact of head trauma that has now been chronicled. That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the toughness – however ill-advised – or grapplers from yesteryear, who remained committed to giving wrestling fans their money’s worth, often at their own expense.
For as fake as wrestling is, there remain a surprising amount of injuries that are incurred in and outside of the ring. Over the next few weeks, WWE anticipates the returns of headlining names like John Cena, Seth Rollins, Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton, whose absences highlight the physically demanding and perilous nature of life inside the squared circle.
The 10 superstars on this list are no strangers to the workplace injuries that are a necessary evil of the pro wrestling industry. Even as they incurred injuries that would put them on the shelf for long stretches of time or leave them with little memory of the match in question, they all share one common mark of pride: they finished the match.
In these instances, finishing the match may not have been the most logically or medically sound option available. We hope that these athletes don’t suffer any long-term health consequences as a result of their choices (although, in the case of Bret Hart, it may be too late for that), but at least some merit must be given to the dedication towards respecting the business and giving their audience a show. If these 10 superstars could do it all over again, it’s hard to imagine these legends of the ring changing a thing.
10. Brock Lesnar – WrestleMania 19
Few superstars have ever fast tracked their way up the ladder in WWE quite like “The Next Big Thing” Brock Lesnar. Upon debuting in 2002, Lesnar shot up the card and found himself in the main event scene within months of his arrival on the main roster, becoming the youngest champion in WWE history. That youth and inexperience showed through in his first WrestleMania, where he was pitted in the main event against Kurt Angle. During the match, Lesnar attempted a shooting star press from across the ring, landing on his head and neck, which resulted in a concussion. Despite being in a complete daze, Lesnar ad-libbed the finish and went on to defeat Angle to win his second Undisputed Championship on wrestling’s grandest stage.
9. Triple H – RAW 2001
Remember the Two-Man Power Trip? The heel alliance of Triple H and a recently turned “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was cut short when “The Game” legitimately tore his left quad in a Raw main event against the team of Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho. Tearing it on a clothesline attempt to Jericho, Triple H continued over to the announce table to set Jericho up for a spot and even let his opponent go through with a planned Walls of Jericho submission on the table. Although it’s hard to know what further damage continuing the match caused, the quad muscle had ripped completely off the bone and Triple H was sidelined for eight months as a result.
8. The Miz – WrestleMania 27
As a reality TV star turned WWE wrestler, it has taken years of effort for Mike “the Miz” Mizanin to be taken seriously in the squared circle. So much so, in fact, that he has successfully incorporated his arrogant, egocentric identity into his heel persona. Even if fans don’t recognize that the Miz has proven himself as dedicated to being a professional wrestler, WWE certainly has, giving him numerous title reigns including a run as the WrestleMania headlining WWE champ at WM 27. In the main event against John Cena, the Miz was knocked out on a tackle to the floor, but kept his bearings enough to finish out the match and even navigating through a booked altercation with special guest referee The Rock before retaining the title.
7. Bret Hart – WCW Starrcade 1999
Few competitors have taken the real-life lumps of Bret “the Hitman” Hart, who has endured the well-documented Montreal Screwjob and the tragic death of brother Owen Hart over the course of his wrestling career. Nothing put him down for the count quite like the superkick delivered by Goldberg at WCW’s 1999 Starrcade pay-per-view. This was a kick that would cause the concussion, which brought a swift end to Hart’s in-ring career and may have contributed to a stroke suffered years later. Unaware of the severity of the concussion, Hart not only finished out the match but even fought Goldberg in a rematch the next night on WCW Nitro.
6. Sting – Night of Champions 2015
In one of the most remarkable stories in professional wrestling over the past few years, long-time WCW staple Sting finally set foot in a WWE ring in 2014. The in-ring debut of the Icon came at WrestleMania 31, where he lost to Triple H in an interference-happy spotfest. His next match came against WWE champion Seth Rollins at the Night of Champions pay-per-view, during which he suffered a legit neck injury on a Rollins’ bucklebomb attempt. The then-55-year-old managed to finish out the match, but still has yet to wrestle again and has since announced his retirement from the ring.
5. Undertaker – Elimination Chamber 2010
As one of the most respected veterans to ever set foot in a WWE locker room, you better believe that the Undertaker won’t let an injury get in the way of his job in the ring. In fact, the Dead Man incurred his injury on the way to the ring and still continued on with the match! In the main event of the 2010 Elimination Chamber pay-per-view, the Undertaker suffered second degree burns from pyro off-shoots from his iconic ring entrance, leaving behind a coat and hat completely charred. Even with a beet red torso, he finished up the grueling match against five opponents.
4. Vader – Match vs Stan Hansen 1990
Through stints in WCW and then WWE, wrestling fans grew familiar with Vader (also known as Big Van Vader) as a 450-lb behemoth with surprising agility and aerial skill. It was only when he joined New Japan that he also came to be known as one tough SOB. That reputation was mostly forged during a 1990 battle with Stan Hansen, a brawler known for working stiff. The brutal match featured Hansen breaking Vader’s nose with a bullrope and even dislodging his eyeball from its socket. In response, Vader merely removed his mask and proceeded to pop the eye back into place in order to continue the match.
3. Sabu – ECW Born To Be Wired 1997
The homicidal, genocidal, suicidal ECW superstar Sabu was never known as the most responsible or safe wrestler. The risk-taking nature that made him such a draw with fans also jeopardized the well-being of both Sabu’s opponents and the man himself and was made only easier by the ‘extreme’ environment in which he worked. At the 1997 Born to Be Wired PPV event, Sabu and Terry Funk fought in a match where barbed wire was used in place of ring ropes. That didn’t stop Sabu from attempting an Air Sabu, for which Funk moved and Sabu wound up stuck in the jagged wire. He wound up with a left bicep that was visibly torn wide open.
2. Hardcore Holly – SmackDown 2002
The one-time Bob “Sparkplug” Holly probably left some fans confused when he was repackaged as Hardcore Holly, given that he was never particularly linked to extreme in-ring activities. Holly’s friends and colleagues knew better, understanding him to set the bar for pro wrestling toughness. In 2002, he was accidentally dropped on his head during a Smackdown match with Brock Lesnar, suffering a broken neck and requiring a 13-month absence. Four years later, Holly landed on a strip of metal in a freak table spot and needed 24 stitches to close a gash on his back. In both cases, he finished the match.
1. Mick Foley – King of the Ring 1998
Outside of OJ Simpson and the Buffalo Bills, few had a rougher go of it in the 1990s than Mick Foley. While switching between aliases of Cactus Jack, Mankind and Dude Love, Foley suffered through countless injuries as he put his body on the line in the squared circle. In 1994, the hardcore legend lost a part of his left ear in a WCW match against Vader after getting caught in the ropes. Four years later, Foley endured two devastating bumps off the top of the cage in his Hell in a Cell match against the Undertaker at the 1998 King of the Ring pay-per-view. Those legendary bumps, plus a litany of breaks, bruises and other injuries, have given Foley special standing among even the most hardcore of grapplers.