When you take a look at professional wrestling today, it appears that serious injuries are taking place with greater frequency than we can remember in the years that any of us have followed the sport. In rapid succession, let’s consider some of the setbacks as well as the outright career-ending injuries we have seen in recent years.
Of course most recently we saw Finn Balor finally reach the pinnacle of a 16-year journey only to have to vacate the first WWE Universal championship the following day. Prior to Balor, Seth Rollins just returned from a torn knee. Daniel Bryan was forced into retirement as a result of a neck injury, a fate that is probably the same for Tyson Kidd.
What has changed in professional wrestling that we are seeing this increasing epidemic of severe, life-altering injuries? In a climate with a corporate wellness policy and a talent relations department that has publicly declared that the health and wellness of the athletes must come first, can we expect to see the frequency and risk of injury continue at this same pace in the coming months and years? The answer is … Yes! Here are 15 reasons why we’ll continue to see horrific injuries in the WWE.
15. The Schedule
George Foreman was a legendary professional boxer who owns a career without parallel. In the end, he competed in 81 boxing matches, declared the winner in 76 of those showdowns. Foreman’s full career record could be compared against the likes of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair who appeared in 4,279 documented matches between 1972 and 2011. Professional wrestlers engage in one of the most aggressive travel and performance schedules in sport, often wrestling four nights per week, plus the scheduling of travel from all parts of the country to meet their scheduled commitments. The average professional wrestler at the top of his game will appear in more matches in a single month than UFC welterweight Conor McGregor has appeared in during his eight-year MMA career. The travel schedule and frequency of matches alone play the biggest role in the likelihood of injury for today’s professional wrestlers. Did you ever wonder why professional wrestlers can’t get medical insurance coverage?
14. You Can’t Fake Gravity
For decades, skeptics have challenged the legitimacy of the sport with the dismissive statement “well, they know how to fall …” True, professional wrestlers do condition their bodies to protect against injuries from common and likely physical rigors of the ring, but truly … can you ever conquer gravity? Yes, you can build instinct to address a fall from standing but how do you prepare to fall from six feet in the air off the top rope, or from a ladder, or from the top of a cage. Former AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel stated it best when during a wrestling broadcast he declared: “When you fall right, it hurts…when you fall wrong, you’re retired.” Forget the high risk maneuvers for a minute – even the repeated whiplash from falling can create a negative impact on long term brain function. We’re just starting to truly learn the full consequence of that now.
13. No Off-Season
For a professional athlete in most any sport other than wrestling, they may struggle with an injury throughout the season. They can hobble through, knowing that there is a defined end date when they can rehab the injury, explore surgical options or simply rest and be ready to go for training camp the following year. Professional wrestling offers no off-season, and for those ambitious wrestlers on the ascent of their careers, they may be reluctant to address injuries when they first arise fearing that an extended time away from the thick of the action may sour interest from the administration to pursue their investment in that star as heavily as possible. Such was the case for Paul Orndorff who suffered with a pinched nerve which went untreated, ultimately leading to a complete atrophy of his right arm – compromising not only his career but also his long-term quality of life.
12. The Indy Influence
There was a time when the WWE was still drawing from the active territories and informal developmental systems. For years, wrestlers were molded in the WWE’s image through working arrangements with Jerry Jarrett’s Memphis promotion, Les Thatcher’s Cincinnati school, Ohio Valley Wrestling, Deep South Wrestling and even Florida Championship Wrestling. Eventually, though, it became apparent that they were overlooking some of the best wrestlers on the scene by excluding guys that didn’t fit their traditional model. When they opened their mind and opened the doors for stars from Ring of Honor, they introduced a new element that they weren’t sure what to do with. During his early rise, CM Punk was considered by the agents to be “too indy.” He wasn’t expected to succeed. He did – and he isn’t the only title holder from Ring of Honor to do so. Daniel Bryan, Austin Aries, Cesaro, Chris Hero…they have each influenced the ring style of the WWE product.
11. Smaller, Quicker Wrestlers In The Fold
When Bret Hart entered the WWE in 1984, he was told by a veteran to ease up on the hard-hitting style that he was accustomed to from his father’s Stampede Wrestling promotion. He was counselled by a veteran in the locker room that he had arrived in New York and that meant working “New York style.” The WWE was always considered to be a big man’s territory – John Studd, Killer Kowalski, Gorilla Monsoon, Bruno Sammartino and other monsters. Enter the Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith and nobody was really sure what to do with these guys. Imagine how the British Bulldogs would fit in today’s wrestling scene? The wrestlers are smaller, quicker and performing more complex maneuvers. Do you ever recall seeing King Kong Bundy perform a 450 splash? Wouldn’t you like to assemble the full roster from an early WrestleMania and have them watch one of the ladder matches from WrestleMania of today? Imagine their unfiltered reactions to what they witness.
10. WWE Is Fighting A Battle Against Over-Saturation
In many ways, the WWE is now at war with itself as it grapples with its own enormity. With five hours of weekly programming on network television, plus 24/7 access to a growing library of wrestling from past and present, the WWE needs to ensure that its latest product is compelling enough to distract fans from the archives and have them tune in to the live broadcast and maintain their ratings. How do you compete with a comprehensive library of some of the greatest wrestling of all time? You dangle the prime time ratings teases that ensure that every hour of programming is must-see television. Between the often 20 minute in-ring interviews, the action that has to offset that inaction is going to be fast and furious. That tempo of action, which flies directly in the face of traditional wrestling results in stumbles, fumbles and injuries.
9. The Rise Of UFC
There is no secret that there is friction between the UFC and the WWE and that is evidenced in the way that each side measures their words when talking about the other. Still, the explosive growth of the UFC and other Mixed Martial Arts brands has had an impact on professional wrestling. Many adult fans have migrated away from wrestling to MMA feeling that they are seeing legitimate combat, versus what they have been repeatedly told is scripted sports entertainment. While UFC offers the fans the opportunity to witness legitimate brutality, it has created a platform for wrestling to separate itself from what MMA can offer. Rather than a ground-based grappling show, pro wrestling takes their action to the ropes, to the air, to the floor and throughout the arena in the controlled chaos tradition that fans have come to expect. But when you steer clear from wrestling fundamentals and chain wrestling – the danger increases.
8. Better Surgical Success Rates
There was a time when any injury involving a spinal cord repair was an instant and immediate retirement sentence. Advances in medical science are changing the outlook for athletes in all sports now. With each passing year, we are learning about new procedures to address neck and joint injuries. Chris Benoit was sidelined for a year after bone chips from his neck had impacted his spinal column. After surgery and rehab, he returned to action and didn’t miss a beat. Most recently we have heard about new solutions for knee problems that may eliminate the need for replacement surgery. As the technology of medicine continues to advance, wrestlers are seeing the opportunity to extend their careers beyond what they could before and as a result are putting themselves back into harm’s way with each successive match. Rather than consider their long term health after retirement from the ring, many will return and sustain more punishment.
7. We Are Constantly Reminded Of The “Attitude Era”
If you subscribe to the WWE Network, you’ll see that not a single day goes by without reliving the 1998 Mick Foley fall from the top of the Hell in a Cell cage and through the announce table. Wrestlers and fans are constantly reminded of the era of professional wrestling when everyone was pushing the envelope – Steve Austin, Mick Foley, the Rock, Undertaker, and D-Generation X. While most of the stars from that era have now retired, the current generation of wrestlers coming up and at the top of the company are trying to establish their legacy at the same level or greater than two decades past. However, handcuffed with a PG rating, they need to find ways to cement their place in wrestling history without alarming the censors. The result, is harder hitting action in the ring, and a greater chance of injury. The fans are the winners in this scenario, but the combatants in the ring will ultimately pay the price.
6. Guaranteed Contracts
Wrestling has historically been an incentive-driven industry. Simply, you will make a percentage of what your advertised presence can draw. Wrestlers wanted to be on the cards where Hulk Hogan appeared at the height of his popularity because they knew that those cards would attract the bigger crowds and result on heftier paydays. The biggest driver of work ethic in that time period, though, was that if you didn’t work you didn’t get paid. As a result, each wrestler was more careful with their own well-being as well as that of their opponent. Everyone needed to be able to report to work the next day. However, now, with a guaranteed contract situation, there is less impetus on the wrestlers to want to perform a full schedule. Not that they will intentionally seek out an injury – but they are not as cautious to prevent them when they know they’ll still get paid to sit at home.
5. Fans Tune In For The Sport In Sports Entertainment
Forget that you rarely hear the word wrestling anymore in a WWE telecast. While we have been barraged with this new identity as sports entertainment, the fans are tuning in to watch the program and buying the tickets to fill seats in arena for the “sport.” For fans that are passionate about the sport, and the ring does attract some of the most devoted followers in all of professional sport, the individual wins and losses may not factor in as greatly to their enjoyment of the matches, but they do want to feel that they have received their money’s worth in action that they can’t get from any other sporting event. That won’t be achieved with a punch, stomp, kick style of wrestling. The fans demand more and as a result, greater risks will be taken by the wrestlers endeavouring to deliver on the expectations of those paying customers.
4. There’s Still A “Prove It” Attitude In Wrestling
Dig back into history as far as you want and you will see that the media has never tired for more than a century from trying to de-bunk professional wrestling’s credibility. During an era when the industry was more closeted, the media would try to expose the truth about wrestling. While the media has softened – while in some cases simply closing the door on coverage for pro wrestling – the culture of professional wrestling hasn’t forgotten that criticism that comes from external sources. When MMA fighters like Conor McGregor want to spout off about wrestling’s legitimacy, the wrestling fraternity will come out swinging, pointing to the athletic and demanding nature of their craft. As Johnny Valentine used to say to wrestling critics: “I can’t make you believe that wrestling’s real, but I sure as hell can make you believe that I am.” That’s a culture that still exists, despite how often or severely the wrestling industry faces exposure.
3. There’s Nowhere Else To Go
During the territory era of professional wrestling, you might not take as great of risks with your long-term earning potential. If things weren’t working out where you were, you could make a call and move on to the next territory. Why this becomes significant in the current WWE climate is this: Previously a wrestler might find themselves in increasingly dangerous predicaments leading to the ultimate showdown, and then disappear from the scene for a while. In the next territory, they would start from scratch and build up to those crowd-drawing finales again. Now, there’s nowhere else to go. You conclude a death-defying feud on pay per view on Sunday night and then turn up for work on Monday night without missing a beat, still damaging from the punishment. The build up begins immediately for the next piece of business and builds to the next pay per view.
2. Prime Time vs. Saturday Morning
Long time fans may lament the changes to professional wrestling from what they remember in their youth. While some changes in the sport can be attributed to the adoption of a new school approach to the action in the ring, it’s important to remember that the biggest change to wrestling from a generation ago is related to the television timeslot in which it is featured. Sure, on Saturday morning sandwiched between cartoons, we weren’t treated to too many main events. In fact, it was rare to see a World title defense on television for free. At best, we might see the champion do an interview or appear in a non-title match. The game changes when television ratings are on the line. Is the WWE getting it right? How many other programs do you know that have survived on prime time for 23 years and counting? Prime time brings with it increased pressures on all sides of the business of sports entertainment
1. Everyone Is Gunning For #1
Professional wrestling is a competitive industry filled with alpha personalities. There are very few athletes on the roster that see their signing to the WWE as the destination of their journey, but instead the biggest step to escalate their careers to what they have always envisioned for themselves. While you can be happy for the success of your peers around you, ultimately, your short and long term financial success relies on you breaking apart from the pack and putting yourself in a position where the creative department has no option but to sit up and take notice. The angst that comes from feeling that one is being passed over for a career opportunity, will push them to take bigger risks with the hopes of securing a greater reward. There is still a great deal of pride both internally and externally to lay claim to a WWE Championship, and everyone wants to get one and hold onto it.