The National Football League has made a lot of press lately about protecting its players from concussions. While the health and well-being of these men is important, another group of athletes in a dangerous profession isn’t getting as much press.
These men and women work for the top two professional wrestling companies in the United States, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA).
In March of this year, word hit the wrestling news sites that WWE introduced the WWE & ImPACT Concussion Management Program. Among other stipulations, the PDF available on the WWE’s corporate site says “[t]he WWE has eliminated using folding metal chairs to ‘strike’ an opponent in the head.” The document further states a fine and/or suspension is in line for that or otherwise intentionally striking the head.
Within weeks of the WWE’s policy going public, TNA seemed to show blatant disregard to concussions in trying to put over Rob Terry as a monster. After their April match on Impact ended, wrestler Homicide entered the ring and blasted Terry over the head with a vicious chair shot. “The Freak,” as he’s called, didn’t sell the move and instead delivered a slam to Homicide while blood slid down his face from the top of his head.
Chris Nowinski, a Harvard football player turned WWE superstar, was forced into early retirement due to multiple concussions suffered on the field and in the ring. Since leaving WWE, Nowinski has started the Sports Legacy Institute, which looks into brain trauma in all sports. Particularly, the SLI studied the brain of former WWE superstar Chris Benoit – the individual who murdered his wife and his son before hanging himself over the course of a weekend in June 2007 – and said it resembled that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.
To be fair, Benoit’s brain trauma isn’t the result of just chair shots. It also had to be aided by years of steroid and painkiller abuse based on reports that have surfaced since his death.
In November 2007, four months after the Benoit incident, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon appeared on CNN’s “Death Grip: Inside Pro Wrestling” and said his performers didn’t use chairs to the head. This was nothing short of a lie.
But not every wrestler – or sports entertainer, or superstar, or performer or whatever the “Big Two” want to call their talent pool these days – who has taken unprotected chair shots has wound up dead.
Look at Mick Foley. The “Hardcore Legend” has taken chair shot after chair shot. He’s also performed countless other asinine stunts that probably should have killed him by now.
Just take a look at Foley’s Hell in a Cell match with the Undertaker in 1998, a match he claims to barely remember. In that match alone, while wrestling as Mankind, Foley plunged from atop the 15-foot-tall structure, then broke through the roof in an unplanned spot and wound up being thrown into tacks twice.
In one brutal match with The Rock, Mankind took 11 chair shots to the head.
“Five shots. That’s all it was supposed to be,” Foley said in his book, “Foley is Good.” “It would take six more to get me up the aisle as my children screamed and the blood poured down my face.”
Extrapolate this for a career that has lasted since the 1980s, and you have to wonder how Benoit killed his family while Foley authored several best-selling books.
I reached to my Twitter followers who are fans of the product to see what they had to say about the lack of unprotected chair shots in wrestling. To J Nicholas Autumn, wrestling today is missing just the type of violence Foley endured.
“[T]here is little to no reason why two consenting adults couldn’t choose to partake in an action that helps peak the audience’s interest in their performance,” Autumn said. “Many of the most memorable professional wrestling feuds and matches have ended in one man’s bloodshed induced by a chair or other foreign object’s malicious use.”
Sounds a lot like the “I Quit” match in which Foley received nearly a dozen chair shots before the match finally ended.
Autumn may be onto a point regarding lasting memories, as the series of chair shots Foley took was one of the first images that popped into my mind.
TNA has since banned unprotected steel chair shots to the head after one of its top stars, Mr. Anderson, was sidelined with a concussion after an accidental blow by Jeff Hardy in late 2010. The incident forced TNA to reshuffle its pay-per-view card and find a new opponent for Hardy.
“TNA has absolutely thrown down the gauntlet and said no more unprotected chair shots,” Anderson told the “Between the Ropes” radio show. He said agents backstage proceed with caution when weapons are planned for a match.
WWE talent needs to be even more careful with chair shots now. In marketing to a younger audience, the sex and violence has been toned down. However, WWE’s latest pay-per-view was called TLC, which stands for Tables, Ladders and Chairs. Opponents are able to use any three of the weapons and must climb a ladder to retrieve an object – usually a title belt – to win the match.
On a recent episode of RAW, WWE Champion The Miz faced Jerry “The King” Lawler in a TLC match, perhaps as a way to introduce new fans to the concept. Compared to previous TLC matches, their match was tame for a variety of reasons. The Miz gingerly placed chair shots to Lawler’s back, and there were no chair shots to the head or blood. The ladder was barely used as a weapon, and the spots where two wrestlers went through separate tables were very carefully done.
As the business evolves, WWE and TNA need to rely on other ways for their talent to get stories over. For far too long, the wrestling industry has relied on dangerous tactics to advance its characters. Finally, the powers that be realize this. Hopefully, going forward, they are able to capitalize on maintaining realism and believability without sacrificing the health of their performers.
For an alternative viewpoint, please read Wednesday’s guest post from J. Nicholas Autumn.
Irv Muchnick believes WWE’s chair shot ban was a political move to help Linda McMahon get Connecticut’s Senate seat
Muchnick also believes chairs were at least part of the reason why Lance Cade committed suicide after it was revealed he had brain trauma, including WWE auctioning off the autographed chair Shawn Michaels used to beat Cade in 2008 for $315
More on athletes and concussion evidence
More disgusting chair shots:
Cactus Jack (Mick Foley) takes one to the face
Undertaker blasts the late Kanyon (7:10)