Shane McMahon stood atop a steel cage, peering down at his opponent, the Undertaker, who was laid out unconscious on the announcer’s table 20 feet below. More than 100,000 wrestling fans cheered on as McMahon prepared to jump and finish off the Undertaker, possibly the most dangerous feat of his entire career. He crossed himself in preparation and leapt off the cage. The Undertaker came to in time to jump out of the way, and McMahon crashed full-speed into the announcer’s table, completely destroying it. The crowd roared in a mix of astonishment and terror, cementing the moment as the highlight of Wrestlemania 32.
It’s somewhat ironic that Shane McMahon ended up performing the most dangerous stunt of WrestleMania 32. He had returned to the ring because several other, more high-profile wrestlers couldn’t participate in WWE’s biggest annual event due to injury. Seth Rollins, Randy Orton, Cesaro and others were absent, which led David Shoemaker to write on ESPN that “it seems as if the talent left off the match lineup could sell more tickets than the one currently on it.”
5% of people survive this injury. 16 staples, 4 screws and a rod later and luckily I survived to tell my story. pic.twitter.com/hXpXpA0aAF— TJ Wilson (@TJWilson) July 7, 2015
While most of the big names missing from this year’s WrestleMania will return to the ring shortly, there are others who aren’t so lucky. Two months ago Daniel Bryan was forced to retire—at only 34 years old—from the WWE after suffering several concussions that caused medical issues including seizures and even a brain lesion. And last June, Tyson Kidd suffered a severe neck injury in a taping of WWE Raw that’s kept him out of action ever since. Kidd received 16 staples, four screws and a rod in his neck and told fans that only 5 percent of people survive the injury he sustained.
As Bryan and Kidd’s injuries can attest, wrestling isn’t “fake.” Sure, the results of matches are never in doubt (unless you’re Bret Hart) and they’re not actually punching each other in the face as hard as they can, like in boxing or MMA. But there’s nothing fake about getting body-slammed by a 250-pound man or jumping off a 20-foot-tall cage. Just because a wrestler knows the move they’re about to perform (or have performed on them) doesn’t mean the risk is eliminated. And while the media is focused on the NFL’s injury crisis, the “fake” sport of wrestling is facing a similarly grave situation. But is there anything the WWE can do about it?
Too Many Concussions to Count
“There’s no good way to fall off a 15-foot ladder,” says Adam Copeland, best known to WWE fans as Edge.
In his 15-year career, Copeland participated in over 20 ladder matches, in which wrestlers use tables, chairs and (obviously) ladders on their opponents. In 2009, he fought Jeff Hardy for the World Title in an Extreme Rules ladder match. For more than 20 minutes, the two competitors bashed each other with metal ladders and inflicted an unendurable amount of pain (for the average person) onto their opponent. At one point in the match, both wrestlers stood on a metal ladder as it tipped over and they fell onto…another metal ladder.
Ladder matches, such as this, helped propel Copeland to WWE stardom. But along with that came increased risk. Whenever the company wanted one of their big names to participate in such a match, he got the call to be the opponent. So in addition to the dangers associated with normal wrestling, Copeland also took increased abuse from appearing in a riskier format more frequently. And while his body definitely felt the impact, he rarely let it keep him out of action.
It’s always a difficult distinction between hurt and injured, because you’re always hurt.
Adam "Edge” Copeland
“It’s always a difficult distinction between hurt and injured,” says Copeland, “because you’re always hurt. I’ve had five surgeries and in the midst of those, I’ve also ruptured a groin, fractured a skull, had metal rods put in my front teeth, tore my labrum and half-tore a pec. I don’t know if you would consider those injuries, because I didn’t stop working. I probably could’ve had eight surgeries, but I went with five instead.”
Eventually the injuries caught up with Copeland. The ladder matches caused significant damage to his neck. At 37 years old, he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a condition where the vertebrae begin to narrow and compress the spinal cord. His doctors told him that if he didn’t stop wrestling immediately, he was risking possible paralysis or even death.
“Little by little, I started to feel strange,” says Copeland. “My arms were starting to tremble, which I knew was a nerve issue. I got it looked at and they said I had stenosis. I had pressure on my spinal cord and it was getting pinched like a straw. I was 37 years old at the time and had done more than I set out to accomplish, so it was easy for me to say, ‘Ok, that’s it.’ But I didn’t have a choice in the matter.”
Copeland’s experience is not unique among WWE wrestlers. Daniel Bryan’s retirement in February was nearly identical, except with concussions instead of spinal stenosis. In an interview with ESPN, Bryan revealed he had suffered 10 documented concussions in his career, and perhaps more undocumented ones. A series of MRIs and reflex testing showed he had developed a lesion on the temporoparietal region of his brain, which can lead to seizures if severe enough. He admitted he had been suffering post-concussion seizures for “a long time,” and once he found out they were being caused by the brain lesion, he knew it was time to walk away.
Much like with the NFL, concussions are increasingly becoming an area of concern in the WWE. On May 1, the company had to stop their Payback pay-per-view event after Enzo Amore bounced off one of the ropes, hit his head on the mat and then fell out of the ring. He remained motionless on the ground and medical personnel were called in to take him to the nearest hospital.
Amore was diagnosed with a concussion and didn’t wrestle again until May 23. While this incident was clearly serious, the more dangerous aspect of concussions has less to do with short-term damage than with the impact of sustaining many of them over time. In the past decades, scientists have released several studies documenting how football players with multiple head injuries experience the side effects later in life. Those same effects are being seen in retired wrestlers as well.
“I’ve had too many concussions to count,” says retired wrestler Jake “the Snake” Roberts. “I wrestled for 40 years, so if I had three concussions a year, which I find to be an extremely low number, that would be 120 concussions. That’s not healthy. I have problems now with my speech, thinking process and memory. All these things are coming to a head now. Getting old sucks.”
Of course, Jake never told anyone about these concussions because it wasn’t part of the wrestling culture. Anyone who follows the NFL knows that in the past, players were the ones deciding whether or not to take themselves out of the game after getting a concussion. And in a sport, whether it’s wrestling or football, where there’s such an emphasis on toughness, guys will keep their mouths shut if they get hurt.
“You didn’t talk about your injuries back in my day, and if you did talk about it, you were a pussy,” says Roberts. “You just went out there and did your job every damn night.”
While the NFL and WWE both have issues with head injuries, there’s a major difference between the two: One of them is scripted. When Tom Brady drops back to make a pass, he can’t predict that Von Miller’s going to come from his blindside and land a big hit on him. In wrestling, you know when it’s coming. And while you can certainly try to minimize injuries and avoid taking shots to parts of your body, there’s no denying that the fans expect big hits as part of the show. (The same is true for football.) And while wrestlers who deliver punishing moves can get the audience pumped, the ones who receive the punishment can be just as popular. A huge aspect of Daniel Bryan’s success was his ability to withstand blows that others could not.
“Daniel was such an amazing athlete and he could take a lot of abuse,” says retired WCW and WWE wrestler Diamond Dallas Page. “He could take that abuse because he was very strong mentally. So even when he was hurt, he would still work at a feverish pitch.”
Page has not seen the same physical effects as his fellow retired wrestlers. Part of it, he says, is his commitment to DDP Yoga, a program he began developing after rupturing his L4 and L5 discs during his wrestling career. But part of it was that he didn’t start wrestling until he was 35. While this meant he wasn’t necessarily as fit as the younger guys, it also meant he knew his physical limitations better.
“I did a lot of crazy, stupid shit, but it was half of what I would’ve done if I had started earlier,” says Page. “I got to be the older person playing a young man’s game. I’m in better shape than most of the guys. I think a lot of wrestlers would’ve done things differently. But you don’t get to have the 39-year-old brain, or the 58-year-old brain, at 17 or 21.”
The Relentless Schedule
Until recently, it behooved wrestlers to downplay or ignore their injuries. Copeland says, “The culture of the sport is changing out of necessity.” Younger guys are seeing the effects of a career’s worth of abuse and are beginning to work smarter and not take as many risks with their health. The WWE has become proactive in diagnosing concussions by immediately getting medical attention if someone’s suspected of sustaining such an injury, and they’ve even begun offering physical rehabilitation services to former wrestlers who are to experiencing setbacks as a result of their careers.
But is that enough? Obviously, there’s no way to prevent wrestlers from getting injured in the ring—the same as in football, hockey, MMA or any sport involving physical contact. But there is one major factor the WWE can control that could potentially reduce the number of injuries in wrestling: the schedule.
The NFL’s one saving grace is the players only play 16 games a season, far fewer than any other major sport. The WWE’s schedule is gigantic in comparison. Every week they film one episode of WWE Raw and one of WWE Smackdown as well as hosting multiple non-televised live events around the country. They will also offer 15 pay-per-view events in 2016. Not every wrestler appears each week in the live shows and tapings, but they’re active nearly the entire year.
“There’s no off-season. After the show, you’re hopping into a rental car to drive 200 miles to the next show after eating Waffle House,” says Copeland. “It’s not an easy gig. It’s an amazing gig, but slogging those miles after you’ve wrestled definitely takes its toll.”
Imagine if the NFL had a game every week with no off-season to recover from injuries. That’s basically what the WWE is doing.
Imagine if the NFL had a game every week with no off-season to recover from injuries. That’s basically what the WWE is doing. The physical toll in a single wrestling match may not be as great as a single football game, but the risk of injuries increases with every event.
So there’s a clear solution to this problem: Reduce the number of events.
In the short term, this is economic suicide for the WWE. Reducing the number of events would surely decrease the amount of revenue they generate and make them less profitable. But is that necessarily true? A major reason the ratings for NFL regular season games are so much larger than any other sport is that they’re rare. You only get to see your favorite team once a week, so you have to tune in on Sunday to see how they do. Couldn’t that work for the WWE as well? Being able to watch Roman Reigns or Brock Lesnar each week makes it less special when it’s announced that the two of them will be appearing at WrestleMania or Hell in a Cell. Having fewer events and giving fans fewer opportunities to see popular wrestlers would make the occasions where they can see all their favorites at once even more special, and perhaps they’d be willing to fork over an extra dollar (or 50) as well.
The greatest benefit would be an increased longevity to wrestlers. Adam Copeland retired at 37 and Daniel Bryan at 34. When guys like Chris Jericho and Diamond Dallas Page are able to wrestle into their mid to late 40s, it’s not unreasonable to think they could’ve continued their careers for another decade if not for injuries. A reduced schedule would yield fewer injuries and increase the shelf lives of the most popular wrestlers. Instead of replacing their top talent every five years, the WWE could simply add to it. If everyone stays healthy, you can put out The Avengers every year at WrestleMania rather than settling for just Thor and Hawkeye.
Even though Shane McMahon’s leap off the “Hell in a Cell” cage was the highlight of Wrestlemania 32, he still didn’t win his match. The Undertaker took advantage of his dazed state to take home a victory. In a way, this perfectly captures the dilemma in wrestling. The fans don’t necessarily care about the wrestler who gets the win. The one who puts themself in the most danger ends up with all the glory.
Ultimately, there’s no way to guarantee wrestlers won’t get injured. Even the best professionals will miss their mark and hit a guy in a place they’re not supposed to, and guys will continue to wrestle through injuries and continue to put their health at risk.
Wrestlers know they risk injury every time they get into the ring. And the WWE has done a commendable job responding to injuries in recent years. But to prevent Daniel Bryan from developing a brain lesion or Adam Copeland from getting spinal stenosis would require dramatic action. Maybe reducing the schedule isn’t the answer. But the WWE needs to take a long look at the way it does business and decide if it’s acting for the best interests of its wrestlers.
Joseph Misulonas is an assistant editor for Playboy.com. He can be found on Twitter at @jmisulonas.
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