Note: this article contains images of blood as well as descriptions and videos of serious injuries and therefore might not be suitable for all readers.
“Maybe I didn’t get enough milk when I was a baby.
Maybe I never learned the value of a penny.
Maybe I listened to that first Black Sabbath album,
the one with the witch on the front,
one time too many.
I think something’s wrong with me.
I think something’s wrong with me.
I think something’s glued-down wrong permanently.
Maybe it’s the things I never learned how to do.
Maybe it’s the things I learned to do real well.
Maybe it’s the Irish whiskey that I like to drink.
Maybe it’s the California Zinfandel.
But I think something’s wrong with me.
I think something’s glued-down wrong, maybe permanently.”
-The Mountain Goats – “Answering the Phone”
When I first got into wrestling, Nigel McGuinness was my champion. Specifically, he was the ROH World Champion, but more than that he was my champion, my idea of what a champion should be. He carried himself with poise and with pride. He fought through injury and adversity. He took punishment in the ring as much as he could give it. He had cool hair, or what a dumb teenager thought was cool hair. He accepted praise from fans along with derision. A few months before I became a wrestling fan, John Cena had lost the WWE Championship, ending one of the best title reigns in wrestling history. Drake Younger was a few months away from becoming CZW World Heavyweight Champion and having one of the better reigns in that promotion. Bryan Danielson was still PWG World Champion. These are all men and champions I’ve come to love, appreciate, and respect over the years, but in those early days of my fandom in the winter of 2007/2008, no one could touch Nigel.
Four days after I became a fan of professional wrestling, Nigel did this:
— Brak Obama (@NotBrockJahnke) April 21, 2017
At Rising Above 2007, Nigel defended the ROH World Championship against former champion Austin Aries. Early in the match, frustrated by Aries’ assaults and the crowd’s jeers, Nigel powders to the floor to recoup. Moments later, as Nigel is still jawing with a fan, Aries bursts from the confines of the ring with a tope suicida, sending Nigel’s head straight into the steel barricade separating him from the audience. His forehead crashes into the metal with a frankly disconcerting amount of force and, worse yet, precision. It’s a shocking moment but hardly a surprising one. Nigel is known for this sort of thing, this brutal head trauma in matches, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is almost exactly how he wanted this spot to play out. My friend JR Goldberg wrote about this match last year:
“Has there ever been a wrestler better at not protecting himself than McGuinness? The two moments of his career that stand out to me are both centered around him fighting every human instinct and reaction and keeping his hands down while his face and brain slam in to metal at unhealthy velocities.”
Once Nigel’s head crashes into the barricade, an immediate change comes over him. A deep cut emerges above his right eye. Kneeling at ringside, he straightens up, arms limp at his sides, staring blankly into the rows of fans in front of him. As the match continues and Aries leads him around ringside, it’s obvious that Nigel is seriously concussed. He stumbles when he tries walking, teetering to one side or the other. He keeps checking his eyebrow, feeling for the blood that continues to flow there. When Aries tries to initiate a spot, a staple in Nigel’s arsenal, the champ fumbles with it awkwardly and instead elbows his opponent hard in the side of the head. The man is reeling, out on his feet, clearly in no condition to keep wrestling.
The reaction this elicits from the fans in the Manhattan Center is mixed, to say the least. After all, ROH was built on wrestlers pushing themselves to their physical limits in dangerous and destructive ways, and the fan base that grew around the promotion expected and appreciated such violence, not all that unlike the ultraviolent cretins they professed to hate. But at Rising Above, the atmosphere is a little different. By and large the fans pop for the spot, being a thrilling bit of self-immolation. But some in attendance see it for what it really is. Three, in particular, sit in the front row, directly where Nigel’s skull smashes into the steel. You can see them recoil in fear during a replay of the moment. The first of them is a bald man wearing a Jets jersey. His mouth is agape in shock, brow heavy and twisted in horror. He whispers to himself: “Oh my god”. To his left is a bespectacled woman with her hair done up in a bun. She stares at Nigel quietly, transfixed by this broken man slumped in front of her. To her left sits a young man with short hair, wearing a black hoodie. He rubs his jaw worriedly, glancing at the camera a few feet away from him, looking like a young Ty Burrell in a comedic moment on some sitcom. The reality of the situation, though, is all too serious.
I used to be one of those faceless voices in the crowd cheering for that spot. I used to really like this match, pointing to it as one of Nigel’s finest moments, a match in which he persevered through a freak injury and gutted it out on the way to having a great performance. But slowly over the years, my reaction has come to match those of the three fans at ringside, those people closest to Nigel in those first few moments after the crash. Maybe it’s just due to getting older and more empathetic to seeing people get seriously hurt. Maybe it’s due to seeing how Nigel retired from pro wrestling only a few short years after this, at the age of 35. His retirement came from a mixture of issues that had plagued him for years, notably his severe biceps injuries, but contracting hepatitis B and a general frustration with where his career had gone only fueled the fire. It’s hard to believe that brain trauma wasn’t a factor as well. Though he denies such trauma played a role in his retirement, hearing Nigel repeatedly struggle to remember events in his career from only two or three years before casts doubt in my mind. It makes me worry about this performer who I admire so much, whose blood I cheered for in his darkest moments.
Katsuyori Shibata has always been a stiff wrestler. Even dating back to the early days of his career, his time in the Makai Club during the heyday of Inokiism, his strikes stood out from the sea of MMA-inspired workers around him. Following his return to NJPW in September 2012 alongside Kazushi Sakuraba, Shibata became quite popular due to his hard-hitting style and no-nonsense attitude, representing a mindset that was all but absent in the promotion during his time away. While his efforts rarely resulted in any sort of championship recognition, fans thought that it was only a matter of time before he won a major title and cemented his place as one of the top stars in NJPW.
After winning the New Japan Cup in March of this year, it seemed that time was finally at hand. Challenging Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Sakura Genesis 2017, Shibata is focused and persistent. He schools the young champion on the mat early on, wearing down his arm, his leg, his back. His strikes are so much crisper and impactful than Okada’s. He doesn’t give his opponent room to breathe. Okada throws his best at him, but it is not quite enough: Shibata remains standing after a Rainmaker, resolute in his determination to become champion. As if to emphasize that determination, Shibata headbutts his opponent directly afterward. You can hear the thud of it clear as day, the skull cracking against the skull. A trickle of blood joins the sweat dripping down Shibata’s face as he glances into the crowd. It’s almost a look of insistence. Shibata means business and he wants everyone to know it.
In the end, Shibata loses. He hits harder than Okada. He’s faster than Okada. He might even be smarter than Okada, savvier. But the champion has some indelible element within him that ensures his victory. Though defeated, Shibata is the first to rise and the first to get to his feet after the match. He struggles once upright. First, he heads in the wrong direction, stumbling away from the entranceway, collapsing against the guardrail as a score of young boys towers over him, pointing his way towards the back. He rises again, head down, his body lurching forward with an unsettling, inhuman, clockwork gait. His right arm swings limply in front of him, fingers curled into a telltale sign of nerve damage. Shibata takes three, maybe four steps before collapsing again, his right knee folding underneath him. When he again rises, there is worry and fear mixed in with the pain in his eyes. He’s beginning to understand just what sort of state he’s in. Shibata continues to stagger towards the locker room, pitching forward as his legs fail him. He makes it to the final corridor of the entranceway before collapsing a third time, stumbling between the metal columns that shield him from the crowd. He crumbles, kneeling atop his limp right arm as if in prayer, spotlights shining on his suffering as his opponent’s name is announced for the world to hear.
— Brak Obama (@NotBrockJahnke) April 25, 2017
That’s the last we see of Shibata on the show. The cameras stay glued to Okada from then on, focused on his celebration and subsequent assault at the hands of Bad Luck Fale. As that happened, Shibata feebly crawled backstage before collapsing again, this time for good. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma and underwent surgery. It’s likely that the injury came from a mixture of dehydration, match length, and the obvious trauma of the headbutt, though it’s nearly impossible at this time to pinpoint a direct cause. In any case, Shibata is apparently still experiencing paralysis on the right side of his body weeks later. It’s not clear, at this time, as to whether or not he’ll ever be able to return to wrestling.
The way Mick Foley tells it in his first book, Have a Nice Day!, he was the one who decided to be thrown off the cage at King of the Ring 1998. He was concerned with not being able to live up to the original Hell in a Cell match and was worried that no one would be interested in his sixth PPV meeting with The Undertaker.
When I first got into wrestling, I gravitated towards people like Mick Foley, people who were interesting characters, people who could talk well, people who weren’t afraid to put their bodies on the line. For an angry, lonely, masochistic teenager like me, wrestlers like Foley were everything. My love of wrestlers like Foley eventually led me to deathmatch wrestling, one of my great passions, a style of wrestling which sees men and women tear their flesh and bleed copious amounts of blood for little money or fame.
King of the Ring 1998 took place almost ten years before I became a wrestling fan, yet I can’t help but think that people like me were in Pittsburgh that night, chanting Foley’s name. In particular, there is one fan at ringside who yells out as a stretcher is wheeled in for this broken man who has just been thrown 16 feet down to the concrete floor. “Finish the match, Mick!” he shouts. “Do it!”
We never see this fan directly. His cries come from off camera, faceless among the writhing mass that inhabited the Civic Arena that summer night. But here, nearly twenty years later, I can’t help but feel like that could have been me. I’d like to think that my empathy and sympathy would take over, that I would have been just as disgusted then as I am now by the crowd’s bloodthirsty desire to see a man subject himself to more life-altering violence. But I know that under the slightest change of circumstances, that fan could have been me.
11 years later and 300 miles away on a small family farm in Townsend, Delaware, Nick Gage had his right axillary artery sliced open during the finals of CZW’s Tournament of Death 8. He had to be airlifted to a local hospital, where his heart stopped beating before he was revived. The man literally died. In the years since, the incident has become a popular talking point among fans and wrestlers alike who celebrate Nicky for his toughness, for his desire to finish the match despite his injury. You can see that in this video, as he attempts to cut a promo while paramedics attend to him backstage. I’ve watched that clip countless times over the years, shaking my head at the man’s stupidity but somehow, on some level, admiring his resolve, appreciating the lengths he would go to in wrestling.
Nicky’s injury was an accident, an unintended effect of a poorly-planned spot. Accident or no, Nicky and his opponent in that match, Thumbtack Jack, felt the need to push the limits of what they could do in their third deathmatch of the evening, the same way Mick Foley felt the need to fall 16 feet to the floor, the same way Nigel McGuinness felt the need to drive his head into the steel barricade, the same way Katsuyori Shibata felt the need to headbutt his opponent so hard he started bleeding.
What exactly is the source of this self-destruction? What drives professional wrestlers to go to such career-threatening and life-threatening lengths? Is it simply the need to pay the bills, the need to get by in this money-driven world? Is it the desire for fame and fortune? Is it the childhood dream of being the best in the world? Is it individual ambition, to succeed in your chosen career path? Is it the simple thrill of it all, the rush you get when you feel your own blood running down your face? Is it the roar and adulation of the crowd chanting for you? While I think all of those reasons play a role in the lives of most wrestlers, that last one is the one that concerns me the most.
When I isolated that clip of Shibata struggling to the back at Sakura Genesis and uploaded it to Twitter, a strange thing happened: people retweeted it.
— Brak Obama (@NotBrockJahnke) April 26, 2017
A lot of people retweeted it, or at least a lot for someone like me who doesn’t get much interaction on Twitter outside of my immediate friend group. A few days earlier I had uploaded the clip of Nigel from Rising Above 2007 and no one had responded to it. Usually, if I incorporate a Twitter video into one of my articles, I upload said video late at night or early in the morning so as to avoid exposing people to it for one reason or another. But this time, for whatever reason, I didn’t.
The responses to the Shibata clip were varied. Most people shared their feelings about how difficult it was to watch the man in that moment or how the actions that left him in such a state simply weren’t worth it. Some people, curiously, seemed to celebrate how tough Shibata was as he repeatedly collapsed in the space of thirty seconds. Some people just shared the clip, retweeting it without comment, which is curiouser still. The clip also sparked a discussion in the Wrestling With Words Slack group, which you can read here. The central theme of that discussion was something I had planned on discussing in this article: are wrestling fans responsible for this self-destructive style that is claiming the lives and careers of so many of our favorite wrestlers?
The simplest answer to that question is no, of course not. Fans do not have a literal gun to the heads of wrestlers worldwide, forcing them to do increasingly dangerous things in the ring for their amusement. Likewise, fans are not involved in the creation process, planning out matches, booking angles, performing the moves in the ring. That sort of direct culpability lies on the shoulders of wrestlers themselves, and to a lesser degree promoters and writers.
Still, I feel as if the truth of the matter is more complicated than that, perhaps involving a more figurative gun. Wrestling is dictated, by and large, by fan reaction. If fans don’t react to what a wrestler is doing, something has to change, whether it be what that wrestler does in the ring or whether or not they continue to get booked in the first place. Due to the nature of the industry, wrestlers have had to invent new ways of getting over and staying over, and in the last few decades that has translated to a style of wrestling that takes a tremendous toll on the bodies of those who adopt it.
It’s hard to tell whether fan demand created the need for that physically taxing style or if fans were simply receptive to seeing that style and thus responded to it. It’s a “the chicken or the egg” situation that doesn’t have any easy answer or direct origin. What we are left with, then, are the results.
There’s a passage from chapter 37 of Foley’s aforementioned Have a Nice Day! in which he describes the moments after being tossed off the top of the Hell in a Cell and his ascent back up the cage for the second part of the match:
“Climbing the cell with a dislocated shoulder was no easy task, but this time I wasn’t scared or hesitant – I was running on adrenaline. I was literally flying in my heart, as the Undertaker and I both raced to the top. The crowd reaction was unbelievable. They had sworn the match was over. They had just seen the damnedest thing in the history of the business, and now we were going to give them more.”
That last bit is what scares me. Even after that “damnedest thing”, Foley still felt the need to give the people more. Pittsburgh, in turn, was receptive to it, a formerly sleepy crowd waking up upon the realization that what they were seeing was historic. They weren’t chanting for his destruction before the match, but upon witnessing it, they applauded, satisfied with the sacrifice offered to them. In turn, Foley offered more, not because he wanted to satisfy the crowd’s desire, but because he and Undertaker had planned more spots. They weren’t finished with their plans, and, professionals to the end, they had to see them through.
Obviously, then, Foley is responsible for his actions. He came up with the spot, he convinced an unwilling Undertaker to go through with it, he executed the fall when it came time to do so, and he decided to continue the match after being stretchered to the back. But that last line in that passage is what scares me: “now we were going to give them more.” Because he felt that the fans weren’t going to care about the match otherwise, Foley flung himself from nearly twenty feet in the air down to the floor. And because he wanted to give the people more than that, he continued the match and suffered even greater injuries when the cage ceiling gave way and he crashed to the ring, with fans chanting his opponent’s name all the while.
Though these performers are responsible for the actions they choose to do, I can’t help but feel culpable somehow because those actions were done for me. They were done for you. They were done for thousands and thousands of people like us who buy tickets and DVDs and PPVs. By participating in the act of being a wrestling fan, we’ve nurtured a culture that glorifies the destruction of others for our enjoyment, whether our intentions were malicious or not, whether they were deliberate or not. After ten years of celebrating the destruction of people I respect and admire, I can no longer be willfully ignorant about the impact my fandom has had.
If I was a better man, I would stop watching wrestling. I would stop supporting the efforts of people who felt the need to permanently damage themselves for my enjoyment. But I won’t stop because I’m not a better man. That leaves me, then, with what I can do to help change things as a fan. The hard truth of the matter is that there isn’t a lot. Do I refuse to react to dangerous spots? Do I boycott promotions and performers who push the limit and simply support safer alternatives? Do I make it clear to wrestlers that they cannot continue doing these things, for the sake of their health as well as my conscience? Do I put out an APB, an open letter to wrestlers worldwide? Do I try to hold myself to a higher standard, as some sort of “responsible, ethical wrestling fan”? I don’t know. These all seem like rather infantile and artistically restrictive efforts, as well as short-term solutions to a deeper problem. Though I benefit from the self-destructive actions of these individuals and feel accountable on some level because of that, I cannot easily influence what they do in the ring. As the very talented Ed Blair wrote last month, “It’s got to be possible to create engaging and impactful wrestling that doesn’t destroy the future of wrestlers.” The sad truth, though, is that it isn’t quite up to us.
So, along with guilt I can’t acquit, I suppose I’m left with one course of action: understanding. As we continue to search for other worthwhile efforts and try to make wrestling better for all of us, I propose that we remember that people putting their bodies on the line for our enjoyment are still people, after all. Remember that the wrestlers falling through tables and spiking on their heads and getting kicked in the face are people. Remember what these people put themselves through for your enjoyment. Remember it, too, when they’re not giving it their all when they’re “working soft”. Remember that when Dean Ambrose does a sloppy, low-impact tope suicida, it’s because he has to do four more by the end of the week and he’s trying to conserve his body. Remember that when Timothy Thatcher slaps his thigh on a headbutt, it’s because he’s trying to avoid giving or getting a concussion. Remember that when Hiroyoshi Tenzan feebly stumbles around the ring, it’s because of 25+ years of wear and tear on his knees, his neck, his back. Remember that these are simply people trying to do their job, trying to make enough to get by. Remember that they’re real human beings, like me and like you.