Sunday night, I sat in a bar on the east side of Manhattan, watching the WWE Extreme Rules pay-per-view on 30 wide screens alongside a couple hundred ravenous wrestling fans.1 The crowd was lively, especially in light of the mediocre card WWE had assembled and the never-ending spray of rain outside. They sang the Fandango theme loudly and cheered his loss to Chris Jericho; they erupted into a chorus of “No! No! No!” when Daniel Bryan first appeared; a small crew even managed a “You are rathith!” chant at tea partier Jack Swagger, who has a slight lisp. Toward the end of the night, when John Cena and Ryback brawled to the top of the entrance ramp, Cena picked up Ryback as if to toss him off the stage, and the crowd held its breath. But Ryback wriggled out, grabbed Cena around the waist, and bulldozed him through the wall and offscreen. The crowd burst into the time-tested response to such calamity: “HO-LY SHIT! HO-LY SHIT!” But as the cameramen ran backstage, it quickly became clear that the two competitors, strewn across the backstage floor, were incapacitated, and the match would be a no-decision. “Ho-ly shit!” transformed to “Bull-shit! Bull-shit!” and the chant continued into the following promo package. It stopped only when the bar DJ drowned out the telecast with “Cult of Personality,” theme song of the beloved CM Punk.
The scene evoked a more innocent and patriotic era of wrestling, back in the 1950s and ’60s, when foreign scoundrels were at their peak and abject cruelty was a relatively new innovation in the wrestling business. Heels began to infuriate crowds with their underhanded tricks, and crowds would respond by throwing fruit or worse. (At Madison Square Garden in 1958, the Fabulous Kangaroos, evildoers from Australia, facing fan favorites Antonio Rocca and Miguel Perez, nearly started a riot.) In particularly mutinous moments, promoters would quell crowds by playing the national anthem over the loudspeakers, rendering audiences immobilized by reverence. Sunday night, our love of country wouldn’t have calmed us down, but among meta-fans, “Cult of Personality” inspires enough reverence.
It seemed odd that a room full of Punk fans — disciples of the Reality Era — would object so passionately to one of the oddest, most realistic moments WWE has produced in a while. The match ended because the wrestlers could no longer continue. The announcers switched into Serious Announcer Voice mode — the solemn tone they use when something exceptionally dire happens, which indicates to fans that what’s happening onscreen should be treated with actual gravity.2
True believers howled. For one thing, it’s incredibly difficult to portray serious injuries in a fake sport. Fans are just too desensitized. If many fans assumed that Jerry Lawler’s on-air heart attack was fake, how could Cena and Ryback’s pain be believed? Fans have been trained by years of Dusty Finishes to be skeptical of non-finishes like this one. They come off as ways for WWE to stage rematches without resolving feuds. There are no winners. Press “reset” and we’ll see you next month at the next PPV. But this wasn’t a traditional wrestling ploy; there was no referee error or outside interference. It was an intervention by real life. Referee Charles Robinson addressed his detractors Monday on Twitter: “To those complaining about me not counting i was in shock of what happened and was more concerned about their safety. I did what was right.” Robinson was playing his character, of course, but that was the point. What happened wasn’t an ending to Cena and Ryback’s “Last Man Standing” match. It was an escape from the wrestling unreality that the match rested on.
This might have felt incidental if Cena-versus-Ryback hadn’t come at the end of such an odd stretch of pseudorealism that wrestling fans couldn’t help but rub their eyes in disbelief. First, the “I Quit” match between Swagger and Alberto Del Rio had an odd ending. Swagger had Del Rio in an ankle lock, and Del Rio’s attendant, Ricardo Rodriguez, looked as if he might throw in the towel on Del Rio’s behalf. Del Rio told him not to, but then, behind the ref’s back, Swagger’s manager, Zeb Colter, grabbed the towel and tossed it into the ring. The ref thought Rodriguez had thrown it and called the match. But that’s standard fare — the weird part came next. Another ref ran down to alert the first as to what had happened, and then — instead of just taking his word for it — Ref No. 1 watched footage of the match’s ending on a monitor next to the ring. Instant replay! Finally, wrestling had entered the technology era. Except, well, why the hell would it do that? I mean, how are they going to end matches now?
The reality-based answer is a mindfuck — with official review, I’m not sure that a bad guy would have ever won a match in the history of the sport. The unreality-based answer is probably a double-reverse: Swagger can complain that even though he lost, he won before the match was restarted. (Or, more likely, WWE will just use instant replay when it suits it and pretend it doesn’t exist the rest of the time.) One can only imagine a not-too-distant day when WWE broadcasters are circling illegal tights-pulling on a Telestrator. This sounds less crazy when you consider that Extreme Rules had, for the first time, NFL-style pregame and postgame shows. When it came onscreen after the main event, in which Brock Lesnar pounded Triple H in the head with his own sledgehammer, the crowd at the bar was befuddled. The DJ again took over the sound system, but no theme music could make sense of this. We were expecting that open-ended elegy of Triple H seeing stars, then a fade to black with the WWE logo on the screen — unreality drifting into the ether. What we got instead was a bombastic reiteration of 11 p.m. SportsCenter. It was almost as if they wanted us to take everything … well, literally.
Even before Extreme Rules, the Del Rio–Swagger match was conceived under a shadow of serious reality. Dolph Ziggler — reigning World Heavyweight Champion — was concussed and diagnosed with retrograde amnesia in a brawl with Swagger a few weeks ago, and he hasn’t even traveled to WWE events since.3 His absence created the need for a no. 1 contenders’ match between Del Rio and Swagger, but the breakthrough here was that WWE acknowledged the concussion in the first place. Normal wrestling storytelling practice would be to recast the injury as a fractured skull, or something equally severe (and tangible), but WWE chose to stick to reality.
This decision was compounded by recent WWE offscreen activity. A couple of days before Extreme Rules, WWE donated $1.2 million to the Sports Legacy Institute for the study of brain trauma and concussions. SLI (mentioned in an August 2012 Grantland piece about Dr. Anne McKee’s brain injury research) is headed by former professional wrestler Chris Nowinski, and WWE’s relationship with the institute has been strained over the years, particularly when SLI spearheaded the postmortem study on Chris Benoit’s brain. From a real-world perspective, the donation was a surprising (but extremely positive) development. Meanwhile, Vince McMahon — via Twitter — expressed his concern for his wrestlers on the day before Extreme Rules: “Because of the risk of injury, I will be crossing my fingers until #ExtremeRules is over on Sunday.” And yes, these may have been McMahon’s actual feelings,4 but more importantly, it was a public statement about the legitimacy of injury by a vital onscreen character. It was both a nod to reality and dramatic foreshadowing.
In some sense, this is the logical endpoint of Zack Ryder’s YouTube-fueled ascendance, the explosion of Twitter, and WWE’s persistent obsession with all manner of social media. When John Cena has as many Twitter followers (4.1 million) as the number of people who watched Raw on Monday night, there can no longer be a distinction between the onscreen character and the online persona. The two realities are equally visible, and hence indistinguishable.
Fast-forward to Monday night. Paul Heyman, epic heel manager, was set to introduce his new minion. For the first time in what seems like forever, the reveal was a surprise. It wasn’t Rob Van Dam, the old ECW star who had been rumored to return, or another top-tier villain like Heyman regulars Punk or Lesnar, but Joe Hennig, the heretofore milquetoast son of former WWF great “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig and grandson of Territory Era great Larry “The Axe” Hennig. Hennig had appeared in a forgettable stint as Michael McGillicutty,5 but when he came out (to a techno-remixed version of the Mr. Perfect theme song), he was announced not as Hennig nor McGillicutty, but as Curtis Axel. Renaming and repackaging wrestlers is nothing new. (Hennig’s fellow NXT alum Skip Sheffield was reborn as Ryback, and Husky Harris is about to re-debut as Bray Wyatt.) There’s a long tradition of wrestlers showing up as different characters, and, with a few exceptions, of fans accepting them as such for the simple perpetuation of the fabulist enterprise. What did feel new on Monday was the open explication of Hennig’s backstory and the straightforwardness with which Heyman described choosing his ring name. In years past we’d get oblique references from the announcers, but nothing so real. And sure, the Attitude Era had its share of shoot-interview metamorphoses — “Forget this stupid gimmick, my real name’s Dustin Rhodes,” etc. — but those were mostly reverting to a “real self.” With Curtis Axel, whose name is an amalgam of his dad’s and granddad’s, we got something different — an acknowledgment that the very premise of an onscreen character is to play with reality. It was a stark moment of honesty rooted in a tradition of lies.
Heyman had last been seen abetting Lesnar’s Extreme Rules win, so it was little wonder that Triple H came out to interrupt the party. He decided that he would face Axel in the Raw main event. Before the Triple H–Axel match, a trainer approached Triple H and told him he wasn’t cleared to wrestle after the sledgehammer shot he’d taken the night before. Triple H threatened his job and shrugged off the warning. The foreshadowing was on the wall.
Against Axel, Triple H started having odd moments of uneasiness, clutching his chest and breathing unevenly, and then shaking it off to continue the match. When the match spilled outside the ring, however, Triple H couldn’t continue. He stumbled, he wheezed, he poured water on himself. The camera lost track of Axel — he certainly wasn’t trying to attack — and the announcers went a step further than the Serious Announcer Voice. They went silent, struck dumb by Triple H’s condition. It’s an eerie thing, the kind of dead air that makes you grab your remote to see if your cable is acting up. And it’s a feeling wrestling fans are familiar with: It’s exactly what happened when Lawler collapsed on Raw. Just as in the Cena-Ryback match the night before, the match ended without a finish.6 Let there be no doubt: This was fake, or else it wouldn’t have been on the screen. But we were meant to be left with the impression that something was terribly wrong.
Which is kind of an understatement. It’s easy to argue that “anything goes” has always been the storytelling mantra of professional wrestling, and whatever WWE does to convince us of the gravity of a situation pales in comparison to the perceived brutality of the sport half a century ago, like when the Kangaroos were thought to basically be murderers. But feigning injury at the hands of an opponent is one thing; faking a real-life-style collapse is different. It’s not the first time this has happened, though.
In December 1987, at the annual Christmas Star Wars supershow at the Dallas Sportatorium, apparent tragedy struck. Fritz Von Erich, paterfamilias of the Texas wrestling world, collapsed at ringside after a lashing from the Freebirds.7 What followed is a rather heavily disputed bit of wrestling lore. The audience assumed the worst — that Fritz, in his old age, had suffered a heart attack — but the Von Erich clan’s stance is that he merely collapsed. The next day on the WCCW TV show, announcer Marc Lowrance was exorbitantly ominous, calling the event a “horrible, unspeakable happening,” referring to Fritz as being “critically hospitalized,” and telling viewers that the Von Erich sons say “this one’s still too close to call.” What’s indisputable is that this moment is often cited as the day many Texas wrestling fans lost their faith. They had stuck by Fritz through the deaths of his sons, through the catastrophe of fake cousin Lance Von Erich, and now they were finally just being taken advantage of.8 It was the end of innocence, fake violence reaching its discomfiting finale.
Eleven years later, on an episode of WCW’s Monday Nitro, during an animated dispute with showrunner Eric Bischoff, Ric Flair grabbed his left arm and collapsed in the corner of the ring. There was no subtlety here: Flair was supposedly having a heart attack. The next week, Bischoff sincerely apologized, only to end up beating up Flair’s sons and kissing his wife on national television. The angle was such a disaster that two weeks later they were pretending it never happened.9
And of course there are the many burials of Vince McMahon. On June 11, 2007, Raw ended with a Steadicam shot of Vince walking to his limousine, getting in the backseat, and closing the door — and then the car exploded. It was supposed to be a “Who Killed Vince?” story line, but it was preempted by real life when Chris Benoit murdered his wife and son and then committed suicide. Vince had to break the latter story and appear on Raw (nominally out of character) to lend the appropriate solemnity to the tragedy. They replayed the story line a year later, when the entire entrance ramp setup collapsed on Vince.
If McMahon’s demises didn’t offend in the way that the Von Erich and Flair incidents did, it was probably because of the action-movie bombast of those situations, and because it was easy enough to write them off as instances of Vince wanting to make himself the center of attention. Yes, they were tasteless, but they weren’t relevant enough to be wholly offensive. They weren’t as serious as heart attacks, you might say.
It was hard not to think of Vince’s morbid high jinks when Triple H collapsed on Monday. He’s the heir apparent, after all, and he has largely supplanted Vince as the onscreen power broker who wrestles to defend his company’s honor. Hunter has also become the public face of the company. When WWE announced its donation to the Sports Legacy Institute, Triple H told USA Today: “Obviously, I think it’s such a huge concern for everybody right now in sports and in the military. As we learn more and more about concussions and what can become of it, I think it’s a problem for everybody.” Which wasn’t exactly ominous, but it’s a little creepy in retrospect. Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer claimed on Tuesday that Triple H’s on-air collapse is the beginning of a story line involving fictitious concussion trauma. Triple H will try to compete again, according to Meltzer, but Stephanie and Vince McMahon (his wife and father-in-law, respectively) will try to convince him to retire. Where this leaves Ziggler, the guy with the actual concussion, is unclear. Where this leads the discussion of concussions in pro wrestling is even more opaque. On one hand, they’re treating concussions seriously onscreen, which is practically unheard-of. On the other, these injuries have become part of a pro wrestling story line. The issue is real but the treatment is fake.
It’s traditional in wrestling for a retiring star to lose to an up-and-comer on the way out, using his fame to boost another guy’s status. It’s a way of doing right by the business. Could Triple H — who’s already in a state of semiretirement — be working the concussion angle as a modified version of this tradition?10 Maybe he’s “lying down on the way out” for the benefit of a generation of wrestlers. Maybe WWE wants to repackage itself, Curtis Axel–style, as a real sport, with official reviews and studio shows. Or maybe this concussion is just another exploding limousine.
The two most obvious examples of reality intervening in a live wrestling broadcast are the accidental in-ring death of Owen Hart and the Montreal Screwjob, when Vince conspired to take the title from Bret Hart, who was leaving the company soon. After the match, Bret attacked Vince, who was the night’s ringside announcer, and the next night, Vince transformed himself onscreen from announcer to the owner of the company. The lesson of that night was that in an unreal world, when you’re confronted with some earth-shattering, undeniable reality, you don’t ignore it — you co-opt it. You absorb it. You make the real unreal. When Hart outs you publicly as the owner and breaks your announcer character like a folding table, you turn the owner into your character. This is what WWE did with Joe Hennig, and it looks like it’s what they’re planning to do with the concussion issue. It’s a nice gesture, but within the context of pro wrestling, it’s just as awkward as the non-finish in the Cena-Ryback match, and as the instant replay review in Del Rio–Swagger.
Sometimes, matches don’t end. In the old days, it would be because somebody ran in and interrupted the proceedings and the ref called for a DQ. These days, it’s just reality intervening.