After reading the report about Lita’s thoughts regarding her “Live Sex Celebration” in 2006, it got me thinking about some of the things wrestlers have gone through. This is the first of at least two articles discussing this subject.
The business thrives on attractions, and there is no bigger way to make money than to promote its hottest commodities for as long as possible. But when does this practice turn in to something more sinister? Should a wrestler’s career have a shelf life? When does it become the responsibility of the promoter to put an end to it? Or is it up to the talent to decide? Let’s look at the biggest two examples we can find in André The Giant and The Undertaker.
André The Giant
“Pain” is the word synonymous with André The Giant’s legacy. Despite being one of the largest attractions in wrestling history, performances in his latter years are never easy to watch. The agonizing discomfort is etched all over his face as he struggles to execute the basics. How did this become standard practice?
Vince McMahon Jr acquired the World Wrestling Federation from his Father in 1982, and his ambition was to expand the business at the expense of the territories. He achieved this in only a few years, and much of its success would not have been possible without André. The WWF had already made strides in the 70s, thanks to Bruno Sammartino leading the way in its New York territory. But after relinquishing the title to Superstar Billy Graham, André stepped up as its main draw. Even when Bob Backlund won the title, the one thing keeping the promotion afloat against the NWA’s mighty main event scene (Ric Flair, Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes, etc.) was “The Eighth Wonder of the World”.
It was his star power which would later cement Hulk Hogan as the most popular figure in wrestling to date, when he went over at WrestleMania III. However, by this time he was already wearing a back brace to support his increasing weight brought on by his gigantism. His trademark singlet was used to cover this up. Doctors diagnosed him with a predicted life span of forty years, and with this knowledge he didn’t mind eating or drinking to excess. For anyone remotely close to him, they knew he wasn’t long for this world.
Vince McMahon stated in the HBO documentary that had André retired he would no longer be of any value to himself. But honestly… this thought process is a matter of convenience. If André suddenly lost his drawing power overnight, would Vince still have booked him at WrestleMania III? I seriously doubt it. Vince needed André for profit, and he worked out of loyalty to Vince’s Father who had given him the opportunity. Wrestling was life to André, but apparently there was nothing left for him, and Vince felt like he’d be robbing his friend of enjoying the last years of his life if he didn’t allow him to work.
When we really think about this… let’s say, for example, André was your family or best friend. You sit there watching his matches on TV, seeing him work through so much pain. If you had the opportunity to get him out of these situations, would you do it? Would you encourage André to work for another four years? If they wouldn’t let it happen, would you not question those in charge? Would you ask why André is continuing to work when he’s clearly in chronic pain? Of course, it’s André’s decision at the end of the day, but when does it become too much?
Vince couldn’t say no, and Andre couldn’t say no. He’s one of the toughest men to ever grace a wrestling ring… but it wasn’t right. No one should ever have to endlessly suffer for a wrestling match. And from this unquestionable sense of duty, it’s André’s fathomless loyalty which has been etched in to the mindset of the WWE. For years, we have heard wrestlers state things like “if you get hurt, be professional and finish the match!“. They get praised by their peers and fans for being “tough” and “brave”, when it’s actually dangerous and foolish. Not only putting themselves at risk, but their opponents as well.
You wouldn’t see this happen in any other form of sport or entertainment. If a Football player gets injured, the match stops and they stretcher the guy out of there. You wouldn’t encourage them to continue… because it would only excavate the injury. But somehow, that’s what the mindset is in wrestling. You get injured and keep going anyways! Think about the brownie points and the respect!. To anyone who isn’t a fan of wrestling… they would see it as stupid and rightly so. A wrestling match should never take precedence over someone’s health. As much as Vince needed to sell tickets and respected André’s wishes to compete, as a friend… he should’ve ended it after WrestleMania III at the latest.
However, when Vince finally did call it a day four years later, Andre fell out with him and went to Japan to work a few tag matches. So perhaps he actually saved Andre by keeping him working for others who couldn’t possibly understand his needs? It’s a tough subject I know, but it’s one that we never think about when his legacy is talked about.
I’m a huge Undertaker fan for over twenty years. I love me some Mark Calaway. If I ever got the chance to meet him in person, it would easily be one of the greatest moments of my life. Everything about The Undertaker was magical. He will go down as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, along with being a very cool guy. But while watching the “Last Ride” documentary, they revealed things to me that I had always wondered about. His mindset was admirable, but also disturbing.
These conflicting feelings continued, right up til the last minute of the last episode as the drone camera flew away from the family. What is alarming about his story? Well, everything. You can see and hear it in both Mark’s and Michelle’s expressions. I was so welcoming to them pulling back the curtain and giving us some insight, but it also showed us an upsetting side to his journey. After suffering through so many surgeries, recovering, getting injured and having more surgeries, it fell on The Undertaker’s lap to decide when to call it a day.
It’s history repeating itself. What if The Undertaker had a horrific accident in one of his matches because of the mounting injuries? Who would be to blame for that? Luckily nothing happened, but it’s right to ask these questions. Somewhere along the way, The Undertaker’s loyalty began to outweigh looking after his long-term health. He can be quoted as saying that when there comes a time when he is no longer at his peak he would step aside for the next generation. When you have a streak at WrestleMania… sure, you want to keep coming back to defend the streak for the fans. But what about after that? What’s the point anymore?
I always felt like part of the reason Vince made the call to have Taker lose at WrestleMania was to encourage him to call it a day. Apparently the reason was to put Lesnar over, but we know he didn’t really need the rub. It was Vince’s way of subtly telling him he should consider retirement because he would not force it upon him. Undertaker didn’t retire and kept coming back, but it wasn’t necessarily him asking to return. It was Vince asking because Mark said that he “needed” him. Several times, Mark says that he would do anything for Vince if he asked. Even after announcing his retirement, Mark still says that if Vince calls him up then you can never say never to the possibility of him showing up and working again.
Am I the only one disturbed by this? It’s ridiculous. Vince knew more than anybody how difficult it was for him to move. Mark needed injections just to get the muscles in his body to come alive. When you’re having to go to that extreme to put on a wrestling match, don’t you think Vince should be second guessing picking up the phone? The problem is André had already planted this mindset of if they are willing and can be cleared… it is perfectly fine. So long as they can do it safely, and their opponent knows what they can’t do, then everyone wins, right? Well no, not exactly.
What I see here, and not just on legends but on wrestlers in general, is unnecessary pressure placed on those with blind loyalty. You wouldn’t send a soldier in to battle with one leg, so why send a wrestler in the ring when they can barely bump? It’s like when TNA booked Hulk Hogan to have a match with Sting, when his doctors explicitly told him not to take any bumps or his back could give out. Yes, WWE is not the only company to have done this. It’s an industry issue, where old wrestlers with serious injuries are working because of their loyalty and motivation to have one last great match.
They want to give back to the business, and the promoter knows there’s serious money to be had. These two facts cancel out the potential danger to a person’s long-term health, and sometimes run the risk of losing a life. All it takes is one bad incident… look at what happened with Sting and Seth Rollins. Simple bumps that a wrestler took many times before can easily go wrong. Even healthy wrestlers can get it wrong and pass away, it has happened a few times in the last decade. Is it right that they risk themselves to this extent? When they have already sacrificed so much of their time for us?
And what about Sting? I know I recently made a piece listing some of the possible matches he could have. Even I was guilty of getting sucked in to the possibilities presented by Sting’s unexpected arrival in AEW. But is it right for him to get in the ring at this point? If there’s any, and I mean any doubt of his physical ability, then it has to be a resounding no. He can still do basic things like hit guys with a baseball bat, but actually getting in the ring? It’s fine with me if that doesn’t happen. If it does happen, then he only needs another three matches tops and they would probably be tags or cinematics. There’s no reason to work anymore than that.
I’m not placing any of the blame on the wrestling fan. We do not get a say in who is allowed to perform. Many of us, if given the choice, would’ve preferred André and The Undertaker retiring years before they did. And we only want that for them because life is precious. There is more to life than wrestling. You can find other things to enjoy, because wrestling shouldn’t be all that matters. No one’s health, and no one’s life, should outweigh that of an entertainment show. None of us wants to see great things end, but we also don’t want them to end in tragedy.
However, the sad part is that so long as there is no third party looking out for the long-term wellbeing of wrestlers like André , The Undertaker and Sting, this will continue happening. Will the line ever be established? Or are we accepting of the fact that wrestlers should have the choice? After all, it’s their lives, their bodies, therefore their decision. I do think there should be some restrictions, for example, if the wrestler cannot perform certain moves consistently then they wouldn’t be eligible. Yet, wrestling has no rules, and that is why all we can do is hope and pray that someone like Goldberg doesn’t drop a guy on his head with the Jackhammer. Yes, he was concussed, but you see what I mean? All it takes is one moment. One crazy moment deciding someone’s fate. Is it really worth it?
I might be sounding slightly over dramatic here, but it is only because we have been lucky. Life is fragile, and in this mad world of professional wrestling it is even more so. Hundreds of wrestlers died last year, and some of those were young people in their twenties and thirties succumbing to injuries sustained in the ring. Please let me know what you think about older wrestlers like André and The Undertaker working when they probably shouldn’t. This is a tough subject with some conflicts of interest for all involved, but I hope it is one we can look at objectively. Thank you for reading.