For four or five years growing up, I was a huge fan of professional wrestling. I would watch NWA wrestling every Saturday. I loved Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. My brother and I acted out the fights, imitating the body slams and figure-4s. I knew it was fake, but it was still fun. I hadn’t really watched it until recently, but now I occasionally watch it while I’m working at night.
Professional wrestling today compared to the past
As I look at wrestling today, I barely recognize it. Sure, there are still soap opera storylines and ridiculous characters. Today’s wrestling, though, features athletes performing stunts that, as an orthopedic surgeon, literally make me hold my breath.
The electrifying and scary moves in professional wrestling
On a recent episode of Raw, WWE Women’s Champion Charlotte performed a backwards somersault (a “moonsault”) off the top rope, not onto her opponent on the mat, but on the floor below the ring. She easily flipped upside down 10 feet in the air before she landed on Sasha Banks. Banks barely caught her.
Moves like that one typify modern wrestling. Multi-flip top rope leaps and dives through the ropes have become the norm. These moves usually don’t cause injuries because other wrestlers break the falls. Except when they don’t.
Injuries of the biggest WWE stars
WWE is currently facing a run of injuries that would trouble any sports organization. Its biggest star, John Cena, underwent shoulder surgery. Former champ Seth Rollins missed six months after he blew out his knee. Former women’s champion Nikki Bella missed close to a year after undergoing neck surgery. And perhaps the most popular wrestler in recent years, Daniel Brian, retired due to recurrent concussions.
Injuries during WWE SummerSlam
Last week, WWE hosted SummerSlam, its second biggest event after WrestleMania. Injuries turned out to be the story of the night.
Finn Bálor won the inaugural WWE Universal Title after dislocating his shoulder landing on an audience barricade. Bálor popped his shoulder back into place and finished the match. Doctors found a labral tear, and he underwent shoulder surgery. He will now miss at least six months.
Sasha Banks will miss time recovering from a back injury. It’s fortunate her injury isn’t worse. In her title match against Charlotte, she was hanging from the top rope. Something went wrong with the move, because Banks landed directly on her head and neck. Watching live, I immediately thought she could have broken her neck.
And in the headline match, UFC/WWE star Brock Lesnar split open the head of Randy Orton. No one knows if Lesnar went off script in his beatdown of Orton. Maybe the elbows to the head were planned, but I doubt that a show with a PG rating was supposed to feature an enormous pool of blood on the mat. Orton required 10 staples in his head to close the wound.
Many have suggested WWE is trying to emulate the nature of real sports, with drafts and tournaments. Maybe they aim to capture some of the appeal of mixed martial arts, given the success of WWE’s top star, Brock Lesnar, in UFC.
Wrestling and extreme sports pushing the envelope
From a medical perspective, it seems WWE is following the path of the extreme action sports instead. Freestyle snowboarding and skiing, snowmobiling, skateboarding and other X Games sports have skyrocketed in popularity because the athletes keep pushing the envelope. They perform higher and faster stunts with more flips than ever. The competitors know these stunts can cause very serious injuries.
In the same way, many of today’s top wrestlers push the envelope and risk their health to please the crowds.
In a recent storyline, Shane McMahon, the son of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, tried to take control of the company. He pointed to the risk of injuries as an argument that wrestling was in trouble. He wanted to save wrestling for future generations.
I would argue that these injuries are an expected byproduct of the wrestlers performing acrobatic, yet very dangerous stunts. These athletes and their stunts are actually what is saving wrestling.
The wrestlers know the risks
In most of my columns, I argue that sports organizations should adopt policies or rules changes to protect the athletes. I won’t do that for wrestling. The athletes are adults, and they know the risks involved. Assuming that WWE covers the cost of their treatments and allows them to see the top doctors and surgeons, I have no problem with it.
Having said that, I expect that a serious injury will occur. Maybe one of the wrestlers will die or be paralyzed. I hope not, but it’s hard to imagine one of these stunts eventually not going tragically wrong. I think the wrestlers and their fans understand and even accept that risk.
Are you surprised more injuries don’t occur in WWE? Or are you surprised to hear that injuries do occur because wrestling is fake? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the August 30, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.