There are any number of epic falls in WWE history: Jimmy Snuka jumping off the top of the cage, Jeff Hardy’s leap off the TitanTron scaffold, Mick Foley’s infamous tumble from the top of the Hell in a Cell onto the announce table. Now to these we add Shane McMahon’s elbow drop off the top of the Cell at Sunday’s WrestleMania.
Shane missed his presumed target (his opponent, the Undertaker, dodged out of the way) and even though he hit the real target, the breakaway announce table, squarely, it was a heart-stopping sight nonetheless. Shane, the 46-year-old scion of WWE architect Vince McMahon, returned to the company in its hour of greatest need, with the roster depleted by injury and a 100,000-seat arena to sell out, and somehow managed to shock every jaded wrestling fan in the world.
This is the rhythm of the pro wrestling world: It’s all roughneck morality play until they need to sell tickets, and then all bets — and all pretense about being mere "entertainment" — are off. There’s a reason why "red means green" is an old-school industry truism: Pulled punches are all good and well, but people will line up for the promise of real brutality.
This wasn’t Shane’s first gaudy pratfall. He fell 40 feet off a scaffold and through the stage (presumably onto some sort of cushion, but still) after getting hit in the head with a kendo stick by Steve Blackman at SummerSlam 2000, and there’s no shortage of other absurd stunt work on his résumé. But that was long ago, before his six-year odyssey in the corporate world away from WWE. Now he’s back, fighting not for the spread of video on demand in China, but for creative control of WWE Raw. It’s a specious goal — or a scripted one, anyway. But the stakes are somehow greater in the unreal world of pro wrestling. In his previous life, the downside was corporate bankruptcy and embarrassment. In his current one, the downside is more immediate.
When Shane fell off the scaffold in 2000, it was a crazy moment in an era of crazy moments. And it bears mentioning that Shane fell "accidentally" then. On Sunday he dove off deliberately — in the script — knowing that he needed to do it to best the Undertaker. In reality, he chose to do it both times, but the matter of perceived volition is real. The first fall, amazing as it was, has been relegated to grainy YouTube highlight reels. It was a stunt with minimal buildup or meaning. Sunday’s fall — leap, to be more precise — was a defiant gesture. It was a decision, and despite the scriptedness of the sport, that matters. It’s why Foley’s fall off the Cell has to be coupled with his subsequent insubordinate return to the ring. Foley was hip-tossed off the cage. Shane crossed himself with a Hail Mary before he leaped, a move that underscored the optionality — and humanity — of the whole thing.
Which is why in five or 10 years we won’t be discussing Roman Reigns winning the championship, or the debut of the new Women’s Championship belt, or the Rock and John Cena teaming up to squash the Wyatt Family. We’ll be talking about a fourth-generation carnie coming back to risk his well-being for the good of the family empire — the son offering his life because he so loves pro wrestling. It’s hard not to conjure messianic images here, so I’ll stop, except to say what everybody who was watching that match said at the same time, and what everybody who sees it over the next 25 years will say: Shane McMahon, Jesus Christ.
This piece originally appeared in the April 6, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.