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Wrestling Is Fake, But the Injuries Are Real

At ‘SummerSlam,’ we saw a new generation of wrestlers that has pushed WWE into an era that’s always on the verge of physical violence. But how long will the newcomers last?

WWE/Ringer illustration
WWE/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday night’s Smackdown aftershow, Talking Smack, Daniel Bryan, the former WWE champion and current Smackdown GM, got into an argument with the Miz, the current intercontinental champion. Bryan, who’s mostly an upbeat fan proxy, has a record for truth-telling on the aftershow, and on Tuesday he held to form: "There’s no gentle way to say it — to me, you wrestle like a coward. You wrestle like some who’s afraid to get hit."

Now, that might sound like a pretty normal thing for a babyface to say to a heel, especially one who has dodged his share of physicality in his career. But this was something else. Bryan went on to say that Miz represents the soft, clichéd archetype of a WWE wrestler from the era before Bryan and his ilk from the global and indie scene infiltrated the main event. And the thing is: Bryan is right. As Brandon Stroud pointed out almost four years ago, the Miz wrestles like a person pretending to be a wrestler. He’s come a long way since then, sure, and there’s an undeniable boo-able magnetism in his retro stylings. But there’s no denying that he’s a cartoonish dinosaur in the modern WWE, where PPV main events more closely resemble 2005 New Japan or Ring of Honor than the sad, baby-oiled porridge that WWE was often churning out during the previous decade.

The Miz was visibly shaken by the comment, and his response was sputtering at first — and clearly unscripted. (Over the past month, WWE has demarcated certain formats — like Talking Smack — for old-school, unscripted content. It’s planned out in broad strokes; the wrestlers are just ad-libbing their lines.) But he turned it around on Bryan deftly. "The reason that I wrestle the way I wrestle is because I can do it day in and day out all the time for 10-plus years. I have never … ever have been injured. I don’t get injured for six months to a year. I am here each and every week." As he spoke, he regained his villainous composure, but the words were real: Bryan wrestled a rough, realistic, demanding style, and injuries plagued him until he was forced into retirement in February after 16 years in the business. The Miz yelled at Bryan as host Renee Young and the Miz’s wife, Maryse, looked on awkwardly until Bryan walked off the set.

The argument between Bryan and the Miz is at the very core of pro wrestling. For the fan, it’s distilled down to this: would you rather have your favorite wrestler be boring and be around forever, or be thrilling and burn out quickly?

After an interminable and frequently thrilling SummerSlam weekend, it’s a more pertinent question than ever. In the first half of the show, Sasha Banks and Enzo Amore — two of the highest-upside young stars in the company — took gnarly spills that looked accidental and scary. Neither was hurt (though Banks is apparently taking time off to nurse lingering injuries) but both have had shocking, if non-career-threatening, accidents in recent matches. Sasha was backflipped onto her head last year and then she scorpioned herself on the hard floor after jumping from the ring during the match in which she won the women’s title from Charlotte late last month. On Sunday, she narrowly escaped falling from above the top rope onto her head. (For a second-rope crucifix into a hurricanrana during the endgame of a match, almost falling on one’s head has to be considered part of the point, but it’s still hard to watch.) Enzo TKOed himself in May after throwing himself into the ring ropes, and he was tossed out of the ring and onto the floor by his partner on Sunday, almost missing the two guys who were there to break his fall. This looked a hell of a lot worse from where I was sitting than it did on TV, but the danger isn’t dictated by catastrophe but by the potential for it. Sasha and Enzo are two of my five or six favorite wrestlers, and I watched parts of their SummerSlam matches through my fingers.

Later in the show, two of my other favorites, Seth Rollins and Finn Bálor, battled over the new universal title. Bálor, a wrestling veteran like Bryan, was signed by WWE in 2014, called up from WWE’s developmental system last month, and immediately shotgunned to the top of the company. Early in the match, Rollins powerbombed Bálor onto the ringside barrier, and Bálor dislocated his shoulder. Well, to quote WWE’s ringside doctor, he "hit the wall during the match, dislocated his shoulder and was able to put it back in himself in a split second." He finished the match, and won.

Afterward, it was determined that Bálor needed surgery and would be out for four to six months, so he was stripped of the title because WWE isn’t willing to wait that long (and because that would be a fairly uneventful inauguration for the new title). On Monday night, a tournament began to crown a new champ. The legend Bret Hart, who was critical of Rollins when he accidentally broke John Cena’s nose in a match on Raw a year ago, said of Rollins, "I take no great pleasure in saying ‘I told you so,’ but if you’re a professional wrestler and you keep hurting opponents and/or yourself, clearly you’re doing it wrong."

Randy Orton (WWE/Ringer GIF)
Randy Orton (WWE/Ringer GIF)

The main event of SummerSlam featured Brock Lesnar, the UFC crossover megastar, against Randy Orton, the WWE mainstay. The match featured about 10 minutes of high-octane brawling, until Lesnar (literally) removed his gloves and started pounding on Orton, MMA-style, with fists and then elbows, tearing a gash in Orton’s scalp that would take 10 staples to close. The match ended with reality-bending uncertainty, Orton writhing, Lesnar pacing, and officials stepping in to call off the fight. This would be bizarre were it not becoming the standard-issue uncomfortable aftermath to big Lesnar fights. There were echoes of his brawl with John Cena that left Cena a bloody mess, as well as Lesnar’s career-defining match against the Undertaker at WrestleMania 30 that ended abruptly after Taker took an ungodly pounding. Just like with Sunday’s match, whether or not it was the intended finish, Undertaker was left with legitimate damage, and he went directly to the hospital after the match. On Sunday, the only thing that shook the fans back into sports-entertainment normalcy was WWE scion Shane McMahon coming to the ring and getting F-5ed by Brock.

After the match, Lesnar reportedly got into a scuffle with Chris Jericho, who had come to check on Orton. They were broken up by Vince McMahon, who reassured Jericho that everything had gone according to script. According to the Wrestling Observer newsletter, the plan was to make it look like Lesnar had gone "off-script," leading to a stoppage. Lesnar was supposed to give Orton a small cut with his elbow, but whether or not the gash came from Lesnar actually going off-script is an open question

This blurred line between real violence and Hollywood stuntwork is exactly what’s so compelling about wrestling. It’s why real fights that break out in the ring are celebrated, and why the wildest acts of masochism become legend. The tension is built into wrestling’s DNA — the uncanny valley of impossibly realistic fake brawling is what’s kept people mesmerized for decades. It’s not the proverbial car wreck you can’t look away from; it’s a car wrecking itself for your attention.

When Lesnar returned to WWE in 2012, he brought with him an air of legitimacy that opened up WWE’s reach to lapsed fans, MMA fans, and the broader pop-cultural hug of ESPN and Fox Sports. It was a necessary corrective to WWE’s years of insistent silliness. At the same time, a new generation of wrestlers — inspired by ECW and Japanese strong style wrestling, and brought along in a loose touring troupe of experimental and rule-bending indie federations — came of age, and came to the attention of WWE’s expanding development system. When WWE signed Bryan and Rollins and Kevin Owens, fans feared that WWE would force them to wrestle in the conservative, performative "WWE style." Instead, the new generation brought the indie ethos to WWE. (Rollins busted out "God’s Last Gift," his finisher from his indie days, in Sunday’s match. It was long rumored that the move was deemed too dangerous by WWE brass, but it turned up Sunday with minimal fanfare, and no injury.)

The combination of Lesnar and the indie standouts has coalesced into a magical era in WWE. The ideological expansion of WWE’s developmental system, along with the assimilation into the new world by legacy wrestlers like Orton and John Cena, codified the shift in style. But the shift truly began on February 23, 2010, on the first episode of WWE NXT — not the developmental territory, but the pseudo-reality-style "Who Wants to Be a WWE Star" competition.

The contestant that changed everything was Daniel Bryan, who was making his first appearance on WWE television. In his first match, against Jericho, Bryan leapt out of the ring at a sprint for a suicide dive onto Jericho, and accidentally flew spine-first into the announce table. It was a frightening and exhilarating scene. But there were enough hopeful moments throughout the match that in retrospect, we were seeing a glimmer of what would become the modern WWE.

On NXT, each new wrestler was paired with a WWE veteran to mentor them. Bryan’s mentor was none other than the Miz — even though the Miz was only seven years into his career and Bryan was an industry veteran. Miz and Bryan’s mentorship was tense from the start, and after Bryan lost that match to Jericho, Miz came out and attacked him.

The pieces of the rivalry were built in: Miz was there to teach Bryan, but Bryan already knew 10 times as much, and Miz’s insecurity got the best of him. It was the reverse of what we saw on Tuesday night, when Bryan tried to lecture Miz about how to be a better wrestler. In 2010, Bryan didn’t have anything to learn from the Miz. But in 2016, on Talking Smack, the Miz had a lot of good advice.

Three years ago, I went to see my childhood idol, Jerry "The King" Lawler, wrestle at the age of 63 after a ringside heart attack. It felt like a valedictory run for him, and I needed to see him one last time. But he kept going for a few years after that. Except for piledriving Andy Kaufman, Lawler always worked a super-conservative style of mostly punches and broad acting. It was slightly harrowing to watch him at such an advanced age, but there was little risk in the match. Lawler single-handedly kept small-time wrestling alive in Memphis in his dotage, even though he was employed full-time as a WWE announcer at the time. This is the gift that pro wrestlers who work safely, like the Miz, can give their fans: the never-ending victory lap, the perpetual moment of glory.

There are no easy answers about which style is the "right" one; fans desperately want the modern style of wrestling to continue, and they should. It’s a much superior product. SummerSlam this year was long, but it was filled, match by match, with stunning physical performances. But the wrestlers need to balance that against their own safety. When Miz called Bryan out for cutting his career short, Bryan claimed he would wrestle if the doctors would let him, and of course he would. That’s what makes him so great. That’s what makes this generation of wrestlers so great. And that’s what’s so terrifying.