At Hell in a Cell last weekend, Cody Rhodes doffed his signature ring jacket to reveal an empurpled chest unlike anything seen in the WWE in ages. The company—which has strict rules governing blood in the ring—had been handed a visual for the history books, something more arresting to the eye than even Mankind’s mangled body following his 1998 Hell in a Cell match against the Undertaker.
Then, with the right side of his body several shades darker in hue than even the most masochistic recipient of Gunther’s chops, Cody proceeded to work a 25-minute match. And, far from working around the injury, the superstar drew further attention to it, with his opponent Seth Rollins squeezing and pushing and even driving the tip of a kendo stick into the wounded area.
To viewers at home, it amounted to the stuff of legend, with a sequence as simple as Rollins pressing a stick into Cody’s wound imbued with as much gravitas as when Tully Blanchard and Magnum T.A. concluded their “I Quit” match at Starrcade with Magnum driving a piece of broken chair into Tully’s forehead.
As it happens, I actually know Cody’s pain because I had torn my left pectoral muscle three months earlier during my own weight room mishap. But unlike Cody, who will need surgery, I hadn’t torn the tendon and was recently given the all-clear to resume bench pressing. As painful as Cody’s performance looked, how difficult was it, really, to take the stage two days after experiencing a full pectoral tear and perform at a brisk, hard-hitting pace for half an hour?
For starters, there was what I knew of the injury. The pectoralis major is a large muscle in the chest that attaches to the outer aspect of the biceps tendon. The muscle’s main function is to help move your shoulder forward and across your chest, and to push your arms in front of the body. Most tears of the pectoralis muscle involve the tendinous attachment to the bone and require outpatient surgery—Cody will go under the knife this Thursday, per an official WWE statement—though some luckier individuals, myself included, dodge surgery by suffering only partial tears of the muscle itself.
The pain from the tear is most acute in the moments after it occurs. In my case, the tear occurred as I transitioned from the eccentric, or downward, phase of the bench press to the concentric, or upward, phase. Inches into the concentric phase, my left pectoral muscle bulged like a water balloon squeezed in the middle, and then the weight moved down again, whereupon I dumped the barbell on both sides. This was when the pain was the sharpest, a throbbing ache running down my entire left side as I hurriedly applied several ice packs to the injury.
By the time I got to my orthopedic surgeon approximately 48 hours later, the pain had subsided considerably, the throbbing ache replaced by nagging, dull pain, as if that side of my body had fallen asleep. For that first week, I couldn’t do a push-up, post off the floor with that hand, push someone backward, or hold a heavy weight horizontally in front of me—but I was back to deadlifting and squatting a few days later, following an MRI confirming the tear was only partial.
What does this assessment of pain mean in Cody’s case, considering his more serious tear? When I asked orthopedic surgeon David Abbasi about Cody’s decision to compete at Hell in a Cell, Abbasi replied that as long as the surgery was scheduled within a week or two of the injury, working with a completely torn pectoral muscle didn’t present much risk because the damage to the muscle was already complete.
“What would be affected with anything involving pushing his opponent away, or pushing up like a bench press motion,” Abbasi said. Mark Bell, a powerlifter who has torn his pectoral muscle on multiple occasions and made his fortune marketing a product intended to help people bench press while recovering from such tears, seconded that assessment: “You’re stopped from bench pressing and doing push-ups, but life goes on until you’re actually in a sling and recovering from the surgery.” Until then, these particular movements could be worked around, and anything else, like holding someone overhead, having the muscle itself squeezed, or falling on one’s shoulder, presented only a risk of discomfort—but Cody is no stranger to discomfort, having long ago established a willingness to leap off cages and fall through burning tables.
I remember being surprised by how much I could actually do in the days following the injury, including getting up unscathed from a fall into a deep drainage ditch lined with rocks. Cody took those limitations and abilities and incorporated them into his in-ring presentation. Since everything done in the immediate wake of the injury does hurt to varying degrees of excruciating, his grimaces and groans were certainly as real as any seen that night.
Fans with fond memories of John Cena’s extended prime may recall when the erstwhile “Doctor of Thuganomics” tore his pec during a match against Mr. Kennedy on an October 2007 episode of Raw. Early in the match, while tossing Kennedy off a sequence that involved the two running the ropes, Cena suffered the tear. The muscle bulged, Cena communicated his pain to both the referee and Kennedy, then backed away clutching his chest—the textbook reaction of anyone who has experienced a pec tear.
From there, Cena and Kennedy worked a safe three minutes that ended with Cena trapping his foe in the STFU submission. Randy Orton then rushed the ring, hit an RKO on Cena out of nowhere, and pushed his victim out of the ring. On the outside, Orton smashed Cena with the ring steps, then hit another RKO on the announcing table.
Although Cena didn’t work nearly as long in the ring with his injury as Cody did, he performed under arguably more trying circumstances—albeit without the bruise on his chest that would form later—and the WWE was able to put Orton’s attack to good use, noting in a subsequent announcement that Cena would be out for at least a year after surgery.
The superhuman Cena, quite possibly as dedicated to training as any athlete in the history of the sport, made it back in four months—a fan-popping surprise that suggests an extremely motivated good guy like Cody might be able to turn to his advantage as well. Given that rehabilitating a pectoral muscle after surgery presents far less risk of unwelcome setbacks than, say, the neck injury sustained by Big E, Cody might return to the ring ahead of whatever schedule the WWE announces.
At the first Crown Jewel in 2018, Triple H—who was then 48, a decade older than Cody is now and 18 years older than Cena was in 2007—tore his right pectoral muscle in a tag team match that saw him and longtime ally Shawn Michaels paired against Kane and the Undertaker. Triple H, who had loads of mileage on his body and had already managed to finish a 2001 Raw tag team match against Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit after tearing his quadriceps, tore the pec when he tangled his arm in the top rope while attempting to fall out of the ring after Kane had thrown him into the corner.
Triple H, unlike Cena, immediately fell to the ground clutching his pectoral muscle, but he too reentered the bout and forced himself through the conclusion of the 28-minute match, which ended with him hitting his Pedigree finisher on Kane for the pinfall victory. Although that match would eventually win the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Worst Match of the Year award, HHH saw merit in completing the match on his terms: “I eliminate the things I can’t do and go back in there and do the rest. I never think, ‘Oh, maybe I should just tell the referee I can’t do it,’ and stop. That just never enters my head.”
Triple H was already a made man in the industry long before he suffered a pectoral tear that, even at the fullest extent of its bruising, covered barely half the surface area that Cody’s occupied. (My own tear, in turn, was perhaps half the size of Triple H’s.) Nor did he or Cena get to wear their war wounds in the ring quite the same way that Cody did. Indeed, someone looking for an analog in the world of sports might have to go outside wrestling and as far back as the 1970 NBA Finals, when New York Knicks center Willis Reed—having torn his quadriceps muscle and been forced to sit out Game 6 of the closely contested series—suited up for Game 7 and scored the Knicks’ first four points on his first two shot attempts, helping the franchise secure its first championship in the process.
Abbasi says that the degree of difficulty was higher in Willis Reed’s situation. “That was a quadriceps injury, so it affected a load-bearing area,” he said, noting it also played out in the context of a fast-paced, competitive basketball game.
However, anyone searching for an athletic moment as visceral in its aesthetics as Cody’s performance might find themselves disappointed. Plenty of wrestlers have bled for their fame, and some, like the double-tough Paul Orndorff, could even wrestle through months of nerve damage to complete a red-hot feud with Hulk Hogan. Not until Cody—already on a babyface run for the ages—has anyone thought to wear their internal bruising to the ring quite like that, transforming a fluke weight room injury into a variegated slice of grappling immortality.
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.