Never, ever, shoot to work.
That’s the art of wrestling after all. Anyone can actually bash someone in the face. It takes another level of talent and performance to draw an audience into a match it knows is staged, without actually fighting.
Of course wrestlers take real shots and real chops and real blows. But it is with the intention of serving the art, not actually hurting someone. Nia Jax has yet to figure this out. It’s why she’s legitimately injured several WWE women.
The WWE played with this expectation to awesome effect when it let Brock Lesnar legit bash Randy Orton until he bled the hardway at SummerSlam 2016, with Orton’s pre-match approval—the key difference between Lesnar bloodying Orton and Jax hurting Bayley’s shoulder or Seth Rollins having two stupid, injuring-inducing moves—the buckle bomb (ask Sting or Finn Balor, speaking of SummerSlam 2016, about that one) and the curb stomp. Then there’s the stuff that just happens: Edge breaking his neck on a routine spear, Owen breaking Austin’s neck on a pile driver.
But I’m not just looking at freak injuries or unsafe wrestlers. That’s going to happen in this industry. This week on TWM I’m looking at five times storyline angles and booking decisions put wrestlers in the line of fire. I left Owen Hart off the list. It was a tragic night at Over the Edge 1999, and certainly worthy of the memorialism it has been given. But a stunt cable and buckle mishap somehow feels different than a booking angle dreamed up or disputed that legitimately put combustible elements together.
5. JBL Beats Up the Blue Meanie
I think the problem might have been alcohol here. I think you all probably know the incident as it occurred at One Night Stand in 2005.
First, what an awesome, awesome pay-per-view. Even though it was an ECW reunion show, it was of course funded and booked by the WWE who by that time had bought the ECW catalogue and rights from Paul Heyman, it was a kickass affair. All said and done, it’s my favourite pay-per-view since 1999.
While I’m not here to do a blow-by-blow review of the show to prove that point, I will say part of the greatness of the show was the heat played up between ECW talent and WWE invading wrestlers who, along with Eric Bischoff, showed up to taunt Heyman and the ECW faithful, rejecting the “lesser” promotion kayfabe.
Of all the WWE wrestlers, who all seemed to be pounding beers in the balcony at the Hammerstein Ballroom, JBL clearly was the most visual and vocal in his taunts. Given all the locker room stories we’ve heard about the bully that JBL is generally, it seems he was simply given a platform to be himself. And, if you watch the special feature on the DVD where JBL is mic-ed, you hear quite a slur develop in his voice.
Naturally, the heckling WWE wrestlers came out of the crowd toward the end of the pay-per-view and confront the united ECW alumni in the ring. It ended in a big schmoz with both sides awesomely colliding in the ring.
As usual, JBL took his bullying too far. Clearly off-put by non-traditional wrestlers, especially ones that don’t have muscular bodies, JBL decided to shoot punch the Blue Meanie, over and over, and bloodied the Meanie up good.
JBL’s bullying was allowed to overflow because of the staged brawl. And, of course, because he’s a jerk.
Meanie would get some measure of revenge. As he threatened a lawsuit, the WWE magically decided to book him into a Smackdown angle with JBL, and Meanie was booked to get the win in a No-DQ match.
He probably should have gone for the lawsuit instead.
4. Bobby “the Brain” Curses Out Pillman
Brian Pillman was unquestionably one of the greatest kayfabe psychos in pro wrestling history. His loose canon character was a fantastic heel, one that even Arn and the Horsemen at times couldn’t control. It made for some awesome booking as the Horsemen were never sure if they could trust Pillman or not.
By the time he and Kevin Sullivan had a strap match in February of 1996 and Pillman yelled “bookerman” at him and left the ring to be kayfabe/really fired by Bischoff (it was storyline but Bischoff actually formally fired Pillman to work the rag sheet writers), it felt like a completely real moment from a real psycho (Pillman used his legitimate release at this point to jump ship to WWE after a planned stint in ECW, where he continued to play “the loose canon” fantastically).
As Pillman refined his performance in WCW as the unpredictable psycho, he did several spontaneous and unplanned things around working matches to get over his craziness (and it worked beautifully along with his screaming raspy voice to get that across).
Thing is, he went a little too far on pro wrestling’s greatest color man of all time. At the Clash of the Champions in January 1996 in Las Vegas, Pillman started going nuts outside the ring on the fans during his match, berating fans and screaming. He then, in what was probably a good idea for the character, decided to take off Bobby Heenan’s jacket at the announce table.
Heenan, to the surprise of fans, legitimately freaked out on the mic, and said “What the fuck?!?” Then he stormed off. It was stunning and uncertain for the audience watching and broadcast partner Tony Schiavone. The fans and Tony and Pillman didn’t realize that Heenan had a fragile neck. Heenan had specifically stipulated in his WCW contract that he not manage or be involved in wrestling action as he’d had neck surgery as a new injury could prove permanently damaging.
Heenan composed himself and apologized after returning to the broadcast table. He’d thought a fan had come to attack him as he watched the action on the monitor on the table in front of him, and his fragile neck and health were certainly more important than keeping his cool on air.
This also would play into the nWo invasion angle a year later. Fans, now knowing the fragile state of Heenan’s neck, were sympathetic to the storyline walk out on Nitro when the Brain said he could not continue with the show after the first brutal nWo attack after Bash at the Beach 1996. Because Pillman had legit rattled Heenan, it fed logically his bailing at the potential danger posed to him on Nitro by the nWo.
3. Vince Russo’s Brawl for All
Vince Russo… yeah. There’s a lot to pull apart there. But let’s just focus our attention for now on the 1998 Brawl for All, a WWF conceived tough-man tournament set to play out on Raw over the summer. It was promoted and executed as shoot fights between wrestlers wearing boxing gloves, clobbering the crap out of each other until one was left standing. Ironically, given his hate for ECW and non-traditional wrestler bodies, JBL had a notion for a WWF hardcore division and co-brainstormed this one with Russo.
While the desire was to create deeper reality, and it did with real fights and real injuries, Russo also had a storyline booked based on Dr. Death Steve Williams emerging as the winner, then going on to challenge Stone Cold Steve Austin for the title.
Of course, you can’t book shoot fights.
Steve Williams lost in the second round to eventual winner Bart Gunn, sustaining a hamstring injury and getting knocked out, requiring months to recover. Bart Gunn knocked out, surprise surprise, JBL, in the final to win the tournament. His prize? He got to fight actual pro-boxer Butterbean at Wrestlemania in 1999. Butterbean knocked him out in 35 seconds, and Gunn was fired by the WWF soon after.
Steve Williams wasn’t the only wrestler thrown in harm’s way in this legit tough-man fight angle. The Godfather, Steve Blackman, and Road Warrior Hawk all had to take time to recover from legit injuries sustained in Brawl for All bouts. Brakkus received an injury that lingered and led to his eventual 1999 retirement. Savio Vega suffered an arm injury that forced him out of the WWF all together.
Jesus, the carnage, Vince. The carnage.
2. The Mass Transit Incident
This was the real ECW in 1996. Underage Erich Kulas who was 17 at the time lied to promoter Paul Heyman, giving his age as 26 and falsifying his resume saying he’d trained with Killer Kowalski. When Axl Rotten couldn’t make a scheduled tag match with Devon Dudley against the Gangstas (New Jack and Mustafa Said) due to travel issues, Kulas was given the Mass Transit gimmick, a tubby bus driver character, and subbed in. Kulas was eager to make a mark, and thus booked himself into danger.
Kulas requested New Jack to blade him, as one does in ECW and as Kulas had never done it himself. Of course New Jack agreed.
Toward the end of the match, after pummeling Mass Transit with plunder from his shopping cart, New Jack used an actual surgical scalpel to cut Kulas. He accidentally cut too deep, severing an artery in Kulas’ forehead and nearly scalping him. Blood spurted in a fountain from Kulas’ head and gushed onto the mat. It was a shocking sight.
New Jack asked Kulas if he was okay (audible on some home video footage of this house show), and the Gangstas proceeded to pummel Kulas more. Kulas’ father in the audience yelled “Ring the fucking bell! He’s seventeen!”
As they carried the bleeding Kulas out on a stretcher Kulas flipped off the crowd and New Jack yelled into the mic “I don’t care if that motherf*cker dies! He’s white! I don’t like white people!” Good gracious, this was ECW going way over the top for a house show and injuring badly an inexperienced wrestler.
Sadly Kulas passed at age 22 from complications due to gastric bypass surgery. Though he nearly bled to death that night in 1996, Kulas certainly left the mark he desired.
Unfortunately for ECW and New Jack, lawsuits and charges and threatened pay-per-view cancellations followed, and it was a while before the aftermath was sorted out.
1. The Death of Bruiser Brody
The details of this one are unclear, but that’s not to say there are not first hand accounts. Tony Atlas was there. Abdullah the Butcher was there. Unfortunately for Bruiser Brody and wrestling fans, he was certainly there in Puerto Rico in July of 1988.
Brody was notoriously tough for some bookers to convince to lose. No different than say Hulk Hogan or Honky Tonk Man. Unfortunately for Bruiser, it potentially had fatal consequences.
According to eyewitness Atlas, shortly before a scheduled match with Dan Spivey was to commence, booker and wrestler Jose Gonzalez asked Brody to step into the shower for a conversation. Atlas heard screams and rushed to the shower to see Brody bent over bleeding and Gonzalez holding the knife.
Traffic around the stadium and difficulty with paramedics transporting the hulking Brody meant he died before he arrived at the local hospital.
Gonzalez claimed self-defense in court, arguing Brody refused to go along with booking and attacked Gonzalez. Summons for the witnesses for the prosecution were not mailed until after the trial, where Gonzalez, on the testimony of Carlos Colon—yes that Carlos Colon, the then 44 year old “youngster” that Gorilla Monsoon said had “a lotta fire” at the 1993 Royal Rumble—was found not guilty.
Dutch Mantel and Tony Atlas would later reveal that Brody had wrestled Gonzalez stiff in the 70s, something else he was notorious for, and injured Gonzalez. According to them, Gonzalez had told wrestler SD Jones on the way to the hospital that he would one day murder Brody.
Depending on which side you believe, this was either heated arguments over booking that led to the legendary wrestler’s premature demise, or Brody’s insistence on rough-style matches in the 70s that sent another wrestler over the edge and came back to haunt Bruiser bad.
You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.