Monday, July 9, 2018

Pro Wrestling Is Dangerous

Takahashi has taken a bunch of Phoenix-plexes in his career; it's just the one that went wrong went really wrong.
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Hayabusa's career ended on a move — the quebrada — that he had done a million times before, one that had become routine to him. You see a wrestler do something risky enough times, and you become immune to the danger they put themselves in, partially because they've become so good at it that it no longer seems risky, partially because you've become complacent, desensitized even, to the risk that move carries. No one goes into a match thinking something is going to go wrong, after all, just as the same as no one goes into work thinking they're going to get injured on the job. This might be the safety guy in me talking, but accidents don't ask permission to happen, and complacency makes rookies out of anyone. I'm not saying it was Hayabusa's fault that he got hurt, and even if it was, I'm not at all saying he deserved to be paralyzed from that accident. However, the lesson is that no one can take anything for granted in pro wrestling. Well, you shouldn't take anything for granted in life, but wrestling is an industry that carries a greater amount of risk than most "normal" fields, especially since several of the biggest companies misuse the independent contractor label and thus create unnecessarily dangerous environments for their workers, regardless of style or spot.

Similarly, Hiromu Takahashi and Dragon Lee have done the Phoenix-plex spot that I will link to in the following tweet before they did it in their match for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship at the G1 Special in San Francisco Saturday. Warning, it's graphic.
I'm not sure if Takahashi slid on the top of his head across the canvas in prior versions of that spot, but still, they'd done it before to little to no issue. Saturday night, however, Takahashi wasn't as lucky. He broke his neck. Granted, several wrestlers have competed after breaking their necks. Kurt Angle will tell you he won his gold medal in men's freestyle heavyweight wrestling at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta with a, and I quote, "broken freakin' neck." That being said, it's not an injury anyone should have to suffer ever, let alone at work. Takahashi, who was up to this point having the year of his so-far stellar career, will miss in upwards of six months at least recuperating from the injury.

Of course, as modern talking heads are wont to do, The Ticking Time Bomb of Los Ingobernables de Japon wasn't even discharged from the hospital before the takes started flying about New Japan's "style" being unnecessarily dangerous. Honestly, those kinds of discussions bore me to tears, because the only safe wrestling is done on your video game console of choice with computer-generated characters. It doesn't matter what the style or the promotion. Wrestling is an inherently dangerous thing to partake in. Even "safe" styles like grappling have pitfalls like rampant staph infections.

The discussion then turned to whether some styles were more dangerous than others. Putting aside that New Japan Pro Wrestling doesn't have a "style" attached to it, and that if anything, the stylistic arguments should be distilled down to worker or even pairing, yeah, the kind of wrestling that Lee and Takahashi partake in whenever they're in the ring together probably carries more of an acute risk in the moment. A lot of highspots and dives and head drops will carry more of a risk for severe injury if not done correctly. Does that chance for acute risk always translate to more injuries? The thing is, I'm not sure it does, especially if you have guys who do that kind of thing all the time. Again, no one plans for an accident. Accidents are random in occurrence, and even though the Phoenix-plex spot, when gone wrong, is riskier than, say, a chinlock, I'm not sure the numbers line up to say that those spots have more of a chance of failing than "regular" ones.

That being said, another famous broken neck — Bruno Sammartino's — happened on a body slam, the most routine, simple move that one can associate with wrestling. The problem isn't the move itself, it's the frequency. Accidents carry risk, but that risk doesn't manifest itself right away in every situation. Every spot has an intrinsic percentage of times that it's going to go wrong. The only way to guarantee that you're going to get it wrong is if you do it a whole lot. If you do a move like the Phoenix-plex in every match, then yes, it's going to have more of a chance to go wrong than if you do it once or twice a year. What can you do to limit injuries? Well, you either limit the spot, or you limit the wrestler getting into opportunities to get injured. Enter WWE.

WWE has banned a lot of moves in the name of safety, but to call that company's "style" (which again, no, no company has a "style" but an amalgam of styles embedded within their wrestlers) safe is beyond the pale. The company may not allow piledrivers, but it does require its full-time wrestlers to work 300 times a year, most of the time in singles matches, on a schedule that makes them travel the world on a regular basis. With that number of dates, the attrition rate on even "basic" moves becomes significant, and that's not even taking into account the riskier elements of what's allowed. For example, every match has at least one dive in it. Flat-back bumping is not only allowed but feels like a requirement. It's a wonder anyone survives a WWE career with their back or shoulders intact.

Of course, that calls into question people asking whether you'd rather have a broken neck or a bad shoulder, which is an asinine thing to have to ask someone. The real answer is "I'd rather not be catastrophically hurt at all," and while that's not a 100 percent attainable goal, like, it's also not zero percent attainable either. You don't have to work for WWE and end up on the injured list as a rule. So, what needs to change to make the changes? The wrestlers should probably unionize and collectively bargain for less of a workload in forever-touring companies like WWE, whether it be cutting dates, adding rolling offseasons for certain talent, or adopting more of a New Japan model of having a ton of multi-wrestler tags if the tour-load isn't reduced. For other companies where the tours aren't as intense in touring but trade that off for riskier spots, they could collectively decide that the big moves only come out in certain matches in certain circumstances. Unsurprising, unionizing can help mitigate problems. Once again, thanks Hulk Hogan, you goddamn prick.

As for Takahashi, the late Hayabusa, or any other wrestler who suffers a catastrophic injury, the thing to remember is their injuries are not talking points. The wrestlers are people who suffered from unfortunate accidents in the workplace. Turning those incidents into some pissing war between fans of promotions on social media is a special kind of gross. Dehumanization is a hell of a drug. The one thing to remember is that no wrestling is safe wrestling. By tuning into or attending a show, you're assuming the risk that you might watch someone getting hurt. Viewers really have no way of changing that. The only way wrestlers and promoters can reduce that probability is by reducing the chances for the performers to get hurt, and that's by scheduling fewer dates, withholding singles matches for the most important of situations, and collective pre-planning so that the most acutely risky moves are done sparingly.