Killing the Business – Twitter Discovers the Pro Wrestling “Death Match”

When I was 20 years old, I got the wind knocked out of me backyard wrestling with my buddies. We weren’t taking it “seriously.” We were just some dumb young guys that loved wrestling, did some drinking, and happened to be in the drama club, so we were really just improvising. The move that took me out was a fisherman’s suplex (Perfect-plex for those in the know) executed by my stronger buddy when he reversed my never-intended-to-work snap suplex. I jumped, he lifted, I went up and hit hard on my lower back. As I lay there, not a bit of air in my lungs, I thought for a second that some real harm had been done. Honestly, I was scared I was going to die. For the 20 seconds it took to get air back into my body, I had the horrible thought that I would be a case study in dumbass boys as a guy that got killed backyard wrestling with his friends.

Luckily, I lived.

I thought of this story earlier this week when I opened my Twitter machine to see that David Arquette was trending after he took part in a brutal Death Match in front of about a hundred people in a bar. He wound up a bloody mess, to put it mildly.

Wrestling fans will remember Arquette’s role in the WCW wrestling movie, Ready to Rumble, and his still infamous run as WCW champion. Everyone else knows him as Sheriff Dewey from Scream and the guy that Courtney Cox used to be married to and, until now, these two worlds didn’t really intersect.

Turns out, after his auspicious start in the business, at over 40 years of age, David Arquette has been making the rounds on the independent wrestling circuit. Cool, why not? The guy has name recognition, which sells tickets, and as long as he can take a few bumps, everyone wins by him being there.

Unless “there” happens to be in the darkest corner of the pro wrestling underworld: The Death Match.

For the uninitiated, a Death Match is like a regular wrestling match except that it includes gruesome, extreme violence including, but not limited to, barbed wire, thumb tacks, staple guns, tube lights, fire and explosives. Oh, and sometimes you win by slamming a guy into a tank full of piranhas, but that’s only in Japan. I hope.

I discovered Death Matches through the legendary tales of Mick Foley, aka Mankind, aka Cactus Jack: King of the Death Match. In the early days of the internet, I can remember looking up and watching the bout that earned him that title: a brutal barbed wire, exploding ring match against Terry Funk. At the time, I thought it was really cool. Like most of the things Foley did at the time and throughout his career, the match was brutal, insane and train wreck-esque in its ability to captivate an audience. It gave the “fake” business of pro wrestling a gritty edge of realism. You can’t fake getting blown up while wrapped in barbed wire. I mean, you could, but these guys clearly didn’t.

The rise and popularity of the Death Match gave birth to extreme or hardcore wrestling, made most famous by ECW and its mixed stable of incredible workers and borderline masochists. The violence was still brutal and the blood was everywhere, but nobody got blown up… mostly. People did watch though, so along with Foley and some other ECW alums, the big two of the time, WWF(E) and WCW incorporated extreme wrestling into their programming, inspiring many would-be workers to “go extreme” in pursuit of their wrestling dreams.

For obvious reasons, the extreme product was not sustainable and the cleaner, friendly WWE, to their credit, has since taken many of the more disgusting elements of hardcore wrestling off the table for their talents. No juicing (cutting yourself to bleed for effect), no head shots with chairs, no fire, and when extreme props are used, they are heavily gimmicked (made safe) to limit the actual damage being done to performers. Which isn’t to say that things like apron bumps, German suplexes and dives off of cages to announce tables aren’t dangerous, but they do represent a more calculated risk than driving another human being into a bed of nails.

Wrestling at its best is a kind of performance art unlike any other in the world. It is a mix of combat, choreography, production and performance. On any night in any match, workers are taking risks that, calculated though they may be, could end a career or even life in an instant. The only safety net these performers have is each other and the knowledge that the other guy or gal in the ring with them is a professional who will, while kicking the shit out of them, do their best to take care of them and get them home safe.

Cue my 20 year old dumbass self and David Arquette.

The thing about knowing wrestling is a work (pre-determined) is that you can easily get in your head that what they are doing isn’t exactly what I outlined above: really, really friggin’ dangerous. Yes, they warn us, but last I checked, the information about cancer was right there on the cigarette pack and I see people lighting up every day.  Sure, it’s a little dangerous, but what’s the worst that could happen horsing around with your buddies or getting booked for a kind of match you have no experience with?

Terrible. The worst is terrible.

My backyard nonsense aside, what Arquette took part in is absolutely the deep end of the Worst Ideas Ever pool. It’s not sports. It’s not entertainment. It’s not a work. It’s two humans inflicting potentially life-altering harm on one another in front of a bloodthirsty audience. And generally a small audience I might add.

In a way, I’m glad that Arquette’s story got out there. If wrestling is going to be the mainstream form of entertainment it wants to be, then it needs to deal with its dark corners. I’m not saying that WWE, Vince McMahon, or anyone in the business other than those that make them happen are responsible for Death Matches, but their existence getting out there and the backlash from former and current wrestlers against them is a good thing for everyone. If a harsh tweet against Death Matches and their ilk reaches the cellphone screen of a dumb kid about to let a guy staple a five dollar bill to his forehead and he decides to take a shower and go out dancing instead, mission accomplished. Or, if that same tweet makes someone decide to actually learn how to wrestle, not just get cut to pieces by broken glass, even better.

I don’t blame anyone at all but myself for the time I took a bad bump backyard wrestling. My buddies and I were a sweet bunch of drama nerds playing around. It just happened we were able to pull of a few moves without hurting one another and we went too far. We learned a lesson. We left it to the pros. For David Arquette and anyone else considering Death Matches, I say this: There are no “pros” of this side of the industry – just dangerous, reckless individuals that can’t work a real match.

There is no need for this kind of stuff in today’s wrestling market. It makes the entire industry look bad. After all, just plain old matches hurt enough, never mind adding death to the mix.

Don’t believe me?

See if you can find a friend to Perfect-plex onto their backyard sometime. I promise you’ll come around quick.

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