Chair Shots in Wrestling
Earlier this month, WWE announced a ban on the practice of delivering chair shots to the heads of wrestlers. While many have greeted this move with enthusiasm as a long overdue and necessary safety measure, a quick look around the internet shows that there are many fans who have in fact responded with surprisingly fierce condemnation of the ban. Coming as it does hot on the heels of a move to end the practice of deliberately causing bleeding in matches and during a move to a PG product that sees even relatively innocuous words like “ass” bleeped, these fans feel that the product they have enjoyed for years is now being watered down to the point that it is no longer the same thing anymore. While I have some sympathy with this viewpoint, I believe it is important to consider each of these moves in isolation on its own merits. With that said, a look at chair shots is imperative.
The use of chairs as weapons is something that has been commonplace in American pro wrestling for many years, certainly going back to the 1970s. Note that I said American wrestling; I cannot remember ever seeing a chair shot in the wrestling I watched as a child in Britain. The nineties, of course, saw a serious proliferation in the use of weapons in general and chairs in particular, thanks in large part to the rise of ECW. ECW’s influence on the use of weapons in wrestling was twofold: firstly, it led to a dramatic increase in the frequency of weapons use in the business and, secondly, a transformation of style that effectively meant a more “realistic” presentation of weapon shots. By and large, up to this point wrestlers had generally used chairs on the backs of their opponents and even then only in particularly heated rivalries. In the late nineties chairs became a staple of pro wrestling in all of the major federations, at all levels of the card and increasingly were used on the heads of wrestlers.
Even then, there are two kinds of chair shots to the head. The old school wrestlers would usually put a hand up to take the bulk, or all, of the impact of the blow. However, in the post-ECW world, more and more wrestlers simply allowed their opponent to smack them directly on the head with a chair. Moreover, despite what the detractors of pro wrestling would have us believe, these chairs, while lightweight, are not “fake” or “gimmicked”. Sure, the blow would ideally be pulled but there is only so far one can go with this before the shot looks poor and the whole point of going with the unprotected shot is defeated. The unprotected chair shot is supposed to give us a cool visual, not to mention an audible thrill. There’s a loud smack as the chair impacts, the audience collectively winces, the victim elaborately staggers and crashes to the floor and his opponent proudly holds up the chair, a visible dent graphically illustrating the brutality of the moment.
Put like that, an unprotected chair shot sounds like great, dramatic television and, in all honesty, it can be. But what are the risks of this approach and are they really balanced by the rewards? Any doctor who has dealt with boxing will tell you that every blow to the head causes brain damage. I could tell you now that an unprotected chair shot destroys, on average, 300’000 brain cells. Would you know if that was true, or what it would mean in practical terms if it were? The answer is probably no. The fact is, we don’t know nearly enough about the consequences of pro wrestling in general and chair shots in particular. I couldn’t actually tell you what an unprotected chair shot does to the human brain “on average” because I don’t believe anyone really knows for sure. What we do know is that blows to the head hurt the brain and the harder and more frequent these blows are, the worse the damage will be.
Perhaps our greatest understanding of the effects of repeated head traumas like these comes from boxing. Over the years so many fighters ended up “punch-drunk” that it became impossible for even the most vehement defenders of the sport to deny that there was a causal link between the sport and specific types of brain damage. The specific kind of damage is referred to as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and has similar effects to Alzheimer’s disease. Recent research by the Sports Legacy Institute indicates that the same problem is affecting football players (not Association football, but NFL style). No one can say at this stage that chair shots in wrestling are having the same effect but what I would ask is this: why wouldn’t they? Why would anyone think that being waffled in the head by a steel chair would not cause the same kind of brain damage as being punched in the head? Sure, I’ve seen wrestling fans point out that boxers take many, many punches in a match, far more than any wrestler would take chair shots but, by the same token, wrestlers typically work far more matches than any boxer would ever think of having over the course of a year.
CTE seems to be caused by repeated concussive traumas and concussion is, in any case, a serious and often under-stated threat in its own right. Any basic first aid course will tell you that concussions can be fatal. Every long-time wrestling fan will be aware that Bret Hart is just one wrestler forced to retire from the business because of concussions. While some fans may see the banning of chair shots to the head as part of an overall policy of “wussiness” from WWE, it is important to remember that, more and more, almost every contact sport is taking the incidence and treatment of concussions more seriously. In my own favourite sport, rugby league, the RFL (Britain’s governing body) have continually refined their practices with regard to concussion. A concussion used to carry a mandatory two-week ban from playing, a solution that was self-defeating as concussions often simply went unreported. In 2002 the RFL instituted cognitive testing and, in 2006 they brought in the “Cogsport” system, which sees all RFL-registered players taking cognitive tests to establish a baseline before each season, so that players’ cognitive performance can be measured and evaluated after suffering concussions. In an age when even the roughest, toughest sports are re-evaluating practices to protect their players, why would anyone think that pro wrestling should not do the same?
Critical fans, however, wonder where it ends. What does it cost the business to lose chair shots to the head, and what else might we start banning? Surely, every bump rattles the brain a little? Will we see a move to wrestling without even bumps? Of course not, is the simple answer. Such tired and ridiculous slippery slope arguments are always wheeled out whenever people face a change they disagree with. Pro wrestling is a dangerous, physical business and always will be. Those getting involved know full well they are putting themselves at risk. The key is to differentiate between acceptable, necessary risks and unacceptable risks that can be eliminated. The whole point of pro wrestling has always been to give the crowd the illusion of violence while in reality protecting one’s opponent as much as possible. Unprotected chair shots do not fall into this category.
As far as the creative standpoint goes, I would answer the question “what do we lose by eliminating chair shots to the head” with the question “what do we gain by having them?” Earlier, I described an unprotected chair shot in such a way as to maximise the drama and excitement that such a spot can generate. In truth, such spots are subject to the same law of diminishing returns as many other wrestling spots. Put simply, the more often that you see an unprotected chair shot, the less effective it becomes in evoking a response from the audience. As time goes by, you are forced to ever more drastic and violent shots in order to draw the same reaction. Moreover, you have in the process completely killed the safer chair shots to the back or protected shots as drawing tools. Very often in wrestling, less is more. Let’s face it, by the early 2000s we had reached the point, as wrestling fans, where we were no longer even surprised when a wrestler kicked out of a pinning combination after taking a chair shot. We were actually reaching a point where “monster” characters, such as the sadly deceased Umaga, were actually taking multiple chair shots just to put them down, never mind pin them. Something had to be done, both for the sake of the wrestlers’ health and for the sake of using weapons as a tool to actually draw a real reaction from crowds.
Finally, WWE are far and away the biggest and most dominant entity in pro wrestling. It is to be hoped, therefore, that their actions may inspire other, smaller, promotions to follow. Sadly, this is unlikely to be the case. The determination of TNA to take dissatisfied viewers from WWE is understandable and smart business but the obvious fear is that they will actually increase the incidence of violence in their show in order to attract the fans turned on off by this move. We have already seen unprotected chair shots in TNA this month. Let’s hope that they do the right thing for their talent.
Check out the link to the Sports Legacy Institute to find out more about CTE and concussions.