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The Word on the Rings: Deathmatches




Hi, my name is Marck: ad guy, meantime writer of fiction, sometimes a political blogger, and a lifelong fan of professional wrestling.

A word about this column: I think that it's fun to overthink things sometimes. In these essays, I attempt to lend some sense on the many aspects of professional wrestling that often get overlooked, or beg a second look, through almost-longform writing.

So without further ado, let's begin.

(Warning: this post contains graphic images and videos.)

April 27, Yokohama, FMW: Megumi Kudo fought her retirement match against Shark Tsuchiya.

Megumi and Shark have fought many times in the past: in 1997 alone, they fought 30 times against each other in various tag team and singles matches, even trading the FMW Women’s Unified Title against each other, just over a month before the retirement match. It was a pretty much standard “template” of sorts for matches involving the pretty, princess-like hardcore legend Kudo: Shark was a beast in the ring that didn’t carry the beautiful trappings of her rival. She was all business: injure, maim, kick ass.

As with many retirement matches, it was a 20-minute classic of wrestling holds, slams, and stiff strikes. What made it unique was an over-the-top stipulation characteristic of Japan’s most infamous hardcore wrestling promotion: a “No-Rope Electrified Barbed Wire Double Hell Land Mine Death Match.”

(Megumi Kudo vs. Shark Tsuchiya. No Total Divas here.)

A “No-Rope Electrified Barbed Wire Double Hell Land Mine Death Match” was exactly what it is: the ropes were replaced with electrified barbed wire. The ring was surrounded by broken glass, coils of barbed wire, “land mines,” plus a cattle prod thrown in for good measure halfway through the match.

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Of course we won’t see these kinds of matches in mainstream pro wrestling anymore. In a PG-13 “sports entertainment” TV show, the “extreme match” stipulation is nothing more than relaxing the rules a bit. In TLC 2014, it took the commentary team snazzy computer graphics and statistics to sell fans into the idea that the ring steps are “extreme” weapons. And coming into Extreme Rules, there’s the question: is there room for “extreme,” as it had been?

Over the years, many critics of “extreme” match types and deathmatches claim that gimmicks are there to cover up lack of wrestling skill. It’s a fair point to make: in 1990s ECW, New Jack had more skills with a staple gun and a steel chair than he had wrestling fundamentals. Mick Foley is perhaps the greatest hardcore wrestler of all time, but he was by no means one of the greatest technical wrestlers to lace up a pair of boots. Critics of the deathmatch speak of barbarism, sadism, excessive blood, and so on. Wrestling should be a demonstration of physical prowess and technique; not the ability of a wrestler to (and I’m not making this up) light a bunch of fireworks inserted into the anal cavity of the promotion’s biggest face character.

(I'm not even close to kidding. Photo courtesy of fmwwrestling.us)

To a certain extent, I agree with the critics: gimmick matches do tend to cover up for the lack of fundamentals. But some of the greatest hardcore moments in wrestling were done by accomplished wrestlers who tapped into inner savagery (Shelton Benjamin’s OMG moments with ladders come to mind, and Brock Lesnar is absolutely brutal with his use of a steel chair). CZW’s Drake Younger – now known as the referee Drake Wuertz in NXT – was one of the most skilled pro wrestlers in the indies, and the same can be said for his fellow alumnus, Dean Ambrose.

(For those who judge talent on the basis of moves - more on that when I feel like it - it's hard to deny Drake Younger.)

Hardcore wrestling does not – and will not – have room in today’s mainstream product. Today’s product is answerable to media watchdogs, stockholders, and this (inane and asinine) idea that wrestling is “family entertainment” (more on that when I feel like it, maybe in the next column). But this kind of violence will thrive underground: on Internet PPV, in Japan, maybe in PWR. And as offensive as it may seem to the casual viewer, hardcore is essential to an aspect of professional wrestling that caters to its most loyal, lifelong fans.

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There are stories in professional wrestling that can only be told by blood and weapons. The presence of both (with a very clear “Do Not Try This At Home” disclaimer and all efforts exhausted to make it so) is the clearest sign of mortality: that everything ends with one great blow or one great fall. Extreme matches, for today’s mainstream product, have the great ability to end a feud clearly and convincingly, because we see a beating in spaces outside the traditional squared circle. We see something outside of the fair fight, with all pretenses of fairness thrown out.

And that pretense of throwing out fairness should be extreme: not “hardcore” in the PG-sense of it, but the kind of hardcore where violence is clear and evident. As “fake” as wrestling is, there are those rare stories that beg the presence of being as close to the totally violent as possible. Like unstable characters, or the real desire of the character to inflict serious and grievous injury. In hardcore wrestling, wrestling ceases to be the sport: in Barthes’s words, it becomes a spectacle.

(Terry Funk and Sabu: two of the most badass hardcore wrestlers ever.)

I’m not saying that WWE creative should start crushing glass or replacing ropes with barbed wire, or make cruiserweights wrestle on 25-foot-high scaffolds. And no, I’m not suggesting overwrought, complicated gimmick matches.

(The "electrocution" of Abdullah the Butcher: NOT one of the greatest moments in the history of our sport.)

What I am saying is that Extreme Rules can have the function of being that big blow-off to a lot of unsettled feuds, especially for rivalries whose stories need to be settled in blood. As safe as it should be, it should be extreme: encourage more weapons. Throw in a shopping cart carrying everything including the kitchen sink. Put light tubes all over the place. Bring these back every year if you have to.

 (Light tubes are an important - almost mythical - aspect of hardcore wrestling. Photo courtesy of tofugu.com)

But that’s the idealist–the vocal fan in me–talking.

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So is there room for “extreme,” as it had been? Ideally, yes: used creatively, the extreme stipulation–and the deathmatch–can be used as a great storytelling device. The feud may be so personal and the wounds so deep, that there is no way that the confines of a steel cage (or driving your opponent through a table) can satisfy it. The need to speak of injury may not be enough for blading: we may need to see the crimson mask. We need to see this character covered in his own blood, that he will put everything in the line to see the battle through. The cartoony violence of wrestling should be there because the most spectacular parts of wrestling are there: when wrestling ceases to be wrestling, and becomes a good old fashioned fight that we can all (reasonably) enjoy. Maybe even create a legend in the process.

Yet in reality, no: mainstream wrestling will always be accountable for forces stronger than the voice of very vocal fans. These include the health and welfare of performers, accountability to stakeholders, and the real possibilities of illness and actual injuries-or worse-that come with wrestling. As social pressures make the current product safer for those who ply their craft in the ring, the "true hardcore" match is fading into obscurity. We just see the remains of it: the kendo sticks, the trash cans, the occasional objects wrapped in barbed wire.

Hardcore wrestling is an artifact left to the gritty arenas we only know of through the Internet, in online video, and in the memories of those who saw the matches and remembered what this kind of wrestling once was.

And it's really up to us to remember and tell those stories, just so that we won't forget.

(New Alhambra: one of the last bastions of a long and storied hardcore wrestling movement. Photo courtesy of superluchas.com)

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Back to the Shark-Megumi match: at the 22-minute mark, Shark blew a fireball into Megumi’s face. At the 23-minute mark, Megumi delivered the coup de grace: driving her rival through the exploding barbed wire ropes, and pinning her for the three-count. That match ended one of the most decorated careers in women’s professional wrestling: the wounded body of Megumi Kudo was doused with disinfectant, and her hands were raised in victory to the polite, satisfied applause of the Japanese crowd.

In that moment, a great legend in wrestling was set in stone, that wrestling was—at one point—bloody spectacular.

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