Image via WWE Shop
Image via WWE Shop
The early ‘00s were a pretty fun time to be a wrestling fan. The WWE, having absorbed competitors WCW and ECW, was flush with ridiculously talented wrestlers. And those wrestlers, desperate to stand out amid the deepest roster in the WWE’s long and proud history, were willing to subject themselves to insanely dangerous matches.
Consider, if you will, the TLC match. Those initials stood for Tables, Ladders, and Chairs. These matches started out as showcases for three particularly reckless and batshit tag teams (Edge and Christian, the Hardy Boyz, the Dudley Boyz) but eventually came to feature vast swaths of the company's roster. In TLCs, teams would navigate no-disqualification hellscapes, throwing themselves and each other off ladders and through tables until rings started looking like battlefield wastelands. After a while, these matches stopped being special pay-per-view attractions, and the company started throwing them up on free TV.
The WWE has collected a bunch of these matches on a couple of DVD sets, The Ladder Match and its sequel. Those DVDs are somehow riotously fun while simultaneously being sickening, inducing guilt in anyone who comes across them. The matches themselves are deeply satisfying as spectacle; they move fast, tell big stories, and give Jim Ross chances to air out his most gleefully horrified commentary: "Broken bodies everywhere, King!" But they also function as pro wrestling's Faces of Death, in a way—or even more than any old wrestling DVD functions as pro wrestling's Faces of Death. Even as I enjoy the living hell out of the carnage, a voice in my soul keeps asking if this is the chairshot that sent Matt Hardy into a permanent painkiller-induced K-hole, or if that ladder-assisted diving headbutt caused the concussion that eventually drove Chris Benoit insane. Head Games author Chris Nowinski, probably sports' biggest concussion-awareness advocate now, was a WWE wrestler during the period; he worked an asshole-Harvard-guy gimmick. It's not hard to imagine the sorts of locker-room scenes that must’ve prompted his change in careers.
Eventually, the WWE figured out that it wasn’t a great idea to put the talent in constant mortal danger. A few years ago, the fed moved toward kid-friendly TV-PG status—a switch prompted, rumor has it, by ex-CEO Linda McMahon's failed Republican senatorial campaign. These days, WWE wrestlers only cuss in code, and they only bleed by mistake. The company is good for a chaotically dangerous ladder-match pileup every so often; there were two at July’s great Money in the Bank pay-per-view. But for the most part, the WWE has weeded that stuff out. It's easy to miss those frantic TLC matches, at least until you start considering the actual human beings involved. And anyway, the company is figuring out how to tell those stories without liquefying their characters' brains.
This weekend, the company held its TLC pay-per-view in Baltimore, a place where people sometimes use weapons worse than steel chairs. The big story coming out of the show was the triumph of the indie-wrestling guys. Earlier this month, I wrote that longstanding indie veteran Daniel Bryan might be a talent too weird for the company to handle. That could still prove ultimately true, but at TLC, he became World Heavyweight Champion. In the main event, fellow indie guy CM Punk successfully defended the WWE Championship, the fed's most important one, against company-men bad guys the Miz and Alberto Del Rio. Today, three of the seven people who hold WWE championship belts are indie guys (Punk, Bryan, and tag-team high flyer Evan Bourne), and every last one of them is, to at least some extent, liked by the indie-loving types who dominate the internet-wrestling hivemind. And longtime WWE golden boy John Cena, the one man who's wrestled in the main event of almost every show this year, was completely absent, for reasons unexplained. From a certain standpoint, that's another indie-wrestling victory.
But the show also proved notable because it turned out to be way better than anyone expected, given its anemic build, its nonsensical match stipulations, and its near-complete lack of compelling storylines. Nearly everyone involved busted ass, and the thing collectively amounted to one of the company's stronger 2011 shows. But that main-event ladder match turned out to be the strongest on the show. It's a bit weird to see the show built around a TLC match when it has no chance of becoming the wreckage-strewn spectacle that the TLC matches of old were. But this particular match had the blood-and-fire intensity and the fluid storytelling grace of those past TLC matches without including any life-threatening stunts, give or take Del Rio valet Ricardo Rodriguez's crash from an in-ring ladder to an on-floor table.
In those old matches, bodies would fall from ladders constantly; in this one, Rodriguez was the only one to take a hard plummet. Instead, the wrestlers used their weapons in comparatively subtle ways, like when Del Rio used a ladder or a chair for extra leverage on his submission holds. I just loved the final big moment, when the Miz, in a bit of old-school bad-guy dickishness, handcuffed Punk to the ring's turnbuckle, then stood there laughing, just out of reach of Punk's flailing arms. Punk, sensibly enough, responded by kicking the Miz in the back of the head, then by detaching the ring's second rope to escape, knocking the other two guys from the ladder, and grabbing the belt.
The announcers never mentioned it, but Punk’s long background in indie wrestling meant that he knew how to dismantle a wrestling ring. At smaller indie shows, the wrestlers are the ones who assemble the ring at the beginning of the night and who take it apart at the end. Miz and Del Rio, products of the WWE system, would've had no reason to realize that Punk knew how to do all this stuff. Punk’s years in the trenches gave him the drop on them. By wrestling standards, this was an exceedingly subtle storytelling touch, and a profoundly satisfying one for those audience members who knew Punk’s background. When the company can tell a story that works on that level, it doesn’t need to force any concussions, and I don't have to feel bad about enjoying it.