Anyone who’s been on this planet long enough knows that life can change in the blink of an eye whether you like it or not. What separates the strong from the meek is how they can adjust and deal with it….especially when things go wrong. I was originally going to write this edition of The Grand Slam about my experience of purchasing AEW All Out 2019 and how my interest in the promotion has slowly dwindled over the last year to show why I didn’t purchase it this time around. Then it all changed in an instant when I learned about the Matt Hardy situation. He would end up taking a bump that not only could have cost him his career but maybe his life. Then there was controversy on how the ending of the match was handled and the contradicting Twitter reports from Matt’s wife and AEW boss Tony Khan. I chose to hold off on writing this until after Dynamite aired and Matt himself was able to give an update on his condition. The fallout of this showed the wrestling world that AEW as a whole may have dodged a massive bullet.
I don’t want to use this forum to do a cookie-cutter rundown of what happened between this past weekend and Dynamite. There are more than enough competent resources on the Internet to provide you with that information. I want to explore the one question few seem to have been asking….why??? Why did this happen the way that it did and what is being done to prevent further ugliness like this in the future? I also want to examine the fact that these issues aren’t only prevalent in wrestling but in other forms of sport. But before I go down that road I want to focus on an unrelated quote released on the same day as All Out from one of AEW’s most talked about members. The living legend himself, Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
During an interview to promote the PPV Jake was asked why he thought today’s wrestlers had so much trouble getting ‘over’ with the crowd. In true Jake fashion his answer was brilliant and I will paraphrase here. He basically said that back in his prime wrestlers were intent on creating storylines that went for the heart. Today’s wrestlers are more concerned creating matches and angles that go for the moment. Pulling on one’s heartstrings take time and calculated delivery. What Jake is trying to say is that the performers are more or less looking for that reaction (or pop) of the moment (or several moments) within their match. I believe what he’s saying is that instead of building for an ultimate payoff where the crowd is going out of their minds the wrestlers are so afraid of losing the crowd ‘in the moment’ that they are determined to do anything and everything to keep their attention and loud reactions going during the match and not looking beyond. This could explain why in today’s wrestling the athleticism and stunts are at an all time high and the art of storytelling is lagging far behind in most cases. The art of building characters and stories that include the eternal battle of good and evil are being sacrificed by way too many dangerous stunts and acrobatics. In this writer’s opinion I don’t find these ‘spots’ in wrestling nearly as exciting as they used to be. The reason being is that too many people in too many promotions are copying this style and it is getting harder and harder to stand out and therefore get emotionally invested into a potential story. It is reaching the point of overkill and this past weekend I feel proved it ten-fold.
In regards to Jake I would like to temporarily turn back the clock and use one of his classic WWE feuds as an example of how a ‘less-is-more’ philosophy can still get the fans invested. Jake’s opponent at the immortal Wrestlemania III was the IC Champion The Honky Tonk Man. I recently watched the segment that lead to the match that took place on Jake’s ‘talk-show’ the Snake Pit. Jake and the crowd heckled Honky when he tried to sing to the point where he sulked and ran away…or so we thought. It was all a setup and Honky snuck up on Jake from behind (remember when heels acted like cowards?) and bashed his head in with a guitar. This wasn’t one of those ‘exploding’ guitars Jeff Jarrett used, this was the real thing and it got laid into Jake’s skull to the point where you were actually worried about him. Also it was only done once in the feud and therefore had a way bigger impact than if it happened several times. During this beat down Jimmy Hart was laughing maniacally and taunting Jake….another cowardly move from the heel. This led to the showdown at the Silver Dome and while the match was arguably cut short due to keeping the show on time, it delivered by letting Honky stay strong while getting a cheap victory but making sure the crowd was happy when Jake’s corner man (the hometown rocker) Alice Cooper let Damian loose on Jimmy Hart.
Nothing about this match from bell to bell was memorable in terms of technical wrestling and athletics. However it stands out because of how the story was crafted from start to finish (plus anything involving Alice puts a smile on my face) and was therefore memorable. Now a quick word on Jake’s opponent. Wayne Ferris was neither technically gifted, jacked up, or overtly athletic. But man, the guy could talk and he played the Elvis-imposter gimmick to perfection. Having Jimmy Hart in his corner was also a big bonus. Honky also had the advantage of not needing to wrestle on television every single week and could stay fresh. Whether he was in singles action or tagging with Greg Valentine I can’t say that he took part in any matches that were technically ‘good’ or memorable in any athletic way. But his high profile matches all featured storylines where you wanted to see him get his clock cleaned. He couldn’t fly around or take death-defying bumps but he will go down as one of the most memorable characters of the WWE’s Golden Era and of course….The Greatest Intercontinental Champion….of all time!!! I know what you’re likely thinking….probably something along the lines of ‘if I wanted to hear stories from the Golden Era, I would read Martin’s blog instead’….Fair enough dear reader but I bring this up because it not only backs up Jake’s evaluation of the modern wrestling business but it’ll point out the flawed thinking in the Matt Hardy / Sammy Guevara match.
Matt Hardy in both a singles and tag team role has become an absolute legend in the modern era of wrestling. At the peak of teaming with his brother Jeff many said he would flounder as a singles star. Grit and perseverance proved everybody wrong and if the call ever comes him and brother Jeff are shoe-ins for the Hall of Fame one day. Having him in a feud with a polarizing up-and-comer like Guevara seems like a no-brainer. Win or lose Matt’s goal in this feud is to take Sammy’s game up to another level and ultimately make him look good. Which confounds me as to why this ‘spot’ that took place flying off the top of a Skyack scissor lift needed to happen in the first place. From perfecting TLC matches, becoming a tag-team specialist, a main-event player defying the odds, and being an early inventor of cinematic matches as the ‘Broken’ one…Matt Hardy has NOTHING to prove by taking a needlessly careless risk like this one at this stage of his career. His resume speaks for itself and the sequence is a microcosm of today’s wrestlers feeling the visceral need to go for what’s right in the moment and not what’s better in the long term.
The other big controversy about this matter was why the match was allowed to continue. This one is quite confounding and I don’t believe anyone would have batted an eye if it ended early. Some fans and journalists have gone on record saying that this dampened their enthusiasm for the rest of the show and I can’t say that I blame them. Then finding out that the doctor that examined Matt to see if he can continue is affiliated with the Jacksonville Jaguars who are owned by the Khan family and are wrestling in their facility. More on football doctors later but it seems like everyone wanted the match to end except for Tony Khan himself. This is all speculation on my part but I wonder if in his role as the boss that he was afraid to end the match prematurely due to fan ‘backlash’. It wouldn’t be impossible to rule out as this scene has taken place before.
Jake Roberts was featured alongside Terry Funk and Mick Foley in the controversial documentary Beyond The Mat in 2000. While this film is despised by some (mostly people who work in WWE and Jake himself) there is some disturbing footage one cannot deny that should have asked some tough questions and didn’t do so at the time. When Micke Foley flew off Hell In A Cell in Pittsburgh then fell through the cage there was almost NO intent to stop the match. In fact Mick had to do a run-in during the main event and in his book Kane tells the story that Vince seemed just as concerned about Mick missing his run-in during the following match than his well-being in the current one. Some harrowing footage in Beyond The Mat is when director Barry Blaustein plays an answering machine message Mick left him later that night (he was filming Mick for the doc at this point) and he is rambling nonsense incoherently and it is a stark reminder that he doesn’t really know where he’s at.
Fast forward to the 1999 Royal Rumble and the infamous “I Quit” Match between Foley and The Rock. This is the match where (for reasons still unknown) The Rock snapped and peppered Mickey Foley in the head with more steel chair shots than the was supposed to. Blaustein and his crew filmed Mick’s family at ring side and while his wife and young daughter were crying in sheer terror there was no intent to not let this match play out. In the doc Foley watches this footage with his family and swallows a cold slice of humble pie seeing how upset his family was about the match. I believe this eventually led Mick to do more ‘comedic based’ wrestling before his final run as Cactus Jack before his initial retirement. Even though this film achieved cult status (and wrath from WWE brass) chair shots to the head continued for almost another decade until research was done after the Chris Benoit tragedy and the effects of long term concussions. It also seemed at the time that Colette Foley’s concerns were somewhat muzzled. If that match had taken place in today’s world I feel she would have been as critical and vocal as Reby Hardy. Reby Hardy deserves a ton of credit for the fierce passion and courage she showed on her Twitter page not willing to accept the company’s narrative in regards to the health of her husband. Her and Matt’s young kids I’m sure could have done without this scare during their match.
After Tony Khan tweeted that Matt would return to Dynamite is created some buzz and curiosity. Matt appeared and gave a heartfelt apology and promo. When he is cleared to wrestle again he will be a very popular babyface I’m sure. But make no mistake the company and all involved dodged a huge bullet. This past Weds. would not have been as warm and fuzzy had Matt taken a turn for the worst, which was a grim possibility. Right now this is the time to see what kind of a leader Tony Khan really is. Tony got into wrestling by watching ECW during its heyday. He understands that these wrestlers will go until they can’t anymore, he knows things can get a little crazy and that freak accidents do happen. However if AEW continues to ramp up the dangerous bumps and stunts (remember Darby Allin jumped off a bridge in a damn promo the other week??!!) and pretend that this never happened because Matt appears to be ‘ok’…then this entire process will be a failure and the promotion will have blood on their hands if it happens again.
I do not love or hate AEW. Some fans and journalists think its the greatest thing since sliced bread while others wish it would die a quick and painless death. Put me in the middle as I want it to succeed and I do like a good chunk of the talent involved. However this Hardy scare reminded me of one major reason why I skipped out on purchasing All Out 2020. I want to flash back to a year ago and one moment in a high profile tag team ladder match (sound familiar?) between the Lucha Bros. and The Young Bucks. I believe it was Matt Jackson who took a Canadian Destroyer off the top of a ladder to the canvas. Not only is that move extremely dangerous from that height but in the confines of a match that should take somebody out. Matt would end up back in the match with minimal involvement.
For those of you who follow Lucha Libre one of the greatest tag matches of all time took place at AAA: When Worlds Collide in 1994 from Los Angeles. It was the popular luchadores El Hijo Del Santo & Octagon vs. Eddie Guerrero & Art Barr in a Hair vs. Mask match. The crowd was hot and the match was awesome but here is what stands out in this classic. Octagaon takes a simple tombstone piledriver (which was banned in AAA at the time) and is taken out on a stretcher. Once you wrap your head around it in terms of their storylines it adds a lot of drama to the match and makes that move look devastating. When someone goes skull first from a Destroyer to the canvas and doesn’t get stretchered out it spells out to me that the stunts and high-spots have gone to the extreme of overkill. This same mentality I believe led Sammy Guevara and Matt Hardy to the top of a scissor lift above bare concrete….you know how the rest ends…
Before I close out I want to point out that this problem doesn’t only exist in wrestling. The NFL is remarkably launching its next season this weekend in the midst of a pandemic but over the years they have been heavily criticized due to the dangers of the game and their reluctance to take care of past and present players. However they have revamped a new concussion protocol with an independent medical doctor at each game. I briefly touched on the conspiracy theory of the in house doctor at AEW not stopping the match cold due to his connection to the Khan family. Here are two examples of ‘team’ bias to ‘win at all costs’ despite a player’s health.
1) QB – Tom Savage – Houston Texans
Tom Savage only started as a QB in the NFL because of injuries. He was a journeymen meant to be a backup but due to other QBs getting hurt played a lot more than expected. During a game in late 2017 he got rocked and was taken to the blue tent where the medical examiner decides whether the player can pass the concussion protocol and stay in the game. Somehow Savage passed but on the next drive was clearly not functioning properly. Houston coach Bill O’Brien caught fire for leaving him in longer until he finally was forced to pull him out. I’m sure like any other player (or wrestler) when asked if they could continue to play (or wrestle) he likely said ‘yes’…however O’Brien should have pulled him when he couldn’t hardly walk to the huddle in a straight line….O’Brien claimed if he had ‘video’ of his QBs condition he would have pulled him right away….maybe he’s right…he is busy coaching after all but it was so obvious to the viewers and broadcasters that Savage had to come out…maybe O’Brien left him in because Savage gave the Texans the best ‘chance to win’ that day and turned a blind eye…we will never know for sure
2) OT – Trent Williams – Washington…I don’t know wtf to call this team anymore
After failing a drug test early in his career Trent Williams turned his game around and became one of the best offensive linemen in all of the NFL. In 2019 him and his agent thought he should be paid like it and held out early in the season. But during that time Williams dropped a horrific story to the media about alleged malpractice from team doctors. Team doctors became aware of a growth on the back of his skull and told him it was minor and it didn’t need attention. Six years later Williams finds out that the growth had become cancerous and had to get it removed. He has accused the team of downplaying it because he started every single game in that span and didn’t have any early symptoms. He said that the team was more concerned about having him in the lineup and winning ‘games’ than looking deeper into what turned into a life and death matter for the Pro Bowl tackle. This season he is debuting for the San Francisco 49ers and has sailed away from that once proud franchise turned dumpster-fire in Washington D.C.
So if serious medical loopholes can happen in the ‘safer’ NFL then it could easily continue to happen in wrestling. Like these football players Matt Hardy would likely say ‘yes’ no matter what if he were asked to continue. But a doctor or a promotor (or both) has to objectively step in and say enough is enough when an athlete’s health is clearly being endangered. That is more important than wins or ‘the show must go on mentality’. In a similar story this past week Ivar of the Viking Raiders on RAW (who is fun to watch but also arguably does too many acrobatics) injured himself severely diving outside the ring. Once again the dive maybe wasn’t necessary but the match stopped dead and the proper precautions were taken. So moving forward Tony Khan has the opportunity to step up and do what’s right. Make sure the medical people are in a position to stop a match in the middle of an emergency no matter what. Try and find ways to put more matches together that focus more on storytelling and less dangerous stunts. Make your promotion as serious about safety and you are about diversity and inclusion. It will be a win-win situation for fans and wrestlers alike. This concludes this edition of the Grand Slam and I will be back in two weeks putting over some strong classic examples of wrestling psychology….like, comment, subscribe to get this emailed to you today….have a Magnificent September!