A significant part of pro wrestling’s in-ring appeal isn’t balletic dives or feats of strength. It’s the simulated violence, where we collectively sneak up to the line of the real, secure in the knowledge that it’s all under control, with pulled punches and magicians’ hands softening the headbutts.
That line can be extremely porous. As two high profile events over the past week proved, the simulation can turn extremely real through lack of care or maliciousness, and the results of real violence are very different from the stuff in the ring.
The first was during the David Arquette-Nick Gage match at Joey Janela’s LA Confidential on Friday night. Joey Janela has turned the weekends around each of WWE’s Big Four shows—Sunday was Survivor Series—into his own traveling circus show, where his post-ironic celebration of camp in pro wrestling runs into legitimate dream matches to make must-see pay-per-views over the past couple of years.
David Arquette might seem like an odd choice for a dream match, but the 47-year-old actor has quietly been one of the strangest feel-good stories in pro wrestling history over the past six months. It’s perhaps exited public memory, but he was talked into becoming WCW world champion in the waning days of that promotion. It was a farce meant to draw mainstream attention, and it did for a bit, but his reign went down as one of the major factors in WCW’s demise.
Arquette is a lifelong pro wrestling fan and he’s spent the past 18 years agonizing over his role in what he not incorrectly feels was a disrespecting of a tradition he loves. And he, in turn, feels disrespected as a joke who never cared. His solution was to train—really train—to be a pro wrestler. That’s what he’s been doing, working small indie shows just to have fun and give back. As he’s done so, he’s actually made a name as a decent worker and great guy, with fan sentiment building from a grudging respect to genuine appreciation.
Janela booked Arquette to wrestle his first ever death match against Nick Gage, the first CZW heavyweight champion, a legendary death match wrestler, and convicted bank robber. Gage is, as these things go, safe, but he also has an air of legitimate menace around him that most pro wrestlers simply don’t have. That air made the match with Arquette a perfect representation of what Janela’s shows try to do: on the one hand, it’s absurd and not a little bit funny that the man who killed WCW, David Arquette, would be wrestling known badass Nick Gage, on the other, this is a legitimate match with reputational stakes with two complimentary real-life stories of redemption colliding.
The match was standard death match fare until the end, when the horrific happens. Gage grabs a broken light tube and does the gruesome but well-worn spot of taking the jagged end and grinding it into Arquette’s forehead. Arquette yells and legit freaks out a bit, flailing and taking Gage down. The light tube slips on the way down and gashes Arquette near the jugular, causing blood to gush out.
What happens next isn’t staged. After holding Gage down with one hand, the other clasped to his throat to staunch the bleeding, Arquette tries to pin Gage, who isn’t having it. Arquette tries to leave, comes back, and Gage kayfabe attacks him. At that point, Arquette has clearly had enough and absolutely wallops his opponent with a chair and tries to fight him. Gage drops a very real judo throw, pins Arquette, and it’s over.
It’s worth watching the footage in full if you can stomach blood, especially the fan angles which popped up all over Twitter. The reactions of the two men as the violence becomes extremely real are telling. They move from continuing to go through the motions to confusion to fear to anger in a scant two minutes. It’s extremely human and the quick transition from the “real” to the real shows the gulf between the two.
The other intrusion of violence into the simulation came on last week’s Smackdown Live. During a pull apart brawl between the SmackDown and Raw women, Nia Jax hauls off and punches WWE’s hottest act of the year, Becky Lynch, full in the face. Jax has about 150 pounds and not quite half a foot on Lynch; the impact broke Lynch’s nose and gave her a concussion.
For her part, Lynch gamely went on after a brief moment down on the mat. When she got up, blood was all over her face. The image became immediately iconic: Becky Lynch, Smackdown women’s champion, bloody-faced and sneering as she backs away from the ring after conducting an ambush, arms outstretched as she verbally hammers her kayfabe opponents.
The wrestling world exploded when it happened. The sight of the bloodied Lynch cemented her as the next coming of Stone Cold Steve Austin for some, and even for the less hyperbolic, it seemed like an undeniably important moment. Here was a woman taking the sometimes cloying rhetoric around WWE’s corporate announcement of the women’s revolution and turning it into a statement: I can bleed, I can hurt, and I can by God sell tickets as good as any man, maybe even better, given the sometimes dismal state of the men’s matches this year.
There were real world consequences, too. Lynch was scheduled to wrestle Raw women’s champion Ronda Rousey—notably, a wrestler who made her name on real violence in UFC—on Sunday’s Survivor Series. That didn’t happen due to WWE’s concussion protocols. We instead got an extremely good match between Rousey and Charlotte Flair, but it was supposed to be the white hot Lynch in the ring. We didn’t get that because, in real violence, a lot of the time it’s just one punch that ends things, with physical repercussions that last.
Jax, for her part, seems utterly unrepentant. The fan footage of the incident has become pro wrestling’s Zapruder film over the past week, with people poring over what happened and how. The question of whether it was an accident or a deliberate sucker punch has arisen. Chris Jericho stated on his podcast that he thought it looked deliberate, and I’m inclined to agree; she steps fully into the punch after looking right at Lynch. On the other hand, this is just the latest example of Jax injuring her opponents. She’s a sloppy worker and this is in keeping with her reputation.
Regardless of intent, the damage is done and it is, again, real. There are all sorts of injuries pro wrestlers get, from broken bones to ruptured ligaments, but those are largely the injuries of athletes. They feel like the cost of doing business. It’s when the injuries are the types people get in fights and brawls that you catch your breath a bit.
But let’s also not kid ourselves: it’s also those injuries which we get shamefully thrilled by, and the pro wrestling apparatus knows it. It’s no accident that the gruesome Arquette situation was near the top of Twitter trends in the wake of LA Confidential, nor that Janela’s next show is liable to get a boost to viewers because of it. Nor is it an accident that WWE made hay on Lynch’s bloody visage over the past week. Rumors were swirling that Jax was in backstage trouble for the punch, yet she strode to the ring on Sunday holding her fist aloft and was the last woman standing in her match at Survivor Series. And she was booed mercilessly, but there was undeniable joy in those boos, as the crowd could genuinely hate someone for legitimately hurting someone they equally genuinely love.
All of which points to the fact that the relation between controlled and uncontrolled violence in the pro wrestling imagination isn’t as distant as we like to think. There’s something about peering over the edge into the realm of chaos which gets us going, where we watch the Nia Jax punch and David Arquette shooting on Nick Gage over and over again. We may not like the real thing, but we sure are fascinated by it.