One of the indelible images in pro wrestling history is of Steve Austin locked in Bret Hart's Sharpshooter submission move at WrestleMania 13, blood pouring down his face, yelling in pain and exertion. The blood is thick and bright crimson, streaming into his eyes and mouth, pooling on the mat in front of his face.
The moment signaled a double turn: Hart, by cheating to win and beating down a bloodied Steve Austin after the match, became a detested heel, while Austin played to the crowd's sympathy and "passed out" rather than submit to Hart, launching one of the most successful babyface runs ever. But at the center of the drama was blood.
Blood has largely fallen out of favor in pro wrestling, outside the remaining hardcore promotions like Combat Zone Wrestling. It was already out of favor when Austin and Hart were having that match twenty years ago—Austin has said on his podcast that there was a "no intentional blood" policy in WWE at the time, and it was Hart's insistence to add blood to the mix.
Austin's commentary gives insight into the power of blood and how wrestlers get "color." It's the most open secret in pro wrestling for fans, but still seems gruesome and mysterious to the uninitiated: wrestlers cut themselves.
The process is called blading, and when done correctly it's relatively safe. That's because there are so many blood vessels on the head and scalp, even minor cuts bleed easily and freely. By making a small incision in the right spot on the forehead—usually with a sliver of razor hidden in one of the wrestlers' wrist tape or trunks—a wrestler can make someone bleed a lot. Dramatically and profusely. Add a few well-placed pulled punches to the spot, and the cut can open up enough for a rush of blood to turn into a disgusting red torrent.
Blading also requires trust between wrestlers. Austin, notably, didn't blade himself, but let Hart do the cutting. Austin praised Hart's work as perfect—a quarter-inch long, an eighth-inch deep. Hart, meanwhile, claimed in his autobiography that Austin hadn't bladed before and was uncomfortable doing it himself. This claim wasn't true—usually only newer wrestlers turn blading over to others, since they're inexperienced at the nuances of the act, but Austin knew how to do it—and makes the trust Austin placed in Hart all the rarer, because blading can go very, very wrong.
In 1996, a wrestler called Mass Transit stepped in to work an ECW house show in place of an absent Axl Rotten. The match was against Mustafa Saed and the notoriously, legitimately violent New Jack. The first problem was that Mass Transit lied about being a pro wrestler. He wasn't. This inevitably led to the second problem, which is that he asked New Jack to cut him.
New Jack cut him, alright. He cut him to the bone and proceeded to mash on the deep cut for the next several minutes. Mass Transit—who, it turns out, was only 18—passed out from some combination of blood loss and the mental shock of seeing himself bleed out in the middle of a wrestling ring.
It was a betrayal of trust, even if Transit wasn't really a pro wrestler. There's something strangely heartwarming about the shared bond of blading between wrestlers which gets at just how much trust is needed in the ring between participants in a primal way. Pro wrestlers are, above anything else, uniquely vulnerable. When things fuck up, they fuck up badly, and you have to be able to rely on the other person to make it work. Trusting someone with your blood, either by allowing them to blade you or knowing that they won't take advantage once you are bleeding, is visceral and real.
Even when bleeding goes right, it can still go wrong. During a match between Eddie Guerrero and JBL, Guerrero bladed himself too deeply with too much time in the match to go. The match was so gory and the aftermath so scary for Guerrero that the incident, combined with real fears over hepatitis and HIV, contributed to WWE banning blood in its PG makeover in the late 2000s.
So if it's so potentially dangerous and definitely gross, why do it? Austin got at something in his podcast, something about the mystical nature of the link between blood and drama: "The crowd pops because they see that blood pouring out of my head and now they know they're in for something special."
Now they know they're in for something special.
Two things are true. One, pro wrestling exists on a razor's edge between reality and illusion. You can absolutely fake blood, but it's notable that fake blood is extremely rare in pro wrestling. It isn't used even when it could be. This is because pro wrestlers know on a fundamental level that the sight of blood seeping from a wound forces even the savviest fan to forget the illusion, and that's half of the equation. It raises the stakes, because if the blood is real, what else might be? What else can we close our eyes and imagine to be real in that ring?
The other true thing is that the presence of blood holds something mystical for humans, even in our technological age. The sociologist Émile Durkheim thought that blood was one of the bases of human religious experience, that our earliest ancestors might paint with it or create a totem with it, and that this has trickled down to all of our social and spiritual existences. Blood holds symbolic power we can't even properly explain; we simply know, on something approaching an instinctual level, that its presence signals something either sacred or taboo. We're fascinated and repulsed by it. We cannot look away. We have, for millennia, drank the blood of gods, sacrificed it to the divine in fires, and cheered as it watered the ground of the Colosseum.
Blood in wrestling signals something important, something, in Austin's words, special. And even Austin, one of the greatest pro wrestlers to ever live, cannot quite articulate what that is. Here's one of the greatest matches ever, and it's only "special" when the blood hits. He's grasping for something that is unspeakable because we don't know it in words, only in impulses. If wrestling speaks on some level to an atavistic human longing for the symbolic language of violence—a combination of the live theater of the Greeks, the spectacle of Roman gladiators, and the animal paintings of Lascaux—blood solidifies a connection to that primal something still embedded somewhere in each of us.
Bring it back. Not in rivers; death matches have had their day and too much dulls the impact. Keep blood rare. And it has to be safe, which can be done, with tests and protocols and simply allowing blading rather than corralling blood, as WWE currently does, into the dangerous realm of "hard way"—i.e., through real, full-force blows or awkward landings. Done correctly, it's safer than chairshots to the head, unrestrained headbutts, and the like.
As an old wrestling proverb says, red is green. Blood is money. The masses crave it, even if they don't always know it.
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