Most people have lain in bed late at night, flipping through channels, and paused to watch the action when they come across a professional wrestling match. Smashing head butts, thudding body slams, and brutal back breakers give pause to the viewer – how do that do that without getting hurt or worse – killed? Is professional wrestling real, or is it fake?
All professional wrestling matches are fake in the sense that the outcome is determined before the match takes place. Script writers lay out pre-planned storylines much like the storyline of a daytime soap opera. The storyline includes out of the ring action, such as a wrestler jumping into the audience to attack a fan, and in the ring action, such as the dive from the top of the ropes onto the opponent’s uncovered head. Script writers also carefully plan out the wrestlers’ persona which dictates whether the fans will root for the wrestler or boo him out of the ring.
Personalities of the wrestlers are planned out by the script writer and the wrestler instructed on how to play their part. The wrestling camp is split into good guys, or “baby faces”, and the bad guys, commonly referred to as “heels”. Typically wrestlers who posses a fair amount of acting skills and the “look” are written into the script as good guys. Wrestlers with lesser acting skills are scripted as heels and serve to get the crowd riled up. Some of the storyline can be quite surprising to the audience but truth be known, it is often written into the script for a specific reason. For instance, a wrestler who is banned from the association or forced to leave town may actually be signing a new contract with an out of state wrestling federation. The script is constructed to work around the real reason for the wrestler leaving his home. In other cases, a wrestler who is injured and forced out of the ring for a month or two may really be perfectly healthy but needs some well-deserved vacation time.
Wrestling matches are also carefully rehearsed. Most wrestlers, good guys and the heels, are friends when not in the ring. They work together to rehearse the match and ensure the fans are given a good show. Complicated wrestling moves are rehearsed extensively and the match itself then stitched together late to form the show.
Although scripted, wrestlers are often given the leeway to improvise in the ring, much like a movie actor my improvise when filming a movie scene. It is generally believed that in the smaller associations, as much as 90% of the match is improvised. Larger associations typically allow less improvising and demand strict adherence to the pre-planned script. But in all cases, the main outcome and “events” that occur during the match are scripted and practiced by the wrestlers beforehand.
Signals in the Ring
If improvising is allowed, how do they ensure the match “flows”? How can the wrestler react so quickly to a particular move without getting hurt? Wrestlers use various “signals” in the ring, signs or queues that let them know what move or series of moves is coming up next. The Announcer may use covert signals to let the wrestler and referee know when the match should end. The Announcer may make this decision if he feels the fans are losing interest.
The referee himself often provides many of the signals. The pre-match talk is typically used for last minute communications to the wrestlers, such as a reminder how the match is to end, or what signal the referee will use if a wrestler is actually hurt during the match. The referee can also be used as a proxy during the match, giving signals to the other wrestler if he is in a position where he cannot communicate with his opponent. The referee often watches the announcer for signals too, such as when to end the match early, and then relays that signal on to the wrestlers. For instance, a wave of the announcer’s pen or a scratch on his head may indicate “shut it down now” to which the referee may call the wrestlers over and let them know that the match is to be ended early.
Many wrestlers have “managers” or girlfriends that remain ringside during the match. The manager may also be used to signal the wrestlers. This may be needed when the wrestler’s back is to the opponent and a “timing” sort of move is required. The manager may give a surprised look to their wrestler to indicate, “hey, you’re about to be smacked in the back of the head with a chair”.
Surprisingly, most professional wrestling matches include “plants” in the crowd. These plants may be used to signal the announcer, the referee, or the wrestlers themselves. Often these plants become involved in the show and may actually participate in the action. Even the elderly plants are well trained stunt people.
And finally, the wrestlers themselves often signal each other during the match. Taps on the shoulder or back and pre-planned hand signals and facial expressions may be used but the most often used signal is a whisper in the ear. Watch the match carefully and you will see several opportunities for the wrestlers to whisper signals to each other. Often it is done during a headlock or when the wrestlers are passing each other in the ring.
Wrestlers signal each other primarily to tell the opponent which move or series of moves is going to be used next. They may also use a signal to let the opponent know that they are injured or need a rest. Wrestlers may signal each other with a tap on the arm to indicate that the particular hold is fine and does not hurt. Or they may whisper to their opponent, “I need a quick break please”, which may be followed by the wrestler putting his partner in a headlock and laying on the mat for a minute or too.
The particular wrestling signals are only limited by the imagination of the wrestling association but there is a common set of terminology that is used by all associations. For instance, the “booker” is the title give to the person responsible for creating the matches or “card”. The booker meets with the wrestlers before the match and instructs them on what is going to happen. He will let them know who is to be the “hero” or “face” in the match and who is going to be the “villain”. He will also run down any objects, such as a metal blade, that are going to be passed to the wrestler and how they will be passed. Metal blades used in wrestling? Most certainly, see “bleeding” below…
None of the theatrics would be possible without proper construction of the ring. Several aspects of the ring design ensure the wrestlers are not injured and that the theatrics are “amplified” to the enjoyment of the crowd. The mat itself is soft, not hard like the mats used in a professional boxing match. Flexible plywood is used under the mat with coil springs under the plywood to give it extra bounce. The ensures the hard falls and body slams do not injure the wrestler. Microphones placed under the plywood are used to capture and amplify the sound to make the falls reverberate and sound much more vicious that they really are.
The ropes that surround the ring are corded metal wrapped in vinyl or plastic sleeves. Padding under the sleeves and springs on the corners make them flexible which gives bounce to the ropes allowing the wrestlers to propel themselves off the ropes. Corner buckles, called “pillows”, where the ropes are attached to the ring posts, are heavily padded with foam too. The ring posts to which the buckles are attached, are probably the most dangerous objects in the ring. They are not flexible and the wrestlers are careful to avoid hard contact with them.
Blood in the Ring
If the ring is constructed to be safe, the blood that we see when the wrestler’s head is smashed on the corner buckle cannot be real – can it? “Bleeding” can occur in several manners. At times, a real injury may produce bleeding but most often, the blood is fake. Contained in a capsule and squashed against the wrestler’s skin, the capsule itself is often passed to the wrestler by the referee or a plant in the crowd. Occasionally it is hidden underneath the mat and grabbed in a “out of the ring” sequence of events. A tell-tale sign that a blood capsule was used is the visual disposal of the remains of the capsule. Many times it is tossed under the ring or stuffed in the wrestler’s pants. If it is accidentally dropped, one of the other participants will quickly pick it up and tuck it in their pocket. If the cameras do not cut away as planned, you’ll often see the disposal take place.
And yes, real blood is sometimes used. Using a method called “juicing”, the wrestler will use a small, compact blade to make a cut on their forehead. The blade is often passed to the wrestler by the referee since carrying the blade in their clothing during the match could be dangerous to all participants. The wrestler juices himself by poking the point of the blade into his forehead and pulling slightly with a jerk. The cut on the forehead is not dangerous because the blade is unable to penetrate the hard bone of the forehead. This area of the body bleeds profusely when cut and such a small, shallow cut will not leave a scar. Once the cut has been made, the blade is hidden in the turnbuckle (where the referee will pick it up during the match) or tossed under the mat.
And finally, sometimes the blood may result from an actual injury. Called “hardway” by the wrestlers, real blood is not desired but if bleeding does indeed occur, such as when a punch is not pulled or timed just right, the wrestler will still take advantage of the injury and play it to the crowd.
How to not get hurt (the moves)
It is of course, not in the wrestlers best interest to get hurt. So how do they manage hard punches, bone shaking body slams, and viscous twists and pulls of arms and legs without getting injured? By a combination of practice and acting. Most professional wrestlers are excellent athletes (some, particularly the big guys, are simply used as props). As with any professional athlete, they do occasionally get injured. This is supported by the common knowledge that professional wrestlers often become addicted to painkiller drugs and the stimulants that they may use to get them past the sluggishness that the painkillers may cause. Many wrestlers do die young. But the best of the best are tremendous athletes and superb actors. Careful practice of injury avoiding measures insure the move looks real but no one gets hurt. Good acting skills make the move or blow look much worse than it actually was.
In leg and headlocks, not much pressure is applied. As mentioned above, these moves are often used to give the wrestlers a break and a chance to gather their wits if they’ve taken a hard hit or fall. Punches are pulled and the hand opened to spread the impact over a larger area.
An injury free head butt is delivered by placing the hand on the opponent and then hitting the wrestler’s own hand rather than the opponent’s head. Wrestlers insure that the opponent is slammed flatly on the back in a body slam move. This serves to spread the force over a larger area of the body. The wrestler being slammed will also bend their legs backward so that their feet contact the mat first.
Pile drivers, where the wrestler is slammed headfirst onto the mat, can be life threatening if not performed correctly. The wrester avoids injuring his opponent by slamming the wrestler’s head between the wrestler’s legs so that the shoulders strike the fleshy part of their legs and therefore, absorbs most of the force. A thigh squeezed tight around the opponent’s head is used to protect the neck area. Put together and timed just right, it appears as if the wrestler is driving his opponents head into the mat.
A body splash, typically executed by diving off the ropes on top of the opponent, are one of the more spectacular moves. With the opponent lying flat on the mat, the wrestler will make a dramatic climb to the top rope and then dive onto his opponent. If you pay careful attention, you will notice that the wrestler actually lands on his own hands, elbows, and feet – the body barely touches the opponent. As discussed above, the flexible floor of the ring and the microphones placed under the mats add to the effect.
Outside the Ring
What about action outside of the ring, where a carefully designed ring is not a factor in injury prevention? Props, such as chairs, tables, or other objects are often used to punish the opponent. It’s obvious that the metal folding chairs are real but the design of the move serves to insure the blow is fairly painless. The chair is always carefully folded first. It is then positioned so that the smooth side of the chair will strike the opponent in the large, fleshy part of the back or shoulder. The metal construction insures a loud “smack” will be heard and a dramatic clasping of the head (while rolling around in pain) gives a dramatic flair to what is considered one of the safest moves in professional wrestling.
Often times an opponent is slammed on a table. In these instances, the tables have dangerous hardware removed before the match. This also allows them to “give” and break. Constructed of light weight particle board, the wrestler throws the opponent onto the exact center of the table where it will easily snap in two.
Put together properly, a professional wrestling match is enjoyable for the fans but safe for the wrestlers.