By Kris Levin, Columnist
On April 25th, 2018, the Impact Wrestling tapings suddenly ground to a screeching halt after an unexpected in-ring injury (is there such thing as an expected in-ring injury?). The three-minute duration more closely resembled an hour amid a cacophony of silence. An hour is not the most accurate way to describe the perception of time during that moment and every other moment I have been present to witness an in-ring injury. No, instead, time stands still during those nerve-wracking moments while the fire department and EMTs are on the way and you are hoping against all available evidence that things are not as severe as they appear to be.
“It’s a full contact sport.” That axiom was, quite literally, beaten into me as a scrawny, shaggy-haired teenager pursuing a dream of professional wrestling stardom over a decade ago. And, boy, is it ever. Professional wrestling is unlike any other form of athletic exhibition or theatrical production imaginable. For the uninitiated, the best way I could summarize professional wrestling would be that it is a pseudo-sport dramatically presented in theatre-in-the-round with an ensemble cast of performers who all double as highly-trained actors and stunt persons. With a live studio audience of hundreds or even thousands and often exponentially more watching live at home, we are generally not afforded the opportunity of a do-over. As legendary broadcaster Jim Ross told a noticeably flustered Sycho Sid, who requested a retake after he stumbled over his lines at the inaugural In Your House, “it’s live, pal.”
Even in the best of circumstances of any physical endeavor, let alone when the stakes are high and the pressure is on, accidents happen. Even among the world’s most talented performers who have received the best training. Even when the margin of error is minimized to the nth degree, these hazardous setbacks will still happen from time to time. It is crucial that, in response to these mishaps, no further mistakes are made on the part of those responsible for the well-being of those unfortunate performers who, like the rest of us, put their bodies in the hands of a dance partner every night on the road.
Within the air-conditioned oasis of Universal Studios’ Stage 19, the “Impact Zone,” everything seemed to be business as usual. Luchadores Aero Star and Drago were competing against DJZ and Andrew Everett in Impact’s signature, fast-paced, lucha libre-inspired X-Division action. It was a phenomenal bout taped for an upcoming episode of the television product from which the company adopted its name, Impact. Yes, everything seemed business as usual until, after that final aerial maneuver and my three count that signaled the conclusion of the match, Aero Star lay motionless in a supine position. It was then when, absent were the dramatic throes of pain and the expressed anguish of defeat, I realized something was wrong. Aero Star was conscious, but speaks very little English. I would describe myself as less than half-fluent in Spanish and, for thoroughness’ sake, immediately grabbed his partner, Drago, whose grasp of English was marginally better. Throwing up my arms over my head in a cross to create the ubiquitous “X” symbol to signify a real-life injury and the need for immediate medical attention, the surreality and feeling of impotence on my part of being unable to do anything further was felt immeasurably.
Thankfully, on that balmy Florida night, after being afforded the opportunity to catch his breath, with assistance, Aero Star was able to walk to the back and, by night’s end, was getting around unassisted, even joking and laughing with the boys, seemingly having suffered nothing more than severely having the wind knocked from him. The entirety of the experience brought me back to a decade prior to when I fifteen years old, the first time I discussed the concept of what the proper etiquette would be, should an in-ring injury occur. I remember it clear as day as I prepared for my first live officiating experience in the days leading to my in-ring debut on June 21st, 2008. I remember being gravely told by one of the trainers that my job as an official was a very serious one, that the course and decisiveness of my own actions could very well make the difference between life and death. Trying not to laugh, I reacted to this melodramatic message with all the poise and maturity you would expect of a fifteen year old.
Whether he was legitimately attempting to express upon me the seriousness of the responsibility one takes on when taking up the mantle of an official or if he was just trying to rattle the cage of the new kid, I am unsure. In the first few years of my career, I was lucky to have relatively few encounters with in-ring injuries. The first time I was confronted with one was during my ninth match on December 13th, 2008. I was the sole official for Empire Wrestling Alliance, one of the handful of small New Jersey promotions I garnered experience for while under the wing of an early trainer, Tommy Force. That night he was competing against Steve the Teacher in what was expected to be an easy match for all involved. Prior to the bout, Steve was presented with a spray painted “prestigious golden chalkboard eraser” for his years of service within the educational system; a Chekhov’s Gun that was to be fired at the conclusion of the match.
In the middle of the match, a sequence was planned to initiate a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the protagonist, Tommy Force, which saw the antagonist, Steve, miss a somersault from the top rope. In reality, however, it proved to be a very real reversal of fortune for Steve, who landed on his head and momentarily knocked himself unconscious. In the ensuing chaos of attempting to finish the match, Steve misplaced his cherished golden eraser and, for want of a new ending in his concussed state, clocked Tommy with a textbook while I was distracted by the ringside manager and my longtime friend, Jaden.
Lost in the abyss of fifteen-hundred-plus matches that I have refereed since then, I no longer recall what the original finish was, but I know that certainly wasn’t it. Not wanting the wrong person to walk away with their arm raised, I “discovered” the textbook and, after affirming with the crowd my suspicion that Steve underhandedly utilized it to score the victory, I reversed the decision and awarded the contest to Tommy Force. That night I was commended by the locker room for my quick thinking in coming up with a new finish on the fly when I was still so green to the industry.
As simple as it was and in front of a crowd of dozens at best, when I reflect back on that, I still smile at my sixteen year old self for having enough common sense to not panic and handle the situation with a simple resolution. Since then, I have witnessed my fair share of in-ring injuries. While they are always unfortunate, I am confident in my abilities to calmly handle any situation as best as humanly possible with the resources I have available to me. With what we now know about concussions, ideally, the first sign of one should lead to the match being stopped. For better or for worse, wrestlers are a stubborn breed who, by and large, will do everything in their power to hide the injury and soldier on to the match’s predestined conclusion (or at least to one that does not include match stoppage). This epidemic of toxic masculinity that propagates the idea of shaking it off and finishing the game is a cultural and societal epidemic related to all sports, not professional wrestling alone, and I imagine will take at least a generation or more before its ideals can be overturned in our personal zeitgeist.
As the battle for the cultural climate of sports to catch up with modern medicinal knowhow of concussions continues, there are common sense measures that myself and all other professional wrestling referees can take in relation to other in-ring injuries. Any trained, experienced eye will recognize the telltale signs of an injury virtually immediately: a sense of dazed confusion or even panic; suddenly dropping character or other story elements of a match, such as no longer theatrically portraying a (feigned) match-related injury; or vice versa, a sudden, inexplicable “selling” of an injury that is incongruous with the nature of the match thus far. Sometimes this can happen off of something obviously gone wrong – a bad landing on the head or neck, a misstep that leads to a clearly injured limb – sometimes a sudden, unexpected collapse can occur during something as simple as walking or running. In a trade where physicality and dramatics are currency, one barters in the fog that exists between pain and mere illusion.
I again faced that fog on October 1st, 2016, when Jersey All Pro Wrestling ran a “spot show” (a one-off event in a town where events are held infrequently) featuring a four way elimination scramble. In the course of the match, Danny DeManto – down over one hundred and sixty pounds from his heaviest and now certifiably a light heavyweight – executed a picture perfect moonsault from the top rope to the outside onto his three opponents. It is not within the scope of this article to debate what exactly went wrong, but by move’s completion, Danny had broken his femur on the metal guardrail that surrounded the ringside area. I heard it before I saw it, it is a noise I will never forget.
I immediately left the ring and raced to his side. Danny was fully conscious and in shock, pale as a ghost. Everyone in the immediate vicinity, including Danny, knew that his leg was broken. Again, I reiterate, I have never felt more powerless than when I threw up that “X” sign and helplessly waited for someone – anyone – to arrive.
Once assistance had arrived, I returned to the ring with the other three competitors. All of us were shaken, but professional wrestling has an inherent “the show must go on” mentality. After a quick conference with the promoter ringside, I spread the word to the performers that we were to “take it home” (end the match) immediately. We quickly went through the planned ending sequence that saw a rapid secession of eliminations, but nobody’s heart – especially that of the crowd, was into it. Afterwards, we stayed by Danny while the show was temporarily halted for a further twenty or so minutes, until finally the crowd parted like the Red Sea as the EMTs arrived and took Danny to the promised land of the nearest hospital. During those harrowing moments once the EMTs arrived, I stood by him in silent hope that the fracture was not compound. Mercifully, it was not. Since then, Danny, albeit left with a slight limp as a souvenir, has made a miraculous recovery to the point of even being able to work matches again. Danny, you da’ real MVP.
So, what should an official do when they are faced with any such predicament of unexpected horror? Whether you are certain or not if someone is injured, if you have reason to suspect that is the case, halt all action immediately and make sure everyone is okay. Kayfabe, the flow, rhythm, and pace of a match or event, or any other possible consideration within the realm of professional wrestling has absolutely zero importance when confronted with the health, safety, and well-being of a performer. If they need medical attention, call for it unhesitatingly – stop the match immediately. Gather as much information as you can to present to the appropriate professionals and facilitate communication as quickly as possible with all involved parties. Feeling powerless is not one in the same as actually being powerless.
Don’t count a cover, just end it. Everyone involved will understand – and if they don’t, then they don’t belong in a wrestling ring in 2018. Make sure that nobody other than people who know what they are doing lays hands on them – that is, unless, you need to stymie the gushing blood of an open wound. That is something I have far too much experience with from working in the gore-filled world of deathmatch wrestling… like the time Lucky tHURTeen had a ice cream scoop-sized hole in his back due to a misadventure involving a misplaced lighttube. But, I digress. As Mako narrated at the end of Conan the Barbarian and Destroyer of the hero’s future exploits as a king, “in time… this story shall also be told” exclusively in the next edition of Tales from the Mat on 5/17/18.
Until next time, I hope you enjoyed this tale from the mat.
Warmest regards, Kris Levin.
cover photo: Andre D. Brown