The biggest wrestling story of the week happened by accident, during a six-woman tag team match on this week’s edition of WWE’s Monday Night Raw. The Bella Twins, who returned to in-ring action a few weeks back, were the main attraction in that match; Brie Bella, in what has become one of her signature moves, delivered the repeated, rhythmic kicks to the chest that have long been a trademark of her husband, Daniel Bryan. In theory, this is a pretty safe move as wrestling moves go. While the recipient—in this case Liv Morgan—leaves him/herself completely open with hands down, the wrestler throwing the kicks is still aiming for center mass. A properly trained wrestler can pretty much kick the back or chest with impunity and without injuring their opponent; this is true almost all the time.
But not every time. On Monday, Brie’s kicks started to stray, and a kick that would have been safe if delivered to the chest instead blasted Morgan in the jaw. Because Morgan’s head dropped after she got tagged, the next kick hit her in the head as well. Morgan was knocked so loopy that when Bella attempted to lock up with her to get her to tag out of the match, she collapsed and wound up getting dragged to the corner by her head. Fightful’s Sean Ross Sapp reported the next day that Morgan had to be physically restrained from finishing the match while being told not to. WWE confirmed to him that Morgan was diagnosed with a concussion.
Wrestling is a physical performance and accidents happen; nobody is suggesting this was intentional, or anything but the sort of mistake that humans make. Brie apologized privately according to Sapp, as well as publicly on Twitter. But this situation is also more complicated than a single accident. Since her return last month, Brie Bella has—as Sapp noted on Twitter—quite noticeably been throwing some live rounds in the ring. The most memorable of these, at least before Monday, was a brutal looking running knee to the face of Zelina Vega three weeks ago. The concerns over her in-ring performance isn’t just about her tagging other wrestlers, though: Brie also thoroughly messed up an attempted dive to the floor the night before the Vega match and wound up hanging herself up in the ropes, a mistake which was so conspicuous that she discussed it in a Yahoo! Sports interview a week later.
“With any type of physical body change, it changes so much,” she said of her pregnancy. “Even last week on Raw when I did the suicide dive and it was less momentum than I should have had, I forgot that I’m 10 pounds heavier than what I was. Gravity doesn’t lie. That was a little different for me.” Elsewhere in that interview, Bella also noted that, “I was so blown up at the end of the match trying to catch my breath” and explained that in-ring conditioning is difficult to get back without doing matches. “I do so much conditioning, I could probably go run a marathon and kill it,” Bella said, “but in-ring endurance you only get by having matches.” It wasn’t entirely clear if she was saying that she hadn’t trained in a ring before returning, which is something that many wrestlers do; Chris Jericho, for example, routinely flies to longtime friend and former tag team partner Lance Storm’s wrestling school to get into ring shape for comebacks. A WWE spokesman told Deadspin that his understanding was that Bella was simply saying that no preparation fully simulates and prepares you for a live match in front of fans.
None of this is intended to blame Brie Bella, let alone Brianna Danielson, the woman behind the wrestling persona. But the mistakes are what they are, and WWE will have to deal with the fallout. Just how, if at all, is a question mark, though. After all, office politics impact everything in wrestling, and Bella is not just a recognizable long-tenured female wrestler who’s currently on both Raw and SmackDown. She’s also the star of one of the promotion’s reality shows and an immediate family member of other, even bigger stars.
Corey Graves, WWE’s lead color commentator and ostensibly an unofficial voice of company positions on air and on Twitter, chalked Monday’s kick up to “a bad day at work” in a series of tweets. This is obvious, though—no one worth listening to believes it was anything but an accident. The concern, at least among fans, is that it is an accident that fits into a broader pattern. And WWE, as it happens, has a history of informally punishing wrestlers that they deem to be dangerous.
Most infamously, there was the handling of Ken Anderson, known in WWE as Mr. Kennedy, when he, like Brie Bella, returned from a long layoff—in his case, 10 months for a dislocated shoulder—and immediately dropped Randy Orton on his head. As tracked by the website Pro Wrestling Stories, which collates quotes from third-party interviews and other sources, Anderson returned from the injury on the May 25, 2009 edition of Monday Night Raw in the show’s main event, a ten-man tag team match with Orton on the opposing side. At one point in the match Anderson gives Orton a back suplex; from the TV camera angle, the landing itself doesn’t look like anything out of the ordinary. What happens right afterward really is, though: Orton pops up to his knees, makes some kind of angry gesture to Kennedy, and only then falls down to actually sell the effects of said suplex.
According to Kennedy’s account to Pro Wrestling Report a few months later, Orton jumped too high for the move, which required him to compensate in order to make it work. Though he didn’t think Orton landed on his neck, Anderson was still the recipient of an Orton “lecture” about safety after the match in front of everyone, including the McMahons. In a post on his now-defunct message board, Orton disputed some of those details, but admitted that he asked not to work with Kennedy anymore.
Last year, though, a noticeably more mature Kennedy fessed up.
“We were tight,” he said in a YouShoot interview, responding to a fan question about why he and Orton had a falling out. “We just, you know…I don’t know...I dropped him on his head. You saw it. Plain as day, right? I dropped him on his head. I’d be pissed if you dropped me on my head.”
Anderson also framed the Orton incident as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for him at the company. He’d felt that he was on thin ice already due to the fallout from his Fox News appearance in the aftermath of the Chris Benoit murder-suicide. Just weeks after going on TV in a segment in which he got WWE drug testing policy wrong and claimed the policy got him off steroids, Anderson was outed as a recent steroid buyer and suspended. “I think when those guys went to Vince, he was just like ‘You know what? I’m tired of hearing his name in a negative light. Get rid of him,’” Anderson said. “Plus I had been hurt a few times.”
Should WWE handle the similar Brie Bella situation the same way? No, it should not. But should they at least make sure she gets a lot more private ring time while she’s ramping up her comeback? Absolutely. Accidents happen, but when the accidents become a pattern—as they did two years ago with Seth Rollins—they start to look like the byproduct of recklessness and need to be corrected.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.