Four years ago, fans watching some of the independent shows in New Orleans via internet pay-per-view during WrestleMania weekend got some strange news. Announcers mentioned that the piledriver had been banned by the Louisiana Boxing and Wrestling Commission, and so would not be seen in any of the events. It’s one thing for this to have been a rule when the wrestling business was still selling specious realism as part of the story; when states like Tennessee banned the head-spiking move, promoters swiftly worked it into storylines. It’s another thing, too, for this to be a rule in parts of Mexico that have their own wrestling commissions, and where there is still more of a veneer of mystery to what pro wrestling really is. But in Louisiana, in 2014?
With WrestleMania and its surrounding events returning to New Orleans in April, the Piledriver conundrum naturally came back up. John Pollock of POST Wrestling spoke to Russell Naquin, the point person for wrestling on Louisiana’s state commission, about a month ago, and confirmed that both blood and piledrivers remain banned from wrestling matches in Louisiana. In Pollock’s words, “The reason for the banning of piledrivers is because of an injury to a performer several years ago.” While the piledriver is one of the most protected moves—in terms of being portrayed as causing serious injuries—in wrestling history, it is also pretty damn safe when done correctly. Whether the traditional seated version (think Paul Orndorff or Jerry Lawler) or the kneeling tombstone variation (think The Undertaker or Kane), the victim’s head is kept elevated and the wrestler giving the move takes the brunt on his/her butt or knees.
As with any pro wrestling move, it can go wrong, but experienced elite professionals seldom screw it up. There is no trail of wrestlers crippled by the piledriver; the wrestlers best known for suffering legitimate injuries from it (Steve Austin, Masahiro Chono, and Taz) got hurt on non-standard variations in which it’s more difficult to protect the head and neck.
So what happened, here? What exactly is banned in Louisiana, and what can promoters and wrestlers do about it? You will not be surprised to learn that it’s complicated.
Pro wrestling is, in some form or fashion, regulated by an athletic commission in just under half the states in the union as well as the District of Columbia. Exactly how much oversight those commissions have varies wildly from one state to the next, and the Association of Boxing Commissions has not established any guidelines for wrestling since they concern themselves mainly with legitimate combat sports. Some states do little more than collect extra taxes; others, like New York, add some safety guidelines and require licenses for promoters. Others still, like Louisiana, put controls on the in-ring performance. The system is an artifact of a bygone era, although clearly still capable of adding complications in this one.
Louisiana’s current issues with the piledriver go back to a show in 1996. Aldus Gene Bergeron, wrestling as Gino Van Dam, was paralyzed after what he claimed was a miscommunication over what maneuver was being performed. He sued his opponent, Jason “Steve Anthony” Dupre, and the promotion (Mid-South Wrestling, not to be confused with the promotion that ran in Louisiana from 1979 to 1987). He also sued the commission, and dropped the first two before trial. The result was a settlement worth several million dollars, which was upheld on appeal. The appellate judges took particular care to note that the commission was liable because:
- It did not do its statutory duty to prevent sham matches.
- Since the injury took place during a post-match attack, they didn’t effectively enforce their own rules about the ring being emptied immediately after a bout.
By 2007, the statutes were amended to exclude pro wrestling from the law about “sham” matches; in the meantime, temporary rules were enacted to eliminate the piledriver. None of these rules are listed on the commission website, which includes a rule document dated 2010. John Green Jr., the lawyer serving as commission secretary, provided a redlined version of the rules, dated 2017, to Deadspin. It has a section on banned wrestling moves that reads as follows:
1. All variations of the Pile Driver;
2. All variations of the Power Bomb;
3. The “Moonsault”, “Shooting Star”, or “450 Splash” or any variation thereof which involves one wrestler, leaping or flipping off the ropes or turnbuckles to contact the head or neck of the opponent with any part of his body;
4. The “Stungun” of any variation thereof which results in the one fighter’s head or neck being dragged, draped or “closelined” [sic] across the ropes;
5. The striking of a wrestler’s head with any object, chair, trashcan [sic] lid, etc., and
6. No wrestler shall throw, push, shove or force another out of the ring or over the top rope.
Another section adds that “The Commission Official [on site] may, at his sole discretion, allow wrestlers to perform prohibited holds, moves or maneuvers listed above, provided permission is sought and obtained prior to the event by both wrestlers and the requesting wrestlers have sufficient training, athletic ability and experience to perform the maneuver without endangering one another.” The first two move bans make a degree of sense in this specific situation: Bergeron claimed that he got hurt because he thought that the piledriver that paralyzed him was going to be a powerbomb, so he jumped when he shouldn’t have.
Wrestling fans will have noticed a fairly obvious problem with these rules, though. Every move listed in the fourth line is not designed, either in storyline or reality, “to contact the head or neck.” Green would not give a clear answer past deferring to the rule about exemptions when asked if those moves—all flipping dives designed to land center mass—would be considered illegal if performed the way they’re supposed to be performed. The aforementioned Russell Naquin would usually be the one to make the call about who can do which banned moves, but Green—who didn’t know about Pollock’s post, said that they don’t like for Naquin to speak to the press. In his response to an email from Deadspin, Naquin directed us to contact Green.
As for those exemptions, Green quickly made it clear that WWE is not subject to the move bans, as the commission trusts the competence and training of their wrestlers. With Ring of Honor being a “major league” group now and running UNO Lakefront Arena the night before WrestleMania, he felt the same way about that promotion. But given how many of the wrestlers on independent shows that week in New Orleans qualify as “well-trained professionals,” shouldn’t those shows be treated as major league events in terms of the exemption? Where is the line, and why is it there? Again, Green left it up to Naquin.
Pretty much all of the non-WWE shows taking place WrestleMania weekend are using Luke Hawx’s Wildkat Sports promotion as the local promoter for regulatory purposes. “I’m just trying to help,” Hawx told Deadspin. “It would be easier to just shut down everything and say no, nobody could use the [promoter’s] license, and run my own show, but why the hell would I do that? I got no grudges against these people, and I work with a lot of them already. I want everybody to succeed.”
This also serves to help Hawx get exposure for his students, who will be appearing on various shows that weekend, including Wildkat’s own bill next Thursday. Hawx wants WrestleMania weekend to boost the local scene and not just the numerous out of town promotions coming in for the week, and is working to do just that. But even as the wrestling promoter who has more experience with the commission than anyone else, Hawx hadn’t even heard about the more intrusive rules established last year.
“I don’t know anything about that,” he said. “We’ve never had any problems with doing 450s or moonsaults or anything like that. Our rules are fighting in the crowd, piledrivers, and bleeding. As long as you stay away from that stuff, you’re good to go. They’re not a stickler for the other stuff.” He chalked up the aforementioned rule banning various flipping moves when done in a non-traditional way to the commission not having any wrestlers on it. And as for the matter of exemptions? Hawx doesn’t see the commission being wrestling-literate enough to grant them outside of the major arena shows in New Orleans, which effectively limits them to WWE and Ring Of Honor.
“I already talked to ‘em [at the commission] and here’s the thing: The commission don’t know any of these guys,” Hawx said. “They don’t know what they’re capable of. There’s a big difference between Joey Janela doing a piledriver and Undertaker. Undertaker’s on TV for 25-30 years now. And I’m not dissing Joey Janela. If this guy wants to do a Canadian Destroyer [somersault piledriver], they’re not going to let that fly.” If any rule violations get out of hand, it’s Luke’s license on the line, not those of the many outside promoters he’s dealing with from the United States, United Kingdom, and Mexico.
Regardless, Hawx feels that the biggest problem with how wrestling regulation is handled lies not in an overabundance of banned moves, but a lack of oversight for wrestling schools. He thinks the commissions should certify that schools train wrestlers properly. “It’s too easy to get into pro wrestling,” he said. “There are no qualifications to get into pro wrestling nowadays. Back in the day they’d stretch you, beat you up. They didn’t really have a lot of shitty indie promotions around. Whereas now, the market’s flooded because all you need to do is buy a ring. Even with the commission, any commission in the United States, they’ll put you through some blood tests, which I think is great, but there’s no certificate or anything saying ‘I’ve been trained properly.’ I have people who have been in my school, they were there six to eight months, they hate training, so they quit. And the next thing you know, they open their own school and own promotion.” He likens the commission’s ideal role to the one it plays in boxing and mixed martial arts: in a legitimate combat sports competition, they’re supposed to prevent mismatches. In a “worked” setting, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop wrestlers who are a danger to themselves and others from performing than to mandate what rules all performers can do?
Without much in the way of personal worry about the commission for an incredibly busy week, Hawx is particularly looking forward to his match on the proper Wildkat card and using the big stage to spotlight the local scene. “It’s the biggest show we’ve ever promoted, so we really went all in on it and we’re putting everything we’ve got in it,” he said. That includes his own match, which has a particular significance to him: Luke, veteran Mexican luchador Damian 666, and Roy “Zebra Kid” Knight, all longtime friends dating back to the defunct XPW promotion, will be teaming with their sons in a three-way tag team match. “It’s a real personal match, and everybody wants to go out there and do the best they can.”
Wildkat doesn’t have the buzz that the indies with more of a social media profile are getting, but he’s not worried: He just wants to prove how good his crew is. “It’s a weird catch-22 for us, because our tickets are normally cheaper, like half the price of this show,” he said, citing the $10,000 rent on the Sugar Mill venue that’s hosting this and several other shows. Hawx is hoping that he can get his usual strong local crowd even with that change. With all the wrestling tourists in town for WrestleMania, he thinks he can pull it off. “We’re unique,” he says. “We don’t try and copy anybody else’s style, we don’t really bandwagon off the hot things from the indies, we just have some super-talented guys who haven’t gotten the exposure.” At the very least, Hawx and his fellow local heroes know the rules well enough not to get too excited and attempt a piledriver.
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