On Saturday night, I went to a show from House of Glory, one of the local independent wrestling promotions in New York City. It was a really fun show until an accident in the semifinal match, when Chris Seaton of the New York Wrecking Krew tag team broke his femur in a freak accident; he landed wrong doing a moonsault off the top rope. I’ve seen too many injuries live at indie shows, and this one—Seaton came up screaming, passed out, and then woke back up again, screaming—was easily the most chilling. The dangers of pro wrestling were fresher in my mind than usual going into Sunday night, when WWE was running its annual TLC: Tables, Ladders, and Chairs pay-per-view event.
Most years, WWE has tried to extract multiple gimmicked-up matches out of the show, with one match for each named weapon as well as the eponymous TLC match. In 2014, they even experimented with changing the show to “Tables, Ladders, Chairs ... and Stairs.” The “stairs match,” thankfully, was gone in 2015. The event can be overkill and places ridiculous demands on the talent, so it was refreshing when this year’s announced card included just a single TLC headliner, which would showcase the reunion of The Shield. Said showcase went to hell when Roman Reigns was sidelined by a viral infection that took out at least three other performers who live in the Florida panhandle. WWE, in trying to save the card, announced that Kurt Angle, currently the on-screen general manager of the Raw brand, would be Reigns’ replacement.
Angle, for the uninitiated, is pretty much held together by bolts and wire thanks to, among other injuries, numerous neck breaks. His neck issues go back to his Olympic wrestling days, where he purposefully landed on his head to avoid dropping a point. They worsened once he headed to WWE. Angle has preferred neurosurgeon at home in Pittsburgh who does a minimally invasive surgery to fix up his neck and has done so numerous times; he has never opted for the more permanent fix of having vertebrae fused together. This would be Angle’s first match period in seven months as well as his first in WWE since being fired 11 years ago for refusing to go to rehab for his painkiller addiction; to his credit, Angle is now over four years sober after his first stint in treatment. In the interim, Angle wrestled for Impact Wrestling and later took occasional independent bookings. In the eight indie matches after he left Impact in early 2016, he was generally wrestling conservative, matwork-heavy, short matches that protected his body.
Watching the TLC main event was, as outlined previously, a bizarre experience in many ways. But nothing about it was stranger than how Angle looked. He took very little punishment, with a couple relatively safe bumps mixed in, and was mostly just there to hit the bad guys with weapons en route to suplexing them. There were moments when it looked like he forgot how to open and close folding chairs and ladders for some reason, but questions about whether or not this was a good idea faded as the match went on. It seemed like all was well in the world of Kurt Angle ... until it wasn’t.
Just before the end of the bout, Angle did one of his routine spots with The Miz, where he went to apply his ankle lock and got kicked off, sending him through the ropes to the floor. Angle just kind of fell through, not coming close to clearing the ring apron, and landed on the top of his head. He quickly bounced up and landed on his head again before crumpling to the floor. Time stood still for a moment. I thought he might have finally maimed or killed himself in the ring. And then he popped up and re-entered the match moments later.
This is a guy who once, in 2003, broke his neck shortly before WrestleMania, participated in planning to safely switch his WWE championship to Chris Benoit in a quick match, then decided to work the big show anyway. In that match, the show-closing main event with Brock Lesnar, Angle pulled out all the stops; if anything, he worked more recklessly than he usually did. The match ended with both wrestlers being hospitalized: Angle with shock from spinal issues and Lesnar for a concussion that he suffered after under-rotating on his finishing move off the top rope. It was a fitting end to a weekend in which Steve Austin, who lost the prior match to The Rock, was also hospitalized, with heart palpitations.
But that was then and this is now, and more to the point Angle is not a full-time wrestler or close to it anymore. He has also clearly been taking better care of his body in matches since getting sober and winding down his career. Angle’s past injuries stemmed from a willing and even willful recklessness that went all the way back to the original injury in the Olympic trials, and which enfolds the aforementioned WrestleMania 19 match; the subsequent surgery was completely undone with a single chair shot to the head. What happened—or almost happened, depending on how you want to see it—on Sunday was clearly not Angle trying to add to the match. It was the natural result of a man who is about to turn 49 and has been through over 21 years of repeated major spinal injuries (and knee injuries, and other injuries of attrition) returning cold after significant time off.
This was not the type of botched move that just happens, in short. It’s how it looks when an older, broken down wrestler tries to go through or over the ropes. That doesn’t always end with a wrestler landing on his or her head, but the fact that this one did wasn’t quite a fluke. Angle looked more like an 80 year old Mae Young taking that bump than he did an even vaguely healthy late career wrestler winding things down. There’s a reason for that.
Maybe a match that’s not on such short notice would result in a much less rusty Kurt Angle, to be fair. He really is a once a lifetime talent, but Angle also has a once in a lifetime history of injuries. Wrestlers with destroyed necks like Angle’s are always told that they’re one bad bump away from death; Japan’s Mitsuharu Misawa actually took that bad bump and died in the ring. If Angle doesn’t have the body control to save himself on routine moves anymore and wants to take every step to avoid a similar future for himself, he needs to hang up his boots for good.