On Sunday, fans found that WWE Network’s streaming service had chosen to devote the sixth entry in the WWE Untold series to a match that’s legendary for none of the right reasons. It’s hard to know why the promotion chose to make a documentary about the infamously and gratuitously brutal and violent match between Kurt Angle and Shane McMahon from the 2001 King of the Ring pay-per-view event at the then-Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, although the event’s 18th anniversary is coming up next week. The documentary details just how unusual the match was not just for 2001 WWE, but really for any era in the company. It is difficult to imagine a more exhaustive examination of Kurt Angle’s repeated efforts—some successful, some failed—to throw Vince McMahon’s son through the glass panels at the start of the wrestlers’ entranceway.
In all of that excruciating detail, though, the documentary leaves out the most interesting and illuminating thing about the match. It wasn’t the ultraviolence, but the defiant middle finger that all that violence represented to the law that New Jersey had just passed differentiating “extreme wrestling”—wrestling with blood and/or sharp objects likely to draw blood—as a separate, regulated entity from traditional pro wrestling. If flinging someone through panes of glass seems like something that would fit the New Jersey description of extreme wrestling...well, duh, yes. And yet WWE ladled on the brutality all the same, in a super high-profile show from the Garden State. Why? Because they could.
As discussed in this space in February, pro wrestling was deregulated by New Jersey and finally taken out of the hands of the State Athletic Control Board in 1997; it was the culmination of almost a decade of WWE-led lawsuits and lobbying efforts. But in 2000, local lawmakers, led by former Bayonne Mayor Joseph Doria, were worked up over the independent “extreme wrestling” shows that had cropped up as a side effect of deregulation. The rise of Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling and the popularity of bootleg Japanese “death match” videos—particularly those featuring a pre-WWE Mick Foley—had created both supply and demand when it came to blood and guts wrestling in the Garden State. “The legislative challenge here is to protect legitimate professional wrestling while giving the state and municipalities the legal means to control the violent sport of extreme wrestling,” Doria told the AP at the time. Richard Herring, then head of legal affairs for WWE, seemed fine with it; pro wrestling and extreme wrestling, Herring said, “are absolutely distinctive” from each other.
Things got more complicated by the time the law was drafted and passed. “Extreme wrestling” was not banned per se, but instead was handed back to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board for regulation, along with this definition:
“Extreme wrestling” means an activity in which participants struggle hand-to-hand and cut, slash, or strike each other or themselves with an implement to intentionally cause bleeding or perform any intentional act which could reasonably be expected to cause bleeding, primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest.
That’s it: The only real distinction between professional wrestling and extreme professional wrestling was the use of objects that could cause bleeding, and the bleeding that resulted. There was nothing about shots to the head, or jumping from high places, or other dangerous aspects of “extreme wrestling.” It was just bleeding, which even WWE was then doing, generally through the industry-standard self-inflicted razor blade slices to the forehead.
At the time, wrestling fans misunderstood the law somewhat, thanks mostly to some confusing text in its introduction. “[U]nlike WWF wrestling,” the introduction stated, “the popularity of extreme wrestling is driven by the bloodlust of its spectators, who clamor for the participants to continually cut, hit, and slash each other with all types of implements, including golf clubs, guitars, and cheese graters.” What was really open for misinterpretation, though, was the follow-up statement that noted the bill “does not re-regulate professional wrestling groups such as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), World Championship Wrestling (WCW) or Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), but instead distinguishes extreme wrestling from professional wrestling.” Fans did not care for this at all. Not only did the reference to ECW read as silly for obvious reasons, but the law was misinterpreted as exempting American wrestling’s three nationally televised promotions.
In reality, it did not. Anyone putting on a pro wrestling show that was going to feature performers behaving along the “extreme wrestling” parameters—cutting themselves, say, or using sharp objects—needed to get licensed as an “extreme wrestling” promoter. Whether or not a licensed extreme wrestling promoter would have then been allowed to do what they wanted is still an open question. The immediate result of the law being passed in Fall 2000 was that the main “extreme” New Jersey promotions, Jersey All-Pro Wrestling and Combat Zone Wrestling, just ceased doing that stuff in New Jersey. JAPW ended up abandoning it outright, while CZW moved its wilder shows to Delaware and, to an extent, Pennsylvania. (The qualifier is there because the Keystone State’s commission can be described as “temperamental.”)
By the time King of the Ring hit the Meadowlands in June, the issue was largely in the rear-view mirror. Hell, CZW had even started buying TV time in Philadelphia to showcase their newly toned-down shows. “Extreme wrestling” had been a big story, and everyone was aware of it, but there was no reason to think that WWE’s first pay-per-view in New Jersey since the law was passed would be controversial. Blood, though still common, wasn’t on every major show, and WWE largely eschewed the use of other sharp objects. (Even when Mick Foley used a 2x4 wrapped in barbed wire in 2000, it was clearly switched with one that had “gimmicked” wire for part of the match.) So what could possibly go wrong?
A lot, as it turned out.
Until the rise of the death match/extreme style over the past two decades, broken glass was never especially common in pro wrestling. When it was there, it usually centered around beer bottles—wrestler breaking a full bottle over his own head to show how angry he was, say, or a rival using an empty one as a weapon. The former depended upon a wrestler hitting himselfthe right spot and making sure the glass didn’t go in the wrong direction; the latter usually involved baking the bottle to soften it. More carefully arranged stunts in bigger budget promotions could use sugar glass. Generally speaking, though, wrestlers weren’t fucking around with broken glass much at all. It’s dangerous, after all.
Angle and McMahon doing what they did at King of the Ring 2001 was not something anyone expected, or which really made sense for either character. Why, after all, would an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling and Vince McMahon’s son go to town on each other in such unflinchingly violent fashion? Shane had done big stunts in the past, but those involved crash pads more than the usual pro wrestling danger; Angle was a technician.
Shane’s ring attire covered him much more than standard wrestling gear would, which explains why someone might think why a glass stunt could go relatively smoothly, especially if he hit the pane with his body spread out. Broken glass goes flying back into the set, nowhere near the crowd; everyone is relatively fine; it makes a big mess and gets a big pop. That only worked in theory.
First problem: The glass didn’t break, so Shane bounced off and landed on the back of his head with a sickening thud. In the WWE Untold documentary, producer Bruce Prichard reveals that someone had the bright idea to reinforce the glass, so that the pyrotechnic displays wouldn’t break it. How that kind of miscommunication happens when the glass was also supposed to have Vince McMahon’s son go flying through it is a question left unanswered in the film. Angle, professional that he is, followed up by trying again, this time suplexing Shane through the glass at a harsher angle. It worked, but when Angle tried to throw Shane through from the other side...it happened again. The glass didn’t break, and the two clashed heads on the way down.
You don’t need to have seen the match to know what’s coming next. While Prichard yelled from behind the curtain to stop, Angle once again chucked Shane, this time head-first—Angle admitted was his intent, as that approach was likeliest to break the glass—and the boss’s son again crashed through the pane. Shane emerged dazed and covered in blood, Angle put him on a cart and shoved him to the ring, and set up the finish—his “Angle Slam,” this time done off a plywood board perched on the top rope for no apparent reason. Referee Mike Chioda looked terrified and had to hold the board steady, but they hit the move, and that was it. Vince McMahon, justifiably upset after seeing what had happened to his son, stormed off to take some time to himself.
For all the reasons he had to be upset, it’s doubtful that Vince was worried that the match violated the extreme wrestling regulations. It did, and given that smaller promotions had changed to reflect the new law, King Of The Ring was likely one of the first if not the first event to violate the regulations. Normally, you’d expect a move like that from a renegade indie promoter—say, New York’s Casanova Valentine, who runs unregulated no-ring death matches in bars in a commission state, and has avoided regulatory scrutiny by positioning his shows as performance art. Instead, the biggest wrestling promotion in the world, then a new monopoly, openly flouted Jersey’s “extreme wrestling law.” WWE could easily afford compliance; this meant, thanks to how money and power work, that it could also afford not to comply with the law.
For indie promotions on the other side of the monopoly, though, the law worked just as it was intended—as a deterrent. According to a source familiar with the process, New Jersey has, in almost 19 years, never received a single license application for “extreme wrestling.” Eventually, it stopped mattering; matches that would be considered “extreme” have been held in-state for years. Of course by then WWE had already shown that it never really mattered in the first place.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., 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.