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Today's WWE Began With A Tragic Injury And A Devastating Legal Defeat

Bruno Sammartino, Vince McMahon, & Jesse Ventura as the Superstars of Wrestling broadcast team in a 1987 promotional photo.
Photo: WWE

It’s a cross between a family value and a corporate one, but WWE is notorious for not settling lawsuits. They will when they have to, as in the fight over the rights to the gimmick of the Demolition tag team, but even then they dragged it out for just over a decade before finally making the call. They don’t settle because it’s The McMahon Way, but also because they don’t have to: WWE has the money, the time, and the services of white-shoe law firms experienced in dealing with the eccentricities of pro wrestling, and they know that their combination of bottomless stubbornness and bottomless resources makes for one hell of an uphill battle for any party planning to sue. Take away those advantages, though, and things start to even out. That’s what happened 25 years ago, when a unique confluence of events helped deal WWE a pair of back-to-back legal losses, both of which changed how the company did business and helped create the colossus that bestrides the wrestling world today.

Over the course of two weeks in April of 1994, a Minnesota jury awarded Jesse Ventura over $800,000 in a fairly straightforward videotape royalties case, while a Florida jury assessed over $26 million in damages to paralyzed wrestler Chuck Austin. WWE was then a private company (Titan Sports d/b/a the World Wrestling Federation) and its sole owner, Vince McMahon, was also preparing for a third big trial, this one a federal criminal proceeding that aimed to prove that WWE was part of a conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids and defraud the Food and Drug Administration. That case, at least as it was presented, proved flimsy enough that McMahon and the company were acquitted without even having to call their own witnesses, but they correctly understood it as an existential threat. It required the full attention of their go-to attorneys, and that split focus showed in the losses WWE took in Minnesota and Florida.

With those two major civil trials set for April and the criminal trial originally set for May before being postponed to July, there was just no way for the promotion’s preferred crew of wrestling-literate lawyers to work the civil cases. Even before the trials, that capacity was stretched to the limit. In January 1994, the company came to an agreement with the World Wildlife Fund over use of the WWF initialism, which eventually cost them the name after years of violations. Per the 2002 denial of a WWE appeal that got the ball rolling on the eventual name change, then-WWE General Counsel Ed Kaufman swore in an affidavit that signing the deal with the World Wildlife Fund was “‘inexplicable,’ other than in the context of the severe pressure the McMahons had been under at the time.”

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Chuck Austin’s suit over the major spinal injury he suffered in taking Marty Jannetty’s “Rocker Dropper” move in December 1990 is a bit easier to parse than Ventura’s, as it’s fundamentally a personal injury lawsuit with a wrestling twist. It also had an impact on the main wrestling product, which Ventura’s didn’t. Austin’s $26.7 million award, which was then a Hillsborough County record, netted headlines and put the wrestling company in real and immediate danger. (The case was finally settled in August of 1995, with the Tampa Tribune reporting that Austin and his family agreed to a $10 million payout.)

At the time of his injury, Austin was a rookie with just a few matches under his belt; along with several other local wrestlers, Austin was brought in to lose a televised match against a better-known opponent. While most of today’s televised WWE matches are competitive, decades of WWF’s TV product were reliant on “squash matches,” in which the stars beat up on the hapless losers thrown out against them. WWF was not the only promotion to do this, but there was one aspect of their squashes that set the biggest company apart, and not in a good way.

Most full-time promotions developed a stable of well-trained local wrestlers who could do this kind of work and had a particular skill for making other wrestlers look good. Alabama’s Mike Jackson, for instance, carved out a niche (and a living) in his home state and Georgia because he was a truly gifted performer who happened to be wrestling in an era where he was considered too small. He lost reliably and even brilliantly, because it was his job to do so. Others were younger wrestlers getting their earliest dose of TV experience, as when Arn Anderson broke in under his real name, Marty Lunde. He was well-trained by the respected Georgia wrestler Ted Allen, performed competently while making the star look good, and paid his dues by working his way up. Many of the wrestlers who lost on TV got their real experience working in preliminary-level matches at non-televised shows on the road. Losing to a big star in a televised match was a paycheck.

Unlike a lot of other promotions, the WWF was not especially discriminating in who it brought in to lose, first when it was a regional promotion and also early in its time running nationally. There were some legitimate professionals who lost on TV and jerked the curtain at arena shows in the regional era, like Johnny Rodz and Sylvano Sousa; in the national era, the occasional Barry Horowitz type was flown to every TV taping and also toured the live event circuit. Mostly, though, WWF didn’t worry much about who it was sending out against its stars. The former ringside photographer and wrestling radio show host John Arezzi, for example, has repeatedly spoken of how he talked his way into a late ‘70s taping, where he teamed with Sousa under the name “John Anthony” in a losing effort to Dusty Rhodes. That Arezzi had to go through multiple layers of people who already knew him as a photographer probably should have raised some alarms, but no one cared enough to stop it. As a result, utter incompetents who couldn’t even run the ropes littered the promotion’s television tapings, with a mid-’80s appearance from a man calling himself “Judo” Joe Black being among the most memorable.

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This brings us back to Chuck Austin. It’s unclear just how much training he had before WWF sent him out there against Jannetty. A 1994 American Journal segment about the verdict paints a grim picture, summing up his previous career by saying, “Chuck and some friends formed a small wrestling school and began putting on amateur shows.” But Austin’s lawyer, Richard Wilkes, told Deadspin that he remembers Austin’s trainer, Cliff Sheets, as an experienced journeyman. At any rate he clearly wasn’t ready, and paid a terrible price for the promotion’s recklessness. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Austin and Jannetty disagree on how the veteran explained the “Rocker Dropper” on the night in question. For someone trained properly, the move would be simple and relatively safe; it was anything but for Austin, who claimed that, at Jannetty’s direction, he positioned his hands in a way that he couldn’t break his fall and spiked his own head into the mat. Within wrestling it’s usually described as Austin ignoring instructions and doing a somersault, and that looks like a possibility. But Jannetty is hardly an impartial source, and he didn’t adjust his move when Austin positioned his hands “wrong.” It was a terrible mistake, but clearly not one person’s alone.

(For whatever it’s worth, all the isolated clips of the move on YouTube are from after the accident, and all feature the wrestler on the receiving end using a free hand to break their fall.)

Having heard testimony from those involved and various expert witnesses—Bruno Sammartino testified for Austin and the trio of Gorilla Monsoon, Killer Kowalski, and Dean Malenko took the stand for the WWF—the jury assigned 90 percent liability to the WWF. As Wilkes explained it to Deadspin, the WWF’s argument—that the injury should be considered accident due to the assumed risk inherent to wrestling—was simple to counter. After all, in the year leading up to that night in Tampa, the WWF had been lobbying states to deregulate wrestling and thus remove medical personnel on the grounds that it was a low-risk performance. That Sammartino came off as honest and trustworthy on the stand likely hurt the defense as well, especially given how badly WWF’s designated experts came off. Gorilla Monsoon, for instance, talked about his 1976 confrontation with Muhammad Ali as if it was legitimate. “Ali found himself eight feet high in the air in an airplane spin,” Monsoon testified under penalty of perjury. “That was the last I saw of Muhammad Ali.”

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The Austin suit had an immediate and lasting impact on WWE’s wrestling product, and those changes have been a net positive for both wrestlers and fans. Untrained and otherwise ill-equipped job guys mostly disappeared from WWE programming; squash matches disappeared as a regular thing a few years later. The latter had less to do with Austin’s tragedy and the legal repercussions and more to do with the raw logic of the market: WCW launched Monday Nitro directly opposite the WWF’s Monday Night Raw, which necessitated a steady flow of competitive, action-packed matches. When squashes returned, usually on secondary shows or as a change of pace to build a new star, the losers were at least reputable and often recognizable independent wrestlers.

Even then, though, accidents will happen. Tomasso Ciampa, now a mainstay of WWE’s NXT brand, is currently out of action indefinitely as he recovers from surgery...on a neck that was broken when he did extra work in 2006 and his opponents mistimed their finishing move.

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Even if WWE had been able to fight all three suits with their usual resources, the results might not have changed. The promotion correctly went into triage mode early, understanding that while financial losses from the civil cases could be overcome, the prospect of Vince McMahon in federal prison would ruin everything. And so WWE won the one case they needed to win, and lost the two they could afford to lose. Ventura’s case was pretty straightforward—the promotion needed to pay him for videos on which he provided commentary after previously giving misleading information about their royalty system—and set no precedents; the financial impact barely left a mark on the promotion. The promotion’s usual lawyers might have done better with Austin’s case—lawyers better versed in wrestling might have stressed the rookie’s responsibility and avoided a defense contradicted by WWF’s own recent lobbying efforts, for starters—but there was only so much that could be done. Austin’s tragic injury was the culmination of years of bad practices in hiring extras and general institutional laziness, and the loss that WWE took in court catalyzed changes that made the promotion’s product better. Even when it lost, WWE somehow managed to win.


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.

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