In 1997, Owen Hart put up the WWF’s Intercontinental Title against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin at the SummerSlam pay-per-view. The match itself was going fine until Owen performed a piledriver on Austin. Austin’s head wasn’t tucked in all the way and Owen unintentionally spiked him down hard. Suffering from what is known as a “stinger”, Austin lost feeling in his arms and legs. It was almost as if he were paralyzed. Austin would later say it was the scariest moment of his entire life. Not knowing what to do or how seriously hurt Austin was, Owen played to the crowd to buy time so the official could assess the situation. Barely moving, Austin weakly rolled up Owen to win the title. Unable to stand on his own, Stone Cold had to be helped to the back.
The piledriver, like any move in professional wrestling, can be very hazardous if the right precautions aren’t taken. Still no matter how much care is exercised, accidents can, will, and do happen. NASCAR racers crash. Hockey and football players leave the game on stretchers sometimes. Horses trample rodeo cowboys. Even baseball players get hit with wild pitches on occasion. It’s horrible but that’s the price paid for being in professional sports. For fans and players alike, the ever present danger is part of the adrenaline rush. It’s part of the fun and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the players respect the limitations placed upon them.
To lessen the chance of a very serious injury sports have adopted certain measures over the years. Protective equipment has been brought in. New rules are put in place and penalties for breaking them. These standards work well providing the “powers that be” are willing to enforce them. Ain’t that right, National Hockey League or should I say the National Roller Ball League?
Following in these footsteps, the WWF decided not long ago, to ban the piledriver manoeuver unless special permission is given. The WWF says too many people were being hurt. This may seem odd coming from a Federation that sanctioned Mick Foley leaping off the top of a steel cage and falling through a table live on pay-per-view. Like the other federations, the WWF has no qualm about allowing their talent to take risks and put their bodies on the line. Again, it’s what the sports entertainment business is all about. It’s why the fans respect and admire the majority of professional wrestlers.
But why the piledriver and why now? I believe the answer is found in the WWF talent pool itself. It’s the reason why Chris Jericho was unfairly criticized when he first entered the Federation, why Tazz and Saturn aren’t tossing people around like rubber dolls like they did elsewhere and why it has taken so long for any of the Radicals to be pushed hard. The predominately North American-trained wrestlers can’t deal with their sophisticated style derived from old school training and tours of Japan and Mexico. We’ve seen each and every one of these talented men “dumb down” their usually full-tilt, uncompromising, intricate approach to “fit in” or the bookers have paired them off with suitable opponents who have similar backgrounds like X-Pac, Val Venis and Essa Rios.
It’s the same explanation for why the WWF went outside the promotion to fill their so-called Light Heavyweight division. Much of the existing talent pool can’t wrestle those kind of bouts. They are great characters and a lot of fun to watch, however, some of them don’t know a hurracanrana from a plancha if they were hit with one.
Besides, if you have to take such drastic action as banning such a basic move like a piledriver, what does that say about your confidence in the people that make up your locker room? Not much, I would say. Either you don’t trust them to deliver the move properly or perhaps they are wrestling with too much enthusiasm, which could be another explanation for the ban.
Mick Foley (God love the S.O.B.) along with ECW, started a frightening trend. The more peril you put yourself in as a performer, the more “over” you will be. It is bad advice that the likes of the Hardy Boyz and New Jack have taken too far. Even Mick Foley knew when and where to pick his spots. That what made him smart. Go out and wrestle that way 24-7 and you are just asking to really hurt yourself or worse, someone else you are working with. It used to be that part of being a skilled wrestler was that you could proudly say that you rarely hurt an opponent. It was a distinction to wear with honour. Nowadays, some are so desperate to “get themselves over” that they are taking many unnecessary chances with their lives and the lives of others. Never before have I seen or heard about so many wrestlers getting hurt in the industry. Either wrestlers aren’t being trained as well as they were 20 years ago and being pushed into the “big leagues” too soon or they are just trying to hard. It may be a bit of both.
Compared to the other Big Two, the WWF doesn’t have a history for putting on wildly technical matches anyhow. Attracting more “mainstream” or “fair weather” wrestling fans than either of the other promotions, it shouldn’t be a total shock to longtime observers that the WWF banned the piledriver or buries technical wrestlers. Watch the audience at a live show or WWF pay-per-view carefully and you’ll see The Worm and Stink Face get more cheers than a wonderful series of difficult holds and reversals by the likes of Benoit and Guerrero. In the past there have been the obligatory exceptions to the WWF rule like Ricky Steamboat, Bret and Owen Hart, Shawn Michaels and the Dynamite Kid but they are the minority. The McMahons have traditionally preferred pushing imposing behemoths like Yokozuna, Hulk Hogan, Lex Luger, Andre The Giant, The Undertaker, Big John Studd and The Ultimate Warrior over smaller and better wrestlers.
With the inclusion of technically-sound wrestlers like Jericho being thrown into the mix, the WWF is at a loss at what to do. Instead of insisting their talent improve themselves and maybe being more cautious by toning it down a couple of notches, they handicap everyone. That’s not the answer. What’s going to happen when a powerbomb or a brain buster injures someone? Are they going to ban them too until we are left with just kicks, punches and headlocks? If so, you won’t need wrestlers any more. The WWF can hire a bunch of Hollywood stuntmen and give them gimmicks. The solution isn’t prohibiting manoeuvers. That’s just plain silly. It’s making wiser talent choices and establishing an environment where mutual respect supersedes personal goals.