Imagine a day in professional wrestling when a simple move such as the shoulder breaker could end your career or put you on the shelf for months.
In 1977, NWA Big Time Wrestling—which ran out of Northern California from 1960-81—managed to pull off a hot angle that highlighted the shoulder break and demonstrated how dangerous a hold it can be.
The shoulder breaker is used to weaken the arm or to make it more difficult for the opponent to kick out of a possible pin fall attempt. A common version sees the wrestler turn the opponent upside-down and drop the opponent shoulder first on the wrestler’s knee. Many variations have been used over the years to apply the maneuver and it has been used as a finisher by guys like Papa Shango who did an inverted shoulder breaker.
A young Rocky Maivia put his own spin on the move with the running shoulder breaker and most recently Nia Jax and Elias have both been using it in their arsenal.
Roy Shire, promoter of NWA Big Time, looked to ban the shoulder breaker and deem the hold illegal because it was dangerous and injuring many of his wrestlers. This motion to ban the move escalated after Bob Roop complained about being injured as a result of the shoulder breaker. Roop insisted that Kevin Sullivan had used it in a malicious manner.
Eddie Graham—then-president of the NWA (1976-78)—was also considering banning the shoulder breaker from the National Wrestling Alliance due to the shenanigans that took place during this rivalry.
Roop created some sweltering heat with the shoulder breaker as the catalyst of a deep and personal feud that involved family and long-term injuries. Roop was the lying and dastardly heel demanding that the hold be banned from wrestling. Roop claimed the hold was dangerous and could paralyze men. Sullivan became the sympathetic babyface defending his family’s honor and seeking revenge for an attack on his father that left him nearly crippled. The groundwork was set.
The angle hit its peak on the night Sullivan’s father was attacked. Sullivan got a match with a masked wrestler named Star Warrior.
Without knowing the identity Sullivan beat the masked wrestler, forcing him to unmask and reveal his identity. Of course, Roop—who had been faking the shoulder injury —was revealed as the man behind Star Warrior.
Roop proceeded to go berserk after the unmasking and attacked the 64-year-old father of Sullivan, allegedly crippling him in the process using the very move that he was calling to be banned just weeks before.
NWA Big Time Wrestling ran this rivalry for three shows in San Francisco during the period of July and December with Sullivan getting his revenge and getting the decision over Roop in all three contests. Sullivan had defeated his rival and had done superb work drawing sympathy from the fans. With the help of Roop and his equally exceptional performance this was simple story-telling using a basic philosophy for drawing heat. Likewise, they were able to get over a hold that, really, has no business getting over as being crippling or career-ending.
When is the last time you can remember a simple hold like the shoulder breaker being used to color a storyline?
What we find through this feud is that a wrestling hold can be as deadly as you want it to be. In pro wrestling you create everything. You tell the story you want to tell. If you want a move like the shoulder breaker to be seen as a career-ending hold, it’s simple. Present it as such. The shoulder breaker shouldn’t be literally breaking shoulders and crippling folks, but it did, and it worked beautifully for escalating a story, triggering emotion and most importantly, selling tickets.