Sometimes wrestling gets nasty. Sometimes a bodyslam isn’t enough. The hatred has escalated. The feud can’t be settled conventionally. Blood becomes not the end, but the start, and there’s sure to be plenty of it. Barbed wire. Light tubes. Steel chains. Dog collars. Or perhaps even just plain fists with enough loathing behind them. The following five matches are pro wrestling violence at its finest. – Robin Reid
Sabu vs. Terry Funk
ECW Born to be Wired
Danger. Danger is an element that many in wrestling try to portray. The idea that the fan doesn’t know what is coming next, that the next movement may be life-altering, and that the hatred expressed between two opponents may catastrophically escalate past the point of no return. That one man’s psychotic tendencies and blatant disregard for his own body could lead to the demise of him or his opponent.
No man exemplifies this danger like Sabu. Homicidal. Suicidal. Genocidal. The death-defying maniac. Sabu was unlike any wrestler who came before him. His style was uniquely reckless. He’d jump off chairs. Blindly throw them at his opponents head. Half of the time when he’d attempt to jump off the top rope, he’d fall off. This was a feature, not a bug. He’s send his opponents through tables, but would send himself through them more. When Sabu was in the ring, time stood still, your knuckles became a little whiter, your teeth a bit more clenched. ECW was built on danger and an “anything could happen” vibe. Sabu was its poster boy.
This recklessness fit perfectly into the first and only barbed wire match in ECW history. Sabu wrestled Terry Funk, himself known for his craziness and unpredictability. The result was a match so barbaric that Paul Heyman said he knew he could never do it again. The ropes were completely replaced by barbed wire. Every movement by either wrestler could lead to either being hurled into the web of wire.
This match is not memorable because it is great. It is barely good. It is not memorable because it is an epic; it ends awkwardly. It is memorable because it is sick and twisted and fucked up and real. Sabu’s pants get completely shredded early from the wire, barely hanging onto his body. This is burned into my brain forever. His arm got caught on the wire and had to be ripped off. This is burned into my brain forever. Sabu hurled himself off of a chair into the wire so hard that he sliced his arm badly. He used tape to close up the wound while still taking moves from Funk. This is burned into my brain forever. The match ends in a no contest because both men became so entangled with the wire and each other that they had to be cut out. This is burned into my brain forever.
There is some debate as to Sabu’s legacy and how influential he has been to wrestling history. To me, he is one of the most influential wrestlers of the last 30 years. No one else has been so wild, so barbaric, so reckless and so dangerous. He is a one of one. He is burned into my brain forever.
- Sabu vs. Taz – The pinnacle of Sabu’s ECW career
- Sabu & RVD vs. Hayabusa & Shinzaki – Sabu faces off against Hayabusa, who notably took major influence from Sabu.
- Hangman Page vs. Jon Moxley – the brutality of Born to be Wired laid the groundwork for this
Jushin Thunder Liger vs. Naoki Sano
NJPW New Spring Gold Series
Keiichi Yamada didn’t need to prove to anyone that he was a good wrestler by the time he donned the red and white bodysuit as Jushin Thunder Liger. Since his debut in 1984, Yamada had rubbed shoulders with the best wrestlers in the promotion, both in his role as a junior heavyweight and in multi-man matches with the likes of Antonio Inoki, Riki Choshu and Tatsumi Fujinami. The company knew they had something, they just needed to find the right direction.
After four months away (that afforded Yamada another stint with All-Star Wrestling in the UK), Yamada was reborn as Liger. The initial debut of the character saw a less bombastic design of the soon-to-be iconic suit and mask combo; a clinical defeat of Kuniaki Kobayashi was a sign of things to come. Just over a month later, Liger was the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, a title that had eluded him in his previous incarnation.
All good narratives need a point of conflict, and it was in the form of Naoki Sano that Liger found his first buffer on what had otherwise been a dominant introduction to New Japan. The two had fought numerous times as Young Lions, sharing victories though Yamada held the lion’s share of the wins. However, it would be Sano that gave Liger his first in-ring blemish. Following a match that saw a double KO after a Sano back superplex wiped both men out, the challenger used the exact same move to dump Liger on his head en route to winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title in the rematch.
Though the eventual January 1990 clash which is the focus of this article can be enjoyed as a standalone contest, watching the three matches leading up to it (including a Sano title defense in September of 89) really helps to take their war in the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium to another level. What had begun as a largely amicable competitive rivalry continued to escalate, eventually reaching a boiling point in the feud-ending collision. Each match afforded another level of violence and an additional dollop of hatred, whilst also all including at least one wild spot that threatened to send the whole match off of the rails. Both men were going above and beyond to take the other out, in doing so creating a feud that is must watch, not just a match.
However, it is the January 31, 1990 match that lives longest in the memory and understandably so. It is the first genuinely great Liger match, a signpost of his capabilities, and a signal of what might have been for Sano had he not left New Japan later that same year. By now bedecked in a refined version of his original suit, Liger had little chance to glory in his new aesthetic as Sano ripped at the mask from the opening minutes. The challenger had set the tone initially when he slapped the champion instead of shaking his hand – Sano chose to make Liger pay.
For as much as this is spoken about in the pantheon of Liger matches, it is mostly all about Sano. He brutalises Liger for long stretches, making the match vastly different to the ones that come before it where neither man tended to dominate. Indeed, it took all of Liger’s reserves to wrestle the championship back. By the end he was bloodied, battered and with the majority of his mask dangling around his neck. A tombstone and a shooting star press were enough for Liger to win in emphatic style, yet he was the man who looked like the match had taken it all out of him by the end.
Great wrestling is great wrestling. It is largely self-evident. Watch this and enjoy two great junior heavyweights beating the tar out of each other in a match that has it all and ranks up there amongst my very favorite of all time. You will not be disappointed.
- Naoki Sano vs. Jushin Thunder Liger – Watch their other matches referenced above.
- Jushin Thunder Liger vs. El Samurai – More mask ripping Liger goodness.
- Pentagon Jr. vs. Vampiro – A brutal mask match from the US TV show Lucha Underground
Iron Sheik vs. Sgt. Slaughter
WWF at MSG
1984 is an interesting year for WWF as a promotion. The company was still at the beginning of Vince McMahon Jr’s ownership and Hulk Hogan won the WWF World Heavyweight Title off of the Iron Sheik before January was out. However, this was not the PPV, Rock and Wrestling, Hulkamania-era that many would come to know (and for a significant majority of them, to love). It was in a transitional period, aiming to make that clear breakaway from the territorial days of yore and become the national power that McMahon has always envisaged.
It is the context of this match that makes it interesting as much as anything else. WWF was not often a promotion that poured on blood and violence, though they were not entirely averse to it. However, for those who grew up at the peak of Hogan’s powers in the company, it was a very sanitised product that they consumed. Ultimately, it would take a couple more years to transition completely, leaving a window open for the odd bloody brawl along the way.
Let alone the timing for the promotion, this was the least conceivable moment in which Sgt. Slaughter and The Iron Sheik could come together and battle each other to a standard worthy of inclusion in this list. Slaughter was not much longer for the WWF – a fallout about his tie-up with GI Joe causing his exit – and the Iron Sheik would start a spiral of ever decreasing ability and relevance. The promotion managed to strike whilst the iron was hot with both men, creating a feud and a match that more likely than not wouldn’t have hit on this level before or after.
That’s not to suggest that Slaughter and Sheik weren’t good workers. Prior to injuries and increased weight, the Sarge was more than a capable hand in the ring, whilst the man known as Khosrow Vaziri had proven himself to be a solid worker whose act had been increasingly amplified by his naturally heat-gaining gimmick. All it took was a staredown in the aisle, one episode of Championship Wrestling, to sow the seeds for a feud that may have largely come down to USA versus Iraq, but that was all it needed. Not only did it give the fans a chance to cheer Slaughter – which they had been begging to do for a while – it gave them even more reason to pour down hate upon the evil foreigner who spat on their country, its beliefs and its people.
Lost a little in the shuffle is how good the first big match between Sergeant Slaughter and the Iron Sheik was at setting the tone for their combat and escalating things enough to require the Boot Camp stipulation. The Sheik came out on top via disqualification; Slaughter unlacing his boot and using it as a weapon deemed to be too far for the official. Occurring at a time when Slaughter had control of the match, it only served to highlight his disdain for his foe and the lengths he was willing to go to to inflict pain. With nothing really settled, the only option was to run it back the following month in a Boot Camp match.
This was not the only time the stipulation was run: CAGEMATCH suggests there were potentially five other versions of this match, one of which (in Landover) is also available online. That served as the first attempt; this was the third. By now, they had their groove and knew exactly what to do to have the crowd eating out of the palm of their hands. Before the match had even officially begun, Slaughter hit the ring, blasting the Sheik with an army helmet to immediately take advantage of the lack of rules and to send the crowd into a frenzy in the process.
Whenever I watch older matches, I do wonder what they might look like through the eyes of a modern fan, one less versed in this time period. However, if you can’t enjoy a raucous atmosphere, bitter enemies and bloody brawling, then you’ve lost me. You even get one of my favorite regular bumps where Slaughter did his ridiculous bump into the corner and over the top rope – an impressive feat of athleticism for one so big – before a particularly stiff chair shot by the Sheik gets an audible response from those close to the action. It is wrestling that stimulates visually and auditorily all at once, with little held back if anything.
As the action sped towards its bloody conclusion, belts, loaded boots, and ringposts had all been used in the name of ever-increasing violence. With the canvas splattered in crimson and covered in rubbish chucked from the crowd, good was finally able to triumph over evil in a moment of complete catharsis. Playing on the finish of the previous match, the Sheik aimed to use his own loaded boot, only to eat a Slaughter cannon for his trouble. Sheik’s hubris in trying to gain revenge was what ended up costing him as a boot-weilding Slaughter dropped him for the three count. USA was A-OK once again and one of its native sons had proven it in the centre of the ring following what had turned into an all-out war.
To me, this is a rare snapshot of 80s WWE wrestling that looks and feels like 80s territory wrestling – the stuff that was grittier and arguably better, but without the glitz, the glamour, the money. This match wouldn’t have looked out of place in Crockett, Mid-South or Memphis, so for it to have happened on the cusp of the biggest change in a generation for wrestling as a whole in the promotion where that change was most prevalent is crazy. When you couple its significance with the sheer brutality on show, this is always an easy recommendation for me. To ape a phrase I see bandied around from time to time: it used to be better.
- Pat Patterson vs. Sgt. Slaughter – The alley fight was another of the best matches of the pre-Hogan era
- Cactus Jack vs. Big Van Vader – Two wrestlers just beating the crap out of each other.
- Kernodle & Slaughter vs. Youngblood & Steamboat – The infamous Final Conflict cage match that was another Slaughter brawl filled with violence
Roddy Piper vs. Greg Valentine
Watching Roddy Piper versus Greg Valentine from Starrcade ’83 forced me to think about change. How wrestling used to be something different than it is now. This is not a value judgment or the ramblings of an old man pining for past, even if I am an old man pining for the past. Merely an observation that is hard to quantify.
It’s not that wrestling used to be violent and is not today. This is a violent match. There are chains and bloody faces and punches and stomps, all of which look and were certainly quite painful. But that’s nothing strange. Modern wrestling fans have seen violence the likes of which would have made Mama Crockett drop her iced tea and faint straight away. Staplers, weed whackers, fire, glass, barbed wire, and most disturbingly and sadistically of all Legos have been used by wrestlers to inflict pain and suffering upon opponents and often themselves. No, wrestling is still quite capable of being violent, though this match certainly set a pretty high bar.
It’s not that wrestling was less absurd than it is today. Sure this was all very serious business, the end of a blood feud where both men had scores to settle. But it’s still two grown men attached at the neck by dog collars, in the way that all great rivalries throughout time have been settled. They’re somehow beating each other with a steel chain and not fracturing skulls or hands. Sure, it looks much more like what we know to be a fight. They’re bleeding, sweating, grunting, not engaging in flips or dives. But at its core, it’s still a pretend fight, and no different in that way than a Yoshihiko classic or a Ricochet versus Ospreay gif. No, wrestling has always been and will always be gloriously dumb and wonderful as it was that night in 1983.
It’s not that wrestling was better as an athletic endeavor than it is today. This match moves slowly, deliberately, with brief bursts of menace. It is not boring. It is not in any way shape or form something that fails to keep your attention. But neither Piper nor Valentine are amazing athletes. They move within their limitations. To a newer fan used to star athletes like Kenny Omega there may be at first a sense of “is this all there is?”. That sense goes away quickly if it ever happens though. No, wrestling has definitely gotten more athletically gifted on the whole since this landmark match.
Rewatching the match and trying to pin this down it finally hit me right at the moment when Valentine is hitting Piper’s already damaged ear with his chain-wrapped fist. Guys were just nasty sons of bitches back then. This match is mean, it’s nasty, it radiates pure hatred every moment. This doesn’t feel like guys trying to have an epic match, even though they end up doing so in their way. This is elemental, visceral, primal. If this was happening 8,000 years ago this would be the most bad-ass rock-fight the fans of the Caveman Fighting Federation had ever seen. Sometimes guys can channel that hatred these days, but it’s rare and you know they’re working at it. Piper woke up that morning excited to try and ruin Valentine’s life and break his bones. Valentine had lunch that day overflowing with ideas for how to turn Piper into an invalid, a broken shell of a man, and loving that it happened at his own hands.
Hatred is a rare commodity in wrestling these days, ironic given how it seems to be growing constantly everywhere else. And this is good clean hatred. Not because of race, or gender, or religion, or any of that crap. These men were born to destroy each other, and they turn their faces happily to the light of the hateful sun under which they stalk each other. Watch this match. Remember how hatred and love are so close to each other as to make us doubt ourselves. Watch these two men show their love for each other and this wonderful thing called wrestling by letting the hate and nastiness flow. This is the good stuff. This is a relic of a different world. Better world? I think so, but that’s a value judgment. But it’s definitely a world you should learn about to understand the world we have now.
- Eddie Guerrero vs. JBL – A peak example of a heat filled, bloody modern American match. The most blood ever spilled in a WWE ring.
- Chris Candido vs. Tracy Smothers – A good example of an old school style feud ender.
- CM Punk vs. MJF – The best example of a modern dog collar match.
Isami Kodaka vs. Masashi Takeda
BJW Light Tubes, Giga Ladder & Glass Board Death Match
When someone hears the words “deathmatch wrestling” a few images are bound to pop into their head immediately. Men covered head to toe in blood, smashing light tubes over each others heads, impaling each other with all sorts of ungodly objects. Deathmatches are often derided. They are barbaric, inhuman. The lowest form of wrestling. Wrestlers who aren’t good enough at anything else forced to stoop to the bottom dredges of the business, mauling themselves because they have nothing else.
I won’t tell you that these stereotypes are false. There are corners where these type of deathmatches exist. On the whole, it is possible that these are the majority of deathmatches. But sometimes, beyond just the shock factor of seeing real human beings maiming each other in front of you, real magic can happen. A type of wrestling that is so heroic, so gutsy that, in some ways, it is the absolute pinnacle of what wrestling can be.
Masashi Takeda versus Isami Kodaka, June 20th, 2018, is one of those matches. It is bloody, it is at points barbaric. There are big spots and psychotic ones. But really, through the plasma and shards of glass, there is a simple story. The Big Japan semi-annual deathmatch tournament is called the Death Match Survivor tournament. While this match was not in that tournament, that is exactly what this match is: two men simply surviving, showing that they can withstand more punishment than the other.
American death match wrestling has been described to me in the past as ‘two guys trying to dish out as much pain and torture on their opponent as possible’. Japanese death match wrestling is a little different. It’s about the struggle, it’s about the ability to withstand pain longer than their opponent. That is exactly what happens in this match. Each man walks to the ring ready for war, wielding their preferred weapon of choice. When the match starts, each man shatters tubes over their own head and sprints at the other, showing their fearlessness. The pace never gives in. As the match went on, they keep doing this, but each time they stagger more. More blood has been lost, more glass embedded in their flesh, but they continue on. I won’t describe every big spot in this match, but it gets crazier and crazier until, finally, one man can no longer get up.
I’ve watched this match countless times. I’ve shown it to many of my friends, most who have never seen a Japanese deathmatch before. It finished #7 in the 2018 Voices of Wrestling Match of the Year list, by far the highest-ranked deathmatch ever on the poll. Many who don’t like deathmatches much at all (Joe and Rich, for example) loved this one. It has everything a wrestling fan wants: action, stakes, big moves. It just happens that a little bit of glass is involved, too.
- Abdullah Kobayashi vs. Shuji Ishikawa – The standard bearer for most bloody Japanese deathmatches. 261!
- Killshot vs. Dante Fox – The Takeda versus Kodaka deathmatch formula adapted to American television.
- Sami Callihan vs Drake Younger – Possibly the greatest American deathmatch ever, held in a promotion not normally known for deathmatches.
The Wrestling 101
- An Introduction to the Project & Match #1
- Unique Spectacles: Matches #2-6
- Multi-Man Magic: Matches #7-11
- What Could Have Been?: Matches #12-16
- Clashes of the 80s: Matches #17-21
- Paving the Road of Kings: Matches #22-26
- The Giant Legacies of Junior Heavyweights: Matches #27-31
- Immortal Matches of WrestleMania: Matches #32-36
- Iconic Moments: Matches #37-41
- Steel & Blood: Matches #42-46
- The New Boom Period: Matches #47-51
- Brown Bag Special: Matches #52-56
- Sports Entertaining: Matches #57-61
- Violence at its Finest: Matches #62-66
- Aaron Taube’s Tremendous 101 Companion Piece
The Wrestling 101 is a Voices of Wrestling group project headed up by Kevin Hare and Robin Reid. You can discuss the series with them on twitter @stan__hansen (Kevin) and @TheRDouble (Robin) or join the conversation over in the Voices of Wrestling Discord.