When professional wrestling, drug abuse and live broadcasting collided in an unforgettable slice of car crash TV.
Professional wrestling, as we all know, is less a sport than a pantomime, scripted and staged with soap opera level intrigues, rivalries and allegiance switches to keep the viewers hooked week on week. Equally, though, professional wrestling is still a very dangerous activity – the stories might be scripted and the punches pulled, but these men and women still perform extravagant and risky moves that can result in serious injury and sometimes even death. Wrestlers have a sobering habit of dying young, and we should perhaps be less dismissive of their theatrics, which at best are as impressive as the greatest circus performers.
Of course, things can go wrong, especially in a business that is not particularly regulated and where excess and bad behavious isn’t always restricted to the ring. Drug use and alcoholism have long been rampant in wrestling, and while it is usually kept behind the scenes, the stuff of rumour among fans, every so often it becomes impossible to hide and spills out into the public arena. Being what it is, the wrestling world is not above tastelessly weaving the real life problems of its performers into their fictional world, especially if the stories become public knowledge – more than one real-life marital break up or lapse into substance abuse has become an awkward and unpleasant storyline.
Fictional plays on real life problems are one thing; the ugly reality is usually kept off-screen. Wrestlers who turn up to shows intoxicated will usually be kept backstage and sent home, possibly fired if they are not too big a name to lose. It’s rare for a wrestler’s real life problems to be given unfettered, warts ‘n’ all live TV exposure, which is why the case of Jeff Hardy at TNA’s Victory Road is such compelling car-crash viewing.
Some background: Jeff Hardy was – indeed, is – one of wrestling’s biggest names, an athletic and charismatic figure who climbed the heights of the business with his brother Matt. he’d floated between companies, becoming an iconic part of the WWE (or WWF as it was then) before jumping ship to join rivals TNA in 2010. A year later, Hardy was due to wrestle for the Championship – an ultimately meaningless title, given that every company has its own World Champions and all results are pre-determined, but still – at the live Pay Per View Victory Road. It’s a match that has gone down in infamy, and is possibly one of the rare moments when wrestling has gone off-script so dramatically, reality challenging fiction for unbelievability. It’s the lowest point of Hardy’s career, and an embarrasing thing to watch, but it’s also a fascinating study in how to think on your feet and prevent a disaster from becoming worse. This is seen as one of professional wrestling’s lowest ebbs, but it might also be one of its finest moments of improvisation – reality challenged fiction, and fiction almost came out on top.
Hardy, at this point of his career playing a heel, was pitted against legendary veteran Sting in a battle that was supposed to be the climax to factional rivalries that had been built up over several months. Things don’t start well – Hardy’s theme music (a dirge-like effort that he’d composed himself) plays but he’s nowhere to be seen, before he suddenly lurches into view and weaves his way to the ring. The referee throws his crossed hands in the air – a sign to the backroom crew that something has gone wrong, usually used when a move has resulted in genuine injury – for it to be used simply because a wrestler has arrived in the ring is almost unheard of. But Hardy had indeed gone very wrong that night. He’d apparently taken an unknown quantity of Soma pills, which are known to kick in rather suddenly. According to TNA staff (who some might say would say this), Hardy seemed fine all day, but just before he was due to go to the ring could barely stand. As staff tried to work out how to cancel the main event of their live show at the last minute, Hardy somehow got to his feet and stumbled out onto the ramp – at which point there was no stopping him.
What happened next is debated – some TNA staff caim to have already worked out what to do, but this seems dubious, given what follows. Hardy is clearly out of it – just look at his eyes! – and the referee can be seen desperately sending an assistant backstage to pass on the message that he is unfit to wrestle (or even stand). Meanwhile, Sting comes out and makes his way to the ring, apparently oblivious to the situation. You can see him looking confused as he eyeballs the weaving, glassy-eyed Hardy. Announcer Jeremy Borash enters the ring to introduce the wrestlers, and you can see him look sideways as if to say “Jesus, really? This is really happening?” before facing front and taking a deep breath and getting on with his job. Because yes, it looked as though somehow, it actually was going to happen.
At which point TNA management’s Eric Bischoff – who also appeared on the show as another heel – heads to the ring to pull a quick fix out of the hat. Under the guise of announcing that the match has been changed to a ‘no disqualification’ match, he tells Hardy, off-mic, that this is going to end very quickly, and then does the same to Sting – who sells the moment by kicking Bischoff out of the ring. Hardy, meanwhile, doesn’t seem capable of actually understanding what the hell is happening. He walks around the ring, pretending to throw his shirt to the crowd for ages before casually dropping it – at this point, even the announcers have realised that something is very off, but it’s too late now. When the two wrestlers finally lock horns, Hardy is so clumsy that he cuts Sting’s neck wih his fingernails. This might not sound much, but to a seasoned wrestler, the danger signs would be obvious – someone who is intoxicated is a threat no only to themselves but to others. Imagine trying to do risky co-ordinated moves with someone who can barely stand. If he screws up the most basic of moves, what else is he going to do?
So, keen to get this farce over as quickly as possible, Sting hits a few punches, gets Hardy on the mat and pins him immediately – and despite the fact that his shoulders are clearly not on the mat, the ref counts Hardy out with indecent haste. It’s all over in less than 45 seconds. As Hardy sits looking confused, Sting stares down at him with undisguised disgust – rarely will you see a man look so disappointed in someone. Though you won’t hear it on the dubbed-over clip, the crowd chants “BULLSHIT!” as Sting storms out of the arena shouting “I agree”. All in all, not the slam-bang finale TNA had probably expected to their PPV.
The incident – to call it a match seems ludicrous – quickly became legend, and the truth about how much TNA knew about Hardy’s condition before he stumbled out to the ring is a matter of conjecture – if they did allow the match to go ahead as scheduled despite him being off his head all day, as some claim, then it’s outrageous negligence. The event at least became a wake-up call for Hardy, at least temporarily – and his road to redemption was, of course, incorporated into future story lines (he was clearly too popular to simply fire). While he ultimately survived and became more popular than ever, some have pointed to the incident as the moment when the ambitious and ascendent TNA began the slow decline that would dog the company for the rest of the decade, as financial problems and bad decisons saw their biggest stars leave and TV deals collapse.
For those of us with no more than a passing interest in wrestling, this is a perfect example of cringeworthy and compulsive car crash TV – a series of bad choices and fuck ups unfolding horribly before our very eyes. It’s still a popcorn moment now – a testament to the overreach of ambition, the perils of addiction, the follies of bad management and the dangers of egos that have been stroked for too long.