When a story requires added savagery, WWE has turned to the Last Man Standing match.
John Cena and Bray Wyatt are the latest set of foes looking to knock each other out long enough for the referee to count to 10. At WWE Payback 2014, they continue a tradition that goes back before either of them was born.
The bout's genesis came in north Texas under a different name—the Texas Death match.
Dory Funk Sr.'s version was contested under different rules. One had to first pin an opponent or force them to submit before the referee would begin the 10-count. Long before WWE adopted and adapted the concept, Funk faced men like The Sheik and Tokyo Tom in these violent contests in the '60s.
Terry Funk wrote in Terry Funk: More Than Just Hardcore, "I think my father invented the Death Match. I never heard of anyone doing them before he did."
He goes on to describe a Texas Death match between his father and "Iron" Mike DiBiase that saw them score more than 30 falls and last for more than three hours. The brawl left both men with in need of stitches and wearing "black eyes and busted mouths."
The brutal spectacle eventually spread to promotions beyond Amarillo.
Memphis Wrestling and the NWA both borrowed it. WWE (then WWWF) brought it to New York.
As Bob Backlund and Ken Patera proved in 1980, it was a macabre, enthralling way to bring a feud to its climax.
It wasn't until Valentine's Day in 1999 that WWE modified the match and renamed it. The Rock and Mankind had run out of ways to pummel each other, and so a Last Man Standing encounter served as the next step in the escalation of their animosity. They had already bashed each other in both an "I Quit" and an Empty Arena match.
At the St. Valentine's Day Massacre: In Your House pay-per-view, "The Great One" and Mankind battled for the WWE Championship. It ended in a no-contest.
Having beaten each other in the head with chairs, neither man was able to beat the referee's count.
The next Last Man Standing match came a year later, and there were eight of them contested in the next five years. During WWE's most violent stretch, the bout fit comfortably alongside Hardcore matches, Ladder matches and battles in the Hell in a Cell.
Triple H's win over Chris Jericho at Fully Loaded 2000 was the first great version of the match.
Jericho and "The Game" took Mankind and The Rock's lead and turned rising to one's feet into a dramatic act. Torn bandages, a sledgehammer and the splintered remains of an announce table helped the bout earn a 4.5-star rating from Wrestling Observer Newsletter, via ProFightDB.com.
Triple H would later compete in several Last Man Standing clashes, becoming one of the match's most prolific performers.
Scanning Eric Cohen's entry on the bout for About.com, one sees Triple H's name pop up several times. Only "The World's Largest Athlete" has been in as many of these bouts as he has.
Those men top the list of WWE Superstars who have competed in three or more Last Man Standing matches:
- Big Show-7
- Triple H-7
- John Cena-5
- Randy Orton-4
- Chris Jericho-3
- Alberto Del Rio-3
Triple H, like Cena, has also produced some of the best matches in its history.
At Backlash 2001, Shane McMahon forced his way into a prominent spot in that history. He faced Big Show in a Last Man Standing match, where victory seemed impossible for him. As he does with the majority of the world's population, Big Show towered over him.
"Shane O'Mac" wasn't even an active wrestler. He was just the boss' son who happened to have a powerful blend of insanity and courage.
He defeated Big Show by leaping from a steel structure that seemed like a mile above Big Show's fallen body.
The Last Man Standing timeline is dotted with memorable moments like these.
Shawn Michaels and Triple H beat each other so badly at the 2004 Royal Rumble that the end of their match saw them lying on a blood-soaked mat, their brows smeared with blood. John Cena tore off the ring ropes and used them to choke the monster Umaga at the 2007 Royal Rumble. Big Show chokeslammed Cena into a spotlight at Backlash 2009.
As with WWE as a whole, the violence of these matches lessened after 2008. The company's move to a PG-TV rating and an increased focus on wrestler safety forced the Last Man Standing match to evolve.
Blood was no longer a dramatic tool the performers could use. Chair shots to the head went away as well. WWE toned down the barbarism around which the match was built.
The way Cena kept Batista from getting to his feet at Extreme Rules 2010 is a prime example of that. He tied Batista's ankles to the ring post with duct tape.
Compare that to Michaels blinded from his own blood or McMahon's stunning jump from the steel, and it's clear that things have changed.
Wrestlers still bash each other with the steel steps, tables are still not safe around them and chairs still meet flesh, though their impact is now aimed at one's back. Alberto Del Rio's win over Cena at Vengeance 2011, Del Rio's title win over Big Show on SmackDown in 2013 and Ryback's collision with Cena at Extreme Rules 2013 were all far less violent than the early versions of the match.
Ryback smashing Cena through the light display at the entrance ramp was a stunning move in its own way, but it's far removed from the sadism that Funk once dreamed up in Texas.
Last Man Standing history stretches beyond WWE. Just as the Texas Death match caught on well outside of the Texas border, WWE's version of the match inspired other wrestling companies to adopt it.
Ring of Honor has borrowed the match concept, pitting El Generico against Kevin Steen in a Last Man Standing clash on March 10, 2010, for example.
TNA has had its own Last Man Standing battles as well. Kurt Angle battled AJ Styles in one at Hard Justice 2008, Gunner and James Storm collided in another at Lockdown 2014. Decades after Flair met Blackjack Mulligan in a Texas Death match, he took on Mick Foley on TNA Impact.
The match has become a part of wrestling tradition for indy companies and national promotions alike. It's a violent option to bring a rivalry to a close, something WWE has seemingly chosen to do with Wyatt and Cena.
They meet at Payback in WWE's latest Last Man Standing effort.
The still-young pay-per-view event is in a way the Backlash's grandchild. It's built around the concept of revenge and is now showcasing a match that was a regular at Backlash.
Cena enters a battlefield he knows well, extending the history of a match that emerged from a need for elevated viciousness in an already vicious world.
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