Diamond Dallas Page crashed to the canvas like he had done hundreds of times before.
A Kevin Nash powerbomb sent Page on a collision course with the mat. When he landed, with his arms out to his sides and face pointed up at the lights, pain erupted in his back.
That bump, pro wrestling parlance for a move that requires a hard fall, hurt normally—especially from a near 7-footer like Nash—but this was different.
Page knew something was wrong. He struggled to move. Agony overwhelmed him.
"I was in excruciating pain," Page told Bleacher Report.
There was no way he was finishing the match. He couldn't even stand at that point. Page gritted his teeth and moved out of harm's way.
"I was on my back, and I crawled to the corner. I didn't go back in the ring." Page recalled. Luckily, it was a tag team bout and Page could lie in the corner as his partner, Kanyon, fought the rest of the battle for him.
When doctors later examined the high-energy, loudmouth wrestler, they discovered both his L4 and L5 vertebrae had ruptured. Their prognosis was dire. Specialists told him his career was over.
"They said I was never going to go back," Paige said.
This devastating back injury wasn't the result of a slip-up. This was no failed stunt gone wrong. It was the product of a punishing, dangerous business.
As Page put it: "It wasn't that move. That move was the straw that broke the camel's back."
To attach the word "fake" to pro wrestling is foolish. The stories are scripted and the results are predetermined, but what the wrestlers put themselves through is as real as it gets.
It's a grind. Bump after bump. Slam after slam. Night after night.
Wrestlers tear up their knees, need stitches to close up gashes, break bones and drive their bodies into the ground. As much as opponents look to protect each other and control the violence in the ring, the physical toll of the art is inescapable.
"You can't fake gravity," Page said of the medium he described as "a combination of ballet and bull riding."
Ask ACH, an independent wrestler with a dazzling aerial arsenal. He once left a match with his knee swollen to the size of a small melon.
Ask Miranda Salinas from Texas All-Star Wrestling, who competed in WWE's inaugural Mae Young Classic tournament. She hobbled around on crutches for weeks after an in-ring injury.
Ask WWE Hall of Famer Beth Phoenix, who once finished a match with a broken jaw.
Ask Paul Roma, a tag team specialist for WWE in the '80s, who still feels the effects of all the bodyslams and suplexes he took over the years.
Don't Call it Fake
Pro wrestling is a misunderstood entity.
You will hear non-fans describe it as a soap opera for men, play fighting or the dreaded f-word. Fake.
ACH can't stand when someone labels what he does night in and night out that way. You can't blame him. Check out any of his matches on the indy circuit and you will see him smashing into muscular men, diving out of the ring and careening into the canvas.
"For anyone to say it's not real, it's such an insult because of what we put our bodies through," he said.
To help an outsider better explain the world in which he operates, ACH compared wrestling to the more physical side of Hollywood.
"It's like being in a live-action movie and you're doing your own stunts," ACH said. "We're just like Jackie Chan. These are our stunts."
Phoenix noted one key difference between wrestling and the movies, however. It's live.
"There are no second takes. There's no, 'Hold on a second, I tweaked my knee.' Or 'I can't breathe,'" she said.
The now-retired Phoenix wrestled for WWE, where she reigned as women's champion three times. She stood out as one of the most powerful women ever to work for WWE.
She often tested the limits of her sculpted frame during her run, whether the audience understood that or not.
"Fans may see us once or twice a year," Phoenix said. "They don't realize that we go on these grueling tours. We're on the road 300 days a year. There's no recovery time. It's a test of your physical and mental endurance."
Each match creates a chaotic, draining environment. As a result, wrestlers have to be on high alert during bouts, she explained. They are in the midst of a violent undertaking where a wrong step could mean injury for one's self or one's foe.
"There are so many X-factors going on in the ring," Phoenix said. "You have to protect your opponent. You have to be conscious of what your opponent is going through and make sure they're safe."
Luckily, the body arms these athletes with a drug that increases focus and numbs some of the pain that comes with colliding into another human being—adrenaline.
"Your body enters this adrenaline zone, which gives you the ability to supersede things that bother you," Phoenix explained.
Salinas, an independent wrestler based out of Houston, views what unfolds in the squared circle the same way.
"During the match, your adrenaline is so high that you don't really feel anything unless you really get hurt," she said. "Your heart rate is up so high. Everything happens so quickly."
@HeelFaceRaslin 🙌🔥@TheMiranda_S https://t.co/4rX8Uaaa6L https://t.co/iAXFakOMKl2017-9-3 05:55:42
Even so, there's no escaping the toll of the business.
Danger lurks. Violence is necessary. Injuries are inevitable.
Roma knows that firsthand. He wrestled for well over a decade beginning in the '80s, facing the likes of The Moondogs, Demolition and Don Muraco.
When asked about what it was like to compete all of those times, he said, "It's very demanding physically. You just do your best not to injure or get injured. You're in the ring with guys who are 200, 300 pounds. It's tough. It's something that can't be avoided."
Page remembers understanding that early on in his wrestling training. As he began to learn how to take bumps, falling repeatedly onto the mat, he had a revelation: "This fake stuff hurts like hell."
"I felt every square every inch of that mat. Once you learn how to fall, you still have to fall," he said.
DDP would go on to become a major star for World Championship Wrestling, winning that company's world title three times. At his peak, he was wrestling over 100 matches a year. In his mind, each of those was akin to experiencing multiple car crashes.
"I used to get into four different car accidents a night," he said. "We hit each other. We're just trying not to hurt each other, but we hurt each other all the time."
That was especially true when he and his opponents cracked folding chairs over each other's heads, a practice WWE has since moved away from.
"People used to say, 'Well, how do you fake that?'" Page recalled. "Two words—we don't. When you got hit with the chair, you got hit with the chair."
Injuries to Endure
Phoenix had only just begun her career on WWE's main roster when an ordinary move left her face misaligned.
In a bout on Raw in 2006, Victoria smacked Phoenix across the mouth. The blow left the newcomer with a broken jaw. However, Phoenix didn't realize the extent of the injury at first.
"It broke all the way through. The entire bone. I could put my tongue between my teeth. So I thought, 'Oh, I lost a tooth," Phoenix said. "You don't know what a broken jaw feels like until it happens."
The right side of her jaw jutted out. She couldn't close her mouth. She would later need two plates and a whole host of screws in her face, but Phoenix wasn't going to allow that match to end prematurely.
"It didn't matter what the injury was," Phoenix explained. "I was going to finish this. I was going to get through this because this means everything to me."
Wrestlers have an inhuman ability to power through pain, to ignore dangling limbs and torn muscles to finish a bout. And there's a clear "the show must go on" mentality that drives them to do things an everyday person can't imagine pulling off.
Phoenix provided a peek into that mindset.
"You go, 'I tore something. I broke something.' The first thought to go through your head is 'That's six months of rehab.' Or if it's broken, 'That's two to three months,'" Phoenix said. "That's just part of the job. When you sign up, you know you're going to have to endure those things."
She experienced that even before her Raw debut while still part of WWE's former developmental territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling.
In an attempt to turn taking a superkick off the ring apron into a standout moment, Phoenix overshot her reaction. She crashed onto her face, tumbled to the floor and looked up to see trainers running toward her.
"I didn't realize how bad it was until I watched the tape," Phoenix recalled. "I could have lost my life. I just got lucky that night."
It isn't just those scary moments that leave a wrestler smarting, though. It's a regular part of the lifestyle.
Salinas has received and dished out an equal share of physicality in her young career. Whether she's competing for Houston-based Texas All-Star Wrestling or elsewhere, she employs a hard-hitting, strike-heavy style. To her, that part of the game is plenty painful.
"I've taken some stiff shots to the face," Salinas said. "That's something that you'll always feel."
A wrestler diving onto her and driving her to the mat has left its mark as well. She has worked to make taking the move less punishing, but she continues to get up from it loopy.
"Every single time I take a crossbody, I bump the back of my head," Salinas explained. "It just knocks me. And I end up seeing stars every time."
Salinas sprained her ankle in April and tried to work through it at first. But it grew too painful, a ball of fluid swelling at the point of injury.
"I found myself on crutches for three-and-a-half weeks," she said. "After that, it was still hurting when I walked. I couldn't be on it for a long time."
She sounded annoyed while recalling the injury. It was a hindrance to her working. She had to spend time rehabbing rather than wrestling.
ACH can feel her pain. Knee injuries have slowed him down two times, keeping him away from his true love—the ring.
The well-traveled high-flyer's first knee injury came after his kneepad shifted in the air during a leap from the top rope. He landed hard on the exposed joint and suffered a Grade 1 sprain.
"When I hit the frog splash, my knee took all the impact," he explained.
The knee quickly swelled, but ACH wasn't done for the night. He had three more matches ahead of him. ACH gutted it out through the rest of the tournament but found himself in need of help from his peers afterward.
"They had to literally carry me," he said. "They carried me to the bathroom and put me in front of the stall. I couldn't bend my leg."
In addition to bare-kneed frog splashes, ACH noted the superplex takes its toll on the body. One wrestler hoists their opponent from the top rope and dives backward to slap their foe onto the canvas.
One night in Japan, a superplex left him breathless.
"I hit so hard I did a complete back roll onto the mat," ACH said. "I could feel the air escaping out of my body. Every bit of it."
Both ACH and Salinas have been lucky not to suffer more serious injuries thus far. Many of their fellow grapplers have taken trips to the surgeon's table.
When asked about injuries he experienced throughout his career, Roma had a long list to share: "Neck. Back. Elbows. Knee. Broken ribs, of course. Broken teeth."
Roma took his fair share of abuse, from The Nasty Boys' back-alley offense to Road Warrior Hawk clotheslining him off Road Warrior Animal's shoulders. But wrestling as a whole is what led to his trips to the doctor.
The accumulation of high-impact moves adds up.
"The constant jerking on the arms, the arm drags, the hip tosses. It took its toll," Roma said. "The body's not built to not withstand banging around like that."
The physicality of the business has increased over the years. Today's wrestlers are better athletes. They take bigger risks on a daily basis.
There was a time when bruisers rarely left their feet. Now the suicide dive is as commonplace as a wristlock.
Page marvels at what guys like two-time cruiserweight champ Neville and former WWE world titleholder AJ Styles do to each other in the ring today.
"I dare anybody to be on the other side of one of those kicks," DDP said of Neville's offense.
@MegaTJP rushes to the ring to help @GottaGetSwann, but gets a head kick from @WWENeville for his trouble!! #RAW https://t.co/AklPZjgNYS2016-12-20 02:43:13
As for Styles, Page recalled how he knocked out The Miz's teeth last year. On The Phenomenal One, he said, "He's stiff as hell. When you've been in the ring with AJ, you know you've been in the ring with him."
When Page was active, he dealt with his own punishing opponents. That included John "Bradshaw" Layfield, whose finishing move lived up to its name.
"JBL's clothesline. Clothesline from Hell. Yes, it was," Page said.
And whenever he had to face the monstrous Goldberg, he made sure to be quick on his feet. He wanted to be out of harm's way when Goldberg hit his signature spear. It was a move he had seen crack Big Show's sternum, after all.
"Whenever Goldie was coming at me, I made sure I was going the other way," he said.
At Halloween Havoc 1998, that move actually left the wielder hurt. Goldberg dove at Page only to bang his head on the mat.
"Bill's head hit before my body," Page recalled. "With the velocity that he had, he knocked himself out."
After recovering enough to get to his feet, Goldberg began to lift DDP up for a Jackhammer. The big man paused, still reeling from driving his own head into the canvas. The audience had no idea where the acting ended and reality began.
That was far from the first time fans didn't realize the depth of the marks wrestling left.
There is no day that Roma doesn't feel the imprint of his old life.
Nearly 20 years after his retirement as a wrestler, Roma struggles to do the banal. Even tying his shoes is a difficult task.
"Things I could do then, I can't do now," he said. "Tying your shoes, walking upright as soon as you get out of bed in the morning, reaching for something you can't reach because your arm lost that one-and-a-half, two inches.
Pain and inflexibility represent the aftermath of a grueling career.
"My knees have been replaced. They speak for themselves," Roma said. "I have trouble from the concussion aspect. I have trouble remembering things on a day-to-day basis."
These lingering effects were far from Roma's mind as a young man standing in the spotlight. As half of The Young Stallions or Power and Glory, he was in peak physical condition, a statuesque figure in a larger-than-life world. His thoughts didn't linger on the future.
"You don't realize while it's going on. You're young. You're all charged up. You just don't see the down the line. You don't think about it," Roma explained.
Salinas, still writing the early chapters of her own career, seems to have come to terms with the physical toll of her chosen profession. She's a tough, defiant athlete looking to make her mark on the business. That doesn't come without putting one's body through hell.
She's reminded of that in the days after a match.
"You're sore for three days. Your whole body," Salinas said. "Everything from my toes to my neck around my ears is sore."
The Houston native has gotten used to it as best she can. She's accepted and embraced the toil ahead of her.
"It's hard on your body," Salinas said of wrestling. "It's part of the business. It's something you have to deal with."
ACH will turn 30 in December. He's in phenomenal shape. And he remains well-stocked with adrenaline.
It usually takes hours before he endures the aching that comes post-match.
"Most of the time, when you get back to the hotel, your adrenaline is still pumping," ACH said. "It takes a while for that to wear off. You don't usually feel it until the next day, when you wake up at four in the morning to catch your 5 a.m. flight."
"When you finally wear down and get that moment to yourself, it feels like you just experienced the worst car crash of your life."
Page didn't have the luxury of youth during his WCW rise. The Hall of Famer entered the business late.
So while he watched a young stud like Buff Bagwell shrug off the punishment he endured in the ring, DDP was well into his 30s once his career took off. As such, he was quicker to reach for an ice pack, quicker to groan and grimace after stepping out of the ring.
"My entire run was going to feel different than the one Bagwell had," Page said.
"Get 30. Get 40. Then you're in the shower saying, 'Oh God, what did I do to my shoulder? Oh God, my lower back.' It starts coming," Page said.
For Page, though, the pain could have been far worse. His body could be in ruin at this point. But after tearing up his back, Page found a new means to heal himself—a yoga-inspired workout he created and would later dub DDP Yoga.
"Without it, I never would have lasted," Page said. "I would be crippled today."
The minimal impact of DDP Yoga was key for him. It helped break up scar tissue. It allowed him to extend his career far longer than doctors would have imagined when he came to them with ruptured vertebrae.
Shifting to DDP Yoga was a natural evolution in his mind. "You can't go back to pounding the weights. You can't work out the same. You've done too much damage," Page said.
Phoenix has leaned on exercise to stave off the long-term effects of a life as a wrestler as well.
She and her husband, fellow Hall of Famer Edge, subscribe to the theory that movement is key to health. Phoenix has countered wrestling's impact with CrossFit and refusing to be stagnant in retirement.
"The worse thing you can do is let pain defeat you," she said.
But she and Edge both feel the aftershocks of the business in which they made their names. "I still have nerve damage in my face. I can't feel on the right side of my face, my chin, my gums, my lips," Phoenix said of the impact her broken jaw left her with.
As for Edge, spinal stenosis forced him into an early retirement. And he'll never be 100 percent healthy again.
"He struggles with his neck issues," Phoenix said, "He wears the badge of honor from wrestling everywhere he goes every day."
He isn't the only wrestler to have to step away thanks to injury. Concussions wound down the career of Edge's friend and tag team partner, Christian. Neck and knee injuries pushed Stone Cold Steve Austin out of the ring. Daniel Bryan retired at the height of his popularity at the age of 34 after he suffered seizures associated with a number of concussions.
Bryan was at the top of the WWE mountain, and it all gave out underneath him. As DDP put it, "Gravity broke him."
A Price to Pay
Regardless of how punishing and painful wrestling is, you often hear the warriors of the ring talk about how magical it was to perform in front of their fans.
For many, being a superhero in the squared circle—to tell the kind of dramatic, violent stories that make up wrestling—is a dream come true. The bruises and getting banged around is simply a side effect.
For everything a wrestler gives, there is a reward. One of those rewards is of the financial variety.
Looking back at his career, Roma talked about toughing it out to continue working in wrestling, to keep bringing home a check.
"You're trying to make money," he said. "If you don't work, you don't get paid. You're trying to support your family and yourself. You just keep going."
"I endured. I did what I had to do."
But even as much as Roma's body still suffers the effects of his wrestling days, the business means enough to him to pass on his knowledge to a new generation. Roma teaches at Paradise Alley Professional Wrestling in East Haven, Connecticut.
Paul Roma @RealPaulRoma
Watching some of my students run some practice matches at @PAPWofficial accepting new students currently https://t.co/hPARTynlhb2017-5-18 01:20:56
A fresh crop of grapplers can hear his horror stories as well as his fondest memories of the ring.
For Salinas, she has yet to find anything that moves her like wrestling does. "The feeling I get after I have a good match is unbelievable," she explained.
Even while sore from her latest match, talking about wrestling brightens her voice, stokes the flames in her gut. "I love what I do. I'm at home in the ring," she beamed.
ACH can relate. He's willing to push through pain to light up a crowd with what he does best.
When asked what makes wrestling's injurious side worth it, he said: "The passion. The love for it. I love what I do for a living."
The physical side of wrestling didn't sneak up on ACH. It's not a well-kept secret that wrestlers get hurt and that one's body isn't the same afterward.
"I knew what I was getting into when I signed up," ACH said.
When it's all said & done. I can be completely broke & broken.. I just hope I entertained you all and made a difference in the world.2017-8-24 02:41:29
He compared a wrestling career with that of one in the NFL and NBA. One has a short shelf life in a profession like that. It's bound to wear one's body down. So ACH believes he must enjoy it while he can.
Phoenix was willing to bear the slams, strikes and scars to succeed at the highest level.
"For us, it was worth it because we wanted to be the best in our industry," she said of herself and Edge. "We're both people with that type of mentality. There was a price to pay. And we were both happy to pay it."
While in the belly of the best, the future wasn't necessarily on her mind.
She wanted to impress in the here and now. She wanted to make her mark and often wasn't mindful of what would happen post-wrestling.
"What's the quality of my life? Often times, when you're in there, you're not thinking about that. You're thinking, 'I want this match at WrestleMania to be the most incredible thing anyone has ever seen," Phoenix said.
Be it at WrestleMania or at an armory in front of 100 people, the electricity an audience creates makes it worth entering that fray time and again.
"We're doing it for the wrestling fan, the pop of the crowd," Page said. "That's how you get through."
A wrestler gets to be an actor and an athlete. They are rock stars. They are larger-than-life figures who get an arena full of people to pull for them, to invest in their stories. It's a beautiful thing, injuries be damned.
And it isn't something Page even thought was possible for him to achieve. Wrestlers often hit their primes in their early 30s. DDP didn't start his career until after that.
He defied the odds from an age standpoint and was able to compete for years after rupturing two vertebrae. He is fully aware how unlikely it all was.
"You get to live the dream," he said. "I should have never been able to do it. That's why my story is so off the hook. I am the anomaly."
For every wrestler chasing that dream, there is all kinds of hurt that comes with it. Pro wrestling is no choreographed dance-fight, as some believe. It's an ordeal as well as an endeavor, one where danger is ever-present.
Phoenix said it perfectly: "At any moment, anything weird can happen. Something can be just the tiniest bit off. And your life really is on the line every time you step in there."
Ryan Dilbert is a Lead WWE Writer for Bleacher Report.