Examining the History of the Chain Match Before John Cena vs. Rusev

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterApril 21, 2015

Credit: WWE.com

The barbaric clash that John Cena and Rusev are set to engage in at Extreme Rules, where enemies are tied together by a length of chain, is a match that has long been a spectacle of sadism. 

Russians, Texans and a man named after a Roman god have turned to the Chain match to end rivalries. Bookers have leaned on the bout to draw crowds. Curious audiences have watched on as steel slaps against flesh, as blood darkens the mat.

Like the Steel Cage match, it takes away the option of retreat. Wrestlers are shackled to each other. One must throttle the other to the point that he can't resist as his opponent drags him around to the ring's four corners.

The brutality that the Chain match promises has one flash back to the days of the gladiators. 

Cena and Rusev won't be able to craft as violent a drama as the earliest days of the Chain match, however. Like wrestling overall, this contest has been subdued over time. It will surely be unsettling to see men whip each other with chains, to see them use what bonds them together as a torture device. 

WWE's TV-PG rating, though, will keep the United States Championship match from being as savage an enterprise as it was years ago.

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The Early Masters

A vicious, calculating villain, Boris Malenko prowled rings in Florida, Texas and elsewhere. He was as well known for his in-ring psychology as he was drawing heat as a heel. The Russian Chain match aided him in angering fans.

Born Larry Simon, he became Boris Malenko or The Great Malenko in the early '60s. The Chain match became his specialty. As Greg Oliver notes in The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, "Malenko advertised himself as the king of the Russian chain match," which the bruiser described as "the way my ancestors fought."

Boris Malenko looking rather unheel-like.
Boris Malenko looking rather unheel-like.Credit: WWE.com

It was a means to play up his storyline's Russian heritage, to make him look like more of a fearsome brute. It worked.

Malenko and his chains became a popular sight, a means to sell out an arena. He took on men like Jose Lothario, Dick Murdoch and Ronnie Garvin.

The rules of the match were the same then as they are today. A 1967 edition of the St. Petersburg Times notes that Malenko was set to battle Eddie Graham in a Russian Chain match in August of that year. The article states that in order to win, "a man must drag his opponent twice around the ring using the steel chain that connects their wrists."

Chains were not only a Russian device, though. It was a weapon often used in Texas as well.

Amarillo, Texas, the home of the Funks, hosted many a Chain match. There, it was sometimes dubbed the Texas Chain match and was one that Hall of Famer Terry Funk battled in several times over.

Still, it was always meant to be a special attraction. Funk wrote in his autobiography, Terry Funk: More than Just Hardcore, "We never killed the territory with them. A chain match was only used as a blowoff to a feud, the climactic match between two longtime foes."

Funk, whom younger fans remember as a hardcore specialist, was spilling blood long before he entered ECW or mixed it up with Mick Foley in Japan. As listed on CageMatch.net, Funk and Harley Race battled each other in almost a dozen Russian Chain matches during the '70s.

Years later, he would still be punishing his opponents with this kind of match. Battling for ECW, he took on Eddie Gilbert in 1993, chains tying the two legends together.

Dusty Rhodes had his own chain-centric run-ins, as did Bruiser Brody, Wahoo McDaniel and others. The Chain match would gain prominence after these men had their turn at it. For the most part, we can thank wrestling's Russians for that.

The Russians, Hot Rod and Hercules

Following Malenko's lead, Ivan Koloff made the Russian Chain match his forte. Like in Malenko or Funk's version of the bout, Koloff made sure to maximize its violent nature.

His foes felt chain-wrapped fists grind against their heads and their blood drip onto the canvas. Whether Koloff was fighting Bruno Sammartino, Rocky Johnson or Ricky Morton, it was always a barbaric affair.

The Russian Bear looked comfortable with the steel between his fingers as he whipped his enemies.

In the thick of the Cold War, Koloff formed a faction of Russians that also included Krusher Khruschev and Ivan's storyline nephew, Nikita Koloff. They were key figures in the NWA during the '80s and '90s, each man with an affinity for chains.

Nikita Koloff, Ivan Koloff and Krusher Khruschev
Nikita Koloff, Ivan Koloff and Krusher KhruschevCredit: WWE.com

Nikita fought in one of the most famous Chain matches of all time, going up against Sting at WCW's The Great American Bash 1991.

Much like Cena vs. Rusev, this was a tale of the American hero versus the Russian brute. Koloff was the unfeeling, foreign monster looking to prove the Soviet's dominance. Sting was assigned to defend the U.S. and was forced to do so in a match long associated with Russians.

It was a means to give Nikita the home-field advantage, just like Malenko did before him and Rusev is doing today.

The Russians didn't have a monopoly on Chain matches, though. Variations of it popped up in WWE and WCW.

Roddy Piper took on Greg Valentine in a classic Dog Collar match at Starrcade 1983. This was not a Chain match by name, but it was built around the same concept and the same level of violence. Rather than the chain being attached to the men's wrists, it was locked onto dog collars that each man wore.

This was pro wrestling leaning on its most brutal elements.

Blood painted each man's face by the end of the night, and the damage lasted well beyond that. Mike Mooneyham of The Post and Courier writes that Valentine busted Piper's left eardrum, "leaving him with a 50 percent loss of hearing in the injured ear and irreparable damage to his equilibrium."

WWE had its own adventures with chains, but they weren't nearly as intense as Koloff vs. Sting or Valentine vs. Piper. They were largely a way to highlight the fact that Hercules wore chains.

He took on The Ultimate Warrior in a far tamer version of the match.

And in 1987, as The History of WWE points out on Twitter, Hercules met Billy Jack Haynes in a Chain match:

This was a family-friendly era for WWE, filled with colorful characters, cartoons and Hulk Hogan reminding fans to say their prayers and eat their vitamins. It's not surprising then that the company turned to the Chain match so infrequently.

The territories throughout the '60s and '70s pulled the bout out of their bags of tricks far more often. WWE shied away from it when Hulkamania was running wild and produced a subdued version of it to fit the company's image. 

That's a familiar sentiment to fans today. Cena and Rusev compete in a period much like that one. They won't be allowed to leave a man half-deaf and crusted in blood as Valentine did in '83.

A Novelty in Recent Years

In the last 15 years, the Chain match has become so rare that when WWE announced that Cena and Rusev would be in a Russian version of that bout, many fans were confused. Twitter was filled with fans like this one asking just what kind of match this was exactly:

Minus the Russian element, WWE put on a Chain match back in 2001 to show off how merciless Triple H was and give Kane some vulnerability after being such an unstoppable monster for so long.

At Judgment Day 2001, Kane slugged it out with Triple H in a Chain match for the Intercontinental Championship. Throughout the bout, Triple H used the chain to further injure Kane's broken arm. 

Kane choked a bloody Triple H with the weapon, a sight one won't see today.

Brock Lesnar took on Undertaker in a Bikers Chain match two years later at No Mercy. This was not the match that The Great Malenko had mastered. The chain hung from a pole and could be used as a weapon once it was retrieved.  

Beyond that, WWE didn't touch the stipulation.

The '00s didn't have any great Russians stalking WWE's good guys. That's likely a big reason for the Chain match's dormancy. Once the company moved to become more family friendly once again, beginning in 2008, the chances of seeing men bruising each other with chains was even less likely.

TNA, meanwhile, dipped into the world of Chain matches a few times.  

Abyss and Raven donned dog collars a la Piper and Valentine for a match at No Surrender 2005. AJ Styles outlasted Rhyno in a Motor City Chain match at Against All Odds 2007.

More recently, Jeff Jarrett and Matt Morgan went to battle tied to each other, a chain both a weapon and a restraint. 

The recent WWE editions of the match have been forgettable. They haven't been something that came naturally from a wrestler's gimmick. They have instead been novelties that pop up from time to time.

Rusev's emergence has changed things. Like Malenko and Koloff before him, he is billed as a ruthless Soviet villain. With Extreme Rules' reliance on gimmick matches, it makes sense to have him now follow his fellow fake Russians' lead and bring back a violent tradition.

What kind of Chain match fans will see is unclear. WWE has surprised us at times with how far it's willing to push the envelope despite its TV-PG rating.

On Monday's Raw, Rusev gave fans a possible preview of just how nasty things will get when he raked a chain across Cena's face. Malenko would have been proud.