Exploring the Causes of WWE's Recent Surge in Injuries

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterMay 18, 2016

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 23:  Seth Rollins enters the ring at the WWE SummerSlam 2015 at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on August 23, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images)
JP Yim/Getty Images

Pro wrestling has long been a meat grinder of an industry, but the size of WWE's ballooning disabled list has left everyone grasping for answers.

Torn ligaments ended Seth Rollins' WWE World Heavyweight Championship reign. The echoing effects of concussions forced Daniel Bryan from the ring for good. Surgeries forced Nikki Bella to don a neck brace and Randy Orton to miss WrestleMania.  

It's enough to wonder if Papa Shango didn't curse the roster at some point.

The real reasons for the WWE medical staff being busy, though, are far more mundane. While a string of bad luck is partly to blame for the roster being so beset with injuries, sizable workloads and a higher level of danger than in the past are two causes for this injury situation that the company can't ignore.

There will always be injury in a business where athletes leap out of rings and slam each other to the canvas. WWE can't avoid that.

It can, however, adjust what it asks of its wrestlers. The number suggest that WWE is putting too much strain on its performers, just asking for wear and tear to take effect at any moment.

After a flood of injuries ahead of WrestleMania 32, Bray Wyatt joined an already packed list of hobbled Superstars. Wyatt went down with a calf injury, per WWE.com, in the early stages of WWE's latest European tour.

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After that, Naomi revealed on Twitter that she was recovering from a torn tendon, and at the Payback pay-per-view in early May, Enzo Amore suffered a concussion during a tag team match. WWE.com then announced that Emma hurt her back during a live event.

That only continued a recent disturbing trend. The list of significant injuries over the past year is staggering:

  • Alex Riley (degenerative arthrosis)
  • Cesaro (torn rotator cuff)
  • Daniel Bryan (concussions)
  • John Cena (shoulder injury)
  • Luke Harper (torn ACL)
  • Hideo Itami (shoulder injury)
  • Neville (fractured ankle)
  • Nikki Bella (neck surgery)
  • Randy Orton (shoulder surgery)
  • Sami Zayn (torn rotator cuff)
  • Seth Rollins (torn MCL, ACL)
  • Sting (neck injury)
  • Tamina (knee surgery)
  • Tyson Kidd (neck injury)

That leaves WWE poised to play poker with far from a full deck at its next major show, May 22's Extreme Rules. The PPV will not feature Cena or Orton, Rollins or Wyatt.

WWE is wisely trying to turn this into a positive, ushering what it has referred to as a New Era. A flood of new talent from its developmental brand is now a part of the main roster. Cena's, Rollins' and others' absences created free space on the WWE stage.

That's good news for emerging stars like Aiden English and Zayn, who are getting shots they may not have otherwise, but it's clearly not good for WWE as a whole. A business built on star power has often been short of many of its stars.

The answer to just why all these wrestlers are going down in such a short span is multilayered. ESPN's David Shoemaker laid out two plausible possibilities ahead of WrestleMania:

Part of the answer is that WWE is more responsive to injuries than they may have been in the past. Part of it is that we, as fans, are much more aware of wrestlers' injuries. It wasn't long ago when a wrestler with a torn rotator cuff would be written off television and we'd be none the wiser, but now we have the Internet rumor mill as our unofficial Injury Report.

There is certainly truth to that. 

In years past, an injured grappler might just slip out of the spotlight and heal until he was ready to head to a new territory and wreak havoc. Fans weren't nearly as well-informed about what was happening behind the scenes.

The show-must-go-on mentality has to increase injury rates, too. 

Cena famously tore his pec early in a match against Mr. Kennedy and fought through the pain to finish the bout. Cesaro told WWE.com's Ryan Pappolla that he wrestled with a torn rotator cuff for two months, saying he didn't realize how bad the injury was.

In, Yes! My Improbable Journey to WrestleMania, Bryan detailed a moment in 2013 where, during a match with Orton, he lost feeling in both arms and had trouble standing up yet wanted to continue to wrestle.

"I saw this as my big opportunity, and I wasn't about to let it pass me by," Bryan wrote.

Willingly continuing to crash into another human being when one's pectoral muscle is hanging off the bone or when one's body is only partially functioning has to worsen injuries. But this is no new phenomenon. 

How often wrestlers are stepping into the ring has changed over time. That's a key element to the injury equation.

A Grueling Schedule

The WWE calendar brims with events, from house shows to pay-per-views. That's been the case for years, but today's wrestlers are working more than their predecessors. 

Compare the workload of a number of today's stars to what grapplers were asked to do just before the Attitude Era kicked off:

Top Superstar Match Totals (2014-2015)
Wrestler2014 Matches2015 MatchesInjured in 2015-2016?
Bray Wyatt178163Yes
Cesaro214185Yes
Dean Ambrose167218No
Dolph Ziggler196169No
John Cena164136Yes
Luke Harper172180Yes
Neville111188Yes
Roman Reigns150213No
Ryback158174No
Seth Rollins196176Yes
CageMatch.net

It's no coincidence that two guys with the highest match totals in 2014 went down with injury the next year. And if Ambrose and Reigns get hurt this year after both going past the 200-match mark in 2015, it won't be the least bit surprising.

More matches equals more wear and tear.

Wrestlers' match totals 20 years ago still provided ample opportunity for injuries, but they did not put up the kind of numbers that Rollins and Cesaro have of late.

Top Superstar Match Totals (1994-1995)
Wrestler1994 Matches1995 Matches
Bret Hart164149
British Bulldog57163
Diesel151142
Triple H51107
Razor Ramon163175
Shawn Michaels73124
Owen Hart190169
Undertaker85141
CageMatch.net

On this entire list, only twice did someone go over 200 bouts. Rollins and Cesaro surpassed that amount in consecutive years.

Averaged out, the listed contemporaries wrestled 175.4 matches a year. The Heartbreak Kid and Company, however, competed in 131.5 bouts a year. That's 44 extra matches. All the extra bumps one takes on those additional contests has to contribute to injury over time.

That's like having NFL teams play 21 games instead of 16. 

To see the effect of a higher workload at play, note how different Bryan's and Undertaker's careers have gone. Bryan had neck surgery and found himself unable to recover from a series of concussions. The Deadman, meanwhile, is still competing (albeit rarely) at age 51.

Bryan had a three-year span where was a workhorse with worn-down legs.  

In 2011, he wrestled 192 times. In 2012, he upped that total to 213. The next year, he stepped into the ring 228 times. 

Undertaker, on the other hand, can partially credit his longevity to a nine-year stretch where he didn't even hit 100 matches:

  • 2002 (92) 
  • 2003 (53) 
  • 2004 (55) 
  • 2005 (57) 
  • 2006 (62) 
  • 2007 (76) 
  • 2008 (97) 
  • 2009 (89)
  • 2010 (48) 

To put those numbers in perspective, the year before Bryan's career unraveled thanks to injuries, he wrestled more than Undertaker did in 2002, 2003 and 2004 combined.

Consider too that in between all these matches Superstars are packing their superhero-sized bodies into planes and cars for miles and miles. That's hurting these men and women, too.

In a 2015 interview with GQ, Kofi Kingston explained:

It's funny, because you see us in the ring and we're taking all these bumps and we're being thrown around, and you'll see me jump from the top rope to the outside of the ring. But what wears on the body is the travel. Like, we just flew to Victoria all the way from Florida. Those seats go back like 53 degrees! So you're sitting in an awkward position, your legs are numb and your lower back is hurting, and then once you land you have to get in a car and drive for two or three more hours.

WWE has been a nomadic enterprise since its inception, but the scope of travel is much wider than it once was.

Abu Dhabi was a corner of the world WWE had previously not touched, but in 2013, the company took its traveling parade of Superstars there for the first time in 2013. WWE traveled there again in 2015. 

That year, WWE put on shows in the United Kingdom in April, Canada in May, Japan in July, Australia in August, Saudi Arabia and Mexico in October and continental Europe in November. That's a lot of long trips to make in between crashing into the canvas for a living.

WWE is now more than ever a global enterprise, and its wrestlers are logging more miles than ever before. At the very least, Superstars aren't recovering as well after each show.

An Elevated Level of Violence

Critics have begun to campaign for an offseason or at least a lighter schedule for the gladiators who work for WWE. Workload is only part of the problem, though. What wrestlers are doing in these matches is just as much to blame for an increase in injuries.

To appease today's crowds, WWE stars put themselves at more risk by taking bigger bumps more often.

Suicide dives and leaps out onto the floor are commonplace right now. It doesn't matter if its an insignificant TV match or the climax of a world title feudwrestlers are pulling out their most dramatic and most dangerous moves. 

Wrestlers have also begun to crack their foes against the ring apron (often referred to as the hardest part of the ring).

Hall of Famer Jim Ross wrote of the mindset of today's wrestlers on his blog: "The reason for many injures is not solely on the schedule but also lies at the feet of the amount of 'bumps' talents take and the high-risk element that many of these 'car crashes' entail. Work smarter and sell more, which will lessen the need for so many insane scenarios."

Pro wrestling journalist and founder of Wrestling Observer Newsletter Dave Meltzer had similar thoughts. 

"Everyone's going to work harder because no one wants to be called lazy," Meltzer told Bleacher Report. "Sometimes they are working so hard that it's not to their benefit. The injury rate is the highest I can recall."

As much as one can point to wrestlers elevating the level of violence in each clash, WWE frequently puts them in a position where they have no option. Street Fights and ladder matches are far more common today than they have been in the past.

Hulk Hogan, for example, fought in two steel cage matches, zero ladder matches, and zero No Disqualification contests in 1985. A decade later, Michaels' 1995 resume included just one ladder match, one cage match and not a single match of the No Disqualification variety.

Compare to that to Rollins' year as champion. He battled Dean Ambrose in a brutal ladder match at Money in the Bank and fought in eight cage matches and 19 no-DQ-type matches.

Rollins crashed into a table by way of a diving elbow drop in January. Ambrose launched him onto a ladder a few months later. In October, Rollins leaped from the top of the steel cage into the ring. Something was bound to tear or twist or break at some point during all of that.

WWE has built its calendar around these riskier stipulations, building pay-per-views around the ladder match, the Tables, Ladder & Chairs bout and the Elimination Chamber.

Injury has to be expected when asking men to crash through ladders several times a year. The same goes for having them work 200-plus matches. It was inevitable that Rollins, Cesaro, Harper and others would all need medical attention. 

The explanation for WWE's injury issues is no mystery: It's the result of simply asking too much of those on the roster.

As more wrestlers collapse with torn ligaments in their legs or find the pain in their arms too great to avoid surgery, WWE needs to evaluate its entire structure. 

The formula for a healthier roster is simple: Decrease the number of ladder matches; push for wrestlers to save the riskier moves for the biggest of stages; spread out the workload more. 

Otherwise, count on more big names missing time, as the disabled list continues to look like an all-star roster.

Match statistics courtesy of CageMatch.net. Schedule information courtesy of ProFightDB.com. Meltzer quote obtained firsthand in interview for a separate article.

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