Fear, Steel and Spectacle: An Inside Look at the Pro Wrestling Ladder Match

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterDecember 2, 2016

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR WWE - WWE Superstar Daniel Bryan celebrates becoming the new Intercontinental Champion at WrestleMania 31 at Levi's Stadium. on Sunday, March 29, 2015 in Santa Clara, CA. WrestleMania broke the Levi’s Stadium attendance record at 76,976 fans from all 50 states and 40 countries. (Don Feria/AP Images for WWE)
Don Feria/Associated Press

The ladder Drew Galloway stood on careened toward the ring ropes like an oak felled by a lumberjack.

He envisioned what would happen next. He had seen Shawn Michaels take the same fall in his classic ladder match at WrestleMania X against Razor Ramon. That night, Michaels tumbled from the ladder and crashed legs-spread onto the ropes.

Galloway's own plunge left him howling.

"I stepped off the ladder waiting to glide gracefully, but instead I plummeted violently," Galloway told Bleacher Report. "I created about 50 new swear words, I hit so hard." 

The drop black-and-blued his groin. The former TNA world champion, known during his WWE tenure as Drew McIntyre, bounced on the ropes for a moment before flipping over and crashing onto the canvas.

The match rolled on. More collisions comprised the WrestleMania XXVI Money in the Bank ladder match. More ladder-centered chaos was to come.

This is the norm for these bouts.

A championship or briefcase containing a championship contract inside hangs above the ring. The only way to win is to retrieve the dangling object after climbing a ladder.

The metal contraptions become launch pads and weapons, crash sites and inanimate tag team partners during the violent exhibition that is the ladder match. Bent steel wraps around flesh. Bodies fall from the ladder's upper rungs. 

For Galloway, it was only worth it to engage in these contests under the brightest lights the wrestling world had to offer.

"I always avoided ladder matches and dangerous matches my whole career," he said. "If I was going to do it, it would be when I was signed with WWE."

His first venture into the world of ladder bouts came in 2010 at WWE's annual megashow, WrestleMania. Yes, he slammed into metal and fell from great heights, but he did so in front of over 72,000 people in Glendale, Arizona.

As much as the ladder match is an ominous landscape not to be entered lightly, it's also often a grand opportunity.

   

A Chance to Shine

Dylan Postl spent most of his WWE career as a punch line.

Introduced in 2006 as Finlay's leprechaun partner Hornswoggle, Postl found himself playing a comedy act. WWE once asked him to wrestle in a cow costume and often be part of sight gags based on him being a little person.

A ladder match allowed him to create his magnum opus, to exhibit himself as a wrestlernot a jester.

Hornswoggle (Dylan Postl) preps the announcers' table to use against his opponent.
Hornswoggle (Dylan Postl) preps the announcers' table to use against his opponent.Credit: WWE.com

At the Extreme Rules pay-per-view in 2014, his feud with El Torito culminated in a Tables, Ladders & Chairs match. But the bout wasn't meant to be a showcase. It was set to be another joke at his expense.

WWE had little people serve as commentators and referees. Postl and El Torito would work with stepladders. And the company dubbed the contest a "WeeLC match."

Galloway, who was in the faction 3MB at the time and Hornswoggle's on-screen ally, met with him before the PPV. He told Postl, "You know people are planning on laughing at this."

The former intercontinental champion was willing to put his body on the line for the sake of the story Postl and El Torito would tell. He said he was willing to dive off the top of a ladder to provide one big violent image for the bout.

"The rest is up to you," he told Postl.

Postl knew that he and his opponent could open eyes that night. "It was a time for Torito and I to really show what we can do. Our first major opportunity."

As the action unfolded, the audience laughed at first. The two men crashed, charged and slugged it out, and something in the air shifted. A show-stealer was in the works.

Hornswoggle (Dylan Postl) leaps from a ladder onto El Torito.
Hornswoggle (Dylan Postl) leaps from a ladder onto El Torito.Credit: WWE.com

The match turned out to be excellent, and Postl was hugely proud of the result.

"What we did in it I think blew people away," he said. "That's the biggest thing I've ever done in my career."

When he pulled the curtain open and stepped backstage, his peers gave him a standing ovation.

The ladder match proved to be a stage on which he and El Torito shined. It has long been a medium for grabbing an audience's attention. 

The three-way rivalry between Edge and Christian, The Hardy Boyz and The Dudley Boyz saw the rising stars demolish each other in a series of ladder and TLC matches beginning in 2000. Those bouts raised each wrestler's profile in a huge way. It turned midcarders into must-see attractions.

Shelton Benjamin made a name for himself as a breathtaking athlete with daring stunts during Money in the Bank ladder matches. The Shield had a most emphatic arrival when the trio debuted in a TLC match in 2012.

And, most famously, Michaels and Ramon forced the conversation to be about them when they tore the house down in one of WWE's early ladder matches at WrestleMania X.

    

Storytelling and Legacy

Jeff Jarrett watched the famous Michaels-Ramon showdown live as a member of the WWE roster.

The co-founder of TNA and founder of Global Force Wrestling said of that match, "It's the true standard-bearer to this day on telling the right story and creating the right urgency and timing and everything that went with it."

Jarrett would soon get to experience the ladder match himself. He and Ramon battled time and again in 1995 with the Intercontinental Championship hanging above the ring.

As much as the ladders left him banged up, he felt he had to deliver something special every night.

"I always took pride. I always wanted to go out and give an exceptional effort. I'm a third-generation guy. The fans have put food on my table for three generations, and they spend their hard-earned money to come out and watch you. So we owe it to them."

And Jarrett explained that, for him, the ladder match was a privilege, one that came with pressure. 

"If the promotion deems you worthy enough to be in a specialty match then you better live up to the expectations," he said.

For Galloway, he knew that following the likes of Ramon and Michaels or Edge and The Hardy Boyz wasn't going to be easy. But he intended on doing so with gusto.

"You've got a lot to live up to," he said.

"We have the pressure of what's happened before, in the history of WWE and the kind of guys we are, of the mindset we have. We just want to go out there and steal the show, and be remembered as one of the great ladder matches."

These bouts don't only come with added weight on one's shoulders, but a variety of elements to harness.

Standard moves become special when performed off a ladder. A wrestler can shove his enemy in between the sides of the steel and crush him. One can fly from greater heights and issue more destruction than is possible in a standard contest.

As Postl put it: "It gives you so much more freedom. So many more things we can do. We had so many toys to play with."

But ladder matches shouldn't just be a series of stunts. It is still theater. It's still wrestling, which is, at its core, a narrative medium. 

Galloway noted that there are "so many different avenues to go down" in these matches. But one has to be discerning when to insert the daredevil elements.

"Pick the right spots to tell the story that needs to be told," he said. "You shouldn't plan the whole match. You have to go with the flow and listen to the crowd."

Drew Galloway attempts to retrieve the Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania XXVI.
Drew Galloway attempts to retrieve the Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania XXVI.Credit: WWE.com

Benjamin, one of his opponents at WrestleMania XXVI, decided to ad-lib some violence during their bout. Galloway looked up to find his foe coming toward him with a ladder in his hand.

Their eyes met. Galloway knew what Benjamin wanted to do. "His eyes were saying 'yes!'" he said. The high-flyer hurled the ladder at Galloway, who had to block it with his forearms, metal hitting bone.

It's that kind of moment stacked one atop another that makes all the variations of the ladder match so thrilling. Coupled with a great feud and good storytelling, wrestlers can often compose a classic.  

"You can create so much drama throughout the match," Jarrett said. "With the right rivalry, it can be a show-stealer, for sure."

But that comes with a physical price. 

      

The Unsettling Steel

In 2011, WWE entered Daniel Bryan into its annual Money in the Bank ladder match. His win over seven opponents led to him carrying around a briefcase containing a world title contract he could cash in anytime. It also helped propel him to stardom.

But he had to overcome a phobia before any of that.

The former world champion and current on-screen general manager for WWE's SmackDown brand wrote in Yes! My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania, "I had my own concerns going into the match, first and foremost being that I'm terrified of heights."

Bryan had good reason to be apprehensive. He'd experienced firsthand the dangers of the ladder match.

Daniel Bryan leaps at Justin Gabriel during a Money in the Bank ladder match.
Daniel Bryan leaps at Justin Gabriel during a Money in the Bank ladder match.Credit: WWE.com

While still in WWE's developmental system, he wrestled in one against Ruben Cruz and felt the aftereffects long after.

Bryan detailed a scary moment in his autobiography: "The ladder moved as I jumped off, which didn't allow me to get enough distance to hit him. Ruben nearly sprinted forward to try to catch me, but it wasn't enough, and I landed hard on the floor, separating my right shoulder."

Later in the bout, his head crashed into a metal guardrail and the blow knocked him out cold. 

Galloway fell unconscious during his own ladder match.

At the Money in the Bank PPV in 2010, Kofi Kingston leaped from high on a ladder and performed his signature Boom Drop onto Galloway, who lay atop the announcers' table. The ensuing collision left Galloway loopy.

"When I opened my eyes, I was looked around and wondered why 20,000 people were in my bedroom," he said.

He had to shake off the confusion in a hurry. There was work to be done. "Wait a minute, I'm in a ladder match. Wait a minute, what's going on?" he said to himself.

Galloway grabbed a referee and asked him to remind him what he needed to be doing.

Hearing a story like that makes it easy to understand why wrestlers would be so wary of these contests. Punishment is assured for those who enter them.

The late Hall of Famer Eddie Guerrero wrote of ladder matches in Cheating Death, Stealing Life: "They're more dangerous than just about any other match because there's no way to work it. You've just got to take it. There's no way to make getting hit with a steel ladder any easier, or that fall from the top any shorter."

"It beats your body up," Jarrett explained. 

Double J would know. In 1995 alone, he battled in 10 ladder matches, including six in an 11-day stretch, per CageMatch.net.

Jeff Jarrett during his WWE days.
Jeff Jarrett during his WWE days.Credit: WWE.com

"You can get thrown completely out of the ring, in the ring or on the ladder. And as Jim Ross liked to say, that ladder can be very unforgiving," Jarrett went on. "You feel your bumps and bruises for days, sometimes weeks afterward."

And as Galloway put it simply, "Those ladders really, really hurt."

With that in mind, it's easy to imagine these musclebound warriors being unnerved and even fearful despite their superhero-like auras. The ladder match forces gladiators to respect the power of gravity.

Galloway said, "I forgot how much I hated heights until I went up that ladder in rehearsal."

Three things run through Jarrett's mind before a ladder match: "The height, the sturdiness of the ladder, the opponent."

And Postl recalled: "The ladder itself is shaky being a 15-foot ladder. With all those guys moving around it in the ring, and it's even shakier. You put another guy on the ladder, and it's pretty frightening."

There is only way to overcome those fears and the knowledge of the incoming pain—embrace it. 

Postl said, "The more you think about it, the more you're going to psych yourself out."

Guerrero wrote: "You have to be willing to put your body on the line. You've got to give yourself completely, and you have to do it with a clear head. If you hesitate, you're going to get hurt."

After years of thrilling fans in ladder matches, Edge retired early due to spinal stenosis. The final chapters of Christian's career were marked by repeat concussions. Joey Mercury famously broke his nose and orbital bone during a 2006 ladder match. Rob Van Dam bore a nasty gash on his head after a Money in the Bank bout.

Risk and all, these bouts are invaluable.

Jarrett called the ladder match a "high-risk, high-reward" endeavor. The reward is often increased fame and a standout match added to one's resume.

We would not think of Edge or Ramon, Postl or Benjamin the same way without the ladder match.

Mr. Kennedy slamming Postl from high on a ladder in 2007 become a signature WrestleMania moment. "It's in that video package over and over," Postl noted.

At Extreme Rules 2014, the ladder match proved to be his career peak. Elation numbed Postl's bruises that night.

"I was on such an adrenaline high at the time. I didn't feel much. I remember sitting in the locker room for a good hour or two soaking it in because I knew we did something great," he said.

Galloway, bruised nether region and all, looks back fondly at his first ladder match. He was in a spectacle-heavy match on wrestling's grandest stage, and that's all that mattered.

"It was at WrestleMania, so it was more than worth it," he said.

    

Jeff Jarrett is the founder and CEO of Global Force Wrestling. Dylan Postl is a former WWE cruiserweight champion and currently wrestles on the independent circuit. Drew Galloway was WWE's first Scottish-born star. He currently wrestles for TNA, Insane Championship Wrestling and other promotions.

Ryan Dilbert is the WWE Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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