Ricky Steamboat Case Puts Linda McMahon Campaign Spotlight on Pro Wrestling Brain Injuries

Last week the national media decreed that pro wrestling’s “image” had become a factor in Linda McMahon’s Senate campaign in Connecticut.

But that was last week. What we’re going to find out this week is whether the wrestling media, which criticize McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment, but only to a point, are willing to go long and deep with the Ricky Steamboat story. By telling it in plain English, they have an opportunity to improve the industry and save lives. If they revert to Morse code, they have none.

Last Monday WWE Hall of Famer Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat got “beaten up” on USA cable’s Raw as part of an “angle” in which upstarts from WWE’s lower-tier NXT brand attacked a bunch of old legends. Steamboat, 57, a backstage agent for the company, recently had returned to wrestling part-time, probably because he enjoyed it and because it also boosted the fledgling career of his wrestler-son Richie.

Playing up the Monday night angle, WWE said Steamboat was badly injured in the brutal attack. In the story line, Steamboat sustained “broken ribs.”

On Wednesday, however, the angle turned real and macabre, as Steamboat, suffering from disabling headaches, was admitted to a Florida hospital. He was fighting for his life with what doctors originally diagnosed as a brain aneurysm.

Over the weekend, the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer reported that the diagnosis had been changed from an aneurysm to a “burst capillary.” Steamboat had bleeding on the brain, the key symptom of an aneurysm, but in this case the bleeding was caused by the ruptured blood vessel, which usually heals over time and is not, in and of itself, a life-threatening condition.

Where the story gets interesting is in Meltzer’s explanation that a burst capillary is caused by “blunt force.” I think Meltzer was implying quite clearly that what ailed Steamboat was a direct consequence of an industrial accident on Monday night. Good on Meltzer for advancing that information.

In my own mind the distinction between a burst capillary and an aneurysm isn’t entirely clear. A layman might conclude that Steamboat has an aneurysm brought on by a burst capillary.

I take this suggestion in two directions – one specific and one general.

Specifically: Aneurysms and very closely related phenomena are found as a cause in lists of untimely pro wrestler deaths. In the appendix of my book Wrestling Babylon, Scott “Hog” Irwin, at 35 in 1987, and Shinja Hashimoto, at 40 in 2005, are listed as dying from aneurysms. Javier “Oro” Hernandez, 21, died from an aneurysm sustained during a match in 1993.

Mazakazu Fukudu, 27, died in 2000 from “a cerebral hemorrhage from a blow in the ring.” A burst capillary, in other words.

Last July retired WWE developmental wrestler Damien Dothard (“Damien Steele”), 36, died from an aneurysm. Two months later, a wrestler on an independent circuit, Matt “Riot” Lowry, 21, died from an aneurysm.

Generally: It is not surprising that in this physical and dangerous sport, there are head injuries caused by trauma, and that traumatic head injuries are not confined to the classic concussion syndromes isolated by the research on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, on which Chris Benoit’s father Mike is campaigning to raise public consciousness.

And there will always be injuries of all kinds to the head and every other part of the body, with or without chair shots or extreme-rules gimmicks and weapons.

With all that said, it is near-billionaire Senate candidate Linda McMahon who is in the crucible of this discussion at this moment, and properly so. WWE’s occupational health and safety standards have been atrocious, especially in proportion to its profits and industry dominance. The company’s much-hyped medical and drug-testing teams have demonstrated little or no Hippocratic independence. Now a legendary semi-retired wrestler, late in his sixth decade of life, lies in intensive care as a consequence of a “soap opera” shtick the whole world viewed a week ago on TV.

Will my friend Dave Meltzer and his fellow newsletter writers pound this story as hard as they pound former pro wrestler Brock Lesnar’s mixed martial arts heavyweight championship win on Saturday night in Las Vegas? Or will they bob and weave, leaving bread crumbs and clues and hieroglyphics, but no sustained energy or priority for connecting the dots and holding themselves and their readers to their share of responsibility for the welfare of their TV heroes?

NEXT: I solicit a second round of thoughts from Mike Benoit.

Irv Muchnick

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