Far too often, those who are cynical about the professional wrestling industry use the word “fake” instead of “scripted” when they are talking about the business. The outcomes of matches are, of course, planned ahead of time, and thus the majority of what you see on an episode of World Wrestling Entertainment program Raw is scripted. There is, however, little fake about the punishment that these athletes endure during their careers. Trained pro wrestlers know how to take bumps and have been taught how they can try to limit injuries. Accidents happen, though, just as they do in competitive sports such as football, soccer, hockey and other examples.
A National Football League cornerback who tears his ACL during practice or a preseason game is not ready to experience such a serious setback. That type of injury can occur with one wrong step or because somebody else on the field falls the wrong way. In just a moment, what seemed, at first, to be an insignificant incident can forever change the life of an athlete. Similar injuries, some of which have accumulated because of years of working in the business, have ended the careers of pro wrestlers years before they should have had to quit working as a member of an active roster.
Edge could be the first example that comes to mind. The “Rated-R Superstar” was holding the WWE World Heavyweight Championship when he learned that he had to immediately retire because of spinal stenosis. Christian, who was Edge's long-time partner in WWE and also a world champion as a solo worker, was also forced to retire early. Some wrestlers, however, have managed to defy that odds and also their own bodies by making comebacks that were remarkable and maybe even ill-advised. That includes a beloved babyface who finally saw the writing on the wall and retired as an active wrestler in February 2016.
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15 Eva Marie
We start the list with a different kind of “injury” that could have been career ending and life threatening. It was learned in January 2015, thanks to the Total Divas program that airs on the E! Network, that WWE Diva Eva Marie was having issues with her breast implants. While some may chuckle at the thought of such an issue, it is one that could have had serious impacts on Eva's WWE career and even her life. The story, thankfully, had a happy ending, as Eva underwent successful surgery and was ultimately able to return to the ring. Now, if only she could improve and become a good wrestler. We can only hope.
14 Tyson Kidd
We are including Tyson Kidd on this list with the hope that Kidd will one day be able to return to the ring as good as new. Kidd suffered a serious neck injury in June 2015 after he was on the receiving end of the “Muscle Buster” finisher used by Samoa Joe. Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer reported in July that Kidd was fortunate to even survive the injury. Kidd is, as of February 2016, working on returning to the ring, but he is expected to be sidelined for over a year. We all wish Kidd the best and hope that he works a WWE match, on or off of television, before the end of 2016.
13 Buff Bagwell
Buff Bagwell was working a match with Rick Steiner in April 1998 when Steiner accidentally jammed Bagwell's neck while performing the “Bulldog” maneuver from the top rope. Bagwell did not move immediately after the match ended, and it was clear that something was seriously wrong. While Bagwell did recover feeling in his arms and legs at the arena, he was sidelined for several months before he was back at it on World Championship Wrestling television. Bagwell did make a full return to the ring, though, and there were no indications that he had ever been sidelined because of the problem.
It is one of the most gruesome injuries one will ever see take place inside of a wrestling ring. Sid suffered a fractured leg while attempting an aerial move in January 2001, and at least one bone popped through the skin for all of the world to see. It was believed, at the time, that the veteran of the ring would have to retire from active duty after he needed surgery to repair the problem. Sid never again wrestled for WCW because the company was purchased by the WWE in the spring of 2001, but he has since worked multiple matches. Sid even appeared on WWE television in 2012.
The star power had by WWE Diva Lita went beyond the wrestling ring in the spring of 2002. Lita was filming an episode of television show Dark Angel when she was dropped on her head while practicing a “Hurricanrana.” It was learned, after examinations, that Lita had suffered cracks in multiple vertebrae, the type of injury that could end the career of any athlete. Lita was sidelined for roughly a year and half because of the injury, but she was able to return to the ring and resume her active wrestling career. Lita was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2014.
During the heights of his days in Extreme Championship Wrestling, Sabu was said to be a “suicidal, homicidal, genocidal” wrestler. That was not just a gimmick, as Sabu routinely put his body and even, at times, his life on the line while working matches. It has been reported over the years that Sabu suffered two serious neck injuries while working in ECW. One of which occurred when he was accidentally dropped onto his head during a match against Chris Benoit. Video of that incident is available via websites such as YouTube and Daily Motion, but it is not easy to watch.
9 Hardcore Holly
Sometimes, a serious and even career-threatening injury can be turned into a storyline. That is what happened when Hardcore Holly suffered a broken neck after he was powerbombed by Brock Lesnar during a match in 2002. The injury was legit and serious, and it could have ended Holly's career. Holly did come back, however, and his real-life injury was used in a storyline that involved Holly returning to the WWE to seek revenge. Holly challenged Lesnar for the WWE Championship at the 2003 Royal Rumble, but he was downed by the “Beast.” At least Holly was able to walk away healthy after that match.
8 Bret Hart
It was widely believed that Bret “The Hitman” Hart was retired for good following a program with Goldberg that left him with post-concussion syndrome. Hart was left in even worse shape after he suffered a stroke in 2002. The man known as “the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be” was never again the same wrestler after the stroke, but Hart was able to work several matches for the WWE starting in 2010. Hart was protected, for obviously reasons, during those matches, but it was still good to see the “Hitman” back where he belonged.
7 Bruno Sammartino
Nobody can ever doubt that Bruno Sammartino, a true legend of the wrestling business, was as tough as any wrestler in the industry. Sammartino suffered a broken neck when wrestling against Stan Hansen at Madison Square Garden, but he nevertheless made a return trip to Pittsburgh before he was admitted to the hospital. It was reported at the time that medical professionals cautioned Sammartino about returning to the ring. Sammartino would not be kept away from wrestling, however, and he remained a WWE mainstay up through the late 1980s. After a falling out with the company. Sammartino was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013.
6 Daniel Bryan
Life is often not fair. There may be no better example of this in the wrestling industry than Daniel Bryan. Bryan, an underdog in storylines and in real-life, was set to be the WWE Champion and the top babyface in the company in the spring of 2014 when it was learned that he needed neck surgery. Bryan successfully returned in time and he won the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania 31. His reign with that title would not last long, however, as Bryan was once again sidelined in the spring of 2015 because of injuries. Bryan announced in February 2016 that he had decided to retire after learning about brain injuries that he had suffered throughout his career.
5 Mick Foley
There were, truth be told, probably dozens of times that Mick Foley should have retired during his wrestling career. Foley suffered many concussions, including one that occurred when he was powerbombed onto a concrete floor while working in WCW. The icon of hardcore wrestling took multiple scary spills from heights during his run in the WWE. Watching The Rock hit Foley in the head with at least 11 unprotected chair shots during the main event of the 1999 Royal Rumble could turn the stomach knowing all we know now. Thanks for everything, Mick, and we just hope that you are OK.
4 Kurt Angle
We are lucky to have been able to see Kurt Angle wrestle professionally at any point. Angle's athletic career could have ended after he suffered, in his own words, a “broken freakin' neck” as he was preparing for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Angle recovered, won gold at those Olympics and then went on to have a great career in the WWE. Angle and the WWE parted ways in August 2006 because of health reasons, and some wrestling journalists voiced concerns about Angle being allowed to wrestle for any company. Total Nonstop Action Wrestling scooped Angle up, however, and he worked for TNA up through January 2016.
3 Shawn Michaels
“The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels was thought to be finished as an active wrestler following the serious back injury that he suffered at the 1998 Royal Rumble. After being away for over four years, Michaels made a triumphant return to the ring to face off with Triple H at the 2002 edition of SummerSlam. Not only was Michaels as good as he was before the injury. HBK was better than ever, producing classic matches with the likes of Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, Undertaker and others during the second portion of his WWE career. Michaels may very well be the best in-ring worker in the history of North American pro wrestling.
2 Ric Flair
It is, four decades after the fact, almost astonishing to think that we nearly missed out on seeing Ric Flair become the “Nature Boy.” Flair was one of several individuals involved in a plane crash in October 1975, an accident that left the pilot killed and that paralyzed wrestler Johnny Valentine. Flair, meanwhile, was left with a broken back and an injured neck, and it was believed that his wrestling career had come to an end. That, as you know, was not the case, as Flair went on to have one of the greatest careers in the history of pro wrestling.
1 Steve Austin
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin was not yet the hottest babyface in the WWE when his career nearly ended at the 1997 edition of SummerSlam. Owen Hart accidentally dropped Austin on his head while executing a “Sitdown Tombstone" and Austin suffered a broken neck and also temporary paralysis. Austin made his way back to the ring, and he became, per journalists such as Dave Meltzer, the biggest single draw in the history of the WWE. “Stone Cold” has suffered lingering problems from that night, though, and it is believed that the state of his neck is why he has not worked a match since losing to the Rock at WrestleMania 19.
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