On Sunday night, in a WWE pay-per-view, Sting suffered a serious neck injury. What was the 56-year-old wrestler doing out there? Same thing he's always done.
Photo by Brian Wright via Wikimedia Commons
On Sunday, WWE held its annual Night of Champions pay-per-view event, a B show that nonetheless—and honestly—bills itself as putting every title in the company up for grabs. This means that there's almost always an interesting exchange of belts, even if most of the show proceeds in the predictable way that the current WWE likes so much. There was every reason to expect business as usual on Sunday.
The main event was double-champion Seth Rollins, a conniving heel who's grown into one of the best wrestlers on the roster, defending the WWE title against the face-painted NWA and WCW legend Sting. The idea was that Rollins was put into a terrible spot this year: he had to defend the United States championship—a second-tier belt with a great history—against lingering and extremely popular fart John Cena immediately before facing Sting. It's complicated, but it always is. More to the point, the idea had promise, given that Rollins and Cena have great chemistry and that Sting—who once swore he'd never work in the fed—in WWE is still a strange, compelling sight.
There was a catch to all this drama, though, and it caught up to us with a vengeance on Sunday. Sting is 56 years old and has as many miles on his body as anyone who has spent the better part of his life in professional wrestling. To be sure, it's odd to see him as old. Sting doesn't look 56, in part because his thick layer of The Crow-style face paint—Sting has been riding this look for far longer than anyone ever cared about The Crow—masks the wrinkles. A spandex doublet or shirt covers the paunch, and the long hair—slicked back with the meticulousness that only a middle-aged man insecure about his hairline can muster—comes undone just in the waning moments of a match.
All of which is to say that Sting looks like a million bucks. He's slower, he's not as strong, but you can squint and believe he's still the guy who had one of the greatest slow burn angles of all time with Hulk Hogan in 1997. He's not, though. Sting is 56, and he hurt his neck so badly in his match against Rollins that he may have to retire, effective immediately.
It seems almost absurd to type out: a 56-year-old wrestler may have to retire. As if the notion of a 56-year-old wrestler being thrown through a table or powerbombed into a turnbuckle—both very hard bumps even for wrestlers in their prime, and both of which happened to Sting against Rollins—shouldn't be dismissed as a possibility in the first place. May have to retire? Future tense?
You can see the bump, assuming the rumors are right and this is the one that did the most damage. (The table break that came before was brutal, but not decisively so.) It doesn't look like much, honestly, but Sting rebounds off the turnbuckle and it's immediately apparent that he's not right. You can hear Rollins say something before he tries to do a simple stomp on the prone Sting. The veteran can't even take that, wobbling out of the way. The doctors rush in to check, all while Rollins gamely talks trash.
Watching it, I figured it was all part of the plan—a tasteless but not quite out-of-bounds work, with Rollins screaming at a fake-injured Sting. This is nothing to hope for, really, but the alternative—Sting being forced out of the business like this, with two lost WWE matches and a nearly broken neck to show for it—is too heartbreaking to contemplate. Everyone who cares about wrestling is contemplating it now.
Again: Why? Why didn't Sting get a safe retirement earlier, a chance to go home to Dallas after a standing ovation, free to enjoy his life? The answer may be that this is him enjoying his life. He doesn't need the money or even really the fame. He was healthy, until now, and he's still secure. He wanted this—not this ending but the moments that came before, the last turn in the spotlight.
Which is why, queasy though it all is, I can't really question it. Despite all of my concerns that these men and women get fair remuneration and benefits—and despite my fervent desire that they unionize and demand non-freelance working lives—I get that the pure stupid high of it is hard to just give it up. The silence of ordinary life has to be deafening after a lifetime of roaring crowds and blaring theme music. Your friends and everything you've ever known are out on the road and in cramped backstage areas. You are in some McManse in a state without an income tax, if you're lucky. And you're bored.
Maybe the best thing, right now, is for WWE to reevaluate its reliance on the old and intermittent. Is there a place for Sting and the Undertaker in the promotion? Absolutely. Is it in starring roles, where the pressure to take big bumps and inflict the most dangerous moves is greatest? No. Undertaker is getting ready to main event Hell in the Cell with Brock Lesnar next month, and honestly I'm terrified. Terrified for Undertaker, because he's pushing 50, but also terrified for Lesnar, because Undertaker is pushing 50. Ask Steve Austin about the effects of an imprecisely executed piledriver and then go see how hard Undertaker was struggling to get Lesnar up in their past two matches.
For that reason, if not only for that reason, Sting shouldn't have been in the main event on Sunday night. Yes, him not main eventing would feel odd, because he's just too big a personality to have him jerk the curtain. Had he been wrestling an upper midcard match with a Kevin Owens or a Randy Orton, perhaps he wouldn't have felt the pressure to go so hard with a body that belatedly gave him up. Nobody is to blame, precisely, just as no one person made Sting get in the ring. It is easy to imagine a world in which Sting and other legends could be eased out of the business, but sadly that's still all we can do right now—imagine.
When wrestling fans express anxiety over WWE's insistence on part-timers and aging legends, it's always couched in terms of the story. We are in the director's chair, then, worrying that new stars aren't established for tomorrow and that we'll all be left watching septuagenarians in big matches at Wrestlemania. But the real danger is what happened to Sting. Sting, like Undertaker and Hart and Flair and the rest, came back because we wanted to watch him wrestle. That's a powerful, understandable pull. We saw it. The question, now, is how much we really want it, and whether we want it this much.