Blading: The History of Blood In Wrestling

John Cena blood

For those ignorant to the sport of professional wrestling, the bleeding on a wrestler’s forehead is simply tomato sauce or a strategically placed capsule full of Halloween blood – but the proverbial “crimson mask” as WWE Hall of Famers Gordon Solie and Jim Ross like to describe it, is more real than perhaps anything else that goes on in the squared circle. Wrestlers bleed…real blood. Today they cut themselves with hidden razor blades (blading), yesteryear it was a bit more creative. But in a family friendly genre, now dubbed entertainment by market leader WWE, who is also rated PG on US television, does blood – REAL blood – still have its place?

Taipei Death match
ECW Taipei Death match.

Before the likes of 1990s ECW were over supplementing their already envelope-pushing style with Taipei Death matches – a match where each wrestler dips their taped fists in glue and glass before letting them unload – the likes of the original Sheik (Sabu’s uncle) and later Abdullah the Butcher made their careers on legitimately busting open their opponents and themselves.

The Original Sheik
The Sheik bloodying his opponent.

Hated by the fans in the 60s and 70s the Sheik would conceal bits of wood, pencils or other sharp objects in his attire to stab his good guy opponents with. Due to the rule of Kayfabe (pretending wrestling is real in all circumstances) anyone who dared to question his legitimacy would be greeted with a good slapping or even a fireball to the face. He stayed in character his whole life and wasn’t even Edward Farhat to some of his friends. Word would spread from town to town that “the Sheik is coming,” which meant blood, guts and great ticket sales. Despite wrestling being far less exposed in the 50s 60s and 70s, the use of blood, coming from a blatant fork jab to the head put many potential nay sayers in their place. Who would argue with a crazy Arab that didn’t speak English, waving a pencil soaked in blood around like a madman? That was real.

Although the Sheik is known for his fireballs – a mystery you’ll have to solve for yourselves – and a myriad of other sharp weapons, it was Abdullah The Butcher that would take the bloody fork to new heights. Jabbing his opponents, the referees, himself and probably a couple of fans along the way; the Butcher himself was a king of Kayfabe. For the record he’s actually from Canada and owns a scrumptious House of Ribs, but in his prime he didn’t utter a word. As far as anybody else was concerned, Abdullah was a madman from the Sudan, who needed evil masterminds such as Gary Hart, Paul Jones, the Grand Wizard or JJ Dillon to do his speaking for him.

Abdullah The Butcher
Abdullah the Butcher.

Flitting from territory to territory to keep his blood soaked aura red hot, Abdullah the Butcher would carve himself and the local babyface like a joint of beef before going on to the next town to scare them witless or satisfy his gore hungry fans.

Freddie Blassie
A classic blood cover.

Along Abby’s journey came bloodstained posters and magazine photos, which wrestling mad kids would save their pocket money for. They didn’t care about the short and often generic paragraphs on each page – a lot of the time the stories were completely made up to supplement the photos – as long as there were some cool factoids or some gory pictures to add to their collection.

Throughout history blood and wrestling magazines have had a profitable symbiotic relationship. This isn’t to say wrestlers needed to blade to keep the sales of magazines turning a profit, or that wrestling would have died without magazines, but ask anyone who was around in the 60s 70s or 80s and they’ll probably mention a blood splattered picture or two from their collection. Whether it be the original Sheik, Bobby Heenan before he became a weasel, Ric Flair or Eddie Guerrero, almost every major star has been bloodied on the cover of one magazine or another. WWE’s official magazines have had their own fair share of juice over the years as well.

Ric Flair bleeding
The Naitch!

It can’t really be defined but seeing light blond hair from the likes of Ric Flair or Jeff Jarrett’s turn red, is like viewing a Picasso; a bit demented, but intriguing and an important part of the story being conveyed. There’s just something shocking about seeing blood that takes a match to the next level and allows fans to suspend their critical thinking. New England Championship Wrestling promoter Sheldon Goldberg thinks it helps in certain situations. “It’s hard to explain the value and validity of blading in pro wrestling to anyone who isn’t actually in the business,” he told us in an email. “It still has its place when the situation is right. For example, there are times when blood is the only way to drive home the importance of an angle or a feud. We only allow blading when the circumstances specifically call for it. We don’t over use it and it is not done if the workers are uncomfortable with it. For these reasons, it is effective for us when it is done.”

The modern form of bleeding in wrestling is called blading and requires a small razor blade to be gently cut along the forehead of the victim. Some wrestlers aim for naturally occurring wrinkles or grooves to prevent disfigurement, although the leathered and dented scar tissue skin on the top of Abdullah the Butcher’s head (which he can famously hold coins in) proves that some wrestlers perhaps cross a line.

CZW blood
Ultra Violent wrestling.

The rise of modern Ultra Violent wrestling from the likes of CZW and IWA:MS – inspired by ECW and Japanese death matches – has some thinking blading has gone too far. Instead of picking and choosing when to bleed in order to further an emotional story, fans become desensitized as matches and even whole shows contain blood from start to finish.

Because “hardcore” shows remain violent throughout it’s also hard for authorities to distinguish what is meant to happen and what isn’t – such as the Mike Levy situation from IWA:MS when said wrestler was beaten to a pulp by numerous wrestlers on the roster, but nobody knew if he was getting humbled or if it was supposed to happen.

In mainstream TV promotions like WWE and TNA (where they don’t blatantly stab each other with knives) the small blade is often concealed in tights, knee pads, taped wrists or just held, and it’s likely the ref sometimes passes it along during a bout as well. Once the wrestler gets knocked down they’ll cover their face in pain or act groggy, and secretly make the cut to get “colored.”

Back in the day if there were no blades or weapons, skilled wrestlers like Terry Funk were able to simply make a well placed jab just above the eye and the blood would start flowing.

It is also often the case that one performer may entrust another to help blade or bust them open, however there’s been more than one occasion when that trust has been broken and the blading has gone terribly wrong.

How much blood is too much?

Now somewhat of a cult story the 1996 “Mass Transit” incident in ECW was one of those out of control moments. Paul Heyman who sometimes used no-name local wrestlers when ECW began to travel, allowed a self taught teenager to fill in for Axl Rotten in a tag team match with Dvon Dudley against the Gangstas New Jack and Mustafa. Mass Transit (real name Eric Kulas) with the full support of his father (who was in attendance) explained to Paul that he was a wrestler and could do the job. Heyman claims he didn’t know the kid was really 17, nor that he’d only ever wrestled once at a carny show splashing midgets – maybe he didn’t ask, but either way he penciled the portly child in to the card and the match was set.

Mass Transit Incident

During the bout, whether through pre-meditation or by accident, the gangsta used what was described by him later as a “surgical scalpel” to cut Kulas so deep that the blood gushed from his head in a very alarming and Kill Bill like manner. His father could be heard yelling “he’s only 17” from behind the rail.

Although in the end New Jack was never prosecuted, there were numerous implications, including lawsuits and PPV distribution problems as Heyman tried to explain that he wasn’t allowing assault with a deadly weapon on his product.

In what has become another cult event, a match in 1992 between The Great Muta and Hiroshi Hase for New Japan Pro Wrestling was unbelievably bloody. In fact the amount of blood lost by Muta during this match from a bad blade job, sparked a measuring stick for blood loss in wrestling called the “Muta Scale.” Now it’s not uncommon for samrt fans of the period to rank the blood loss of a wrestler on a scale of 0.0 to 1.0 in relation to the river of red that flowed during that bout.

Countless times obscene amounts of blood has been used in matches that although may have helped put over the feuds, at times has seemed to go a little too far and become dangerous. Steve Austin dying the mat red whilst in the Sharpshooter at Wrestlemania 13, Eddie Guerrero slipping on his own pool of blood at Judgment Day 2004 and even HBK’s blood loss in his excellent feud with Chris Jericho. All of the blade jobs in these matches did their desired job, but at what cost?

Steve Austin Sharpshooter
Steve Austin in the Sharpshooter.

It’s easy to see why the use of real blood was needed during the golden territory days of pro wrestling and even on the independent level where live audiences are more important. It keeps fans believing, it drives ticket sales and it takes feuds to the next level, but in the increasingly corporate environment that wrestling has reached, is REAL blood appropriate? Why not succumb to the ignoramuses and use phony blood capsules? Its more hygienic, obviously doesn’t hurt and allows even the most timid wrestlers the chance to bleed without getting looked down on by the veterans because they weren’t prepared to give it all in the ring, as was rumored when the Motor City Machine Guns refused to blade with Team 3D.

Wrestling’s Hepatitis Scandal

The 2005 WWE Armageddon PPV featuring the Undertaker vs Randy Orton in a Hell in a Cell match reignited controversy over blading and blood borne diseases. It was Orton’s father “Cowboy” Bob that caused the controversy when he bladed and bled over the Undertaker. It all erupted backstage after Taker discovered Bob had Hepatitis as a child, which is a highly contagious blood disease that can remain contagious for life. Cowboy Bob didn’t stick around much longer after that.

There is certainly an argument to be made against blading when it could seriously damage somebody’s health. Abdullah The Butcher has long been accused of spreading Hepatitis C, sometimes without even the common courtesy of asking his opponent if they want blood in the match – though there probably hasn’t been a match where Abby hasn’t bled.

The debate is really about how good blading practices can be encouraged. WWE have completely scaled back on the amount of blood on their programming and pre-contract medical testing weeds out anybody with disease. However with state athletic commissions turning a blind eye to wrestling because of the theatrical elements, and no central wrestling body governing things, the independent scene remains completely unregulated. It is down to individual promoters and wrestlers to be honest with each other about the risks.

One person who thinks blading is still stuck in wrestling’s carny roots and wants to take action, is former (albeit brief) pro wrestler Phil Theis, better known as Damien Demento, who hit internet headlines with his deranged WWE ranting promos on Youtube.

Damien Demento

“What if I told you that there has been a longtime practice of employers asking employees to deliberately cut themselves? Worse still, they are asked to do this in front of children. It gets worse. Most know this sick practice is being done. Where does this take place? Would you believe College and High School auditoriums, County, and State Fairs [Indy shows], Sporting Arenas, and on Television? Not just in this State, but around the Country,” stated Thies in a letter to his New York State Senator.

“Sadly, many wrestlers feel this practice is a tradition, and feel a kinship to the business if they perform this. Simultaneously, today, we have teens, for a variety of emotional reasons, who cut themselves. I can only see a kind of glorification and acceptance of this practice if children and teens see this performed by wrestlers who are now major TV and film celebrities,” he concluded.

Blading hasn’t always been seen as an acceptable thing to do in mainstream wrestling. With the rise of aids, national exposure and more and more children watching, Vince McMahon virtually outlawed the act of blading in the 1980’s apart from on the odd occasion when the wrestler was probably punished or if it was put down to being a “hardway” accident, something we’ve also suspect in recent years during PG.

In the early 1990’s with growing TV audiences WCW also banned blading in fear of a media backlash and problems with “standards and practices”. When Steve “William” Regal was busted open on Nitro one night, the camera panned to the audience until the match was over and that wasn’t a blade, but the stiff shots of Chris Benoit.

WCW took such an anti-blading stance at one point that Dustin Rhodes, Barry Darsow and Mike Graham were all fired after they staged a blade job at Uncensored 1995 in the famous “Road Wild” match where Dustin and Darsow battled it out on a moving 18 wheeled truck. The footage itself had to be heavily edited.

So with the risk of blading (deliberately or accidentally) getting out of hand, the potential of contracting dangerous diseases like aids or hepatitis, the fear of what happens if one refuses to blade, and problems with TV censorship – why on earth don’t they just outlaw it altogether?

Could it be because it’s wrestling’s last piece of reality? Because if saved for special occasions it really does make the match standout and create believers out of the audience?

Wrestling has always crossed the line and pushed the boundaries of entertainment and there will never be clear answers to everything that goes on in the squared circle. It’s often the mystery behind the sport and the willingness of its athletes to put their bodies on the line that creates fans and keeps them there. Blading is part of that and will never go away completely. As they say, it’s not ballet.

WWE are generally very good at picking and choosing when blading is appropriate and blood on TV is quite rare. The Indy scene is obviously less regulated and some genres of wrestling call for constant blood loss, but nobody has ever died as a result of blading. Like South American tribes are free to take psychedelic drugs in the rain-forest, perhaps the bizarre world of wrestling should also be free to continue it’s own cultural norm in the squared circle.

At the end of the day parents should have control over what their children watch and whether you love blood in wrestling are indifferent or want to use it for your own political reasons like Mr Demento, it’s happened, happens and will continue to happen. The day people stop bleeding after being hit in real fights is the day wrestlers stop bleeding in worked fights.