By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
If you were watching WWE’s Hell In A Cell Sunday night, and you made it all the way to the main event, then you saw what happened when Cody Rhodes took his jacket off. And what you saw when Cody took his jacket off was a kaleidoscopic array of colors from blue to red to pink to purple all covering the right side of his upper body.
In case you missed it, word broke Sunday afternoon that Cody suffered a torn pectoral tendon while training last week. Word was that the muscle was partially torn coming out of the pull-apart he had with Seth Rollins on last week’s Raw, but lo and behold, if you try to lift something heavy with a partially torn pec, that pec is going to more often than not tear off the bone.
But Cody is Cody, and Cody made it certain that the show would still go on. In the moment, for a lot of us onlookers, it was an act of courage, the signs of an honest-to-goodness warrior whose heart won its battle with practicality and decided to risk even more harm by heading to the ring to main event a WWE premium live event for the very first time in his career.
Outside of the moment, though? Not so much.
FROM RESPECT TO DOUBT
The year was 1970. It was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The location was Madison Square Garden.
Most everyone who pays attention to sports knows about the legendary Willis Reed moment by now. The guy tore a muscle in his thigh and nobody expected to see him play that night. But he did. In fact, to an enormous amount of fanfare, he did. While he only scored four points, those four points were enough to propel the New York Knicks to a championship that year. It’s one of the great injured-athlete stories of all time.
Between the moment I finally convinced my mind to go to sleep Sunday night and the early-morning hour that I decided to wake up, the narrative on Cody’s Sunday night performance changed. In the glow of the achievement, fans and pundits alike were quick to marvel at his guts. I even read somebody write that the circumstances surrounding the match made for one of the most “captivating wrestling matches ever.” I agreed. Then I went to bed.
But overnight, the tenor of those statements changed. I opened Twitter (always a bad idea) to find that more people were complaining about WWE allowing Cody to go out there in the first place. I listened back to a few audio clips reacting to the night and the conversation was more often than not driven by the question of how that guy was cleared to step into a wrestling ring with his arm and chest looking the way it looked.
Gone was the celebration of a man who fought through wildly visible adversity to give the fans what they paid for; in was ridicule for most everyone involved. Even after the clip of his post-match speech to the live crowd made the rounds — the one where he reminded everyone that it was 100 percent his decision to move forward with the match in the first place — the talking point wasn’t Cody’s commitment; rather, it was WWE’s lack of responsibility.
It got me thinking …
A QUESTION OF RESPONSIBILITY
Remember 2002? You’ve probably seen the clip a million times, but you might not remember the context. Byron Leftwich, who never really formulated into a consequential NFL quarterback (but now always seems to be up for head coaching gigs), broke his tibia in a college football game against Akron. Leftwich was the quarterback for Marshall at the time, and despite having that broken bone, he came back and led his team down the field for a touchdown while his linemen had to literally carry him from snap to snap. The Thundering Herd still lost that game, of course, but Leftwich won everyone’s hearts.
That was 20 years ago. The notion of Twitter was barely a sparkle in the sky. Things like Instant Messenger and ICQ revolutionized the ways we communicate. And email was still kind of/sort of novel. When we saw the clip (or, at the very least, when I saw the clip), I thought, “Wow, that’s nuts. That dude’s tough. It’s a shame they didn’t win the game.”
These days, though? Things probably wouldn’t go like that. Because instead of lauding a kid for having an otherworldly amount of passion, we’d log onto whatever social media platform we choose and the masses would be quick to remind us that the school was irresponsible, the coach was irresponsible, the trainers were irresponsible, and shoot, even Leftwich, himself, was irresponsible because the combine would be coming up in only a few months and he should know better than to risk being even more hurt for that.
But lost in the middle of all those responses would be the actual feat that the kid, himself, accomplished. The commitment to critical thinking would overshadow a truly inspiring moment from a human being who simply wanted to play football. To think he was a college student, to boot, would make the choice to wag a finger even more sad, even more obnoxious. Yes, there are times when people need to be saved from themselves — we all understand that. But there are also times when giving an athlete the benefit of the doubt can be best (or at least the most inspiring) for everyone involved, too.
Take, for instance, Sunday night.
I believe Cody when he says that nobody forced him to go out there and perform at Hell In A Cell. I also believe that sometimes, companies, coaches, doctors and trainers know better than the athlete they have in front of them as those athletes lobby for the ability to go out and do what they do best. That said, I also don’t think that what Cody did Sunday night was, in any way, exploitative by anyone or anything involved.
Lost in the extended dialogue about him stepping into the ring is the fact that if WWE felt he absolutely could not, under any circumstances, compete … well, then Cody wouldn’t have competed. Sure, if you burn that company to the ground for all its past sins, you’ll somehow reach whatever layer resides below hell, but in recent years, remember, this is also the company that sat down Paige, Daniel Bryan, and Edge, among others. The heads in Stamford might be ignorant, but they aren’t dumb, and if Cody was in serious danger by going out to the ring Sunday night, Cody simply would not have gone to the ring.
Instead, he would have cut a wildly emotional promo (not only because he’s very good at that, but also because this is one of the few times, under those circumstances, where it would have been entirely warranted), and some sort of angle between Seth and someone else would have been shot in order to make up for the disappointment. Now whether or not that angle would have actually made up for the absence of the Cody vs. Seth Hell in a Cell match, that remains to be seen. But to think that company wouldn’t have proceeded with the right amount of caution is, at this point, in this day and age, absurd (10, 20, 30, 40 years ago, that might be a different story).
There have been theories about why he was allowed out there — doctors decided there couldn’t possibly be anymore damage done, so why not; perhaps the lower, lesser pec is the one that’s injured — but the bottom line is that whoever makes the medical decisions in WWE made the decision that if Cody really wanted to go out there and work in that amount of pain on that day at that event, then Cody could do just that.
And if you give Cody an opportunity like that, you have to know by now that he’s going to take it. So, he did.
Now, I ask, why does the moment, taken as a whole, have to suffer for it?
ONE OF THE GUTSIEST PERFORMANCES EVER
In 2004, Curt Schilling pitched Game 6 of the ALCS against the New York Yankees after he injured tendons in his ankle and blood seeped out, dousing his sock, coloring it red. Dude might not be the best person in the world, and certainly not the easiest to root for, but the win he helped his team get that night will forever enshrine him in the hearts of Red Sox fans everywhere. Michael Jordan had the flu in 1997 and still managed to put up 38 points against the Utah Jazz to lead the Bulls to a Game 6 that secured the NBA title that year.
If you were watching any of those events live, chances are, you marveled at the ability for these athletes to persevere through pain to get their teams to the next level. I remember watching Jordan, specifically, and wondering how he could manage to get the ball up when he could barely stay on his feet between possessions. Never once did I even come close to asking myself why the Bulls trainers didn’t step in and force him into the locker room. Instead, I sat in awe.
If there’s one thing Al Gore’s World Wide Internet has done to the live sports experience, it’s taken the piss out of everything that makes legendary moments legendary. And while we can argue all day about pro wrestling being a sport, there’s no denying that, by and large, the people who we see perform under that guise are top-tier athletes. They train like the best athletes. They are conditioned like the best athletes. Maybe the outcomes are predetermined, but with the exception of some outliers through the years (and Budd Heavy), if you aren’t in a certain level of shape, you can’t be at the tippy-top of the wrestling world.
And so, it must be said: What Cody Rhodes did Sunday night ought to be up there with the gutsiest performances we’ve ever seen in pro wrestling. Period. That’s it. That’s the sentence. There is no, “but.” There is no addendum. There is no qualifier. There are no three, six, 10 more sentences after that. It’s plain and simple.
What Cody Rhodes did Sunday night ought to be up there with the gutsiest performances we’ve ever seen in pro wrestling.
Complicating things more, of course, is this being the Information Age. Very few (if any) fans in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and beyond had as much real-life information as we have these days, every minute, on the minute. Remember: Wrestling was once somewhat of an outlaw idiom. If Ric Flair had a broken back, nobody knew as long as he went to the ring, did his strut, locked in a figure-four and kept his NWA Worlds Title around his waist. Guys worked through injuries all the time for decades without anyone knowing. Sometimes, that created legends. But, to be fair, sometimes, that also shortened careers.
What will be Cody’s fate after Sunday night? Only time can tell that. But time moves forward with or without second-guesses; time doesn’t care about career length; time knows nothing about a grotesque bruise on the upper part of a man’s chest. So, why marry time and speculation at this very minute now? Instead, we should be tipping our cap to a guy who worked through an amount of pain that would most likely keep the majority of us in a bed for weeks, a guy who made his own decision to perform, a guy who continues to give all he can to a business he loves while there continues to be onlookers out there who dismiss him as little more than a poser.
You don’t turn on the TV to see a quarterback carried down the field by his linemen every day. Nor do you see a guy on one leg inspire a team enough to win an NBA title, or a pitcher help break a curse with a bloody sock. So, if you get lucky enough to watch a man with a hideous bruise fight through debilitating pain just to give the fans what they want, appreciation is warranted and attention must be paid.
So, yeah, physically, Sunday night might have been a nightmare for one, Mr. Cody Rhodes — but in years to come, as memories formulate and appreciation takes back the authority that skepticism currently possesses, that painful nightmare, with any luck, will almost surely (and deservedly) develop into one hell of a dream.