Like a legendary wrestler, Derek Neal has been sacrificing his family, been putting his life on the line and making himself bleed, risking his health and injury to his body, in order to embrace the crowd’s roar when he walks out through the curtains towards the ring. He leads a life of sacrifice for his craft, yet he still meets prejudices and criticism about his sport being fake and scripted. 

Derek Neal

The Real Deal

Derek was born on August 28, 1985 in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He was introduced to wrestling from an early age, watching the matches on television, listening to the announcers talk about wrestlers with names like Ric Flair, Macho Man Randy Savage and Chris Jericho. He spent hours researching and learning how they’d engage a crowd, making them boo or cheer, and adapting that to his own performances. When he was 16 years old he was doing some backyard wrestling with his friends, when he came across a wrestling school in the area. There, he met his trainer who took him under his wings and taught him everything about wrestling inside and out of the ring. Derek learned about life as a wrestler. 

In 2016, Derek had more than 180 wrestling matches around the United States – almost every Friday, Saturday and Sunday was spent in the ring. He knows that rarely being home effects his children, and that without supportive people like his wife, and parents, he would not be able to chase his dream.

 

Derek is only 31 years old, but even though his body is young, it is starting to slowly break down after being in a physically demanding industry for more than 15 years. Throughout his career, his multiple injuries have added up to an ever expanding medical file. He has had numerous surgeries for various injuries across his body, causing him pain that affects him in the ring and in his daily life. At one point he won a match while competing with a broken collarbone. Injuries have always been Derek’s biggest pitfall and every time he has come close to a breakthrough with the higher independent wrestling companies, he would be injured again.  

 

In the last five years, Derek has found himself thinking about life after wrestling a lot more. Since he has a family to take care of, having a normal life with them appeals to him. He knows that he was able to live a unique life that most people never get to experience, and even if he never completely fulfills his dream, he still has a lot of good memories. However, he can’t replace the adrenaline rush that he gets feeding off the energy of the crowd. He can’t describe it the feelings that he gets when he enters the ring – even if he left wrestling for good, he is sure that there’s nothing like it.

Derek Neal, "The Real Deal", Bowling Green, Kentucky, USA

 
 

It’s been a longstanding debate, with wrestlers and fans on one end and the ‘non-believers’ on the other. Emotions run high on both sides, and the question stands: what is so fake about pro wrestling?

Most of the wrestlers would think that “fake” is an ugly term and would use terms like “predetermined outcomes” or “scripted”, rather than fake. Modern-day professional wrestling is an addictive sports soap opera viewed by over 25 million Americans a week. In tracing the history of professional wrestling in America, matches in the early 20th century could last as long as 5 hours – not conducive to most attention spans. Adapting a more flamboyant and intriguing style, wrestling became more vaudevillian and was a staple of traveling carnivals until the first golden age of wrestling, which began with the advent of television. At this time the interview segment was created and the wrestlers could expound upon their personas. Some came to the ring wearing gaudy robes, golden bobby pins, masks and ringlets in their hair.

 

Popularity waned throughout the 60’s and 70’s, but the 80’s saw a huge resurgence in the appeal of professional wrestling, culminating with a crowd of over 98,000 on hand to view Wrestlemania III in a sports arena. Today, pro wrestling is consistently the most watched show on cable television. But all this still doesn’t answer the question: is it fake?

An Artist In

The Ring

Mister USA, Franklin, Kentucky, USA 

Big John Irons, Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Vic The Bruiser, Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Shawn Hurley, Louisville, Kentucky, USA 

Wrestlers are pummeled with folding chairs, dropped onto wooden tables, thrown, punched, kicked and yet seem to find some inner strength when the crowd rises to their defense and cheers mightily. It is comparable to highly trained stuntmen taking abuse to their bodies for entertainment. Make no mistake, fake or not, for the most part these wrestlers are athletes in top physical condition, many with a background in amateur or college wrestling. The overall goal is to keep the viewer coming back for more. The fans have their favorites. That means that more often than not, the crowd favorite is going to win. Not that there aren’t mishaps. People are literally dying in the ring. 

World Wrestling Alliance, Owensboro, Kentucky, USA

 

Critics of professional wrestling organizations often claim that because wrestling is choreographed, it is fake. However, the injuries that pro wrestlers sustain are in fact very real and can be extremely dangerous. Even though pro wrestlers are trained to perform moves in a way that reduces injury, their bodies take on a lot of repetitive impact during their time in the ring, and that puts them at a high risk of serious injuries. 

Death and broken bones

With an average life expectancy of 84 years for men and 86 for women, pro wrestlers seem to die much earlier at a fairly alarming rate. Concussions and spine injuries are perhaps the most concerning among professional wrestlers. These types of injuries can result in long-term damage like paralysis, brain damage, or even death. However, the leading cause of death among professional wrestlers is heart attack, which is also one of the leading causes of death among the regular population. However, professional wrestlers average life expectancy is 20 years less than that of an average person. Wrestlers are more likely to commit suicide, die in an automobile accident, and much more likely to die of heart disease than the average person. This is mainly attributed to the myriad of health issues that stem from the rampant steroid use, alcohol, pain killers, and recreational drugs used to cope with the pain caused by continuous of and sustained performances. In addition, drugs are used as a coping mechanism to deal with a life that is constantly on the road.

NWA New South Wrestling, Gallatin, Tennessee, USA

According to a study by Eastern Michigan University, mortality rates for professional wrestlers are 2.9 times greater than the rate for men in the wider U.S. population. Experts suggest that a combination of the physical nature of the business, no off-season breaks, and the drug culture contributes to high mortality rates among wrestlers. Measures such as the introduction of World Wrestling Entertainment’s Wellness Program have been instituted to curb the trend. 

There are risks in any sport, of course, and in college or Olympic wrestling, people get torn ligaments, pulled muscles, and various bruises. In pro wrestling, although it’s a scripted performance, it still requires athleticism, acrobatics, physical strength, and the ability to withstand pain— even scripted moves can go wrong; or you can fall unexpectedly, or a punch that was not supposed to hit you, instead connects with your face.

Most pro wrestlers are independent contractors, so if they miss a day due to injury, they don’t get paid; thus, many take painkillers so that they can perform, even if they are in pain or injured.  Drug addiction is a significant risk, as the wrestlers try to compete even when they are in pain.

Athletes in the wrestling industry are considered to be independent contractors with very little benefits, yet they have to sign an exclusive contract with their promoters, controlling where and when to they perform in order to be paid.

The wellness program is administered independently by medical professionals and includes cardiovascular testing, testing for brain function, substance abuse and drug testing, annual physicals and health care referrals.

 

Chair-shots to the head have now been banned to reduce the likelihood of concussion, and several other life-threatening moves have been banned. They now pay for all ring-related injuries and associated rehabilitation if injured during on the job. 

But despite these changes, several wrestlers are still calling for a union to better protect their interests.  Some claim that they still have to work while injured and that many new wrestlers have been brought up too quickly, in order to build up the WWE stable, when in fact they are their inexperience is causing others to become injured.

 

There isn’t any type of standard for new wrestlers. In addition, there isn’t a true governing authority for the sport, that incorporates all the regionally based affiliates and promoters in the industry. Looking beyond WWE, there are thousands of independent wrestlers trying to make a living with very little protection.

 

So, while much has been done, more needs to be done to better protect the safety and interest of these athletes. 

Ricky Bell, Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Scott Sextor, Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Arrick, Franklin, Kentucky, USA 

Adrian Thomas, Louisville, Kentucky, USA