The art of the 'death match'

Story highlights

  • Marc McAndrews has been photographing violent pro-wrestling "death matches"
  • The athletes aren't seriously injuring one another -- but the blood and the scars are real

(CNN)Marc McAndrews grew up a fan of pro wrestling. He remembers spending Saturday mornings with friends, jumping off sofas and trying to emulate the great "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka.

But he wasn't prepared for what he saw years later, when he photographed a wrestling event called the "Tournament of Death."
"What the f*** did I just see?" he recalls saying to himself.
    There, in a field in Delaware, he watched performers beat each other with all sorts of weapons: tables, ladders, chairs, barbed wire, panes of glass, fluorescent-light tubes, you name it. These "death matches" -- a more violent brand of what's known as "hardcore" wrestling -- normally ended with both wrestlers a bloody mess.
    But it's important to remember that it's still entertainment. Like the wrestling you see on television, these are predetermined events being carried out by trained performers who are trying to elicit a response from the crowd.
    "Everybody knows what they're doing and how to get into it," McAndrews said. "And it looks worse than it actually is. ... They know how to fall and get cut in a way that produces the most visual effect."
    Photographer Marc McAndrews (Courtesy Julia Haltigan)
    McAndrews has photographed numerous death matches over the past two years, traveling to events held by small, independent promotions such as Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW) and the Independent Wrestling Association (IWA). These organizations also put on more traditional wrestling matches, but they have found a niche with their hardcore style.
    "There's a creativity to it," McAndrews said. "After the matches, (the wrestlers) are all banged up, but the way that they go back and look at what they've done and try to become better at this type of performance, I see almost an artistic side to it.
    "They're like a musician engaging with the audience. They go out there, and they get these fans riled up, and they know what's going to get the fans going, and they do this. When they are hit by something -- even if it's not as bad as it seems -- they'll play it up like they've never been hurt so bad before, and this really gets the crowd going."
    But make no mistake: These matches do hurt, and the wrestlers have the scars to prove it.
    "I saw somebody slice his hand like all the way open, should have gone to the hospital," McAndrews said. "Instead, someone tore the bottom part of his shirt off and wrapped it up tighter, and they wrestled two more shows that day."
    Hardcore wrestling is not anything new. It has been around for decades, not only in the United States but in other wrestling-mad countries like Japan. Perhaps the style was most popular in the 1990s, with the success of Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). Even World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the world's largest wrestling promotion, had a hardcore title from 1998-2002 -- although the violence was much, much tamer than the death matches seen in McAndrews' photos.
    "Hardcore is a style of wrestling that's a little bit nontraditional, and it can be in an unusual environment; it can have unusual weapons, ladders, things like that," McAndrews said. "Death matches are much more about taking that level of violence a little bit further."
    The stipulations for some of these death matches are even more bizarre than the matches themselves. McAndrews mentioned one in which, after the match, the loser is thrown -- open wounds and all -- into a kiddie pool filled with salt and lemon juice.
    "There's no way that doesn't hurt," he said.

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    So why do it? Why do the wrestlers subject themselves to the pain and the blood and the scars?
    "It's hard to say definitively what draws each person," McAndrews said. "Some of them could just be sadistic. Some of them, it could be the draw of the crowd. Some of them could enjoy being sort of a spectacle. And, talking to some of them, there's a lot of enjoyment by almost pushing people's buttons and being the bloodiest and being the most gruesome one out there. It's almost a competition within themselves to get the most what they call 'color.' "
    McAndrews said he now feels sort of a kinship with the wrestlers, who like him are trying to creatively produce something that fans can appreciate.
    And he finds it interesting if viewers are taken aback like he was at first.
    "This is a question I'm asking myself, and I don't necessarily have the answer: But what's disturbing me about this type of wrestling and the blood and the sport and the theatrics of it, and why am I OK with watching 'Reservoir Dogs'?" he said. "Why am I watching the fights in the hockey highlights? Why is the blood in (mixed martial arts) and boxing almost less offensive than what's in the death matches? And why is the violence on TV and movies less offensive than this?
    "And that's something I don't have the answer to, but it's something that I find curious. ... Where is that line drawn, and how does it get drawn?"