There are two types of wrestling violence that have the real power to thrill. The first is spectacle, the fall from the top of the cage, the leap from a ladder through a table below, and the second is legitimate discomfort. The latter is the most potent feeling when the mask of kayfabe slips and it’s possible for a “smart” audience to actually feel concerned for the competitors in the ring. As someone who isn’t a major consumer of the deathmatch style – no “barbed wire no-rope exploding” matches for me – true discomfort comes down to two main matches.
The first is the match between Eddie Guerrero and JBL at the Judgment Day pay-per-view in 2004. During a planned spot in the match, JBL hit Guerrero with a sickening chair shot. When Guerrero then bladed, he cut too deep and spent the rest of the match bleeding so profusely that, when he got backstage, he had to be hospitalised to receive fluids for the blood loss and staples for the wound. Similarly, the second match – and the one this column is about – featured a botched blade job, but this one changed the contest for the better.
The match I’m talking about is, of course, the all-out war between Cody and Dustin Rhodes at AEW’s Double or Nothing event in May 2019. Even before it became the bloodiest mainstream wrestling bout of the year, the contest had heat running through its veins. Cody and Dustin had seemed set for major clashes on multiple occasions during their time in WWE, but the company never pulled the trigger on giving them a blockbuster, marquee face-off. AEW rectified that immediately, with a feud built around the idea that Cody wanted to put his ageing brother, the wrestling equivalent of Old Yeller, out of his misery.
As both men made their entrance, their separate stances were made clear. Cody smashed up a throne in an arrogant nod to Triple H and wore a weight belt bearing the words “Attitude Killer”. In this context, Dustin, who made his entrance as a lone gunslinger, with his face paint showing half of Dustin and half of his wrestling persona, represented the past and, particularly, the sort of past that Cody and AEW were hoping to usurp. The stage was set.
The early stages of the match were fairly standard as the two men fought to gain an advantage. However, the match turned and became a violent opus when Cody side-stepped Dustin, sending his older brother into an exposed turnbuckle. After a few minutes of misdirection in which referee Earl Hebner ejected Brandi Rhodes from ringside, Dustin emerged with blood oozing from a gash above his eyebrow. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary cut, with Dustin leaving a puddle of gore whenever he lay on the mat. Multiple shots showed blood literally pouring from Dustin’s head.
There’s no doubt that the intensity of Dustin’s bleeding added considerable drama to the match. Excalibur and Jim Ross became increasingly solemn and concerned as the contest went on, with the former softly stating that “the bleeding doesn’t stop, Jim”. Dustin has since revealed in interviews that he himself was scared by the degree of gore he created in the match, with the flowing claret genuinely obscuring his vision as he fought to stem what the commentators at one point referred to as a “waterfall”.
When Cody finally hit his second Cross Rhodes and scored the pinfall win, he left the ring drenched in the drying blood of his brother. The subsequent embrace between the siblings as they agreed to team together at the Fight For The Fallen event later that year was handed extra power by the fact they were united in blood – both internally and externally. This was already a match packed to the brim with emotion, but the theatricality of the violence elevated it to another level. These two men really did leave everything in the ring.
Immediately, the Double or Nothing match was listed as a potential Match of the Year candidate. Indeed, it received that very accolade from Pro Wrestling Illustrated and appeared on dozens of internet lists. Many would argue that it was the best match of Dustin Rhodes’s career and, given the eclectic array of contests and characters the legend has taken part in, that’s no mean feat.
All images courtesy of AEW, wwe.com, Tape Machines are Rolling, Video courtesy of AEW YouTube