Cracking Under Pressure: Wrestlers are Not Alone | Smark Out Moment

Cracking Under Pressure: Wrestlers are Not Alone

Posted by Outside Interference Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Professional sport in the 21st century is both a dream and a nightmare. Countless youngsters grow up idolizing the most famous and prolific sportspeople on the planet but, for the select few who do have the privilege of making it all the way to the top, the task of staying there can prove to be a hellish experience.

While those at the highest level of their sport may seem to occupy the rarefied air above mere mortals, there is an internal struggle to balance work with life. The modern sportsperson not only needs to perform well on whatever stage they occupy but get the right representation, the most cost-effective endorsements and build the most meaningful network of contacts.

This is not just to keep their overall profile popular either, as retirement also presents an additional challenge all by itself. This is especially the case in sports such as wrestling, boxing and UFC, where physical harm is always part of the agenda, no matter how well trained a fighter is.


With the efforts to promote women's wrestling only recently being heightened, this table showing the age of notable early retirees from the WWE illustrates that personal financial security is more of an issue for female wrestlers than their male counterparts.

Wrestlers most vulnerable to rigors of modern sport

Wrestlers, in particular, are notorious for dying young at worst and struggling to cope without a spotlight at best. Such is the nature of their profession, even the slightest injury can worsen to the point where they are simply no longer fit to mix it at the highest level, yet their innate nature will force them to carry on at the cost of their health and well-being.

A top feature on multiple lists summarizing those who retired from wrestling far too early is Stone Cold Steve Austin. Cocky, foul-mouthed and unbelievably popular, he was the face of the Attitude Era that many believe saved the WWE from extinction, at a time when WCW held all the best talents and the lion's share of viewers.

Hailing from a part of the world famed for a brutally-hot climate, meat-centric diets and the invention of the uncompromising Texas Hold-em form of Poker, Austin was as straight-talking as it gets. Whether foe or commissioner, nobody was immune to a Stone Cold Stunner back in the day.

However, his entire career was one which he spent fighting through the pain barrier, after sustaining an injury at SummerSlam in 1997, which gradually worsened as he dominated the airwaves in the late 1990s. At the dawn of 2000, he missed ten vital months recovering from spinal fusion surgery. At this time, Triple H became the undisputed face of the WWE franchise, with his own Austin-style turn from babyface to antihero, yielding a similar surge in popularity after doing so.

The brother of the late Owen Hart, who dealt said injury to Austin in 1997, is also a man who will go down in history as a major example of unfulfilled potential. Though Austin is seen as a major figure the salvation of the WWE franchise, Bret Hart's feuds with various heel wrestlers throughout the mid-1990s are the very reason it stood a chance of overcoming WCW's might in the first place.

Ever-popular, and yet surplus to requirements, the infamous Montreal Screwjob is another story entirely, and a sorry tale of how the pressures of modern sport can affect more than just the athletes at the heart of the action. It is a sickening turn of events for Hart Foundation fans, which caused them – and Hart himself – to defect to the WCW.

While he was a welcome addition to the WCW roster, the tide soon turned but professional pride made a move back to WWE out of the question. After suffering a concussion after a bout with WCW's Goldberg, who was an immovable powerhouse with a monstrous unbeaten run – which was the greatest USP the franchise had by then – Hart was soon forced to retire.


Hart's unfulfilled potential is another potential reason that he retired early. Indeed, this graphic shows that his defection to WCW, with Nitro as its flagship show, came at exactly the wrong time. The amber text denotes the time at which his defection took place. RAW won every quarter post-2000 until WWE's acquisition of WCW.

Poker: A Point of Contrast

In most cases, wrestlers retire early for their physical well-being, but the psychological baggage remains. This ultimately poses another question, and that is whether or not a complete lack of physical activity in another sport affects how much pressure participants feel to persist against all better advice.

Along perhaps with chess and eSports, poker is the sport that requires the lowest amount of physical activity possible. Psychologically though, most who consider it a sport in the first place will appreciate that the mental burden it imposes during play has no equal. This is especially true when one compares the earnings of WWE's high-rollers with those taken in by the immovable masters of professional poker:

As poker and WWE demand contrasting levels of physical exertion so to do they offer very different balances of risk and reward.

Perhaps the most notable case study of a poker player yielding to pressure is Vanessa Selbst, who retired from professional poker in early 2018 having racked up an eight-figure sum of winnings from live tournaments. The strain of balancing her work in hedge funding with hedging her bets proved too much, and in the end, she chose security over furthering her poker career, opting to quit while she was ahead.

The likes of Doug Polk, Tony Gouga and Phil Gordon have retired for more desirable reasons than personal survival. With their business acumen, the two have used their winnings to set up successful new ventures or expand existing ones and, in the case of Gouga, a career in politics beckoned, when he joined the European Parliament in 2014.

Doug Polk, despite raking in nearly $10m in winnings, was arguably the most vocal of these pro-Poker success stories. Upon leaving the game, he stated clearly: "For quite some time I've not enjoyed playing poker. It's felt like a grind. It's felt like work."

Crossover: WWE stars and a special guest play poker for RAW's 25th anniversary.

A spectrum of motives

Often, sports theorists will assert that the higher the risk, the lower the likelihood of long-term commitment, and Polk's statement appears to back that up. Clearly, seated poker players can feel pressure just as much as high-flying wrestlers, but people can also turn their backs on a sport simply because it stops being enjoyable.

Serial winners like Michael Jordan, Bjorn Borg and Otto Graham are all well-known for fitting into this category, with Borg notably retiring at just 26 years old after winning five successive Wimbledon titles. The sheer prominence of those names also implies that the advent of winning can become such a norm that quitting at the top soon becomes the only option.

So, are the pressures of modern sport simply too much for many competitors? Ultimately, early retirement, or at least retirement within ten years of becoming a prominent figure in a sport, is not uncommon at all and, injuries notwithstanding, the level of physical activity involved also appears to have little bearing.

Generally speaking, the newer a sport (like poker) is to full codification, the more unfamiliar it is to modern necessities like sponsorship and investment, making players likelier to quit for personal motives.
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