Ringside at WWE: Matches may be fake, but injuries are real (most of the time)
Acting. World travel. Reality television. SmackDown.
When Michael J. Sampson, DO, embarked on his career in sports medicine, he had no idea these words would one day be in his job description. In 2009, while he was working with athletes at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the medical director for World Wrestling Entertainment, better known as the WWE, called him to ask if he wanted to treat professional wrestlers. A few months later, Dr. Sampson was on the road with a film crew and a gang of theatrical fighters. As a WWE ringside physician, Dr. Sampson learned the pro wrestling lingo—that the bad guys are called heels, the good guys are called babyfaces, and all performers are referred to as talent.
Last year, Dr. Sampson earned distinction in the wrestling circuit for helping save the life of commentator Jerry Lawler when he suffered a myocardial infarction while on the air. A cameo treating a star on the new WWE reality show, “Total Divas,” boosted his prominence further. And this year he was promoted to medical director of the WWE’s new Performance Center, a training and wellness facility in Orlando, Fla. But on an average day, he treats wrestlers at the ringside for lacerations and musculoskeletal injuries.
Following is an edited interview with Dr. Sampson.
You have a background as a team physician in baseball and football. How was the transition from these sports to the theatrical, storyline-based WWE?
Wrestling is definitely sports performance. I like to call it sports soap opera. It was difficult for the first six months because our wrestlers get paid to make people think they’re injured. It took me a little while to realize which injuries were scripted and which were unplanned. At first, I was ready to jump in the ring after every move, but one of the trainers was very good at teaching me what to look for and what not to ignore. He helped me make that transition.
As the medical staff, we don’t always know when wrestlers are going to have a scripted injury, so they can take us by surprise. Like the audience, we sometimes get sucked into the performance and believe a planned injury is real. Some of the talent are better than others at selling their injuries. We obviously check on everything, just to make sure everyone’s OK. And when we examine the performer, we can tell if he or she is OK.
How can you tell which injuries are real and which are scripted?
The performers have to sustain “injuries” in a way that looks believable to the audience. Some talent are very good at it. But I’ve learned certain clues, which I can’t reveal, that help me determine whether an injury is genuine. Still, I take every potential injury seriously because you never know when, even if it’s supposed to be a scripted injury, something went wrong and the performer did get injured. As the medical staff, we always assume that it’s a real injury until proven otherwise.
Do you ever have to fake-tend to a wrestler’s scripted wound? Is acting part of your job description?
When I first started with the WWE, my boss would say, ‘Go in and check on so-and-so,’ and I would go in just like I would for any other athlete. Now I occasionally have a speaking part. Sometimes I get a script, but more often than not my scenes are improvised.
Do you have a background in theater?
When I was growing up, I wanted to get into entertainment. But I grew up in a blue-collar family. The understanding was that I would be a doctor or a lawyer or something like that. So I pursued medical school but dabbled in broadcasting as a hobby. I didn’t think too much about it until I got this job and began doing a little acting and appearing on camera. So this job is perfect for me because it’s a mix of medicine and theatrics.
What are the common injuries and health problems you see in the wrestlers?
Of all the sports I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with just about every sport except for horseshoes, this is the most demanding. We have no off season. It’s 52 weeks a year of “on.” Our performers are training every day—lifting weights, doing cardio—traveling and doing shows 52 weeks a year.
“They are the most respectful, thankful athletes I’ve ever worked with.”
I see a lot of shoulder, knee and ankle injuries and repetitive injuries. People always say, “Wrestling is fake.” Well, gravity is gravity, and these guys and ladies are out hitting the mat multiple times every night for 52 weeks. We also have occasional lacerations that we have to either staple or sew up just because accidents do happen.
Our medical staff have had to retire two performers because of neck injuries. At the time, they weren’t very happy with the decision, but after being out a couple of years, they realized that it’s better to be able to walk away with a great career than to not be able to walk at all.
Tell me about some of the more intense injuries wrestlers have suffered in the ring.
We’ve had a couple of pretty significant lacerations that are probably the most gory injuries I’ve seen. They were even too graphic to be televised because our programs are rated PG. I put about 13 staples in a performer’s scalp once. It was a bloodbath. Another time, a wrestler was hit on the side of the head, which was planned, but he looked the wrong way and got a pretty significant laceration. I had to use about 22 staples that time, and we treated the performer for a concussion as well.
Once, one of the talent had an orbital fracture. Amazingly, he finished his match. That’s what these guys and ladies often do. They go into “go” mode. They finish their matches, and then they come out to be evaluated.
As a ringside physician, it’s also my job to call the match if I see something that could potentially harm the talent. But I’ve only had to stop a match once on live TV. I did it because of a potential neck injury. The talent wasn’t very happy with me at the time. But in the long run he saw why I did it, and he was thankful for it.
Do you perform osteopathic manipulative treatment on the wrestlers? Was the WWE interested in hiring a DO for this reason?
The WWE leadership likes the DO philosophy and the holistic aspect of osteopathic medicine. Also, they were interested in DOs because we focus on musculoskeletal medicine.
I do manipulation on the talent, and they love it. At the Performance Center, they come in for treatments if they’ve had an injury. I’ll do an evaluation and do OMT, and they get better faster.
On the road, sometimes performers have somatic dysfunction that’s going to stop them from performing that night, and often, manipulation can improve their condition to the point that they can perform.
The other ringside physician, Chris Amann, is an MD. He’s always asking me to show him different OMT techniques. During his training, he met DOs and learned some basics, and I’ve taught him some other techniques he can use to help the talent.
The WWE bans steroids, but many athletes face external pressure to use them. What steps do you take as a physician to curb or prevent steroid use?
The WWE bans a host of medications that are hazardous to the talent, including steroids and recreational drugs. So that deters performers from using either. The company established a talent wellness policy in 2006 to help talent live healthier lives, and staff help set up rehab for any performers that fail urine tests for drug use.
But I would say that steroids are not an issue in the WWE anymore. That’s really a thing of the past.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I love working with the talent. They are the most respectful, thankful athletes I’ve ever worked with. I’ve worked with great athletes in the past. But I’ve also worked with some athletes who expected that I would be there taking care of them, and they didn’t thank me at all. But here, everybody’s amazing. This is the best group of people I’ve ever worked with.
And what would you say is your least favorite part of the job?
Telling a wrestler that he or she can no longer perform. For any physician, telling patients they can’t do what they love to do is the worst. And sometimes the travel gets tiring when we do six cities in five nights. But that’s also good because there are some places in this world I’d probably never have gone to if I didn’t have this job.
What advice would you give to medical students and young DOs who would like to be in your shoes one day?
Study hard and learn your profession. Learn OMT. It comes in handy for everything, not just athletics. And once you get into practice, practice OMT. Don’t give it up. OMT is a major component of osteopathic medicine, and you can really help people with it. It saddens me that some physicians just quit doing manipulation because they’re too busy. I used to be in private practice in a very busy practice, and I managed to do OMT on the majority of my patients.