Growing up in Pittsburgh, Michael Sampson, DO, FAOASM, watched Pittsburgh native Bruno Sammartino, a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Famer, on TV occasionally. But he never envisioned wrestling being part of his career, even once he entered the field of sports medicine. In 2008, the medical director of WWE offered him a job as a ringside physician, but he wasn’t sure what to think about the offer at first.
“I like to tell this story to my medical students as a lesson on keeping their minds open, as far as medical specialties and careers go,” says Dr. Sampson, who worked for WWE from 2009 to 2013. “At the time, I thought I had kind of grown out of pro wrestling. But once I got hooked back into it and I started learning about the business and the history, I came to find out it’s a fascinating sport.”
Twelve years later, Dr. Sampson is bringing everything he learned from four years of ringside care in WWE to the same position with All Elite Wrestling (AEW), a rapidly-growing wrestling company founded in 2019 that airs events weekly on TNT.
In this edited Q&A, Dr. Sampson talks about caring for athletes like Cody Rhodes, osteopathic manipulative treatment in professional wrestling, and how AEW has operated during COVID-19.
What got you hooked on professional wrestling?
Before I took the ringside physician job with them, WWE flew me to Detroit, where they were doing WWE Raw. I went and met with [CEO] Vince McMahon, Triple H and some of the other big names. It truly was like a Hollywood set in Joe Louis Arena, where I’d watched hockey games before.
It was so interesting seeing athletics combined with theatrics combined with show business. Being there in person is an incredible experience that is hard to understand until you’ve seen it for yourself. With all those worlds combining, I knew it overlapped well with the kind of work I wanted to do.
What went into your decision to come back to professional wrestling after leaving WWE?
I spent 2008 to 2013 at WWE and also spent some time at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Georgia (PCOM-GA). I worked my way up to be the chief academic officer and senior associate dean for PCOM’s new South Georgia campus. Not many people can say they helped start a new medical school, so that was a goal I was happy to achieve.
Then I heard from [AEW vice president and wrestler] Cody Rhodes, who is the son of Dusty Rhodes, who was known as the American Dream. He said he was helping start a new wrestling company and doing pay-per-view TV events, and he offered me the job of ringside physician. I said, “Absolutely.” As time went on and AEW started doing live TV every week, they really wanted more of my help, given my experience.
I had to make a really tough decision, but my love for sports medicine won out. I stepped down from my position at PCOM-South Georgia. Shortly after that, I went full time with AEW, and I’ve been their ringside physician since day 1.
How has AEW handled COVID-19 and been able to continue airing events?
COVID-19 was a curveball that of none of us expected, of course. We took a month off, then put in place a comprehensive questionnaire that we send to everybody coming into our bubble, as well as temperature checks and rounds of testing before they’re allowed in.
Once people are backstage in our bubble, they wear masks and social distance, the only exception being when they wrestle. It also helps that we’ve made Daily’s Place in Jacksonville, Florida, which is an outdoor amphitheater, our home base during COVID. Starting in late August, we’ve even been able to bring back a limited number of fans, who are able to watch safely without making contact with us or each other.
We were one of the first sports leagues in the country, if not the world, to put together a program like this so we could continue to bring entertainment to the public, and we’ve been very successful with it.
What goes into ringside care on a daily basis, and what kind of injuries do you treat most often?
For comparison, amateur and college wrestlers pretty much stay on the mat. They don’t do any high-flying, off-the-ring flips breaking through tables. They don’t do any number of other things that professional wrestlers creatively come up with. That’s a lot of wear and tear on the body, which is the biggest thing, while amateur wrestling is sprained ankles and knees, back and shoulder issues, and lacerations.
Gravity is gravity. They’re at the top of the world in what they do, but even if it all goes right, that wear and tear can lead to issues. And sometimes things go wrong just like in every other sport, and you have an injury you have to take care of. I’m seeing the whole spectrum of sports injuries.
Treating the wear and tear I see so often with these athletes is why I particularly became a DO and went into sports medicine. The athletes that I had with WWE who are now a part of AEW will still come to me for OMT, because they just love it and think it’s the best thing in the world. They’ve found it helps get them back into the ring faster than just throwing anti-inflammatories at them.
What is your best sales pitch for those who are unfamiliar with wrestling?
There are a lot of people who hear about professional wrestling and think “I’d never be interested in that, that’s corny.” But if you watch it on TV once and see the athleticism on display and the entertainment value of it, you’ll really be hooked.
We have heels (the bad guys) and baby faces (the good guys). You pick who you want to follow, then you’re excited when they win and you’re sad when they lose. You can watch their storyline and character develop. It’s really entertaining, and the wrestlers are the ones putting the matches together. They’re amazing athletes and performers. Overall, professional wrestlers have been the most appreciative, thankful, respectful athletes I have ever worked with in my career.