Hardcore wrestling is a form of professional wrestling that eschews traditional concepts of match rules in favor of matches that take place in unusual environments, using foreign objects that are not normally permitted. Although hardcore wrestling is a staple of most wrestling promotions, where they are often used at the climaxes of feuds, some promotions (such as Big Japan Pro Wrestling and Combat Zone Wrestling) specialize in hardcore wrestling, with many matches performed in this manner.
Hardcore wrestling became acknowledged as a major wrestling style first in Japan with promotions such as Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling and W*ING. It then became successful in America with Extreme Championship Wrestling. The World Wrestling Federation/Entertainment capitalized on the success and introduced the WWF Hardcore Championship in the 1990s. The WWF soon began to turn the matches into comedy skits, illustrating the ridiculousness they involved. Hardcore contrasts with traditional mat-based wrestling, where solid technical skills are preferred over stuntwork, blood, and sheer shock value.
As professional wrestling entered the mid 20th century, promoters and performers looked for ways to heighten audience excitement. Blood, while initially taboo, was found to be a significant draw, and the advent of the now-cliché "no holds barred" match marked the beginning of what is now known as hardcore wrestling. Methods were devised for wrestlers to make themselves bleed purposefully as part of their performance. Wrestlers such as "Wild Bull" Curry, "Classy" Freddie Blassie, Dory Funk, Sr. and Giant Baba were among those who introduced the bloody brawling style which caught on in Japan and the American South. New match types were devised that resembled street fighting, such as matches which were held in a cage, Texas Deathmatches which incorporated weapons, and Lights Out matches which were 'unsanctioned' and took place after the rest of the scheduled card, once the house lights had briefly been turned off to signify the end of the event. The National Wrestling Alliance had Brass knuckles championships in the Texas and Florida territories, dating from the 1950s. (The Texas title was taken by World Class Championship Wrestling when it split away.)
Brawling continued to evolve and grow in popularity in America through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The Detroit territory was home to The Sheik, Abdullah the Butcher and Bobo Brazil, and featured long, bloody brawls. The Puerto Rico territory featured Carlos Colón, The Invader and Abdullah, and introduced fire as an element of violence. The Memphis territory featured Jerry Lawler, Terry Funk, Eddie Gilbert and Bill Dundee and introduced the empty arena match and fighting among the crowd into the concession stands, improvising attacks with whatever appliances could be found. More specialties such as ladder matches, scaffold matches and Dog Collar matches were introduced. The NWA eventually instituted a World Brass Knuckles Championship, which was active in the Tennessee territory from 1978 to 1980.
In 1989, Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW) was founded in Japan, the first promotion dedicated largely to the wild brawling style. In the early 1990s, the Puerto Rican promoter Victor Quiñones arrived in Japan, being invited to FMW as the special manager. FMW escalated the violence to legitimately dangerous levels, with barbed wire ropes, timed explosives, exploding wire ropes, and 'land mines'. The federation featured many future North American stars, and became very popular worldwide.
Soon after, in the United States, two independent promotions had brief but significant runs, serving as prototypes for ECW. The Philadelphia-based Tri-State Wrestling Alliance held occasional supercards that featured big name stars among their own local talent, and showcased wild bloody main event brawls with Abdullah the Butcher, The Sheik, Jesse James Sr. and others. The National Wrestling Federation (formerly known as Continental Wrestling Alliance) was based in New York state. Both TWA and NWF featured Larry Winters and DC Drake, who engaged in a long blood feud.
The two promotions ended about the same time, and NWA Eastern Championship Wrestling took their place, with many of the same wrestlers and venues. Eddie Gilbert was the initial booker, and was replaced a few months later by Paul Heyman. After splitting off from the NWA, the company changed its name to Extreme Championship Wrestling, and became the leading independent federation in North America. ECW coined the term 'hardcore wrestling', but its usage there was slightly different than it is used today. In ECW, 'hardcore' referred to a strong work ethic, high levels of effort, dedication to the fans, and lack of fluff or filler. Their level of violence rarely equaled that of the Japanese promotions.
A new gimmick, breaking wooden tables, was introduced to ECW through Sabu, nephew of The Sheik. Sabu had developed a gimmick of throwing himself through a propped-up table in Japan in order to entertain the crowd and get his character over as a wild and possibly insane man. He then started to put opponents through tables, a relatively safe spot which looked and sounded devastating. He brought it with him to ECW, where it became the focus of a feud involving multiple teams. The table spot became a staple of ECW events, and has become so commonplace that it is now incorporated into otherwise non-hardcore matches in almost every promotion.
In Japan, hardcore promotions sprang up around the country, including Wrestling International New Generations W*ING, the International Wrestling Association of Japan and Big Japan Pro Wrestling. New elements included fluorescent light tubes, scattered thumb tacks, flaming ropes and live piranhas.
In the mid-1990s, FMW eventually held female hardcore matches at the suggestion of Megumi Kudo. The first one was held between Megumi Kudo and Combat Toyoda as a deathmatch where the ring ropes were replaced with electrified barbed-wire with explosives. After the match, many female wrestlers had various brutal deathmatches in FMW with barbed-wire ropes, barbed-wire barricades, exploding barbed-wire barricades, electrified/exploding barbed-wire ropes, broken glass, or mixes of these stuffs. These matches often included various dangerous weapons such as barbed-wire wrapped chains, flaming barbed-wire baseball bats, and sickles. Most of the wrestlers who competed in these deathmatches, including some non-FMW rosters such as Shinobu Kandori, Lioness Asuka, and Mayumi Ozaki, were sent to the hospital after these matches.
ECW's popularity led to the major American promotions of the 90s, World Championship Wrestling and World Wrestling Federation, creating divisions devoted exclusively to 'hardcore' wrestling (which mostly amounted to no-disqualification weapons matches). The divisions were at first largely centered around ECW alumni such as Mick Foley, Terry Funk, Raven and Sandman. In the WWF, ladder matches, which had become more common, were now combined with tables and weapons matches to create Tables, Ladders, and Chairs matches.
Hardcore wrestling has fallen out of favor in the major American promotions; the last major hardcore title was the WWE Hardcore Championship, which merged into the Intercontinental Title in 2002. However, WWE still features a yearly pay per view event based around hardcore wrestling called WWE Extreme Rules. In 2006, the MTV-affiliated promotion/show Wrestling Society X featured hardcore wrestling, but was cancelled after one season.
The main rule behind hardcore can have various connotations. Thus, hardcore wrestling is often separated into distinct "levels" based on the graphic nature of the match:
- A 24/7 title match describes a situation where a hardcore wrestler must defend the title at all times. The match (and the title) can be won by pinfall at any time and in any place in the presence of a referee. The match has no fixed location, timeframe or even opponent (in certain cases even nonhuman or inanimate beings can become champions). This is one of the most severe forms of hardcore match given its unpredictability. This was initially a self-imposed stipulation of Crash Holly's WWE Hardcore Championship but afterward became a general rule of the title. During the time Holly defended his title, he did so in such locations as his hotel room, at the airport and even in the supermarket.
- A no disqualification match or a no holds barred match, tends to be less severe, with action taking place mostly inside the ring. Usage of foreign objects is typically minimal, with run-ins (another form of disqualification) being frequently used. The match is often contested between valets (where they may lack wrestling skills), or between a wrestler and a valet (in which a wrestler is expected to run-in and defend their valets). Because of the low-key nature, few consider a no-disqualification match as hardcore, although there is no semantic difference.
- A street fight uses the various elements of "No Holds Barred" and "No Disqualification" and does allow pinfalls and submissions outside of the ring. Also, like an "I Quit" match, rope break does not apply, so having any part of the body against the ropes will not break a submission or pin attempt. The only way to get out of a submission is to fight off the submission attempt. But the person applying the hold can use the ropes, or even weapons, for extra leverage 
- A deathmatch tends to be the most severe, with a heavy emphasis on the usage of foreign objects to induce bleeding. The types of foreign objects and the nature of the foreign objects are used so as to be extremely graphic and violent in nature. In more recent years, some state athletic commissions in the US have cracked down on the types and frequency of weapons used in these matches.
- A hardcore match, sometimes referred to as a Raven's Rules match, tends to be somewhere in between, with emphasis on the brutality of the attacks and the extreme physical toll on the wrestlers involved. WWE dubs the Hardcore match as an "Extreme Rules" match, and "Belfast Brawl" when the match features the former WWE Superstar, Finlay. While less graphic, in kayfabe terms the "rules" are the same in a hardcore match as in a deathmatch; that is, there are no rules beyond a 3-count pin for victory and/or a submission victory.
- Combat Zone Wrestling's Cage of Death, which is held yearly, implements the use of multiple weapons attached to the cage walls. The usual weapons are there, as are unusual ones, such as weedwhackers.
- A staple gun match may take (and has taken) many forms. Just about any singles or melee match type can be adapted to staple gun matches but the common thread in each one is that wrestlers try and staple something to their opponent. The occurrence of this event is more common on the independent wrestling circuits like the IWA Mid-South King of the Deathmatch or Hardcore wrestling circuits staple matches are commonplace. Rules vary for each tournament or wrestlers association but the underlining concept is stapling something to the body of the other wrestler. In Outcast Xtreme Wrestling (OXW) events the first person to staple seven dollar bills to the their opponent wins. In the Combat Zone Wrestling league the number of bills is 13, they call their staple gun matches the, "Unlucky 13 Staple Gun". International Wrestling Association (IWA) has their own version called the "Unlucky Seven Staple Gun Match." The popular midget wrestling league run by Puppet the Psycho Dwarf and his merry band of Half-Pint Brawlers' main event is called the, "$21 Staple Gun Match". In this version each little person is armed with a stapler and as the match goes on audience members throw bills into the ring. The first person to staple 11 bills to the other wrestler body wins. When asked about the event Puppet said "Getting a dollar bill stapled to your tongue leaves a bad taste in your mouth." A staple gun match was showcased in the 2008 film The Wrestler, between main character Randy "The Ram" Robinson, and real-life hardcore wrestler The Necro Butcher.
Hardcore matches tend to emphasize the use of certain weapons or the physical toll on the wrestlers, and thus many euphemisms for these matches are employed. The almost kayfabe-breaking accessibility of some of these weapons -- often under the ring -- to wrestlers has led to the noun "plunder" in reference to them. For example, Street Fights and Bunkhouse Brawls are hardcore-style matches which emphasize that wrestlers need not be in typical wrestling gear when they are battling, while the No Holds Barred match emphasizes the no-disqualification rule. In WWE, Extreme Rules matches are hardcore-style matches that emphasize the spirit of its former competitor, Extreme Championship Wrestling. Other euphemisms, such as the Good Housekeeping match and Full Metal Mayhem, emphasize the use of certain foreign objects as being legal (the former with kitchen implements and the latter with metallic objects). In a Fans Bring the Weapons match, wrestlers fight with "weapons" that members of the audience bring to the venue; this was popularized in the United States by ECW and is now a specialty in Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW).
In promotions where Hardcore wrestling is present, a Hardcore title may come into existence. This form of title is defended under hardcore rules, and title changes are frequent. Some hardcore titles may have their own unique rules. For example, the WWE Hardcore Championship was defended under 24/7 rules, meaning it could be defended and won at anytime, provided a referee was present to make the pinfall. The OVW Hardcore Championship had a trashcan passed from wrestler to wrestler rather than a belt. The GHC Openweight Hardcore Championship has a unique stipulation in that if a challenger who is outweighed by the champion survives 15 minutes, he wins the match and the title.
Media related to Hardcore wrestling at Wikimedia Commons
- "Wrestling Dictionary". Wrestling Fortitude. Retrieved 2007-11-05.
- History of the Hard Core Wrestling Match(BBC)
- FMW Commercial Releases 1997
- FMW Commercial Releases 1995
- Paulo's Puro - FMW TV Tapings 96 - 02
- Daniel Bryan def. Randy Orton in a Street Fight
- McGraw, Dan (December 23, 2009). "Weapons of Choice". Fort Worth Weekly. Retrieved May 19, 2010.
- Schwan, Brett (June 28, 2003). "Combat Zone Wrestling". wrestlingclothesline.com. Retrieved May 19, 2010.
- Madden, Tim (November 23, 2003). "411 Video Review: CZW Extreme 8". 411mania.com. Retrieved May 19, 2010.
- Online World of Wrestling (2010). "IWA Mid-South (2005)". Online World of Wrestling. Retrieved May 19, 2010.
- Hoffman, Ken (September 20, 2006). "Wrestlers have staple guns and will travel to Houston". The Houston Chronicle. Retrieved May 19, 2010.