Keep Carrying The Crown
While watching the build-up to the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday, I watched a piece of film in which Nigel Roebuck, a prominent journalist of the time, recounted the story of the 1978 race at Monza. The reason this race is remembered so vividly by those who witnessed it is because of a crash on the first corner which saw Ronnie Peterson, a Swedish driver who represented the Lotus team, involved in a horrific crash which saw him lose his life as a result of his injuries.
Peterson wasn’t an also-ran, nor was he renowned for being a dangerous driver. Daring, perhaps, but never at the expense of his rivals’ safety. He was involved in a two horse race for the drivers’ championship with his team-mate and close friend Mario Andretti. He began the race fifth on the grid.
Those of you who follow motorsport will know that cars begin the race from a standing start, not a rolling start. This makes getting a good start to the race crucial. What you may not know that this accident set in motion a series of events that outlawed rolling starts. The race starter at Monza turned on the lights for the race to start while some cars were still making their way down the finishing straight from the formation lap – meaning cars in the middle of the field started the race at a considerably higher speed than the ones at the start. This led to a large number of cars bunching at the first corner – with more cars than space for them. Peterson’s rear right tyre was clipped, his car spun out of control, and it burst into flames as it collided with a wall.
Other drivers involved in the melee scrambled to help Peterson – freeing him from the cockpit. He suffered terrible injuries to his legs, and it took emergency medical teams 20 minutes to get to him. The race carried on, and although it was eventually won by Niki Lauda, celebrations were muted. Peterson’s absence meant that Andretti was guaranteed the drivers’ championship. He did not celebrate at all.
The following day, Peterson died as a result of an embolism. He was 34 years old.
During the film, it’s clear to see what a profound effect the tragedy still has on Roebuck, a full 34 years after the event. He remembers with crystal clear clarity events from the weekend; mundane, you-had-to-be-there moments. He also remembers a very simple quote from Andretti in the aftermath of the race, who said with a sullen look on his face; “racing, it is also this.”
Most of you will be aware of Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler’s heart attack on Raw last night. As someone who has never really known anyone else on the Raw commentary table, Lawler is indelibly linked to my memories of wrestling, so having not watched Raw, I was shocked to read about his cardiac arrest on Twitter this morning.
I’ve since read (and been in involved in) much discussion on the ethics of WWE carrying on the show, and that is probably another column for another columnist. As writers and commentators, we generally celebrate what we love about this industry, but I believe that this is a timely reminder that wrestling is “also this”.
Sixty year old men not being able to let go of their past and hang up their boots. Promoters allowing it to be all too common for sixty year old men to compete. Fans giving a rapturous reaction to the stars they love, irrespective of their age and/or physical condition.
There are many adjectives to describe what happened last night. Tragic. Brutal. Shocking. I’ll throw another one in there. Inevitable.
Jerry Lawler is not a young man anymore, but he throws himself around like one, such is his commitment to his craft. There is no way he conditions himself in the same way that John Cena, The Rock or Dolph Ziggler will. There comes a point where no amount of experience and ability will overcome time, and while the mind may still be willing, the body no longer is. But I guess Jerry Lawler’s in-ring career had to end like this; he’s never really had the résumé to finish on a high like Shawn Michaels or Ric Flair did, but his in-ring performance has never deteriorated to the point where he simply isn’t an asset in the ring any more. The only way either he or WWE were going to stop him from competing is when time dictated – and time, as they say, waits for no man to say he’s ready to give it up.
When you think back over the last decade, we can be grateful that Lawler wrestled halfway through the show, and not in the main event. The likes of Guerrero, Test and Benoit died with no-one around them, no-one to save them. I’m thankful that WWE is now conscious enough of the risk of something going so badly wrong that they pay for highly-trained EMTs to be present at every single show they do. I’m grateful that the producers have the wherewithal to be able to respond instantly and put the wellbeing of their friend and colleague before any commercial or ratings-related interest. Our minds are cast back to the fates of Owen Hart and Mitsuhara Misawa – perishing in the ring, doing what they loved. Lawler nearly carried his crown down to the great ring in the sky last night. For the intervention of others, and perhaps the grace of God if you’re into that kind of thing, we’d be getting a tribute show next Monday night.
I’m not a religious man, but someone was surely looking after Lawler last night. The lightning bolt that has surely ended his ring career was painfully, but mercifully, visible for the world to see. Like him or not, criticise his morals or not, see him as a valuable part of WWE programming or not – there should not be a soul who would want to see him go like that. Whether he will ever return to WWE programming is irrelevant right now – I just hope he pulls through, and he can enjoy life again.
For all those who have died while doing what they lived for, I suppose we as wrestling fans and human beings can be grateful that, every now and again, someone gets away with it. We could so easily have been mourning the death of one of the most colourful characters the industry has ever seen. We don’t need another early death, but I don’t think a single one of us would have sat here today having read of The King’s passing saying ‘I didn’t see that coming’. Sixty year old hearts don’t work as well as ones that are thirty. Or even 55. There comes a point where desire and commitment turns into tragedy – as proved in Monza back in 1978, and again last night in Montreal. And like Ronnie Peterson’s death drove James Hunt into campaigning for greater safety measures to be taken in Formula One racing, maybe the events of last night will save lives too. Although, looking at it another way, maybe the fallout from Eddie Guerrero’s tragic death saved Jerry Lawler’s life last night. I know that’s a pretty morbid way of looking at things, but it’s true.
Because wrestling, it is also this. Get well soon, King.