Hardcore wrestling is a form of professional wrestling where disqualifications, count-outs, and all other different rules do not apply. Taking place in usual or unusual environments, hardcore wrestling matches allow the use of numerous items, including ladders, tables, chairs, thumbtacks, barbed wire, light tubes, shovels, baseball bats (sometimes wrapped in barbed wire), golf clubs, hammers, axe handles, chains, crowbars, wrenches, tongs, and other improvised weapons used as foreign objects. 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, International Wrestling Syndicate, IWA-MS, Game Changer Wrestling, Combat Zone Wrestling) specialize in hardcore wrestling, with many matches performed in this manner.
Hardcore wrestling was first acknowledged as a major wrestling style 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 hardcore's stuntworks, blood, sweat, gore, and severe 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. During the 1950s and '60s 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 Víctor Quiñones arrived in Japan, being invited to FMW as the special manager. FMW escalated the violence to legitimately dangerous new levels, with barbed wire ropes, timed C4 explosives, exploding wire ropes, and "land mines", known as "deathmatch". 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 Extreme Championship Wrestling. 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 D. C. Drake, who engaged in a long blood feud. The two promotions ended about the same time, and National Wrestling Alliance 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 hardcore wrestling 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 and bloody deathmatches in FMW with barbed-wire ropes, barbed-wire barricades, exploding barbed-wire barricades, electrified/exploding barbed-wire ropes, broken glass, or mixtures of any and all these. 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 afterwards.
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 World Wrestling Federation/Entertainment, ladder matches, which had become more common, were now combined with tables and weapons matches to create Tables, Ladders, and Chairs matches.
ECW influenced wrestling organizations such as Xtreme Pro Wrestling, International Wrestling Syndicate, IWA Mid-South, Combat Zone Wrestling, and Juggalo Championship Wrestling, which carried on ECW's violent style after it went defunct.
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:
Hardcore matches tend to emphasize the use of certain weapons, the brutality of the attacks, moderate brawling techniques, and the extreme 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, the "HardKore X-Treme matches are the version of hardcore rules match except weapons include flaming tables, flaming chairs, flaming weapons, razor wire, sheets of glass, and weapons that are covered in barbed wire, and Deathmatches that emphasize fluorescent light tubes, panes of glass, barbed wire, fire, thumbtacks, razor blades, gusset plates, syringes, needles, explosives, bed of nails, staple guns, concrete blocks, alive piranhas and all other foreign objects to provoke extreme and heavy bleeding. In WWE, Extreme Rules matches are hardcore-style matches that emphasize the spirit of its former competitor, Extreme Championship Wrestling. In CZW dubs the Hardcore match as "Ultraviolent Rules" match, the hardcore-style matches that could involve and emphasize ladders, tables, chairs, thumbtacks, barbed wire, light tubes, glass boards, fire, staple guns, and the spirits of Combat Zone Wrestling. In JCW, "Juggalo Rules" match, the Hardcore-style matches that emphasize the spirit of Juggalo 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 (most often brought are standard kitchen household appliances, like frying pans, toasters, or rolling pins, although its not unusual that fans occasionally bring in items that are far more improbable, like an artificial leg or LEGO); this was popularized in the United States by ECW and is now a speciality in Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW). Below is a list of some common weapons.
Sharp objects are not as common as blunt objects in hardcore wrestling, and are often featured in only the bloodiest and most violent wrestling matches.
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 any time, 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 had a unique stipulation in that if a challenger who is outweighed by the champion survives 15 minutes, he won the match and the title. A new title, the WWE 24/7 Championship was created by WWE with the same concept as the WWE Hardcore Championship in 2019.