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 among some wrestling promotions, where they are used at the climaxes of feuds, some promotions (such as Big Japan Pro Wrestling and Combat Zone Wrestling) specialized in hardcore wrestling, with many matches performed in this manner. Terry Funk, Sabu, Tommy Dreamer, and Mick Foley are often seen as the "Kings of Hardcore."
Hardcore wrestling became acknowledged as a major wrestling style first in Japan with promotions such as FMW and W*ING. It then became successful in America with Extreme Championship Wrestling. The World Wrestling Federation / Entertainment capitalizing on the success and introduced the WWF Hardcore Championship in the 1990s. The WWE soon began to turn the matches into comedy skits, illustrating the ridiculousness they involved. Hardcore is in sound contrast to traditional mat-based wrestling, where solid technical skills are preferred over stuntwork, blood, and sheer shock value.
The term garbage wrestling is attributed to Japanese wrestler Giant Baba who used it originally to describe a style of wrestling which required little wrestling athletic ability and often involved no wrestling at all, which is rather common in much of hardcore wrestling. Some in the United States consider it a derogatory term.
As professional wrestling entered the mid 20th century, promoters and performers looked for ways to heighten audience excitement. Blood was found to be a surefire seller, and the advent of the now-cliché "no holds barred" match marked the beginning of what is now known as hardcore wrestling. Wrestlers such as "Classy" Freddie Blassie, Dory Funk Sr. and Giant Baba were among those who introduced a bloody brawling style which caught on in Japan and the American South. New match types were devised that took wrestling beyond a sporting contest and closer to street fighting, such as matches which were held in a cage, Texas Death matches 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 Florida and Texas 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 60s, 70s and 80s. 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 Colon, 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 was founded in Japan, the first promotion dedicated largely to the wild brawling style. FMW escalated the violence to legitimately dangerous levels, with barbed wire ropes, timed explosives, 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, 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 Terry Brunk (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. When ECW booked the first Tables match (where the winning condition is a table spot), Sabu balked as he felt it was his personal trademark, no-showed the event and left the company for a few months. 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, which turned into International Wrestling Association of Japan) and Big Japan Pro Wrestling. New elements included florescent light tubes, scattered thumb tacks, flaming ropes and live piranhas.
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.
ECW also had imitators starting in its later years, Xtreme Pro Wrestling, Extreme Canadian Championship Wrestling and Combat Zone Wrestling, which carried on ECW's violent style after it went defunct, and have pushed the limits even farther. As the fad grew, it gained detractors who pointed out that weapons and shock value were being used to mask poor wrestling skills.
Hardcore wrestling has fallen out of favor in the major American promotions; the last major hardcore title was the WWE Hardcore title, which merged into the Intercontinental Title in 2002. In 2006, the MTV-affiliated promotion/show Wrestling Society X featured hardcore wrestling, but the show was cancelled after one season.
Because of the nature of hardcore wrestling, hardcore matches are often remembered for their dangerous spots (to the point that some deride it as "spotfests") rather than their actual outcome. The hardcore style has even extended to non-hardcore matches (that is, matches with disqualifications), especially into those where disqualifications are uncommon, where the rules allow or encourage the use of certain foreign objects, or where the rules of the match are ambiguous with regards to disqualification. It is not uncommon to have certain types of matches be no-disqualification affairs to avoid the issue of dealing with suspension of disbelief.
There are several weapons that are used commonly in deathmatch wrestling: