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A decade ago in pro wrestling, blood was like Dom Perignon: It would flow only at very special occasions. Like, say, during the headline cage match at Wrestlemania or for a cover-photo shoot for a big wrestling magazine.

But suddenly, it’s as cheap as Boone’s Farm. Blood spills everywhere.

When WWE came through town a few months ago, a match at the bottom of the bill between Matt Hardy and Edge was stopped, the fans were told, because Hardy was losing too much blood from a head wound Edge had allegedly inflicted on him. Later that same night, Hulk Hogan gushed so much red stuff that even his uncut opponent, Shawn Michaels, looked as if he’d been thrown through a plate-glass window. On a recent episode of Smackdown, the syndicated WWE television series seen locally on UPN affiliate WDCA, B-teamer Chris Benoit’s head was opened up in hopes of building interest in a secondary story line that was going nowhere.

And Ric Flair’s noggin lately has been bleeding more than Michael Moore’s heart: He wears what wrestlers call “the crimson mask” in promos for wrestling’s cable series, RAW, and wore it yet again Sunday night, allegedly after taking a foreign object to the cranium on the undercard of a WWE pay-per-view.

Contrary to nonaficionados’ belief, when Flair bleeds, he really bleeds. The red stuff you see clashing with his peroxided coif is indeed made up of Flair’s plasma and platelets, straight from his veins to your TV screen. Of course, some sleight of hand, and not an opponent’s blow, is usually involved in opening the head wound. In Hogan’s case, for example: The aging Hulkster’s hands are no longer quicker than the eye, so fans at MCI Center, and the international television audience watching the match, could actually see him clumsily remove a blade he’d hidden in his outfit and slice his own forehead. (The biggest shock one gets from meeting an old-school ring veteran comes in seeing the lines he’s carved in his skin for art’s sake.)

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The very fact that the blood is real has a lot to do with its rarity in the ’90s. That was a time in our society when the devastation caused by AIDS left human blood as feared as any chemical weapon is today. In a 1992 New York Times article titled “The New Blood Culture,” writer Frank Rich compared what he called “blood fear” in post-AIDS America to the fears of an alien invasion after the 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 467,910 AIDS deaths in the United States through 2001. The deaths of sports figures including NASCAR’s Tim Richmond, Jerry Smith of the Redskins, ex-Oriole Alan Wiggins, and tennis great Arthur Ashe put a mainstream face on AIDS, which only exacerbated the fears.

The disease briefly turned Magic Johnson from perhaps the most beloved basketball player of all time into an outsider. He retired the day he announced he was HIV-positive in November 1991, and Johnson’s condition prompted Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz to say he’d rather not be on the same court as the Lakers great. “Look at this, scabs and cuts all over me,” Malone said at the time. “They can’t tell you that you’re not at risk.”

Heavyweight Tommy Morrison was among boxing’s more marketable athletes because of his Great White Hope status—until he admitted he was HIV-positive in 1996, ending his ring career.

State athletic commissions devised all sorts of rules and regulations regarding blood. Virginia, for example, now bans blood in wrestling. “In no case shall a wrestler intentionally cause a flow of blood or other bodily fluids from his body during the course of the exhibition,” reads the Virginia law, last amended in August 1999. “In the event of a visible flow of blood or other flow of bodily fluids…the referee shall immediately suspend the contest until the flow can be contained.”

“That’s a safety precaution put in for the participants and for the fans, trying to protect the fans and participants from contracting infectious diseases,” says David Holland, executive director of the Professional Boxing and Wrestling Program of Virginia’s Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation.

During the height of the AIDS crisis, wrestling came up with novel ways to wow fans that didn’t involve the spilling of blood. That led to the introduction of ladies in skimpy outfits and of dangerous stunts such as Mankind’s being thrown 25 feet off the top of a steel cage to an arena floor in 1998 and Owen Hart’s fatal fall off the roof of an arena in Kansas City a year later.

Nowadays, America seems more afraid of bird flu (total U.S. deaths: 0) than AIDS. The HIV plot line of Rent, the Broadway-musical-turned-film that opened last week, pegs the movies as a period piece. Could the heavy flow of blood in the wrestling ring be a sign that America doesn’t fear AIDS, or the fluids that transmitted the disease, the way it did a decade ago?

“I don’t follow wrestling,” says Roberta Geidner-Antoniotti, interim executive director of D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Clinic. “But from talking to medical people who deal with sports teams, I think people have been educated. There was a lot of hysteria, [but now] people have a better understanding of the means of transmission. That’s not to say that I don’t believe there is some—well, a lack of awareness about how extensive the HIV epidemic continues to be in our community, but the hysteria we saw based on a lack of knowledge and education has lessened. I think most people do understand now that you don’t acquire HIV through casual contact, and you can’t catch the HIV virus through flying blood.”

Brian Harrison, a filmmaker and rasslin’-o-phile, is now finishing up a documentary of the World Class Championship Wrestling, the last great regional promotion before McMahon and the group now known as WWE monopolized the, er, sport. Harrison thinks that wrestling’s powers that be have turned to blood as a marketing tool after exhausting other go-to fire-starting gimmicks.

“I have noticed the blood, and it is a little strange,” Harrison says. “I think [WWE] took the shock value out of everything as far as they could, as far as sex and the other elements of their stories, and now they’re trying to get back to what some would consider wrestling—the actual combat part—and that’s where [blood] comes in. It’s swinging too far out in the pendulum, I think.”

Holland agrees. He says he sends inspectors to “200 to 300” wrestling shows in Virginia each year and follows WWE on television for professional reasons. He attributes the increased blood flow inside the squared circle to a downturn in the wrestling market.

“They do things for TV ratings and for the fan base,” says Holland. “Wrestling has been down for the past two or three years, and that’s blamed on a lot of different things, so I guess they feel like they have to make things more exciting to bring in more fans. But we don’t let them [bleed] here.”

Yet they try anyway. Holland says that WWE was found to be in violation of Virginia’s anti-bleeding law at a RAW show held in the state last year, but he wouldn’t comment on the action taken by his department against Vince McMahon’s federation or the specifics of the violation. Those things, he says, are not a matter of public record. CP