Texas has a special place in professional wrestling lore. Countless icons, from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin to Eddie Guerrero to Terry Funk, have called the state home, and in previous eras, when the sport was governed by regional territories, cities like Amarillo, Dallas, and El Paso were thriving hubs of scripted combat. Texas didn’t just conceive famous wrestlers; it also spawned a unique type of match that has forever linked the Lone Star State and hard-core violence in the minds of rasslin’ fans—the Texas Death Match.

Created in the Panhandle in the 1960s, the Texas Death Match has retained its place over more than half a century of change, as wrestling transformed from regional entertainment to a global multimedia industry. You won’t see a Texas Death Match at the Alamodome Saturday, when WWE brings the Royal Rumble to San Antonio, but you can sometimes catch our state’s namesake bout on prime-time cable, during TNT’s All Elite Wrestling (AEW) broadcasts. 

The inspiration behind the Texas Death Match is that famous old saying that “everything is bigger in Texas.” The specific stipulations can vary from one wrestling company to another, but the fundamentals are always the same: there are no penalties for bringing foreign objects into play and no disqualification for brawling outside the ring and through the crowd. Opponents maim each other by any and all means available to them. 

The Texas Death Match was reportedly the brainchild of Dory Funk, promoter and longtime champion of the Amarillo territory and father of the legendary wrestlers Terry Funk and Dory Funk Jr. Fans and wrestlers who were around in Dory Sr.’s day recall some of the original Texas Death Matches lasting for hours, not ending until one of the wrestlers was bruised and broken enough to be believably knocked out on the ground for almost a full minute. A 1965 Texas Death Match between Dory Funk and “Iron” Mike DiBiase lasted more than three hours, until a Texas Athletic Commission official stopped the show because of curfew. 

In time, the brutal Texas Death Match would become a staple of wrestling main events around the world. During the 1970s, hot feuds in the World Wide Wrestling Federation—the precursor to today’s World Wrestling Entertainment—often culminated in Texas Death Matches at Madison Square Garden, featuring performers like the chiseled Bruno Sammartino, the Olympic weight lifter Ken Patera, and the flamboyant “Superstar” Billy Graham. Even in New York, the interminable violence of Texas Death Matches made them a crowd favorite. It was not the only regionally themed gimmick bout. Wrestling history is full of Mexican Death Matches, Taipei Death Matches, Philly Street Fights, Russian Chain Matches, Texas Bull Rope Matches, Texas Tornado Matches, and so many more. But the Texas Death Match is the granddaddy of them all. 

For the wrestling business, one function of the Texas Death Match has been to provide an event that leaves both combatants winning the crowd’s good graces, regardless of who wins or loses or who enters the ring as the heel or the babyface. The extended duration and relentless punishment of the Texas Death Match made it a valuable way to highlight its participants’ endurance and toughness. It’s hard to watch an encounter like the 1984 Texas Death Match between Terry Gordy and Killer Khan in Dallas, where the two titans leaked more blood than Christ in Gethsemane, without coming away with a sense of admiration for both men.

In other cases, Texas Death Matches have been used to create new box-office stars. In 1972 Dory Funk allowed himself to lose to Ciclón Negro, a Venezuelan-born brawler, in a Texas Death Match that the Wrestler magazine declared the “Bloodbath of the Year.” Because of Funk’s reputation as the originator and undisputed king of the Texas Death Match, his defeat set off a minor scandal, but fans ultimately accepted it, and the event cemented Ciclón Negro as one of the Amarillo territory’s biggest stars and most formidable heels for the next several years. 

In the eighties and early nineties, as Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation consolidated its national audience and made bubblegum Hulkamania the dominant force in U.S. wrestling, the Texas Death Match migrated to Japan. There, Terry Funk rode his cowboy gimmick to crossover pop-culture fame, with action figures and anime characters created in his image. Japanese wrestling is considered more “stiff” than the American style, meaning the hits and chops land much harder and fewer punches are pulled—and that meant the grueling Texas Death Match was destined to become a favorite among Japanese fans. 

Atsushi Onita, an infamous wrestler, promoter, and future politician who had performed at Funk’s Amarillo events during his grappling career, brought the violent stagecraft he learned in the Panhandle back to Japan when he founded Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW) in 1989. A cult institution with an outlaw sensibility known for hosting hyperviolent shows, FMW gained attention for using dangerous props like barbed wire, broken glass, and even light explosives in its bouts. FMW staged frequent Texas Death Matches, and in one particularly gory 1992 battle between Mr. Pogo, a Japanese heel known for slicing opponents with a scythe, and a Puerto Rican bruiser named Gypsy Joe, Pogo clobbered Joe on the head with a boot, as if to suggest his rival was literally tougher than leather.

The Japanese Texas Death Match eventually found its way home once devoted American fans got their hands on dubbed VHS tapes of FMW’s madness, and the grainy footage helped inspire the growth of what’s now known as “hard-core” wrestling, popularized by companies like Extreme Championship Wrestling. ECW became known for its younger talent, but those up-and-coming stars learned the game from Terry Funk, whose work became bloodier and more weapons-based as he grew older and could no longer execute the agile moves or absorb the rough bumps he did in his prime. (It may not look like it, but hard-core wrestling is often safer than conventionally “athletic” wrestling. Superficial cuts to the forehead may be bloody, but they don’t cause concussions.) There’s no way Funk could have predicted it at the time, but his bloody, early nineties Texas Death Matches in small-town gymnasiums shaped a generation of up-and-coming wrestlers and set the stage for ECW. 

As WWE’s reach expanded throughout the aughts, mainstream wrestling moved away from gore in favor of family-friendly styles that wouldn’t threaten the broadcast’s TV-PG rating. Although WWE’s Extreme Rules and Last Man Standing bouts have been influenced by the Texas Death Match, the original form faded away for most of the 2010s, a relic of rasslin’s bloody Southern history mostly left to down-and-dirty independent shows. In recent years, however, the Texas Death Match has returned, thanks to All Elite Wrestling, the first major competitor to WWE in almost twenty years. The new promotion has distinguished itself from WWE with a more open embrace of wrestling history, including the occasional use of Dory Funk’s signature event to settle feuds with an extra sense of finality.

Last year, former AEW World Champion “Hangman” Adam Page faced Lance Archer in a Texas Death Match. Both wrestlers draw inspiration from the old Amarillo and Dallas territories. Page plays an “anxious millennial cowboy” who touts his country and western image while embracing more-progressive ideals, while Archer, the Gause, Texas–born wrestling veteran who has spent the last two decades bouncing between WWE, smaller U.S. outfits, and Japan, is a throwback to the days of rough-and-rowdy Texans tearing it up overseas. 

Page was still champion when they fought, and his belt was on the line, but the stakes of their feud were symbolic—whose claim to the legacy of cowboy wrestlers was more legitimate?—and the only rightful way to resolve it was with a Texas Death Match. Archer’s manager, an obnoxious mouthpiece named Dan Lambert, called Page inauthentic—too soft and sensitive compared to the great cowboy brawlers of the good ol’ days. Page, the manager jeered, was just a former schoolteacher from Virginia, not a strong hand from Central Texas like Lance Archer. As Lambert rattled off the names of veteran cowboy wrestlers, a subtext emerged, full of outmoded stereotypes, about what it means to be a professional wrestler and a Southern male. 

The severity of a Texas Death Match gave Page an opportunity to show that his social consciousness and dapper style weren’t at odds with his ability in the ring or his competitive nature. Page prevailed, and as he hovered over the unconscious Archer on wobbly legs, blood streaked across his face and staining his blond mane, he seemed to prove that toughness and grit aren’t solely the domain of men with pecs as big as the Panhandle.