They Live Fight Scene – Wrestling’s Influence On Cinema’s Finest Brawl

Roddy Piper and Keith David created magic in just six minutes during their They Live fight scene, and it was all thanks to professional wrestling and a bit of trust from John Carpenter.

Roddy Piper (Nada) and Keith David (Frank) in They Live.
Roddy Piper (Nada) and Keith David (Frank) in They Live.

They Live Fight Scene and the Rise of Cinematic Matches in Professional Wrestling

The mini apocalypse we all recently experienced meant that many things we love or take for granted had to be halted for a while. However, one thing that remained a constant was our beloved pro wrestling.

Despite no crowd attendance, many of the prominent wrestling promotions carried on, and we were able to tune in and enjoy stories told to us by our favorite performers. But you can’t deny that the lack of audience atmosphere took a lot away from the weekly shows.

John Cena and Windham Wyatt (FKA Bray Wyatt) during a crowd-less WWE show in 2020. Ironically, despite the lack of noise, it was one of the few times you DIDN’T hear John Cena call spots in the ring!
John Cena and Windham Wyatt (FKA Bray Wyatt) during a crowd-less WWE show in 2020. Ironically, despite the lack of noise, it was one of the few times you DIDN’T hear John Cena call spots in the ring! [Photo: AwfulAnnouncing.com]
These strange times were the perfect opportunity to showcase a new style of wrestling that started to become popular a couple of years prior. It was a style that initially divided fans for smashing kayfabe but ultimately provided the most memorable moments during this not quite Mad Max but still sucky time. We are, of course, referring to the cinematic match.

The cinematic match consists of part wrestling contest, part short film. The magic of this style of movie-making gave us few things to be happy about during an otherwise dreary time.

It gave The Undertaker a fitting end to a career that consisted of brilliant theatricality anyway, at WrestleMania 36 in a Boneyard Match against AJ Styles.

It kept a 62-year-old Sting looking like the badass we all remembered when he teamed with Darby Allin to take on Brian Cage and Ricky Starks in a Street Fight at AEW Revolution 2021.

It also provided a lot of chuckles thanks to silly stuff such as the original AEW Stadium Stampede match and Gallows and Anderson’s Talking-Shop-A-Mania back garden pay-per-views.

If you listen very quietly, you can hear Jim Cornette swearing (even though this is only a photograph)!
If you listen very quietly, you can hear Jim Cornette swearing (even though this is only a photograph)! [Photo: PostWrestling.com]
This type of bout became prominent recently thanks to Matt Hardy and his series of “Deletion” matches. Still, the pre-filmed, heavily-edited, no audience matches existed long before then.

 

So what was the first one?

Was it The Rock and Mick Foley during their 1999 Halftime Heat match? Roddy Piper vs. Goldust in their 1996 Hollywood Backlot Brawl? Dustin Rhodes vs. Blacktop Bully in their 1995 King Of The Road match?

Perhaps it was another Roddy Piper endeavor altogether.

Was the fight scene from They Live the first-ever cinematic wrestling match?

The answer is no; it wasn’t. And so ends this article, thanks for reading!

Still here? Fine, I’ll keep going then.

(It’s not like I had anywhere to go, anyway!)

Roddy Piper in the movie "They Live."
Roddy Piper in the movie They Live. [Photo: DeepFocusReview.com]

What was the first-ever fight scene in a movie?

Although the They Live fight scene is quite epic, it certainly wasn’t the first battle in cinema. One could say that this title belongs to John Wayne and Francis Ford in The Quiet Man. That movie featured an extended brawl between the two that took place throughout a town and was one of the inspirations for the They Live ruckus that we are talking about today.

A nine-minute fistfight between John Wayne and Victor McLagen took place in the 1952 film The Quiet Man. For being a "Quiet Man," John Wayne certainly liked to make a scene!
A nine-minute fistfight between John Wayne and Victor McLagen took place in the 1952 film The Quiet Man. For being a “Quiet Man,” John Wayne certainly liked to make a scene! [Photo: GradingFightScenes.com]
The sports entertainment style still plays a significant part in the They Live fight, mind you. It may not technically be a wrestling bout, but there are many similarities between the film’s epic 6-minute punch-up and a wrestling match.

 

First of all, if you haven’t seen They Live, chances are you know enough about it via pop culture osmosis.

Nada (played by Roddy Piper) is a drifter who discovers a pair of sunglasses that enables him to see the world as it truly is, controlled by oppressive aliens who use subliminal messages to control us.

(If the above line confuses you, reread it. It will make sense the second time around!)

Roddy Piper as "Nada" in the 1988 film, They Live.
Roddy Piper as “Nada” in the 1988 film They Live.

The combination of social commentary, 1950s B-movie Sci-Fi, and ’80s machismo (hey yo) has made it a beloved cult classic. It has entwined itself into entertainment lore thanks to homages and parodies in games like Duke Nukem, television shows such as South Park, and even fashion labels like OBEY.

Duke Nukem: "It's time to kick gum and chew a**!" Wait...
Duke Nukem: “It’s time to kick gum and chew a**!” Wait… [Photo: TheGuardian.com]
Then there’s THAT fight: one of the most famous in cinema history, and a lot of thanks can be given to pro wrestling.

 

Behind the Magic of the They Live Fight Scene

The They Live fight scene contains moves such as suplexes, backdrops, and drop toe holds. There are false finishes and comeback spots. It even features pretty much 50/50 booking, as technically, it is a face vs. face bout (wrestling term for good guy versus good guy).

Nada (Roddy Piper) and Frank (Keith David) do battle in They Live.
Nada (Roddy Piper) and Frank (Keith David) battle in They Live.

There is even a stipulation, as Nada is desperate to get his new buddy Frank (the always fantastic Keith David) to “submit” and put on the glasses, so he can see the world for how it truly is.

Pretty much all of us on that first walk home from the club after restriction rules ended!
Pretty much all of us on that first walk home from the club after restriction rules ended! [Photo: Vulture.com]
The casting of Roddy Piper in the film was no coincidence, as legendary director John Carpenter told EW.com in 2012.

 

“First of all, I was a wrestling fan when I was young,” Carpenter began. “Even when I figured out what wrestling was, I was still a fan.”

“To me, Roddy just had a weathered face and looked like he’d been working all his life. He wasn’t a Hollywood star. He had some scars on his face, and I thought he would be convincing walking into town with a backpack on his back looking for work. I’d met Roddy at WrestleMania 3 in Pontiac, Michigan. He was a great heel.”

Did Carpenter have any trepidations about casting a wrestler over a traditional Hollywood actor?

“I had all the confidence in the world. Plus, his being a wrestler allowed us to do that whole long fight scene, which I’m extremely proud of.”

So with a fight that long, Carpenter must have set the pacing and high spots of the battle in intricate detail in the script, right? Well, not necessarily…

“When I wrote it,” Carpenter explained, “the screenplay had a blank page that said ‘The fight,’ the next page said ‘The fight continues,’ and the next page ‘The fight continues.’

“I always wanted to do a big long fight, and Roddy knew what he was doing. And Jeff Imada, a legendary Hollywood stunt coordinator, and Keith David — the three of them went into the backyard of my office in the Valley with mats, and they worked out the fight for about a month and a half.

“They knew exactly what they were going to do. They were making contact — they weren’t pulling punches. Keith came from Juilliard, so he knew dance and movement. I’m very proud of it. We shot it in three days.”

That is not to say Carpenter didn’t have any input whatsoever, as legendary Stunt Coordinator Jeff Imada revealed to Phil Hobden in 2018.

“He only asked me to include three things; three wrestling moves- a suplex, a clothesline, and a sidewalk slam. Other than that, I had free rein, so it was a great opportunity to create an amazing scene where two big guys fight for six minutes straight.

“John allowed me to add the character moments, moments about the glasses, their friendship… to create the whole scene.”

Although Piper and pro wrestling may have inspired the fight, Imada did have to get Roddy to turn down the rowdiness a little.

“We had blocked it out and rehearsed it at John’s house in his backyard! The actors did everything themselves,” Imada described.

“With Roddy, we had to tone him down a little because he’s used to doing fights BIG for a live audience, so we had to bring him in a bit, so it wasn’t so unbelievable.

“We shot the fight in a parking lot. But the whole place was padded, which people don’t realize. So if the actors fell down or into something they had a soft landing that wasn’t on concrete, just made to look like it! It was very subtle, so no one has ever picked up on it!”

It is quite endearing how everyone involved looks back on creating the fight with fondness and pride. Even the two combatants who had to go through the physical ordeal of performing the scene, nut shots and all, seem to have a sense of happy accomplishment when recalling the shoot.

Keith David explained what he thought made the fight so special to SYFY WIRE in 2017.

“It had a story. It was a story within itself. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I remember [Carpenter] calling me when he sent me the script. [He asked what] did I think about it, and we just talked about structure. I folded; it was great!

Keith continued, “It was some of the most fun I ever had, ever. I have certainly been unsafer in other environments when I wasn’t even supposed to be fighting! It was so well choreographed and so well crafted. Jeff Imada was brilliant.

“And Roddy? He taught me so much. How to sell it… I hit him a couple of times, but he never hit me.”

Roddy Piper not hitting Keith David.
Roddy Piper not hitting Keith David. [Photo: WeLiveEntertainment.com]
The storytelling aspect seems to be something the Hot Rod himself agrees with when interviewed by Rossatron at an anniversary screening in 2012.

 

“The fight in They Live that makes it so special is it matches the arc of the script. The fight was between two friends, and John Carpenter had me watch The Quiet Man with John Wayne, Rino Hara, and at that time, that was the longest fight.”

Roddy continued, “When they are fighting, I take a two-by-four and swing it at Keith David. I miss him, break the glass, and realize this is my friend! Butrealizes mad, and he busts a wine bottle, but it cuts his hand, and as his friend, that makes me laugh. That enrages him more, so he comes at me. It was a fight between two friends, and that’s what made it special.

“It’s part of our nature, we try to get along. My wif; wed I have been married for thirty years and we haven’t agreed on anything since we said ‘I do!'”

The Best Staged Fights

What makes the best staged fights achieve legendary status, be they in a film or the ring, is how good the tale being told is.

You can have 450 splashes, bodyslamming feats of strength, technical grounded holds, reversals, or hardcore wars with barbed wire bats and chairs. However, at the end of the day, all of that doesn’t matter unless the audience is emotionally invested in the fighters and their dispute.

That’s Luke discovering Vader is his father.

That’s a bloody Cody and Dustin embracing after a war.

That’s Rocky Balboa holding on and going the distance with Apollo Creed.

That’s a broken Shawn Michaels pulling himself up against the Undertaker for one last stand.

And that’s the true end to this article.

Storytelling is everything, ladies and gentlemen. The fight in They Live may not be the first “Cinematic Match,” but it is one of the greatest fight scenes in movie history, and pro-wrestling sure as hell played a part in achieving that.

Watch the They Live Fight Scene in Full:

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Tim Buckler is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories as well as a writer, presenter, and lover who hosts the geeky magazine show "Tim Buckler's Thursday Night Geek Out" every Thursday at 8 p.m on Radio Woking. Follow him @blockbusterman on Twitter for more of his ramblings!