DITCH'S POINT OF VIEW
The views expressed on this page belong to the Ditch. They reflect the opinion of this website as a whole, 'cause I own it. Comments of any sort are encouraged. I like Cinnamon Toast Crunch but no longer eat it due to my diet.
The Ditch, editor.
Contact the Ditch at LdBeaumont@aol.com
Point of View, October 18, 2006: Responsibility in a digital age
First it was Napster, Kazaa et al who ushered us into the age of the free download. Then came the bandwidth explosion, the MPAA/RIAA lawsuits, and bit torrent. Through all this Iíve maintained my own personal standard of how to use technology for my gain without doing needless harm to those whose lifeís work Iím borrowing.
In the case of mp3s, I download as much as I can get of artists who are either recommended to me or who have a song I like on the radio. If an album has enough good songs on it, Iíll buy, and delete the mp3s. No doubt there are variances on this ethos for everyone reading this, from Ďpirating is always wrongí to Ďscrew the RIAA, I wonít buy anythingí.
In the case of wrestling, Iíve tended to have a very different stance. Hear a song on the radio? Even the most obscure one can be purchased legally from any number of sources, especially online. See something on TV? If it isnít available on DVD yet, it probably will be soon. Except for wrestling. With its endless seasons, monthly PPVs stretching back years, libraries that are used rarely if ever and unevenly at that, and so forth, it can be very hard to legally obtain a certain match or segment for long-term enjoyment.
Notice what Iím hosting? Sometimes they can be found on a WWE-distributed DVD, but mostly they canít. Japanese promotions donít distribute overseas, WCW matches trickle out a little at a time, and ROH needs all the exposure it can get. Iím sympathetic to online piracy because both music and wrestling have become so mass-produced and corporate-dominated, and the internet can help the best artists break out. But itís important to support the artists who are worth supporting.
Now comes Ďthe pointí.
This week Iíll be upgrading the lcwe hosting, and there will be much goodness. One thing that I plan on hosting with password protection is ROHís 5/7/05 show ĎManhattan Mayhemí, in two 700+ MB 90-minute blocks. Itís a cut above every ROH show before it in terms of its consistency. Manhattan Mayhem is better than anything Iíve seen from TNA, better than any WWE show in years, and ROH has managed to maintain a level of high consistency since then.
Many of you have been downloading what ROH Iíve hosted over the years, and Iím sure many have an internet connection good enough to handle files that size. To those who download, I ask that you do your best to support independent wrestling. That can range from buying ROH DVDs all the way to looking for an indy promotion in your area and going to shows. No exceptions for those of you outside the US, because most of you live as close to indy shows as I do. Indies are the future of wrestling, as opposed to segments scripted by mediocre sitcom hacks hoping to make Vince laugh.
Point of View, September 27, 2005: Changes
Somewhere around late 2000, I started becoming a prototypical internet smark. Giving star ratings to every match I saw (at least in my head), focusing on match quality as the end-all and be-all of a promotion, a bias towards high-flying and high-impact moves, etc. I looked at someone like Super Crazy as one of the best wrestlers in the world, I thought Booker T was in the top ten for heavyweights as far as being in high-end matches, etc. Summer of 2001 increased this to an extent as I watched lots of late '90s All Japan, with its head drops galore. In 2002 I thought just about every match from Ring of Honor was in the four-star neighborhood, while today I wouldn't say that even though its average match is exponentially better.
Now I look back and shake my head. Much of what I loved hasn't aged well, and much of what I passed over is in fact the epitome of quality. For example, I offer two matches from 1996: Hayabusa vs Taka Michinoku, and Steven Regal vs Fit Finley. The former was from Japan, had tons of big moves and some jaw-dropping aerial stunts leading to a decisive finish. The latter was from WCW, had a 'methodical' pace, and ended in a DQ. Three years ago I adored the former and was bored by the latter. Having re-watched both in the last six months I'm struck by how much my tastes have altered. And there's a big reason why.
Hayabusa and Taka wrestled what started as a traditional match, with Taka playing an evil outside heel viciously attacking a leg, and ended with them exchanging finishing moves like no tomorrow. I ignored the way Hayabusa blew off the leg work because I was so thrilled to see big moves. I ignored the way that the finishing moves were tossed out thoughtlessly, because anything was an improvement over the first-big-move-is-death norm of WWF and WCW. Rather than tease and build to the moves in order to create drama, or sell the moves longer than a few seconds, they were trading falcon arrows and michinoku drivers with hardly any transition between one another.
Finley and Regal wrestled. They fought from hold to hold, snuck in lots of shots to work the holds, and did their absolute best to make it look like a legitimate fight without going to the extreme of killing each other with full-force punches and kicks. They conveyed hatred and pain at the right times. They did this without anything flashy, without predictable but crowd-pleasing sequences, and without a real conclusion. A word I'd use, and which I find myself using more and more now, is "tight". No wasted time, no wasted finishers, no deviating from the story they were telling.
As I've watched more matches from around the world, I've seen plenty of matches that were similar to Hayabusa vs Michinoku. I haven't seen all that many Regal vs Finleys. For example, on a random card from IWA Mid-South, Matt Sydal and Josh Abercrombie had a two out of three falls match with a ton of huge moves, nearfalls and 'innovation'. It did nothing for me. It isn't on anyone's radar as a potential match-of-the-year. If I really wanted to I could find a way to put it on the site, but I won't. If I'm going to post a spotfest today it either needs to have some historical relevance, or a really fast pace sustained throughout.
It's the difference between Jerry Lynn, who has wrestled the same match for all intents and purposes for six consecutive years, and Stan Hansen, who had a very limited moveset but told different stories. It's the difference between Mitsuharu Misawa in 1993 and Mitsuharu Misawa in 2003. It's noticing how Curt Hennig could make anyone look good, while RVD is and has been handcuffed to using his highspots to keep the crowd into it.
I've seen many on the internet who have grown incredibly cynical and hard-to-please... those who are so fixated on the high-points of the past that they can't enjoy what goodness is currently being produced. I've also seen many who will toss out "five stars!" at the drop of a hat without considering whether the enjoyment was based on initial marking-out or fundamental quality. I like to think that I'm somewhere in-between, able to enjoy the best from numerous styles and federations both past and present. Every year I see dozens, if not hundreds of new-to-me matches that I greatly enjoy, and that's why I continue to invest so much time and energy into pro wrestling. At the same time I do my best to appreciate the dedicated craftsmen above the simplistic crowd-popping death-bump-givers.
So here's the point of the column: I'd like to know how YOU, my oh-so-loyal readers, have changed. What do you like more? What have you outgrown? And have the hundreds of matches I've hosted exposed you to new things, new wrestlers... or merely taken up space on your hard drive? One of my goals has always been to help aid others grow as wrestling fans, because I know that I've grown a lot myself (with no small amount of help along the way). I'd like to know if I'm helping, and whether I need to do more than just put up links to what I consider to be worthwhile matches. For instance, I could break down particular matches I consider overrated/underrated, discuss the merits of certain styles and federations, etc. Or I could just keep throwing GBs of files out like I have been.
Wait, that's gonna happen anyway.
Point of View, February 7, 2005: The bad guy wins again
John Heidenreich is right to fear caskets.
Seven years ago at Royal Rumble, Shawn landed the wrong way on one and screwed up his back. After Wrestlemania 14, Shawn had to take four and a half years off. John can't afford to be out that long, after all they might find out he's really an unfrozen Nazi any day now.
What you might not realize is that the night after Wrestlemania 14 was more historic than the Wrestlemania itself. Oh sure, Austin's first world title win was huge, and the PPV raked in millions. But Austin had been the #1 or #2 face in the company since the 'I Quit' match a year earlier, and Undertaker had his every-5-years title reign out of the way, so clearly Steve was going to get the strap at Wrestlemania to send the fans home happy. It was by rote. It was formula. Raw wasn't.
Degeneration X was built on heel Shawn's ability to draw a mix of heat and cheers, and the rest of the crew had about a tenth his talent. James, Gunn, Helmsley, what good matches had they ever had? What money would they ever draw? But rather than kill DX, the WWF gave it a shot in the arm. Sean Waltman, who had been largely wasted in WCW, was successfully brought in as the fourth man; I'm still amazed it worked. HHH, quite mired in his midcardness, quickly became a top face in leading DX against the Nation. At Summerslam, HHH vs Rock for the IC title in a ladder match elevated both men.
Because Rock got huge face pops, he was turned face and given the title... then turned heel so he could feud with Austin. With lesser stars that booking wouldn't have worked, but Wrestlemania 15 was still a success because of Steve and Dwayne. Good for them. But what about HHH? He had a leg (knee?) injury shortly after winning the IC title and had to vacate it. When he returned (with about 30 pounds of extra muscle) it was to lead DX against the new heel stable, the Corporation. He turned heel to join the Corporation at Wrestlemania 15, and stayed with it through the laughable Corporate Ministry incarnation. When Undertaker wore out his welcome as top heel between Wrestlemania and Summerslam (and developed a massive groin injury), HHH was pushed to take his place. Right after Summerslam '99, HHH was given the title.
In some ways he never lost it.
I detailed much of what followed in the old HHHistory column, in the first archive. After that column was written, HHH dominated Raw for a year before putting over Benoit at Wrestlemania 20. It was the most successful PPV in years because people wanted to see Benoit beat HHH. Summerslam was primarily sold on the strength of Benoit vs Orton. Yet a month later, HHH had the title back and he hasn't lost it since (unless you count the loss in a 3-way where he wasn't pinned and the title was held up, followed by him winning it back in a 6 man elimination). To punctuate it: by Wrestlemania 21, HHH will have held the title more than half of the time following Wrestlemania 20.
WWF used to be booked like that in the days of Bruno and Backlund and Hogan, except with babyfaces. The top guy would lose to the dastardly heel, but in the end he'd win. Happy ending for the fans. They were starting to get the cycle going with Rock, Austin and Lesnar but were stopped by injuries and other forms of fame stealing them away. With Rock going to Hollywood and Austin deteriorating, WWE even started to push HHH as a top babyface in 2002... to dismal results.
For 5 and a half *years*, HHH has managed to stay on top. I understand that many other top stars who were in or entered WWE since then are gone. I understand that when it comes to certain wrestlers like Booker T, WWE is better off pushing the guy who's determined to wrestle as long as physically possible for the McMahons (HHH). And I understand that HHH is the top remaining star from the glorious Wrestlemania 14-Wrestlemania 17 span. Hell, the McMahons even took themselves off weekly TV. So what's my problem?
My problem is that HHH is being given the kind of he's-the-only-one-that-matters booking favoritism that is typically reserved for people who sell out arenas, increase buyrates and gives the fans a sense that in the end, good will triumph. If he were a popular face, and won 90% of feuds and was constantly put back in the title picture when he loses like he is now, that would mean a completely different tone of the product. Instead we're left with a man who loses but gets to brush it off, compared to faces who lose and vanish from the spotlight. Most of the time he gets to outsmart the face on Raw and on PPV and walk away unscathed. Remember how HHH got to humiliate Kane, screw him in two title matches, take his mask and never get an ounce of comeuppance? Remember the feuds where HHH as a heel got to beat top-tier faces absolutely clean?
That loss to Benoit stood out because HHH finally lost clean, and in a way it symbolized him *putting over the person everyone wanted to see win*. Benoit dropped the belt at Summerslam clean, like HHH at Wrestlemania, only Benoit was GONE from the title picture afterwards. HHH got a rematch at Backlash, then four months later was there to chase Orton. Now it seems we're going to have HHH drop the title to Batista. At Wrestlemania? Maybe, or we could get a repeat of 2000 where they hold out until Backlash. Will it be clean? Maybe. Will HHH wait long to get the title back? Doubtful.
Until someone comes along who makes fans think that he can beat HHH and go on to become the centerpiece of the show rather than a short-term experiment to be cancelled on a whim so we return to The HHH Show starring, written and produced by HHH, the big ratings and sell-outs and buyrates will remain elusive. And I will continue to avoid watching Raw on any sort of regular basis. Thankfully for WWE's sake TNA is making the same mistake with Jeff Jarrett, and Jarrett isn't half as good as HHH in the role. Nash is no unfrozen Nazi, either.
Point of View, December 9, 2004: Getting it
I've watched the greats age. They've retired, been crippled, died, passed into obscurity one after the other. Benoit, Jericho and Mysterio, for all their hard work, have simplified and/or toned down dramatically from their WCW days. Angle is much more reserved. HHH seems capable of only two or three memorable matches a year. Then you look at Austin being too hurt to work, Foley being too hurt to work often, Bret being retired by a kick to the head, Owen's dead, Bulldog's dead, Rock went to Hollywood, Lesnar left when it looked like he was learning faster than anyone. Even Cena seems to have dumbed it down, with a very limited and rather trite moveset. And that's just WWE.
Japan, in its own way, is even less forgivable. In Japan there is no Vince McMahon to horde all the heavyweight talent and media attention. The crowds are more patient, less jaded, and look for a more complex style. Yet the greats of the '90s seem to have lost all sense of storytelling and can rarely be bothered to sell what stories there are. Rather than reel back the big moves, they seem incapable of anything but flash. The match being hailed by many as 'Match of the Year', Kobashi vs Akiyama, is a spotfest compared to their match six years ago... which itself was no MOTY.
But even in this seeming dark age, something has changed. I hinted at it in a recent PuroPulse (and y'all need to read that if you're jonesing for more POVs), but I'll expand on it here: the US indy scene is now the place to go for good, deep, and entertaining wrestling matches. I thought Ring of Honor was a breath of fresh air two years ago, but now they're putting out matches that make the best from '02 pale in comparison. And a much less-hyped fed, IWA Mid-South, is similarly getting to be a veritable MOTYC factory. How did this happen? The same way it did for me: the internet and tape-watching.
Today's indy wrestlers accept that few of them have a shot for working at ol' Titan Towers. They've also been exposed to more than just the usual WWF and WCW shows. Elements from Japan, Mexico and Europe have been assimilated by top workers and spread around. A hybrid style, utilizing old-school tricks to spice up and build to new-school moves, is being born in front of hundreds of people every weekend in crappy venues. Though most top names also wind up in the major Japanese feds and/or TNA, this evolution isn't about money. It's about being smart, and a respect for true artists of the ring.
In learning teases, payoffs, ring strategy/psychology, pacing, build, and numerous other things I discussed below, indy wrestlers like American Dragon, Samoa Joe, Chris Hero and CM Punk can go for well over half an hour without killing themselves with bumps, putting the crowd to sleep or relying on gimmicks. That's not to say they're entirely mat wrestling and psych, but they certainly do it better than anyone has in years. They're young. They have the right attitude about how to achieve greatness. And they have nowhere to go but up, thanks to having enough peers to critique what they're doing (not to mention the 'net). Kinks will be worked out, they'll get more comfortable with one another, and a growing number of wrestlers are moving in the same direction.
What does this all mean? Well, nothing if you're the McMahons. But if you're like me and yearn for something better than Sports Entertainment, something progressive, something that rewards those who pay attention... the future is looking brighter all the time. As I move up in the file size of matches, the matches themselves will get better. I'll highlight the ones which best fit into the trend I'm talking about.
Point of View, August 22, 2004: Continuity, net gains, build and context in pro wrestling
As the years pass I find myself frustrated by an inability to properly express the good parts of pro wrestling to those who don't understand it. Part of it is that WWF Hogan era is what most people think of as pro wrestling; fakey punches, corny gimmicks, steroided freaks yelling about "Getting" each other, crowds that rate an 11 out of 10 on the white trash scale, etc. The global mainstream has never even heard of Chris Benoit let alone see him perform one of his epics. There are so many elements to good pro wrestling that it's sometimes hard to distinguish them and really say what's what and how they work. Here are a couple that came to me as I was talking with my sister the other day.
. There are hundreds and hundreds and HUNDREDS of moves out there. Some are better than others, between who's wrestling and what the story is. For instance, if Eddie uses an Angle slam on Angle, the context of the move is Eddie using Angle's own finish against him. If Bradshaw used an Angle slam on Undertaker, it would make no sense because neither man has any association with the move. Context can add depth, but it can also take away. Often I'll see Ric Flair go after someone's arm, but inevitably he forgets it and goes for the legs to set up the figure-four. In the context of working the arm, the figure-four (which targets the legs) is out of place.
Different stories, be it a clash of distinct characters or a certain targeted body part, allows for holds to be used in a variety of different ways. For instance, a match I recently wrote in Mercury saw one character (Blake Grumann) go after the shoulders of another (Geoffrey Slate). Certain things like shoulderbreakers were fairly standard. Others, like how Slate had to deal with a hold called the prison lock, were made unique. Even fighting over a backslide at the end was made dramatic because of how the shoulders factor into the move. The variety of stories and moves allows the same match to remain fresh even over the course of years. Which brings me to...
. Perhaps the one thing that wrestling holds over most every form of fiction is that the characters/wrestlers are, over the course of time, involved in hundreds (sometimes thousands) of matches, each flowing from the other to varying degrees. It allows for amazing depth and nuance in something that's seemingly simplistic. A play is almost entirely static over the course of time; a series in books, TV or movies usually leaves out huge chunks of minor events or takes years to tell a few stories. The closest thing to wrestling in that regard is soap operas, but I don't want to go into the deep flaws in every single soap.
There are of course a variety of aspects to continuity. One is the storyline between two wrestlers, involving how they interacted in the recent and sometimes not-so-recent past. Shawn Michaels and HHH have a rather extensive backstory, and their series of matches since Shawn's return relies heavily on that continuity. Another type is individual continuity, which deals with the sum total of matches and storylines a wrestler has gone through. Austin vs Rock from Wrestlemania 17 used Austin's backstory in a way that meshed the then-present (Austin turning heel) with the past (Austin vs Hart).
Continuity in a match can involve how wrestlers interacted in past matches, as they develop counters and reversals to each other's moves and then find counters to the counters, etc. This ties in to building a good nearfall, as the continuity of a move as a finisher both in general and against a specific wrestler can create drama when said move is survived. A different type of match continuity is within a match itself, as certain moves can be teased or otherwise set up and then get used (the pay-off) down the line. In-match continuity leads me to...
. One of the very important elements to a great match is when there's a clear escalation of offense used as it goes along. For instance, would it make sense for HHH to use a pedigree in the first few minutes and then try to win with a neckbreaker? Of course not. Similarly, many spotfests have a problem where big moves are thrown around haphazardly and there's no clear sense of what we, the fans, are supposed to view in a "that could be the finish!" way. Also when a big spot is used randomly in the middle of the match with no particular rhyme, reason or long-term selling, it makes said spot less credible as a finish down the line.
All Japan's classic style of building a match, called King's Road, is almost certainly the best. It allows for a long, deep story to be told with steadily building drama. The start is a feeling out process where simple holds and strikes are traded. Then they move to the body of the match, as the wrestlers vie for control and establish a gameplan. This finally leads to a big finish, where deep movesets are brought to play and the toll of the match makes every big move all the more credible.
One other build in a match is building to a specific move. This usually involves a certain strategy, such as working the legs to set up a figure-four, or working the legs and/or back to set up the sharpshooter. A subtler way to build to a move is by teasing it, as a wrestler has to try several times in order to pull the move off. That makes it more rewarding, and also gives an aura of credibility to a move (ie. it's worth working hard to avoid). With finishers, a series of teases can really build tension as one wrestler is on the verge of finishing the other.
But there's more to 'building' in wrestling than just putting a match together.
-Making a roster stronger over time through good booking
. Year in, year out, people lose falls. There's a loser in every match. How is it, then, that there can be a net gain if there's always a loser? The answer relies heavily on continuity, and also on quality wrestling. It takes years and thoughtful booking. When you have a solid main-eventer or two, elevating a lesser wrestler can be as easy as having them be competitive with the big name. Again, a good main-eventer can make a weaker opponent look credible even in a loss, while a bad one runs through the motions and treats it as a just another day in the office.
It can be difficult to have a large number of main-event level talents and not have them lose too much over the course of a year. Not only do they lose to each other, but they have to occasionally elevate midcarders. Mercury, with a current roster of just 14, has an 'upper tier' of 8. WWE has dozens on the rosters but only the same number of wrestlers are seen as elite. How does WWE fall short of its potential? Several ways. One is that main eventers are rarely shuffled into the tag team division. A tag title run with two big names can keep them both legitimate, occupy their time, and allow them to 'give the rub' to midcarders in the tag division. All Japan produced dozens of killer tag title matches by having both teams contain a main-eventer or two.
Another problem WWE has is with a lack of steady, trackable growth as wrestlers progress up the card. In Japan and Mercury, a large number of long singles matches sees midcarders do progressively better relative to the main eventers, lasting longer and coming closer, in the process building better and better contests. The main eventers look good because they're worthy of being chased. WWE hardly ever touts match times, just wins and losses and who ran in (but that particular horse is already beaten to death).
Once a main eventer has headlined long enough, he (or she) can be 'put out to pasture'. Great example is Hogan in 2002, who lost to Rock, HHH, Undertaker, Angle and Lesnar without putting a dent in his credibility. Lesnar gained a lot from that, as part of the summer where he went from a force-fed King Of The Ring win to a credible champ. The legends can lose regularly and be built up for another main event run at will. This in turn creates more room at the top. In Mercury, Harbinger has gone through a few extended slumps that in the process boosted several wrestlers, and he bounced right back to the top when needed.
I doubt any of what I've written here is all that new to any of you. It's just that we take certain things for granted and miss the incredible depth (and potential) in pro wrestling.
Point of View, July 11, 2004: The future is dimming
Does the WWE have any sort of plan for who will be on top in five years? Sometimes I'm not so sure. So far they've strung together main events based on '90s main eventers, some elevated '90s midcarders, and two amateur wrestling stars. Who among them will still be around in the decade to come?
The following people have won a world title (WCW/WWE/'World', etc) in WWF/WWE from January, 2000 through today: HHH, Rock, Big Show, Angle, Austin, Booker T, Jericho, Lesnar, Undertaker, Hogan, Shawn, Goldberg, Benoit, Eddie, Bradshaw.
The following people challenged on PPV but didn't ever win: Kane, Foley, Rikishi, Steiner, RVD, Cena, Nash, Orton, Hardcore Holly.
Of those people, the following are no longer under contract: Rock, Austin, Nash, Lesnar, Hogan, Goldberg, Foley. That leaves 17.
The following will either never appear on TV, or are planning to retire soon: Booker, Steiner, Rikishi. That leaves 14.
The following have been in the business since the '80s, have had major injuries, and thus can't count on having much time left: Shawn, Benoit, Undertaker, Eddie. That leaves 10.
The following are simply not viable as main-eventers: Holly, Bradshaw. That leaves 8.
On the bad end of things we have Angle, who upon his return will be one bad bump away from retirement. Big Show, who has never been much above 'decent' in his career and is injury-prone due to his size. Kane, whose character just isn't the sort of thing you can build around. He's good for a main event here or there but that's it. RVD, who clearly hasn't progressed beyond a spot machine and can't cut a promo to save his life. Same deal with Kane in terms of being useful here and there.
In-between there's Jericho, who could certainly get a big push ala. Benoit and have a nice run... but he's been around since 1990 and is frowned on because of his run as undisputed champ (even though it was poor booking that hurt him). HHH, despite his injuries, has been going for over a decade now. He's very reliable and about as loyal to WWE as it gets. HHH and Jericho could both be wrestling in 2010.
The bright spots are naturally Orton and Cena, whose best years are ahead of them. They have plenty of charisma, are seen as legitimate threats to main eventers, and are clearly in line for headlining positions over the next few years. Chances are very good that one or both will be top names at the end of the decade.
And after that... it's not looking so good. Batista? One-dimensional. Christian? Doesn't seem to have main event caliber talent, and the fans know it. Benjamin might have the charisma of the next Rock, but he might not amount to much more than the next D-Von. Edge is great, but the life expectancy on wrestlers who have the Neck Surgery of Doom isn't very long.
What else is there? Rock's movie career could fail. Right now I'm hoping it does. Lesnar might decide he needs to make real money again. Either one will be taken back with open arms, and they both seem to be healthy enough to go for years and years. NWA:TNA isn't exactly bursting with guys who would be viable PPV draws (Jeff, Ron Killings), or guys who would fit in with WWE style (AJ Styles).
While WWE has guys like Undertaker and Shawn Michaels they should be doing everything possible to make new stars. HHH, whose star power is safe, can afford to put over any number of people in meaningful ways. As it stands, WWE will have a hard time just stopping the bleeding. Every year since 2000 brought in lower ratings, lower average buyrates and less mainstream interest than the one before. Every time they have a retarded angle like 'Undertaker buries Paul Bearer alive', they waste another chance to make a lasting contribution to the future.
WWE will be here in 2010. Will it have enough leaders at that point to stay alive, or will it be a company on its last legs? A lot will change between now and then. You never know if another out-of-nowhere superstar will emerge.
Point of View, April 12, 2004: Execution
The mark of someone usually considered a great 'technical wrestler' is the ability to make little things seem big. Wrestlers like Flair, Hennig, both Harts, Benoit, and many many others can take ordinary moves or ordinary bumps and make them look especially effective. Between selling, being forceful without being dangerous, and adding personal touches, two-star offence can be used to construct what appears to be a four-star match even without taking psychology into consideration.
Each type of move has different ways of being done and/or sold better.
Strikes: Tajiri's kicks are the stuff of legend, especially while he was in ECW. The secret, of course, was the right pants and properly timed thigh slaps. Noise can generally make a strike look as stiff as it's supposed to be, though in the case of chops the noise isn't all that 'fake'.
Submissions: Beyond 'doing it right', the basic way to improve a submission is a set of things labeled 'working the hold'. This involves anything from shaking the opponent in a squeeze-type hold to flopping back on the mat in a figure-four to throwing in a cheap bite or slap on a hapless victim. To me, these things are the most painless ways to improve a match, since any time spent in an effective (to the crowd) submission is time you're not taking bumps.
A subset of this is making the hold appear to be stretching the guy out. This requires locking it on correctly, then making it 'tighter'. One example would be Jericho improving on the Boston crab by kneeling. Another is when opponents in Benoit's crossface push up with the free arm, making it look like the head is about to get yanked off.
Bumping: high, hard, and fast. The best way to do better looking bumps is for a wrestler to pretty much kill himself; sad but true. The most cringeworthy bumping in history, be it hardcore or head-drops, has a very real toll. There are tricks, like a backflip off of a clothesline or doing a slight roll to make it look like you landed on your neck, but even those come with a price. Brock Lesnar bumps like a madman, by the way.
High-flying: Mid-'90s Rey Mysterio and Ultimo Dragon defined 'crisp'. The moves were fast, fluid, and done flawlessly. While we all remember the tope con hilos and asai moonsaults and flying headscissors, it was the snap put on simple armdrags that really stands out to me more than highspots.
Wrestling is a grand illusion. The best wrestlers are the ones who make it look realistic without making the danger real.
Point of View, March 9, 2004: Building a hot nearfall
Warning: this might be boring to you. I dunno.
A nearfall is any point where a guy has to fight to the ropes on a submission or kicks out of a pin at 2. Naturally there are a number of levels and types of nearfalls, depending on what the wrestlers are trying for and how the crowd responds.
"No heat, no effort." Wrestler A does a bodyslam followed by an elbowdrop. Other than Abdullah the Butcher (who weighs a metric ton), kicking out of the following pin won't make the crowd applaud. This is generally done for the sake of progressing the match as a sort of filler. With submission holds it can make a wrestler look weak since he didn't reverse or power out.
"No effort, lots of heat." This requires a hot crowd, and doesn't happen much anymore. In the old days if you stuck a guy like Andre in the ring, any pin attempts would get heat since it meant that either he was at a rare disadvantage or the match could be over (since any move could be sold as death). Another way would be to just have a freakishly hot match going where the crowd reacts to every bit of the match.
"Effort, no heat." This is caused either by a finisher no longer being seen as a finisher due to having been kicked out of so much (usually in Japan), or a lot of build going into a move that isn't thought of as a finisher but is 'supposed' to look like one (ie. WWE spinebuster). An interesting case comes from long singles matches in late '90s All Japan, where wrestlers like Misawa would use moves like a swinging stunner or a frogsplash in the middle of the match as part of an extremely long building process.
"Effort and heat." HHH's pedigree is the perfect example here, because there's a 99% chance that if he hits it, it's over. If someone kicks out it's so rare as to be memorable. Same with moves like the stunner, F5, Flair's figure-four... oh wait that hasn't worked in ten years.
It's all well and good when you're working WWE style and you can use one move as the patented finisher every week for years before someone kicks out. The stunner can come out of nowhere with no particular rhyme or reason and it's effective. But what if the wrestlers are going for something more meaningful? Here are just a few ways that a high-level professional wrestler can create a hot nearfall when it matters.
1. Have the move be enough to finish the other wrestler at some point. Even if something has been kicked out of on occasion, using it as the finish in a tag match during the buildup is a great way to reestablish it. Example: Hogan used the legdrop to pin Rock the week before Wrestlemania 18. Though the legdrop is an iconic finisher, it was a bit dated and had been kicked out of several times over the decades.
2. "Sports entertainment style." Something like a chairshot or a distraction immediately before the finisher is used makes it look that much more like the finish. Example: at No Way Out 2000, Angle rammed Rock's head into an exposed turnbuckle right before doing the Angle slam.
3. Use the psychology/story of the match to make the finisher more logical. Example: HHH had a leg injury going into Wrestlemania 18, and Jericho attacked the leg both before and during the match to set up the liontamer. Sadly they didn't follow point 1 so it was obvious HHH wouldn't tap.
4. A string of big moves right before. Again from Rock vs Hogan, the specific finish was two consecutive rock bottoms followed by the people's elbow. Granted, Hogan didn't kick out, but everybody watching the match KNEW it was the end, and it would have been a shock if Hogan survived. Another example is more typical of All Japan, where several smaller moves can be needed before the finisher hits on a struggling opponent.
5. The second attempt. One of the times I marked out hardest in recent years was during Angle vs Benoit at Royal Rumble '03. Benoit survived the first Angle slam, but Angle hit another... and Benoit kicked out anyway. We'd seen the Angle slam be kicked out of before, but never EVER twice.
6. The 'level up'. Adding to an established finisher either through more complexity or more impact, especially when done only in big matches, can blow the roof off. Again we go to Angle vs Benoit, this time when Angle dropped down to 'level up' the ankle lock to a heel hold, forcing the tap out. The ankle lock had been survived, but the more advanced version was brand new and there was seemingly no escape.
7. Multiple finishers. AGAIN it's Angle. You've got the Angle slam and the anklelock. One or the other has been survived in dozens upon dozens of matches. Following one up with the other creates the sense that the second finisher being used is that much more likely to work.
8. Multiple attempts, especially in succession. For instance, a wrestler could elbow out of the rock bottom, then wind up walking right back into it. This adds emphasis to the move in question.
9a. Timing; late in the match. You expect certain matches to go a certain length, and early on it's not as effective a nearfall as later on. Perfect example was Austin vs Angle at Summerslam '01. Angle survived the stunner really early, but then survived it again later. The second nearfall was much more potent even outside the "he kicked out of another one!" factor, because there was more accumulated damage. Also, a move that isn't viewed as a big finisher can become a threat after a really big nearfall.
9b. Timing; how. Using a finisher as a fast counter of another finisher, or using it really fast out of nowhere, is much smarter than an overly choreographed "now I'm doing my finisher" thing like crouching down in wait while the other guy gets up.
9c. Timing; when & how. This applies to cradles, which can be heart-stopping nearfalls in the right context. Early on a cradle looks way too weak to be the finish, but really late in the match when it's done very suddenly it can take the viewer by surprise.
10. The other guy's move. Strangely this never works, but it's always fun.
One of my favorite things from All Japan in the 1990's was a combination of those elements (except #2) being used for many minutes at a time to create a dramatic tension that was unparalleled. With Mercury I try my best to develop main events so that there are several 'hot' nearfalls towards the end, which is tough because they only work so many times.
Point of View, February 15, 2004: Transitions
Today I'm going to discuss something that separates the spotfests from the epics. It's got nothing to do with execution or using enough big moves, but it has everything to do with how logical and deep the story of a match is.
Transitions are typically thought of as a change between one guy on offense and another. A number of spots are used repeatedly as transitions: a blind charge is dodged, a top rope move is dodged, one move or hold gets reversed into another, a sleeper is fought out of, etc. The presence and 'length' of this in-between portion can be so crucial to building heat.
In any good match, one wrestler or team should have several minutes of control at a time. This allows for a story to emerge, such as attacking a limb or 'babyface in peril' in tag matches. How effective is that string of offense if it can be shrugged off with a kick to the gut... or perhaps nothing at all? The logical consistency of a match can get thrown out the window if there's a bad transition at a crucial point in the match. Sometimes it can take several small moves to make a comeback or one big one, but it should be enough that it makes sense as a comeback.
An example of good transitioning can be seen in a properly done Rock 'n Roll Express formula. The face in peril gets worked over and at some point he gets a few shots in, but the heels cut off the tag somehow and go back to work. That makes the crowd get more behind the faces, and ultimately that hot tag is made hot because it took more than one try to get there. Bad transitions are rampant in spotfests, where one guy hits a finisher, then seconds later the other guy is able to do a finisher without showing any ill effects.
Interestingly enough, technical wrestling can allow for much simpler transitions through hold reversals. Since countering from one hold or another requires less 'energy' and leads directly to a submission (which is instant control), it doesn't seem out of place. It's best to have the reversal be drawn out, though. A good example here is Bret vs Benoit in the Owen Memorial match. Bret went from Benoit's crossface into the sharpshooter, and did so slowly enough that it felt like he was struggling.
The other, less-discussed aspect of transitions is what happens between moves when someone is on offense. For instance, late in the match a wrestler will think he has an opponent finished, but the opponent kicks out or gets to the ropes. Often the guy will just go for a finisher again, and 99 times out of 100 that finisher will be countered or reversed; it's a bit obvious unless performed very well. It's better to have at least a little setting up for every big move so that a potential counter isn't expected. For instance, if Benoit hits his rolling Germans and goes for the swandive headbutt, he'd seem to have a better chance of hitting than if he did it right after an opponent fought out of the crossface.
Both aspect of transitions create a sense that control of the match is being fought over tooth-and-nail, both in keeping control and regaining control. That struggle is at the heart of truly high-end professional wrestling.
Point of View, January 13, 2004: Wrestling, a beginning
I wondered to myself what I could write a POV column about, and then it occurred to me.
In the five and a half years (holy crap it's been that long?) I've been writing this column, the way I view professional wrestling has changed dramatically. First came my immersion in the 'internet wrestling community', which led to me getting into things like ECW and the concept of workrate. Then came my discovery of Japanese wrestling two years ago, bringing with it an entirely different perspective on what wrestling can be. But perhaps most important of all is what's been going on in Mercury, the e-fed that I spend far more time on in a month than I did on this site last year.
Through e-feds I've been attempting to express what I think wrestling is all about. At first what I wrote was very much ECW-ish, with semi-shoot interviews and highspot-filled matches and innovative moves. Then I got my first puroresu tapes, so I threw in head drops and stiffness and 'fighting spirit'. Yet it was still very superficial; the matches I wrote were more about arranging big moves in a certain order than about constructing a compelling wrestling match. It wasn't until last year that I really turned the corner and matured as an e-fed writer. In the process I turned a corner as a wrestling fan, and now I need to explain the insights I've gained as best I can.
Wrestling is an art form unlike any other. It's athletic, but not a sport. It has scripted stories and cooperative (instead of competitive) action, but isn't theater or cinema. It goes year-round with a constant barrage of new shows, bringing with it new developments. The types of characters vary from straightforward grapplers to colorful gimmicks, and these characters have to be used in such a way that some are 'superior' but all are compelling on some level. The goal is money, which is made through the best use of the best characters in building towards some big match at a big show (either a large venue or PPV or whatever). When wrestling is at its best, the big matches are entertaining and involving on more levels than anyone gives it credit for.
The way to build towards the big payoff, and what that payoff is, varies wildly. In the WWE today, matches are built primarily through talking and scheming and who is on the side of the heel Ďshow operatorí (today that's Vince and Bischoff); the payoff is usually a big storyline development that comes in the form of a run-in or a screwjob. Twenty years ago in the WWF, heels were given long win streaks and then would go after Hogan as challengers; the payoff was almost always Hogan kicking out of the heel's finisher and going on to get the clean win. In Japan, rivalries are developed over months and years based on who's the better wrestler, primarily through tag matches; the payoffs are epic singles matches where the 'best man wins'.
In Mercury there's a combination of WWE and Japan, using promos to develop the personal conflict and matches to develop the athletic competition; the payoff is a singles match that is a story in and of itself. That's what a good match is supposed to do: tell a story. Hundreds of wrestlers in the world can flawlessly trade moves back and forth without even coming close to creating the element that separates the decent from the superb, psychology.
Psychology in everyday life examines motivation and reasoning. Psychology in a match is typically thought of as 'wrestler A works body part X of his opponent, who sells an injury that effects the match.' But it's so much more than that. Real psychology affects every single move that both wrestlers do, the way they approach that specific match and use both the characters and the back-story to draw in the viewer. Psychology can be anything from Kurt Angle attacking the ankle to set up the ankle lock, to an intelligent but small wrestler not trying to throw punches at Undertaker, to the way a heel wrestler dominates a match so that a babyface can make a hot comeback. The moves need a meaning.
Perhaps the best overall use of storytelling and psychology in a match that those of you reading the column have seen is Austin vs Rock from Wrestlemania 17. The first level story was Austin turning heel by joining with Vince in order to win the title, because the title meant so much to him that he'd sell his soul. That deals with the back-story of the characters. The second level, told in the ring, saw Austin wrestling in a much more heelish manner (his old Ringmaster persona) in order to foreshadow his impending turn and demonstrate his desperation.
The third level, also told in the ring, was both men throwing everything they had at each other and playing off past match finishes. This gave the match a real Wrestlemania epic feel. Both of them used the other's finisher (rock bottom and stunner) and then they hit the move themselves, but that wasn't enough. Both of them used the sharpshooter-while-bleeding spot that was the finish of Austin vs Bret at Wrestlemania 13, the match that turned Austin face. They even built off the finish of Austin vs Bret at Survivor Series '96, with a counter of Austin's cobra clutch leading to a pin (but Austin kicked out here). In the end Austin had to give up on beating Rock fair and square, so he let Vince save him from a cover after the people's elbow and he beat Rock senseless with a chair to win.
The buildup to the match caused it to be a huge success financially. By setting up and delivering an epic in the main event, the WWF once again cemented Wrestlemania as a can't-miss show. Austin vs Rock from Wrestlemania 17 is an example of what I love most about professional wrestling.
In future columns I'll go into certain aspects in greater detail, from good booking to building a good match to creating a relatable character. I'll provide examples of what's worked and explore some of the grandest epics in depth. In doing so I'll be using Mercury as an example from time to time, so you'll want to look into it and ask me questions about it ahead of time. Point of View is going to be a lot more regular. It's good to be back.