The debate has raged on for months, years, and decades about whether exceedingly high-flying, overly-choreographed pro wrestling matches hurt or help the wrestling business.
In recent years, the discussion has centered on tag teams like the Young Bucks and modern-era independent wrestling matches. Over the weekend, the discussion shifted to Will Ospreay vs. Ricochet from New Japan’s Best of the Super Jrs. tournament.
Ospreay vs. Ricochet was a magical 17-minute main event Friday night in Japan. It was magical before they locked up, it was game-on two minutes in when they created a GIF with a sick counter/reversal display, and it was historical when they created an iconic image of both men flipping in the air simultaneously. The match was also hard-hitting, physical, and emotionally taxing. They also drew in a typically-reserved Japanese crowd chanting along and fully-engaged in the action.
A match of this style will draw its fair share of criticism, though. And, rightfully so. But, is the criticism unwarranted without an appreciation of the style mixed with star power at its absolute peak?
Applying this to sports, I enjoy going back and watching 1980s and 1990s-era smashmouth college football games with the big shoulder pads, emphasis on running the football, and re-living a time when throwing for 300 yards actually meant something.
I also enjoy a well-played, modern football game with the emphasis on speed and agility. But, when it becomes too much, like a 60-57 score, or where there’s no defense (the equivalent of no-selling in wrestling), it’s too much for me.
But, there are certain high-flying teams like Oregon and TCU matching up on a football field that sounds like a dream match-up. What happens when two teams who have excelled at their particular brand of football lock up in a high-stakes game? What happens when Ricochet and Will Ospreay meet in the main event of a BOSJ show? It’s a dream match to see which high-flyer can score the most points, or secure the pinfall.
The NFL and NBA are going through their own identity issues. NFL purists say there’s too many points being scored, too many yards amassed by average QBs, and the rules are so relaxed that it’s like a flag football game for the defense. Yet, when you match up a Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady or one of them against Aaron Rodgers, people want to see who’s the best of the star QBs who have perfected their craft in the modern era.
In the NBA, the game has gotten ridiculously wide-open where teams are nearing 100 points … in a half. Where’s the defense? What happened to The Big Man? Where does Dwight Howard fit in today’s NBA? These NBA Playoffs have featured so many blow-outs – if one team is off their game on a particular night, it’s led to very lopsided scores. Yet, there have also been thrilling games, like the Golden St. Warriors – criminals to be blamed for the current style or “saviors of the NBA?” – somehow surviving Game 6 in Oklahoma City on Saturday night against an equally-formidable OKC Thunder team. Plus, there’s the individual star power of Steph Curry vs. Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson against Russell Westbrook.
What’s the common thread? When you get the best of the best matched up against each other, no matter the style, it produces the best in the ring, on the field, and on the court.
Will Ospreay vs. Ricochet was an example of the best of the best matching up in the ring. When The Young Bucks match up with a tag team of equal greatness, it produces the best in the ring.
The key for all of this discussion is whether the art form is bringing in or turning away more fans – and money. When the concept is watered-down to a “monkey bars, PPV-opening X Division, six-way, clustermess, highspot frenzy, who-cares-who-wins” kind of a match, it terrible for the sport. It’s just a bunch of moves with no context and little retention value.
But, when you take the time to build something and tell a great story within the high-flying art form, it’s more likely to bring in more fans and money than turn people away.
Old-school, tough-guy, smashmouth wrestler Vader commented on Twitter about the preponderance of “insane moves” and flips: “The bottom line business continues to get smaller.” Applied solely to just a bunch of moves and flips in the ring, that’s true. But, when there is a purpose and meaning to what’s happening in the ring, plus stars people care about it, it should lead to an increase in business for everyone.
When it’s just-okay wrestlers trying to do a bunch of moves to make up for their limitations, or wrestlers just doing a bunch of moves to make up for the promotion dropping the ball by not taking the time to establish a back-story, it does hurt the art form and has potential to turn people away. It’s the picture of a long-time fan leaning back in his chair with arms folded lamenting what he’s seeing today and longing for the days of yesteryear because what he’s watching looks so fake.
But, when you match up two guys like Ospreay and Ricochet who are so transcendent and captivating, you can’t help but engage and suspend your disbelief, even if you see them catching each other and willingly taking offense as part of choreographed sequences.
As Vader said on Twitter, it is a bottom line business. If the art form is hurting wrestling promotions, the wrestlers themselves, and the industry overall, it’s not good.
There has be to a purpose to the acrobatics. There has to be a story. Ospreay and Ricochet – never mind the amazing athleticism – had a story within the match. They wanted to see who could out-do each other, and their “competitive fire” burned bright as the match went on. It was competition, showmanship, desire to win, and thrill of victory and agony of defeat, all under the umbrella of a carefully-protected, well-built-up, historical Best of the Super Jrs. tournament that has advanced the style of pro wrestling for more than 20 years.
Purists who enjoy a good old fashioned, hard-hitting brawl, or physical match that looks like modern MMA, seem to be saying: “These guys doing flips in the ring don’t look like real wrestlers, therefore I’m not a fan.” I appreciate that, since some of the modern-era football players I see on the field wearing skinny shoulder pads trying to run through a defender don’t look like real football players in my eyes. But, they are part of the style advancing.
There should still be a balance, though.
There needs to be a Tomohiro Ishii vs. Shibata war of men – like an old-school RB and LB meeting in the hole with pads popping – to go with the Ospreay vs. Ricochet war of insane athleticism. It’s why there’s a Super Jrs. and G1 Climax tournament. As long as the business is moving forward and people are making money in the post-modern era of there only being one major U.S. promotion, and one or two big international promotions (New Japan and AAA), there has to be a shift to bring in new fans.
Ospreay and Ricochet are part of a movement to advance the style further and reach the next generation of fans, just like the high-flyers of 20-25 years ago who eventually became accepted as part of a broader view of pro wrestling stars.
Plus, Ospreay and Ricochet just looked and felt like huge stars in New Japan’s setting before they ever did one move in the ring.
Star power, amazing in-ring skills, an established foundation, and a protected platform allows what happens in the ring to mean something, drawing in people and money. This is the modern-era pro wrestling match and style that helps, does not hurt, the wrestling business.