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I’ll tell you what I’m sick of: Great wrestling. There’s great wrestling everywhere you look these days, and I’m tired of it. (In fairness, one place you won’t find great wrestling is TNA, where they only do good wrestling. Credit where it is due.)
You know the sort of wrestling I mean. Breathtaking athleticism, intricate highspots, risky bumps, innovative moves, all validated by chants of “This is Awesome” and “Holy Shit!”
Even WWE, which has rarely shown a predilection for showcasing such things, is these days awash with great wrestlers who built their reputations with thrilling matches in New Japan, Ring of Honor, the independent scene, and TNA (back when they used to feature great wrestling).
Raw, Smackdown, and NXT contain more in-ring energy on any given week than WWE used to produce in a whole year. Pick a random match from 25 years ago and the chances are you’ll see bloated men, sweating profusely, grabbing rest holds when they should be grabbing beta blockers. Now we are treated to multiple great matches per week.
But what is the point of it all? I personally think that dazzling athleticism is actively detrimental to the success of a promotion. That may seem like the proclamation of a wrestling masochist, but the vast majority of wrestling promoters judge success on the size or their bank balance, and in my opinion there is something about great wrestling that impedes the emotional connection necessary to attract more eyeballs to a product and make more money.
Of course, there are examples of promotions that made money while featuring great wrestling, but it was not the key to their success. Far more crucial was the investment their fans had in relatable characters and the outcomes of matches between those characters. There are other constant themes – great promos, star power, coherent storytelling, a platform where match outcomes had ramifications – but athleticism is not one of those themes. For every Ric Flair main eventing Jim Crockett Promotions, there was a Junkyard Dog in Mid-South.
And it’s quite obvious why. When a heel performs a twisting corkscrew plancha, or a space flying tiger drop, or a shooting star press, what’s not to enjoy about that? It’s impressive, it’s cool, it’s risky; all admirable traits. Thus, there is not resentment that he or she is hurting the babyface.
Similarly, when a babyface takes a bump from the top of a ladder through a ringside table, there is not concern that he is losing the fight, but enjoyment at the spectacle. Again, the emotional connection is lost.
Even those mind-blowingly intricate spots, the kind of impossible gymnastic feats that sometimes feel like a trick on the eyes, sub-consciously serve to remind the audience that wrestlers are co-operating in the ring. When have you seen a hurricanrana in a real fight? How could a tower of doom suplex possibly come about organically? It’s impossible not to notice that, when a wrestler flies over the top rope to the outside, the opponent is preoccupied with helping to break his fall, and half the time there is minimal contact.
None of these things resonate in the visceral way required to truly lose oneself in a fight, and invest in its outcome. Quite simply, when the quality of a match is more important to an audience than the winner, wrestling enters a territory where its appeal is much more narrow, and the rewards are much less lucrative.
After all, who ever went to watch their favorite sports team hoping only to see a good game? I would much rather my team won a terrible game than lost an exciting one. And if I was watching my brother or best friend have a fight, I would want them to win, plain and simple. Not to take the best bump, not to utilize the most innovative offense (although it might make for a good anecdote if my brother won a fight using a Canadian Destroyer), but to win.
The Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant main event of WrestleMania 3 was one of the worst main events in WWE history in athletic execution, lasting just 12 minutes, during which they barely mobile Andre left his feet just three times, and the majority of the offense entailed punches, chops, and headbutts. It is as rudimentary a contest as you will ever see, and certainly not the kind of wrestling I want to watch on a regular basis. There is, of course, a happy medium.
But, when the protagonist has charisma by the bucket load, and has spent years overcoming every challenge to his heavyweight championship of the world; when the antagonist is his seven-foot-four former best friend who has been consumed by jealousy and outside influences, and now has his eyes set on proving that he was the best all along, and that he should be the champion; when seventy eig…, erm, ninety-three thousand people fill a huge stadium and a million more watch on closed circuit, and pay-per-view records are broken, because nobody can imagine either man losing to the other; when almost every one of those customers is completely satisfied with a 12 minute main event consisting of minimal bumps where the biggest spot is a powerslam, because their guy won, is that not truly great wrestling?
Follow Gavin Duenas on Twitter @gavinduenas.
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