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Friday, November 30, 2007

Why Does Tag Team Wrestling Suck Now, When It was So Good Then?

As the independent scene boomed with the corresponding wrestling boom of the late 1990s, a popular trend on the indy scene emerged – two guys would travel together. They probably had a tag team name and were an acceptable tag team that needed seasoning. However, on one show they would team, and on another show across town, they would be embroiled in a blood feud.

What?

See, in the thrifty world of independent wrestling, promoters would be willing to bring in two guys to fight each other, expecting them to have a god match because “they know each other, and have probably wrestled before”. While this certainly allows individuals to improve because they get another chance to be in front of a crowd, it does not make them any better in the long run because they do not get a chance to test themselves against wrestlers from other areas. Two wrestlers traveling up and down the road together and who have each other well scouted and know each other’s weaknesses and strengths are more likely to fight each other than team up.

In my opinion, tag team wrestling is currently at its lowest point since its inception, and there does not appear to be an end in sight. I think the current lackluster field of tag teams (and thus tag team matches) stems from a number of factors.

The 1990s saw an ending of fresh teams that had existed since the territory days. Tag team divisions were filled out with two guys under contract to the company being paired together to form teams. The end of territory wrestling saw the end of teams establishing themselves as a team (and not establishing themselves as individuals), and gaining experience going from territory to territory as a unit. Instead, teams consisted of brothers, or two established singles wrestlers with a gimmick and name to make them seem like a seasoned team. When promoters looked for new talent, on the independent circuit – there were none to be found.

In the days of the territory, tag team wrestling dominated the landscape. Every territory promoted some form of a “national” singles champion (be it United States, North American, National, etc.), but NWA bylaws prohibited them from promoting a “World Champion” in the singles divisions.

No such rule existed however for tag team divisions. Every territory seemed to have a United States Champion, a Television Champion, and a pair of World Tag Team Champions.

The 1970’s saw such teams as The Anderson’s (Gene & Lars, and later Ole & Gene), Mr. Wrestling #1 & #2, The Fargos, The Von Baruners, The Samoans, The Grahams (Dr. Jerry, Eddie, Luke, & Billy), the Bastein Brothers, Goliath & Black Gordman, Crusher & Bruiser, the Blackjacks, and many more. Every territory was stacked full of teams comprised of brothers, or fellows of the same nationality or ethnicity. There were many championship teams comprised of a wily veteran and a plucky young up-and-comer.

While a promoter in the 1970’s could not bring in the NWA World Heavyweight Champion for all of his shows, or even for all of the big ones, a promoter could have a show headlined by the World Tag Team Champions at any time. And, unlike the prestigious world singles championship, the multitude of world tag team championships recognized by all of the different promoters switched hands often. In the Memphis territory, titles would change hands on a nearly weekly basis.

Teams like the Assassins would have a reign of terror over a territory for years at a time, while teams of fan favorites would try to pluck the titles (and masks) away from the dastardly duo for good.

As the 1980s dawned and wrestling suddenly had a national audience, more teams came into view and made a name for themselves. The Hart Foundation, the Road Warriors, the Fabulous Freebirds, the Midnight Express, the Rock n Roll Express. The British Bulldogs, Arn & Ole Anderson, Arn Anderson & Tully Blanchard, Ivan & Nikita Koloff, Iron Sheik & Nikolai Volkoff, the Midnight Rockers, The Moondogs, Chris Adams & Gino Hernandez, the Killer Bees, the Fantastics, and many, many more.

In the 80s, bigger was suddenly better. It was more important to look like a champ than to actually wrestle like one. This led to the world champion, and the main event level singles wrestlers requiring “a look”, rather than an off the hook workrate. At the same time, the territories were falling to the wayside and it was now possible to book a singles champion on every show. While the era of the big man was under way, the smaller talented technicians began to strut their stuff in the tag team ranks. While the tag team championships were brought down from their status as a main event level championship, they became a bastion of psychology, workrate, and action. Solid singles wrestlers like Magnum TA, Tito Santana, Rick Martel, Arn Anderson, Barry Windham, Greg Valentine, and countless others found themselves solidifying cards as tag team wrestlers – often stealing the show.

Then, the 1990’s hit. There were two major wrestling promotions for most of that time period – WWF and WCW. The World Wrestling Federation’s ranks of tag teams consisted of teams such as The Smoking Gunns, The Bodydonnas, The Godwinns, Men on a Mission, and many championship teams of two singles wrestlers thrown together, such as Kevin Nash & Shawn Michaels, Bob Holly & X-Pac, Owen Hart & Davey Smith, and others. WCW at least had a consistent roster of legitimate teams, such as the Steiner Brothers, Doom, the Nasty Boys, Harlem Heat, Sting & Luger, the Outsiders, as well as other tag teams made from stables such as the NWO, the Four Horsemen, the Dangerous Alliance, and more.

As the 1990s came to a close, tag team wrestling looked to be gaining momentum again, thanks to teams like The APA, Hardy Boys, the Dudley Boyz, the Impact Players, the Eliminators, Edge & Christian, Rey Misterio & Billy Kidman, Dean Malenko & Chris Benoit, Rob Van Dam & Sabu, and a few others.

But, just as the “bigger is better” mentality caused a make-over of the prototype for a singles wrestler in the late 1970s and 1980s, the blueprint for too many promoters when looking for a tag team became teams like the Road Warriors, Demolition, and the Steiner Brothers. Promoters were suddenly looking for two big men who could overpower and dominate smaller opponents. Too often promoters would find two big men, and throw them together as a team, and immediately start putting them in title matches at the top of the division. Teams quickly went stale, because after short stints of teaming, promoters would decide to showcase one (or both) in singles competition, rather than as a tag team. Often, promoters saw easy money in having a team split up just to have the former teammates fight each other.

The differences between each generation’s tag teams are easy to see. In the 1970s, teams consisted of two men with some kind of bond. They were brothers, or countrymen, or two cowboys. They were two individuals who had a long history together that moved from territory to territory together. Or, they were two guys that stayed anchored to a territory, and defended the titles against challengers from other areas. The 1980s saw teams composed of two individuals from the same territory who were able to catch a break in another territory as a team – and then stuck with a successful team.

Sure, when the indy boom started you had teams like Cueball Carmichael & Jimmy Cicero, or Ace Darling & Devon Storm, or Joey Matthews & Christian York that found reasonable success as a duo, but for every team like that there were probably 1000 teams that consisted of two guys thrown together – if there was even a tag team match on an independent show.

So, how do we fix the problem of the current tag team wrestling scene?
In my opinion, it starts first and foremost with the wrestlers themselves. If two guys make a good team and want to focus on success in that area, then they need to only seek bookings as a team. At the very least, they need to accept bookings only if they are not fighting their partner. There is a literal drought of established quality tag teams on the independent circuit, and that leads to weak tag team divisions everywhere else. Although the problem might not be as bad in Japan due to the matchmaking style there, tag team wrestling is in almost as sorry a state in Mexico and abroad as it is in the US.

You would think then, that the law of supply and demand would then cause a correction of the market, and that the indy scene would be bursting with tag teams traveling and trying to get noticed. Yet, there is not.

The beauty of a tag team championship is that, from a booking standpoint, it should be your most flexible title. If you have the right team, it can main event your events. If you have the right team, it can open up the show. What that means is that you can feature rookies wrestling seasoned veterans in tag team matches, and it doesn’t have to be a lopsided match.

It worked in the territory days. Why wouldn’t it work now? Has something fundamentally changed that it makes no sense for two guys who know each other and wrestle complimentary styles to team up, to gain a higher position (and they more money) on the cards?

No, crappy attitudes of wrestlers, and poor matchmaking ability of promoters/bookers/matchmakers has led to a stagnant tag team division almost everywhere you look. Until the wrestlers and the people running wrestling shows put a focus on tag team wrestling again, the great tag teams we remember from the old days will continue to be near extinct.

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