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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

MY 100 UNAPOLOGETIC FAVORITE WRESTLING MATCHES

The birth of the "ROH style"?


#98: Brian Pillman vs. Jushin "Thunder" Liger, WCW Light Heavyweight Championship - Superbrawl II, February 29, 1992

The previous two matches extolled the values found in a good, rowdy brawl. They also prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that keeping a match compelling doesn't take 450-splashes off of ladders through flaming tables propped up over tanks filled with bloodthirsty sharks, eels and Democrats.

This match proves that aiming high with style points doesn't necessarily hurt, as long as it adds to the story.

And this match's story might be my favorite kind: that of competition for 10 pounds of gold. That is "competition" (OK, we all know it's scripted, right? right, moving on....) just to be the best. It wasn't for custody of a child. No one's wife got slapped, nor anyone's significant-other stolen. It didn't even need animosity. It just needed one championship, and two guys who wanted it.

"Flyin'" Brian Pillman almost defies mere words at this point. Without the high-flying, high-risk offense that he introduced to mainstream American wrestling, A.J. Styles, Sonjay Dutt, Jeff Hardy and others would spend whole careers languishing in dark matches. Meanwhile, Jushin "Thunder" Liger was absolutely in his prime, which included classic matches with the likes of two young men named Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero.

Pillman had lost his WCW light heavyweight championship to Liger, and wanted it back. Again, I must stress this: there was no bitter animosity or even much antagonism. Pillman wanted his title back, plain and simple.

The two carried off this match at a very, very brisk pace. Both men scarcely sought a moment to rest, stringing together a superb match combining some flawless technical chain-wrestling and each man's trademark aerial artistry. And it cannot be understated: both these men were, in every sense of the word, ARTISTS in what they did.

Both men swapped the momentum enough times to keep every single fan on edge wondering who would come out on top. That might be the most consistently effective way to tell a story in the ring. The last third of the match, each man would reverse something the other did into a high-impact move that I guarantee every fan thought meant the end of the match . . . except when it didn't. I cannot stress this enough, this was not Hogan-Warrior formulaic, face-takes-a-beating-then-dominates-the-last-segment-of-the-match-to-pull-off-the-improbable-win booking. You couldn't read the pacing and have the slightest idea who goes over.

That's the kind of match that is a joy to watch, even when you know the outcome. It sucks you right back in again like the first time you watched it.

Pillman hit his springboard clothesline, but couldn't put Liger away. Liger hit a Liger-bomb, but that couldn't put Pillman away. Pillman nailed a top-rope splash, but couldn't get the three. Liger missed a diving headbutt . . . and then Pillman executed a sneaky sort of rolling clutch you just didn't see on American TV that often and picked up an out-of-the-blue three-count.

And THEREIN lies the perfection. After all the false finishes that threw the crowd off, it was a move absolutely outside of Pillman's signature offense - in fact, something that most would've guessed to be a transitional sort of near-fall move - that finally ended it.

It saddens me to hear "Internet fans" sometimes lament the rampant use of complicated, unorthodox offense in American wrestling, especially in independent federations. And to be perfectly honest, they're not always wrong. What gets me, is that these fans will even lay on the cynicism when high-spots and acrobatic, unorthodox move sets DO help tell the story. The aerial offense both these men employed brought the audience to its feet and added something special.

Remember, it was a MISSED diving headbutt that set up the finish. Pillman's springboard clothesline, often a finisher, couldn't get the three-count, and that put over just how tough Liger really had to be to withstand everything Pillman could throw at him. A dive by Pillman at one point ended with him eating guardrail and the audience probably believing that Liger then had the match in hand . . . which, of course, set up more near-falls, proving that Pillman could take whatever Liger could throw at him. The high-spots need to either mark a transition or assist in getting something else about the story over. As it stands now, they've been significantly cheapened.

Speaking of little things driving the story, give ample credit to Jim Ross for calling this match solo and putting over the immense athleticism that both these men possessed. Ross was the Al Michaels/Bob Costas of professional wrestling at this point, who had an incredible gift for getting across crucial intangible aspects of a match to make it make sense to any average first-time viewer. This night, Ross was in rare form.

Pillman brought colossal heart, talent and athletic gifts to the table, as Ross pointed out. Liger equaled him in nearly every way, except for being in his own right a former IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. How I WISH I could hear Ross name-drop promotions like New Japan and great performers such as Antonio Inoki on TV again. This is an example of the night-and-day difference between how Vince McMahon likes things done, and what's best for the product. They are not always the same thing, trust me.

It's not the sort of thing anyone notices off the bat, but good logic inconspicuously made this match superb. Every time someone made a wrong move, the other capitalized; that way, it got across these two were so equal in terms of ability, one mistake by either could mean the match. The focus of the match never deviated from the title; that way, in the eyes of the fan, the title truly meant something significant. Finally, the match showed that both men were masters of the one word on the marquee that should ever be made to matter by the promoters:

Wrestling.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

MY 100 UNAPOLOGETIC FAVORITE WRESTLING MATCHES

#99: STORYTELLING MADE SIMPLE


#99: Raven vs. C.M. Punk (Dog-Collar Match)

I could almost count on one hand the heels more fun to watch than ROH-era C.M. Punk. I would barely need two to count the wrestlers, heel or face, I enjoy watching more than Raven.

You surely see why this match holds a special place in my heart.

This feud exemplified Punk’s gift for adapting his straight-edge gimmick to whatever direction the wind may blow him. It makes an ideal tool for getting under anyone’s skin as an elitist, moralistic, high-and-mighty blowhard. The same gimmick – which, for the uninitiated, he lived before he ever set foot in a wrestling ring – can make him an ideal white-meat babyface that couldn’t be easier to market, with a colorful look, charisma to spare and a positive code of living.

Then there’s Raven.

What Punk is to clean-living, Raven is to the fabled excesses and debauchery behind wrestling’s curtain. However, like so many, he also eventually showed himself to be an underestimated genius of creating a character and telling an engaging story in and out of the ring. He was on par, unfortunately in many ways, with Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Rowdy Roddy Piper. Those clashing, polarized personalities set the stage for a feud that wrote itself before audiences’ very eyes. And as workers, these two men nailed the psychology, the story-telling, so well that you forgot you were watching something scripted.

From the time Raven came into ROH, Punk obsessed over running him out. This was HIS house, he believed. Not only did ROH not need Raven’s hardcore circus and debaucherous background – Punk’s personal code and Raven’s rules could not coexist. They had wars. They chased one another up and down ROH’s home turf.

Then came this match. This is how to let a gimmick or stipulation enhance the storytelling. The two eschewed ROH’s signature high-flying, innovative, strong-style offense and took wrestling back to Greg Valentine-Roddy Piper, Dusty Rhodes-Billy Graham territory.

Two men chained together. Can’t run, can’t hide. The length of chain between them, practically all they could ever need to do unholy degrees of damage to one another. It was the science of simplicity.

Punk came out on top after a sequence that saw ECW alum Danny Doring rush the ring after Punk cut yet ANOTHER scathing pre-match promo, this time calling out Doring, who was “in attendance” (see: plant). In the midst of the fray, in came Punk’s fellow Second City Saint, Colt Cabana, to DDT Raven.

There’s the injury. Here comes the insult.

Punk then tied Raven in the ropes and desecrated Raven’s new-found sobriety by pouring a beer down his throat. One man emerged to aid Raven. Of ALL people, Raven’s oldest and most storied rival . . . . TOMMY DREAMER. Dreamer took down Punk with a DDT of his own, untied Raven, stared him down . . . . and hugged the man like a brother.

Here was the icing on the cake, though. Punk so loved this feud, he allowed Dreamer and Raven to tie him in the ropes and pour a beer down his straight-edge gullet, followed by Dreamer and Raven celebrated to “Man In The Box.” Truly, it was a moment.


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Friday, January 16, 2009

Smarks might want to step away.....


I spent some time pondering my writing’s direction. I reached one conclusion: I seek out direction a little too diligently sometimes.

Wait, back up and let me explain.

I enjoy writing. I truly, truly love it. But I need something more sometimes. I need a mission. I need a message.

I sometimes neglect sitting down, shutting up and just writing.

So I want to take this back to something I love doing when I sit with my friends and talk wrestling: pick out my favorite matches (as they pick theirs) and discuss why I love them. I’m trying to convey something about fandom that should’ve never been lost and has ended up forgotten: forget the backstage news, forget being a smark, forget being a consummate critic and just enjoy the things you love.

So I won’t apologize for one single match in this list. These are truly my 100 unapologetic favorite matches, including a tidbit here and there explaining the qualities of great wrestling that I feel they exemplify. Most come from my personal DVD library. A few I can’t find anywhere, so I will recall them as best I can from memory. Sometimes, that means I must rely on an unreliable memory and won’t give much in terms of play-by-play.

These will be in order in the most basic sense. I did not rank this meticulously. I will not quibble over precise placement. I don’t care how any of you interpret these matches’ exact respective placements. I will give away one hint: yes, #1 IS, in fact, my favorite match of all time, and probably always will be.

Oh, one last thing: since this is an effort to help me write with more of a nod to thrift, I have imposed upon myself a 450-word limit. That should also encourage getting to the damn point.

So sit back, relax and enjoy a short ride. Here’s number 100.



Chris Benoit vs. Meng (Death Match)
WCW The Great American Bash 1997



Look no further for proof that entertaining wrestling doesn’t need to be one-tenth as difficult as fans sometimes want it to be, or as bookers tend to sometimes book it.

This was a straight-up battle of “Who can take more of a beating?” Benoit was being built as one of the toughest, most vicious, cold-hearted men to ever lace a pair of boots.
Meng….well, Meng was Meng. For the uninitiated, he is most likely honored to be considered one of the few men as legitimately tough as the in-ring savage he portrayed. Watching him was watching a clinic of how to no-sell and make it WORK. The man took endless punishment, seemed to feel no pain whatsoever, and kept the in-ring action brutal and stiff, but convincing.

You didn’t need to suspend any disbelief to believe what either of these guys did to the guy across the ring hurt. Chances are, it probably hurt even worse than it looked.

These two had the kind of feud you could book in any promotion, in the midst of any era in the wrestling business’s history, and it would fit right in. ECW, Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, Mid-South, WCCW, Mexico, Japan – it would play ANYWHERE at ANYTIME.

So you have two guys well-known for dishing it out doubly as well as they could take it. What could be more fun than turning ‘em loose on one another to see, once and for all, who is left standing at the end? The finish was absolutely perfect: Meng, the unstoppable monster savage, passed out in the crossface. It comes back to why Meng no-selling worked: it further established Benoit’s credibility by not just beating Meng, but making the man pass out. The same finish made the last-man-standing match between John Cena and Umaga at the 2007 Royal Rumble easily the most enjoyable match of their entire program.

It was a wild, violent brawl. And for WCW, it was a rare instance when everything felt completely satisfying from start to finish. If, like me, you loved this match, check out the Cena/Umaga match, anything between the Undertaker and Mankind or take your pick of any of dozens of matches between Mike Awesome and Masato Tanaka in either FMW or the original ECW.


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