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Thursday, February 26, 2009

MY 100 UNAPOLOGETIC FAVORITE WRESTLING MATCHES

What could have been....



#94: Bret “The Hitman” Hart vs. The 1-2-3 Kid – WWF Championship Match, Monday Night Raw, July 11, 1994

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I apologize with utmost sincerity for the huge gap between installments. Life intervened on a series of levels that I couldn’t help. I plan to hustle and make up for lost time with a few new inductions this week, however.

By the by, don't forget to check Austin Buckner's Pro Wrestling Wake Up - http://prowrestlingwakeup.blogspot.com)

The best wrestlers in the business become invaluable assets if in no other way, then in that they elevate every individual who stands across the ring from them. Not coincidentally, it is also the hallmark of a creative wrestling genius when a mid-level talent can be made to look like a perfectly legitimate main event-level performer and credible championship threat.

Various ROH and NWA champions have historically excelled in this. In both respective promotions and eras, elevating nearly every talent on the roster accomplished some really special things: the champ could carry off an intriguing main event against any given wrestler on any given night that guaranteed a butt ever 18 inches, no matter the dance partner; the main event scene practically never came with an expiration date – with so many wrestlers looking like credible contenders, nothing got stale; and most importantly, it made it incredibly difficult to ever “see the finish coming.”

Bret Hart hit an absolute hot streak in 1994 during his first run with the WWF title (I’m no revisionist; it was the WWF then, so it’s the WWF here) and shortly thereafter into 1995. He had matches that made superb talents look phenomenal and afterthought performers seem on the cusp of entering a new echelon. For mid-card performers such as Virgil, being there across the ring from Hart marked the only time they came close to perceptions of main-event acceptance.

Now ponder this: on this particular night, Hart stood across the ring from a longtime independent prodigy only beginning to make waves and win over fans: Sean Waltman. The former 1-2-3 Kid/X-Pac/Syxx was a smooth as buttermilk, crisp as a fresh-baked baguette’s crust and sold like ice in Hell.

Watching this match should make a wrestling fan angry. Really bitter. Anyone who appreciates the art in professional wrestling will at feel compelled to never look away. This was a honed master and a prodigy only beginning to show his polish. The ones who know the epilogue to these two careers knows Waltman became a walking attitude problem, degraded his gift with his drug problems and poor taste in friends and became a shell of himself that inspired the term “X-Pac heat”.

That should make someone angry, because in this match that had no build-up, no promos, no back-story, Waltman looked like a WWF Champion in the making.

Oh yes, it’s getting redundant, but no one announcer – save perhaps Joey Styles – could do this match justice as Jim Ross did. He treats this as sporting competition, not storytelling. He analyzes, breaks down and still colors the action. It even overcomes the hysterical-yet-borderline-irritating babbling of Randy Savage next to him. Ross was still in his NWA/WCW-style prime here, before he fell into the barbeque sauce stupor in which he remains to this day. This is the Gordon Solie School of Announcing proudly displayed in a promotion fronted by a man Sollie never liked at all, Vince McMahon.

Hart worked a physical, sometimes stiff style, and Waltman earns those first points of admiration by matching him hold-for-hold. It always made for interesting storytelling when anyone worked against his usual style by working the mat style with Hart. Yet, this always worked so well because Hart knew so very, very well how to make anyone look like an outstanding wrestler when in that element.

Once Hart takes control, Waltman displays a gift every great face needs to possess: complete comprehension of How To Take A Kicking 101. Taking a grind-it-out beating like that reminds everyone that, as good as Waltman may be, Hart is the champion for a reason. He’s just that good. Waltman returns Hart’s favor by coming across as struggling to barely survive until that next opportunity comes up.

For the record, consider this: so often, stories take weeks to develop and culminate in a big blow-off match or two. These two are getting across all the narrative one could handle in a space of about 17 minutes and change.

We now pause for character development: Hart gets a three-count, but saw Waltman’s foot on the ropes. Does he take the win? No, not the “fighting champion.” Instead, he insists on a re-start – and here, kicks the storytelling into a new gear. Almost right away, Waltman gets a long two-count of his own. So, we now have sportsmanship backfiring on the fighting champion and Waltman seizing the day.

So now, we arrive at Act Two. Suddenly, we have a fight on our hands. Suddenly, Waltman is making a big comeback. He manages near-fall after near-fall and catches Hart off-guard again and again. Waltman, the plucky underdog, achieved something with Hart on which Hart had always prided himself: the match felt real, competitive and unpredictable. By the end, people actually believed Waltman might win the WWF Championship. Again and again, Hart barely kicked out. How many kick-outs could he possibly have left?

The finish? The finish makes a mockery of anyone who claims Hart could never concoct an original way to resolve a match. Waltman – much like Pillman did in the previously-inducted match with Lex Luger – missed one move too many, Hart applied the Sharpshooter and Waltman submitted. But nothing could be further from the truth than to say that losing cleanly to Hart hurt Waltman. In fact, he gained immeasurably from this fast-paced, exciting match.

He gained so much, it makes me hate him when I leap from remembering that career performance, to his unmotivated laziness in the last five years or so.

To this day, ROH achieves something incredible in their main events – or, at least, they did. A talent such as Jay Briscoe or Kevin Steen could finagle a ROH World Title match on any given night against a Nigel McGuinness or a Bryan Danielson. No one would honestly believe a title switch would take place, and rightfully so. But the true gift, is when men such as those two or Chris Hero El Generico could actually have the most rabid, smark-infested crowd in the palms of their hands and believing they would really witness an improbable title change.

That’s the stuff from which the excitement of pro wrestling comes. Any Hulk Hogan main event hinged inevitably on Hogan’s appointment looking like a perfectly legitimate threat, whether it was Earthquake or Paul Orndorff or Andre The Giant. Look at Wrestlemania VI! The whole main event with Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior lived or died on its sheer unpredictability. That made the atmosphere legendary.


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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

MY 100 UNAPOLOGETIC FAVORITE WRESTLING MATCHES

Scott Steiner was right...



#96: Lex Luger © versus Brian Pillman, NWA U.S. Title Match – Halloween Havoc, October 28, 1989

Art imitates life, and vice versa. Yeah, next, I should tell you all something you don’t know.

Whether anybody buys it or not, wrestling embodies the characteristics of theatrical art. Characters major and minor must all make their marks to craft an engaging story. How many matches have featured great individual performers who didn’t possess the chemistry to make a winning combination?

Hence why I hate the overused term, “carry.”

Come on, wrestling fans, we toss it around constantly.

“Such-and-such ‘carried’ John Cena to a great match.”

“Ric Flair could ‘carry’ anyone to a great match.”

Look, Scott Steiner doesn’t get many things right. But when he reminded Triple H that “It takes two people to have a good match and two people to have a shitty match,” he nailed it right on the head. I mean, just dead-on.

When people see a good Lex Luger match – and even I’ll admit, you have to really know where to look – they often overlook Luger’s share of the credit.

Luger and Brian Pillman pulled together a match I could watch dozens of times over at Halloween Havoc in 1989. Pulling that off really didn’t take much. Both men knew their roles in the play, and knew how they needed to mesh to pull off something of quality. Luger had “the look” and pulled off a fine combination of narcissistic – do I REALLY need to explain my word-choice here when it comes to Luger, or do we all get the reference? – and cowardly heel, with just a touch of skill of his own. Pillman looked like nothing short of a higher-flying Ricky Steamboat here with an innate knack for psychology and selling that made Luger look like a million bucks and bought Pillman the crowd’s “underdog” vote.

The timing, the pacing – it all showed why the U.S. Title, held here by Luger, was on a level with the WWF’s Intercontinental Title: it was held by some of the best wrestlers having some of the most sound matches on the entire card. Putting Pillman in contention for the belt launched him far enough.

But this match made a statement for another reason: it sold Pillman as someone who could beat someone of Luger’s caliber. Keep in mind, at this point, Luger wasn’t far away from a big world title reign after Ric Flair left the company in 1991. So really, Pillman was in there once again showing he could go with the big main-event stars.

Pillman got the better of enough of the opening sequences to start making just that point. However, Luger got the better of Pillman enough times to keep him looking strong, instead of overwhelmed. Give credit once again where it’s due to Jim Ross for making both men look like a million bucks on commentary. He doesn’t skimp on getting over Luger’s raw talent and potential, or Pillman’s heart. The end sequence saw Pillman miss a splash, Luger drop Pillman’s throat across the top rope, then slide over for a clean pin. Immediately, Luger makes Pillman look fantastic by vacating the ring immediately looking thankful to still have his title.

“Whew! That was too close,” you can almost hear Luger thinking.

Give Pillman this, as well: he knew pacing. He knew when to bust out his high spots as much as he knew when to chain wrestle. He knew how to keep the crowd involved. He knew how to make each spot mean something.

For telling a David-versus-Goliath story, these two made great dance partners. Few people come to mind when I think of people who can get that kind of story over as entertainingly as Pillman could in his prime. Rey Mysterio is the very first name that pops into my head.

But of course, it takes two to tango. More importantly in this case, it takes two people to have a good match and – well, I won’t repeat it. Scott Steiner deserves his moment.


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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

MY 100 UNAPOLOGETIC FAVORITE WRESTLING MATCHES

Simple....but not easy



First and foremost, all apologies for taking so long to post another match. Life intervened at every turn. That's all you need to know.

Second, if you get a moment, check out my good friend Austin "KhanX" Buckner's very own Pro Wrestling Wake Up. Search for it right here on Blogger, it's very good stuff.

#97: "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes vs. "Superstar" Billy Graham, Texas Bullrope Match, Madison Square Garden, August 28, 1978


There aren't many performers one could take from this era of professional wrestling, drop into another completely different era and watch display the tools to truly stay at the top.

Jake Roberts once said if wrestling were strictly about legitimate toughness, there would be nobody left but "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan and Haku. In his own inimitable way, Jake was stating the obvious: there's more to creating a great match than who can beat one another up the most. As Ole Anderson said once, "The finish has to make sense."

Yet another legend - I forget just now who it was - once said the only individuals he could see absolutely holding their own in any era in professional wrestling's history were Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Kurt Angle.

There's something to both theories. Jake reminded everyone that actual toughness isn't a necessity at all. If one possesses the right gifts, the illusion of true grit can be manufactured. But the ability to tell a story is a must to create something even remotely watchable.

The second theory holds some weight, too. Chris Benoit would be a quintessential "shooter" - someone with very legitimate wrestling ability - in any given promotion in any given era. Guerrero and Angle would possess the charisma, presence and storytelling gifts to captivate audiences across every territory.

Which brings me around to this match: not everyone can pull off what Dusty Rhodes and Billy Graham could separately.

There's no point adding a stipulation if it doesn't make things more interesting. Right off the bat, these two make the bullrope a schizophrenic character all its own. It's that "up-the-ante" factor that gimmick matches need to have. Vince Russo, someway, somehow, has never learned this.

Rhodes taunts Graham with the rope right off the bat, and witness the flayboyant Graham display all the charms of a great cowardly heel. He begs off, tries to run and Dusty, like a cat with a mouse, just toys with him by yanking him back into the ring. If one is going to play a character, he might as well turn up the volume and rip that knob off.

But once Graham takes over, he reminds everyone there's two sides to any story. He takes the rope and makes it HIS ally. He punishes Dusty over and over with it. Watching this single seven-minute match is like watching some great architecht of the past, present and future of the wrestling business toying with the early blueprints for the character works of art called Scott Steiner, "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan and Triple H. Vanity and arrogance crossed with strength and brutality.

What the Hell, just because I almost quoted him directly, toss a generous helping of "Ravishing" Rick Rude in there, as well.

Both men execute every single moment with an over-the-top aplomb that not many today bother with. If what these two men could do was easy, we'd see more of it today. Nobody would complain about Mark and Jay Briscoe doing so little to sell their opponents' offense. Truthfully, of everybody in the business today, C.M. Punk, Randy Orton, Edge and Chris Jericho spring immediately to mind first on the list of wrestlers who could do what Rhodes and Graham do here.

Let me put it another way: this match may be one of the only satisfying COUNTOUT FINISHES I've ever watched. These two worked the crowd the hard way: with selling, timing and telling a logical story. They used the bullrope to the fullest advantage to enhance what they both already did so well.

This match in itself is a lesson so many wrestlers today either never bothered learning, or forgot as quickly as they'd learned it.

I think it's time for some wrestlers to go back to school.

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