Written By: Mike Johns on 05/03/07
Sometimes, I feel like the art of pro wrestling is changing too fast, and that too much of what made pro wrestling great in the days before Vincent K. McMahon became the undisputed top dog of professional wrestling is being tossed to the wayside. I feel like fans, more so than anyone else, tend to forget that less is more, especially when it comes to the in-ring action, and, because of that, wrestlers are tossing ring psychology and storytelling out the window in favor of dangerous highspots and garbage wrestling. Having seen more and more wrestlers resort to barbed wire and light tubes in order to pop a crowd, this loss is something I feel very strongly about. I don’t want to see lives end and careers shortened like this, especially when there’s an easier way. Wrestling doesn’t have to be about who does the most flips and twirls, nor does it mean that you have to break everything under the sun over your opponent’s head in order to get noticed or make money. As you can see every week on WWE TV, the guys who get the most over aren’t the guys who do the coolest spots or crash through the most tables. The guys who get over are the guys who know how to draw a crowd into a match and make you care about what’s going on in the ring. This is ring psychology, the chief difference between a pro wrestler and a stunt-man calling himself a pro wrestler, something the wrestling world should never be without.
I recently got the AWA DVD and, while watching the DVD, I was intrigued by the Verne Gagne/Baron Von Raschke match. Given, I really could have done without Greg and Verne Gagne doing commentary (which, at best, was distracting), but the match itself seemed very interesting. Back then, people actually bought into the Claw as a major hold, and, for those who have no idea what the Claw is, you basically grab a guy by his forehead and squeeze. If you have the hand-strength and you put pressure on the guy’s temples, then, yeah, that hold hurts like hell, but you’d also think this wasn’t the sort of thing that would work in a real fight, either. So, if you’re willing to look past Von Raschke’s signature move, you might see clips of a good match. I say “clips” because the actual match was cut to sh*t for the DVD. So, on top of the mindless prattling of the Gagnes on commentary, you don’t even get to see the whole match, so only God knows if it was any good. The match took place before I was even alive, and from the looks of the film quality, it was never shown on TV, so there’s really no way for me to see the whole match because I don’t have a working flux capacitor and enough plutonium to generate the needed 1.21 gigawatts of electricity to time-travel all the way back to 1974. And, besides, that just sounds like way too much f*cking work just to see one match…
Anyway, back to Verne and the Baron. The match itself was based around a very simple concept – Could Verne Gagne survive Von Raschke’s dreaded Claw and retain the AWA World Title? The whole match really centered around the idea that if Von Raschke could use the Claw and keep on Gagne long enough, he’d win, and that’s the sort of thing that sometimes gets lost in today’s wrestling. Very few wrestlers base their entire match around hitting a signature move, and the few who do are often accused of being limited in the ring for doing so. Case and Point – Randy Orton.
Now, there’s a lot that can be said about Randy Orton. Unfortunately, in the IWC, most of what’s said about Orton is negative, and rightfully so. Orton, over the course of his WWE career, has acted immaturely and unprofessionally, so much so that he has been suspended and/or fined on numerous occasions. But, when building a case against Cowboy Bob’s son, the IWC also chooses to attack Orton’s in-ring work as well, which, let’s be honest, isn’t always accurate. Orton is by no means a consistent worker, and a lot of that has to do with his numerous attitude problems, going back so far as his days in the military. At the same time, when Orton’s on, he’s one of the best performers on the WWE Roster, and, quite possibly, one of the most natural heel performers ever to grace pro wrestling. Why is that? Because he keeps it simple. The RKO is his knock-out punch. Everything else he does, really, is waiting for the opportunity. Then, when Randy sees it, he drops to one knee, or sometimes, lies close to the ground, building the anticipation. You know the RKO is coming, and now, you’re just waiting for it. Randy’s opponent gets up, stumbles a bit, turns around, and, like a cat, Orton is in the air, head hooked, going for the RKO. Sometimes he hits it, sometimes, he doesn’t, but Randy built that anticipation, and, even if he misses it, Randy just goes right back to his game plan, waiting for another opportunity to nail the RKO. This is basic ring psychology, and this is what would make Randy Orton unstoppable, if only he got his act together and started working more consistently.
Now, Edge’s psychology is somewhat different. He doesn’t rely on a specific knock-out punch the way Orton does. Sure, Edge has the Spear, and it tends to be the move Edge wins most with, but Edge isn’t as dependent on it as Randy is on the RKO. Edge is more or less a vulture, especially as a heel. Edge will take any weakness and exploit it. Bad knee? Edge will go for it. Lost your girlfriend? Edge is probably f*cking her, and if he hasn’t yet, he will. This is Edge, the character. Now, how this translates to his matches is simple – when his opponent is weak, Edge dominates the match and exploits the weakness. When his opponent has the upper hand, Edge backs off, and when Edge can’t win, he quits. He either tries to make a run for it, or gets himself disqualified. That is, if Edge can’t get someone to help him out. This is your standard “cowardly heel”. He talks a big game, and seems to have one when you’re down, but the moment you fight back, he’s turning tail.
Ric Flair’s approach is similar to Edge’s, but, after having been in the business for so long, Flair has developed his own spin on the template, whereas, Flair isn’t so much a chicken-sh*t as he’s just a cheat. Flair has the talent and he knows it. He also knows how and when to break the rules, and doesn’t give a f*ck. All is fair in love and war, that’s Ric Flair.
Triple H, as a heel, tried to copy the Flair mold early on in his Evolution run. The only problem was, he’s too big and too dominant for it to work. H, for as good as he is, really works better as a bully, which is what he eventually became. Sure, H would cheat to win sometimes, but he generally liked to beat them straight so to prove a point – I’m better than you. Flair knew he was better, and didn’t have to rub it in people’s face as much because, hell, one look at the guy and you knew he was living the high-roller lifestyle, thus, why Flair was able to take cheap wins when he did. His pride wasn’t in proving anything to anyone. He didn’t have to. Triple H, though, wasn’t as secure and felt he had things to prove. For one, Flair was right there by his side, a constant reminder of what Triple H wasn’t. Second, history and legacy aren’t on H’s side yet. He has to prove he’s worthy of being in the same league as Flair, and that had to bug him as a character. He also had to prove this to Shawn Michaels, the guy who “made” H in the business, so to speak, with DX, thus, why they feuded so often in the Evolution period, and why their matches were top-shelf when they did – it fit perfectly into Hunter’s developing ring psychology. The problem is, this character doesn’t translate very well to babyfaces. So, when H reunited with Shawn Michaels to reform DX, H virtually retconned his entire persona in order to be a good guy. Either that, or H finally got over his insecurities. Either way, H is a good guy now, and because of that, all this thought I put into how his heel character worked seems like a waste. That sucks…
All in all, ring psychology, as an idea, is very simple, but it takes many years and a lot of practice to perfect, especially when your character is always evolving and changing. For instance, the Original Sheik, who started his career off being a pure mat technician, found himself changing his style to fit his persona, almost abandoning mat wrestling altogether in order to play a ravenous lunatic who would gouge people with pencils and throw fire. A more modern example would be John Cena, who, believe it or not, started off in the WWE as a mat-based wrestler and developed into a brawler and Steve Austin, who made a similar transition once he adopted the Stone Cold persona. There are also times when your physical limitations play into ring psychology. For example, Taz, after working for years as sort of a “wild man”, was sidelined with a neck injury, which would end up severely limiting what Taz could do both in and out of the ring. Because of this, Taz overhauled his style completely, and became something of a shoot-fighter, who depended on high-impact suplexes to beat up opponents enough to leave them open for the Tazmission, a deadly chokehold that would immediately take down just about anyone unlucky enough to be caught in it. Lita had a similar transition when she broke her neck, then, later, blew out her knee. Once a high-flyer, Lita’s final year in the ring was marked by a more grounded attack, centered around a devastating Snap DDT (and maybe a little help from Edge). Just like any aspect of a wrestling character, ring psychology and one’s approach to their matches is a constantly evolving process in which a performer grows as a wrestler. Like I said in the first paragraph, ring psychology is the difference between a pro wrestler and a stunt-man calling himself a wrestler. Anyone can learn how to do a Canadian Destroyer, but a pro wrestler learns not only how to do it, but when, why, and to what effect.
The easiest way to explain ring psychology is like this – pretend for half a second that pro wrestling might almost be real. What do you do? That’s ring psychology. Say you’re in the ring, and you’re wrestling, let’s say, John Cena. What do you do? Well, depending on the kind of wrestler you are, chances are, you’d want to exploit his like of technical prowess and keep him on the mat, preferably working the legs. This way, he can’t do the FU, he has a hard time locking in the STFU, and you remain in control. It’s what Shawn Michaels did, and look at their match at WrestleMania.
My advice to anyone who’s wrestling at the local Indy level right now who’s looking for a leg up in the business is to develop your Ring psychology. All the cool highspots in the world won’t going to get you noticed by the WWE, but a good command over your character and how that character works in the ring Might. Either way, ring psychology is going to get you a lot further than going through flaming tables or doing shooting-star leg-drops will, and it doesn’t do nearly as much damage to your body. Remember, less is more, and whatever you do, keep it simple. Pro Wrestling is a performance art, not a stunt show, and fans pay to see the art or wrestling, not a bunch of nimrods doing cartwheels.