I recently read another writer’s estimation that in his years as a fan he’s watched over 10,000 professional wrestling matches. I have no idea how many I’ve seen, but I’ve been a fan since the first WrestleMania and have experienced a huge sum of matches myself. Some were poor, some boring, some incredibly entertaining, and some absolutely epic. But what is it that makes a wrestling match great? What factors contribute to one’s enjoyment? The formula for a great match is sure to be different for every fan and there are several elements to consider in the make-up of a memorable wrestling contest.
TODAY’S ISSUE: What makes a great match?
Before I go any further I must ask you, dear reader, to remember that professional wrestling is an art form and that everyone likes something different. Some fans are drawn in by a well-developed storyline while others crave hardcore blood-n-guts and wild brawling. Many fans are impressed by workrate, psychology, mat wrestling skill, innovative moves, speed, agility, and stiff striking, regardless of the angle that brought the two combatants together. For the majority of us, a strong angle that logically brings together two capable in-ring storytellers and climaxes with an emotional, dramatic, technically impressive battle is the absolute best set of circumstances to leave us feeling like we’ve witnessed something special.
A great example of this convergence of both build-up and payoff is the heralded Savage/Steamboat classic at WMIII (no surprise). The match itself was off the charts in the workrate and quality departments and the storyline had great drama. Steamboat sought revenge for Savage’s heinous attacks against him, which nearly cost the Dragon his career. To strike back at the Macho Man, Steamboat wanted to take the one thing Savage held most dear, his Intercontinental Championship. All the ga-ga stuff with George the Animal Steele and the late Miss Elizabeth was take-it-or-leave-it by my estimation, but it never got in the way of the angle or the actual wrestling action so it was a non-factor. All told, this might be one of the best examples of storyline and in-ring action melding to form a phenomenal pro wrestling moment.
However, it is possible to leave the masses believing they have witnessed a great match when a key factor is missing. For instance, most people remember the Hogan/Andre title match from that same show as an epic moment in pro wrestling history. Indeed it was, but the wrestling itself was terrible due to the limitations of both men. Andre’s were no fault of his own, being brought about by his condition at the time, as his health was quite poor and the lovable giant had no business wrestling at that point in his life. But he was determined to pass the torch to McMahon’s next big thing, indicative of the true professionalism of the late, great Mr. Roussimoff. Hogan, on the other hand, was limited by the fact that he’s a horrible in-ring performer and never did anything between the ropes that looked even halfway decent. So while the repercussions of the contest resonated for years throughout the WWF universe, the actual match was pitiful. Still, it certainly seemed like a great match at the time.
I looked into that sort of contrast a year ago in a two-part comparison between truly great matches in pro wrestling history and the enduring moments fans seem to recall as great events, even if the in-ring content doesn’t live up to scrutiny once the observer removes himself from the hype and emotion of the time (part 1, part 2). So which elements do wrestlers need to incorporate in order to perform a great match? Emotion, intensity, innovation, high-flying, technical prowess, self-destructive bloodshed, comedy, power, or speed? What’s the right combination?
For some fans, a wacky spot-fest with huge risks, insane acrobatic feats and plenty of “holy shit” moments will do it every time. Others prefer to see a more old school, mat based game of human chess, the type that some viewers might not have the patience to endure. For many of us it’s hard-hitting intensity that catches the eye, the likes of which can often be found in matches between Roderick Strong and Erick Stevens in ROH/FIP. Some fans look for comedy and zany antics, preferring it when the “entertainment” quotient is cranked up. Every once in a while the very fact that two big time stars are in the ring together is all you need to make a match great, like Flair/Hogan in 1991, Hogan/Warrior in 1986, or Rock/Austin (either of their three big WM matches will do here). Other prime examples include Flair/Steamboat (pick one!), Michaels/Hart from WMXII (although their Survivor Series match in ’97 brought another element to the table as well due to all the real-world controversy and heat between them), Austin/Hart (several matches come to mind), and Michaels/Austin from WMXIV.
Shawn Michaels’ name keeps popping up there. The Heartbreak Kid has a knack for making memorable moments, as evidenced by his last two WrestleMania matches, against Ric Flair and the Undertaker respectively. Both bouts had a bit of that special feeling based on the mere fact that in each case the two legends hadn’t faced each other very often over the years, avoiding the common problem of fans getting tired of seeing them go at it over and over. Now that I think of it, Michaels and Angle had a special sort of chemistry too, as did Angle and Lesnar. Their matches always seemed important and somehow more than the average one-on-one affair.
Much like Savage/Steamboat, Ring of Honor has delivered more than a few confluences of emotional storyline build culminating with an unbelievably great wrestling contest, and the first one that springs to mind is Austin Aries defending the ROH world title against CM Punk at Death Before Dishonor III. You’d have to read my entire column dedicated to this epic encounter to understand every nuance, but suffice it to say Punk and Aries delivered a very special blend of action and emotion on that night, and the harmony they created was a glorious thing for a wrestling fan to behold. Punk had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand, and Aries was the perfect foil for Punk’s storyline journey that evening.
On the other side of the coin is a match where the viewer goes in with no expectations whatsoever, and is blown away by the quality of the in-ring action. Case in point: just as I did last year, I grabbed a few Full Impact Pro DVDs this year for $5 each during a recent sale at ROH’s online store. I’ve learned to abandon my “completist” approach in cases like this and just select from the match-by-match menu so I can watch the stuff I enjoy and not feel bogged down by what doesn’t entertain me (for 5 bucks, there’s bound to be a few matches that don’t necessarily intrigue you). I just recently picked over FIP’s With Malice DVD from March of 2005 specifically for the Danielson/Strong and Gibson/Punk matches plus the Austin Aries ROH world title defense, which alone were worth the fin. But for kicks, I clicked on the three-way dance between Vordell Walker, Jared Steel and Masada, none of whom I knew much about, and I was treated to a far better match than anticipated.
Walker and Steel started with a phenomenal display of mat wrestling using holds, counters, escapes and reversals while Masada exhibited some great strategy. Early on, he allowed the two bigger men to wear each other down before getting involved in the action (I love a smart heel with effective tactics that border on questionable morality).
With some innovative three-man spots, a few high-risk maneuvers and a big finish, this contest overachieved and left me pleasantly surprised. There was no dramatic storyline build-up, no prior history between these two men, and nothing on the line. Just a few brief comments in a promo led them to each other that night, and the match flat-out delivered. Now I’ll be on the lookout for future contests between combinations of these three men, and it just so happens that Walker and Masada had a singles bout the following night at Bring the Pain, and I fortunately snagged that DVD for five bucks too. So in addition to the matches I bought that show for (Dragon/Punk in a 2-out-of-3 falls match, another Aries title defense, and Roderick Strong and Erick Stevens each in singles contests) there’s one more match I will select from the title menu when I watch that show. Bonus!
Storyline or skill, big moments or modest venues, famous rivals or untested opponents; no one ingredient is more critical than another in the recipe for great matches. It’s simple: any time you believe you’ve just seen a great match, you have. If a contest entertained you, impressed you, or pulled you into the drama and emotion of the story, it was worth your time. If you found the violence, or comedy, or strategy of a match to your liking, it did its job. If two wrestlers wowed you with incredible high spots, painfully realistic strikes, or incredible submission holds, then it was a great match for you, and that’s all that matters.
Once you determine what it is you’re looking for, it’s easier to figure out where to go for more of it. Whatever it is you appreciate about professional wrestling, here’s hoping you consistently find it. Good luck, and happy hunting.
Vin Sanity is not categorized as a psychological disorder… yet.
p.s. – “To be great is to be misunderstood.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The original version of this syndicated column, titled Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic, appears each Monday morning on Pulse Wrestling.
Elsewhere on Pulse Wrestling this week…
Andy Wheeler discussed Bobby Lashley’s choice to work for TNA in another fine edition of For Your Consideration.
Speaking of TNA, Paul Marshal is the man with the TNA plan (even if Russo and Jarrett don’t seem to have one). Here’s his Total Nonstop Weekly for 23 April.
John Wiswell is your cult leader; his Cult of ROH is always a satisfying read.
Finally this week, Ditch continues his Q and A with Jae in issue 147 of Puroresu Pulse.