My name is Gordi Whitelaw and I’m not ashamed to admit that I am obsessively in love with Professional Wrestling. There are few things that give me as much pleasure as watching a great match, and collecting tapes of great matches from around the wrestling world is one of my favourite hobbies.
The Various Aspects of a Great Match
I was looking through my tape collection, and it occurred to me that matches such as the Yamakawa vs. Honma 6/20/99 Big Japan Death match, Steve Austin vs. Dude Love from Over the Edge, Jushin Liger vs. Owen Hart from TOSJ ’91, Edge & Rey Mysterio vs. Kurt Angle & Chris Benoit from No Mercy 2002, and Tsuruta passing the torch to Misawa from 9/1/90 have very little in common with one another except that they are all wrestling matches that I consider great.
This led me to start thinking about what makes a match great in the first place, and that led me to the following:
The Basic Idea
There are a wide variety of aspects that comprise a wrestling match. In any given match, certain aspects will be emphasised, while other aspects will be downplayed or absent.
Some aspects, let’s call them Primary Aspects, are more important than others.
It is extremely rare that any one match will incorporate every possible aspect. It is also very unusual for an entire match to be based entirely around a single aspect.
A great match, in my opinion, needs to have at least one Primary Aspect that is carried out to the highest level, have a few other aspects that are very well executed, and not have any aspect that is so poorly carried out or so inefficiently incorporated that it drags the match down.
The Genius: Please keep reading and don’t be weary/It’s an interesting theory.
The Primary Aspects and Some Examples
Pure Wrestling : Historically this would have been the basis of almost every great match, but in the last 15 years there have been many great matches that feature very little pure wrestling. Mat wrestling, chain wrestling, submission holds, and reversals are still the most effective way of telling a story in the ring and there can be little doubt that two gifted pure wrestlers giving it their all is one of the surest roads to a five-star classic.
Some wrestlers who might be considered key practitioners of this aspect of the art of wrestling: Karl Gotch, Jumbo Tsuruta, Bret Hart.
An example of a match that featured pure wrestling carried out to the highest level: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit from Royal Rumble 2003, which brought the crowd to its feet for a standing ovation.
Power Wrestling : A number of the biggest matches of the last twenty years have been built around high-impact moves that showcase the awesome physical power of the competitors involved.
Practitioners: Bruno Sammartino, Genichiro Tenryu, Ultimate Warrior.
Example: Sting vs. Vader from Bash ’92, which made Vader a star in North America.
Brawling : Almost every match includes at least a little brawling, and many matches consist of nothing but punches, kicks, blunt objects, knees, and elbows. At its highest level, there are few things more compelling than two tough guys slugging it out toe to toe.
Practitioners: Dick The Bruiser, Terry Funk, Steve Austin.
Example: WarGames: the Match Beyond, which featured two rings enclosed by a cage and ended when the Road Warriors legitimately broke J.J. Dillon’s arm with a Doomsday Device.
High Flying : Almost every wrestling fan has a few favourite Junior Heavywieght matches, featuring drop kicks, planchas, tope con hilos, hurricanranas, phoenix splashes, moves off the ropes and turnbuckles, and leaps from the ring to the outside . Whether it’s New Japan, Toryumon, Lucha Libre, WCW, ECW, the US Indies, or some other source, a lot of people cannot get enough of this kind of action.
Practitioners: Dynamite Kid, Jushin “Thunder” Liger, Rey Mysterio. Example: Great Sasuke, Tiger Mask IV & Shiryu vs. Super Delphin, Gran Naniwa & TAKA Michinoku from 1996, with its amazing combination of spots and psychology.
Psychology : Do the good guys do good guy things? Do the Bad Guys do bad guy things? Does the body of the match build towards a logical finish? Are big spots sold sufficiently? Do injured body parts stay injured? This is perhaps the most important and also the least understood of the Primary Aspects.
Practitioners: Antonio Inoki, Masahiro Chono, Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
Example: Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat, Wrestle War ’89, which is often referred to as the Greatest North American Match Ever.
Bumps : Whether falling from high places, being dropped on their head, getting put through a table, or being driven into the mat, some wrestlers are able to take amazing amounts of physical punishment. This is one of the aspects of wrestling that most impresses me.
Key Practitioners: Mick Foley, Tomoaki Honma, Sabu.
Example: Steve Williams vs. Kenta Kobashi from 1993, the incredibly stiff match which saw Kobashi take two insanely dangerous Backdrop Drivers.
Stiffness : Lance Storm thinks it’s more important to protect your opponent, but Stan Hansen thinks it’s more important to make the battle seem as real as possible. They are both right in their own way. Some matches need a great deal of stiffness to work the way they should.
Practitioners: Wahoo McDaniel, Toshiaki Kawada, Vader.
Example: Nakanishi vs. Takayama from 2002, where Takayama’s chest turns purple and starts to bleed from the sheer force of Nakanishi’s chops.
Stan Hansen: Bradshaw you pussy, THIS is how you throw a stiff lariat!
High Spots : Some matches feature sick bumps and others feature crazy springboard manoeuvres, and with still others the crowd pops loudest when weapons or furniture come into play. What is important isn’t necessarily the kind of high spots, but whether or not they are properly placed within the context of the match, and whether the fans respond.
Practitioners: Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Atsushi Onita, Shawn Michaels.
Example: Low Ki vs. American Dragon vs. Christopher Daniels from Era of Honor Begins, featuring a ton of innovative offense building up to a crazy finish.
The Fun Factor : Some matches, for whatever reason, are just more entertaining than others. A good match can often be ruined by forced attempts at comedy, but when it works well it can be magnificent.
Practitioners: Gorgeous George, Roddy Piper, Junk Yard Dog.
Example: The Rock and Sock Connection vs. Evolution, WM XX, where The Rock and Ric Flair took turns mocking one another’s trademark moves, taunts, and gestures.
Mean Gene: And what, may I ask, is your take on forced comedy in wrestling angles?
Story Telling : There are a number of stories that can be told entirely within the confines of a wrestling match. For example, there is the story of the unstoppable monster destroying a weaker opponent, the story of a plucky under-dog prevailing against all the odds, the story of a crafty veteran using experience and guile to prevail over a younger, faster, and stronger wrestler, or the story of a champion whose fighting spirit is so strong that he cannot be pinned no matter what kind of sick head-dropping moves his challenger subjects him to. Almost all great matches tell some kind of a story, and thus become more than a series of meaningless moves and transitions.
Practitioners: Mitsuharu Misawa, Ricky Steamboat, Eddie Guererro.
Example: Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13, one of only a very few matches in the history of wrestling to successfully tell the story of a double turn.
The Secondary Aspects, and Some Examples
I believe that a great match by definition needs to have at least one of the Primary Aspects executed at a five star level. The Secondary Aspects are those that I feel can add a great deal to a match without making a match great in and of themselves.
Believability : Some matches have an added sense of realism that makes them stand out from the pack. This is perhaps the hardest aspect to understand for those fans who’ve only followed North American Corporate Wrestling or Lucha Libre. Japanese Shoot Style promotions like UWF-I offer the best examples of believability within the context of a worked match.
Example: Vader vs. Takada, 8/18/94.
Selling : Does it look like the moves and the holds really hurt? No-selling can hurt a match, but so can over-selling. The key is to make it look as real as possible.
Example: Midnight Rockers vs. Buddy Rose & Doug Somers 8/31/86
Pacing : Is there a sense of build and a sense of flow to the match? Matches that start out full throttle and never let up sometimes work, as do matches that start out slow and stay that way, but the best pace is usually to start slowly and gain momentum as the match progresses.
Example: Misawa vs. Kawada 6/3/94
Integrity : What I mean by this is that a great match should usually not have a whole lot of outside interference nor should it be treated as kind of a sub-plot to a bigger story. In the best matches, the focus is on the action in and around the ring, and not on side issues.
Example: Almost every AJPW Main Event from the 1990s.
Blood : A lot of blood, in and of itself, is not enough to qualify a match as great. In the right context, however, blood can add a great deal to the dramatic impact of a match.
Example: Hiro Hase vs. Keiji Muto, 12/14/92
Work Rate : I don’t consider a high work rate to be an essential aspect of greatness. Sometimes stalling and rest holds can be used effectively to tell part of the story in the ring. On the other hand, non-stop action can be very exciting.
Example: Rey Mysterio Jr. vs. Eddie Guererro, Mask vs. Title, Halloween Havoc ’97.
Other Factors to Consider
Often, the perceived greatness of a match is affected by factors other than the action in the ring.
Historical Context: Sometimes a match is important because it is the culmination of a long feud, or the start of a new era, or because it is a dream match between two wrestlers who’ve never faced on another before.
Example: Hulk Hogan vs. The Iron Sheik 1/23/84.
Crowd Reaction: Crowd reaction is very important, but I would argue that even a great crowd does not make up for a lousy match. When the crowd is responding as a whole to the action in the ring, however, there is a synergy that can be quite memorable.
Example: IYH Canadian Stampede Ten-Man Tag match.
Announcing : The very best announcing can make almost any match entertaining, and I believe that it can be enough to carry an excellent match over the cusp of greatness.
Example: Royal Rumble 1992.
Monsoon: Cusp of greatness? Will you stop!
Build-up : Many an arena has been sold out by a mediocre match that was built up ahead of time as The Match of the Century. When such a match lives up to the hype, it reminds us all why we are wrestling fans.
Example: Hogan vs. Andre, WM III.
Aftermath : Sometimes the importance of a match lies in how it affects the subsequent flow of story lines.
Example: The Montreal Screw Job.
Spectacle : Related to, but different from, Historical Context, this is that aspect that covers participation by non-wrestling celebrities or unusual occurrences in the ring.
Example: Mike Tyson’s involvement in the Austin vs. Michaels match at WrestleMania 14.
The goal of The Beautiful Thing is to spread my love of the diverse and fascinating art form of Professional Wrestling. In the weeks and months ahead, I plan to look at various wrestlers, angles, feuds, matches, cards, and promotions from around the world and throughout modern history, in light of The Various Aspects.