Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – Sweet Sixteen (give or take)…

My fellow fans, have you ever tuned in to watch a little pro wrestling and had no idea why the two competitors were in the ring against each other? Have you ever seen a match with no apparent purpose or storyline, and nothing at stake? More often than not it seems the bookers select two names at random and order them to the ring, with no plan for what they’re in there to accomplish. But there’s one format that’s guaranteed to ensure this won’t be the case, with a promise of something important on the line with each and every match: a tournament.

TODAY’S ISSUE: Tournaments.

Even in this early stage of the Major League Baseball season, one could argue that every game is important, considering how valuable wins are to a team’s total standing later in the year. A seemingly meaningless win against a lesser opponent in April is one more check in that “W” column, and those wins could ensure a playoff spot or even home field advantage in the fall. But since wins and loses in “regular season” wrestling matches don’t amount to much in WWE or TNA, there are many televised matches with no real purpose, week in and week out.

In order for a wrestling match to be exciting, there must be something for the combatants to gain by victory, so they actually feel they need to win. Something like a spot in the Royal Rumble is a fantastic way to add some spice to WWE programming. Forcing entrants to earn their way in is much more inventive then simply announcing the 30 men involved, and it gives those pedestrian mid-card matches value and purpose.

Last week on ECW, Mike Knox faced Stevie Richards, apparently for… nothing. Neither man had anything to gain by winning except pride. Of course not every match can be for a championship or a spot in a big event, but there should be something worthwhile about winning (or something costly in a loss) than just getting to hear your music twice that night instead of once.

I wrote a column a while back about how a top 10 ranking system could easily make even the most boring contests important. With every match, an unranked wrestler could earn his way into the top 10, while a ranked competitor could elevate his ranking, or attempt to ensure he maintains his current spot to avoid slipping down the ladder.

Each match would place a wrestler’s top 10 standing at risk, and only the ranked wrestlers would get title matches. A failure by a top 10 guy to compete in a 30-day period could cost him his spot, so a ranked heel couldn’t get away with hanging onto his position by never risking it. A good heel would then have to keep finding ways to stay in the top 10 to remain in title contention. But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon in either televised fed.

In CHIKARA, a tag team must win three consecutive matches in order to earn a championship match. This makes every tag team match important, and brings focus to the competition. It’s a fantastic idea, but since the major companies are unlikely to institute a similar title contention process, the best place to find a card chock full of solid storyline reasons for the wrestlers to compete is in a tournament.

WWE’s King of the Ring was a unique concept, with single-elimination brackets forcing a wrestler to win four matches without a single loss in order to claim the title of King. Once it evolved into a pay-per-view event, King of the Ring qualifying matches were on television, automatically increasing the importance of these contests, and the semi-finals and finals were on the ppv. At one point, the KOTR winner earned a shot at the title at SummerSlam, just as the Royal Rumble winner earns one at WrestleMania. This tripled the excitement of the early round matches, since every man in the field was attempting to earn a skyrocket to the top of the card, and those wrestlers who were unlikely to make it to the main event could do so by pulling off a few victories. One hot streak could change a character’s career in that environment, and that’s the catch that makes tournaments exciting for me.

WrestleMania IV, although universally panned as being too long, boring, and not ending the way it was intended to, was one of my favorites since the bulk of the show revolved around the 14-man, single-elimination tournament for the vacant WWF Heavyweight Championship. This was the first such vacancy of the WWF title in the modern era, but certainly not the last. The vacated crown was caused by Ted Dibiase’s shenanigans, and an evil twin referee, in a title match between Andre the Giant and defending champ Hulk Hogan. Andre covered Hogan, who lifted his shoulder before the three count, but the identical twin brother of assigned official Dave Hebner counted Hogan out anyway. Andre was awarded the gold, and he promptly handed it over to The Million Dollar Man. But WWF president Jack Tunney ruled the championship could not change hands this way, and declared the title vacant. The WrestleMania IV tournament was the solution to this problem.

Since Hogan and Andre were at the center of the controversy, each was granted a bye in the first round and were set for a rematch of the previous year’s WrestleMania main event to open the second round. It seemed set in stone that Hogan would emerge victorious from this quarterfinal showdown against Andre and go on to reclaim the gold that was wrongfully taken from him, but when the two likeliest candidates to win the tourney were both disqualified, suddenly the whole thing was wide open. We were guaranteed to have a brand new WWF champion for the first time in about four years, which was a huge moment in and of itself. Randy Savage’s eventual victory went down as a feel-good moment for many fans around the world. Savage actually won four matches, whereas Dibiase made it to the finals courtesy of a bye, which made Macho Man’s survival and victory all the more impressive.

It was curious that the obvious WrestleMania III rematch between Savage and Steamboat in the quarterfinals was shelved in favor of Savage versus Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. One year earlier, Savage and Steamboat gave us one of the greatest wrestling matches in history, and Savage could have used the receipt from Steamboat for momentum en route to his first world title victory far more than the anti-climatic roll-up he used to knock off Valentine. Still, once Hogan and Andre were eliminated, fingernails were bitten by many a wrestling fan, and if they had trimmed one or two of the other matches off the card and gone with Savage/Steamboat II, this show would have been an all-time classic.

After the WWE’s brand extension in 2002, SmackDown GM Stephanie McMahon christened a new title, the WWE tag team championship (the other titles on RAW were known as simply the “world tag team titles”), and she couldn’t have picked a better way to do so. The eight-team tournament she designed led to some of the best wrestling action on TV at the time, and a good storyline between unlikely partners Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit. While the “wacky mismatched tag team partners” gimmick has been severely overplayed, this particular one had good development, and it worked.

In addition to the hostile team of Angle/Benoit, other phenomenal duos in the title hunt at that time were Los Guererros, The World’s Greatest Tag Team, and future world champs Edge and Rey Mysterio. You couldn’t ask for a better field than this, and the tournament was a fine example of what WWE could do when they cared more about the wrestling action than the “ga-ga”.

Indy sensation Ring of Honor brought an innovative twist to the tournament concept in 2004, with the debut of their now annual Survival of the Fittest event. In this tourney, six men compete in singles matches on the undercard in order to advance to a six-man elimination match later in the show. ROH’s concept worked very well, since the qualifying matches were all good, and a couple of them were great, thanks to the solid field of wrestlers involved, including American Dragon Bryan Danielson, then-reigning ROH champion Samoa Joe, Alex Shelley, both Briscoe brothers, Homicide, and Jack Evans. These were not throwaway matches or filler until the main event came around; each match was entertaining in it’s own right.

The main event was even better than the qualifying matches. After a few eliminations, including a shocking early exit by Samoa Joe, it all came down to an epic battle between Austin Aries and Bryan Danielson, the first of many excellent contests between the two. This one-night tournament delivered action and entertainment like ROH does so well, so often.

Another WWF championship tournament was in order in 1998 after the title was again declared vacant, this time because both Undertaker and Kane pinned then-champ Stone Cold Steve Austin in a triple-threat match. The Survivor Series ppv was aptly named as 14 men competed for the vacated championship in another single-elimination tournament. This one lead to several noteworthy events in WWF history, including the debut of a newly evil heel streak in the Rock, who was enjoying some love from the fans up until that night, Mankind wearing a shirt and tie rather than traditional wrestling gear, and Vince McMahon’s flaunting of his obsession with “screwing” Bret Hart at the previous year’s Survivor Series. In fact, the Rock used the very same Sharpshooter submission hold on Mankind that Shawn Michaels used on Bret Hart one year earlier.

At the time if WWF were to air an X-Pac/Regal match or a Shamrock/Goldust contest on RAW, they would have been meaningless. But in this format, with the gold on the line, even those matches held interest and seemed important.

TNA and WWE might consider instituting a three-month double-elimination tournament in which winners earn title shots at future ppvs. This could be executed in multiple divisions, with the WWE Intercontinental/US titles and TNA X Division crown as likely places on the card to apply such a concept. It would allow each undercard match to have a purpose, and would give fans something to keep track of. If you remember Goldberg’s streak, some wrestling fans obviously love keeping track of “stats”. If the two men in the ring have no reasonable cause to wrestle each other, then why even bother?

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “You’re never beaten until you admit it.” – General George S. Patton

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