Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – Great memories versus great matches…

Ever since the Ric Flair/Shawn Michaels match at WrestleMania XXIV, I’ve been more keenly aware than ever of the discussions amongst hardcore wrestling fans regarding “great matches”. Certainly there have been many important, industry-shaping moments that dotted the pro wrestling landscape during my generation (I became a fan around the time WWF’s Rock-and-Wrestling exploded on the scene and the very first WrestleMania was born), but how many of these great memories blossomed from great wrestling matches?

TODAY’S ISSUE: Great memories and great matches, part 1.

Many fans place a lot of emphasis on the “snowflake” star-rating system, which is ideally used to describe the technical analysis of a match. While emotional build is a part of the storytelling employed by competent pro wrestlers, two performers with no previous heat or angle can still perform a five-star match if they have enough time to properly craft a compelling story, use sound psychology, minimize or eliminate the use of “rest holds”, and build to an exciting crescendo at the finish, allowing fans to keep their disbelief suspended throughout.

Conversely, a match can provide an amazing, memorable moment even if the technical aspects of the in-ring action fail to deliver. Such is the unique hybrid of sports and entertainment we wrestling fans enjoy. There are great matches with no enduring, great moments, and there are also great moments that don’t come from great matches.

On some occasions we’re lucky enough to get both, when two highly skilled in-ring storytellers enter the ring with the benefit of a great angle leading into their match, so they can deliver a satisfying emotional end to their arc while performing a technical miracle simultaneously. The first such example that springs to mind is Randy Savage versus Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania III in 1987.

Steamboat had just recovered from a brutal injury at the hands of Savage, and wanted to exact revenge and take the Intercontinental Championship from the Macho Man in one fell swoop. The storyline concluded with a perfect apex of drama, action, nail biting (for fans of both Savage and Steamboat), and the triumphant finale for the hero, who rode off into the sunset after overcoming adversity and great personal risk. As far as the technical analysis of the match goes, most renowned pro wrestling historians still list it as one of the greatest of all time. But this was certainly the exception to the rule.

If you look closely enough at some of the most memorable moments we’ve experienced as wrestling fans, many fail to live up to the universally accepted criteria of great wrestling matches. Take the main event of the same WrestleMania at which Steamboat and Savage made their indelible mark on pro wrestling history. Reigning WWF champion Hulk Hogan defended against his long-time friend, the Eighth Wonder of the World, Andre the Giant.

Most of us remember the intense emotion of the beloved, gentle Giant ripping the crucifix and shirt right off the body of the virtuous champion as Bobby ‘the Brain’ Heenan urged Andre to turn heel. Hogan was betrayed by a man he’d trusted and respected, and the “Real American” now faced a challenge from a man far larger and stronger than he, not to mention a man he never wanted to fight. Hogan was forced to look into the eyes of a huge wrestler who was tired of being the nice guy; Andre wanted the spotlight, the big paycheck, and the glory of being the champion.

Even avid Hogan-bashers like me recognize the brilliant storytelling of this epic angle. We remember the “slam heard round the world”, when Hogan body-slammed the behemoth. We remember the big leg drop and the cover, and we remember this as a true passing of the torch from a respected legend to the next big thing in the business. But take a look at the match from the star-rating perspective and you’ll find it was awful. Hogan was never a good in-ring performer anyway, and he could barely drag Andre through a disjointed, slow, lumbering snooze-fest that relied solely on the drama of the moment to entertain the fans. Poor Andre was so physically impaired by the pain of the immense weight on his frame, some 560 pounds, that he could barely move.

As a wrestling match it was horrible, but as a wrestling moment this contest was undeniable. The star-rating system was irrelevant and should not be applied to this sort of match. If you’re seeking intense n-ring action you should look elsewhere, but if you want to be reminded of an important moment in the history of North American pro wrestling, Hogan/Andre delivers the goose bumps.

Jumping forward to a later era in the history of the WWF, the Undertaker and Mankind met in a brutal Hell in A Cell match at King of the Ring in June of 1998. While both are capable hands between the ropes, this simply was not a very good match. It was nothing short of an incredible spectacle but that’s only due to the ungodly sums of pain Mick Foley is able to endure, and his willingness to risk his neck to entertain wrestling fans.

Upon first viewing, the average fan is so caught up in marveling at the two gigantic bumps Foley takes that it feels like an amazing performance. But it was actually closer to that 15-car pileup you just have to slow down to gawk at. I’m a Mick Foley fan, so don’t mistake these comments for me calling him a “glorified stuntman” as some have in the past. I think he’s a phenomenal performer, but a match like Royal Rumble 2000 is a far better representation of his kamikaze style of pro wrestling. In his street fight against Triple H he was still able to tell a compelling story using violence and guts without completely destroying himself in the process. High-risk is one thing, but certain injury is another altogether.

In 1998, many considered HIAC a match of the year candidate, but that’s an absurd assertion. Watch it again, and now that you know exactly when the two ugly bumps will occur, and just what they’ll look like, condition yourself not to overreact to the death-defying drops Foley endures. Once you do, you’ll see that the match itself was nothing to write home about. While some might think it was an important progression for the Mankind character, it was also a pretty bad match.

Actually, when I reviewed it I realized there literally wasn’t much to the match at all. Starting on top of the cage they threw a few punches and chair shots before gruesome bump #1. Then after Foley’s miraculous comeback, literally fighting off the stretcher to climb the cage again, he was immediately choke-slammed through the roof of the cage to the canvas for gruesome bump #2.

They worked for about another 8 minutes after that, but with Foley’s laundry list of injuries from both big falls and Undertaker’s sprained ankle, they understandably labored during this portion of the contest. When ‘Taker eventually hit the Tombstone Piledriver for the win, it was much more about putting Foley out of his misery and ending the carnage than it was about a victory for the Dead Man. Certainly this was an emotional ride and an unbelievable display of heart and determination, but not a very good wrestling match.

There’s a lot of ground to cover on this topic, so come back next week for more discussion about the difference between great wrestling moments and great wrestling matches.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar.” – Drew Carey

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