A Modest Blog on Punching and Kicking in Wrestling

The esteemed Charlie Reneke and I have been going back and forth for awhile about the role of punching and kicking in a wrestling match. I maintain that while other moves may add variety, punching and kicking are absolutely fine and can make up the majority of a great match, while Charlie feels that this isn’t even wrestling. This disagreement over punching and kicking has continued in several posts with many readers and authors coming out on both sides until, in the comments of the great John Cena Must Die article by Daniel Douglas, my good friend and great columnist Vinny Truncelito added the following:

“Let’s not confuse a well-developed moveset with just randomly pulling out maneuvers whenever a wrestler wants. Like David says, within kayfabe, if a guy only learned to punch and kick when he was in training, he isn’t as “educated” from a wrestling standpoint as somebody with a knowledge of submission holds, throws, counters, aerial attacks, et cetera.

Now, while I’d never argue that a guy with 6 college degrees is smarter than I am, I can see where more education might equate to “better able to handle certain challenges”. And the challenges a pro wrestler faces night after night (in kayfabe) include big, mean men trying to pin them to the mat, hurt them to the point they need to quit, or knock them out. So the more tools a wrestler has in his bag of tricks to deal with those attacks, the “better” he is. Surely a man of your intelligence can appreciate my position on this.”
With the following article, I intend to prove that in no way do the moves make the match or do great moves make someone a better wrestler, utilizing examples including Bryan Danielson, Ted Dibiase, Terry Funk and Jerry Lawler. Before we begin, please take a look at this article on What makes a great match. Hopefully, you took the time to work through that, but if not, you can understand the one thing above all else that makes a fan get into and care about a wrestling match is the increase of the drama of the match. Okay, now let’s begin with the man many term the best wrestler competing today, Bryan Danielson.

Bryan Danielson often expresses amazement that he’s as over as he is, or that anyone cares about his matches or himself as a performer. His argument is two-fold. First, he’s just one of many great technical wrestlers that fans could have latched on to in the early days of ROH. His spot could just as easily belong to a Chad Collyer or Matt Stryker (not the WWE color commentator), but for no real reason, fans found themselves more attached to Danielson. The second reason in Danielson’s argument that his success is a fluke is that he’s “a boring, boring wrestler.” The main thrust of this part of the argument is that Danielson’s technical wrestling is generally not very complex. Most of his moves, notably the moves that get such great response, are those taught within the beginning parts of wrestling school. Now, it should surprise no one that Danielson is wrong, otherwise no one would care about his work or skill, so what we’re left to examine is why.

What separates Bryan Danielson and the Chad Collyers of the world (I like Collyer, so this isn’t a personal attack), is that Danielson has extraordinary timing and is a master of the little maneuvers to make the crowd care about his matches. He often says that when he’s wrestling, he’s trying to put all of his focus on whatever move he’s executing (or selling) to make it believable. This concentration, even on his simple maneuvers that he learned in his first week wrestling, draw the crowd into his matches and are part of what makes him such a special professional wrestler. What does this have to do with punching and kicking? Very little yet. For now, though, since we can all agree that Bryan Danielson is a great professional wrestler, and he states that what he uses in the ring are very simple maneuvers, then complexity of moves and moveset are not prerequisite for being a great wrestler. A simple headlock, when properly worked, can get a great response and build heat and drama for a match.

Next, let’s cover Ted Dibiase (The Million Dollar Man, not his son). It has been said (I believe by Jim Cornette) that Ted Dibiase is a notoriously bad wrestler. As far as hold for hold goes, he’s just poor. He knows how to work a body part, but even then, it’s mostly using punches and knees on a specific body part, then locking in a simple submission. These are the absolute basics of wrestling. Dibiase is and was (to the point where only some last minute politics stopped him from getting the NWA Title before Flair’s second, defining reign) considered one of the greatest workers in wrestling. What he does, with his punches, his selling, his facial expressions, and his timing, is create a believable atmosphere, increasing drama to the point where fans are in an absolute frenzy. That is what makes him a great worker, even if his most complicated regularly used maneuvers were a vertical suplex and the figure-four, his psychology was so amazing that he had some of the best matches ever with Jim Duggan, Ric Flair, Dick Murdoch, and Magnum TA before he ever hit the national spotlight.

So what have we learned between Dibiase and Danielson? Keeping things simple, but focused will make you a great professional wrestler and give you the potential to be in great matches. So, what can Terry Funk add to this?

Terry Funk is, in many ways, the absolute opposite of Dibiase. Funk is one of the best wrestlers ever. For proof, check out his All Japan work in the late 70s and early 80s (I can provide links if needed). He’s a fantastic hold for hold wrestler who could pull off complex holds and counter-holds. Funk was, however, also, an amazing character. The dangerous coward is a Terry Funk trademark and it drew money all around the world for decades. This is important because before his first retirement, Terry was purely a technical wrestler, and, when he returned (for the famous Ric Flair matches in 89 and beyond into ECW) he became a punch, kick, then highspot brawler. Much like Danielson, Funk is capable of more complex stuff, but the character, the concentration; the meaning and the selling, made him a success, great wrestler, and draw regardless of what moves and styles he preferred to utilize at the time. Funk adds that if you have a believable character that comes across in the ring, anything that makes sense, whether simple brawling or complex technical wrestler can yield classics.

This brings us to Jerry Lawler. Jerry had an awesome, King of Memphis character established. His wrestling was very simple, using mostly punches and kicks with the occasional big move thrown in towards a match’s climax. Jerry might have been capable of more, but rarely showed it. What made Lawler great was his timing and believability. With one punch he would get a reaction all the Canadian Destroyers in the world couldn’t deliver. How successful was he with his style? His territory was the one in the country where Vince McMahon’s juggernaut, the WWF, couldn’t take over until Lawler aged enough and went to the WWF himself. His Memphis classics with Bill Dundee, Ric Flair, Terry Funk, Bam Bam Bigelow and so many others, which admittedly most haven’t seen, are the stuff of absolute wrestling legend, on par with the best of Ric Flair’s matches, which are far more complex. Would Jerry Lawler have been a better wrestler if he threw in chain wrestling or more super-plexes? You might think so, but argue how- he was drawing top gates every week with great ratings and classic matches. These matches are some of the best ever in wrestling, so how would a super-plex improve that? By pulling down his straps or setting up a punch Lawler was getting the same response and putting on the same quality as matches guys like Dynamite Kid can no longer walk from.

Current wrestlers often have trouble with their larger movesets. A Kurt Angle will do so many moves of so many types, that they stop making sense within the context of the match and what he’s trying to accomplish (if AJ Styles is a better flier and we’re establishing that Angle is staying in close, because when he gives AJ space, his speed gives him trouble, Angle shouldn’t then successful hit a plancha). Other wrestlers are excellent at exhibition style matches and can build drama in the context of a technical match, but are unable to pull off the same in a brawl- like Tyler Black showed in his failed feud with Jimmy Jacobs because he can’t adjust the structure (not the moves) and meaning behind his moves to make the hatred of a brawl come through. Of course, a brawl doesn’t mean you have to just punch and kick, as Kevin Steen and El Generico showed against the Briscoes (Death before Dishonor V Night 1). Of course, that they were creative in their brawling doesn’t make it better than Jerry Lawler and Terry Funk’s legendary empty arena brawl, just different. The reason the moves don’t make one better than the other and they are both incredible matches, is because the moves simply don’t make the match- don’t show you’re a better, smarter, or “more educated” wrestler; they simply show differences in the characters delivering the moves. Even with simple punching, the differences in character are evident (watch Bret Hart punch, then watch a Funk punch, for example), so the moves just make this obvious. With enough skill, selling, expression, timing and other components of psychology, the moves in the match, in the end, have almost nothing to do with the quality of the match. A great match is great because of the drama built.

Moves can definitely help add variety to wrestler’s characters and matches throughout the card, but extra moves in no way make for a better wrestler or mean better matches will occur. Danielson and Dibiase show us you can have a technical match with only the very basics of wrestling, that literally every non-giant in the business can pull off. Dibiase shows us that even if you can’t do the complicated spots and chain wrestling, you can still be great. Terry Funk shows us that the style is essentially irrelevant if the character behind it is properly established, while Jerry Lawler shows us how just these basics can lead to amazing matches and huge success. Should every match necessarily work this way? No, variety doesn’t hurt, but because a match is less complicated doesn’t mean its bad or worse than a fancier match. If the match builds drama, shows the wrestlers competing and has psychology- that is to say what a wrestler does makes sense, then the moves just aren’t important, so long as they’re appropriate.

Tags: , , , ,