The Common Denominator – What happened to all the Tag-Teams?

Hello again! First off, I’d like to thank everyone who read my first column, especially those who took the time to leave a comment. If you missed it, it was about Brodus Clay and his potential for longevity and success with the character he is portraying looking back at characters that had some of Clay’s attributes.

This week, the name of the game is tag-team wrestling. Now, I am certainly not the first person to note the decline of the tag-team in today’s wrestling scene. I should point out that this really pertains to the WWE and TNA. Ring of Honor or your local fed might be brimming with tag-teams, but the two promotions with national TV deals and monthly pay-per-views would be hard-pressed to even publish tag-team rankings.

In fact, it was tag-team rankings that had me thinking about this topic to begin with. Back in my youth, I cemented my status as a nerd (back before that was its own cool sort-of status symbol) by not only collecting comic books, spending hours a day on my super-cool Commodore 64, and playing with Star Wars action figures, but reading wrestling magazines.

You see, young whipper-snappers (now there’s a good name for a wrestling move), before there were the Internets, there were these magazines chock full of wrestling news, full-color posters and, yes – rankings. I loved the rankings, because even though they were quite arbitrary and meaningless (I say now, in retrospect), it was just very interesting to see all of the wrestlers in the Big Three (WWF, NWA and AWA at the time) as well as all of the regional promotions listed in order of their contention to whatever title they were gunning for at the time.

Each wrestler was listed along with their height, weight, home town and such, and it gave everything an air of order and legitimacy, as in “Wow, Eddie Gilbert is the #3 contender to the UWF Title! If he beats Terry Taylor I wonder if he’ll get a shot at Terry Gordy?” or “How is Lex Luger ranked higher than Sting? He can never beat Ric Flair!” I also kept my own rankings for all of the federations I was able to watch (WWF, NWA, AWA, UWF, USWA, GWF, ICW, the acronyms go on forever) via the aforementioned Commodore 64.

Now when it came to the wrestling magazine pecking order, the cream of the crop was definitely Pro Wrestling Illustrated. At one time, I probably had five years worth of PWI issues. They’re rankings always included an overall Top 10 singles and Top 10 tag-teams section. Can you imagine such a thing? Ten legitimate tag teams that existed and performed together long enough to not only be ranked but that there were teams that didn’t make the Top 10?

As comedian Ron White would say, I told you that story to tell you this story…

A while back on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I was watching a DVR’ed episode of AWA Wrestling from ESPN Classic (If anyone would be interested in reading a recap of those old shows, let me know. I’m game). This was from 1988 or 1989, and while the writing was definitely on the wall concerning the future of the promotion (it wasn’t good), it did appear they were at least trying to spark some interest with a well-built tag-team division. In this particular episode (and ESPN makes no attempt whatsoever to air these in any kind of order), the still “Midnight” Rockers – Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannety – had just dropped the tag belts in controversial fashion to one of my all-time favorite teams, Badd Company – Paul Diamond and Pat Tanaka. They first started teaming together in Memphis, and when they won the belts in the AWA, thought they had totally “made it” and would be in the WWF or NWA in no time (they did eventually finagle their way to the WWF, inexplicably as the Orient Express, but by that time the magic was gone).

Now the Rockers had vowed revenge (and by “revenge” I guess they meant “having a few more matches and then going on to superstardom in the WWF,” so, yeah I guess that is a revenge of sorts), but it was made clear by Badd Company’s mouthpiece, none other than “Diamond” Dallas Page, that they were going to have to stand in line. It turns out there were a number of other teams gunning for the new champs, including the Rock & Roll Express themselves.

Make no mistake, Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson were admittedly a year or so past their heyday, a time when they sold out arenas in the NWA getting destroyed by the Andersons, the Russians and the Midnight Express (more on them in a minute), but they could still work, still pop a crowd, and they were four-time former NWA World Tag-Team Champions. Now, the AWA also had the…well, “a” Midnight Express, composed of Dennis Condrey and Randy Rose – the “Original” Midnights. Not to mention the Rock N Roll RPMs, the Texas Hangmen, and an up and coming Nasty Boys. In fact Brian Knobbs and Jerry Sags, the Nasties, would take on the Rock & Roll Express in the Main Event of this show, battling to a double-DQ in front of dozens and dozens of fans.

The point here is that tag-team wrestling used to be a real draw. In the late 1980s, I attended a WWF House Show in Memphis (a once-very-three-years-or-so deal at the time), and the entire card consisted of an 8-team tag tournament with the winners getting an immediate shot at the WWF Champions, the Hart Foundation. Randy Savage also defended the Intercontinental Title against the Junkyard Dog in between the tourney finals and the Main Event, but the show was all about tag-team wrestling, and it drew a great crowd. FYI: The Killer Bees won the tournament, but lost to the Harts. Could they even put together eight tag teams right now if they wanted to.

So, what is the common denominator here? I guess at first glance, there isn’t one. The WWE hasn’t had more than three full-fledged tag teams at the same time since…well, hell, I don’t remember. Were Cryme Tyme, Deuce & Domino and MNM all a team at the same time?

Why is this? Tag-team wrestling was, and still could be, a great division. Tag teams are exciting. There are cool double-team moves that a singles competitor simply can’t perform. Tag teams are just that…a “team.” Give a team a cool name and they have an instant likeability factor. A team inspires support when they win, because it’s great to watch two wrestlers celebrate a win. In an age when mic skills are seen as a crucial part of building a character, they can play off each other in promos and help get each other over. Give them a hot manageress or slick mouthpiece (maybe a Legend who needs some work, like Jake Roberts), and you’re good to go. It can’t be that hard.

Okay, here’s an example drawing from one of the responses I posted from my first column: One of my favorite tag-teams from Memphis was the Moondogs. They had a short title run in the WWF in the early ‘80s, but the Moondogs were everything awesome about regional wrestling. They had a crazy backwoods, almost Deliverance-esqe, The Hills Have Eyes sort of deal. They had long, shaggy hair and beards. They wore ripped up jeans. They acted all wild and carried a big bone to the ring. And there wasn’t just a couple of Moondogs, there was a whole litter. Spot, Rex and King were the mainstays, but later on there was Fido, Cujo, Splat and even a girl Moondog named Fifi.

Now, I’m not saying bring back the Moondogs (but I’m not saying don’t bring ‘em back either), but how about this in the modern age of wrestling?

“Swamp People” is a really popular show right now. If you’re not familiar with it, it airs on the History Channel. It’s a reality show that focuses on four or five families that have lived in the Louisiana swamps for generations hunting alligators and such. People like it – not just the redneck crowd one might expect to also skew toward the wrestling demographic either, but that can’t hurt.

Now take a couple of guys out of developmental or from the Indies. Give them Season One of “Swamp People” and a six-month lead on letting them grow their hair and such and get some of the vernacular down. Don’t make them cartoonish Moondog types, but rather bad-ass Gator Boyz who like to party and get wild, but can take on anyone in the ring. You could put Terry Gordy’s boy and maybe Husky Harris in this role by Wrestlemania.

Tag teams also are great for building stars. How much did Batista pick up from Ric Flair? Bring in “Skinner” Steve Keirn to mentor the Gator Boyz. I bet he’d do it. Have the Road Dogg bring in the “next generation” of Armstrongs, put “Bullet” Bob in the Hall of Fame, and make an event out of it. Eventually someone turns on the other one, and you have a ready-made feud. Yeah, you’ll probably get one Shawn for every five Martys, but hey, look at where Shawn ended up.

Where is this generation’s Road Warriors? Or Dudley Boys? You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. The “tag-team formula” still works. That’s your common denominator. The hot tag still has the same air of anticipation (except maybe for the fact that it comes two minutes into a five minute match. The whole psychology of cutting off the ring to draw heat is still effective. You can tell a story with a tag match. Just like you could in the 80s and 90s. Those legendary tag teams are legendary for a reason.

A while back in one of Scott Keith’s Retro Rants – Starrcade 1989 – he reviewed what he called the only meeting between the Road Warriors and the Steiner Brothers. Now I was sure that I saw them face each other on Nitro back before the NOW, so I checked YouTube and sure enough, there it is, so if you ever wondered what a match between those two would be like, here ya go.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk5OFnaJlxQ

So, not a scientific classic, but the crowd ate it up. And along with those teams, WCW has Harlem Heat, the Horsemen, the Faces of Fear, the First Family, Public Enemy, some doucebags named High Voltage, and a few others I think, while at the same time the WWF had The Smoking Guns, the Godwins, the Hart Foundation 2.0, the Headbangers, and I think there were some Samoans of some kind. And that didn’t even count ECW. The point is, it worked then. It could work now. Get two guys, put them in similar ring gear, have them learn some double-team spots and give them a name. And then do that five or six more times and you’ve got yourself a tag division. The Dudleys were over for years despite never really changing up their move set because they developed crowd-pleasing spots and crowd-participation gimmicks. Yeah, it eventually got stale, but after what 10 years? Outsiders vs. DX would draw a ton of money TODAY if all four guys could still go.

I thought the ‘E might be trying to bring some prestige back to the tag division when the whole Air Boom and Awesome Truth deals began, and maybe if a couple of folks hadn’t violated the Wellness Policy, things might have gone a bit differently, but as it is, the WWE tag belts changed hands on a house show.

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