Since people are talking about Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena and Brock Lesnar vs. CM Punk potentially being a WWE match of the year candidate, I decided to name the top twenty-one matches in WWE history. Why twenty-one? Well, as a gambler, I believe twenty-one is more lucky than twenty. Nah, I just honestly miscounted and then didn’t want to remove anything. Part One will be what makes a match special. Part Two will be 21-10. And Part Three will be 10-1.
In order to list something, there has to be a criteria. So before the list, here’s what makes a match special:
Gimmicks/Characters: There is a reason the Super Bowl is the most anticipated game of the year: it is the two best teams going at it. Even if the Browns and Bills have a great game, nobody is going to remember it as much, due to its lack of importance. The same goes with wrestling.
The Rock and Austin at WrestleMania 17 was the ultimate clash of two of the most beloved wrestlers of that era for the WWE title. Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes was a clash of both the most hated and loved wrestlers for the NWA title. The Undertaker and HBK at WrestleMania 26 was a match made to enhance one man’s streak and another’s career. Ideally, a match is more special when wrestlers are extremely popular (or unpopular for heels) and when the match is being booked for something important to transpire.
Reading an audience/knowing what to do and when: Being able to read the crowd is an important part of a compelling match, if not the most important criteria. Anytime the audience is enjoying something “beyond belief”, it enhances the match’s quality. There are many memorable matches that if you were to turn the volume down, they simply would not be any good at all.
Vince McMahon and Stone Cold Steve Austin never put Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair’s matches in jeopardy as far as workrate goes, but they generated nuclear crowd reactions every single time they wrestled. They simply knew what the fans did (or didn’t) want to see, and gave them a mixture of both — every time.
When a wrestler is able to read the crowd, they are able to give the crowd what they want, even if they do not know they want it themselves. For instance, in a formulaic tag-match, the heels beat one of the babyfaces up. If everything is done properly, the crowd will want that face to make a tag to the fresh babyface, in order to see the heels get their comeuppance.
However, if the babyface just goes over and makes a “hot-tag”, he did not do a good job of building to the crescendo. Ultimately, even though the crowd wanted it to happen, it happened too suddenly. That is precisely why the wrestlers in the match must be able to read the crowd’s reaction, identify the boiling point, and then make the tag.
Chances are something like this, would send the fans on a dramatic roller coaster ride: After being thoroughly assaulted, the babyface starts to prompt his comeback. However, the heel rakes his eyes and throws him into his corner. The heel proceeds to beat him down in his own corner, which makes the referee yell at heel 1, allowing heel 2 to illegally beat the babyface behind the ref’s back. Eventually, babyface 1 knocks down heel 1 and then tags in his partner, but the referee tells babyface 2 he didn’t see the tag.
Finally, after being battered, and subsequently trapped by the two heels in their corner, he rolls under them to make the tag. Creating intrigue, hope, and anticipation will make the crowd erupt more than just an out-of-nowhere tag. (Judging from my own personal experience as a wrestling fan.)
Furthermore, a wrestler who is able to read a crowd will be able to call proper audibles. For instance, if a wrestler uses a sleeper hold, but it is not creating any heat, the best thing would be to get out of that spot as soon as possible. However, if the move is creating lots of heat, the wrestler should instead opt to use it longer in order to try to milk the crowd.
Psychology/Storytelling: What does this mean? Psychology simply means realism. Well, at least back in the heydays, wrestling was about making fans believe it was real. If a wrestler had poor psychology, not only were their matches sub-par, but they were also exposing the business. Psychology is not as important anymore, but it has a major part to play in fans suspending their disbelief. After all, storytelling is just simply narrative in a match.
There are various ways to explain the difference between good and bad psychology. First, a wrestler must be consistent in promos and matches. A cowardly wrestler outside the ring cannot be a monster inside, for example. Ric Flair was always one to back out of a fight and thus would try every shortcut he could think of to win the match. The Undertaker, however, portrayed The Deadman at all times, thus utilizing blank facial expressions and wrestling methodically.
These are extremely different styles, yet they are examples of good psychology. Both techniques are demonstrations of good psychology and storytelling, too. Like any sport, athletes come up with some specific strategies in order to find ways that they are going to win, so it only makes sense if wrestling does the same. Bret Hart was an expert at this, as he wrestled differently depending on whom he faced; i.e. if he wrestled against Bam Bam Bigelow or Kevin Nash, he would come up with ways to chop them down, but if he faced Curt Hennig or Owen Hart, he would simply make every effort to out-wrestle them.
Psychology is all about acting as if wrestling is real, so selling is a major key to its success .The word selling simply means pretending you are hurt or injured. Yes, it is pretty much acting. Selling helps the audience to believe, or at least to suspend their disbelief, that a wrestler is injured. If a babyface never seems to be in peril because they don’t sell, there would be no point to the babyface being beaten up.
Truthfully, the illusion of professional wrestling is shattered without selling.
Selling: There are a variety of ways a wrestler ought to sell depending on their character. A wrestler portraying a monster would undersell to make it seem that he is a dominant figure; an everyday babyface would sell realistic, and a cowardly heel would oversell to make it look as if he is receiving his comeuppance from the babyface.
The key to selling is consistency. If a wrestler spends a good part of the match working on another’s arm, the victim should not stop pretending the arm is hurt. Instead, he must adjust to his arm being injured, by not doing stuff he would never do with a legitimately injured arm. Inconsistent selling makes a match unbelievable, and not in a good way.
Moves, facial expressions, mannerisms, and body language all help to tell stories in the ring. Without them, a match is a stunt show with moves that do not hang together. This is not to state that such a match cannot be entertaining, but it will lack substance and emotional investment.
After all, theoretically, anyone could teach a monkey how to do a moonsault, but they likely could not teach him precisely when the most optimal time would be to do one in a match of his own volition, or the cognition as to why to do one in the first place. In other words, a moonsault may look cool, but it does not have much merit if it does not fit the context of the story.
Ultimately, moves are just simply parts of the story; they are what help the match shift into different gears and build. The match building up to its crescendo keeps the audience engaged and on the edge of their seats. A match that has not properly built to the conclusion (the most memorable thing to any story) comes off as anti-climatic.
Timing/Pacing/Execution: In order for the timing of a match to be effective, the wrestlers must be on the same page, meaning they must know how to communicate with each other. Otherwise, everything will be a mess. Bad timing can derail anything important planned for a match and noticeable botches can overshadow the story being told.
It is also crucial for reversals/counters and sequences to be perfectly timed and executed, or otherwise the moves look sloppy and ineffective, hindering the illusion of pro-wrestling. Most importantly, bad execution and timing can lead to injuries. So, execution and timing are TRULY everything.
Therefore, the most important keys to a compelling match are the build, fan reaction and anticipation, wrestler’s popularity, importance, realism, in-ring story, and timing. If most of these keys are done well, the match will be special. When they are all done to near perfection, however, it is something that fans may only see once in a lifetime.
I hope this was a good explanation of what I believe makes a compelling match. Of course, there is no true scientific formula to use to see what makes a match great. Most of it is in the eye of the beholder.
Tags: Bret Hart, Brock Lesnar, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Mick Foley, monday night raw, ricky steamboat, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, undertaker, VInce McMahon, WWE