When I first started watching professional wrestling, I was enthralled by the bigger than life personalities in the old WWF – Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, Roddy Piper, Jake Roberts, and on and on. The matches were fun and the excitement was there. And the young me enjoyed it.
As my enjoyment of pro wrestling grew, I sought out more of it to watch. That is when my brother and I stumbled across some syndicated NWA professional wrestling on a barely visible UHF channel. (Kids, ask your grandparents what a UHF station is. And get off my lawn.) Seeing Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Tully Blanchard, and more was fun, but they were just wrestlers (albeit very good wrestlers in most cases) without the WWF character magnifier. At least, that is what I thought. Growing up in the north I was not familiar with the south’s own brand of character development. Young me enjoyed it, but that is not what kept drawing me back.
The tag teams were the thing which hooked me. Sure, the WWF had tag teams. They had some pretty interesting ones too (the Moondogs, the Hart Foundation, eventually the Rockers, etc). In fact, one of my favorite teams of all-time were Tony Garea and Rick Martel. But the tag teams in the NWA were different. They were special, almost pure in their development of their own type of art. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, the Midnight Express, the Road Warriors, the Andersons, the Fabulous Ones, the Fantastics, the Russians, the Sheepherders, etc. They were all so very fun to watch, no matter who I was cheering for at the moment.
Tag teams have their own special features, their own storytelling designs. A few examples: First, the tag rope. A simple piece of rope hanging at each team’s corner where the partner who was not legal had to hold. It made sense if you thought about it. A team member shouldn’t be allowed to interfere or wander around causing trouble and gaining unfair advantages if they were not the legal wrestler. The referee enforcing that rule was always humorous and a highlight. Second, tag team wrestling also allowed for creative cheating, often including humor or heat segments. The referee had to see a tag for it to be legal, so of course every popular team had the spot where the ref missed the tag. And every heel team had the double team behind the ref’s back punctuated with a hand clap so the ref could officially “hear” the legal tag. Third, the process of “cutting off the ring” in an effort to focus on only one of your opponents. This, of course, led to fantastic hope spots, and giant heat from stopping these from coming to fruition.
Scott Keith talks about the “tag team formula” in a match which often involves someone playing the “Ricky Morton role,” the ring getting cut off, creative cheating by the heel team, false hope spots, and eventually the pay off tag and a giant breakdown to end the match. It sounds cliche almost. It sounds like it would get boring after a while. But the thing of it is, tag team wrestling works. It works in drawing you into a match. It works in allowing all the participants to stay fresh and continue working hard (unless the story of the match calls for that freshness to be beaten out of someone). It works by allowing for considerable more strategy than just “hit the guy and pin him” because now there are other factors and people involved. It works by being exciting and fast-paced.
It works by allowing the viewers to not just root for a person, but for a team. For example, it’s the difference between rooting for a tennis player or for a team of players. You could really like Roger Federer as a tennis player and love to watch him play. But your level of fandom will probably never reach the face-painting/season-ticket buying/tailgating/jersey-buying/insanity for your hometown football team. Humans like feeling that they are a part of a team, even if we are just cheering them on. When Federer wins, you are happy for him, but you didn’t win. But if you are from Buffalo and the Bills win a game, then, in your heart, you won along with them. From this perspective, even a team of two allows this type of psychological fandom to develop in oneself.
Where was I going with this… Oh yeah… This column isn’t supposed to be a treatise on the rationale behind being a fan of tag team wrestling. It is a fantasy booking column… Sort of… So in that vein, I will continue.
But, before I do, I should also mention one additional thing – people who like tag team wrestling REALLY like tag team wrestling. And they get very angry when a promotion screws with that division. Because it is ours, damnit! Allow us to suspend our belief with this, for crying out loud.
And as such, this fantasy book seeks to right the wrongs of stupid decisions which tried to hurt our beloved tag team wrestling.
An early, great tournament which spotlighted tag team wrestling was the Jim Crockett Memorial Cup. It was a great idea, a ton of the best tag teams from around the world getting together to work through a bracket format (who doesn’t love a bracket format) and be crowned the best team of them all and win a million dollar prize. At first, it was presented seriously. I remember the rankings for the tournament being big deal, including Jim Cornette being hilariously ticked off that his Midnight Express was not the number one seed. The number of great teams in that tournament was staggering to my young mind at the time – Arn and Tully, the Fabulous Ones, the Fantastics, the Guerreros, the Midnight Express, the Road Warriors, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, the Koloffs, the Sheepherders, Taylor and Williams, and a bunch of other guys who had been teaming for a while. Yeah, you had some slapdash teams, and I recall those teams being considered real longshots to win it all. And the Road Warriors won the first year. Can’t argue with that.
But the second year of the tournament… Despite having a ton of great teams again (including the world-renown Mulkeys!), the winning team was a team which had just begun getting along and teaming, Dusty Rhodes and Nikita Koloff. If I recall, they teamed up solely for this tournament. The fact that they beat Manny Fernandez and Rick Rude, then the Midnight Express, and finally the Road Warriors during the tournament to win just never sat right to young me. It still doesn’t. In my fantasy booked world, a group of two guys who don’t know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, who don’t have the experience of working together, of truly working as a TEAM, should never beat an established tag team. In fact, if I ever found a hot tub time machine, I am sure I would return to 1987 and convince someone, anyone, that this travesty should never occur. And if that didn’t work, I might have to gilooly someone before giloolying someone was a thing.
By the third year, I was already so pissed off at this thing, that the team of Luger and Sting winning didn’t bother me as much. True, they beat the more established teams of the Midnight Express, the Powers of Pain, and even Arn and Tully in the tournament, but at least they had established Luger and Sting as friends. That friendship helped ease a little bit of my disbelief suspension because it would make sense that they knew each other well and could work together well.
(I am going to skip over the various tag tournaments they have in Japan here for a couple reasons. Even though I think they suffer from the same issues as these Crockett Cups had (mostly teams just being thrown together), I don’t know enough about Japanese wrestling to not make a fool out of myself when discussing it. Also, I don’t want this column to be 40,000 words.)
So, that is one fantasy booking change I would make – fixing the Crockett Cups so an established team would win. Because it just makes sense that a team who works together could beat a team that doesn’t know what they are doing. Take any NFL team and they would absolutely DESTROY a team made up of the greatest athletes in the world in other sports in a football game. (Except maybe the Browns. They’re a dumpster fire.)
The next fantasy booking idea goes the inverse of the first. And can be summed up with this – If you are a member of a well-established tag team and you branch off as a singles wrestler, you should have to build up to being the best singles wrestler. It is a different skill set. See what Shawn Michaels did to Marty Jannetty. It broke up their established tag team and was the catalyst for Michaels’ individual growth. That is fine. But when Ricky Morton starts challenging Ric Flair for the World Heavyweight Title after being in a tag team full-time for a bunch of years, Ric Flair should have won each of those matches in easy squashes. The same way the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express should have been able to beat Ric Flair and a random partner easily. So, fantasy booking number two – Ric Flair basically kills Ricky Morton, not just breaking his nose, and Morton either moves completely away from tag team wrestling to focus on singles glory or he just realizes he is out of his depth and goes back to having 7-star matches against the Midnight Express.
Now I know I am ranting a bit and I apologize. But this ties back to my 10 Thoughts column regarding Ring of Honor television. I like Kyle O’Reilly. I like Bobby Fish. I think they are both very talented singles wrestlers. But I love reDRagon. And if they are going to have them battle for titles individually, they should make some mention of reDRagon taking some time off or something. Because tag team wrestling is very different from singles wrestling. And I am not willing to suspend my disbelief so far that someone can be great at both equally. The psychology of it is just too different. And there is only one Bo Jackson.
Next, and this is my biggest pet peeve which I would change if I could, the relatively modern habit of handicap matches. Now, I don’t have a problem with handicap matches in general. Sometimes it works to establish someone as a monster (Andre the Giant versus two, three, or four jobbers at a time). Sometimes it works to further an evil authority figure storyline (the Authority making Roman Reigns having to wrestle against all four members of the Wyatt family (who did not have a true tag team in them at the time). And in those cases, I’m okay with them. I’m even okay with someone getting a fluke win to overcome the odds, etc. every once in a while.
My problem comes with booking a handicap match between a singles wrestler and an established tag team. And I am looking at you, John Cena. I don’t care if they are booked as jokes, the Ascension is an established tag team. They should be able to pick apart one guy, even if it is SuperCena, and beat him easily. Worse though, when that singles wrestler is booked in a handicap match against the tag team champions. Never, ever, ever should the singles wrestler win that match. Again, I am looking at you, John Cena. It kills the push of the tag team, because if they can’t beat one guy, why should we think they can beat two guys. It also kills the little bit of logic which has to remain in my brain to make wrestling enjoyable. Because if I can’t keep that little bit of realism, my suspension of disbelief would just overtake me and I wouldn’t be surprised to see unicorns or a trombone in a wrestling ring. Oh, damnit! And they are the WWE champs! This is why we can’t have nice things, wrestling world!
Okay, this column was more of an extended rant. But keep it in mind the next time you see any of these things happening in a wrestling promotion. If a promotion can not make something as time-tested and enjoyable as tag team wrestling make sense and be fun, then why the heck am I watching in the first place. I can just stay in my fantasy book.
Until next time…
Tags: Jim Crockett, John Cena, Midnight Express, NWA, Sr. Memorial Cup, Tag teams, WWF