This essay is about the issue of determining quality wrestling performances. It is my belief that the contemporary way wrestling journalists grade wrestling matches is broken, antiquated, and never really worked in the first place.
Part 1: Theory
When someone goes to university to learn about English literature, the first author they get to study is not Dean Koontz. Itâ€™s not Stephanie Meyer. Itâ€™s generally William Shakespeare or T.S. Elliott. Itâ€™s a crazy idea, but most subjects will introduce a topic by giving an example of why the subject is worthwhile. Youâ€™re going to get the greatest hits. The reasons for this may shock you: most subjects have standards that they would like to maintain. However, much like how people who donâ€™t ever read books know of only the Harry Potter series, and most non fans of wrestling know only one of maybe three or four matches in history. The strange thing about this list of matches is that none of them are very good in the eyes of â€œrealâ€ wrestling fans. Rarely has an industry been so misunderstood simply based on the popular version being so different than the way it actually is.
If we are to accept the fact that wrestling is a scripted piece of entertainment, then we should judge it on the basis of its quality. Yes, wrestling has to be placed on a different scale than regular television because its contents are so wildly different as well as its basic system of ethics. So what is a good wrestling match? How does someone who hasnâ€™t spent his entire life watching it determine if what they are watching is worthwhile?
First, one has to realize that wrestling is postmodern entertainment, and this throws the basic rules of plot, setting, and character development out the window. What one must focus on is simply the push and pull of two forces: anticipation and catharsis. Quite simply, a great wrestling match balances these things perfectly. The right amount of anticipation will make the audience want to see the event that you want them to see. The right amount of catharsis will make the audience satisfied. But what is the right amount? Is it the same every time? Is there a formula, as we have been led to believe? I donâ€™t think there is. I honestly believe that the right amount of anticipation and catharsis changes with every match, every story, and every type of audience. This is why itâ€™s insanely difficult to show a match to a non fan and for them to see the same thing as you do; he is essentially viewing a different contest than you are. Whereas you might see a hero and a villain, the non fan likely just sees two guys in spandex. If he does pick out the roles, he will surely miss the subtleties. Match psychology, referenced maneuvers, and motive will all be missing from his vantage point. The non fan might be entertained by a specific move or an individual comment made by the announcers, but itâ€™s a losing battle.
So, knowing that a wrestling match is completely different depending on the eyes used, how does one give an example of what a great wrestling match is? Iâ€™ve made a fairly simple while mathematically impossible formula. X is the number of features a wrestling match has. Features denote the ingredients used to put together the match. Is it a one on one match, or are there more competitors? Are weapons allowed? Signature weapons?  Is the fight fair? What are the various ways in which to win the match? Does the referee get knocked out? Does the fight go into the crowd? Does something seemingly accidental occur? Is the match being fought for belts, pride, women, etc? Finallyâ€“â€“and perhaps most importantlyâ€“â€“does the audience care about what is happening?
All of these questions can be answered with either a yes/no or a simple explanation. These are objective, and donâ€™t infer a great match in and of themselves. A match involving fifteen wrestlers inside a steel cage, with weapons all around, where victories can be achieved anywhere, where several stints of outside interference occur, and where the winner of the match wins the biggest belt in the company will mostly likely be an absolutely terrible contest. Although wrestling is often a practice in excess, tossing in every possible gimmick and action rarely results in an entertaining product. Thatâ€™s where our Y axis comes in, and where the math gets mucky. The Y axis is how well each factor in a match is executed, or, rather, if each specific factor adds or detracts from the basic setup of a one on one contest of athletic exhibition. For example, does placing the two wrestlers in a cage make the match better, or worse? Would the match be more entertaining without the added factor? This is a very relative question. Some people really like bloody cage matches. Some people really like matches involving only chops and kicks. Some people donâ€™t enjoy womenâ€™s wrestling, while others only enjoy it when the women are wrestling in jello.
How does one gauge quality, when quality in and of itself is completely relative?
This is of course one of the most difficult questions to ask in any realm of popular culture. Wrestling has one distinct advantage over most other mediums, however, and thatâ€™s the fact that there are often twenty thousand people in the same room as the performance, and they are generally pretty vocal about what they do and donâ€™t like. It doesnâ€™t matter where a wrestling show takes place, fans will sit on their hands until they see something exciting. The feedback for every moment in a wrestling match is instant and often very clear.
There is a common idiom used by wrestlers; they donâ€™t care if they are booâ€™d or cheered, so long as the crowd is making noise. Needless to say, this is how they can tell if theyâ€™re doing a solid job. So, Y should generally be judged by crowd reaction. If the crowd cheers or boos heavily, that particular factor was executed successfully. Put these two things together, and the right amount of X mixed with the right amount of Y equals a great wrestling match. Basically, use the right amount of gimmick and execute it well.
But even that doesnâ€™t matter, really, not when we take in the absolute most important thing about any wrestling match. This is the point that separates wrestling from any other sport. While many sporting contests will be judged on their great action or unbelievable drama, the only way a wrestling match is ever worth a damn is if the audience cares what happens. 
Part 2: Critique
For as long as I can remember, wrestling matches have been subjectively rated by reviewers using a five star rating system. I do not know when people began using it. I do not know who started it. I donâ€™t particularly believe the reasons behind it to be importantÂ But it was here before I showed up, and if I donâ€™t do something,Â I fear itâ€™ll be here long after Iâ€™m gone.Â
First off, why do we rate matches at all? I think we rate matches because, at the end of the day, we all understand that quality is an important factor in wrestling. Unlike sports, where the quality of a contest is utterly coincidental, we know that wrestling is scripted, and because it is scripted we know the participants can choose which moves to use, beats to utilize, and facial and body actions to express. We also know that these skilled professionals know the difference between a good match and a bad one (certainly, there are no wrestlers who have had only good matches). A basketball player also knows the difference between a good basketball match and a bad one, but we all understand that the quality of a basketball match is pretty much out of his hands. Unquestionably, the quality of a rigged contest is much easier to control than a legitimate one. And because wrestlers know that we know this, they are conscious that we are grading them on performance quality and not just winning and losing (though who is chosen as the victor is often tallied in the score as a decision made by the creators of the contest).Â
It wasnâ€™t always this way. Up until the 80s, it was polite to go along with the ruse that wrestling was legitimate. Wrestling was considered more entertaining than most sports not because we thought the two players were attempting a piece of performance art but because two men were trying to kill each other. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s too much of a wretch to suggest that ratings werenâ€™t used as much back then because wrestling was still reported on as sport: winners and losers announced, major stories analyzed, and move on to the next thing. Â
One could suggest that a rating system is absurd for wrestling, that an essay with opinions and reports should be enough. Though Iâ€™m in no way a fan of play by playÂ (could you imagine the same thing done with football or curling?), even that is more useful to the reader than most ratings are. I believe much thought (or, at least, many hours) are poured into wrestling reports, but only a tiny percentage into the rating at the end. I donâ€™t believe any reviewer has ever counted up all their good points against their bad ones and came to a self consensus. I fully believe the number is dashed out at the end, thought of a tenth as much as the title of the report. And while thatâ€™s impossible to prove, thatâ€™s how I feel.Â
Why do I not like the five star rating system? Subjectivity is one thing. It would be impossible for me to ask everyone to agree on the quality of any wrestling match. Everyone looks for different things and appreciates different things. On top of the critique of a single wrestling match, there are disparities on how we are even to think of pro wrestling. How do we judge something so loosely defined by itâ€™s own audience? For more on this, Razor has an essay in the quarterly on how WWE could brand itself by the multitude of entertainment-types it innately provides. But reviewers of other forms of pop culture utilize star ratings, percentages, etc., to determine a summary of worth, and that system appears to work. So why donâ€™t I feel it works in wrestling? Well, letâ€™s break this down.
Take a movie review. A five star review is generally rare, meant to signify the absolute best in film. Four star reviews are considered an enjoyable movie to the majority of the audience (according to a reviewer). Every star below that indicates more severe criticisms and a smaller chance the general audience would enjoy the film. Of course, that idea of star meanings is subjective in and of itself. A four-star rating may mean something to the reviewer, the reader, the indexer, and the curator. Stars, like many metaphors, add a layer of chrome to the proceedings that is nice, comfortable, and unfortunately useless.Â
When was the last time an incredibly popular match was given five stars by a trusted wrestling critic? When was the last time a -3 star match was actually pretty enjoyable? (For those new to this argument, the 5-star rating system has been appended with minus stars, just to add needless complexity). Most importantly, and I cannot stress this enough: when was the last time a rating of any kind properly communicated a summary of information that you understood in the way the reviewer wanted you to understand? Popularity vs quality is just one argument void we find ourselves in this discussion, but my point here isnâ€™t to suggest one is more important than the other at all. My gripe is that although weâ€™re using a system that we all agree on, we mean different things when we use it, and when that happens the information is lost. I do want to suggest that ratings can be helpful, and Iâ€™d prefer a match to have a rating than not in general. But I would a) like the rating to better reflect the copy it follows, and b) like the rating to better relate to other ratings by other writers. I donâ€™t believe the current system does a very good job of either.Â
Part 3: A Proposal
So now that Iâ€™ve decided to propose a new system, what challenges does that entail? Well, for one, stars are simple. People think they understand stars, even if they really don’t, as they can easily mean one thing to the reviewer and another to the reader. If I’m going to change the way we do things, I have to improve the system in such a massive and obvious way that it would become ludicrous not to move to the new approach.
Thankfully, the star rating system is so broken that it shouldn’t be too hard.
I order to gain any sort of appeal, even from the other boys here at fair to flair, I’ve got to do the following things:
1) the system has to work for matches and “scenes” whether those scenes be interviews, attack angles, plot twists, etc. That gives my system an immediate edge, since nobody ever thinks to give a rating to anything but matches.
2) subsequently, the rating system must also work on entire shows, months, and eras. You should be able to rate an era as well as a thirty second ad.
3) the system has to be catchy, simple, easy to remember, and immediately understandable. If it involves too many caveats, drill-downs, and sub-parts, it will find it’s place alongside the Dvorak keyboard of ingenious uselessness.
4) the system has to translate across author-reader lines with as little lost as possible. If possible, this translation should also scale countries, eras, and languages.
5) it has to scale. Too many five star reviews eventually dilute the idea of a five star rating. The new system can’t have that problem.
6) the system has to take the weird world of wrestling into account. It should also take into account the importance history has to wrestling fans (as I’ve been learning, historical prominence means just about everything to many. Seems to be the only reason people read Meltzer).
So what do I have that answers all of these questions? It’s simple (by definition, it has to be). I present to all of you: the CSI system.
The CSI rating system
Every match, scene, show era, etc, can be responsibly summarized in one of three ways: either it is vitally important to the history of the art and should be canonized, or it aids in the importance of something else, or it is immaterial or useless to the critical viewer.
1) Canon, or (C)
This replaces things such as “five star classics” and “unforgettable moments” and provides a clean grade for anything we want to wholeheartedly recommend. What we grade as canon is considered important viewing for any respectable wrestling fan.
The beauty of this is that while traits such as work rate, selling, highspots, etc., are all acceptable reasons to make something canonical, many other factors come into play. Perhaps the most glaring example I’ve ever seen of the ratings system failing is Scott Keithâ€™s rating of hogan and rock at Wrestlemania xviii. He gave the match two stars. Itâ€™s one thing to disagree with him on his opinion, but I actually disagree with him on the process by which he came to that decision (by comparing it to the previous string of technically amazing Angle and Austin matches, as well as Hogan and Warrior from twelve years previous. The match is canonical. It’s recommended that you see that one. I can tell you why (and of course explanation is encouraged in this system). A canonical rating is certainly taken more seriously by an impressive recommendation. But unlike Keithâ€™s two star rating, simply stating something as canonical isn’t confusing in and of itself. It infers recommendation, whereas his rating infers that you keep far away from the thing. It infers that the match or scene is worth preserving.
Beautifully, it also infers that what you consider canonical is as valuable as someone else doing the same. It stays away from top-10ing in a sense. An interview segment can be just as important to history as a Wrestlemania main event, and instead of the argument being about star amounts (often cut into quarters), it can be (theoretically) based on arguments. This is important: there are no gradients. Nothing is more or less canonical. It simply goes into the book of things you believe are important to present to others. Thatâ€™s the best a match, scene, or whatever, can hope to achieve.
2) Satellite, or (S)
As tempted as I was to simplify the system down to just two types of ratings (a woo/boo, if you will) I feel a third is necessary to flesh it out properly. A satellite rating is for matches or scenes that a important to a larger cause, but in and of themselves are not terribly interesting. They are footnotes, in a sense: useful for extra context, important to highlight, but marginalia. An argument in a larger essay, if you will.
Those who play loose with this system may notice that there’s a bit of overlap between satellite and canon, especially in regard to scenes. A really great scene may be one that leads to something bigger at the same time. Here’s the distinction: satellite scenes are not great on their own. In fact, they may not be even “good,” but they are necessary to explain why an ingredient in a canonical scene or match plays out as it does.
For this reason, a satellite rating has to come with some explanation, if only a reference to the canonical example it supports. Because of this, I expect this to be the least-used of the three, as it can only really be supported by a) contextual thought, and b) some sense of hindsight.
C) Immaterial, or (I)
Finally, the easiest of the three, the one that requires the least amount of thought. Is a match bad, but not so bad we need not remark on it? Is an interviewing boring? Is a main event a disappointment in terms of plot progression and match quality? How about the entire story between HHH and Kevin Nash in 2003? How about the entire year of 2005? The entire existence of WWA? These things are immaterial, and can easily be marked as such. An (I) attached to a review of a match marks it as missable by the general and passionate audience (if you think it’s good for one or the other, mark it as C or S and make your case!)
An immaterial rating denotes unimportance, not necessarily poor quality. Sometimes, poor wrestling is very interesting wrestling, something the star rating system utterly fails at communicating. The most important tweak I’ve made is in the lame review: it is not failure that denotes the worst mark, but lack of a memorable performance.
This system is superior for all the reasons I explained above, but Iâ€™ll go over them again in summation.
1) Whereas before only matches could be rated, scenes of any nature can now receive one.
2) Every part of wrestling history, from television to PPV to years, eras, and companies, can be rated.
3) I believe CSI is a catchy enough name, and entire shows can be distilled into simple sentences of description with a rating at the end of each segment, making it much simpler for beginning reviewers to utilize. As well, the review system awards and recommends longer arguments, rewarding experienced writers.
4) Hardcore wrestling fans understand â€œCanonicalâ€ as well as new and curious viewers.
5) Having too many matches and scenes listed as Canonical does not dilute the meaning as it would a five-star review. If anything, it promotes discussion, parsing, revision, and closer reading. In my mind, all good things.
6) Matches, scenes, etc., deemed awful and ridiculous under the five-star rating system (or simply ignored entirely) can now be included in wrestling history as canonical things, not just â€œgreatâ€ things.
What do I expect to happen? Nothing, at first. Systems donâ€™t change overnight. The five-star system has been in place for a long, long time, and wrestling fans have never been particularly happy about any change. But I do believe thoroughly in the superior nature of this system, even if it is untested and very, very beta. Iâ€™m sure it will change over the years and grow into itsâ€™ own thing. But if all I ever did was suggest something better, Iâ€™m happy with that, too.
 These matches include: Andy Kauffman vs Jerry Lawler, Hulk Hogan vs AndrÃ© The Giant at Wrestlemania III, and John Cena VS whoever from a random WM main event.
 For instance, some wrestlers have preference for a certain weapon. HHH consistently uses a sledgehammer. Mick Foley tends towards the barb wire baseball bat. The Undertaker enjoys his lightning bolts from the sky.
 See every Royal Rumble match with the exception of 1992 and 2004, with 1999 being the most glaring example. Also, every single match involving electrocution and/or burial.
 Fans of indie strong-style, mainly.
 The word â€œexcitingâ€ here is pretty relative when you take into consideration over and undersaturation. Whereas wrestling fans in New Zealand will cheer a body slam, fans in New Jersey will boo for an entire show until someone is set on fire.
 This can happen retroactively, and is because of this a complete nightmare in figuring out whatâ€™s good and what isnâ€™t. Iâ€™m sorry.