Instead of talking about the 1,000th Raw, I decided to do something different today. As I stated in my previous column, I was going to do why wrestling was better without Vince McMahon, but due to the 1,000th Raw being today, I didn’t want to rain on his parade. So I decided to talk about what makes a wrestling match extraordinary to me and why. This took a long time so I hope you enjoy it.
There’s no doubt that two wrestlers can have a great match without a story behind it, but build helps create anticipation. Plus, anything to do with fighting needs a story behind it if it wants to be truly dramatic. If two unknown wrestlers were fighting without any motives or purpose, it isn’t going to result into any emotional investment. Though, wrestlers with well-defined gimmicks and roles with a purpose fighting will make the crowd emotionally invested. Just because a match is built doesn’t mean it will automatically be more interesting, though.
Even the best ideas will not come across well to the audience if it isn’t delivered well by the performers. Originally, the Nexus idea was a great plan on paper, but because of Wade Barrett’s shaky mic work, Nexus didn’t generate as much heat WWE projected. On the other hand, the Chris Jericho and HBK feud on paper was nothing unusual for that time, because wrestlers turning on each other has been a story used in wrestling since God only knows when and man on women violence became overexposed due to ECW and the Attitude Era. But the feud was a phenomenally executed mostly because of the wrestlers’ performances.
There’s a reason the Superbowl’s the most anticipated game of the year: It’s 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 importance and 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 precious title, Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes was a clash of the most hated and loved wrestlers for the precious title, and the Undertaker and HBK’s was for one man’s streak and another’s career.
Ideally, a match is more special when wrestlers are extremely popular (or unpopular for heels) and the match is for something important.
Reading an audience/knowing what to give or not to give them-
Being able to read and know what the crowd wants are important parts of a compelling match, if not the most important. 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 wouldn’t be good at all. Vince McMahon and Stone Cold Steve Austin never put Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair’s matches in jeopardy of the greatest North American matches ever, but they generated nuclear crowd reactions every time they wrestled. They simply knew what the fans didn’t or wanted to see (I mean that in a good way) and gave them a mixture of both every time.
To clarify my point, let’s say you were new to wrestling and had to decide if you wanted to watch WWF and WCW. On Nitro, there’s a match a Dean Malenko match. The match doesn’t look bad, but the crowd doesn’t seem like they care at all. On Raw, there’s a N.A.O match and the crowd is going ballistic for it. Which one do you choose by using what you saw? The majority, including myself, would pick the latter because it’s natural instincts to think something that receives a stronger response is better.
When a wrestler is able to read the crowd, he or she is able to give the crowd what most want or don’t want to see. For instance, in a formulaic tag-match, one of the babyfaces be beat up by the heel wrestlers. If everything is done right, the crowd will want the babyface to make a tag to the fresh babyface to see the heels can get their comeuppance. If the babyface just goes over and makes a “hot-tag”, he didn’t do a good job of building to the crescendo because, even though the crowd wanted it to happen, it happened too sudden. That’s why the wrestlers in the match must be able to read the crowd’s reaction, project the highest point of the heat, and then make the tag.
Chances are something like this would send the fans on a dramatic roller coaster ride:
After being beaten on, the babyface starts to prompt his comeback. However, the heel rakes his eyes and throws his into his corner. The heel beats him 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 be made.Finally, after being beaten and then trapped by the two heels in their corner, he rolls under them and makes the tag. I’m not reading a crowd per se, but the overall demonstration of creating intrigue, hope and anticipation will make the crowd erupt more so than just an out-of-nowhere tag, judging from my personal experiences.
Furthermore, a wrestler who is able to read a crowd will be able to call proper audibles. For instance, if a wrestler has in a sleeper hold, but it’s not creating any heat, the best thing would be to get out of that spot as soon as possible. However, if the headlock is creating lots of heat, the wrestlers should milk it out longer than planned.
First, I must define what the words truly mean. The psychology simply means realism. Before Vince McMahon exposed the business entirely, the goal of wrestling making fans believe it was real. So, if a wrestler had poor psychology, not only were their matches sub-par, but they were also exposing the business. Nowadays, psychology isn’t as important, but it still has a major effect on fans suspending their disbelief. And storytelling just simply telling a story in a match.
There are different ways to explain the difference between good and bad psychology. However, I will try to be brief as possible for your sake. First and foremost, a wrestler must wrestle who he portrays outside the ring. What I mean by this is a cowardly wrestler outside cannot be a monster inside. For instance, 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. Undertaker, however, portrayed a Deadman outside and thus used blank facial expressions on his face and wrestled methodically. Both extremely different, yet examples of good psychology. Both strategies and game plans are demonstrations of good psychology and storytelling, too. Like any sport, athletes come up with some type of way they’re going to win, so it only makes sense if wrestling does the same. Bret Hart was one who understood this, as he wrestled differently depending on who he wrestled, i.e. if he wrestled against Bam Bam or Kevin Nash, he would come up ways to chop them down, but if he faced Hennig or Owen Hart, he would try to simply out wrestle them.
Psychology (and something storytelling) is all about pretending wrestling’s real, so selling is a major key to its success . The word selling simply means pretending you’re hurt or injured, so yes it’s basically acting. The reason selling is important is for the audience to believe, or at least to suspense their disbelief, that a certain wrestler is injured. For instance, if a babyface doesn’t seem to be in peril due to the lack of selling, there would be no point of the babyface getting beat up. To wrap up, the illusion of professional wrestling is shattered without selling.
There are three types of selling. The first one is underselling. A wrestler portraying a monster would undersell to make the illusion that he’s a dominant figure. The second one is to logical selling. A wrestler whose a basicbabyface would logically sell, meaning pretend what it would look like in reality. And the last one is overselling. A wrestler whose a cowardly heel would oversell to make it look as if he’s receiving his comeuppance via thebabyface.
The last key to selling is consistency. If a wrestler spends a good part of the match working on another’s arm, the victim shouldn’t stop pretending the arm is hurt. Instead, he must adjust to his arm being hurt by doing stuff he cannot do with an injured arm. Inconsistent selling makes a match not believable.
Stories in the ring are told by moves, facial expressions, mannerisms, and body language. Without them, a match is a stunt show with moves that don’t string together. Not saying that it can’t be entertaining, but it will, however, lack substance and emotional investment. Anyone could teach a monkey how to do a moonsault, but can’t teach him when or why to do one. In other words, a moonsault may look cool, but doesn’t have much merit if it doesn’t fit the context of the story.
Ultimately, moves are just simply items that are a part of the story; they’re what helps the match shift into different gears and build. The build, not the moves, keep the audience entertained or on the edge of their seat. Additionally, without building a match to the conclusion (the most memorable thing to any story), it comes off anti-climatic and not memorable.
In order for the timing to be effective, the wrestlers must be on the same page, meaning they must know how to communicate with each other. Otherwise, the match will be a mess. Bad timing can derail anything important planned for a match and noticeable botches can overshadow a story being told. It’s also crucial for reversals/counters and sequences to be perfectly timed and executed or else the moves look sloppy and ineffective, hindering the illusion of pro-wrestling. Most importantly, bad execution and timing can lead to injuries, some of which that may lead to even death. Execution and timing are truly everything.
So, the most important keys to a compelling match are the anticipation, fan reaction, wrestler’s popularity, importance, realism, in-ring story, and timing. When most of these keys are done to perfection, the match will stand out as special. When they’re, however, all done to perfection, it’s something that fans will only see once in a lifetime.