Words From the World of Wrestling Monthly #10
Wrestlemania 25 Thoughts
April 19, 2009
As my spring semester winds down, I find that my thoughts desire to linger with this year’s Wrestlemania event. Rather than running through a quick review of every match, however, I?d like to offer a few thoughts on the event as a whole before lingering with what may be the most divisive match of the show: The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels.
As a Whole
I missed the Money in the Bank ladder match when Wrestlemania aired live on April 5th, but when I returned to it after the fact, I came away feeling relatively unimpressed. I certainly enjoy Shelton Benjamin’s stunts and Mark Henry’s feats of strength and the fact that indy-star CM Punk won the match for the second year in a row, but overall I cannot help but feel that if I?ve seen one of these matches, I?ve more or less seen them all. With that said, I know that some reviews online dished out a snowstorm of snowflakes for this match (I think one site called it an easy MOTYC), but I don?t see it. I certainly appreciate the risks and hard work each performer offered us (and I had fun watching it), but I?m beginning to think that WWE needs to reconsider the format of the match.
Other matches on the card also disappointed me a great deal: the main event in particular. Unlike many of my friends, I didn?t think the match necessarily stunk up the show, and I like that they tried something different with the early finishers . . . but for the love of God, the Pedigree should not be a finishing move that one can pull out of ?nowhere? like the RKO. That Triple H manages to dodge the Punt and nail the Pedigree after eating an RKO . . . yuck. Not a good start, and certainly a start that made for a lot of laying around within the first two or three minutes.
My verdict on the rest of the card (I?m eager to turn to Michaels and Taker): not a stinker, but nothing all that memorable.
Taker vs. Michaels
The opening minutes of the match assemble a variety of elements, but it helps to speak of these things in relation to other matches. When Michaels faces a major challenge, he tends to create for himself a persona that many misinterpreted in his feud with Hulk Hogan, a persona that really came to the surface when they met at Summerslam 2005. This persona draws from his character of the mid-to-late 1990s but modifies that annoyingly playful character, sweeping it into the maturity that we have observed since 2002, a maturity that actually blurs the relationship between fact and fiction. What I mean is this: Shawn Michaels? later maturity (if that’s even the right word that marks a shift in his in-ring style is inseparable from his status as a born-again Christian in ?real life.? When Michaels modifies that maturity, (re)shaping it (temporarily) with the flavor of his youth, we get a strange chimera, a performer that bounces around but remains fully capable to break through the impenetrable personas of other characters.
When Hulk Hogan attempts a mini-hulk-up, Michaels slaps him in the face. That one little move matters so much.
Likewise, here in his match with the Undertaker, Shawn Michaels performs a balance of his youth and his re-birth. In this mini-feud with the Undertaker, Michaels manages to create a becoming-heel that isn?t equal to imitating heels. He manages, in other words, to use his ?real? religious life as a way to antagonize a good guy who has made a career of generating a becoming-good from a persona of darkness. So although this match pits the Light (Shawn Michaels) against the Dark (Undertaker), an opposition explicit both in the build-up to the match and to the entrances (Michaels drops from the heavens; Taker rises from hellfire), both wrestlers generate a complex assemblage whereby Taker retains a becoming-good while Shawn Michaels takes on a persona of becoming-heel even as he employs a Christian rhetoric of Good, Light, and Faith.
With that said, this careful balance works into the early moments of the match, as Taker attacks Michaels directly; the Dead Man is bigger and stronger, but not quicker and not necessarily impervious to the strikes of Shawn Michaels, strikes that I often criticize for their flimsiness (a matter which isn?t the case in this particular performance). But Michaels does not fire away unanswered. He has to find a few different openings before he can even try a different approach (the Irish whip), but even here Taker (as ever) proves too resilient, forcing Michaels to go on the defensive again, ducking another punch and recovering from an impressive toss to the corner with a great-looking punch out of nowhere and a cocky crotch-chop that again twists his cocky-youth into his Rebirth.
But these mind games have very little effect on Taker as he begins raining in strikes and pulling out high impact moves (a huge back drop and press slam). This section of the match, however, resembles a typical Undertaker control segment, working with and against the opening minutes of the match (for instance, it may leave us scratching our head, asking, ?Michaels couldn?t counter Old School??). Before Taker can continue this segment, however, Michaels dodges a running boot, creating an opening that leads to what has become a common segment for him over recent years: working over a limb not in order to win a match but in order to recover, in order to modify the speeds at work in the match. While the leg work does not really play out later (except in one instance), it does do some work in terms of Michaels’s over-all strategy, which is actually an assemblage of strategies’striking, dodging, taunting, torturing.
But a greater shape begins to show itself: a back-and-forthness that we are certainly used to, but that has a place in a match between two names as big as Michaels and Undertaker: Michaels dodges and taunts; Taker opens up with strikes; Michaels attacks the leg; Taker uses his power to escape and to complete one of his many combinations (Snake Eyes, Big Boot, Leg Drop).
But what do we make of the crossface-counter to the chokeslam attempt? Should we criticize the match because Michaels attacks a different body part, because his offense seems schizophrenic? Perhaps. Perhaps it should have been tougher for Michaels to apply the crossface. Perhaps Taker should have escaped a bit sooner than he did. Or perhaps…
The crossface is not an homage to Benoit, nor is it an attempt to ?take it back.? It is another annoyance, another instance of Michaels finding a counter that Taker couldn?t have expected, leaving open a plethora of other counters that he can use (and does use) later. But the crossface also gives away the fact that Michaels does not have a linear strategy, that as with any assemblage HBK is playing-it-by-ear, trying his best to avoid even as he antagonizes, trying his best to take advantage of openings even if it means diverging from an earlier strategy, applying submission holds to modify the tempo of the match even if Taker’s resilience means he will not win via submission, putting himself in situations where Taker’s power will eventually win out in order to simultaneously make possible a chance . . . a chance that he could surprise the undefeated Dead Man one more time.
And he does, of course, even in his intermittent moments of control, using two inverted atomic drops instead of one, putting Taker down with a flying clothesline (an atypical piece of offense) before attempting his flying elbow.
The trouble, however, even with a strategy that is an assemblage of strategies is the fact that the Undertaker is the Undertaker. Even doubling up offense (as JR puts it), even pulling out unexpected counters cannot make up for the fact that the Undertaker keeps . . . sitting . . . up. Only Bret Hart had an answer to these demoralizing moments. When the Undertaker tried sitting up in their encounters, Bret Hart pulled out a diving clothesline.
Here Michaels is not so lucky, he nearly gets chokeslammed (meaning he has to counter it for a second time!) and attempts to go for Taker’s knees one more time, but Taker (by this time) has figured out a bit of a pattern, feeding his legs to Michaels when he dodges Sweet Chin Music, knowing that Michaels will make himself vulnerable to a move that HBK is not used to countering: Hell’s Gate. Unlike earlier big matches, Hell’s Gate has now had the proper build, so the crowd pops big here . . . it puts down everyone . . . so when HBK gets to the ropes, his survival (even this early) feels like a huge achievement.
Then the match gets scary: two dives that could have very well ended the match . . . and, in Taker’s case, a life. In a segment that lasts approximately five minutes, Shawn Michaels misses a moonsault to the floor (taking a NASTY bump) and Taker misses a huge tope, landing (at least from our vantage point) right on his head. When I watched this moment live, I nearly turned off the television, not because I thought the match had taken a turn for the worse, but because at this point I began to participate in the construction of the match; I began to get paranoid: Was Taker supposed to nearly land on his head? Was Michaels really supposed to nearly land on his head in what looked like a Terry Funk moonsault? Should I be applauding the fact that Taker makes it back in the ring? Would I want him to try this move again?
But these are real world questions that invade the experience of this fiction, but in this way the match begins (accidentally) to perform the very sort of thing that Shawn Michaels does, sweeping elements of real world worry into fictional performance. Just as Michaels modifies his character, incorporating elements of his Christian life into his wrestling persona (modifying them into a becoming-heel), the match itself incorporates elements of real injury and real risk (let’s face it, Taker could have died on that fall) into a fake fight . . . That Taker’s persona overcomes that fall manages, in a disturbing way, to make the match more fascinating, more interesting, much in the same way that Mick Foley’s unexpected fall through the cage in 1998 adds to his Hell in a Cell match with Taker. Much the same way that Eddie Guerrero’s ridiculous amount of blood loss against JBL in 2004 makes that match, I argue, the Match of the Decade thus far.
This match is far from Match of the Decade, however. More on that later.
The next ten minutes of the match differ a great deal from the earlier portions, moving to a different register that resembles to a great extent Taker’s recent Wrestlemania encounters with Batista and Edge: i.e. ?Bombs Galore.? Sweet Chin Music countered into a Chokeslam. Kick out. Tombstone countered into Sweet Chin Music countered into Chokeslam countered into Sweet Chin Music. Kick out. Last Ride countered into roll-up countered into Last Ride. Kick out. Taker Big Elbow misses. Both struggle to their feet. Skin the cat. Tombstone. Kick out.
But what’s different about this? This isn?t like segments between Taker and Edge or Taker and Angle or Taker and Batista. In some ways, this segment is uneven. Taker certainly survives a super kick, but only after Michaels fails to cover him quickly. Michaels, on the other hand, survives every . . . single . . . one of Undertaker’s big moves, complete with immediate covers (something that, though initially minor, matters a great deal).
I can?t help but feel this is important. JR yells, after Michaels kicks out of the tombstone, ?I just had an out of body experience!? Likewise. Again, this isn?t the first time anyone has kicked out of that move, but the situation created and the succession of bombs that HBK has to absorb makes it absolutely impossible for him to survive the offense. And yet he does survive the offense. He survives it because his becoming-heel does not imitate heel-ishness. At this moment we see another alteration to his character that we don?t observe in his match with Hogan (where he fell cleanly to a single Leg Drop).
One might say that in adopting a superhuman resiliency that only the Undertaker could possibly match, Shawn Michaels (and his opponent) take the WWE style of Wrestlemania Bomb Throwing to its limit . . . in fact, they take that style beyond its limit (to the nth degree) the moment Shawn Michaels kicks out of the Tombstone piledriver. Perhaps they do this not just because they can and not because others should copy them again and again (a danger that one observes in the history of All Japan Pro Wrestling as well as in several independent promotions and Junior Heavyweight matches in Japan). Michaels and Taker perform what one might call a Limit-Breaker because neither of them has many Wrestlemanias left. And also: Michaels kicks out of the Tombstone because they?ve been teasing this match for two years. But more importantly: as far as Wrestlemania Legends go, HBK and the Dead Man are the two biggest active wrestlers in the company: Mr. Wrestlemania (who admittedly doesn?t have the best Wrestlemania record) against the unbelievable record (even in a scripted performance) of 16-0. In short, the insane number of near falls and survived offense and back-and-forthness works between these two. It wouldn?t work at all with anyone else . . . or at any other time.
The Undertaker, of course, survives a second Sweet Chin Music, kicking out at two. Once both men are back on their feet, they stop trying to counter . . . Taker punches . . . Michaels chops . . . more chops . . . more chops . . . And one more cool counter into a Tombstone that ends the match at 30:42.
Earlier I mentioned that this wasn?t the Match of the Decade, but I?ll go even as far as to say that it won?t win Match of the Year. Or at least it shouldn?t win. As necessary as this performance was, as necessary as it might be for them to break the limit of the WWE Style in order to satisfy the magnitude of this encounter, that break comes at the cost of some slippages: When Shawn Michaels pleads for the referee to count out the Undertaker . . . I don?t believe it. Although one might argue that he is again sweeping elements of his youth into his current persona or that the match had just been too brutal up to that point, I fail to see how that really satisfies my objection. The real trial of Shawn Michaels does not begin until after Taker re-enters the ring; the space for desperation, for the play of desire for the match to end has not yet been created. Thus: hokey.
But most importantly: In the long run, the subtlety I suggest in the performance of both wrestlers does not really exist. The nuanced pattern that I see in the beginning does not really play out throughout the entire match, and Michaels? offense (while certainly a jumble of several strategies) never quite makes clear that that is precisely what he is going for (which, of course, means that I might be reading too much into what happens). In short, what keeps this Bomb-A-Thon from really winning me over is the fact that it isn?t Misawa vs. Kobashi circa 1997.
In short, it doesn?t have that the impressively lovely wedding of epic structure with clever transitions, with careful selling points, with obvious flagposts to help viewers track the progression from one segment to another . . . all the things that one observes in the January 1997 Triple Crown match between Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi. In that match, Kobashi survives every single one of Misawa’s offensive maneuvers (kicking out of the Tiger Driver ?91 and getting to his feet after the Tiger Suplex ?85), and yet they make all the necessary steps to ensure that it works. Sadly, one might also peg this match as guilty of setting an impossible precedent. If one watches the other three Triple Crown matches between these two (October 1997, October 1998, June 1999), it becomes clear that continually breaking limits and raising bars on Bomb Throwing, even when done with the most minute level of care and skill and beauty, is detrimental to the care put into staging an encounter that generates lasting affect.
My fear: Undertaker’s next match won?t live up to this performance . . . and in trying to do so, we?ll be seeing some survive even more than Shawn Michaels survived . . .
I?ll leave you with those thoughts. Until next month!