Words From the World of Wrestling Monthly #16
Wrestling Match Conventions
September 21, 2009
Last month I ended my column with the following paragraph:
?Next month I think I?d like to take a broader look at the WWE ?main event? style, including a thesis on the difference between ?5 Moves of Doom? and ?1 Long Spot of Doom? and a question concerning why it is I always cool on big main events, especially matches involving Shawn Michaels and/or the Undertaker.?
I want to alter this direction a bit . . . partly because I rewatched Michaels/Taker from Wrestlemania 25 and thought it was still awesome . . . but mostly because I think I set up too easy of a distinction between closing come-back segments comprised of ?5 Moves of Doom? (a phrase that became common several years ago when referencing Bret Hart matches) and closing segments that end up resembling one long spot. Although the spirit of this column maintains that this distinction is ultimately a problematic one, perhaps I should at least draw out the direction I originally hoped to take this month.
Take a moment to consider the end of a typical John Cena match. Or, more precisely, picture his comeback: (1) running shoulder tackle, (2) running shoulder tackle, (3) opponent attempts a wild clothesline or punch, (4) Cena ducks, (5) Cena delivers a Blue Thunder Driver, (6) Five Knuckle Shuffle, (7) Attitude Adjustment attempt.
Now do the same thing for Shawn Michaels: (1) flying forearm, (2) kip up, (3) inverted atomic drop, (4) punches or clothesline, (5) body slam, (6) top rope elbow drop, (7) Sweet Chin Music attempt.
Now do the same thing for Huk Hogan: (1) hulk up, (2) shake, (3) point finger, (4) block third punch, (5) throw three punches, (6) Irish whip, (7) big boot, (8) leg drop.
And so on.
Now I?m not necessarily running through these examples in order to ridicule Cena or Michaels or Hogan (people who know me know that I love all three of them). I just want to point out that all three of these wrestlers organize their comebacks around what really amounts to nothing but one long spot, a pre-arranged series of moves that the wrestlers repeat so much that they become convention. And what’s the purpose of convention? To take advantage of what crowds already know. To push ready-made buttons meant to illicit a particular reaction. Thousands of people pay for tickets in order to see these spots, to cheer each step . . . even interrupting the chain of moves in order to repeat the entire sequence all over again later in the match has become a convention.
Where am I going with this? Where was I going with this?
Last month when I looked ahead to this month’s column, I wanted to point out two things: (1) some wrestlers seem to organize their matches around a collection of signature maneuvers while others tend to organize their matches according to spots. While Bret Hart certainly gets some grief from fans for what they perceive to be a monotonous pattern of backbreakers and Russian leg sweeps and second-rope elbow drops and such, I can?t say that I?ve ever perceived any sort of pre-established pattern to those moves that maintains the regularity of a comeback by John Cena or Shawn Michaels. Again, I?m not making a value judgment necessarily out of this distinction, but I think it’s a distinction worth pointing out . . . or at least I originally thought it was a distinction worth pointing out. After all, I could ramble on about points like match pacing and selling and rhythm and tempo for thousands of words, but that doesn?t change the fact that Bret Hart’s variations on a comeback remain just as much a convention as those of John Cena and Shawn Michaels. People paid money to see Bret Hart pull out those moves, regardless of whether he punctuated them with nearfalls or not.
Here’s the other thing I wanted to point out (something much more worthwhile I think): Think about the ?I Quit? match between John Cena and Randy Orton. Notice how both guys ran through signature moves and spots very early in the match. Notice how the last ten minutes of the match completely generate something new, i.e. new parameters, new sequences, new ways of manipulating crowd response, new situations that require different facial reactions and modified selling . . . in short, that match, by both exhausting and eschewing convention, manages to engage us on its own terms. It does not appeal to ready-made assumptions about what might happen next. It does not simply wish to satisfy a crowd that might have come to see what they have seen on television hundreds of times. It creates the conditions of possibility on which it wishes us to confront it, to plug into it, to enjoy it, and to revel in the fact that professional wrestling ? for all its cheesiness, for all its over-the-top acting, for all its formula, genre, and convention ? will never cease to be able to surprise us with joy or to generate something we might not have seen before.
But to be able to eschew convention, convention must exist. In order to appreciate how important it was for the Ultimate Warrior to roll out of the way of Hulk Hogan’s leg drop at Wrestlemania 6, one has to understand that no one ever rolled out of the way before. In order to enjoy an epic like The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels (something I did just last week for about the third or fourth time since Wrestlemania), one has to understand that the dance they perform weaves in and out of convention, pushing it to the limit and past the limit in a fireworks display of a WWE main event style that doesn?t typically stay with me.
And in order to enjoy Randy Orton’s torture of Cena, in order to enjoy Cena’s payback to the fullest, we somehow have to understand that the opening minutes of exhausting convention tunnel a path to make something completely worthwhile.
So last month, I wanted to write a column that shouted, ?Death to Convention!? Perhaps I felt revolutionary last month.
But now after thinking it through, it makes more sense to enjoy convention, to revel in the cheesiness of wrestling, and to pay attention to movements I?ve seen hundreds of times before . . . because when those conventions, when that cheese, and when those movements exhaust themselves, something like John Cena vs. Randy Orton, something like Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk, something like Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada happens.
Thanks for reading! Until next month . . .