Ring Architect 3.09.14: Looking at Technical Wrestling
Posted by Obi Justice on 03.09.2014
Cloverholds, flying leg rolls, figure-fours and more! This week, Obi Justice fleshes out some brief thoughts on technical wrestling.
"Ring Architect" is a format I've come up with to break down wrestling topics. The 20' x 20' is the main idea that I'll be talking about in the column. Red Corner/Blue Corner are two opposing takes on it that I see. Of course, it'll just be my thoughts on it, so I'll leave it to you guys in the comments to see how valid they are. And the last bit, the Main Strands, are three key pieces of information that I think should be kept in mind when considering the topic. It'll definitely help me sort out my thoughts and hopefully it makes things easy for you guys to read.
The whole deal, the main idea.
I'm all about wrestling matches. When I think about what the best pro wrestling has to offer is, it's always the matches. That's what's unique about the form. A guy with a wild, exciting persona and lackluster ringwork will never do as much for me as a guy with less on-mic wit but more ring generalship. I side with Bret over Shawn, Flair over Hogan, Austin over Rock, always the guys who put on classics. A great promo will grab me but a great match will get me out of my seat. I can be here at home, watching something recorded twenty years ago, and still gritting my teeth with every bump, cheering at the suplexes, biting on the near-falls. So I do appreciate wrestlers who take the time to really hone that aspect of their craft.
"Technical wrestling," for most people, is the school of wrestling focused on holds and throws. Grappling, in essence, but showier than MMA-style. Guys like Hart, Flair, and Daniel Bryan are masters of this style. They don't just tie their opponents up, they use their knowledge of holds and anatomy to completely work over a body part so they can take advantage of it later. The thing about all three of these guys is that a huge part of their personas is that they are consummate professionals. They go at it as if this is something to win through strategy, the way you'd approach any other sport. More than any other style it makes wrestling feel like the real thing.
Without suspension of disbelief, it's impossible to really get into wrestling. There's always a disconnect until you can get pulled right in. A lot of times that comes with a big bump that you know for sure had to hurt, even if it's fake, that had to hurt. Sometimes you can get it from the emotion that a wrestler evokes, the way you'd get sucked into a film. In my case, a cold match will get my attention much quicker if they show a bit of technique and strategy. If they just slug it out, no matter how angry they get, they've really got to have a good story going in for it to work. If they can bring out different strategies, that can provide its own tension and make for a great match out of nowhere.
Red corner is pro. Blue corner is con.
RED CORNER: Technical skill makes wrestlers look a lot more credible in the ring, adding that realistic drama to the match. One of my favorite things about boxing commentary is the talk about the different "weapons" that each fighter has. Clearly, each boxer can do every punch that their opponent can. Fight style, strength, speed, reach, all factor in to exactly which ones a fighter uses best. The important thing is that they tend to form a general strategy. They're not just the ones that hurt the most, it's the whole array of moves that will eventually break the other guy down. And generally, you'll see fights come down to both guys employing their weapons in an attempt to outmaneuver the other. When you're watching it, you might not see it, but it lends a certain structure to a fight. It's like the fighter's options are self-consciously limited in any situation, so it's easy to follow and to be surprised.
It's pretty much the same in wrestling, but the goals are different so it takes a different shape. In boxing, you want to land hits and perhaps knock your opponent out. You try and wear them down, knock out their breath, rattle their skull, get them to lower their guard. In wrestling, you want the pinfall or submission. Make sure the guy can't get up. Work his limbs over, but don't stick in the same spot and let him turn it around. Use flash pins, neat counters. Don't sacrifice your own body if you don't have to. These are all things that "smart" wrestlers do and it definitely lends them an air of credibility. If everyone had this gear, even if it wasn't their main gear, I think we'd see a lot of fiercer matches as ruthless strategies clash.
BLUE CORNER: Focusing too much on having a good technical match can get in the way of the real point: telling an engrossing story. The best match you'll ever see is probably not one that is mostly an exchange of holds. If it was, the Abu Dhabi submission championships would be a much bigger deal. Shawn Michaels mastered the hearstrings moment in a match towards the end of his run with his Mania matches against Ric Flair and the Undertaker. All those guys are definitely technically capable, but the matches are remembered more for the big dramatic set-pieces than any minute detail. The very success of guys like the Rock, who has had his own share of classic matches, shows that technical wrestling is not the be-all end-all.
Plus, we've all seen the grudge match that kills all its heat by starting off with a collar-and-elbow and an armwringer. A lot of times, holds have the effect of slowing things down and breaking the flow of the match. If the main point of the match is to provide a good story arc, shine-heat-comeback-finish, feeling like you have to throw in a bit of technical work could ruin what you're trying to set up. If it comes down to one or the other, definitely err on the side of telling a good story. No matter how much more realistic technical skill makes the match seem, if it's not a gripping match, it won't matter.
Important lines of thought.
TOP ROPE: Technical wrestling is good, technical spots usually aren't. The pin flurry spot is one of my least favorite spots in wrestling. Ditto endless figure four leglocks and any other rehearsed exchange of holds. This is a problem you'll see in WWE, TNA, ROH, pretty much any American wrestling company. When "technical wrestling" just means "using some holds," it's boring and it generally doesn't work. If you just need to plug a move in somewhere there is always a flashier option. However, when a wrestler shows some grappling instinct and works a strategy it can make that wrestler actually seem dangerous from that position. That's where all the tension is, that's what makes crowds gasp. A brainbuster, everybody can see that dropping straight down on your head sucks. The wrestler in the ring might have to educate the crowd on why his clover hold is fearsome.
MIDDLE ROPE: Without proper grappling instruction, technical wrestling can look pretty hokey. It's really tough to know just how to work over holds if you're not trained properly. You can go to a wrestling school these days and learn holds without learning the philosophy behind them, why the hold works this way, what grip you should use, etc. I'm not saying this to knock the wrestling school, but I am saying that I see a lot of indy guys especially try for the technical schtick but it just looks messy and disjointed because they know a lot of parts but none of the glue. WWE definitely suffers from this, as you can see plainly whenever John Cena decides to "prove he can really wrestle." John Cena is fine but every time he slings on a bunch of awkward holds it's a bit embarrassing to watch. To really make the technical wrestling thing work, you need people who have some kind of legit background so they actually know how it's supposed to go, or people need to study hard at it.
BOTTOM ROPE: Technical bouts 24/7 can get more than a bit stale. A diverse class of wrestlers is one of the most important aspects of a solid roster. As much as I like technical wrestling, I don't want everyone on the roster to be a technical master. In fact, I don't even want everyone to be "good" at it. I would like it if everybody knew how to work the holds they did, though. Mark Henry's a big guy, I don't expect him to be doing surfboard stretches or La Mistica, but it would be nice to see him break out a stepover toe hold or a stump puller, show he can do it if he needs to. I just feel like, if you're gonna be a pro wrestler, you might as well pick up a few tricks just in case.