Ring Architect 4.29.14: Turning Things Around
Posted by Obi Justice on 04.29.2014
We've seen more innovative and exciting counters than I can count in the past five years. With everyone focusing on the next crazy move, is the real story being left behind? Obi Justice looks into what focusing on counters might be keeping us from.
"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. Spare Parts is just a quick summary. The format'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.
From time to time I delve back into my trove of old matches. Earlier, I checked out the finals of the 1986 NJPW International Wrestling Grand Prix (precursor to the G1 Climax) and it was not time wasted. For those who don't know Murdoch, he's an old school brawler with plenty of charisma, one of the real naturals of the sport. He was also a pretty well documented racist, but you take these things in stride. He's dead now, anyway. Antonio Inoki is one of the true legends of pro wrestling. He doesn't do the face/heel thing as well as some but he has got fire to spare and the crowd loves him.
One of the things I admire about matches like these is the pacing. Murdoch works Inoki's arm a hell of a lot and that puts Inoki on the backfoot early on. Inoki battles, over and over, uphill, to finally knock Murdoch onto his back and get some breathing room. Inoki keeps on Murdoch despite Murdoch's evasions and opportunistic turnarounds until Murdoch can get Inoki to make a big mistake. To me, it feels very natural. I like it when holds are cinched in as if they have their own particular effect. Expanding that, any time you've got thoughtful selling, the effect of every action is multiplied.
Last week on Raw we saw a very good match between Sheamus and Wade Barrett that was pretty much the opposite in tenor. There was no quit in either man at all. Hammer and tongs they went at it, no one holding an advantage for long, each guy pulling out all the stops to win. It eventually came down to Sheamus making a mistake in his rally and Barrett cracking him with the Bull Hammer elbow. It pulled a "This is Awesome!" chant out of the crowd (which is somewhat harder to do in WWE than on the indies) and definitely helped to get the show off on the right foot.
A big part of the match was that they were able to counter each other so well. It almost didn't matter where either person was at any point, there was always the ability to turn it around. I think it can be a great tool, especially if the guys know each other very well and use counters to show that. I do wonder about how widespread it is, though. I'd say counter wrestling is the definitive aspect of all levels of American wrestling at least and that's a bit troubling. You do get exciting, fast-paced matchups a lot of the time, but I feel that you could almost have put anybody in the ring and had them follow the Barrett/Sheamus script to the same success. That, I think, is where the over-reliance on counters could be a problem.
Red corner is pro. Blue corner is con.
RED CORNER: Counters provide quick, exciting momentum shifts that get a crowd interested. I think it was last week's Ask 411 that went into Kurt Angle's ankle lock having a lot more drama built into it because he stood rather than kneeling. Not only could Angle then drop into a grapevine, it made for easier and far showier counters. That allowed Kurt to do a lot by locking the hold on and having it turned around several times in a match, or even having it turned around but he would counter-counter by keeping the hold locked. Plus, he could always use it to turn around an enzuigiri or other sort of kick. The endless variety made for spontaneous moments in his matches and it definitely added to the perception that his matches, at least, could end at any time.
I think Angle had the main use of counters down. More than anything, they make you do a double-take, make you really pay attention because it almost came out of nowhere. A guy who seemed to be out suddenly has a second chance. Those hooking moments are definitely useful to have in any form of storytelling, but especially a live (in the sense of one-take) genre like wrestling when you really need that immediate reaction. Especially when you consider the time constraints typically given to a WWE match, using counters can help to amp up tension without needing to take a lot of time to do so. For WWE standards, Barrett and Sheamus got a good amount of time, but I definitely think that slowing it down even a bit would have taken away from the match the way it was laid out.
BLUE CORNER: Counters can change things too abruptly to appreciate the switches in advantage. As I said, Barrett and Sheamus had a good match, but it was very even. On paper, very good thing. In practice, watching the match, it was a series of moves until the ending. There was never the sense of anybody having a strategy or even an edge. What happened was that Sheamus would hit a big move, near fall, beat Barrett up a bit, then Barrett would turn it around, big move, near fall, beat Sheamus up a bit, Sheamus turns it around, rinse, repeat until done. Because things could change at any moment, and because they changed so dramatically (from one side of the board to the other), there was really never any nail-biting "will he kick out?" moment for Sheamus (or Barrett, whoever you liked in the match). There was always the feeling that salvation was just around the corner which, to me, is the death of any tension in a story.
This problem isn't just one shared by WWE, it's in pretty much all levels of American wrestling and I've seen its influence in Japan as well. Some might call it "TV style." To some extent I think it makes sense, but this counter-heavy aspect holds even on PPVs, even on indy shows that go out on tape, iPPV, VOD, whatever. The difference is that they usually just drag the thing out a bit more. Recently watching Jay Lethal vs. Tommaso Ciampa in Ring of Honor, for example, each guy tended to get a bit more time in control but the switch was always a quick counter. Compare that to Inoki vs. Murdoch. That match did have counters, but the counters rarely ever changed the match by themselves. Inoki would manage to counter Murdoch, which would buy him a bit of time before Murdoch beat on him again. It was something he didn't just get in one. To me, that builds the drama in a consistent way, rather than simply chopping the story up into chapters with different headings.
Important lines of thought.
TOP ROPE: Switching things up so quick takes impact away from body work. This can perhaps be called the Davey Richards Syndrome. I think Davey is a good seller when he is selling. That is, after he's taken a move, he acts as hurt as he should, it's convincing. However, his issue is that when it's time for him to hit his moves he does it without seeming to feel that pain. To me, a big part of that is that he uses this counter-heavy style that most people do. It means that when it's his turn, he has to just do his move regardless. So, for instance, if your strategy relied on working a guy's arm but he uses a big lariat, he's using that lariat no matter what whenever it's his turn, even if he was billed as "the smart man's wrestler" and you'd practically broken his arm off at the shoulder. It's easy to say "just pick better counters," but the problem is, there are only so many that every person knows and works with their character, and it's even more difficult to think of a great one on the fly. Even Daniel Bryan, who I think is one of the best at knowing these different moves, falls prey to overusing his injured bodyparts fairly often.
MIDDLE ROPE: Lots of counters can make the match seem choreographed. This is a problem that you definitely see more on the indies, but WWE gets a taste of it, too. Cesaro/RVD suffered a couple times from it, in fact. When the match relies so heavily on counters to change the advantage, every counter really needs to be hit flush or it breaks up the flow. You can flub a regular move, but the big drama turnarounds are something that you really shouldn't. If you take the turnarounds in a measured manner, each particular move doesn't matter as much as the whole. If it's just a counter that changes it, like with RVD apparently not gelling with Cesaro on that first big backbreaker, messing the move up really shoots down the work you did before. That's when messing up is noticable and when the fourth wall is broken. That choreographed muscle ballet is one of the reasons I don't watch early ROH.
BOTTOM ROPE: Using counters so heavily makes everybody seem very similar since everyone's moveset can be turned around. It might seem a bit silly to say Mark Henry's style is like Rey Mysterio's, but to me, in the WWE world, neither one is actually much better than the other. In fact, Zack Ryder is as good as them, too. That is, I think if Rey faced Ryder, Rey would win mostly because he's higher on the card, not because I think he's perceived as a better wrestler. Put them in the ring and Ryder will generally be able to counter whatever Rey has got, or whatever Henry's got, when he is needed to, right up until the end. You might say that Henry would just manhandle Ryder, but Rey would have pretty much the same amount of offense against Ryder and control him in much the same way as far as keeping him down, in the ropes, knocking him around, etc. Because no one really controls the match in a different manner than anyone else, and because basically everyone is capable of countering everything in their way (and does so frequently), it's tough to really feel invested in a match as if it matters on a level deeper than who the office likes that night.
Whatever's left to say.
On paper, having a match that's even is great. However, it usually happens where neither guy can ever secure a strong advantage. The evenness I think that wrestling should go for is a "what's going to happen because anything could" feeling, which doesn't need things to be exactly balanced. Instead, it feels more like watching a craps game without placing a bet: no idea what will happen, but to you, it's just a random result. All probabilities being even and no stakes, no drama or story built into it, means that emotionally it just doesn't matter. Counters are good and cool, I'm not saying people shouldn't use or develop them. I would just like to see more involved and thorough turnarounds instead of flash counters and switching around.