Ring Architect 6.1.14: Style Clashes
Posted by Obi Justice on 06.01.2014
Do martial arts kicks and chops work in the world of pro wrestling? Obi Justice looks at how some martial arts flair can help (or hinder) a wrestling character.
"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.
You only have to go back a few years to find out a raft of complaints about the cookie-cutter style that all the WWE developmental guys seemed to share. It's gotten a bit more diverse now, especially with NXT as a high-profile development program and the Performance Center, but you're still going to see a lot of vertical suplexes, body slams, and collar-and-elbow tie-ups. Even with their differences, most wrestlers vaguely draw from the same playbook. That's why when you see a guy like Rob Van Dam digging into his karate repertoire with his crazy kicks, it's not just effective, it stands out. It's a reminder that there's more to fighting than the "approved style" in typical American promotions and message to any traditional wrestlers that they need to get on their game.
One of the most interesting things about the rise of mixed martial arts to me has been how it's shattered the myth of the One True Martial Art. A lot of martial arts movies, especially westernized ones, have this trope: you learn this one style/move/trick and you'll be able to defeat anyone. Think Karate Kid's crane kick or the Bride's Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique from Kill Bill. Sure, those are just moves, but it's the same concept and grew out of Western superstitions about the power of (mostly Eastern) striking martial arts. In the cage, though, you can forget all that. Year after year of knocking heads has shown that no martial art developed on its own is good enough and there will never be such a thing as an invulnerable style. If you wear a gi into the octagon, you are asking for trouble.
The idea of "no holds barred" didn't start with the UFC. There had to be crazy bar brawls or random fights beforehand, even prize fights, where anything was allowed. That would have all been underground, though. Pro wrestling got the jump on the no holds barred action as a regular promotion. It was marketed as "wrestling," but it had strikes, throws, and grapples all together in one package way before any other organized combat sport like boxing, wrestling, or even competition karate. What makes it even better is that you aren't restricted by reality.
That means that when you want to bring in a guy like Ken Shamrock, you don't need to worry if his submission-based style could actually catch up with a Rey Mysterio or knock down a Mark Henry every time. The situation can be set up and Shamrock will have his stand-out moment with his unique style. In every match, a guy who uses a martial arts influenced style -- and I do want to say that it's not just Eastern martial arts but boxing, old-timey grappling (a la Matt Classic), savate (free gimmick!), etc. -- has that extra shine of doing something different.
Red corner is pro. Blue corner is con.
RED CORNER: A fresh new style can help sell unique aspects of a character. Daniel Bryan isn't the first, last, or only user of the buzzsaw kick, but it is definitely one of his biggest weapons. To me it's really the lynchpin of his style, an all-weather attack. More than that, it emphasizes that he's not your traditional wrestler who uses your big, open throws and goes for clean-looking pins. Bryan is about ferocity, about using his whole body for maximum impact. He doesn't care if he looks silly or if he's a bit off-balance. In a similar way, RVD's array of kicks made him stand apart from the pack, but he was more about being unpredictable and impactful than about being fierce. His kicks were more renowned for coming from weird angles and catching you off-guard. Similar influences in the martial arts kicking -- at the very least, they didn't come from the rolling waves of grain -- but showing very different characters.
What makes martial arts different than, say, Doink bringing in some clown antics, is that we already believe martial arts are credible. Part of that movie-style stereotype of deadly kung fus is based on our idea that a kick with some flourish is going to do a lot of damage. Sure, we know the kick hurts, but slipping on a banana peel and falling hard hurts as well. The thing is that we don't already buy the banana peel as an effective attack. We believe martial arts because we've been shown it works as a fighting method in tons of other media. That makes it perfect for pro wrestling. It not only lets people show off aspects of character in a way outside the "traditional wrestling" moveset, its credibility stands on its own.
BLUE CORNER: Overuse of martial arts, striking especially, can really detract from the drama of a match. One of my favorite comedians (comic entity, really, I always equate "comedian" with stand-up, which he doesn't do) is David Mitchell and he has a little bit about not knowing whether he'd enjoy a tennis match until it was over and he knew who won. I think a lot of combat sports work the same way. Of course, if it's a really action packed fight you might still get hyped, but a lot of times the quality of a fight is determined by what ends up happening at the end. Two guys going at it in the cage might be great right up until it goes to decision, then you have to wonder why no one finished the fight and you start analyzing all the opportunities that people missed. You don't really get to soak those things in in the moment.
That's not pro wrestling. Wrestling is entirely about making all those little details of strategy evident moment to moment so you can appreciate and get swept up in it. That's why it's always a little bit dangerous from a storytelling point of view to start bringing in a lot of martial arts strikes, and it's why there have never been a lot of boxers who really utilize their boxing stepping into the wrestling ring. Wade Barrett is always sold as a former bare knuckle guy but how many times has he really opened up with that? Even people who use a lot of submissions like Ken Shamrock tend not to just go full-bore on it, only trying for the ankle lock at the expense of everything else. Martial arts are constructed to be effective, not necessarily showy, and they don't give the best opportunities to show off the emotions that a wrestler needs to convey. A guy who's losing a BJJ contest might be feeling a lot of desperation, fatigue, and frustration, but since he's rolling so close to his opponent, the crowd doesn't get to see too much of that.
Important lines of thought.
TOP ROPE: Martial arts techniques are real. Of course they are, but what I'm really getting at is that they actually work and they're applicable in a pro wrestling context. It's like when they invented the curveball; probably wasn't invented specifically for the sport of baseball, but once people can throw it, you have to be able to react. When people hear about the cross arm breaker or the keylock, they'll try them and bring them in, and there comes to be a great interplay between the staged world of wrestling and the real world. Suddenly, there seem to be a lot of new options, especially when something becomes a norm like the enzuigiri.
MIDDLE ROPE: Translating real moves into the world of pro wrestling isn't always easy. Let's take that cross arm-breaker for instance. It's actually one of my pet peeve moves, mostly in the west, and for one reason: if you were straight-armed in a cross arm breaker and you weren't tapping pretty quickly, your arm would be history. However, that's not really traditional wrestling psychology. With moves like the Boston crab or even the headlock which aren't as effective joint-snappers, and incidentally are widespread traditional holds, there's room to sit in the hold (as it were) and work it for a while. The fact that pretty much everyone on US TV seems content to have their arm broken is a failure of people recognizing that yeah, the cross arm breaker actually does do a real thing. Which brings me to the last rope...
BOTTOM ROPE: Execution is extremely important to legitimize any new moves, even martial arts. Of course, these moves from MMA are real moves, but that doesn't automatically mean they work in pro wrestling. We would assume they would but you still need to show it works on the wrestling show. The cross arm breaker hasn't really been neutralized but it has been nerfed, from a lock-it-in-and-you-win move to just another hold, but I'm sure there are a lot of people who think that it's not as deadly as it really is. Ring of Honor fans might be familiar with Tadarius Thomas who fights with capoeira, an exciting Brazilian martial art. No doubt it is effective, at least in delivering force, but when Thomas first debuted the style in ROH he wasn't able to get a lot of that force on his kicks. It made it look fake and I think it damaged him; he's not a firestarter anyway, but I have to believe that there were higher hopes for him with the odd style he was bringing.