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Do "Standards change" in wrestling?


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#1 Dylan Waco

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 06:08 AM

Admittedly this is an open ended question that can be answered several different ways depending on how you look at it.  Still the subject has come up several times recent.  Most notably it was mentioned  by Dave Meltzer on an episode of WOR which led to a lengthy twitter debate I engaged in with Joe and Rich from Voices of Wrestling.  I was set to let this one sit for a while, but it came up again on the latest VOW podcast, and since twitter is an awful medium for meaningful discussion on a subject like this, I thought it was worth starting a thread to discuss it here.

 

One thing that I think is important to note right out of the gate is that if we accept the "standards change" argument, I'm not sure where that leaves projects or discussion based on older wrestling footage.  After all, if "standards change," and it is unfair to evaluate old matches with "modern eyes" (Meltzer's favorite talking point on the subject), what value is there in talking about old footage at all?  Furthermore if "standards change," what value is there in writing revisionist histories/biographies about wrestlers or events that are based on understandings that would have been alien to the people/events being discussed?  It seems to me that the "standards change" argument logically leads to a sort of uniformity of opinion, whereby even if one does have interest in looking back, one must concede that their views carry a unique bias, and that conclusions drawn from them are somehow less credible than they would have been if they had been formed in "real time" with what they are viewing.  Perhaps not surprisingly this view is the exact view one would expect to find among tastemaker(s) whose opinions and views on past events and matches are being challenged with much more frequency than at any point in history. 

 

Having said all of this, NONE of the above means that standards do not change.  In fact to some degree this is a personal question, as reflected in the responses and comments of Joe and Rich on their most recent podcast.  During the twitter debate I made the point that the "standards change" argument, is a point that is reflective of a particular point of view about what constitutes good wrestling, a viewpoint that Joe, Rich and Dave Meltzer (generally speaking) seem to share.  It is notable that when I made this argument on twitter, both Joe and Rich didn't buy it, with Joe in fact calling it "bullshit" to suggest that Dave Meltzer's views on the subject reflected an individual bias toward certain forms/styles of wrestling.  This is important because it suggests that the "standards change" argument is something that they see as universal and global in scope.  In other words - if I am following their argument correctly - they are not talking about a change in personal tastes, but in fact a change in some sort of objective or at least consensus based standard for what constitutes good wrestling.

 

There is a ton more I could write on this, but I think now it is important to cite Joe and Rich from their most recent podcast.  I do not want to misrepresent what was said and am not quoting, but I believe the argument used was effectively this - as innovation has led to flashier wrestling offense (I believe Flamita was cited), older finishing holds like side headlock throws have become outdated.  While in the context of their time those spots may have seemed believable and even exciting, in the modern context finishing a match with such a spot would seem dated, and the spot itself is generally treated as filler.  Therefore "standards change," and it is impossible to fairly rate, discuss, analyze, et. a match from the 50's because the context is too different.

 

You can look at that point many different ways, but to my eyes I fail to see how it is a point that says anything about some universal "standard" that has changed.  What it does suggests to me is that Joe (the one really driving home the point) has a personal bias toward innovative, flashy spots.  On the other hand someone like myself has a bias toward tight, believable, matwork.  To that end I would just as soon see Timothy Thatcher deliver a visually impressive, impactful and strategically logical headlock throw, as I would see Flamita do a leaping rana. 

 

But even the particulars of the spots in question are not what really interests me.  Instead I am most interested in the context of the particular spots.  Why is Thatcher doing what he is doing?  Why is Flamita doing what he is doing? The internal context of a match does NOT change, even if the external context does.  Do "modern eyes" really preclude us from understanding the psychology of a match?  Do they make it difficult to understand the history or storyline that contributed to the context of the match itself?  Is it really impossible, or even extremely difficult, to analyze an older match merely because it's older? 

 

And going further than that, if it is true that these matches were worked for particular people at particular points in time and thus it is unfair to judge them unless one was a part of that place and time, how far does that window extend?  NJPW ran a show last night in Japan that was reviewed by Joe from VOW.  I read the review and enjoyed it.  But Joe is not Japanese.  Is he the target audience?  Does that even matter?  Going further if I watch the show next week has the window closed?  What if I watch it in a year?  To take another example, what if a house show is taped by  a fan, who shows it to his friends the next day?  Those wrestlers certainly weren't working for any cameras, or intending their efforts to be seen by people outside of that building that night.  Does that matter?

 

While some of these questions may seem silly to certain people, I think if you are interested in wrestling criticism and discussion, this subject is a very important one that deserves to be seriously thought about and discussed.  If Joe or Rich feel I have unfairly presented their opinions, I invite them to joint the debate and correct any errors I have made on that front.  I also hope that this will not be seen as an attack on them or their website, which is not at all my intent.  The point here is to try and get to the bottom of what the "standards change" argument means and doesn't mean for sites like this one which focus so much of their attention on wrestling of the past.

 

(please forgive shitty grammar, spelling, et.  I wrote this in a hurry, on two hours of sleep, as I'm walking out the door for work).



#2 BillThompson

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 07:30 AM

This is, as you say, a loaded question. It's similar to what I encounter from some people in my work as a film critic. There are those who refuse to watch anything pre-1970s because the movie business has changed so much that they find movies from before that decade too hokey. The thing is, the years keep on changing, as there are now people who say the same thing about movies from the 70s and the 80s. I think this analogy can be taken and applied to pro wrestling, because pro wrestling is an art form just like the movies. In that respect the medium of delivery and the performances change over time, as does the audience and their expectations. The question for me becomes, what can, or should, the audience get out of watching older wrestling?

 

It's important that we accept that wrestling has changed. Match structure, layout, bumping, selling, and many other aspects have changed. However, a few important aspects have not changed. The ultimate end goal is still a match that intrigues the viewer, entertains them, and makes them want to come back for more. The wrestlers are still putting on a performance using the tools of their trade. The audience is still expecting to be entertained and to watch something that at the very least has a basis in the roots of pro wrestling. This entails holds, selling, bumping, and so on. The medium of delivery may have changed, the tools may have been augmented, but it's still the same tools attempting to accomplish the same goals.

 

Accepting the above as true I would have to say that standards have changed, but that doesn't preclude one from being able to go back and watch a French Catch match from 1955 and enjoy the entertainment being provided. This is where context comes into play. Knowing the context of a match can't be overstated. It may not work today to see someone get a pin from a Side Headlock throw, but taking into context the way a match was worked in 1955 it makes perfect sense for a match to possibly end on a Side Headlock throw. Context guides our present viewing just as much as it guides our past viewing. Nothing in wrestling exists in a vacuum, it truly is a sport, or art form, where the present builds off of the past. From that perspective it doesn't matter if standards change because a wrestling fan should be able to go back and watch old wrestling and relate it to the present wrestling they are watching.

 

Bias obviously comes into play, but that is part and parcel with pro wrestling being a subjective art form. The subjectivity of pro wrestling is why two fans from the same era who are of the same age can greatly disagree on the quality of a match or wrestler. It's a given that fans will bring their personal bias to any wrestling they watch, whether it's from the present day or the past. The trick is to recognize that the bias is present and to realize that a Buddy Rogers match from 1948 may not enthrall you because you have a bias against the style he works. It's perfectly fine to say that the Rogers match you just watched wasn't any good, but just realize that your own bias may be fueling your viewpoint more than you realize.

 

Not sure if this is what you were looking for, and honestly there's a lot more I could say, but I keep getting distracted by a problem at home. I'll certainly return to this topic later as I look forward to hearing what others have to say.



#3 tholzerman

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 07:32 AM

Standards do change. It's an invariable fact of any sort of sports or entertainment medium. A power hitter in 1988 and in 1997 in Major League Baseball would have shockingly divergent thresholds for output, but the objectives and strategies to win have always remained the same. You can watch a game from 1988 and not be lost. Or 1968. Or 1962. Or 1927. At heart, baseball, is baseball, and whether the ball is live or dead, juiced or toned down, the objective remains the same. Okay though, that's baseball, which is a sport. Wrestling is athletic entertainment, but the objective has remained the same for the last 100 years or so. Two (or more) men enter into a match to tell a story.

 

For example, I watched Starrcade '83 a couple of months ago for the first time. Matches finished with superplexes and flying body presses off the top rope, moves that would be used as transitional spots today. The variety of moves used in the matches was limited. Punches, kicks, and scoop slams ruled the day. But despite movesets being less than robust, each match felt like it could have happened in the modern era, especially the bloody violent Dog Collar match between Roddy Piper and Greg Valentine. That's not saying all the matches were good. Quality varied from each match, but the point is all of them could have happened on RAW (except the Dog Collar match for obvious reasons) and they would not have felt out of place.

 

That show was probably the earliest wrestling show I've ever watched, but I also happened to tune into shows like WrestleManias I and II, the first Royal Rumble, and scattered, various matches here and there, and the template was the same. The most complex move I saw outside of the innovative stuff pulled off by the Jumping Bomb Angels was Jake Roberts' DDT, but each match still had a theoretical hook. Basically, the modes and norms stay the same, but the various standards for moves, acceptable violence against NPCs (especially women), and blood are the things that change. Basically, those things are dressings.

 

You're always going to get people who look at the trappings and the historical oddities and claim those are the important things. Those points of view always make me laugh, mainly because anything that's easily changed obviously isn't part of the DNA of wrestling. It's all about engaging the viewer through the art of faux-fighting. It's always been that way. So whether the match finishes with a side headlock or a 630 senton, the main thing isn't the list of moves that got there, but the progression, the execution, the selling, and the hooks. Standards change, yes, but as long as you can recognize what those standards mean in the long term and know that you look for what the standards mean within the structure of a wrestling show, you'll be able to view a match from 1940 the same as one from 2010 despite the cosmetic changes.



#4 Matt D

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 07:41 AM

This is also something that I encountered, albeit in a different form, in grad school for history, where due to post-modernism, there was an increasingly prevailing thought that you couldn't do African History unless you were African or women's history unless you were a woman, etc. I was a Medievalist, so, you can see the problems that mindset might have created for me. 

 

In the end though, I don't think this deserves one-tenth of the words you've given it, Dylan. Wrestling is a work of art. It's a text. You can compare one text against any other and against a general ideal. Most of us aren't going around giving things star ratings. Most of us are very open and honest about our criteria, about what we like or think is good and why we feel the way we do. Either a match meets those criteria or it doesn't, and certain matches from almost any era or place in the world tend to be able to. I think the 80s project is partially proof of that. We might understand WHY a match was worked the way it was and take that into consideration. In fact most of us do and I'm sure I've seen dozens of reviews that factor in that a match might "accomplish what it was supposed to," but most of the time, when we do review a match, it's for each other, not for some history book, and we're trying to discuss something that each other might like or something that we think should get more attention, or maybe something that people view one way that we think people should examine another. 

 

For Dave's purposes, maybe it does matter more. For ours? Not at all. "Our standards changed and these are the matches we think are good now, regardless of what people thought then, and here's why." I think that's a perfectly reasonable statement and we have, again, tons of proof on this very board that it generates intensely interesting conversation. 



#5 Ditch

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 09:55 AM

There is no lack of reviewable material that gets accepted as 'good' initially, and there can be a sort of insta-consensus public opinion to protect it from much criticism. The question of whether that opinion holds up over time is a legitimate one, although for business/success purposes the short-term reaction has 99% of the value.

I agree with Dylan that well-executed old-school action can still be exciting/interesting today. From clever counters to snug-looking punches to effective psychology, there are timeless aspects to pro wrestling that we can always appreciate. And there are ways to analyze old-school matches so that we can judge who did what better. "Who was the greatest ever?" or "who was a hall-of-fame talent?" is a question asked about countless fields, generating endless debate. If we have to accept "people liked it back then" as the final word, there is no way to analyze the past.

Bill's point about movies is a good one. I'll add that old TV is even less likely to hold up. But some of it does! There are lessons to be drawn from the best work from decades past. The inherent quality from the past we still appreciate today will almost certainly contain some elements that aren't being put to full use. We can learn! But only if we look at the past with something besides rose-colored glasses.

#6 goodhelmet

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 11:16 AM

I want to write more on the subject but the question could be framed as ... Do standards change for the better or for worse? Just because something is new doesn't mean it is better. 

 

"Those prequels are AWESOME. They use CGI. CGI is so new and cool. The original movies used Muppets. Fucking Muppets!!!" 



#7 Poneglyph

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 12:00 PM

I think the problem comes when you think that a work of art has some kind of inherent quality to it. It doesn't, so it doesn't matter if standards change - which they do. Any wrestling viewer at any point in time can watch two matches and compare them to each other or against a general idea, as Matt says. That viewer can write a review trying to explain what he felt watching those matches and what things in those matches made him feel that way. He can try to symbolise those feelings with stars or numbers. The only thing that matters when someone is doing this is the horizon of expectation of that particular person, which changes from an era to another as much as it changes between anyone of us in this thread.

What I'm trying to say is that yes, standards change. It doesn't mean we are not able to rate a match from the past, just like it doesn't mean we can't read Homer.

#8 BillThompson

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 12:14 PM

I want to write more on the subject but the question could be framed as ... Do standards change for the better or for worse? Just because something is new doesn't mean it is better. 

 

"Those prequels are AWESOME. They use CGI. CGI is so new and cool. The original movies used Muppets. Fucking Muppets!!!" 

 

The opposite could also be applied as well though. How many people do we all know who dismiss modern wrestling without seeing it simply because it's new? I mean, look at guys like Jim Cornette and Jim Ross and their attitudes towards modern wrestling. As much as I love Cornette I hate listening to him talk about modern wrestling because it always boils down to, "Modern wrestling sucks because it was better in the past. I don't even watch the product but because it's not the wrestling of the past I can tell you that it sucks." The middle ground is what needs to be found, that place where people are able to recognize that whether modern or old there has always been and always will be great, terrible, and everything in between wrestling.



#9 KrisZ

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 12:32 PM

Of course standards change in all forms of entertainment. We all have movies, music, wrestling, etc that we liked and then years later switched to another point of view after your opinions evolved.

 

I used to hate Barry Manilow when I was 18 years old and now I'm 34 and I have 18 songs of his on my iPhone.



#10 Dylan Waco

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 01:08 PM

Are we talking about standards here or tastes?  Or is there no difference?  To me there is.  More later



#11 tim

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 03:36 PM

I think when you're talking about reevaluating something it's useful to make the distinction between reevaluating something that was seen as bad to now be good, and reevaluating something seen as good to now be bad.

 

There's not much trouble in seeing how a lot of things don't get their proper due at the time they're released, created, etc.  In every single field of art or entertainment, looking for "hidden gems," things that didn't get their proper due at the time but are obviously of a high quality, is always eagerly done.

 

Trying to say something that was widely seen as good at the time is now bad though, is more difficult.  Take the Dynamite/Tiger mask matches.  A couple years ago when the NJPW project was going on, few people liked them.  We all know, of course, that they were critically lauded in the day.  So what gives?  Were hardcore fans just dumb and crazy back then?  Well, it's because "innovative" work is hard to appreciate after those "innovations" have taken effect and don't seem special anymore.  You can evaluate it critically without context and say as a match it doesn't hold up, but in context they were doing something very special that got people watching at the time very excited.  In those cases I think you might be able to say a given match is no longer "good," but not that the given workers are no longer great workers.  They were doing things no one else was doing at that time or took it to a different level, which is something that requires talent, creativity, the technical competence to pull it off, etc.

 

But then you have to start thinking about how innovative these things actually were.  To keep going with the TM/DK example.  Were they really that innovative, or were a bunch of wrestlers doing similar cutting edge stuff but for whatever reason TM/DK got undue attention from fans?  In that case, were there people doing similarly exciting things, but were given less attention, and moreover were those people actually able to have matches that still "hold up" while doing those similarly exciting things?  In that case, I would say it's grounds for TM/DK to be "stripped" of their accolades if their matches no longer hold up.  However, if TM/DK really were doing legitimately innovative things that no one else around them was doing, then even if the matches don't hold up then I would say they deserve whatever accolades they have from the past.



#12 Matt D

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 03:52 PM

I kind of want to compare/contrast the TM/DK stuff with the current En Busca de un Ídolo stuff, since I think it speaks to some of what you're saying here about innovation in the moment and how something might be remembered in time, but I don't really want to push hard in that direction since people are enjoying it so much.



#13 ohtani's jacket

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 04:15 PM

I'd echo similar thoughts to tim. I think it only becomes an issue when you have matches which were considered innovative at the time that are no longer considered good, or matches that were unknown or unappreciated that people now want to say were better than more famous bouts. If a bout is psychologically sound and you want to say it's a classic that's not really the same as doing a 180 on popular opinion. 

 

I suppose there's two ways to look at it. I can watch the early AAA stuff and think "this is shit, it doesn't fit my perceptions of what good lucha is," or I can look at it from the point of view of it being successful at the time and historically important. I'm not a historian so the latter holds no real interest to me, but it's a matter of how critical you become. If you dismiss something outright you're going to upset people. It's not difficult to understand why people who have no interest in revisionism are upset by revisionist ideas. I don't think it's a matter of standards changing in the sense that the holds or moves are getting better and therefore older wrestling is outdated. If that were the change then we'd all be singing from the same page. What people want to see in their wrestling changes. Some folks stay the same, some change, and in between is the gap between the Meltzers and the PWOs.



#14 goodhelmet

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 04:16 PM

Dylan, lets more clearly define these... standards and tastes. 

 
The idea of ring psychology and doing something with a purpose or reason is a standard that can stand the test of time. What is considered a finishing move is a standard that can change over the course of time. 
 
I prefer to see guys punching each other in the mouth. I am less impressed by guys who can pull off a succession of moves within a 30 second time frame. That is a matter of taste. 
 
My Star Wars example above was less an issue of tastes and was a matter of standards. It is standard in today's movie world to use CGI. My example was to illustrate that current standards don't necessarily mean that there is a positive correlation between changing standards and quality in overall product. 


#15 concrete1992

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 04:20 PM

Are we talking about standards here or tastes?  Or is there no difference?  To me there is.  More later

I'm going to write more but I feel like we just got news anchored. GREATNESS!



#16 Matt D

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 04:44 PM

The idea of ring psychology and doing something with a purpose or reason is a standard that can stand the test of time. What is considered a finishing move is a standard that can change over the course of time. 

 

 

My gut says that this is part of the problem of Dylan framing this through a Meltzer argument. While it's an overstatement, part of me really thinks that Meltzer really thinks we have to be talking about the latter because, to him, the former doesn't really exist. It's Bigfoot. Guys just did "what felt right" or "what popped the crowd" without really giving it thought, etc. You can't easily engage him on these levels so framing this whole discussion with him in mind seems like a problematic starting point.



#17 concrete1992

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 04:49 PM

I'm not sure if an actual answer can really be argued cause a lot of this question depends on your view of several different things. 

 

Well I'm not long form enough to really develop of fabulous thought but I'm probably going to end up reiterating a bunch of points. I try to look at it as the way we evaluate isn't so much different from how we may have evaluated 10-20 years ago but maybe the components that make up the standard have altered bias. Want quality match structure but do you prefer one layout versus another? Like bumps but does Silver Star's splat get you blood pumping like Ishii dropping someone on his noggin? Feels like we are evaluating similar between people and time but the way we enjoy certain aspects is different(tastes).

 

But hey, maybe I'm totally off base haha.



#18 Dylan Waco

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 04:59 PM

Well part of the purpose of this thread is to get to the bottom of what people mean when they use the "standards change" argument or when they discuss how to evaluate or look back at past wrestling "through modern eyes."  I don't think we all mean the same things.  My general point of view is that the standard for what makes a good match doesn't necessarily change just because movesets now are more athletically impressive (or to take another example I don't think bumps have to be bigger now because Foley got chucked off a cage). 

 

I worry less about the "revisionist" attitudes on things like TM/DK in part because of my own biases, in part because of how those revisions often come about, and in part because I wonder about how they became accepted/received wisdom in the first place.



#19 KrisZ

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 05:28 PM

Tastes can affect standards though....you can think something isn't good because it doesn't fill your taste at that time.

 

Regarding Will's point of course if a form of entertainment has things you like that are constant whether it's guys punching each other in the face, car chase scenes, guitar solos, or 4th quarter comebacks that you perceive achieves the high standard you look for in your entertainment then you would be satisfied.



#20 Matt D

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Posted 25 May 2014 - 05:37 PM

And more importantly, like Will said, a well-crafted story is a well-crafted story no matter the form of entertainment.






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