The guys over at WrestlingKO published a list of their Top 100 Wrestlers for 2009 and one of the points raised (amongst many it must be said - these lists always bring forth a myriad of opinion) was Shawn Michaels' abscence (on a list that featured, amongst others, Jerry Lawler , Bill Dundee  and, of course, Mark Henry ). Now, of course, as one of the seemingly few Shawn fans around on the internet (and, no, I don't think he's remotely in discussion for "Best Ever") it's par for the course, he's in that "Holy Trinity" of internet hate with HHH and Kurt Angle. Naturally I think it's a ludicrous suggestion that there're 100 better wrestlers working in the world right now who, all things considered, are better at it than Shawn. But one of the reasons raised, aside from the usual knocks on the guy that we've heard a million times before, was he "coasts" most Monday nights on Raw. As it happens I would agree with that, although I'd suffix it by saying that Shawn sleepwalking through "face in peril" is as good as most guys doing it at their best, and between adding his age into the equation for sympathy which he's used effectively for a couple of years, I'd wager he still is one of the best at it.
As for the knock on coasting itself, I mean, in Shawn's case he's in his mid-forties, already having came out of his initial retirement eight years ago, being all set to've retired two years ago, and been physically broken down for years. God knows how many painkillers he takes before an average match, never mind the upcoming WrestleMania main event with Undertaker (whose in a similar situation himself). I have absolutely no problem with him coasting, indeed I have no problem with any wrestler coasting, certainly when they're good enough doing so to have a solid enough match.
"Jumbo Was Lazy" is a famous debate where no one seemed to but in and say "so what?". Now if we take 1991 as an example, and obviously I realise the argument raised by Meltzer dated back earlier, working a house show six man w/Taue & Ogawa against Misawa, Kawada and Kikuchi. First of all he doesn't really need to do much anyway, and second of all he'd been wrestling at that point a few years shy of twenty, the majority of which as a main eventer which meant him working longer, and working many more big matches, than most. The style hadn't taken its toll on an early-forties Jumbo that, say, Kobashi's had taken on him by the time he reached that age, but if all wrestlers have a set x amount of bumps they can take in their career, I'd personally see Jumbo save them for the big matches, title matches, the inevitable (before his illness of course) big changing of the guard to Misawa. Whether Jumbo was lazy or not means very little to me because when it came time to deliver, he delivered. Would you really sooner see your NFL team bust their ass for 16 regular season games, finish in a high seed, but be too worn out and hurt to capitalise on it and get knocked out in their first playoff game?
Wrestling's littered with guys who worked too hard 24/7 (and it's an admirable and positive trait, I'm not diminishing the effort whatsoever) and cut their careers short. Misawa died in the ring, should've retired years ago, but if we take Kobashi as the example (and he's still going albeit not totally). Watch the first month of 1993's TV for All Japan. He works a set-up tag opposite Taue (it might be two), to set-up a singles match with Taue which'll determine (and in turn set up) the #1 contender for Misawa's TC at the February Budokan. In that initial tag match, setting-up the set-up match, he takes a fucking powerbomb on exposed concrete. Even Foley saved that for a months-off injury angle. I'm not diminishing the effort - Kobashi's a slam-dunk pick for my personal Top 5 All-Time at least - but God...
Perhaps it's hypocritical of me, getting excited about Shawn/Taker knowing how tough it's going to be on them physically in their state, but you can defend that on the grounds of it being a WrestleMania main event (and it should go on last), that'll make a lot of money for both guys (it might even be Shawn's retirement match). But I certainly don't want to see the guy taking big bumps every week on TV. I'm perfectly OK with the WWE implementing a "safer" level of working, the scheduling they have is crazy enough to begin with. I'm perfectly OK with wrestlers taking it easy when they can, and saving their bodies for the bigger shows and prolonging their careers. I know in their position I'd try and get away with as much matwork as possible, taking rolling bumps/front bumps when possible as opposed to flat back ones, and I'd take a longer career for myself over being unable to walk without assistance from middle-age.
I've often thought the greatest barometer for how good or bad a wrestler is isn't necessarily how good a match they can have when they go all out, but rather how good a match they can have on auto-pilot. Watching Misawa/Kobashi/Akiyama vs. Kawada/Taue/Omori (January '94) last night - a 25/+ six-man that's available on Ditch's site, it's really staggering how strong a match it was considering how much stuff they left in the bag and how casual they seemed to work. This is about as far removed from a Budokan epic as an All Japan main event could be in 1994 - ie, no big moves - but the roles everyone had, the story, how well everything was laid out is/was astounding. It's actually the babyfaces who have the main controlling segment of the match, and Omori only gets out of that when Taue interferes and basically "hot tags" himself. They've set up the babyfaces as favourites, and then the heels start turning on the tricks, interfering constantly as soon as any of the faces show any sign of momentum. Omori does just about the only thing he could do (hold Akiyama at ringside), whilst Kawada (again with some help from Taue) keep Misawa out of the way long enough for Taue to nodowa Kobashi into oblivion. Aside from one really great near fall when Taue powerbombs Kobashi in stereo with Kawada hitting one on Misawa, this is closer to Jumbo-era for "work". They keep the action coming, of course, but there's no big key spots, no bumps a guy'd really feel the morning after; a match they could've worked the entire tour. I'm not one for star ratings but I figure this is up around that 4-mark, and basically a house show match.
In lieu of Bryan Danielson's debut in the WWE I watched a match of his against KENTA from ROH "Driven" in 2007. I wasn't the biggest fan of their first ROH match - I think both are action guys as opposed to story guys, generally speaking, albeit in different moulds - but I got what they were going for. This one, I can;t say I really understood all that well. It was essentially back-and-forth (you kind of know ahead of time there won't be any controlling segments of significant length) but I guess Bryan was getting the better of it. They do a big apron spot where KENTA eats a belly-to-belly to the floor but it doesn't really seem to make a great deal of difference to what they were doing (unlike, say, Misawa/Kobashi in '98 and '03 where the matches are built around them). The finish is hot; I guess no-selling each other's finishers until KENTA lands the GTS might irk some but in an ROH indy setting I get that. I don't know I mean I'm fans of both guys, the execution was strong throughout as you would expect, and the crowd loved it; but whereas KENTA vs. Nakajima were matches I think really only those two guys could've worked in the world, and whereas Marufuji/Devitt worked the matches I wanted to see from them, Bryan/KENTA as a pairing I feel had a better match in them, a more cohesive match, than what they did. I actually dug Bryan against Nakajima from ROH because, to as much of an extent as I could expect, they actually did a veteran/rookie dynamic. Bryan controlled early, Nakajima found an opening working Bryan's knee (he was wearing a support) a through a combination of that and 'Jima's kicks was able to push Bryan pretty far, but not to his limit and Bryan won pretty decisively. It gets a bit too back-and-forth, I thought, around the third quarter or so but all things considered I liked it. I actually recall Chris Hero against KENTA a few months back fonder than Bryan/KENTA, but I guess that's expectations and what they do to your perceptions of a match.
Modern CMLL has its detractors amongst a lot of hardened lucha fans. I'm kind of, well whereas I would certainly consider myself a Lucha fan, I'm not the ardent follower that Ohtani's Jacket is, say. So when someone started capping the CMLL show that's started airing on The Fight Network in Canada I thought I'd give it a shot. Now, first of all, the English (and they're English, well, lead is English and #2 is Irish) commentators they've dubbed in are awful. I'd call them Eurosport commentators but people outside of the UK wouldn't get the reference whereas those who are would know right away. Anyway, show #1 had a main event where Mistico, Volador Jr and Sombra took on Averno, Mephisto and Ephesto. The technicos were spectacular and it made me want to see the tag titles match from the second show, Volador Jr and Sombra challenging Averno and Mephisto. I thought it was a great set-up match with such casual grace and athleticism few people in the world could match.
Now as I read about the second match before watching it I found it it was a fairly contentious one amongst fans. Some likened it to TNA's X-Division (which I understand insomuch as a fair portion is worked at a fast pace with lots of athletic spots) but, personally, I enjoyed it. It was overlong, perhaps, though not greatly, and the finish was obvious as soon as Sombra went down, really, we've seen the story told a million times; but not so unlike the HIAC match DX had with Legacy a few months back (which I enjoyed too) it's something that always works. Couple that with a foundation of strong action and I'm perfectly contented with what they did.
I understand (and in a lot of cases agree with) the complaints people might have about CMLL in relation to Lucha of, say, twenty years ago; and it's the same deal with the US right now and WWE's "hyper-controlled, corporate wrestling". But good talent can work within that effectively (obvious or otherwise I'll defend WWE as putting on good matches fairly regularly and having some of the best wrestlers in the world on their roster). Wrestling isn't as saturated with all-time talent right now as it was fifteen or twenty years ago, it's just something we have to accept as fans. Sometimes a lot of current wrestlers confuse me, especially outside the WWE (whose simple-only approach at least means it's easy to digest as a story). These four guys didn't at all, and the work was graceful, well-executed, and at times spectacular. Sombra spent 10/15-minutes literally lying motionless clutching his arm on the ramp and did nothing until the finish after his missed dive/"injury". I'm not going to proclaim this, or the set up tag as MOTYC-level stuff (even now) but if the CMLL main event regularly delivers to the level of the first two shows (as aired on TFN anyway) then I'm happy to follow the product (albeit on the year-long delay).
I've recently started to gradually collect all AJW releases from mid-1990 through to the Dream Slam interpromotional era. I had a fair few to begin with; but prior to the summer of 1992 they were very sporadically spaced between events and, as I guess would be obvious, the idea is to see and plot the development of the top talent of that era; Hokuto, Aja, Toyota, Kyoko, Yamada... I mean as a twenty-three year old it's actually rather daunting to think of the ages of those girls at that time. Even Bull Nakano, who was an "over the hill veteran" by the time she worked WWF in 1994, was still only 26 having been born in 1968, albeit an eleven-year veteran.
Now of course, with its hierarchal structures Puroresu has always embraced rookies; the crowd accept that they won't be too good, they'll miss spots, they'll over-reach, they'll work too fast for their own good... but will eventually (assuming they grow to become a good talent as all the aforementioned did and countless others; not to mention men too) develop past that.
But it was really watching Takako Inoue against Mariko Yoshida from late '91 that really put the whole thing into perspective for me. Maybe you've had those matches yourself, where something just happens to you as a viewer and you have a form of epiphany during the course of the match. The match, for the record, is from the Grand Prix Final '91, August 18th, and for the AJ Title. I actually enjoyed the show as a whole although some of the matches felt slightly abridged; Kyoko and Manami were already showing signs of their great chemistry sprinting together, Bison Kimura and Aja Kong had a very focused match which stands out for the era for being so, and I seem to recall even the opener of all matches having far more spice and intensity to it than you'd expect.
But anyway, the match is a mess. Well... it's structured to a degree, Yoshida targetted the back IIRC, and the match swung totally on a missed dive from her which given their youthfulness and exurberance was a very fitting conclusion. I just realised though; both women were 21 years old, they debuted on the same show together in October of 1988, so were approaching their third anniversary of being wrestlers, and having a messy match where they scrap over everything and fly about the ring far too fast for their own good... was the totally right match for them to have.
In other places, other countries, wrestlers making their debuts, or wrestlers as rookies (outside of pushes as a "super rookie"), they're expected to wrestle as fully fledged professionals from the start. Naturally, they don't do it particularly well; they're green and inexperienced and lack the poise and control that more experienced talents have. They look poor in comparison, and the audience, aside from obviously being able to say so-and-so (veteran) looks mid-40s whereas so-and-so (rookie) looks about 20, are judging them at the same level.
One of the good things about British wrestling in the past was they would, too, embrace the youth of a Davey Boy Smith, say, who I have on tape as a fifteen year old wrestling a seventeen year old Bernie Wright (IIRC), a match that's very repetitive and not as polished as Jim Breaks, Johnny Saint, Marc Rocco or whomever... but the crowd can get behind them because they're presented as juniors, as rookies, as young... now it's apparent that they're young just by looking at them, like I said, but by average most wrestlers debut in their early 20s when they're somewhat more physically developed and may look older.
If you embrace the youthfulness, though, recognise their inexperience and present them to the crowd as people learning their craft as opposed to treating them no different to vastly more experienced veterans, you give the crowd another, and very strong, reason to care for them. Crowds will always give young guys a broader scope and bigger room for error, if they're presented as the young guys/gals that they are. And in time it pays off when people get to watch them grow. Even in the WWF/E, one argument people always made for Bret and Shawn was how the crowd could invest in them more having watched them develop from young talents (much moreso in Shawn's case who started with the company at 21 I believe) into seasoned, very talented wrestlers. It's the same with Edge and Christian, Matt and Jeff Hardy. Look at how over Mikey Whipwreck got in ECW without hitting any offensive move for months. Their journey resonates with people and nothing helps an audience associate with anyone, be it in wrestling, acting, music or what have you, than feeling they too have grown up with them.
Paul Heyman made (mainstream US) wrestling grow up goes the thought, but I don't think it ever did. The "Attitude" era wasn't grown-up at all. It was for an older audience than "The New Generation" era and the Hogan era, sure, but if those previous eras were "childish" then 98-01 was, at most, adolescent.
Realistically the next logical step was to become more adult; more intelligent. They can give Chris Jericho every Backlundword under the sun to say in his promos (without as best I can recall actually going into depth on why the audience are) but there's nothing clever about that, a half-decent thesaurus is all you'd need.
Maybe wrestling has got to the point where it's been known as benign and unintelligent for so long, so childish, crass or whatever else that your "general audience" will only accept such. You've diluted them to such an extent where anything that would require the audience to think about something, they'd shut off.
Either way I'd like to see some attempts at something a tad more intelligent than what we've had. Take stereotypes and turn them on their head. We know Vince likes satire... no reason why that can't be half-decent, clever satire as opposed to dumb and stupid shit.
A big story in the British papers over the last few days has been a professional football (/soccer) player punching a girl in a club and going to jail. Naturally he's been demonised in the press. He has various prior convictions, he's "overpaid" (ie in relation to the national average rather than his share of the money in his profession); just about everyone who I've tried to play Devil's Advocate to has wondered why I'd think otherwise than the aforementioned (the reality being I'm totally apathetic and merely trying to make the conversation less mundane in work).
But it got me thinking... every "man fights woman" scenario is based on sexism. That is, "women should be in the kitchen and the bedroom". Why not run the angle as you normally would, the heel protagonist is attacking women, only have him as a die-hard feminist who truly believes in equality across every domain and (from his perspective) portray the crowd as the bad guys for being "sexist" towards the woman because they wouldn't be half as objectioned if it was men he was beating up.
Segueing to other ideas... I can't help but think that an atheist gimmick would go down a treat in heavilly-religious areas. Now initially you think that's too far for cheap heat... only instead you have him (or her) make the intelligensia's argument for atheism and take your cues from "The God Delusion" or something similar.
Maybe have an Anti-(home country) heel whose making genuine and fair points on that particularly countries history and/or culture (albeit from what we'd call a heelish stand-point). I guess that's similar to what Bret morphed into in 1997, but really go to school on it.
Or a guy who turns the "family-friendly morality tale" nature of wrestling onto the crowd. You can casually drop a (planned) accidental "fuck" into a promo. Then when you get in trouble... go after the censors and morph it into a rant on over-protective parenting, how "any genuinely considerate parent would bring their children up to speed with the real way the world works and not try and comfort them with silly morality tales that makes the final, sudden realisation for them when they grow up all the more difficult". Or something.
My personal favourite from a while ago was actually a reverse Dusty Rhodes. Whereby the "working class hero" from humble beginnings doesn't care for the audience, isn't trying to inspire anyone, his journey to that point has reared him cold and focused solely on himself, hates the crowds affection for him because their own inability to have made anything with their lives despite being born into far less humble beginnings than he/she was makes him/her sick. Indeed, you can morph into the previous one about families from the same subject.
Now I'm hardly saying these are particularly clever or anything (I'm not a professional television writer so go figure) but I'd like heels who have strong, genuine, thought-out points behind their rants. They might even engineer some genuine, real-life hatred. None of this "it's all a show (let's play along)" fan heat like wrestling meets Brecht or something. God I hate that.
On KENTA/Marufuji and Toyota/Kyoko...
I'm a huge Manami (and Kyoko as much, for that matter) fan, and certainly out of the current crop of wrestlers KENTA's one of my favourites; but really neither are cut out for going 60:00. Whereas in the days of Lou Thesz and Dory Funk when most matches were at a pace you could keep for sixty, Manami and KENTA are two people whose strength lies in their great athleticism, creativity, speed... generally the qualities for super "spot" wrestling more than anything else.
We all know the criticisms littered against Toyota through the years, but the two things she does (did) well she does (did) better than anyone. KENTA's not a "male Toyota" but they have more in common to me than they have in contrast (KENTA's crisp as anything but Toyota was incredibly sympathetic are probably the two biggest). But like with Toyota, I actually just want to see KENTA sprint. I don't know if he and Nakajima, or Marufuji, or whomever have it in them to tell the stories and structure the matches that Misawa, Kobashi and Kawada did (certainly the NOAH guys should by virtue of osmosis but there's been little real sign throughout matches) but if he's content to entertain by style then I'm happy to let him do his thing because, regardless of whatever detriments anyone might see in him, the guy is a fantastic talent who can GO.
Anyway, I figured KENTA/Marufuji was the closest modern equivalent to Toyota/Kyoko's hour draw, and so I finally got around to watching it last night. Truth be told, they're not really worked similarly at all, but they make a nice comparison.
As people reading this (assuming anyone does) will know, Manami and Kyoko basically tried to work their regular match (read: a 25-minute sprint) for the hour. They essentially put a brick on the accelerator and hoped the gas wouldn't run out. It did, and the match fell apart around the fifty-minute mark; but I can't imagine anyone matching the first fifty. In terms of "giving it all out there" (or however older wrestlers generally phrase it), I can't think of a stronger pure effort from two wrestlers ever. It puts whatever those guys are/were talking about to complete shame. On merit, there were some stronger matches that should've polled ahead in the 1995 WON Awards but it's a unique match that only the most cynical of people would take a crap on.
Whether KENTA/Marufuji have seen that match and tried to learn from it, I can't say, although I'd be surprised if they were completely ignorant of it. Either way, they wrestled the match as if having learned from Toyota and Inoue's downfall. Read: they paced themselves.
All being told, I doubt KENTA/Fuji could have worked their match for sixty the way Manami and Kyoko did. The guys' style is more intricate, more counter-based, that to simply have an hour's worth of that material memorised (ignoring the stamina issue) would seem to me impossible. But what they did by going about things this way (which on paper sounds the smarter option of the two without question) "exposed", for lack of a better term, their weaknesses.
They maintained their general back-and-forth structure which meant that if we were to segment the match, parts that could've killed time effectively weren't really used to the full (which in a match of this length is one of the most imperative aspects in putting it together). The transitions between the various "control segments" tended to be good and effective, but Marufuji could've easilly taken his five-minute segment working KENTA's knee to 10 or 12. Ditto KENTA's regular time-filling "rib work" section. Yes, we know it's not going to "carry through" right to the finish, but it doesn't necesarilly have to.
If the match is "action first" (and 95%+ of juniors stuff is and always has been) then it only has to work in that moment and be gradually dropped (ie sold for the immediate aftermath of a few minutes and gradually dropped) as opposed to immediately rendered a waste. But in the pantheon of "junior time fillers" this match overall was weak. They'd work in the odd big spot (sometimes so out-of-the-blue and out-of-rhythm so as to shock you) but aside from the planned spots and sequences that were littered about, the only real effort was in the creativity.
Now I'm not the biggest Marufuji fan, but he's unquestionably a super athlete with a very creative mind. There's always the odd few spots in his big matches that I've never seen before. The problem arises, against a guy like KENTA, that it often seems superfluous. KENTA flies so he can hit you from a greater height. Marufuji flies so he can add in a twist or spin before hitting you. And when it's Marufuji whose offense seems to dominate the match (as opposed to KENTA in the ass-kicker role) it doesn't do them many favours. Comparing the matches offensively, Kyoko was more of the ass kicker, and that role suited her against Manami. She had offensive variety and pacing that worked against Toyota without making herself look limited (an achievement unto itself) but also their characters were much more strongly developed.
KENTA's biggest weakness for me is, as mentioned at the start, an inability to generate much in the way of sympathy (especially against juniors). Now that's not to say they didn't have the crowd, because both guys are over, they gave the guys the time, and when KENTA was getting battered down the stretch the crowd were chanting his name, but it's hard to imagine transporting him back to 1992 to replace Kikuchi and it working despite, all things considered, KENTA being the more talented worker. If we say they're the Jr Misawa and Kawada, KENTA is clearly Kawada; but Kawada the focused ass-kicker, Kawada with the chip on his shoulder, Kawada the cold hearted heel, as opposed to Kawada the "sympathetic loser".
The upside to the NOAH match lies in the obvious strengths of the guys involved; the athleticism, it's creative, there's a lot of great spots, and down the stretch they've conserved themselves enough to finish with as much aplomb as any 60:00 singles match. But whilst Manami/Kyoko fell apart down the stretch to dampen to lasting effect somewhat, it remains the greater achievement (or near-achievement) and a superior match overall. KENTA/Marufuji, in a sixty minute match, I'm not sure could've had a better match than they did. If Kyoko and Manami had an extra 10-minutes of gas in the tank it's a legendary match that as is stands unique and, I guess, the nearest "singles" equivalent to what the Dream Rush main event is/was. As loathed as the end result might be in some quarters I'd love to see KENTA and Nakajima try and match it.