Sunday, August 21, 2011

Everything I Needed To Know I Learned From Pro Wrestling (Pt. 2--Cage Matches)

As I've already noted in this space, I have been a fan of professional wrestling for over thirty years.  One of the things I appreciate about wrestling is the storyline aspect of a good match.  When things are done right, two grapplers will battle over and over again, sometimes exchanging victories, until there is a final showdown.  This showdown (known as the "blow-off" in wrestling vernacular) is often timed to take place at a major event; which in the case of large national promotions like the WWE,  would be a Pay Per View (PPV) event.

Of course, it isn't always cut and dried.  Many times the rivalry is between a good guy (a "babyface") and a bad guy (a "heel").  In these cases, you can never expect the heel to play by the rules.  Chances are, at some point in the build up he will have won by cheating, perhaps using one of the following methods:
  • using a foreign object, like a chair
  • getting assistance from a partner, a manager, or a valet
  • distracting the referee so that he misses an obvious violation of the rules
Regardless of how it happens, if enough tension has built up between the two wrestlers, the blow-off needs to be something that guarantees a final victory for one of the contestants.  For decades, the best way to ensure this is to have the match take place "inside a steel cage". In a cage match, the wrestling ring is enclosed in a cage, and the victory can only be had by pinfall, submission or escaping the cage.  In many cases the referee is actually OUTSIDE the cage, so inside the walls, anything goes.  

Recently the Sassy Librarian and I got a treadmill for our house. I have come to enjoy using it in conjunction with Netflix on my iPad.  I just set up a video to stream, and the miles go by in a snap.  Today I traversed my 4+ miles while watching WWE: The Greatest Cage Matches of All Time.  I hadn't previously watched any of the WWE sets on Netflix, but I was quite impressed with this one.  It contained a half dozen matches covering the mid-1970's through 2009 (the actual DVD set has many more matches, but this is 2 hours of fun for free).  I was worried that I wouldn't be able to get into the matches, since I wasn't party to the build up of the rivalries, but I was quite wrong.  Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross provided so much plot exposition that I quickly caught on to the excitement. Two matches stood out in particular:

  1.  Lex Luger v. Ric Flair (1990) for the WCW Heavyweight Championship
  2. The Rock v. Triple H (1999) for the WWF World Title

In the first match,  the challenger Lex Luger came down to the ring first, followed by WCW champ Ric Flair.  Parenthetically, I was on an airplane with Flair the previous year, and it was amazing to see him maintain his persona in the airport and during the flight.  He was "stylin' and profilin'" with the flight attendants--it was a sight to see! 

For this match, Flair was accompanied by his valet, "Woman".  Woman later went on to marry wrestler Chris Benoit, who tragically murdered her and their son before taking his own life.  Before the match went on, the referee frisked both wrestlers, looking for foreign objects.  Luger demanded that the ref check Woman, which caused Flair to erupt in anger.  But when a blade was found in Woman's glove, it proved to have been a wise move.  

The cage used in this match was not like the one pictured above--it also had a roof.  There was no way out of this cage--a final victory by pinfall or submission was the only way to win.  As the match began, Ross told us that Luger had only just got out of the hospital, where a knee infection had kept him for the past two weeks.  The announcers wondered whether this would restrict his legendary strength, but when Luger slammed Flair twice with military presses, it seemed that his knee was fine.  This was important, of course, because Flair's most famous move, the "figure four leg lock" was known to target weak knees. 

Luger dominated the match early on, with Flair showing his craven cowardice (like all heels) by trying vainly to escape the steel structure.  During one of these attempts, Luger slammed his head repeatedly ("like a tennis ball" as we were told) into the cage, busting Flair's head open, and making him wear the crimson mask. Eventually Flair turned the tide while working over Luger's knee, illegally using the ropes for leverage while the ref's back was turned.  Then suddenly all Hell broke loose!  Flair's posse, the Four Horsemen ran down to the ring and tried to get into the cage.  And they succeeded!  As the cage rose, they ran into the ring to attack Luger.  Then Luger's fellow "Dude With Attitude", Sting (in real life, business partners in a well known bodybuilding gym in Atlanta) came down with the late "El Gigante" to make the save.  Flair was disqualified, but you can't lose a title by DQ, so he was able to leave with the belt, while making a frightening spectacle (something like the one above) in the post match interview.

What made this match so cool, of course was the swerve. We had been conditioned to believe that the cage was impregnable, and that a final verdict would have to come (and, of course, that justice would be served with a Flair loss), but it didn't happen.   Despite this match being over 20 years old, from a promotion that doesn't exist anymore, I was totally gripped by this match.  The wrestlers (with the help of the announcers and referee) told a great story.

The second match took place in the WWF (now WWE, after complaints from the World Wildlife Fund), during a PPV from Manchester, England in 1999.  This match pitted two "young" (according to JR) superstars against each other, the emerging face hero "The Rock", versus the villianous Triple H.  HHH was affiliated at the time with his real-life girlfriend Chyna, a very muscular female bodybuilder who now does X-rated movies. HHH's name comes from his initials, which stand for "Hunter Hearst Helmsley".  Back in the '90's this was supposed to symbolize his wealth (like Leona Helmsley).  What is ironic about this is that in 2003 he married Stephanie McMahon, whose father owns the WWE.  This marriage was for real, unlike the storyline marriage they had in the 90's.  Now in 2011, HHH is in senior management of the company, and even campaigned heavily for his mother-in-law when she ran for the Senate. During this match, the announcers went back and forth between calling him Triple H and "Helmsley".  Nowadays, while some wrestlers call him "Hunter", the other two H's are forgotten.

Anyway, back to the match.  It was a back and forth affair for quite a long time, with several false-finishes where each man NEARLY, but not quite, escaped over the top of the cage.  At one point, HHH had his head and arms out the door, with The Rock hanging on to his feet.  While the door was open, HHH "accidentally" punched the referee, Earl Hebner, knocking him unconscious.  While the ref lay prone, The Rock managed to escape, earning him the victory.  But the official did not see it!  When Rocky realized what had happened, he and HHH took the match outside the ring, beating each other into the crowd and over to the announcer's table.  Then The Rock grabbed a microphone, and treated us all to a little "Attitude Era" dialogue:  

ROCK: Now The Rock obviously had the match won, but that jabroni, rooty-toot candy-ass obviously didn't see The Rock win.  So before The Rock whips your monkey-ass some more, in front of all of his fans, The People's Champ's got a little gift, compliments of The Rock and the fans of Birmingham...

FANS: (cheer)

HHH: (rolls around barely conscious)

ROCK: (picks up a chair, and beats HHH over the head)

JIM ROSS: Oh my God!  Great God Almighty! The Rock just hit HHH with a steel chair!

ROCK: (putting on announcer's headphones conveniently waiting for him): You're damn right that's what The Rock did.  That's exactly what The Rock does best: lays the smack down on his candy ass! Look at his ass!  There's the blood---the blood of HHH.  It's not the People's blood; it's monkey piss!  Monkey piss is oozing out of his head! Come here jabroni!  Have some more you sonofabitch (slamming HHH into the tv monitor). What do you think of that?

And then, after setting HHH ("deeply lacerated") onto the announce table, The Rock climbed onto the ring apron and leaped onto HHH, shattering the table.

At this point, The Rock  (to loud "Rocky Rocky") chants dragged his opponent back into the ring, while Hebner slowly regained his consciousness.  Then, just as The Rock had nearly climbed out of the cage, out of the back came England's own British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith! The Bulldog was a heel at this time, and he began fighting with The Rock. And then Shane McMahon (now HHH's real life brother-in-law) came down and assaulted the Bulldog, until he was viciously bodyslammed onto the concrete floor.  Then the British Bulldog went into the ring to keep fighting the Rock, while Chyna came down to help.  At one point she slammed the door into The Rock's face so hard that the whole cage shuddered--pretty sick!  While The Rock was being assaulted by the Bulldog, HHH escaped the cage over the top.  

Then, to cap things off, while a bloody HHH was celebrating with Chyna, a pissed-off looking Vince McMahon (who at that time was a regular character on the show, as well as real-life boss) stalked to the ring, and padlocked the door while The Rock and the Bulldog were inside!  At that point The Rock proceeded to beat Davey Boy senseless, ending the match with his trademark raised eyebrow.

What made this match so engaging was that it was kind of like two matches in one.  As Jim Ross noted, "The Rock had this match won twice", but to no avail.  We were treated to two (at least) cage matches AND the brawl outside.  And while The Rock and his fans got satisfaction from his pummeling HHH, the heel still left with the gold.  While contemporary viewers were ensured further storyline development for the coming weeks, this match is great on its own.  With excitement, brutality and two wrestlers fully exploiting their characters, this was a lot of fun to watch.


This video was very enjoyable (the multi-DVD set might be better) to watch, and you'll get to see some fine matches.  One of the great things about professional wrestling is that the more often you watch, the more conditioned you are to certain tropes of dialogue, movements and match outcomes.  But skillful wrestlers will always find a way to surprise viewers and confound their expectations.  That's why I'll never stop watching.

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