Sunday, April 5, 2009

Anatomy of a Wrestling Match

By LeKeith * Other LeKeith Posts

Many people associate March and early April with the annual basketball tradition of March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournament that contains the chance for history making moments from upsets and legacies alike. This time of year, I am focused on another annual tradition. Wrestlemania. My fascination started in 1992 and could have possible stopped sooner if not for the moment that captured my attention at Wrestlemania 8: On April 4,1992, Bret 'Hitman' Hart faced Rowdy' Roddy Piper for the Intercontinental Championship.

Our house had just acquired cable and we were taking advantage of the ability to watch the Pay Per View. I remember the layout of the room vividly. I sat crossed-legged on the floor in front of the TV. My great-grandmother sat on our loveseat, to my right. She, like many grandmothers, was a wrestling fan back when she was younger and wrestling was ‘real.’ Next to her was my grandmother, coming to terms with the déjà vu of seeing her mother scream passionately at the man wearing colorful underwear on television. My mother was just to the right of the television, half leaning out the window and yelling to my father, who was on the roof, adjusting the satellite dish to get a clearer picture. Like I said, we had just 'acquired' cable.

The ending to this match has stuck with me to this day. The referee was accidentally knocked down when Roddy Piper, in an attempt to break free from Bret’s headlock, pushed Bret off of him and indirectly into the path of the referee. Roddy Piper went to the outside and grabbed the Time Keepers Bell. He climbed back in the ring, stood over Bret, and raised the belt overhead, contemplating whether to hit Bret with it. With the referee unable to call the match, he wouldn't get disqualified. The crowd pleaded with Piper to not to use the foreign object. Ultimately he acquiesced, throwing the bell out of the ring. He picked Bret up and put him in the Sleeper Hold, Piper’s finishing move. Bret, struggling to break the hold, moved towards a turnbuckle corner and kicked off of it, shifting the burden of the additional weight from him to Piper, causing both wrestlers to fall to the ring mat. Bret, who landed on top of Piper, rolled himself toward Piper’s head, pinning him using Piper's own arms. At the same time, the referee made enough of a recovery to crawl over toe the wrestlers and count the pinfall. As the ref counted, Piper kicked his legs, trying to get some leverage, but the weight was too much. By the time the ref counted to three, there was a standing ovation for both men.

With Wrestlemania 25 happening on the 5th of April, I can revisit this match in order to get into the spirit of what is to come in the latest installment of this event. Wrestlemania is typically the most watched Pay Per View event for the WWE. As such, the WWE works harder to elevate its storylines and wrestlers so that the program satisfies lifelong fans like me but also invites casual fans and novices, like I was 17 years ago, to start watching the regular programming. This match– Bret versus Piper – is the match that made me a regular viewer. With hindsight and acquired wrestling knowledge, I can identify three elements of story that were interwoven to bring the match to its successful conclusion: the champion v. challenger story, the babyface v. babyface story and the technician v. streetfighter story

Champion v. Challenger
The Champion versus Challenger story adds a unique element to wrestling matches because there are fewer titles than wrestlers. At the time of Wrestlemania 8, there were 3 Titles: World Champion, Intercontinental Champion and Tag Team Champions. Because of this limited number, title matches have an additional story element that can not be in every match. With Bret / Piper, Bret was the number one contender, earning the right to face Champion Piper. This taking place at Wrestlemania, exposes both Champion and Challenger to higher scrutiny; the Challenger has to prove that he is worthy of becoming champion; the Champion has to prove that he is worthy of being champion. Bret and Piper display this tension during the pre-match interview. Piper tells an anecdote about he and the Hitman when they were younger. Storyline wise, Bret and Piper are childhood friends. One of Piper's strengths in wrestling has always been his ability to cut a good promo. As a babyface, he disarms the audience by making light of the situation, telling jokes at the Hitman's expense. When Bret remains stoic about the situation, Piper‘s attitude flips and becomes serious when talking about the championship title. The promo ends with both Bret and Piper raising fists at each other. Piper's hand is wrapped with some kind of illegal foreign object he pulled from his tights, most likely brass knuckles wrapped in black tape. This act is a clear indicator that the Champion is willing to do whatever is necessary to retain the title.

Streetfighter v. Technician
In the promo segment, Piper has already shown that he is better versed in the talking portions of wrestling. Roddy's most famous Wrestlemania moments aren't remembered for his matches but for his actions: Boxing Mr. T (WM2), Spraying Morton Downey Junior with a Fire Extinguisher (WM 5), Shaving Adrian Adonis' head (WM3). As a result, Piper’s wrestling strengths are more of a streetfigher’s style.

Bret Hart is known for being one of the most technically sound wrestlers in the industry. As a second generation wrestler, Bret displays an understanding of wrestling that comes from both performing and running a wrestling promotion, which he did with his father in Calgary, Alberta, Canada up in the industry. In addition to his ‘Hitman’ moniker, he is also known as the ‘Excellence of Execution,’ because of his use maneuvers that are rarely, if ever, implemented, like the pinning combination described above.

The difference in styles make for a compelling match-up. Bret and Piper booked the match - design a guideline for how to match will play out - so that the ebb and flow between their styles is visually different when each wrestler is leading. Piper has a boxing with a win of the Golden Gloves; he controls the match through punches, kicks and clotheslines, the kinds of moves you would be more likely to see in playgrounds or alleys. Bret's technical skills - holds and reversals - help him either gain control the match or reverse Piper's momentum.

If each wrestler remained steadfast in their fighting style. the match would be less compelling. Instead, either wrestler adopts some elements of the other’s fighting style. Where Piper’s punches are a show of dominance, Bret's punches are seen more as desperation attacks. In turn, the start of the match has Bret and Piper exchanging holds, going through a series of collar-and-elbow tie-ups, headlocks and waistlocks. Whenever Piper applies a hold, Bret consistently reverses it. In one series, Piper goes for a waist lock that when Bret reverses, Piper falls out of the ring; frustrated, Piper starts applying more street tactics in his arsenal.

Babyface v. Babyface
In addition to fluctuation between the technical versus street styles, Bret and Piper play with their respective roles as babyfaces. A babyface (also known as a face or a fan favorite) is the wrestler that the audience generally wants to see win. In situations where two faces wrestling each other, there is confusion within the audience in the sense of who to cheer. A babyface's counter part is known as a heel. Both the Hitman and the Hot Rod have spent some time in their careers as heels, Piper more than Bret. Not only is either wrestler capable of playing the role of heel, but their heel histories serve to remind the audience that both wrestlers are capable of being the bad guy. Hart and Piper use this knowledge to keep the audience interested in the match.

Throughout the match, both combatants use tactics that are underhanded to a degree, which affects them being viewed as a face or a heel by the crowd. Bret uses the deception method of 'playing possum' twice during the match. The first time, Bret pretends to have injured his shoulder\. The ref allows for a 'time out' (there are timeouts in wrestling like there is crying in baseball), halting Piper from initiating an attack. Bret in turn pops up and hooks Piper into a Small Package, a pin attempt. Piper kicks out but is so angered that he slaps Bret because of the underhandedness. The second instance, later in the match, Bret is laying motionless, facedown. Piper climbs to the top turnbuckle. Just as Roddy reaches the top, Bret springs to his feet with a quick motion analogous to getting up from a squat thrust and takes advantage of Piper's vulnerability as he is exposed on the top rope.

Each time Bret performs these maneuvers, the crowd reacts favorably. This is partially because these moves are considered less underhanded than most others but also because the audience is more comfortable accepting Bret as a face. Piper uses a decidedly more heelish tactic to take advantage in the match. Both wrestlers fell to the outside. Piper got in the ring first and held the ropes open for Bret, which is a very face tactic, a gesture of fair and clean competition. After they both entered the ring, Piper pointed to Bret's boot to indicate that there was a problem with it. As Bret bent down to examine, Piper kicked him in the head repeatedly. This very heel tactic, which followed a very face tactic, indicated to the audience that Piper was willing to be more of a heel if it resulted in him retain the championship. By the end of the match, where Piper grabs the ring bell, the audience is more shocked that Piper would be willing to go that far to retain than surprised that Piper is capable of doing such a thing. Piper's display of heel tactics during other parts of the match, have left the audience comfortable viewing him as a heel.

The heel tactic implored by Piper was instrumental in setting up another aspect of the match. Bret started bleeding during this sequence. This was accomplished through a method known as blading. A wrestler takes a razor and cuts themselves on or around the forehead so that blood will flow. That entire sequence of Piper pointing to Bret's boot was done to shield the blading. Bret pulled the razor out from where he had it hidden, and cut himself above his eye while Piper distracted the audience from seeing this using the series of kicks. The blood, or juice, affects the babyface / heel dynamic of the match. The attack becomes considerably more heelish because it resulted in blood being drawn. Piper draws heat - boos - from the crowd, making the audience lean in favor of Bret overcoming the additional obstacle to win the Championship.

The elements of story are interwoven so that they are all resolved through the same ending. stories being told come to a conclusion through the same finish. The champion was upset by the challenger in a toughly contested battle, resulting in Bret winning his second Intercontinental Championship. The technician bested the brawler by reversing of a finishing maneuver into a pinning combination. The more face of the two wrestlers in the match was able to take advantage of the lesser face's moment of indecision. Piper's hesitation reads that he does not want to be a heel again. After the match, Piper grabs the title from the referee before the referee was able to hand it to Bret, pulls Bret to his feet and exchange a handshake. Piper then places the title belt around Bret's waist and they walk out of the ring the together. Both wrestlers have returned to a babyface status.

I'd be remissed if I didn't mention my favorite part of this match. After the pin is counted, there is a slight moment of hesitation by the crowd. That is because the bell does not ring. Piper threw it away from the time keeper's area and they were not able to get it before the end of the match. It is a very small attention to detail and continuity that is sometimes missed in wrestling today. I look forward to Wrestlemania 25 in anticipation of another match that will be as compelling as Wrestlemania 8's Intercontinental Championship contest.

For a limited time only, you too can watch this Wrestlemania Classic!
The promo before the match:
Part 1 of the match:
Part 2 of the match:
Part 3 of the match:

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