Ringside Shadows #141: Is the Gimmicked Match Destroying Modern Wrestling?
In a word? No.
Gimmicked matches are as much a part of professional wrestling's long and storied history as the ongoing struggle between the face and the heel. It's an extra bit of spice, added to a card that's lacking a little flavor, a shot in the arm to wake up a dead crowd. While WCW and the WWF have been more than a little generous in their use of this rare attention-getter in the years gone by, it's both uninformed and illogical to lay any sort of blame at the feet of the stipulations themselves. The sport has changed, for better or for worse, and as the fans have shifted interests, so has the gimmicked match shifted from its own roots, yet maintaining just enough similarity to keep things in perspective.
Never has such a statement been so true as this week, as WCW has introduced two gimmicks from their substantial past for reproduction in the modern age; the scaffold match and the infamous WarGames. You'd be a fool not to admit much of the fed's remaining intrigue lies in their storied history, dating all the way back to the days of Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes and the NWA; when the men were men, the women were valets and the blood flowed freely. When these guys entered a match with special stipulations, there was a reason for it, and they never lost sight of that. A steel cage match was something special, saved for the odd title defense or an extra-special occasion. There was an extra something in the air those nights, a kind of electricity that shocked its way through the audience, around the cage's steel bars and into the performances of the men butting heads inside. And while some of that has certainly been lost amidst the evening gown matches, the kennel in a cell and Vader's "white castle of fear," I just can't deny a certain sense of urgency, of danger, of excitement when anyone agrees to a good gimmicked matchup, new or old.
They say that if you overlook your history books, you're doomed to repeat their contents, and I guess that's true, to an extent. However, in this case that oversight means missing some incredible matches, memories that you'll carry with you to the grave. If you've seen Mick Foley's fall(s) from the Hell in a Cell, you know what I'm talking about. Ric Flair's second World Title victory over Harley Race in the cage? The same stuff. Jimmy Snuka's flight in Buffalo? Tell me that's forgettable. To be honest, most of the stuff we're seeing today has more than just roots in the past... that's where it was defined. To ignore the past is to ignore your heritage, and when it's something this remarkable, that's something you really shouldn't do.
So I'm here to remind you, in case you've forgotten.. maybe broaden your horizons a bit, maybe encourage you to check out a PPV you've been avoiding for some time. I'm here to cover every different gimmicked match this burnt out mind can remember, and I'm here to have a little fun.
Behold: the classification of a gimmicked match!
The Scaffold Match, quite simply, features a scaffold that's erected a good fifteen feet above the surface of the ring itself... twenty from the concrete below. Historically a match reserved for tag teams, all four men would climb to the walkway above and the bell would ring, signalling the start of the match. Anything was legal in these scaffold matches, including the ladders that support the entire contraption, removed wrestling boots or even Jim Cornette's tennis racket, lobbed from the floor below. The goal of such a match, brutal as it may seem, was to throw both your opponents off the scaffold completely, usually landing in a nasty pile on the mat.
Though such matches were generally pretty weak in their execution, the sheer sight of men fighting atop a thin walkway elevated to frightening heights was amazing enough on its own. On top of that it's often quite comical, watching three hundred pound men waving their arms in the middle of the scaffold, a desperate attempt at maintaining balance. The Road Warriors (Hawk and Animal, aka the Legion of Doom) participated in one such match, overcoming the Midnight Express and manager Jim Cornette, but the more memorable victory belongs to Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson, the Rock'n Roll Express. They, too, defeated the Midnighters in a scaffold match one year earlier, and Cornette took a dive from the construct, as well. I'd often wondered why WCW didn't pull this one out in the modern day, and now that they have, I'm applauding the decision as well as the competitors: Shane Douglas and Billy Kidman. They, above all others, should be able to treat the match with the respect it deserves. Give us a good one, guys.
Believed by many to have been introduced for the very first time at the Shawn Michaels / Scott Hall Wrestlemania X Intercontinental match, the Ladder Match is actually one of the older gimmicks in wrestling history. Though legdrops from the top rung and baseball-style swings with the ladder were hardly commonplace in the days of its origin, the ferocity and basic premise of a ladder match hasn't changed a bit along the way. An important object (often a belt or cold, hard cash) is hung high above the ring before the competitors have even entered the arena, while a giant painting ladder is erected in the entryway for use later in the match. Both men enter, the bell is sounded, and the match begins to progress as any no-DQ would until one man makes a move for the entryway. The ladder is eventually drug into the ring, used as a weapon and erected before the winner climbs to the top and takes the loot that hangs above.
Of all the gimmicked matches in existence, a ladder match is generally the most likely to produce a memorable, well-worked and all around worthwhile match. Though the physical abuse suffered in such a match is usually substantial, the workers involved are often elevated to a level that no amount of injury will ever take away. The fans respect a good match, they enjoy a good gimmick, and they love a good worker, but when you combine all three, the result is magical. To this point, good booking has almost always gone hand in hand with a ladder match, to which much of the intrigue can be attributed. Sure, we've gone through the occasional poor ladder matchup, (it's inevitable in this day and age) but each of those has been countered by a classic. The Hardys vs. Edge & Christian. Rhodes vs. Blanchard. Michaels vs. Hall. Need I say more?
Several different matches fall under the gimmicked banner of the "Brawl". A No DQ Match, a Boiler Room Brawl, a Buried Alive Match, a First Blood Match, or any number of others could fall under such a category, all with varying goals, purposes and means of arrival. As a rule of thumb, though, such matches are under the stipulation of no disqualification. Anything can and probably will happen, and we're almost assured that the action will leave the ring. A boiler room match, for instance, never enters the squared circle to begin with. It all goes down in a boiler room, with the objective being to get out of the room first. Though mindless brawling and a sloppy "street fight" atmosphere have reached new heights of popularity in the modern day, their way was paved on the backs of their preceding generation. The first blood match, which was reintroduced by the WWF at the 1998 King of the Ring, also serves as a throwback to the work of the previous generation. Steve Austin and Kane met at that event, working under the ruling that the first man to bleed was to be declared the loser. Though he dominated the match itself, Austin eventually lost his title in the match after the Undertaker opened him up with a chair. Twelve years earlier, Dusty Rhodes and Tully Blanchard met under the same stipulations at Starrcade '86, and fought to a similar screwjob finish.
While brawls are far from my cup of tea, I'll acknowledge their growing importance in the industry today. Given the right set of circumstances and an excellent worker, a brawl can deliver just as amazing a match as a fine-tuned technical masterpiece, just look at Austin vs. Hart at Wrestlemania 13. Though the punches and kicks may look sloppy, brawling delivers a feel that many other styles have trouble conveying: realism. Tell Mike Tyson that his style lacks flow, substance and technique, and he'll still knock you out with one strong shot. His approach is just as effective as any other.
In stark contrast to the loose nature of the brawl, an "I Quit" Match is the definition of technical mastery and understanding of the sport. The purpose here is to force your opponent into submission, screaming "I quit!" into the arena microphone. Pretty simple, and likely something that's lasted since the day of the caveman. Did your older brother ever lock hold of your arm, twisting until you screamed "uncle"? Same deal.
As I alluded to in the description of a brawl, my true interest lies in this sort of match. Though I'll watch a great fight that covers the entire arena and ends with a fall from a ridiculous height, it takes a submissions match to really capture my attention. Ingenuity is the name of the game here, along with psychology and dedication. To maintain the realism that's becoming so important today, workers have to assure fans that what they're doing hurts like a bitch, and they do that by systematically working over the same limb throughout the match and applying interesting new holds in hopes of a submission. Though such a match has had more than its share of stinkers in the past, (what were they thinking with Sid vs. Goldberg?) all it takes is one dedicated man to draw the crowd's full attention and build a superb match.
One gimmick that's been modified by today's world is the Strap Match, and that modification has been for the worse. See, with the original strap match, both men were joined at the waist, wrist or neck by means of a strap of some sort (chain, leather, rope, etc). Doesn't sound so different? Well, the purpose was then to touch all four corners of the ring before your opponent did, not to pin them. If one man climbed too close to a corner, it was up to his opponent to give the strap a firm yank, often taking him off his feet in the process. Sure, the strap was also used as a whip or to strangle wrestlers, but that wasn't the sole purpose of the match. Today the men are still tied together, but the object is quite different: gain a pinfall or submission. By dropping the "four corners" rule, the bookers have eliminated most of what made this match unique in the first place. It's a sad development, really.
A style that's almost defined the 90s, in addition to taking a shot at shaping the future, found its home in the form of the Hardcore Match. Without argument, a hardcore match is the most varied of all gimmicks, including matches that mix and match barb wire, explosives, the use of wild animals, glass, fire, tables, chairs, chainsaws and anything and everything in between. A hardcore match is based on one simple rule; top the stunt the guy wrestling before you pulled. It's a dangerous, violent, unfathomable world that's been delivered closer to our doorsteps than anyone dreamed imaginable only ten years ago. Hardcore was almost an urban legend during the time of the Flairs, the Hogans and the Savages, a word that was whispered between the viewers, a note passed under the table. It was almost the forbidden style, and that is still its main attraction. Built over the battered bodies of Mick Foley, Abdullah the Butcher, Terry Funk and various others, hardcore is only now beginning to realize the potential it held all this time... and it's spreading. Look closely enough at a Ladder match, an "I Quit Match" or a scaffold match and you'll see a little bit of hardcore influence peeking back out at you.
Easily the poster boy of the gimmick match is the ever present Steel Cage Match, and the multiple variations that lie therein. Be it the WWF's Hell in a Cell, WCW's Three tiered monster, the standard-issue over the top cage, wire mesh or a thunderdome sealed deal, everybody's seen one of these. It's what a good gimmicked match should be: memorable, different, and necessary. When two men go to the cage, there's a reason they're doing it. Like I said earlier on, there's a certain something in the air for one of these, a sense that something special's about to go down. The fans feel it, the announcers feel it, and the workers feel it. So many important moments have gone down surrounded by the steel; Benoit's dual dive with Snuka, Rikishi's splash from the very top, Hennig's turn on the Horsemen, Flair's second World Title victory. The match has a history like no other, and that history is enough to lift even the lamest of matches up to something you're willing to watch again and again. The gimmick is so simple, it's genius. More than that, it's a memory in the making.
Finally, we have the grand daddy of them all. My personal favorite, the WarGames match. An NWA staple, the WarGames were held every year during the Great American Bash event and often centered on the cornerstone feud of the promotion; The Four Horsemen vs. the world. Though the event's come and gone since the '87 Bash where it debuted, the rules have remained virtually the same. A roofed steel cage covers two rings, side by side. The match begins with one competitor from each team sealed in the cage, a clock counting down the two minutes until the next man is allowed in. A coin toss then decides the order of combatants, with each team alternating turns (for instance, a heel correctly calling the toss would give us a heel - face - heel - face - heel - face rotation.) Once all ten men have entered in the ring, the match officially begins. All ten tear at each other until one individual gives in to the pain, submitting and losing the match for the rest of his team. In a way, this match defined the gimmick match for a new generation, setting the stage for the insanity of today. It featured the day's biggest stars in Flair, Anderson, Luger, Sting, the Road Warriors and Rhodes. It used a cage in a way that was completely unheard of in its day. Though they were a bit complex, the rules were something original, too. It was a unique way to present a match with everyone the fans wanted to see, a clever way to gain attention. A gimmick. Though several WarGames have come and gone since the original, none have delivered the same excitement as the first. It's been some time since we've seen one of these, and this coming Monday night will show us if WCW's truly learned something from their past, or if they plan to cash that in, as well.
When it comes down to it, I'm forced to recite one more old adage; the more things change, the more they stay the same. It's still all about entertaining the audience, giving them something to come back for... we've just found more ways to do it.
until next time, i remain