Ringside Shadows #159: Measuring Up
Over the last ten years, the wrestling industry as a whole has done a lot of evolution. From the highs of the "Rock n' Wrestling" combination to the lows of the mid '90s to the new plateau of the Attitude era, the world between the ropes has undergone more than one significant change. The main event runs of Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and Steve Austin came and went. The game changed from a predictable good vs. evil children's program to a well oiled, mature storytelling medium. Audiences grew older, and the gimmicks changed to suit the viewers. It's been a neverending road with plenty of bumps, but in all likelihood the greatest obstacle in the sport's long history slipped by without more than a handful of souls even noticing.
Since its very inception, professional wrestling has been about the big man. The larger the muscles, the more the intimidation, the greater the worker. Old time bookers weren't stupid, they'd give the audiences what they wanted... and in the beginning, audiences were enthralled by the big ones. It was always a case of the irresistible force vs. the immovable object, all the way up until the mid 20th century. Though audiences' tastes had changed in due time, the basic curiosity that drove wrestling's earliest fans to the arenas remained intact. They still wanted to see the giant vs. the god, if only because they'd never known anything else. With this innocent desire, however, came an unexpected bias. God only knows how many amazing wrestlers were left out of matches that could have defined a generation, only because they couldn't gain that extra couple pounds, couldn't grow those two more inches. It serves as bitter irony today, then, that Chris Benoit... arguably the greatest technician of our time... wouldn't have been given any sort of chance had he been born thirty years earlier.
And therein had lain our obstacle. Grand workers weren't being given the chances they deserved because of an ages-old mindset that was dominating the industry. Somewhere in the mid '90s, though, something clicked. Perhaps it was Eric Bischoff's recruitment and showcasing of the original cruiserweight lineup, maybe it had something to do with ECW or puroresu or lucha libre, nobody can pinpoint the precise moment that old set of standards was thrown out the window. The important thing is that it was. Over the course of a few short years we went from a historically biased industry to an almost completely level playing field. For the first time in history, popularity was the only factor in deciding who moved up the card and who would be looking for work at the end of the week. But with that new way of thinking came a whole new set of issues.
How were lightweights to work with super heavyweights that couldn't accommodate their high flying, furiously paced style? What moveset was the standard for such matches, and which maneuvers were completely out of the question? Where does the emphasis seem to be headed for the future of the industry? How do these newly defined weight classes stack up against one another?
Since I'm not aiming to write a book with this one, we'll stick with the most relevant (and arguably, most important) question; what makes each class unique, and which two combine to create the most entertaining, crowd-pleasing matches? For each weight class to have survived this long, they had to bring something original to the table, something that makes them indispensable. Likewise, that unique element has to be translatable between the three, it has to function just as well against a super heavyweight as it does against a cruiser. Otherwise, federations would begin to overcorrect the problem, overexposing smaller men, underexposing larger men and leaving things no better off than they were to begin with.
So with the criteria laid out on the table, let's dive in with the most recently arrived of the three weight classes.
Above anything else, the lightweights bring an incredible amount of speed and inventiveness to the game. While these positives are often negated by the spottiness that almost goes hand in hand, the potential alone is enough to bring most crowds to their feet. Add to that the stronger workrate still ingrained into most smaller workers (as a result of the years of oppression they fought through to get where they are) and you've got a fresh, motivated set of athletes that entertain the crowd on a consistent basis. The cruisers also boast the greatest variety of styles and techniques in the industry, from high fliers like Jeff Hardy to technical masters like Dean Malenko to hardcore brawlers like Spike Dudley.
Against the heavyweights, the cruisers have arguably their best match. While they must eliminate some of the more extravagant moves from their arsenal, they've still plenty more to choose from, covering the vacancies rather fluidly. Many heavyweights are now showing more and more willingness to adapt their styles so as to better match up with cruisers, helping to smooth the whole process over while ensuring their survival in the main event well into the future. HHH's recent run with the WWF title is a good case in point. In his multiple matches with Chris Jericho, Taka Michinoku and their peers, he sold more head scissors takedowns and high risk maneuvers than any that had come before him. To see a man that many have labeled as the star of his generation selling moves that no heavyweight in his right mind would even consider ten years ago says more than any words can hope to express. More so than their larger brothers, the heavyweights have adapted themselves to better embrace the new weight class and are currently reaping the benefits.
vs. Super Heavyweights
With super heavyweights, there's a little more challenge. The cruiser's vocabulary is extremely limited, as you can't expect a 400 pound man to sell many top rope hurricanaranas or even move very much when someone half his size barrels into him. There's always the added intrigue of a "David vs. Goliath" match, and fans won't have any trouble choosing sides, (unless the cruiserweight has done something unimaginably heinous, he'll be the perennial face) but without substance in the ring to back them up, the storylines I mentioned aren't worth much if anything. Besides, there's only so many times you can tell the same story before crowds lose interest.
In the world of pro wrestling, heavyweights are the norm, the bar, the ideal. Hovering around 300 pounds, they're large enough to land powerful moves like a powerslam or jackhammer convincingly, yet small enough to climb the ropes and take flight when necessary. Almost an exact middle ground, heavyweights can shift their style ever so slightly with relative ease and can work with just about anyone.
vs. Super Heavyweights
The age-old confrontation, worn out after years of overuse. From Hogan vs. Andre to Hogan vs. Earthquake to.. uh... Hogan vs. the Giant, Hulk Hogan alone is responsible for much of the audience's loss of interest in this face off. Though the two weight classes aren't restricted much by size issues, as the line between heavy and super heavy is debatable, very little exploration has gone into fleshing out the feuds that produce these matches. It's nearly always "face meets heel, heel withstands face's best shots and smiles, face is bewildered, face conquers all at the pay per view." With a little exploration, I have no doubt this timeless collision could once again give us the reason we're looking for to shell out that $30 every month. As it stands now, however, that day's still a little ways off.
There isn't much one can say that the name doesn't describe on its own. These guys may not be the most limber folks in the industry, nor will they ever climb the ropes. They don't have a very deep moveset, and they aren't noted for their endurance in the ring. What they do have is drawing power. As I mentioned at the beginning of the column, people have a strange sort of fascination with the biggest of the big. The fact that Viscera has been steadily employed since the mid '90s stands as the only proof you need for this phenomenon.
When the dust clears, I don't think there's much argument... the heavyweights and cruiserweights have the skills, the motivation and the momentum to carry today's industry steadily on their backs. Their matches are without question the closest to what audiences seem to be craving in the modern age, and while I won't go so far as to call the Super Heavyweights "things of the past," they do have quite a bit of work ahead of them as a whole if they want to survive in the brave new world that's surrounded them.
until next time, i remain