On Wrestling Criticism Part 2: Wrestling Mechanics

On Wrestling Criticism Part 2: Wrestling Mechanics

Note: The intro to this series can be read here.

It’s important to begin with the mechanics of pro wrestling, the actual physical movement involved with the performance.

I wanted to start with this particular element of wrestling simply because it’s the first thing any viewer is immediately confronted by. The physical act of wrestling is the foundation upon which every match and narrative gets built upon. It’s part of what makes pro wrestling such a visceral experience for those who watch it — the raw physicality of simulated combat.

Writing about pro wrestling mechanics puts the critic in a strange place. On the one hand, it feels like such a natural thing to discuss as one is just literally reacting to the literal action on screen. At the same time though, this is the aspect of pro wrestling that most fans will have the least firsthand knowledge of. Most of us don’t take bumps or know the intricacies of hand-to-hand combat.

Or at least I don’t. I know many people who talk wrestling online have some kind of background either in wrestling or within the art’s proximity, and I can’t say that I’m one of them. For those that do have that knowledge, by all means, feel free to fold that into your critique as it certainly offers a perspective that I can’t speak to having.

More Professional Wrestling

Still, it’s been a common refrain thrown out by wrestlers who have had their in-ring work criticized. As Disco Inferno once asked, “Have you ever worked before?”

That’s a bad faith argument that creatives in a million different fields have slung at critics forever. But it does pay to understand that there does exist a disconnect between the reality of the workers in the ring and the effect that has on the viewer at home. Understanding that divide is important for both critic and performer to recognize as the experience on either side of the spectrum can never truly be the same.

When I write about wrestling matches, I write about the impressions that the action in the ring leaves more than I do the actual technique involved with performing. I’m not here to tell a wrestler how to throw an elbow or hit a slam, but rather to articulate how those moments of physicality come across and how they might add — or detract — from the overall presentation.

With that being said, allow me to break down a few key elements of mechanics that I personally pay attention to when I write about matches.

Botches

In a post-Botchamania world, people know what a messed-up spot looks like. Hell, even without Botchamania, if you spend enough time watching pro wrestling and understand its rhythms and routines, you can spot a mistake from a mile away.

To me though, in-ring botches are a neutral occurrence in any pro wrestling match. Strange as it may sound, a botch is not inherently a negative. Human error cannot be removed from any form of creative expression. And with something as physically complex and taxing as pro wrestling, mistakes will happen. If wrestling were a legitimate athletic contest, mistakes would still happen.

Much more important than the botch itself is the impression the botch leaves on the viewer as it relates to the match as a whole. Most botches are innocuous enough to not even warrant a second glance — a simple slip or miscommunication that pros can move past with ease. Things like that happen all the time, and if they’re isolated moments in a match, they don’t play a large role in detracting from the overall package’s quality.

Some botches leave a far worse taste in the mouth. Botches that center on key moments in the match — big transition points, elaborate set pieces, and worst of all, the finish — are far more likely to impart negative feelings in the critic. The grander the mistake, after all, the more it stands out in the memory and becomes a larger part of the experience.

The same can be said for smaller botches compounding on each other. If a match becomes just a series of slips and goofs, then it makes the match as a whole seem sloppy in general. While some matches filled with botches impart a sense of reckless danger, more often than not one expects the moves in a wrestling match to go as they are planned to.

Even then, a botch is only as good as the attempt to recover from it. There’s many different tactics wrestlers have used over the years to get over even the worst botches. The most uninteresting one is to just repeat the spot until it’s done right. Depending on the complexity of the spot’s set up, this can come across rather poorly as it exposes the cooperative nature of the performance.

In the right setting though, there can be some charm to it. For example, at a 2019 house show in Manila, Bayley and Charlotte Flair folded in a table’s refusal to break into an integral part of their street fight. This didn’t result in a groundbreaking great match, but it at least allowed for some realistic acknowledgement of the error that engaged the live crowd.

A much more interesting approach to botch recovery is to fold the mistake into the story. The example of Bayley and Charlotte falls under this tactic, but there’s other ways to do so. Perhaps the gold standard of this would be from the Jushin Liger vs. The Great Sasuke match from the first Super J Cup. Sasuke springs to the top rope to attack Liger, only to trip on the rope and fall flat on his face. Liger taunts and mocks Sasuke, only to be immediately caught in a small package that gives Sasuke the victory. Fantastic stuff that tells a simple story — a brash superstar gloating and paying for his sins in an instant. Perfect enough that if someone told me it was a planned moment, I’d believe them.

Earlier in the year, we saw CM Punk employ similar tactics. After slipping off the top rope on an attempted top rope rana, Punk took to selling his knee. This skillfully accomplished a few things. First, it created a kayfabe reason for the error, but it also added consequence to the mistake as it’s clear that the bad bump had been folded into the narrative of the much.

Less impressive were Punk’s attempts at hitting the Buckshot Lariat in his Double or Nothing title shot against Hangman Page. There’s something to be said about Punk eating shit on his attempts to mock the champion, sure, but on the surface it’s just not nearly as elegant as his work in the Penta match.

Mistakes always happen, but as a critic it’s important to know which ones are worth picking apart.

Striking

Every strike in wrestling has two important aspects: sight and sound.

The latter’s the one I find myself fixating on more often. There’s just nothing quite like that audible smack of flesh on flesh to confirm that a strike connects. The best strikes out there in wrestling never really have to worry about this — they just hit hard enough that everyone’s going to know about it no matter what. Great contemporary examples of wrestlers like this include Kazusada Higuchi, Takuya Nomura, and Yuji Okabayashi.

If one doesn’t hit quite as hard as those three, there are other methods of creating the illusion of being hard hitting. The two most common ones that people know of are the famous foot stomps, which are handy for kicks to the gut and worked punches, and the infamous leg slap, often paired with superkicks but sometimes paired with elbow strikes and punches as well.

The leg slap has been the subject of a lot of debate in recent times. Personally, I don’t mind it. In itself, it’s a neutral tool in a wrestler’s skillset that can be used well or poorly. As an audio enhancer for kicks and elbows, I think it works well as long as the camera and the wrestler conceal the slap well enough. I find that it creates trouble when one person throws leg slap strikes, and the other actually lays something in though. The thud on a proper kick to the back is so much more satisfying than a crispy leg slap.

That being said, the leg slap’s ubiquity has lent itself to overuse so your mileage may vary on that one. I certainly understand the arguments against it though I consider myself more a fan of it than not.

Chris Jericho punches triple h wweWWE

With strikes, it’s again important to recall that the physical reality of a thing need not have any effect on the viewing experience. Take for instance someone like Chris Jericho. Multiple wrestlers have gone on to say that Jericho can throw a really stiff punch in the ring. At one point, Mick Foley even had to warn Jericho not to feel to free throwing potatoes at other main eventers in the WWF. And yet, I often find myself thinking that one of Jericho’s greatest weaknesses in the ring are his punches — they just have a limp, airy feel to them.

The converse can be true as well. Let’s stick with Jericho for this example. I haven’t heard anyone claim that Jericho chops anyone too hard, yet it’s the best strike in his arsenal. It’s always crispy and he can hit it with ease, it never really whiffs or comes across too soft at any point.

It doesn’t matter if a wrestler’s strikes actually hurt. I just need to be convinced that they do.

Holds

I chose to use the word “holds” instead of “technical wrestling” for this part just so that I could cover more ground. Treat this is a catch-all for things like grappling, chain wrestling, and matwork. All those finer techniques that fill out a match go into this particular section.

In this it’s even harder to make generalizations as different genres of wrestling approach holds in vastly different ways. I try to attune my expectations towards the people in the ring and the style that they’re working towards instead of having a singular hard and fast idea of what “good matwork” looks like.

Shoot style often implies a much more gritty struggle on the mat. There’s a much tighter sense of competition here with holds constantly being fought for and countered in small but meaningful ways. Again, as someone without any real training or athletic ability in general, I can’t speak to technique here. But the intended effect from this style of match is always very palpable when done right. It’s a game of inches where any opening could, however small, can lead to victory.

My favorite lucha matwork tells a similar story, despite feeling like it’s on the opposite end of the tonal spectrum. The more grounded, mat-based lucha matches I enjoy are also about finding openings and manipulating leverage but there’s a more classical and expressive feel to it. It’s not fought in close quarters so much as freely flowing from intricate hold to intricate hold. There’s a much greater emphasis on pro-style holds in this, that is to say things that people simply wouldn’t see in a legitimate athletic contest. In that sense, there’s a vibe of exhibition as well, a game of one-upmanship over who has the best hold.

Bryan Danielson Wheeler YUTA 02AEW

Just by default, my taste trends towards a more North American approach. I understand that this is a result of being socialized to enjoy the most accessible forms of pro wrestling out there, but I just can’t help but return to the familiar even as I work to try and expand my horizons.

In general though, from the likes of Thesz and Gagne in the 50s, all the way up to YUTA and Garcia today, I just enjoy the way that chain wrestling has been synthesized for the American audience. Of course, with time, this form of chain wrestling has been influenced and shaped by borrowing from other sources — British wrestling, shoot style, lucha libre — but the best practitioners always do well to make their work feel timeless and universal.

Across all regions and times though, there’s a few general qualities that I look for from this kind of work. First and foremost, is the struggle of the person in the hold. That could mean working to endure the pain of the hold or actively maneuvering to escape it, either way that conflict is integral.

I also like seeing people actually wrenching on their holds. The headlock is one of the most demeaned and hated holds in wider discourse for being a “boring rest hold.” A headlock is not boring when someone knows how to work it. One old school example I enjoy citing is how Verne Gagne actively cranked on a headlock in a way that twisted the victim’s neck in gruesome ways. A more modern example might be Bryan Danielson and Claudio Castagnoli structuring an entire match around working and escaping headlock in 2006 PWG. Pulling on a hold and actually making it look like one applies pressure does so much to give life to what otherwise might be termed a mere “rest hold.”

High Flying

It’s in this section where I find myself struggling the most in terms of my own work. There’s a lot of wrestlers in the world today whose work centers around high flying offense. Some I think are great and exciting while others I just don’t really care for at all.

In this, more than any other of the elements I’ve discussed yet, I rely far more on gut feeling in terms of discerning what I enjoy and what I don’t. Articulating what distinguishes the good from the bad is not something I do a lot — it’s just not the wrestling I cover most often — so I’ll do my best to utilize some key examples here to illustrate my own preferences.

I’ll start with the kind of high flying that I’m not a big fan of. There are some spots, which I usually encounter in GIF form, that go off pretty much exactly as the wrestlers intended that just come across as contrived to me.

To cite a recent example, a recent spot that made the rounds online sees Jack Cartwheel and Komander cartwheeling in and out of position to hit a powerbomb. Just watching the clip of it, in the moment, it’s clear that they perform what they want out of the spot exactly as they conceived it, so it’s not a matter of an error in execution. They just lose me on the conceptual level. I don’t really care to see these two trading cartwheels no matter how well they do it.

Some spots like that just rub me the wrong way. The athleticism required is impressive — and I imagine that’s a big part of the appeal for many fans — but it’s just not something I can quite reconcile with my own personal understanding of how pro wrestling functions and looks like.

Much like botches, spots like these aren’t immediate match killers by any means. I’ve just found that there’s been a trend towards that particular style of action that I’ve come to avoid out of habit. There are some wrestlers that make a good living constantly trying to up the stakes and find the newest and most stunning ways to maneuver around the ring in this fashion. Good for them that they can make their living doing so, it’s just not going to work for me.

Rey Mysterio vs Eddie GuerrreroWWE

As for the high flying I do like, that kind of action tends to trend towards either the smooth and impactful. It’s a cliched answer, but the easiest example that comes to mind would be Rey Mysterio. While many have worked to innovate and improve upon the kind of fireworks that Mysterio introduced to television wrestling in the 90s, few handle it with quite as much thoughtful ease as he does. Mysterio’s high flying always comes across as not only physically dazzling and clean, but also impactful and damaging as well. A lot of this has to do with who’s basing for Mysterio at any given time, but at his best he’s found just the right mix of movement and flash without sacrificing a key principle of high flying — the moves still need to look like they hurt in the end.

I think the latter is why I tend to not love modern high flying quite as much. The more flips and spins get added into the mix, the more momentum gets burned on the move itself that’s lost by the time wrestlers finally land. There’s an airy quality to some high-flying offense that loses me somewhere around the third or fifth rotation.

I gravitate far more to those who are able to maintain all that speed and translate it into almost violent landings on their opponents. I spoke ill earlier of Komander trading cartwheels, yes, but when he’s walking the top rope and launching himself into his opponents in the front row, that’s when I perk up. There’s a recklessness to that action that is both spectacular and also leaves one with the distinct impression that Komander’s trying to take his competition out of commission.

Manami Toyota’s another strong example in this regard. The famed 90s joshi star threw herself into all her high flying offense. Perhaps my favorite example is her springboard moonsault off the top rope and into her opponents down on the floor. She rarely landed elegantly into open arms, but rather flung her entire body weight into a near suicidal assault.

Much more than any of the other elements I’ve discussed so far, this one falls the most under the Potter Stewart philosophy. I’ll know it when I see it.

Author: Brandon Murphy