By Ben Miller for WrestlingObserver.com
When you’re at the bar of a popular seafood restaurant in Koreatown, it takes something to grab your attention. You come for the happy hour specials and the dollar oysters. You stay for the bevy of young Korean singles (not for me, I’m happily committed) and the vibe.
The bar at the Koreatown restaurant has a television behind it, but unless there’s a big game going, it’s just background noise. Maybe SportsCenter or maybe some basketball game, but in the sports wasteland of July, there wasn’t supposed to be anything keeping anyone’s attention from a peak happy hour crowd on a Saturday night.
Then, Jordan Burroughs came on. He’s an American wrestling for Gold at the Pan-Am games and ESPN was about to show his match. My friend (a non-wrestling fan who hates boxing and thinks that MMA is disgusting) needed prompting, but when you’re a sports fan and you’re told that a freak is about to compete, that’s enough.
Burroughs did not disappoint. Of course he won a gold (scored an 11-0 victory via “Great Superiority” using Freestyle wrestling arcane scoring system), but that wasn’t the point. A non-wrestling fan barely cares about gold medals, yet my friend watched the entire match intently. He watched in part because Burroughs is, in fact, a freak. And freaks — like Jon Jones or Rey Misterio, Jr. in his prime — are naturally interesting.
There was only one comment from the non-wrestling fan while watching Burroughs wrestle: “The American guy just plays defense.” Scoring eleven points in a wrestling match may seem like lots of offense, but my friend was correct. Burroughs spent most of the match — especially the early part — using his superior strength, balance, athleticism and gamesmanship to keep the Ecuadorian at bay. It’s not that Burroughs was afraid to go forward, but airtight defense was clearly essential to his game.
Sports fans know defense because it’s everywhere in sports. The Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers played the best defense in basketball, and that’s the main reason they met in the NBA Finals. UFC interim featherweight champion Conor McGregor played brilliant guard defense against Chad Mendes, and then whipped his ass when the time was right. There are always exceptions to any rule, but the rule is clear: defense wins championships.
Except in pro wrestling where there is no longer any defense.
Pro wrestling may not be a sport, but it thrives when its concepts are taken from the sports of its time. The 70s were a wild, experimental decade while the 80s were a time of crass ambition. In both decades, wrestling followed suit accordingly. There was no shame when the United States dominated a heavily boycotted Olympics in 1984 and there was no shame when Hulk Hogan teamed up with a muscled up actor a year later.
In recent years, wrestling has certainly gotten further away from the concept of being a fake sport, both for good and for bad. Pro wrestling promoted as a sport (complete with modern accoutrements like lengthy pre-game shows, instant replay for referees and countless self-satisfied commentators reciting statistics) would be a turn off for some and a refreshing change for others. But whether a fan enjoys real sports or not, certain traits of real sports make wrestling more enjoyable.
Real sports and wrestling both thrive when antagonism is strong. McGregor fans celebrated his January 2015 demolition of Dennis Siver, but their reaction was nothing compared to the unbridled joy that was unleashed when he beat Mendes. Winning a championship was part of that, but the way he won it mattered. Conor overcame a perilous situation and he had to play great defense to do it. Mendes, an accomplished wrestler, was on top of him for several minutes at a time, but Conor kept his received damage to a minimum.
All the while, suspense was building in the audience. Can Conor last? How can Conor get out of this? If he does, will he have the energy to overcome? When Conor answered those questions emphatically, the audience’s reaction was a joy that surpassed mere accomplishment. It was heightened by what Conor had to overcome.
Modern pro wrestling has elevated false finishes and highspots above defense. In the moment, that change often feels good. The crowd popped for all of the near falls in the John Cena vs. Kevin Owens match at WWE Battleground, just as the crowd at the American Legion Post in Reseda, CA, will during the Young Bucks vs. Angelico/Jack Evans main event at Friday’s PWG show. It will be fun and the fans will love it, at least in the moment.
For an indy promotion to offer a fun style makes sense. PWG shows are about the fans and their relationship with the wrestlers more than anything else. It’s more akin to a Yo La Tengo concert than a pro wrestling event. We love the promotion and the wrestlers and they love putting on a show. And for a promotion whose stated goal is to produce enjoyable wrestling at the local level, it’s perfect.
WWE (along with TNA, New Japan, ROH and a few others), however, has larger ambitions. They want to be as big as possible. And while the false finish-heavy style gets great reviews, it limits how big the audience can get. Drawing big requires archetypal stories, powerful antagonism and charismatic babyfaces. The antagonism just can’t build to the level it needs to be when nobody plays defense and everyone kicks out of everyone’s finishing move.
Freestyle wrestling has the benefit of being small, because when you’re small time, nobody takes shortcuts. There aren’t masses of impressionable young boys watching Burroughs and dreaming that they will become like him. Status and power don’t come from being a world class freestyle wrestler, and thus dreamers stay away. The few who do idolize Burroughs are left to learn the fundamentals of the craft.
Pro wrestling is so popular that it attracts dreamers. Dreamers want to create moments, but they often attempt reverse engineering to do so. They see Misawa’s epic Budokan Hall matches with Kawada and they want the pop that those nearfalls created. They learn how to get finishers over and how to fit that moment into a match, but they overlook what wrestling is at its core: a fake sport. And sports require defense. And defense is no fun in the moment. So, defense goes and an emptier match is what’s left.
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All sports and all forms of entertainment must evolve. This is not a grouchy treatise wishing for a day that has passed. I well remember the bad old days of endless restholds and lumbering, waterlogged oafs wheezing their way around the ring. There must, however, be some kind of happy medium. And I hope that one of the great young wrestlers currently populating NXT, PWG or some other promotion, experiments with adding some defense to the story. It has the power to make the finished product championship-caliber.