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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

MY 100 UNAPOLOGETIC FAVORITE WRESTLING MATCHES

The birth of the "ROH style"?


#98: Brian Pillman vs. Jushin "Thunder" Liger, WCW Light Heavyweight Championship - Superbrawl II, February 29, 1992

The previous two matches extolled the values found in a good, rowdy brawl. They also prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that keeping a match compelling doesn't take 450-splashes off of ladders through flaming tables propped up over tanks filled with bloodthirsty sharks, eels and Democrats.

This match proves that aiming high with style points doesn't necessarily hurt, as long as it adds to the story.

And this match's story might be my favorite kind: that of competition for 10 pounds of gold. That is "competition" (OK, we all know it's scripted, right? right, moving on....) just to be the best. It wasn't for custody of a child. No one's wife got slapped, nor anyone's significant-other stolen. It didn't even need animosity. It just needed one championship, and two guys who wanted it.

"Flyin'" Brian Pillman almost defies mere words at this point. Without the high-flying, high-risk offense that he introduced to mainstream American wrestling, A.J. Styles, Sonjay Dutt, Jeff Hardy and others would spend whole careers languishing in dark matches. Meanwhile, Jushin "Thunder" Liger was absolutely in his prime, which included classic matches with the likes of two young men named Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero.

Pillman had lost his WCW light heavyweight championship to Liger, and wanted it back. Again, I must stress this: there was no bitter animosity or even much antagonism. Pillman wanted his title back, plain and simple.

The two carried off this match at a very, very brisk pace. Both men scarcely sought a moment to rest, stringing together a superb match combining some flawless technical chain-wrestling and each man's trademark aerial artistry. And it cannot be understated: both these men were, in every sense of the word, ARTISTS in what they did.

Both men swapped the momentum enough times to keep every single fan on edge wondering who would come out on top. That might be the most consistently effective way to tell a story in the ring. The last third of the match, each man would reverse something the other did into a high-impact move that I guarantee every fan thought meant the end of the match . . . except when it didn't. I cannot stress this enough, this was not Hogan-Warrior formulaic, face-takes-a-beating-then-dominates-the-last-segment-of-the-match-to-pull-off-the-improbable-win booking. You couldn't read the pacing and have the slightest idea who goes over.

That's the kind of match that is a joy to watch, even when you know the outcome. It sucks you right back in again like the first time you watched it.

Pillman hit his springboard clothesline, but couldn't put Liger away. Liger hit a Liger-bomb, but that couldn't put Pillman away. Pillman nailed a top-rope splash, but couldn't get the three. Liger missed a diving headbutt . . . and then Pillman executed a sneaky sort of rolling clutch you just didn't see on American TV that often and picked up an out-of-the-blue three-count.

And THEREIN lies the perfection. After all the false finishes that threw the crowd off, it was a move absolutely outside of Pillman's signature offense - in fact, something that most would've guessed to be a transitional sort of near-fall move - that finally ended it.

It saddens me to hear "Internet fans" sometimes lament the rampant use of complicated, unorthodox offense in American wrestling, especially in independent federations. And to be perfectly honest, they're not always wrong. What gets me, is that these fans will even lay on the cynicism when high-spots and acrobatic, unorthodox move sets DO help tell the story. The aerial offense both these men employed brought the audience to its feet and added something special.

Remember, it was a MISSED diving headbutt that set up the finish. Pillman's springboard clothesline, often a finisher, couldn't get the three-count, and that put over just how tough Liger really had to be to withstand everything Pillman could throw at him. A dive by Pillman at one point ended with him eating guardrail and the audience probably believing that Liger then had the match in hand . . . which, of course, set up more near-falls, proving that Pillman could take whatever Liger could throw at him. The high-spots need to either mark a transition or assist in getting something else about the story over. As it stands now, they've been significantly cheapened.

Speaking of little things driving the story, give ample credit to Jim Ross for calling this match solo and putting over the immense athleticism that both these men possessed. Ross was the Al Michaels/Bob Costas of professional wrestling at this point, who had an incredible gift for getting across crucial intangible aspects of a match to make it make sense to any average first-time viewer. This night, Ross was in rare form.

Pillman brought colossal heart, talent and athletic gifts to the table, as Ross pointed out. Liger equaled him in nearly every way, except for being in his own right a former IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. How I WISH I could hear Ross name-drop promotions like New Japan and great performers such as Antonio Inoki on TV again. This is an example of the night-and-day difference between how Vince McMahon likes things done, and what's best for the product. They are not always the same thing, trust me.

It's not the sort of thing anyone notices off the bat, but good logic inconspicuously made this match superb. Every time someone made a wrong move, the other capitalized; that way, it got across these two were so equal in terms of ability, one mistake by either could mean the match. The focus of the match never deviated from the title; that way, in the eyes of the fan, the title truly meant something significant. Finally, the match showed that both men were masters of the one word on the marquee that should ever be made to matter by the promoters:

Wrestling.

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