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Thursday, February 26, 2009

MY 100 UNAPOLOGETIC FAVORITE WRESTLING MATCHES

What could have been....



#94: Bret “The Hitman” Hart vs. The 1-2-3 Kid – WWF Championship Match, Monday Night Raw, July 11, 1994

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I apologize with utmost sincerity for the huge gap between installments. Life intervened on a series of levels that I couldn’t help. I plan to hustle and make up for lost time with a few new inductions this week, however.

By the by, don't forget to check Austin Buckner's Pro Wrestling Wake Up - http://prowrestlingwakeup.blogspot.com)

The best wrestlers in the business become invaluable assets if in no other way, then in that they elevate every individual who stands across the ring from them. Not coincidentally, it is also the hallmark of a creative wrestling genius when a mid-level talent can be made to look like a perfectly legitimate main event-level performer and credible championship threat.

Various ROH and NWA champions have historically excelled in this. In both respective promotions and eras, elevating nearly every talent on the roster accomplished some really special things: the champ could carry off an intriguing main event against any given wrestler on any given night that guaranteed a butt ever 18 inches, no matter the dance partner; the main event scene practically never came with an expiration date – with so many wrestlers looking like credible contenders, nothing got stale; and most importantly, it made it incredibly difficult to ever “see the finish coming.”

Bret Hart hit an absolute hot streak in 1994 during his first run with the WWF title (I’m no revisionist; it was the WWF then, so it’s the WWF here) and shortly thereafter into 1995. He had matches that made superb talents look phenomenal and afterthought performers seem on the cusp of entering a new echelon. For mid-card performers such as Virgil, being there across the ring from Hart marked the only time they came close to perceptions of main-event acceptance.

Now ponder this: on this particular night, Hart stood across the ring from a longtime independent prodigy only beginning to make waves and win over fans: Sean Waltman. The former 1-2-3 Kid/X-Pac/Syxx was a smooth as buttermilk, crisp as a fresh-baked baguette’s crust and sold like ice in Hell.

Watching this match should make a wrestling fan angry. Really bitter. Anyone who appreciates the art in professional wrestling will at feel compelled to never look away. This was a honed master and a prodigy only beginning to show his polish. The ones who know the epilogue to these two careers knows Waltman became a walking attitude problem, degraded his gift with his drug problems and poor taste in friends and became a shell of himself that inspired the term “X-Pac heat”.

That should make someone angry, because in this match that had no build-up, no promos, no back-story, Waltman looked like a WWF Champion in the making.

Oh yes, it’s getting redundant, but no one announcer – save perhaps Joey Styles – could do this match justice as Jim Ross did. He treats this as sporting competition, not storytelling. He analyzes, breaks down and still colors the action. It even overcomes the hysterical-yet-borderline-irritating babbling of Randy Savage next to him. Ross was still in his NWA/WCW-style prime here, before he fell into the barbeque sauce stupor in which he remains to this day. This is the Gordon Solie School of Announcing proudly displayed in a promotion fronted by a man Sollie never liked at all, Vince McMahon.

Hart worked a physical, sometimes stiff style, and Waltman earns those first points of admiration by matching him hold-for-hold. It always made for interesting storytelling when anyone worked against his usual style by working the mat style with Hart. Yet, this always worked so well because Hart knew so very, very well how to make anyone look like an outstanding wrestler when in that element.

Once Hart takes control, Waltman displays a gift every great face needs to possess: complete comprehension of How To Take A Kicking 101. Taking a grind-it-out beating like that reminds everyone that, as good as Waltman may be, Hart is the champion for a reason. He’s just that good. Waltman returns Hart’s favor by coming across as struggling to barely survive until that next opportunity comes up.

For the record, consider this: so often, stories take weeks to develop and culminate in a big blow-off match or two. These two are getting across all the narrative one could handle in a space of about 17 minutes and change.

We now pause for character development: Hart gets a three-count, but saw Waltman’s foot on the ropes. Does he take the win? No, not the “fighting champion.” Instead, he insists on a re-start – and here, kicks the storytelling into a new gear. Almost right away, Waltman gets a long two-count of his own. So, we now have sportsmanship backfiring on the fighting champion and Waltman seizing the day.

So now, we arrive at Act Two. Suddenly, we have a fight on our hands. Suddenly, Waltman is making a big comeback. He manages near-fall after near-fall and catches Hart off-guard again and again. Waltman, the plucky underdog, achieved something with Hart on which Hart had always prided himself: the match felt real, competitive and unpredictable. By the end, people actually believed Waltman might win the WWF Championship. Again and again, Hart barely kicked out. How many kick-outs could he possibly have left?

The finish? The finish makes a mockery of anyone who claims Hart could never concoct an original way to resolve a match. Waltman – much like Pillman did in the previously-inducted match with Lex Luger – missed one move too many, Hart applied the Sharpshooter and Waltman submitted. But nothing could be further from the truth than to say that losing cleanly to Hart hurt Waltman. In fact, he gained immeasurably from this fast-paced, exciting match.

He gained so much, it makes me hate him when I leap from remembering that career performance, to his unmotivated laziness in the last five years or so.

To this day, ROH achieves something incredible in their main events – or, at least, they did. A talent such as Jay Briscoe or Kevin Steen could finagle a ROH World Title match on any given night against a Nigel McGuinness or a Bryan Danielson. No one would honestly believe a title switch would take place, and rightfully so. But the true gift, is when men such as those two or Chris Hero El Generico could actually have the most rabid, smark-infested crowd in the palms of their hands and believing they would really witness an improbable title change.

That’s the stuff from which the excitement of pro wrestling comes. Any Hulk Hogan main event hinged inevitably on Hogan’s appointment looking like a perfectly legitimate threat, whether it was Earthquake or Paul Orndorff or Andre The Giant. Look at Wrestlemania VI! The whole main event with Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior lived or died on its sheer unpredictability. That made the atmosphere legendary.


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