One of the personalities you unfortunately become acquainted with when you get way too hardcore into wrestling is Dave Meltzer, who has reported on the industry for years and created The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Meltzer is maybe most known these days for his star ratings of wrestling matches, which started with a 0-5 scale but now has had multiple scale-breaking matches, including a recent AEW match he rated six stars. His ratings feed a concept that has taken hold of the wrestling industry: the idea of a match as an artistic performance that is held up to a critical standard of excellence, and fans now often rate matches themselves based on how “crisp” the “workrate” is. Meltzer’s system in particular favors matches with high athleticism, long run times, dramatic kickouts and false finishes — the recent AEW tag match he gave six stars was basically four wrestlers hitting every move that ever existed for over 30 minutes.
I didn’t like that match a whole lot, and I’ve increasingly become alienated from what the typical wrestling fan perceives as a “great match.” Wrestling is an art form, but I don’t think it should ever overtly resemble art. You should feel like you’re watching people fight, not like you’re watching people put on a great performance. And too many of these highly acclaimed matches are more like Cirque Du Soleil demonstrations, with everyone trying to “steal the show,” but in the process losing the thread of this being a simulated competition that it should look like you’re trying to win. This is in part a self-fulfilling prophecy from Meltzer’s scale — his influence on wrestling has shaped what a generation of wrestlers think “great wrestling” looks like, and they put on matches looking to score high on his star ratings scale rather than to tell a story or make people emotionally invested.
Context is also something I think about a lot in art, and in wrestling it is particularly important. If every match is a “banger” where the competitors trade moves back and forth, kick out of everything, and engage in non-stop frenetic action, it has a numbing effect. Part of what once made these matches great was that they were rare and special, but now you can see an indie-style 20 minute “classic” every week, if not even more often. I’ve felt this in particular watching NXT, where everyone is so highly trained and athletic, but it leads to a sameness in the matches. My exhaustion of this style of wrestling has led to a weird effect where I have started to appreciate matches that just tell a coherent story of reasonable length and don’t engage in any of these modern wrestling tropes. Exhibit A for this happened last Sunday with the women’s Elimination Chamber match.
The chamber is a WWE match type where wrestlers are locked in pods and there is a convoluted rules system that basically leads to them wrestling in this dangerous structure. There is an underlying expectation to these gimmick matches now, that they’re going to be full of exciting action and creative moves. In the chamber match that happened earlier in the night, a wrestler climbed to the top of the cage and did a backflip onto all the other wrestlers, which wowed the crowd. With the women’s chamber match, which main evented a long three-and-a-half hour show, WWE subverted those expectations and essentially put on a match that was intentionally unentertaining and bad — and I loved it.
I realize that sounds weird, so I’ll try to explain. To start with, everyone knew who would win this match — the winner would get a match against this blog’s hero Becky Lynch at WrestleMania, and Becky had already started feuding with Shayna Baszler, the former long-reigning NXT champion. Along with that, the other five women in the match (Asuka, Natalya, Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, Sarah Logan) had all either lost to Becky already or not been portrayed as serious competitors. So there was no drama in the outcome, which led to a disinvested crowd. The way the match played out pissed them off even more: once Shayna got in the match, she just systematically eliminated all the other competitors, and multiple times she cleared the ring and just stood around gloating while waiting for the next victim to come out of their pod. So a large chunk of this main event match was, incredibly, just Shayna Baszler walking around the ring taunting the other competitors while no action occurred. Everyone knowing Shayna would win and then Shayna easily dominating made this match unappealing while also adding a lot to the story, as there was a crushing and depressing inevitability to her victory.
Part of why I loved this match is that it had a verisimilitude to it that you rarely see in wrestling anymore. I remember watching Floyd Mayweather fights, and I would get pissed off that he dominated boxing in such a boring and workmanlike fashion that wasn’t fun to watch. I would be desperate to see a boxer step up and kick his ass, but no one ever could because he was too good. The psychology of this match felt similar: this wasn’t about every wrestler getting to showcase their artistic abilities, but about Baszler, a cage-fighting specialist, just being much better than everyone else and focusing only on winning the match and abusing her competitors rather than being entertaining. Now obviously wrestling should maintain its unique quirks that separate it from just being simulated UFC, but this was the perfect way to establish Baszler as a total killer, as well as a vicious heel who you hate in part because she “ruins” matches like this with her methodical style. This was a match that had a purpose to it that told a more resonant story than “look at the moves these wrestlers can do.”
The cost of this presentation was that WWE put on a main event that most people hated, and not really in the “getting worked” way where they’re upset at a heel but still hooked into the story. It remains to be seen, but I think the benefits of this are worth it: it makes future Shayna matches more compelling, especially her upcoming showdown with Lynch, because she seems unbeatable and is hated by fans for being “boring.” Ideally, that can be paid off with a satisfying moment when Baszler loses, and she’s already set the template in NXT, where both of her title losses were the kind of joyful moments that make me love wrestling. It also creates a context where you don’t know that every single main event is going to be a 30-minute thrill ride, or that every gimmick match is going to have the predictable high spots and excitement. In a sense, this match died so that other matches could live.