Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What I Learned from Starrcade '83

Piper and Valentine worked a modern match 30 years ago, and wrestlers of today can learn lessons from it.
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Starrcade '83 is widely regarded as the first ever attempt at nationally distributing a "super card" to an audience outside the territory the promotion was mainly housed within. While the show was not a pay-per-view as the wrestling world would know it from WrestleMania II through Elimination Chamber 2014, it was certainly the precursor in spirit and format to the supercards of the last major epoch in wrestling history. The grainy video quality, low tonality and matter-of-factness of Bob Caudle and Gordon Solie in the announce table, and builds of a good portion of the wrestlers showed the age of the event, but a lot of the meat of the program looked modern, especially in the ring.

If one went just by the match finishes, that statement would seem contrary. The highest impact move, by today's standards, that finished a match was Ric Flair flying off the top rope in the cage match to win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship over Harley Race. Moves that finished matches included a knee drop from the top assisted by an arm-wringer, a superplex, and a double team military press-assisted splash. All of those moves are transitional today, especially in the hyperactive independent scene, where moves that wouldn't be introduced as match-enders in Japan for a few years at the time this Starrcade happened elicit only two counts.

Judging a match only by its moves, however, is the worst way to discern its quality. Sure, not all the matches on the show were excellent. Some of them weren't even good. However, the matches that ended up excelling were steeped in psychology, had nuance, and felt like they could be translated into an average ring to great applause today, regardless of how many head drops were or were not in them. In fact, I would put "Rowdy" Roddy Piper vs. Greg Valentine and their dog collar match against any of the most brutally violent contests in ECW, CZW, or any modern death match promotion. The match was bloody and ruthless, but also intelligent and well-paced. They only had one weapon to use, the chain, and it felt more violent and relevant than some hardcore matches where the entire repertoire of weapons was broken out.

Great wrestling is timeless for sure. I think Piper and Valentine could have had the same exact match today and popped most crowds. The same would go for the Tag Team Championship match between the Brisco Brothers and Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood. However, I am but one viewer, and I admit my tastes run an immensely wide spectrum. I also don't think wrestling should nor do I want it to go back to the days where everyone had a limited moveset with transition move-looking finishers. The toothpaste is out of the tube.

However, while it cannot be shoved back into the tube, wrestlers of today would be wise not to press on it too hard and clean up the mess they've made so far. Stylistic concerns are subjective, but what is clearly true is that the wear and tear on wrestlers' bodies has increased over the year. Forget the head drops and the bumps that peg the Ziggler Scale. The sheer increase in number of flat back bumps, no matter how simple they look, cannot have been good for the collective joint health of wrestlers over the years.

I still think wrestling has a place for the highest of high spots. I love seeing big powerbombs, graceful planchas, and even the occasional head spike. Given the proliferation of these moves both as finishes and transitional moves, the paying public has enjoyed them too. But Daniel Bryan's rise to the top in WWE, the increase in fan reactions to the various beats in WWE crowds, and the growing overness of guys on the indies like Drew Gulak working World of Sport-inspired mat wrestling styles show to me that the average crowd is also becoming more and more receptive to safer, old-school match threads.

Hybridization is key. The proverbial toothpaste cannot - and should not - be put back in the tube. The exponential expansion of the universal moveset has made the color palette for a given wrestling match almost infinite. However, if Piper and Valentine or even Flair and Race can look modern in 1983, then today's crop of wrestlers can do themselves favors by studying the classics closer, looking at how these guys manipulated the crowds, and updated those tropes so that they can save their own asses for the future.