Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Match Theory: Selling the Limb, Selling the Drama

The trigger for some of the best limb work of the year
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Payback hit a lot of satisfying notes Sunday, the most satisfying being the elevated match quality. While folks have quibbled over opinions or, ugh, star ratings on individual matches, the consensus seems that outside of House of Horrors and Samoa Joe vs. Seth Rollins, the show was solid-to-downright excellent in terms of in-ring providence. My personal highlight came at the end of the opening match, when Chris Jericho saw Kevin Owens break the Walls of Jericho by placing a single finger on the bottom rope, the same way he broke the hold at WrestleMania. This move set Jericho into a personal rage, where he started stomping and kicking and smashing the hand between the steps and the ring, blind to anything else going on around him. It was a storytelling element in the match with several layers of callbacks originating at the painting Jericho commissioned for Owens right before the latter brutally beat him down in the most callous act of betrayal in wrestling since Hulk Hogan joined the New World Order.

But from a sheer match psychology standpoint, the move was brilliant and should be talked about and studied by dorks like myself who prize the artistic value of the worked wrestling match above everything else as well as wrestlers, agents, trainers, and anyone else involved in attempting to evoke pure emotion from a crowd based on moves in a match. Divorcing the sequence of moves from the narrative context for a second, it still worked brilliantly. Owens' hand and wrist are essential weapons at any point in the match, but especially later on when he needs to use it to reach for the ropes or use moves like the pop-up powerbomb. How did the match end? Jericho destroyed the hand. Owens made a counter into the pop-up powerbomb but couldn't complete the process of tossing Jericho into the air, which allowed Jericho to counter into the Walls for a second time. Owens couldn't reach out his hand as far as he could despite the similar ring positioning because his hand and finger had been injured, leaving him no choice but to tap. That last sequence in the match was how limb work in a match should ideally be carried out, but in many cases, in WWE or elsewhere, that sort of psychology is misdeployed.

The classic example is in your stock "prestige" match where the technical wrestler shows off his skill by continually working over a body part, usually the arm but sometimes the leg. Sometimes, that work figures into the finish. Other times, the results can be a bit dubious. Sometimes, the guy taking the work conveniently stops selling after awhile. The best/worst example saw Shinsuke Nakamura just completely stop selling a leg that Finn Bálor had been working over in their big set-piece NXT television match right after Takeover: The End. Sometimes, the wrestler working over the body part just stops working that part over and tries to get his/her shit in for the finish. This happens more than I'd like to see in EVOLVE, and recently, on RAW last night, TJP spent a good bit of the match working on Austin Aries' leg just to sort of stop working towards his kneebar finish. One could argue TJP didn't get the chance to, but it felt like he stopped working the leg and started going into "getting his shit in." It's markedly a gray area, but it still felt a bit off to me. Sometimes, you even get a technical wrestler with a limb specific submission finish not even work that part until applying the hold, which I admit is probably pickier and definitely less egregious than the first two examples. I always was annoyed that Kurt Angle's five moves of doom didn't really have many moves that set the stage for the ankle lock, but again, that might be more personal preference than anything blatantly bad.

The question to ask with any analysis of a certain habit, bad or good, in any field is "Why is this important?" Wrestling, like any storytelling medium, has barely any room for elements that aren't deployed in service of the narrative. A wrestling match is a narrative told in kicks and holds rather than words, each movement should have purpose towards a coherent resolution. Does that mean all moves need to lead directly down a path towards whatever finish calls for? Well, no. The kinds of holds that work in service of limb work can be likened to exposition to tell the audience who that wrestler is. However, the difference between trading holds in expository manner and embedding an injury in the match directly due to those holds is as wide as the Pacific Ocean. A worked injury in the match is something that needs to be a downfall or something that is overcome contrary to great odds.

Injury is a powerful tool to maximize engagement with the audience, the reason why Diamond Dallas Page came to the ring with taped ribs for like his entire career or why Cesaro's kinesiotape was always a nice touch to his overall image. Invoking it in a match shouldn't be taken lightly, and it certainly shouldn't be dropped halfway through a match in favor of getting MOVEZ in. Jericho and Owens showed how well it can help amplify a crowd reaction and thus enhance the experience for everyone watching live or at home. That above all else should be the goal of any professional wrestler.