Friday, April 23, 2021

When a Punch Is Not a Punch

Ogogo and his finish were victims of AEW's fans lack of conditioning

Anthony Ogogo already is looking like the breakout star from QT Marshall's new Nightmare Factory rudo offshoot. While Aaron Solow and Nick Comorato, aka Mr. Freakbeast are both nice prospects, few people have the look, the build, and the raw charisma as the Olympic boxing medalist. I expect that among he'll be among the Factory's success stories, along with Jade Cargill and Red Velvet at the least with several others looking like they have promise from that wrestling school. To say he got off on the wrong foot, or should I say fist, in his in-ring debut would be a contentious statement though. Last week on Dynamite, he had his first match on the TNT Network against a tomato can as one might expect. The match didn't last long, nor should it have, but it ended oddly as mainstream wrestling matches go. It would appear Ogogo's finishing maneuver is a body shot. This past week on Dynamite, Ogogo partook in a post-match fracas that saw him lay out Dustin Rhodes with the same finish.

Of course, wrestling fans are not accustomed to such a run-of-the-mill looking move ending a match. Most body shots in wrestling occur in a heat portion of the match by a heel and in the shine or in one of the comeback segments by a babyface. However, fans of shoot combat sports know a body shot can be devastating if it lands flush. Think about it for a second; you've got a trained boxer who can throw his fists at high velocity. Your body is protected by a layer of fat in the stomach area and your ribcage. A hard enough thrown punch can send a shockwave that could bypass either one and cause some major damage, damage enough to put someone on the mat and have the referee use their discretion. There was a dust-up on the timeline with less knowledgeable fans acting shocked and the intelligentsia filling them in on why they were wrong to be shocked. All in all, it was a day on Wrestling Twitter that ended in "y." The uproar after this week's episode wasn't as grave, maybe if only because by force of will, people accepted it after a week of intense debate.

I'm not here to debate the physics of a boxer's punch. I bought the Ogogo finisher from jump because, believe it or not, I used to be a huge boxing fan back in the day. I also know enough MMA people that I see takes on shoot combat sports filter through my timeline. I also love Bloodsport, which is definitely a place where you could see a body shot end a match. You don't have to convince me, but I'm not the person All Elite Wrestling needs to convince.

The dirty secret that few people within any wrestling company want to acknowledge is that the Venn diagram between pro wrestling fans and shoot fighting fans is not a complete circle, and the overlap might not be as big as they think it is. Over the years, wrestling companies have conditioned fans to look at scant few strikes as legitimate finishers. A finishing maneuver is almost always a "move," whether an impact move out of a grapple like the Attitude Adjustment or the One Winged Angel, or a submission hold like the Sharpshooter or the Snare Trap. The strikes that are regarded as impact finishers are ones that target the head and neck. These are moves like Sweet Chin Music, Trouble in Paradise, or any variant of lariat like the Rainmaker or the Buckshot. It feels like there's been more of a move to try and legitimize strikes as finishes in the eyes of wrestling fans, but with the escalation of match lengths, moves that aren't finishes have less and less impact.

This dilution is all on the people in AEW who have harbored such a style for their matches where length and heft-per-competitor are valued over brevity. The number of wrestlers on the roster who have finishers that are strikes that target the body before Ogogo is equal to zero, and there are at least one, if not two matches on Dynamite each week that overstay their welcome by ten percent of time at least. You have all that action fill up time, and you condition fans guys can absorb punches and kicks to the body with no consequence. AEW is not totally at fault here, as New Japan and WWE both have absorbed the influence from Ring of Honor and Toryumon, who in turn absorbed those roots from the Four Pillars of All-Japan and their King's Road style. Pro wrestling as it is known today in the most palatable and consumable form is about as far gone from a real fight as modern day Republicans are as far gone from the abolitionist, radically (for their time) liberal roots of the Grand Old Party in the 1850s.

I don't think that in and of itself is a bad thing, because people do not gravitate around wrestling to see simulacra of real fights. They want to see a real life superhero battle between two or more competitors who engage in a battle that most times is far more competitive than anything a real fight can produce with stakes that may or may not be realistic for a legitimate sports setting. Wrestling is going to fit for the times and for its audience, and if that audience wants to see guys go 20 minutes in wars of grueling attrition, then that space will be rife with action to assuage the demand. That's where throwing a guy doing a move that to the sensibilities of most wrestling fans is transitional at best as a finish is such a cause of dissonance.

I understand the knee-jerk reaction to lash out at those people for not understanding the nature of a real fight, but when they're conditioned to react a certain way, bashing them for reacting would be like raising a newspaper to Pavlov's dog for wanting a treat when they heard the bell. It's attacking people for consuming what's put in front of them instead of the people in charge creating the thing that doesn't make sense. Luckily for wrestling companies, fixing mistakes is easy when you have people in a production truck able to record interviews explaining things and commentators who are knowledgeable and can put over certain points. As much as Jim Ross is a black hole in commentary, and one who exerts the most gravity, unfortunately, the company still has four affable and able commentators in Tony Schiavone, Excalibur, Taz, and Paul Wight who know what's important. It's kinda like when Tony Khan skimped on the pyrotechnics for his earth-shattering non-kaboom at Revolution and then smoothed things over by having Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston explain away the whole thing. Wrestling fans can be easy to manipulate.

However, for as pliable as they are as a group, you can't go in and treat them like a mass of wriggling idiocy all the time, no matter how dumb many of the vocal portions of fandom seem. The idea that anything you shovel in front of them is going to be lapped up is how you get the vast majority of WWE's terrible decisions in the last two decades. Something as trivial as a punch thrown from the fist of an Olympic boxer might not seem like a big thing in the grand scheme of things, but you always want to look at what those kinds of decisions represent. The decision to give him a body shot as a finisher instead of an uppercut or right cross to the face wasn't borne out of contempt for the audience, but it was an assumption that the audience doesn't already have tendencies that need to be conditioned out if they ever are to change.

For as enjoyable as AEW has been in its nigh two-year history to date, some of the company's flaws are still shining brightly. The biggest one is still a lack of representation for women on the roster, but the second one feels like they can be complacent in some areas thinking that their hardcore base will take anything it's given and laud it. They want to play both sides of a fence that pits new vs. old, and I'm not really sure the pandering to an old-school crowd that already doesn't want anything to do with them is yielding any fruit. Sure, I love tweeting "SOMEONE ACTIVATE TULLY BLANCHARD'S LIFE ALERT" every week when someone invariably knocks the former Horseman to the ground, but what has he added to the roster? What has Arn Anderson added? As much as it pains me to say, what has Jake Roberts added? Sting is a major piece because he's actually given important things to do with a guy who's featured on television every week, and AEW is actually utilizing his talents in ways that don't just pander to what he was two, three, four decades ago. And I think that's the key.

The element that wants to be World Championship Wrestling shined up bright for 2021, which I feel is Cody Rhodes' area of concentration, never feels as authentic as the element that takes what The Elite built in New Japan and presses forward with new and varied characters like Moxley, Kingston, Jungle Boy, Darby Allin (as much a justified sore point as he can be), Orange Cassidy, and Maxwell Jacob Friedman, Giving a guy a body shot as a finisher in 2021, especially given how dim boxing's light in this day and age is, is momentum deriving from that former element. I'm not saying it won't work, because if you have a machine behind anything, and the work it's doing isn't against a tough grain, you can get anything moderately over in wrestling. Like I hinted before, I'm not sure Blanchard, Anderson, and Roberts aren't landing right now because people don't appreciate them. I think it has everything to do with their roles and how their talents are utilized. I don't think it's a death sentence giving Ogogo a finish that jibes with the thing for which he's famous.

I do think, however, AEW should probably start doing things that differentiate it from the company's influences instead of reveling in them. They could change some perceptions of wrestling on the mainstream level because Khan is, more than a billionaire, a wrestling nerd. I don't have faith he'll ever do right by his wrestlers because no billionaire has ever gotten to where they're at by doing right by the labor. However, rich weirdos, especially ones whose money comes to them through their families, tend to go overboard on their passion projects. I sincerely think that obsession wrestling is what has driven Khan to partner with (and if you want my opinion, abuse*) Impact Wrestling. I just hope that instead of being the guy who brought New Japan's weird, theatrical hybrid of strong style, King's Road, 1990s junior heavyweight style, and WCW's bastardized version of "lucha libre" to America, he realizes he can wrest the narrative from Vince McMahon and brand an alternative with everything else wrestling can be. He already dabbled in deathmatch wrestling, and his failures in that department were not aligned with the DNA of it being incompatible with his company. He just didn't spend enough fucking money on the fireworks. That problem can be easily remedied.

In all honesty, he has to start thinking more like a weirdo obsessive wrestling nerd and not a money mark if he's going be doing things like having a English boxer finish guys with body shots. That decision in and of itself in a vacuum fucking rules. Wrestling should have more guys from different fighting disciplines come in, not just MMA. However, he has to condition his audience to accept those variations on what they've been seeing. You can't just make something old school or realistic and expect your audience to fall in line immediately. You can condition them. Any human being can be conditioned with the right circumstances. You just have to commit to it.

* - Don't get it twisted. For as many abusers and scumbags as Impact has on the roster, they deserve to be abused by a more powerful wrestling company.