Primetime: Picture the scene: you are shipwrecked or marooned on a small desert island, leaving behind all of the art and entertainment that you know and love. You are cast away with nothing but your memories for company.
Now, imagine that you could prepare for such an event, carrying with you just a small number of things as keepsakes. These would be the only things you’d be able to have for the rest of your life. Under those conditions, and knowing that they’d be the only things you could have for the rest of your life, what would you nominate to save?
My guest today needs no introduction, as he’s one of the most prominent voices in the history of the main page of LoP. When he retired from column writing recently, the flood of tributes showed the high regard in which he has been held by his peers. The one that really hit home with me was the acknowledgement that, as one of the biggest WWE fans in the world, his break with the product was a really dark omen. I was struck by that because it sounds very much like something that people have said about me in the past, albeit it a long time ago. And while I don’t want to make this about myself at all, the long-standing love affair with the WWE and the frustration with its current direction is something I can relate to on a personal level. So for all those reasons, and just to talk wrestling with the man himself, I’m delighted to have The Doc, Chad Matthews, as my latest castaway.
Doc: Thank you for reaching out to me. Recent reading of your latest columns have reminded me that I’ve always quietly wanted to collaborate with you, so this is my pleasure.
So, I’ve introduced you in regard to the WWE, but how far back is your relationship with the company? I’m guessing you don’t go back to the WWWF, but do you have the same kind of tenure and track record as I do, going back to the Hogan years? And have you always been a WWE guy, or have you branched out into other companies throughout your time as a wrestling fan?
To the Hogan years indeed my fandom does reach back, but I grew up in Flair country during that period, so the NWA pull did find me familiar with the Crockett, Turner, and WCW throughout its peak too; I settled in as a WWE guy, though, enamored as I was with its more colorful characters and presentation. Granted, the first show I ever watched weekly was put on by Jerry Jarrett’s USWA promotion (featuring a young Jeff Jarrett and Steve Austin, as well as Dr. Tom Prichard. My fandom’s origins are multi-faceted, therefore, but I’ve been WWE through and through for most of the WrestleMania Era.
And you bring up something quite interesting here when you call it the WrestleMania Era – I mean, we generally divide this into a series of smaller eras, each with their own distinctive stars and even quite distinctive differences in the ‘feel’ of the show. And I admit my own relationship with WrestleMania as a show is more fractious than I think yours has been. Am I right in thinking that WrestleMania has never really lost is lustre for you and that it’s going to feature quite heavily in the list you’ve put together?
Up until recently, I would say that would be very accurate. WrestleMania in the last three years has left me feeling very cold toward WWE, but for the longest time it was like the sun for my wrestling fandom – an enthusiasm renewal source that would energize my interest up until the next WrestleMania Season began, so many of my choices were certainly informed by that lengthy relationship.
With that in mind, then, let’s get down to business – what is the first match that you want to take with you to the island?
Keeping with the above WrestleMania comments, I first want to bring to the island the Career Ending Match between “Macho King” Randy Savage and The Ultimate Warrior from WrestleMania VII. I believe it to be the birth of the modern WWE main-event style, as well as the match that unlocked the full potential of the WWE’s sports entertainment philosophy.
WWE is inherently the host of a very melodramatic form of professional wrestling, and while there are critics to that style, it can be the catalyst for excellent character acting and a deeper level of emotional resonance. There were several candidates for the most exhilarating headlining caliber bout in sports entertainment lore dating back to the advent of the WWF as most of us know it when Hogan started running wild, most of those candidates involving the Hulkster himself, but while certainly overtly theatrical, the level of histrionics in those performances was about a third of what we saw in Savage vs. Warrior. I would understand a hesitancy to view that as a good thing, but given the era in which it took place, the crowd response to it, and the excellent commentary for it from Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon, the histrionics that defined the Career Ending Match served the overall performance extraordinarily well, meaning that at the very least Warrior vs. Savage was the best period piece of its time and at most that it deserves to be among the top ten or so matches in WWE history.
The only match that I have ever watched that I get more out of on replay is Austin vs. Bret at WrestleMania 13. Warrior-Savage is a treasure trove of little details to be appreciated, so if I’m stranded and have only wrestling to watch, I’m taking full advantage of a match that offers so much from so many different sources. Warrior is fantastic (which always feels weird to write, but it’s true); he is so dialed into his character and the stakes, my favorite touch being before the bell even rings as he walks instead of sprints to the ring (and I love his ring gear). Savage delivers his pantheon performance, exhibiting so much more personality than he did in any other match in his career, including the great ‘Mania III match with Steamboat. They are studies in contrast and perfect foils. Any given viewing can focus on a myriad details between the two primary combatants alone, but then you also have Sherri Martel’s awesome role, the aforementioned commentary, and the post-match reuniting of Macho and Miss Elizabeth.
It is a masterpiece, and I could not imagine being stranded without the ability to watch it.
Now this is a very interesting pick, because despite a certain antipathy towards some of those things that you mention here I still rather like this match – as, indeed, I like most Savage outings in the WWF. I think for me at some level it comes down to the fact that Savage didn’t just ‘do’ ridiculous things, he built to them and got you invested in it, to the point that you just ‘went’ with it when he transitioned into things that were less plausible. In that respect he was truly capable of being the star for all people, of bringing in those other elements without alienating much of the existing audience. I can’t help but feel we could use more of that attitude today.
Doesn’t that speak well of the meticulous planning and practice that he put into his matches? He wrote a script, essentially, and asked his opponents to learn it and prepare, knowing that it would produce something magical on these huge stages. Some have spoken ill of that strategy, but I personally think it is a formula that many would be wise to copy. Do not just script the spots, but script the way that the characters would react to physical action. Controversial take? Perhaps, but in WWE I think Savage proved how much value there was to that approach.
In that Savage was so fundamentally modern, a move away from the Flair school of ‘call it in the ring’ and moving more into the line of what guys like Bret would do in the 1990s. Perhaps the one thing that Savage had better than anyone was an ability to predict what would happen, and he knew how to change things up without abandoning the script if things weren’t working exactly as planned. I think that’s what the current generation could do with adding – the ‘stick with the plan’ mentality can only go so far in this form, where you need to keep thousands of paying punters onside. So we’ve gone back to 1991 for your first match – are we hanging around in the early 1990s for your second, or are we going to move around a little?
Let’s bounce around a bit, moving next to what I feel is the single most rewatchable match of the last half decade at least: The Shield vs. The Wyatt Family at Elimination Chamber 2014. If you appreciate the Randy Savage approach to pro wrestling – dazzling with athletic feats and simultaneously wowing you with emotionally resonant character work – then you cannot help but adore the quintessential Shield six-man tag team match. It is such a wonderfully told story, with Bray identifying Dean Ambrose as the weak link that he could manipulate and goading the Lunatic Fringe into taking the Hounds of Justice out of their rhythm from the off. A group that had been so dominant, in part due to their masterful planning, was forced to constantly react to Wyatt and Family’s even more masterful plan.
For the thinking fan who enjoys watching a wrestling match like a movie (something to be dissected like art) rather than watching it like a sporting event (a strictly in-the-moment experience), it honestly doesn’t get much better than this. There is a sense of inevitability that permeates the run-time, as if you know that Ambrose is going to make a huge mistake spurred by Bray’s taunts that is ultimately going to cost The Shield the match, but it is exhilarating to watch the Hounds attempt to instill their own plan on proceedings, only to fail as was seemingly foretold in the build-up and in the opening moments of the contest. Roman Reigns never looked more like a conquering hero than during the climax when he attempts to go it alone, one versus three; Seth Rollins starts to look the part of the future Top 5 level star that he became later in 2014; Luke Harper shocks and awes with what he is capable of doing athletically in what remains to date the best night of his career in my opinion; we also saw from Bray everything that he could have been as a storyteller and character had WWE ever tapped into the depths of what made this night so special for his persona.
In my book, I called it “The Dark Knight of WWE matches.”
What you essentially have here is six guys motivationally informed by their collective hunger to prove themselves. That motivation jumps off the screen, making this the sports entertainment equivalent of a footballer who has his break-out game with a brace in a big game or a basketball player who drops 30 points during the playoffs – a standout performance that commands your attention long after it’s over. When you combine that underlying theme to the quality of the storytelling (and to the quality of the action), then what you get is one of the greatest matches of all-time.
Looking at how you’ve put this together, Bray is the catalyst but once he’s kicked things off the focus is so much more on The Shield members. I must confess, I’m a bit agnostic about the group – I certainly get why they have become the focus of the shows but I don’t share the common adoration for them and think they’re often put beyond what would even be fair criticism. Even so, they’ve got a place in the modern WWE, and are really the only 21st century WWE stable that really get put together with the great groups of the past. So given WWE’s focus on singles matches for their biggest stars and greatest moments I wondered if there was something particularly special about The Shield that meant you’d want to take tag match involving all three as a unit, rather than a match with any of the individuals?
It’s the collective achievement; it’s Bray antagonizing Dean to abandon the plan, Seth trying to get the plan back in place, Roman playing his part as well as ever, and Bray eventually goading Dean into another huge mistake that allowed the Wyatts to dissect the Shield through to the finish. Once upon a time, I watched Michaels-Taker 1, War Games ‘92, Magnum TA vs. Tully Blanchard “I Quit,” and Orton vs. Christian in the same day with this match alongside a fan so well tenured with pro wrestling culture that his very first favorite wrestler was Mil Mascaras. He said about The Shield vs. The Wyatts, “That was as good as anything we watched today.” Love or hate the Hounds, rewatch this match from the perspective I’ve given it, and try not to love it. I think The Shield are another modern group of stars held back by a WWE philosophy hell bent on prioritizing the past over the present and future, and that they could be so much more than they are; talent, none of them lack.
Well, for what it’s worth the one thing I’ve never found wrestlers to be lacking in the modern era is talent, and The Shield are neither an exception nor an example above and beyond many others I’ve felt that about – but this isn’t my castaway, and I’m not going to take this any further in that direction! I may try and find the time to rewatch that match with the frame you’ve put on it here and see what it does to my viewing, but in the meantime, what direction are we going in for your next match?
Check out the next installment to find out!