On this week’s episode of The Right Side of the Pond, my venerable colleague Maverick and I make the case to the listeners as to why they should revisit the much maligned WrestleMania XI. It was in that discussion that I make what may feel like an asinine distinction: while WrestleMania XI does not offer up a host of classic matches, it remains nevertheless an extremely satisfying wrestling show to watch.
There is, after all, a distinct difference between assessing the matches on a pay-per-view and assessing the pay-per-view itself, at least in my mind. Some of my all-time favourites that I will be presenting for your consideration over the course of the next year could even be said to host not a single classic match at all. This is because I have never believed in the notion that classic matches make for classic pay-per-views, or that classic pay-per-views necessarily contain classic matches. For me on a personal level, a truly classic wrestling pay-per-view needs only accomplish one very simple task: leave me feeling satisfied. And it is quite possible for a pay-per-view to do this with relative simple means, if it’s produced smartly.
It rather feels like there’s been a particular drought of such pay-per-views from WWE in particular in recent years, and I would think this is down to two factors. First, they aren’t produced smartly – just look at the decision making behind the note on which Hell in a Cell recently ended for a powerful example, if one is needed. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, we live in an age of excess in every regard, and our own expectations is a particularly paradoxical example.
It seems matches must constantly reach for an increasingly ludicrous standard these days in order to be considered a classic, with every criteria imaginable needing to be indulged to extremes – from running time to psychological stresses and everything in between. And yet, more and more matches are eager to throw out what I would deem to be good sense and restrained taste in order to meet that standard. The result is what should be viewed from a detached standpoint, in recognition of popular opinion only, as an embarrassment of riches. We now live in a new age where the predominant ring fashion of the day is total, from which any divergence is relegated almost without exception to the status of “disappointment” – only one of which, it seems, is now needed to derail any wrestler’s career in the immediate.
To my mind, this extreme state in which the industry now seemingly exists equates to professional wrestling’s very own form of cancel culture, a mutated afterbirth of the obsession with ‘stealing the show,’ and it is running riot.
I know this is no small idea to put forward, and is worth a column all its own probably, but the reason I mention it today is because I believe it in part contributes to our modern inability to appreciate ‘just good’ wrestling: matches, storylines, character arcs, indeed pay-per-views that aren’t going to ever rank among the best ever but nevertheless lead to simple, satisfying results and shouldn’t be relegated or criticised for having no interest in accomplishing something more than that. Often, such pay-per-views are among my favourites.
It is precisely because Survivor Series 1990 demonstrates no discernable desire to reach for excess, during which no single performer shows a desperate and insecure need to ‘steal the show,’ that I believe it achieves more than most comparable shows. None of its matches are thought of as best-in-class, but they are all of them intelligently pieced together and share out the spotlight with meritocratic equality, meaning it is a show full of ‘just good’ wrestling.
It was much to my horror that my LOP colleague Chad ‘The Doc’ Matthews once rated this week’s choice of pay-per-view as one of the worst ever. When I discussed with him the reasons behind this decision, it seemed to me that Chad was caught up on the idea that, from a genre point of view, Survivor Series Matches had to be close to, if not longer than half an hour in order to succeed. I simply cannot agree with so prescriptive a point of view, and would argue that it is precisely because of the brevity of the ’90 Series’ bouts that they do succeed.
Where the event in preceding years had been built out of dense, circular affairs full of stuff but light on content of meaning that drifted around aimlessly for long spans while eliminations were placed jarringly out of natural flow, the company apparently grappling with this concept it had introduced to its audience, in 1990 the WWF seemed to stumble into a more precisely judged, character-driven approach.
This is because the reserved match lengths forced the bouts into stories that wonderfully facilitated the characters involved. Lasting only fifteen minutes meant that the opening contest between The Warriors and The Perfect Team rages along at a pace that makes visual the underlying narrative of a tidal wave of unmoderated mania from the heroes overwhelming the chief villain of the piece and his hired heavy-hitters. A similarly short run-time transforms The Dream Team’s fight against the machinations of Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Team – from the debut of The Undertaker to the mini-match between DiBiase and Bret Hart at the climax – into a palpable fight for survival, augments the The Visionaries vs. The Vipers into an urgent master-class of psychological jeapordy and even underscores the desperate numbers game that informs the central crux of the evening’s Ultimate Survivor main event.
Had any of these matches taken place over the drawn out period of other, more famous ‘classic’ Survivor Series Matches they would have the very essence of the stories they tell diluted to the point of charmless. While that may have more prescriptive fans move toward more forgiving criticism, it would also rob the matches and Survivor Series 1990 as a whole of its unique identity – and having a unique identity is, in my mind, key to any great pay-per-view.
Without any one of these matches lasting over twenty minutes, Survivor Series 1990 rattles along at a blistering pace, the event passing you by in what feels like a blink of an eye after in grabs your attention so riotously in the opening minutes, refusing to let go for the duration thereafter. Do not think of the short run-times as a signal that Survivor Series 1990 contains a slew of disappointments, simply because its matches show no interest of reaching for superlatives. Instead, think of them as the key to the success of the show, that puts together a series of stories that jump out of the screen so vividly with life, colour and character precisely because they feel so lightning quick.
The short match run-times are just one part of the story behind Survivor Series 1990 though. So too should a great pay-per-view have something to satiate all tastes, and you don’t need upwards of five hours to accomplish this.
Survivor Series 1990 has everything you could want from your ring action. It boasts one of the hottest ‘hot openers’ in all of WWE’s pay-per-view library, at least as far as tone and pacing is concerned. In The Million Dollar Team vs. The Dream Team it boasts the workhorse match many post-modern fans will likely think of as ‘this is wrestling!’ In The Visionaries vs. The Vipers Survivor Series 1990 offers up a deeply psychological structuralist piece of work for fans of an older school mindset. The Hulkamaniacs vs. The Natural Disasters offers much in the way of nostalgic melodrama, while The Alliance vs. The Mercenaries (admittedly the weakest match on the card by some distance) still has enough presence about it to provide reprieving, feel-good antics. The main event itself is able to capture the big fight feel of a main event match and, though no tangible stakes ride on its outcome, you could be forgiven for believing they do thanks to its breathlessly tense drama.
The true key to the event’s success, though, is the manner in which all of these matches feed into one another to capture the concept of the Survivor Series and transform it into a grander arching narrative throughout the evening. The event itself becomes a story, and as such Survivor Series 1990 is not just a pay-per-view full of ‘just good’ wrestling – it is, in itself, an example of ‘just good’ wrestling, is arching narrative merely one example of how. Others, in collective, mean that this is a pay-per-view produced as smartly as the individual matches it presents.
Banish any memories you might have of the woeful Gobbledygooker. The appearance of a man in a chicken costume is categorically not the story of Survivor Series 1990. What instead should be its story is the way the concept of the event was weaponised that year in a creative manner that seems totally conducive to the Brand Wars concept with which WWE has revitalised the event in recent years. Some I know are critical of the Ultimate Survivor concept, but through it Survivor Series 1990 was able to amplify the meaning of the greatest asset of any Survivor Series Match: depth of consequence.
With the knowledge that the Ultimate Survivor Match was looming at night’s end, every Survivor Series Match throughout the night finds itself fraught with tension and a sense of weighty importance. The consequences of every elimination, in themselves wrought by the consequences of every decision made by every competitor every minute of every match, are so unavoidable when contained within such an overarching narrative they feel practically claustrophobic. Everything that happens during Survivor Series 1990 inside of the ring matters, and it matters because of that Ultimate Survivor Match. It’s a concept I passionately believe will work still today, and I remain disappointed WWE have yet to revisit it. With three brands involved in the Thanksgiving Classic this year, it seems more perfect than ever! Can anyone spell Ultimate Survivor Tournament?
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Survivor Series 1990, though, is the importance of pace and tone, and it is these two intangibles I believe are mostly behind what I consider the success of this deeply re-watchable, endlessly satisfying pay-per-view. In a day and age where every pay-per-view feels the same as every other and every other feels the same as every television show, the homogeneity of WWE’s everywhere-always product couples crushingly with the soulless, characterless production values to create a great relentless, amorphous and indefinable mass of stuff.
Survivor Series 1990, though, feels uniquely Survivor Series 1990. Its pace – in no small part again because of those shortened match times – is absolutely blistering, and noticeably so in particularly the early portions of the event. Its tone, too, is snarlingly aggressive, the event all the more immersive for it. Switch the show on and you’re launched hurtling into the action almost instantly with a raging series of snarling promos from an amped up and electrifying Warriors before being treated to a heated opening contest in front of a raging crowd. You may just be out of breath yourself by the time the first match is over. From there, the event simply snowballs with ever more dramatic action. You’ll find yourself being cascaded from the debut onslaught of a mysterious Undertaker to the sinewy plight of a half-blind Jake Roberts to the earth-juddering exploits of Earthquake and Hulk Hogan all the way right through to the spiritual revisitation of the Ultimate Challenge at the heart of Toronto’s SkyDome during the Ultimate Survivor Match at pay-per-view’s end.
The result is something genuinely irresistible; irrepressible, even. The pay-per-view’s narrative is a satisfying one for even the most stubborn of completionists. Its atmosphere is heady. Its pace is unrelenting, its action is expansive and above all else its experience is blindingly fun to anyone willing to engage in good faith with the event.
Survivor Series 1990 just gets everything right, rendering it, for me, one of my favourite pay-per-views in WWE’s history. The ’90 Series is full of ‘just good’ wrestling, is in the way it is produced itself an example of ‘just good’ wrestling, and because its attention is on getting all the little things right, the big thing – the enjoyment – takes care of itself. And it’ll take care of you too, if you choose to give it a chance.
Next time, I’ll be jumping not too far ahead in time as I revisit only the second pay-per-view to have taken place after Survivor Series 1990. I;ll be examining why it is I believe 1991’s oft-forgotten WrestleMania VII is not just one of my favourite pay-per-views ever, but indeed one of the very best versions of WrestleMania we’ve seen too!
What are YOUR thoughts on Survivor Series 1990? Sound off in the comments below, over on social media or by joining LOPForums today!
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