Wrestling is in a weird place right now. In some ways, it’s going through a bit of a golden age, with a massive international independent scene that’s no longer dependent purely on local interest for support. I’ve never been to Germany – apart from a nightmarish layover in Munich Airport – but I’ve enjoyed dozens of matches from the German Wrestling Federation thanks to their availability online. I know lots of people with video-on-demand and streaming subscriptions for companies all over the world, from Mexico’s Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre to Japan’s DDT Pro-Wrestling to my home promotion, Ireland’s Over the Top Wrestling. You can watch high-quality wrestling with solid production values every week on YouTube for free from NWA Powerrr and China’s Oriental Wrestling Entertainment. WWE, the largest wrestling company in the world, is facing serious competition from a rival for the first time in years courtesy of All Elite Wrestling and its weekly TV show, Dynamite. There’s even a pretty good women’s wrestling show from GLOW founder David McLane called WOW that I’ve reviewed over at Bell to Belles. More great wrestlers are working today than you could ever imagine and with so much variety, there really is something for everyone.
But, in other ways, it’s a scary time for wrestling fans. WWE might have a new rival, but it’s not a rival really capable of breaking their effective monopoly on wrestling in the US. AEW is showing WWE up regularly in terms of the quality of its programming, but WWE is such a big company, and has such deep pockets, that its mere existence distorts the entire industry. It can outbid any competitor when offering contracts and constantly signs new wrestlers while rarely releasing anyone or doing anything to encourage retirement, which shrinks the pool of talent available to other companies. Unlike most companies, it demands complete exclusivity from most of its employees (sorry, “independent contractors”) and even the rare few on its British brand, NXT UK, who are allowed to perform in other companies do so under heavy restrictions and with the constant risk of being pulled from shows at the last minute. The vast majority of independent wrestling companies run on very thin margins, supported entirely by ticket and merch sales, with virtually no cushion if financial disaster strikes. There may be more companies than ever before, reaching more people than ever before, but it’s not clear whether the wrestling audience is actually expanding or if fans are just spending more and more on wrestling. I kind of suspect it’s the latter and that most of the industry is built on a foundation of fan support and audience goodwill that’s not sustainable unless more people get into wrestling. When the next big financial crisis hits and pocketbooks shrink, it’s likely it will be the end of many independent companies, not to mention the careers of the wrestlers they employ.
I’m not writing this article to save wrestling or anything, though if I did, that’d be neat. But as someone who got into wrestling in just the last couple of years, I understand a lot of what the wrestling-sceptical and even the wrestling-curious can find off-putting about it. I want to talk about some of these issues and point those who are open to wrestling, but not yet convinced, in the direction of some matches that represent the various shades of what wrestling has to offer right now. It’s not at all exhaustive. I’ve left some really weird shit on the drawing board, and it’s limited to a handful of mostly English-language companies, but, with a little help from my friends, I’ve put together a list of matches that, in my personal opinion, (1) slap hard and (2) can and should be enjoyed by people coming to wrestling with fresh eyes, whether you’re interested in hard-hitting technical wrestling, operatic emotional storytelling or silly nonsense (the three things that make wrestling great).
When I look back at my wrestling-sceptical self, before I was won over by Daniel Bryan and Session Moth Martina and Pete Dunne and all the other wrestlers who chipped away at my resistance with their obvious brilliance, it’s not hard to remember why I hesitated to try it out.
First of all, there’s the whole “it’s fake” thing, which I discussed at length in a previous article, but is worth going over because it’s so common and so dumb. Wrestling is absolutely fake, in the same way theatre is fake, and it’s compelling nonetheless in the same way theatre is compelling. That’s because wrestling is just a very specific form of theatre. Ciara recently remarked, after attending her second-ever wrestling show, that if wrestling was invented today, it would be regarded as brilliant, avant-garde theatre, but because of its lineage as a perpetually working-class form of entertainment, it’s looked down upon as low-rent trash.
That trashy reputation is unfair, but it’s easy to see where it came from. Wrestling came out of carnival shows, and certain aspects of wrestling are still referred to – usually positively, but sometimes pejoratively – as “carny shit”. Gaudy costumes, gimmick matches like ladder matches or battle royals, cheap tricks to get crowd reactions, like spitting in your opponent’s face: these are all part of the magic of wrestling, but by the standards of other art forms, where complexity and subtlety are more highly valued, they can seem silly or childish. WWE, the most famous wrestling company in the world, has also failed to paint a flattering picture of the medium a lot of the time. Even aside from its cartoonishly evil owners, a lot of WWE’s wrestling – especially the kind of stuff that tends to go viral outside Wrestling Twitter – is overproduced, silly, even tacky. But WWE isn’t all that wrestling is, and even WWE can put on a good show when it tries. Much of the subtlety and complexity that seems absent in wrestling is actually right there, waiting for you to find it. It’s just that, like a good television show, it often takes a familiarity with the characters and a degree of emotional investment to appreciate. In a larger sense, most people are simply more familiar with other kinds of performance, and it can be hard to know straight away whether a wrestler is good in a way most people never have to experience with, say, screen actors, since it’s hard to grow up in the modern world without seeing a lot of movies and TV. It can take a bit of time to get into wrestling, but if you go in with an open mind and a willing heart, it can also take no time at all.
Wrestling can also be very insular and self-referential, often to its detriment. This is the one that speaks most to me, because it’s a criticism I still have as a wrestling fan. There’s lots of great art about wrestling: Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant film The Wrestler; The Mountain Goats’ wonderful album Beat the Champ; wrestling episodes of shows like Steven Universe and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; the excellent Netflix dramedy GLOW, based on the real-life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling from the eighties. But wrestling’s engagement with wider pop culture, especially in the major promotions, can be embarrassingly limited. I cringe basically every time I see a wrestler come out in gear inspired by a popular superhero or TV show, because it always seems less like a personal artistic statement than a “hey, you know this thing!” moment. I remember a tweet going around Wrestling Twitter at one point making fun of the sheer number of wrestlers in NXT – one of WWE’s newer, better TV shows – who’d worn Spider-Man ring gear in the previous couple of months. I want to die inside whenever NXT commentator Mauro Ranallo shoehorns in a reference to Fortnite or Bruno Mars that’s never actually illustrative of the point he’s trying to make.
By contrast, to take another long-disregarded art form as an example, drag has never had a problem drawing from popular culture. RuPaul’s Drag Race is often criticised (fairly) for its narrow conception of drag – it is, in many ways, the WWE of drag, including its cartoonishly evil proprietor – but competitors from the show have produced looks inspired by everything from Grey Gardens to Lisa Frank. Celebrities portrayed in its annual Snatch Game episode include Nancy Grace, Little Richard, Marlene Dietrich, Björk and Maya Angelou. They even did a wrestling episode! Every art form builds on its own history, but most also incorporate material from other mediums.
Wrestling, to be perfectly frank, does not. Where an episode of a TV show might have visual references to classic movies, lines based on popular plays and costumes inspired by iconic paintings, wrestling is substantially more likely to just reference older wrestling, which can be alienating for new fans without that base of knowledge to work from. It’s also why bad wrestling is so often defined less by incompetence than cliché. As a criticism, it’s a fair cop and something I hope it can and will improve on. (I’m quite enchanted right now with a British wrestler called Cara Noir whose gimmick is inspired by German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.) But even this has its upsides: I can hardly think of an art form more in tune with its own history – where different styles and genres from across space and time feel more consistently present and respected – than wrestling. There are wrestlers younger than me working ring styles that haven’t been popular since before my grandfather was born. Compared to how film has ditched matte-painted backgrounds, or the long, slow death of the multi-camera sitcom, history is alive in wrestling.
If any of these issues speak to you: I’ve been there. My mam has remarked more than once on how weird it is that I love wrestling now given I so despised it as a kid. But it turns out that if you give it a shot, wrestling can become something you love quicker than you ever thought possible. If you fancy taking a dip into the weird and wonderful world of wrestling, check out these matches, all available to watch free on YouTube. I’ve even compiled them in a handy playlist.
[Author’s Note: This list originally included two matches featuring a wrestler named David Starr. Some time after the publication of this article, former partners of Starr came forward with allegations of rape and abuse that he subsequently admitted to (albeit in a convoluted way that essentially amounted to agreeing he’d done everything they said, but the rape wasn’t rape, for some reason).
While I’m no longer a fan or supporter of Starr in the wake of his exposure as a rapist and abuser, I don’t want to rewrite history and pretend I never liked him. I did like him. He was my favourite wrestler in the entire world. Where I’ve previously praised Starr – like in my article about falling in love with professional wrestling – I want to leave it as is. I said what I said and it would be cowardly and dishonest to hide it after the fact.
However, as this is a recommendations list – and one for newcomers at that – leaving it unedited feels different. I would, in effect, still be recommending those matches to new readers, and I don’t want to continue lauding his work. So I’ve cut them. I’ve left this note to acknowledge the cut because, even though the situations are different, it would still be cowardly and dishonest to hide it.]
1. Jazz vs Rhia O’Reilly at Pro-Wrestling: EVE SHE-1
Jazz is a living legend of wrestling, women’s or otherwise. She had a record-setting reign of 948 days as NWA World Women’s Champion in her forties, just to give you an idea of how much she’s respected. So when she appeared as a surprise entrant in Pro-Wrestling: EVE’s SHE-1 tournament late last year, it was an event. In her second match of the tournament, she faced off with EVE’s heel champion Rhia O’Reilly in a nasty, brutish, short encounter that spilled out of the ring and all the way to the bar. It features great wrestling, some very enjoyable peacocking from both competitors and expert use of a steel chair as a Chekhov’s gun.
I’ve not watched a lot of EVE myself, but I loved the hell out of this match. It’s not particularly deep or flashy, but it does what it does sincerely and well, and those are often the matches I love most. They’re a great way to learn to appreciate the finer details of wrestling, because you can focus on the wrestling itself without having to worry too much about the characters or storyline. If this match tickles your fancy too, the entire first day of SHE-1 2019 is on EVE’s YouTube channel.
2. Cody Rhodes vs Darby Allin at AEW Fyter Fest
Cody Rhodes, son of Dusty Rhodes of “hard times” fame, isn’t the best in-ring wrestler in the world, or the best talker, or the best character. But he still manages to almost always have the best or second-best match on every AEW pay-per-view. His match with his brother Dustin, formerly known as Goldust in WWE, was one of the best of last year (#3 in Voices of Wrestling’s annual critics poll, #2 on my ballot), but this match with emo upstart Darby Allin is a testament to his skill as an in-ring storyteller even when he doesn’t have an epic, Shakespearean blood feud to build off. This match had basically no build-up at all, no backstory between the performers, and yet it still stole the show because Cody and Allin told a complete story through the match in itself.
Allin became an instant star with this match, and it’s not hard to see why. His suicide dive (a dive from the ring through the ropes to the outside) is a thing of beauty, so fast and precise it makes almost anyone else’s look more like a suicide flop. Lots of wrestlers do the “doesn’t feel pain” or “enjoys pain” gimmick, but no one is as committed as Darby Allin, who comes off as indestructible in this match even as the violence takes its toll. If you want to sample more of their roster’s talents without committing to a two-hour weekly TV show, they also produce an hour-long weekly YouTube show, AEW Dark.
3. Becky Lynch vs Charlotte Flair at WWE Evolution
WWE’s first-ever last woman standing match – which ends when one competitor can’t get to their feet before a count of ten – was the pinnacle of the breathtakingly brilliant feud between best friends-turned-bitter enemies Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair. Sick of being stuck in the shadow of her more successful friend, Lynch turned on Flair in what WWE clearly expected to be a heel turn (when a hero, or face, turns into a villain, or heel). The only problem is that crowds sided completely with Lynch: we were as sick as she was of seeing her sidelined. By the time of Evolution, WWE’s first (and, to date, only) all-women’s pay-per-view, Lynch had dethroned Flair as SmackDown Women’s Champion and retained the belt in two matches by cheating. Their previous match ended with Flair spearing Lynch through an LED board, still one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in WWE.
WWE were still kind of booking Lynch as a heel in the lead-up to Evolution – hence all the cheating – but at the end of this match, she had cemented herself as not just the face in the feud, but the face of the company. I can say with some confidence that it will always be one of the definitive matches for me. If I don’t remember this in fifty years, it’ll only be because I don’t remember much of anything.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: The attentive reader will notice this match is no longer available to watch for free on YouTube. WWE appear to have made the video private, which means it might come back some day, but I’m not holding my breath. Regardless, I’m going to leave this as their entry on this list. Mainly because I really do think it’s the best of the modern WWE style and I’d still recommend finding a way to check it out if you want to dip your toes in that world. But also because, in a strange way, there’s something quintessentially WWE about suddenly making the best advertisement for their own product inaccessible. I mentioned earlier in the piece that WWE’s sheer size and dominant market share cause it to distort the market. A significant part of why is the simple fact that WWE get more or less infinite chances to fuck up without ever suffering any consequences whatsoever. It doesn’t matter how many popular wrestlers they bury despite huge fan enthusiasm, how many storylines they completely mishandle or how many truckfuls of blood-soaked cash they take from brutal dictatorships in exchange for producing blatant propaganda. They are, for the average consumer, the only game in town.
I’m not saying taking this match off YouTube is a serious indictment of their corporate strategy, obviously, but it’s symptomatic of their Teflon status. You don’t need a coherent social media strategy if you just keep making money regardless of whether anything you do is good or bad. You don’t need to have any kind of plan behind your marketing and promotion, or be transparent about what content you make available to fans and why. Even on their premium streaming service, WWE make seemingly arbitrary chunks of their massive back catalogue of eighties regional wrestling available at any given time, and no one really knows why. Of course they took Becky vs Charlotte off YouTube for no reason. They probably uploaded it for no reason in the first place.]
4. Hardy vs Hardy: The Final Deletion
The Final Deletion is one of the matches that ignited my interest in wrestling, not in spite of its strangeness, but because of it. Brothers Matt and Jeff Hardy are two of the best tag team wrestlers of all time, but, as a singles wrestler, Jeff had long been regarded as the better. These days, Jeff is still probably considered the superior in-ring performer, but Matt is considered a bona fide genius, and this match is why. Filmed at the Hardy Compound in North Carolina, The Final Deletion is not so much a match as an experience. During their time at TNA (now Impact Wrestling), Matt, seemingly driven insane by repeated failure, sends a drone with a hologram to challenge Jeff to a match for control of the Hardy name.
I don’t want to give away too much or preempt all the weirdness to come, but just as a hint, the match involves real fireworks as a weapon. The Hardy Boyz are known for their hardcore wrestling – they introduced the iconic tables, ladders and chairs match to WWE – but even for them, this is a crazy match. The storyline was such a hit it eventually resulted in its own pay-per-view, Total Non-Stop Deletion, and was carried by Matt to WWE and, most recently, AEW.
5. Tessa Blanchard vs Mercedes Martinez at RISE 10: Insanity
The longest women’s single match of all time saw twenty-year veteran Mercedes Martinez face off with Tessa Blanchard, one of the biggest rising stars in women’s wrestling. The 75-minute iron man match – with the winner determined by who can rack up the most pins or submissions within the time limit – could easily have dragged with such a formidable length. Luckily, both women easily rank among the best of all time, even at Tessa’s young age, and there’s somehow not a dull moment in the entire match.
One of the challenges of tests of endurance like this is selling the toll of the damage without making the fact it keeps going seem implausible. By the final stretch, Mercedes and Tessa manage to look like they can barely stand even as you know for a fact neither will ever give up. And it’s not just the physical toll: the emotional exhaustion on their faces is gutwrenching. It’s frankly astonishing that any human being is capable of stuff like this.
6. Sadkampf vs The Work Horsemen at BLP Unplugged
This match requires absolutely no backstory or emotional investment going in: the friend who suggested it described it as “just four lads hoofing the shite out of each, which is impossible to not enjoy” and I completely agree. I don’t know either of these teams or what their deal is, but they set the tone of the match immediately by talking enough shit to make their contempt clear and then they just kick the crap out of each other for the entire match length.
None of these wrestlers are exceptional, but all of them are skilled, experienced and know how to work a room. The best bit of the match might be a long stretch where one of the Work Horsemen is stuck in the ring alone while his partner is laid out at ringside and has to fight off both of Sadkampf with no opportunity for a rest. It builds the tension perfectly for his partner to return and land some devastating moves on the Sadkampf guys, including a spot where he tucks one of them under the other’s arm, then slams them both headfirst into the mat. Just a solid, no-frills match from a bunch of large men.
7. Yoko Bito & Kairi Hojo vs Io Shirai & Mayu Iwatani at Goddesses of Stardom 2016
This is the match that ended Threedom, the dominant stable of the Japanese women’s wrestling promotion Stardom, made up of champions Io Shirai, Mayu Iwatani and Kairi Hojo (now Kairi Sane in WWE). Each held one of the promotion’s top singles titles, but in the 2016 Goddesses of Stardom Tournament (for two-person tag teams) Kairi found herself facing her stablemates in the final with partner Yoko Bito, now retired. It starts off as an honourable competition between friends who respect each other enough to not pull their punches, but becomes ugly as Shirai gives into her ego and temper until she finally snaps and breaks up the stable forever in a violent temper tantrum.
The second half of the video is promos (helpfully subtitled in English) and you don’t need to stick around for the lot, but I’d recommend staying for Shirai’s explanation for her heel turn. Nothing she says is necessarily super cruel, but even with the language barrier, her tone is bone-chilling. I haven’t watched a ton of Stardom, but they recently released an empty arena show (due to coronavirus) for free on YouTube, and even with no subtitles, it was a hell of a good time. In fact, it might even be better with the language barrier. I find a lot of wrestling commentary kind of crap, but when it’s all tone and mood and I can’t understand all the dad jokes, it’s still easy to follow the flow of a match without any of the cringe.
8. Viper vs Kay Lee Ray at ICW Fear & Loathing XI
Kay Lee Ray and Viper (aka Piper Niven in WWE) were the breakout stars of Glasgow’s Insane Championship Wrestling before signing with WWE. Kay Lee Ray is a hardcore wrestler and Viper is not, but in one of their final meetings before going to the majors, she challenged Ray to a battle on her home turf, complete with barbed wire, thumb tacks and a staple gun. There’s surprisingly little blood, but you’ll still probably grit your teeth the whole way through and wonder why they aren’t screaming in pain constantly.
Both performers do a great job in the ring, and I’d never want to take anything away from them, but I want to give a shout-out here to the commentary team, especially after I just trashed wrestling commentary in the last blurb. I don’t know who does commentary for ICW, or if this is even their regular team, but they do a fantastic job here. They’re appropriately shocked and disgusted by everything that happens, they crack some actually good jokes, and they really guide the viewer through the match. Ultraviolence aside, thanks to the commentators, this might be the most accessible match on the list, and a lot of fun besides.