STARS IN THEIR EYES--FSM#138

This month's column is the result of yet another offhand remark by the erstwhile editor of this fine publication, when referencing the fact that the internet recently flipped it's collective wig over the first-ever "6 star match" as rated by Dave Meltzer, noted wrestling observer. Our fearless leader remarked that I might have something to say about that, noting that I at least ought to have some input since--for better or worse--I invented the cockamamie scale to begin with.

Now, before you, the dear reader, start thinking that I'm veering off into Russo territory--"I invented air, water and the attitude era"--I should admit that just like all great moments of epiphany, mine was completely inadvertent and meant as a joke. It's been recounted many times over the years, and verified by Meltzer himself for you remaining doubting Thomases. But just to get it over with....

The year was 1979. One of my best friends in Louisville, Norman Dooley--affectionately nicknamed "Weasel" for his pale complexion and resemblence to a skinny John Denver--had taken up compiling the results of Louisville-area matches and sending them out, accompanied by arena programs & clippings, via US mail in a several-page report titled "Weasel's World of Wrestling". These early "sheets", so-called because they were sheets of paper from a copy machine, went out to his penpals across America. Those correspondents, comprised of a lot of the few thousand truly "smart" fans and reporters in the country, would then do the same with news of the matches in their area and send them back. This is how all of us used to hear about other territories and build our wrestling collections in the pre-internet and videotape days.

Going further than just reporting the results, Norman had started giving play-by-play descriptions of many of the main events and better matches, and then started throwing in his opinions on which matches and wrestlers were the best on the shows. Speaking to him on the phone one night, I was flipping through the TV Guide while he was reading me his report on Sam Muchnick's most recent major event in St. Louis--he used to attend as many cards in the Kiel Auditorium as he could and became an ardent Ric Flair and Bruiser Brody admirer--and I made what I thought was an offhand joke.

"Weasel, with the detail you're going into and the critiques you're giving, you ought to give the matches star ratings like they do for the movies in the TV Guide."

He loved it, and started the next week. Some of his correspondents picked it up and began doing the same almost immediately, and in time one of them was Dave Meltzer.

The scale stood at 4 stars until March 23, 1981, when we saw Jerry Lawler's match with Terry Funk in Memphis' Mid-South Coliseum. For excitement, intensity of live atmosphere, and aura of violence alongside great work and crowd response, this bout was the greatest spectacle of a wrestling match we had ever seen, and we agreed to award it the first-ever 5 stars. This was the match that broke the scale and became the "greatest wrestling match that has ever been held" to that point in time on the official scale.

Except the scale is in the eye of the beholder.

Now, when you consider that I had probably seen four thousand live matches by the time we saw Lawler vs. Funk, Norman had seen at least half that many, and we watched tape of every territory in the country at that time plus both Baba and Inoki's TV shows weekly, it IS fairly impressive that we liked that match better than anything else we had seen to that point. Being there live for one of Funk's most incredible performances as a psychopath, all the blood and the sight of the horrified women in the front row climbing the backs of their chairs played a big part. It's also fair to say that our opinions were "learned" opinions. We knew what big matches were happening in wrestling and we critiqued them based on how we liked them. Just like the movie critics. That didn't mean it was fact to everyone--just like the movie critics.

It's easier to critique movies than live performances of what are--or are supposed to be, at least--purported to the public to be legitimate sporting events. There have been film schools discussing cinematic theory for nearly a hundred years. It's one of the most studied, researched, discussed and debated fields in all of entertainment. A lot of people STILL disagree with the major film critics. I HATE 2001: A Space Oddysey, and so does Stacey, and the special effects audio makes Harley Quinn leave the room. It's a "4 star classic." Yet one of the funniest films ever made--in my opinion--a Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez/others anthology from 1995 called "Four Rooms", got TWO BLOODY STARS! But I digress....

It really just comes down to opinion, but I find by reading the internet these days that just like every movie fan who buys a ticket can now publish his reviews and become a critic, every wrestling fan who buys a ticket can now publish his match ratings. I'm also finding that there was a reason why Siskel and Ebert got paid millions to do their reviews on TV and others are broadcasting to 73 people on their YouTube channel. And the parameters of the "star" rating system in wrestling have changed an awful lot too--now, if the action looks like it came from a video game or a 70's Kung Fu movie, that's apparently replaced the horrified women on the criteria list.

I understand why people got hooked on the star system. It's human nature to desire a way to quantify, or evaluate things, especially things you like. It's also human nature to disagree and have different tastes. So, now that I've been tolerant, and gentle with your feelings, I'll tell you why my opinion means a lot more than yours does.

Just like Siskel and Ebert had seen thousands of movies, and knew them inside and out, I've seen tens of thousands of wrestling matches spread over five different decades. I've participated in the industry as a performer, promoter and matchmaker for every major company in the last 30 years. Plus, I invented the damn scale to begin with, so that right there should enshrine me in the wrestling critic Hall of Fame and give my opinion instant credibility. So let me tell you what a REAL "Five Star Match" is from the standpoint of one of the two people--Weasel being unavailable for comment--that invented this whole stupid thing to begin with. Because if we're going to take it this seriously, we should at least know what the original rules were.

There has never been a "perfect" match--there has always got to be some flaw somewhere. But in my thought process for "rating" a match, criteria would include it being a match that would be exciting from an action standpoint, but completely lacking in any "holes" or moments of obvious co-operation or "working" that expose it as bullshit, a match that told a great story in the ring, one that the fans could follow and believe in between two stars that are over with the audience they're in front of, that drew a good crowd, had a great finish, got tremendous crowd response, that was a turning point in a program, a memorable angle or a momentous climax to a feud. All those things are important in a truly great match.

A match seen live as opposed to television always has the advantage in getting a "good rating" because crowd energy influences our perceptions. If you're in the middle of 10,000 fans going batshit for something, it feels more exciting to you than if you're watching a video of a two-week old pay-per-view, or worse still a one-camera-in-the-stands shoot from the territories in the 80's. The more removed you are from the live energy of a wrestling match, the more the aura of the crowd energy and the wrestlers' live charisma is diminished. But even then, truly great bouts transcend the TV screen.

Having said that, many of my own personal five star matches are ones I've seen live, so early 80's Memphis and late 80's NWA is featured prominently, but I understand a longtime Northeastern US fan putting the famous Sgt. Slaughter vs. Pat Patterson Alley Fight at the top of their list--or a devoted World Class fan leading with one of the famous FreeBirds vs. Von Erich brawls in Texas. These and other famous territory-eras clashes are bouts that were great when they happened and have stood the test of time due to the era of videotape. All the bouts on my personal list of the best 5 star matches I've ever seen--compiled scientifically off the top of my head--are available to be seen either on YouTube or the Network if you want to play along at home.

After the 1981 Lawler-Funk bout, I think the very next 5 star award went to Tiger Mask vs. Dynamite Kid from January 1, 1982 in Japan. Seeing this bout on tape was a mindblower, and for those who think I don't like "high-spots and flying", here's an example of two guys who changed the game but did it right. Even with some over-the-top acrobatics, the insane agility of Sayama and the intensity and aura of violence of Billington managed to make this match still look like a contest. The early MMA-style hybrid of matwrestling, shootfighting, lucha and martial arts brought the lighter weight guys to prominence for the first time. Neither Kid nor the Tiger ever lost sight of making their matches contests, and the aura of realism they were able to project combined with their athletic talent being so far ahead of the rest ushered in a new era, but one where neither of these guys have ever really been matched. Dynamite, obviously, was also a cautionary tale that few since have heeded, his style and bumps relegating him to a wheelchair early in life.

Another set of Memphis classics was the series between Lawler and Dutch Mantell in 1982. Even with the booking hurdle of both being babyfaces to overcome, they not only put together a rivalry over who was #1 and who was #2 that drew money but also saw both men keep their fans, and neither "switching heel" during the feud. The climactic Barbed Wire match in Memphis on March 29, 1982 was the best of all, a live-action, thirty minute "Rocky" fight scene done in one take before thousands of eyewitnesses. Now, this wasn't the "barbed wire" rules of an ECW or hardcore promotion, this match merely had wire wrapped around the posts to keep both men in. They barely touched it except in big spots to maximum effect with minimum exposure to danger. It caused some bleeding, so it did it's job, but the rest was up to the talent. They staged a fight inside the ring that had the fans on a dramatic rollercoaster, and plenty of "live rounds" were flying. Since neither man was a heel, both had to remain strong, so they literally beat each other to their knees before the unexpected finish. Late in the match, Lawler and Mantell's trading--and selling--of punches back and forth is amazing and an incredibly display of timing and body language.

The next Lawler bout to become an instant classic was the Loser Leaves Town match between he and Bill "Superstar" Dundee on June 6, 1983 at the Mid-South Coliseum. Dundee had turned heel earlier in the Spring after a six-year run as the #2 babyface, and they reprised their legendary rivalry from the summer of 1977. That year, with Dundee the face and Lawler the heel, they had met in the Coliseum main event a staggering ELEVEN weeks in a row, drawing a total of over 95,000 fans with two complete sellouts and an average of 9000 per show.

This was a much shorter program--just two weeks, a setup match where Dundee beat Lawler in defense of the Southern Title, in order to come back the following week with everything on the line, winner to become Southern Champion, loser to leave Memphis. Dundee WAS leaving town--after losing the Memphis book in a power play between Lawler and Jerry Jarrett, he had taken a booking job in Georgia with Ole Anderson, so they had to rush it up.

This was a completely different match than the wild and bloody Lawler-Funk brawl or the war of attrition featured in the Mantell Barbed Wire match. It was a bout where there were plenty of fists thrown and stiff shots exchanged, but it also featured each man trying to dominate the other wrestling-wise, playing on their well-known, real-life rivalry for the previous six years to be the top star in the Memphis area. And they both knew how to think up and execute ways for each's best moves to shine. Lawler's genius as a ring general and status as one of the top workers and bump takers in the sport at this time was well-known, but Dundee shines even more here as a top worker with a style that was completely unique and different even then, and now looks as if it comes from another planet when viewed by today's eyes. There are several spots and sequences in this match that I don't think anyone in wrestling today could pull off, and it remains one of the most exciting yet believable one-on-one fights I've ever seen in a wrestling ring.

If you want to see the gold standard of in-ring performance in the sport of professional wrestling in the 1980's, and the measuring stick of greatness in the "NWA World Title match" style of wrestling, there are 6 matches I can recommend to you. The 1989 Trilogy with Ricky Steamboat is an obvious pick, as at Wrestlewar in February, on TBS for the Clash of Champions in April, and back on Pay-Per-View in May in Nashville for the blowoff and the angle with Funk, they made complete magic. I felt after the third match in Nashville that in all their bouts they had gone as far as wrestling could possibly go to be "entertaining" and still look real--any less, and it wouldn't have been as exciting, any more and it would have crossed the line of there being obvious cooperation. These matches were so good I'm not sure I was wrong.

But there is another "trilogy" that most overlook from the pre-PPV era which was almost as good. Flair faced Barry Windham hundreds of times in house show matches in the 1980's, but three that luckily exist on video were captured because they were on high-profile events. On Valentine's Day 1986 they met in Orlando at Battle of the Belts 2, having a great match marred by an anti-climactic countout finish, as they had been set to go an hour but the live TV show ran long, and having only 45:00 left they had to improvise. They clashed again on the January 20, 1987 edition of NWA Worldwide and had a classic that was the only match featured on the one hour TV show. Finally, they met for the NWA Title in the main event of night 2 of the Crockett Cup Tag Team Tournament in Baltimore on April 11, 1987.

Like Steamboat, Windham was a perfect foe for Flair, because he could go for long periods at Flair's top pace, something most athletes couldn't do, and he was so smooth as a worker that Flair could call almost anything at any time without warning, and it still came off fairly seamlessly. Barry exhibits agility that at times crosses into balletic grace for a man that big, yet sells like a junior heavyweight to get sympathy. In these matches, a point of great pride between Ric, Barry and Steamer was how deep into the match and after how hard a pace they could still execute the double bridge spot. This is "World Title Match" style pro wrestling at it's best.

I know everyone is expecting me to put a bunch of Midnight Express matches on the list, but I will resist ruining my credibility by praising something I was involved in, or giving myself "5 stars." If you want to know my favorite Midnight matches out there, they would be Midnight vs. Rock & Roll in Charlotte April 12, 1986 with me hung in the cage (the edited version of which is on the Express DVD at jimcornette.com), Midnight vs. Fantastics at Clash of Champions 1 in Greensboro March 27, 1988, Midnight vs. Rock & Roll Wrestlewar 90 in Greensboro, and Midnight vs. Southern Boys Great American Bash 90 in Baltimore, among many others--but I digress.

With the 1980's covered, lest you think I don't like anything within the last 30 years, let's move up a decade. My favorite WWF match of the 1990's has always been the classic I Quit confrontation between Bret Hart and Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 13 in Chicago in 1997. Like Lawler and Mantell's babyface match, Hart and Austin had an even tougher booking hurdle--the tricky, and rare "double-turn", where by the finish the two men have completely switched sides from face to heel and vice versa. They put together a classic that arguably was the most important match in history, as it kicked "Stone Cold" into the stratosphere as the hottest star in the sport. These are two excellent workers having a psychologically flawless match, and the crowd with it the whole way.

Let's hop into the 21st century. When I saw Davey Richards face Tyler Black (Seth Rollins) at the Ring of Honor iPPV in Toronto in June 2010, I came away with the same feeling I had when I'd seen Flair vs. Steamboat--they were hitting each other hard but--mostly--safely, performing fairly intricate shit at a high level that allowed you to suspend your disbelief, had a good grasp of timing for guys with that level of experience, both were athletic standouts over with the crowd as individuals, and you could tell Tyler was a future "movie star level" talent. They had the live crowd going berserk. I said in a number of places that I felt it was the gold standard of in-ring performance at that time in the business. Yes, they needed to sell some things a little longer, evaluate their psychology in a few spots or sometimes do less overall, but you can always do less as you get experience. The hard part is finding somebody that can do it at all. This was a really good example of what I hoped would get over about Ring of Honor--a serious, hard-hitting hybrid of pro wrestling, MMA and other combat sports with young wrestlers that had not been on TV in major roles for any "entertainment" wrestling companies. That style actually does draw money these days, it's just called the UFC.

And it's inconvenient for all the fans of video game wrestling who like to complain that I don't like ANYTHING "new" in wrestling or how it's "evolved", but those who follow my weekly podcast will know that I had effusive praise for several recent Revival matches in NXT, culminating with my review of their latest, 2 out of 3 fall match with Tomasso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano where I wondered if they had just, indeed, HAD a perfect wrestling match. The ebbs and flows of the action were eaten up by the crowd, and bell to bell it was the best tag team match I have seen in years. The Revival have been consistent with big show matches over the past year as far as stealing the show they're on.

What do all these matches and wrestlers have in common? The guys involved went in and treated their matches and business seriously, gave it their all in the ring, executed what they wanted to do at a high level to an appreciative and excited crowd and made money doing it. They furthered their angles or programs, got themselves over with the fans as stars and portrayed our sport as something to be looked at appreciatively or treated with a level of respect.

They didn't wrestle a grade school kid or the invisible man, or put together a series of gymnastics routines to show off cool video game moves, or have a "comedy" match or do something else to diminish the sport of wrestling as something silly, or that anyone can perform, regardless of talent or athletic ability. They didn't give people the impression that this was something to be laughed at or not taken seriously. And most of all, they didn't give the impression of two guys that look like they're still in high school trying to execute a bunch of cool moves so everyone would rave about the quality of their match.

So, you ask, where is Kenny Omega vs. Okada, the new "greatest match of all time", on my list? Do I give it SIX stars, as Dave famously did, or as many on the internet did? I know weed is legal in California, but...no. It ain't there.

I know I'm biased against Omega. For the uninitiated, the alleged best wrestler in the world once wrestled competitive matches in Japan--in front of fans, and on video--with a nine year old girl, and a--legitimate--blowup sex doll. A recent video has surfaced of him actually wrestling someone in what looks like the man's front yard, complete with maneuvers off a tree trunk. As far as I'm concerned, Omega is disqualified from my consideration for anything, even if he discovered a cure for cancer and then brought Lou Thesz back from the grave and stretched him. But if you want to, watch these matches, then watch that one. They're two different animals.

If you like Omega's matches, or the current video-game style in general, that's fine, they're great athletic spectacles. Rate them five stars. Just don't say 5 star wrestling matches. They have morphed from wrestling matches into performances of wrestling moves.

The most important part, to me, of that list of criteria for great matches is when the wrestlers are able to keep the aura of conflict while still being exciting--not replicating intricate video game moves for the enjoyment of the segment of critics who are going to evaluate the actual execution of said moves while not caring about the psychology behind them or the vibe of realism and charisma the talent may or may not be able to give off to the arena, which is not only what really gets guys over but what really draws money.

Sure, that's just my opinion. But as I've already explained, my opinion means more than yours does. Whaddaya gonna do? Argue with the guy that invented the scale?