The Perils of Punching

In the two weeks since Wrestle Kingdom 9, I’ve spent a lot of time processing North American mainstream wrestling through a new lens, and one thing has really struck me: the punches.

Wrestle Kingdom 9 featured almost no closed-fist punches to the face until the spectacular Intercontinental Title match between Shinsuke Nakamura and Kota Ibushi, more than two and a half hours into the show. The punches punctuated the escalating tensions in a match that had shifted from the professionally competitive to the deeply personal. They only punched each other a few times, but it was brutal in its brevity. Both men seemed desperate, frustrated, and willing to do anything to win. They were tough and willing to fight.

Compare Wrestlemania 2000: Triple H, Mick Foley, and The Rock triple-teamed The Big Show, bouncing him back and forth in a spot that showed them land a combined 17 punches to the face. Three of the greatest fighters of the era took 17 punches (followed by three clotheslines) to knock down one man.

“But Dave!” you say, “He’s a giant!”

Zdeno Chara, the largest player in the history of the NHL, has been in over 50 career fights at the highest level. Relative to his sport, Chara is every bit the giant that Big Show is in the world of wrestling. The thought that Chara could take 17 punches from even the most artistic forward is laughable.

More important, though, is why it is laughable: NHL players, even delicate, fight-avoiding forwards, are over as tough guys who know how to scrap. Hardcore fans know exactly who the toughest and meanest are, but to non-fans, the general sense is that all hockey players are tough and mean. It’s why the NHL won’t ban fighting: they don’t want to undermine the toughman mystique of the sport.

North American wrestlers have done just that: undermined their own toughness by not protecting the closed-fist punch. More punches are thrown on a typical WWE or Impact Wrestling show than it would take to win every legitimate fistfight across the country on a given day. And, again, people know that. Fans know that an actual exciting fistfight is short, and therefore, any match built around standing up and trading bombs is utterly fake.

Part of the aforementioned Big Show’s gimmick is that he wields a heavy knockout punch, but other than the fact that it’s coming from a bigger man, the WMD doesn’t look any different from the seventy-five preceding punches on the show. Even worse, the move often shows light, causing fans to say, “Dean Ambrose couldn’t really take a punch from Big Show. It’d kill him.” So, Big Show is weak because his punches look fake, and Ambrose is weak because he looks like a wimp who wouldn’t be willing to take a real punch.

As a wrestling culture, we need to rethink punches. They have the potential to be valuable storytelling tools, but their overuse has rendered them (and wrestling as fighting) utterly unbelievable.

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