Dusty Lives: Finn Balor, Starrcade ’83, and an Incredible Legacy

The news of Dusty Rhodes’ passing sent ripples across the American consciousness this week. To wrestling fans, Rhodes was an icon of an era, a powerful kingmaker, and a highly complex figure who had been a part of wrestling’s greatest high- and lowlights in five different decades. To those who know little about wrestling beyond that it’s a thing that some people watch, Rhoades still stood out as a larger-than-life figure. He was a man who you didn’t channel surf past regardless of how you felt about pro wrestling, a captivating figure who came to represent far more than a fake fight ending with a big elbow.

Though his death robbed the wrestling business of one of the last great geniuses from the era of great wrestling geniuses, Rhodes’ legacy can be seen continuing through one of WWE’s hottest commodities, NXT. The build towards Finn Balor facing Kevin Owens in Japan for the NXT Title feels especially marked by Dusty’s touch. The match bears incredible similarity to the main event of one of the most important shows “The American Dream” ever helped put together: Starrcade ’83.

To compare Balor-Owens to Race-Flair may seem far-fetched, considering one represented two men at the pinnacle of the profession while the other is for a developmental title, but if you scale down the splendor that was Starrcade, the tremendous storytelling and structural similarities are clear to see. Both matches feature grizzled, physical heels taking on prettier, more athletic babyfaces. They are both David and Goliath stories in which “hometown” youths take on ugly bullies who came in from the other territory. Each match is strategically located in the place where the hero is most likely to get a megastar reaction: Flair in Greensboro and Balor in Tokyo.

On this week’s episode of NXT, a promo package hyping the upcoming match delivered the pitchline, “Finn Balor Arrives. Tokyo, Japan. July 4th.” The line was remarkably reminiscent of Scarrcade ’83 subtitle “A Flair for the Gold.” Each statement is basically promotional lingo for, “The babyface wins.” An essential part of the build is tipping the audience that they can be assured of consummation and don’t have to worry about being swerved or let down.

Therein lay the brilliance of Dusty Rhodes: he never forgot that for all the cleverness and complexity that can bookers and fans breathe into wrestling, at the end of the day people want to see the babyface win. Even when it was impractical in the large picture, Dusty’s instinct was always to give the people something that looked like a babyface victory. It was that desire to provide the fans with an uplifting moment that led to the creation and eventual over-use of the now-infamous “Dusty Finish.” In a sense, Dusty’s booking was like Marxism: it was highly humanistic and sought to make people happy but was hampered by the over-complexity of all the essential moving parts. Dusty may be gone, but the best parts of him live on.

Set Up For Failure: The Deeply Flawed Structure of the WWE Tag Title Elimination Chamber

The WWE Tag Team Title Elimination Chamber match contained talented wrestlers, including a bona fide top heel team and a bona fide top babyface team, featured good action, and delivered a definitive finish. However, the match fell well short of what it could have been — an assertion of the Tag Team Titles as a featured prize – because of poor structure. Whoever put this match together should not be putting together matches for pay per views.

All matches are reliant on a good start to set the tone for what follows. This match had a hard time getting over because it started with the two least established teams in the ring. The Lucha Dragons are popular, and The Ascension are disliked, but neither is the team that people paid to see. Cesaro and Kidd should have been one of the first teams in the Chamber to give the match and show the hot start it needed.

Of course, when Cesaro and Kidd did enter third, they needed to work harder than they should have to recover from the lull that opened the match. The structure of the match really let The Masters of the Universe Down. If they weren’t going to begin the match, Cesaro and Kidd should’ve been set up to enter to a monster pop, and neither happened because WWE sent out the wrong teams to start the show.

Once they were in the match, Cesaro and Kidd absolutely shone on offense. The crowd popped for their spots, but the realization quickly set in the last three teams were New Day, Los Matadors, and Prime Time Players. With even the most innocent fan subconsciously knowing that the heel champions would be out last, it was apparent that a few minutes of rather inconsequential wrestling would follow. Given the barely-established nature of Lucha Dragons and The Ascension and the barely-credible nature of Los Matadors, the wrestlers were left with only one tool to do to get the crowd invested: stupid spots. Kalisto and El Torito obliged.

Then, momentarily, the match looked poised to turn around and get serious when The Ascension eliminated both the Dragons and Matadors in quick succession, but their immediate loss to the Prime Time Players undid all of that good storytelling and simply reinforced the old WWE trope that established main roster veterans can always beat relative newcomers easily. What followed was a slow-paced, shapeless period of wrestling between two teams who had no storyline heat behind them.

Then, there was Cesaro’s elimination by The Prime Time Players. When there’s one set of over babyfaces in the match and they are not finalists, you will be in trouble with the crowd. Luckily, people are into chanting “New Day sucks,” so the match wasn’t a total loss, but the frustration from the audience was palapable during the match’s final minutes.

There was so much potential in the ring to open the Elimination Chamber show, but the ball was badly dropped due to poor structure.

The Proper Care and Feeding of Demons

Finn Balor and his pet Demon represent the ultimate marriage of two of the biggest stars of an era in WWE: Jeff Hardy and the Undertaker. Since his arrival in NXT, Balor has consistently been portrayed as more Hardy than Hardy. He’s a risk-taker. He’s attractive. He has a personal connection to the fans. He wrestles intensely exciting matches. What he doesn’t have, though, is the recklessness that derailed the much-loved Carolinian’s journey to the top of the mountain.

Balor’s superiority to Hardy as a potential top star draw is also evident when one considers their signature alter egos: Willow was Jeff Hardy being someone else, whereas The Demon represents a place that Balor reaches in his mind and spirit when the stakes are most high and the odds most unfavorable. Willow was a failure because people felt as though they were being cheated out of seeing the Jeff Hardy they knew and loved. On the other hand, when people see The Demon, they feel like they are seeing their favorite wrestler turned up way past eleven and into the stratosphere.

The Demon is the closest thing to an Undertaker gimmick on the current wrestling scene. The act has a special mystique that elevates Balor from being a top star on the show to the stop star on any show. His now-signature entrance is exactly the kind of thing that people pay money to see, even more money to see in person, and even more money to see up close in person. If the character is protected, as Undertaker was effectively for the last half-decade, Finn Balor’s entrance at Wrestlemania could become one of the most anticipated aspects of the big show.

However, much of the money in The Demon is in Balor not being The Demon – at least not most of the time. Unlike the Undertaker, who at times in his career was overexposed by week-in, week-out television appearances, Balor has the luxury of being Finn Balor on TV. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he can simply portray the exciting, high-flying, straight-up wrestling babyface with the natural bond to the fans. Living as Jeff Hardy with a slow build to being the Undertaker once every four months would give Balor the chance to be the biggest money babyface of his era.

Unfortunately, NXT Takeover: Unstoppable was the perfect example of a show where the Demon should have remained chained in Hades. The positioning of the match was all wrong for Balor to take things to the supernatural level. A vicious, mystical, quasi-monstrous being should never, under any circumstances, jerk the curtain. Furthermore, even the announcers were openly discussing how the match was less juicy than it should have been due to the injury to Hideo Itami. Add those factors together with the pressure not to burn out the crowd early, and the result is a match that was “just really good.” The Demon shouldn’t be in really good matches; The Demon should be in the match of the season.

N(utshell)XT Takeover: Rivals as a Microcosm of the Territory

If Takeover: Rival was your first NXT show, you now know everything you need to about the WWE’s universe-within-a-universe. The two-hour special was the perfect representation of what NXT provides viewers on a weekly basis, beauty marks, warts, and all.

The Good:

NXT is the place where polished, highly-athletic, highly-motivated independent and international performers make their pitch to be on national TV in front of an audience of millions. The hunger on this show was palpable; you could feel it oozing from Zayn, Owens, Neville, and Balor. The two showcase singles matches both felt like they meant something to the competitors involved. Whether their goal is to get closer to the NXT Championship or closer to the WWE main roster, all four men went to the ring and asserted themselves as ready for the next step.

NXT also provides a platform for women (as in athletic female adults) to prove themselves as equal to their male counterparts in wrestling skill, ability to get over, and drawing potential. The fatal four way match for the NXT Women’s Title was not just a compelling title match, it was deserving of a spot on the short list of all-time four person matches. This battle was truly a testament to what makes NXT unique in the mainstream, as there aren’t even four Divas on Raw or Knockouts on Impact who are over enough to be in a twelve-minute title match.

The Bad:

NXT is a developmental territory where a lot of wrestlers who won’t ever have a good match wind up on the card. Bull Dempsey and Baron Corbin were provided the No DQ stipulation in an attempt to “help” them have a watchable match. It didn’t work. Brawling hossfights can only have two outcomes: both guys look tough, or both guys look like they can’t wrestle. This match was a reminder that even the well-traveled WWE bag of tricks is no substitute for talent. The Tag Title match was similarly hard to watch, containing a whole Botchamania episode of blown, mistimed, or otherwise weak-looking spots, which resulted in the competitors not telling any story beyond “The titles change hands.”

The Ugly:

NXT is a cool wrestling show for cool kids to watch. This was on display more clearly than ever when the crowd in the building for Rival did significant damage to the Zayn-Owens main event. Owens, the thinking heel, goaded his way into a title match he hadn’t earned… and came out to a tremendous pop. He beat up his best friend in a way that pushed beyond the limits of sportsmanship, competition, or good taste… and got tremendous pops as he did it. He won the title in the most controversial, flimsy way possible… and got a tremendous pop. Zayn never got his fired-up comeback because the crowd was too busy showing how much they think they know about wrestling by cheering the violent guy rather than the nice one. The crowd let down Zayn, NXT, and anyone who bought into the angle.

The Trouble with Title Changes

Tennyson famously wrote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” Clearly, he would’ve made a lousy wrestling booker… just like the ones who write the mainstream North American products these days. Both WWE and Impact Wrestling have given nearly everybody on their rosters a taste of the championship titles, only to have them lose a month or two afterward. These short title reigns don’t just hurt the prestige of the belts, they also do serious damage to these unlucky champions.

At 27 days, Luke Harper’s Intercontinental Title run falls just short of Marc Mero’s in both length and impressiveness. Unlike Mero in 1996, however, Harper is on the right side of his peak with tremendous upside. That it’s even possible to compare the crazy-eyes monster to Johnny B. Badd proves that something is terribly wrong here.

Getting help from the top heel faction to win a title and then dropping it back cleanly to the same guy a month later doesn’t make you look like a man in the rise — it makes you look like an enhancement guy. If a big monster isn’t going to go on a big monster run, then he’s better off never getting the belt. (That’s why the DQ finish was invented. See: the 80s)

At the other end of the title reigns that shouldn’t have happened spectrum lies Jessicka Havok. She debuted on Impact in the fall with an off the charts look and gimmick, but got too close to the title too soon. She was pushed to the top of a thin division [Yes, the Knockouts division is thin!] by interfering in a title match week one, stealing the title belt week two, and becoming number one contender week three.

If you count the imaginary weeks of tape delay that she held the Knockouts Title, Havok held the championship for just over a month, but in reality, she was essentially the Mountie, getting the belt from Kim to Terrell in thee days time. Again, Jessicka Havok, a young star with upside in 2014/15, should not be comparable to Jacques Rougeau in 1992.

Over the last six months, Harper and Havok each had a window to break out as a top monster heel act, but look where they wound up. For Luke Harper, the confusing Wyatt Family clustermess at the Royal Rumble proved that his window as a serious competitor has temporarily closed. Havok was put into an angle with the act she most desperately needed to be protected from, then lost decisively to her at Lockdown.

In each case, the championship title, the definitive gimmick of professional wrestling, managed to lower the champion’s status rather than elevate it. That’s a dangerous proposition, because if you grab that thread and tug it, the logical conclusion is that being champion is not an indication of a wrestler being on a dominant run… And if that’s true, there isn’t much left to hold onto as a wrestling fan.

Rumble Reaction: The Top Stars Entering Wrestlemania Season

With the Wrestlemania season officially underway, @DaveWritesJunk watched the entire Royal Rumble show twice and compiled a list of the top three babyfaces and heels with momentum headed into the industry’s biggest show of the year.

TOP HEELS:

Honorable Mention: The Miz

During both the Tag Title match and the Royal Rumble itself, The Miz exhibited definitively heelish behavior: selfishness, vanity, and a love of shortcuts. He’s a perfect midcard heel, which is exactly what keeps him off the official Top Three. With a clear Wrestlemania trajectory of first-hour comedy match, Miz doesn’t make the cut.

NUMBER 3: Rusev

Rusev was elevated as much as anybody in this year’s Rumble (aside from, perhaps, Number 2 below). He was made to look strong, well-conditioned, and resourceful. He nearly connived his way to stealing the Rumble, a tremendous heel move that has been lost in the fervor over the finish. After this show, there’s no question Rusev is a worthy, deserving act destined for the heart of the Wrestlemania card.

NUMBER 2: Bray Wyatt

Bray Wyatt owned the first half of the 2015 Royal Rumble. His masterful performance picking apart midcard wrestlers one-by-one was reminiscent of Steve Austin’s incredible ’97 Rumble, as were his short but pointed remarks on the microphone. Like Rusev, Wyatt asserted himself as a major player on the Wrestlemania card with his strong Rumble.

NUMBER 1: Seth Rollins

A World Heavyweight Title match is about to start. The three opponents glare intently into each other’s eyes. The bell rings… and one of them bails to the floor as the other two stare on in contempt. That’s Exhibit A as to why Seth Rollins is the most main event heel working the North American style. Wherever he winds up on the Wrestlemania card will be special, but if anybody in the WWE is going to make Sting look good, Rollins sure seems like the man for the job.

TOP BABYFACES:

NUMBER 3: John Cena

John Cena is as good a big match wrestler as anyone short of Ric Flair, and the main reason is because he’s a babyface who’s willing to spend the first half of the match bumping and selling. Cena’s character isn’t as hot in either polar sense as it has been the last five years, but he’s still a guy who will put together a thrilling match at Wrestlemania.

NUMBER 2: Daniel Bryan

Daniel Bryan once again asserted himself as the man of the people, which puts him high on this list even though he was featured much less than anybody else who made the cut. Bryan’s connection with the crowd is so special that it keeps him a top star with minimal support from the bookers. Look for a feel-good Daniel Bryan moment on the ‘Mania card, but look for it earlier than you’d hope.

NUMBER 1: Brock Lesnar

Based on the last ten days of WWE programming, Brock Lesnar has made the inevitable switch from punishing heel to kickass babyface. His sell of Rollins’ elbow through the table showed that Lesnar has what it takes to make the fans concerned when he is in jeopardy, and his win proved that he can execute an exciting comeback that people can get behind. WWE was successful tonight in transforming Lesnar into a versatile, over babyface who opens up a large number of possibilities for Wrestlemania.

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.