Welcome to Deadspin’s irregular pro wrestling column, in which Tom Breihan and Ernest Wilkins will comb through the past month or so of superkicks, lariats, and 450 splashes in search of the greatest things that this most American of artforms has given us.
Ernest Wilkins: The Iron Man Match–where the participants have to score as many pinfalls or submissions as they can in an allotted period, usually either 30 or 60 minutes–is one of the most prestigious of all the types matches two wrestlers can find themselves in. Not just a showcase of endurance, an Iron Man match is the purest example of ring psychology—the actual “story” being told during a bout—that you’ll likely see. More often than not, wrestling is filled with head-scratching moments. If the guy has a bum shoulder, why doesn’t the other guy just keep hitting him in the shoulder? That’s the beauty of Iron Man matches! A simple kick to the knee turns into a major plot point. It’s now going to likely cause a wrestler to lose a fall and will be revisited multiple times throughout the match. Because of this attention to detail, Iron Man matches usually feature the best wrestlers in a promotion, both from psychology and general conditioning perspectives.
How prestigious is an Iron Man match? In the long and illustrious history of the WWF/WWE—a company that has been airing pro wrestling on television since the ‘60s—there have only been NINE televised Iron Man matches. The 10th, by way of WWE’s developmental promotion NXT, occurred earlier this month, with challenger Sasha Banks taking on the champ Bayley in a rematch from their nearly perfect bout a month ago in Brooklyn.
Tom, what did you think about the match? Did the ladies live up to the hype?
Tom Breihan: Oh my god, that match. I’d say they actually exceeded the hype, weirdly enough. One of the real challenges to the Iron Man Match is that of keeping things interesting for the entire length. And for that reason, I’d say the hour-long Bret Hart/Shawn Michaels WrestleMania XII match, though fully canonized and groundbreaking at the time, is a bit boring to watch now. Bayley and Banks only got half an hour, and I think they could’ve easily gone twice that.
One of my other favorite matches of the year is another Iron Man joint: Johnny Mundo (formerly John Morrison) and Prince Puma (known on the indies as Ricochet) spending an entire episode of Lucha Underground tearing it up. That one kept things lively because those guys are physical freaks willing to do insane things to keep an audience happy. They’ll both leap 20 feet off a stage, through a stack of tables, and then they’ll keep wrestling for another 20 minutes. It’s staggering that anyone even can do it.
Bayley and Banks made it work a different way. For them, it was all storytelling: callbacks to their last match, Bayley doing everything she could to destroy Banks’s hand and thus weakening her finishing move, the two of them collapsing into a heap at the final bell. Bayley—maybe the greatest pure-babyface character in all of wrestling today—has this little-kid superfan named Izzy who shows up in the front row of all her NXT matches and celebrates her. She wears this special headband that Bayley gave her. And during a moment when Banks was beating Bayley up outside the ring—ramming her head into an LCD monitor and, in an awesome bit of stagecraft, making that monitor go all fritzy—Banks stole Izzy’s headband. This poor little kid was in tears, and Banks was back in the ring taunting her and then throwing the headband at her. That’s wrestling.
And at the end, when the entire NXT roster came out to clap for them and they both broke down in tears? Man, I couldn’t even keep it together. NXT has created this beautiful pro-wrestling alternate reality where stories have payoffs and women are crucial parts of the show and everyone understands the emotional impact of a moment while it’s actually happening. And I’m saying: if you didn’t feel at least a little emo at the end of that, you may not really like pro wrestling.
With that in mind: what did you think, Ernest? And what did you think of the rest of the NXT TakeOver show? Because I really liked it. It wasn’t as spectacular as their Barclays Center show during SummerSlam weekend, but it was full of cool smaller things, like the culmination of the tag-team tournament and the shitkicking debut of Asuka (formerly Kana), the great Japanese female wrestler.
Ernest: Tom, my absolute favorite moment in wrestling history is the end of WrestleMania XX, when Chris Benoit (who was my favorite wrestler of all time before he killed his family) finally wins the big one and his best friend Eddie Guerrero comes to the ring and they hug and sob openly. Seeing two of the unquestionably best wrestlers on Earth finally get the recognition they deserved for so long was amazing. Fans are entirely TOO aware of the sacrifices wrestlers make and the near-obsessive level of determination they have to have in order to live out the dream of even getting to a main event in WWE. It’s why I appreciate the hell out of John Cena even if his character hasn’t been that interesting in a long time. It’s why I keep rooting for the likes of Bobby Roode/James Storm/the New Day/Ricochet etc etc.
That very reason is why the Bayley/Banks match got me emotional. These two longtime fans (and kudos to the AMAZING job WWE did in building the stakes of this match by sharing both wrestlers’ personal goals to become champions) finally got a chance to hit the main event, and they delivered! The main event is a match-of-the-year contender in and of itself, and while the TakeOver: Brooklyn match is slightly better, this one is a worthy follow-up. As for the show itself, it seemed like the finals of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic was a knowing wink to the Jim Crockett Cup, the tag-team tournament Dusty himself used to book in pre-WCW NWA back in the ‘80s, down to the all “wrestlers who are feuding but end up having to be in a tag team” final. The Mechanics and Jason Jordan/Chad Gable (who need a name ASAP) were stellar and Asuka made one hell of a debut, while Dana Brooke showcased a LOT of growth from where she started on WWE programming. All in all, the show was a fun look at what’s to come.
Speaking of forecasting into the future, we’re on the cusp of Hell in A Cell and not gonna lie, they’re not really giving us a lot to be excited about. You looking forward to Seth vs. Kane and Brock vs. Taker No. 1,210,139, Tom?
Tom: I mean, I will watch Brock Lesnar wrestle anyone. I’d watch him wrestle the entire staff of my local library, simultaneously. I’d watch him wrestle a squid. I’d watch him wrestle the concept of time. I just love watching that guy dismember motherfuckers. His feud with the Undertaker is about as cold as a Brock Lesnar feud can possibly be, but that’s still not that bad, all things considered.
And there’s another thing about that match that gives me hope. They haven’t mentioned it on WWE TV at all for some reason, but Lesnar and Undertaker have had a Hell in Cell match before. At No Mercy 2002, they just brutalized each other in that cage, and the gruesome spectacle remains one of my favorite WWE matches of the century. I know times are different now, and they aren’t going to bleed all over each other this time. But if they recapture any of that sense of wanton violence, I’ll be excited.
But as for Rollins/Kane, and absolutely everything else on that card, yeah, woof. Even if Kane wasn’t 831 years old, it’s still been years since WWE treated him as any sort of legit threat. I have no desire to watch that guy lumber around while Rollins cowers in the corner. The whole storyline going into it, where Kane has two different identities that don’t acknowledge each other, should be fun in an extremely stupid way, but even that has been boring. The whole thing just feels like a total time-killer, like they just can’t find another credible opponent for Rollins this month.
It’s amazing to me that the storytelling in NXT can be so good, so logical and emotionally driven and high-stakes, while within the same company, WWE proper continues to spin its wheels. I mean, I can believe it; I’ve spent enough years watching WWE to know how the company loves to shoot itself in the foot. But how low do you think Raw ratings have to drop before they break out of this storytelling holding pattern?
Ernest: You’re already starting to see the freakout, Tom. They dragged out a bunch of legends like Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels this past Monday for the go-home show, and doubled up with Brock Lesnar appearing on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast on the Network. Speaking of Stone Cold, what in the hell was the point of him coming out, saying “HERE IS THE UNDERTAKER GIMME A HELL YEAH DRINK A BEER FOR THE WORKING MAN WHAT WHAT WHAT” (He didn’t say that exactly, but I would have enjoyed it way more than what we got).
Look man, WrestleMania ticket packages for next year are already sold out. To claim dire straits given how crappy the ratings for Raw have been since SummerSlam would be to ignore the history of the WWE and how they’ve bounced back from way way way way WAY worse than this. Nothing shows they should be concerned to the point of drastic measure, especially given that they’re hitting the annual slowdown due to holidays.
Other than WWE, we’ve recently seen New Japan take on a new audience, broadcasting King of Pro Wrestling—their first PPV since January’s Wrestle Kingdom—in English. The network’s syndicated show on AXS TV is airing Wrestle Kingdom in English with the stellar Mauro Ranallo/Josh Barnett announcing team and is worth seeking out, especially for the 10/30 and 11/6 episodes, which features the IWGP Intercontinental Championship match between Shinsuke Nakamura versus Kota Ibushi—my personal Match of the Year so far—and the main event which featured Hiroshi Tanahashi versus Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. It’s interesting to see them finally go for the American audience. Do you think English commentary would make you a bigger NJPW fan, Tom?
Tom: I liked when they got Jim Ross and Matt Striker to call New Japan’s Tokyo Dome show this year, but I honestly sort of like New Japan with the Japanese commentary. It makes it weirder and distances it further, and I have to just sort of guess what’s happening when, like, Takashi Iizuka comes out and beats up that one announcer over and over. But it also makes it weirdly soothing. I like falling asleep to New Japan shows in Japanese. Still, if New Japan really wants to go all-in with English commentary for all their big shows—and it’s rumored that they’re considering it—then sure, bring it on.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum. He’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical, and he writes the Netflix Action Movie Canon column for Deadspin’s Concourse. He lives in Charlottesville, VA. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Ernest Wilkins is a writer living in Chicago. He’s written for Gawker, Complex, Pitchfork, Noisey, GQ, Rolling Stone and the Chicago Tribune. He’s 5’11” on a good day, and is also on Twitter.