Matt D’s commentary is a companion to the Where the Big Boys Play Podcast. The following are his thoughts around Clash of the Champions XVI.
I love battle royals. Let’s just put that out there. I love good battle royals. I love bad battle royals. Part of that is because good battle royals aren’t ever very good and bad battle royals aren’t ever very bad. It’s like pizza. It’s hard to mess it up. Sometimes, it happens and it’s really noticeable, but for the most part, there’s a lovely hum that permeates through the middle of them. Why, you ask? It’s because battle royals are the utmost place to experience the joy of the shared universe of pro wrestling. At any moment in a battle royal, you can have anyone involved interact with anyone else. That might be a main event heel butting heads with an undercard face. That might be two heels you rarely see team together high fiving one another. That may be the most gallant and goofus of babyfaces working together to toss out a monster heel. It may even be two heels going at it or even rarer, two babyfaces doing the same. For a brief moment in time, all of those feuds and structured cards and long-term programs and hierarchies fall to the wayside and you have this mass of characters living together in the same ring at the same time.
There’s also a sense that anything can happen, not necessarily because it’s more dangerous or anything like that: for all the talk of how dangerous a battle royal can be (and I love that talk, Bobby Heenan or Lord Alfred or someone going on about how if someone falls the wrong way on you and boom, the end of your career) I can’t remember ever seeing an injury like that in a battle royal. No, it’s because, past a few spots and the order of elimination, there’s not a whole lot of thought put into these things. Guys are tossed out into the ring and they have to figure out how to fill time, how to work with wrestlers they’re probably not used to working with in an enclosed space full of other wrestlers where they can’t do a lot of their usual spots. Are you going to see elaborate matwork? Of course not. Fast-paced armdrag exchanges? Nope. Lots of guys locking up and clubbering and hanging off the ropes? Well, yes, that’s more like it, but each of these guys is, presumably, a character, with motivations and likes and dislikes and everything else. Toss them all into the stew and you’ll always have something interesting so long as it’s something interesting that you’re looking for and not just balls to the wall action. I love logic in wrestling and while there isn’t the same sort of detailed narrative you get in other matches, the lack of planning and free form structure to the match almost forces the wrestlers to rely on their own sort of distilled logic to decide what they do.
Let’s look at the battle royal at Clash of the Champions XVI: Fall Brawl, The Georgia Brawl. Oz was in there. Oz. And he’s one of the final three. What the hell does Oz want out of life? You’re not going to figure that out in a two minute match with Ron Simmons or a similarly timed squash. Here you get ten minutes or so with him, and you find out that, well, you find out that he’s just some generic big guy with white hair who makes funny faces, but that’s not the point! That’s just Kevin Nash being passive aggressive and refusing to play his awesome Wizard character. Now, if he was somewhat better at improv, we’d really be talking, because there’s so much improvisation in a battle royal. When do you attack? When do you let yourself be attacked? How much do you take? How much do you give? When do you decide to team up with someone? When do you decide to try to eliminate someone? When do you let yourself almost get eliminated? Obviously, a lot of this is called in the ring, but how and why and how much thought is put into this?
The answer is that I just don’t know. I’ve seen dozens and dozens of battle royals in my life and listened to shoots and read newsletters and commentary and everything else, and I don’t have the first inkling. There’s always so much going on that you never focus on one guy for long, except for maybe if that guy is Ric Flair and it happens to be Royal Rumble 1992 that you’re watching. Otherwise, though? Your eye wanders. You might catch a cool moment here or something interesting there, or groan at something tedious over on the other side of the ring, but it all becomes a blur of flying bodies and endless grappling.
So, let’s see if we can’t figure this out. When I was a kid, I loved the comics section of the Brockton Enterprise, our local newspaper. I’d read the black and white funnies every day after school. As a kid, you never start from the top of the page and go to the bottom. You jump around hitting your first favorite, then your second, then your third, all the way around the page, and that last comic, the last comic that every single kid doing this will inevitable read? Family Circus by Bil Keane, a one panel burst of easily parodied saccharine sameness where a little goes more than a long way: if you’ve read one day’s, you’ve read them all. Still, even as a fickle, young Matt D, there was one recurring format for Family Circus strips I always jumped to first on the page when I saw it: sometimes Keane sent one of his insufferable little cretins around the neighborhood using a dotted line to show the path of mischief and mayhem. It was perfect for my ADHD-riddled pre-teen brain, and that’s what I want everyone to picture here. We’re going to follow a wrestler in the battle royal around the ring with a dotted line, taking a look at how he chose to work the match and if anything can be learned from it.
My first choice was Thomas Rich. Thomas Rich was great. Fiery Georgia babyface Tommy Rich was great. Old broken down, working harder than he should, charismatic Tommy Rich was great, but delusional or scummy southern heel Tommy Rich was really great. Unfortunately, he wasn’t great enough from a hierarchical standpoint to last long in the battle royal and was eliminated off camera. Second choice? The One Man Gang. Poor, lamented One Man Gang who had spent a year with a chain around his neck, Kevin Sullivan as a manager, putting over El Gigante and PN News, basically trapped in the third level of pro wrestling hell. This was a week and a day before Gang’s last WCW match, when he had just too much of all of it, though he’d inexplicably remain on the top ten for a few weeks following (WCW!). He’s a great choice to follow here though. For one thing, he came out in dark red wrestling gear, with black pants, and skulls, and he’s giant, so he’s pretty easy to spot at all times, both for me and more importantly, the crowd. Moreover, he’s in there to the end and, at first glance, really served as the glue of the match on the back half. He’s also an underrated talent, of course, a super sized journeyman with pretty good offense who was talented at feeding his opponents and making them look good.
Both El Gigante and News were in the battle royal, so you’d figure that would be Gang’s focus for most of the match and, more than that, since he was going to be in there a while, he wouldn’t do much and would just hug a corner or something so as not to lose his wind. That’s not the case at all though; he really moved around, sold emotively around the ring, and switched up his opponents. He was second to last to get an entrance, making him seem more the odds on favorite than most (Gigante was the last man in and the eventual winner). In the first half of the match, he had exchanges with Z-Man, Eaton, Big Josh, Smothers, Dustin, and News. He was rarely on offense and was mostly selling and eating shots from everyone else, often double-teamed by his opponents. For much of the battle royal, there were simply more faces than heels in the ring so it was up to him, given his size and experience, to face off against multiple opponents at once, or in quick succession so that there weren’t any congenial babyface stalls in the action. He would go from being double-teamed by Zenk and Eaton right into brawling with Big Josh in the corner, only to have Zenk come back over for another double-team until Oz would save him and he could rake Josh in the eyes. He’d then find News and brawl with him for a bit until Dustin and Windham would rush back in to try to eliminate him. All of this happened within just a few minutes but he played his role well as a large anchor that the babyfaces were magnetically attracted to. When he did get a shot in, it looked good. When he took a shot, he sold it broadly and entertainingly. For comparison’s sake, at the same time, Oz, who was pairing off with various opponents or teams of opponents, was laying in some of the worst looking clubbering blows I’ve ever seen and would take punches but just stand there like a crowbar giving neither the faces or the crowd anything at all.
In the second half of the battle royal, Gang really served as the glue. It wasn’t until the eliminations began and the ring had cleared out a bit that he finally locked up with Gigante, which made it seem just a little more monumental. I know we look back on Gigante with disdain, but you slam two giants up against each other in the middle of a battle royal and most crowds are going to respond. This led to the biggest spot of the match, a comedic romp where the three heels, Gang, Oz, and Austin, in that order, were pinned into the corner together, with a few of the remaining faces tossing El Gigante in repeatedly. At this stage, Eaton and Windham were still in there, but everyone else (News, Gigante, Oz, Austin, Dustin) were all rookies with only a year or two in the business. Gang, unsurprisingly, ended up as the focal point, brawling with Eaton before tossing him out onto the ramp, moving out of the way of a turnbuckle splash which led to News going out as well. Austin and Windham eliminated each other shortly thereafter, leading to an even more dire situation, where Gang was in there with just Dustin, Oz, and Gigante. This is when he really took over, pointing to one babyface or the next, directing traffic as Oz followed him around the ring. They eliminated Dustin with superior teamwork, but end up gloating long enough that Gigante could toss them both at once. Gang had enough left in his tank at this point, despite stooging all around the ring for ten minutes, that he took a nice bump over even as Oz sort of stumbled through his.
I don’t think many people would say that this was a good battle royal, even based on the loose terms I listed in my introduction. It ranked a Dud in the Observer and that’s not the worst term for it. There can be good performances in bad matches, though, and especially in bad spectacles. Following Gang around the ring was eye opening, especially in a match like this where you could compare him, easily, to someone like Oz. Gang didn’t take big bumps, except for at the end. He had no over-the-top power moves. He did, however, keep himself very busy, moving from babyface to babyface, lashing out with credible offense, and more than that, giving the crowd something to keep their attention by selling broadly and often in his big red shirt. Towards the end of the match, he was the guy who made sure everything went as planned. I don’t see a ton of value in them putting Gigante over here as opposed to Austin or Dustin or even the soon-to-be-turned Eaton, but it was a spectacle and it made the crowd happy, and frankly, I don’t think it would have gone nearly as well in doing so if it wasn’t for One Man Gang’s thankless efforts.
Sting vs Johnny B. Badd
We’ve come a long way in discussing professional wrestling. I think this website has all the proof of that you might need. For most of my online life, discussion had been trapped between the two poles of w: workrate and wrestlecrap. Oh, don’t get me wrong. In our fast-paced, over-saturated world of instant gratification, there’s still a place for star ratings and the such. Classification is useful. Having a guide on what to watch when you only have a short amount of time to watch something can be infinitely helpful. That said, I think we’re just hitting the point where we can appreciate things on a broader level, where there’s interest in really understanding how pro wrestling works and maybe not just rolling about in the kinetic explosion found in a heaping pile of little stars.
According to the esteemed Mr. Meltzer, Sting vs Johnny B. Badd was a one star match. If I had to rate things, I’d probably give it two. On the other hand, the Pillman vs Badstreet match weighed in at 3 1/4 in the WON. I’m not really all that interested in Pillman vs Badstreet though. It was a fine showing by Brian, his first match back after ditching the Yellow Dog angle, overcompensating like crazy with insane bumps and flying around the ring to establish the tone of the light heavyweight division while Brad Armstrong in his goofy getup served as a more than acceptable base. Honestly, when it came to my ten year old self, it was the most important thing in the world of wrestling. I was a small kid who idolized Pillman and the Rockers and the light heavyweight division was a dream come true to me. Now, though? I think I summed the thing up in one clunky run-on sentence. No, it’s the one star match that’s the interesting one. Why? Because much like Luger vs Windham from the month before, it was a match with a number of different goals to hit and a few pretty severe limitations and dangers.
Let’s briefly look at who we had in the match. Sting was, according to Jim Ross, “the most popular athlete to ever compete on TBS.” Sure, he may have had a few little, tiny issues drawing, and maybe his matches were just a bit uneven sometimes, especially relative to Luger, but if you look at that live crowd, he was over. With the Luger turn, he was unquestionably the number one babyface in the company, one that they were keeping on a parallel track to the main event scene. He had just won the United States championship which, as Luger would make less and less appearances as his contractual dates ran out heading into 1992, became all the more important. They’d just begun the mysterious box angle by debuting Abdullah the Butcher in one. Badd, on the other hand, was green as could be, having only started training the year before. He had a legitimate boxing and bodybuilding background, and a gimmick which was a Dusty Rhodes wet dream made reality: sassy and overblown. He was undefeated on television and this was easily his highest profile match to date, being both his first Clash and a match against the company’s number one face. The crowd was starting to take to his Little Richard gimmick and over-the-top theatrics, and he would break away from Teddy Long before winter.
So then, what did they have to accomplish here? There’s value in giving the TV audience and the crowd Sting. Drawing issues aside, the crowd was packed with signs and toys held high as well as kids with facepaint. At first, I thought that Badd had gotten a nice little pop at the end of his entrance due to his antics, but that was instead the crowd seeing Sting come out of the curtain right before his music hit. A lot of these WCW audiences skewed younger during this period than we’re typically used to and I think that made for a different sort of pop. He would be in something of a waiting pattern until the next Clash, so it was important to give him something to do and to showcase the #2 champion, even in a non-title match. At the same time, this was a way to elevate Badd, by making him push the United States champion and star of the company, by establishing him as a threat, and by getting over his character to people who might tune in to Clashes but not necessarily to PPVs or the weekly TV. Assuming that they did want to end the undefeated streak of Badd’s, they had to find a way to do it that wouldn’t damage his heat. He may have been a comedic character, of sorts, but it wasn’t like they were overflowing with 1991 debuts that had a connection to the crowd. It was important to showcase Sting, but not at the cost of burying Badd.
There were a couple of storyline elements that needed to be established as well. Sting came out energetic and hyped. Ross played this up as him being excited to be the US Champ, excited to be on the Clash, but most of all, wanting to send a message in response to Abdullah coming out of the box. Sting was the immediate aggressor, taking the fight right to Badd. In fact, he was so hyped up that he crashed into Badd’s knees on a second rope splashed and missed an elbow drop without missing much of a step. The match’s finish was tied to the distracting arrival of a second box, and once the bell rung, Cactus Jack burst out, running over Teddy Long and destroying Sting with the Nestea Plunge and a double arm DDT. The secondary storyline was the beginnings of a gradual face turn for Johnny B. Badd. He was getting somewhat over with the crowd at this time, and you could tell some people were visibly into him in the front rows. Gary Michael Cappetta would even bob up and down to his music amusingly. Early in the match Badd shook Sting’s hand to Teddy’s frustration. He had a few clean breaks in the corner later on, and again, to Teddy’s frustration, he was overly distracted, well in character, by the arrival of the second box, thinking it was a gift for him. Post match, Ross even made sure to point out that he was tending to Teddy after he had gotten run over by Cactus, going so far as to give him an out on why he didn’t help Sting during the attack.
Let’s review: There was a need to showcase Sting, right down to his sparkling head display during his entrance; to establish Badd as a threat to the champion in his biggest match to date, even as he suffered his first televised loss; show Sting’s aggression; bring out the second box to further the post-match angle and debut Cactus Jack as a huge force; and plant the seeds for Badd’s face turn. That’s a lot of ground to cover in ten minutes or so, and though the match isn’t a classic by any means, they pulled it off pretty well. Sting was the aggressor, but it was a very evenly worked match without much of the way of shine or heat. In this situation, them trading moves was actually effective in making both wrestlers look strong. Badd kept coming back, even no selling a snap suplex at one point. Sting, to his credit, spent a lot of the match with his hands up very wary of Badd’s punching ability, which the announcing constantly put over. There were some sloppy exchanges and one pretty frustrating flub by Ross (who meant well) where he pointed out how serious Badd had gotten right before he complained to the ref about his hair getting messed up. While they might have hurt the quality of the match from an aesthetic point of view, they didn’t make either competitor seem less formidable. The match built to both the box distraction and to Johnny finally getting in his big punch, after avoiding the set up for the Stinger Splash. Sting, in turn, was able to block it, only to eat a shot to the gut, which he sold like pure, molten death. This led to Badd getting distracted and Sting, upon recovering, finally locking in a disjointed small package to pick up a win that really didn’t hurt either wrestler at all.
What we have here is a match that was forgotten, discarded, tossed aside. If it’s remembered, it’s only for the post-match debut. At the time, though, it was a functional part of a number of creative elements, worked not to wow the masses, but instead to achieve a few very specific goals, and I think it actually hit them pretty well. Sting came off like a man with something to prove and by the end of the night would be even more inspired. Badd was presented as a threat, eccentric but dangerous, over-the-top but increasingly admirable. He lost, but looked very strong in that loss, even as he played his character extremely well. Cactus Jack debuted, and because Sting had just picked up a win, one where he too looked aggressive and strong, the beat down meant all the more. In the end, maybe this was just a one star or two star match from a more traditional perspective, but to look at it from a different angle, it felt like an architectural success.