In it’s most basic form, the purpose of pro wrestling is to get people to spend money. That’s an easy thing to forget in this age of star ratings and Yes chants. It’s not always so straightforward either. At certain points during the modern era, convincing people to spend their precious leisure time tuned into the television in order to garner ratings became almost as important. The general idea is the same though: it’s still convincing someone to give something belonging to themselves to the promotion.
Therefore, the promotion has to present something that fans want, and in the best case, something so primal that it becomes something they need. This is true in both the macro sense and the micro sense, and for every level of what a promotion presents. Every match on the card should build to a greater whole, and every card during a year should build to something greater. Most certainly, one card has to lead to the next, with the TV in between serving as the connective tissue. One of the most appealing qualities of pro wrestling is that it never ends. The story goes on and on; the heels can never be vanquished forever. That’s one of the hardest elements to manage as well. The important thing is that every match and every show, but especially the biggest, most important matches, and the biggest, most important shows, feel like there’s some stake to them, that something is on the line, that something matters. That can be belts, or money, but it tends to be most effective when it involves a heel force-fed comeuppance from the babyface for something he’s done.
Within a match, in the micro, these principles apply as well. It’s the basic tenet of pro wrestling psychology, bringing the fans from low points to high spots and back down again, until they’re ready to explode for the finish (you can find Jake Roberts’ description of this which is both lewder and more powerful than how I’ve put it). The standard US match structure of Shine, Heat, Comeback fits into this necessity so very well. The babyface is presented as a force, something to root for, something in control and impressive. The heel cheats, utilizes poor sportsmanship, or gets lucky and begins to get heat on the babyface, not showing any mercy and angering the crowd. The babyface will get in a few hope spots, bringing them back up only for the heel to cut him off, deflating them once more. It finally leads to a big comeback moment and the heel feeding into the babyface’s offense to the joy of the crowd. Even if the heel manages to scrape out a victory, at least there was the payoff of the babyface getting some measure of revenge.
This is an equally effective and absolutely standard format for the program surrounding a match (bringing this back to the macro). To begin the babyface has to be some sort of force, or at least sympathetic. He’s picked up a number of wins or has done something to get the crowd behind him. Maybe he’s an underdog or maybe he’s a champion, but he’s caught the attention of the fans. They relate to him. They root for him. They admire him. The heel then has to do something underhanded, be it a beat down, or a betrayal, or an insult, disparaging the honor or well being of the babyface, or his friends, or the crowd. There are a lot of options, so long as the general effect is achieved. The babyface wants revenge and the crowd wants (needs) to see it.
Along the way, they tease the same sort of “hope spots,” but instead of hope for the babyface fighting from underneath against the heel, stopping his physical assault, and gaining control of the match, It’s very often the babyface stopping the heel’s nefarious actions and, most importantly as wrestling is a medium centered around violence, getting his hands upon him. The “hope spots” in this case might be the babyface foiling a minor plan or trapping the heel with his own words or interfering in his match and almost getting his hands on him. Here the “cut off” would be the heel getting away, vengeance deferred once again.
If this is done well enough, both in the build to a match and in the match itself, the crowd will have a reason to care, and theoretically at least, they will spend their time and money to obtain the vicarious and cathartic thrill of seeing their hero get revenge and the heel get what’s coming to him.
This principle was all over the card for SuperBrawl, 1992. The main event was Sting vs Lex Luger. Luger had turned his back on the fans with the attitude adjustment that had won him the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. Moreover, he had orchestrated weeks of sneak attacks on Sting, his former friend, culminating with a brutal ambush at the November Clash. That attack had helped to cost Sting the U.S. Championship and here was his chance to take Luger’s title and get revenge.
The second match from top was Ricky Steamboat against Rick Rude, U.S. Champion and member of the Dangerous Alliance. Steamboat had recently lost the WCW Tag Titles to other members of the Alliance and had been the subject of a number of post-match beatdowns by them. The fans had been insulted by Rude and his manager Paul E. Dangerously, and still felt the pain of Sting’s loss for the belt a few months before. While the match still followed the shine/heat/comeback format, this was actually the start of the real heat for the program, as Rude would win due to Dangerously interfering after having replaced Steamboat’s masked associate, recruited to prevent interference in the first place (Ok, it was a ninja, but that’s not the point). Following this would be months of Rude (and Dangerously, and especially Dangerous Alliance Chief of Covert Operations Madusa) getting heat on Steamboat, before he could force comeuppance and get his revenge (and the title) at Beach Blast.
Even the second match on the Pay Per View, Marcus Alexander Bagwell vs “The Tailor Made Man” Terry Taylor came in with some element of this structure. The feud was set up with Taylor beating down Bagwell after he refused to become the older wrestler’s protege and turn his back on the fans. It was executed with Bagwell starting strong, eating a long beating from Taylor, and then coming back, forcing a satisfying comeuppance not necessarily with violence but with a flash roll up. The underdog rookie upset the veteran, causing humiliation to a pompous, prideful man who already had to deal with the crowd chanting “Rooster, Rooster” at him. It was a form of vengeance but one of a lighter flavor than fists crashing into faces.
Then there was Larry Zbyszko and Steve Austin of the Dangerous Alliance vs Barry Windham and Dustin Rhodes. Halloween Havoc, back in October, 1991, had begun with footage of Zbyszko (with his partner and at the time fellow Tag Team Champion, Arn Anderson) slamming a car door into the newly minted babyface Windham’s arm. The idea here was that Windham and Dustin Rhodes were top level challengers for the belts, so by doing this Zbyszko could eliminate competition. Zbyszko was so happy with what he did that he took on the nickname “Cruncher,” to celebrate. He was particularly loathsome, having been part of one of the all time great regional revenge feuds (and one that plays into the theme of this essay very well) against his betrayed mentor, Bruno Sammartino, a little over a decade before before.
Windham had his first measure of revenge by walking a mystery man down to the ring as his substitution in the Tag Title match at the November Clash. Steamboat and Rhodes took the belts that night and Windham was there to celebrate. He’d come back into December and January, making saves on TV after his friends’ matches using the cast on his hand (or occasionally a 2×4) and then, would come back in ring at the January Clash to win a six man against the Alliance. There he got the pin, but it was on Eaton and not Zbyszko. By delaying televising that moment of gratification, they were able to continue to ramp up the heat in the feud, running a number of death matches right before and after Superbrawl in the mid card of shows for all of their larger cities.
The match itself followed the traditional southern tag structure, with double heat and some clever spots built in. The heels tried to charge in immediately, but Windham and Rhodes fought them off and started a very definitive shine. Here, Windham would get his hands (one of them still bandaged) on Zbyszko, beating him around the ringside area. Once things settled down, the babyfaces remained in control. When paired off against Austin, Windham would let him back into his corner because he wanted him to make the tag. At that point, Zbyszko deferred even this tiny bit of gratification as only he could, by stalling, taking his time getting into the ring, putting his hands up to slow things down further, and finally hitting a cheapshot with a spin-back kick. Ultimately, he tried a pile driver on the ramp only to get back body dropped and beaten on more.
This paid off with the first transition of the match, into the first face-in-peril segment. Here, Windham, after pulling up Zbyszko during a pinfall, went for a pile driver of his own (a much more recent revenge). Austin dove into the ring and hit him from behind, however, cutting him down. That led to Dustin complaining, distracting the referee, and Zbyszko armdragging Windham over the top rope so that the Dangerous Alliance could fully take over.
This was an interesting creative choice as, ideally in a situation like this, the person who sought revenge should be on the apron, so as to best prime the fans for the tag and the satisfaction that would come with him getting into the ring and getting his hands on the heel who wronged him. The babyface on the apron being so righteously angry would allow for the heat to end up on the heels and the referee, and not himself when he continuously tried to get in, causing the distraction and illegal heel double-teams so necessary for the southern tag structure. That it was Dustin on the apron and not Windham certainly raised a red flag to me in watching that the match was going to have another wrinkle to it.
That came in the form of the hot tag to Rhodes and the additional transition that followed. That was, of course, after a number of very good hope spots and cut offs with Barry working from underneath and the Dangerous Alliance using deviousness and tenacity to keep him from tagging. After a collision in the ring, Barry fell backwards to make a beautiful hot tag. Dustin charged in and in another match, the finish could have taken place right here. In this one, however, while Barry (just recovered) was fighting with Larry outside the ring, Dustin turned around into a massive clothesline from Austin and the Dangerous Alliance regained control.
Now, with the joy of a victory that the fans had been trained to anticipate through the structure of wrestling and that very hot tag wrenched away from them, the real heat of the match could continue to build. Now, Windham was on the apron, prevented from getting his hands on the person who not only injured him but had beaten upon him for the last many minutes as well. This continued on for a number of minutes with Dustin doing an admirable job working from underneath as well and it included a really strong spot: Dustin kicked Larry who had put his head down for a back body drop. Madusa took this moment to slap him however, and instead of rushing for the hot tag, he charged around the ring after her and walked into yet another killer Austin clothesline, this time on the ramp.
The heat built and built on the way to the eventual tag (and the pay off of revenge to the delayed gratification that the fans were experiencing). On Dustin’s next comeback attempt, a reversed suplex on Zbyszko, Austin interfered, charging across the ring and hitting Windham on the apron, drawing him in and distracting the ref again; this time he missed a roll up by Rhodes that could have won the babyfaces the match. A few moments later, however, Dustin fought back up to his feet, ducks another one of those killer Austin clotheslines, and caught him in midair, dropping him down into the Stun Gun over the top rope, Austin’s own finisher.
Now, having bought himself a bit of time and a bit of space, he slapped the mat, engaging the fans, hyping him up for the moment, just after Zbyszko tagged himself in, that he could dive across the ring and make the second hot tag of the match to Windham, allowing for revenge and satisfaction to manifest. Zbyszko sold perfectly for Windham’s punches, his head bobbing back and forth as it was attached by a string after each one. He crumpled up after eating a lariat off the ropes and let himself be hoisted up to the top for Windham’s killshot, the superplex. Then, when the fans thought they were about to see bodies crash onto the mat, he was able to push Barry off before the move could be executed. Dustin was there though, headbutting him from the outside and dropping him to the mat. Across the ring, Windham ascended the ropes in the opposite corner, flying off the ropes just as Zbyszko made it back up, scoring both a huge, triumphant lariat, and an even more triumphant victory over the man who took him out of action. The fans popped in excitement and Rhodes and Windham celebrated a win that really felt like it meant something.
As I mentioned above, Windham continued to wrestle Zbyszko in death matches in the days after this, including in Chicago a few nights later. Within a span of months, due in part to a key Zybszko miscommunication, the Dangerous Alliance was no more. Now, I said that this was a primal part of wrestling and an important one and it is, but I would be disingenuous not to admit that the feud didn’t seem to help WCW’s live gates all that much for this period. It was a down time in the business and very little would seem to help, however. If anything would have helped, a heated angle like this, with well put together, well executed matches that both roused and sated the crowd’s thirst.
It speaks to both our primal, bestial, nature and our moral sense of justice. It’s the ultimate intersect our the highest and lowest urges and when it’s done just right, there’s very little in wrestling that’s more satisfying.