Last night I watched the Rock N Roll Express vs. the Midnight Express from Wrestlewar 1990. One of the greatest long standing tag rivalries of the 1980’s was creating a new wrinkle in the new decade. Everything about this match is fantastic and should be used as a template for not just wrestlers getting into the business but also managers and even referees. Jim Cornette may turn in one of his finest performances of his career by getting finger poked off the apron, challenging Nick Patrick to a boxing match by wildly swinging his arms, and constantly trying to regroup his team. I have in some ways subscribed to the theory that the best referees in wrestling are the ones you don’t notice as a viewer but I stand corrected watching matches like this with Nick Patrick involved. He brings such a uniqueness and authoritative nature to these proceedings that he greatly enhances the match. Oddly enough, the best in ring referee spot of all time in my opinion happens in an April 1990 match between these two same teams when Nick Patrick does a leap frog in the most organic fashion possible to a huge pop from the crowd. Beyond the work of the extracurricular components were two of the best tag teams in history holding together the structure of the match. The first ten minutes of this match with the babyface shine are all great fun but the eight minute face in peril sequence shows viciousness by the Midnight Express rarely paralleled. The most striking thing about this whole match is how committed the Greensboro fans are. In the grand scheme of 1990 WCW, this match was not that consequential. These teams would go on to have a year-long off and on feud with the Midnights segueing in and out with multiple teams like Brian Pillman/Tom Zenk and The Southern Boys. The Rock N Rolls would have an extended feud with the Freebirds. These two teams would also be extremely familiar to the Greensboro audience by this point. It is a testament to the competitors to keeping the match fresh, but also to the fans and their expectations of tag team wrestling. With WWE being far and away the biggest US promotion in the world, a huge shift and downgrading has occurred in the past 20 years in wrestling with regards to how valuable a tag match can be.
WWWF/WWF/WWE has always been one of the most predominantly single wrestling-oriented promotions in history. Bruno Sammartino having the main event slot at MSG shows and going through his sequence of three title defenses with each opponent negated the importance of the tag titles. WWWF used the tag belts as an acceleration position on the card and a way to include legends and up and coming talent together. Almost all of the other territories under the NWA banner relied heavily on tag wrestling to draw as the main event for a majority of their shows where the NWA champion was absent. Johnny Weaver is a household name still in many South and North Carolina homes, and yet he is unknown to most fairly hardcore wrestling fans. Jim Crockett promotions and Georgia Championship Wrestling in particular lived and died by tag wrestling involving the Andersons, Assassins, and Infernos. The Final Conflict tag match between Don Kernalde/Sgt. Slaughter vs. Ricky Steamboat/Jay Youngblood is notorious for the amount of people that were turned away from the Greensboro Coliseum and was the genesis for Starrcade. There was still a sprinkling of tag wrestling draws throughout all parts of the U.S. though. The Fargo brothers and Argentina Rocca/Miguel Perez held the MSG attendance record for many years. Tag wrestling was a niche attraction in wrestling that has a uniqueness but also could be carried with enough gravity and seriousness to attract casual attention and be treated respectfully like a main event program. Even when the WWF expanded into the supershow and PPV forum they used a tag match structure to main event the first WrestleMania, Survivor Series (multi-man match structure evolved from a basic tag match), and SummerSlam. Vince McMahon has always favored building the “money” match around a singles match conflict but he was not shy in the early years of relying on a tag match to jump start a brand new show that he saw as a big money maker. However, there is not a ton of history suggesting that Vince got behind a specified tag team main eventing and drawing a PPV as he has always preferred the dream match iterations like the Mega Powers, John Cena & The Rock, and Mr. T & Hulk Hogan. This again reiterates the point that Vince and company know the worth of the tag match structure but are unwilling to commit to specified tag teams in a main event position.
Many wrestling fans will claim that the late 1980’s WWF tag division was the pinnacle of the brand and can be pointed to as an emphasis of importance within the product. The talent was extremely rich in late 1988-1989 with the following teams still on the roster at some point: The Powers of Pain, Rockers, The Brain Busters, Strike Force, The British Bulldogs, The Hart Foundation, The Young Stallions, Demolition, The Fabulous Rougeaus, The Bolksheviks, and The Islanders. You even had lower mid card fodder like the Conquistadors. It is true that looking at the history of the tag team championship lineage in WWWF/WWF/WWE only two reigns lasted more than a year. The Valiant Brothers from May 1974-May 1975 and Demolition from March 27, 1988 to July 18, 1989. The Demolition reign would be placed right in the middle of this golden age of WWF tag team wrestling. Following their win at WrestleMania IV, Demolition’s returned bouts with Strike Force were either placed in a semi main or main event spot on house shows. From that feud, they battled the Powers of Pain, still in a semi-man slot but below the IC title and World title single defenses on most shows. A series of their matches vs. the Bulldogs in late 1988 went on last but were clearly behind the mid show WWF title defense and the Ultimate Warrior vs. Honky Tonk Man IC title match right before it. The rehashed feud with the Powers of Pain following Survivor Series 1988 shows a downward trend on the card. WWF was utilizing multiple split crews and at best Demolition would be the semi man on the “B” show crew and below World Title, IC Title, Hulk vs. Boss Man and even Jake vs. Rude/Andre matches. The other tag teams were able to fill out the card with numerous good matches but were not exactly being put in that main event position like singles stars. Even Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels in 1990 are seen as inferior singles wrestlers with each other as their February 1990 match shows. The commentators constantly harp on them being out of their element and tag team specialists first. Demolition’s feud with Strike Force was put in a high position but I honestly fail to see how any subsequent feud afterwards was pushed as strongly as something like Doom vs. Flair/Arn/Windham from Sept-Dec 1990. The talent roster was deep but this “golden’ age of tag team wrestling in WWF was more about the talent and matches than overall upward mobility on the card.
I don’t need to reiterate the sad state of the WWF tag division from 1991-1997. The Natural Disasters, Head Shrinkers, Steiner Brothers, Money Inc., Bob Holly/1 2 3 Kid, Headbangers, Godwins, BodyDonnas, Owen Hart/Yokozuna and Owen Hart/British Bulldog all had runs with the tag belts but they felt insanely inconsequential and at best an upper mid card program. Most of the time, the tag title match was relegated to mid card status on PPVs and an afterthought in the overall direction of the company. The emergence of Edge and Christian, the Hardy Boyz, and the Dudley Boyz in 1998-1999 kickstarted a second golden age. Arguments can be made that this momentum even continued until the famed Smackdown Six Fall 2002 run that did see Edge, Eddy Guerrero, Chavo Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Kurt Angle, and Chris Benoit become the second focal points of the Smackdown brand behind the main event feud involving Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker/Big Show. This again is much like the late 80’s split roster house shows where the placement on a particular brand/show is good but in the overall scheme of the promotion; the tag division was a top four priority as you still had the World Title and another big feud on the Raw side. This period was also extremely short-lived as by WrestleMania XIX the tag division weakened and they again were focusing the main components on singles competition.
The less said about mid-2000’s WWE tag wrestling the better. I have a soft spot for the likes of Paul London/Brian Kendrick, Deuce and Domino, and La Resistance but with two World tag titles, getting a tag title match on your brand specific PPV felt like a decent accomplishment and we were miles away from any tag team sniffing the main event. WWE tag teams look all but dead heading into the Summer of 2009.
The Midnights vs. RNR match from WrestleWar was just shy of twenty minutes. It was one of three tag matches on the show that went over 15 minutes. I was curious to see the last WWE tag match involving legitimate tag teams (throw out Cena/Rock vs. Miz/Truth from Survivor Series) that went nineteen minutes on PPV. Going in, I was thinking I couldn’t recollect anything since JeriShow vs. DX and sure enough TLC 2009 is the last time this happened with the TLC main event going 22 minutes. This was a distinctively memorable time frame for WWE as Aug-Dec 2009 can be argued as the most prolonged time that tag wrestling was pushed into the forefront with the DX vs. Legacy and DX vs. JeriShow feuds. The only possible contender as the top program in the company would have been the Randy Orton vs. John Cena string of matches. Four years is still a really long time. If you want to be generous and involve all tags, that still leaves you with only the Rock/Cena vs. Miz/Truth Survivor Series 2011 and the Miz/Truth vs. Triple H/Punk Vengeance 2011 match that barely clocked in above 15 minutes. This is pathetic. Even with some PPVs being reduced in recent years we have still only had four 15+ minute straight tag matches in the last 50 PPVs.
This leaves us to the current time frame with the Shield team of Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins as the current WWE tag team champions. I was optimistic that given the overall push of The Shield, we would see an accelerated push for the importance of the tag team belts. This sadly has not been the case. The belts have been as devalued as before and look like nothing more than accessories for the two title holders. With the increased awareness of the Prime Time Players, elevation of the Usos, and the Shield anchoring the division, there is no reason why the tag titles couldn’t become a huge deal for the WWE and be one of the three biggest storylines at any given time.
The devaluation and lack of appreciation of tag wrestling is one of the most tragic things I see in the current wrestling landscape. Kids becoming fans now have an “expectation” of what tag wrestling is and what its place is on the card. Even long term WWE fans don’t see tag wrestling as much more than an athletic way to fill out a card. I was becoming one of those skeptics. I watched a ton of current wrestling from 2008-2011 without revisiting any older footage. Tag wrestling was beginning to be viewed in my eyes as a tired trope with repeated spots and no new ground that could be covered. Then in the past two years I have revisited all of the NWA supercards up to WrestleWar, watched the best 1980s AWA footage that is out there and comprehensively poured through the years of 1990, 1991, 1994, and 1997 in wrestling. Throughout this process, my love for tag team wrestling and the uniqueness it can form was reignited. AWA features two face in peril spots. The Midnights and Rock N Rolls had a match in June 1990 that they vowed to not copy one spot from any of the previous incarnations of their matchups together. Doom vs. Ric Flair/Arn Anderson shared the same Halloween Havoc card as Tommy Rich/ Ricky Morton vs. Midnight Express and The Nasty Boys vs. The Steiner Brothers. Each tag felt important and offered something different. The WrestleWar tag mentioned in the beginning of this article may have felt like a throwaway tag match in the middle of a PPV, but it represents a void that is still prevalent in current WWE and shows an ability to have a simple tag match create thought-provoking analysis if given the opportunity.