Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Opinion: The Problem With Gimmick Matches or How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? By Putting Her In A Punjabi Prison Match

In the past few weeks, WWE Monday Night RAW has had very few real surprises but there has been one unexpected return. We all knew that really they wouldn't stay away forever, I mean it was never really retirement, was it? It was just waiting for the right time to return, waiting for the moment when all hope was lost and they could bring some back. When they could bring some inspiration to our dark, callous hearts and show us that true sincere joy can still be found in a world so cold and lonely. I am, of course, talking about the surprise return of the Arm Wrestling match in a scintillating ****** (yes, that is six stars. Count 'em) classic full of surprising twists and turns and gut-wrenching performances by Bayley and Dana Brooke, it is sure to go down in WWE history as one of the greatest arm wrestling matches the company has produced. Up there with Mark Henry v Cesaro, Mark Henry v Kane, Mark Henry v Rusev, Mark Henry v Sheamus and of course, the high watermark of this classic match type, Darren Young v Byron Saxton (Young sure earned his redemption points for that one).

Whilst he was not involved that art-pop classic, Henry is clearly shown to be the possible poster boy for World Arm Wrestling Entertainment should the company choose to take that further, which they should I mean, don't you want to print money, Vince? But he's not the only wrestler to be synonymous with match types. Obviously there's the big names like The Undertaker and Hell in a Cell (which was just a couple of Sundays ago. Coincidence, I know), Kane and Inferno matches, Santina Marella and Divas Invitational Battle Royal but did you know about Raven and his Clockwork Orange House of Fun match? Maybe you did but did you know that the first ever match had a rule that you had to push of your opponent through two tables from the Raven's perch? And did you know the second ever one didn't even involve Raven but was between Shane Douglas and CM Punk? Well you do now. Today we're going to look at a few of my least favourite gimmicks, this won't be a comprehensive list by any stretch of the imagination. It's more a reminder that while you spend your time complaining about having to watch three Hell in a Cell matches, you can know how much worse you could have been having it.

Really to look at gimmick matches as a whole, we have to look at why they happen. There's a simple theoretical reason and that's that a story can't be the same one beat repeated ad nauseum, because this isn't 2K career mode, a rivalry isn't formed of one person having a one-on-one match with another twelve times then being like good game, let's go beat up other people. The storied rivalries of wrestling history bring in different types of matches to vary proceedings - blood feud about two people wanting to kick the tar out of each other? Give them a Last Man Standing match, does one tag team keep using untagged partner hijinks, have it climax with a Tornado Tag, you get the idea. In many ways, adding a gimmick match is a crutch. If you're trying to raise the stakes of a scenario but the natural progression of the story is slower than you'd like, simply by throwing in a steel structure, you've given the last act a bigger finale even if it's an inorganic one. I'm not saying every tale told in the ring should have to end with a standard match but in a perfect world, the writing would hold up enough that the feud between the two (or more) parties involved would run deep enough that you wouldn't need to add to it, it's emotional shorthand, a way of visibly adding to a confrontation that you'd hope would feel enough without it. I'm not saying that every match with a gimmick doesn't need it but boy, there's a lot of them that don't.

Which brings me neatly to the Punjabi Prison Match, an entire development of the HiaC that never needed to be. Quite appropriately, this is a match-type developed for real-life killer and actually not quite Punjabi, The Great Khali. Feel free to look it up, he's from Himachal Pradesh province which borders Punjab. Also quite appropriately, he wasn't even in the first one at The Great American Bash in 2006 after he developed all of the enzymes in his liver so some bollocks with Teddy Long was written in to make The Big Show face The Undertaker instead. Khali would eventually compete in his own match a year later but he would lose to Batista making the whole thing feel silly, I mean why bother building the whole match type for him to lose it. That said, he was at an unfair advantage as he had to climb out of the structure and Khali was never exactly known for actually being able to leave the ground, especially at speed! So the two matches revolve around locking two big lads in a bamboo cell which has doors that can be opened once per match for sixty seconds then, around it is another bamboo cage that has no doors that they have to climb out of. Much like in prison, where you have to escape by climbing or where there are leather straps for torture, like in prison. I haven't been in a Punjabi Prison or any kind of Prison but clearly Michael Cole has because he talks about being in Prison with such confidence. My first thought watching this is "boy, this must have been difficult to watch for the audience in the Conseco Fieldhouse, Indiana. Not in the way that it's difficult to watch Zandig matches because he's about to die at any second in the ring but because there are thick bamboo pieces surrounding the ring, then more bamboo around that. Somewhere in the middle of all this are two blobs that may resemble The Big Show and The Undertaker from certain angles if you squint hard enough." It's a hard thing to explain because the first match of the two is technically better because at least both Show and Taker know how to move like people but thematically the second one makes more sense because Khali actually appears inside the structure.

The actual structure just, quite appropriately, ruins the structure of the match, it prevent actual storytelling because the simplicity of the HiaC match is that it's just a No DQs match but with a big lump of steel around the ring. The Cell, while used as a weapon, more just represents an enclosing of the story to one area, it (in theory) keeps both competitors in and interlopers out but focuses in the match to the competitors, it forces the story to focus on the athletes. The Punjabi Prison match is more about the prison than the two men in it. Even the commentary talks more about the 'steel reinforced bamboo' than it does about Khali or Batista or Taker or Show. The gimmick is just window dressing, it is a way of adding variation to a story but it is not a story in itself. This is not a film, the Punjabi Prison is not New York, becoming an extra character in the story. It's a mistake that's being made over on RAW at the moment with the focus of the Banks-Charlotte storyline being on women stepping into the Cell for the first time and not who the women are and why they hate each other. Wrestling is characters, not events and that is where the Punjabi Prison went wrong. Also the two matches are fucking piss-piles, that doesn't help.

From one very silly structure we go to a mental multi-man match. Now there were many I could have focused on here: the three ring sixty man clustershambles that is WCW's World War Three Match, the 'boy I hope you feel uncomfortable' histrionics of WWE's Fulfill your Fantasy, and the WSX Rumble, one day, I will write more about Wrestling Society X but for now, just don't ask. But there could only be one worst: TNA's Reverse Battle Royal - the only match type to call itself a reverse and then include the actual thing it's meant to be the reverse of in itself. So a Reverse Battle Royal involves sixteen men standing outside the ring and fighting to climb back in, the first eight that make it inside then try and knock each other over the top rope till there are only two left at which point it becomes a standard singles match. In other words, it's a round of bullshit followed by a second round of bullshit with a bullshit finale to finish. You know how the Royal Rumble at its best weaves micro-stories through its main ones, it builds rivalries afterwards but also has literal through-line narratives of its own, well the reverse battle royal just has lots of not quite ring entrances. There's a reason that it only happened twice because I think something clicked that they realised 'wait, is this really bloody stupid?' But then again, they also made The Dixieland -Escape the cage, run to the top of the entrance ramp and climb a ladder match.

Like all terrible gimmick matches, it's main issue rests with its lack of clarity. What I was saying about the Punjabi Prison match, at least that had a clear means of victory, a clear aim, the Reverse Battle Royal just strands its almost ridiculous amount of talent in the middle of a constantly shifting form of rules. To be a fan of wrestling, you have to be willing to accept some frequently ridiculous contrivances but even the most ardent suspender of disbelief will be hard pushed not question why they don't all just immediately try to climb in? It seems like it was a match idea contrived purely to try and be different. I am not opposed to invention, what I am opposed to is forgetting what the aim of the entire endeavour was. Especially with the second one (the first one seems to have been quite successfully buried in terms of available online footage), the match only really comes alive once we get down to the singles match which begs the question, why not just do a standard battle royal if this was all just a way of furthering a feud between Bobby Roode and Eric Young? Why do you have to try and sell a new match type instead of just telling a story? There are reasons that very few new match types catch on and that's because once a winning formula is found, the easiest thing to do is repeat it, trying something new is difficult. There's a reason why so much that's new fails, but the main issue is not thinking it out properly. When your performers are standing around looking confused, how can you expect an audience to get it?

All this taken into consideration, every so often, something really stupid makes something really beautiful. For the last match gimmick of the night I'd like to take you back to the Halcyon days of NXT Redemption. Tyson Kidd and Yoshi Tatsu were engaged in a feud over the leg of Yoshi Tatsu's action figure that he kept in a shrine and prayed to for luck in matches. They were drawn one match each in their feud but Kidd still had Tatsu's figure's leg on a necklace so the Rubber Match was booked Tatsu v Kidd: necklace on a Pole match. Now 'On a Pole' matches as a whole are usually terrible, especially when combined with the words 'Vince Russo', they just seem like a ridiculous match-type once again begging, the question 'what would happen if you just knocked the pole?' But Tatsu and Kidd made art. It made so much sense that this necklace would be on a pole because it was a feud over a necklace with Tatsu's leg on it, albeit in a tiny plastic form. Tatsu wasn't just fighting for his action figure's body part but the very honour that was represented in being made into an action figure. Kidd was just doing it because he thought shrines were silly and he's a magnificent bastard heel. 

You may have noticed I've been mostly picking on matches that involve a lot of climbing and you know why? Because climbing is not interesting to watch, it's up there with rest holds and Mojo Rawley on the list of tedious elements of pro-wrestling. It's hard to describe what made this one match special, it wasn't that the two men were better than those who'd come before, it wasn't even that it was less silly (than for instance, the Shane Dougas v Billy Kidman in a Viagra on a Pole match), I think it was a commitment to the strange alt-universe in which this kind of match made sense. Frankly writing this, I'm now surprised and disappointed that Killshot (Shane Strickland) and Marty Martinez's Weapons of Mass Destruction Match didn't have Killshot's dogtags on a pole because that would have been perfect. Maybe what I'm saying is that sometimes, a really stupid gimmick can be overwhelmed by sheer commitment to it. Like how Kota Ibushi can wrestle a sex doll and make it more compelling for twenty minutes than anyone to. But what Kidd and Tatsu did was take a gimmick and make it part of the story, instead of the gimmick being the story. Just consider that with Hell in a Cell, the cell is just another storytelling device and ask yourself 'would this match work if there wasn't a Cell here?' 

But honestly, if you take one thing away from this article, it's that we were robbed of a second season of Wrestling Society X. Robbed, I say!

Words - Jozef Raczka (@NotJozefRaczka)
Images - James Marston (@IAmNotAlanDale)
Editor - James Marston (@IAmNotAlanDale) 

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