A wrestler is introduced in the ring. He is not renowned as the best wrestler, not the biggest or the fastest, but well-conditioned and hopping with intensity. The announcer chirps something impressive about his background. In all respects, the lone grappler in the squared circle appears to be a serious, respectable opponent.
Then the other wrestler is introduced, a well-known star from the marquee. He arrives wearing a familiar costume, slowly disrobing with an air of self-obsessed arrogance, as if the match itself were beneath his aura. The aforementioned “straight man” opponent wants to initiate a fight even before the bell rings, but to his chagrin, the favorite appears to be using any excuse to avoid contact.
The match begins. The star coyly avoids direct physical confrontation, then gains an advantage using clever tactics, not muscle. The straight-man’s frustration level boils over, and he manages to strike a couple of blows, or “hope spots” in pro wrestling “squash” match terminology. But soon the “clown” character flashes a ruthless side of his persona, and hooks the straight-man with an advanced technical hold that produces a submission or a 3-count. He struts victoriously to the dressing room while his easily-defeated opponent wonders what on Earth just happened.
It was a typical win for Gorgeous George.
It was a typical win for Larry Zbyszko.
It was a typical win for Terry Funk.
It was a win for Orange Cassidy over Jason Cade, streamed on AEW Dark in 2020.
Each generation likes to imagine its problems are 1-of-a-kind, as if having special problems is more of an accomplishment than inventing solutions. We hear often that Politician XYZ has brought negative campaigning to a “new low,” but we aren’t often reminded, as the historian Victor Davis Hanson points out, that elected leaders were standing up in the 2nd Continental Congress and accusing each other of sexually perverting the public. Sports fans have been told that New England’s “Deflate-Gate” and Houston’s garbage-can-Gate “challenge the integrity” of the NFL and MLB respectively. As if some proverbial perfect “integrity” existed during a 20th century in which the 1970s Oakland Raiders smeared Crisco on their jerseys and in which an entire World Series was thrown in a fix.
Has the current generation of indie wrestlers “killed” pro wrestling with unrealistic matches? Sure, the “Chakara” generation of grassroots grapplers are the very 1st people to do unrealistic things in a pro wrestling ring.
If you were born yesterday.
I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, and seem to remember a few unrealistic things happening in pro wrestling. I watched Lanny “The Genius” Poffo perform ballet in front of Hulk Hogan while Hulk stood grinning, followed by Poffo exiting the ring to draw a math equation for beating Hogan. I saw Norman the Lunatic follow Mick “Cactus Jack” Foley into a Women’s Restroom on live national TV, competing to wrap broken-off toilet seats around each other’s necks. And I seem to recall something about a “dead man” zombie called The Undertaker, who rose from 3 neck-snapping finishers to assault a Canadian policeman before running roughshod over the living wrestlers of the WWE.
Members of such “realistic” generations of wrestling have accused the current crop of indie grapplers, led by breakout TNT star Orange Cassidy, of “killing the business” with unrealistic gimmicks and comedy-themed bouts that ask fans to suspend suspensions-of-disbelief and go along for the ride.
There could be justifiable shock at-play among some old-school performers. The 35-year old’s AEW (All-Elite Wrestling) tactics are actually toned-down from his bar-wrestling routine, which includes 5-10 minutes of Fonzie-esque posing and dodging all of an opponent’s attacks. His “lazy” persona and hands-in-pockets acrobatics are played to the hilt on cable television, but Orange’s AEW foes catch-on to the cruiserweight’s mind games quicker, and are just as likely to jump-start the audience’s “heat” with a fast forearm.
Orange Cassidy’s beef with the elder wrestling community, or rather, said community’s beef with Orange Cassidy, is that no real bout between a pair of prizefighters would begin with 1 of the combatants with his hands-in-pockets, blowing-off the entire exercise as pointless. If someone did try that, they would be pulverized in an instant. Cassidy’s act has been called “see-through” and embarrassing for other wrestlers.
But like a lot of Cassidy’s shtick, or Blank’s (“Blank” is a Japanese-style indie wrestler and Cassidy opponent whose gimmick is that he’s a walking modern-art piece, posing for avant-garde photos before trading headlocks), the so-called kayfabe-busting contrivance is really just a version of a time-honored pro wrestling trope.
Pro wrestlers have always invented ways to delay fighting. Gorgeous George did, floating past his opponents instead of locking-up. The Fabulous Freebirds – when working as heels – spent the opening 5 minutes of any match throwing tantrums on the ring apron. Zbyszko, regarded as 1 of the best technical wrestlers to hold a World Championship belt in the cosmetic 1980s, fought TV squash-matches for the AWA in which he dodged and ran away from an opponent until they made a mistake, then pounced with a quick roll-up win.
Sounds just a little bit like you-know-who.
Several long-time WWE and NWA veterans have admitted to changing their minds about Cassidy. Chris Jericho, an aging icon billed as “Le Champion” on TNT, confessed on a recent podcast that “my old-school self, I just thought there was no way” a slacker character would get over with a 2020 wrestling audience. Which seems a little silly in hindsight, but the opinion was shared by 1st-generation Turner announcers Jim Ross and Tony Schiavone. “When I first saw Orange Cassidy,” Ross mused on a recent episode of Grilling JR, “I thought, that kid’s never gonna get over, that’s too bad, he seems like a nice young man.” Cassidy has made believers of the trio since then, wrestling memorable, high-octane matches on Pay-Per-View and boosting AEW’s ratings with his TV segments. Dynastic AEW talent Cody Rhodes may or may not have been simply plugging the brand when he recently listed Cassidy’s PPV singles debut among his 5 favorite AEW matches.
Jim Cornette is the high-profile holdout, a motor-mouth whose credentials include having managed the Midnight Express in several territories (and in several incarnations). Unlike a lot of “managers” whose job it is to stand alongside wrestlers and pretend to be giving advice, Cornette has actually managed tag teams outside the ring, in addition to booking and promoting events around the world. Cornette’s disdain for the AEW brand in general and Orange Cassidy in particular would be a perfect setup for an “invasion” angle involving the veteran promoter, but ironically, such a program would seem impossible to book thanks to Cornette’s ugly attitude toward the organization.
It feels impossible that even a biased blow-hard podcaster would trash an entire TV show because of how 1 of its wrestlers begins their matches. Orange Cassidy doesn’t spend the entire show avoiding confrontation while goading other wrestlers to attack him, because there lived only a single Andy Kaufman, and such a gimmick would be stupid if anyone but the late performance-art legend tried to pull it off. (Without a doubt, there are echoes of Kaufman’s trademark kazoo-and-sparklers aisle walk in Cassidy’s “Windows Default” introduction and “Whatever from Wherever” ring info.)
The historical wrestling-match examples given above are of seminal wrestlers who used stall-tactics and engaged in profoundly unrealistic stunts. They were not chosen from the “Wrestle-crap” library in which Giant Gonzalez, Katie Vick, Lance Von Erich, and other horrible ideas are buried, but from widely-praised characters and matches that even Cornette would dare not criticize.
Just look at this shot from the biggest money-match of the 21st century so far, “Hollywood” Hogan vs The Rock at WrestleMania X8.
Cornette’s complaint about “My Little Dog Pockets,” the provocateur’s nickname for Cassidy, could equally apply to the start of Hogan and Rock’s match. If such an opening stare-down occurred in a shoot-fight scenario, any MMA fighter would have hooked a Rear-Naked Choke the second her opponent became distracted with the crowd. In wrestling, the audience is asked to believe that grapplers are so good and so respectful of each other’s talent that they know there’s no point in a sneak attack, as in a Wild West or a Kung-Fu movie. The fact that Orange Cassidy’s teasing kicks and Adventures of Safety Dog-style defense are more colorful and postmodern than Magnum T.A. and Tully Blanchard burning holes in each other’s eye sockets doesn’t make the routines fundamentally different. Wrestlers don’t usually begin matches at force-ten. Fans wouldn’t want them to.
A clue to Cornette’s real feelings surfaced on a recent podcast episode, in which he ridiculed Cassidy’s AEW Dynamite match with Ray Fenix as “fake Mexican wrestling.” The match did have some unrealistic spots, especially a post-bout “schmozz” in which Fenix injured himself by show-jumping onto a pile of prepared (obviously not prepared enough) mid-carders. It’s fair to say that a grab-bag mix of wrestling styles doesn’t always work.
But in criticizing Cassidy’s “homemade” athleticism, which includes amateur holds and lightning-quick pinning combinations, Cornette paints himself in the same corner as skateboarding traditionalists from the 1960s, who called the Zephyr surf-style a fad that wouldn’t replace the rigid floor gymnastics of mid-century skating, or River Runs Through It wannabe fly-fishing snobs who wouldn’t invite a successful “garage” fly artist like Les Claypool on their YouTube trout-angling shows. No true Scotsman wrestler would combine Lucha moves with a lazy-stoner gimmick and an obvious spot for TNT ads!
In the big picture, AEW shows are phasing-out some of the least-believable tropes of wrestling, like the 10-punch turnbuckle chant, or the Irish Whip. The Irish Whip – in which a grappler somehow makes a helpless opponent run by pulling her arm and pushing her shoulder – “kills” suspension-of-disbelief every time it happens in a match. Andre the Giant, King Kong Bundy, and the One-Man Gang sold Irish Whips from much-smaller wrestlers. AWA and WCCW broadcasts used to explain the Irish Whip by saying grapplers knew to use the ropes as a weapon, but it’s not like athletes in a non-rigged sport would choose to run-and-rebound every time. AEW’s version of the Irish Whip is often a neck-wrenching in which the victim is forced to trot along or get their head snapped in an unkind direction. Cassidy often no-sells traditional Irish Whips, and to criticize his innovation as “fake” anything is to say decades of the auto-sell Irish Whip meant “keeping it real.”
Closed-fist punches are thrown in AEW matches, but a Scott Hall uppercut on a leaned-in opponent doesn’t fit well in the promotion. Neither do AEW wrestlers often punch each other in the head with 10 “clean” shots in a row, a move that Ross has confessed would mangle the skull of anyone alive. Flurries of punches thrown by All-Elite grapplers appear as wild desperation swings from tired athletes, defended with arms and hands over the head from faithfully-selling opponents.
As wrestling pundit-of-pundits Dave Meltzer points out, the limited ropes-running, well-defended punches, and low-impact mind games all have the same unspoken purpose – AEW shows provide the utmost thrills while protecting each wrestler’s health and longevity. It’s worth noting that signing-up to wrestle on TNT in 2020 is signing-up for a promotion, almost a territory in the strict sense. Grapplers must be loyal but not always exclusive to the brand, and certainly not forced to wrestle a 300+ work day-per-year WWE contract.
But it’s a nice touch for the fans, too. I don’t need to see blatantly unrealistic things in a wrestling match any more than I need to see blood capsules hidden in a character’s vest on The Sopranos. Far from the least “shoot-worthy” TV wrestling company, the Tony Khan brand called a “circus” by WWE marks is bringing the art form back down to Earth.
As for those delays and gimmicks at the bell? The day TV wrestlers can’t stare each other down while portentously posing is the day UFC weigh-ins draw higher ratings than WrestleMania. As a blogger and fan of “real” sports (and MMA) around the globe, here’s hoping that cursed hour doesn’t come anytime soon.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.