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A couple of weeks ago at New Japan Pro Wrestling's New Beginning in Osaka show, Hiromu Takahashi and Dragon Lee had an amazing match over the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. Takahashi and Lee are no strangers to each other; they made a name for themselves while working for CMLL in Lee's native Mexico and burst onto wrestling's radar with a series of matches in Mexico City.
Two things stand out in their matches; the first is that their in-ring chemistry is off the charts. Like Bret and Owen Hart, or Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair, these guys just know each other inside and out and click so well in the ring the choreography is unbelievable. Particularly because these are matches that involves so many dives, use of the ropes and turnbuckles and other risky maneuvers, supreme knowledge of what your partner is going to do is of the utmost importance. The other thing that stands out is just how dangerous Takahashi and Lee are.
Watch any match, but particularly their match from New Beginning, and you will notice it is something unlike anything else in wrestling. Both Lee and Takahashi land on their heads multiple times, there a litany of piledriver-like moves and tons of high-risk dives to the outside. At one point Takahashi was tied up on the outside of the turnbuckle and Lee was standing on top of the turnbuckle (similar to Alberto Del Rio's jumping double-stop only Takahashi was outside the ropes). Takahashi does a sit-up and gives Lee sort of a belly-to-belly suplex and Lee takes this horrible dive off the top rope to the floor, where he lands practically neck first. It reminded me a bit of The Undertaker in his match against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 25 when he dove over the top and onto the cameraman and it looked liked the Deadman had died for real. It is a horrible, sickening spot, and it was one of a few in that match alone.
Watching a match like that; I feel kind of like when I watch a football game and one player gets creamed on a big hit. You watch and react in an excited fashion because their is no denying the entertainment value; but at the same time in the back of your head you are concerned about the safety of the players; it makes you feel conflicted watching it. The match was phenomenal and a MOTY contender, but it also made me wonder where wrestling is headed.
35 years ago, Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask had a similar series of matches for NJPW. Like Takahashi and Lee, they set new standards for their time when it came to pacing and in-ring action, one that would influence practically every single match that followed it. Neither had long careers; the original Tiger Mask Satoru Sayama quit full-time wrestling not long after when he became entranced by promoting worked-shoot style action. Dynamite's aggressive style famously worked him to the bone and injuries, along with substance abuse, caught up to him quickly and ended his full-time career by the end of the 80s.
Today, the moves and the pacing of the Dynamite/Tiger Mask matches seem somewhat rudimentary. A lot of matches, especially ones in promotions like Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, EVOLVE and Dragon Gate, resemble them and today if two wrestlers were to have an exact clone of one of the Dynamite/Tiger Mask matches; it would still be praised for being really good, but it wouldn't be the kind of groundbreaking performance that it was back then.
For wrestlers looking to do something that groundbreaking, they must up the ante. Take the high-risk style of Dynamite and Tiger Mask and crank it up to eleven. But if neither Dynamite or Tiger Mask lasted very long; what does that mean for the long-term health of guys like Takahashi and Lee, who are doing things much more dangerous?
Wrestling in general has been on this trajectory for a long time. Once something innovative is done, it gets done to death because the fans will react to it. When it becomes stale, the next logical step is to take that thing that was innovative and give it a (often times dangerous) twist. Jimmy Snuka got a big pop for coming off the top rope for his splash and soon a lot of guys were coming off the top. Then someone came off doing a backflip, then a full front flip, then a full back flip, then off of the top of a ladder, etc. Each move becoming more dangerous than the last. For a more modern example, look at what Shawn Michaels did for the ladder match. Once he set the standard, guys like The Hardy Boyz and Edge and Christian took the risks that Michaels did and increased them exponentially. Now every multi-man ladder match is viewed with those classic matches in mind, which means to impress the fans wrestlers will now take even bigger risks.
Wrestling is always going to be dangerous and even the simplest of moves can lead to tragedy if performed incorrectly. As long as people are willing to pay to see guys put their bodies on the line they are going to continue to keep pushing the limits. The problem is wrestling fans themselves have been conditioned to expect so much sacrifice from wrestlers beyond just taking back bumps and working 200+ matches a year. We want them to fly off the top rope, take bumps on concrete, get hit with steel chairs, fall off of ladders, get thrown through plexiglass and even bleed for our entertainment. So much more is expected out of professional wrestling today than in the past that the performers seem to be falling apart at the seams.
Let's go back to SummerSlam, when Finn Balor suffered a severe shoulder injury while taking a running powerbomb into the barricade by Seth Rollins. The move was not particularly mangled, it wasn't as if Rollins stumbled and carelessly threw Balor into the barricade, but Balor still got injured. The issue isn't that Rollins is a sloppy worker or that Balor doesn't know how to take a bump, but that the move itself is so risky that someone can be injured, even when a move is performed correctly.
Curmudgeons will tell you that Balor got hurt because Rollins is dangerous to work with and that back in some other decade that kind of an injury would never have taken place. The roster is more banged up than ever before on an almost constant basis; well clearly that is because the guys don't know to work right? That ignores the actual problem, which is that Balor would have never gotten injured in the 1980s because a move like that would have never been attempted. Wrestling has shifted in such a violent way that we expect moves like this to be done on a regular basis. The sad thing is as risky as that running powerbomb was, it wasn't even going to be the finish to the match, it was just something that happened, a footnote in Balor's victory.
The fans expect these incredible risks; but that is only because wrestling has conditioned them to do so. If nobody ever had a crazy ladder match like Shawn Michaels did, fans wouldn't expect something like that. The problem is people did, people went out and did even more dangerous spots involving ladders so now that is all anyone expects to see. The standard has already been set and you can't go back and time and change history.
I am not inherently against risk-taking in wrestling, it is what makes it fun and I will be the first to stand up and recognize that Takahashi and Lee had a great match. I think the issue that can be easily corrected is that guys are doing it too frequently.
Particularly on the independent scene, guys are taking crazy bumps and developing outrageously dangerous moves. This creates a toxic mix in wrestling where the fans expect to see THE most violent, over-the-top matches and they are being done by guys who are getting paid the least and have the worst on-site medical care. Balor gets hurt and at least you know he is making good money and will get strong, professional medical treatment. A guy gets hurt at your local indie and he is probably working multiple jobs during the week and has to pay for all of his healthcare out of his own pocket.
For big matches, I don't have a problem with guys taking huge risks because if you are going to do those kind of spots, you should do them at the pinnacle of your profession.
For example, the highly-acclaimed Kenny Omega vs Kazuchkia Okada match from WrestleKingdom involved a trio of dangerous spots (Omega's moonsault dive over the railing, Okada taking a dragon-suplex off the top rope and Omega's bump through the table). The thing about those spots is that they were sold extremely hard throughout the course of a near-50 minute match, and it was the main event of a huge show at the Tokyo Dome for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. That is a big contrast from the average PWG show, where guys take 10 of those moves during a 20 minute match while making $400 a night in front of a few hundred people.
We all love to watch guys take risks in the ring, it is what makes wrestling exciting and unpredictable. However, it is possible to have a great match with strong storytelling and intense action without resorting to extremes. As fans, we should accept the fact that these performers are taking a great physical sacrifice to put on a show every time they step into the ring; expecting the outrageous or the unbelievable in every match is a dangerous philosophy that leads far more often to significant injuries than long-term success.
Katsuyori Shibata vs Will Ospreay - NJPW New Beginning in Osaka: ****
Hiromu Takahashi vs Dragon Lee - NJPW New Beginning in Osaka: ****3/4
BxB Hulk vs YAMATO - Dragon Gate Truth Gate Day 2: ****1/4