WHEN WE WERE MARKS
The Psychology of the Punch
A funny thing happened on the way to writing this column, and I don't mean just in the last week since I announced that it would appear at /slash on Wednesday. This is a column that has been brewing for a long time. Originally, I had polled Shaddax back in June (Ack!), to get his opinion on which column I should do after I finished my Atlantic Grand Prix series. I actually sat down to write the column the week that CRZ started trumpeting his new Tuesday columnist. Since I hadn't written anything in a while, I figured I could get some cheap heat by submitting a column for that Tuesday and claiming that it was me that CRZ was referring to. (Well, *I* thought that it would be funny.) And then, well, shit happened. The worst part of me going from no job to two jobs was that I lost all the extra time that I previously devoted to NOT writing before I sat down at the keyboard. The real tragedy though, was that it interrupted my one-man crusade to get Shaddax his smile back.
Now, Shaddax has needed a good cheering up for a while now. In fact I'm looking at J's last surveillance photos of our boy, and he still looks grim. Not 'in more dire need of a blowjob than any white man in history' grim, but close. Admittedly, these photos do date from just before Christmas, oh wait there's a note from J210 on the back, "So Jung. So angry. Damn that wrap music!" Hmmm... wonder why Christmas music upsets Shaddax so much. In any case, Shaddax, buddy, this column is for you...
The other thing that has happened since I sat down to write this column originally is that I got an e-mail from someone claiming to be a nephew of the Cormier brothers (i.e. Leo Burke, the Beast, Rudy Kay, Booby Kay.) Not that I doubt him, heck Iım probably related to the Cormiers one way or another. (Again, Northern New Brunswick is not noted for its genetic diversity.) BUT, he also said that Leo Burke was dying in a hospital in New Brunswick. Now if that is not true, it sucks. And if it is true, it really, really SUCKS. Leo was born in 1948, so heıs only 54, way too young for the greatest Maritimes baby-face champion ever to check out. So this column is dedicated to Leo Burke, the baby-face so good that even I cheered for him.
And with those shout-outs (and in-jokes) out of the way (with one congratulatory shout-out still to come), it Is Time Once Again to head to the nearest Latverian embassy and borrow the Victor Van Doom Mark 4 Time Platform so that we can return to a time when men were men and windmills were dragons, a time when H-H-Hutch and H-H-Holly were still single rather than happily married (to each other), a time when a punch could be a finishing move, a time in short... When We Were Marks!
When We Were Marks
At His Imperial Shaddax Majesty's Request
The Psychology of the Punch
At His Imperial Shaddax Majesty's Request
The Psychology of the Punch
It is a moment frozen in time. After suffering the rules breaking beat down of a lifetime, the baby-face champion has finally rallied and taken it to the heel challenger. Grabbing the heel by the scruff of his pencil-neck, the baby-face raises his right hand, cocks it back, and clenches his hand into a fist. But, before throwing a punch, the champion looks out into the crowd to his right and to his left, waiting for something, searching for something. For wrestling fans of a certain generation, this is an image burned into our memory. There is a certain amount of irony that the man that most would associate with that image is the Orange Goblin himself, Hulk Hogan. The question at hand however is this: Why would Hogan hesitate before throwing a punch? What was Hogan waiting for? What was Hogan searching for? To answer that question, we'll have to look back at the origins of the (W)WWF.
The origins of the (W)WWF are shrouded in lies and myths, but the usual story runs something like this: In late 1962, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers was the NWA champion, and very much a champion on the run. Challenger after challenger were taking Rogers to the limit, and he was holding on to his belt only through the grace of God, the benefits of a time-limit draw, and a lot of cheating. The most dangerous of his challengers seemed to be Bruno Sammartino, who was chasing Rogers all over the NorthEast. Bruno wrestled mainly out of Toronto, but he was being groomed for Madison Square Gardens and the New York Territory. Then, out of nowhere, on January 24th, 1963, in Toronto, Lou Thesz beat Rogers, and the New York territory threw a hissy fit. First, they charged that the belt should not change hands because Thesz had won in only one fall. Thesz promptly beat Rogers in a two out of three falls match, in Montreal. The New York territory then charged that Thesz, a five-time world champion, didn't deserve a title shot, in part because he had just recently lost a non-title match to Dory Funk Sr. in Texas. (As if anyone could beat a Funk in Texas in a non-title bout.) Eventually, the New York territory pulled out of the NWA and called itself the World Wide Wrestling Federation, recognizing Nature Boy Buddy Rogers as its first champion, claiming that Rogers had won a tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil beating Antonino Rocca in the final. Leaving aside the ridiculous notions that a New York promotion would go to South America to crown a new champion, or that the Argentinean Antonino Rocca could lose a match anywhere in South America, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers was the champion. He was readying himself for a match against Bruno Sammartino, in Toronto, when he suffered a mild heart attack. Sammartino beat him in under a minute and the Toronto crowd went nuts, but Bruno declined the belt, declaring that he didn't want to win the belt that way. A few weeks later, May 17th, 1963, to be exact, with Rogers recovered, they faced off again at Madison Square Gardens, and Sammartino squashed Rogers again in less than a minute. The (W)WWF had its standard-bearer, a man who would proudly wear the title belt for an astonishing eleven out of the next fifteen years. But the (W)WWF also had a problem...
By leaving the NWA, the (W)WWF had cut itself off from the greatest pool of skilled wrestlers in the world, a supply already diminished by the competition of Verne Gagne's AWA. It did not help that in the process of the break, Lou Thesz had been referred to as "not good enough for the Garden", which was not only a lie, but a profound professional insult to Thesz and any of his fellow mat technicians. Whether to distinguish their product from the NWA or to make up for a deficit in skill, the (W)WWF made the choice to emphasize brawling over mat wrestling. It should be said that what in 1963 was referred to as brawling does not greatly resemble what a modern audience thinks of as brawling, but the modern WWF style has its roots in that choice. The decision to emphasize spectacle over skill had its consequences, the first of which was to lower the bar on what was expected of a wrestler. The (W)WWF roster started as a group of mostly technical wrestlers who could brawl, gradually became a group of mostly brawlers some of whom could technically wrestle, until today it is almost entirely a group of brawlers only the exceptional of whom can mat wrestle. (And the ones who are valued most highly and described as "A HOSS~ BY GOD!" are the ones with the least mat wrestling ability.)
The degradation in the skills of wrestlers has been matched by a similar deterioration in our ability to appreciate what we are watching. Having been fed pablum for so long, we complain when we are served steak, because we find it hard to chew and digest. Even as knowledgeable a wrestling watcher as Rick Scaia falls into the party line that says that any match with William Regal will be a 'clash of styles' as though that were a BAD thing. Time was, a clash of styles was what we looked forward to, because it meant one all important thing: new, cool wrestling maneuvers. It used to be, when the continent was divided in territories, that a wrestler like Regal would come in as a heel and run wild over the baby-faces baffled by his style. They would run through their entire move-set trying to beat the newcomer, while we fans lapped it up with a spoon. Even as we booed the interloper, we learned his new, unusual move-set and we wondered who would finally figure out a way to beat him. Ultimately the battle was not just a battle between individuals, but a war of styles. Whose discipline, whose tradition, whose school of wrestling would triumph? If no Maritimer could beat him, than the invading heel's boasts of coming from a stronger culture with stronger wrestling, might actually be *GASP* true. Finally, one of our heroes would overcome the invader, either by developing a counter to his moves, or by learning one of these new moves and turning them against their master. In time, the move sets of our most experienced wrestlers became a living history of their most difficult matches and opponents. A typical Atlantic Grand Prix baby-face might bust out a counter learned from fighting Killer Karl Krupp, a high impact move stolen from the Cuban Assassin, or a spinning toe-hold submission hold taught at the hands of Terry Funk. Nowadays, this most simple and basic of stories, the confrontation between styles or schools, a staple of martial arts movies, can no longer be told properly by wrestlers, bookers or commentators. Even Good Ol' JR attempts to explain Edge's difficulties in overcoming Regal's style is at best a faded photocopy of the greatness of Gordon Solie, or Ed Whalen, or even that Jim Ross fellow who used to do play-by-play for the NWA. (Whatever happened to him anyway?)
Not only is the WWF style guilty of reducing our expectations of wrestling, and leeching away our critical ability, to the extent that we sneer at puroreso watchers as elitist, as though it's insulting to be referred to as intelligent and discerning, but, worse still, the brawling style is ultimately repetitive, cliched and... boring. When two wrestlers meet on the ramp, and start whaling away at each other, it is an effective way of demonstrating that emotions are running high between the competitors. On the other hand, when every single match on a WWF pay-per-view starts that way, it becomes a joke. (I should point out that I'm not the first person to say this, I am probably paraphrasing Scott Keith's rants on this subject.)
By far the worst aspect of the brawling style of the WWF is its over-reliance on the punch, a crutch that carries with it a multitude of sins. To start with, the punch reduces the mystique and the respect with which wrestlers used to be viewed. When kayfabe ruled the land, some may have critiqued wrestling as fake, but they couldn't be sure, and they certainly couldn't claim to be experts on the proper application of the suplex, or the drop-toe hold, or the Russian leg sweep. Sadly, any idiot can throw a punch. This is not to deride the difficult art of throwing a fake punch, although I am reminded of Mick Foley's stories on that subject, which suggest that even the great Terry Funk has difficulties throwing a fake punch. The important point is that everyone believes that they are an expert on how to deliver a punch. When the wrestlers place such an importance on that most simple of moves, it tends to exaggerate the simplicity of all of their moves, and reduce the respect with which their skills are regarded. More importantly, you usually have to be an expert to spot a blown suplex, but anyone can spot a blown punch. Pre-kayfabe, wrestling had the advantage over other art forms that it was presumed to be real. Post-kayfabe, wrestling must, like plays, or movies, or any other story-telling art form first conquer its' viewers disbelief. Like a boom-mike seen in a movie, a blown punch destroys our ability to suspend our disbelief. And there are so many punches thrown during a show that some of those punches will inevitably be badly thrown.
The worst part of the proliferation of punches is how they reduce the importance of any one single punch. Read any of CRZ's recaps, from his first columns to his most recent Raw recap. Count the number of punches thrown in a match. Count the number of wrestling maneuvers performed. Compare the two numbers. Are there more punches than maneuvers? Are they even? Ask yourself: How could any ONE of those punches have any meaning? Sure there are some that are delivered with a little more flourish like Rock's spit-punch, Taker's soup-bone, or Shane's shuffle-punch, but do even those moves have any meaning in the context of a match?
Consider by comparison the career of Stan 'The Man' Stasiak. (A man who as it happens was born and raised right here in Quebec.) Shawn Stasiak isn't just a second-generation wrestler, as Stone Cold Steve Austin has pointed out, he is the son of a former WWF champion. And not just any WWF champion. He's the son of the man who ended Pedro Morales nearly three-year reign as WWF heavyweight champion. At 1028 days, Morales title run is not as impressive as Bruno Sammartino's twin reigns of 2804 days and 1238 days, and falls short of Backlund's 1482 days or Hogan's 1475 days, but defending the WWF title for nearly three years is nothing to be ashamed of. And what move, you ask, did Stan Stasiak use to topple Pedro Morales? Well, Stan's finishing move was the Heart-Punch. Imagine, three years as champion of the world ended with a simple punch! But, of course, there was nothing simple about Stan Stasiak's Heart-Punch. Whole matches were built around Stasiak setting up his opponent to deliver his finishing move. High knees, elbows to the chest, Irish Whips to the turn buckle, Elbow Drops, Knee Drops, Leg Drops, Bear Hugs, any move that could wear down the opponent's chest and allow Stasiak to weaken his opponent enough to deliver the one-shot knock-out were used. More importantly, the Heart-Punch was illegal, not just illegal in the 'all punches are illegal' sense but specifically illegal in the sense that if the referee saw it being used, he would throw out the match on the spot. So when Stan wrestled he fought not one opponent but two. He had to weaken the chest of his adversary at the same time that he distracted the scrutiny of the referee. When Stan was able to elude that scrutiny and land his heart-punch unseen - defeating the tag-team of baby-face and referee, he was the most heroic of (W)WWF heel champions. Until that is, he ran into Bruno Sammartino who had the entire flock of (W)WWF referees eating out of the palm of his hand. Whether you cheered for Stan like me and Stu Saks, or against him, like, well, everyone else, we were all focused on that one punch, knowing that it would make the difference in the match whether it was landed or not. Could any wrestler today make an entire match turn around one punch?
That was intended to be a rhetorical question, but I will acknowledge that like most complaints of the WWF, Stone Cold Steve Austin is the exception that proves the rule. The most interesting punch to be throw in recent (WWF) history was the one Chris Jericho threw during his match with Austin during their chop-a-thon at No Way Out. It was the first match thrown during the match and after it landed Austin had this diabolical grin on his face as though he were saying, ³Oh, itıs going to be that kind of match, is it? Goody!² The point remains that aside from the occasional face-off between fan favourites, like say the first Rock-Jericho matches or the Austin-Rock match at Wrestlemania X-7, most matches between heel and face start with punches being thrown and sometimes that first punch is thrown by the baby-face, which is just wrong, because...
The worst part of the brawling style and the proliferation of the punch is that the punch is an illegal move. When Jack Doan or Tim White shake a fist in Kane's face, it is not because they want to pick a fight with him, it is because they are trying, in vain, to remind him, to remind us, that a closed-fist punch is an illegal move. Some of you may be wondering how I could cheer Stan the Man Stasiak's heart-punch and simultaneously deride Rock's spit-punch. It's the difference between wholesale and retail, the difference between Stan Stasiak, the master of his craft, preparing his hand-crafted unique heart punches, and Rock, the master of crap, delivering his mass-produced punches, cheaper by the dozen. More importantly, Rock is a baby-face, he is not supposed to rely on punches, they are supposed to be the domain of the heel, or at the very least, before the Rock throws a punch, he is supposed to be provoked beyond all endurance by the heel who always throws the first punch. Remember Hogan frozen in time, about to punch? Well, for me the man who I remember in that pose is not Hulk Hogan, but Leo Burke, the greatest baby-face champion that the Maritimes has ever seen, and my clearest, dearest memory of Leo in that pose was his blow-off match against Sweet Daddy Siki in the old Halifax Forum.
Now the story that had developed in the feud between Siki and Burke was that the champion, Leo Burke, couldn't beat the challenger, Sweet Daddy Siki. They had started with a TV match in the spring that had ended in a time-limit draw with no pin falls. Their second match had also ended up as a time limit draw with Burke getting the first pin in a two out of three falls match. That was the last pin on Sweet Daddy Siki that Leo got all summer long. Siki won by count-out when his manager, No-Class Bobby Bass, distracted the ref and his tag-team partner, the Cuban Assassin, pearl-harboured Leo on the outside. Siki won by disqualification when Leo slapped on his sleeper, reducing Siki to dreamland, but before Leo could get the pin, Bass distracted the ref again and the Cuban Assassin bushwhacked Leo with a foreign object leaving it in Leo's hand, framing Leo for the ref. A similar scenario led to a controversial one pin fall to zero win by Siki over Leo, when the Cuban rolled an unconscious Siki on top of an equally unconscious Leo Burke. To make matters worse, Bass started a series of blistering interviews in which he attacked Leo as a beaten man, a lame-duck champion, a wrestler who simply couldn't beat Sweet Daddy Siki, and who was hiding behind the rules to keep his belt. Part of his proof was another DQ victory for Sweet Daddy Siki, when Leo snapped and started punching the daylights out of Siki. Leo also lost a match to DQ when he picked up Sweet Daddy Siki, and threw him over the top rope, wiping out Siki, Bass and the Cuban Assassin. By this point, Leo had lost matches in as many ways as you could, without actually losing the title. Finally, at the end of his patience, Leo challenged Siki to a three falls match with no time limit, and while not quite calling for a no-DQ match, Leo pleaded with the referees to let them go, so that, "This time there has to be a winner!" To fans of Leo, it seemed like a pretty one-sided affair. He had to beat, not only Sweet Daddy Siki, but Siki's manager, No-Class Bobby Bass and Siki's tag-team partner, the Cuban Assassin. In addition, we knew that while THEY would be cheating like bandits, Leo would follow the rules, because he was Leo Burke, baby-face champion. To make matters worse, the referee for the main event was the one referee in the promotion who wore glasses and was, as a result, considered by the fans to be blind as a bat to rules violations.
To our relief, however, Leo took control early and kept Siki in the middle of the ring, away from the outside interference, finally winning the first fall with a belly-to-belly suplex after about ten minutes of action in the ring. Then the wheels came off. Leo was running the ropes, got tripped up by the Cuban Assassin, and Siki took advantage. He started working Leo over with his whole Sweet Daddy Siki girly-man offence: back-rakes, hair-pulls, eye-pokes, slaps, and lots and lots of punches to regain control when it looked like Leo was about to rally. The referee pleaded with Siki to respect the rules, but every time he was about to call for the bell, Leo waved him off, yelling, "No DQ. No DQ." By the time Siki hit his Sunset Flip for the pin to even the match (with help from the Cuban Assassin who decked Leo before he could block the roll-up), we were convinced that we were about to see the title change hands. But Leo rallied and throwing Siki to the corner, he mounted the turn buckle, and fist clenched to our roars of approval... he unclenched his fist and hit a knife-edged chop. Siki looked in trouble, but he punched Leo off the ropes and resumed his offence, throwing Leo with a suplex that got two. But Leo rallied and throwing Siki to the corner, he mounted the turn buckle, and fist clenched to our Roars of approval... his punch was blocked by the referee, who held Leo's fist with both hands, and tried to reason with Leo to prevent the DQ finish. Siki took advantage to hit an atomic drop off the ropes and while Leo danced in pain, turned him inside out with a clothesline that almost got three. Siki, forgetting that the referee had just saved his ass, got right into his four-eyed face, complaining about the count, foolishly giving Leo time to recover. Continuing to ignore Leo, Siki was handed his hand mirror by No Class Bobby Bass, so that he could preen and declare that he was so pretty that he had to be champion. Leo hadn't quite got to his feet, when Siki noticed his error and started putting the boots to him. But Leo rallied and throwing Siki to the corner, mounted the turn buckle, and fist clenched to our ROARS of approval... only to have Sweet Daddy Siki hit a low-blow with his mirror that sent Leo Burke tumbling to the canvas. Siki covered him, but the ref refused to count, pointing to Siki's mirror, so after arguing with the ref, Siki threw his mirror out of the ring, kicked Leo in the ribs and turned to just CLOCK~ the ref with a left hook, breaking the ref's glasses and sending him sprawling. Siki backed the referee into the corner, menacing him with his fists, totally forgetting Leo, who was now standing directly behind him. When Leo tapped on Siki's shoulder and Siki realized who it was standing behind him, Siki turned white (well, pale) and fell to his knees begging, "Not the face! Not the Face!" Leo grabbed Siki by the scruff of his pencil-neck, dragging Siki to his feet. Then Leo raised his right hand, cocked it back and clenched it into a fist. But, before throwing a punch, Leo looked out into the crowd to his right and to his left, waiting for something, searching for something. and was greeted by more than 10, 000 ROARING, SCREAMING, BEGGING, PLEADING Wrestling fans demanding in unison that Leo throw that punch. Which he finally did, sending Siki stumbling into the arms of the referee. When Siki pleaded the rules violation, pointing to his already swelling eye, the referee held up his broken glasses and shrugged, saying in effect, "I didn't see a thing!" While they conferred, Leo took out Bobby Bass, punching him off the apron, and blocked a Cuban Assassin cheap shot before punching the Assassin over the ropes to the floor. Turning back to Siki, Leo threw him into the corner and started whaling on him with punches to the chest each piston-like blow driving the breath out of Siki's body. When Siki staggered out of the corner, Leo slapped on the Sleeper and it was all over.
What was Leo looking for? What was Hogan looking for? Our permission, our approval, our consent, to break the rules was what they were looking for. Because both Leo Burke and Hulk Hogan understood, in a way that Rock does not, that wrestling is a morality play. The baby-face defends society by upholding the truth and the common good. He can only do that by upholding the rules of the ring, even those that are personally inconvenient to him. Which is not to say that a baby-face can't break those rules, sometimes he has to, but to do so and stay a baby-face he first has to get our permission. The entire community, from the referee to the fans, has to agree, has to endorse the breaking of the rules, before the baby-face can start throwing those illegal punches.
Nobody asks my damned permission anymore.
After suffering the rules breaking beat down of a lifetime, the baby-face champion has finally rallied and taken it to the heel challenger. Grabbing the heel by the scruff of his pencil-neck, the baby-face raises his right hand, cocks it back, and clenches his hand into a fist. But, before throwing a punch, the champion looks out into the crowd to his right and to his left, waiting... searching...