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If there's any one argument guaranteed to exist forever on the internet, it's how to rate matches; that one person's five-star classic is someone else's garbage-y mindless brawl is axiomatic at this point. But oddly enough, I rarely see it discussed in depth on message boards what exactly it is that constitutes the underpinnings of a quality match, what elements must be present to produce a top quality encounter and which of them deserve primary consideration in determining the overall quality of a given performance. Virtually everyone tosses around snowflakes, than declares that they mean nothing and are completely subjective if someone disagrees with their rating. Frankly, while that's true to a point, I've never bought the concept that it's impossible to have an at least somewhat objective ratings scale, provided that the criteria for such are defined and laid out ahead of time; and so I thought I'd have a go at doing just that. Not that I'm the be-all end-all of match raters or anything like that, but I've seen enough matches from enough places to think I have a descent grasp on what constitutes quality. Or at least an inflated sense of my own importance =). But here's what I go by, in rough ascending order of importance:

  • X-factors. Various factors may influence the way a match is perceived. A match may be raised or lowered in perceived quality by some special atmosphere which surrounds it, either immense heat (or an utterly frostbit audience) or some other circumstance. A fine example would be the 2000 Observer match of the year, Atlantis vs. Villano Tercero, from EMLL's 3/17/00 pay per view. This match was raised from "very good" on the basis of the work alone to a true match of the year quality performance based on the mask versus mask stipulation which pitted two immensely historic masks with decades of life in them against each other. People can be seen crying in the audience at the end, when Villano removes his mask and declares his true name for the first time ever in the ring. As well, if a match has an immensely obvious winner beforehand, the workers involved will be hard-pressed to create an effective sense of drama within the match. Overbooking may kill a match dead faster than you can say "Vince Russo"; anyone who remembers the anticipation going into Storm/Awesome at New Blood Rising or Hart/Benoit at Mayhem '99, or more recently Jericho/Regal at this year's Backlash show, and remembers what happened to those matches as a result of mass run-ins and random rules changes can see the problem here. Beyond these, there may be a million other factors which may play a small role into how a match ought to be rated. Essentially, this is the category of additional factors which effect to one degree or another the following components.

  • Moveset. I'd wager 90% of the people on the net would have this higher. My placing it this low is reflective of personal taste, obviously, but here's my argument: using only those other components listed below and an eminently basic moveset, a wrestler could have a truly spectacular match, even one considered an all time classic: I submit any HHH pay per view match or Kawada/Sasaki from the Tokyo Dome last October as proof, not to mention the vaunted Flair/Steamboat classics of yesteryear. But moveset alone will allow a wrestler to create little more than a flashy, WCW cruiserweight type spotfest, which is fine for what it is but which has none of the depth of the truly classic encounter. This is essentially icing, while what's below is the cake.

  • Selling. The engine which makes a match go, it is the medium of exchange by which every move in a match is valued. Short term selling is what draws a fan into the match, as the interest of a match is fundamentally predicated on the idea that both participants can be hurt and that either can win or lose based on the effect which move or events may have on him. Part of what makes loads like Sid so awful (and, conversely, Vader so good among superheavyweights for his opposite approach) was their inability or unwillingness to sell effectively for their opponents. If a man apparently cannot be hurt and is rarely in trouble, where is the interest factor in his matches? Long term selling, meanwhile, is the necessary component for much psychology, and is extremely important in holding together the logical side of a match; it become noticeable, and not in a good way, if a man subjected to a brutal beating directed at a particular bodypart suddenly begins to use that bodypart without restriction. That said, a match considered excellent may have little in the way of effective selling under certain circumstances, usually those of a garbage brawl: I submit Benoit/Sullivan Great American Bash 1996 or Nasty Boys/Cactus Jack and [Partner] 1994 as proof. Both of those substituted stiffness for selling effectively, in the way some All Japan matches do; if the blows themselves are so believably tough that the crowd will buy them as damaging even without reaction on the part of the struck wrestler, then that wrestler's no-selling is actually beneficial as a means of getting him over as a legitimate tough guy.

  • Pacing. The current stateside master of this is Triple H, and it's a large part of what makes him an excellent worker. Each move in his match has a logical purpose and builds to something. And just as importantly, he paces them to have the maximum effect on the crowd. He interacts with the crowd at certain points to maintain crowd heat, but without going to the extremes of RVD (a chief offender in this area) and killing off the actual flow of a match. More generally, this refers to the correct timing of big spots and comebacks so as to maximize their importance within the context of the match. The lack of this is part of what hurts Jeff Hardy and many cruiserweights as workers, since they apparently have little idea how to maximize the importance of their own offense, instead throwing out highspot after highspot with little rhyme or reason. That approach results in each of those moves becoming devalued by their commonness within the match, and the fact that they come so often that they cannot be sold as truly devastating; it's no accident that Hunter's knee drop gets more reaction than Jeff Hardy's corkscrew bodypress. It's simply that he paces it better.

  • Effort. Because the term "workrate" is such a loaded one, it might be better to use this. Basically, do the wrestlers involved appear to be putting forth an effort in what they're doing? A match might have excellent psychology surrounding an injured neck, for instance, but if the work itself is 90% chinlocks, the match is nothing much.

  • Psychology. Just down the ladder from Storyline in terms of importance is this nebulous quantity. Everyone defines it in their own way, and my personal definition is this: the structuring of a match in such a way that it makes logical sense within the accepted "rules" of that form of wrestling (people being forced to run the ropes on a whip, the fact that highspots are used in many styles, moves known to be devastating are sold as such, etc.) and has an element of reality in it. Not reality in the sense of a Pride or UFC match, but realism in the sense that once the universe of what is possible within a match is established, the performers work within those rules believably and logically to create a coherent performance. Perhaps pro wrestling's greatest advantage is its ability to define the rules on which it operates, not merely in terms of how many falls, but in more fundamental ways such as what a match should look like. There is no logical reason why a man should be forced by a simple shove to run back and forth between the ropes, but because the rules of wrestling say he must it is accepted by fans. Once these rules are established, psychology may take many forms; the most obvious in the American style is working a body part for a submission, but in Lucha it might take the form of faking a low blow, since those are grounds for immediate disqualification. No matter what the form taken though, this is an essential quality to every match.

  • In-match storyline. If a match might be compared to the psychological concept of the tree of human desires, this is akin to self-actualization: the final level of ultimate potential, difficult and rare to achieve. By an in ring storyline I mean something more than "wrestler A works on Wrestler B's knee to prevent his finishing move"; that would fall under the rubric of psychology. By in match storyline I mean something more on the level of the Austin/Rock main event to Wrestlemania. That match took advantage of its out-of-ring backstory to create compelling, deep in ring drama. The backstory: In 1996 Austin exploded on the scene with a character who was cocksure, the new blood, certain he was the best. Better than the old stars like Bret Hart who were on the card above him. In time, his character was proven right about his place in wrestling via his victories over Bret and others, and was diverted into the anti-authoritarian direction it took for most of 1998 and 1999.

    But once the surgery happened, the confidence "Stone Cold" had always taken for granted evaporated; an opponent had hurt him badly, snuck up on him the way he had snuck up on Bret and taken him out. Doubts began to gnaw at him. When he came back, he managed to best the man who ran him over, which restored his confidence somewhat; but behind that man was what Austin really feared, Triple H, one of the men who had taken his place as the top guy while he was on the shelf. Austin wondered to himself: have I lost a step? Am I now the old guy ripe to be knocked off for good? He needed to prove he wasn't that guy, prove he was still the top man in the business; for that he needed to be champion. He had always said anyone who wasn't in it to be champion was wasting their time, but now that old line of his took on a new psychological urgency. His drive back to the top started at the Royal Rumble, where his victory once again eased his doubts; but his loss to HHH, the young lion who had carried wrestling while he was out, sent him back into turmoil. He needed to be champion now, at any cost.

    The match: at Wrestlemania Austin threw everything at the other young lion, the Rock, every move and trick he had learned which had taken out everyone else, had even finished off the Rock before. But this time was different; things had changed while Austin was on the shelf. Nothing worked, nothing would keep the younger man down. Even the Stunner failed. So Austin made a deal, a deal with his own private little devil on his shoulder for the past three and a half years, ever since he first made it as a top guy. He would pay the price of his individuality for the sake of prolonging his glory years, become McMahon's tool if it meant a few more years on top, a few more years of hanging with the young lions. As the match progressed Austin became more and more visibly frustrated, pounding the mat and intimidating the referee. He demonstrated his inability to beat the Rock on even terms. He utilized moves like the cobra clutch, which he hadn't used in years, playing up for fans his identity as a veteran and the old man of the match to Rock's youthful champion. And finally, he culminates the story of the Austin character's selling out to compensate for diminishing skill and eroded self-confidence by having the McMahon run-in only after Austin has tried everything else. The turn thus makes psychological sense, as the Austin character has to be driven to the farthest exigency before he will betray what he has stood for. This match to me was one of the best examples of such story telling in North America in quite some time, and one of the reasons I considered this an excellent match.

    So if you've made it to the end of all this, you're asking yourself "so? What's his point?" Here it is: when was the last time you asked yourself exactly what makes up a good match? When was the last time Wade Keller, or Dave Meltzer, or Scott Keith or whoever actually elucidated point by point what they rate matches in general on, and what they saw in a particular match? We seem to have become so fixated on placing a given match somewhere on the snowflake spectrum that we sometimes lose sight of what it is that we truly appreciate in wrestling, not to mention what it is that actually constitutes quality wrestling at the fundamental level from an artistic standpoint. At the very least it behooves those who would make judgments about the quality of wrestling to have a clear set of criteria to which they refer, and which they can explain if asked. Lacking this, I question the value of their opinions as being anything more than that- opinions; and ill founded ones at that. At most, I suspect those who focus on developing a clear understanding of the components of wrestling excellence will have a much easier time discerning why some wrestlers are considered "not ready" despite state-of-the-art offense, while others derided as one-dimensional brawlers with limited offense are routinely at the top of WWF cards.

    I crave feedback like a drug, so hit me up y'all. Responses for all! Promise!

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