Tonight my barbershop quartet, Lunch Break, will be performing here in Nashville. Singing in the quartet has been a great hobby and a wonderful outlet for my interest in music. We do mostly comedic stuff, and sometimes it is even funny! Trying to figure out what it takes to move an audience is part science, part art, sometimes frustrating, but always exciting.
That may be one of the reasons I love old time pro wrestling. At its best, it is a performance art, a "theater of the mind," in which the wrestlers tell a story in the ring just realistic enough to permit fans to suspend reality and invest emotionally.
For today's post I want to break down a classic match, one that illustrates how to tell a story. But first, a little back story-
Stan Hansen, "the Bad Man from Borger Texas," was a classic bully-type heel. Hansen had the reputation of a stiff worker, meaning that his punches and kicks were often more real than pulled (Hansen had terrible eyesight and couldn't see much of what he was doing in the ring!). His signature move was "The Lariat," a clothesline delivered with the aid of a "brace" on his arm.
Bruno Sammartino was the most popular wrestler in the country in the 1970s, especially in the northeast. The huge immigrant populations in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and especially New York, LOVED Bruno. Altogether Bruno was champion over eleven years, and sold out Madison Square Garden countless times. Bruno was also an incredible athlete, and if he had chosen powerlifting rather than professional wrestling for his career, there's no telling what he could have accomplished (he could bench 330 lbs for nearly 40 reps!).
So a big rough guy like Hansen was the perfect opponent for Sammartino. If you check out this link you can see an excerpt of one match where Hansen used his "loaded" elbow pad to bloody the champion. Unfortunately, during one of their matches Hansen let Bruno slip while attempting a relatively harmless bodyslam. Bruno awkwardly landed on his neck, and cracked some vertebre. Capitalizing on the injury, the WWWF claimed that Hansen had broken Bruno's neck with his dreaded Lariat maneuver, setting up an epic confrontation in the steel cage on August 7, 1976, at Madison Square Garden.
The first thing that you will notice about this match is the deafening noise of the crowd. The Garden was packed, and LOVED Bruno. The hatred those fans felt for the villain who had nearly ended the career of their hero was palpable. Wrestlers use the term "heat" to describe the hatred a villain receives - and Hansen had tons of heat that night!
Cage matches in the WWWF were simple. The first man to escape the cage (out the door or over the top) was the winner. And almost always a cage match involved blood. If you are a little squeamish you may not want to watch the match (in a future post I will talk about the use of blood in wrestling). And of course, as commentator Vince McMahon seriously intoned, "there are no rules in a steel cage match."
As the match develops, there is a clear story laid out for the fans. First, Bruno immediately goes to work on Hansen's neck, and throughout the match the champ returned to this theme. Simple premise - Hansen tried to break my neck, so I will break his! And again, the fans are just going nuts.
So how does Hansen respond? The only way a cowardly villain can. He repeatedly goes for low blows, trying to fend off the onslaught of the champ any way he can. This leads to the classic moment in every good match - the "Popeye the Sailor" moment. "I've had all I can stands and I can't stands no more!" At 10:25 Bruno gives Hansen a little bit of his own medicine.
And then at 12:51 Bruno takes the loaded elbow pad off of Hansen and uses it to beat the pulp out of him, leaving him in a bloody and helpless heap. I just can't get over how the crowd was into this match. Also, after a villain loses it is very important for him to get his heat back - which is what Hansen does with his antics in the cage afterwards.
So there you have a classic story told in the ring. A hero, a villain and revenge! I know that many of my friends can't understand why this is so entertaining to those of us who love wrestling. All I can say is that if I could ever pack Madison Square Garden and get the kind of sustained reaction Bruno and Hansen got that night, I'd feel like the king of the world!