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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 8.1 ~ Modern Masterpieces {of a Myriad Sort}
By Samuel 'Plan
Aug 2, 2017 - 8:42:17 PM

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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 8.1 ~ Modern Masterpieces {of a Myriad Sort}

As you are likely aware by this stage in the mini-series, #102 is an official follow-up to my book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die. It gives you a taste of what reading that book is like; though only a taste. In full, the book takes you through how to start thinking of WWE’s product in terms of performance art rather than sports entertainment, as well as explaining the benefits that come with. Throughout the eighth chapter in this mini-series, I intend to demonstrate just that by examining what I believe to be a series of modern masterpieces that have taken place since Summerslam 2014; a status earned by each for a different reason.

Some of the matches I attach such a grandiose title to are widely accepted to be just that: masterpieces. Others, though – and a fair number – are considered widely to be disappointments for failing to meet the restrictive standards and unnecessary pre-existing expectations bred by the increasing inability of a sports entertainment philosophy to cope not only with this internet-driven age, but with the finer, more nuanced points of pro wrestling’s fiction when we are robbed of a fourth wall.

Broadly speaking, the matches I’ve selected could be placed into one of three categories, and over this week I will cover each of those three categories in turn. First, there are matches I believe to be masterpieces because of their character-driven nature; bouts that exhibit stunning adherence to, and often development of character. Second, there are matches I believe to be masterpieces because of how they approach the specific genre within which we might consider them to exist; LOP’s own The Doc, Chad Matthews, and I have been looking at genre in a separate series ourselves, and more on that in the coming column. Finally, there are matches I believe to be masterpieces for any one of a miscellany of reasons, and it is this miscellany with which I begin.

Remember that, when considering WWE’s product from the perspective of performance art, authorial intent is always second to artistic achievement. Such is the beauty of interpreting WWE matches. Not only is it the key to making things you dislike work for you, it also provides you with a depth of character and story that WWE have unknowingly produced but outright failed to present. Hopefully, as I go through just why I believe these selected matches to be masterpieces, you will find as much magic in them as I have.

For example, consider historical missed opportunities on the part of WWE, where fans hoped for a specific scenario to unfold only for real world circumstance, in one manner or another, to dash said hopes. It’s a familiar old tale, especially in the world of WWE. Yet through trying to expand how we think about any given pro wrestling match, we can find something of a solution to our woes. That is what I think of when I think of AJ Styles vs. John Cena at Money in the Bank 2016.

I vividly recall the Monday Night Raw (MNR) where the two stood inside of the same ring for the first time in pro wrestling history. I also vividly recall how eager WWE were to promote their clash at Money in the Bank that year as being worthy of a WrestleMania main event; for once, a statement that was true, rather than gratingly verbose. I also remember how excellent the resultant match was. To my surprise, it decided to forego the nasty habits John Cena had settled into throughout 2015, and favoured an older school style of storytelling over the hyperactivity of populist wrestling that was in the ascendancy until only very recently. But more than its content, what mattered most was what it represented.

This was a masterpiece of a dream match; a rare occurrence even by the rare standard of dream matches. It wasn’t a contemporary star against a star out of their time, such as in the case of The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan. Nor was it a case of two top stars from the same company who had crossed paths before coming together in a rare clash to tear the house down, such as in the case of The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin. It was, instead, a match that felt absolutely impossible for the longest time, and relegated strictly to the territory of the most fantastical of fantasy booking.

It was two top stars, not of an Era in a single company but of an Era in the entire industry, clashing in unlikely circumstance at the peak of their careers, in a fantastic psychologically driven effort with a naturally hateable conclusion. Put simply, Styles vs. Cena at Money in the Bank was in 2016 what Hulk Hogan vs. Ric Flair could have been at WrestleMania VIII in 1992. Though we might never have had the latter on a big stage in WWE, we can be soothed by the fact we got the former. That’s a pretty incredible thought, when you stop and consider it.

It is far from alone in being a masterpiece, of course. There have been quite a few these last few years, as the rate of top quality matches continues to increase year on year. This phenomenon shouldn’t come as a surprise when you consider the raw potential of WWE’s deepest talent pool in years. Indeed, because of that talent, nor should it come as a surprise that, on at least two occasions since Summerslam 2014, we fans have been treated to a psychological masterpiece too.

Older school, psychologically driven matches that tell slow burn stories have made a major comeback in the last year, taking the fight to the rise in the populist style made so central to WWE by John Cena’s stint as US Champion in 2015. There are a number of individual performers who have led this charge, with AJ Styles and Seth Rollins both being prominent flag bearers, but one man more than most has favoured the method: Dean Ambrose. It is only fitting, then, that he has been involved in two of the finest stories told inside a WWE ring in the last year and a half alone.

Triple H vs. Dean Ambrose from Roadblock 2016 is one of those. Steadily paced but never dull, it is a psychological tapestry of character and theme with a similarly old school structural sensibility that, just like in the Styles / Cena example, eschews the “epic” largely in favour of impeccably reasoning away every single move in the context of their evolving combat. There is an obvious logic behind every choice Triple H makes, and just as much logic behind every move Ambrose makes too.

It even sheds greater light on the depth of Ambrose’s character, as the Lunatic Fringe proves himself as being beyond madness, thanks to his demonstration of his ability to hang with the Cerebral Assassin in one of the most intense wrestling chess matches of recent WWE history – even if an inept commentary track, terribly incompetent even by WWE’s usually low standard, catastrophically fails to get any kind of a handle on who the Ambrose character really is.

Perhaps because of that ear-piercing commentary track at Roadblock, AJ Styles vs. Dean Ambrose from Backlash 2016 is, if anything, even better. Where the Triple H bout has at least one questionable moment in the form of a false finish poorly executed, the Styles match has no such weakness. It’s practically flawless, in fact. Perhaps its greatest stroke of genius is the manner in which it comes to write a succinct definition of the two characters involved, and the key difference between them. This is precision vs. instinct. AJ Styles is a war machine in possession of an unmatched in-ring arsenal, on show here in full force, while Ambrose is a force of nature possessed of an equally unmatched degree of persistent gall.

The resultant composition almost writes itself. Styles, the one man arsenal, is always one step ahead of the game, while the untamed Ambrose proves an impossibility in his endless comebacks, constantly rebuilding momentum and reinserting himself into a fight that, by any natural standard, should have been over. It is a masterpiece that, all at once, proves Styles to be the most comprehensively capable in-ring competitor of an age while, at the same time, through Ambrose’s indomitable soul, has Styles come up one move too short. The result is victory via low blow; a beautifully ironic end to a story so laser focussed on Styles’ in-ring capabilities.

Dean Ambrose is not alone in his favouring the psychological approach in the ring, though and, indeed, another of its most prominent champions, if somewhat more intermittently so, has proven to be Ambrose’s brother, Roman Reigns. It is easy to understand why when you consider the talent Reigns rubbed shoulders with during the earlier periods of his singles run. Perhaps most notable among these was Daniel Bryan, and the results when the minds of those two men met are best revealed by their magnificent Tag Team Turmoil Match from the 12/02/15 edition of Smackdown.

This is where interpretive performance art reception of WWE comes into its own, unlocking creative potential, as I would go so far as to read the entire piece as a demonstration of, or at the very least a comment upon the fundamental spirit of what tag team professional wrestling is and can be.

You witness the formation of a tag team before your very eyes, as Reigns and Bryan start off harbouring little more than outright animosity for one another before coming to respect one another’s abilities and starting to gel as a team. Meanwhile, they are met with a range of opponents from across the entire spectrum of varying tag team relationships; from well-oiled units like The Usos and The Ascension, to clear 1-2 combinations like The Miz and Damien Mizdow, right through to the dissolving egotists like Kane and Big Show. It’s a fascinating, self-contained series that could be used to introduce anyone going into pro wrestling totally cold to the basics of understanding tag wrestling; including the myriad conceptual takes on tag teams, and the myriad stages tag teams often progress through. It really is a fascinating watch; a philosophy explicitly spelled out on the canvas.

When understanding that artistic achievement comes before authorial intent, and when prepared to consider professional wrestling matches on a perhaps deeper level than sports entertainment often allows, you start to uncover these possible meanings – these possible readings of work – underpinning all kinds of matches.

Adopting this method might even find you intrigued by matches most fans automatically denigrate because of how they fly in the face of sports entertainment convention. It is, after all, a philosophy that allows little creative room to breathe, and seems to focus purely on the literal. Such was the case I discovered when it came to the fallout of another match I consider a masterpiece: Seth Rollins vs. John Cena at Summerslam 2015.

In uncharacteristic fashion for me, I was absolutely riveted by their hyperactive, content-laden outing at the Biggest Party of the Summer that year; a match wrestled for dual championships. The action was relentless and, for the most part, brilliantly executed. One might even call it as comprehensive a match wrestled between the two as you’re liable to find (so far). Yet, many fans are unlikely to hold it in high esteem because of its conclusion, that saw Jon Stewart, “Guest Host” of the event, interfere and nail John Cena with a steel chair. Rollins was thus allowed to pick up another cheap victory, but the fans probably felt more cheated than Cena; especially considering the riotous affair they had been watching.

I found myself in conflict with that opinion. Where most saw a troubling deployment of a jarring celebrity acting in a manner totally out of character, once Stewart’s motivations were explained the following night – he simply didn’t want Flair’s record of most World title reigns to be broken – the match transformed. Suddenly, it was in possession of a conclusion that spoke metaphorically about the damaging effects the increase in fan influence could be having on the industry; especially in WWE, which is a promotion no stranger to social media motivated controversies. Where most saw a celebrity booked in irritating fashion, I saw a fan unduly influencing the direction of WWE history and not really realising the full extent of what he was doing; as striking a comment on the very heart of the Reality Era as ever there’s been.

Some will find that a stretch. That’s fine. It is a stretch, and that’s the point. When you approach WWE with an interpretive mind, when you consider pro wrestling as an art form, as destined to comment as other art forms highly regarded such as literature or film etc., then you find ‘stretching’ – or, perhaps more accurately, interpreting - to be the most rewarding part of being a fan, where everything from the most mundane match to the most outstanding, from the most irritating turn of events to the most unbelievable, can transform into something even greater than the sum of its parts.

I’ll be back in a few days with more matches I consider to be modern day performance art masterpieces, with a particular focus on those which saw fit to influence the evolution of their genre. Until then, feel free to leave any thoughts or feedback in the comments below or over on social media!

This mini-series is a spin-off of my first book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, spawned from the acclaimed LOP column series of the same name. So for more of the same, click below to pick up your paperback or e-book copy today!

Click here to pick up your copy of 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die from Amazon.com

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