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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 8.2 ~ Modern Masterpieces {of Genre}
By Samuel 'Plan
Aug 4, 2017 - 7:42:21 PM

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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 8.2 ~ Modern Masterpieces {of Genre}

Adopting a performance art approach to WWE’s product doesn’t just stop with the understanding that we can interpret matches to mean whatever we might want to project onto them. It also prompts us to think about matches in the same way we might other art forms; in other words, in terms of genre.

Creating this understanding should not be mistaken as simply some exercise in pomposity. It has a practical application. In order to re-categorise matches as genre, we must identify what genres exist. This in turn encourages us to consider why some matches of a specific type are met with praise and others with condemnation, utilising the differences in both to create a series of genre identifiers. In other words, we deepen our understanding of why any given match of any given type is received by fans the way it is, by virtue of being able to identify what it does and does not do in relation to other matches of that same type.

In a sign of how radically the in-ring game changed throughout the Reality Era, and is continuing that change into this Renaissance Era, there has been a spike in matches since Summerslam 2014 that have sought to influence, in one way or another, the growth of genre types throughout WWE. Allow me to provide you an example.

Consider Hell in a Cell; what I would call a Cage Match sub-genre. For years there has been debate among fans as to the state the sub-genre is in. The absence of the blood-soaked violence that so dominated the early years of the sub-genre’s lifespan has led many to proclaim the Cell Match as a lost cause; a dead entity; an ongoing library of disappointment. This is because the majority no longer adhere to the identifying factors most fans look for in “a good Cell Match.”

Then consider Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker inside Hell in a Cell, at Hell in a Cell 2015. It is a genre masterpiece by virtue of its subversive nature. It does not accept the new status quo that has rid the Cell of its identity as a sub-genre, and instead actively embraces the very factors that established the Cell as a sub-genre of its own in the first place back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It reverts to that old foundation of a gruelling pace, a visceral aesthetic, a violent tone and injects the action with blood, gore and brutal simplicity. One can easily imagine seeing this same Cell wrestled by different performers in, say, 2001. Sure, the Cells that have happened afterward haven’t been able to go quite as far in resetting the sub-genre as this particular masterpiece seemed so bent on doing, but its status as a subverter – as a reminder of what makes Cell Matches what they are – remains undiminished.

It is seminal pieces of work like the second Lesnar / Undertaker Cell Match that often come to be known as “redefining” matches. Think about the likes of Michaels vs. Ramon, or Edge and Christian vs. The Hardyz when it comes to Ladder Matches. Think about the likes of Foley vs. Orton when it comes to Hardcore Matches, or Savage vs. Steamboat when it comes to something as far reaching as the singles match. That so many matches since Summerslam 2014 have occurred that might be considered, in one way or another, as at least reaching for such definitive status speaks to the golden age of ring content we currently live in, and the sheer talent of the roster WWE currently employ.

In the end, approaching WWE’s product in genre terms then enables us to do two things: firstly, to create a traceable history of how specific match types – that is, in performance art, specific genres – have evolved and changed over the years and, secondly, to develop an idea for ourselves of what we consider to be a great example of any given genre; is it the ones that best demonstrate their genre’s identifying traits, or those that instead seek to eschew them? For me, it is undoubtedly always the latter.

Thus, when it came to selecting those that stuck out most prominently to me, one name cropped up time and again, and it is a name few will find surprising: Seth Rollins.

Many familiar with my work might sigh at this stage. It’s a bit predictable, isn’t it? But I remain steadfast that few performers, if any, have worked quite as hard as Rollins in trying to break new ground when it comes to genre wrestling in WWE these last few years, or in trying to shed the established constraints of their type. Though few have, sadly, come to prove to be definitive by exercising influence over subsequent entries in the same genres – and I could write at length about why I believe that might be – the matches that follow in this column, to my mind, in their attempt to go beyond the limitations of their genre, stand out as masterpieces.

Three of the more notable examples were wrestled by Rollins opposite the leviathan performer John Cena. Seth Rollins vs. John Cena in a Tables Match at TLC 2014 is particularly striking for its energy in attempting to redefine the way fans think about a genre type that so often watches as odd; most especially in a singles situation. It is no doubt easier to execute when operating under the tornado rules of tandem combat, but it has been proven time and again that building drama out of the stipulation is difficult in a one on one situation.

Unwilling to settle for something obvious, Rollins and Cena compiled a match that went out of its way to prove that putting somebody through a table can be made as tense and as nail biting as attempting to pin them for a three count. False finish had been used in the genre before – notably by Orton and Miz – but never to such a frenetic extent than here. From the Rollins cheat, to the declared draw and subsequent restart, to the table that doesn’t break right through to the announce desks, it watches as a Tables Match might if produced as a survival thriller. It has evidenced little lasting influence on the Tables Matches that have followed, but the effort to go beyond the constraining limits of the genre’s history remain vibrantly admirable all the same.

Indeed, together Rollins and Cena have proven time and again to be a creative powerhouse of a pairing, and less than 24 hours after their effort to redefine the Tables Match they were at it again, trying to break new ground in territory much, much older. Seth Rollins vs. John Cena in a Steel Cage Match on the 15/12/14 edition of Monday Night Raw (MNR), which failed outright, again rather sadly, to create a lasting impact on subsequent matches of its type, is a masterpiece not because of its influence but simply because of its approach.

In what is a rather epically long match, at least by television standards, that passes rapidly all the same, Rollins and Cena, like CM Punk and Jeff Hardy some years before them, once again reminded the world what Cage Matches can be when the psychological focus is reset to that of escape; a singular focus unique to the genre. It follows the line laid out by Bret and Owen Hart at Summerslam 1994, only decides to inject that old school mentality with new school creativity, finding a multitude of innovative ways to develop high impact offence bred straight out of escape attempts. It is that blend of the old and the new, of what is unique about the genre with what is unique about the period in which the match took place, that makes it stand out to me among all other contemporary Cage bouts.

Rounding out their trilogy of genre-bending efforts was perhaps the one example that has exhibited a lasting impact. Brock Lesnar vs. Seth Rollins vs. John Cena in a Triple Threat Match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Royal Rumble 2015 has proven to be the most influential Triple Threat Match since Chris Benoit challenged Triple H and Shawn Michaels in the main event of WrestleMania XX.

Triple Threat Matches before 2004 often watched as largely similar. Triple Threat Matches after 2004 and before 2015 watched as different to what had come before, but often as owing a debt of gratitude to the sub-genre redefinition that took place in Madison Square Garden thirteen years ago. Triple Threat Matches after Royal Rumble 2015 have looked different once again, and as owing a debt of gratitude instead to the sub-genre subversion of January that year.

Not one of the tropes typical of post-2004 Triple Threats appears throughout the entire duration of the Rumble three-way. Nor does it watch quite as uninspired as the unimaginative lost opportunities that predated WrestleMania XX. Instead, what you get is an inversion of the 2-on-1 method where the 1 dominates the 2 instead. In turn, when that 1 is temporarily eliminated, it lends fresh meaning to the rotational system that so often results in a mini-singles match in the middle of the story, injecting the exchanges between the remaining 2 with a sense of urgent jeopardy.

This approach has been utilised multiple times since, most notably in the cases of the Fastlane 2016 Triple Threat Match and the Battleground 2016 Triple Threat Match. It is a structural redefinition, that mandates one of the three participants be treated as a monster whom the other two must work together to take out, before seeking to beat one another for an easier victory. Such a method could only have been born quite so brilliantly out of a time when the Brock Lesnar character was fiercely on point; and it could only have been so successful in its sub-genre refresh by being executed by performers as talented as Rollins, Cena and Lesnar. Many thought the ‘Mania XX Match would remain definitive for, quite possibly, the rest of time; it is remarkable something else has come to take its place as the sub-genre’s foremost definer.

Genre masterpieces since Summerslam 2014 don’t stop there either, but dabble also in more conceptual genres; most notably, the underdog story. Like with the Triple Threat sub-genre, you would be hard pressed to find a better demonstration of the principles of an underdog story than in the case of the famous Bret Hart / 1-2-3 Kid encounter from MNR in the mid 1990s. Yet in 2015, we got a spiritual sequel that achieved the same ends through much more succinct means.

Once again, although Seth Rollins vs. Neville for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match on the 3/8/15 edition of MNR might not have come to heavily influence subsequent matches dealing with an underdog theme – though the Triple H / Ambrose bout notably attempted to replicate the false finish aspect, with much less success – it remains nonetheless a pinnacle of achievement in that conceptual genre’s arena. It exhibits masterful manipulation of the live crowd with the excellently simple character work and psychology found in Neville’s inexperience – his over-enthusiastic hook of the leg providing Rollins a lucky rope break, and his hesitation after a near fall ultimately costing him the match. It’s remarkable how heavily invested the bout gets the live crowd in so short a form; a testament to how two clinically precise false finishes can achieve more than fifteen laboured ones.

On the topic of modern day genre masterpieces, though, only one stands out to me as being more important and far beyond any other. It might be something of a controversial pick, but it is one that I think perfectly demonstrates the theme I have dealt with in this part of this chapter. Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose in a Ladder Match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Money in the Bank 2015 was a timely piece of work that did its damnedest to reset the most over-exposed genre in WWE today; and, to some extent at least, just about managed it.

It was met with some cynicism at the time, precisely because it did not meet the then heavily established tropes of its genre. Big spots were few and far between, stunts were hardly there at all and instead the two went at a slower, more gruelling pace, reverting the genre to its psychological roots and casting aside the influences of post-tag multiplicity that had, frankly, killed the intelligence of the genre a long time ago. I dare say the ratio of psychological Ladder Matches to stunt-driven Ladders Matches has been far more evenly balanced in the two years since Money in the Bank 2015’s main event than it had been in the two years before, if not more. I admit, the Rollins / Ambrose masterpiece is no Michaels / Ramon in its reach and influence; but at a time when the genre had long since jumped the shark, had become increasingly ridiculous and which desperately needed a reset, it got one thanks to the former Shield brethren.

…but because it didn’t watch like most modern Ladder Matches watch, many deemed it to be ordinary. Even now, it carries little legacy in folkloric fan memory. Agree or disagree, that at least proves my overall theory: that redefining sports entertainment gimmicks as performance art genre helps cast a light on why matches are received the way they are, and what defines any given match as a good example of its type in the eyes of the majority fan base.

I know there has been a lot of Rollins in this column, but it is his genre work, and his pursuit of originality, that helped slowly transform my all time favourite from a Hitman into an Architect in the first place. But ultimately, of course, I am just one man expressing his opinion, and it is my opinion that, while most of the matches in this column haven’t come to redefine anything in WWE in the long term, they stand out to me, nonetheless, as efforts to break ground, as supreme examples of their type and, quite simply, as modern performance art masterpieces of genre wrestling.

There are others in the same timeframe too, including plenty without my favourite wrestler in them, so do share some of your own thoughts on this one in the comments below or over on social media! I’ll be back in a few days, where I will conclude this look at my picks for masterpiece matches by looking at those that demonstrate a sense of character better than any other.

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!

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