IN LAIMAN'S TERMS: The Psychology of Tag Team Wrestling
By Al Laiman
Aug 22, 2012 - 10:39:37 PM
IN LAIMAN'S TERMS Facebook Page
Alexander Goodlive Author Facebook Page
Jaded Hope Facebook Page
Please like my three project pages on Facebook! I'll give you ham if you do!
IN LAIMAN'S TERMS: The Psychology of Tag Team Wrestling
Originally posted in March of 2011, this column was the one I submitted for the Columns Forum "Column of the Month". I thought it'd be fun to relive my first experience on the main page, especially since I'm fortunate enough to have garnered an amazing audience in my time doing the 30 Thoughts columns, all for which I'm extremely grateful. Enjoy this flashback, though the topic is timeless.
Both men are down. The crowd’s anticipation begins to grow as the good guy finally managed to cut off the bad guys’ attack! Slowly crawling toward his corner, his partner’s hand is reaching out; his fingers dangling in the air, the next moment in time will begin the climax of the contest taking place before the appreciative fans in attendance. But what is it that builds this moment?
One of the oldest staples of professional wrestling is the standard two-team tag-team match, and when you really sit down and analyze them, they haven’t changed very much over the course of time. Pretty much every non-gimmicked tag team match that you’ll see, from the smallest indies to WWE, works exactly the same way.
And we love it!
Whether it’s old school teams with names and gimmicks, or you’ve got two feuds broiling and combine them to build to a later match, the standard tag match pits two babyfaces against two heels, or good guys vs. bad guys for those not up on their kayfabe. Regardless of the decision of the match, a successful tag team match should see the faces getting cheers and the heels getting booed for their dirty tactics and underhanded ways. This is also an often used circumstance to perhaps put a newer, or "green", wrestler in a match so that they can get out there and get some experience without the focus being on them the entire time.
While televised wrestling has consistent characters and plenty of time to build their characters as they see fit, the independent circuit is quite different, and a bit more old-school, if you will. The indies have a territory feel to them, and you have to treat every show as if nobody knows who you are. Even if you’re running a monthly show, you can’t count on the fact that anyone was there the previous month, so while you maintain continuity, certain actions are taken to set the scene for the fans in attendance.
Before the match even begins is when you need to establish the faces and heels, and this is not very difficult to do. The babyface tag team will generally come out with a lot of energy, slapping hands with the fans and posing for the crowd. Those who’ve never stepped in the ring may think this is easy, but there’s a very big reason that most wrestlers you see debuted on television start off heel; it’s a hell of a lot easier to make people hate you than it is to get them to like you. The heels, on the other hand, will generally stick their noses in the air, yell at the fans, maybe threaten them a little without crossing the line, and generally will have that certain “douchebag swagger” about them that conjures instant dislike from those in attendance. This is the best gift that a face team can get, for if they can’t get the crowd behind them on their own, the heels can at least be pricks until the fans want to see them defeated.
Two wrestlers will start out while two stand in their respective corners. The member of the tag team that is inside the ring is called the “legal man”, and only the legal man can be involved in the end of a match, be it scoring a pin or submission or receiving one. The heels will often try to keep the ref confused as to who the legal man is on their team; a cheap tactic that will earn them some heat from the crowd if done correctly.
The first two minutes of a tag match most often features a segment called “the face shine.” The reason the faces will shine at first is to get the crowd invested in the good guys. This is a chance for the good guys to show off; to give the crowd an idea of what kind of team they are. The teams with highflyers will flash it up a little bit with some simple fast-paced offense, the big wrestlers will show off their strength by overpowering the bad guys, making them hesitate for a moment and rethink their strategy. Technical wrestlers will dominate some chain wrestling, maybe showing off a quick submission that will quickly be broken up, but give the fans the knowledge that the match could be over at any minute. This period of time lasts a few minutes tops, and will set up the next series of events. You don’t want it to last too long, because it’ll get tired and boring quickly without any resistance from the heels.
While the heels may be reeling, they’re never completely out of the game. Something has to be done to stop those punks showing off for the fans, and this is called the “cutoff.” On most occasions, the heel team is comprised of dirty cheaters who will do anything necessary to win the match. The ref’s back will get turned, and one of them will hit a low blow, or the bad guy’s tag partner will distract the good guy from beginning the finishing touches on the match in which he’s so far excelled. The crowd will not like this, and will let them hear it with boos and shouts, or “heat”.
More often than not, the heels will not do any flashy or impressive moves during this time, because they don’t want the crowd to cheer for them. Faces do high-risk maneuvers and fancy moves because they get cheers, and in general match psychology, that’s the last thing you want if you’re a heel. Making the crowd cheer, or “pop”, for a move you just hit is defeating the purpose of the story you’re trying to tell here. The heels will usually not stay in the ring for very long periods of time, tagging out and keeping the isolated good guy, or the “face in peril” down, hurt, and as far away from tagging his partner in as possible. Simple things like choking them in the corner, maybe distracting the referee so that his tag team partner can sneak in a few shots, will make the crowd hate these guys and start cheering for the good guy to overcome the two-on-one odds. This part of the match is called “cheap heat.”
The referee is a very key part of this match. Any good referee knows to work with the heels when they try to distract them, so that the heels can commit their dastardly deeds. Another form of distraction is when the heels will bait the face partner to attempt to interfere with what the heels are doing. This will make the ref prevent him from getting involved, thereby allowing the heels some easy double-teaming. Sometimes the heels will even use a fake tag, which is where they just clap in the air to give the illusion that a tag took place, but all the fans can obviously see this deceitful practice taking place, and the heat will grow.
The cheap heat should be the larger portion of the match, but the risk is letting it go on too long. Much like getting bored with the faces dominating the entire match, the heat has to go on long enough to make the crowd want to see the good guy come back, but not too long so that silence ends up taking over. If the heat goes on so long that the fans become quiet, you’re in trouble. Heat generally lasts between five to seven minutes, depending on how much time they’ve been allotted on the card.
Another spot to keep the crowd hoping for the good guy to overcome the bad guys is called a “hope spot.” What that means is there will be a glimmer of hope where the face will start to fight back, maybe throw in a few punches and start to mount a comeback, but the heels will once again cut it off. Most often, a hope spot will take place just a short time before the “face cutoff”, which is where the good guy will finally break through and hit a big move that takes the bad guy down. Because the legal good guy has taken so much abuse over the preceding few minutes, he too will be down in the ring showing the effects of the heat, or “selling the beating.” Plus, the slow crawl toward the fresh face so eagerly wanting that tag into the match is essential, as the moment built up properly will make the cheering from the fans only rise in anticipation of seeing their heroes achieve victory.
Sometimes the bad guy will prevent the tag from being made, but the face will normally break the stranglehold attempt from the heel and slap his partner’s hand, or “the hot tag”. The crowd erupts in cheers as the fresh good guy jumps into the match with a ton of energy. The heels panic and attempt to attack, but the face fights them both off, hitting quick, concise moves that bring the crowd to its feet. The heels will try to double team the good guy, but the other tag partner should come back by this time to prevent that from happening.
To avoid the action being too distracting, two of the wrestlers will end up outside the ring. Either a brawl will ensue throughout the ringside area, or one of the heels will get thrown out of the ring, and the face will follow up with a plancha or top rope dive, or a “high spot.” High spots should only take place at the end of a face shine or near the end of the match, because all of the moves prior should be building to something like that. Doing a high spot for absolutely no reason may get a good response, but you never want the crowd to cheer the move itself, rather than cheering the wrestler doing the move. The high spot will take out the bad guy, but the impact from the move will also take out the good guy, taking them both out of the equation for the finish.
Finally, we come to the ending sequence, or “taking it home”, where both finishers from the two remaining wrestlers will likely be teased. Regardless of who is winning, or “going over”, it should appear that the good guys are going to win. Perhaps a few moments of anticipation will be soaked up by the good guy preparing to hit his big move, or the heel may appear to have destroyed his hope. This is where a lot of different variables can come into play, as just about anything can happen. If the face partner wins, he’ll probably slide out of a finisher move attempt from the heel and hit one of his own. Sometimes the face will hit his big finishing move, but the heel will get a foot on the ropes, breaking the pinfall count. The most common heel victory will be achieved by the same method as the cheap heat: cheating. Maybe the heel will slip out of a finisher attempt and roll the face up, using the ropes or tights for leverage. The heel may also sneak in a low blow or an assist from his tag partner, if he hasn’t been taken out already.
Regardless of the result, it should be the same reaction. A huge cheer for the good guys winning, or a lot of boos for the bad guys winning, but cheers for the face team after they regroup from the devious rulebreakers. In almost all circumstances, the faces should have appeared to be the better wrestlers, and only lost because the heels were cheap and dirty. If the good guys lose that way, they retain their credibility in the eyes of the fans. Perhaps next month they will seek their vengeance, thus giving those paying fans a reason to come back next month. In other words, tag team wrestling is good for business when done right.
A tag team match is basic at its core. Almost every match goes the same way, and it works nearly every time. Simply put, the formula works. While the lack of focus on actual tag teams in televised wrestling has fallen by the wayside in the last decade, you’re still sure to find a good tag match combining two feuds on a RAW leading up to a fast-approaching Pay-Per-View, and even under those circumstances, the objective can be completed.
Speaking of flashbacks, some of you missed the milestone 75th edition of Jaded Hope a few weeks ago due to technical difficulties. This week's episode is at the top, but give this one another look too. It has a rocket launcher.