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Posted in: Requesting Flyby
REQUESTING FLYBY: Brawling Is Back, Baby!
By Maverick
Mar 21, 2015 - 6:14:09 AM

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Brawling Is Back, Baby!

Analysing historical trends in WWE is a fascinating yet tricky task. Wrestling fans have a habit of wanting to attribute shifts in the product to a single match or event, when in actuality, the change had slowly been simmering away in the background for a while before that. To give you one example, there had been a growing manipulation of the fourth wall long before CM Punk’s famous “Pipebomb” promo in July 2011; indeed, the entire John Cena/Rock feud from the build to Wrestlemania XXVII through to their match at Wrestlemania XXVIII was built around the idea of “reality”. Going back even further than that, when The Nexus “invaded” Raw, their storyline beef with the locker room was that they had been humiliated by being forced to participate in a lame pseudo game show in order to win a spot on the main roster, an emotion that I’m sure they all felt as deeply as their characters did. I could probably go back further still, but the point is that these things rarely hinge on one particular event. This understanding of how history develops allows those of us with an interest in how the product shifts and mutates to detect and track these trends as they happen, and one in particular has been more and more noticeable over the past year or so, and that is a return of brawling in mainstream wrestling matches.

In order to trace the development of brawling in the modern day, I think it’s important to go back to a previous time when that particular style rose up and became king. I speak of course of The Attitude Era, when long passages of brawling and wrestlers who specialised in the style were de rigeur. As with the example I gave previously of “reality”, we can’t pinpoint one particular event that launched the smashmouth, chaotic style that became so wildly popular, but if you watch the Raws of 1996 (do it, they’re on the WWE Network), you find a gradually increasing amount of violent “edge” to the matches. As 1996 bleeds into 1997 though, it’s the white hot Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin feud that brings it firmly into the forefront of the product, with Monday nights descending into chaotic arena wide brawls between two men who were booked as the complete antithesis of each other. It was fascinating to witness the crowd reaction become increasingly split as the “badass” nature of Austin and the increasingly desperate attempts by Hart to defend his legacy played out on weekly television. However, as much as the edgy “real fight” feel was something that crept into the product over time, it burst into full flower in the classic no holds barred submission match from Wrestlemania XIII. Interestingly, this is where Mazza and I chose to begin our ATTITUDE! series, which shows you that even a pair of writers who specialise in historical matters could be somewhat guilty of putting an arbitrary timestamp on a style of wrestling.

Even so, you’d be a fool not to recognise that the submission match was the moment that the main event brawl came of age. It remains a stunning piece of work, rightly in the conversation for the greatest bout of all time. The kayfabe hatred between the two titans of the ring is sold immediately and compellingly, as the brawl straight to the outside, over the barrier and into the crowd, who lap it up; the match demanded this level of brutality, as both men sought, in their own mind, wild justice, with the fans used as props in the drama that rapidly unfolded. It’s the unpredictability that really appeals, the sudden turnaround in advantage, and the way that every single right hand is invested with meaning. Even when the contest settles into something more traditional in its second stanza, Hart attempts the use of the ring bell and tries to use a steel chair as a vice on Stone Cold’s ankle; it’s clear that the story of bad blood and the previously heroic Hitman losing his morals as he goes all out to vanquish his nemesis runs through everything they do. It’s at this point that Austin plucks the chair off his own ankle and careens it off Bret’s back, and here we find an interesting piece of foreshadowing, as chairs would come into increasing use as the era wore on. From there we move back out of the ring, with Austin busted open on the barrier (he actually had Bret blade him in the tussle next to the barrier, contravening Vince’s rule against the practice, something else that altered over the course of the next year as blood became used ever more in main event scenarios). At this point, The Hitman is like a shark smelling blood, going right after that cut forehead, but Austin roars back with the mudhole stomps that would become his trademark as a babyface, as well as using an extension cord to choke Bret, setting up the desperation ringbell shot that leads to the Sharpshooter and that iconic moment where the bloody Austin passed out with the pain, losing the match and thus executing a marvellous double turn. We still talk about it to this day for a reason.

With brawling on the mainstream agenda following Chicago, it became more and more prevalent. Tracing its takeover is a fascinating and extremely entertaining exercise. At Canadian Stampede in July 1997, Mankind and Triple H wrestle a heated, but fairly traditional match, peppered with Chyna interference, until the final passage, where they spill out of the ring, with the resulting brawl getting them counted out, and it’s only then that the true magic happens, with the two men, plus Chyna, fighting all the way through the crowd, followed by a coterie of officials who cannot separate them. Thrillingly, they continue their battle even as the next match between Taka Michinoku and The Great Sasuke is going on, at the conclusion of which they fight into the backstage area. Just before the Vader vs. The Undertaker bout, we pick them up again in the parking lot, using the surrounding weapons on each other. In a hilarious piece of foreshadowing for the internet smark, Hunter even breaks a shovel over Mankind’s back! It feels fresh, exciting and a product which is going places. By September, the two men were putting it all on the line in a GOAT TV match contender, as the debut of the Cactus Jack character on WWF television resulted in a hard hitting Falls Count Anywhere contest that featured such exoticisms as piledrivers through tables. In November, Bret Hart’s final match with the company in Montreal began with he and Michaels going all the way around the cauldron-like arena in a sensational brawl which gets forgotten about only because of the controversial finish to that match. Ironically, were it not for the truncated finish, Bret and Shawn would have wrestled a guaranteed five star match that night. The final ascension of the brawl in WWF was completed at the December pay-per-view, as Steve Austin returned from his career threatening neck injury to wrestle one of the best five minute matches you’ll ever see against a newly heel Rocky Maivia, a match that featured Stunners on the hood of Austin’s truck and all sorts of fun as Stone Cold handed the Nation their asses.

Now, to me, the all out brawl in modern day WWE is something which has gradually been seeping back into the product in a similar way to how it did in ‘96/’97, ever since the return of Brock Lesnar, in fact, whose titanic presence and tendency to be booked in all out wars with the likes of Cena, Triple H and CM Punk gave the major pay-per-views a major shot in the arm, but I think that it was the latter day wars of The Shield against The Wyatt Family and Evolution and the subsequent feuds Dean Ambrose had with Seth Rollins and Bray Wyatt which really cemented the brawl as a fixture on television and pay-per-view once again. For some time, since 2007 or so, but perhaps even before that, brawling took place in carefully segregated gimmick matches. They even made a pay-per-view, One Night Stand/Extreme Rules, to absorb that kind of wrestling. What the Wyatts vs. Shield rivalry did was bring brawling back into mainstream matches without a stipulation; it was this that convinced me that the style really was making a concerted comeback. From the off, the tension in the air is palpable, and the atmosphere gladiatorial. JBL comments that the fans aren’t rooting for either side, they just want to see a fight, and this perceptive call is confirmed as Ambrose springs at Wyatt and the rest of the combatants join the fray to aid their respective lunatics. I think it’s important to note that the brawling is such a key part of this match precisely because of the nature of the six workers within it; Ambrose has that Cactus Jack unpredictability, Reigns the power striking previously made famous by Kane, Rollins the ability to forego his technical roots and get down and dirty, Wyatt the explosiveness, while Harper is a walking Stan Hansen tribute and Rowan an effective, if generic big man. Put them together in a turf war and a smashmouth brawl was really the only sensible way to go from a booking perspective. As with the Wrestlemania XIII submission match, even when a more traditional in ring structure takes over, the prospect of unhinged violence is never far away, and the complete breakdown of the match proves to be a hubristic gamble on the part of The Shield, as Dean Ambrose, practically frothing at the mouth, takes Bray Wyatt into the crowd, just as Austin did with Hart seventeen years before, but the Lunatic Fringe does not return, and an outnumbered Rollins and Reigns get taken out by a group even more tight knit than themselves.

These two teams would continue to exercise their uncontained brawling instincts in the days that followed, with a Reigns vs. Wyatt singles match ending in utter chaos when the exiled Ambrose dramatically returned in some hall of fame street clothes to even the odds after Rowan and Harper showed up. This led to a six man rematch a week later where brawling was once again the focal point of the bout, with Ambrose a whirling dervish of hatred and fear, desperately wanting to atone for his error in the original match, but unable to put his differences with Reigns aside as Rollins chose to walk out to teach his quarreling team mates a lesson. However, the Shield/Wyatts epics were merely the prelude to more and more high profile brawling as the months of 2014 ticked by. The Shield’s two match series with Evolution featured some incredible out of ring action, with the bonkers table dash antics of Ambrose showing the kind of innovation Mick Foley exemplified at the peak of Attitude, and the brawl through the crowd of Ambrose, Rollins, Orton and Helmsley reminding everyone of the golden days when no main event was complete without just that kind of interlude! That it culminated in Seth Rollins’ absurdly brilliant Jeff Hardy tribute dive off the mezzanine was merely the cherry atop the cake. They repeated the trick to brilliant effect at Payback, where the no holds barred stip resulted in extensive kendo stick torture to Reigns, and weapons heavily involved in all three falls, as Evolution were knocked comprehensively off their perch by the Hounds of Justice in a resounding comeback passage that will stay long in the collective fan consciousness. The Attitude Era style matches kept coming as we gleefully romped into summer, with Rollins’ betrayal precipitating Ambrose’s apotheosis into babyface avenging angel, one who would stop at nothing to kick the ass of the man who sold out (or bought in, depending on perspective).

First, in a kind of parallel to my example of Hunter and Mankind, a match booked between them for Battleground was thrown out before it even started by The Authority after The Lunatic Fringe obsessively attacked his foe in the backstage interview area. Subsequently, a supposedly expelled from the arena Ambrose found ways to get to Rollins by hiding out in increasingly hilarious places, including the boot of a car, from which he sprang with a tire iron to assault an exasperated and terrified Architect. It was bravura stuff, and brave booking by WWE to nix a match that everyone wanted to see. The unpredictability of Ambrose and the conniving, cerebral Rollins made for a wonderful tandem, and they would continue to nail it when they finally got in the ring for a singles contest at Summerslam. However, this was no simple singles match. It was a match type that facilitated yet another blood pumping brawl. It was a lumberjack match. For all the initial internet angst surrounding that particular booking decision, the critics had overlooked one thing; the “wall of human flesh”, as Ambrose put it, would be made up of the bodies that The Shield built their career on. Barely anyone on the roster had not suffered from the attentions of the Hounds, and the chance for revenge motivating each lumberjack made for an especially intoxicating pot to be stirred by the two mortal rivals. The rights and lefts thrown by Ambrose as the bell rings are a fitting start, as are the mudhole stomps he borrows from Austin, but the real genius in storytelling terms comes from his tactical use of the men surrounding the ring as extra weapons, clotheslining Seth straight into their tender mercies. The escalation of hostilities between the two protagonists and the lumberjacks is such that we end up with what is essentially a twenty plus person brawl with the former Hounds at the centre of the hurricane, until Ambrose breaks out and takes Rollins with him through the crowd, with Kane sending the lumberjacks in hot pursuit. It’s wonderful, brazen stuff, and shows how far the product has come full circle as the crowd lap up an incredibly ballsy match which essentially consists of of ten minutes of high octane brawling. For me it was right up there with the very best matches of last year and stands up with any of the similar feats by Attitude luminaries like Austin, Rock, Trips and Foley.

With the Ambrose and Rollins feud taking in falls count anywhere and cell matches as the months wore on, crazed violence continued to be high on the WWE pay-per-view agenda, and a series of luridly vicious bouts between the Lunatic Fringe and his old sparring partner Bray Wyatt closed out the year with aplomb; I thought those contests were far better than they were given credit for, particularly the Survivor Series one, which showcased enviable psychology to go alongside its hardcore sensibilities, and the Miracle On 34th Street Fight on Raw, which added a comical edge that I greatly appreciated. At Wrestlemania XXXI we may see as many as three matches that will feature a great deal of brawling. The Intercontinental Title ladder match, as with its spiritual father, the Money In The Bank match, will be filled with chaotic spots and weapons shots. Sting and Triple H, given the age of one of the participants in particular, will likely rely on an extended slugfest to generate heat. Finally, the main event of Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns will, if the bookers are sensible, pattern itself around the balls to the wall effort of The Undertaker and Batista from Wrestlemania XXIII, when they went all out to pummel each other in one of the best big man matches the Show of Shows has yet seen. Meanwhile, down in NXT, Kevin Owens is drawing rave reviews for his bully boy prize fighter character and the likes of Bull Dempsey and Baron Corbin are wrestling old fashioned hoss matches. As I stated at the beginning of the column, historical trends are complicated and difficult to unpick, but if you trace them properly, it is possible to discern what’s going on with WWE’s product, and for me, the evidence is overwhelming; brawling is back, baby.

And on that note, this is Maverick, requesting flyby!