It’s easy to forget just how much wrestling isn’t available to be seen. These days, wrestling fans are bombarded with content. American companies pump hours of wrestling television onto various networks while smaller independent promotions distribute through a variety of streaming services. There has never been a time when watching wrestling from any part of the world has been easier.
The onslaught of content we face each day overshadows the fact that for most of its existence, pro wrestling has prioritized the live crowd above all else. Before the Monday Night Wars shifted the narrative towards ratings, American wrestling television was primarily just an advertising tool to get fans into arenas to watch live events in their area. Those live events often featured major marquee matches just for the live crowd. Even if crews were around to film, rarely did these events ever get broadcast in full.
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This means that so much wrestling history is simply lost to time. We might have the results or some live recaps, but a good chunk of these events will never be seen again. To give a sense of the kind of material that’s been lost to this business model, consider how both Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat often talk about how they had thousands of matches together that never made tape that they consider better than their famed 1989 trilogy.
Of course, even after the shift towards TV and pay-per-view, remnants of this business model remained. Before COVID-19 put a stop to it, the WWE maintained a busy house show schedule of unaired events that toured all around the country. These are small scale shows with very little stakes, usually just run to give the local venue a live glimpse of the stars they see on TV. House shows also provide opportunities to talent to work together and iron out creative in-ring possibilities before debuting them in front of a national audience. In many ways, it’s the pro wrestling equivalent of an open mic.
That’s why it’s always fascinating to observe what goes on at these live events. More often than not, you’re catching a glimpse of pro wrestling history produced solely for the fans in the building that evening. Even as a low effort open mic, there’s insights to be gleaned from these performances. Whether its seeing major match-ups in their embryonic stages or watching to see what talent can do when given a little more creative freedom outside of the highly produced structure of wrestling TV.
That’s where the wrestling fancam comes in.
It’s exactly what it sounds like. Footage of a live wrestling performance captured by someone in the crowd. These fancams serve an important role in the preservation of pro wrestling history as a whole. Even if a promotion is filming a live event, there’s never any real guarantee of if that footage ever sees the light of day. Fancams capture moments and performances that promotions simply do not give their fans access to.
Such is the case for the singles match between Jushin “Thunder” Liger and Brian Pillman from December 27th, 1991. It’s a rematch for the WCW Light Heavyweight Championship that Liger had defeated Pillman for on Christmas night in The Omni. This is the third in a series of touring Light Heavyweight Title matches between the two. With Liger yet to make his official debut on WCW television, it’s clear that Pillman and Liger are using the tour to work out the kinks in their formula and become familiar with each other before debuting their match on a much bigger stage.
The match is good. Of course it is.
(Editor’s note: Given how shaky the camera is throughout the match, you may want to stick with Pillman and Liger’s televised matches if motion sickness is a concern.)
Both these guys are way ahead of their time in the kind of offense and pace that they kept from bell to bell. There’s a neat exchange of quick chain wrestling to open to establish the competitive nature of the bout. Then we get a few fun segments on the floor scattered throughout. These serve as jumping points for Liger and Pillman to hit some dives to the outside, including a wonderful late match Asai Moonsault from Liger. The floor segments also bring a bit more heat to the proceedings with both Liger and Pillman dipping into some underhanded tactics while outside the ring. The match moves at a remarkably brisk pace. The runtime absolutely breezes by and even with Liger just squeaking by with the win with a cradle, there’s no leaving the match unsatisfied.
All that is well and good but also expected. Anyone who’s seen the match these two had from SuperBrawl a few months later can already attest to the kind of chemistry they had together. If we were just talking about the action in the ring, this footage would be an interesting diversion more than a must watch classic.
What truly elevates this particular fancam is what’s happening behind the camera.
Specifically, the conversation that the cameraman carries out with his seatmate as the match carries out. The entire conversation gets recorded along with the footage, accidentally becoming the commentary track for the match.
The conversation starts with both men pondering the eventual fate of the WCW Light Heavyweight Title. They both agree that it’s unlikely Liger drops the title on this night, just a few days after winning it. The cameraman ponders that Liger loses the title before heading back to Japan or at the upcoming Starrcade 1992 in Tokyo Dome, before quickly realizing that Liger had already been announced for a six-man tag at the show.
“Liger’s in the six-man,” says the cameraman. “I remember saying it’s a waste of Liger.”
After arguing back and forth about what matches had been scheduled for the Dome, the cameraman snaps at his companion, “Now shut up, I want to watch the match.”
Neither man would shut up.
It’s clear from the go that these two are “smart” fans. It’s easy to tell. On top of their discussion of New Japan cards in a time when accessing Japanese wrestling wasn’t nearly as simple as it is today, there’s also a mention of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter early on. They understand that what they’re seeing is a performance and appear to be active participants in that branch of pro wrestling fandom.
What follows from that point are snapshots of smark culture in the early 90s. The Observer’s on the rise and tape trading is helping introduce wrestling from around the world to hardcore American fans.
At one point, Liger hits an over the top rope slingshot splash onto Pillman.
“That’s a new one,” says cameraman, clearly impressed. “I actually thought of that move.”
Soon after there’s an awkward exchange about Negro Casas’ ring name. It’s the kind of stilted exchange riddled with white guilt that can’t help but stand out.
“He’s Mexican and you’re calling him ‘Negro,’” says the cameraman. “It just means black!”
“Negro Casas,” says his companion. “Black Houses. That’s all it is.”
“Maybe his last name is Casas.”
There’s so much more in this wondrous treasure trove of fan culture. There’s talk of star ratings (“If this doesn’t have a finish, I’m deducting a quarter star”), how casual fans turn a blind eye to the talent before them (“They’re not saying ‘Liger sucks’ are they?”), and of course Hulk Hogan (“Please don’t talk about Hogan.”)
I love everything about this footage. Aside from the grainy VHS quality, there’s a timelessness to it. The wrestling between Liger and Pillman wouldn’t look out of place on a wrestling card in 2021. It would impress fans today as it did thirty years ago.
But there’s also a timeless quality to the loud fan conversation captured by the camera. Little fan issues and arguments about pro wrestling are as old as the artform itself. Every now and then, arguments about fandom today versus fandom of the past get brought up. What this footage makes clear is that those pieces of wrestling fandom that we so associate with the internet has always been around. It was there before Twitter existed, it will be there long after it’s gone.
That may sound tiresome to those who have been immersed in that culture for so long. It will especially trouble those who so desperately want to insulate themselves from the constant bickering and criticizing and nitpicking that is present online. Yet even in this footage, there’s something to soften the edge of the constant deluge of discussion.
At one point, Pillman drops Liger with a hip toss. Before Liger can even get to his feet, the cameraman calls out, “Shooting star!” Not only was Liger nowhere near the ropes at the time, he also was clearly in the middle of bumping and selling for Pillman.
It’s such a sincere moment from the cameraman, perhaps the one time in the whole conversation that he isn’t trying to one up his companion. In that moment, he just wants to see one of the best of all time hit a really cool move.
Sure, hours can be lost picking apart the smallest details of every aspect of the wrestling industry. Lord knows I’ve done enough of that myself. That has its own place and value. But sometimes, you’re able to just let your guard down and just give in.
Sometimes you just want to see a Shooting Star.