The Brutal Poetry of the Dog Collar Match

I haven’t had a lot to look forward to in wrestling lately. Eddie Kingston’s AEW debut and later title match, yeah. Yano Season, yes. Roman Reigns’ first title defense against Jey Uso, of course. But beyond that, the grim specter of 2020 has cast a pall on everything I’d otherwise be hyped up about—there’ve been plenty of good matches, a few incredible moments that I’ll remember despite the way these uncertain times have driven me further and further into the memory hole that is 1990s wrestling, but since AEW had to cancel its iteration of the classic War Games steel cage match back when the pandemic was something new and not something we’ve been pummeled by for months, wrestling hasn’t felt as present, as vibrant as it once did. It’s not the fans and it’s not the effort on the part of the wrestlers—remembering how AEW called off Blood & Guts because “the time and circumstances [weren’t] right,” it’s more like the whole medium is on standby mode. The time and circumstances haven’t been right for awhile, they won’t be right for awhile, so any excitement I feel for wrestling in 2020 (and I think my reviews of Dynamite show that I’m still capable of feeling excitement for wrestling!) is in-the-moment. But booking? The art of building anticipation? What good is that in a year where any match—every match—on a given card might be postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test?

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Then AEW booked a dog collar match between Brodie Lee and Cody Rhodes. Look—I think that Cody returning from a brief vacation spent watching people do weird shit to their bodies under the guise of participating in a talent contest as a spooky Dracula draped in custom timepieces is pretty funny, and I think “second match in the program” is a bit soon to propose joining him and Lee at the neck by a length of chain, but the dog collar match and its kin, the whole family tree of matches featuring leather straps or steel chains, harnesses, and blood? That’s my jam, right there. Those are my interests. And, honestly, there aren’t many people in modern wrestling more suited to the gimmick. Based on the sheer number of old NWA/WCW ideas that AEW’s brought back to life over the past year, often involving Cody Rhodes in the process, it’s pretty clear that breathing new life into the old staples of southern wrestling is Rhodes’ thing. He tends to be well-suited to them, too, using a panel of judges as a misdirect for MJF’s heel turn at last year’s Full Gear, the War Games match, and his relentless, television title style 20-minute defenses of the TNT Championship are modern twists on reliable hits, and given Rhodes’ athleticism, his recent infatuation with classic wrestling pacing, and his willingness to punish himself to put over someone or something new to the promotion, he’s the best possible protagonist for this match.

And Brodie Lee is an incredible antagonist. I’ll develop this idea further a little later, but the general idea behind a dog collar match is to make it so that the wrestlers are as close as possible at all times, that neither party can escape the other. Pursuing the logic of Lee’s challenge to Rhodes, this makes sense. Lee trucked Rhodes so hard that he disappeared for a month, so yeah, he might run. But also, the chain ends up putting the smaller, quicker wrestler—Cody, obviously—at a disadvantage. You can’t out-quick a chain, you can’t leave your feet when you’ve got no space, and you are permanently mere feet away from a large man whose aim is to take your head off. It’s perfect, simple professional wrestling, and I can’t fucking wait.

Rules of Engagement

The worst part of any dog collar match, the gate that separates the mediocre from the great, are the rules. If that seems strange, consider this: every gimmick match, in trying to come up with a different kind of finality than a standard singles or tag team match, is often good despite its rules. One of the better examples of this is the Texas Death Match. The rules are pretty simple: After a pinfall or a submission, a wrestler has until the count of 10 to get back to their feet, or the match is over. For a lot of people, the definitive Texas Death Match is the one between Cactus Jack and Vader in WCW. For some reason, WCW decided that the ten count after a pinfall or a submission would occur after a rest period. So you have Cactus Jack and Vader duffing each other, Jack really taking a beating. There’s a pinfall! Now … they rest! And rest. Aaaaand rest. And now here’s the 10 count. WWE actually fixed some of these issues when they introduced the Last Man Standing match, but eventually they ran out of ways to end those, too, giving us literal interpretations of the word “standing” like the time John Cena beat Batista by pulling a Toru Yano and duct taping him to the ringpost.

All gimmick matches are convoluted, but the dog collar match more so than most. Escaping a cage? Easy enough. Throwing somebody into a casket? That sucks, but okay. Scoring the most falls in 30 or 60 minutes? Got it. There’s a natural logic to the rules, a wrestling match plus a lil’ something extra. But dog collar matches don’t resemble wrestling matches at all, and it’s not just the chain. The chain match has been a staple of professional wrestling for decades, beginning with Boris Malenko’s “Russian Chain Match.” It was big in Texas, and adapted variously—the Texas bullrope match was a Dusty Rhodes specialty, and the leatherbound strap match is pretty much the standard version of the match. All of these tend to rely on the idea that a wrestler has to touch all four turnbuckles with their opponent dragging behind them, but in all of those matches the wrestlers are joined at the wrist. The dog collar match does away with the turnbuckle touching and reintroduces pinfalls as a necessity—imagine getting dragged 60 feet by your neck.

But that difference is part of the thrill. Also part of the thrill is the seediness of watching two specially trained athletes do something as rudimentary as beat the shit out of each other with a chain. It’s also one of those gimmick matches that’s legitimately rare—Rhodes vs. Lee is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time a dog collar match has been featured on free television, and the last time I can recall a major televised promotion running one was when Chris Jericho and Saturn were joined by the neck at WCW’s Uncensored 1998. That doesn’t mean that there’s not a ton of righteous, chain-based violence out there for you to feast on in preparation for this week’s revival of this classic. Here’s a few matches worth checking out.

Greg Valentine vs. Roddy Piper (NWA 11/24/83)

Valentine and Piper introduced the dog collar match at Starrcade ’83, one of the most important shows in the history of American wrestling, and right away everything that’s strange and dangerous about the match comes out. Trying to spell everything out, announce Bob Caudle compares the chain connecting the two wrestlers to “a cow chain,” the collars like the kind of collars you’d put on a pit bull. His partner, Gordon Solie, is bothered by the trappings, and then the two rivals start playing tug-of-war with their necks. The strategy of both is to use the chain any way they can—by fashioning whips, by wrapping fists, by pulling it between someone’s leg—but what it’s famous for is Valentine’s abuse of Piper’s ear, which he’d previously injured in their feud. The legend surrounding this match is that Piper lost 50% of his hearing in one ear and had his equilibrium thrown off, but given how central that is to the actual narrative of the match, how Valentine already did that in kayfabe, and how the two would go on to do the match dozens of times on the territory loop, the story has to be at least a little exaggerated.

What you can’t exaggerate is that, from jump, the dog collar match is absolutely disgusting. Piper and Valentine don’t hold back—there’s a spot where Piper fires back on his former tag team partner by whipping him in the skull with a chain, and the dull thwack of metal on flesh is no less gross in 2020 as it was in 1983. Piper blades his ear and sells like a boxer against the ropes. As the match continues, Valentine ends up covered in Piper’s ear blood, so even their sleeper holds look horrifying. It’s a simple match, dead simple, lots of punching and kicking, but punching and kicking rule and, beyond that, watching two wrestlers figure out the parameters of the new thing they’re trying out is one of the greatest pleasures offered by the medium.

Raven and Stevie Richards vs. The Pitbulls (ECW 9/19/95)

A double dog collar match for the ECW Tag Team Championships that saw the aptly-named Pitbulls put their tag team partnership on the line against the titles belonging to ECW’s big boss heel and his lackey. Claiming that Stevie Richards has a broken arm, Raven’s crew convinces the Pitbulls to make it a two out of three falls match, and the chaos begins. This is, to many, the definitive ECW match. It has all of the hallmarks: sketchy booking, heavy chair shots, tables, the garbage-ass Dudley Boys, and blood. It has none of the slow build of its predecessor, but why should it? This is a matchup where power wrestlers are beating up cowards—who cares about subtlety?

I’m recommending this match despite not liking it much. I understand its importance and I get what they were going for. They accomplish it. But there’s really no point to the dog collar stipulation. They don’t complicate or help the strategy of either team, and it doesn’t really answer the question of what a tag team dog collar match would look like, unless the answer is “like a standard ECW tag team match.” Despite this, it revived the gimmick as something smaller promotions could utilize when larger, more child-friendly companies would not. The dog collar match just feels right here, even if the biggest pop of the night is 911 chokeslamming Bill Alfonso.

Raven vs. CM Punk (ROH 7/19/2003)

An effective fusion of what makes matches like Piper/Valentine work and what makes matches like Raven and Richards/Pitbulls fun, Raven and CM Punk is what a modernized version of a 20 year old wrestling match ought to be. The feud between Raven and Punk was a deeply personal one, Punk’s childhood-informed straight edge lifestyle colliding with Raven’s, uhh, whole thing, his own recovery from substance abuse informing Punk’s superiority complex just as much as the whole “old innovators vs. new innovators” beef that would really only exist in the heel’s mind, as Danny Doring gets some really loud “ECW” chants before the match.

It speaks well to CM Punk’s abilities as a heel that Raven is an effective babyface here, an aging gunslinger going into what is, one assumes, his last opportunity to beat a rival that he’s had no luck against to this point. That he doesn’t isn’t the point, though—it’s how much punishment he’s able to withstand before Punk takes the low road to victory. It’s a great match, one of those early ROH matches that stands up so well that it justifies the hype surrounding the early years of that promotion. Since it’s available online, I’ll shut up and let you watch it, but given the righteousness with which Lee prosecutes his hatred of Rhodes, if Wednesday’s match has echoes of past dog collar matches, it’ll just as likely be this one as Valentine/Piper.

But what’s most exciting about this week’s dog collar match is how much blank canvas is left for the two wrestlers to explore. AEW tends to go hard when they’re introducing new things to their ecosystem, and this is being built as the most personal feud either man has been a part of, so I’m expecting something great. That I keep expecting that out of Cody Rhodes despite his not being among my favorite performers to watch is an incredible feat of booking to begin with, but there’s something different about this match and what it means to both performers going forward. They’re intentionally entering a conversation with history this week, making something new out of something older than Rhodes. I want a classic, but more than that I want this gimmick to be more present in wrestling going forward. There’s nothing to lose except pride, 50% of the hearing in one of your ears, and your sense of equilibrium, and what wrestling match isn’t worth that?