The past year has been pretty dispiriting for pro wrestling fans. Promotions alternated between running shows in dystopian empty arenas and putting on the occasional superspreader event, while wrestlers, promoters, and audiences alike continuously revealed their cynicism and stupidity when it came to keeping each other safe. But there’s been one creative bright spot in the midst of all this disappointment—the rise of the cinematic wrestling match.
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“Cinematic wrestling” has been around longer than COVID. American wrestling promotions have been experimenting with pre-taped matches that incorporate cinematic elements for decades, perhaps peaking in 2016, when Matt Hardy was doing his wildly popular “Broken Matt” gimmick in TNA. The grand finale of the Broken Matt character arc, and the most ambitious pre-COVID cinematic match, was “The Final Deletion”, which currently has over 2,000,000 views on YouTube. Cinematic matches also have antecedents in Kenny Omega’s viral “Champion of Anywhere Match” from 2006, and in the novelty site-specific matches put on by Omega’s inspiration and eventual wrestling home, DDT.
But there’s one cinematic match that I feel is criminally overlooked by anyone tracing the origins of the genre: Stokely Hathaway (now WWE’s Malcolm Bivens) and Orange Cassidy’s street fight at the Grammys from 2019. God, just the NAME is funny. “Grammys Street Fight” is my “cellar door”. Just thinking about it gives me a serotonin boost. In addition to being sublimely stupid, the Grammys Street Fight is an elegant example of how a cinematic match can stretch the boundaries of what’s possible in a wrestling match, without abandoning the foundational elements that make pro wrestling what it is.
The match was produced by IndependentWrestling.tv, an on-demand streaming service used by a consortium of regional independent wrestling promotions to reach their fans. IWTV has its own championship belt, and the Grammys Street Fight was a title match between the scheming impresario heel manager, Hathaway, and the babyface reigning champ, Cassidy. IWTV started advertising on its social media platforms that they would be airing the “Street Fight at The Grammys” DURING the actual 2019 Grammys, without really elaborating on what exactly that meant. The Grammys do seem like the most pro wrestling of all the awards shows, with their petty noncompete clauses and their pay to play schemes, but would they really let Big Stoke and OC brawl down the red carpet?
This Sunday: History will be made!
The first ever #Grammys Street Fight
Los Angeles, CA
Stream it LIVE for FREE on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and https://t.co/MPOeoijji7!
8:30PM EST / 5:30PM PST pic.twitter.com/NZtxr5pzYr
— IWTV (@indiewrestling) February 10, 2019
It turns out, again in classic pro wrestling fashion, that the street fight at the Grammys actually took place in a parking garage near the Grammys, at least according to kayfabe. This tracks, to me, since that seems like where Stokely Hathaway would be hanging out anyway, selling counterfeit Grammys commemorative t-shirts for $40 each. The entire match video from start to finish is about seven and a half minutes long, and includes exactly one bump—two if you count Stokely’s shattered iPhone, which, when OC inadvertently causes its demise, is the inciting action of the match and unleashes the beast within his social media addict challenger.
The production is definitionally “cinematic”—the opening echoes a classic shootout from an old Western, and there’s a hide-and-seek section in the middle that’s right out of a campy horror movie. There’s a musical score, sweeping camera angles, and even a dramatic drone shot. But the story itself is pure pro wrestling—they’re fighting for a title, but when OC breaks Stoke’s phone, it becomes clear what really motivates Hathaway. It’s a simple narrative that could have easily been told in a wrestling ring, it just would have taken more conventional wrestling spots (and thus more physical effort and risk from the performers) in the absence of cinematography.
Stokely and Cassidy are both comedic characters who use the metatextuality of pro wrestling to get over with audiences, so the use of a few fourth-wall-breaking cinematic tricks to get laughs here feels perfectly in line with the type of comedic beats they’d hit in the ring if this story were being told in a different format. The dramatic score cuts out at a few opportune moments to reveal their dumb little scuffle for what it is (“don’t kick me, don’t kick me”, “quit it”, they keep saying to each other). In a scene in a glass elevator, Stokely laughs maniacally while ominous red lighting and double exposure effects cast him as a deranged supervillain, only for the camera to cut to a normally lit shot from the floor outside as the elevator descends and muzak plays, revealing his true nature: he’s not a supervillain, he’s a dork.
To me, the real genius of the Grammys Street Fight is the fact that it is able to tell an entire wrestling story, compellingly, in a way that serves both characters and their motivations, while only featuring a single bump. At the end of the match, Orange finally defeats Stokely by throwing him off a table into some office chairs. That’s it. While it isn’t defined this way as much anymore, pro wrestling was historically about getting the maximum return and reaction (and money) from an audience for minimum physical effort. These guys just held my attention and entertained me through an entire wrestling match while only doing one single semi-dangerous thing. That’s really difficult to do, especially for a jaded wrestling fan like me.
While the era of cinematic wrestling may soon be waning as (hopefully) vaccinated audiences return to live events, the Grammys Street Fight offered a perfect template for how to craft one, almost exactly a year before the pandemic began. It’s a true cinematic wrestling match—not a short film featuring wrestling, or a filmed action sequence—because the use of film enhances the telling of a wrestling story. Even though it contains only one actual wrestling move, the Grammys Street Fight feels more like a wrestling match than almost any cinematic match I’ve seen. Given that Orange never actually pinned Stokely, maybe we’re due a rematch in the future? I can only hope.