Back in October, I wrote about the legendary Halloween Havoc 1997 Mask vs. Title match between Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr. I was—I am—fascinated with the match as a unit of time, a breathtaking display of groundbreaking wrestling and emotionally gutwrenching storytelling that does more in 14 minutes than most wrestlers do across the span of their career. Towards the end of that essay I state that “it seems impossible for something so great to be so short.”
I would like to retract that statement.
More professional wrestling.
One of the things that I’ve noticed about my viewing habits in 2020 is that my ability to focus long enough to derive pleasure from something that really takes up a stretch of time is shot. I’m exhausted, and the idea of sitting still for anything longer than a 50-minute baking show that is edited so as to imbue it with the swiftness of something half its length makes me anxious. What if I spend 90-minutes, 120-minutes on something and don’t like it? Time in 2020 feels both more illusory and more consequential than at any point in my life, and burning a decent chunk of it on an experience I won’t think fondly of fills me with dread. I have plenty of longform projects I’m spending whatever time I have left on, and Christopher Nolan films and unfinished open world video games aren’t it.
The same holds true for wrestling. Whether or not it’s been a good year for the sport as a product depends on how able you are to ignore wrestling’s role in normalizing the pandemic, to say nothing of the rest of the issues it’s faced, but when I think of 2020, when I look back through the notes that I take to write my reviews of Dynamite or whatever else I’ve watched this year, the conclusion I’ve come to is this:
Wrestling matches are too long.
Again, going back to that Halloween Havoc essay, every wrestling match approaches time two ways: There’s the “time limit” a match is given, and then there’s the time the match is scheduled to occupy on the broadcast. A match’s time limit doesn’t matter—most Brock Lesnar matches have 60-minute time limits but go about seven. How much time a segment is actually scheduled to go does, both in terms of analyzing how well a wrestler does or doesn’t draw, and in terms of how it affects the time everything that follows that segment gets. Running long has real consequences for other performers—when WrestleMania 29’s CM Punk/Undertaker match went long, an eight woman tag match was cut while the performers were waiting to go on.
Beyond logistics, though, wrestling is asking for a lot once a match goes past the 15-minute mark. Part of this, I think, has to do with the malleable nature of kayfabe time limits in general, the idea being that a 60-minute match is inherently more important than a 20-minute one, even if both have the potential to end in five. This is one of the ways in which modern American wrestling still connects back to what it was in the early 1900s, when wrestlers like Frank Gotch and Stanislaus Zbyszko would be advertised to wrestle for 60-minutes and do so, often to a draw.
While 60-minute matches—”broadways,” if you want to be a dork about it—are romanticized today, often held up as evidence of a wrestler’s stamina and creativity, as wrestling pushed further and further out from its origins, match times began to shrink. Rather than aiming for the look and feel of a legitimate athletic competition, wrestling grew into being a form of narrative storytelling—not only can you tell a story in whatever amount of time you like, but it’s less physically excruciating for the wrestlers to end a match that has a 60-minute time limit in 20.
I’m not a math girl, and I’m not arguing that match times have crept back up, and I bet they haven’t. Years from now it will be interesting to see what WrestleMania 36’s legacy is, but WWE’s freaked out, all-hands-on-deck, round the clock shooting meant that most matches were in and out of the ring in 10-minutes, if not less, and outside of its workrate-focused NXT brand and big PPV attractions, Raw and SmackDown have pretty much kept that length. AEW Dynamite has a mix of longer and shorter matches every week, matches that are 15-minutes or so broken up by a succession of three minute squashes.
But when a match goes long, I feel it. Kenny Omega vs. Jon Moxley from Winter Is Coming? The Young Bucks vs. FTR? Every single cinematic match since WrestleMania 36? I feel like a serious killjoy for not really liking these matches all that much, despite recognizing the skill and care that went into them, and believe me, I understand the theory of doing a 30-minute match after months, years in the case of Bucks/FTR, of build. Every wrestling match is an attempt to justify the time spent building to it, and that means stretching things out a little and letting them breathe.
But again, it’s 2020. Time is stretched, y’all, every second of it bleeding out into an eternity. I have had a clock ticking in the back of my head for nine months, and every second I can hear it is torture. You want to go out there and put on a 30-minute classic? Fine. But the minute you take a break from your knee strikes and poison ranas to slap on a chinlock is the minute my mind begins rioting against the very idea of professional wrestling. All I want, all I am begging for is a hit of dopamine. An excuse to pop. And then I’d like a break, thank you very much.
Short kings, short matches.
If you’re the kind of person who loves it when matches go long, I encourage you to go back to 1994 and check out the match between 123 Kid and Owen Hart from that year’s King of the Ring PPV. Officially, the match went 3:37, but if you add entrances it just makes it into the sweet spot. It took place midway through the show, and after a match where Kid was attacked by sore loser Jeff Jarrett, so its expediency makes narrative sense, even if its brevity has more to do with getting the most out of Razor Ramon and allowing Jerry Lawler and Roddy Piper as much time as necessary to suck wind in the main event.
Kid, smarting from Jarrett’s attack, is slow getting to the ring, and is immediately blasted by one of the prettiest, meanest baseball slide dropkicks you’ll ever see. Not wasting any time, Owen throws Kid into the ring, goes up top, hits a splash, and gets a two count. This starts a three minute exchange of strikes, holds, and suplexes, each one looking crisp and inescapable, each kickout desperate and perfect. It’s no secret that Owen Hart was an utter genius when it came to professional wrestling, but the fact that he’s never too hurried to remember something like protecting his enziguri kick by doing an exhausted cover is something else, and it legitimately seems like he’s a hair’s breadth away from not getting his foot on the rope on Kid’s Northern Lights Suplex. The powerbomb he throws is a killer, the sharpshooter is academic, and just like that you’ve got your Ramon/Hart final.
The match has a reputation as something of a hidden gem, a wildly creative, highly entertaining match during one of WWE’s worst era’s, but the fact that it’s buried on a show that’s largely notable for its bad announcing means that it’s still crucially overlooked, even though it was reviewed positively. It can’t possibly be the first short cruiserweight banger in the history of American wrestling, but until WCW started putting them out one after another during the Monday Night War era, it was like an aberration, a glitch in the system. Owen and Kid would go at it again on Raw a year later, with more than 10-minutes to work with, but it doesn’t touch King of the Ring ‘94.
The key, I think, is that both men are working with the time they were given, not against it. Owen was at his WWF peak in 1994, Sean Waltman at his peak in general, but because of how the WWF worked back then, neither were frequently booked in a position where they could really show off. So you can look at that 3:37 as a tragedy, wish that Razor/IRS went short or that 1994 Roddy Piper just went away, but I don’t. They told a satisfying, complete story and had an incredible match that worked out the way it did because it was so short. The match isn’t at all short on ideas—it’s hard to think of many that have as many nearfalls as this in a similar stretch of time—but they didn’t come with too many to run through in under four minutes. So when Owen hit’s that powerbomb, it’s both a surprise and a logical knockout shot—look at everything they just pulled out. What more could they do?
I don’t like the term “spotfest,” but in a way this match is an ancestor to them, a rapid succession of high impact moves and nearfalls meant to dazzle the eye. Standards in wrestling have shifted a lot since 1994, and wrestlers like Waltman and Hart, who never made it above the Intercontinental Championship during their respective WWE careers, maybe could have gotten much closer to the main event in 2020 than in the 1990s, when height and build mattered a lot more than in-ring skill.
You see this match play out all the time in the 1990s, to varying degrees of success. “Crash TV” wasn’t just a game on the SNES, it was how WWF and WCW television were booked, a ceaseless barrage of segments and short matches that emulated the three minute segment style of MTV. WCW’s cruiserweights, as I mentioned, particularly excelled at this, running everything from intense singles matches to lucha style six man tags in four to 10-minutes on every avenue of WCW programming. In some ways it was unfortunate, as a lot of extremely talented wrestlers were simultaneously working hard and hardly working, but if you watched that Mysterio/El Caliente match from the Halloween Havoc article, you know how good those wrestlers could be with zero time.
Is a three minute match filler? Yes. But what I’m arguing for, what I think is possible is a recontextualization of time Not to do away with the squash match or the epic, but to realize that it’s possible to do as much in three, five, and 10-minutes as it is 30 or 60. Wrestling, after all, is not about how many moves you know or use in a given period of time, but about the emotional response one is able to draw from an audience. Time is not an obstacle in this regard, it’s a tool, and it’s one that could be utilized far more effectively than it is across practically every division in every promotion in America.
Big fights, fast finishes.
One instance where that’s not true is in WWE’s heavyweight championship divisions. When Brock Lesnar returned to WWE in 2012 after losing the UFC Heavyweight Championship and retiring from MMA for the first time, the word Paul Heyman used to describe what he’d bring to the WWE was “legitimacy.” Heyman never quite dug into what that meant, but it felt real at the time and continues to feel pretty real whenever he’s around because Lesnar isn’t like other wrestlers on the WWE roster. He wrestles when he wants, he wrestles who he wants, he typically wrestles for a championship of some kind, and his matches are normally over and done in less than 15-minutes.
Fans complain about this, and I get it. It does feel unfair when a wrestler is champion and someone like Lesnar or Goldberg return, squash them for the belt, and do whatever it is that’s more important than having an extended program for the title. The politics of those title wins aside? That’s how legitimate fighting works, and it is fascinating to see the scheduling and pacing and big fight feel of heavyweight boxing and MMA map itself onto professional wrestling.
A lot of this is Lesnar’s doing. When he came back, he ditched the majority of his previous moveset, focusing instead on strikes, the German Suplex, the F5, and the kimura. After a killer redebut against John Cena, there was something of an adjustment period, as he entered a feud against Triple H that immediately cheapened the kimura as a legitimate finishing hold and undid a lot of the work that his Extreme Rules match against Cena did to reestablish him as a presence in wrestling. While he beat The Streak the same year, it was Lesnar’s win over Cena at SummerSlam 2014, the 16-minute extended squash that gave us Suplex City, that set the template for the past six years at the top of the WWE foodchain. From bell to bell, Brock Lesnar is all about throwing bombs. If you can’t throw them back, you’re going to be counting lights.
I talked a little about this style of wrestling in my article about Taz, but another match that’s worth visiting if you want to get a sense of what this kind of heavyweight wrestling looks like is the no disqualification match between Goldberg and Scott Steiner from WCW Fall Brawl 2000. Here’s what you need to know about these men in the year 2000: Goldberg was still pretty green and limited, and Steiner, years past his prime, was jacked beyond all recognition and had none of the mobility he possessed at his peak. In 2003 Scott Steiner debuted in WWE and had an unsuccessful program with Triple H that pretty much ruined him, as the Internet had a field day with how he spammed suplexes all the time. His run in TNA gave us Steiner math. When other people talk about how much they love Scott Steiner, it’s hard to tell if it’s ironic because, as a huge Scott Steiner fan I can’t vouch for much beyond his presence after a certain point. But this match? It’s incredible. His last great match, maybe, and the second or third in Goldberg’s career that showed that if he was put with the right wrestler, he could make something happen beyond the spear, the jackhammer, and the win.
Not that I’m complaining about that being all Goldberg did, mind you. Y’all know where I am on Goldberg. But between this and his Halloween Havoc 1998 match against Diamond Dallas Page (which was actually broadcast the next night on Nitro because Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior ran long), there’s an argument to be made that Goldberg’s lack of success when it came to the nuts and bolts of wrestling had less to do with his ability and more to do with his coming along in a time that didn’t quite understand how he worked. Kevin Nash’s argument that Starrcade 1998 went the way it did because it was hard to get more than 15-minutes out of Goldberg is well and good, but if you’re punching a man in the face as hard as you can, when you’re suplexing your opponent on top of his head half a dozen times, nobody will expect you to go that long.
Take out the interference, and Goldberg vs. Steiner is quietly one of the most influential matches of its era, something that could have been a paradigm shift in wrestling if WCW weren’t so badly mismanaged and doomed to failure. It helps that both Steiner and Goldberg had legitimate athletic backgrounds—Steiner in wrestling, Goldberg in football—and were generally fearless, but it’s a style of match that wasn’t possible in America all that often, and I doubt anybody watching a Mike Awesome vs. Masato Tanaka match would look at it and go “that’s what I want to do.”
It’s a necessary paring down and stiffening up of the heavyweight style of the 1980s, most notably Hogan vs. Warrior (the good one, from WrestleMania VI), which had to go long because it was a WrestleMania, the coronation of a new top guy, and the supposed last hurrah of Hulkamania. Scott Steiner and Goldberg rule, but they are not Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. They’re not cartoons. Cartoons do tests of strength and criss-cross spots. Men throw their best shots at one another until the other crumbles. Transplanted to WWE and given the sheen of Brock Lesnar’s accomplishments in MMA, that style feels big. It feels right. It’s a genuine accomplishment to survive 10-minutes of it, let alone win. And it works.
For proof of this, there’s Lesnar’s match against Goldberg from WrestleMania 33. His attempt to make good on losing in under two minutes the year before, and on his way out the door at WrestleMania XX in one of the biggest letdowns in company history. Given the reaction Goldberg gets on his way to the ring, I genuinely believe that the fans there didn’t want to care about that match, but as soon as Goldberg gets up from Lesnar’s third German Suplex and hits a spear, it’s impossible not to be enthralled. Goldberg’s got spears and a Jackhammer. Lesnar hits 10 German Suplexes and an F5. It’s a five minute match. It absolutely does not matter. By the end of it, Goldberg is cooked and Lesnar is purple—both men put everything they had into those five minutes, they made something more enthralling than the city-destroying finale of a comic book movie, and they went home.
I think the brevity of this style of heavyweight match is necessitated by age and a focus on strength over stamina, but it has everything you want out of a wrestling match: hope, despair, big moves, things to go crazy for. Not everyone can do this style of wrestling, though. The fans have to care about you first, otherwise you’re just someone getting suplexed 40 times in a match. But it’s easy to see why WWE is trending that way with its heavyweight division now, paring down both Roman Reigns and Drew McIntyre in a way that’s meant to protect the mystique of their characters and their killshots. Even if you don’t like them, you’re meant to understand that it really means something to push them beyond 10-minutes, to say nothing of kicking out of their finish or beating them.
That’s not something AEW or NXT have figured out. Maybe that’s due to how they don’t put an emphasis on “heavyweight” wrestlers specifically, but important NXT and Dynamite matches tend to be booked 50/50, stretched out just beyond the point at which the wrestlers don’t have anything new anymore and, worse, too many wrestlers who I’m meant to find special just feel like guys. This, too, is a function of time, because it takes a lot of it to ensure that nobody really loses any heat when they drop a match, which means more spots, more kickouts, and more fill.
A lot of fans like that. A lot of critics do, too. I don’t begrudge y’all for it, I just want the occasional short banger dropped in there, too. Something that’s five to 15-minutes long and consequential. Drop bombs. Take dives. Just don’t chew up too much of my time, because I don’t know how much of it I have left on this planet and I just want to pop. Please let me pop. Why, professional wrestling, do you persist in not letting me pop?