Before understanding Stan Hansen’s Western Lariat, it’s important to consider what a lariat/clothesline is. I don’t mean the mechanism — at its simplest, one wrestler sticks his arm out and takes off the head of another with it, one of the most no muss, no fuss moves in professional wrestling — I mean the object.
It’s 2022, and we’re at some remove from the ubiquity of cowboys and laundry hung outside to dry, so a word applied metaphorically to a wrestling move ditches the image of someone running through a yard and catching their neck on a hung line and marries the move, “clothesline” feeling as natural a way to name and describe a wrestling move as something much more literal, like “body slam.”
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Back in high school, I used to Google things like “what’s the difference between a lariat and a clothesline” the answer to which was usually the same: a clothesline is less forceful and involves less movement, and a lariat usually involves some kind of motion and sees the active wrestler wrap his arm around the passive wrestler’s head or neck. But that’s bullshit.
The difference between the two is marketing. For Vince McMahon so hated cowboys he assumed nobody in his audience knew what a lariat was. Like how some people can’t define “burrito.”
A “lariat” is a rope, the same as a clothesline, and while it’s thicker and put towards a different purpose in reality, what “clothesline” and “lariat” describe isn’t the wrestler’s motion, but the arm itself. Getting hung up by your neck, finding yourself in the strong embrace of a lasso — these are both things that would suck shit. It’s the same in wrestling, only the difference is that the guy wielding the lariat usually wears some kind of cowboy clothes to the ring. Maybe he has a nickname like “Hangman.” Maybe he’s so famous for how bad catching his arm feels that his nickname is “The Lariat.”
Stan Hansen is The Lariat. Nobody has a lariat like his.
Despite that, whenever somebody hits a hard lariat in wrestling, there’s a 50/50 chance that someone on commentary will compare it to Stan’s. They’re wrong, obviously, and while the intention is respect, far fewer people go online to watch Hansen lariats or Mr. Wrestling #2 knee lifts at the suggestion of a wrestling commentator than I suspect the commentator desires.
Hangman Page doesn’t possess a Hansen lariat, Kazuchika Okada doesn’t possess a Hansen lariat, and John Bradshaw Layfield certainly didn’t. Neither does anybody Stan Hansen calls out in six of the most sublime minutes in the history of wrestling.
And that’s fine! Not because of Stan’s insistence that Hulk Hogan’s Axe Bomber is an imitation, and not for anything so godawful miserable as tracking the degree to which one dude’s arm wraps around another dude’s neck. If wrestling thrives on difference, it is okay for one lariat to be unlike all the others.
All the wrestlers Hansen names, even Hogan when he was in Japan, used the lariat as a finish. Hansen’s Western Lariat was a finish, too, complete with his theatrically pulling on his left elbow pad before going for it, but what made it different is that the Western Lariat wasn’t a finish Hansen spent the match building towards. It wasn’t the point of the match.
Watch this 5:30 of Western Lariats: the only consistent thing about the move is that he hits his opponent with his left arm. Otherwise it’s a lariat without a set-up, with a set-up, as a counter, as a means of breaking up a pin, as an attempt to stop someone from climbing the ropes, a tag team move, an attack that seems like it catches Hansen off guard as much as the wrestler he hits.
It isn’t that Hansen’s Western Lariat was versatile, it’s just that he didn’t wrestle his matches in a way that framed the lariat as especially brutal in his arsenal. Everything he does is mean, even his Boston Crab looks like it’d more than hold up in a bar fight.
What made the lariat famous was that it allegedly broke Bruno Sammartino’s neck in 1976, when Hansen slipped a foreign object into his elbow pad before hitting Bruno with it. In reality, it was a scoop slam that did Bruno in. But this is wrestling, and cool stories matter more than boring facts. Presence is what made Stan Hansen’s Western Lariat the lariat, and few wrestlers seem as legitimately dangerous as Hansen did.
Like his body slams, back suplexes, and backbreakers, everything he did looked inelegant, like a hammer smashing a nail until it was bent and useless. He never had to figure out how to beat Takada or Misawa or Kobashi or Taue or whoever — there’s the lariat, and there’s the rest of the stuff, and it’s on those guys to figure out how to beat him, not the other way around.
Nobody else in wrestling has had a lariat or clothesline that functions like Hansen’s, and few have had a striking finisher like it, either. Most finishing moves require a build or set-up — if the Buckshot Lariat or Rainmaker don’t signal the end of the match, they serve as the transition to its last third. Conversely, Stan Hansen does not give a fuck — he’ll just as soon hit you with the Western Lariat at 0:43 of a match as 23:38.
That’s because the story he’s telling is that of the siege, a relentless assault that one either survives or caves to. The Western Lariat is a bomb. It may be Stan Hansen’s best bomb, and he may only have one of them, but the man across the ring from him won’t know until it hits him. When and how are immaterial. The point isn’t narrative, the point isn’t flash; the Western Lariat’s only purpose is pain. If it’s the kind of pain that keeps a man on his back for three seconds, so much the better.