Pro wrestling is a weird bastard art, and if you’re unfamiliar with its intricacies, the hordes of people in your social media circles obsessively pontificating about it every Monday night must be a truly confounding experience. Let our very own Dominic Griffin, lifelong wrestling enthusiast, teach you a little something right here, In This Very Ring…
Rivalries are the lifeblood of pro wrestling. In real sports, like football or boxing, rivalries develop over time. Every time the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins get together, fans lose their collective shit. If this Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao fight happens, it will rake in crazy fucking dollars. People just love a competition when it’s personal in some way. Whether it’s just a natural, regional thing or something based in actual animosity, it provides another layer of interest, a certain color. The beauty of wrestling being a scripted art is that you get to manufacture those rivalries. Characters can be written or booked into diametric opposition with one another in pursuit of the same goals, creating suspense and intrigue around their eventual battle. When you get down to basics, that’s basically what wrestling is: getting two guys to fight and then getting people to want to see it.
Nearly every great wrestler in history has had at least one great rivalry in their careers. It’s a necessity. Just like in fiction, having a foil, whether in terms of actual character dynamics or in-ring ability, can provide vital definition. This past Wednesday, NXT’s Takeover: Rival was headlined by Sami Zayn losing the NXT Title to his best friend, Kevin Owens, two months to the day from Owens’ debut and dramatic betrayal of Zayn. I’ve written at length about the genesis of this feud in a prior installment of the column, but seeing it make it to the grand stage of the WWE is a testament to the power of rivalries. You could argue that both of these men are where they are in their careers because of the amazing work they’ve done against one another.
John Cena, arguably the biggest wrestling star the medium has produced in the last decade, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for his rivalry with Edge. A hero needs a villain, plain and simple, and up until 2006, when Cena began his years-long feud with the Rated R Superstar, he had never been tested to the degree necessary to prove himself decisively to the audience. His initial world title run began with a big victory over John Bradshaw Leyfield, and that rivalry was a good start, but a big, primary-colored Superman like Cena needed a villain whose intensity and innate sense of hatred rivaled his good virtues. Edge was that villain, and having a nemesis gave Cena’s semifictional life meaning. If Edge was the Ultimate Opportunist, a man for whom wrestling’s IRL cheat code, the Money in The Bank briefcase, was originated, then Cena was the big boy scout who never cut a corner, and fought for what he wanted, who earned it. He seemed like a bigger hero any time he managed to overcome his worst enemy.
Nothing sums up the tension between these two like this Edge promo. John Cena’s Han Solo-like “I know…” kills me every time.
Sometimes that hatred is real. Wrestling being wrestling, a certain amount of reality always tends to seep into why a rivalry works. That’s why Cena’s next big rival, CM Punk, was such a great foil. In the twilight of the SuperCena era, Punk represented a lot of the real life derision fans sick of Cena’s shtick felt. In a time when Cena’s boo to cheer ratio had shifted enormously, it was important for him to have a dance partner who tapped into that. Their matches feel like Cena wrestling the fans who hate him as much as Punk. But there’s “conflict drawing on true to life unrest” and there’s “legit fucking blood feud wherein you fear for the lives of both competitors.” That kind of rivalry is rarer in wrestling, but when it happens, watch the fuck out.
Case in point: Tully Blanchard & Magnum TA.
In the mid 80s, Magnum TA, one of wrestling’s greatest tragedies (a top level babyface whose career was cut short at 27 due to a motorcycle accident), had a legendary feud with Tully Blanchard, one of the business’ most natural heels. This was one of the bloodiest, most brutal feuds in the business, with two guys who were such polar opposites despite having so much chemistry in the ring. Their Steel Cage I Quit match from Starrcade ’85 is the industry standard for blowing off a feud. One fascinating wrinkle to their on-screen rivalry was the fact that Tully’s wife was Magnum’s ex. This being before the definitive death of kayfabe, most fans probably didn’t know this, but it’s hard to watch their matches and not imagining that tension adding color to the brutality. Years later, a similar situation arose with Edge, Matt Hardy, and Lita, and their first match together after it became pretty common knowledge, at Summerslam ’05, was arguably the most vicious thing the two men ever did together.
Without real life blood feud aspects, most wrestling feuds are either based on a difference of character or a serious compatibility of in-ring style. Look at Ric Flair’s two most important rivals: Dusty Rhodes and Ricky Steamboat. Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes made such great foils because their gimmicks were suitably matched. Flair, the ultimate cocky asshole who bragged about his money and clothes and cars, up against Dusty, the fat white hope whose dad was a plumber. The American Dream versus Capitalism Incarnate. Their matches were great, too, but their real battles were in the promos. With Ricky Steamboat, Flair’s immoral womanizer matched up well with Steamboat’s babyface family man, but it was their in-ring chemistry that set the world ablaze. Their trilogy for the NWA World Title is all that really matters in wrestling. Just insanely good matches.
The Bret Hart/Shawn Michaels rivalry, one so epic the WWE made an entire fucking documentary about it, was a very specific blend of both aforementioned rivalry tropes. Hart and Michaels’ feud was so great because they were friends and contemporaries at one point. Their styles meshed, and in the ring they were perfect dance partners. These were two gifted technicians and equals who could have gone their whole lives having good matches with one another based on nothing more than their in-ring ability. It wasn’t until backstage politics and IRL personal differences began to fuel the stories surrounding their matches that the feud became a serious rivalry, one that defined the rest of both men’s careers and changed wrestling forever.
There are some burgeoning rivalries in the modern wrestling landscape that will stand the test of time. The biggest is between Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi. I’ve touched on it in previous columns, but this is basically THE fucking rivalry right now. It seems a little unfair to discuss it in terms of mainstream wrestling, because it’s so immaculate. It’s not the kind of epic feud that could exist in the WWE, but between seven stellar matches in the last three years, they’ve redefined what a world title feud can be. In the WWE, we’ve got the Seth Rollins/Dean Ambrose feud, and while that rivalry has the right blend of great wrestling and intense animosity, we’re about to witness what has the potential to be an even bigger feud.
They’ve already done the bullshit “two guys forced to team before they fight each other” trope, and their big match at Fastlane next week could very well turn out to be a one-off that ends in shenanigans, but there’s something about Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns that makes me think they could have a rivalry for the ages.
Bryan is the internet darling, the journeyman, the beloved folk hero who represents “real wrestling.” In some ways, he’s Beck, you know? He plays a lot of instruments, musically speaking, and he’s paid his dues and put in the time. Roman is misguided populism. He’s not exactly Beyoncé, despite the flawless comparisons, but for better or worse, he’s what’s hot, what’s now, what’s next, what seems like it should be. People want to pull Roman’s card and question his credentials and whether or not he’s really ready, but there’s no denying there’s something special and engrossing about him. They’ve got the history (Bryan was a part of all the early, great Shield matches), the chemistry (their first solo encounter was damn fine), and the symbolism working for them.
In a way, their rivalry is important because they need each other. The way Cena needed an Edge, Roman needs a Daniel Bryan. He needs to be tested and pushed to his limits to silence the haters. Likewise, Bryan needs someone like Roman the way CM Punk needed Cena, to represent everything he doesn’t, to be the monolith he needs to counteract.
Will their future encounters create the blood curdling intensity required to make it into the history books? We’ll see about that.