wrestling / Columns

Seeking Better Strategies in Wrestling

August 15, 2016 | Posted by J. Onwuka
John Cena

Ayyyyyyyy 411Maniacs it’s your boy and mine J Onwuka back on the scene with another Super J Column!

Has the crowd gone wild yet? I’ll wait.

Screw it, let’s go. Back with another column for both the thinkers and the see-throughs, so figure out which you are and read accordingly. This episode I’m going to talk about something that’s really close to my heart: ring strategy. It’s more of a shoot-the-shit column this time as I take a look at our current ideas of strategy and think about how they could get even better.

Hold onto your horses if you got em!!

Right now, ring strategy is viewed in a pretty limited way in my view. I’ve seen people go ga-ga at the same techniques that have been used for decades. Nothing new about them. It’s just ‘whoa look at the Revival using legwork, they’re just like Arn & Tully!’ That should be the minimum we expect from a wrestler: to have some gameplan that gets them to win. The fact that we don’t is a major reason why, in my mind, wrestling gets short-changed by people who are looking for ‘high Art’.

Part of the reason why is, I think, the difficulty of putting a finger on exactly what a higher-level strategy is. Working the leg is a very clear means to an end, but beyond something like that, what exactly is a ‘good strategic move’? That’s the question I want to tackle here.

To begin with, I’m going to dig into the usual strategic or tactical thinking that pretty much any wrestling fan can pick out. To do that I am going to do some referring to real situations, but for random examples I’ll make use of three nongendered stock characters: Kid Showbusiness who’s the flier, anybody from Lita to Kota Ibushi; Big Mask with the power game, think Beth Phoenix, John Cena, Vader; and Twist Thompson the grappler, your Kurt Angle, Becky Lynch, or Zack Sabre Jr.

You got all that? Great.

Strategy #1 is a sort of non-strategy: random attack. This is just… y’know, hitting your opponent. The guy who really exemplifies this approach is Hirooki Goto. In whatever match he’s in, he just throws whatever he’s got at his opponent, usually trying for as big an impact as he can get away with at the time. This isn’t totally stupid as it’s based on wearing down your opponent on a holistic level. You’ll see top level guys going with this approach a lot against weaker opponents. That’s a time when it makes sense: it establishes that the top guy doesn’t need to do a lot of thinking to beat the lower guy.

This is where your ‘vanilla midget spotfest’ peeps reside on most days. Like I said, though, this is Goto’s style, and Tomorhiro Ishii does it a lot as well. These guys are the ones who will most likely get sneered at as ‘video game wrestlers’. One of the least realistic parts about video games is the life bar system, how an enemy can be killed just as easy by a kick to the leg as by one to the head, depending on how much you’ve taken their life down, and how they’re fully powerful until they’re dead. Random attack styles make matches seem very video-game-y in the worst, most button-mashing sense.

The next stage up is limbwork, and we’ll include working on the back or the neck or whatever as limbs here. You’re doing at least one of two things by working a body part: you’re setting up a bigger move for yourself or you’re slowing the opponent down. As far as conveying a strategy to the audience, limbwork is great because it provides a clear focus. If you work on the leg, we now want to see how that injured leg is going to play into the match. I like limbwork but I feel there’s a whole lot more that can be done strategy-wise in wrestling. My issue with it is that, rather than being thought of as a base for strategy, it’s thought of as the endpoint.

The final usual stage of strategy is avoidance. Most often you’ll see finisher avoidance, pretty common in WWE as closing stretches of matches often include at least one finisher escape. This is meant to show that the escapee is prepared for their opponent, or at least that their style can beat their opponent’s. You can also have some style avoidance, which we saw a little bit of in Cedric Alexander vs Kota Ibushi from the WWE Cruiserweight Classic where Alexander made sure to keep away from Ibushi’s kicks.

One thing that hurts most avoidance in wrestling (especially in current products) is that it’s not used to its fullest, it’s only used as color to set up the bigger move. In Alexander/Ibushi, yes Alexander knew to get away from the kicks but Ibushi did eventually land a kick which begun his road to victory. A more developed strategic sense might have had Alexander totally shut Ibushi’s kicks down and force Ibushi to come up with something different.

That’s where I want to go with these next ideas. Limbwork, avoidance, and attack are all pieces that can be used to develop even more interesting strategies.

One of the areas that does get touched upon is targeting attitude or emotion. Shinsuke Nakamura is a master at this, doing a lot to frustrate his opponents so they’re somewhat off-kilter. What I’d like to see more of is a consistent focus on mental games as a way to win.

Let’s say Big Mask, our power wrestler, is known for their powerful forearm shots. How about if Twist Thompson withstands a few and doesn’t seem fazed? How about if Twist then delivers a big one, and now Big Mask has to think ‘what do I gotta do?’ and that opens up Twist’s opportunity? Then, later down the stretch, where Mask would usually use their forearm, they hesitate and Twist gets to take advantage again. A development like that would be brilliant to see. It capitalizes on Twist getting inside Big Mask’s head and that actually ends up changing the whole match.

Or take an annoying opponent, Kid Showbusiness being the gnat around Big Mask’s breakfast. The Kid gets Big Mask mad to the point that they don’t even try small moves, they’re just throwing their big finish in a blind rage while The Kid dodges it all, or getting Big Mask so aggravated that they forget an injured arm and overstrain it. A wrestler who could really manipulate their opponents in a way beyond just minorly annoying them would be showing a very complex mental game, the sign of a top-level competitor.

It’s all about wrestling styles at the end of the day, though, isn’t it? And sitting close to the top of strategy in wrestling for me is challenging styles. Very often we get the ‘clash of styles’ hype in a match (EVOLVE has built itself on this), especially when it’s between a small flier and a big hitter. I don’t see anyone do much more than acknowledge this, though, and say that ‘the smaller guy has to use his speed while the bigger guy uses his power’. Usually, though, neither person works any different than they would against other people.

Take legwork for example: according to commentary, working the leg is both good against fliers and power, making it seem not a specific strategy. Somewhat who works the leg will usually do it against whoever they face, which is a good focus but it doesn’t really show how they adapt to new and different situations. Here are a couple off the cuff ways to deal with specific styles in a match:

  • vs Kid Showbusiness, aerial: Injuring the legs obviously takes down their speed and jumping power, as does injuring the lower back. Keep the guy away from the ropes and turnbuckles; desperation moves are a great way to sell that you really don’t want the Kid hitting the ropes. Slow the pace down and keep on top of the Kid, even if it’s something simple. There actually shouldn’t be that many throws unless you really grind the Kid down, cause fliers are known for spectacular escapes from powerbombs and suplexes.
  • vs Big Mask, power: Focus attack on the back, neutralize the base of most of their power. Holds will likely be less effective against someone who can power out. Hitting and running is essential, lots of ropework if possible, escaping the ring, even Yakety Sax chases, extending the match to a long time to take advantage of weaker stamina. Look for a big one-shot ‘kill’, a head kick or a head drop or a big splash, so you don’t have to contend with the power.
  • vs Twist Thompson, technician: Injure the arms and hands to decrease their grip strength. Do not close with them unless it’s under your own terms: if you can get behind them, especially. Keep the match moving. Even against a grappler like Zack Sabre Jr who is absurdly quick, enough to match most fliers/speedsters, you’re going to be at a disadvantage if he ever catches you, so make that as difficult as possible. Most likely the path to victory would be finding or opening a weakness and working that to the finish, all while keeping clear of getting grabbed.

As you can see, all three ideas don’t simply focus on limbwork or when to hit, it’s about the mindset. It’s about going in there with the idea to actually defend against everything they might do, not just specific moves but defending against their whole approach.

But a strategy shift would be the pinnacle, the evolution of challenging styles and reading your opponent. Let’s say that, in the middle of a match, Big Mask was simply too injured in the back to keep doing lifts and too winded to run after Kid Showbusiness anymore, so instead Big Mask begins a rope-a-dope strategy, gaining control by forcing the Kid to use less running attacks and by brawling, that would be a phenomenal development.

Like we saw in Omega/Goto, actually executed brilliantly by Omega, there are a lot of times in which someone else’s finisher will be used, the thinking seemingly being ‘well, they’re prepped for my moves but not for my friend’s moves’, but this is a very minor shift in strategy. Omega didn’t do anything different to set up the Styles Clash or Bloody Sunday, he just broke them out when he was desperate. What I’m thinking is if he’d had his ability to do his lifting finishers (from OWA to the Styles Clash) totally taken away and during the finishing stretch he had to go total flippydoo junior, in contrast to how he’d tried to wrestle before, that would have been a massive moment in the match.

I want to say that in bringing up guys like the Revival and Omega I’m not trying to dump on them: both acts and several others I mentioned are great, but they do provide great examples of what we think of as the tops in wrestling right now and where I think that pro wrestling could get to.

When two wrestlers step into the ring across from one another, feeling that they are fully invested in the match is key. As things go on, keeping that level of investment is a big part of what makes the crowd continue to respond to the match. Just like when you’re acting on stage, you want to get as fully into the character you are playing as possible to play it well. Whether you use method acting or simple contemplation to do that, you want to know exactly how to proceed, not just by the words on the page but by how the unsaid notes of the character’s movement, poise, composure, expression.

In wrestling, in the ring, the character that is being played has a lot to do with how they come across in the ring. A wrestler that’s come to win is more engaging than one who’s come to just screw around. If you want to win, you have a gameplan. When that is on full display, two fully developed strategies being pitted against each other, that’s when wrestling is at its best.

It’s supposed to be a game of physical chess. We’ve got the physical part down but chess is a very difficult game to master.

If you’d like to read the fuller version of this where I go into more detail about why it’s important for wrestling to be seen as art, check out Art, Mentality, and Pro Wrestling on my personal site nearzone.com. I’ve also been doing some writing on medium.com, most recently griping about Darksiders (it’s an awful game) and problems with Mass Effect’s storytelling.

What’s going on with World Champions Podcast? Still in the works. I actually sidetracked myself by writing a medieval fantasy novella which I will try and release soon, I just need to find a cover artist. Now that I’m done with that writing, I want to get all my research together and I’ll start to produce the final run of episodes. In the meantime, why don’t you head over to worldchampionspodcast.com and check out the ones that are already posted? It’s a great look through pro wrestling’s history, think of it like an audiobook: perfect for commutes or road trips.

See y’all when I see ya.

Peace to the peaceful.

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G1 Climax 26, J. Onwuka