In Charlotte last month I saw Fit Finlay deliver a tribute to catch wrestling, following a hard-earned victory over Jon Davis. First he praised Davis, an American wrestler half his age, who nevertheless knew the science of the sport, having learned a good bit of it, I suspect, in high school wrestling and, later, in training with Dory Funk Jr. Then he blasted, without naming them, the big promotions like WWE, who'd made wrestling shows mostly a matter of promos, commentaries, staring contests, and posing, leading to about six minutes of actual action, highly choreographed to minimize body contact. Finlay and Davis had delivered a slow, exhausting contest that was about 70% actual grappling (if it wasn't real, then I was brilliantly fooled), 20% slugfest (meticulously landed slaps and punches, but smacking loud), 10% circling in on each other and whipping off ring ropes. It looked as if the two men play-acted the big finish to celebrate the victor as had been decided by the preceding 20 minutes of bonafide wrestling--or else they wrestled for real as a warmup to a scripted kayfabe finish. It was a long match. The youngsters in the small crowd fidgeted, used to the fast pace and quick, tidy closure of 21st century TV wrestling. I, on the other hand, was transfixed.
Photographer Rob Brazier shows us Finlay versus Danny Collins at Croydon last Friday night, two veteran old-timers, though both younger than I. Apparently once again age triumphs over youth in an old-school grunt-and-groan battle. What is old school wrestling? Well, I'll try to tell you what it is to me:
- It's "hooks," submission holds that establish dominant and submissive positions.
- It's a lexicon of gestures that serve as transitions from hold to hold: collar and elbow, the Irish whip, the stiff forearm, the corner 10-count.
- It's body contact, where the focus is on the strain of body struggling against body, the aggressor's grimace and bulging vein and muscle, the recipient's flesh visibly deranged and imprinted by the hold.
- It's the long, patient savoring of a painful armlock, choke, toehold, or clutch.
- It's unrestricted access to the opponent's body, above and below the waist, snatching gear, hair, mouth, even fingernails, if need be.
- It's about teeth, baring them in aggression or agony, or in chimp-like shows of aggression, even using them to bite.
- It's a dramatic use of the boundaries, both the physical boundaries (the ropes and the apron) and the rules of fair play (as embodied by the ref), most suspensefully, I think, when a wrestler caught in a potential submission hold strains to grab hold of one of the ring ropes to force the break.
- It's sweat.
- It's moans, gasps, yelps, and grunts.
- It's a sudden and near cataclysmic finisher, like the piledriver or the sleeper, in which dominant and subordinate positions are established cleanly, definitively, and rapidly.
Ideally, at the end the two men shake hands or embrace in a show of good sportsmanship; these are contests whose stories play out during the match, based on the dynamics of the wrestlers' personalities and moods that night, no overarching plot, no extraneous character arcs. Also, I like the best-two-out-of-three design of classic wrestling, though it often (but not necessarily) precludes the big finisher described in #10 above.