Shocker vs. Black Warrior (CMLL – 03/16/1999)

Shocker vs. Black Warrior
March 16, 1999

NWA World Light Heavyweight
** 1/2 

Shocker and Black Warrior matched up semi-regularly in the late 90’s with the NWA World Light Heavyweight title at stake. It is an interesting pairing for that time period in that Shocker was still in the process of finding himself as a worker which in theory left Black Warrior in charge of constructing a full match. Warrior was a tremendous athlete with some good spots, but a complete wrestler he was not. On paper, this one has the look of one of those matches where neither wrestler is equipped to lead. Sometimes those matches surprise and end up working when wrestler takes charge or they both just find their way through. Other times they end up being the incomplete, scattered affairs we expect them to be.

This Arena Coliseo title match leans towards the latter, although at the end of the day I thought it still reached the point of being an average title match. There is a clear and distinct lack of direction in each individual fall and in the match as a whole. At a high level, the match follows the expected title match pattern of first fall mat work, quick second fall comeback, and a final fall filled with false finishes and big moves. The issue is that within that framework and within the framework of each fall the work doesn’t seem to tie together or lead anywhere. The wrestlers – and therefore the match – sort of meanders from section to section and spot to spot.

Take the first fall, for example. It was probably my favorite fall of the three. Neither wrestler is a great mat worker relatively speaking but they know the basics and can exchange holds just fine. The actual offense and exchanges are fine and some are even well done. The trouble with the fall is that it is just a bunch of holds, counters, and chain wrestling. The work was not all that substantive. I am not a believer that everything done in a match needs to lead to lead specifically to something else or have some greater significant to the overall match. That’s not the issue I had in this match. The issue is that even while they were exchanging holds and executing offense just fine, there was no hook. There was no real sense of danger, no story being told, or even a sense that one wrestler was the aggressor and the other was fighting back from underneath. Even in the moment, it was just some offense being rolled out at random.

The final two falls have similar issues. The second brings the action up off the mat, but is similarly a collection of back-and-forth offense without much direction. The third fall is the near fall-heavy equivalent of the second. There was not a great comeback or a monumental near fall that was built to or delivered on. If you define a spot fest has any match that is a collection of spots/moves/sequences without any thread tying them together, than this match was a spot fest.

In the end, Shocker and Warrior still wrestled what I thought was an average match because the offense was generally entertaining and the execution of the offense was solid. Shocker did an arm drag out of a fireman’s carry position which is a move I will never, ever get tired of seeing. The dives are good. As mentioned, the holds used in the first fall were relatively basic but executed well. Offensively, there is enough quality action that the match kept my interest even if it was largely directionless.

Black Warrior entered the match as the champion and was put over pretty strongly, which is a tad surprising to me if only because Shocker was about to be pushed hard with a pair of mask matches over the next several months.

Shocker is still in generic tecnico mode for this match. I need to watch his pair of late 1999 mask matches (Rey Bucanero and Mr. Niebla) but it continues to fascinate me how quickly he seemed to transform style wise once he dropped the mask. I have seen his late 1999 IWGP Junior title match with Liger from Arena Mexico and even though that’s clipped up you can still see that Shocker is far more in Japanese junior mode there then he was a few months earlier. Of course, facing Liger might have something to do with that. Certainly by 2001-2002 and his matches with El Hijo del Lizmark, Dr. Wagner Jr., and Ultimo Guerrero he has gone through a full metamorphous from generic tecnico-type worker to the hybrid style that got him such much praise (and subsequently some retroactive ridicule). Maybe I am just being fooled by the visual change that came with losing the mask, but he seems to make that big style change almost immediately after dropping the mask to Niebla.

El Dandy vs. Javier Llanes (CMLL – 02/24/1994)

El Dandy vs. Javier Llanes
February 24, 1994
CMLL World Middleweight
**** ¼

I recently re-watched the 12/84 Super Tiger/Fujiwara match from the original UWF. That match is very good but it is also very, very dense. The high spots are great – Tiger kicking Fujiwara like you would a soccer ball, both guys getting submission near falls – but the high spots aren’t abundant and everything surrounding those moments is steeped in minutiae. Most of the match is about detailed selling, struggle for advantage, and working holds. All of that stuff is done really well which is why it’s a very good match, but it is admittedly not a breezy or easy watch. You have to want to watch for small movements and moments as the wrestlers work on the mat for 90% of a 27-minute match. That’s not a match that I feel like I can pop in and enjoy at any time.

There are similarities between the appeal of the Tiger/Fujiwara match and this 1994 Middleweight title bout. Like the UWF match, this is dense match where the appeal is in watching two guys grind it out on the mat for most of the duration. I don’t think it is as extreme as the Tiger/Fujiwara match in that regard (CMLL mat work in any variation is not UWF style mat work) but it is nonetheless a match built on the little things, even relative to lucha mat work standards.

Some of the exchanges are free flowing displays of athleticism like you would get from Atlantis, Blue Panther, Virus or other Dandy mat work but most of it is not. Most of the action on the mat centers on one wrestler getting trapped in a hold and staying there for a significant amount of time until they can finally claw and scratch their way free. To borrow a phrase, “everything is earned”. While that sounds great – and can be great – they are asking the viewer to invest their full attention on long (30 – 90 second) segments where the wrestlers are fighting to maintain a hold or break a hold and long periods of selling without a lot in the way of typical “action sequences”. It is not an easy sell and personally, this is a match I have had significantly different feelings about depending on how much attention I was willing to put into it at the time. I think this is an excellent match, but it is not one of those matches I am going to put on at any time and in any mood and enjoy all the same.

What ultimately makes Dandy/Llanes a winner in my opinions is that segments of the match that might otherwise appear action-less are brought to life through constant and intense struggle. lThe facial selling is superb. Llanes has a naturally expressive face that can clearly and naturally convey the subtle difference between the pain caused by being locked in a hold and the pain caused by trying to lock on a hold. Dandy’s winces and grimaces are a little more forced, but almost equally as effective. When the camera gets in close on Dandy grinding his teeth while trying to physically force his way out of hold, you can see the struggle he is going through. It’s not pretty – Dandy probably didn’t use that shot in any publicity photos – but it is highly effective in getting you to buy into what they are selling.

Speaking of camera shots, CMLL (and lucha libre television in general) are not always known of their great direction and production. For a promotion that semi-regularly missed spectacular high spots, CMLL was on their game here from a production standpoint. The TV guys seemed to grasp that this was going to be a physical match where the value was in the details. The advantage of a match like this is that there is not a ton of quick movements out of the frame so the cameras were able to focus in on the wrestlers’ faces and bodies. The close-up shots on the wrestlers while they work the mat are very helpful because they allow you to focus on the facial selling, body mannerisms, and physicality of the holds all of which are the main selling points of the match. To be fair, on a few occasions the cameras zoom in too far to the point where you can’t see much of anything but those moments were rare. In general, they did a really good job allowing the TV audience to see the detailed work that forms the crux of the match’s appeal.

Another thing this match gets right is that the wrestlers make the most out of the high spots and spots off of the mat. The first fall, for instance, sees Dandy attempt to wiggle his arm free of Llanes’ relentless grasp by arm dragging him over, but Llanes rolls through and holds on. That is a good spot that gets over the story, looks good, and allows them to get right back into the bread and butter of the match (working holds on the mat). Dandy slaps Llanes late in the match in another display of an effective high spot that worked with the rest of the match. They run the ropes a few times and all of it feels in line with the rest of the work. There are some matches where wrestlers work hard to get over the realistic struggle of each and every hold early, only to transition to bigger, higher impact spots for the stretch run that are performed without the same level of struggle. It causes a disconnect between the reality the match presents early and the reality is presents late. Dandy and Llanes avoid that . . . for the most part.

My least favorite part of the match is the one time where they lost their grip on the realism and fighting nature of the holds that they presented so well at every other point. During the third fall Dandy gets a figure four leg lock on Llanes. Llanes stays in the hold for a very long time – more than a minute – and while he thrashes around on the mat they lose the sense of danger and pain that they established earlier with other holds. Based on how they sold prior holds, my brain expected the leg lock to be broken quicker or for Llanes to make a more physical effort to break it up. They are in the hold long enough that it loses me. It seems to lose the crowd too who don’t treat the move as a major threat and don’t react all that loudly when Llanes does eventually reach the ropes. It is a spot that seems out of line with the rest of the match. Dandy has a history with allowing a figure four leg lock to overstay its welcome. He does the same thing in his 1992 title match with Bestia Salvaje. The issue there is less one of going from struggling in each and every hold to not struggling in the leg lock and more purely an issue of the length of the spot.

Density, long leg locks, and all, Dandy and Llanes still wrestled a really great title match and great mat-based match period. If Dave Meltzer watched the match today, there is a good chance he would slap it with the “70’s style match” label. There’s an argument for that given the match’s reliance on working and selling holds. At the same time, there are enough “modern” 90’s elements that the “70’s style” description might be overly simplistic. If you like physical matches where everything is earned and the selling is realistic, give this one a look when you are in the mood for a match of that style.

La Fiera vs. Emilio Charles Jr. (CMLL – 04/01/1994)

La Fiera vs. Emilio Charles, Jr.
April 1, 1994
*** ¼

My major takeaway from this non-stipulation singles match is further confirmation that La Fiera is a really great tecnico even if he is often thought of as a rudo first and foremost.

Fiera jumped to the tecnico side during the summer of ’93. The impetus for the turn was a falling out with Sangre Chicana which caused Fiera to re-think his alliances. That feud gave us a hair match that I think very highly of, but really the feud was a means to an end with the ending being Fiera’s October hair loss to Negro Casas. I thought Fiera did a wonderful job as a good guy in both of his 1993 hair matches, particularly in the Chicana one. He is great at selling a beating both while it is happening and the aftermath of it. He shows great fire in both and his big bumps suit a tecnico well. Fiera was also an awesome rudo so I can understand people preferring that version of him, but I am starting to think he should be considered great at both roles which is something that not too many luchadores (or wrestlers in general) can claim.

The aspect of La Fiera as a tecnico that impresses me the most is how willing and how naturally he can flip the switch from callous aggressor to sympathetic underdog. Emilio Charles Jr. is a rudo’s rudo. Everything from his look to his wrestling style screams that. You aren’t going to out rudo Emilio so Fiera probably could have gotten away with playing it a little edgier without fear of blurring the good/bad guy lines. He doesn’t, however, and the match is even better for it. Fiera plays it totally straight. He takes a beating for the entire first fall. His comeback – punctuated by his signature kicks – is graceful. When he is down and out, he gives himself a pep talk and makes a Rocky-like comeback rather than going toe to toe with his more aggressive opponent. Fiera doesn’t do anything to indicate that he is concerned with getting his heat back or looking tough but rather only about putting heat on Charles and making himself into a sympathetic figure. That’s an impressive thing from a guy who when he wants to, can come across as being as tough and ferocious as any luchador.

There are no-stipulations to the match and it is being used to set up a hair match, so the brawling/blood heavy layout should not come as any surprise. The entire goal of the match is to get their feud into a position where a hair match is an unavoidable outcome. They do that by bleeding, of course. Fiera bleeds almost right away and Charles joins him later on. They also do that (as previously mentioned) by having Fiera take a licking for most of the first two falls and again at times in the third fall. Fiera’s ability to get across both the pain he is in and the struggle to keep fighting his top notch. I never felt like Fiera was selling me something that wasn’t really happening. His body language and reactions were pretty much in lockstep with the offense from Charles.

The problem with non-stipulation singles matches in lucha is that they are almost never as satisfying as title matches and apuesta matches. In my experience, they often come off as a watered down version of either an apuesta match or a title match because they are usually used as a device to build to one or the other. In this instance, the match was used to build to a future hair bout which meant it was worked as a brawl and ended up playing out like a scaled back, less emotional hair match. That is still worth something but the ceiling is limited. The idea was to put heat on Charles, make Fiera seem sympathetic, and give Fiera a clean (but not exactly definitive) win to set up Charles’ winning his hair. They accomplished all of that but that doesn’t exactly make for an incredibly memorable match. The match involved a lot of bleeding and heat seeking spots without the emotion and payoff of someone getting shaved. The match was what it should have been but what it “should have been” has a limited ceiling.

That is made all the more disappointing by the fact that the hair match blow off is not available anywhere. This is basically act one of a two act play. We only got the build and not the payoff.

Both wrestlers are excellent in their designated roles – Charles as a rudo and Fiera as the tecnico – and the match largely accomplishes what it set out to do which is set up the hair match. However on its own it is only a good brawl that lacks the high stakes and emotion of a hair match.

Ultimo Guerrero vs. Rey Bucanero (CMLL – 07/14/2006)

Ultimo Guerrero vs. Rey Bucanero
July 14, 2006
CMLL World Light Heavyweight
** 1/4

Mexico is overflowing with pro wrestling titles so it is normal for a wrestler to have a really, really long title reign. There is no need to pass a title around because there are so many of them. Even so, the fact that that in July of 2006 Ultimo Guerrero was still defending the title he defeated Shocker for (in a good match!) in December 2002 is somewhat ridiculous to think about. That is a long time no matter what you use as your frame reference. It sticks out even more because of how much CMLL during that time. When Guerrero one the title in late 2002 – and subsequently made a successful title defense versus former champion Shocker in early 2003 – it capped off a run of singles and tag matches where the fusion Mexico/Japan/American style worked by Shocker, Guerrero, and Wagner Jr. looked like it could be the spark for a CMLL in ring resurgence. Re-watching those matches now, it still looks that way. Yet by 2006, no such revolution occurred, luchadores came and went, and Mistico emerged as the CMLL golden boy. And all the while, Ultimo Guerrero was World Light Heavyweight champion.

This is a seminal match not only because it concludes Guerrero’s long title reign but because it is the first of only a few singles matches between the members of one of CMLL’s all-time notable tag teams. Bucanero was kicked out of the Guerreros sometime earlier – ostensibly for Atlantis – and thus this match is his big chance for revenge.

That in itself was problematic because a title match is not the best environment to seek revenge in. And I am not talking about the issue with working a title match in non-traditional title match style. By 2006, that ship had sailed in CMLL. It is more of an issue of motivation. This is the first time Bucanero got Guerrero one on one since he turned on him about a month and a half earlier. You would think Bucanero’s only thought would be extracting payback on his former tag team partner. Instead, he stands calmly in place at the belt ceremony and wrestles a straight up match. The surrounding circumstance and how the match was presented were at odds with each other. At best, the explanation is that Guerrero held the title for so long that taking it from him would be the ultimate revenge but that is a stretch.

This is one title match where it would have made a lot sense to shelf the sportsman-like first fall in favor of something more physical, but they work it totally straight up. There are a few hard lock ups to start which at least possibly establish some animosity. Otherwise fall #1 is full of basic headlocks, arm bars, and arm drags. Bucanero pulls out the first fall with a surprise crucifix after Guerrero goes to the arm drag well one too many times. Bucanero’s reaction to taking the first fall is a mix of stunned shocked and realization that he might actually be able to win this thing. Little things like that – which you don’t get in one fall matches – are one of the reasons I would be sad to CMLL ever abandon to the three-fall structure.

The match is not as by-the-numbers as many Ultimo Guerrero matches would become in a few short years. Through the next two falls, he does several top rope bits that tease the Guerrero Special without delivering on it. Some of the offense has a welcomed “rough around the edges” quality to it. I am thinking of in particular a Bucanero corner drop kick and Guerrero’s exploder suplex variation off the second turnbuckle that ends the second fall. There are also plenty of counters of signature moves that you would expect from two longtime partners wrestling each other. The third fall goes back-and-forth. The match succeeds at getting across the point that the Guerrero Special will likely end the match, so Guerrero is doing everything he can to set it up and Bucanero is doing everything he can to avoid it.. Bucanero uses the top rope far less than others, so there were fewer chances for Guerrero to attempt the move. All of this culminates with a spot late in the third period where Guerrero sets Bucanero on the top rope perfectly positioned for his signature piece of offense. Bucanero wildly swings his arms and legs to fight Guerrero off, but loses his balance in the process and they both fall off. It was a well done wild and dramatic spot.

They reset immediately after, complete with a camera zoom out which is more or less CMLL’s way of signally that a big finish is imminent. Sure enough, Guerrero charges at Bucanero who catches him with a driver for the pin and the big win.

Not a terrible match at all and borderline average. My major complaint is that the match felt too run of the mill given the history between these two. I would have liked to have seen them play up the animosity in a more obvious fashion. If they weren’t going to do that, I probably would have rather seen a more grounded, technical match with Bucanero trying to wrestle Guerrero’s greatest prize away from him. That was the story they were going for I think, but the action was far too standard for that to resonate in any significant away. With the exception of some of Bucanero’s mannerisms, there was little separating the pacing and drama of the match from other mid-2000’s CMLL singles matches.

Perro Aguayo vs. Gran Hamada (UWF – 06/01/1990)

Perro Aguayo vs. Gran Hamada
June 1, 1990
*** ¼

A one fall match from the second tour for Hamada’s UWF group.

The match does not have much heat. It is a strike against the match, but not necessarily a strike against the two wrestlers. There are a bunch of potential reasons for why this match was heatless. It was the main event of a show where most every undercard match was a multi-man match filled with eye popping spots and comedy. A far more grounded singles match is a tough sell after that. The lack of heat could have been crowd burn out, too different of a style compared to the undercard, the fans unfamiliarity with Perro (who got most of the offense) or any number of other things. Whatever the cause, it does diminish the viewing experience to some degree.

At the same time, the wrestlers worked a really good match that I could see getting over at Korakuen Hall under different circumstances. They really lay into each other with chops and strikes. Perro brutalizes Hamada with strikes. The rest of his offense in this match is the sort of high impact stuff that should play well in Japan (or anywhere for that matter). Perro does a double stomp off of the turnbuckles, his great senton, hard drop kick, and an excellent tope. He hits Hamada with a chair and bumps hard. Perro’s performance was strong enough and Japanese-friendly enough that it is impossible to blame him for the match’s lack of heat.

The same goes for Hamada, although I do agree with those that felt Aguayo was the better of the two on this particular night. Hamada hit Perro back hard but did not have a sustained run of offense until the finish. I thought his selling was fine even if not very notable but the crowd never got behind his comeback attempts in a significant way. It would be fair to wonder if the crowd reactions would have improved if Hamada spent more time on offense. The match was an older wrestler working a slightly unfamiliar style in front of an audience that wasn’t familiar with him going up against a wrestler the audience did know but who received little sustained offense. At least in theory that could explain the reaction but who knows. It is no guarantee that giving Hamada more time on offense would have improved the reactions.

The ending felt somewhat anticlimactic. Hamada strung some offense together for really the first time and got the pin on a German suplex. The referee counted the match-ending pin really, really fast particularly by lucha standards. The entire finish felt rush. After the way the match was worked, ideally the finish would have come off as if Hamada triumphantly overcame all the punishment he took. Instead, the match just sort of ended. It was a tad bit unsatisfying.

I feel like I really dwelled on the negatives – the lack of heat and the unfulfilling finish – but as stated in the open there was a lot of good work here from both guys. They wrestled a stiff, high-energy match that seemingly should have worked for the live audience but just didn’t. Lucha in Japan can be like that.