‘Three-Ring Circus’: The Importance of Variety in Wrestling

One of the main criticisms long-time wrestling fans have about the current product is that with the new emphasis on fast-paced, high-flying athleticism, there is a sense that a lot of matches have become indistinguishable from each other. In particular, there is concern that a lot of matches feature the same big-impact moves (e.g. the topè over the top rope) so that these moves lose their impact as impressive acts in themselves, and do not allow a story to build up in the ring, as where you can go from there when you’ve used such big moves at the start of a match? Critics of this style of wrestling call it ‘flippy’ wrestling and deride its supposed ‘style over substance’ philosophy. I have written previously why I believe an increased athleticism in the ring is a positive and an attraction but I can’t shake the feeling that there is a little bit of truth to the ‘flippy’ criticisms and that is when it comes to claims of a lack of variety in wrestling.

I genuinely believe it is a great time to be a wrestling fan and there is something for everybody out there. If you want old-school grit with a modern twist, there’s MLW. If you want a hard-hitting sports presentation, there’s NJPW. Like your wrestlers to defy gravity? Give AAA a try. More into blood-soaked violence? CZW has your back (with a steel chair to it). And if it’s sports entertainment you crave WWE is as reliable as ever (even if the current quality isn’t).

The problem comes with wanting a balanced diet of wrestling —please excuse the upcoming food metaphors —they’re relevant, honest! I might not want to watch 9 death-defying brawls in a row, or 10 suicidal dives one after the other. I might want to approach my viewing like a buffet: a little bit off the technical menu, a bite of the Lucha pie, and wash it down with a hardcore cocktail —don’t choke on the barbed wire garnish.

Style-specific promotions are great in that they give a possible niche audience what they want and give exposure to wrestlers who will benefit most from being seen by these particular fans, allowing for word of mouth to be passed around the wrestling community and potentially opening up a wrestler’s ability to get further work. Style-specific promotions certainly have their place and I would never criticize them for catering to a particular style or audience.

For me, though, variety is key. Everyone’s favorite hardcore legend Mick Foley described it as ‘the scientifically proven “three-ring circus” theory of wrestling, in that there is something for everyone. If you didn’t like the clowns, you would like the elephants, and so on and so forth.’ [1]

The benefit to promotions of taking this approach is that it will potentially give them the biggest yield of fans to draw into their product, increasing their revenue significantly. The more people you can appeal to, the more tickets you can potentially sell.

Skeptics might argue whether a viewer who finds that Technical or Strong Style wrestling sends them to sleep will sit through such an exhibition just to get to their beloved Hardcore or Lucha Libre.

I believe that if you put on a card with the strongest quality matches in each style represented then fans will sit through all kinds of good bad and ugly because the lure of the matches they do want to see will be so large. This is the definition of ‘can’t miss’ wrestling: promoting enough variety in styles to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, but ensuring the matches themselves in each style are as attractive and ‘must see’ as possible so as to make the overall show seem unmissable.

The Attitude Era in WWE is a good case in point. Quite rightly it is a period that is affectionately remembered, and I can still remember the visceral excitement I experienced at how ‘edgy’ and cool it was compared to the previous ‘New Generation’ period that dared me to find Diesel vs King Mabel an attractive proposition for a pay-per-view main event.

In hindsight, though, what strikes me about the Attitude era is how much dross we had to put up with and whether we would accept it to quite the same degree now. Think about it: how many snooze fests involving the likes of Mideon or Prince Albert or matches like the infamous ‘Kennel From Hell’ did we sit through, simply because we were excited to see the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin or The Rock tear it up in the main event? We did so because we knew the big matches on the card would generally blow the dross out of the ring. We would tolerate much in the meantime.

From an in-ring perspective, modern-day mainstream wrestling has much improved generally from the Attitude era – you only have to take any match from a contemporary episode of Raw and compare it to any match involving Viscera from the Attitude era to see that it is so. And yet the ratings for mainstream wrestling, i.e. the WWE, are nowhere near as substantial as they were at the height of the Monday Night Wars. So what happened?

In the case of the current WWE product, we can identify several reasons. Their programming misses the exciting and provocative main events and storytelling that made the Attitude Era such vital viewing.

Not only that, but a lot of their main stars – Seth Rollins, AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, Kofi Kingston – are much smaller and athletic than the usual ‘monsters’ Vince McMahon favors. They are more reminiscent of wrestlers that led that same company 25 years previously – Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being reminiscent of two of the greatest of all time, but therein lies a problem: none of the current breed, AJ excepting, are far less distinct in their wrestling styles than Hart or Michaels.

Wrestling style is less to do with gimmicks, character, or signature moves than it is to do with taking a particular way of wrestling and stamping your imprint on it. Take Bret Hart: he was an all-rounder leaning towards the technical. What made Bret unique was a clever use of ring psychology to tell a story and the crispness with which he delivered each move – the excellence of execution indeed.

By contrast, someone like Seth Rollins, who became a fan during the Monday Night Wars, has internalized the variety of styles of that era. Lucha Libre, Hardcore, the athleticism of a Shawn Michaels and utilizes them in a hybrid style that attempts to take the best of everything to create a frenetic, fast-paced style. It is as much about spectacle and the thrill of the big spot as it is anything else.

Rather than giving the likes of Seth the tools to adapt to different styles and tell different stories in the ring, such a hybrid style becomes a hodge-podge of bits of everything. It does not become something in its own right. Ironically, instead of giving the wrestler the versatility to be able to wrestle a variety of different styled matches, it creates a situation where every match on a card can become indistinct from the next. A checklist of spots borrowed from all over the style spectrum leads to the repetition of the same old spots over and over.

Some sort of suicidal dive over the top rope? Check. Someone goes through the announce table —or any other table? Check. Someone kicks out of the other person’s finisher five times and has enough about them to still win the match? Check. And on it goes.

For comparison look at how someone like Naito or even Tanahashi displays their wide range of styles in NJPW. Naito, for example, can wrestle a style that adapts to who his opponent is – brawling with Jericho, athletic one-upmanship and death-defying bumps with Ibushi, comedy with Jay White. Each time we recognize the wrestling as being of Naito’s style, he adapts and changes it to give a fresh match.

If wrestling wants to attract a substantial following again—I’m thinking mainly in terms of a mainstream wrestling company who is out to attract such big numbers— they will need to consider the adaptability of their wrestlers to different styles over a hybrid style that is popular on the indie scene. That does not grab a broader, larger audience interest.

So, is anybody doing variety at the moment in a way that could appeal to a broader audience and create more interesting shows for its fans? Well, it’s still early days, but there are positive signs that AEW is on the right track.

No, this is not a paid advertisement for AEW, and I do believe there are several things they need to improve, which hopefully the experience and urgency of producing weekly live TV will help accelerate the changes.

But consider this. Over only four shows they have managed to provide the following: novelty matches (the Casino Royale, the Bucks/Lucha Brothers ladder match); seriously promoted women’s wrestling; hardcore wrestling (Moxley vs. Janela); surprises (Moxley’s debut, Arn Anderson’s intervention at All Out); old school grappling with strong emotive storytelling (Cody vs. Dustin, Cody vs. Spears); extreme bloodletting (Cody vs. Dustin again); Chinese wrestling (Cima and the strong hearts); hard-hitting brawling (Omega vs.Jericho) and comedy (The Librarians, Michael Nakazawa’s baby oil). Phew. That’s a hell of a mix for a company to have over just 4 shows!

Admittedly AEW’s comedy has not been for me, and it never really was, with exceptions, on Being the Elite. I also worry that the top of the card is more varied than the bottom, where that hybrid style pokes its mixed-up head in on occasion.

But therein lies the point. I get excited when AEW builds a card up. Because each time there have been at least 3 or 4 matches that I’ve not only looked forward to but have been genuinely excited for. For the most part, those matches have not let me down either, which rewards my faith in the product and creates brand loyalty keeps me coming back for more.

In an ideal world, every match would be a 5-star classic, but we know only too well that wrestling doesn’t always work that way. AEW is building things the right way: presenting great big-card matches of different styles to draw in and excite its audience while it works on building its undercard. Stars are important but, equally, so are excitement and variety in wrestling.

I do believe in the ‘Three-Ring Circus’ approach to wrestling. Give a little something for everybody and it will create richer, better-paced, more attractive shows that in turn could result in a larger, broader audience buying tickets and watching shows. The promotions win. The fans win. And sometimes what’s good for the fans is in turn what’s good for the business.

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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