Through The Wrestling Lens
For more on this topic and other wrestling related videos, check out my YouTube.
For more on this topic and other wrestling related videos, check out my YouTube.
“I personally think a fight scene is the most cinematic thing you can witness because all the elements of filmmaking come together, with the camera speed changes, editing, makeup effects and general smoke and mirrors of trying to make it look like you are hitting someone when you’re not. It’s filmmaking in its purest form, I think.” Scott Adkins
LUCHA UNDERGROUND CINEMATIC STYLE
I loved Lucha Underground. And a large part of that, simply put. Was the way it looked. The way the fights and stories were presented felt brand new. A breath of fresh air. Any others clearly agreed. Outside of films and television, I’d never seen action like this. A mixture of live matches and scripted backstage segments melded together to create the most cinematic form of this beloved pro wrestling I’d ever seen.
Clearly this more cinematic form of story telling in pro wrestling proved popular, but certainly wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And that is what I want to explore in this video.
Since then, the wrestling business has changed dramatically. Suffering through empty arenas during the pandemic. The way in which the grappling and glitter is presented was forced to change with it.
Broken Matt Hardy proved the next step on the development of cinematic matches in the mainstream as his character made his way back to WWE. Through Bray Wyatt, The Undertaker and All Elite Wrestling, I want to explore the ever-evolving nature of how pro wrestling is presented to us as fans.
I want to look at some of my favourite cinematic style wrestling matches across the past 20 years and see why this style of wrestling presentation have proved so divisive. I’ll compare how combat sports are shown on television for real and when it’s scripted for movies and see how the two compare.
Through all of this I hope to take us on a journey which uncovers a whole new form of avantgarde, live action storytelling, which in a small way may influence the very future of this sport we all love so much. And pay respect to those talented people who are sometimes forgotten behind the camera, who are so instrumental to the way in which our beloved pro wrestling is presented to us.
“There’s something about using the cinematic device as a tool to connect with dimensions of the world that you don’t know too well, you’re not too familiar with. It’s like creating a bridge, or a spaceship to travel to the unknown.” Sebastian Lelio
“I think that style of television, the ultra-violent cliff-hanger type thing really set the bar high and I think that we are kind of going that route and the way it is edited with the tightness and the crispness of the production value, going into the office and all of the backstories and everybody has a real character and it is shot and cut like those fight scenes in the Jason Bourne movies and it’s so tight and so crisp and so violent and on point that I think that’s a good way to describe how things are going. It is not your traditional wrestling show at all. Nobody can even compare to the way we did it in Lucha Underground but they definitely will try and copy as you well know but they are not even close.” Vampiro
WWF ATTITUDE COMMERCIAL
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My first experience of anything to do with pro wrestling which could be considered cinematic, hit such a resonant chord with me as a young child, that it lit a spark which led me to the very journey I am on today.
The commercial which features industry legends such as Classy Freddie Blassie and Gorilla Monsoon talking in booming, dignified voices about pro wrestling during their heyday and how much the business has changed. Looking back on it, the short advert gives me such a deep sense of nostalgia, to go as far as almost being sad in a way.
The way in which the iconic wrestlers talk about how much has changed over time compared to how WWE was being presented in the late 90s, translated to how we look back on the late 90s today in the 20s. Romanticized ideals, covered in a rose tint. The way in which this commercial is presented, explains that feeling so well, without ever having to verbally tell us anything. Beautiful black and white shots show the battled weary faces of these aged icons. A warmth can be heard in each and every slowly delivered line of dialogue as our performers stand in rings and inside arenas which they once were the star attraction of.
The music swells to a heart string plucking nausea, whilst somehow never going too far into the realms of cheese. A perfectly fitting and respectful piece of classic music to accompany these icons of classic wrestling. Suddenly, a flash of colour as explosive scenes from the then modern presentation of the WWF Attitude Era, purposefully contrasting the pre-existing monochrome, replacing the old with the vibrant and new.
The older wrestlers metaphorically passing the torch to the younger performers, supporting the ever-evolving nature of the industry. This is exactly how the creators behind the scenes at WWF wanted to represent this new generation of grappling talent and their marketing department made a clever decision with this colourful contrast within the commercial.
The story cuts back and forth between close ups of the old wrestlers and the newer footage, perhaps a reminder that even though the company was headed into a drastically different direction, they were still well aware of what built the company up until that point. A beautifully emotional piece of advertising, which on the surface may simply seem like an overly-dramatic piece of self-adulation from WWF, but when you look at the creative decisions that went into the way this video is presented it is clear that it is so much more than that. The former WWE Creative Director of On-Air Promotions and mastermind behind the project David Sahadi said:
“Kevin Dunn calls me, I’m doing the shoot in Albany, and he goes, ‘Vince called and can’t understand why you’re shooting these old guys.’ He didn’t understand it was a passing of the torch spot. He goes, ‘It better be f***ing good because he’s very upset.’ I’m like, ‘Trust me, he’s going to love it.’ A week later when the spot was does, we called him into the audio room to listen on the big screen and play it out loud. 15 seconds in, it’s him, Shane (McMahon) and I think Pat Patterson, 15 seconds in [Vince] is like, ‘Oh God. Oh God. Jesus. Oh God.’ He walked out before the tag page even came up. I turn to Shane and said, ‘He hates it, doesn’t he?’ He goes, ‘No, you got him.’ I swear to you on my life, I walked outside this studio and Vince is sitting on the ground in tears, just drenched with tears and he’s saying, ‘Thank you so much.’ I walk up to tell Kevin Dunn that and Kevin does, ‘You did a good job. I can’t wait to see the spot.’ 20 minutes later, I walk back to the studio and Vince is in the stairwell, sitting down with Pat Patterson and Shane and he’s still crying, saying, ‘Thank you, thank you so much.’ I think one reason why is effected Vince so much is that he saw it wasn’t just a passing of the torch from one wrestling generation to another, but also the legacy of his dad to him. I think he felt on a visceral and personal level. To make Vince McMahon cry, it’s one of my top spots of all time even though I’ve done far more creative things, but there is emotion in that spot and it’s all about emotion.”
WHAT IS CINEMATIC
When some people think of the word cinematic, they are referencing only a tiny portion of how a film is presented, in regard to its look. However, as we will explore, for a piece of visual media to truly feel cinematic, it must become finely balanced combination of several different elements.
Film maker Patrick Willems explains cinematic as: “Possessing the quality that comes from effectively using the tools of cinema to tell a story in a way that would not be possible in another medium.” Patrick Willems, filmmaker.
So what are these tools that Willems refers to? Firstly, you have what is arguably the very first think an audience member would notice. The visuals. The way in which a scene in a movie, television programme of a wrestling event is filmed has a huge effect of the way in which it feels to the viewer.
The angle from which we view the scene is also greatly important. Shot from below an average sized man can appear as a giant. With the camera above the subject, we as the audience are left with a sense of superiority, looking down on the character. In wrestling, where this dynamic of large versus little often plays out via the classic underdog story, this use of enlarging or minimising a performers stature through simple but clever use of camera work is widespread throughout the industry. The lens then heightens these effects, coming close in for a sense of relatability or claustrophobia.
Think a smoky Malakai Black promo in AEW, the camera in close so only part of his face is visible. You are engrossed in his rhetoric, hanging on every word. And a huge part of that experience, is how the camera work makes you feel.
Or with a wide lens allowing us to view more of the frame and infer more information as we watch. This is used to great effect when a pro wrestler is making their entrance, especially in front of large Tokyo Dome or Wrestlemania crowds. These wide shots allow so much more visual information to pass through the lens, that we can feel the true magnitude of just how it must feel to be in the stadium, and it helps us better lose ourselves in the show.
WWF ATTITUDE COMMERCIAL
No matter what you think about Vincent K McMahon, his business decisions or him as a person. Nobody can deny that this man knows how to make money. Loads and loads of money. And has proved a shrewd businessman time and time again. And in the lead up to The Super Bowl in 1999, he would prove his economic acumen once again.
The Super Bowl event is arguably the biggest day in the American football calendar with millions of fans of the sport from all around the world tune in to see their favourite teams compete for a prestigious prize. However, for all the non-sporting fans out there, the action on the field is often forgotten whilst the half-time show and commercial breaks are remembered in pop-culture folklore for years to come.
When the time came for WWF to fill a slot during the half-time break, they summoned up all of their creativity to produce one of the slickest and most talked about commercials they have made to this day. Pulling in a whole host of their top on-screen talent to take a tongue in cheek tour around the company’s head office. An advert which aimed to pack as much action and entertainment 30 second run time as possible, as in a brilliant effort succeeding.
We are greeted by Stone Cold Steve Austin bursting through a door and calmly grabbing a chair, before smashing an unfortunate passer-by on the back with it. This sets up the first smooth transition as the passer-by fills the screen and allows for a sneaky edit of the next scene to come in seamlessly. Deborah walks towards us as the advocate for the raunchier side of the attitude era, with Val Venus and a lustful couple in the background.
As another WWF employee rushes past the camera, we again have a beautifully smooth cut to the Rock, who leads us past an office with colleagues embroiled in a heated battle. As one participant is thrown through the glass divide, we are pulled through another transition. One where we are greeted by an even wilder level of chaos. The Undertaker walks past a blind referee and narrowly avoids being hit by the litter flying past him. A man in a suit is pushed towards the camera and in the most technically impressive transition follows the man who falls over the glass barricade, presenting us with Mick Foley who delivers the final iconic lines of the ad.
The level of precise co-ordination required to have a performer moving towards the audience, the camera panning and zooming, the extras flying all over the place, is astounding. But when you film all of these different elements across several different scenes and are then able to stitch them together in such a beautiful way is remarkable.
It’s a 30 second ad which aired more than 2 decades ago. Why do I care enough to talk about it in so much detail? I really believe that this short but excellently produced segment encapsulated so much about why the way in which pro wrestling is presented, is important.
This singular ad shows us the fast-paced and non-stop action not only by the frenetic actions of the performers on screen, but the seamless transitions don’t allow for the audience to take a breath. The editing is so well trimmed and cut that if you look away for even a second, you could and probably will miss something entertaining. And that is seemingly the entire ethos of how WWE wanted to be presented during the attitude era and beyond.
The commercial was seen by those within the company as a huge success and proved an excellent tool for bringing in new fans. However, it wasn’t Vincent K McMahon’s only cinematic tactic he had up his sleeve during the Superbowl in 1999.
HALF-TIME HEAT 1999
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"Halftime Heat was a concept that Vince had, because he was looking at the Super Bowl and I believe Fox had alternative programming for halftime and he says, 'Why in the hell aren't we doing that? Why can't we promote to one event, we could pre-tape it but give the illusion that it's live.” Bruce Prichard
The idea of putting on a performance during the half-time Superbowl show had a clever purpose. In order to draw American football fans towards their programming they would need to put on a match which would blow fans away. Something out of the ordinary and memorable which would bring in potential new fans and get them to tune in next week.
"I remember that The Rock and I were engaged in a really intense and very personal feud, and we were coming off a very physical pay-per-view match at Royal Rumble at the end of January." Mick Foley
There were no two better wrestlers for the role. The Rock was hitting his prime, his popularity was through the roof along with his charisma. Mick Foley knew how to work in matches with liberal use of weapons and other objects around an arena. His Mankind character brought with him a sense of mystery which may also serve to intrigue new fans.
Mick was driven to the arena in a beat-up old car and looked like me in the 90s getting dropped off by my dad at school.
The Rock, with Vince McMahon at his side arrived in a black limousine. Taking time to glare at the onlookers as he made his way into the arena. A shot of a crowd from another event is shown before the realisation of what we are about to witness sets in.
As the camera zooms in we see the empty arena, darkly lit for the first time. It has such an unusual feel to it. The lack of fan atmosphere in the venue adds a sense that this is a special occasion. A feeling which I cannot quite put my finger on.
What I do know, is that without the crowd for the camera to focus on, the entire match starts to have a completely different presentation. After you get past the classic punches back and fourth and scuffle outside the ring, we begin to move away from the traditional cuts between the hard cameras. And start to follow the two men over the barricade and through the seating.
Up the long dark stairs where the two men continue to fight. The Rock managing to best his opponent and slings Mankind down crumpling down the concrete steps, his body rattling off each and every hard stair.
From here, the action moves through narrow corridors as we are treated to a gorgeous shot of the camera operator making their way through to the action. We see Mankind and The Rock get creative as they take turns picking up seemingly random items and smashing each other over the head with them. As the Rock takes control, we move through a canteen area and more beautifully paced long takes.
Where the action really has a chance to settle in. No super-fast cuts to several camera angles. No zooming in on impact of a wrestler’s punch nor did the editor cut away just as a move connects. They simply couldn’t. Restricted by the very nature of the match, the production team at WWE had to work miracles to pull off what felt like such a slick and well-polished final product.
After fighting through the back-room offices, the two wrestlers end up in a loading bay area bathed in beautiful blue light. This feels like the place where a final fight scene could happen in a 90s action movie and that is the exact feeling that I get watching this end portion.
Mankind smashed the Rock’s head on a forklift and jumps into the driver’s seat.
"I remember it being amazing. I remember The Rock versus Mankind empty the arena match. I remember that shot of the forklift coming down on The Rock and pinning him for the finish of the match as well, because the camera was attached to the forklift for some reason” Johnny Gargano
A shot like no other in WWE at the time. A fourth wall breaking admittance that this whole match was rehearsed, scripted, laid out by a team, recorded, and then edited. But to me as an 8-year-old watching at home.
I didn’t realise any of that. I didn’t consider the way in which the camera would have to be placed to film this shot of the Rock’s face. I just thought I’d seen my favourite wrestler get legitimately squashed to death by a forklift. And for some reason that made chubby little me desperate to find out what was going to happen next. And guess what, so did lots of other young people at the time I’d guess.
Now as an adult I don’t give a shit that this shot breaks all the conventions of how pro wrestling is supposed to be presented. I think it adds to the ridiculous and over the top nature of the very match itself and only serves to enhance my enjoyment of the spectacle. This seems to be one of the first examples of this type of creative approach to story-telling in WWE history and from there, the very limits of what was thought possible in how a pro wrestling match should be viewed on television, changed forever.
"The fact that it was so completely different than anything on television was also indicative of the chances we regularly took, whether it was on the microphone or in the ring," Mick Foley.
When Matt Hardy saw that Impact Wrestling were growing stagnant in the eyes of many fans in 2016, the wrestling veteran took it upon himself to reinvent his character and in the process shake up the entire pro wrestling industry. But sometimes, in order to rebuild. You must first be broken.
During a long running feud with his brother Jeff, Matt suffered a life altering injury during one part of the story. The pain from the damage caused by Jeff, added to the humiliation of once again losing at the hands of his brother, Matt Hardy begun to change.
When Matt returned after a hiatus, his accent was slightly different, his eyes slightly more deranged as his hair grew more and more dishevelled. This slow deformation to the manic side of his personality resulted in Hardy becoming physically and emotionally broken.
His hair was in part bleached and Matt begun the cries of “Delete” calling for the end of his enemies, especially his brother Jeff, whom Matt referred to exclusively as Brother Nero.
The Final Deletion came in July. And before I even dive into this madness, I want to explain that if you haven’t seen this already. Go and watch it now. It is in my opinion; the most creative and cinematic match pro wrestling has ever produced and is as entertaining and exciting as it is hilarious and ridiculous. The culmination of months of storyline as Broken Matt promised to once and all end Jeff Hardy and remove his younger brother from their family lineage. This wonderful piece of art begins with such a hilariously warm and friendly couple of segments that the contrast to how a normal wrestling promo looks and sounds, this whole event feels surreal.
We get an 8-minute-long short film, which shows us Matt and his family enjoying his son’s birthday party as the broken one promises his son the best birthday gift of all. Victory in the upcoming match. Slow guitars strum as we see Jeff solemnly cutting his grass. As the camera pans out, we see he has cut his classic 90s tribal pattern all over the lawn. Hilarious. Jeff sits down to play guitar after a long day’s work and is interrupted by a horde of drones flying into his house. The main drone, named vanguard calls for Brother Nero! Jeff swings his guitar in frustration towards the drone only to be met with a holographic face of his brother who beckons him to fight.
Jeff hops on his motorbike and chases off the drones towards the battle with his brother. Before Matt and Jeff arrive, Senior Benjamin can be seen loading up the ring with weapons for the pair to use. By the time it comes for the fight to begin. Night has fallen and the atmosphere has suddenly become much more sombre. Made all the more emotional by Matt’s attempts to play a piece of music on the violin to serenade the event.
The match itself is rather ordinary to begin with. A classic hardcore match with detritus strewn about the place ready for the brothers to wage war with. The drone footage adds a fresh element as the camera flies about the night sky, capturing the action bathed in neon lights. We see a taser being used. A whole host of fireworks and a dilapidated boat. The night air becomes thick with smoke from flares and strobes of flashing gunpowder. A cacophony of chaos which encapsulates everything joyful about this kind of performance. If pro wrestling, at it’s core is all about pure entertainment, then I don’t think you could find any segment more primally entertaining. Is it smart?
Does it make much sense.
But what the final deletion did do was bring us a half hour of out and out fun. And for me, that’s why I love pro wrestling to begin with.
“Oh, I did. I loved it. It was so fun being around Matt. He went into that character 110% every time. It was just so entertaining to be involved in that and the Final Deletion that we did. It was just six guys running around throughout the night, running a 300-foot drop cord, trying to light up the next scene. It was so such a benefiting pay off to watch the finalized product back and for it to be so successful. The cinematic matches are kind of a big deal in my opinion now, and I look forward to doing more of those. I loved every moment of it.” Jeff Hardy
In December of 2016, a match known as Tag Team Apocalypto took place with The Helms Dynasty, The Rock 'n' Roll Express, Decay, The Bruiserweights, The Ugly Ducklings, Showtime, Aaron Biggs, Mecha Mercenary, The Bravado Brothers, Rockstar Spud, Swoggle and the Broken Hardys main event a show held at the Hardy compound in North Carolina. Once again allowing Matt and Jeff Hardy the creative freedom to use outrageous set-pieces and clever camera work to add their own personal take on the big multi-man match.
March of 2017 saw the two brothers united as they begun training on their conquest for gold. The men putting in the extra hours required during sparring sessions in order to stay on top of their game. And because this broken universe was starting to become truly twisted, these sparring sessions took place up against Smokin Joe Frazier.
But no, not the legendary boxer who was the first man to defeat Muhammad Ali. No. Even though that would have been insane seeing as he sadly passed away 5 years before this segment was filmed. It was not insane enough for Broken Matt and Brother Nero as the pair fought against a kangaroo named Smokin’ Joe. It’s not particularly cinematic, but I couldn’t resist enjoying this lunacy for a moment.
WWE WOKEN MATT HARDY ULTIMATE DELETION
Matt and Jeff made their long-awaited returns to WWE at Wrestlemania 33, and the whole wrestling community welcomed them back with open arms. Many, however asked the question as to whether or not the Broken Universe would be coming to WWE with them. TNA were in a legal dispute with WWE over the ownership of the Broken Universe, but once that was quickly dropped WWE allowed Matt Hardy to split away from Jeff and once again become broken. However, because WWE always have to put their own spin on a character, Matt became Woken instead.
His only real attempt at creative freedom came during his feud with Bray Wyatt, the two men’s characters seemingly meshing well with their similar takes on story telling. But the match itself was lacklustre, and WWE forcing the Ultimate Deletion and Woken Matt Hardy into every sentence really took away some of the mystic. It felt more of a parody of the Broken Matt character than a continuation of the story and for that, it fell flat with fans.
Since then, Matt Hardy has been vocal about the fact that Vince McMahon simply didn’t fully understand the Broken character and was less than supportive of the surreal humour and fourth wall breaking cinematic matches. This was the determining factor when Matt’s contract expired with WWE which meant he didn’t want to resign. Instead heading to pastures new as eventually both brothers would end up in All Elite Wrestling.
AEW FULL GEAR ELITE DELETION
At AEW Full Gear the tumultuous feud between Sammy Guevarra and Matt Hardy continued when once again, Matt Hardy’s creation and signature match was used to great effect. But, for the most part Matt has been involved in matches which are filmed in the exact same way as every other AEW match and his broken character has taken somewhat of a back seat.
Now I completely understand how this style of story telling is not for everyone. There are many die hard and old school pro wrestling fans who feel like this level of obvious scripting adds to the sense that the wrestlers are not actually fighting one another, and for some breaks the suspension of disbelief. I don’t think that all of the Broken Universe was well thought out, and some of the ideas fell a little short. But isn’t it exciting to live in a world where pro wrestlers are even given the freedom to explore these ideas?
Because when they work, which in my opinion much of this Broken storyline did, we are left with some of the most dramatic, captivating and visually stunning moments that this industry has ever produced. For me, when these moments were happening, I found myself feeling grateful that Matt Hardy had put his neck on the line, allowed his creativity to explode and delivered us something which 10 years ago would have seemed almost impossible. After 100 years of professional wrestling in the United States, you’d have thought we’d have seen it all. And then, a man who had already delivered to us fans a long and eventful career, completely changes the way in which a pro wrestling match can be presented.
“The Final Deletion will always be famous because it was like the first major one. I knew when we did the first contract signing with Broken Matt Hardy and my brother Jeff Hardy, it was so polarizing and people were so split over it. But I knew we had something because so many people were locked in and then the Final Deletion, like it went viral over the course of a couple of days. That’s like a big deal. Looking back structurally, it wasn’t as good as some of the other things I was in. Probably my favourite match that I’ve ever done cinematically was the Apocalypto Tag Team Match from Total Nonstop Deletion.” Matt Hardy
Another key element in making pro wrestling feel cinematic, is the way a shot is framed. How is the shot framed? Is there one character who is taking up much more space on the screen. Is this because their personality is larger than life, or perhaps they are a controlling presence. In a regular pro wrestling match, we often see the shot framed like a sport, with one “hard-angle” unmoving camera which captures a medium to wide distance away from the action. And a second or third camera to help the fights feel more kinetic, getting close up to the ring looking in as if we were in the front row of the show ourselves. Or even stepping between the ropes in order to get as close as possible to the competitors. And most times shot with a close frame allowing the wrestlers to clearly be identified as the truly important components of the show.
I want to look at some of my all-time favourite shot compositions in all of pro wrestling history for a minute. Through some still images as we explore just why they stand out as such beautiful works of art.
This image of The Undertaker making his ethereal entrance at Wrestlemania 29 is so haunting yet beautiful. It tells us so much about the character, where at first it seems as if all of the fog is covering the image in a layer of mystery. But as the fog dissipates, we can feel so much of the Undertaker’s character in a single image. The iconic figure, in the final stages of an unmatchable career. Appearing simultaneously as the same dark and hidden demon and a shadow. As Undertaker’s physical ability has diminished over the last decade, some fans have gone as far as to call Mark Callaway a shadow of his former self.
The hands, reaching almost from one abyss into another could be hands of The Undertaker’s legions of adoring fans, clambering for a chance to touch his cloak like a sacred deity. The hands appear to be reaching from beyond this realm, playing into the idea that Undertaker is neither dead nor alive. A stunning composition which, when bathed in this purplish hue becomes so magical and fantastical it can be hard to remember that it was simple a single moment from a long and storied pro wrestling career.
NAKAMURA DEBUT ENTRANCE
This image and it’s composition serve 2 functions. The first purpose is to set the mood, an atmosphere dripping in neon red. Shadows dancing in the strobes as the audience is swept off their feet. The second and more literal fiction, is simply name recognition. As the videos of Nakamura’s debut spread far and wide across the internet, casual and lapsed pro wrestling fans are instantly clued in to who this extravagant and attention grabbing new star is.
The way Hogan, a man who claims to stand a whopping 6 foot 7 inches tall. Is dwarfed by his opponent who made it clear for all the world to see why they called him The Giant. It sets up Hulk Hogan whom would usually be the clear favourite in his matches, as the underdog. Hogan’s huge biceps and enormous chest, seeming less imposing and less commanding, when stood next to Andre.
NEW DAY VS WYATTS
On the July 11th episode of Raw in 2016 the arena went dark as the Wyatt family appeared backstage. Addressing the camera amidst the smoke and shadows we’d grown to know from them at the time. However, something was different. The usually terrifying sheep’s mask had a brightly lit unicorn horn. As the camera pans out we see it is in fact Kofi Kingston, Big E and Xavier Woods dressed up as Erik Rowan, Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper respectively. They didn’t have a lantern with them, nor the usual quick cut black and white frames which usually accompanied the Wyatt’s during their speeches, but a cluster of glowing magical horns and some of the most friendly and joy filled images which flashed on the screen
The New Day made their way to the ring in usually jovial style. However, as soon as they stepped into the bright lights, it was clear for all to see that they had one intention in mind. Dressed in overalls, dirty t-shirts and a comical fake beard, the group were here to call out the Wyatt family and mock them for their evil ways.
Taking great offence to this mockery, Bray Wyatt, in his usual vague way invited his new enemies to face off at what he called “The Wyatt Family Compound”, in a first of a kind match, which would take place the following week.
Over the next 7 days, fans questioned what the match would entail. But wouldn’t have long to wait to find out. What we were delivered was an attempt at cinematic style. Which I very much appreciate. However, in these early stages, when the idea of a match of this style was still very new, its clear that the creative team still had a lot of issues to work out.
The lighting is near perfect. A smart use of several vehicles parked in a semi-circle, their headlights illuminating the scene. A good balance between having a natural reason for their to be bright lights in a large abandoned field, and enough light to actually witness the story and action.
The story through the match is the New Day arriving and ready for a fight, finding themselves overwhelmed when the Wyatt’s introduce their newest and most massive member Braun Strowman. A terrifying man who when presented in this way felt like a monster in a horror film. The entire segment feels akin to a low budget horror short in fact. But not necessarily in an enjoyable and emotional way. The filters put over every shot make the action murky and drab. The camera cuts which WWE are so fond of quickly using at every possible opportunity didn’t take a break for this cinematic match. The whole affair is cut together in such a rush that no one moment is allowed any room to breath. We as the audience are rushed from one nauseating shaky camera to the next, the lens whipping around as the wrestlers do their best to perform.
The action is intercut with the Wyatt’s signature vignettes. Abstract imagery of insects, men in sheep masks and lanterns flick across the frame and further keep us from the true atmosphere of the match we are supposed to be enjoying. The pace does slow as we see Xavier Woods separated from the pack and hunted through the woods. The tension which this scene a stark reminder that everything else around it would have surely benefitted if they had taken a chance to slow down.
A good effort for an early attempt, but from here both WWE and their pro wrestling contemporaries would strive to eliminate some of these errors and work towards making a more palatable viewing experience. And that’s coming from someone who has a strong passion for this cinematic approach to storytelling. But, what did those who are more traditional in their pro wrestling sensibilities think of Bray Wyatt’s attempts at a more experimental presentation style?
“First of all, the whole problem with The Fiend is that it’s all fucking phoney, if you want to have a fucking psychopath, that’s fine, I’m all for people that are crazy. If you’ve got a guy that convince people that he’s crazy and dangerous, then that’s a fucking attraction in wrestling. But when he does things that are blatantly phoney or stupid, or they cross the lines of any sensible reasoning, such as teleporting himself from one place to another, or having gasoline poured on him and burned alive in front of us and coming back three weeks later, it’s a goddamn bunch of hot garbage.” Jim Cornette
HOUSE OF HORRORS
At Wrestlemania 33 in April of 2017 Randy Orton defeated Bray Wyatt in a WWE World title match to claim the gold. During the match, Bray had made use of the modern technology available and displayed images on the LED screens around the ring and the large arena ramp. Bugs, insects worms and snakes lit up the arena as a collective groan could be heard around the pro wrestling world. Sure, this is a cool visual. But that is it. Why would an industry veteran like Randy Orton ever be distracted by some simple imagery on an electronic board? Simply put he wouldn’t be. And he wasn’t. Making Bray look naïve on his way to capturing the WWE championship.
At Payback a month later, the reception to Bray Wyatt’s next instalment in his cinematic archive was received just as poorly as the last. In the build up to the match, Randy Orton had continued to mirror Wyatt’s mind games and played a few devious tricks of his own, even going as far as to set fire to The Wyatt family barn, allegedly killing sister Abigail, a mysterious member of the Wyatt Family.
This led us to a “House of Horrors” match, which was about as ridiculous as two grown men pretending to be scared of a haunted house whist attempting to have a pro wrestling match sounds. We were told by the commentary team that the events unfolding were being displayed via a live feed. So why was it night time at the Wyatt compound and broad daylight in the arena? Magic. An over-sight by production. A glaring fault? Who knows. But it made no sense.
Orton arrived at the Wyatt house and slowly made his way from one room filled with tacky Halloween store props to another. Baby noises could be heard emanating from the walls and baby dolls were hanging from the ceiling. Bray would appear sporadically and attack Orton, disappear and then repeat. When Wyatt was stood over his opponent, he managed to push the fridge on top of Randy who appeared trapped. This allowed Bray to make his spectacular escape. Which in reality was more like a man in cosplay getting an uber, as he jumped in a limo and was driven, for some unexplainable reason to the arena. The Payback show continued on with little known about the conclusion of the match.
Until Bray appeared in the limo and made his way to the ring. There Randy Orton also magically appeared and the two continued in one of the most disjointed matches of all time. We were told before the match even started that the bout would start in an undisclosed location somewhere in California and would end with one man victorious in the ring. Making the whole ordeal feel so predetermined and scripted it was hard to invest in.
The in-ring portion featured a run in by Jinder Mahal which allowed Wyatt the victory, only serving as a further distraction from the train wreck of creative planning we had all just witnessed. The match was poorly received. The visuals for the cinematic portion were lacking in flair and style, meaning that all elements when combined fell rather flat. Added to the fact that fans who had paid decent money to watch a WWE pay-per-view live, were sitting in a quiet arena watching a large portion of the event on the big screens, no different from me sitting on my sofa at home.
The crowd could be heard during certain parts of the match, but only when they began loudly chanting “this is boring, this is stupid” and “its still day light outside” It just didn’t work.
Wade Keller said: “That is on the page where I keep a list of the dumbest things ever done in pro wrestling, usually inspired by someone who doesn’t get what makes pro wrestling work and thinks what it’s been missing along is some real outside-the-box creativity and a bigger post-production budget with a score as a backdrop to the action. Yuck. The fact that it was filmed in the dark when they’re in San Jose, Calif. at 6:30 p.m. should lead to several pink slips tomorrow.” Wade Keller
FIREFLY FUNHOUSE // BRAY VS CENA
“There’s been too many of the cinematic matches and to me, that threw away a lot of what it was because they had a lot of opportunities with those cinematic matches to make it mean a lot more and I wasn’t a fan of the one with John Cena, some people were. I just thought that it kinda did nothing to help him avenge that loss that he had at WrestleMania 30 against Cena.” Erik Redbeard
In a match against John Cena at Wrestlemania 36, Bray Wyatt was allowed the creative freedom to tell a story unlike any we have witnessed before or since in pro wrestling. The bizzarre mind behind the Firefly Funhouse took us on an emotional journey through his own past within the WWE and the career of John Cena.
With use of several key locations from the past, including the NXT performance center, the Wyatt family barn and the Firefly funhouse itself, we were transported back in time to relive some of the more memorable aspects of John Cena and Bray’s character development individually and as a fueding pair.
Through excellent use of camera trickery, we see Cena in his original prototype costume, his doctor of Thuganomics rappers attire and his modern day look. Allowing us as the audience not only to remember back to an earlier time, but also directly contrast the different stages of Cena’s career and pay tribute to the amount of different types of entertainment he has given us over the years.
We cut seamlessly and without explanation between seeing Bray and Cena in the ring and talking in the aforementioned locations. The actual wrestling portion of the match is confined to a handful of punctuations here and there, with the lions share of the segment, but that doesn’t hold anything back. As Cena grows tired of Wyatt’s mind games he attempts to attack his foe, only for Wyatt to disappear first avoiding a chair shot to the head and then again transforming into a papier mache doll. During the match…
The N.W.O recruited what could possibly be the most unusual members to its ranks. Playing into the idea that Bray Wyatt’s fiend persona would stop at nothing to warp the minds of his opponents, we were gifted with a rare revisit to the familiar black and white.
Coming through the entrance in the iconic T-shirt, John Cena strummed his air guitar and delivered to us unsuspecting fans his best rendition of the N.W.O’s entrance. A man who has, for the most part, stood alone in search of personal glory within WWE. John Cena has looked the same way for the majority of his long-spanning career. Seeing him presented this way was a real treat and an image which will live long in my memory.
Complete with flickering black, white and grey textures on screen and what is one of the best pro wrestling themes of all time. John Cena and Bray Wyatt paid homage to those who came before and inspired them and reminds us just how influential the reach of the group has been.
An homage to pro wrestling and pop culture over the past 20 years. A fitting tribute to John Cena and his historic career. And in hindsight a lasting goodbye from Wyatt as he shined a light onto the fond memories of his time with WWE. A fantastic section of the show and well deserved of its place at Wrestlemania. One of the greatest cinematic matches of all time and one of my personal favourite stories ever told within the confines of a squared circle.
“It’s allowing us to do different types of matches. The Firefly Fun House with John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt — The Fiend — it was one of the coolest matches I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen it all. But that was so different and so unique. And it utilized Bray Wyatt and The Fiend in such a way, and it showcased what exactly John Cena could do. And it showcased what Cena was before, and what he is now. And I think it opened up a whole new world of what WWE could do.” The Miz
As the world continued to lock down at the start of the pandemic, it became clear that large crowds at entertainment shows, including pro wrestling events were to be temporarily banned. This meant that AEW and all other wrestling companies were forced to make a decision on how to proceed. Tony Khan made the decision to move the companies television tapings and eventually their pay-per-views into Daily Place and only allow other wrestlers and those running the show to be allowed to participate.
For many, this looked as if it could have signalled the end for AEW. The company had only just begun to really start gaining traction as it’s viewership slowly increased. Fans and the atmosphere of the event are such an integral part of my and so many wrestling fans enjoyment of a show, surely without that element, AEW would fizzle out. But no. With wrestlers and backstage staff sitting ringside, banging on the protective plastic shielding and doing their utmost to retain a positive atmosphere, the pandemic era of AEW saw the company handle the inevitable about as well as it is possible. In hindsight, yes there is no comparison between a wrestling show with thousands of rabid fans singing and chanting their way through the evening, but when faced with the alternative of not running any wrestling shows at all, AEW made the right choice.
The pandemic era has such a strange feel. We’ve never lived through anything like this before and the crew, camera people, those in charge of the lighting and the sound engineers had to work miracles to still present the weekly shows in a way which wasn’t just a stark reminder of the pain that was being felt by everyone around the globe at that time.
NXT CIAMPA & GARGANO
“Yeah. A lot of that comes from the fact that for years we were best friends and lived together. I think we view wrestling in a very similar way, through the same lens. We have a similar idea of what we want wrestling to be, as far as integrating an immense amount of story into the performance. Whether the saga is a movie or each bit is a movie, and it ends up being a trilogy, or in this case, I guess we're at five chapters now.”
As the world began to lockdown at the start of the pandemic in 2020, the wrestling world was still starting to adapt. Before the Thunderdome and all the clever tricks and tools WWE would go on to use in order to keep the show running. Triple H sanctioned an empty arena match as one final chance for these two men to settle the score.
Ciampa and Gargano had been attacking each other and destroyed parts of the performance centre as their rivalry boiled over. The story was clear. As almost a mirror of their entire story so far, now Ciampa found himself as the betrayed friend and Gargano was once again the ruthless manipulator.
As the match was set it became clear that the action would be pre-recorded and presented in a more cinematic style than the usual NXT in-ring work.
There was a slow and methodical start to the match, akin to their very first bout way back in 2015. The pair brawled around the performance centre and delivered a stunning set of moves including a brutal looking Willow’s Bell onto the exposed wooden boarding beneath the mat.
Gargano’s wife and long time conspirator interjected into the proceedings and betrayed her husband with a low blow which seemingly took him out of the match. However, in what can only be described as an unsatisfying ending, it became clear that Gargano was in cahoots with his wife the whole time, prepared for the groin shot by wearing a protective cup, this momentary confusion caused by Le Rae allowing for a victory for Johnny Gargano. The instance felt almost surreal as the entire feud was promised to end at this moment.
In front of no fans, with no reaction. The match flickered out like a puff of smoke. Just as this great rivalry in began, unexpectedly and in an instant it was over.
BONEYARD MATCH // UNDERTAKER AJ STYLES
“It was a lot of effort brought about by a lot of different people, but the most of course was done by The Undertaker. I was just there to stand beside him and do my thing. But he’s the reason that Boneyard match gets so much praise.” Styles said.
When Wrestlemania 36 was forced to be held behind closed doors. Many speculated that the biggest event in WWE’s calendar would fall far short of fans expectations, especially without the atmosphere of a live crowd.
However, as a match was lined up between to icons of the industry fans were still highly anticipating the spectacle. AJ Styles going up against the Undertaker is a dream match by anyone’s standards, but to have the match turn out the way it did, made it feel more electric.
AJ was the first to arrive at what WWE commentators were referring to as The Bone Yard. The Undertaker’s hirst arrives and in it is a black coffin. Carried out by his trademark druids, the coffin lid bursts open to reveal a cackling AJ Styles with the biggest grin across his face. Surely this is a huge moment for the veteran. One that is short lived. We are treated to some spectacular footage of The Undertaker riding his motorbike through the night.
The fog is dim, but as the undertaker’s headlight cuts through the mist, he arrives shrouded in mystery to the gates of the bone yard. We are allowed a moment to soak up the atmosphere, before the deadman steps off of his bike. Like an iconic superhero, we are brought from the ground up to admire this clearly battle worn legend. The Undertaker, dressed in leather biker gear looks old and tired, but his expressions and demeanour let us know that he wont go down without a fight.
As he walks from the fog, his status as an ethereal figure is made clear. The Undertaker begins the fight in the same way he has for the past 30 years with those big hands raining down punches to his opponent.
AJ has no response, as he is saddled with an onslaught from the much bigger man. The two men find themselves near some old hirsts, AJ is dramatically smashed up against one and left open for a punch from the Undertaker.
However, Styles has the where with all to dodge, and the punch causes a gash in the Undertaker’s arm as it smashes through the car window. It doesn’t slow the deadman’s assault however as he continues to throw AJ over the bonnet of the hirst before the two men make their way onto the roof of the vehicle. Precariously placed, the wrestlers punch at kick at one another, with The Undertaker remaining dominant, constantly coming forward and overwhelming is opponent. Laying AJ flat on his back and pummelling from a mounted position atop the hirst.
It looks as if there is little hope of survival for Styles, before he manages to deliver a swift kick to The Undertaker’s testicles and sends the big man hunched to the dirt. This allows AJ some time to recalibrate and the lull in action is a nice point for us as fans to take a breath. Once again never willing to stay down, Undertaker regains his feet, dusts himself off and marches on.
The main lighting comes in the form of spotlights, barely breaking through the fog of the graveyard. Parts of the frame are obscured and so dark we cannot see what is beyond the trees. This allows the focus, just as a theatre production, to be placed predominantly on the performers. This also means that when AJ’s accomplices in The OC Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows arrive, it’s believable that we didn’t see them coming and clearly the Undertaker didn’t either.
The OC stand before the Undertaker but do not immediately attack. Behind them is a large wooden barn, from within which a blinding light begins to emanate. Before we have a chance to wonder what these lights are, several doors on the side of the barn are kicked down simultaneously. As The Undertaker’s hooded druids appear. This ominous visual is both an incredible piece of storytelling and a nod to the history of the Undertaker, whilst also being a ridiculously campy shot which wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of Dr Who. Regardless, in this context it works perfectly.
The Undertaker is surrounded by the men in black cloaks and set upon, fighting all the while. Anderson and Gallows join in the attack and managed to incapacitate Taker, getting him on the ground with punches and kicks. The deadman manages to grab a shovel and quickly sets to work rebalancing the match in his favour. Focusing on The OC however, leaves his unaware of the incoming AJ. Whom attacks taker from behind to continue the match.
Now it feels more balanced, with both men getting in offense, before AJ manages to begin to take the advantage. He beats Taker around the grounds, and it looks as if the older wrestler has nothing left in the tank. His mouth wide, sucking in air, his hands barely able to defend himself, yet he still demands more from his opponent. Not wanting to disappoint, AJ does indeed deliver more and he attacks Taker with the shovel before dragging him towards an open grave and shoving him into the pit.
With a sense of relief in his eyes, AJ climbs onto a nearby digger and celebrates with a jubilant look. As the dirt rolls in, he can rest knowing he has defeated possibly the toughest enemy of his long career. But no. This is pro wrestling after all. What is dead may never die. In one of the singularly most beautiful images in all pro wrestling history, Undertaker arrives from the grave and from the fog appears like a ghost behind AJ, rising up just as he has for his entire career.
Understandably AJ is frightened and confused about what he has just witnessed, and flees to escape the now resurrected deadman. Somehow The Undertaker looks rejuvenated and reborn, as he once again comes forward in his search for the destruction of AJ Styles. Whom at this moment decides to evade his opponent by climbing a ladder onto a barn roof. Where The Undertaker quickly follows.
Realising his is now in complete control, The Undertaker raises his arms as fire bursts from all around the two men, the roof area where they are about to come face to face bathed in glorious gold and orange. Even a final interruption from Anderson and Gallows is dealt with swiftly as we get to see a tombstone piledriver on the roof.
AJ is then choke slammed from the roof to the ground below and followed down by Taker. The end of the match is signified when AJ is caught upside down, his head coming crumbling into the boneyard dirt, before being respectfully put into the open grave hole. We see the Undertaker pour the dirt to cover AJ, with just his red glove poking out towards his tombstone. This clearly isn’t the end of AJ Styles.
But as we see the Undertaker pick up his bandana and set it straight on his head, may this be the end of The Undertaker?
“The cinematic matches were brilliant. They were the most cheesy, corny, B-Movie stuff you could ask for. It was funny and completely unrealistic – and that’s what wrestling is all about!” Drew McIntyre
NACHO LIBRE THE WRESTLING
Without proper costumes, characters or entrances we see Ignacio who goes under the ring name Nacho, and his team mate Steven adopts the name "Esqueleto" or (Skeleton). They step into the ring to little applause and it’s evident that they have an uphill struggle ahead of them.
Opposed to them is another team, which consists of the classic tropes of the large, cocky and extremely dashing wrestler who the fans just love to hate and hate to love, with the females in the first row clearly enamoured and enfactuated by these handsome men. Cleary Nacho and his team mate are out matched and inexperienced, but they attempt to give it their best shot.
Even though their opponents seemingly take complete control of the match, with Nacho outside the ring showing off and posing for the crowd, we see Esqueleto being demolished in the background of the shot, he gets slammed and punched, pushed, kicked and clotheslined before taking a belly to back face slam and being forced into the camel clutch submission then going for the tag with his partner.
Nacho falls over the top rope into the ring, gets into a collar and elbow tie up with his opponent before being shoved into the corner post. As his attacker flies through the air, Nacho manages to slip out of the way and causes his opponent to crash into the corner turnbuckle.
Nacho seizes the opportunity and spanks the upturned bottom of his foes before delivering a couple of crushing knees.
As he stands up in what he perceives as victory he is rushed by a flying dropkick from behind and the match is ended with Nachos defeat.
With most men clearly hurt and feeling down we find them in the locker room after the match where they both voice their disappointment. Only to be met by the promoter of the wrestling show who hands them an envelope filled with their pay and explains how the fans want to see more of this new tag team and that everyone gets a cut of the shows earnings.
With this this rest of the story is set as the two realise that even if they get their butts kicked, they can still make a much more sizeable living by jumping into the world of Lucha Libre.
STING DARBY ALLIN BRIAN CAGE RICKY STARKS
Sting said “I was pushing to get a cinema-style match with ‘Taker. And for probably a litany of different reasons, it just wasn’t going to happen and so when Tony called and spoke with me and he said, ‘Are you interested in doing cinema-style matches?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am (laughs). I am.’ And so I thought that I’d like to come back and do that and not disappear again with my tail between my legs. I don’t have to go out on top, but I’d love to be able to go out in a positive light.”
Everything about Sting’s beginning in AEW felt epic and almost operatic. His very first appearace at the Winter is Coming show brought the snow inside for what felt like one of the most legitimately magical moments in the company’s short history. Beautiful blue light breaking through the cold winter air. The darkness caused silence, which was lit by the electric entrance of this industry legend.
When it came time for Sting to be involved in a match, the cinematic style suited his ageing body perfectly. Once again, this style of story telling proved divisive with fans split on how they felt about the match.
Darby Allin spoke on his inspiration for the visual style of this match: "I would say guys like Joker director Todd Phillips, or anybody in the sense that would do like crazy documentaries. Like Todd Phillips did stuff like that. Like that raw, gritty type filming. I love that. I live for that . Just that really, really crazy style of directing where you don’t know what’s going to happen. I was writing storyboards for months before the PPV. When I saw the location where we were filming, I took all these photos and was plotting everything in my brain. I was sitting in the boiler room, just coming up with all the shots. We had an awesome crew and Steve Yu, who helped direct it.
” When we’re shooting it, I was running around and doing everything possible. I wanna shoot it like this.”
The match was brutal. Using Darby as a wrecking ball, giving Sting the ability to shine as an on screen character whilst still protecting his allure. Ridiculous stunt followed ridiculous stunt. The reality breaking camera cuts barely even made me blink as I was so fully involved in watching this match. But, as always, there are others who didn’t love the cinematic style as much as I did:
“I don’t even know where to start. They did live commentary over a movie, you know that the announcers, and Taz joined them, his team was in the Street Fight but he was there at the announce desk, and you know that the announcers are live. But you also know that what you’re looking at has to be taped because there’s no way that it can possibly be live unless everybody that’s watching it is on acid, so when the announcers are talking about it, is it present tense? Is it past tense? At one point Taz was cheering for one of the guys to get out of the way! “The cinematic part of it look like it was shot by a wannabe director for an 80’s MTV video. It’s like where one of those deals where somebody in f**king first year film school. It doesn’t matter if the content makes any sense or not, or if the performance is any good, as long as all the camera angles are cool.” Jim Cornette
I can see the issues that arise here, and when I am now removed from all the excitement, to an extent I agree. But that isn’t the point. When I was watching this match, I couldn’t care less about the reality of any of it. I don’t care that we are watching a man who looks like a 17 year old goth and his goth dad beating up some bullies. The gritty setting. The liberal use of camera filters and post processing. The ability to shoot the action from interesting and inventive angles. All of this is what I enjoyed at the time and the other issues, for me at least fell by the way side.
“This was the best cinematic match ever. By far. And there’s no-one who can argue with me on that. It was the best cinematic match that you will ever see and it cannot be topped. It was a crazy experience because we were filming until 4am and it was raining and it was cold and we were in a big abandoned textile factory, basically, and every one of us went hard as hell. We made sure that we combed over every piece of idea, scenes, things like that, that we could have. To have that was interesting to put his trust in us, that was very, very cool, that was a huge honour.” Ricky Starks
PROBLEM WITH LIVE CROWD
Aside from all the negatives previously mentioned in this video. There is one glaring issue with cinematic matches. One which I don’t think can ever truly be resolved. At home watching the television is the perfect place to absorb the story telling and dramatic visuals of one of this types of events. But what if you are one of those people who has paid sometimes hundreds of dollars to attend a wrestling show. Only to be treated to a half hour match which you must watch on a screen 100 feet away across the arena.
A brief moment where the fans in attendance feel completely deflated. The energy is lost as they lose interest and begin scrolling on their phones, taking pictures and going to get a beer. It just doesn’t feel fair for a large portion, or indeed the entirety of a match to be shown to a paying audience in such a manner. In open air stadiums the sunlight makes the screen hard to see and the crowd noise means the sound from the stereo is muffled.
Another issue is the idea that as these types of cinematic matches draw ever more popular, they will in turn become more and more prevalent, with new companies and different wrestlers attempting to put their spins on the world of beautifully shot pro wrestling. But, if that does in deed happen, then how long will it be before the shine of these unusual and rare matches wears off? I am in agreement with Eric Bischoff on the issue when he explained:
“I don’t think it’s the future of the business; I think it’s a valuable component. I think it’s a special attraction. I think if it’s done too much, it will lose some of its value to the audience when everything becomes a cinematic style match; then it’s no longer special.” Eric Bischoff
Regardless of some of the few negatives which detractors may throw the way of the cinematic style pro wrestling match. I personally believe that the more creativity the industry is injected with the better.
Do I think that all cinematic matches are perfect and that we should see them all of the time on every wrestling show. No. But I do believe that when executed well, these matches allow so much more room for emotional stories to be told, and when used sparingly, feel dramatic and like a big event. No matter your opinion.
If you hate the over-the-top B movie level directing or reality bending camera work. Or if you love the beauty of the way cinematic matches look. We should all collectively be happy that there and wonderfully artistic and hard working people behind the cameras and editing screens at these wrestling companies, who are putting their skills to use, to bring us wrestling fans at the very least an attempt at something new and fresh.
I hope this journey through the visually appealing world of cinematic wrestling matches and the world of dramatic camera techniques has been as informative and enjoyable for you to watch as it was for me to make.
For more on this topic and other wrestling related videos, check out my YouTube.