Brandon Howard: What Okada-Omega And Steamboat-Savage Tell Us About The Wrestling Audience

“History beckons the Macho Man”

Despite the hype and grandiosity, Randy Savage’s go-home line ended up being pretty accurate. Few matches are as loved as his with Ricky Steamboat from WrestleMania III in 1987.

I was a toddler at the time but one of my older friends recounts a Super Bowl party-like atmosphere that night, everyone crowded in a living room, watching the event live on pay-per-view, broadcast from the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. My friend says the party was full of people talking and noise when Harley Race, Junkyard Dog, Roddy Piper, Adrian Adonis and others were in the ring. As Steamboat and Savage approached dramatic zenith, the commotion fell silent. As the wrestlers traded nearfalls, memorized or not, the room counted along. It was like nothing my friend had seen in wrestling before, not even matched by the Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant main event that was to come.

Hogan and Andre drew the house, Al Snow wants us to remember, and in Snow’s purely economic concept of value in wrestling, only Hogan vs. Andre can be considered the best match that night, even if the slower main event was critically panned and the Intercontinental Title match was hailed by fans as an all-time classic.

Nonetheless the Steamboat-Savage match was a landmark that influenced fans’ expectations as well as wrestlers’ aspirations. There were others, but it was just one of the more remarkable pieces of evidence telling what was to come.

In the decade that followed, VCRs got cheaper. Home computers too. The rise of the internet allowed a small community of underground fans to see, recommend and debate what matches did or didn’t suit their tastes. These fans rated their matches with stars in increments of one-quarter, voted in and debated vigorously over polls with names like “match of the year” and “most outstanding performer”. They argued over who was “the best wrestler in the world”, and they weren’t talking about who would beat who.

In the decade after that, streaming video replaced our VCRs. Smartphones evermore replaced our home computers. Those two pieces of new media, combined with a synthesized version of the internet called ‘social media’, gradually moved the underground fans out into the light of day and they became tastemakers for impressionable fans.

Simultaneously those new media eroded wrestling’s mystery. Long before the 90s the audience was pretty sure they weren’t watching shoot fights, but there was doubt. My dad and his friends talked about how sometimes it got real; they could tell, they said. Or maybe most of it was fake but their favorite wrestler was real. Or that one match that one time: that had to be real. Bruno was real; then it got fake. That kind of mystery kept fans’ attention more concerned with winners and losers and with good and evil.

In the 90s news bits from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and Pro Wrestling Torch -- formerly relegated to paper-and-staple physical mail -- trickled out onto early pages of the internet. Meanwhile those within the business became more willing (and had more of an economic incentive) to be more open about what wrestling really was.

Fans go to events more consciously to be entertained now. As opposed to when we go to a sports game, most of us usually don’t think about what an exciting game it’s going to be so much as whether our favored team will win. Wrestling crowds are absolutely still full of people of all ages who cheer for their favorites. However more of fan consciousness than ever is occupied with aesthetic quality or even company politics.

The mystery is gone, not because these kids today don’t know how to sell, nor because the dirt sheets exposed the business. The mystery is gone because the development of technology allowed us to inevitably erode it, and produce the economic situation that assured its extinction to all but the youngest children. That some wrestlers seriously don’t know how to sell or that legitimate wrestling news is publicly reported for anyone to read is not the cause of the loss of wrestling’s mystery; rather, all those things are just the heart-wrenching effects of the introduction of one or another new medium.

It needs to be acknowledged that the sequence of events described above made the wrestler’s job harder. Wise veterans who talk about how much better the wrestlers were in their day often don’t appreciate how the job has changed to accommodate modern wrestling consumers and the media they use to reach us. That media has become more diverse with time has caused our job to become more complicated and will cause it to be even more so in the future. The elders were grandfathered in to the wrestling society when the parameters were different. In their ignorance the rookie experiences something the legend will never experience: what it’s like to not be over in the present, and what it’s like to try to overcome that.

When the mystery is gone, the audience gives its suspension of disbelief more voluntarily. So wins and losses help and hurt, respectively, less -- not just because WWE booking has taught the audience so but because somewhere below the audience’s suspension of disbelief, they know well the wins and losses are predetermined, that all the action is cooperative and much of it choreographed. Likewise, what is ostensibly good or evil isn’t always accepted at face value, because again, the audience knows the apparent moral content of a character or storyline is manipulated. More of the audience today consumes the deeper content beneath the moral facade, connecting with personalities despite the moral text. The audience is apt to cheer heels and be indifferent toward faces because they know, deep down, the moral presentation is a front. This is even more pronounced in promotions, I would argue such as WWE, where moral lines are weakly-defined. There are a growing number of fans who are conscious of something that is discernible on something more than purely economic terms. The audience’s tribal mind gives way to its critical mind as the audience becomes more aware of the dual reality they are watching play out.

For most wrestling history, matches hailed by critics haven’t correlated well to business. Steamboat’s classic feud with Ric Flair two years later, in 1989, gave fans three televised matches that are regarded as all-time great matches, but the feud wasn’t an overwhelming economic success. When WWE put two of the three famous Flair-Steamboat matches on a DVD set in 2003 featuring Ric Flair, it helped turn the set into one of the WWE’s best-selling home video releases. It’s almost as if critically-acclaimed but economically-mediocre matches are a long-term investment for whomever owns the video library some years later.

In 2017 another milestone was reached. The most influential tastemaker, Wrestling Observer Newsletter writer Dave Meltzer, perceptibly broke his star rating scale upon viewing Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada from the Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom 11 last year, giving it a rating of six stars. Meltzer downplayed the rating, claiming he’d given other matches more than five stars in the past. While there have been a few matches before 2000 rated in the Observer as “*****+” no match before had been given a specific quantity of stars greater than five, and certainly none in the talkative age of social media. Meltzer’s rating of the match was a coronation for Omega, Okada and New Japan; it became a news story unto itself; intentional or not, it was an unprecedented blessing from the high clergyman of wrestling fandom. Okada-Omega rematches in 2017 that also exceeded five-star ratings from Meltzer only reaffirmed the coronation was no mistake.

New Japan and the Wrestle Kingdom 12 event will do better business this year than last not just thanks to the addition of Chris Jericho but due in large part because of the critical reception of the Okada-Omega matches. Here we finally have an occasion where aesthetics and economics are aligned. Aesthetic quality isn’t the only feature of New Japan and its main players’ attraction. Certainly personality buoys the promotion. But the quality of its big matches are what set it apart and have awoken English-speaking fans more than ever to consume a Japanese wrestling product and establish New Japan as the clear #2 promotion in the world.

Brandon is a feature writer for Fightful.com, independent wrestler and trainer. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonThurston. Email him at [email protected]. He co-hosts Wrestlenomics Radio, a weekly podcast on wrestling business.

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