If only pro-wrestling was a real sport. That would make it so much easier to discuss the objective realities regarding who is the greatest.
With wrestling fans and pundits there are a million excuses for why John Cena or Hulk Hogan, two of the most objectively successful wrestlers ever, should NOT be considered the best compared to critical favourites like Ric Flair or Stone Cold Steve Austin. The arguments persist. Everything from drawing power, the supposed knowledge of wrestling holds, the strength of victories, to plain old coolness, some wrestling fans can debate like they’re on a Real Housewives after-show more than Pardon the Interruption.
We must actively acknowledge that these wrestlers are both at the whim of producers like screen actors while also responsible for performing incredible tasks live just like stage performers, alongside also buying into the kayfabe of this all being a “sport” and our role as fans. But today I want to step outside for that briefly to think about what certain wrestlers bring creatively to the pro-wrestling “industry”, and amongst those who is the most important.
By creative I don’t necessarily mean the data that explains creativity in sport, like how going to your left on every 30th layup would be in a basketball career. Nor is it exactly an emotional expression presented through the practice of an artistic craft, like the decision to use a certain colour or brushstroke in oil painting. With pro-wrestling it needs to be a combination of external and internal factors that designates the actions of specific outliers as unique to others in the field, either because they are so good at performing a certain style of wrestling that it forces changes to the popular way the show is presented OR they are such a distinct personality that they are given opportunity to perform in ways that others wouldn’t. Admittedly a very abstract concept, but it’ll start to make more sense as I get into it (I think).
The list of some of the most important creative pro-wrestlers from the past couple of decades includes The Rock, Rey Mysterio Jr., CIMA, CM Punk, Mistico, KENTA and Bryan Danielson, all having been responsible for shifts in the culture of their specific pro-wrestling environment during their peak moment of glory. And it’s a very time sensitive issue, you can’t be a creative force of change in pro-wrestling for years at a time, it will only hit suddenly and then evaporate like spring snow. So who is the delicate dew that is about to crystallize before our eyes?
Reason why this wrestler is the most important…
Mahal = The elevation of a “jobber”.
“Jobber” is an incredibly harsh term to be used in a scripted and also unpredictable world of pro-wrestling. Unlike being an extra or an understudy, “jobber” connotes some sort of career status as a loser, except pro-wrestling is a creatively produced performance and no “jobber” is actually losing anything. They’re getting paid possibly just as much as as they people who are beating them, and losing effectively is just as difficult a skill of the craft to hone as winning strongly. However, Jinder Mahal has been branded with this “jobber” stigma for a long time, and was never considered a great wrestler or character in the top level of WWE. And yet today he is WWE Champion.
There’s very little precedence for this at the championship level. Someone like Bradshaw had a major career before changing to the JBL champion character, guys like Diesel and Yokozuna came seemingly out of nowhere to claim the championship but were such unique physical specimens, and then others like the Iron Sheik, Stan Stasiak or Sgt. Slaughter were simply there to transition the title between two “babyfaces” back when it was rare for them to match up against each other. There are other cases like lower level guys like Hardcore Holly or R-Truth stuck around long enough and were eventually elevated to a higher level, but never to the scale of what Jinder Mahal recently accomplished.
There are plenty of theories as to why this happened, and I’m not sure it’s as simple as just trying to cater to the Indian market, considering the racist undertones of this implication, but what interests me is the creative change this could have on the WWE.
Jinder’s perceived status as a “jobber” who skyrocketed to the WWE Title could be the factor that influences other young pro-wrestlers to sign with the WWE, or for poorly used veterans and developmental talent to stick around longer. At a time when the WWE seems to be both losing disgruntled mid-carders and ruthlessly poaching the rest of the indy world of star performers, the elevation of Mahal might have a profound creative effect on the world of pro-wrestling. Depending on how well things go for Mahal, it could be a selling point to a rising indy star like a David Starr or established promotion champion like Trevor Lee to be sold on the fact that if they come to the WWE they won’t be the next Kassius Ohno or Sin Cara, or even if they are the safe employment for a number of years could lead to spectacular success in the future. Mahal’s current status might also have led to the different decisions by people like Cody Rhodes, Ryback, CJ Parker or Solomon Crowe, when they are thinking about asking for their releases from the company. Therefore, creatively this could have a negative effect on both the log jam of wrestlers in the WWE system and the quality of wrestling happening in other promotions.
Okada = The “ace” of New Japan Pro-Wrestling.
The WWE has no competition financially or even creatively. They’re just so huge and doing so many different things that there is no other wrestling promotion in the world even a tenth as important. But if there is one that is a tenth at this point in time then it’s gotta be New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Regardless of the direct financial comparison, NJPW is doing well on their own scale and are growing internationally, both as a platform and in match quality. They have a roster of internationally well-known wrestlers alongside their domestic Japanese stars, and are open to sharing those wrestlers with other (smaller) promotions as well as featuring guest stars on their shows. Their plans for expanding into the US this year are relatively humble if not bold considering that the WWE is capable of destroying them on a whim if provoked.
And if the WWE decided to poach current IWGP Champion Kazuchika Okada from New Japan, you’d have to think that this would be a critical blow to the morale and overall creative plans for the company. Okada is a young, popular, charismatic and hard working star for New Japan, one who they’ve invested so much time and effort into developing for this very moment in their history. With Tanahashi, Goto, Naito and the literally poached WWE star Nakamura, all in the second half of their careers – albeit ones that helped propel New Japan to its current marquee status – the company is really relying on Okada to now carry the load, and I don’t just mean simply on a business scale but on the creative side too. They need him to appeal to the fickle, young wrestling fans in Japan, and around the world, through his matches and his character. He can’t just live off of his phenomenal series of Tanahashi matches, he needs to be the Tanahashi now with whom other wrestlers will need to have matches like that with instead. And that means setting the trend, being different, staying fresh, and taking the art-form so uniquely revered in Japan to the next level. I’m not sure what that is, although we may be seeing the signs of it in his matches this year with Kenny Omega and Katsuyori Shibata – these epic, brutal masterpieces – but whatever he’s going to do, he has to do it for New Japan.
If the WWE were to offer him life-changing money, they would be stealing New Japan’s most important creative star, and we know how hard it is to force manufacture it quickly in the pro-wrestling world. If YOSHI-HASHI could have been Okada, then most likely he would have been, and so the next step would not be a simple one for New Japan to take. We can imagine that the WWE would then want Okada to conform to their style, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not different. As fans, we now have something relatively different from the WWE that is not taking place inside small gyms, but on a large(-ish) scale, and that feels important. For New Japan to lose Okada in the near future would be a slashing of the tires on the second place car who they’ve already lapped twice, so it would be a disheartening moment who everyone else still in the race as well.
Sabre Jr. = He turned down a WWE contract.
I’m sure there are a few other notable wrestlers who have refused WWE contracts (Kota Ibushi, The Briscoes) or asked for releases (Juice Robinson, Cody Rhodes), but none are as creatively important as Zack Sabre Jr.
With the resulting 205 Live lacklustre cruiserweight programming, we can see clearly that not working for WWE moving forward from the Cruiserweight Classic was the best move Zack Sabre could have made creatively for his career. There is just nothing about the style of pro-wrestling that he has mastered today that could have been artfully boiled down into four minute matches against Rich Swann in front of 10,000 bored fans in an arena who just want to see John Cena come back out before they hit the highway.
So while Sabre is not the most famous pro-wrestler independent from the WWE, he is probably the most high profile one touring the world and employing a grapple-heavy British hybrid style. Unlike the MMA & striking style of Matt Riddle, the high-flying athletics of Will Osprey or the pseudo Southern-heel routine of Marty Scurll, Sabre represents something that the WWE doesn’t currently possess: someone who insists on doing the little things to add to his intricate offence, and this flourish of extra movements is what applies to artisan fans of indy pro-wrestling.
In one 30 second sequence in that match against Chris Hero, Sabre catches a boot attempt, twists the leg to unbalance Hero, then steps on one ankle and then the other in the inverted position, thus pinning Hero sideways to the mat. He then grabs Hero’s fingers for an arm wringer while applying pressure with his other hand to the shoulder muscle, which morphs into a wrist-lock/hammerlock twisting awkward spin, putting Hero face down, and ending with the pressurized stomp on the elbow. Sabre does so many things in those few seconds that would be filtered out of him for match on RAW.
Why the WWE audience refuses to (or the producers refuse to try) “pop” for intricate grappling in the same way UFC audiences apparently are educated to understand is a layered problem possibly related to socio-economic factors and marketing strategy, but there is little doubt that the small things Sabre does in his matches would not have been accentuated in the WWE. Instead, he’d have been subjected to the “re-education” of the Performance Center and come out the other end as a 3-act, climatic kick-out string wrestler like everyone else.
Reason why this wrestler might NOT be the most important…
Okada = English speaking.
It’s perfectly fine to be a star in Japan, and a cult hero around the world, by speaking Japanese, using a translator and maybe throwing in some English now and then. But not being able to cut regular, fluent promos in English is going to hinder Okada from being one of the most important creative wrestlers of his generation.
No one is going to look down on Kobashi, Misawa, Chono or even Muta for never really speaking English, but they also raised the bar for professional wrestling in Japan from their predecessors. Okada’s era is a significantly smaller business in his home market, but with the penetration of media worldwide, and the quality of their wrestling, NJPW definitely has the opportunity to grow worldwide in a way that was never possible before. And it would a whole lot easier if Okada was Connor McGregor and not Anderson Silva.
Sabre Jr. = The Young Bucks
While not as publicly or dramatically, we can assume that The Young Bucks have also turned down a WWE contract at some point. And in doing so they have created what seems to be a very lucrative independent career, travelling the world, selling merchandise and branding themselves as a unique act that you can’t see in the WWE.
But they’re flashy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not what Zack Sabre Jr. does. They throw super-kicks like they’re Ric Flair chops and do a variety of dives that is uber-pleasing to a small live crowd, yet repetitive and often lacking what some call “psychology”. This is neither good or bad, it’s just a formula that works for them.
Why this is related to Zack Sabre Jr. is that as long as they are the template for independent success from the WWE, Sabre’s brand of slower, strategic, grappling based matches don’t seem as box office-able in contrast. Thus there might be less value in his merchandise and appearances in his current incarnation. This is not unlike the situation Bryan Danielson ran into in 2005, when he took a hiatus from ROH in the storyline following his failure to win the ROH Title after a gruelling series against Homicide. Danielson had seemingly hit a ceiling on what he could accomplish as the indy work horse, and his return later that year to dethrone James Gibson for the title en route to his legendary run as an Austin/Hart/HBK mix propelled him to the WWE as the creative commodity that hopefully Sabre can one day repeat.
I fear that the attitude of the hardcore fans in 2017, based on the continued success of the Young Bucks, means it is going to be harder for Sabre to achieve rarefied international indy status. However, Sabre can’t simply replicate what Danielson did either, so it’s up to him to evolve in a way that will set him apart.
(Personally, I would love to see him in Lucha Underground. That atmosphere and taped patience of the presentation might be the ultimate place to display his style and highlight his strengths with a unique and character-focused character twist.)
Mahal = Is Jinder any good?
Usually there’s a reason a guy stays in the lower ranks as long as Jinder Mahal did, and it’s not because the WWE is trying to stifle talent. Sure, maybe they don’t use Cesaro or Ziggler as much as some fans think they should, but they get to have regular featured PPV matches of some substance. Mahal never did.
He was just a guy you figured you’d never see in any position of prominence, and if they stopped using him for a few weeks no one would have even noticed. If you were going to describe a generic creative talent in the WWE, you couldn’t get much simpler than Jinder Mahal. It’s way easier to understand how The Great Khali even gained his quick status as a top level guy than it is to explain how Jinder Mahal belongs in the upper echelon, aside from maybe recently getting grossly jacked-up.
While there are many exterior factors around Mahal that put him in a position of setting a creative standard, it’s difficult to see from what we know of him it’s going to have anything to do with his in-ring performances. If time hasn’t already told this story on him, then I guess we’ll have to wait and see if an exceptional wrestler can bloom from an average one if given a bigger spotlight.
Okay, so these are all reasonable options, but who REALLY is the most important creative wrestling in 2017?
#3 = Jinder Mahal
Mahal’s quick ascension has no doubt sparked the imagination of the fans, and in the “reality” era that’s a good thing because it keeps the regurgitation of theory and opinion on social media, blogs and podcasts churning, and quickly makes what Mahal did seem even bigger by the day.
However, while it’s not clear what this will lead to, based on what we know of the WWE and their recent patterns, I’m assuming there’s little surprise coming. Mahal will likely have a run of good main events before losing the title and falling into Alberto Del Rio upper mid-card status, with a legacy of being the name agents drop in contract negotiations with new indy stars as to what “could” happen if they sign.
#2 = Kazuchika Okada
Like Mahal, Okada is also one of the marquee champions of a major pro-wrestling company, possibly the only potential competition for some fan dollars in the US over the WWE. Unlike Mahal, though, the fans of NJPW actually expect excellence from Okada when they dole out those dollars, and not just excellence but like best ever levels of performance every time they see him.
That’s a difficult standard to live up to, especially when you’re Okada, who might not actually be the best ever, at least I don’t think people were saying that when he was coming up like they were for other recent wunderkinds like Rey Mysterio or KENTA.
None of the three have the better opportunity to set a new creative standard than Okada though, however his big match theatrics are something we’ve seen before in Japan and the US, and while thrilling, aside from a few modern tweaks, it’s not particularly different. And that’s fine, that’s what we want. But there is someone else on this list who has a chance to actually do something fresh, like those aforementioned creative wrestling trailblazers, and that’s why he’s…
#1 = Zack Sabre Jr.
I can’t help but see all kinds of Bryan Danielson in Zack Sabre Jr., everything down to his beloved indy status cradled by an acceptance that he’ll never really be a star anyways. Sabre, like Danielson, is going to have the opportunity to really do something different if he can just find the right recipe for his talents and personality.
Unlike Okada who is, at the least, safely going to be a major main event star for the next 20+ years in Japan, and Mahal who’s worst case scenario will be footnoted as a pandering blip on the championship legacy of the WWE, they both have less motivation to prove anything creatively with their unique opportunities in 2017. Nor do they have the drive Sabre Jr. has after turning down the WWE during one of their most historic in-ring experiments in decades (one that was basically built for him to win). Sabre made a statement that he thinks he has more in him than what the perceived concept of “success” is in the current landscape of international pro-wrestling, and I can’t wait to see what he does with that creative confidence.