For this introductory paragraph, I could talk to you about how one of the beauties of wrestling is its variety. How greatness can be achieved in so many forms. How different regions and promotions around the world have their own unique flavors. Or I could just be honest and say that when you’ve got 101 matches and have to group them into batches of five, it’s necessary to take five diverse matches with no real link and shove them all together. Think no less of these offerings; however, this will be some of the most fun you’ll have following along with the Wrestling 101. So, without further ado, I present you the Wrestling 101 Brown Bag Special. What a deal! RIP Don West. – Robin Reid

Match #52 Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka RINGS Fighting Integration IV

Match #52
Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka
RINGS Fighting Integration IV

Watch: YouTube
Testimonial by Brennan Patrick

Once upon a time, pro wrestling offered a variety of unique styles for fans to digest as opposed to today’s amalgamation of many styles into a singular, largely indistinctive modern approach. You had your strong styles, your lucha libres, your deathmatches, and of course, the long-dead but never forgotten shoot-style. Shoot-style wrestling emerged in the early to mid-1980s with students of the likes of Antonio Inoki and Karl Gotch exiting New Japan Pro Wrestling to pioneer something different in the form the Universal Wrestling Federation. This isn’t intended to be a history of shoot-style wrestling but that groundwork had to be laid in order for what would arguably be the peak of the style in Akira Maeda’s Fighting Network RINGS.

After Maeda left the UWF in December of 1990, he founded RINGS the following year and soon thereafter, it became apparent that he was promoting a much different product, something that blurred the line between worked and actual shoot fights more than anything that came before it. While Maeda booked himself strong throughout his tenure, it was the younger generation that came to truly define this hybrid style, specifically Kiyoshi Tamura, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka and Yoshihisa Yamamoto, along with the more seasoned Russian sambo master in Volk Han.  The athletic genius between the four of them was off the charts, and any combination could result in an all-time classic match-up.

But, in my opinion, the one match that stands as the pinnacle of not only Fighting Network RINGS but shoot-style wrestling in general is Tamura vs. Kohsaka from June 27, 1998.  Absolutely incredible stuff from bell-to-bell and while (spoiler alert) the match ends in a 30:00 time limit draw, there’s never a dull moment between these two between the grappling and striking. Everything builds to this beautiful crescendo of submission wrestling until exhaustion and apprehension take hold in an attempt to outpace, out-maneuver, and outsmart the opponent. The opening matwork sets the stage, with these sudden bursts of explosive movements into position, especially from Tamura, and whenever either man is able to grab onto a limb or a hold, the crowd bites on with anticipation.

The in-ring awareness from both Tamura and Kohsaka is undeniably incredible, and they manage to work themselves out of predicaments – I mean, the first rope break doesn’t come until the 13 minute mark. Then the strikes begin, with Tamura popping Kohsaka in the corner with open palms to get him down on the mat in a prone position, yet it’s Kohsaka that ends up sending him scrambling for the ropes with a kneebar, acknowledging the crowd afterwards like “yeah, I got answers too.” That’s really the tale of the match – Tamura has the answer to Kohsaka, who has the answer to Tamura, and it leads to a draw because… well, no one can manage the final determining answer.

The intensity picks up around the 20:00 mark, with Tamura rocking Kohsaka’s world with a barrage of hard palms (sold wonderfully by Kohsaka) and yet, when Kohsaka fires back a bit later with high kicks to the head, Tamura still manages to snag a foot and put him in the kneebar. As time begins to dwindle, each rope breaks becomes that much more meaningful, and hard strikes are thrown with wild abandon. I loved Kohsaka’s desperation judo throw but, again, Tamura is able to roll through it into an armbar attempt, which Kohsaka counters with his own armbar to force the rope break. Answers to answers! Tamura’s toe on the ropes to break Kohsaka’s front necklock was very dramatic, the crowd fully invested in it as a possible finish. Just the ability of these two to switch gears so deftly is insane, like Kohsaka slipping on his second throw attempt but instinctually rolling Tamura up with another kneebar. Then the final few minutes of the match is full of these dramatic, last-ditch submission attempts and counters and reversals with no resolve in the end as the bell rings out the draw. Mutual respect is shown between the two competitors, the crowd showing its appreciation for the highest level of athleticism put on display in the night’s main event. One of the greatest matches of all time, period.

Only a year later, with Maeda’s retirement, RINGS would transition into a full-fledged MMA promotion and the art of shoot-style wrestling was all but lost as “sports entertainment” took hold and thrived in the world of professional wrestling. Sadly, there will probably never be wrestlers the likes of Tamura, Kohsaka, and Han again, and while dorks of the internet with opinions for days will say “so-and-so is the modern-day Volk Han” or “what’s-his-face is the current Kiyoshi Tamura”, that is simply not true and a terrible take. Because quite frankly, no one has or likely will replicate that level of pure skill, awareness, and athleticism in the modern wrestling landscape. If shoot-style isn’t your thing, do yourself a favor, watch this match, and re-evaluate afterwards.

Further Viewing

  • Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto – One of the most dramatic shoot-style matches period, with an absolutely insane finishing stretch (from a shoot-style point of view; check your Kenny Omega top rope dragon suplex kickouts at the door).
  • Volk Han vs. Kiyoshi Tamura – An awesome display of pure skill, struggle and lightning-quick reflexes from Tamura and the sambo master, Volk Han. The chemistry between these two is incredible.
  • Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto – What a bloody battle. The escalation of the strikes, the desperation of the submission holds, the narrow escapes, this match has it all.

Match #53 Young Bucks vs. Future Shock vs. Super Smash Bros. PWG Threemendous III

Match #53
Young Bucks vs. Future Shock vs. Super Smash Bros.
PWG Threemendous III

Watch: Highspots TV
Testimonial by Sarah Flannery

Threemendous III, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, American Legion Post 308, Reseda, California. July 21, 2012.  It was PWG’s ninth anniversary. A beloved independent promotion that has gone on to make many a star and by God were stars made this night.

Throughout 2012, the Super Smash Brothers had the Young Bucks’ number. They arrived on the Pro Wrestling Guerrilla scene, straight from internet virality from CHIKARA, along with a few appearances on ROH TV. Straight away, they made names for themselves in PWG, and were cemented as one of the top tag teams. They couldn’t be beaten by the Bucks and that frustrated the brothers, especially when the SSB defeated them for the vacant tag titles. It frustrated Matt and Nick so much that they hired legal counsel, and served documents to Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s offices, showcasing the corrupt nature of the company. Particularly the actions of one Rick Knox, who had been known to get involved and prevent the dastardly Bucks from getting their way and as such, inserted themselves in what was meant to be a straight tag team championship match between the Super Smash Bros and the Future Shock team of O’Reilly & Cole, who had gone deep in the DDT4 tournament months prior and were proving to be a top tag team in their own right. The stakes were high and thus the first ever PWG three way no disqualification ladder match was made for the titles. (Or so Silverback says)

Straight away, the Bucks are ready for absolute war, wasting absolutely no time after the obligatory pre-match posing, going after everyone in the match. From here on out it is hard to put into words just how fast the action unfolds, I remember watching it for the first time, I couldn’t believe just how sick some of the moves were that were being executed. PWG had been known for its unbelievable spots, hell it’s what the company was built on, but this straight away you knew was special. Plenty of dives, tope con hilos, brain busters on chairs and just all-out gross ladder spots: it has to be seen to be believed. It also has to be watched several times just to ensure you see it all! It wasn’t just six men that were made that night though, Rick Knox was showcased in some insane spots, especially with his tope con hilo at the very end, which allowed SSB to pick up the win. Knox himself solidified himself as an all-time PWG legend with many of us happy he has gone on to get his flowers by refereeing in AEW. 

Excalibur and Kevin Steen’s commentary for this match really compliments how you feel as a viewer, they go through phases of silence, they scream, they regret their decisions in commentating, they laugh, they’re exasperated and above all else, they are entertained, with the two delivering an all-timer performance on the call. They cannot believe the carnage taking place in front of their eyes with the audience hooting and hollering the entire time. This venue really captured lightning in a bottle with how much the wrestlers were able to capture the audience’s attention. It may be rose-tinted glasses I have on but few crowds are able to replicate the sort of atmosphere that the Legion Post had. Myself as a recent school graduate when this match took place, had grand ideas to attend a show in that hallowed venue. I never got there, but it’s kind of insane that such a dingy hall became such an iconic place. 

Some might say I’m going a slight step too far by saying this, but this is one of the most important matches of its time. If anyone were to ever ask you to explain what being an independent wrestling fan in the 2010s was like, just show them this match. It inspired many matches we see today, for better and for worse. It sums up the PWG experience perfectly, and boy it makes me miss it all so much. Not all spot fest matches were made equal and this match proves that when it’s good, it’s damn good.

Fast forward eleven years later, we’ve been able to see all six men compete within an AEW ring. The Young Bucks are now one of the greatest tag teams of all time, Super Smash Brothers got to relive their feud with the Bucks one more time within that company, Adam Cole main evented one of the highest attended wrestling shows of all time & Kyle O’Reilly, on the shelf currently, has shown the world that he is one of the absolute best. A lot has happened in eleven years but the love for this match will never wane.

Further Viewing

Match #54 Akira Hokuto vs. Shinobu Kandori AJW Dream Slam

Match #54
Akira Hokuto vs. Shinobu Kandori
AJW Dream Slam

Watch: YouTube
Testimonial by Jeff Martin

“It’s just a match, there’s no story.”

We’ve all seen this accusation leveled at a match online. It evidences a lack of understanding of pro wrestling as a medium, because it only accounts for a portion of wrestling storytelling. When someone says “there’s no story,” what they’re complaining about is that there wasn’t an angle leading to the match. It’s often true that matches happen without an angle leading up to them, and we’re going to talk about one of those matches shortly, but that just means the story hasn’t started yet.

All storytelling is built on an underlying structure. Professional wrestling, being a hybrid of theatre and sport, utilizes two simultaneous structures, one physical and one emotional. The physical story is the told through the action itself – the moves performed, the pacing, the wrestlers’ connection with the crowd, and the result of the match. The emotional story is told through the characters involved in the match – what are these wrestlers’ personalities, what led to this conflict, how are they responding to what’s happening, and what the result means to them. When professional wrestling is at its most effective, these structures harmonize to create a nuanced tale of struggle and triumph. The emotional layer elevates the athletic spectacle, imbuing it with meaning, while the physical layer paces the story and provides the beats that the characters will respond to.

The emotional, character-based elements of the story tend to be the most overt. They encompass the angles and promos that lead to a match, and are much more obviously connected to what we are taught stories should be like. The physical story is the first thing anyone thinks about when they hear the phrase “pro wrestling,” but it is also the subject of the most heated debates among wrestling fans about what constitutes storytelling and what doesn’t. What matters, though, is that the action is dictated by the emotional beats of the characters involved.

On April 2, 1993, Akira Hokuto and Shinobu Kandori stepped into the ring together to provide a masterclass in pro wrestling storytelling. Before the bell rings, it is clear who these women are. Kandori’s face displays naught but stern stoicism, and she presents herself with no more than the baseline level of flash for Joshi wrestlers in the ’90s (which in this case means a glittery robe with huge shoulder pads). Hokuto wears a brightly colored robe, huge white wig with an Oni mask, and brandishes a SWORD. Kandori looks like if Tatsumi Fujinami knew colors existed, while Hokuto wouldn’t look the slightest bit out of place in Throne of Blood.

The opening moments of the match further cement each woman’s character, and also establish the physical story. Hokuto is all emotion, flying into a rage and attacking wildly. Kandori is dispassionate and ruthlessly precise, quickly countering Hokuto’s ferocity with pinpoint striking and nearly tearing Hokuto’s arm off with a wrenching submission. Kandori goes for the kill quickly, outgrappling Hokuto and eventually turning her fiery spirit against her when the battle spills to the floor. Kandori splits Hokuto’s head like a coconut with a piledriver on a ringside table, and providing us with the key to the physical story – Hokuto’s emotions are her biggest strength AND weakness, and Kandori’s stoicism is her key to victory.

Drenched in blood, Hokuto’s performance becomes elemental. She is a whirlwind of violence, slowed only by Kandori’s own rising anger. As the action keeps escalating, it is driven by the wrestlers’ emotion. Kandori’s most devastating offense comes when her fury rises to match Hokuto, but that also lowers her defenses and gives Hokuto her best counterattacks. Kandori’s best weapon is her submission wrestling, but it only fuels Hokuto’s defiance. When Kandori finally gives in and matches Hokuto’s chaos, she is undone. The stoic grappler we were introduced to has vanished, replaced by a blood-soaked madwoman throwing everything she has into Hokuto’s raging inferno, only to be consumed by it. The battle ends not with a wrestling move, but with a wild haymaker from Akira Hokuto. Just like it started.

But it was just a match, how could there be a story?

Further Viewing

Match #55 Money in the Bank Ladder Match WWE WrestleMania 21

Match #55
Money in the Bank Ladder Match
WWE WrestleMania 21

Watch: Peacock / WWE Network
Testimonial by Robin Reid

As a wrestling fan existing in the 2020s, you’re bound to have seen more multi-person ladder matches than you can count. They’re done everywhere, and everywhere they’re done they’re done frequently. While they often include some impressive athletic displays, they rarely stick in the memory, and even in the moment, you wouldn’t be alone if you admitted your eyes tend to glaze over a little. As a genre of match, a multi-person ladder match struggles to stand out from the pack; there’s a real tendency to all feel very samey.

While the history of ladder matches in wrestling can be traced all the way back to the 70s, the multi-person variety was really brought to prominence and popularity by the Money in the Bank ladder match. First held at 2005’s WrestleMania 21, the match also brought in the now greatly overused trope of the winner receiving a ‘cash-in’ spur-of-the-moment type title shot.

So this match is to blame for both lazy cash-ins and the over-abundance of cluster-style ladder matches? Clearly we should be filled with ire towards it then? Perhaps, but it has a two things going in its favor.

One: it laid out a path for these type of ladder matches that was unfortunately not followed. It can’t be blamed for the wrong path being taken.

Two: it is excellent.

Watching it back with eyes that have seen what must be approaching triple figures of its ilk, it really stands out just how tight and purposeful this match is. All six men (Benoit, Jericho, Christian, Kane, Benjamin & Edge) play a key role, with very little wasted motion or padding. Clocking in at only a few seconds past 15 minutes, it’s far more compact than almost every match it influenced and better for it. But most importantly, it tells a distinct story. This is no pure firework show of people taking turns to give and take athletic spots before eventually the person ordained to win is allowed to climb up and grab the briefcase. This is a match built around Chris Benoit’s arm being targeted in inventive ways, and how that ultimately leads to his difficulty climbing the ladder. Watching it with modern eyes, you’ll be so frustrated that the offspring of this match only inherit the impressive spot but forewent the narrative throughline.

The first. The best. You can’t blame it for what followed.

Further Viewing

Match #56 Atlantis vs. Ultimo Guerrero CMLL 81st Anniversary Show

Match #56
Atlantis vs. Ultimo Guerrero
CMLL 81st Anniversary Show

Watch: YouTube
Testimonial by Cubs

It’s pretty easy to stumble onto a mask versus mask match in Mexico; something like that happens every weekend on an indie show somewhere. It’s much rarer to see a famous wrestler put their mask on the line. It’s almost impossible to see one do it against an equally famous wrestler. Atlantis and Ultimo Guerrero’s mask match stands out as that sort of rare occasion. A fanbase that ultimately believes this match makes it feel as authentic as can be.

Atlantis has won many titles and tournaments in CMLL, but the mask matches have defined his career. His mask match versus Villano III is of equal importance but slightly different emotion. That was a dream match between former rival promotional stars, with a contrivance of a story to force them against each other. Atlantis and Ultimo Guerrero was a long, slow build. Ultimo Guerrero sheltered Atlantis on the rudo side after the fans turned against him; Atlantis and Ultimo Guerrero successfully teamed for years, and Atlantis abandoned Ultimo Guerrero when the fans showed they were ready to take him back. CMLL turned up the heat by heavily suggesting the match would occur in the 2013 Aniversario show, only to pull a switch and keep everyone waiting one year longer. It left ticket buyers upset the night of the change and starving for the match a year later. The Villano III feud had its own stalling tactics, but the anticipation was even higher when Atlantis versus Ultimo Guerrero finally happened.

Lucha libre’s place in Mexico’s self-image changed between those two mask matches. Even at its best drawing days, the general Mexican public saw Mexican wrestle as unsophisticated junk only enjoyed by the lower classes. That shifted in the 2000s, as luchador masks became a media symbol for Mexico itself, and the luchadors were a positive representation of Mexican’s bravery and courage. A mask match was no longer just for silly lucha libre fans but an accepted part of the country’s culture. It meant added interest and also an added seriousness to the ritual; it had to be something to represent more than just two people.

That connection between the mask match and Mexico is made strongly in the pre-match. CMLL warms up the crowd with a traditional Mexican dance number and then a prehispanic one. This wrestling match is a Mexican dance in another form, in another set of period-appropriate clothing, just a different representation of the Mexican identity. You can see the seriousness and emotion on everyone’s faces – not just the participants but the fans watching two men enter. You can hear as much in the shouting as the murmuring. 

It’s the emotion that makes the memory of the match. The energy seems to overwhelm both Atlantis and Ultimo Guerrero at times, stopping not to encourage it but more just to experience it for themselves. There is a story to the match of both men knowing each other very well from their times as friends and rivals. Ultimo Guerrero reverses an Atlantis cradle sequence to take the first fall, while Atlantis uses Ultimo Guerrero’s trademark submission to even the match in fall two. There is an overarching story of Ultimo Guerrero’s aggressive attempts at revenge over Atlantis’ betrayal, which works for him early and then against him later. It’s also a match you could transcribe every move to take place and notice that they’re not so different from any other big Ultimo Guerrero match; he makes his big moves and does them in the same order as always. The transcription would miss the emotion, the fear, and the frantic energy that comes on each near fall. It would overlook the excitement and distress when Ultimo Guerrero escapes the Atlantida once and then a second time and the jubilation when Atlantis locks it in on the third try.

(Listing moves would also miss the gnarly fall Ultimo Guerrero takes when Atlantis pushes him to the floor out of his headstand senton in the third fall. You shouldn’t miss that.)

Everything after the match tells the seriousness and importance of the moment, maybe even more than the match. Ultimo Guerrero sobbing about the loss, and then a shot of Ultimo Guerrero’s family being in tears for and about him. Guerrero solemnly whispers to the ring announcer his real name; the ring announcer has known Guerrero for years, but it’s part of the obligation of losing the mask to make sure Guerrero’s actual name is known. Guerrero unmasks, then brushes his long hair out of his face. He walks around to look directly into cameras, ensuring no question on his face. He takes his punishment seriously and thoroughly. Guerrero even apologizes to the fans for letting them down, and then Atlantis talks about showcasing Guerrero in a place of honor befitting a great warrior. The match is technically over the moment of the Atlantida, but both men treat the outcome and each other with the highest level of respect and raise the feelings even higher.

A 1952 match between the Black Shadow and El Santo set the template for a major mask match in Mexico; someone loses and suffers the embarrassment of unmasking forever. The Ultimo Guerrero versus Atlantis re-frames that major match in modern times and links it closer as a symbol of Mexico. There are winners and losers, but they honor each other and the outcome the best they can. Plenty of matches may look more ‘real,’ but nothing in wrestling feels more real than a mask match like Ultimo Guerrero and Atlantis.

Further Viewing

The Wrestling 101

The Wrestling 101 is a Voices of Wrestling group project headed up by Kevin Hare and Robin Reid. You can discuss the series with them on twitter @stan__hansen (Kevin) and @TheRDouble (Robin) or join the conversation over in the Voices of Wrestling Discord.