Puroresu Love

May 9, 2010

I don’t believe anyone is naïve enough to count professional wrestling as a sport anymore—sports entertainment is the word for it in the U.S. these days, as if the purpose of every sport isn’t already to entertain—but things have definitely gotten to the point where pro wrestling has taken the next step beyond “sports entertainment” and now features wrestlers and matches that play with the very conventions of the medium. Of course, I can’t pinpoint exactly when this began, but I can define when it reached its pinnacle. Well, I can’t define it precisely because I don’t have the specifics of where or when the match took place, but I can tell you it was a best of three falls title match between Ebessan and Kuishinbo Kamen of Osaka Pro Wrestling.

There are a number of story elements to this match, but I will only be looking at elements contained in the match itself, not necessarily the backstory leading up to the bout. The match begins with a flash finish as Kuishinbo reverses Ebessan’s bodyslam and covers him with a lateral press. Ebessan sits up in disbelief immediately after the three count, and even though he wears a mask that entirely covers his face he is able to convey the emotion through his posture and his body language. At the start of the second fall, Kuishinbo reverses Ebessan’s bodyslam again but Ebessan manages to kick out. This is not really a running gag because the result is different, but it’s still part of the story. This kick-out builds off the first fall and shows that Ebessan has learned from his mistake and the same trick won’t work again.

This is an immediate payoff as far as the story is concerned, but sometimes you have to pay attention and remember prior events in the match to appreciate what is happening. Near the end of the match, the referee counts slowly when Ebessan covers Kuishinbo, and Ebessan is upset. This is actually payback from a prior moment when the referee stole some thunder from the wrestlers and Ebessan kicked and berated him, and it is further paid off when Kuishinbo covers Ebessan and the referee counts quickly.

After this gag the action builds to the finish and the wrestlers show off their amazing athleticism. Even though they’re comedy wrestlers, they are as competent and technically sound as any straight wrestler. Kuishinbo showcases his aerial repertoire with a quebrada to the outside and a couple top-rope hurricanranas and then scores a good near-fall with a Cancun tornado, which involves leaping backwards off the top rope and spinning twice in the air before landing on your opponent. Because Kuishinbo is the champion and this is his finishing move, the crowd expects him to win—but Ebessan survives. Ebessan doesn’t look like he’s athletically built, but he still executes a beautiful moonsault and actually wins with a Cancun tornado of his own. To defeat Kuishinbo with his own finishing move is an impressive feat on Ebessan’s part, and it provides a poetic ending to the match.

Despite the poetic ending, however, the match as a whole is more like farcical satire. Ebessan and Kuishinbo are masters of playing with and making fun of the conventions of pro wrestling. Conventionally, when a wrestler whips his opponent to the ropes and then drops to his stomach, his opponent will leap over him and bounce off the opposite ropes. However, when Ebessan whips Kuishinbo to the ropes and drops to his stomach, Kuishinbo drops a headbutt on him instead of leaping over. Honestly, it doesn’t make much sense why the wrestler who was whipped to the ropes would leap over his prone opponent instead of attacking him, but it takes a comedy match to actually get the viewer to think about this nonsensical convention.

Kuishinbo and Ebessan even draw attention to the fictionality of their match by refusing to participate in it at various points. The most famous example of this comes when they try to leave the ring because they don’t want to wrestle anymore and the referee forces them to fight. The wrestlers begrudgingly go through the motions in slow motion with half-hearted strikes and slow shuffling rather than running against the ropes. The sequence culminates in a slow motion Shining Wizard by Ebessan, complete with Mutoh-kissing-Wolfpac-sign performance at the end. Such a move is completely out of character for Ebessan, but it draws attention to just how silly and contrived a move the Shining Wizard is, even though it is the finishing move of an immensely popular “serious” wrestler in Keiji Mutoh. Pro wrestling absolutely depends on contrivance, but contrivance can be comedy gold in the hands of two masters like Kuishinbo and Ebessan.

The story, the gags, and the athleticism of the wrestlers all combine to make this match one of the funniest and most entertaining of all time. Being able to tell a story solely through actions is an art that is lost on ninety-nine percent of the pro wrestlers of today, but that ability is alive and well in the ranks of Osaka Pro Wrestling. Calling Ebessan and Kuishinbo Kamen competitors is not entirely correct, and even calling them athletes is not enough—they are indeed nothing less than artists.

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Tickling the Twine

April 13, 2010

My discussion of art has spanned a number of different media, but art need not be solely restricted to media. Sometimes one may find art in a sporting arena, and not only on a team’s jerseys or playing surface. Athletes often are, in a way, also artists. Last week I had the opportunity to attend a local NHL game, and while absorbing the experience of my first NHL contest I paid special attention to any potential artists skating around the ice.

The game in question is the final regular season meeting of the year between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals held on April 6th, 2010 at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh (the penultimate regular season game ever at the Mellon Arena, in fact). I considered analyzing the entire event as a whole as a work of art, but I will instead stick to the game itself and the possibility of the players as the artists. For the sake of discussion, I will take a close look at one of the most exciting aspects of the game: the goals.

The first goal was scored by the Capitals’ Alexander Semin as he skated around a hapless Alex Goligoski and easily put the puck past netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. This play is an example of how being inartistic can hurt: Goligoski actually fell down as he was skating backwards to defend Semin, leaving the Caps’ right winger with an easy opportunity on the Penguins’ goalie, who should have been receiving better support from his defenseman. That’s not to say it excuses Fleury from missing the save, but one can’t help but feel that Goligoski’s gaffe cost the Penguins the goal. Had he maintained his balance and stayed on his man, Goligoski probably could have prevented the play.

The next goal was a precision shot by Mike Knuble that trickled into the net behind the Penguins’ Fleury. This shot was all skill on Knuble’s part, and Fleury simply couldn’t match him in this instance. The following goal is another example of one player making a better play than the other: Sidney Crosby simply took the puck and did what he does. Hockey is unique because the pace of the game forces the players to rely on instinct perhaps even more than practiced skills, and Crosby is the player he is because he possesses more natural instinct than practically any other player in the league today. There are some who believe that artists are born, not made, and in this instance one could almost point to Pittsburgh’s number 87 as case in point.

The fourth goal of the game is yet another instance of one player showing a lack of artistry. Marc-Andre Fleury put himself out of position by coming too far off the net and then couldn’t recover quickly enough to make the save. In most media, the artist will get a chance to revise and edit her works, but in sports—as in other live media—the artist only gets one chance. If he makes a mistake, he must suffer the consequences; in Flower’s case, that means he gets pulled from the game.

The next goal is a bit of a redeemer for the Penguins, coming yet again with the help of one Sidney Crosby. Sid makes a beautiful pass to defenseman Jordan Leopold, who is able to capitalize by putting the proverbial biscuit in the basket. This is an excellent artistic moment in the game, with both the pass and the shot working together to make a pretty picture of what teamwork in sports is all about. Matt Bradley’s subsequent backhand shot for a goal was equally pretty, but it was a shot that by all rights ought to have been saved.

The Pens’ final goal was a tremendous individual effort from Jordan Leopold, who shot the puck over a diving defenseman and past the stick of the Capitals’ netminder Semyon Varlamov. Seeing Leopold driving down the middle of the enemy zone and besting two opponents was pretty thrilling, though his excellent performance was not enough to keep the Pens afloat—especially not with Alex Ovechkin prowling the ice that night. The final two goals of the game were his, with his first coming right off a power play draw in Penguins’ territory. Ovechkin simply did what he does; taking the puck off the draw and slapping a screamer past relief goalie Brent Johnson. Ovechkin’s other goal was nothing of note, however, because it doesn’t take much skill to put the puck in an open net once the goalie has left the ice.

If we’re sticking with the notion that art equals beauty, then there is no denying that hockey qualifies because there are certainly a great number of beautiful moments that occur on the ice at any given time—from the goals to the saves to the passes to the hits. There are also plenty of cases in which a player’s lack of focus may cost him, and these are a certain artistic failure in that should the player have done what he was supposed to do, the result of his play would have been more in his favor. Ultimately, sports belong in the discussion of art because one may appreciate an individual’s talent and relish in his work, even if—or maybe even because—that work is, in reality, play.