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“Classic” and “New-school” booking mix to make N.O.C. exciting

This year, Night Of Champions carried on its tradition of making every title in WWE the focal point of the evening. In an age where sometimes belts, particularly any that are not the WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt, can become over-looked, under-played and ignored as central to feuds and story-lines, this was return to classic wrestling booking.

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Looking more closely at some of the title bouts from September 20th’s Pay-Per-View event, one can see a re-emergence of classic themes being employed in the booking.

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So often these days, the bookers and creative department feel it necessary to stay one step ahead of the savvy viewer who’s “seen it all”, that they exhaust themselves finding new, more complicated and convoluted ways to end matches.

Sometimes, however, a return to simple story-telling is just what’s needed to entertain.

Example One: The Intercontinental Championship Match

First of all it must be stated that during this match, WWE perpetrated an offense that goes against classic wrestling booking: they brought the champ out first.

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It may only be a small thing, but it’s a cue that works on the audience at a subconscious level. Ryback is the face champion, so to have him come out last tells the audience two things: 1) that the holder of the belt is more important than the other guy; and 2) that this is the guy you should be cheering for – that’s why we held back his entrance, so you all could go crazy for him.

Entrances aside, the match was booked to portray a classic heel-face/champion-challenger dynamic. The heel challenger, hungry and desperate to win gold, aggressively took the fight to the face champion, targeting the left arm and attacking it mercilessly.

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This type of match, the type where a body part is methodically worn down over a prolonged course of time, is a classic formula and will never go out of style, though it can sometimes be forgotten. Randy Savage, Ric Flair, Bret Hart, Jeff Jarrett, all were masters of this scientific and strategic way of wearing down opponents.

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Kevin Owens proved that not only is he effective as a brawler and a brute, not only can he put in a roller-coaster bout full of innovative moves and high spots, but that he is also effective as the shrewd tactician. His aggressive style and ingenuity made his attack on Ryback’s weakened arm all the more visceral. His knowledge of submissions was balanced with use of his brute strength and sizeable bulk.

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Ryback, for his part, sold very convincingly. There were times when he showed cracks of inconsistency, particularly when attempting to come back by pulling off a power-slam, showed through. However, one could argue that it speaks to the power of will and courage possessed by the baby-face which allowed him to fight through intense pain. These are necessary characteristics for the face-champ to exude during this type of match.

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Ryback fought back valiantly, through pain and damage sustained, using the energy derived from the rallying cheers and chants of the live crowd. In classic “Hulk up” fashion, the face-champ defied his pain and was on the verge of executing his signature maneuver to end the match.

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It was not his night, however. Owens, ever the under-handed opportunist, desperately raked Ryback’s eyes and rolled him up for an upset victory. Despite the cheers from Owens fans in attendance, the heel-challenger won by classic heel-challenger tricks, and the face-champ, valiant as he may have been, was left to hunger for a chance at redemption.

Example Two: The Divas Championship Match

It is unfortunate that examples one and two are so similar. It seems the bookers were so jazzed on employing the same formula they didn’t see it as repetitive.

It is.

There are, however, key differences between the Owens/Ryback contest and that between Charlotte and Nikki Bella. The first being that while before we began with a heel-challenger/face-champion dynamic, we now are dealing with heel-champion/face-challenger. The other difference being the outcome of the match in relation to the bulk of the in-ring action.

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While Ryback was uncharacteristically (and a bit unfairly) portrayed as a bit of an underdog champ in relation to Owens, who’s momentum and booking has been anything but weak so far, Nikki Bella has been built up for weeks as one of the greatest Divas Champions off all time. This is, in part or in whole, because of her record-shattering reign as champ.

(Although, to look closely at her win-loss record, as well as her number of actual title defenses over the past year, her accomplishment begins to tarnish.)

Not withstanding, for the purposes of this match, Bella appears the accomplished veteran cementing her legacy. Charlotte, by contrast, appears plucky, hungry and eager to begin her own.

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In the early stages of the match, Charlotte appears to hurt her knee with an awkward landing from the apron. She does this is such a realistic, understated way that one would be half-inclined to believe it a shoot. Not until she re-enters the ring and Bella immediately begins to attack the tweaked appendage do we get the nod that the spot was a work and Charlotte is just very, very good.

Charlotte and Bella then go through a wonderfully paced, Pathos-inducing, character-driven match.

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Bella, as the heel-champ, is arrogant and boastful. She took a deliberate pace, doing more and more damage to the injured leg of her opponent, pausing periodically to pose or preen or taunt the ambitious upstart. Cracks in her confidence only begin to appear after her relentless offense continually results in Charlotte’s refusal to quit. It is then that her emotion, her anger, begins to affect her judgement, and a fatal mistake is made.

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Charlotte, as the face-challenger, did such a convincing job of selling her knee that it was almost difficult to watch at times. Howling with pain, face twisted in agony, tears rolling, her peril paired with Bella’s glee at punishing her built an immense amount of palpable sympathy for the challenger.

Taking advantage of Bella’s momentary error of judgement, brought about perhaps by desperation, Charlotte gained the upper-hand. Struggling against the pain in her leg, she applied her signature submission, and the champion soon tapped.

(Now, there is some debate over whether the use of the Figure-Eight Leglock would be the smartest choice of move for someone who’s sustained damage to their own knee. One could argue that the amount of will power needed to push through that pain is what makes the hero all the more worthy.)

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This booking plays, arguably, better than the first scenario. The champion, Nikki Bella, appears wily, cunning, and deserving of her title – while at the same time appearing ruthless, conniving, and opportunistic. The challenger comes off as fiercely determined and ultimately sympathetic, and the clean victory at the end of such an arduous trial makes the win that much more satisfying.

Two prime examples of good, old-fashioned heel-face, champion-challenger match booking. But the entire event did not rely on classic formulas, because the wrestling world is an evolving art form. The world of heel vs face has been challenged for years, and although a place still exists for it, there are times when deviation from old ways is needed.

Example Three: The United States Championship Match

Seth Rollins and John Cena put on another epic in-ring encounter in the Night Of Champions penultimate showdown. Both men walked into the contest with high expectations riding on their shoulders and neither man disappointed.

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The match was a prime example of an instance where classic heel-face dynamics do not apply. Cena, the consummately-billed baby-face, came out wearing black and throwing fists at his opponent. Rollins, the often cowardly and conniving heel, wore his blinding white trunks and adopted a gutsy offense instead of “playing a safe, defensive game” as Jerry Lawler suggested.

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The two performers engaged in the type of high-intensity, high-workload bout that modern (especially indie) wrestling audiences are becoming accustomed to seeing. Multiple high spots strung together, long sequences of counters upon counters, multiple false finishes and no one competitor clearly dominating the other and no one character coming across clearly as the hero or villain.

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Examples of this type of “new school” work-load can be seen from wrestlers coming from European and Japanese promotions, as well as companies such as Dragons Gate and Ring Of Honour. One need only look at matches from Kevin Owens and Cesaro, Seth Rollins and Daniel Bryan, Finn Balor and Hideo Itami, or Neville and Sami Zayn to see the kind of action which results from this type of break-neck, leave-it-all-on-the-mat ring work.

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Cena does not belong to the same school of wrestling as Daniels, Cesaro, Owens or Seth Rollins. He has, however, proved himself capable of adaptation. He has been able to keep up with the new talent and their higher workload, in part because of his physical ability and in part because of his work ethic.

Having Rollins as WWE World Heavyweight Champion is a boon for the Fed, as is having Owens as its Intercontinental Champion and John Cena as its US Champion. It means that all three singles belts are currently being worn by individuals who can really go in the ring in a variety of styles and thrive in whatever the booking may be. Whether old-school or new-school, classic or modern, all three champs are capable and talented students of the game.

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