Feb 07, 2022, 05:55AM

The Match Quality of Professional Wrestling

An interview with The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

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Simply recognizing that The Wrestling Observer is 40 years old isn’t the mere acknowledgement of 40 years of a publication’s existence. It’s the acceptance of the fact that, for four decades, professional wrestling has been journalistically covered as fiction, as opposed to the credible sport that (especially younger) fans have often hoped against hope that it legitimately was, providing them with an unobstructed view behind curtains that are both figurative and literal.

The Observer has also provided the wrestlers with information that owners of wrestling territories were often able to conceal. For a presentation of sport that is fundamentally as macho as any, the insider reporting of wrestling was fueled by gossip. The adage of “Telegram; telephone; tell-a-wrestler” contributed to the gossip-driven nature of wrestling’s behind-the-scenes machinations, but the territorially isolated nature of that gossip was changed when newsletters like The Observer began to aggregate that information and transmit it. This innovation unraveled the stranglehold on information and leveled the playing field, while simultaneously inviting wrestling fans to evaluate the action transpiring on that field through a different lens.

As the driving force behind four decades of The Observer, Dave Meltzer has had an enduring influence in the pro wrestling industry, and that’s been viewed as desirous by some, and intrusive by others. On the one hand, the information included in Meltzer’s reporting has had repercussions on the actions of bookers, promoters and wrestlers. On the other hand, Meltzer’s opinions of match quality—captured within what was understood for decades to have been a 5-point star rating system—have been interpreted as a performance standard that several wrestlers frequently pursue through their in-ring activity. Meltzer’s actions on both ends of the presentation continuum are frequently construed as consequential, and he has been both lauded and vilified for his contributions to a performance art in which he’s generally classified as an outsider.

Meltzer made himself available for an interview to discuss his star-rating system, how his action of “breaking the scale” for modern matches should be contextualized, and how some wrestling fans have become too obsessed with what is, at its core, one man’s opinion on wrestling.

Splice Today: Some people get incensed when your taste in matches and your ratings of matches don’t equate with theirs. What is the best way, in your opinion, for a wrestling fan to approach your match-rating system?

Dave Meltzer: For one thing, if you’re within half a star of me, that means we agree. When I go to Pro Wrestling Guerilla shows, we usually have a whole row of people sitting in the same spot watching the same match. If I say a match is 3.75 stars, and my best friend next to me says it’s 4 stars, and the next guy over says 4.25, and another guy says 3.5, then I can say to them, “Essentially, we all agree!” If you’re within a half star, you agree that the match was good. That’s what’s important. Some people get so upset over a quarter-star difference in a match’s rating, I’m basically left saying, “Jesus Christ!”

Now if the difference between our ratings is 5 stars to 1 star, then we disagreed, and that’s fine, too! It’s okay if people disagree. There are some movies where I’ll look at the star ratings in the newspaper and say, “Yeah, that’s pretty close to what I think,” and there are other times where I really loved a movie and the reviewer gave it two stars. Maybe that reviewer and I were looking at it in different ways; he’s looking at it more for the message it sends and I’m looking at it more as entertainment.

The big thing is, does it look good? Does it look really bad? If the action of the match looks really bad, that’s not good no matter what. Does it engage the audience? Nick Bockwinkel told me once that he could have the same match in the opener as in the main event, but if he’s in the main event and has had three weeks of television backing it up, he’ll have three times the reaction from the crowd even though he’s doing the exact same thing as in the opening match, and the action is just as good. If you have all of the interview time, and you’re a good promo guy, and you’re focused on this thing as the main event of your show, you’ve got a big edge in “ring psychology.” That’s not really ring psychology; it’s that the people have peaked because this is the main event and not the opening match. 

ST: If I see one of my favorite matches of all time—like Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu from 1989—has been rated by you as 5 stars, and then I see that you’ve rated a match 6 stars or 7 stars, how should I interpret that? Should I be interpreting this as Dave Meltzer thinking a 6-star match is 20 percent better than Jumbo vs. Tenryu, or a 7-star match is 40 percent better than any match Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart ever had?

DM: I don’t think in terms of 6- and 7-star matches being a certain percentage better than 5-star matches. The few times I originally gave match ratings above 5 stars, yes, I was thinking that those matches were better than the 5-star ratings that I used to give. For whatever reason, people didn’t really know that I’d given out 6-star match ratings before. Before I created my ratings scale, Norm Dooley awarded 6-star match ratings before, and even 6.5-star match ratings, and I copied that from him. In my mind, 5-stars is the top rating, but there’s going to come a day when people are better than they are now, and more acrobatic, and more athletic.

When Omega and Okada had the match that I awarded 7 stars to, I said to myself, “I think I just saw the two best wrestlers in the world on this given day against each other in the best match they’ll ever have. It’s the best match I’ve ever seen, and it may be the best match I see for the rest of my life.” When that match was over, I didn’t know how you could top it. That’s why I gave that match 7 stars, and that is just my opinion. Even when I initially gave out 6-star ratings, I thought that I would see a better match one day. Some of the young guys are going to study that match, they’re going to learn, they’re going to figure things out, and they’re going to come up with something better.

One thing about the wrestlers now is that they all watch tapes and footage, and they study all the great matches like Tsuruta and Tenryu, and Tsuruta and Misawa. And they study Mexican wrestling and British wrestling, and they can meld it all together and do things like Will Ospreay, Zack Sabre Jr. and Bryan Danielson, so that you’re looking at these guys and wondering where they even came up with some of these ideas. It’s funny to me. People should be celebrating matches of that caliber, and most people do, but some people get so mad. You can disagree and say, “It’s good, but I don’t think it’s that great,” and that’s fine.

ST: So to be clear, if I see that you have awarded a match with 6 or 7 stars, does that mean you think it’s far better than anything Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels ever did?

DM: It’s a different era! Wrestlers today learned from Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels the same way Bret learned from Dynamite Kid and Shawn learned from Ric Flair. Shawn was incredible, but there are people who are married to the idea that no one can ever be better than Shawn. In the timeframe of Bret and Shawn, I always thought that Shawn was better than Bret, but if you asked me today, I would say Bret was better than Shawn because Bret’s wrestling is more impressive to 2022 eyes than Shawn’s is.

Shawn does a lot of really cool stuff, but Will Ospreay does everything Shawn did better than Shawn, and people will get really furious at that, but it’s true. Bret’s ringwork was really tight, it holds up better, and it’s still great. I never thought Shawn was the best wrestler in the world, because I saw Kenta Kobashi, and to me Kobashi’s offense was so much better, so much more believable, and his emotion was better. It’s not a knock on Shawn; he’s still one of the greatest of all time.

Today, Bret and Owen at Wrestlemania X looks like an all-time classic match, and Shawn and Razor simply looks like a very good ladder match. We’ve seen Edge and Christian and the Hardys, and we’ve seen these young guys doing incredible ladder stunts. Well, Shawn’s match was all about the ladder stunts that Shawn was doing, so of course it doesn’t hold up as well as it once did, but Shawn was doing the match for 1994 wrestling fans, and it was an incredible match to the eyes of 1994 wrestling fans. In your mind, if you want it to be 1994, then the things guys are doing now won’t appeal to you because they’re not wrestling for 1994 wrestling fans; they’re wrestling for 2022 wrestling fans.

ST: Could you ever see yourself adding an 8th star to your rating system, or has everything that could possibly be done in the ring been captured within 7 stars?

DM: Will we ever see an 8-star match? I hope so. I don’t think so, but I’d love it. In theory, we should see one. You’re going to need two people who are athletes with fantastic wrestling minds, who are in incredible condition, who are given a platform. They’d have to go 45-plus minutes at a high pace, and be in a situation where the people believe it’s an epic match going in, because they’re peaked for it and they can get through the build. When you do a long match, if you start high, you’re going to lose the people, because you’ve already started too high. You’ve got to build it in a certain way, and to do that, you’ve got to be super over, and people need to be willing to have patience with you. To me, it’s now difficult to do a match under 35 minutes that’s also really great. But the best guys can do it, and we see a couple matches like that every year.

The thing is, if we saw one, people would say it isn’t as good as the matches they saw in their childhood, and that’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

ST: Is it possible to have too many 5-star matches on a show in lieu of squash matches and other finishes that better reflect what you’d expect from real-life competitive combat? If everyone wrestled matches that met with your standards for a 5-star match, could it hurt the overall quality of the show?

DM: Yes, but not as much as I used to think. I went to shows with pretty much all 4-star matches, and I’d go there and see the first match and second matches, and I’m thinking there’s no way I’d stay interested in the show because the guys in the opening matches were doing too much. Somehow they made it work. The key is to not do the exact same thing that the other guys did in the earlier matches. To me, a 5-star match should be rare, and I know there was a year that I probably gave out 30 different 5-star ratings during the peak of New Japan’s G1 events when they had Omega and Ibushi, and when Naito wasn’t too banged up, and Tanahashi was closer to his peak, and Okada was Okada, and Ishii was Ishii. I don’t know that we’ll ever get that again, but probably. I remember that year thinking, “I’m probably giving way too many 5-star match ratings. It’s not right.” But then I remember those matches and thinking those guys were operating at a level I’d never seen before, over and over again.

Is too much of a good thing bad? Absolutely, because then it doesn’t move you anymore. If you ate steak for 15 straight nights, by the 15th night you’d want salmon even if you’d been eating the best steak in the world. That’s why you don’t want wrestling to be routine.

ST: Do you think your influence is overrated? I don’t get the sense that Misawa, Kawada and Taue were sitting in the All-Japan locker room reading copies of The Observer and then trying to wrestle in a way that would earn 5 stars from you. I’m also guessing that the New Japan stars of the 2000s like Tanahashi and Nakamura were more concerned with matching the standards of All Japan’s top wrestlers from the prior generation.

DM: No, the All-Japan guys weren’t sitting around reading the newsletter. What they were doing was thinking about the match they did in Budokan Hall three months prior, and then thinking about what they needed to do to top it because the fans there had already seen it. All of those guys had that mentality. The Observer didn’t have anything to do with that. It wasn’t their motivating force.

As far as New Japan is concerned, what played the biggest role in that era was the ability of the wrestlers to watch lots of matches online. You can look at every great match that’s been recorded over the last 35 years, and you can study them. The one thing about these wrestlers, like Okada and Tanahashi, is they understand their audience, but they also had a drive. Ric Flair, Randy Savage, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart all had an incredible drive in the back of their minds where they absolutely had to be the best. It’s like a weird gene. Omega has it, too. They have to be the best or die trying. Those guys all had it, and these guys have it now. They want to prove to their fellow wrestlers, to the smartest fans, and also to the average fans, that they’re the best. It’s not about winning and losing, and they know it’s not about winning and losing. That’s why you see that match style so often now.

Before, the general drive was, “How do we draw money?” Now the idea of doing promos to draw money is a foreign concept to these guys. Some of the acrobatic stuff people do is with the intent of getting on social media the next day to get themselves over. It isn’t necessarily good, but it’s a reality of the time. They want people saying, “You’ve got to watch this match from Pro Wrestling Noah last night!” because that’s how these guys build their names. They’re trying to impress the live audience, and also the world audience.

In his day, Flair was worried because he had to follow Arn, Tully, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express and the Midnight Express. It was important for him to do that. Savage and Michaels were insistent that they had to be in the best match at Wrestlemania. Okada thinks he has to have the best match on the show to justify his position on top, and he has to follow some pretty damn good people. In the heyday of NXT Takeovers, it was the same way.

Sometimes with NXT, I used to think some of those guys got carried away. I’d watch a 25-minute match and think it was fantastic, and then they’d come back for the rematch and go 40 minutes, but the match wasn’t as good. You need the thing in your head that tells you to end the match. If you go five minutes too long, you’ve missed the peak. You should never have people thinking, “Go to the finish; I’ve been here long enough.” If you do have that feeling, that means they missed their peak.

ST: How has social media influenced the way that you engage with fans?

DM: When I was first on social media, I had this terrible idea that I should have respect for everyone who said anything to me, and if they said something to me, I would try to say something back and simply say, “This is what it is and this is why.” In time, you realize that they’re not really looking for that. There’s not a celebrity in this world that doesn’t have a part of them that hates social media, and I don’t hate social media. You just learn that a lot of people aren’t honest when they approach you negatively, and you need to block them and get rid of them. It’s so different from two to three years ago. Now I have my group of people, and we’ll discuss things, and if somebody says something stupid, I’ll just block them and won’t care. If someone says something factually incorrect, I might take the time to point out how they’re factually incorrect.

I know great performers who hate social media, and just trying to do their jobs, and people just keep coming after them. For the women, it’s got to be brutal. The negative is that there are a lot of voices that are dishonest, but you can’t tell the honest ones from the dishonest ones. It’s a microcosm of the news business. As someone who grew up as a real sports news person, what has devolved into news these days is depressing. I was just talking to someone from college, about how much shame you got if you got a story wrong. If you lied, you were out. You were gone. We’d have been kicked out of the program for telling lies. Now, it’s part of the marketing appeal. Outlets are going to say stuff that’s not true because it’s all about sides. We were taught not to have sides. Whatever group that I said was doing the best wrestling was always the group that’s paying me according to the people accusing me.

ST: We all know you’re an AEW shill, Dave.

DM: I know! But if you read the stuff I’m writing, I’m just looking at the numbers and changes and trying to put everything in perspective. I’m critical of everyone. I always will be, and always was. Before it was AEW that I was supposedly favoring, it was New Japan Pro Wrestling. I look at the track records of the companies I thought were doing good wrestling, and they almost always increased their business during the same time period. What a concept! Years ago, a wrestling fan wrote a book, and they noticed that the wrestling companies whose matches I was praising were the companies that started doing better in terms of attendance and ratings, and the ones I said were going to go down almost always went down. There are exceptions, but for the most part it’s obvious to see the excitement building. You can get away with having a crappy product now, because some of the companies have TV deals to where they can't fail. It’s different from the old days where if you did stuff that was running off the audience, your choices were to reevaluate what you were doing or go out of business.


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