Eddy Guerrero (c) vs Dean Malenko
ECW World Television Championship
ECW Arena, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
(reviewed 08/03/2018) I love Buster Keaton. Love love love him. Without question, without second thought, without even a moment’s consideration I’d call him the funniest human being to ever live. No one’s ever made me laugh as long and as hard and as thoroughly as his films have, and on repeat viewings too. Nearly 100 full years after his masterpieces first played they’re still able to create such ceaseless, effervescent joy within me and within so many others.
Part of Keaton’s genius was his spontaneity. In his 1960 interview with fellow American legend Studs Terkel, Keaton spoke at length about how his desire to limit the shooting of his scenes to a single take kept them lively and unique, the complete opposite of half-hearted mechanical imitation flattened out by repeated rehearsal. To him, making a gag feel natural was at the heart of what made it funny. Terkel offers his own perspective:
“Maybe that’s one of the reasons there was so much laughter in the house the other night, in When Comedy Was King, is that it had the feeling — the younger people and I had this feeling that what we were seeing was happening now, that it happened only once, that it was not something that was pre-done and done and done.”
Earlier in the interview the two men talk about comedy on television, with Terkel—himself a TV star in his own right—citing the repeated nature of the humor. Keaton admits that of course television would have to repeat all its best jokes, as you simply “can’t dig material up that fast” on a weekly format. He goes on to say that this is why he never wanted to work in television, saying the need for new material would drive him insane.
I had all this in mind when I was watching this very famous and very influential match. If you somehow weren’t aware of this match’s legacy, a cursory glance would reveal the framework of thousands of copycats and successors in the decades since: lengthy opening matwork, flurries of fast-paced offense that build over time, extensive limbwork, standoffs and stalemates, big spots over or off the ropes, plenty of kickouts throughout a back-and-forth finishing stretch, little bravado or grandstanding in deference to concepts such as respect and sportsmanship, etc etc. These men aren’t necessarily innovating anything here, but one does not have to be innovative in order to be revolutionary. As Keaton borrowed from vaudeville and slapstick to revolutionize the format of silver screen comedy, so too do Guerrero and Malenko borrow from NWA, lucha libre, and puroresu in order to appeal to the new format of hyper-intense tape-trading fans.
Now, if you’ll excuse an absurd analogy, I’m not trying to say that this is The General of workrate matches or something. I’m not totally convinced such a match exists. Maybe something like the Can-Ams vs Kobashi & Kikuchi would count. It would have to be a match that is seamless, instinctive, thrilling, and perhaps more than a little endearing. This match misses that mark by a fair margin. Much of it suffers from a distinct feeling of showing off or filling time. Eddy’s selling, which carried the middle portion of the match to notable heights, falls off toward the end. The finishing stretch doesn’t escalate the way high end matches from this period did, not to mention matches that came after. Still, so much of this match is high quality grappling with the bursts of excitement that make it interesting as well as the grittiness that holds it together. The brief moments of Guerrero fighting through the pain in his knee to force a reversal or sneak his way into a hold are still effective today, 20+ years after the fact, even if other parts of the match remain overinflated or overrated.
Of course, the issues raised by Keaton and Terkel half a century ago apply to wrestling too in a variety of ways. Many of the spots here are the same spots and ideas we’ve seen before from these two in ECW or Japan or wherever. They’re spots and ideas that will follow these men to the end of their careers. That’s the nature of pro wrestling. You can’t dig up new material that fast. Additionally the spots and ideas that felt so relatively fresh here are ones that have been borrowed by countless imitators in thousands of matches in the years since, with most of them being soulless, picture-perfect recreations of what was once a fairly magical thing. That, too, is the nature of pro wrestling. Performers and fans alike prefer something that is pre-done and done and done.
HOW DOES THIS COMPARE TO SHAWN VS TAKER FROM WM25: It’s hard for me to blame this match for someone like Will Ospreay in the same way that it’s hard for me to blame Buster Keaton for Seth MacFarlane. You might be able to plot the influence point to point, generation to generation, but it’s always messier than that and never as intentional. No great artist goes out of their way to inspire specific shitheaded children, outside of their family maybe. Even then the sheer magnitude of what this match—and others like it—awakened within professional wrestling in the new millennium is hard to ignore. One of my big complaints with Shawn vs Taker is the overwrought mythologizing that has certainly spread out to other high profile matches around the world, but that spread of influence pales in comparison to what Guerrero vs Malenko has done, even when accounting for the different lengths of time. What’s more, Guerrero vs Malenko isn’t as moving—even just on a spot-based level—as Shawn vs Taker, which features a few truly breathtaking sequences. If Guerrero vs Malenko is ultimately less exciting and more detrimental to wrestling history, Shawn vs Taker comes out on top.
VERDICT: Worse than Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25