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Stan Hansen/Rob Van Dam vs. Toshiaki Kawada/Kenta Kobashi 2/22/93
Journey, "Don't Stop Believing"
by Digable James Cobo

Dedicated to Hoyakillah, the man who pimps this site more than anyone who actually writes here (outside of NATE). BTM: We're Here For The FANS, maaaaaaaaan. I also hear he scored higher than Chris Lening on his SATs, which means he scored WAY higher than me. The important thing is that he scored higher than Chris :)

Any serious discussion of wrestling eventually turns into a discussion of form. It's just the way it goes - wrestling is an inherently formulaic art, and it's the job of the critic to pretty much just point out where and how it deviates. This isn't a bad thing - it's never a bad thing to have conventions, as I'm sure anyone who's ever seen a movie from 1930s Hollywood can tell you. An effective formula is basically just a cheat sheet for the crowd (to let them know when they should start really zeroing in on the performances et al) and the wrestlers - it's there to HELP.

And as evidence, I present this tag match, an actual dyed-in-the-wool, no-two-ways-around-it good goddamn match featuring the shemale-looking-and-wrestling-like-est man in the history of recorded time in Rob Van Dam. I mean, he breaks out the motherfucking ROLLING GODDAMNED MOTHERFUCKING THUN MOTHERFUCKING DER in the middle of the match - this really, truly is Rob Van Dam wrestling in AJPW. But you know what? It really, really works, because they find a formula to shoehorn him into and they don't let his most retarded tendencies in the ring budge them in the slightest.

The story for this match - as it is with so many other matches, especially from around this era when the Misawa/Kawada/Kobashi trinity was still solidifying their roles as Important Wrestlers - is your average totem-pole story - both Kawada and Kobashi are obviously more accomplished in wrestling than RVD, but since Hansen's even moreso than either of them, it mostly evens out. What's interesting about this formula is that it segments the match, a DANGEROUS DANGEROUS DANGEROUS thing, as anyone who's ever watched a Kawada/Taue tag match prior to Taue becoming an unlikely God of Work will tell you. Here, though, that trap is avoided - the RVD who showed up here is just way too weird of a wrestler to just be boring. Watching him in the ring with two of the greatest wrestlers of the last decade just toes the line of perversity too much.

It's SO perverse, in fact, that I can't think of a single other match to compare it to. All that's left...is JOURNEY.

I will totally admit to being a complete tard for Journey. They suck, but they suck endearingly, and if you're willing to admit that they suck and pay attention, it dawns on you that they don't really suck at all. There is no other concentrated unit of entertainment in the world that provides such a level of unholy entertainment (short perhaps of The Mask of Dimitrios, the only movie ever to STAR Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, let alone have Peter Lorre as the HERO) that can really compare to what I get out of this match. And although you could make a case for a dozen of their songs, I tend to go back to "Don't Stop Believing" when I need an example of what makes them great - it's just arena-rock, but it's done so well and so bald-facedly that if you don't crack a smile when you're making a big show about how stupid the song is to your Philistene friends, you're missing the forest for the trees, and you're more anhedonic than ME.

With all that said, let's go to the TALE OF THE TAPE.

THE FORMULA

Given that both are essentially textbook examples of how to take something inherently stupid (this she-man in All Japan, this embarassingly earnest Tale of Alienation and Perseverence in the Big City in Journey) and make it Work, you'd think I have a hard time picking. You'd be wrong. The tag match is more adventurous; as far as innovation goes, the most interesting thing in "Don't Stop Believing" is the use of the piano. Outside of that, it's just your standard play-slightly-off-the-beat arena-rock ballad. The tag match, on the other hand, was endemic of the still-fresh Extended AJPW Finishing Sequence style; hence we get a lot of credible nearfalls and a LOT of stretching of Mr. Monday Night At The Man-Hole. Besides, the fundamental differences between the formulae give a clear advantage to the tag match: providing that it's not worked retardedly, the shift in the tone of the match whenever RVD and Hansen tag in and out makes it a lot more dynamic than the rising-tide structure of the Journey song (and while lord knows I love progression in music, c'mon, it's FUCKING ARENA ROCK, not King Unique). It's literally almost a blowout.

THE AESTHETIC VALUE

Same result, different rankings; I mean I love the tag match and everything but MAN is there some ugly in there. Most of it, of course, comes from Mr. Van Dam - it's certainly understandable, given that he really, really, really couldn't have been in the business for long at ALL at this point, but to just explain it away isn't fair either. He's mostly just a whole lot of hesitant, and that really really REALLY stands out when you're facing off with two guys who wrestle matches so naturally that you half-expect them to nonchalantly call and check and see how their portfolios are doing. Oddly enough, he seems to be most hesitant about doing the acrobatic stuff; the aforementioned Rolling Thunder looks preposterously contrived (as compared to just pretty goddamn contrived), and he seems REALLY afraid of taking big strikes, leading to Kenta taking a few DEEPLY sick chops and lariats to, in the immortal words of Chris Lening, say "Seriously, it's OK. Don't be a puss." (This tendency leads to something outrageously immortal later on in the match, but that's for later.)

In contrast, Journey sounds as sweet as Cheerwine. It would be too easy to break out the He Hate Super Dragon spot and say "B'dur, of course they click; they work together all the time", but that's a stupid fucking argument in the first place: good is good, no matter how many times you work with someone. And "Don't Stop Believing" is demonstrably more pleasing to the ear than, say, "Ask the Lonely"; the melody they use is good, catchy, and lends itself REALLY well to the progression of the song. I mean fuck, even the obligatory soft-lighting and earnest-grimace guitar solo doesn't sound too embarassing. Again, not even close; Journey in a walk.

INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCES

Anyone who tells you performance equals aesthetics needs a punch in the mouth. Case in point: the tag match. I don't mean to belittle Steve Perry (who sings the HELL out the song) or more importantly Neil Fucking Schon's guitar work (is there a more overlooked guitarist in contemporary appreciation of arena rock? I doubt it), but when the rubber hits the road, nobody puts in a singular performance that MAKES the formula work - it's just a bunch of guys hitting their strides at roughly an equivalent level. Compare that, then, to Kenta Motherfucking Kobashi and Toshiaki MotherFUCKING Kawada, two guys who bust their asses to make a match with the greenest wrestler in the history of the color green really, really fun. The best part is that they're smart about it - instead of potatoing the fuck out of him, they treat him differently, as evidenced by Kawada stretching (smart work, considering that RVD's biggest asset in the match was his bendiness) and punting the FUCK out of Van Dam while Kobashi mostly uses strikes and fighting-spirit spots to keep his plucky kid role in full effect. And hell, I'm feeling charitable (and honest) - you gotta give RVD his due. I don't mean to imply that he went out there and wrestled One Of Those Matches or took One Of Those Beatings, but he was capable, he didn't try to stroke his Cock of Wrestling more than you'd think, and given that he was wrestling the best male wrestler on the planet and the second-best male wrestler on the planet during the arguable (for Kawada, anyway) best year of their careers, that's all he really needed to do.

You'll notice that I haven't said anything about Stan Hansen, and that's because he really doesn't do too much. He doesn't drag the match down or anything, and he certainly doesn't fuck anything perceptibly up, but he's the epitome of a guy who's there to play his part and pick up his paycheck. He's best compared to the work of drummer Steve Smith - you got your snare rolls, you got your wicked lariats, move on.

EVERYTHING ELSE

The relationship of intangibles to formula is an interesting one, since you can either divide them into being excellent examples of how to pull off a formula or excellent examples of how ridiculous formula can look sometimes. The problem with intangibles is that they tend to be hugely subjective. And by motherfucking GOD there's a ton here, which is why I can't play Journey very very loudly in public places like it motherfucking DESERVES TO BE HEARD. Hence, instead of making a decision, I'll just list the most striking ones from each and leave the question open-ended.

THE TAG MATCH

- RVD's appearance. My ways of describing him are limited only by my reservoir of shemale jokes, which as it turned out was much lower than I had anticipated.
- Stan Hansen as Bull of the Woods. He really does play the one-man wrecking crew in a tag match better than anyone else in history. Vader was obviously superior in singles matches, but in tags? Fucking forget it. Hansen was blunt, to-the-point, and left no room for error - if you were on the other side of the ring, you were going to get Beat the Fuck Down.
- Kenta Kobashi getting the shit beat out of him. One could obviously point to just about any of his matches from 1993 for this, but here it's Much Much Funnier - I'm not kidding when he really does seem to be directing it at RVD. I think at one point he looks at RVD out of the corner of his eye when Hansen's punching him.
- Kenta Kobashi anticipating the Rolling Thunder. Very possibly the funniest thing Kobashi's ever been responsible for. I have never seen more of a look of "WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT?" in my life, and LORD have I ever seen some unexpectedly terrible opening acts at punk shows. Too too funny.
- Toshiaki Kawada putting his foot in the exact middle of Rob Van Dam's face. For one, you're laughing because RVD spends SO much of this time throwing offense that wouldn't wake a sleeping kitten up. For two, you're laughing because it's as close to Toshiaki Kawada beating up Wong Foo as you're ever going to get.
- Rob Van Dam Sells The Lariat. A classic BTM Moment: RVD attempts to do a flip-sell of a Kawada lariat, while Kawada attempts to lariat RVD into the middle of last week, thereby FORCING him to cut a flip-sell in the process. Accidental Driver '93 ensues, followed immediately by much rewinding and PEALS of laughter from Chris and James.
- The ending. I ordinarily hate to give away endings, but this ones's too great - Kawada stretch-plums the BEJABERS out of RVD while looking out of the ring at Hansen, setting up their meeting down the road. GREAT GREAT STUFF that legitimizes the reasoning behind the formula PERFECTLY.

"DON'T STOP BELIEVING"

- The opening piano. I have faith that Jonathan Cain will never go hungry, because if his greenback stack ever starts to look kinda slack, he can go to the Silver Dollar in Reno and run "An Evening with Journey's Jonathan Cain" and jump from a piano-only version of this to various torch songs. And I will be there.
- "The smell of wine and chEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAP PERFYOOOOO-OOOO-OOOM...". BEST LINE EVER.
- The moment the drums finally kick in. Arena rock sucks the cocks of a thousand giant sloths in a lot of ways, but SO many of them get the introduction of the percussion segments SO right. This is SO one of those songs.
- The guitar solo. Camp? Kitsch? Parody? All of the above.
- Steve Perry. Nuff said.

You make the call.

OVERALL

Speaking in strict terms of mathematics, the tag match takes it 2-1 (with one no-contest), but, to cop out big time, that's not really a valid proof. The truth is this: both the tag match and "Don't Stop Believing" are really freaking great examples of how form can make stuff hugely enjoyable if you're willing to break it down and look at the parts. It's also proof that proper appreciation of formula can lead to better shedding a light on what you like about wrestling, because GOD knows I pay more attention to AJPW tags after seeing this match than before.

But mostly, I like both the match and the song because they're proof to me that I can be as big a ponce about wrestling as I wanna be, and I can still enjoy it on a gut level. I just spent five e-trees worth of e-paper writing about what boils down to a stupid-ass match and a stupid-ass song, but right now I could jump in the car, careen around the empty freeways of Los Angeles bellowing every fucking word to "Don't Stop Believing", come home, run up the stairs, throw the tape with the match in the VCR, have a fucking blast watching every second that made it to TV, and go to sleep with a smile on my face. I've always held fast to the belief that the most interesting form of intellect is that most closely in tune with the gut reaction, and in a time when I'm starting to get miserably bored by wrestling, it's enormously comforting to know that because I'm not blind to formula, I can go around the park a few more times.

Like I said way up there, I love form. Form empowers me to carve out a worldview. Form enables me to maintain interest. Hell, form even permits me to write a giant formulist essay glorifying form. Why would I bitch about that?

Click Here for Part 2

Shane Osman
Digable James Cobo
Chris Lening

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