The first of three straight weeks of specialty topics! There are so many topics to cover in professional wrestling, and I’ve only just now hit the midpoint of the Companion…So once again, less chit-chat, more discussing!
LI. Tag Teams
This is a pertinent topic these days in the sense that the particular art of tag team wrestling is probably at its lowest in decades. At the start of the millennium, there were three major promotions, and each of them had active tag team divisions, building off the momentum that still existed from the innovations of the last several decades. Eventually, thanks to the consolidation of both WCW and ECW into what became known as WWE, the wrestling scene shrank, by necessity, and the resulting landscape had less room for tag teams.
Basically, once WWE became the sole source of popular wrestling entertainment, the independent scene had to concentrate more than ever on its individual stars. Guys like Christopher Daniels and AJ Styles, who actually competed in a tag team for a brief moment in WCW, were more valuable for what they could do on their own than what they might represent in some combination. This wasn’t always the case. Families like the Briscoes (I’m talking Gerald and Jack, mind you) and the Funks, among many others, often found great success both as individuals and in combinations. Many stars even today have been known as tag team wrestlers first (and not, in typical WWE fashion these days, because they were eventually placed in that situation after having failed to capture interest on their own) and then as individual stars.
TNA’s emergence, as well as the rise of ROH, helped make it possible to broaden that landscape a little again, but aside from a few core teams putting on their own spectacles, it can’t exactly be said that there were actual tag team divisions being reborn. WWE maintained separate tag team titles for both the Raw and Smackdown brands throughout the early brand era, before realizing that it’d be easier to merge them, and as a result have even fewer active tag teams on either roster.
Like I said, it wasn’t always this way. I’m not a complete wrestling historian (though that would certainly be a fun occupation!), so my knowledge only goes so far. Aside from the outright family units I already mentioned, there were teams like the Blackjacks and the Wild Samoans. The 1980s were a particular boom period, especially as NWA/WCW was concerned. The Midnight Rockers and the Midnight Express were tag teams in the purest sense, consisting of wrestlers who were fully committed to that particular division. There were the Andersons, who became co-opted by Ric Flair’s Four Horsemen. AWA featured the Fabulous Freebirds. And then there were the Road Warriors, basically the tag team equivalent of Hulk Hogan and the Bigger! Better! mentality of Vince McMahon’s WWF. WWF, as it was then known, favored a combination of what everyone else was doing, which meant, if it couldn’t have the Road Warriors, developed Demolition instead. If it couldn’t have the Andersons, it’d have the Hart Foundation instead. If it couldn’t have the Midnight Rockers, it’d have, well, the Rockers instead. There were also the British Bulldogs, the eventual acquisition of the Road Warriors as the Legion of Doom, and any number of other combinations of wrestlers who didn’t have anything else to do at the time (I would start a list of these, but it would be too depressing).
WCW continued developing its tag team division during the 1990s, with Harlem Heat perhaps the most successful alumni of that effort, as business began to change. In ECW, there were the Eliminators (Perry Saturn’s alma mater), Public Enemy, and the whole clan of Dudleys, from whence Bubba Ray and Devon graduated. WWF had teams like the Headshrinkers (a new pair of Wild Samoans that eventually gave us Rikishi), Men on a Mission (which eventually gave us Big Daddy V, or whatever you want to call him these days), the Quebecers, the Smokin’ Gunns (which eventually gave us Billy Gunn), and more, until the Attitude Era really exploded the scene. (Gosh, have I really not mentioned the Bushwhackers yet?) Billy Gunn formed the New Age Outlaws with Jesse James. Bradshaw and Faarooq (I think I finally got his name right!) became the Acolytes for Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness, which later became the APA (short for Acolyte Protection Agency). Edge and Christian went from potential rivals to tag team partners in a heartbeat. Matt and Jeff Hardy emerged, went through growing pains, became Team Extreme with Lita. Remember the Headbangers? There was a time when WWF was swamped with gangs (I don’t really want to get into that, but it’d be fun!!!), and WCW kind of joined in, not even to speak of the Nation of Domination, D-Generation X, the New World Order, those guys, even the new Hart Foundation.
Part of how you could tell that the wrestling boom was coming to an end with the turn of the millennium was that it became harder and harder to find new tag teams. The division began to solidify around certain teams, especially in WWF. It became difficult to care about what WCW and ECW were doing. The more the system fed directly into any of the three organizations dominating the scene, the harder it was to find teams who had already formed not only strong alliances, but presence in the ring together.
So the WWE brand era produced pretty much M-N-M (Joey Mercury, Johnny Nitro, and Melina), and then it all went downhill from there. Paul London and Brian Kendrick were probably the last time anyone seriously tried to have a dynamic, thrilling tag team in WWE, and the fans crapped all over them. Lance Cade and Trevor Murdock were probably the last time WWE tried to be traditional. Once the brand titles were merged, WWE tended more toward super groups rather than true tag teams. And then you end up with random people thrown together just to have tag teams and tag team champions.
This is not to say that I believe the state of tag team wrestling is really all that different than it ever was. You still have, basically, two teams of two wrestlers competing against each other, sometimes with a title at stake. Some people have opinions about the quality of those teams, and the matches that result, but at the end of the day, how different are these matches likely to be? There is a pattern to most tag team matches, in which the team that’s supposed to win has one member that suffers throughout the match, and the other member who helps win that match. The team that’s supposed to lose basically gets to dominate however they like, whether by just tagging in and out at their convenience, or with moves that require both partners to pull off. Even with given tag teams, most wrestling promotions will have the main events of their TV programs, on a regular basis, feature tag team contests with combinations of whatever hot programs they have going on. Sometimes this will even be the main event of a PPV.
There’s a certain nostalgia for the times when wrestlers dedicated to tag teams can sell that tag team, and the whole division, as its own attraction, but no company in wrestling history has ever attempted to build itself around the tag team scene as a whole. That to me is certainly telling. It would certainly be interesting if someone tried (Mexican wrestling actually tends to do this sort of thing, but Mexican wrestling has very poor publicity as a whole), and I would be among the first to take an active interest in that company, but the fact as it remains to be revealed to most people who complain about the state of tag team wrestling is, most people don’t really care enough about, understand, appreciate, pay attention to the art of tag team wrestling, no matter what they tell you. I would even argue that wrestlers themselves these days don’t seem overly concerned about this apparent trend. Wrestling is mostly about individual spotlights.
But darned if I wouldn’t like a greater spotlight on tag teams, no matter how, or where, it’s accomplished.