Some of you out there will already know this about me: I hate star ratings. I find the vast majority of attempts to rank anything artistic as anathema to their very soul, to be honest with you. And though I’m turned off by most wrestling talk that treats the Tokyo Dome or Madison Square Garden like people are playing the West End or Broadway, the same logic does hold in wrestling, too. I try and be nice whenever I hear people quibbling over whether or not a certain bout deserves that extra quarter of a star or not as if it were the product of some kind of precise mathematical formula, but deep in the back of my brain there’s a part of me that’s thinking ‘just fuck off and die painfully, will you?’

Now, I realise this isn’t exactly the most reasonable response, just as surely as I realise that more people than will own up to it quietly identify with that reaction. But there are other, more practical rejoinders, and I’d like to channel my energy into something a bit more productive today. My feeling is if you’re not happy with what is out there in the world, then perhaps the best thing is to put out something closer to what you want to see.

I’m not trying to produce something that’s completely objective, because that’s a fool’s errand. No matter what I come up, with it’s always going to come down to my opinion at some level. Even if you were to try and do it democratically, you still don’t get ‘objective’, in as much as you can’t arrive at something objective by a combination of subjective positions.

But you can work to mitigate that, rather than just rolling with it. The two things that I thought you could do is to simplify the system, to take as many of the judgement calls out of it as possible. This led me to what is probably the most basic rating system of them all, a simple pass/fail.

Coming up with how they might pass or fail is trickier, and there are many options that lead you back down into something that’s no clearer than the star rating system, at which point we might as well just call it a day and go home. Again, though, I think the answer lies in simplicity and reducing it to one criterion. The question then is finding the right one, especially as the purpose of this is to take taste out of the issue as much as you possibly can.

My solution, such as it is, is to throw out all criteria that might be adjudged to be a matter of taste, so that a brawl, ladder match or traditional mat wrestling bout have as much chance of passing as each other, and instead to base the ratings solely on a single point of philosophy. It won’t surprise anyone who knows my shit to learn that the philosophy I’m basing this on is that pro-wrestling, to be pro-wrestling, has to work to create a sustainable image that what is happening is an athletic contest, with the participants opposed to one another and based in something approximating real-world consequences. If those laws are broken, then it might be very good in some other genre, but here, I’m judging it as pro-wrestling, and that is how it will be judged.

That means that every time the illusion is shattered, either by ridiculously over-doing it or by obvious co-operation between adversaries, the match will be degraded. At a certain point, it will fail, and once it has failed there will be no chance for it to redeem itself. I’m using the now accepted method of three demerits being enough to fail the match and end the review. Or, to put it another way – three strikes, and you’re out.

If you’re not down with that methodology, you won’t like any of the conclusions that I draw, so you might as well stop reading if that’s the case!

Now some of you will be thinking at this point, if you just decide when one of these points arises, you’re just going to be making an arbitrary decision, and it will get you no closer to what you’re striving for – and you’d be right to think that. But you’ve also never watched wrestling with me.

Because you see, if you had watched with me, you’d know that I have a tell. One that’s made me the subject of some light mick-taking amongst friends.

I have an involuntary reaction to egregious examples of what I’m talking about – I will loudly exclaim ‘bullshit’ at the TV screen.

Sometimes it’s horseshit. Very occasionally it’ll be dog shit. But to cut a long story short, before I’ve even thought of it, some form of animal excrement will explode out of my mouth at the sight of this stuff, provided it’s obvious enough.

And that, my friends, will be the test – can a wrestling match survive without causing me to instinctively shout bullshit (or an equally faecal equivalent) at least three times? If it doesn’t, it passes, no questions asked. If I don’t shout it at all it gets accredited my ‘gold standard’, which is the only extra distinction I’m going to make. If I say it, no matter who is in the match or what I think about the rest of it, it goes down. But no other judgement about the match I might have will intervene in the process. The whole purpose of the ‘No Bullshit Review’, for better or worse, is to see if a match can be free from bullshit, and I’ll give you none while we find out.

For anyone wondering if I’m going to adjust that number depending on the length of the match, the answer is no. It’s my feeling that if you’re entrusted with the time, part of the principle is can you keep the match going at the requisite standard for the entirety of that duration. It seems to me that moving the goalposts would be to say that openers and main eventers should be judged on the same standard, whereas I actually think it’s fair to suggest that the additional scrutiny main event guys get is fair, and I’m sticking with the simple formula as a result.

Here’s the problem, though: judging matches on a scale makes very little sense without some matches on it, to stand as a point of comparison. So, over the next couple of columns, I’m going to build up that list of matches to fill out the leader board. They will be arranged by the number of strikes against them, but generally speaking, the table is just for the sake of display – a pass is a pass, regardless of whether it’s two strikes or none. Failing matches will be organised by the amount of time it took to reach three strikes, with one hitting them sooner ranked as worse than one that takes longer. These matches will be initially taken from some of the more famous and respected matches in wrestling history. In future editions I’m going a bit further afield, but today’s sample all come from the WWE and WCW. I’ve only done three this time as I’ve needed to explain what is happening, but in the next two columns we’ll fill in a lot more gaps more rapidly. I say that these matches are all amongst the most respected in history, and these three can all be found by putting the phrase ‘greatest matches ever’ into the search box on the WWE Network.

One last thing I should say is that there’s an obvious issue with judging matches that are older, so I’m going to be much harder on them. One of the things that can make an involuntary reaction more likely is surprise, and it’s just so much harder to get that with matches that I know well and know what is coming. So, any audible expression of dismay, contempt or otherwise suggesting displeasure will count against any match from before Wrestlemania XX, which I’m going to use as a cut-off point. after that event, only the aforementioned ‘bullshits’ will count. Alright, so without any further ado, let’s get things going!

Match 1
Razor Ramon vs Shawn Michaels – Wrestlemania X, March 20th, 1994
Ladder Match for the WWF Intercontinental Championship
Madison Square Garden, New York

I’m going to kick things off with what is widely held to be one of the most important matches of WWE history and one of the classics of my youth, the ladder match between Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon from Wrestlemania X. I’ve got no idea how a ladder match is going to play with this format at all, and that’s part of my reason for starting here – I’m tempted to dive right into the deep end.

The first few minutes are generally good, and there’s some good stuff with them playing off the liminality of the match, not quite a wrestling match, not quite a fight. But in something that’s almost nothing, Michaels costs the bout a strike in the early going by clearly moving himself to the middle of the ring to take a shoulder charge from Ramon! It’s not a full bullshit, but I definitely caught myself being critical under my breath, and given that I’m going to be harder on bouts I know well to make up for loss of the surprise factor, this is enough here.

The first real danger comes after about three minutes of otherwise decent action, when Michaels quite clearly throws himself upside down, rather than being able to successfully sell it as a result of Ramon’s momentum into the turnbuckle, before coming back down, disoriented… but just as I can feel the word forming on my lips, Jerry Lawler intervenes, praising his move in saving himself! The two have been spared by some great, great commentary, and we continue unstained!

I’m a little concerned after about 8 minutes that with Razor down and barely moving Shawn’s strategy doesn’t seem to involve going for the belt but chooses instead to set the ladder up in the corner, but this is easily explained enough in my head that the debate never reaches the outside world. There’s then a fun little spot after about twelve minutes where Michaels gets slingshot into the ladder and the thing then falls on top of him, but though it’s probably far-fetched in the cold light of day he does this well enough to make it look like chance in the moment.

It’s a funny old finish and I suspect that given the spot in question, where legs get tangled in ropes, that if you look at it forensically there’s probably going to be enough to get it another black mark. However, I think they’ve shot this very well and it’s never really clear what is going on, and that Michaels is complicit in his own downfall, and if anything I’m more impressed with the way the whole package, announcers, camerawork and all, came together to help the wrestlers deliver on what is generally an improbably format.

RESULT: Pass with 1 strike

Match 2
John Cena vs Daniel Bryan – Summerslam, August 18th, 2013
For the WWE Championship
Staples Center, Los Angeles

The match starts very well, and there’s some good sequences that I’m enjoying a lot. Around nine minutes in I raise an eyebrow a little bit as Bryan doesn’t seem to be following up as quickly as you’d like, not getting on Cena despite seemingly having the advantage. It’s a brief moment, though, and there’s clearly not enough for me to pronounce ‘Bullshit!’ at this stage because I’m able to keep quiet. There’s some time out of the ring where things are looking a bit ropey, but again the match keeps a clean sheet for the time being.

The first real risk, and little wince, comes approaching the 9-minute mark, where Bryan, having being battered for several minutes and taking all kinds of punishment, forgets to carry on selling while he makes his comeback. Perhaps this would warrant a bullshit if I hadn’t been enjoying what I’d seen, but I can definitely feel a slight wince on the left side of my face. After Bryan’s early risks, Cena gets in on the act with Five-Knuckle shuffle, a move that’s always going to run the risk of some kind of exclamation of derision, but again they escape: they’ve still got three strikes to play with! The action soon gets back to something I’m enjoying again, too.

A Bryan kick sequence starts up, and I think it’s fortunate that there’s no one moment here, because I am wondering about it rather than enjoying what I’m seeing – why, if you’re allowed to kick, doesn’t he just aim one of those roundhouse kicks at Cena’s head, and end the match there and then? But because there’s no one individual moment that forces me to shout at the screen, we carry on.

Finally, though, we have a bullshit, and I think it’s maybe an accumulation of smaller things adding up that’s finally got under my skin – but the actual prompt is Daniel Bryan’s charges at Cena when he’s on the top rope, a short time after taking an Attitude Adjustment. The first is not too bad as there’s still a little acting in it, but he’s miraculously recovered by the time of the second charge, and the fatal word escapes me. So the match has one strike against it around the 17-minute mark, and strangely enough it’s my favourite performer of recent years who has probably had the bigger hand in acquiring it.

A couple of minutes later, a second one follows, and this time it’s probably right to apply it to them both. It’s the sequence with the two on the top rope. I can just about stomach the repeated elbow shots to Cena, even though I think there’s something to be said for selling something like that a lot more and maybe even teasing a knockout. But Bryan suddenly looks so vulnerable, and it looks so collaborative, and then Cena’s recovery into something that looks temporarily like a Styles clash…. It’s an ugly looking sequence at best and the worst bit of the match and I’m swearing like a drill sergeant. Two down, and the match has just the one strike remaining.

There’s one last scare, too – in the finishing sequence, which I generally think a lot of…. Is John Cena just standing there, waiting to catch Bryan? It looks a bit convenient, but the camerawork might just have saved them. It’s a late cut, and I stay quiet. Soon after Bryan hits Cena with a devastating knee and the champion stays down. New champion. The bell rings, and fortunately there’s no consideration of after the bell events or the fuck-finish would rattle up a third bullshit and this would fail. But as it stands, it’s made it through.

Result: Pass with Two Strikes

Match 3
Ric Flair vs Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Chi-Town Rumble, February 20th, 1989
For the NWA World Heavyweight Championship
UIC Pavilion, Chicago

The first couple of minutes of Flair and Steamboat are an absolute delight, and it’s all wonderfully enhanced by the performances of Tommy Young and Jim Ross, as referee and on commentary, respectively. The first moment that gets me thinking comes around seven minutes in, when Flair is hit with a chop to the chest and falls forwards, and out of the ring. Do I not speak up because the match has done such a good job getting me into the right frame of my mind to this point? Or, do I instinctively understand that the shot could have been enough to disorient him, rather than to knock him down, and that it’s his own balance that has given out? Either way, I keep my peace and the match continues without serious blemish.

Another few minutes pass and I’ve not had so much as a moment’s thought to worry about until we get to around the 14 minute mark, when Flair pulls out one of his favourite spots – shooting over the top of the turnbuckle from an Irish whip, running down the apron and leaping to another turnbuckle. The match might be saved further punishment by the fact I’ve seen this before many times, and rather than getting a bullshit, all I do is puff my lips out, somewhat derisively but fortunately enough inaudibly. A Flair staple but by the standard I’m judging by here, probably the worst moment of the match so far, surviving on a bit of a technicality to be honest.

Again, several minutes elapse without my having to do very much, but there’s another moment as we approach the climax that just makes me feel a little awkward. It’s not a huge thing, and it almost feels petty to mention it, but Ricky Steamboat has been selling the leg for ages and at roughly 20 minutes he leaps to the second rope to try a springboard attack on Flair. So again, the match gets by with a clean sheet, but it’s not like there aren’t moments that cause slight concerns. Perhaps because they are so spaced out there’s always a chance for the aura to rebuild itself?

There’s a chance for it to blot it’s copybook late on with quite an involved finish, but actually this is all well-executed, not least because they don’t telegraph so obviously what is happening as is often the case with lazy wrestling writing, that this one escapes without a single bullshit, and takes its place amongst the gold standard.

Result: Pass – Gold Standard

That’s probably long enough for today – next time I’ll put in a bunch more matches and when there’s more to work with I’ll show the preliminary table. But until next time, so long!