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Misuse of term: "Worker"
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By Paul Herzog

The vocabulary of professional wrestling has expanded out into the dictionaries of casual fans, along with the nature of the business, kayfabe (a key word in that dictionary), and the general illusion of what you see being played out each week on TV. Over the course of the last few years, carny jargon is no longer as cryptic as it once was. That doesn't mean, however, that smart marks, on the Internet and other places, are using all the words correctly. In fact, there are some that are completely misused, and none greater than "worker."

If you asked fans that read the popular Internet news sites, or just those here at WrestlingClassics.com, the general definition you would get might be something like "a wrestler who does a lot of athletic and/or daring things during the course of a match." By that definition, Sabu, Rob Van Dam and the Hardy Boyz are great workers, whereas Hulk Hogan, the Undertaker and Sid Vicious are not. And there may be some semblance of a higher truth in that statement. I think most fans, Internet-savvy or not, enjoy seeing guys fly around and take a lot of punishment, and conversely, relatively few enjoy seeing nothing but pulled punches and leg drops. But "worker" isn't the right word for conveying one's skill at that aspect of professional wrestling.

The ability to work, as the business goes, is the ability to perform a match. It's not just doing big moves, although that can be part of it. It's knowing how to entertain the audience, how to tell a story such that their attention is kept throughout. It's the build to a finish, and executing that finish such that a chapter in the bigger story is told, whether that's the beginning, middle or end of the feud. It's taking what a booker tells you and putting your own touches on it such that the match belongs to you. By those criteria, Sabu and Van Dam aren't what some might think of them, and Hogan & Vicious aren't as bad. Working is more than just brutal table bumps, or a flip off the top rope into the fifth row. It's making the biggest thing in the match actually seem like the biggest thing in the match, and getting from the opening bell to that point

I hear a lot about fans having shorter attention spans than they did a generation or two ago, and that's the reason that most matches have to be less than 10 minutes, and always less than 30. I can't buy that. Not for a second. Along those lines, cinema releases would all be 70 minutes instead of two hours, compact discs 25 minutes, and sitcoms a quarter-hour instead of a half. It's not that the attention span is so short. It's that nobody knows how to tell the story for that length. The movie Braveheart was three hours, and I wanted more. The movie Scream 3 was 80 minutes, and it couldn't have been over soon enough. Like a good movie script or TV screenplay, a good worker knows what his audience expects, what will entertain them today, and brings them back tomorrow.

The best worked match on the last ECW PPV was the opening one, with Dusty Rhodes against Steve Corino in a bullrope match. Now, Dusty hasn't been an active wrestler in a decade, and without knowing his age, I'll bet he's closer to 60 than 50. But he knew what both men had to do. Nobody killed themselves with craziness, you believed what you were seeing, and the audience stayed involved, their heat building to the two final moves of the match. If he had happened to lose the crowd, Dusty would have known what to do to get them back, which is the essence of working. It's why so many ECW performers have had trouble getting over once they leave the nest. Whether it be Tommy Dreamer in All Japan (or even Sabu/Van Dam over there), Sandman and Public Enemy in WCW, Brian Lee in the WWF, or Chris Candido everywhere, it's all the same story. They knew what the hardcores wanted, and knew how to give it to them. When it came time to adjust the style to a different audience, it backfired. Public Enemy put on the same matches in WCW as they did in ECW. In ECW, the crowd danced along. In WCW, they went to get a hot dog. It's why they're out of a regular job today.

I hear you out there, saying "Well, Public Enemy had better opponents in ECW." And that may be true. But since the essence of working is about entertaining through telling a story, the ability to execute moves is secondary. No one will ever convince me that, as rookies, the Road Warriors and Nikita Koloff weren't great big stiffs. What they had were great workers in the ring with them who knew how to adjust, to tailor the match to fit their strengths. A worker knows what moves can and should be done at any particular point in time, to get from bell to bell. Men like Ric Flair, Tully Blanchard and Ivan Koloff could have a match with Ricky Morton on Monday, Dusty Rhodes on Tuesday and Nikita on Wednesday…all three would be different, all three would paint a different picture, and all three would be entertaining to watch.

My buddy Mark Nulty tells a illustrates my point, about the difference between being a good professional wrestler and being a great worker. Adrian Adonis and Dick Murdoch were the top heel team in the WWF, holding the tag titles for the second half of 1984. In the company at the same time were Jack and Jerry Brisco, on their last run as a prominent tag team before Jack retired to the auto body business and Jerry became a road agent-turned-Stooge. They were having a series of matches around the loop, and came to Reunion Arena in Dallas, with Adonis and Murdoch defending the belts as they had been for the previous couple of weeks. Only, on this night, Murdoch grabbed the house mic and said, "By God, it's wonderful to be back here in my home state of Texas." And the crowd cheered the heel. "As a Texan, there is nothing I like better than beating up someone from Oklahoma. Does any one here want to see a Texan whip a couple of Okies?!" And the crowd booed the babyfaces. Nobody knew Murdoch was going to do this, especially the stunned Brisco Brothers. Without anyone saying a word, the two teams instantly switched roles. The Reunion crowd, unlike every other one, now wanted something different from the match. The Briscos worked heel, Murdoch made the hot tag and a comeback that would have made John Wayne proud and the crowd was completely into it. They were all great workers. In the days of spotfests and three-minute title changes, nobody can work like that anymore. And the business I love is poorer for it.

Paul Herzog has spent far too many hours as a columnist for various Internet sources, and the Wrestling Lariat newsletter, over the past six years. He is a systems engineer at Tellabs in Bolingbrook, Illinois, and is lucky to have a wife that likes the wrestling business, too. He can be reached at grapsfan@worldnet.att.net.

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