We All Need Somebody To Lean On (Tag Wars 2006, 1/27/06)

On homo-social bonding in pro wrestling (or why we need these sweaty, muscular dudes to hug each other from time to time).

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Matt Sydal, shortly before escaping to the security of his tag-team partners.

I’ve always loved tag-teams and stables in professional wrestling, dating back to when D-Generation X lured me into the genre as a tween in 1999. As someone who has not always been great at making friends with other dudes, it’s very appealing to fantasize about having a gang of cool and handsome friends who back each other up when they get into fights. In theory, I’m exactly the kind of person who would love Ring of Honor’s Tag Wars 2006, a show that included both a trios tournament and a tag-team championship match in the main event.

Dont get me wrong, the wrestling on this show is quite good. The main event of Bryan Danielson and Jay Lethal challenging Roderick Strong and Austin Aries for the tag-team championships mostly delivers. The trios tournament, ultimately won by The Embassy’s Jimmy Rave, Alex Shelley and Abyss, is a lot of fun and includes two matches featuring the unreasonably talented team of Jack Evans, Jimmy Yang and Matt Sydal. And yet, there’s something missing from these teams that makes the show less satisfying than it otherwise could have been. Namely, you don’t really get the feeling that any of these characters really care for one another.

Because that’s what we really love about tag-team wrestling, right? Building relationships with other men is very hard, at least under the heteronormative social mores that dominate most American schools and workplaces. In essence, you’re trying to form social bonds using a language whose defining feature is how incommunicative it is. To sincerely express affection, admiration or concern for the well-being of one of your friends is to risk emasculating yourself by demonstrating “feminine” emotions. This language is so warped that compliments must either be routed through the misdirection of “playful” insults or couched with a “no homo” disclaimer. Growing up in suburban New York in the 90s and early aughts, male friendship meant I could spend hundreds of hours playing video games with someone, without us ever having a meaningful conversation about our feelings.

In tag-team wrestling, we can enjoy an escape where it is okay for dudes to show that they care for and need one another, with assurance from the hulking physiques and ever-present violence that everyone involved is, like, totally not gay or anything like that. By watching, we soothe our own desire to be cared for and needed by our friends, without taking on the vulnerability of making these things clear to the real people in our lives.

In his essay, “Never Trust a Snake: WWF Wrestling as Masculine Melodrama,” the media critic Henry Jenkins III describes the familiar sequence wrestling fans know as the “hot tag” in a way that will probably change the way you think about it forever:

“The fighter, that omnipotent muscle machine, steps alone, with complete confidence, into the ring, ready to do battle with his opponent. As the fight progresses, he is beaten down, unable to manage without assistance. Struggling to the ropes, he must admit that he needs another man. His partner reaches out to him while he crawls along the floor, inching toward the embrace. The image of the two hands, barely touching, and the two men, working together to overcome their problems seems rich with what Eve Sedgwick calls ‘male homo-social desire’ … In their own brutish language, the men express what it is like to need (and desire?) another man.”

My beef with Tag Wars 2006, then, is that for a show with four tag-team matches, it’s really stingy on the homo-social bonding. ROH in January 2006 is a place where there are all of these factions and tag teams running around, but not of the people in them seem to really give a damn about each other. On this show, we see infighting in both The Embassy — a group of wrestlers bound by their shared status as hired guns for the African millionaire Prince Nana — and Generation Next, a purely professional association of upwardly mobile young wrestlers. Whereas the modern WWE allows us to delight in Jason Jordan’s acceptance of his quirky partner Chad Gable and the unlikely friendship between Big Cass and Enzo Amore, Tag Wars presents tag-team competition as merely a convenient mechanism for individuals to achieve personal success.

In the main event, heel singles competitors Bryan Danielson and Jay Lethal team up for the first time ever to challenge Ring of Honor Tag Team Champions and Generation Next partners Roderick Strong and Austin Aries. For Danielson, already the ROH singles wrestling champion, the match is an opportunity to cement his greatness by adding another belt to his collection. For Lethal, it’s a chance to spite his former mentor Samoa Joe by achieving with Danielson a goal that Lethal and Joe could not accomplish together.

But despite their disjointed motives and inexperience as a team, Danielson and Lethal wind up looking like more of a cohesive unit than stablemates Aries and Strong. Though the babyface champions do work together on several occasions in the match, it is Danielson and Lethal who are both more frequent and more creative in executing the double-team maneuvers that signal companionship to the viewing audience. In one instance, Danielson hits a vicious spinning forearm to the back of Strong’s neck, a move that is followed immediately by Lethal flying off the top rope to hit Strong with a DDT. In another, Danielson gives Lethal a backrub. Though the Generation Next side were ostensibly the babyfaces, I found myself cheering for Lethal and Danielson due to the easy camaraderie they established, with Danielson as the master of mischievous in-ring tactics and Lethal as his scamp-in-training.

Generation Next ultimately prevails, with Strong forcing Danielson to submit to the Strong Hold as Aries prevents Lethal from making the save. Still, the post-match celebration presents the victory as a pair of individual triumphs rather than a shared success. Immediately following the match, we see a zoomed-out shot of the entire ring in which an exhausted Aries crawls over to Strong to put his arm around his partner, himself sitting on his knees and leaning against the ringpost for support. It is only after this brief embrace is broken that the camera zooms in on the winning competitors, with each getting an individual close-up as they celebrate alone on opposite sides of the ring.

Afterward, Strong grabs a microphone not to crow about Generation Next’s tag-team title defense, but to demand what it seems he really wanted all along: a third chance at Danielson’s singles World Championship.

“You know Bryan, you owe me another title shot, buddy,” he says. “So whenever I want, I’m going to take it, bitch.”

This is one in a series of posts covering the pro wrestling shows promoted by Ring of Honor in 2006. You can learn more about my project here.

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