… Anyway, Tag Team Wrestling Rules
Let’s talk about pacing for a moment, shall we?
Pacing is, in my opinion, a very important part of storytelling that you tend to only really pay attention to in one of two scenarios: when something is very poorly paced (like a long movie you see in theaters where you keep checking your watch every five minutes— we’ve all seen a movie like this) or when something is incredibly fast-paced (we all know the phrase “time flies when you’re having fun”, right?)
I don’t know about you, but when I watch a wrestling match a poorly paced match is immediately obvious right from the start. I hesitate to give examples here because a lot of wrestling is purely subjective, and there can be other reasons for pacing issues besides poor booking. But I was a theater major in college, and I have very strong opinions about storytelling even besides the fact that I paid a couple hundred thousand dollars for that degree, and I can tell you right now that if you ever watch a match where you feel like a moment was dragged out too long, or an attempted pinfall happened one too many times, the feeling you have is probably shared by many people.
Pacing exists for a reason. It’s designed to ratchet up tension more and more and more until the tension finally, finally breaks and the viewer experiences that moment of catharsis. The most obvious example of this is the buildup to a tag in a tag team wrestling match— and never before have I seen a better build to a tag than I did in Young Bucks vs FTR II at Dynamite on April 6th.
(Caveat here before I get into the analysis: I was in the arena for this match, and will be analyzing as such. There are benefits and drawbacks to watching a match live— no commentary, and depending on the angle you might miss facial expressions or moments on the floor outside the ring. However, seeing wrestling live means you get to watch an entire, uninterrupted match, with no commercial breaks dragging your attention away from the action; and you get to feed off the energy of the rest of the audience and help feed into the energy of a match. I highly recommend every wrestling fan get to one live wrestling show if they can afford it; even if your seats are in the risers, it’s still game-changing to be in the room where it happens, so to speak.)
When the Bucks answered FTR’s challenge during Supercard of Honor, I knew immediately we were going to be in for something special.
That sounds trite to say, but it’s true. FTR (aka Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler, if you happen to have been living under a rock or just completely ignored the Pinnacle for all of 2021) have been on a hot streak since the beginning of 2022, and immediately preceding the Bucks’ run-in had just had probably one of the best matches of their career and a high contender for match of the year (don’t judge me for it being April, just go watch it and see) in their Supercard match against the Briscoes for the ROH World Tag Team Championship belts.
The Young Bucks, meanwhile, are the Young Bucks. Their massive egos are actually not born from nowhere; Bucks tag matches are always the best tag matches you’ll ever watch (Bucks vs Lucha Bros cage match, anyone?) and the Young Bucks are absolutely top three tag teams in the world, if not number one. The Bucks understand how a tag team match is supposed to go, and they know how to put another team over. They’re amazing heels for this reason, besides the fact that they’re also just really great at being complete assholes.
The Bucks call for FTR vs Young Bucks II for both the AAA Tag Team Championship and the ROH World Tag Team Championship on Dynamite in Boston and I know, immediately, we’re about to see some shit go down. And then I remember… I have tickets to see this show live.
Never let it be said I don’t know how to face down death with dignity.
So I’m already going into the match with high expectations. FTR vs Briscoes was already an absolute barnburner of a match, to borrow a phrase from Jim Ross, and of course Bucks vs FTR will be as well, but I’m trying to be realistic as well. It’ll be a great match, but are FTR really going to pull another MOTY contender out within five days of their last one?
I’m thinking— yeah, maybe, okay, it’ll at least be an absolute banger if nothing else. Remember who’s fighting. Best in the world. We’ll get some crazy cool spots because the Bucks and FTR both know how to work and they know how to make the crowd go home happy.
And then Cash Wheeler gets trapped in the ring with the Young Bucks.
Let’s pretend for a moment that wrestling is black and white, there is always a “heel” and a “face”, and matches are cookie cutter carbon copies of each other. Boring as hell, I know, I know, but in order to understand what makes and breaks pacing, it’s best we distill down to the basic elements of what makes a wrestling match tick.
Sometimes matches are pure exhibition matches. I, personally, love those. Two babyfaces squaring off, showing what they can do, putting respect on each others’ names? Rules every time. Sometimes, also, a match is just two people beating the shit out of each other. I also love those matches. Sue me.
But even these matches are not unstructured. There is an ebb and flow, a trading of control back and forth. This is why I want to talk about the traditional face vs heel match for a moment, so we can see more clearly how this works.
You may notice during a lot of these sorts of matches that when the “heel” character is in control of the match, things have a tendency to slow down. This tempo change is relative to the teams, the stipulations, and even the producers of the match or the rules of the promotion, but it’s fairly noticeable every time. (Many times this tempo shift will happen during picture-in-picture, which is absolutely deliberate placement on the part of the producer. What, you thought a match isn’t built around when the commercial break falls?)
Meanwhile, when the “face” character manages to overcome the heel and regain control of the match, tempo speeds back up again. This is often, of course, reflected in the audience as well; when the face takes control again, the audience starts to cheer (or they should, anyway, if the heel has done their job right making us root for the face).
In tag team wrestling, this pacing change is often extremely noticeable because of what’s well known as the “hot tag”. The face wrestler is trying and trying to get to the corner to tag their partner in and keeps getting dragged back by the heel (sometimes in more ways than one). If it’s done well and paced right, when the tag is finally made the crowd will go wild. The control flips to the face for at least a brief moment as they charge into the ring full of energy, ready to take the match and win it for their team.
The win, of course, doesn’t always happen. But the hot tag still does its job.
Cash gets stuck in the middle of the ring and the Bucks, as heels do, begin to wear him down.
He reaches for Dax from the mat, a picture perfect moment, only to be dragged away by the ankle.
The Bucks, of course, are tagging in and out every minute or so, throwing Cash around, keeping their own energy balanced. Matt takes a drink at the Bucks’ corner while Nick drags Cash away from Dax for the second time.
By rule of threes, the next time Cash goes for the tag, he’ll make it, and Dax will charge into the ring and regain control of the match for FTR. This is another one of those rhythm things you don’t notice until someone’s pointed it out to you— I can’t explain why it’s three. It just is. It just feels natural. If you miss the third attempt, it’s like missing a cue. The pacing falls apart. (There are tag matches where this happens and more often than not momentum is completely lost. It’s not an always, as we’ll see. But it’s an often.)
I think this fell during picture-in-picture for the viewers at home, but during this segment there was a thunderous “TAG TEAM WRESTLING” chant. We knew what we were seeing was the height of tag team wrestling by four of the best guys, two of the best teams in the world.
The Bucks know it too. They keep Cash in their corner, far away from Dax, so he can’t even try for the pin. When Cash finally manages to kick Nick’s feet out from under him and throw Matt out of the ring, he makes the crawl for the tag, the crowd is starting to jump to their feet… and just as he goes to make it Nick leaps for the Superkick on the apron to knock Dax away before Cash can make the tag.
Remember how I said cookie-cutter matches were boring?
I can’t explain why this works despite everything I said before about the rule of threes. It just feels like this moment hits different. Cash would have made that tag if the Bucks hadn’t interfered on the other side. It generates heat for the Bucks while not losing the momentum of the match. In any case, it’s barely thirty seconds before Cash manages to dodge out of the way of another attempted double-team, and in the moment of confusion (Nick had just kicked Matt in the face in a moment of minor miscommunication between the Bucks) Cash makes the crawl… and the leap… and the tag.
Forget the crowd going wild. The crowd came, as the commentators sometimes say, unglued.
Hey— this match was nearly thirty minutes long, did you know?
I don’t think I checked my watch once during. I was too afraid to look away and miss anything. Like whatever the hell this incredible spot was.
I love tag team wrestling.
There’s one other thing we need to talk about when talking about pacing: the near-fall.
In any match where you can win by pinfall, you expect a lot of near-falls, and you expect a few to be close calls. The near-fall was used to great effect in the night’s opening match (Christian Cage vs Adam Cole) which was a firestorm of counts being at what commentary might call 2.9999999—.
Bucks vs FTR didn’t get nearly as many close calls, but they did get some amazing near-fall attempts all the same, and a lot of them. After the hot tag, Dax and Matt do the thing I love where they keep rolling each other in and out of pins. There’s an incredible spot where the Bucks use More Bang For Your Buck on Cash Wheeler (a 450 splash from Nick followed by a Moonsault from Matt into the pin) and the expression on Matt’s face is the expression a heel has when they’ve just used their finisher and are about to win— but then Cash kicks out.
(No spoilers for that same week’s Rampage, but this was not the last time we’d see someone kick out of a typically protected finisher that night.)
When this spot happens, we’re in the last four minutes of the match and we all know it. To go any longer than this would be to drag the match out too long— and for those people who could look away from the match to check the time, there’s only four minutes of TV time left anyway. So the heels go to do what heels do best— cheat. In a momentary lapse of attention from referee Rick Knox (who is a longtime friend of Matt and Nick Jackson, personally recruited to the AEW ref team by them in 2019) Nick clocks Cash over the face with one of the ROH belts, giving Matt the opening to roll him up for the pin again. Only Dax’s timely intervention saves FTR from losing the belts right there and then.
Bucks go for the double Superkick on Dax to get him out of the way so they can set up Cash for the BTE trigger. Eagle-eyed viewers and fans who know wrestling well will notice their setup position is… a little close to the rope for comfort. If this is the finish, if this is the end of the match— they would have knocked Cash out in the center of the ring, away from the ropes so he can’t reach out and break the fall with his foot at the last second. You know. Maybe. Hypothetically.
I think AEW has been a little too reliant on this particular sort of pin attempt for dramatic effect in the last few months, but I also think the reason why the “rope-break invalidating the pinfall” non-finish feels trite is just about where it’s placed in the match. When the match restarts for another twenty minute run, thereby resetting the pacing and tempo, it ends up kinda feels like banging your head against a wall. Here, where the crowd had already been yelling for Rick to pay attention to what the Bucks have been doing the whole match, Rick restarting the match is a moment of catharsis. There is still hope. There is still a chance.
What follows is a moment that will live rent-free in my head, your head, and if Twitter is any evidence, the Bucks’ head. The Bucks try to take Cash out again, but Dax intercepts Nick before he can, Cash flips the script on Matt, and they hit a combo move that sends Nick out of the ring while leaving Matt dazed in the center. FTR comes in and each man takes one of Matt’s wrists in their hands… and the roof pops off as FTR hits the BTE trigger on Matt Jackson, followed by the Kiss of Death the Bucks are so fond of bestowing on their opponents and Adam Cole alike.
No, I don’t care if FTR’s BTE Trigger didn’t look exactly like the Bucks’, in case you were wondering.
FTR follows this with their own finisher (the Big Rig, named in memory of the late Mr. Brodie Lee), Dax pins Matt for the win, and I scream so loudly I give myself a migraine. The chants of “FTR!” which had peppered the whole event are thunderous. No nonsense follows, no attempted beatdown by the Bucks in retribution; just a moment of celebration as FTR reclaim their belts and let Rick Knox lift their hands in victory.
In order to write this piece, I watched back the last ten minutes of the match available on YouTube, getting to see the facial expressions and camera angles I missed from my seat, and getting to hear the commentary you don’t get to hear in an arena. Go watch these last ten minutes. I’ll wait here til you get back.
Tony Schiavone, after FTR have reclaimed their belts, says “If there’s such thing as a ten star match… I think we just saw the damn thing.” It’s early to call match of the year, but hell, I already did when I called the Revolution dog collar match my match of the year, I can do it again. (In any case, I’ve already started a list so I don’t forget this one come December.)
I think the “instant classic” call has been overused recently when it comes to wrestling— there’s just so much good wrestling right now that eventually a call like that will start to feel shallow. But there’s something about this one. It’s partially the spark between the two teams— the Bucks and FTR have so much in-ring chemistry it oozes from every spot. It’s partially how fucking good this match ended up being with literally zero buildup besides their last match from eighteen months ago, some on again off again promos in the interim, and the Bucks answering FTR’s challenge at Supercard of Honor.
It’s partially the Bucks, who are this good on their own and have the natural ability to make anyone look good. It’s partially FTR, who really seem to have found themselves in a way that have sold me and the rest of the crowd hard on them in the span of mere weeks. And on every count, it’s the fact that the match was so perfectly paced you could probably use it to teach newcomers to the tag scene how to book a good match.
The AEW Twitter really says it best here: