Pro Wrestling’s Next Great Stipulation
Pro wrestling often asks the viewer to suspend its disbelief, but as NXT’s Fight Pit has shown, sometimes reality can be the perfect ingredient to heighten a match and a story. Brandon Bethune charts the rise of realism in wrestling and how NXT’s newest innovation can continue to thrive in an industry that has struggled without the buzz of a live crowd.
Back in May of 2020, WWE debuted its newest stipulation when Matt Riddle and Timothy Thatcher entered the Fight Pit on NXT. The match depicted a ring surrounded by a cage, devoid of ropes or turnbuckles like traditional wrestling rings, adopting the style of a larger MMA fighting cage, with scaffolding and a platform for that extra boost of pro wrestling spectacle.
The action was brutal and hard-hitting, pulling you into the contest in a way that wrestling has struggled to in the midst of the pandemic. So much of the COVID-era of professional wrestling has been about getting back to the basics, and for an industry derived from real combat, it doesn’t get anymore basic than sticking two men in a cage to fight until one can’t continue.
The best wrestling of 2020 wasn’t about cinematic matches or wacky experimentation. It was about stripping wrestling back to what it is at its core. So ahead of this week’s NXT, and the return of the Fight Pit for the clash between Timothy Thatcher and Tomasso Ciampa, I want to look at why realism in wrestling is perfect for the COVID-era, and why the Fight Pit could be the industry’s next great stipulation.
Wrestling of course is chock full of great stipulations (or special match types), but not all of them have translated so well to crowd-less wrestling. There’s a reason AEW immediately cancelled their version of War Games (‘Blood and Guts’) at the onset of the pandemic, because stipulations struggle without the surge that comes with a live audience participating in the action.
Arguably the greatest wrestling stipulation ever, the Royal Rumble, is going to be contested in front of no fans this year, a thought still almost unimaginable, and no amount of piped in noise, wrestlers playing fans, or ‘Thunderdome’ is going to change that.
This is where the ‘Fight Pit’ is different, as the presentation of the match is completely unlike anything else in wrestling right now. The Fight Pit is less of a wrestling match, but more of a legitimate fight with hyped up realism that focuses squarely on the action in the ring rather than the crowd’s participation out of it. Sure, the ‘audience’ in attendance for Riddle vs Thatcher helped, but even if that match was played on mute, Riddle kicking Thatcher’s teeth out one minute in would still have had the exact same impact. Will it feel the same when the buzzer runs down during the Royal Rumble in silence?
This isn’t to downplay the importance of crowds in wrestling, but given there aren’t any, why fight that? It’s better to steer into the skid and embrace the abnormality that is no-fans wrestling than to portray a watered down version of what wrestling would be with them. Especially in a time when the action in the ring is what has to be focused on the most, rather than the usual pomp and circumstance, providing an ultra-violent alternative to present a realistic fight will help create an atmosphere that will, if anything, temporarily replace the atmosphere crowds have left behind.
WWE experimented with incorporating aspects of MMA into their programming in the late nineties after acquiring early UFC star-turned-wrestler Ken Shamrock. Parallels can be drawn between the NXT Fight Pit and the Lion’s Den matches Shamrock participated in with Owen Hart and Steve Blackman in the late 90s, with the raised platform and elimination of the ropes and turnbuckles taking inspiration from the UFC’s presentation. However, with MMA yet to take off in the mainstream, this was met with indifference more than anything else, with audiences associating this ‘real’ approach to wrestling to other experiments like the disastrous ‘Brawl For All’, which happened around the same time.
The rising popularity of UFC in the late 2000s made realistic approaches to wrestling more viable however, with Impact Wrestling (then TNA) perhaps being the first to hook a mainstream audience on the idea, in helping to build a big fight feel around the Lockdown 2008 match between Samoa Joe and Kurt Angle. The match was essentially portrayed as a real fight with the rules of a normal pro-wrestling cage match, and while also not a complete success, proved wrestling’s ability to use MMA inspirations to draw money, with the match being aided by Angle’s legitimacy as a gold medal winning amateur wrestler and Joe’s MMA training mixed with his wrestling style and reputation as a pro.
Joe vs Angle proved a precursor to what was to come, with modern wrestling’s fascination with Japanese strong style and MMA seeing wrestlers adapt their styles to fit this mould, as well as an influx of ex-UFC names trying their hand at wrestling themselves and bringing that unteachable legitimacy and big fight feel with them.
Take the two competitors for May’s original ‘Fight Pit’ for example. Matt Riddle is a former MMA fighter who followed in the footsteps of Shamrock and Angle, and more recently Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey, in adapting his background as a real competitor to the wrestling world with great effect.
A hybrid style of pro-wrestling came to the fore, shown in the acclaim of companies like Ring of Honor, as well as the rise in popularity of stars like Daniel Bryan, Zack Sabre Jr, and the second man in the Fight Pit, Timothy Thatcher.
The rise in prominence of Japanese ‘puroesu’ pushed this evolution further, with the Japanese style’s focus on the psychology of wrestling as a legitimate fight with more submissions and striking than ‘moves’. This allowed wrestlers like Minoru Susuki, Katsiouryi Shibata, Tomohiro Ishii and Shinsuke Nakamura to finally popularise the style in the mainstream through New Japan’s growing audience and presence in the already booming independent scene through the middle to late 2010s.
It’s hard to find positive aspects of wrestling’s entertainment value during the pandemic, but hear me out. Mainstream wrestling audiences had finally accepted realistic influences as commonplace in wrestling.
The ‘Fight Pit’ accomplished this more than any other match last year, with Riddle and Thatcher beating each other around the cage with vicious strikes and holds, building to the crescendo of Riddle being sent off the top of the platform, and Thatcher claiming victory.
As well as finally doing the wrestling version of an MMA cage fight well, the match did what every great wrestling stipulation does, ends a story and makes every character look better coming out of it. While Riddle/Thatcher hadn’t been a great story leading up to the bout, they were the right guys to introduce this match type with, and the quality of the bout elevated a story that had been middling before the cage door was locked behind them. The match also elevated both wrestlers, giving Riddle a great match to close his NXT run, while legitimising Thatcher as a real threat to the rest of the roster.
The upcoming Ciampa/Thatcher match is in a similar position. The build hasn’t been great, but given the quality of the first Fight Pit and the talent of Ciampa and Thatcher, this match will hopefully maintain the same sense of brutality to elevate the story, the wrestlers, and the stipulation as a whole.
If this match delivers, I’d say easily that the Fight Pit is the best wrestling innovation since the pandemic. But now that they’ve created lightning in a bottle, where do they go with it?
Firstly, this style of wrestling is not sustainable on a regular basis. The stretched out schedule of NJPW or the independents (prior to the pandemic) allowed wrestlers there to keep up this highly damaging style on a semi-regular basis, but for week-to-week television it simply isn’t viable.
Secondly, the overuse of this style of match could cause the Fight Pit to fall into the ‘pit’ of over-saturation, akin to other modern WWE stipulations. Hell in a Cell, Elimination Chamber, TLC, and all other WWE stipulation PPVs have become outdated, as have the match types they’re built upon with them.
The Fight Pit has only been used twice so far, and saving it for the more traditional method of being a blowoff to major feuds between wrestlers who adopt that heavy hitting style is what needs to continue in order to maintain the bout’s fresh and important aura.
Thirdly, this should be achievable, because WWE isn’t known or loved for this style of wrestling. This style is usually saved for Brock Lesnar matches, or UK title defences by Walter, so preserving this style of match as a rarity in WWE and NXT should be really easy, since WWE rarely adopt this style anyways. As long as WWE don’t prioritise financial gain over quality of output, they won’t try and pump it out every month for a Raw rating.
But IT WILL make them a boat load of money if done correctly. The Fight Pit can be used for more than just NXT TV blow off matches, it could be used as the culmination of long term stories and many, MANY dream matches.
Imagine Kyle O’Reilly winning his first NXT Championship in the Fight Pit by ending his long, physical rivalry with Finn Balor, a feud which in-ring has been built on the psychology of escalating brutality, testing which man can sustain the most punishment. The Fight Pit was built for that purpose.
Furthermore, if the main roster gets their hands on the pit and uses it correctly, putting wrestlers like Daniel Bryan, Cesaro, Shinsuke Nakamura, Shayna Bazler, Ronda Rousey, Bobby Lashley, and (my personal favourite) Brock Lesnar and Matt Riddle in the pit could give WWE its most organically pleasing stipulation in years, as well as harnessing some of the excitement, originality and passion that wrestling lost when the pandemic hit.
The past year may have stripped wrestling of its key element being filled the rafters, but when they do return, they’ll have a new stipulation to amaze them, to get them out their seats, and to do what wrestling should do at its very centre, capture the imagination.