A while back (almost two years ago to be exact), I had a brilliant idea for a column: I would write something deep and substantial about workrate. It was a can’t miss idea in my head. On paper (or screen as the case may be), it was a different story. Here I am two years later, and I have written something like six different versions of that column. I could never quite get the tone or the message right (or anything about it really). I am admittedly somewhat of a perfectionist, but I damn well liked the idea of the workrate column; I just could not find a way to make it, ahem, work.
Then the moment of clarity finally came. I was attempting to write an answer column as opposed to an exploratory one. Put simply: we have reached a point where there is no easy definition for workrate. I am confident there are those who are sure in their opinion that workrate is easily definable. However, the two years of research into the topic have taught me that this is most definitely not the case.
The art form of professional wrestling is one of subjectivity. I am a big believer in there not being any objective truths when it comes to the pro graps. What works for me may not work for you (and vice versa). While a badly executed move may actually work within the context of a match, a perfectly executed move may actually drag a match down. My view on this is a bit extreme, and I fully understand that most do not agree with my all-encompassing subjective take on pro wrestling. The reason I lay it out in front of you is because it is a viewpoint that is essential to understanding my take on the idea of workrate.
For me, workrate was a concept that I first came to know thanks to the online wrestling world. I am not sure how I talked about wrestling before entering the online fracas, but it is certain that workrate was not a part of my vocabulary. It is possible though that the term may have been present in a more muddled form (such as “These guys sure are doing a lot of stuff.”). I was making a statement about workrate without even understanding what workrate could possibly be.
As I came to worship at the altar of a writer named Scott Keith, I began to think I understood workrate. He used terms like “in-ring workrate,” and he would put it into the context of guys working hard. The idea of workrate that I began to parrot was one centered on the idea of guys working hard in the ring. The wrestlers with the higher workrates were the ones who did the most action in the ring. Thus, these wrestlers with said higher workrates were the best wrestlers.
There were casualties to this approach; the wrestlers who suffered in my head the most were the ones who I decided were garbage because they did not seem to be capable of much action in the ring. John Tenta is one such example. With my new understanding of workrate, Tenta, in all his various forms, became just a fat guy who did very little in the ring. I can remember vividly watching him on an episode of World Championship Wrestling’s Saturday Night and begging him to do more. I believe he was Avalanche at the time, and, as he went through the motions of the match, teenaged Bill wanted him to step up the action somehow. When he did not, I came to the conclusion that Tenta was useless in the ring and did not, in any way, represent good in-ring workrate.
I felt that way for more than a few years. I am not sure when the change began to take place in how I viewed wrestling, but I know where it took place. I discovered a place called Death Valley Driver Video Review. There was the message board and there were plenty of online wrestling titans who posted there. However, the change came mainly due to the actual reviews themselves. Phil Schneider, Eric R, Dean Rasmussen, et al. talked about wrestling in a manner that was foreign to me. They did not impact me right away, but they did plant a seed within my brain. Reading more of their work forced me to question the way I had viewed wrestling my whole life.
That seed started to grow, and before I knew it, I was reading all the DVDVRs that I could get my hands on. They were talking about wrestlers doing things in the ring that I never thought mattered. The way a wrestler would throw a Punch, why it mattered that Bull Nakano looked at her opponent a certain way, and so on and so forth. All that mattered to me previously to discovering DVDVR was workrate, and what they were talking about was most definitely not workrate. It made me question the way I was approaching wrestling, and I noticed the way I was discussing wrestling began to evolve as well.
Removed a few years from that, I realize now that the mistake I made was thinking that what the DVDVR folk were talking about had nothing to do with workrate. What they had to say was workrate in a nutshell; workrate as I have come to believe it to be. Action in the ring without meaning is, well, meaningless. It is the little glances, the body mannerisms, the rolling of the eyes, cocking of a head, positioning of a move, etc. that make the in-ring action work. In a wrestling match, the wrestlers are always working, and it is not always tied to action.
The above does not mean that every single wrestler on the face of a planet is a workrate wrestler. There remains a difference between workrate wrestlers and lazy wrestlers. However, there are plenty of workers who I used to think of as lazy that I now realize are as far removed from lazy as can be. John Tenta is not lazy; he is a very economical worker who makes great use of space and timing in the way he orchestrates his matches. He works his tail off in his matches and delivers elements that are just as important as any “go, go, go” action sequence.
The lack of visible action is not the issue when it comes to whether someone is displaying high workrate or being lazy. Rather, it is the context and tone of the move that matters. Barry Windham holding Ric Flair in an Abdominal Stretch in their February 14, 1986 match for a minute or so is not him being lazy or not showing workrate. It is him inserting a move into the match that makes sense based on a swing in momentum and what is about to happen after the Abdominal Stretch. The crowd actively engages as Flair is trapped in the hold, their cheers get louder while Windham does little things like grind his knuckles into Flair’s ribs, and Flair reciprocates with facial expressions that convey immense pain. They have slowed the match down and are working a hold, but they are providing action and in-ring workrate in a moment when most people would argue they are not.
This is where subjectivity comes into play in a major way. I cannot sit here and tell someone that they are wrong if they say, “No, that Abdominal Stretch is not an example of workrate. It was Windham and Flair needing a break and using a resthold to catch their breath; that’s all.” I cannot definitively counter such a statement because of the inherent subjectivity of the art form we are both watching. What that person sees as a resthold, I see as something much more. Neither of us are wrong; and that is why there is no strict definition of workrate.
Based on what I have written so far, I have a question for you: what is workrate? More to the point, I looked for what some others have posited workrate to be, and I sent out questions to a select few for their thoughts on workrate. What I found and the answers I received were interesting to say the least. With a slight bit of hubris, I convey that such differences in opinion are the lifeblood of wrestling. It brings me great joy to read different takes from various well-respected individuals in the world of wrestling.
Noted wrestling historian and journalist, Dave Meltzer, offers a take that is essentially my own,
It is a stripped down version of what I said, and in many ways Dave’s simple take is easier to parse out than my own. On the other end of the spectrum there is Scott Keith who wrote,
“The ratio of action to inaction is the workrate, and that’s what everyone gets so high-and-mighty about. A wrestler whose matches have lots of action and a minimum of resting has good workrate, and a wrestler who spends the entire match in a reverse chinlock has bad workrate.”
This is the definition that would make someone like John Tenta out to be a terrible worker. It places a premium on fluid action and labels inactive moments as being bad for the quality of a match. There’s no mention of what is happening in the Reverse Chinlock; how it relates to the story of the match, the context of what has come before or after, etc. The general sense is, keep moving and provide action that requires the eye to track movement or you are a bad worker.
Ryan Clingman, the owner and curator of Cubed Circle Newsletter, offers a slightly different take than what we have read so far,
“It says very little for the emotional components of a match or wrestler, for facials, and more complex elements of selling. Whilst this does mean that many, if not most good workrate matches are well worked, and many high workrate wrestlers are great workers, the contrapositive does not hold — those who do not have the mechanical and athletic prowess of a high workrate performer may very well be just as good as far as quality of match output is concerned.”
For Ryan there is workrate and then there are other elements that exist outside of the idea of workrate. A facial expression means a lot, but it is not inherently a part of the workrate taking place in the match. This take melds the definition I have provided with the Keith take and spins it in a new direction. It is not a take I find that I agree with, but it is one that breaks workrate down into individual elements in a manner that I find highly interesting. Maybe a facial expression is different than the mechanics that make up executing a German Suplex. But, what if, as it relates to engaging the crowd, the intended result of the facial expression and the German Suplex are the same? That’s where I find myself distancing myself from Ryan’s opinion on the matter.
Rich Kraetch from Voices of Wrestling takes us back to the Scott Keith definition,
“Workrate to me has always been the action going on in the ring. As others have said, I always felt “restholds” or any transitional-type maneuvers weren’t exactly workrate. It’s very hard to give a clear definition here but I guess a high-level athletic display, action-based wrestling that makes sense in the context of the larger match and the story being told.”
What I find most interesting about Rich’s definition is that he adds in a wrinkle near the end. He brings context into play, which seems to suggest that he does not view transitional moves as a part of workrate but, that this depends on the context of the moves. I find this very thought-provoking because in my mind context means that what is being defined as restholds in this instance usually have to be included as a part of workrate.
Where I most disagree with Rich is in his usage of high-level athletic display. This may be fleshed out in a later column, but I do not think athleticism matters much (if at all) when it comes to workrate. Performing and engaging the crowd are what matter when it comes to workrate. That may come from a Shooting Star Press, but it just as easily can come from a well-placed Punch between the eyes. Though I may disagree with the importance Rich places on athleticism, the fact that we can define workrate so disparately is an example of the analytical (some might even say academic) side of discussing wrestling that greatly appeals to me.
Lastly, but not least, we have the words of a pro wrestler. California indie regular and Lucha Underground talent, Vinnie Massaro, defines workrate thusly,
Out of all the definitions provided, this is the one that sparks my mind the most. Pro wrestling is a performance art, but it is not an individual performance art. Wrestling is the art of cooperation: multiple artists working together to craft a piece of art for their audience. The definitions, including my own, that have been presented so far focus on action, inaction, the why, the how, and the what. Missing in action until now has been the who. Is action truly workrate if it does little for the other person involved in the match? What if a great facial expression actually betrays the story the other wrestler has been trying to tell all match long?
I will be honest and say I never quite thought of workrate in the framework provided by Vinnie. Changing the match on the fly or working to make your opponent look better are integral parts of wrestling, but they are not elements I have ever grouped in with workrate. In the end, they probably should be though, because if one person looks great at the expense of the other then that is a selfish bit of business that only helps the one individual. This could, and in the future will, veer off into the idea of no-selling and how damaging that can be to a match, and the other wrestler. The connection has always been present, but I was so stuck in the standard ways that we view workrate that I never stopped to smell the roses, so to speak.
I offered my own definition of workrate and followed with different definitions from some very smart gentlemen. (Ladies, don’t be mad at me, I tried to get some of you involved but none of the female wrestling personalities I contacted wanted to participate). What this journey has hopefully shown, besides my ability to be longwinded, is that there is no true definition of workrate. It is a nebulous concept and just as subjective as the art form from which it sprang forth. It is a topic worth exploring more deeply than I have attempted in this article. Workrate is a topic I plan on returning to at some point in the future. For now, take some time and think about workrate, and hopefully you come to the realization that it is not as easily defined as you might think.