We all love a great, fantastic, and utterly mind-blowing match that transcends everything our sensibilities can comprehend about wrestling, right? We love the big moves, the flashy flips, the high-impact and high-octane, never-stop-till someone drops (on their head) action that leaves you craving and salivating for the next fix.
That sounds accurate; let’s give that description a wholly and completely objective 7.25 stars. Never a greater piece of writing.
About two years ago I got into it with Dave Meltzer and “the flock” on Twitter over some relatively insane comments he made regarding the rating scale used by the Observer to grade matches. He had said, specifically of the matches he looks at and judges (not those who also contribute to the process), that when he graded matches he did not base those ratings off his own opinion (instead, set criteria). He argued that were he to do so, the ratings would more reflect his personal tastes — yes, that’s correct. He said that.
Naturally I took exception to that because it’s patently absurd. When you review something, you’re basing whatever the object is off your own experiences, which forms your own criteria, which defines how you assess — in this case — a wrestling match. But no matter what, it is 100% subjective. Even if you’re working within the confines of specific “informed” criteria like Meltzer presupposes, the result is still subjective and entirely your opinion.
By now we’re all familiar with his scale and have surely formed opinions, not the least of which includes “where does it stop?” “What’s the cap?” And the colloquial answer is simply that there isn’t one; there is no limitation on the number of stars a match can get. It’s somewhat argued upon the premise that older matches, while great, don’t metrically fully measure up to modern day match outputs. Wrestlers are healthier, stronger, faster and possess a wider range of skill bases that old school grapplers simply didn’t have; this all aside from the acrobatics of people like the Young Bucks or Will Ospreay. But fundamentally, how we end up with these seemingly scale-breaking distinctions is when something like Flair-Steamboat or Misawa-Kawada happens that breaks the mold.
That happened once again in the last few years when Meltzer bequeathed a rating of 6 stars or higher to Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada 4 times in an 18 month period. Four times, compared to two instances in the previous 30-odd years. Now Omega’s IWGP title clincher is the benchmark that Meltzer ratings are judged against by nature of relativity. You can agree with it, or disagree with it, but it is what is and it holds whatever value you place into it. For some, the system is a great reference tool, for others it’s valueless. I can see both sides of it, but my concern considering how much vitriol surrounds them is where they stop. What’s the ceiling?
So, anyway, back to that story… I got blocked for suggesting a 20-star match would involve jetpacks and hoverboards. It seemed reasonable to me, but he didn’t like it. And while on the surface it seems like a question for the sake of just disturbing the peace, it’s a very serious assessment of how match reviewing is progressing and how much stock is put into star ratings by some fans.
Yet, all of the objection, all of the condemnation or acceptance of what any given match’s rating is comes down to one set of criteria set forth by Meltzer and followed through on by anyone who reviews a match. The problem above all, however, only becomes apparent when you look farther back at the ratings histories. There you see a clear bias on his part.
What’s In A Number?
It shouldn’t shock anyone that WWE doesn’t have the most matches graded at five stars or higher, and despite the belief that Meltzer and company possess a clear AEW bias, only six matches have been graded higher than five stars compared to WWE’s 13. The majority of the top 10 feature a number of North American-based promotions with Japan-based Pro Wrestling NOAH and Mexico’s AAA promotion tied in the tenth spot. However, at the top of the list are the following:
- New Japan Pro Wrestling (69 matches)
- All Japan Pro Wrestling (35 matches)
- All Japan Women’s Wrestling (19 matches)
To crystallize this, of the promotions in the top 10, beyond those three WWE, WCW, AEW, PWG, JCP, ROH, AAA and NOAH have garnered 41 +5-star matches combined, compared to 123 from the top three.
The problem with putting stock in the Meltzer scale as a means to judge match quality is that it has skewed toward the Japanese style of wrestling over the last decades, which is fine if you can appreciate the Japanese style of wrestling, however if you were to be a WWE fan only you’d be left puzzled as to why your favourites from WrestleMania, or the unsung match from Raw or Smackdown rarely registers. Simply put, Meltzer’s tastes don’t skew toward North American wrestling, the actualities are there relative to how many matches state-side are considered “five star quality.”
Let’s look at some of the more recent WWE examples. Aside from Punk and Cena in 2011, the most recent matches have all been on NXT and featured the likes of Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano, Andrade, Ciampa, WALTER, Tyler Bate, Undisputed Era (Fish/O’Reilly) and Ilja Dragunov (as well as the NXT Takeover ladder match for the North American title). All had great matches on their own merit, but what they also were, were completely unlike the standard WWE match. For example, Gargano and Cole — who have the highest rating — are fantastic, but the matches they put together were quick-paced, spot-heavy matches filled out with false finishes — which would not be out of place on a NJPW card. With WALTER and Bate/Dragunov, it’s a much more technical, hard-hitting British strong style (again, not standard WWE), which by its own nature flows into his leanings. So it can be argued that in order to obtain that plateau, you need to conform in the same way WWE expects its wrestlers to work its House Style. Only here, it’s not for an employer/company, it’s for someone who isn’t yourself and doesn’t pay you.
From there, if we become obsessed with that as a benchmark all wrestling evolves into sameness, which detracts from the character of each promotion. Summarily, from the all time list, we don’t need 10 New Japans, we just need 10 companies with a vision of what good wrestling is. What that precisely is depends on your opinion of what makes a good match or what you look for in a promotion; or if applicable, as a promotion.
Defenders of the scale are going to argue that Meltzer is a fantastic historian, much like the Cornette faithful will argue on his behalf. Those same Meltzer supporters will also say that the purpose of the scale is to provide a categorized list of essential matches every wrestling fan should watch if they can. The counterpoint to that, however, is why do we need to quantify or shrink a match’s worth down to a single digit so it can be written about or heralded about inside the Observer newsletter?
That may have been the intent, it may very well still be, but I think it’s a valid question to consider whether or not the North American audience gives Omega as much flack as he gets without the match ratings attributed to his body of work. Without it, is he just a guy who’s really good at what he does? What if we just said, “that Kenny Omega, he puts on great matches.” Conversely, “have you seen Seth Rollins wrestle? Man, he’s great.” “AJ Styles is still wrestling? I loved him, fantastic wrestler. Excellent matches.”
(Styles, by the way, only has one 5-star match from 2005, in case anyone was wondering.)
This isn’t to promote one over the other, but it serves to illustrate a very clear point: does the rating scale do more harm than good for wrestling as a whole if it secondarily functions (unintendedly) to subdivide fans even further than they already are across promotional and stylistic lines? I think the answer is “yes,” and it takes part in creating more factionalism inside preexisting wrestling tribes (especially online).
Deconstructing the Meltzer scale, what it is, is a repository of storied matches that we do indeed need to check out. The commonality is that they are in fact great matches. The issues arise though where there’s a perceived bias against Meltzer and any connection with AEW, where even if you want to argue AEW “only” has 6 matches in two years, we still have a scale that skews toward the Japanese style of wrestling and almost exclusively features wrestlers Meltzer graded high previously. So what value is there truly in putting any stock in one person’s opinion or notions when their entire system is weighted toward one idea of what professional wrestling manifests as? It doesn’t make much sense.
Reviews are a part of media. However, scarcely are there scales that exceed their own parameters. It’s usually a matter of a movie being rated out of four, or an album being rated out of five or 10; likewise with video games. Yet with Meltzer we have a scale that functioned as though “five” was the apex for nearly seven years in the ’80s, only to be broken twice by 1994 and then 4 times as mentioned earlier over 18 months (never mind all the matches rated in degrees between five and six). So over time we’ve gone from a 5-star scale, to a scale with no limit, which makes no sense. It’s as absurd as the phrase, “give 110%” when it’s a mathematical impossibility to give beyond your physical means. So to presume that extent of ego is healthy is presumptuous, because ultimately it seems six and seven star match ratings have served up a negative consequence far beyond simply logging elite level matches.
Just after Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa finished their Lights Out match last week on AEW Dynamite, the company uploaded a video following the two women into the back where they were greeted with praise, or in Baker’s case, as she was cleaned up and had any remaining thumbtacks removed from her back. Depending on who you speak to, it’s one of the great women’s matches in North American wrestling history. That is of course completely subjective, which is the theme here. There was a point toward the end of the video however, which you’ve certainly at least heard about, where Baker riffed on Meltzer and stated that maybe he’d give them 5 stars for their match. I think she was joking, but I’m also not completely sure.
For the value of them, many people or sites who rated the match gave it five stars to create some measure of majority. Not Meltzer though, who apparently docked it for a trivial reason, and only gave it 4.75 stars. So the question posed is: what’s the quantifiable difference between a 4.75-star match and a 5-star match? Should those involved in the former feel like their contributions are lesser than, or that their match is of a lesser quality if it doesn’t hit that plateau? As a fan, do you really care about a match rating? Isn’t the point of watching a wrestling match to be entertained? To experience something that makes you feel a range of emotions such that you become invested? That you bite on near falls, you cheer your favourites and jeer the ones you don’t like. Isn’t the point of watching wrestling to become invested in the storytelling, what wrestlers give to you in the ring and, as importantly, what they leave in there? How do you even quantify that? Can you even? Growing up, did you even know this was a thing? No? Then why does it matter now?
(Great wrestling, is great wrestling. Period.)
Again, the question is posed, does the fact that Meltzer and his group did not award a 5-star rating to Baker and Rosa diminish the match they put together last week? That’s up for debate, however, to me the answer is a straight “no.” Even then, what does my opinion ever even matter here? It is just my opinion after all, and conclusively those two women put themselves on the line last week to cap an emotional, competitive story that set the bar higher for what women in wrestling are capable of among the best of what WWE has done; it’s one they should be proud of regardless of what any one person thinks. To do the contrary, or to become preoccupied with having stars in your eyes diminishes the value of what’s accomplished when it shouldn’t be the objective.
The work wrestlers put into their craft should not be narrowed down to a fine scope; rather I’d hope their focus is a body of work they can be proud of at the end of their careers. That’s something you can cherish and hold on to; not a series of five-pointed symbols that exist only on the internet.