Atlantis vs. La Fiera, NWA World Middleweight Championship, 4/3/92
It's weird watching a match where one of the participants gets stabbed to death years later but that's wrestling I guess. I'm not going to eulogise La Fiera too much, but he was part of that generation of luchadores who debut in the late 70s and ushered in a more contemporary style of lucha libre. By the time the 90s rolled around, his body was already showing the effects of that new working style, but he managed to make the transition into "seasoned vet" and remained a useful player. He also stuck with CMLL when everyone jumped to AAA, which protected his spot somewhat, partly out of loyalty and partly out of necessity. This match was somewhere between the Fiera of old and the seasoned vet, and probably a good example of how you manage a pro-wrestling career (Atlantis) and how you don't (Fiera); but let's just concentrate on the match.
Atlantis was in his absolute prime here. Much like "real" athletes, wrestlers only have two or three years where they're at their true peak. They may be good workers either side of that peak, but if you look back in retrospect there's a clear crest. The first fall here was among Atlantis' career best. One of the things that people complain about when it comes to lucha is the length of the opening falls, which are almost always too short for people used to other styles of wrestling. By and large the third fall is the one that counts, but as I've documented many times in this blog, the workers have choices about what they can do in the first, second and third falls. Here, they worked in essence a "mini match" in the primera caida. From the lock-up to the break, and the matwork and submissions to the standing exchanges, there was a clear arc between the opening bell and Atlantis winning fall.
I'm not sure what the heat between Atlantis and Fiera was, but the part where Atlantis ignored Fiera's handshake and used it as a takedown instead was boss. There was an edge to their lock-up work and it continued in a competitive vein on the mat with great side headlocks from Atlantis and niggly counters from Fiera. The side headlock for all its simplicity is an amazingly visceral move when done correctly and this would be exhibit A in how to make it look good. The finish saw them return to their feet, which is something that drives me up the wall about the NWA style matwork that influenced this match, but this was about as natural a transition from matwork to standing exchanges as you'll ever see. Fiera scored a rope break off a nice counter-reversal from Atlantis and the match was reset. Atlantis positioned himself for the lock-up, but was caught by surprise by a kick to the gut and whipped into the corner. This set-up the chain of events which led to the finish, and while it may seem rather elementary when I type it up, rarely do you see workers link the matwork and the stand-up exchanges together like that. Nine times out of ten, they simply release the hold, back-off and reset the match with a whip into the ropes. Here, it seemed like Fiera seized an opportunity to change tack, which had the added effect of making it seem like Fiera was thinking about the win and not simply going through the motions of a typical primera caida. Unfortunately for him, Atlantis was stellar on his feet and reeled off a sequence of offence that was good enough to be the finish to the entire match. This ended up being a problem later in the match, but more on that in a bit. The first fall was a cracker as far as first falls go in lucha.
The second fall was designed for Fiera to hit back straight away, but was entertaining all the same. Atlantis continued to have the upper exchange in the standing exchanges, which was a nice bit of overlapping from the first fall, and Fiera wasn't getting much purchase with his signature kicks (which were noticeably lower than in his prime; something us aging guys can sympathise with.) Fiera's opening here wasn't quite as strong as in the first fall as he did the over top rope bump that Pirata Morgan and Emilio Charles Jr. were fond of but didn't sell it to any great extent. Back in the ring, he finally clipped Atlantis with one of his kicks and that was the set-up for a massive swan dive plancha that they replayed over and over again. This was an unnaturally big finish for a second fall, which left me wondering how they were going to top things in the final caida, but there certainly wasn't any short changing of the fans in falls one and two.
Unfortunately, they weren't able to top their efforts in the final caida. Ironically, it may have been a case that the first two falls had too much action. Traditionally, the reason why the first two falls are short in lucha is because the third fall is supposed to be a big 50/50 fall where the winner takes all and both guys come desperately close to winning on numerous occasions. This can stretch believability at times because the pinfalls and submissions often come simply in the opening caidas and take a superhuman effort in the finale, but the basic idea is that the jeopardy increases and the tension and drama escalates. If you pack too much into the first two falls, it's like a movie that runs out of story or a record release that has great singles put not enough songs to make an album. Fiera slowed the match to a crawl by working over Atlantis' arm, which was an understandable strategy, but completely out of place in a tercera caida where the action should flow back and forth. Atlantis sold it well, but it really needed to start in the segunda caida (as Fiera's avenue back into the match) to have any dramatic effect. The idea was that Atlantis would get heat for fighting off Fiera, but they needed to establish it as more of a turning point, i.e. Atlantis is in control of the match until Fiera injures him.
It was an odd fall, really, as they both wanted to put the match over but didn't give themselves a hell of a lot to do. The finishing stretch and everything leading into it was pretty lacklustre. I don't know if they ran out of steam or if they were just out of synch at the end, but it didn't do the match any favours. My take on it is that they got the order of the spots wrong, which hurt the progression of the match. They should've split the armwork over two falls and saved the big plancha for later in the match where it would have more impact. It's strange that two guys as experienced as this would falter like they do, but there's no denying the match falls flat. It's still worth watching even if it isn't perfect; you just have to downgrade what was a pretty promising match.