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[1981-11-20-Houston Wrestling] Tito Santana vs Nick Bockwinkel (Gold Cup Challenge)

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This is for Tito's Gold Cup. This was a total blast and had so many interesting things. Like in the 1st fall these guys milked a test of strength spot and it turned into an epic moment. I enjoyed Bock and Tito working the headlock spots. Tito's arm work was really gritty. Back to the 1st fall I loved the quick punch spots. All the work seemed snug. The finish of the 1st fall was tremendous. The 2nd fall seeing Bock working the throat and stomach to destroy his breathing. Again this had a stunning finish. The final fall was off the charts. The guys do about the damndest double head knocker spot that I bought as a finish, yet it wasn't. Tito is bleeding and Bock is just going after the cut. The heat here is off the charts. Tito goes over and the crowd explodes. Awesome stuff 4 1/4*

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Good wrestlers can tell a story in the ring. Great wrestlers can craft great Thrillers, the equivalent of crime or spy novels, ones which repeat the same themes again and again, but make for an exciting ride even given that familiarity. Nick Bockwinkel crafts those Thrillers as well, but he crosses genres more deftly than almost any wrestler I've ever seen. He introduces, through build, payoff, and emotional reactions to everything that happens in the ring, elements of the human condition, of more traditional novels, into his wrestling. That was very much at play here.



There were a few unique elements to the match's setting. For one, Bockwinkel was chasing. We don't have much footage of him chasing, especially not as a heel and especially not chasing someone other than Verne. Here he was chasing Santana's Gold Cup, won during Paul Boesch's 3 night 50th anniversary tournament, where Santana beat Bockwinkel. Houston used the introduction of artificial titles such as this and JYD's King of Wrestling crown in order to rationalize Bockwinkel losing without losing his World Title, often times to set up a title match where he would seem vulnerable, thus a.) making the fans think they might see a title change and be more apt to buy tickets and b.) making the homegrown stars seem all the more impressive for having a win, with real stakes, over the champ. This match, in particular, was a two out of three falls match, which was not something we saw often, if at all, with AWA Bockwinkel. Finally, he came in with something to prove, having already been defeated in a match that he very much wanted to win, and feeling that the honor of the Gold Cup, a true prize in wrestling, was wasted on Santana. He could claim his previous loss was due to the grueling nature of the tournament or due to Satanta's homefield advantage (which came up in Boesch's commentary).


All of these things are important because they played into the layout and execution of the match. They shaped Bockwinkel's motivations and had a hand in almost every single thing he did. He didn't just want to win; he had something to prove. He didn't just want to prove he was better; he wanted to hurt Tito. It meant he would be more aggressive than usual and that he would react to what Tito did more viscerally.


The additional length and two out of three fall stipulation meant that the match didn't have to follow so straightforward a shine/heat/comeback structure. Instead it was a feeling out process, heel control, babyface shine, heel heat with comeback teases and cut offs (this included the first two falls), and a final heel control leading to the comeback. These were bridged together by repetition, build, and payoff in the form of paralleled transitions, focused offense, and that ultimate tool in pro wrestling, selling.


Let's take a look at how character drove the opening feeling out process and how that, and repetition to create an effect, bled into the control and shine. The match started with some deep, gritty lock ups, and subsequent rope breaks. They went back and forth with these, four times, escalating the tease of punches until Bockwinkel, frustrated, finally threw the first opportunistic punch. He paid for it as Tito fired back. That was the framing sequence for the feeling out process. In between, they had oneupmanship driving the frustration, where Tito would do something and then Bockwinkel would manage a less flashy version of it. The best example would be a nice hammerlock-go behind-roll up sequence that I'm not sure I've ever seen Tito use, and Bockwinkel just forcing a go behind and roll up in response. I liked how this was an inversion of the Bockwinkel vs Chavo Guerrero match where Bockwinkel would do the first move and Chavo would then do something similar but flashier. There, Chavo had something to prove. Here it was Bockwinkel. They traded Full Nelsons next, which led to the long, (again, like everything else in this match) gritty test of strength, where Bockwinkel is the aggressor but Tito manages to come back. It's all Bockwinkel can do to get to the ropes and draw the break. That's when he fully snaps, driving forward with a forearm and a headlock takeover, done with trying to wrestle evenly with Tito, done with trying to prove something, actual despair in his face. Now he just wanted to grind him down and hurt him.


That was the start of the heel control, which was architecturally beautiful. It goes without saying that they were deeply working the headlock. There was no resting there. Tito was always trying to get leverage or turn him. That said, it was the use of repetition and evolving spots that really made it sing though. Tito made it up and hit a whip only to get shoulder blocked twice and put back in. He made it up a second time and turned the second shoulder block into an arm drag, but Bockwinkel kicked up into Tito's face (remember this later), and put him back in with amazing snap. The third time, after the first shoulder block, Tito slammed him, but Bockwinkel nailed him with a cheapshot, slammed him back, and locked it back in. Finally, the fourth time they made it up, Bockwinkel, unable to contain him any longer, rammed his head into the turnbuckle. He then ran in for a charge, but went shoulder first into the post (remember THIS later too). And that led right into the start of the babyface shine.


There were parallels in the babyface shine to the heel control, every piece building on what came before while driving things forward. Of course, it was well worked. Tito varied things up, starting with an armbar and moving to a hammerlock, grinding it, pumphandling it. When we get to see Bockwinkel's selling, it's incredibly emotive. And his "hope" spots? Shoulder block by Tito, arm drag by Bockwinkel, and kick up by Tito (which I asked you to remember when Bockwinkel did it). Then right back into the hold. Perfect symmetry. By the way, little thing, but I loved how Tito used the tights to position Bock around while in the hammerlock. It felt more like the use of the gi in judo than any sort of cheating. They went through another round, this time with Bockwinkel trying a bodyslam (much like the ones during the control) only for Tito to hang on. They were too close to the ropes and that allowed for some distance and harsh punching on Tito, surrendering moral ground from a wrestling perspective. The hurt arm would delay him, however, and Tito would grab the hold again. When Bockwinkel finally escaped, it was with a series of nasty headbutts to create distance (once again surrendering the moral higher ground since he wasn't skilled enough to legitimately escape).


This was the start of the real heel heat, Bockwinkel's viciousness and frustration unleashed. He was down to one arm by this point, and that informed how he took the attack to Tito, first escaping with the headbutts, and then using the ring itself as a weapon to make up for his damaged limb. He'd use his feet or his knee to choke Tito on the ropes, would slam him into the turnbuckle. This set the stage for his offense in the rest of the match, all driven by the fact he was selling his arm after minutes of it being worked on. Logic. Meaning. Consequence, but never, ever by losing sight of the heart and soul of the match. Instead, it enhances, provides grounding. The first fall ended here, with Tito, fresher still, fighting back only to miss a flying charge in the corner (mimicking when he took over from Bockwinkel the first time to end the heel control), and Bockwinkel, still hurt, capitalizing with a quick pin.


He'd continue to capitalize on that mistake into the second fall, and he'd continue to use the ring as a weapon. He ran with Tito's head, whipping him neck first into the top rope multiple times. He put his head on the bottom rope and drove a knee into it from the turnbuckles. Both of those are things I've never seen Bockwinkel do before, but they fit the match perfectly and were hugely vicious. He tried to run him neck first one too many times, however, and Tito used the momentum to bounce off the ropes, duck a punch, and score the lightning second fall with a cross body, though he didn't immediately shift momentum back in the grander sense. I love that allowance in two out of three fall matches, when they can enhance a hope spot into a fall but just give that all the more reason for the heel to keep the heat on.


Bock came into the third fall with the advantage, cutting off another hope spot from Tito by going back to the turnbuckle and the ropes. The late match selling here was off the charts, with both wrestlers portraying exhaustion and the damage of the match, all building to the moment where Bockwinkel whipped Tito and their heads collided. This is where the comeback would normally come. Here, instead, Bockwinkel, likely knowing it was coming from a character perspective, went into the King of the Mountain segment, hugely late into the match, and done with more meanness than I've ever seen it. He was at the very end of his rope. He rolled out with Tito and slammed his head into the post, introducing the blood into the match, and then kept on him, brutally preventing him from getting back in the ring with kicks and a huge haymaker. When he did allow him back in, it's only to slam his head into the turnbuckles again before driving him back out, pinballing him in and out of the ring and doing damage.


Eventually, though, after a mare over the top, Tito recovered enough for one last big comeback sequence, firing away with babyface fury that he could channel better than anyone, punching and kicking Bockwinkel in the corner. It ended, however, with the third exclamation point missed charge into the corner of the match and Bockwinkel driving him back out. He beat him on the apron, with the referee, who had enough, playing just a bit of interference, until Tito was able to recover enough to create a tiny bit of distance and capitalize with a slingshot shoulder tackle to take the third fall and win the match.


It's staggering to look back and think about all of the callbacks and payoffs, of the way that one act in the match led to the next, the way that certain themes ran through this, of Bockwinkel's pathos, his desperation and frustration and pride, and Santana's skill and perseverance. Nothing came off as haphazard. Bockwinkel's heat was all about using the ropes and turnbuckles. That began due to the armwork and continued because of its viciousness and effectiveness. They paralleled spots from the control in the shine, set up transitions in the ten minute mark that would be paid off in the twenty and the thirty. None of it felt gimmicky or gratuitous. It all furthered a story and was driven by character and all was sold and reacted to and thus was draped in meaning. This is the storytelling standard that every main event match should be judged against.

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That was an incredible piece of work. Lots of unconventional choices that worked better than you might think, specifically with Bockwinkel using the side headlock as a base, which is normally a babyface position in a match. I suspect they made that choice because it was rare for him to get a chance to work a match like this as a heel without having to defend a title -- it freed him up to toy with the usual formula, and to follow it through by taking the first fall. Instead of having to sell the idea that Tonight May Be The Night, Tito could overcome the odds. This match had a pretty big lack of heat in the early stages and they really won the crowd over with two great fall finishes and a red hot third fall that was just the culmination of some really tremendous build. It was great exercise in patience. It didn't feel like they got rattled at all by some of the early silence. They knew they were going to payoff the early work, so they just stayed the course. That was pretty cool. I feel like that opening test of strength was the type of thing you expect to see between Choshu and Hashimoto in a dome in terms of attention to detail and drama. It may not have had that level of heat to accompany it, but the spirit was definitely there. A super match, but more than that, something that I suspect is a bit novel for both guys -- the opportunity to do a title match in working style without being boxed in by the politics of an actual title being defended. ****1/2

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I'm with Matt D- this was a perfect match. All the restholds were gritty and logical, never boring- and believe me restholds usually put me to sleep. I was engrossed genuinely and was rooting for Tito to make the impossible comeback, even though I love Nick in real life. Every move, every hold, every fall- had meaning. Pure psychology and melodrama. 

There was class warfare played out in the ring as well as the high class, refined, experienced, haughty, condescending, and respected Anglo champion lost to the family-orientated young Mexican who had earned his trophy by hard work.

I can't say enough about all of Nick's excellent scientific moves as a heel, but they were foiled by Tito so Nick had to start getting rough and cheat. Tito- only six years in- was already a true pro babyface.

Fans completely popped for the ending.

This is yet another reason why Meltzer's star rating system is ridiculous. Dave himself has said that we are in a Golden Age now because there has never been more 5-6 star matches in the history of the biz, yet his newsletter wasn't even around at this time.

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