The Hot Tag: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Tag Team Wrestling

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Unless your name is Vince McMahon, tag team wrestling is an integral part of professional wrestling. It’s long been claimed that the head of the WWE Empire is no fan of tag team wrestling, but historically it’s been a part of wrestling that has served a purpose beyond the lazy creative of simply pairing two known names together for the sake of quantifying air time. For many, it was a way to be seen, to double their chances of gaining exposure in a highly competitive industry where only the stand outs reach the pinnacle. For others, they have been career savers, rescuing subpar singles runs from erasing their legacy altogether. And for some, they are entry level positions, where they can gain exposure to the mass audience while still learning in the ring and finding their own distinct individuality.

Tag team wrestling is nearly as old as the profession itself. The first recorded tag team match in professional wrestling was by San Francisco promoters in 1901, to add some diversity of entertainment to their cards. While it was primarily a regional gimmick, it eventually gained national attention in the 1930’s. It was still a side show part of the card until the crowning of the first World tag champions in the 1950’s – ironically in the San Francisco NWA regional promotion, won by Ray Eckert and Hardboiled Haggerty over Ronnie Etchison and Larry Moquin. And even then, it was never considered remotely on the same level of integrity as the singles matches on the show. North America’s largest governing body for much of the 20th century, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), never officially recognized an NWA World Tag Team Champion until 1982, although nearly all of it’s individual territories held a regional Tag Team title. A retconned history of the NWA by the Crockett owned NWA of the 1980’s links the NWA’s World Tag Team lineage to 1975, with the crowning of Crockett’s previous NWA-affiliate territory Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling champions, The Minnesota Wrecking Crew, featuring legendary tough guys Gene and Ole Anderson. In 1992, those NWA titles were unifed with the WCW World Tag Team championship, when the brutish duo of WWE Hall of Famer Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy (of Fabulous Freebirds fame) and “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, then the WCW World Tag Team champions, defeated former Horseman Barry Windham and The Artist Soon To Be Known As GoldustDustin Rhodes, in a tournament to name the new NWA World Tag Team champions.

Considering how little Vince Jr. holds tag team wrestling, his father, Vincent J. McMahon, was actually ahead of the NWA when it came to recognizing the potential in tag team wrestling being a legitimate addition to the card, crowning the first WWWF World Tag Team champions in 1971, “Crazy” Luke Graham and Tarzan Tyler. And while Vince Sr. had his share of great tag teams, Mr. Fuji & Professor Tanaka, The Blackjacks, and The Wild Samoans, Vince Jr. used it as an avenue to make some of his less personable yet technically gifted athletes earn him money, and he did it quick out the gate. He purchased the WWWF from his father – now rebranded as the WWF – in 1982 and during the 1980’s, his tag team division featured such legendary acts as The British Bulldogs, Nikolai Volkoff & The Iron Sheik, The Hart Foundation, Demolition, and The Killer Bees, which continued the dwindling careers of some of his father’s aging stars and earned early admission to the Big Time for future WWE  Hall of Famer Bret “Hitman” Hart and Shawn Michaels. While elsewhere, the tag team divisions exploded with such stars as the NWA’s Steiner Brothers and Road Warriors, Mid-South’s Rock & Roll Express and Midnight Express, and World Class Championship Wrestling’s new WWE Hall of Famers, The Fabulous Freebirds. These amazing performers became more than just pairings of like (or opposite) partners, and began to show off personalities and tandem maneuvers that covered each other’s weaknesses and promoted each other’s strengths. The psychology of the matches became their own different set of choreographies and playscripts, that could never be replicated in singles affairs.

The Monday Night Wars continued to include tag team wrestling as a staple of their menus, with the legendary TLC feuds of The Dudley Boyz, The Hardy Boyz and Edge & Christian still being talked about with hallowed breath. But somewhere in the aftermath of the end of the nearly 50 year war between the NWA/WCW and the McMahon Family, it was pushed back into the background of the WWE landscape. Tag teams now became quick opportunities to maximize the revenue potential of two already established wrestlers in their primes, such as The Two Man Power Trip featuring Triple H and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, than retaining slowing Legends or pushing younger talent. TNA arrived in 2004 and continued adding tag matches, even recreating the vibe of specifically tag team division tandems, like early stars America’s Most Wanted (“Wildcat” Chris Harris “Cowboy” James Storm), Triple X (Christopher Daniels, Elix Skipper and Low Ki), LAX (Homicide and Hernandez) and Team Canada (Bobby Roode Eric Young), but they still never reached the level of importance that the preceding two eras had shown a dedication to.

But on the indie scene, true tag team wrestling still held on for dear life. And not only did it survive, but it thrivedRing of Honor became a breeding ground of future Superstars, all who earned their stripes in the ROH tag division, such as The Second City Saints (CM Punk Colt Cabana), The Kings of Wrestling (Claudio “Cesaro” Castagnoli & Chris Hero)The Age of the Fall (Tyler “Seth Rollins” Black Jimmy Jacobs), and the unlikely duo of Kevin Steen (Owens) and El Generico (Sami Zayn). Other promotions, like ChikaraPro Wrestling Guerilla (PWG) and countless others featured some amazing talent that were packaged intentionally to be duos more like Batman & Robin rather than The World’s Finest.

But over the past few years, the infectious nature and high energy of tag team matches featuring ensembles specifically trained for multi-member participation has caused the WWE to slowly turn it’s hulking ship and head it’s armada towards the smaller and faster cruise ships that are taking the Social Media YouTube audience by storm. Which can only be a good thing.

 

Photo: rohwrestling.com
Photo: rohwrestling.com

Ring of Honor Tag Team Division: A+

Without question, legendary indie giant Ring of Honor continues to lead the pack when it comes to creating and maintaining exciting tag team wrestling. They’ve lost more high calibre tag team talent than arguably any promotion in history, yet they continue to sport the best all around roster of actual tag teams. Current ROH Tag Team champions War Machine, featuring the menacing duo of Hanson and Raymond Rowe, are spectacles for big men. A reunited Motor City Machine Guns (Alex Shelley Chris Sabin) and All Night Express (Kenny King Rhett Titus), added alongside veterans The Addiction (Christopher Daniels Frankie Kazarian) and Jay & Mark Briscoe, topped off with indie tag team sensations The Young Bucks (Matt & Nick Jackson), puts the ROH Tag Team division in the perhaps the strongest shape of its already stellar history. And let’s not kid ourselves: while the singles “free agents” like Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles were monstrous coups for the WWE, they had high hopes of signing former ROH Tag Team champions reDragon (Bobby Fish & Kyle O’Reilly) before the duo opted to remain with ROH in January of this year.

 

NJPW
Photo: njpw.co.jp

NJPW Tag Team Division: A-

While multi-person matches are a common occurrence in Japan, traditional tag teams are not as frequent. They’re more likely to contain members from the multitude of large gangs, like Chaos, GBH or Los Ingobernables de Japón, rather than duos specifically designed to be a conjoined unit. Hence why most of their best are imported Westerners, who bring their nostalgic memories of a by-gone North American niche, and create something different for the Eastern market. While they’ve just lost their tag team leadership in Anderson & Gallows, the Bullet Club still boasts two tag teams of world class calibre. Tama Tonga, with his brother Tonga Loa (formerly Camacho in WWE and Micah in TNA), recently united as Guerrillas of Destiny (G.o.D), claiming the IWGP Tag Team titles quickly to announce the beginning of the Meng Dynasty in New Japan (both are the sons of legendary tough guy and WWE/WCW Legend Haku). The Young Bucks are equally as important to NJPW as they are in ROH – having both tandems in their fold helps the Bullet Club continue their dominance in the NJPW tag division. The East-West connection of Time Splitters, pairing NJPW’s Kushida with Motor City Machine Gun Alex Shelley, are still over in a big way (despite their appearances lessening due to the MCMG reunion in ROH), and the aerialist tandem of Ricochet and Matt Sydall (ex-Evan Bourne) continue to draw breaths. The swagger of current IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team champions Roppongi Vice (Rocky Romero & Trent Barretta) are one of New Japan’s elite (no pun intended) and longtime NJPW (via NOAH) gang Suzuki-gun still throw veteran leaders Minoru Suzuki and former WWE Light Heavyweight champion Taka Michinoku together as the tag team representatives, or utilize another Western partnership, The Killer Elite Squad (Lance Archer Davey Boy Smith Jr.). While not as emphasised as much as some of the other larger promotions, NJPW still employs enough amazing talent to keep it’s audience satisfied and amazed.

Photo: WWE.com
Photo: WWE.com

WWE Tag Team Division: B++

The WWE has been slowly rebuilding its own tag team division after years of neglect and now thanks to an infusion over the past year of some familiar veterans and some rookies from NXT, they’ve got their own best roster since the Attitude Era. Current WWE World Tag Team champions New Day are without doubt the most over tag team on the planet (with apologies to the Bucks), whose connection to the audience has forced a face run whether the WWE wanted it or not. The trio of Big E, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods even employ the infamous “Freebird Rule”, initiated by the Fabulous Freebirds in the 1980’s whereby any two members of the faction can defend the belts, honouring the rich history of tag team wrestling in the industry. The Usos and Lucha Dragons are throwbacks to the aerial athleticism of the 80’s tag division and helped launch a revitalization in the WWE, and the return of the iconic Dudley Boyz to the roster in 2015 helped draw some withdrawn eyes back as well. They’ve got solid undercard hands in Epico & Primo (briefly known as Los Matadores) and The Ascension (who, despite a solid career in NXT, have yet to find their footing in WWE’s often slowed Creative). Add in some veteran appearances by The League of Nations (in any pairing of Sheamus, Alberto Del Rio or Rusev) and the burgeoning comedic talents of The Golden Truth (Goldust and R-Truth) and you start to get a solid foundation for a division in a company with a boss who generally couldn’t be bothered. But it’s the three latest additions to the stable that have got people really excited for tag team wrestling in the WWE: the charismatic odd couple of Enzo Amore & Colin “Big Cass” Cassady, the retro throwback bravado of The Vaudevillains (Simon Gotch – named for recent WWE Legacy Hall of Fame inductee Frank Gotch – & Aiden English) and the take-no-prisoners ferocity of former Bullet Club members Karl Anderson & Luke “Doc” Gallows. Time will tell where this current generations tag division stands compared to the glory days of the 80’s Rock N’ Wrestling or the Attitude Era, but right now, on paper, it looks ripe for the picking. With some minor tweaking, this division stands to improve it’s rising Grade by the end of the year dramatically.

Photo: WWE.com
Photo: WWE.com

NXT Tag Team Division: B

If this article had come out a year previous, NXT may be graded higher than WWE or NJPW. But its recent losses have left it in a rebuilding mode. But that’s not to say they’ve got a weak division by any means. The Revival (formerly The Mechanics, Dash Dawson) have brought an old school feel to the WWE’s tag team prospects, with a bruising style akin to Horsemen and Brainbusters Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard. The hottest team in the brand is easily the “out of nowhere” American Alpha, a seemingly random pairing of Chad Gable and Jason Jordan, that has quickly gelled into one of NXT’s “must see” attractions and recently capturing the NXT Tag Team belts from the aforementioned Revival. Former NXT champions Blake & Murphy continue to work solidly no matter where they’re placed in the card or who they’re paired against, and pairing veteran “burial victim” Zack Ryder with the intensity of Mojo Rawley in the entertaining pairing of The Hype Bros was a bold gamble that has also worked out in NXT’s favour. In the interim, the pairing of indie singles stars Johnny Gargano with Tomassa Ciampa has paid off in introducing both stars to the WWE Universe, while recent signees The Mighty Don’t Kneel (Mickey Nichols Shane Haste) will only add more sustenance to the division’s regrowth.

the-decay
Photo: ImpactWrestling.com

TNA Tag Team Division: F

Now, to be fair, TNA is in a bit of a major reconstruction stage (again) and one of the areas under the most construction is the tag team division. The recently reunited Beer Money is already finished, due to the recent departure of Bobby RoodeWhich doesn’t leave much left for a rather depleted stable of teams. New tag team champions The Decay (Crazzy Steve Abyss) are currently adding some freshness to the product and they’ve got the brilliant (although far too oft injured) American Wolves (Davey Richards Eddie Edwards). It’s a sharp nose dive from there. Apart from the occasional repairing of The BroMans (Robbie E Jesse Godderz), they don’t have consistent tag team pairings to keep the storylines distinct enough to not get overexposed. Hopefully by this time next year, they’ve managed to recruit some more talent to rebuild what was once one of TNA’s strongest components.

There’s still many tag teams not even mentioned, either due to their non-exclusive nature, like Jack Evans Angelico, or because their respective companies have smaller emphasis and lest tandems, such as Lucha Undergound‘s Trios division. Chikara seems to be built on factions – it’s like the Muppets remade the 1979 cult classic The Warriors, but where every Muppet is a Luchador. They’ve also retained and maintained a quality in-ring product with hilariously memorable characters (if you can quit being so serious all the time).

We are indeed living in unique and amazing times if you are a pro wrestling fan. Not only do we have more access to more regional territories and promotions than at any other time in history, we are seeing a return to what made wrestling fun again. Healthy competition (even if the playing fields aren’t as even), a showcase of the athletic and the entertaining, and once again seeing a respect returned to an area of pro wrestling that has often been looked upon like a new haircut from Sheamus. The beautiful dance found only in tag team wrestling.

Main Photo: Collage by Jamie Greer, using photos from WWE.com, rohwrestling.com, ImpactWrestling.com, and njpw.co.jp

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