Any wrestler who steps through the curtain dreams of getting that reaction – chants, noise, and signs with their name. This boils down to what’s called a “pop”: a huge crowd reaction of loud excitement. While those who work as heels may want boos, the intensity and purity of the reaction is the key. And it goes beyond individual performers – aside from TV ratings, writers and bookers have to rely on those people in the building to tell them if a story is playing out as it should. As we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, wrestling in particular relies on the interactivity with the audience and is a very different animal without it (performers worldwide should be applauded for the adjustments they’ve made). While the crowd most often reacts at the end of a match, it is usually more telling if they’re unable to restrain themselves while the action is still going on. What brings about that kind of sheer passion, and how does that guide the story forward? Here are (in no particular order):
5 of the most meaningful non-finish pops in wrestling history
A Brand New Nightmare (NWA World Championship Wrestling; 10/04/1986)
For decades, wrestling relied on the “foreign menace” trope to develop instant heat for heels and set up easily presentable storylines for the fans to get behind. Few of them got over more successfully than “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff. His black tights, muscular physique, and hard-hitting style combined with a kayfabe Soviet backstory, let people know this was someone to be feared. And he told that story well, feuding (as his nickname hints) with pure babyfaces like “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes and Wahoo McDaniel. Koloff was so hated and so talented that he even got into a main event program with a briefly babyface Ric Flair for the NWA World Heavyweight Title. One of his best feuds came with fellow breakout star Magnum TA, culminating in a best-of-seven series over the US title.
Following Magnum’s career-ending car accident, his tag team partner Rhodes then needed someone else to assist him in fighting the Four Horsemen (with Flair back to his evil ways) in a televised cage match. He brought out his mystery partner…Koloff, who looked as bewildered as the fans. Sure, Rhodes could argue that they both had unfinished business with Flair, but heck Koloff had been in just as many wars against Dusty himself. Koloff didn’t even enter the cage for the start of the tag match. But as he saw the Horsemen ganging up on Rhodes, trying to rig the card for the ol’ Nature Boy once again, a light broke through the darkness. And thousands of vocal cords broke with it.
Click through to 2:15 for all the action!
Such a drastic change signaled a huge shakeup in the company. In the era when performers maintained their characters, both in public and possibly for their entire careers, this was a huge risk. How would Americans move on and embrace a figure like Koloff? Rhodes (who was also booking the show) knew it was late in the era of the USSR, when tensions were lessening. For good measure, he used a tried and true method in giving Koloff an even bigger bully to rebel against in the dominant heel faction and their obnoxious manager JJ Dillon. The result is astounding, an instant embrace fueled by both delight and disbelief. The risk that this move was so odd and quick paid off in the reward of sheer shock. That shock fueled the audience into a collective explosion that is regularly cited as the loudest ever experienced in the Crockett territory. Meanwhile, the resulting momentum fueled this new team (“The Superpowers”) all the way to winning the Crockett Cup the next year.
The Best For Last (AEW Double Or Nothing; 05/25/2019)
The success of the independent All In event served as encouragement for the entire American indie wrestling scene. They could sell tickets, draw eyeballs, and come together to put on a real and worthy spectacle. Once that success snowballed into a full-on new promotion set to compete with WWE, it brought out more and more questions. Who would Cody and The Elite want to sign? Would people do it, lest they burn other bridges? What would this product even look like?
We started to get some answers as All Elite Wrestling prepared for its first ever pay-per-view, 2019’s inaugural Double Or Nothing. Established names like Chris Jericho, SoCal Uncensored, and Lucha Bros joined the ranks alongside AEW’s creators and top independent talent. The card unfolded nicely with high-quality and high-intensity work. But how would AEW keep us watching past this night, and how would they make the step from curiosity to contender? The answer came from completely off the board, or more literally came out of the stands.
Jon Moxley was a face that the nation knew, with the appealing story of an artist who loved his bloody craft and left money on the table to perfect it. When he emerged at the very end of Double Or Nothing, we immediately learned plenty about AEW’s intentions and their ability to follow through on them. His showing up in the flesh showed that the upstart company was able to land big names. The fact that he confronted both Jericho and Kenny Omega showed that they were willing to use that talent in service of what fans had always wanted to see. Meanwhile, Moxley’s zeal and flourishes in how he moved to and around the ring, let us know just how comfortable he was with the freedom AEW gave him to let it all hang out and do what felt right (even if it meant taking out a ref!).
Without Moxley even saying a word, AEW and the man who would soon be its champion communicated everything their new audience needed to know.
Exit Light, Re-Enter Night (ECW Hardcore TV; 10/30/1999)
By 1999, ECW had grown from working with WWE as a symbiotic minor league (taking talent that needed seasoning or to test out gimmicks, such as Al Snow finding his Head persona) to a possible rival putting on successful monthly pay-per-views of their own. The bigger leagues had changed tactics as well, reaching down and signing scores of successful ECW talent to varying levels of success. This included WCW making a somewhat limited attempt at a hardcore division based around Raven, Bam Bam Bigelow, and a man referred to as Hak. WCW then released Hak when the company moved on from the idea of death matches. ECW, meanwhile, rolled with the punches and developed or imported names as well as it could. Its loyal fans still largely stayed faithful to the talent they knew, or at least those they knew would stick around. Plus, the stars weren’t coming in as fast they could go out. With WCW and WWE in an arms race, ECW needed to keep a stiff upper lip. And so one arrived – stiff, sneering, and cradling a cigarette.
Having one of the true ECW originals, The Sandman, appearing out of the darkness fresh off of his WCW release and in the best shape of his life, may feel like too big an event to have on a random night of Hardcore TV. But ECW’s TV deal was its lifeblood, and its broadcast audience was its most direct communication tool (though I fantasize about what their Twitter account would have been like). The Sandman’s appearance sent a clear message – we can take hits, we can bounce back, and we can still dish out the insanity we know you love.
Love being the key word. ECW may have been running in smaller venues, but every single person in that room jumped up, screamed, and sang for the entirety of The Sandman’s beer swilling, and blood spilling return. Seeing him share the ring with Dreamer and Raven again not only tied back to ECW’s past building blocks, but the swaggering mojo that fueled the company to grow from there. That mojo would only carry the extreme rebels so far, but it just so happened they lasted longer than the Atlanta cohorts who’d released a certain blonde wildman years earlier.
A Bullet Flies, Then Shots Are Fired (NJPW G1 Climax 29; August 12, 2019)
These two moments cannot really be separated, but merit acknowledgment on their own terms. KENTA and Katsuyori Shibata came up in wrestling together as part of the NOAH promotion. Their bond drove each man’s run up the card until KENTA was successfully signed by WWE. While he was gone, though, Shibata suffered a truly catastrophic injury as part of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Years of stiff “strong style” work and hard headbutts, including during his 2017 match with Kazuchika Okada, led him to collapse backstage following that bout. He required immediate surgery to repair a brain bleed. Shibata persevered through bouts of blindness and paralysis to recover to more of a normal life, coaching in NJPW’s dojos, but probably wouldn’t ever wrestle again. Following KENTA’s separation from WWE, he relied on Shibata’s embrace to give him instant credibility again during his own NJPW debut. The fans’ eagerness to see both men, and their happiness at flagship talent coming together for the side of good, set up a night of extreme pendulum swings.
Leading into 2019’s G1 Climax, Bullet Club OG Tama Tonga announced the recruitment of a “high caliber” member (wordplay!), but nobody knew who it was. KENTA made it apparent when he knocked his tag team partner Tomohiro Ishii silly with a strike and a Go-To-Sleep. He and Bullet Club cleared the ring, after which KENTA grabbed a mic and swaggered around the ring with a charisma that fans knew he’d had in him all along. He did not even need to speak, cupping a finger to his ear and receiving a seemingly unanimous shower of boos. For a heel turn, this was exactly the kind of pop he was looking for. That immediate and intense reaction re-affirmed that KENTA remained relevant and that Bullet Club reveals could still shock and move people. It set KENTA on a path back to fitting into marquis moments with huge names like Tatsuya Naito. It did everything it needed to do. Only the night wasn’t over yet.
Shibata poured into the ring to confront his now wayward comrade. Perhaps a promo, a conversation offered in vain, would drive the new direction home. NO. Shibata began throwing strikes and executed a corner high kick that sent KENTA sprawling to the mat where Shibata followed up with hard forearms. This was the first time he had engaged with anyone in the ring since his match with Okada, since he had nearly given his life for the wrestling business. It was literally the fans’ impossible dream come true, and they exploded in a way that is far less common and harder to earn on that side of the Pacific.
Shibata lined up in the opposite corner and began picking up speed, delivering his patented soaring dropkick to the prone KENTA and somehow the cheers got even louder. The energetic announcers HAD to scream just to be heard over the din. The action in the ring, and the possibilites of what it could mean (a program or even just one more match?) elated everyone. While KENTA and the Biz Cliz would strike back with numbers and have the last laugh on that night, the pure rush of each man’s moment will never be forgotten.
The Rattlesnake Lends A Hand (WWE RAW; 01/04/1999)
The story by now is legendary: WCW Nitro spoils the pre-taped ending of WWE’s Raw with Mankind (aka Mick Foley) winning the WWE Championship for the first time. Thousands of people turned the channel to be able to see it happen. Those who stayed? They sat through the Fingerpoke of Doom. It’s true that this combination led to the WWE leaving WCW behind from that day on. What many people forget, though, is that Foley’s pin on The Rock in their no-DQ match was likely the second-loudest the crowd was that night.
Foley wasn’t just fighting The Rock, but the entirety of Mr. McMahon’s Corporation who were determined to keep the belt off of him at all costs. D-Generation X, ever the rebels, evened the odds against Vince’s would-be suits. However, that basically just made it all a wash. Who would help the affable Foley and Mr. Socko get over the top? Of course, it had to be the guy who sticks it to Vince like nobody ever has or will again. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, supposedly out of the arena at the time, emerged just at the moment when Corporation stooge Ken Shamrock had broken up Mankind’s Mandible Claw hold. Austin came to turn the tide back and set things back right. The glass shattered over the loudspeakers and…dammit just listen to this.
That reaction feels incredible now, especially for someone who was on camera for all of about 3 minutes. But it was based in a beautiful intertwining with the main story. WWE worked very hard following Foley’s famous Hell In A Cell bumps to sell Mankind as a lovable goofball who just happened to be tough as nails, rather than a sadist. The commentary and features that followed saw him trying to be Vince’s friend and, yes, the introduction of Socko. Those steps made it possible for us to see ourselves in Mankind, someone billed as not being the most athletic, or the strongest, but the most resilient and determined. When Austin came to fight for Mankind, he was really fighting for us. The baddest of badasses, with a noble duty to do, got the ultimate hero’s welcome. It not only validated his character, but the approach that would soon win the Monday Night Wars and lead pro wrestling into the future.