The scripted nature of pro wrestling has now been open and public knowledge for decades. In spite of this, a competitor losing multiple matches is still given a negative connotation. “Doing the job” for others enough times makes you a “jobber,” with the implication that you don’t have what it takes to be a star yourself. You’re there as cannon fodder, to make others look good on their way past you up the ladder. Some performers have embraced it as a winking punchline, but that humor was perceived by some fans (even if wrongly) to be based in truth. Therefore, many wrestlers are rightly hesitant to lay down and take too many Ls in too many big spots.
However, under the right circumstances, that perspective shifts to where taking the loss becomes a service to the business you love. Giving someone else a hand up and a rush of momentum to make, or sustain, their huge push is part of what keeps the machine running for new generations. Those who see this as a noble duty are usually legends on their way out (think ‘Taker losing to Reigns) or stars facing special circumstances that required a moment of vulnerability (pick any number of WCW Goldberg victims). This has come to be expected. At times, however, prime players agree to give out the credibility that comes from beating them in the middle of the ring in order to do what’s best for the collective. Giving another performer that kind of “rub,” as it’s known, can make all the difference.
Who’ve been the biggest beneficiaries? And what context helped strap the rocket to their back? Here are (in no particular order)
5 Shocking Outcomes That Gave A “Rub” To New Stars
Owen out-executes the Hitman (WWE WrestleMania 10, 1994)
Owen Hart (RIP) had a tough go of it early in his WWE tenure, not gaining much traction as a babyface superhero in his original Blue Blazer run of the late 80’s. He was then packaged as a tag team specialist with both The New Foundation and High Energy. Neither brought in a lot of accolades or eyeballs, even if Owen and Koko B. Ware’s high-flying style in the latter team was far ahead of its time. As the early 90’s passed, creative finally decided to lean into the angle that they’d been avoiding: Owen in the same ring, at the same time, as his main eventer brother, Bret “Hitman” Hart. The original worry was that having the much higher profile of Bret in the picture would make Owen seem like small potatoes. The WWE then devised a feud to help fix that image problem. Owen’s need to be his own man BECAME the story.
But every story needs the right ending. Starting with frustration boiling over at Survivor Series, the brothers slowly deteriorated until Owen went full-on heel and a match was booked for WrestleMania 10. The opening match…Madison Square Garden…two mat masters who knew each other like no others could. The match delivered a technical and storytelling masterpiece that still may be the best opener to any ‘Mania to date. Bret was booked in a World Championship match later this same night, and would surely be victorious over his baby brother, but Owen was more than holding his own – right up until he pinned Bret 1-2-3 in the middle of the ring. The crowd was stunned by not only the outcome but that it came off a straight-up wrestling counter. Owen sat down on Bret’s attempted Victory Roll and held onto his leverage for the pin. If just for a moment, he outwrestled Bret and won, no heel tactics or foreign objects or interference. When Bret won the title at the end of the show, it only cemented how huge a moment we had seen a few hours earlier. Owen’s many title reigns and feature feuds all trace back to that big breakout moment.
Taz beats the clock AND The Franchise (ECW Wrestlepalooza, 1997)
Taz had originally appeared in ECW as The Tazmaniac, only a shade off from a full-on foreign menace gimmick. It didn’t exactly catch on. Taz then started from scratch, and his heel run after teaming up with Bill Alfonso turned out to hit on some winning points: MMA-style presentation in both attire and moves, a focus on suplexes (a-hem, “Taz-plexes”), and having opponents visually tap out instead of “submit” to the ref. Combined with Taz’s inherent charisma and great mic skills, people grew to be compelled by his presence to the point where Alfonso jumped ship and, along with Sabu, betrayed Taz to make him over further as an effective lone wolf babyface. His momentum from overcoming Alfonso and Sabu in the aftermath of their treachery started to launch him up the card, but he needed a boost into title credibility.
Then came ECW’s Wrestlepalooza 1997, and the infamous Jerry Lawler attack on ECW’s turf. The crowd organically begged “We Want Taz” and the man obliged, running off the invaders and showing down with Sabu again. Taz then got hassled by ECW’s face that ran the place, Shane Douglas. Douglas, a former and future World Champion in ECW and the reigning Television Champion at the time, spoke with the authority that resume carried in telling Taz he’d had enough TV time and needed to get the hell out. Taz then not only held his own verbally in shutting Douglas up, he challenged “The Franchise” to a very specific match – making Shane “tap out” in 3 minutes or less or else Taz would leave for 60 days. This seemed like a way to give Taz a break after months of hard-hitting matches in a row, and just having him in the ring with Douglas would give him even more cred. Then, just like with Owen Hart’s example, Taz arrived by proving he could out-grapple the supposed mat master. Taz head faked a charge in the corner, which Douglas tried to vault over, leaving Taz able to put on the Tazmission. He soon put on the TV Title for his troubles after delivering on his promise to tap Shane out. With that, Taz had proven he could hang with the best and beat them…even if he let them survive.
Sting draws a path to stardom (WCW Clash Of Champions, 1988)
These days, the man called Sting (oh sorry, beg your pardon – “It’s STIIIIIING”) seems nearly inseparable from the very idea of the pro wrestling business itself. As hard as it is to imagine, there was a time when he was an up-and-coming typical nice guy babyface. His striking physique and bleached blonde locks were not exactly unique at the time given both the roster around him (featuring guys like Barry Windham and Lex Luger) and the one featured up north (boasting some guys named Hogan and Warrior). Having put on a good showing in a preliminary match at Starrcade late in ’87, Dusty Rhodes and NWA World Champion Ric Flair decided to take a shot in betting on the new guy. With top babyface Magnum TA out indefinitely after his near-fatal car crash, they chose Sting to face Flair at the first-ever Clash Of Champions – going head to head against WrestleMania IV no less!
Putting on a match in circumstances like this with a man few in the crowd, or those at home, knew as well as they did the champ seemed like a tall task. It felt likely Flair would retain in a ho-hum affair. Instead, Sting showed all the passion, tenacity, and heart that would make him a household name and World Champion in his own right over the next few years. He would not stop coming, getting up, and shrugging off Flair’s trademark chops and underhanded tactics to blast the dastardly champion with impactful offense. These big moves, big emotions, and big moments all added up to a HUGE arrival. The most apt description I can give is that the Flair match got Sting so over he didn’t even have to win it. Neither man could pin or submit the other, resulting in a time limit draw after 45 minutes. And yet, Sting left to giant applause, having clearly received the rub of which every young wrestler dreams. He stood toe to toe with the face of wrestling on TVs across the country, didn’t give an inch, and was not defeated. Flair kept the belt, but it was clear who owned the day.
Rain begins to fall (NJPW New Beginning, 2012)
Current discussion of the amazing Kazuchika Okada often centers on his rivalry with Kenny Omega and the series of scale-breaking matches they put on throughout the late 2010s. How he became the man who carried the IWGP world championship into those matches is too old to feel fresh, but not yet old enough to be revisited as nostalgia. As a result, it’s fallen off the map a bit, but remains one of the more shocking shake-ups in recent wrestling history. Japanese wrestling, and New Japan Pro Wrestling in particular, is predicated on talent making a long-term build and grind in establishing themselves as deserving to earn championships. This includes having successful performances in featured title matches on (usually) a few occasions before leaving with the belt.
In 2012, Okada seemed far from the peak of that climb. He had been sent outside NJPW to obtain further seasoning in IMPACT Wrestling (then TNA), only returning to New Japan at the outset of the year. When he did, it was as the newly ostentatious “Rainmaker,” a gimmick and presentation that had no history behind it or proof that it would catch on. He won his first match back on the big stage that is Wrestle Kingdom. Later that same night, he immediately demanded a world title match from, of all people, the already-legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi. “Ace” had held the world title for over a year at that point, longer than Okada had been back in the company by multiple months! The power play was seen as a reach by a newly cocky Okada, who was presented as the usual arrogant heel. Fans eagerly awaited his standard comeuppance. Instead, he proved himself right by pinning Tanahashi and winning the title, capping Ace’s reign at 404 days. It was unheard of in NJPW and reverberated around the world of puroresu. Instantly, Okada was a made man and would be taken seriously for the rest of his career, to the point where he became the one lending Omega legitimacy through finally holding his shoulders down for 3.
Mr. Brodie shows how business is done (AEW Dynamite, 8/22/2020)
All Elite Wrestling has shown us multiple times that it’s not just the “who” involved in classic wrestling exchanges (of belts, momentum, a rub, etc.) that makes it impactful, but also the “how”. Sure, Cody and Dustin Rhodes could have a great match, but it was the literal blood, sweat, and tears that made it meaningful. Similarly, the late Brodie Lee (RIP) entered AEW with an extensive build and video package before destroying reputable names like Christopher Daniels. Him winning a high-profile match, reaching a title picture, and even winning wouldn’t be odd. But the way it happened? No one on earth saw THAT coming.
Cody came into the match as the biggest babyface in the company and the only ever TNT champion. Through both positions, he had gained a very tangibly comfortable grasp over the midcard scene. Mr. Brodie, meanwhile, had dropped a world title match to Jon Moxley and focused thereafter on filling out the Dark Order. Surely this match was to be the start of a feud, perhaps through Dark Order shenanigans that helped steal the title and unleash some pure babyface fire from Cody as he took revenge. This would raise Lee back up the card and give Cody a more dedicated opposition, standard stuff that could be executed in exciting ways. Instead, shades of Vader laying siege to Antonio Inoki (very intentionally so), Brodie Lee demolished Cody in the most one-sided title match AEW has put on tv to date. He toyed with Cody, threw him around multiple parts of the ringside barricades, put a boot through his face and a discus lariat through his chest. 1-2-3, everyone go pick up Chilli’s on the way home.
The shock was audible, but the gumption and selling of Lee, during both the pin (wherein he showingly did not even hook a leg) and post-match promo, branded himself: HE knew it was coming all along. This, combined with the squash nature of the match, made Brodie Lee an instant talking point, a factor that could not be ignored. Unique among these matches, the reach went a bit further. Cody’s rub for Lee extended to the title that changed hands, as Cody’s long run with the TNT title had felt safe and familiar. Bringing out featured non-AEW talent to face Rhodes weekly was great in that it exposed people to new wrestlers and brought us all Eddie Kingston (worth it on its own), but took the stakes out as most fans knew those men weren’t leaving with the belt. Then Brodie Lee’s hand was raised, and like THAT, we knew nothing and were back to the edge of our seats when the TNT title was on the line.
A rub that shines up not just one man, not just a title picture, but both to the greatest degree possible is an amazing bit of influence that shows just how powerful staying down for the right opponent can be.