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The fall and rise(?) of tag team wrestling in WWE


air_raid
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WWE and tag teams is an interesting one. Brought about by posts in the NXT thread about why Vince might hate tag wrestling and about The New Day elsewhere, I had a think about why tag team wrestling in WWE became an afterthought and if we’ve had a renaissance as some would have you believe.

The death of tag teams was a gradual decline from the turn of the century with tag team wrestling having always been a focus in its own right until interest in that style of booking dropped off a cliff, shortly after the apex of the tag division being a massive part of the show - the Hardys (with Lita), the Dudleys and E&C having their runs, becoming big stars and shifters of merch, peaking at TLC2/WM17. To this point even when two established singles guys were put together they still truly became “a tag team” and were packaged as such - the Acolytes, T&A, RTC and so on, but that went into decline too, and there are some notable turning points. Coincidental to Edge breaking out as a singles star and considered future main event talent and the earliest leanings towards Jeff Hardy being a real breakout star, it strikes me that they started thinking that if they end up with a couple of genuine top line stars for singles runs out of the tag division every generation but end up with far more Martys or Billys, it made more sense just to use guys that were already viable in singles to compete in tag team title matches to make them seem bigger deals. This also fell around the time that they ran the Austin/HHH v Taker/Kane triple header to close a PPV and hit an absolute critical home run with the former dropping the titles to Benoit/Jericho on Raw. The seeds were planted for an attitude of “We can make the tag titles seem bigger if we use singles superstars instead of real tag teams.”

The booking of the tag belts as a prop for singles guys having stuff to do during the Alliance storyline (DDP & Kanyon, Taker & Kane, Booker & Test) should have given way to a return to real tag teams dominating in 2002 but the next couple of years saw a huge influx of tag teams where singles guys wrestled as a tag team for decent periods without truly developing a tag team persona or it ever becoming the exception rather than the norm to see them having a singles match. Henceforth we had a raft of non-teams contesting the tag belts, eventually two sets of tag belts for a couple of years - Christian & Lance, Regal & Lance, Lance & Chief Morley, Christian & Jericho, Kane & Hurricane, Kane & RVD, Kane & Big Show, Booker & Goldust, Booker & Eddie, RVD & Rey, Eddie & Rey. Virtually none of it yielded anything memorable that felt more than, in most cases, a short term holiday from a singles career. The SmackDown Six stuff definitely yielded a couple of months of great matches but ultimately the other four left Los Guerreros in the dirt with the big belt becoming the focus for Angle and Benoit again within a month of their last tag title match and Edge chumming up with the latter and Brock Lesnar to feud with the former into the new year. The match quality might have made you say “Wow, look at the tag division on SmackDown” for a couple of weeks but ultimately did nothing for the belts long term.

Questionable booking persisted for the foreseeable as while 2003-2006 saw the occasional “real” tag team introduced or reunited, the titles were completely abused by having genuine teams such as Team Angle, La Resistance and MNM lose them to teams thrown together last minute (Eddie & Tajiri), teams that were actively feuding (Benoit & Edge) and two huge singles  stars thrown together (Batista & Rey). The tag team champions, the best of those that wrestle tag team for a living, routinely beaten by the bigger name singles stars, would become a trope for the next two decades, completely disregarding that the singles wrestlers should be out of their element wrestling against a team that know each other inside out and team up every night, and logic suggests the true tag team should win, far more times than not. The peak of this shambles being in 2006 where the Spirit Squad, existing as a tag team championship team of five, found themselves beaten by the two members of DX in consecutive standard and elimination handicap matches. The five man tag team champions can’t beat the two massive superstars that occasionally muck about in a tag team match, purely because they’re massive superstars. It was the champions that were beaten but the championship itself that really took the battering.

Nothing really changed for many years. Even when there was a brief bright spark of something resembling two guys dedicated to making the tag team the focus, like Legacy or The Awesome Truth, it was usually short term until they had their balls cut off by the big stars or ran foul of singles guys thrown together. Even on occasion did we see tag team champions lose handicap matches to the top guy! The nadir of the belts being treated like crap being the three reigns of Nexus/Corre real tag team Heath Slater & Justin Gabriel. Their first win was from stablemates David Otunga and John Cena one day removed from them taking the titles from Broken Mirrors at the PPV - which OF COURSE was Cena’s secondary interest on that show, forced into seconding Wade for the WWE title match on the main event. Their second was terminated after only one day by (ugh) feuding singles stars thrown together, John Cena & The Miz - only for them to win the belts back minutes later. Three reigns of a day or less involved in this sorry mess, the point of which from a story point of view was to emphasise at every turn the struggles facing multiple time singles World Champion John Cena.

The improvements started to come about through two acts. The first was The Shield. Arguably the group was manufactured as a means to create three singles stars (which succeeded), and of course, their participation in major angles surrounding the top singles stars and the World title was a huge influence in getting them over. However, they were a team. They dressed like a team, shared music, and the bulk of their matches were tags even if many of them were six-mans. When Rollins & Reigns contested the tag titles with the Rhodes lads it felt huge, and it was great. I’m sure the office considered that it was the stars making a tag match special and the tag titles matter, and fairly obviously they earmarked Reigns to be the star of the team, but whether by accident or by design, the team WAS the star. Potentially having three guys work as a unit was, by 2012-2014, so fresh-feeling and novel that everything fell into place at the right time. Their match with the Wyatts at Elimination Chamber is probably the best example, the whole exceeding the sum of its parts and the match living up to if not surpassing the expectations. In the end, the booking actually supported rather than hindered The Shield right up until their end, with their final program being against three much bigger established stars, HHH Orton and Batista, and as logic should always dictate but rarely does, the team defeated the three singles guys repeatedly and decisively.

The other has been The New Day. Born from a combination of Woods pitching his ideas to creative and - like the New Age Outlaws before them - creative having nothing particular lined up for the members, the trio got themselves over, stayed over, became incredibly successful, stayed over, broke records and shifted a ton of merchandise. Some people argue the toss that it’s became stale with either set of tag belts inevitable to end up back on them at some point or another but for those of us crying out for tag teams with some stability, who actually dress and act like a team like the good old days, The New Day have been it. From their unwillingness to sacrifice their vision for what the team should be like to their unwavering commitment, the three of them have been allowed to be presented as close to a real tag team (albeit of three) as any this century. It’s been the most entertained I’ve ever been by Kingston, allowed Big E to reach potential none of us could have foreseen when he was mucking about with AJ and Ziggler, rescued Woods from anonymity and it’s fair to say, given us great matches. It’s also dispelled the myth that tag teams have to break up for the members to become singles stars with Kofi and Big E both winning World titles on account of popularity generated by the team - the team IS the star. If anything SHOULD recommit WWE to allowing tag teams to be real tag teams again, it should be the success of The New Day.

But will it? The other big factor in the apparent revival of tag team wrestling under the company umbrella, the strength of the booking of tag teams in NXT, has taken years to translate to the main roster with numerous successful NXT tag teams given short unsatisfying reigns and then either split up or mysteriously placed on the back burner and in most cases released, before the Street Profits were allowed to get a foothold and have now held both sets of belts - with one run being decent - but still, the booking has been haphazard. Boss and lackey pairings like Daniel Bryan & Rowan, Rollins & Murphy and AJ & Omos have been a thing but mostly this feels like a way of extending the boss’ existing storyline or giving them something to do for a bit it lieu of something bigger. Recent glances at the title histories still show plenty of thrown-together nonsense like Rollins & Braun, Nakamura & Cesaro and current Raw champs “RK-Bro” who surely only exist to build an eventual feud between them, and let’s not forget they’re still capable of odd couple shite like Miz & Shane. Real tag teams rarely get long term traction unless they’re New Day or The Usos who of course, are now in an excellent position due to association with The Head Of The Table. It’s a stark difference in philosophy between NXT and the main shows.

In conclusion, while things have improved a lot, I still think there’s evidence that the main roster writers still think a tag team should only exist until they decide who is the star they should push, or that tag title matches are best contested between singles stars, which is a shame because the division is at its best when the team IS the star.

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Great post. My immediate thought during the other discussion is that I'm amazed tag wrestling on the big stage survived the 90s. It was rumoured that Bischoff was considering dropping the WCW tag titles completely (probably easier than getting Hall and Nash to drop them) so he clearly wasn't a fan. Nor was Vince particularly and his division was an absolute shambles from 94 to 97 with Owen and Davey being the only exception. 

17 hours ago, air_raid said:

In conclusion, while things have improved a lot, I still think there’s evidence that the main roster writers still think a tag team should only exist until they decide who is the star they should push, or that tag title matches are best contested between singles stars, which is a shame because the division is at its best when the team IS the star.

I think this is absolutely their mentality. A tag team is a short term necessity to fill a gap on TV or hide someone's weaknesses for a bit. In truth, that spread to the fans years ago too. "Who is the Shawn Michaels if this team?" has long been a question asked of most new teams. Speculation about splitting teams and picking one guy out as a future star is also common. It's rare to see a proper team like The Revival who exist as a team and don't need to be apart (though didn't someone on here did suggest one of them as a single the other day?)

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For me, I absolutely adored The Rockers, Hart Foundation etc when I was younger. I loved the idea of two guys working together and becoming better than they would be as individuals. I feel like sometimes that's looked down on, as if both of them aren't good enough as singles so they're stuck in a tag team, when really there's nothing wrong with being really fucking good as a unit. I always got that with Bret and Anvil - they just complemented each other so well and played on each others strengths. Sure, Bret went on to be Bret obviously, but they just knew how to work as a team.

The fact that tag team wrestling is so often seen as a stepping stone to singles success is absolutely part of the problem. No matter how great the Street Profits have been together, we've been getting 'Montez Ford will be the breakout star!' comments for so long. I think that someone like The Usos avoided that because they're both so similar I guess, same with The Revival. 

But yeah, there's not been nearly enough focus on proper tag teams in WWE over the years. Thrown together teams can end up working but they still have that 'well we don't know what else to do with them' stink that makes it hard to care in the long run. And it happens WAY too often. I loved Survivor Series when it started because it was a rare opportunity to see these big stars team together. Now it happens all over the shot and means nothing.

I want more tag teams that actually want to be tag teams and want to be successful as a unit and there's just not that many. NXT have had some great ones through the door and obviously when it's done right it can be absolutely fantastic but Vince just doesn't give a shit. And if he doesn't then why would anyone else? Until tag team wrestling has a proper presence and is shown to be as important as the singles stuff then the audience aren't going to buy into it, and then Vince thinks he's right. It's a vicious circle.

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11 minutes ago, DavidB6937 said:

Until tag team wrestling has a proper presence and is shown to be as important as the singles stuff then the audience aren't going to buy into it, and then Vince thinks he's right. It's a vicious circle.

I think AEW is going that way - a Young Bucks title match against the right team could quite conceivably headline a pay-per-view over a World Title match, and they have a lot of teams that I assume there's no intention of ever breaking up to give one guy a singles run. At the same time, they seem opposed to the idea that a tag team has to break up for one member to have a successful singles run - Fenix or Penta can easily go off and do their own thing without breaking up the Lucha Brothers, while Jungle Boy is getting a substantial build as a future singles star with no suggestion that he needs to leave Jurassic Express behind to do it.

Part of the problem is that, because tag team wrestling hasn't been main event wrestling in WWE for decades, and in general has just been an afterthought for a long time, I think you get fewer people starting out in wrestling wanting to be a tag team. At every level, tag teams tend to be two guys thrown together while they're waiting for their next singles run. It's similar to what happened with managers - the WWF stopped using them for years, so very few people trained as managers any more, and many of the managers that did come about were never any good at it, because they had no one's lead to follow.

Tag team wrestling is probably more visible now than it has been in decades, so I wouldn't be surprised to see more new tag teams start popping up in the next few years' time. 

Edited by BomberPat
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First time I had this debate was 30 years ago!

My partial theory is that tag wrestling was hurt the most by the decline of kayfabe because it relies so heavily on one aspect, namely "these two guys are beating up this one guy, he's in real physical danger/has no chance of winning".

That might explain why things like the TLC era or the Shield matches overcame this, because part of the appeal there was "there's basically no tagging as such, but one guy can rest while his partner does a spot, so you can have almost constant fast-paced action."

That said, Rev Pro had a match recently (Young Guns-Destination Everywhere rematch) that was total 80s Crockett/early 90s All Japan psychology (one man taken out early, partner has to survive without him, injured man finally returns for hot tag but is quickly at a disadvantage because of the injury, can the pair overcome it?) with modern moves.

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