Welcome to the first-ever edition of 5-Star Match Reviews. In this series, we’ll be looking back at previous wrestling matches that were rated 5 stars (or higher) by the Wrestling Observer, and we’ll see if they were truly deserving of that distinction.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But they’re just the opinions of one person. Why does one person’s rating matter so much?” This is a great question to ask, and you’re right to think that way. The reason we’re giving so much credence to Dave Meltzer’s star ratings is that, a) these are coming from a source outside of wrestling, which gives it more of an outsider’s perspective as opposed to being influenced by the wrestling companies themselves; and b) the Wrestling Observer has helped expose readers to a wider variety of wrestlers around the world.
Before the ubiquity of the internet and video-streaming services, few people in North America knew about wrestling outside of the territories that made of the National Wrestling Alliance. News about great wrestlers in Canada, Mexico, Japan and beyond was rare.
Thanks to the fame (or notoriety, depending on whom you ask) of the Observer, word spread of famous wrestlers in smaller companies and in far-away places that helped change the wrestling landscape. It’s possible that without Meltzer singing the praises of certain wrestlers by awarding their matches 5-star ratings, today’s wrestling landscape would be a very different place, and not in a good way.
Without certain wrestlers being awarded 5 stars in their matches, we wouldn’t have ever heard of names like: Rey Mysterio, Jushin Liger, Kenta Kobashi, Stan Hansen, Manami Toyota, Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams, Eddy Guerrero, Samoa Joe, A.J. Styles, Kazuchika Okada, Kenny Omega, Will Ospreay, and many more.
But giving a match a 5-star rating isn’t always the right decision. A 5-star match means the contest was ‘perfect’, and some might argue that a perfect match is impossible (*cough* Cornette *cough). That said, having a 5-star match on your resume basically means you’re a phenomenal wrestler, which is definitely true for the men and women on this list.
(Editor’s Note from John Canton: I think this is a great idea for a column series. This first match was actually rated five stars by a guy named Norm Dooley, who came up with the match rating system based on the movie rating system. Jim Cornette helped him with it and then Dave Meltzer is the one that really popularized it. There’s a great article on Sports Illustrated about it if you want to learn more.)
In these columns, we’ll be looking at each match, the story behind it, its execution, and if it was indeed worthy of its 5-star rating.
The first match we’ll be looking at is: Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk, March 23rd, 1981, Memphis Championship Wrestling TV
The story: Jerry Lawler was the unquestioned king (pun intended) of Memphis wrestling for decades. He took on all comers and defended his home turf with all his might. On this night, he took on Texas legend Terry Funk in a savage brawl.
Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk, No DQ Match – March 23rd, 1981
The match: the two lock up and Funk hits some realistic punches on Lawler before the action spills to the ringside area. Funk hits an atomic drop and gets back into the ring. More punches by Funk followed by a high leg drop. Funk tries to punch down onto a supine Lawler but Lawler dodges and gets back to his feet. Lawler with some punches of his own that Funk sells wildly.
More hard punches from Lawler and Funk is selling like he’d been hit for real. He’s staggering around the ring, before Lawler throws him head-first into the ring bell on the announcer’s table. Now Funk is bleeding profusely. Lawler hits a diving stomp and attempts a pin before Jimmy Hart interferes from outside. Funk retaliates with a flurry of punches and elbows until Lawler starts bleeding.
Lawler gets thrown out of the ring and gets hit by Hart again. Lawler eats more punches before starting a comeback of his own, bringing the already-loud crowd to their feet. Lawler pulls his shoulder straps down and ‘hulks up’, again making the crowd erupt in cheers for their hometown hero. Lawler fires back with several punches and a diving fist drop before Jimmy Hart enters the ring.
Hart gets decked by Lawler, but Funk hits Lawler in the back of the leg with Hart’s steel chair. More chair shots to the same leg before Funk rips off Lawler’s tights around the knee and locks in his Spinning Leg Lock. Lawler punches Funk, causing Funk to release the hold. Hart throws another chair into the ring, and the referee tries to wrestle it away before being pushed away by Funk. Funk swings the chair downwards, but Lawler dodges and grabs the chair himself. Lawler returns the favor by hitting Funk in his legs with the same chair. Lawler continues to hit Funk’s legs while he’s outside, before returning to the ring by the referee’s 10-count.
Your winner by count-out: Jerry Lawler.
Review: If the goal of this wrestling match was to make you believe the violence was real without actually hurting each other, it succeeded. Funk and Lawler sold like they were both being beaten to a pulp by each other. Each strike looked real and really painful. Funk, in particular, sold like he was being knocked loopy by each hit.
And every time Funk missed a move, or whenever Lawler fought back, the crowd roared and jumped to their feet (this was Memphis, after all). The crowd was white-hot, making plenty of noise throughout the match and roaring in approval for their hero Lawler.
My only gripe with this match is that Funk could’ve done more to play the villain. While Funk’s manager Jimmy Hart did a lot to get heat from the crowd, Funk could’ve done more to make fans hate him. He could’ve mocked the crowd, stomped on Lawler’s legs some more, slapped Lawler in the face or head, and so on.
These subtle actions would’ve done more to make the crowd truly despise him. I also think the count-out finish, while smart, took away from the finality of the end. A clean win on Lawler’s part would’ve made the win feel more decisive and the fans certainly would’ve loved that much more.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This match made you believe you were witnessing a true war between two rivals that loathed each other. The offense was realistic and the crowd noise was deafening. But there was also a lack of heat on Funk’s part and the finish could’ve been done better. For those reasons, this match did not earn its 5-star rating.