The show-stealing firsts for Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair are coming so regularly at this point that they run the risk of becoming routine. At Hell in a Cell, the two put on a slightly messy but entirely breathtaking match worthy of its status as the first women's match of its kind. This past Sunday at Roadblock, they wrestled in only the second iron man match to feature women in WWE's history (the first was between Banks and Bayley, in NXT last year).
It was, per usual, very good, probably the best match on the card, but the mastery of their craft these two women exhibit time and time again must never be allowed to gloss over WWE's abysmal record with female wrestlers. We've still got a long way to go to counterbalance the noise of evening-gown matches, mud wrestling, and strip teases.
As if to drive home the image of a now equal-opportunity WWE, Banks' nose was busted open by the end of the Roadblock match, her face and hands left bright crimson. If that seems like an odd point to focus on, women bleeding in wrestling still carries shock value—it is the rarest of events in big-league pro wrestling, relegated to indies and women's death matches. Banks' injury was accidental, a result of an errant kick or impact to the mat, but no less dramatic for that fact.
Iron man (or iron woman—WWE's still working out the parlance) matches have a long history, which the Roadblock match fits into neatly: they are meant to showcase technical ability and chain wrestling, along with stamina. The winner is whoever gets the most falls in the time limit, traditionally either 30 minutes or an hour. For dramatic purposes, the winner always, always wins by one fall. The guaranteed time limit means the drama becomes less about the ending and more about the undertaking; an hour is a long time to wrestle, and few things will set off a pro-wrestling fan's defensiveness about whether pro wrestlers are "real" athletes like an iron man match being disparaged. You need top-notch cardio to go that long, and you need a variety of athletic tools in your box to keep the crowd entertained.
They're relatively rare, oddly enough, so they still feel like big events. You get maybe one every few years in WWE, though we're at two such matches in a little over one year right now. There's something old-timey about them, a callback to the days when the reality of pro wrestling was a little more occluded, wedded to feats of strength and amateur-adjacent mat wrestling. Heels rarely win via cheating; instead, it's almost always a straight-up match nobody can run from. You have to win and you have to win clean; the women's match kept with that script, with Charlotte winning after a grueling overtime.
The most famous and well-regarded iron man match was between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12. That one lasted an hour and went to the well-trod overtime sudden death rule, meaning it ultimately clocked in at even more. Both men were in their primes and the intrigue of the match was enhanced by how much they openly hated each other in real life. The action is a little slower than what we're used to today—it took place 20 years ago, now—but it's just fast enough for the exhaustion on display by the end to be extremely real. Part of the transition from a slower, less risky of wrestling to the flashiness that took over in the late 90s can be found in the careers of Michaels and Hart, and there is maybe no more iconic match for either than this one. Michaels won, scoring the match's only fall.
WCW had their share of iron man matches, too, though fewer than WWE. The best was between Ricky Steamboat and Rick Rude, two wrestlers who are both admired and yet strangely underrated. What they lacked in the nimble which Michaels and Hart helped usher in, they made up for in mastery of ring psychology. If the art of selling in pro wrestling—feigning injury in order to further the story—is lost, a good place to rediscover it is here: Rick Rude gets his ribs "injured" and that informs everything that comes after. He never stops selling, even as the match reaches a late crescendo, when Rude desperately tries to come back from a deficit in falls. Steamboat won the match, 4-3.
There are others worth checking out, of course. The aforementioned NXT match between Sasha Banks and Bayley is one; it served as something of an official arrival for Bayley, in addition to being damned good. The 2009 hour-long match between John Cena and Randy Orton, when the thought of Cena being given an hour for anything was enough to cause shudders of despair, is an underappreciated masterpiece of pure pro wrestling indulgence, with Orton discovering, with a sadistic, simian glee, how pyrotechnics work. A.J. Styles worked a series of iron man matches with indie legend Christopher Daniels, back before Styles became the greatest wrestler in the world and when we all still thought TNA might challenge WWE's monopoly.
Banks versus Charlotte is up there with the best of them, and that must be restated. They are two talented wrestlers at the top of their games, with Charlotte, in particular, growing into her role. There may not be too many more gimmick matches they can challenge as firsts, but they'll make all of them their own.
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