Sgt. Slaughter vs. Pat Patterson (5/4/81)

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Back when wrestling was viewed as legitimate sport, encounters like this “Alley Fight” match were a rare breed, pulled out only for feuds that had reached their limit, somehow. The steel cage match (or lumberjack match), for example, was brought into play when the heel had pushed the fans patience to the limit by running away from every possible confrontation with the face. The knock down, drag out, no disqualification slugfest here happened because the two men legitimately hated each other and, to this point, their hatred could not be contained by a mere one on one encounter. Slaughter and Patterson went at each other for so long that promising a resolution to their feud was enough to sell out Madison Square Garden in an era where really only two other men–Bob Backlund and Bruno Sammartino–were capable of doing the same.

The match itself is about as intentionally brutal as the WWE gets–just two guys wailing away at one another. Blood is spilled, shoes are used as weapons, and the fans absolutely eat up every move. This would be an interesting match to show to somebody who just got into wrestling, somebody who expects some sort of no holds barred contest every week on free television. Slaughter rubberlegging his way around the ring as Patterson clubs him with cowboy boots and big ‘ol fists might look goofier than, say, a dude getting whacked headlong with a steel chair, but there is no wasted motion here, not a single minute where I ask myself why two guys who supposedly hate each other so much are spending their time doing moves or setting up for their finisher. I love that this match has to be stopped by Slaughter’s manager (THE GRAND WIZARD!) by means of throwing in the towel, and love even more that Slaughter, battered and blind from the blood in his eyes, wants nothing more than to continue, even though all he’s capable of are slow haymakers.

If I remember correctly, this match was honored by more than a few prestigious wrestling journalists (I know, right?) as 1981’s match of the year. It’s not hard to see why. Each punch, each kick to the head, each move feels important, as if that’s the one that’ll either put Patterson over the top, or send the fans home angry. Patterson’s a genius in the ring, and when he retired he put that genius to use as a backstage agent, structuring other important matches and giving guys advice on how to work the WWE’s style. Chris Jericho credits him with saving his WWE career, and Patterson put together the 60-minute Iron Man match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels that maybe doesn’t hold up as well as it did, but is near miraculous in that it both sent the crowd home happy and did so without pushing Michaels or Hart, who hated each other at the time, towards the exit and to WCW. A wrestling match like this is all about the small details, and Patterson’s a master of those. If it’s the job of a wrestler to put smiles on faces (I’m dubious to that notion, but that’s what they advertise), then by the end of this match it’s obvious that Pat Patterson knew that job to a science.