The Rockers vs. The Orient Express (1/19/91)

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For all the nice things I’ve been saying about current WWE Tag Team Champions Air Boom (note: I’ve never complimented their name), nothing they’ve done so far in “rejuvenating” the WWE tag team division has so far pushed any of the American tag team wrestling that set the standard for the genre way back in 1991. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Kofi Kingston and Evan Bourne, who get along well and sometimes wear matching trunks, but due to an overall lack of depth in the tag team ranks, depth that isn’t going to be rebuilt overnight. We’ve got the Usos, C. Reks, the Sharecroppers, Swaggler and the New Mega Powers of Cena and the Rock, but in the early 1990s, the WWF featured the Hart Foundation/New Foundation, the Legion of Doom, Demolition, The Powers of Pain and the Rockers, to name a few. Guys were “tag team specialists” and, when faced with singles matches, tended to struggle without having a partner in his corner. That’s the way things were in the 1990s, and, if this match is any indication, there’s a lot of work that’ll need to be done before the fans start caring as much about tag team wrestling as they used to.

Now, comparing Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty to Evan Bourne and Kofi Kingston isn’t fair to the erstwhile lads in Air Boom. Michaels went on to have a Hall of Fame career and Jannetty, despite his name being synonymous for tag team postpartom failure, is one of the most underrated wrestlers of the 1990s, a guy capable of having a good match with anybody–hell, a guy still having good matches with people, as his 2005 bout against Kurt Angle and a recent match against Tyler Black have shown. The success of the Rockers is that both men were unique, both men brought something new and exciting to the musclebound WWF, and that’s on display early and often in this match. How many other wrestlers in 1991 WWF were hitting moonsault presses and suicide dives? How many went at this level?

But the Rockers, despite their obvious popularity, were never the WWF’s top tag team. In fact, Jannetty and Michaels never won the WWF Tag Team Titles, despite several great matches the pair wrestled in for the belts. This was how deep the WWF tag team division was: There was a tag team midcard, and Shawn freaking Michaels was mired in it. Not to worry though, as there were other great tag teams in the midcard, like the Orient Express, which, here, is the duo of Paul Diamond (under a mask as Kato) and Pat Tanaka (also not of the Orient), who, in the AWA, were known as Badd Company. They, too, were a great tag team. If you put two great tag teams together, you get a great tag team match.

But Rockers/Express at Royal Rumble 1991 had an advantage that even most matches featuring two great tag teams didn’t: Both teams were experienced facing each other, as Badd Company once feuded with the (Midnight) Rockers way back in 1988. That level of intimacy is obviously very important to this match, which is equal turns wrestling, gymnastics and, above all, performance art. They know each others tricks and work them in well. They’re aware of small, incidental details (the black belt that comes into play towards the end) and use them extremely well. There’s an unexpectedly hot crowd, good commentary from Gorilla Monsoon and Roddy Piper, and the nefarious Mr. Fuji “relaying orders” at ringside, and while a few hiccups are noticeable, this is a deliriously good tag team contest–the sort of match others model off of. Apparently Michaels and Jannetty were so pleased that they went backstage and said “Top that!” which landed them in a whole lot of trouble (I imagine wrestler’s court isn’t kind to braggarts). It’s been twenty years. The Rockers and the Orient Express are still waiting to be topped.