Originally published on Fanbyte on November 15, 2021
The debate about match runtimes in pro wrestling has raged on for decades now. It’s a favorite among fans of professional wrestling and it always resurfaces when the critically acclaimed prestige wrestling of a particular era leans towards the grander scope of 30-60 minute matches. The debate comes up in relation to the likes of NWA Championship-style matches, King’s Road of the 90s, the super indie boom of the 2000s, and most recently the Bushiroad main event style.
Generally speaking, the matches held in the highest esteem find themselves in that 25+ minute range or so. This has the unintended effect of making it so that one might associate an extended runtime with quality, regardless of how the workers involved utilize that space. That’s why there’s always a rather vocal subset of wrestling fandom that go to bat for great matches that do the most in as little time as possible. I count myself among these fans, always on the lookout for matches that pop off the page despite being given very limited time.
That’s what brings us to Chad Gable.
On the first two Raws of November 2021, Chad Gable wrestled two matches whose combined runtimes total just under 11 minutes. These aren’t matches that will be placed on any Best Of compilations or Network documentaries. For most people, these are matches that evaporated in the memory as soon as the final bells rang. That’s understandable. On paper, these matches don’t really mean much. They’re booked with the express purpose of heating up two of the brand’s top babyfaces, Finn Bálor and WWE Champion Big E, without sacrificing too much TV time.
It’s the unassuming placement on the card and low stakes that makes the matches all the more impressive. Chad Gable brings so damn much to both matches when he clearly doesn’t really have to. No ratings war would be decided on the back of a couple of 5-minute enhancement matches in the middle of Raw. So to see Gable and his opponents bring so much effort and thought to these bouts makes them shine far beyond what they were meant to.
On the November 1, 2021 edition of Raw, Gable got to work Finn Bálor. Bálor’s had a year of ups and downs—the highs of a revitalized run in NXT to the lows of flopping like a dying fish in a pay-per-view main event—so it’s good for him to have a chance to heat his character back up on television.
What makes this particular bout work so well is that Gable is a perfect stylistic partner for Bálor. For my own money, Bálor’s at his best in this company when working the much more grounded, gritty style that characterized his most recent NXT run. Gable’s the perfect kind of talent that can match Bálor in that style, even in short bursts.
While Gable’s able to match Bálor hold for hold in this opening segment, he also doesn’t lose sight of the fact that he’s the heel. As such, when he’s able to finesse his way out of a wristlock, he’s the first to escalate the action by giving a double chop to the throat, disrupting the unspoken technical sparring that the two had engaged in so far.
Too cocky for his own good, Gable takes a moment to celebrate and, like any good heel, gets punished for it. Bálor takes over briefly until Gable hits a knee crusher and starts doing some leg work on Bálor down on the mat. Even here, there’s a nice attention to detail as Gable keeps his foot on Bálor’s grounded ankle while twisting at Bálor’s other ankle. I like that Bálor has to yank his grounded leg free before mounting his comeback too.
Again, Gable goes for the knee crusher but this time, Bálor’s wise to the move and counters into an abdominal stretch instead. Bálor remains mostly in control from this point but the bad leg acts as Gable’s opening to cut off the babyface. He grabs an ankle lock to further exacerbate the damage. This pays off when Bálor goes for one of his double stomps but is unable to capitalize from hyperextending his knee.
Bálor, for his part, does a real great job selling his leg in this stretch of the match. He’s limping through pretty much the whole finishing stretch and the bad leg affects the entire final act. At one point, Gable comes off the top rope for a moonsault, which Bálor counters by getting his knees up. Of course, that still means that Gable’s full body weight crashes onto Bálor’s already injured leg, damaging it further. It’s a classic bit of leg work psychology that wrestling reviewer Simon of Handwerk Reviews calls The Gambit. It was popularized by Hiroshi Tanahashi who weakened his opponent’s legs to leave them vulnerable to his High Fly Flow finish.
Having damaged his leg further by falling for The Gambit, Bálor’s climb to the top for a Coup de Grace is much slower than usual. That provides enough time for Gable to cut off Bálor at the top and hit him with a Superplex. Bálor’s one step ahead though, locking up Gable in a small package when they land for the three-count.
Simple, purposeful wrestling with clear consequences for each action. All under 5 minutes too. It’s a delight to watch unfold. Of course, it takes two to put a match together like this but what makes Gable the center of attention in this piece is that he does it again with a different opponent just a week later.
On November 8, Chad Gable wrestles reigning WWE Champion Big E. Everyone knows Chad’s not going to win here. Some WWE TV shenanigans might let him sneak away with some kind of non-finish but he’s just not going to beat Big E, but boy does Gable still put the work in.
Big E’s not famed for his technical ability so Gable’s able to fluster him early with his chain wrestling. Big E’s size and power comes into play early though as a simple back elbow puts Gable on the defensive.
Gable only regains control when he corners Big E and hits him with one of the most gruesome dragon screw leg whips I’ve ever seen. I must have played that spot back a million times, Big E’s body just crumples in such a grotesque and unnatural way when Gable hits the move. It’s exactly that kind of vicious, sudden cut off that believably puts Gable in the driver’s seat against the much more powerful champion.
Following up on that dragon screw, Gable’s leg work here feels far more urgent and brutal than the leg work against Bálor. Multiple chop blocks combined with a great selling performance from Big E make for a wonderfully concise control segment. It also helps that Gable has some lovely bombs to throw into the match too like a beautiful belly-to-belly suplex, his moonsault, and a textbook Chaos Theory-style rolling German.
As in the previous match, it’s a slight moment of premature celebration that gives Big E the opening to make his comeback. From there, there’s little to save Gable. Even with Big E hesitating just a second to shake out the kinks in his leg, he still nails a decisive Big Ending to get the victory.
These matches rule so much. They’re so precise and well thought out despite being pretty much meaningless on paper. Both are filled with little tropes and trends that just appear to the exact wrestling nerd that I am: the short runtimes, the focus on limb work and selling, the shine given to an underutilized talent. I count both these matches, on their own, as better than some of the main event caliber bouts we’ve seen from around the world this year. Hell, I’d take these two matches over most of this year’s IWGP World Title matches (pre-unification defenses included).
These are the kind of micro TV bangers that allow someone as underutilized as Chad Gable to really flex his abilities. A great wrestler doesn’t need a sprawling and expansive epic to produce great wrestling, those talented enough to make small moments count stand a cut above their contemporaries.
It’s a shame that there doesn’t seem to be any long-term plans for Gable moving forward. He clearly has the in-ring acumen to be a truly special talent in the industry if he were just given the chance to be. Until the WWE’s view on him changes though, fans will have to content themselves with these brief, shining moments that Gable’s afforded. It’s not much, but it sure is better than nothing.