An absolute powder keg of a match. While bullying heels aren’t a rarity in the French catch footage I’ve seen to this point, it feels like I’ve yet to see a match where the bullying enflames the babyface as much as it does here. Tony Oliver puts in an amazing heel performance here. It has everything one might one from it. He’s constantly cheating, he’s a total fucking bastard, and he’s mean on the offense in a way that really gets sparks flying.
I found myself constantly impressed with all the shitty things Oliver inflicts upon Royal here. I tweeted about a great moment at the end where he punches the top rope into Royal’s throat, but there’s a metric ton of small mean things he does throughout. For example, Oliver has one of the most painstakingly detail-oriented tights-grabbing spots ever. Constant shifting of weight, distracting the referee’s eyeline, even (incidentally perhaps) hiding it from the camera itself. It’s a funny thing in that pulling the tights is often a shortcut, for Oliver to turn that act into a struggle in itself–all for a cheap little advantage–kind of breaks the brain when one sees it in action.
At one point, Oliver gets the ref tangled up with him and Royal, keeping the ref out of the eyeline of him punching Royal with closed fists. Credit to Oliver too for selling not just for Royal when he needs to, but for the ref who he actively gets physical with multiple times in the match. Oliver eats shit here and then, being forcibly moved by the referee.
The thing about how vicious Oliver is here is that it enflames Royal to fight back too. As much as I’ve been gushing about Oliver’s heel performance, it’s worth noting that Royal is incredibly game to give as good as he gets. Unlike other babyfaces in this role that might throw a receipt and then try to ground things back into a fair competition, Royal’s all about fighting fire with fire. He’s throwing some great clubbing blows in this, he’s grinding Oliver down into the mat with his knuckles, and those neck cranks he does really make the crowd come unglued constantly.
Funny thing happened where at a certain point in the match, I was starting to think to myself that those neck cracks were becoming a tad repetitive as Royal’s cut off move. Then, I was knocked on my ass late in the match when at one point Oliver tries to mount a comeback, only to crumble to the mat from his spine and neck giving out on him. I recall mocking the awful Ilja neck crumble from the NXT UK match against WALTER, and it just blew me away to see a version of the spot that felt so natural and right. Not only that, but to see something like that done in a way that felt so unique and fresh almost seventy years later.
That’s the kind of narrative pay off that feels like it would become a little more common later on in wrestling. Long-term limb selling’s not something I really associate with the work I’ve seen from this particular time period, whether it be in France or the Chicago matches I’ve watched.
Speaking of narrative pay off, what a finish! I’ve mentioned those punches to the rope into Royal’s face. How fitting then that Royal has to dodge Oliver charging at him to send him crashing throat first into the top rope that gets him the victory. Just how common was that as a trope back in the day? Was Jumbo Tsuruta getting into some French catch tapes I didn’t know about?
Joking aside, what a match. Genuinely timeless and innovative all at once, the magic of French catch.