The Tag Team Renaissance Is Upon Us

Wrestling tag teams had fallen out of favor. But now they're back, baby.

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The melodrama of pro wrestling often boils down to two athletes’ desire to be the best, with clashes in personalities, styles and sizes playing out on the mat. But the stories can get complicated as more performers are added, creating compelling and complex interpersonal dynamics. The beauty of tag team wrestling lies in bringing out these more sophisticated narratives—but audiences lately seem less starved for these kinds of bouts in recent years. Has tag team wrestling fallen into disrepute?

If so, WWE could be largely to blame. With an abundance of both franchise championships and mid-card singles belts split across several brands, WWE’s incompetence when it comes to maintaining several interlocking stories at once is remarkable. Although factions and stables had for a long time played a part, the emphasis (at least on Raw and SmackDown) on teams seems particularly low. Tag team matches without any stakes are often used as placeholders and time wasters on overcrowded and overlong TV cards, sometimes in the paltry hopes of garnering anticipation for pay-per-views. This is especially the case in the women’s division, where six-person matches without meaning have become the unfortunate norm.

The politicization of women’s wrestling must be playing a factor here: Now that WWE has decided to emphasize female fighters as much as men, the creative team’s minimal attention span has necessarily shifted from the tag team division to what they have very recently deemed is more important. The women’s tag division is often treated like an after-thought: the IIconics, for example, held the title for 120 days but were rarely spotted on TV or in PPVs defending their titles.

Meanwhile, AEW seems to be placing a bit more emphasis already on its tag team division. Although the younger company has not yet crowned its inaugural tag champions, a tournament for the new belts featuring some of its most-hyped talents has already been announced. This likely stems from the beloved team The Young Bucks serving as the company’s executive vice presidents, which means that they’re watching out for fellow duos. (On the other hand, a women’s tag team division in AEW has not even been remotely hinted at and—at least for now—seems highly unlikely to be formed at all.)

On the indies in the United States, fostering tag team wrestling presents a series of unique challenges. When local show budgets are close to nonexistent, having a tag division means paying twice as many performers. And since wrestlers are spread out across the United States, organic tag partners who train and develop moves alongside each other are rather sparse. As a result, bookers often resort to making up pairs on the spot, sometimes with little aesthetic or narrative coherence.

“I love tag team wrestling, and I wish I did more of it,” says indie darling Allie Kat (aka Stray Kat). “There’s more to play around with it, there can be way more drama. On the indies it’s hard to find a legit tag team. You’ll see a lot of one-offs, like, ‘Oh, they both wear red, let’s get them to tag together.’”

It’s hard to find legitimate tag teams—with independent wrestling there is so much travel. You could click with someone and have great chemistry, but one could live in Saint Louis and one could live in California.

"With a partner it’s like, ‘Are they always going to want to bring both of us in?’" says Kat. "It’s a money thing, it’s a travel thing. All the best-known tag teams live around each other! So that’s the bad part of tag team wrestling.”

The yearly King of Trios event has in recent memory become the international standard for tag team wrestling, focusing on three-person teams (and utilizing a slightly different set of rules) rather than pairs.

“You can powder out [roll out of the ring] to tag out, which is a big factor in these matches,” said Molly McCoy, who competed in the most Trios event alongside her extended family members, Boomer and Dasher Hatfield. “It’s another two bodies in there, so now you’ve got six different personalities that you have to figure stuff out with. And coming up with trios maneuvers? Not super easy! Because there aren’t a lot of places that do trios matches.”

Functioning as Chikara’s Wrestlemania analog, the three-day tournament gathers the world’s best teams in a yearly showcase of the underappreciated beauty of this specific sub-genre of fighting. At this year’s event, held in Reading, Pennsylvania, from Oct. 4-6, two distinctly charismatic Australian teams, VeloCities and The Nations, were the unlikely standouts, taking on home-grown Chikara talent and groups from the independent scene like The Carnies and The Ugly Ducklings. On the third night, a massive 10-team tag gauntlet was held, featuring members of the eliminated teams and other Chikara stars, showing the flexibility and fluidity of this kind of storytelling. King of Trios has remained a staple of tag-team wrestling since 2007, earnestly showcasing what Chikara founder Mike Quackenbush earlier this year described to me as a “lost art.”

King of Trios remains fascinating because of how diverse and global the performers presented are—teams from outside of the United States are often better practiced in trios and tag teams specifically. Cultural differences between the United States, Japan and Mexico (the countries in which wrestling is arguably most popular) have resulted in foreign companies utilizing tag team wrestling far more than in the United States, according to Boomer Hatfield.

“It’s tradition,” Hatfield says. “It’s heavily featured much more in Mexico and Japan. It’s about community, building teams, building groups. You see more squads and cliques and teams there. A lot of the bigger shows are meant for the singles feuds, but the lesser shows and traveling shows they do mixed groupings. You’ll see six different guys with six different storylines, but they’ll all be in the same match.” 

“There are cultural differences. Stuff like exóticos took off in Mexico, but not here. Women’s wrestling was big in Japan, but not here. Some things just don’t seem to translate,” McCoy says.

Ultimately, it was The Crucible (Ophidian The Cobra, Lance Steel and Princess Kimber Lee) who emerged victorious this weekend after defeating The Nations in a grueling finale on Sunday. Kimber’s reluctance to participate in Ophidian’s nefarious plans is precisely the complex storytelling that makes tag team and trios matches so fascinating. More experimental bookers should be willing to take the risk with less simplistic character arcs, something that’s often hard or impossible to accomplish in feds with less devoted followings.

The potential for tag team wrestling is limitless and the current crop of talent coming up is better than ever. Some of the most memorable moments in pro-wrestling history have stemmed from tag team divisions, and the lack of focus on this style demonstrates the ways that mainstream and indie companies alike often lack the basic ability to develop more than two main characters at a time. 

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