Within a matter of days, the greatest wrestling match that Dave Meltzer has ever seen became a pain in his ass. This past June, the founder and longtime editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter watched New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual Dominion event, headlined this year by a match between Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega for the company’s top championship. For more than an hour, Meltzer was gripped by the pair’s athletic, exhausting, back-and-forth faux-competition. When it culminated in—spoiler alert—Omega finally vanquishing Okada for the title after a 17-month pursuit, Meltzer jotted a number in his notebook: seven, as in the number of stars he would award the match as a grade.
The friends watching with Meltzer agreed. But they knew it was Meltzer’s opinion that would mean trouble. “They were kind of laughing and going, ‘You’re gonna have a really bad week,’” Meltzer recalls. “And I was like, ‘Eh, I’ve been through this before.’”
For decades Meltzer has been rating major matches in his weekly newsletter, using a star-based system to evaluate the sum of their emotional drama, physical action, and storytelling. An average match receives two stars, with better or worse performances warranting more or fewer in kind. Over the years, Meltzer’s elusive five-star appraisal, typically garnered by just a small handful of matches each year, has gained foothold as the wrestling commentariat’s premier standard—the qualitative scale’s presumptive upper limit.
But to Meltzer’s eyes this match between Okada and Omega, like three between them before it, went beyond even that. The physicality was crisp and compelling. The action recalled and built off memorable moments from their previous encounters. The two-out-of-three-falls format and 65-minute runtime allowed an extended narrative to unfold. And the story that played out brought a logical and satisfying conclusion to larger storylines that had been developing for roughly two years. Thus: seven stars. “The thought process going into this match was like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” says the 58-year-old Meltzer, who has watched thousands upon thousands of matches since becoming a fan in grade school. “I would absolutely, with no reservations, say it’s the best wrestling match I’ve ever seen.”
It’s not that everyone disagreed: In poll responses from nearly a thousand of Meltzer’s readers, before his own grade was released, the match received an average score of 7.09 stars. But coming as this did on the heels of Meltzer giving out a number of eye-popping grades in recent years — six ratings of 5.5 stars or more since the beginning of 2017, including the three previous Okada-Omega matches—a vocal segment of the online wrestling community began to revolt. Over the weeks after his rating was released in the Observer, Meltzer fended off a series of Twitter trolls who embodied the indignant animus brewing on Internet message boards. The common refrain was that by again stretching the boundaries of his scale, Meltzer was rendering his grades void. Read one characteristic response: You’re an idiot and your star ratings are a farce and inconsistent. It’s pretty much exposed now. “I should probably blame Omega and Okada,” Meltzer jokes. “They should tone down their matches.”
The backlash is based on a premise that even Meltzer himself questions: that his ratings matter in the first place. Like any entertainment genre, wrestling inspires a wide range of responses to a variety of styles, in accordance with a spectrum of individual tastes. Yet unlike, say, music or movies, where a plethora of assessments from various critics comprise elements of a larger conversation, Meltzer’s grades have taken a singularly lofty and divisive status, with many followers as concerned with the merits of his scores as with the merits of the matches themselves. Wrestling’s fanbase, present company included, often lends itself to tedious pedantism; there is, for one of many examples, a 4,594-word, 172-source Wikipedia entry on the “persona and reception” of current WWE star Roman Reigns. It’s in that same obsessive environment that Meltzer’s assessments have gone from one informed viewer’s opinion to a monolith worthy of casting online stones.
“It’s weird,” says Meltzer. And it is. But to understand how we got here is to understand modern wrestling fandom itself.
When Meltzer doled out his first star rating, he was merely following a trend. He had launched the Observer in 1982 in what would be the waning years of pro wrestling’s territorial era, a time predating national and international promotions (à la WWE) when each segment of the U.S. had its own regional companies. To follow the happenings and stars in other areas, hardcore fans would exchange videotapes and newsletters through the mail. Among them was Norman “Weasel” Dooley, a devotee who chronicled the Louisville scene and compiled out-of-town results in a self-published bulletin dubbed Weasel’s World of Wrestling.
“I was essentially copying Norm Dooley,” says Meltzer, one of Dooley’s loyal readers, of his early newsletters. “The star ratings were just copying him. Everyone who did newsletters then did it.”
Dooley’s ratings began in 1979, with an offhand suggestion made during a phone conversation with fellow local superfan and Weasel’s World photographer Jim Cornette. Dooley had taken to editorializing during his match recaps, peppering reports with wisecracks that presaged the snarky tone of today’s online wrestling discussions. During one of the pair’s regular phone calls, Cornette thumbed through an issue of TV Guide, in which movie syponses were accompanied by film critic Leonard Maltin’s ratings on a four-star scale.
“I told him, ‘Weasel, the way you’re going into this detail now, you ought to rate the matches with stars the way they do in the TV Guide,’” says Cornette, who would later gain renown as an on-screen WWE performer, booker of various promotions, and famously unfiltered spitfire. “It was a joke. He was sending this out to 40 f---ing people.”
Like Maltin, they would rate matches up to four stars. “What we based it on,” says Cornette now, “was how much we and the people in the building enjoyed it, what the crowd response was, and did anybody just f--- up and fall on their ass?” The scores, as Cornette explains now in his inimitable fashion, were meant to indicate the following:
• One star: “Wow, I couldn’t wait for that to be over.”
• Two stars: “Well, that’s about what we expected.”
• Three stars: “That was pretty f---in’ good.”
• Four stars: “Holy s---, they tore the f---in’ house down.”
Only two years later, the scale underwent its first expansion. On March 23, 1981, Cornette and Dooley sat ringside at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis for a no-disqualification match between Jerry Lawler and Terry Funk. It was a wild, violent brawl replete with stiff fists and thudding steel-chair shots.
“I could see the blood spurting and flying when they’d hit each other,” Cornette says. “The front-row fans were literally crawling backwards over their chairs when Lawler had Funk down on the floor pounding him with a chair. They were horrified. It was just insane. That’s what wrestling is supposed to be.”
Even in their fanatical consumption, it was like no match Cornette and Dooley had seen. In the next Weasel’s World of Wrestling, Dooley gave it five stars.
In the Observer, first published the following year, Meltzer only ever meant for his own match ratings to be a minor component of the publication. Along with detailed recaps of his own and grades for major-show matches or ones he attended, Meltzer scrutinously covered wrestling from a journalistic perspective, reporting on finances, business dealings, drug use, and legal troubles in a tightly guarded industry where truth was inherently manipulated and hidden. He became wrestling’s foremost journalistic authority, a go-to cable TV and talk-show guest who had a column in the short-lived The National Sports Daily and even penned pieces for Sports Illustrated. Legendary SI writer Frank Deford, Meltzer’s boss at The National, would later label him “the most accomplished reporter in sport journalism.” In a New York Timesprofile of Meltzer, WWE Hall of Famer Bret Hart said that in wrestling locker rooms, “Everyone fights for The Observer to see if they’re in it.”
It was thanks in part to the curtain-peeling reporting of Meltzer and others, as well as the industry’s gradual revealing of itself, that fans began to smarten up to wrestling’s reality. Viewing habits evolved as a result; over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, mainstream fans came to care as much or more about a performer’s ability to put on an engaging match as about their character and speaking ability—the traditional driving forces of popularity—and whether they won or lost. At the same time, as with so many other subcultures, wrestling fandom experienced the Internet era’s democratization of criticism, incentive to showcase (or feign) expertise, and amplification of zealous, diehard voices.
“There’s no casual wrestling fan anymore,” says Cornette, who now hosts the Jim Cornette Experience podcast. “Either people are living and dying by this s--- or they don’t give a f--- because it ain’t like it used to be.”
While it was reporting like Meltzer’s that helped usher in the post-kayfabe period, a much smaller part of his weekly 25,000-word output grew in stature, lent authority by his nonpareil standing in his field. His star ratings—tacked on at the end of match recaps without much attendant explanation—provided not only a familiar format through which fans could hand out their own grades, but also catnip for endless online debate. Arguments regularly broke out over whether a five-star match deserved a lower rating or vice versa. The Internet Wrestling Database included Melter’s ratings alongside match results. WWE loyalists decried Meltzer’s supposed anti-WWE, pro-Japanese wrestling bias, citing the five pre-2018 WWE matches he’d given five stars compared to the dozens from New Japan and All Japan shows. Sites like WhatCulture run stories titled “10 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Star Ratings Dave Meltzer Got Wrong.” In many corners of the web, speculation about his coming grade begins as soon as a match concludes.
It’s a status wildly out of step with how Meltzer considers his ratings as “the least important thing I do,” based as they are—along with close observation—on “the gut and emotion when the match is over.” He admits personal preferences for certain styles and presentations, caring less about spectacle (think the widely beloved, crowd-captivating The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan clash at Wrestlemania 18, which he gave three stars) than high-level, narrative-driven physicality performed even in relative obscurity (a five-star 2004 Ring of Honor match between CM Punk and Samoa Joe was wrestled in front of 700 people). But he proudly touts a study of his star ratings by WrestleTalk Magazine—yes, a study of his Observer ratings by another outlet—showing that while he awards more top grades to New Japan matches, his average WWE match rating is actually higher.
Still it’s the matches in New Japan that have been supposedly breaking the scale of late. Last year Meltzer gave four such matches ratings above five, including two six-star ratings for Okada-Omega matches and a 6.25 grade for a third; this year, in addition to the seven stars he gave Okada vs. Omega in June, he gave 5.5 stars to two matches featuring Hiromu Takahashi. It’s not that Meltzer had never gone above five before: he gave a six-star rating to a Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat match in 1989 and one between Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada in ’97, as well as “five-plus” to a Manami Toyota vs. Kyoko Inoue match in ‘92. After all, Meltzer says that the first five-star rating given by Dooley and Cornette “established, to me, that there is no top.” But in those years there was no easy forum for collective outrage to fester, nor did his ratings have much reach beyond his own subscribers, an inherently more reverent crowd. In 2018, with a vocal and empowered online community long accustomed to donning the critic’s cap and many who don’t actually read Meltzer’s newsletter (or even watch the matches in question) having knowledge of his ratings, Meltzer has found himself defending not only particular grades but the very nature of his system.
To him, it’s all exceedingly simple. “If [a match is] off the charts, I gotta go off the charts,” Meltzer says. “I’ve got a nine-year-old daughter. I can explain it to her in two sentences. It’s like, If things get better, would you go higher? Yes. That’s all it is. And people just go, It can’t go above five! And it’s like... why?”
“The last two years,” Meltzer adds, “have been like nothing I’ve ever seen, as far as great matches go.” It’s a result of multiple driving forces. For one, Meltzer contends, “Guys are just better now. They’re better athletes who study more, who think more about their matches.” Many promoters have also given performers more license for creativity and envelope-pushing. And having great matches has become a business imperative for performers and companies looking to generate buzz online, as the same community that frenzies over Observer ratings stages organic word-of-mouth campaigns that build and bolster reputations. It’s how independent outfits like California-based Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and even WWE’s own developmental NXT brand (which has received four five-star match grades from Meltzer this year alone) have amassed their prestige. Performers too have recognized this as their meal ticket, riding viral praise for in-ring exploits to bigger bookings, better paydays, and big-league deals.
“That’s how you get your name over,” Meltzer says. “Now the actual match quality is more important than any time in history.”
Perhaps the most common criticism of Meltzer’s recent scale-expanding grades draws from the slippery-slope school of thought. “If it was a seven-star match,” mused wrestler Bully Ray, aka Bubba Ray Dudley, “why wasn’t it an eight-star match?” Yet the bedrock of that criticism—that an eight-star match is so preposterous or impossible as to undermine the entire enterprise—doesn’t land with Meltzer, who’s open to going higher still, if warranted. “I don’t know if I’ll ever see a better match,” he says of June’s Okada-Omega performance. “But who knows?”
There is little reason to expect the factors behind the trend to stop. The importance of match quality has even seeped into the on-screen product, where logically it would seem to have little place. WWE’s Dolph Ziggler has for years promoted himself in-character as a show-stealing performer irrespective to the win-loss outcomes of his matches, while Shawn Michaels was nicknamed Mr. WrestleMania within the WWE product not for his record of kayfabe success at the event (he was 6–11 in WrestleMania matches) but for so routinely putting on its best bout. In a recent skit in their cheeky YouTube series “Being the Elite,” the Young Bucks pressed Omega to share his secret to “breaking the five-star rating.” (The Bucks, members of wrestling’s avant garde in fourth-wall-winking, have named one of their signature moves the “Meltzer Driver” and even performed in outfits collaged with his face.)
It’s not Meltzer’s grades that modern wrestlers are chasing; he says he almost never hears from them about a particular match’s rating. Their incentive is to give the modern audience what it has come to desire, drawing its business in turn. But many traditionalists bemoan the shift from believability—among a performer’s primary goals in the bygone age when the industry still presented itself as actual competition—to an emphasis on increasingly intricate in-ring action that can make clear the form’s contrivances. “It’s supposed to be a goddamn simulated conflict,” says Cornette. “Modern day wrestlers are fans of the performance of wrestling instead of the concept of wrestling.” (“Who knew this would come back to haunt us?” he says later. “And it’s all because of that damn Leonard Maltin.”)
There are worse hazards than shifting tastes. The drive to put on the most buzzworthy and novel in-ring action possible has led to more difficult and risky sequences, upping the physical ante to a potentially perilous level. In a radio discussion of 25-year-old English star Will Ospreay, a relentlessly daring performer to whom Meltzer has given three five-star grades, this past March, Meltzer told listeners to “enjoy him while you can” due to the expected long-term effects of his style. “I went through a generation of guys who, you see them when they’re 50 or 60 and they can barely walk,” Meltzer says. “And they didn’t do the stuff these guys are doing now. I really try to push: have the best match possible, but please be safe. There are guys I actually email after the match: Great match. Please be safe. Protect your head and neck.”
Such is the current state of the industry, where a performer’s interests in their business value and physical well-being are often dangerously at odds. It’s not a dynamic attributable to Meltzer himself—he didn’t invent rating matches, and if he stopped tomorrow, the practice and debate would likely find a new fulcrum. But he has unwittingly been part of this modern era’s shaping and, as unwittingly, felt some of its brunt. What evolutions await ahead can be hard to imagine; surely the rate of epic, innovative in-ring performances cannot accelerate forever. What’s clear to the man who helped devise the star rating system—who has joked that he “inadvertently sabotaged the entire wrestling business”—is there should be at least once aspect where there is no room to grow.
“You can’t have seven stars,” Cornette says. He pauses to correct himself. “Well, I guess you can,” he adds. “Because it doesn’t mean anything.”