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Breaking down tag team chemistry
As the tournament to crown new No. 1 contenders to WWE Tag Team Champions Team Hell No, Kane & Daniel Bryan, continues to unfold, the WWE Universe cannot help but notice that the tag division is flourishing — if not undergoing a renaissance altogether.
The division is the most stacked it has been in years, as the eight-team bracket makes clear, and that’s not even including duos that fell just short of the tournament, such as Mexican miscreants Hunico & Camacho. Meanwhile, presiding over the division is the hugely successful and extremely volatile championship pairing of Kane & Bryan. A reluctant combination of two main-eventers, Team Hell No has garnered new interest in tag team competition and shown that it is not just established teams that have a place in the division.
The depth and diversity of the tag team field is owed largely to an influx of nascent duos. Apart from The Usos and Primo & Epico — who are twin brothers and cousins, respectively — the division is filled with partnerships that have only sprung to life this year.
For example, The Prime Time Players, Darren Young & Titus O’Neil, quietly forged a team on WWE NXT Redemption before being recruited to SmackDown in April. Tyson Kidd & Justin Gabriel, unofficially known as “International Airstrike,” bonded over mutual respect after a stunning but little heralded series of one-on-one matches between the two in which neither Superstar scored a decisive edge. Rey Mysterio has only recently taken fellow masked luchador Sin Cara, now in his sophomore year in WWE, under his constantly flying wing.
The wave of fresh tandems has breathed new life into the division, but also a high degree of unpredictability. With so many teams gelling at the same time, it begs the question, which ones are built to last? Which partnerships have the tools to go the distance, and which are likely to implode? The makeup of each team differs slightly, and the variables can be all that separates contenders from pretenders.
According to WWE’s foremost tag team experts, a successful tag team unit all begins with chemistry.
“To have chemistry, you’ve got to know what the other guy’s thinking about doing in the ring even before he does it, and vice versa,” said Michael Hayes, who held tag team championships in multiple promotions with various combinations of Fabulous Freebird brethren Buddy Roberts, Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy and Jimmy “Jam” Garvin. “It’s really important to become a unit and not just two guys who work together.”
The most recent addition to WWE’s tag division, Team Rhodes Scholars, was born out of circumstance after Team Hell No challenged Cody Rhodes & Damien Sandow to an impromptu match on SmackDown. Yet, the two accomplished singles competitors have quickly developed into a smooth team. On Raw Monday, Rhodes described teaming with “The Intellectual Savior of the Masses” as “magic.”
Learning curves vary, and there are no hard and fast benchmarks for measuring a team’s maturation. Still, Superstars can usually tell right off the bat whether there is cohesiveness to be fostered. Five-time World Tag Team Champion Road Dogg told WWE.com that he and New Age Outlaws partner Billy Gunn clicked from day one.
You’re trusting your partner with your life and your livelihood“We knew what we were going to do and we knew where each other was going to be,” Road Dogg said. “You’ll know. It’s almost like the old love story: When you see her, you’ll know. Well, when you get in the ring with him, you’ll know.”
The WWE Universe seemed to witness instant chemistry earlier this year when Kofi Kingston & R-Truth dethroned Primo & Epico for the Tag Team Titles in April after having teamed for just a few weeks. The partnership proved durable enough to fend off nearly five months worth of challengers. Hayes singled out Kingston & Truth as his favorites in the current crop of contenders, but with hesitation.
“Right now, I’d have to say the team that impresses me the most is Kofi and Truth, but there’s so many good and new teams fluctuating,” he said. “Whoever thought we’d see Rey and Sin Cara team up? The Prime Time Players haven’t even come close to touching their potential.”
Greater than the sum of its parts
In some respects, the chemistry of a tag unit boils down to the stylistic dichotomies at play. In WWE Tag Team Champions Team Hell No, WWE has a classic thunder-and-lightning juxtaposition of a big, muscular force (Kane) and a speedy, technically sound grappler (Bryan).
Kidd & Gabriel, Mysterio & Sin Cara and Primo & Epico are all high-flying duos that are experts at making quick tags in and out of the ring. Dating back to The Fabulous Kangaroos and extending all the way through to The Rock 'n' Roll Express, The Rockers and The Hardys, that particular dynamic has produced countless championships, not to mention some of the most exciting double-team moves ever seen.
Titus O’Neil & Darren Young are a prime example of two greenhorn powerhouses who are short on experience but long on potential, not unlike a young Road Warriors or Harlem Heat once were.
And then, of course, there is the long line of teams that shared the ultimate bond — the brotherly kind. From The Briscos and The Funks to The Steiners and now to Jimmy & Jey Uso, brothers have set the bar for tag team continuity.
“Nobody wants to get in there and make the tag like a brother does after he’s been watching his brother get beat up for five minutes,” explained Road Dogg, who teamed with his brothers, Brad, Steve and — current referee — Scott Armstrong, before joining WWE.
Other Superstars turn to tag competition when their singles momentum stalls as a way to move up the WWE pecking order. Santino Marella & Zack Ryder’s success in the singles ranks has come in fits and starts, and as a result, the two fun-loving cornerstones of WWE’s YouTube channel have teamed on occasion this year. Other combinations of singles stars — such as Vickie Guerrero’s ill-fated duo of former World Champions Dolph Ziggler & Jack Swagger — have not meshed well, partly because of disparate agendas.
“A lot of tag teams that are individual guys that are put together might have their own best interest at heart, and not the team’s best interest,” Road Dogg said. “Both members have to have the team’s best interests at heart, and if they don’t, they won’t be a team for very long."
Friendship, trust and an outlier
One of the quickest ways to bolster team chemistry is by traveling together. Five-hour car rides give partners an opportunity to self-critique and pinpoint weaknesses, as well as bond personally. O’Neil & Young appear almost literally attached at the hip, but according to Hayes, too few teams try to grow as a tandem outside of the ring nowadays.
“That’s a problem today,” he conceded. “People clock in, get to the arena, clock out and leave the arena. It’s not a way of life, it’s just a job. You’ll never be a great tag team as long as it’s just a job.”
Though it is clearly a nicety, friendship is not a prerequisite to tag team success. In contrast to The Freebirds, The New Age Outlaws did not travel or room together. Though Road Dogg now considers Gunn his best friend, he said he was not especially close with Gunn during the Outlaws’ boom period.
What Road Dogg and Gunn did have, evidently, was a core necessity: trust. Trust between partners is “essential” for a team to succeed, Hayes said.
“You’re trusting your partner with your life and your livelihood — those are two important things, or they should be,” he said. “You don’t have to be best friends. You don’t have to be brothers. But one thing you have to have for it to work is trust.”
Shattering every conception about tag team chemistry, then, are the WWE Tag Team Champions, Team Hell No. Kane & Bryan, each of whom view the Tag Team Titles as an individual accomplishment, do not travel together and despite the trust falls in Dr. Shelby’s anger management courses, they do not appear to have much confidence in each other. Hayes said Team Hell No “breaks every rule” of tag team wrestling.
Does the fact that Team Hell No reigns over the tag division despite their clear, personal differences speak to Kane & Bryan’s individual excellence? Superstars do not often delve into the Tag Team Championship scene after winning World Titles on their own, but when they do, it is usually to great accolades.
Or, is Team Hell No’s logic-defying “chemistry” misleading? Is it only a matter of time before the champions get knocked off by a more cohesive unit, possibly at Hell in a Cell?