Why can some teams use more than two members to defend their tag team championships?
Welcome back for another completely serious edition of Explain Like I’m Kayfabe: the only weekly wrestling column dedicated to planting tongue firmly in cheek and trying to explain the wacky world of professional wrestling using only what we see on our TV screens. With all the hoopla surrounding the first women’s Money in the Bank Match at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view and the following Smackdown Live holding the second ever women’s Money in the Bank Match, a few things got overlooked in most coverage. A big story from the world of tag-team wrestling came with the unsuccessful bid of fan favorites New Day to unseat Smackdown Tag Team Champions, The Usos. The twins proved that their Day One is actually H in defeating New Day’s Big E and Kofi Kingston. The re-emergence of New Day as Tag Team Title contenders brings up one of my favorite wrestling tropes, and that’s what we’re going to discuss today. Let’s take a walk down Badstreet USA and dissect one of the most beloved unwritten rules ever: The Freebird Rule.
In 1979, Michael “P.S.” Hayes, Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy, and “Buddy “Jack” Roberts were brought together as a new tag team in the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling. Their legendary feud with the Von Erich family pitted Texas against Georgia in a series of matches throughout the early 1980s. During this time, the Freebirds pioneered several now long-held wrestling traditions, including the popularization of entrance music. (The Freebirds certainly weren’t the first to use entrance music, as is often claimed, but they clearly sent the practice into the mainstream.
One of the most treasured, but rarely seen, contributions of the Fabulous Freebirds was the concept that three men can make up a rotating two-man tag team and defend their titles thusly. This is what we now refer to as The Freebird Rule. When the Freebirds won the new National Wrestling Alliance tag team championships in 1980, they won the tournament as a rotating unit, declaring all three men as champions. While WCCW and other promotions had six-man tag championships (several of which the Freebirds won), this was a new idea in professional wrestling, a way to throw opponents off their game. When any two of the three wrestlers might be involved in a match, preparing for the bout was difficult. The Freebirds used this to their advantage, winning a combined 21 tag and six-man titles throughout their careers.
Other tag teams have used The Freebird Rule to their advantage since, including groups in WCW, WWF/E, and TNA. Regardless of the makeup of the teams, the one major thing they failed to do was capture the attention of the fans like the flamboyant and contentious Freebirds did. Several well-known 80s and 90s groups, like the Midnight Express, the Heavenly Bodies, The Russians, and Demolition took advantage of the rule. In the mid to late-90s, WCW took full advantage of the rule and its history in the company with three teams–The Wolfpac, The Flock, and The Jersey Triad–using it to their advantage.
Sidebar: The Jersey Triad – Diamond Dallas Page, Bam Bam Bigelow, and Kanyon – are the only group of which this author is aware to have modified the rule to allow the team to change members during the match. As long as one member of the team had his feet on the floor outside the ring, the other two were the legal participants. This was greatly beneficial to the trio, as you might imagine. The trio’s close relationship with WCW “President-for-Life” Ric Flair did not hurt either.
Sidebar-Sidebar: Flair was WCW “President-for-Life” for eight months. This was more time in office than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh had as President-for-Life. Rahman’s reign lasted from January 1975 until his assassination in July of that year. Thankfully, Flair’s reign came to an end due to losing a match versus long-time nemesis Sting.
TNA (now Global Force Wrestling, apparently) has had several groups attempt to use the Freebird rule with varying degrees of success. Other independent promotions have adopted the rule on occasion as well. Variations on the theme have occurred in several promotions, usually involving two wrestlers co-defending a singles title. The highest profile example would most likely be Chris Jericho and Chyna sharing custody of the WWF Intercontinental Championship in 2000. Even with groups throughout the 90s using the Freebird rule, however, it fell out of favor through most of the early 21st century until revived in a major way by the longest-reigning WWE tag team champions of all time, The New Day.
Through their 478-day reign as tag team champions, the New Day successfully utilized the flexibility of the Freebird rule to hang on to the belts against all comers. No one knew which two members would be stepping into the ring and which would remain outside as a distraction. For the most part, Xavier Woods acted as the team’s manager/cheerleader/distraction, but when he stepped into the ring in place of Kofi Kingston or Big E, he was never to be taken lightly. With their current status as number one contenders to the Usos’ Smackdown Live tag team championships, The New Day is free to use the rule to their advantage, hoping to be the first team since the current brand split to gain both sets of tag titles.
There is little question as to why a team would use the Freebird rule if they could. Having an extra team member to swap in and out, or use as a distraction would benefit any team. The real question is, why haven’t more teams taken advantage of this rule?
1) Multi-man tag team championships: Outside of the WWE juggernaut, many promotions around the world have multi-man championship titles. WCW had a Six-Man Championship in 1991 (which the Freebirds won). It was preceded by the WCWA/NWA World (Texas) Six-Man Championship, which was contested from 1982-1988. Currently, several Six-Man Championships are defended around the world, including in Mexican promotions AAA and CMLL, American promotion Ring of Honor, and the NEVER Openweight Six-Man Championship in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
2) Opportunity: Within promotions, few multi-man factions exist. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, Bullet Club being the current prime example of this. WWE in particular seems to rarely gather factions of more than 2 members at a time. Currently, only New Day and SAnitY in NXT (not counting the newly established Miztourage) exist as multi-man factions. SAnitY has yet to hold the NXT tag titles which are currently stapled to the shoulders of the Authors of Pain. Multi-man factions that have existed recently, including the Wyatt Family, have had few opportunities to utilize the Freebird Rule. When the Wyatts (Wyatt, Harper, Orton edition) held the Smackdown Live tag titles, they announced their intention to follow the Freebird Rule. The fact that they lost the titles after three weeks as champions and broke up officially by the 2017 Royal Rumble meant that they never had the real opportunity to take advantage of their faction’s status.
3) Lack of Trust: The past year has been a tough one for friendship, especially in WWE. Of course, wrestling has always been a career where friends are few and far between. Many, many examples of friendships broken with a superkick, or kick to the gut, or some other kind of kick, exist inside the squared circle. Current WWE superstar Kevin Owens has been involved in two egregious examples of ending the circle of friendship. In his in-ring debut on NXT Takeover R-Evolution, Owens congratulated his long-time friend Sami Zayn, who had just won the NXT Championship. Owens then brutalized Zayn, staking his claim to the title. Just this past year, history repeated itself with Owens destroying a Festival of Friendship put on by Jeri-KO partner, Chris Jericho. With friends like this in just two-man partnerships, who would trust a third member?
The New Day. like the Fabulous Freebirds before them, have overcome the odds and continue to function as a well-oiled machine. Their friendships are strong and the obvious joy they have in working together as a team shows every time they enter an arena. The fact that any two of the three can win against the best the WWE has to offer cements their place in the pantheon of great tag teams. So, to future tag teams going up against ya boys, don’t you dare be sour. Find a third man to watch your back and maybe you can put together a historic championship reign. If not, the WWE Universe will keep cheering for Kofi, Xavier and Big E, because…well, you know.