This week on Explain Like I’m Kayfabe, we look to the skies to some of the most dynamic men and women to ever enter the squared circle: the high flyers. Whether it’s heavyweights splashing from the top of a big blue cage or gymnast spot monkeys who live to piss off Jim Cornette, leaping from the corner turnbuckle has been a staple for decades. Within the actual rules of a wrestling match, however, the question can be asked: are those high-flying moves legal? Let’s find out.
One of the things that always makes me pause when a wrestler climbs to the top turnbuckle is the referee. Once the wrestler ascends even the second turnbuckle, let alone the top, the ref begins to count and admonish, as if the wrestler was breaking a rule or doing some dastardly deed using the ropes for an advantage. For example, whenever there is a corner tie-up, the ref begins counting. The wrestler with the advantage must release the hold by the count of five or risk disqualification. This also applies to blatant chokeholds and any move that ties an opponent up in the ropes.
So, why count? The referee only counts on clear non-pin occasions: when one or more wrestlers are outside of the ring or when both wrestlers are down on the mat. In most federations, a 10-count is called for, while in New Japan a 20-count is given. So, the five-count must be for a different scenario.
The referee’s five-count comes in to play when a clear advantage is taken by a wrestler in a non-physical way. That is, when a wrestler uses the physical ring to their advantage or applies an illegal hold, but does not resort to such blatant cheating as, let’s say, hitting someone across the back with a steel chair. The referee has some lee-way as to when he sees something as broaching that illegal barrier, however. Samoa Joe’s Cocquina Clutch is dangerously close to a choke hold. Should it slip into the wrong position, the referee could begin the five-count.
We began asking about why the referee might count when someone ascends the ropes. I believe that the answer is two-fold. One, the ropes are the literal boundary of the legal ring. Much like any other sport, there must be a clear place where the legal boundary stops. The exact plane where the rope begins is there the legal ring ends. Kevin Owens, in his match against Chris Jericho at WWE Payback 2017, touched the rope with one finger, meaning he had left the boundaries of the ring and the Walls of Jericho submission hold was then immediately an illegal hold, subject to the five-count. At NJPW Dominion 2015, Katsuyori Shibata grabbed the middle rope with his teeth to break a submission hold. Many managers or others accompanying wrestlers to the ring have pulled the ropes away from opponents seeking to grab them, ostensibly extending the legal boundaries of the ring.
Second, although it happens more and more often, ascending the ropes in any fashion is taking an advantage over one’s opponent. This triggers the referee’s five-count towards disqualification. Should a wrestler climb the turnbuckles and wait, unmoving, the referee could disqualify them for taking an illegal advantage, or simply count to ten and end the match in a count-out. Luckily for us, and for all the ricocheting wrasslers rising above the ring, these moves are simply too awesome to derail a match and will continue to be another flexible part of the rulebook of professional wrestling, no matter what Drew Gulak wants. Free the high flyers, Drew, and grow back the beard. For real.