Generic Pre-Review Wrestling Disclaimer: Long before my affinity for globetrotting documentaries, Martin Scorsese films and The Criterion Collection, I found a soft spot for professional wrestling. Don't ask me how this happened; it just did. Despite this declaration, I shower daily, all my teeth are accounted for, I have a college degree...and believe it or not, I have a wife with the same merits. I'm not alone, of course. The wrestling fans I know aren't slack-jawed yokels; they simply appreciate the spectacle and illusion that this genuine sport creates, in the same way movie lovers enjoy fast-paced fights and thrilling chase sequences. Long story short: we know this stuff is "fake", but we like it anyway. Give us a break.
It's been a long-standing tradition in WWE that the big, hulking guys usually hog the spotlight, leaving the smaller guys to start the show or fill time in-between championship matches. But these smaller high-flyers will always have their fair share of fans, whether they're wrestling each other or attempting to take down one of the bigger guys, David and Goliath style. Whether it's a more traditional light heavyweight wrestler or a genuine luchador, these high-flyers often have no trouble getting crowds on their feet with dangerous, nearly suicidal maneuvers. Some of the all-time greats like Ricky Steamboat, Rey Mysterio Jr., Eddie Guerrero and Shawn Michaels took part in some of wrestling's most memorable matches...and, in some cases, they're still going strong. Others burned brightly for a short time, like Taka Michinoku and much of WWE's "Attitude Era" Light Heavyweight division. A few faded quickly into obscurity (remember this guy?) and will only be remembered by die-hard fans.
In any case, some of the industry's most memorable faces have been spotlighted on Wrestling's Highest Flyers, WWE's new three-disc collection of matches featuring absolutely no matches with two 300-pound giants slugging it out. At roughly 6 hours in length, we're treated to 23 matches spanning nearly 20 years; most are from WWE, but vintage WCW and ECW are also represented several times. On paper, Wrestling's Highest Flyers certainly looks like a well-rounded collection of top-tier matches featuring a variety of athletes from different eras and backgrounds. While it doesn't quite measure up to past WWE collections, there's more than enough here to make Wrestling's Highest Flyers a decent addition to your wrestling library.
The format of Wrestling's Highest Flyers is almost painfully straightforward (more on that later), as basic introductions and transitions separate each of these 23 matches. A few different elements of the light heavyweight and luchador styles are briefly discussed, while each of the 23 featured wrestlers are introduced by a highlight reel. These featured wrestlers are named first on the below match listing, which covers just about everything this three-disc set has to offer. The matches include:
(23 matches on 3 single-sided DVDs) *
Ricky Steamboat vs. Brian Pillman [WCW Halloween Havoc - October 25, 1992]
Chris Jericho vs. Ultimo Dragon [WCW Bash at the Beach - July 13, 1997]
Shawn Michaels vs. Vader [WWF SummerSlam - August 18, 1996]
* NOTE: 3 extra matches are also included, listed below under "Bonus Features"
Unfortunately, despite at least half of the matches offering plenty of great entertainment, Wrestling's Highest Flyers feels like a rushed effort. There's very little context and history provided here: Josh Matthews hosts the show, if you define "hosting" as "half-heartedly offering trivial tidbits alongside a few featured athletes". Rather than providing valuable history lessons (which would be especially fitting for those high flyers who are no longer alive, or at least still active in the sport), highlight reels are about all we get for introductions. No narration is provided during these brief segments, save for snippets of original commentary by Vince McMahon, Jim Ross and the like. In all honesty, the format is closer to a SportsCenter "Top 10" Countdown than a tribute to wrestling's history of high flyers. To make matters worse, the featured athletes---and their respective matches, of course---are presented in seemingly random order. Would it have killed WWE to at least order them chronologically?
Aside from these glaring problems, Wrestling's Highest Flyers manages to put on a decent show most of the time. It's hard to complain when matches like Eddie Guerrero vs. Dean Malenko, Sabu vs. Rob Van Dam, and Shelton Benjamin vs. Shawn Michaels are part of the lineup, but a few of the featured athletes have had much better showings than what's included here. Taka Michinoku's brawl with Pantera is solid, but I distinctly remember his classic match with Great Sasuke from 1997's In Your House: Canadian Stampede. Likewise, the late "Flyin'" Brian Pillman displayed better outings than the two included here (this one, for example), but at least he's featured more than once. Even a newer star like Evan Bourne has better resume fodder than his featured match with Zach Ryder. In any case, only 23 matches are included during the main program and none of these three discs stretch past the two hour mark. Typically, 5 or 6 hours is more than enough time for a "broad stroke" documentary...but the WWE regularly puts out 8-9 hour compilations, so it's a shame more content couldn't have been included here.
On the technical side of things, this five-disc set is generally on par with modern WWE releases: production values are decent and most of the original content is still intact. There are exceptions, of course: the audio appears to have been tampered with during a few ECW chants, at least one piece of ECW-era entrance music has been changed and, not surprisingly, all mentions of the phrase "WWF" have been removed (though "World Wrestling Federation" and the old "block logo" are apparently fine). Surprisingly, it also appears that at least one mention of Chris Benoit's name has been removed as well...and as much as I can understand WWE's reluctance to include his matches on recent compilations, this seems a bit excessive. But I digress: what's here isn't a bad effort, it's just a little underwhelming at times. If you've got a soft spot for fast-paced action and a few evenings to spare (or one, if you're bored), Wrestling's Highest Flyers isn't a bad choice. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Wrestling's Highest Flyers isn't quite on par with other like-minded WWE DVD releases...even taking the age of certain matches into account. While the most recent matches (2008-current) generally look good and utilize the maximum resolution of the frame, everything else suffers a bit more than usual. These 1.33:1 matches are thankfully not cropped, but they are windowboxed (as seen on many of these screen captures); vintage WCW and ECW matches look especially soft, and there's a noticeable layer of compression artifacts from start to finish. With that said, these digital issues have affected all WWE DVDs, so fans should be used to what's on display here....but don't set your expectations too high.
The audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Surround and 2.0 depending on the match; likewise, it's roughly on par with recent WWE releases. Crowd noise and regular play-by-play commentary come through loud and clear, creating a satisfying soundstage overall. Again, newer matches obviously sound a bit cleaner and more well-defined, but this is strictly a source material issue. Optional subtitles, Spanish commentary or Closed Captions are not offered during these events, unfortunately.
Disc 2 features The Hardy Boyz vs. Kai En Tai from WWF Sunday Night Heat (September 27, 1998), a short but sweet match from early in their careers (Jeff is barely 20 years old!). Disc 3 closes out the extras with Juventud Guerrero vs. Billy Kidman from WCW World War 3 (November 22, 1998); if nothing else, it's great to see Billy Kidman get some face-time. Like the main program, all bonus features are presented in 1.78:1 format and do not include optional subtitles or Closed Captions.
Wrestling's Highest Flyers offers a fairly solid collection of fast-paced and exciting matches, showcasing over 20 athletes from a variety of eras and backgrounds. New fans should enjoy checking out a bit of history, while those who grew up on 1980s and 1990s wrestling can see what WWE has been up to lately. Even so, this collection's relatively flat format, somewhat questionable match/wrestler selection and spotty video presentation may rub some die-hard fans the wrong way, but it's still a solid collection for a relatively fair asking price. Overall, WWE disciples of all experience levels should consider Wrestling's Highest Flyers a release worth looking out for...especially if some of these names aren't familiar to you. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.