Shelton Benjamin and the art of improvisation in pro wrestling

Shelton Benjamin had the benefit of stepping into the ring with veterans like Eddie Guerrero and athletically gifted performers like Randy Orton, which helped sharpen his ability to "call it in the ring" early in his career. Courtesy of WWE

In the world of professional wrestling, one of the most complex and valuable skills a performer can learn is the art of "calling it in the ring." For the uninitiated, calling it in the ring refers to a style of improvising moves and moments based on crowd reaction and the flow of a match, rather than choreographing each spot beforehand.

It's an art form much more commonly used in the past, when the stories of what was happening in the ring were the central focus, instead of a string of intensely acrobatic moves, one after another. But the style of modern pro wrestling and the way many wrestlers are trained these days -- particularly in the WWE -- has made it easier to lay out most or all of a match backstage.

One of the last remaining WWE superstars with a reputation for his improvisational abilities in the ring is Shelton Benjamin, who's currently in his second run with the company as part of the SmackDown brand.

Though some have taken to that style quickly, Benjamin wasn't always great at improvising in his matches. Benjamin's ability to call it in the ring is owed to some special experiences he had as a rookie with Eddie and Chavo Guerrero. When Shelton first entered the WWE, straight out of the WWE's developmental system, he was partnered with Charlie Haas.

Benjamin and Haas wanted to plan everything backstage because they were new to the WWE and conditioned to work that way, but the Guerreros -- two members of one of the most famous families in pro wrestling history and longtime in-ring veterans -- wanted none of that.

"For the first eight months, we were working with Eddie and Chavo Guerrero, and they would hide from us during the live events," Benjamin told ESPN. "They didn't want to call matches because that was old school, and that was how they came up."

In the beginning, that hiding by the Guerreros from Haas and Benjamin resulted in a month of bad matches. Eventually the two tag teams had a big meeting to fix all of their problems.

"Eventually they got fed up with us and we had one of those coming to Jesus meetings," Benjamin said. "We told them they didn't need to tell us spot-for-spot, but we just don't know the things you're trying to do. Eddie, who was always the captain of the ship said, 'You guys are right, and I need to be a better captain.' He started teaching us the spots."

Benjamin and Haas picked up a key tool as far as calling it in the ring by learning all of the signature moves and moments the Guerreros had during their matches, as well as the various ways to set them up. After taking a month to work out some of the kinks, the familiarity allowed Haas and Benjamin to get comfortable, and the results in the ring reflected a major step forward for each of them.

"So the next six months we never planned anything," Benjamin said. "We just showed up and had a great time in the ring. The rest of the art is just being familiar with who you're in the ring with."

Using the knowledge Eddie Guerrero endowed him with, Benjamin continued to hone his craft and became one of the performers who were most comfortable calling it in the ring -- which led to a number of classic matches against some of the biggest legends in WWE history.

Three matches in particular stand out in Benjamin's mind as some of his proudest and most fun memories of putting together matches on the fly.

Intercontinental championship: Chris Jericho (c) vs. Shelton Benjamin (Taboo Tuesday)

Taboo Tuesday was a first-of-its-kind pay-per-view that allowed fans voted to vote on match stipulations. While some matches had a handful of contenders, allowed for a special guest referee of choice or the type of contest, Chris Jericho was set to defend his title against one of 15 potential challengers.

Narratively, everything had been set up for Batista to win, and even Benjamin thought that would be the case. But the crowd reaction before the results were officially announced successfully predicted the upset; with 37 percent of all votes, Benjamin would be getting the title shot.

"I thought Batista was going to win it," Benjamin said. "So when they announced who won, I wasn't even paying attention, and my reaction was delayed on TV. I go down to the ring and don't know what's going to happen. I legit don't know anything."

Things got even crazier as Benjamin walked down the ramp, as the creative team decided that the challenger would win the match.

Over the course of that day, Jericho wanted to be as prepared as possible; he approached every member of the roster before the match to learn what his finish and signature move was -- except for Shelton Benjamin. "Earlier in the day, Jericho came up to me in case I won, and I said, 'You can relax, I know all your stuff,'" Benjamin said. "I didn't even expect to be working that night."

As a result, Jericho didn't know Benjamin's finisher when the match started. Jericho pretended to argue with the referee to try to ask what Shelton's finisher was, but the referee didn't know either. Jericho immediately locked up with Benjamin when the match started so he could ask what his signature move was.

"Guys are so reliant on planning a match, to go out and do their plan, regardless of crowd response. Sometimes you gotta go out and call audibles. You need to say 'this ain't working' and change it up." Shelton Benjamin

Benjamin responded in kind, saying that his finish was a T-Bone Suplex -- but Jericho didn't know what that move was. Despite all of the chaos and confusion, they managed to have a completely coherent match.

"For the most part, me being the new guy, I just listened to Chris," Benjamin said. "What helped was that I was familiar with Jericho's move set and his work. He was familiar with my stuff, just not my finish."

They scrambled in the match's final moments to line Benjamin up to have all of the control heading into his finishing move.

"To get to the finish, we communicated throughout the match, and Jericho said, 'Run to the top rope, I'm going to jump turn to you, you catch me, and do your finish,'" Benjamin said. "So when he jumped, I just prepared myself to catch him."

Benjamin nailed a T-Bone Suplex, covered Jericho and the ref counted to three -- shocking the worldwide audience -- as Benjamin became the new Intercontinental champion.

World's Greatest Tag Team vs. Los Guerreros (house show)

Everyone knows that Eddie Guerrero was Mr. Lie, Cheat and Steal, but they don't know that he developed some key elements of that persona while working with Benjamin and Haas during their long run of house show matches. One match in particular showed the value of being able to adapt on the fly, as well as the ability to cater directly to what an audience is doing.

"This was a non-televised match, and Eddie found a wrench somewhere in the match," Benjamin said. "The ref didn't know about the wrench at all; Eddie just grabbed it. The wrench ended up being the biggest star of the match. If he called it, we would have screwed it up."

What followed was vintage Eddie Guerrero; he started attacking Benjamin with the wrench and managed to hide it from the referee every time.

"So Eddie hits me a couple of times and I oversell it," Benjamin said. "The ref goes over to Eddie, and Eddie says he's not doing anything, then points to Chavo. The ref turns towards Chavo for a second, and Eddie throws the wrench to Chavo, so when the ref turns back there's nothing there."

Of course, it wouldn't be a classic Guerrero moment without figuring out a way to have the opponents blamed for using the weapon that they themselves were being attacked with.

"Chavo then sticks the wrench in the back of his tights," Benjamin said. "The ref goes to Chavo and sees nothing. Charlie comes up from the other side and grabs the wrench out of the tights and yells, 'Here's the wrench right here!' The ref starts heckling Charlie for having the wrench. The crowd ate it up."

Eddie congratulated everyone after the match -- something he typically did after he navigated a match -- for their ability to take such a seemingly random element as a wrench and get it over.

United States championship: Shelton Benjamin vs. MVP (house show)

Flexibility and the ability to adapt on the fly can naturally take a match in many different directions.

The backdrop for this particular match is that Edge was the World Heavyweight Champion on SmackDown at the time, and he was defending his title against The Great Khali in the main event of the show. Khali wasn't a guy built for going 20 minutes in a match, and to top it off, Edge was hurt. Their match was only going to go for five minutes, which meant that Benjamin and MVP would have to have a 20- or 25-minute match for the United States championship to fill in the time.

Decisions were being made all the way up to the moment Benjamin and MVP were in the ring. This was also when the referees first started getting wired up with earpieces in the ring so they could signal time. In this one particular instance, though, the referee had to do more than just signal time.

"Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat was the agent in charge of that show, and he started calling in audibles from the sideline like a coach," Benjamin said. "He legitimately started calling in plays. All of the sudden our standard match turned into these cool sequences because the ref would say 'Ricky says to reverse it!'"

According to Benjamin, it was the only time a match was called via earpiece. It's normal for referees to give times or tell wrestlers when to take a hold, but never to call in plays. Despite never experiencing a match like this, it was one of the best matches of Shelton's career, he said.

"The only bad thing was that it was a house show," he said. "I will literally put that match up against any great match in my career, because it was so good."

These experiences have endowed Benjamin with a wealth of knowledge that he believes every talent should learn. Calling it in the ring provides performers with a capability to adapt to crowd responses, which is paramount to becoming a successful wrestler.

"Guys are so reliant on planning a match, to go out and do their plan, regardless of crowd response," Benjamin said. "Sometimes you gotta go out and call audibles. You need to say 'this ain't working' and change it up."

Benjamin points to a match he had with Christian in Canada. Christian was supposed to be a heel in the match, but the Canadian fans refused to boo him. The crowd booed everything Shelton did and cheered everything Christian did, no matter how hard they tried.

"Christian was trying to turn the fans on him during a promo, but they cheered him even louder," Benjamin said. "We decided that he was the babyface and I became the heel. Right on the fly, we switched the match."

The art of calling it in the ring may be slowly disappearing, but there are still some ring generals left in the industry who can teach it -- and the young performers of today have a chance to study under a few different learning trees, should they choose to take it.

"There are only a few people in WWE that I would trust having a good match with to just call it in the ring: Randy Orton, John Cena, AJ Styles, Brock Lesnar and Shinsuke Nakamura," Benjamin said.

The most interesting part about improvising a match in the ring is that the fans have little to no idea it's being done. In today's era, wrestling fans seem to know everything about everything. There's so much exposure that they can nearly call the direction of a match from home.

No matter how knowledgeable a fan is, though, there is no way to grasp that Jericho didn't know Benjamin's finish during a high-profile pay-per-view match. These matches and moments are like campfire stories that can only be told by the talent after the fact -- one of the last remaining ways for fans to suspend their disbelief and buy in.

In a WWE world where many fans want to know everything, all the time, improvisation is a valuable tool that takes some of the power back and adds some of the magic and mystery that made fans fall in love in the first place.

"The art is to make people believe in you," Benjamin said.