Historically Speaking: The Art of a Finish

“History is, indeed, an argument without end.” – A.M. Schlesinger, Jr.

The Opening Chapter
I’ve mentioned this before, but I believe pro wrestling can be seen as though it is a play. There is an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and a conclusion. In the context of a well-executed individual wrestling match, it is usually easy to spot the match’s climax, as it is the point when the entertainers involved start pulling out their high-impact moves. In this day and age, in a World Wrestling Entertainment dominated landscape here in America and Canada, the wrestlers are armed with a set of trademarked finishing moves that the crowd comes to expect. And over the years, the finishing maneuvers have become more prominent, more complex, more reality-defying. Fans have become expected to pop for certain moves, and expect those holds or moves to draw a finish. But why does one maneuver cause for the end when one man does it, but doesn’t draw a two count from another? It’s the art of psychology and a suspension of belief.

”Stick a Fork in Him…He’s Done.”
In the pre-expansion days before Vince McMahon took pro wrestling global, wrestling was still viewed as legitimate, as a shoot. Promoters liked to have champions and athletes on top of the cards who were legitimately talented and legitimately tough. Matches were portrayed as more as athletic competitions, rather than entertainment exhibitions. A finishing move wasn’t seen as crucial, as in a real fight it isn’t always feasible to rely on one knockout move to end a fight.

Once the “rock ‘n’ wrestling” era took over and Vince McMahon turned the WWF in a live-action cartoon, matches got much simpler and easier to follow. Wrestlers became identified by their finishing moves, their catchphrases and their nicknames. It becomes part of their “brand” in a marketing sense. A wrestler’s legitimate toughness became replaced by their marketability.

As the years went on, the action became more fast-paced, outlandish and more violent. In the eighties a top rope clothesline, a cross body block or a superplex was considered high-impact and more than enough to finish off an opponent. A simple legdop, slingshot suplex or running powerslam were staples of the day.

As ECW developed and the WWF got into a war with WCW, finishing started to become a game of “can you top this?” No longer a powerslam or superplex would work, but rather catchy-sounding Flatliners, Meltdowns or Downward Spirals replaced DDTs and neckbreakers. In order for a move to be successful and pop the crowd, a move needed to have a twist, jump, corkscrew or jump added to it.

If a man was coming off the top rope in the during the height of the Monday Night Wars, there better be a couple flips, twists and turns included or it wouldn’t get the job done. During that timeframe, everything in the wrestling business saw its game raised. A wrestler’s finishing move was no different.

Now in this post-war era where WWE remains supreme while TNA and ROH gain their footholds, finishing holds have become a combination of high-impact moves, reality based submissions and knockouts and a throwback to the moves of old days.

Bryan Danielson can knock a man out with elbow strikes or make him submit with a painful looking arm submissions or chokeholds. Nigel McGuiness uses a simple clothesline as a major offensive weapon. While on the same card, the Briscoe Brothers will use jaw-dropping head drops and double team moves combined with Dragon Gate wrestlers performing moves done at a breakneck speed and with choreographed precision.

So what causes fans to believe that Randy Orton kicking a guy in the head can get the job done, while a dropkick from Super Crazy has little or no effect? It’s all about the psychology of the move. It’s all the about the aura created around that finishing move based on the efforts put forth by the promotion. It’s all about the legitimacy the move is shown within matches. It’s how the fans view the performer and the move being done. And of course it’s a lot of suspension of belief mixed in with the entertainment perceived as sport.

Let me explain. Jake “The Snake” Roberts has long been considered the originator and pioneer of the DDT. When Roberts performs the move it is instantly lights out. So why is it that in modern times a DDT is relegated to a mid-card transition move or a finish for low-card guys like Tommy Dreamer or women? Here’s where the psychology and suspension of belief comes in. Jake is considered the pioneer of the move, and thus knows it the best. Theoretically he has perfected it, understand all its uses and tricks, and thus has the most powerful variation of the hold. When Christian Cage uses it as a mid-card transition, it is easy to kick out of because it isn’t applied with the deadly precision of Roberts or someone else that has studied its nuances. This type of psychology works for a lot of holds; off the top of my head I can think of the frog splash, the crossface or the Boston crab as examples.

DH Smith can make a running powerslam relevant in today’s wrestling climate if it is played up that he learned the proper way to execute the slam from his father Davey Boy Smith, who has made it a legitimate finish. The WWE spent months rebuilding the full nelson as a viable finisher for Chris Masters after years of being used as a rest hold. The fans would actually buy into the fact that Masters was that strong and a move that hadn’t been relevant since The Warlord used it in 1991 could be a dangerous end point. Men like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan, who have never really went away, have been allowed to get away with using the figure four leglock and the atomic legdrop for all these years because for so long those moves have been so intrinsically connected to those wrestlers. Of course Hogan can still get a win with a legdrop; he knows how to land it better than anyone else. Thanks to WWE’s ban on piledrivers, Undertaker’s Tombstone has become even more deadly as that of move isn’t seen thrown around with reckless abandon anymore.

So even though these moves are considered finishers within a match’s context, what causes men to kick out of them? What causes what is normally the climax of a match become part of the rising action? Once again think about psychology and belief. In a big match atmosphere, “when the lights are on bright,” a wrestler performs at a higher level. They kick into a different gear that is only reserved for main events, Title matches or pay per view battles. This explains why Nigel McGuiness can throw fifteen clotheslines in Title defenses, and why The Rock and Steve Austin can trade Stunners and Rock Bottoms like candy in one of the biggest matches in WWE history, during the main event of WrestleMania X-Seven.

Fans can buy into this. For example, when they see Vladimir Kozlov take out a preliminary guy, it’s easy to see that as just a training or warm-up style match, much like a pro fighter preparing for their big match later on. In a drama sense, showcasing Kozlov in that sense just educates the audience on what a new character is capable of. But when they see Kurt Angle and AJ Styles main event a TNA pay per view, the viewing public expects both men (and characters) to pull out all the stops. They expect big moves, numerous kick outs and action that isn’t normally seen on free TV. So while a Styles Clash may pin Johnny Devine on Impact or it might pin Angle in a tag match on TV, on pay per view it is expected something more.

The Perspective
The art of building a professional wrestling match has changed drastically over the past twenty to thirty years. Athletic ability and a sense of legitimate competition has changed to a more theatrically based entertainment medium. A wrestler’s finishing move or moves must not only look effective and be legitimate in the fan’s eyes, but should coincide with a wrestler’s overall character, demeanor and overall persona. A good finish can help make a wrestler stand out from the crowd, and keep him from getting lost in the shuffle. After all where would Petey Williams be without the Canadian Destroyer? Hmmm…maybe Funaki can steal that move and get himself a push. The Japanese Destroyer? That’s got a great ring to it.

For this week the vault is closed…

Linked to the Pulse
Curran talks about Edge become one of the business’ top heels.

David B. continues his run through 1990 AWA when he examines The Destruction Crew.

Glazer talks Punk.

This Day in History
I figured if we are talking history around here we should pay homage to what has happened on this very day in the years gone by. It will either make you long for the old days or be happy for what we have now.

1980 – Shohei Baba defeated Harley Race for the NWA Heavyweight Wrestling title
1995 – WCW Monday Nitro debuts live from Mall of America, Bloomington, MN
1995 – Death & Destruction (Frank Parker & Roger Anderson) defeated The Young Guns for the SSW Tag Team title

1958 – Shiro Koshinaka was born

The Assignment
It’s important to know your history to know where you have come from and where you are going. Back when Nova was in charge of the WWE developmental system he implemented mandatory history assignments for the students of the developmental territories so they would know pro wrestling’s history and they would learn just how many moves Nova created and apparently the best ways to get on-line prescriptions. I feel Nova had a great idea there and every week I will assign a book or DVD for you to check out and learn from. They are not only educational, but very entertaining.

I got Nature Boy Ric Flair: The Definitive Collection a couple months back and must say I came back mildly disappointed. I mean it was still good, because it was a Flair collection, but it just wasn’t up the level I was expecting. I felt his DVD portion came off quite flat. Little or no new information was revealed and key people in Flair’s career, like Ricky Steamboat, were nowhere to be found. The extra features were actually quite good, and for once found them more entertaining than the main documentary portion. It is great to see the Michaels-Flair WrestleMania match again and the farewell address from the night before especially. There’s of course a plethora of great promos from the World Championship Wrestling show but watching them back to back gets to be a bit too much. It’s Flair, so it’s still an easy pick up, but I still think the Ultimate Collection from 2003 and last year’s Horsemen collection still rank a bit higher in terms of entertainment value.

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