Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland, majoring in English and History.
Is modern wrestling suffering from too many clean finishes? This question may sound crazy at first sight, but let’s at least consider it.
If I was a WWF fan during the 1980s Hulkamania boom period, I could guarantee that on any given night of the week, somewhere in the United States, a house show or television taping was on. If I bought a ticket for that show, I was guaranteed to see a larger-than-life star, be it Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage or the ‘Million Dollar Man’ Ted Dibiase. What I certainly was not guaranteed to see, however, was two things: clean finishes or five-star classics. What was far more likely to happen was for ‘Akeem the African Dream’ to come out for his match, get knocked outside the ring after 30 seconds and then be unable to make the 10 count. A much-repeated match not even worth the price of admission.
Fast forward to the present day, where the number of shows that wrestlers are expected to perform every week has been reduced, thereby allowing a far more exciting style than ever before. Today’s wrestlers are at the peak of their athletic ability, giving us hard-hitting, fast-paced action that at its best is unmissable. This great action routinely ends with a clean and decisive victory, where one talent is showcased as simply better than the other.
Certainly, the term ‘buried’ when a performer loses is greatly overused and there is a definitely a way of telling a story in wrestling where the loser can come out in a far greater position in the eyes of the fans after a defeat. However, this requires a level of storytelling from the writers, the commentators and the production team that is often far above the finished product of the average Monday Night Raw or Smackdown Live.
Take, for example, the Raw before Backlash 2018. Seth Rollins, the Intercontinental Champion, who was set to battle challenger The Miz the following Sunday, was in a non-title match against Finn Balor. Balor, who was seemingly not involved in the title picture or the feud anymore after two unsuccessful attempts to win the belt in the past month, is asked to challenge Rollins in a throwaway match. Nothing was at stake and the match simply needed to fill time on a three-hour show.
The result was a barn-burner with Balor and Rollins pulling out all the stops to put on a fantastic match, worthy of headlining a PPV. The match ends with the ‘Blackout’ from Rollins, and a clean and decisive victory, 1-2-3, for the former Shield man.
Now you may ask, what’s the problem? We got an amazing match, with no interference to ruin it. Yes, we did, but to do so in a throwaway match with no story to help Balor after this defeat makes him look like a chump. Finn Balor, despite reports that Vince McMahon had fallen out of favour with him, could easily be one of if not the top star in the company, but you don’t become the top star through clean losses.
Would the match have been completely ruined if, let’s say, we still had the fantastic match, but maybe the Miztourage, unbeknownst to Balor, attacked Rollins just before the 3 count, which caused a DQ? We would still get the fantastic match, and the fallout from both Balor and Rollins’ anger at Axel and Dallas would create an interesting story that makes me keen to tune in next week and provides much more interest than if we just had a clean finish. Outside of it being a great match, what is there to entice us to see a future PPV encounter between these two competitors?
This issue affects a great deal of WWE programming. Billie Kay debuts on Smackdown Live along with Peyton Royce and they take out the Smackdown Champion Charlotte. They both look strong and dominant, making for a fantastic introduction to the main roster. Next week Billie Kay makes her debut on Smackdown Live and taps out clean to Charlotte.
While I’m not advocating Charlotte lose to Billie Kay, having a clean finish to start a feud makes no sense. Storytelling is meant to build to an eventual blow-off match where you then see the clean finish. A story for a debuting character is not mean to begin with one.
Going back to the 1980s, while the matches very well may have been awful, with no finishes and count-outs galore, no fan that left the show felt like anyone was less of a star than when they came. However, that is the case today. Billie Kay instantly feels like less of a star than when she debuted. The reason stars were so over in the '80s was because they were so well protected.
Yes, it is certainly true that the need for 5 plus hours of original live content can be incredibly hard to fill for the writers, clean finishes for throwaway matches actually makes it harder to tell a story as there no progression; thus, in the long run, it's more difficult to continually churn out content every week.
Even times when the WWE does do a long and complex angle that pays off incredibly well, the aftermath can oftentimes ruin the magic that a decisive victory can bring.
Take for instance Asuka’s streak. A well-planned and long-term storyline with a satisfying conclusion. When I saw Asuka tap out at Wrestlemania, I was shocked but very excited about the possible storylines ahead. I thought, ‘Wow, they are positioning Charlotte as the greatest female wrestler of all-time’. Rather naively, I hoped that this win would propel Charlotte to Okada level status within the WWE, where she would vanquish all challengers for months and hopefully years to come.
Then Charlotte lost to Carmella the following Tuesday and lost the title via a cash-in. Now in isolation that’s fine as it tells an interesting story of the sneaky heel Carmella, stealing the women’s title that Charlotte covets so dearly, and pretending she won it by simply being better.
Then at the following Sunday’s Backlash, Carmella beats Charlotte basically cleanly. A wrestler portrayed as little more than a joke for the past year beat possibly the most well-protected female performer in history, rendering Asuka’s streak loss as pointless. Charlotte’s first clean loss after beating Asuka should have been the biggest event not only in the history of WWE’s but one of the most important things in wrestling; but instead, it was just a nothing match on a B-PPV. When Okada eventually loses the IWGP title, the wrestler who beats him will be a made-man for the rest of his career, because New Japan treats clean losses with the adequate reverence.
While many of us may rightly complain of wrestlers ‘refusing to do the job’, people like the Honky Tonk Man would not have been as big a draw as he was as Intercontinental Champion if he was losing clean on Prime-Time Wrestling or Superstars of Wrestling every other week. Even during the Attitude Era, while the peak of the Rock and Triple H feud from Wrestlemania to King of the Ring 2000 featured no clean finishes, the intricate storytelling meant that the fans never felt cheated out of a clean finish.
In addition, the lack of a decisive victor allowed the WWF to keep the fans intrigued as no one knew for sure who was the better competitor. While we may groan looking back on the endless run-ins from DX or the Nation of Domination when Stone Cold beat the Undertaker clean at Summerslam 1998 for the WWF title, it meant everything.
Why? Because Stone Cold didn’t pin Undertaker clean two weeks before in a throwaway match on Raw. I’m not asking for a return to the endless count-outs of '80s WWF or the ‘we already got their money, brother’ attitude of late '90s WCW, but maybe there’s a middle-ground where we can still have the great matches, but the clean finishes happen after a well-told story rather than a throwaway filler match.
© 2018 Paul Barrett