Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On the Importance of the Finisher

Did it really require two of these to finish off Wade fuckin' Barrett last night?
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Pro wrestling is a work, obviously. Many fans, myself wholly included, wear that nature like a blanket, but sometimes, even the most perceptive observers yearn for a clearly theatrical adaptation of real combat to have more combative realism. The finisher often acts as an arena where these discussions are held, since even now, the concept of kayfabe warps perceptions of wrestling's true nature. If the fans are to paradoxically believe in the moment that what they're watching is real, then how can a single move that everyone knows is coming work nearly every time? The answer is embedded in the same concept that makes things like the Death Star or the Kraken or Kuvira's Spirit Death Ray or even those dudes from Dragonball-Z going Super Saiyan sources of tension in their respective stories. They're signposts for finality, as ultimate weapons that need a lot of narrative effort in order to conquer.

No matter what anyone says to the contrary, narrative structure is far more important to any wrestling match than stark realism. It's the reason why people can get lost in matches between wrestlers who have massive discrepancies in height or weight, or why a dude like the Undertaker who can shoot lightning from far distances or sit up after taking devastating offense can get so popular. The concept of the finisher is just as important to a strong narrative as everything else that has been embedded in wrestling tradition since its start. Of course, wrestling traditionalism doesn't necessarily make for a good reason to keep things from changing, but at the same time, if something makes sense, then why change it for change's sake?

To look at the finisher from that perspective is to see why the proliferation of kicking out of one isn't just a sore spot for the "get off my lawn" crowd. The watering down of the finisher's efficacy isn't just a change from the days of how the audiences of antiquity used to watch. It's an erosion of a tried-and-true trope without a suitable, sustainable replacement. It's a hard shake-up of the narrative structure of wrestling, and its replacement isn't so much something better as it is something "more." It would be one thing if having one solid finisher to end a match was replaced by something subtler, artsier, or more clever. But in true pro wrestling fashion, the original idea was spammed into oblivion as if more always meant better.

It's not to say that a finisher should never be kicked out of. Taking the other wrestler's best shot can be, when built right, a shock moment that enhances the narrative structure. When Ultimate Warrior kicked out of seven Randy Savage flying elbows at WrestleMania VII, it was stunning because barely anyone had ever kicked out of one before. It was also a career vs. career match between two heated rivals at the biggest show of the year. Moments like those are made to have the finisher show momentary lapses in efficacy.

But last night, did Wade Barrett have any reason to have to take two non-consecutive Attitude Adjustments? Or did John Cena really need to kick out of a Bullhammer, which to that point had been one of the most protected finishers in WWE? It was a fucking RAW opener match. I understand the need to make matches on the flagship show seem important, but those methods don't need to chip away at narrative strength, and believe me, this match wasn't the first to do so.

Paul Heyman, or whoever was the agent for a majority of his matches in ECW, loved to lean on that trend, and not surprisingly, it followed from the ashes of Extreme into Ring of Honor. From there, both TNA and WWE started absorbing that habit as just another hot trend to the point where the former gave the world an AJ Styles/Kurt Angle match on Impact where they must have kicked out of each other's finishes at least five times, and the latter has watered the concept down so much that it's arguable the finisher is on life support as an idea.

Still, on the same goddamn episode of RAW as that Barrett/Cena match, examples were given as to making a free TV match feel important without dulling the edge on the final move. Look at the Dolph Ziggler/Adrian Neville match that went on before the final segment of the show. Neither man kicked out of each other's finish, but they found ways to dazzle the audience without taking each other's killshot. Wrestlers can create art out of their craft without breaking down the things that have made said craft what it is with no suitable replacement.

Sadly though, I'm not sure this trend is going away. I don't think the damage is irreversible either. If companies, from WWE down to the little podunk feds running in rural VFWs, redouble efforts to protecting finishes, then they can begin to stand as pillars in pro wrestling narrative structure again. Hell, one could get creative with the state of play and turn it into a story.

For example, Cena's Attitude Adjustment has become so flaccid that at least two are needed to finish off plebes from the undercard. Wouldn't it be awesome if he went on a quest to find a new, more potent move to finish off even, say, Brock Lesnar in one blow? It would be a fresh, novel story that would integrate the nuts and bolts of a wrestling match into the overarching narrative structure, and it's exactly why I wouldn't ever expect WWE to pull something off. Corporations are filled with sheep, after all.