It has been the perfect storm over the past 11 days in the world of professional wrestling. It all started with CM Punk ending his 7-plus year hiatus by signing with AEW. WWE didn’t wait too long to respond, with the likes of Becky Lynch and Brock Lesnar showing up at WWE SummerSlam.
This undoubtedly piqued the casual fan’s interest, and those who haven’t tuned into wrestling programs for quite some time now have a reason to watch the product again.
Some have even claimed that pro wrestling is the hottest it has been in the past two decades. On the surface, it might seem like aggrandization or hyperbole. However, there might be some truth to it. After all, AEW looks like the competition WWE and Vince McMahon needed since WCW folded, and the false dawn of Impact Wrestling that made us believe they would someday compete with WWE.
The buzz surrounding pro wrestling made me tune into SummerSlam – mainly for the main event match between Roman Reigns and John Cena. The build-up was rather interesting: John Cena made it clear that he just needed 3 seconds to pin Roman Reigns. Reigns, in his quest and obsession to become the greatest, indomitable force in WWE, needed to beat John Cena. WWE did, however, in their trademark fashion, ruin the ending before SummerSlam, with Roman Reigns claiming he would leave WWE if he lost to Cena.
But that’s not the point of contention today.
Non-sequitur of Finishers
During their match, something just didn’t sit right with me. For one, John Cena never quite emphasized on his claim that he needed just 3 seconds to win. There weren’t many mind games with roll-ups, inside cradles or schoolboys for near falls, maybe except once or twice. And the match wasn’t remarkable or unique in any sense.
CM Punk, during his fan interaction in 2019, claimed that John Cena was one of the easiest people to work with. He joked that Cena only had about 6 moves, so working with him was relatively simple.
The reason I bring that up is because, in the main event, the last 10 minutes almost played out in a loop. John Cena depended on his old-faithful to put Reigns away. However, Roman managed to stay in the match, and he too failed to put Cena away for a while before eventually connecting with the spear for the win.
The fans started chanting, “This is awesome”. The commentators were beside themselves, losing their voices and singing laurels of the two gladiators. This was supposed to entice disgruntled and disenchanted fans back to watching the product. However, those 10 minutes reminded me why I just couldn’t enjoy the product anymore.
The importance – and the entire meaning – of the word ‘finisher’ just didn’t make sense anymore.
Ideation and Evolution of Finishers
Pro wrestling is performance art, and every match needs to tell a story. There is no point in watching two individuals squabbling and punching each other if there was no backstory involved. For decades, wrestlers relied on in-ring psychology and storytelling to keep the fans’ interest in the match. After all, you must sit through around 8-10 wrestling matches per show.
This also meant that every wrestler needed to have a finisher – a move so powerful and devastating that it would bring an end to the competition. The aim of a finisher is to temporarily incapacitate the person receiving the move, either by knocking them out cold or by rendering them unable to move for the 3 count. The Wikipedia definition of a finisher reads, “A wrestler’s signature move that usually leads to the pinfall or submission”.
If we turn back the clock and look at the early days of pro wrestlers using their finishing moves, we can understand why they were termed ‘finishers’. From catch-as-catch-can wrestling to ‘worked’ matches, wrestlers used submission holds or slams to end the contest. Frank Gotch used the toehold to great effect, while Gorgeous George popularized the “Kip” headlock. In the ‘80s, one of the most ruthless and evidently destructive finishers was Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ DDT.
Wrestlers using Finishers as an Extension of their Characters
Coming up with finishers, at least in the early days, was almost scientific. Finishers became an extension of the wrestlers’ characters. Ruthless catch wrestlers used bone-breaking holds to make their opponents submit, while in the following years, pro wrestlers used slams and throws according to their personalities. Bruno Sammartino, for example, given his remarkable size and girth used the bearhug as his finisher. And people never questioned the legitimacy of these moves and holds either, because they looked just as painful as the person receiving it gesticulated.
Thus, finishers weren’t just random moves, but well-thought-out maneuvers that involved psychology and told a story. This brings me back to the main event of SummerSlam, and the original premise of our discussion.
John Cena pulled out all the stops, even delivering an AA from the second rope. Even if we are meant to believe that today’s wrestlers (in kayfabe) are physically and mentally so tough that they can involuntarily – almost on autopilot – kick out of a finisher, doing it time and again beats the purpose of having a ‘finisher’. The almost devolution and denigration of finishing moves didn’t start at SummerSlam, but it once again highlighted why people from the outside keep saying that they just cannot take professional wrestling seriously.
Wrestlers No-Selling Finishers: A Common Theme
Perhaps, the most damning indictment of the prevalence of finishers no longer being ‘finishers’ is the pro wrestling fans’ reaction. We have become so desensitized to this phenomenon that we expect people to kick out of finishers. One could argue that this makes matches like Bianca Belair – Becky Lynch exciting and edgy, as the finish comes as a surprise. If that were the case, we might as well retire the term ‘finisher’ from the professional wrestling lexicon.
I understand that wrestling – and consequently, wrestling psychology – has evolved over time. I am not arguing that wrestlers need to curb their instincts when it comes to expressing themselves through moves and maneuvers. Neither am I romanticizing or eulogizing a certain period, almost antiquated to the present mindset, like fans often think about Jim Cornette. However, it is this lack of psychology that has also made us almost non-reactive to finishers.
What was once supposed to be the death-knell to opponents, almost like King Arthur unsheathing the Excalibur to deliver the triumphant and final blow, is now a mere ‘move’ that might earn someone the win. The wrestler delivering the finisher is neither horrified nor surprised when someone kicks out of the finisher – something that wrestling psychology warrants.
Perhaps, that is too much to ask for today.