There are certain moves in professional wrestling that are just plain different. They may not necessarily look different than the other moves that make up the body of a wrestling match, but we convince ourselves that they are, suspending our disbelief and allowing the match a certain narrative flow.
It's why we don't believe Michael Cole when he desperately tries to sell a leg drop or a garden variety suplex as a match ender five minutes into a highly touted bout. We know in our hearts that is a lie. Because those moves are not finishers. And in today's wrestling, finishers are all that matters.
Finishers, of course, have been around since the earliest days, when Frank Gotch and his compatriots toured the country performing "wink, wink" legitimate wrestling exhibitions. Gotch's most feared move was the toe hold. Ed "Strangler" Lewis used a simple headlock or sleeper hold. For the legendary Lou Thesz, the eternal NWA champion, it was the bridging suplex and stepover toehold facelock.
What was different in those days was the manner of a finisher's use. Sure, each star had his own signature set of moves, but matches could end with a variety of holds. Fans didn't sit on their hands when Thesz landed a flying bodypress, knowing it couldn't be the end of the bout because he hadn't hit his famed suplex yet. He could win a bout with a double wristlock or a Thesz press. His finishers were important—but they weren't the only game in town.
That all changed in the 1980's, part of a seismic shift in wrestling culture. Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan's Rock and Wrestling was geared towards ironic hipsters and children, an audience without a sophisticated wrestling background. The stories in the ring got simpler as a result.
Hogan won each and every match with his trademark big boot and leg drop, almost never varying from this routine. Until you saw the leg drop, you could be pretty certain that a Hulk Hogan match was not over, no matter how compelling the false finish. Others followed suit and pretty soon every wrestler who mattered had their own signature move guaranteed to stop a match dead in its track.
American culture demands, however, that everything continuously grow bigger, brighter and bolder. Eventually, a single finishing hold wasn't enough. In the fast paced, high-flying action introduced to mainstream American wrestling by Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko and the Mexican luchadores in the mid 1990's, a finishing move was often just a transition from one guy's offensive to another's.
When Jake Roberts hit his DDT in the 1980's, the match was over. There was no doubt. But, inspired by hard hitting Japanese action, that wasn't always the case for this new generation of superstars, nicknamed the "New Japan Three" for their ties to the Japanese scene. Suddenly finishers were finishers in name only. Chris Benoit wasn't going to win a match every time he hit his trademark rolling German suplexes or flying headbutt. A frog splash didn't always seal the deal for Eddy Guerrero.
On the independent circuit, where new stars like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan got their start, wrestlers took things to a whole new level of absurdity. The finisher was all about dead in these matches—wrestlers would use dozens of them sprinkled throughout the match. To actually win you'd have to hit several in sequence. The idea of a move that spelled doom for an opponent didn't exist anymore.
At WrestleMania 29, if it hadn't already become obvious before, it was clear that the indy wrestling mentality has taken over the WWE too. No one's finisher is protected. For Triple H to win a match, it once took a single Pedigree. Against Brock Lesnar it took multiple Kimura locks, a sledgehammer shot and two different Pedigrees, one delivered on the steel ring steps.
The John Cena and Rock title match featured a never ending finishing sequence, with each wrestler hitting not only their own, but also the other guy's trademark move several times before Cena finally had his hand raised. The last ten minutes were almost exclusively devoted to finishers and failed finisher attempts. It was exhausting to watch.
Unfortunately, once the genie is out of the bottle it's almost impossible to force it back in. I'm not sure that a generation of wrestlers trained to use finishers as transitions and for every dramatic high note in a match could return to the previous paradigm even if they wanted to. I suspect fans too would balk at being cheated out of the only action they've been taught matters.
As the Undertaker and his generation walk off into the sunset, they take with them more than just a slice of wrestling history. With them goes the idea of a real finisher, perhaps gone for good. Finishers are more ubiquitous than ever—and they also mean less than they ever have before.
Is it a change for the better? I'm not certain. Let me know what you think in the comments.