RKO, Walls of Jericho and the Anatomy of a Great WWE Finishing Move
The finisher is the move that provides the last climactic blow, the means to one WWE Superstar gaining a victory over another. But what separates the elite finishers like the RKO and the Walls of Jericho from the ho-hum variety?
A great finisher helps make excellent matches shift into classic status. It stirs up anticipation, revs up the crowd and elevates a star.
Trying to imagine what Stone Cold Steve Austin's career would have been like without the Stunner or how different Shawn Michaels' career would have been minus Sweet Chin Music is difficult. Those moves became integral parts of those wrestlers' repertoire.
To examine what makes a great finisher better than a forgettable one, one must first separate these moves into three categories; pinfall finishers, aerial moves and submission holds. Each category has its own criteria for greatness.
Finishers Which Stun a Foe
A wrestler spends the entire match trying to get his opponent down for a three-count. He hits bodyslams and sunset flips and none of it is enough.
It's time then to bring out one's best weapon.
What one wields as their best weapon can separate the good from the great just like an elite curveball does in baseball. This finisher must be a move that can believably end a match, be exciting to watch and able to be delivered quickly and in varied situations.
Take Randy Orton's RKO for example. It meets all of the criteria above and is one of the best finishers in today's WWE because of it.
Finishers too much like regular moves aren't climactic enough to properly end a match. If Orton were to start using an arm drag or backbreaker to finish off his enemies, it would feel ridiculous. It has to be a powerful enough move to put a resilient hero or bullying villain out for the count.
The RKO, like Sweet Chin Music and the Stunner before it, is dramatic but also painful looking. Watch Orton tear though his opponents with his move, how he yanks down on their neck and smashes their face into the mat.
Hulk Hogan's leg drop didn't have this same feeling. It always felt like a set up for another, more powerful move that never came.
Compare that to the thunderous impact of the powerbomb or how unsettling it is to watch a man's head snap back after CM Punk's Go To Sleep. It doesn't matter how protected the recipients of those moves are or how much they actually hurt, they look mighty agonizing.
Pain, though, is not enough.
It would certainly hurt in real life to be punched in the stomach, but the stomach punch hasn't caught on as pro wrestling finisher because it's not larger-than-life enough, not exciting to watch.
The best finishers have a blend of beauty and violence and are as artistic as they are sadistic.
The move itself was gorgeous, but the fact that it was someone as talented Michaels who was behind it made Sweet Chin Music such a visually impressive strike.
That kick, now used by The Usos, Alberto Del Rio and Dolph Ziggler, is also one of the best finishers ever because of its ability to strike from anywhere. How many times have we heard an announcer say that a superkick or an RKO came out of nowhere?
The quicker the move can be hit and the more situations where it can be delivered makes the finisher better.
Want to fly off the ropes against Michaels? Ask Shelton Benjamin how that turns out.
Orton's opponents have to fear the RKO when they leave their feet, when they charge at him or even when they are applying their own finishing move.
That trait can be applied to the spear and to the Rock Bottom in addition to the moves mentioned previously. What of the moves from the high-flyers? It wouldn't make sense for Evan Bourne to smack somebody with the spear.
There is another set of moves for WWE's human jets to choose from.
Finishers Born From Flying
While the opponent is lying helpless on the mat, WWE's high-flyers have taken to the top rope and launched themselves off in spectacular fashion.
Some of the greatest finishers from yesterday to today are of the gravity-defying variety.
The criteria for an elite finisher in this category is similar, but with an emphasis on the visually striking element. Grace and beauty must precede a violent impact.
Blame rising expectations and generations increasingly harder to impress, but those moves wouldn't have enough impact on the audience to serve as true finishers today. Audiences expect more difficult moves, ones that slid our jaws open wider.
Bourne's Air Bourne, for example, is the perfect blend of hard-hitting and stunning to watch.
He crashes into his opponent's body with incredible force, but not before spinning like an acrobat. It certainly has the larger-than-life quality and is no run-of-the-mill move. It's plenty exciting enough to get fans to hunger to see it.
Justin Gabriel's 450 splash is equally impressive.
Rob Van Dam and Eddie Guerrero's version of the Frog splash both shared a sense of drama on top of looking cool. Van Dam especially will sell the pain of the move causes himself, writhing on the mat as he tries to gather himself enough to cover his opponent.
That element of danger, both in missing the move and even in landing it, makes the aerial finishers special.
They become high-risk, high-reward moves which amplify how exciting they are to watch. When these stars climb to the top rope, the fans know that either the attacker will miss and suffer the consequences or land it and score a win.
It's doling out suffering that makes a submission finisher great.
Finishers Which Torture
An elite submission finisher looks like it is hell to be in, is difficult to escape and easy to clamp on.
Chris Jericho's Walls of Jericho nails all three criteria. When he wrenches back on the move, it looks as Jericho is tearing leg muscles and damaging his foe's back. Once he gets it on, the recipient's arms as too far from Jericho to punch their way out.
Jericho can also counter many a move into that hold. Here he slips out of Undertaker's choke slam and rolls into the Walls of Jericho.
The crossface, the figure-four, the sharpshooter and the Hell's Gate all share that quality. When two foes are grappling on the ground, it only takes some slight maneuvering before the attacker slips their patented hold on their opponent.
Once locked in place, the move must then look like torture. Scripted or not, a great submission finisher makes the audience cringe.
Watch Daniel Bryan twist his foes' arm back and then grind his hands across their face and pulls back, looking to make their bodies contort in ugly positions.
That move also qualifies as one that is a struggle to escape from. A bearhug requires just some forearms to the chin to get the attacker to let go. A wristlock can be broken out of with some wiggling, twisting or kicking.
Undertaker's Hell's Gate makes the end of match teem with drama as it seems to be a checkmate on his opponents.
His legs wrap around his foe's limbs like tentacles and as Triple H found out in their WrestleMania battles, it's a man-made prison from which few break out.
The search for a finisher as compelling and memorable as all of these is a difficult one. Wade Barrett and Damien Sandow have tried a few out, but none of their moves have compared to these choice examples.
Finding the right combination of artistry and carnage in a single move has a tremendous impact on a wrestler's career. Had Orton decided to go with something other than the RKO, had Jericho not made the Walls of Jericho his trademark, fans would have been robbed of some of the most dramatic moments seen in a WWE ring.
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