There are countless wrestling fans, including myself and probably half of the readers in the B/R wrestling section, who tried at least once to apply, or to be on the receiving end, of the famous figure four leglock—just to see if it was actually painful. Trust me, the classic submission move actually hurts.
In the first part of a series of articles exploring some of the most iconic moves in the business, I would like to present you the history of the figure four leglock or simply the figure four. I don't think it will be necessary to explain the mechanics of the move, since all wrestling fans have already seen it in action. So, what I propose is to explore the wrestlers who used the move to make it so famous.
When a wrestling fan hears or reads the words "figure four", the name of Ric Flair usually comes to mind first. There are even some who think he invented the move, but it's not the case. He made it famous, but he didn't invent it.
According to various sources, including a Buddy Rogers biography, the original "Nature Boy" is the one credited as the inventor of the figure four.
The move was used for the first time somewhere in the late '50s or in the early '60s. Rogers used it for sure as early as in 1961, to retain the NWA World Heavyweight Title against The Sheik, according to his matches results. However, according to his 1957 matches results, he won many matches via submission during this year so we can assume it was with the figure-four leglock.
If the original "Nature Boy" can be credited as the inventor of the move, the other "Nature Boy" made it famous and viewed by a larger audience. Not only did Flair adopt Buddy Rogers' nickname and style, but he also adopted his finishing move as a tribute to his childhood hero.
That being said, Ric Flair is not the only one to have adopted the figure four from Buddy Rogers.
Johnny Valentine, who often teamed up with Rogers, used the move on several occasions and he probably inspired his son, Greg "The Hammer", to do the same.
In fact, "The Hammer" was the most notable wrestler to use the maneuver in the WWF back in the '80s. He even added a painful modification, by using his plastic shin guard rotated to cover his calf in order to add even more pressure on his opponents' legs.
Tito Santana also used the move in many matches. He even won the first match in WrestleMania history against The Executioner with the maneuver. It was not Santana's prime signature move but, as one of the greatest technicians ever, he mastered it to use it as one of his many ways to win his matches.
In the middle of the 1990s, Bret Hart added a vicious twist to the move when he had his heel run. When he had his opponent prone in the ring, he dragged him in a corner to get the ring post between the legs; he then went outside the ring and applied the maneuver with the steel post in the middle of the legs for more leverage.
That variant of the maneuver didn't win him any regular matches since it was not applied within the ring. It was mostly used to hurt his opponents and to generate even more heat.
In the second part of the 1990s, Shawn Michaels came with his own touch by doing a modified figure four. Instead of starting with a spinning toe hold, the move starts like a Sharpshooter (probably as wink to Bret Hart).
Other notable wrestlers who used the submission move regularly as their finisher were Jeff Jarrett and Jack Brisco. There's also Triple H who used it on some occasions. In Japan, the legendary Great Muta added it to his already impressive regular moveset.
There is finally one more wrestler who made the move famous in the 1960s, when it was still a novelty. It was Dick "The Destroyer" Beyer who offered $1,000 to anyone able to break the hold.
This leads me to the counters, and to the reasons why the figure four leg lock is so popular and reached the legendary status. There are not many ways to counter the move, especially when it's well applied in the middle of the ring. There is the "reversal" move in which the recipient rotate to get both wrestlers on their belly, in order to reverse the pressure.
However, the reversal is far from easy when the hold is well applied and it can be reversed back to normal.
What makes the move so famous is probably because it's mostly used by heel wrestlers, and it can give a great show when the recipient sells the move well. When a babyfaces struggles to get out of the hold, the fans usually become crazy and it makes them getting on their feet to cheer loudly for their favorite to escape.
It adds some extra interaction between the audience and the wrestlers, and this it what makes pro wrestling great—with no need for pyros or huge titantron. It's basic but it works.
The hold was obviously used in countless World Heavyweight Title matches, and it made new champions on many occasions. I could mention hundreds of classic matches in which it was applied, but I'll only go with a few.
The first match that comes to my mind is the WrestleMania VIII encounter between Ric Flair and Randy Savage. In that bout, Flair lost the WWF Title despite a vintage application of the move on Savage who struggled like an entrapped animal for several minutes before escaping.
Even with outside help from Mr. Perfect to add more pressure on Macho Man's leg, it was not enough, but it gave a great spectacle.
A second great example is the rematch between Flair and Savage. This time, after a long valiant effort to resist, Savage ultimately fainted for the three-count to lose the WWF Championship. It took Mr. Perfect and Razor Ramon to assist Flair for the victory, but it was a classic example of the application of the figure four leglock.
The third match I found is a 1961 classic in which Buddy Rogers refuses to release the hold, and in which he shown his genuine heel colors by continuing the attack on his opponent's leg after the bell.
As you could see, the figure four is a spectacular submission move and an intense way to end a match. So, it's no wonder why it became a classic wrestling maneuver and why it will always its place in a ring.