Realism in Pro Wrestling: What's in a Finisher?
This is the third entry in a series titled “Realism in Pro Wrestling,” in which this performing art is analyzed as a platform for storytelling, one that has to follow the same rules of congruency and consistency of any other narrative.
Hence the term “realism” is presented to acknowledge a well-constructed narrative that lacks major contradictions within its discourse.
The article addresses certain phenomena in professional wrestling, and builds concepts around them with the purpose of edifying a small theoretical corpus, even if it only remains valuable within the limits of the series or any of its entries in particular.
I encourage the (very scarce) readers, especially those prone to pro wrestling erudition, to provide other examples besides the ones found in the text, preferably anything that’s not within the USA’s mainstream wrestling landscape.
For readers interested in previous entries, here they are:
Let’s talk about wrestling moves.
Every action executed by a professional wrestler in the ring is meant to look as real as possible without causing (too much) harm to the other performer.
Action orbits around the concept of fictional competition, of antagonism. Every wrestler performs like any real competitor would. Pro wrestlers pretend they’re trying to defeat their opponent for the right to be considered a better competitor or, simply put, the Best.
To win a pro wrestling match, wrestlers need to weaken the opponent enough to pin his/her shoulders to the mat for a brief moment (three seconds), or cause enough pain in a specific body part, which in turn will force him/her to give up (submit) the victory.
If the opponent is disqualified due to rule infringement or receives a 10-count (sometimes a 20-count, depending on the promotion) outside the ring, it results in a victory too.
Wrestlers execute offensive moves on their opponents to achieve the first two paths of victory mentioned. Each competitor “collects” such moves to build a move set which defines their style, strategies, and even character. Sometimes competitors will string together a series of offensive moves that lead to a victory attempt via pin-fall or submission (hence Anyone’s X Moves of Doom).
It has become a common practice in contemporary professional wrestling to use a characteristic—usually “powerful"—move to end matches. Business workers and fans alike call them finishing moves, or “finishers.” Such moves can help define a wrestler’s character, give a personal touch to the end of every match, and are highly anticipated—and in some cases revered—by crowds.
Within their fiction, professional wrestlers use finishers because they’re effective enough, due to their power and/or unpredictability, to produce a successful pin or submission attempt. Some are used as versatile, out-of-nowhere attacks (Sweet Chin Music, RKO, the Crippler’s Crossface), while others function more like a final blow to capitalize on an already weakened opponent (Jackhammer Suplex, Pedigree, Figure Four Leglock).
Independent of how a finisher is meant to be used to exploit all of its potential, what defines such moves is their almost-certain effectiveness to produce a victory by itself, or as the concluding stroke of a patented combination.
However, that’s the case only if we remain within professional wrestling’s fiction. As an integral part of the spectacle, finishing moves have to look good. They have to be spectacular.
As stated above, wrestling moves—the primordial element of in-ring action—are meant to look credible (believable in their execution and effectiveness) without causing major harm (or, if possible, no harm at all) to the other performer. The (ideal) spectacular nature of Finishers produces a clear conflict with their neutrally-perceived credibility.
The neutral credibility of a wrestling move is determined by how capable it looks. The move is capable if it seems that it could legitimately cause a great deal of pain or produce a successful pin attempt.
The executing performer applies the move in a way that makes it look solid while the opponent will react (sell it) accordingly in the most realistic way.
The process contributes to pro wrestling’s suspension of disbelief and produces something we will call (because of the lack of a better term) fictional credibility, which could be defined as a promotion’s attempt to sell a specific move as more devastating than it really is, and the audience’s willingness to believe it for the sake of entertainment.
A Stone Cold Stunner is, in technical terms, a seated three-quarter facelock jawbreaker applied with an attitude. The maneuver’s neutral credibility does no favors to its perceived effectiveness, yet fans consider its fictional credibility strong because of who’s applying it, and even the will of the promotion.
It was stated above that finishers have be spectacular, too. The spectacle level of a wrestling maneuver is defined in part by how cool (graceful or intense) it looks. Finishers are storytelling devices within a match’s narrative. As such, their spectacle level can be established by how they manipulate tension in a match due to the anticipation of its finish.
Jushing Liger’s Shooting Star Press has been called by some the most beautiful high-flight move in wrestling today. The maneuver has served as the ultimate finisher for several cruiserweights because of its high spectacle level; a beautiful poetic phrase to close the text, if you will.
Atlantis’ Atlantida (torture rack, sometimes with an added spin) is a basic move, even unimpressive, yet works as a finisher because of its relative suddenness, Atlantis’ versatility when applying it, and the audience’s recognition of it as an exclamation point to end the match, which results in an exciting adrenaline rush.
Hence, a finishing functions as a pro wrestler’s top maneuver because of its fictional credibility, which serves fictional purposes, and the spectacle level which plays a major role in generating a reaction in the observing crowd.
But is that always the case? Are all finishers the strongest moves (in fictional credibility and spectacle) of their respective pro wrestlers? Do they maintain a balance?
The RKO certainly looks beautiful when applied by Randy Orton, although his rope-assisted DDT, in spite of not looking as good, holds a much higher level of neutral credibility and does count toward a considerable spectacle level.
Zack Ryder’s Broski Kick looks more credible in its effectiveness than the Rough Ryder, but for some reason the latter remains as the Long Iced Z’s finisher.
Sometimes the most basic moves are used as finishers. Dolph Ziggler experimented with a Sleeper Hold as a finisher and it worked. For some reason, lariats became fashionable finishers among the indie scene of the USA.
Why should audiences buy such moves as adequate finishers? What makes them more effective at that moment than at any other time they’re used? If there’s no real difference, does it mean any wrestling move could end a match?
The Walls of Jericho are a (sort of) modified Boston Crab. The implied (nominal?) modification is meant to sell the move as being much more powerful than the average Boston Crab, but why would it be?
There’s no reason to compare the neutral credibility between a Boston Crab and The Walls of Jericho if they’re basically the same move. His Lionsault works better as a finisher because of its spectacle level and neutral credibility, but is rarely sold as a winning card.
The same could be said about the Tombstone Piledriver. The pro wrestling business recognizes the piledriver, in all of its variations, as a powerful and legitimately dangerous move. In WWE, the Tombstone is arguably marketed as the most powerful move in the promotion.
Then again, it is only a piledriver like any other. Other wrestlers adopt piledrivers in their repertoire, but the application rarely results in an instant victory even when the mechanism affects the same area and is expected to produce the same result.
Indeed, any move that is solidly applied in the correct moment of the match can result in a victory, but sometimes generic maneuvers are marketed as special. It all comes down to fictional credibility, which sometimes comes nominally—from the performer’s name or the name of the move itself.
The People’s Elbow is just an elbow to the chest preceded by incredibly unnecessary theatrics. It is effective because The Rock is applying it. If another wrestler uses the move, it might hold the same level of credibility because the preceding theatrics turn a generic elbow into the super-powered People’s Elbow. (Perhaps all the nonsense before the actual move is what really empowers it?)
Finishing moves in wrestling suffer from being evidently problematic in credibility and coherency, but fans are willing to stretch their suspension of disbelief to be entertained.
Nevertheless, when choosing an adequate finisher, performers should consider that there’s a need for balance between effectiveness and spectacle. The maneuver has to look painful, practical and spectacular.
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