At some point, wrestling forgot about the ending. It was the 1980s, maybe, when Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior would shrug off finishing moves before going superheroic. Or maybe it was the 1990s, when ECW made the power bomb just another move.
Whatever the case, wrestling took the 'finish' out of finishing move long ago. In high profile matches, it's routine to see wrestlers kick out of one another's finishers, over and over, until a crescendo of multiple finishing moves by one of the combatants wraps things up. That sort of thing should be pyrotechnic. Instead, it's pretty much rote.
The result, as old-timers like Jim Cornette like to point out, has had a deleterious effects on the way stories are told in the ring these days. The pin from a move which isn't a finisher? That's over, and you will never, ever see someone in a big match pinned from a body slam or surprise top rope cross body again. The one-count? Also more or less dead—guys kick out at 2 and only 2, a situation so ingrained that the crowd howling out the number at the count has become a wrestling staple.
Essentially, we wait for the finishers to start rolling in when we watch our main events or feud-capping street fights. The crowd chants "this is awesome", and sometimes it even is, but there's still a predictability to it. You know that neither John Cena nor Brock Lesnar are going down to just one big move. If it's a world title match, in any organization in the world, the odds are good that those watching will see at least one kick out from a would-be finishing move. This could be exciting if it wasn't also par for this particular course. It is, though, and so it isn't.
Unsurprisingly, WWE has leaned especially hard on this, and did so especially in the recent John Cena-Kevin Owens feud. The promotion wanted to buoy both men and keep them looking tough, so they traded finishers in their series like most wrestlers trade punches, with each feigning disbelief as the other shrugged off the devastation and denied a pin. The implied question was, "How could this be happening?" The obvious answer was, "dude, the same thing happened during the pay-per-view before this." WWE's top dogs have made their careers on shaking off finishing moves over the past 15 years. Whatever thrill there was is gone.
Every promotion does the no finishers thing to some extent, but WWE has coupled this with a rather curious parallel approach to submission moves, those leg locks and nerve holds that cause an opponent to tap out.
Submission moves are unambiguous. You don't kick out of a submission move. You can get to the ropes to break one, sometimes you can power out, but if it's locked in and someone gives up, in storytelling terms, that's it. It only takes one, and that stands in marked contrast to the standard finishers which rely on impact and velocity.
This has created a notably weird dynamic around submissions in WWE. Few wrestlers use them, and they "work" for even fewer. The only guys—and it is guys, because the WWE's women wrestlers are not generally beholden to the no finishers dynamic—who have them are those the promotion wants to give big pushes. By the same token, the only guys who tap-out are those whose foremost utility is being fed into someone else's hype machine.
WWE has long seen tapping out as something worse than a normal loss; if someone is tapping a lot, they're on the way down the card. Conversely, if someone is making people submit on a regular basis they're on the way up. Tapping out is viewed as borderline emasculation—a deliberate choice of words because, again, the women's division doesn't work by quite the same rules—and anything like emasculation is poison in WWE.
And so it goes. Daniel Bryan, on his way up the card, racked up submission victories with his Yes Lock. Rusev was a monster heel for a bit, partly because he kept making people submit to his version of the camel clutch. The days where Bret Hart or Ric Flair could simply win with a submission are mostly disappearing; to lose that way is to lose big.
Cena is the best example of this. His career has been built on never tapping out—the last time he did was in 2004 to Kurt Angle—which has turned him into a superhero. His shirt says that he never gives up, he constantly questions the manhood of his opponents in the run-up to a feud. If he has a persona, that's it—he's an ur-male, his booming voice, vascularity, and, above all, unwillingness to tap out announce his manhood.
Not coincidentally, one of Cena's finishers is a submission hold, the STF. He does it poorly, by technical standards, but it doesn't really matter: if he locks it on and you tap, it just adds to the Cena myth. His primary finisher, the Attitude Adjustment, is just another move; people take it and get right back up all the time. The STF, though? That one means something, and it sticks.
Some wrestling fans worried when WWE champion Seth Rollins tapped out to the STF several weeks ago on Monday Night Raw. Cena's nose was broken during the match for real by an errant Rollins knee, which gave the ending an extra charge of violence, with Cena screaming in both real pain and mock exertion as he stretched the wide-eyed Rollins into submission. It wasn't a title match, but the tap out signaled one of two things leading into last night's SummerSlam: either it was to keep Cena looking manly and invincible ahead of a loss or it was a signal that Rollins was about to move back down the card. As it turns out, it was the former, with a Jon Stewart chairshot helping Rollins retain.
This is a creative trap for WWE. Knowing the counts, subbing a rote exchange of finishing moves for storytelling, and having submissions telegraph the larger narrative—these are all issues which speak to a bigger problem. And that problem is a sticky one: this formula of dramatic elements has arguably come to define the WWE more than any other thing. It's clear that something needs to change, but less clear whether WWE even knows how.
The solution to this, or one solution, is close to home, in the WWE's revamped women's division. There, submissions are fast and plentiful, with no more behind-the-scenes subtextual import than any other move. And, because the trend of trading finishers hasn't taken root there as it has with the men (though it's not absent), finishing moves are precisely where they should be—meaningful, significant, and kept within the confines and dramatic arcs of the stories being told in the ring. WWE should not only give divas a chance, it should take notes.