The Wrasslin’ Essay: You Can’t Write This ‘SmackDown’ Finish

The latest edition of WWE SmackDown contained both one of the best and worst finishes of the last three months. Oddly enough, they were in the same match. In...

The latest edition of WWE SmackDown contained both one of the best and worst finishes of the last three months. Oddly enough, they were in the same match.

In his Intercontinental Championship match with Ryback, Kevin Owens “defended” his title in ultimate heel fashion by allowing himself to be counted out. Owens’ timing and body language were impeccable, as the viewer could clearly see his thought process as he watched an exhausted Ryback roll into the ring. While the referee counted eight and nine, Owens seemed poised to climb through the ropes and resume the match. Then, at literally the last second, Owens remembered all his options and allowed the referee to reach 10.

The countout is a brilliant finish for a heel champion. It maintains the illusion that the heel’s top priority is to prevent a fair, decisive fight because he knows he will lose one. It also allows the audience to believe the babyface, Ryback, would have won a match with no disqualifications, all while protecting both men from taking the other’s finisher.

Then, something earth-shatteringly bone-headed happened.

Ryback and Owens brawled briefly on the outside, followed by the Big Guy dragging Owens back into the ring, hitting the Shell Shock, and getting his heat back as he led a chant of “Feed me more!” It was a classic booking move torn from the Hulk Hogan playbook. The bad guy got the win, but the lasting image for the audience is one of the good guy celebrating.

Resolving an issue so quickly in any creative genre spits in the face of good writing. This is basically the equivalent of Harry Potter defeating Voldemort in his first year of school or Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker having their “come to Jesus” moment immediately after the death of Obi Wan Kenobi. Potter and Skywalker are both hugely memorable babyfaces because the audience watched them grow incrementally from whiny boys to self-actualized adults. When Ryback loses and then instantly gets his heat back, it robs the fans of the opportunity to feel that they’ve gone on a journey with him and watched him grow from someone who can be outsmarted to someone who can’t.

Just as importantly, if there’s no long, arduous journey for the hero before he or she resolves the conflict, then it really couldn’t have been much of a problem to begin with. Within the context of the angle, this means that Intercontinental Champion Kevin Owens isn’t that big of a deal after all.

The heat in Owens’ character lies in his insistence that he’s smart and tough while the audience suspects him to be a cowardly blowhard. However, for him to be a dragon worth slaying (an effective heel), this inner truth must be something that Owens hides through deception and dastardly deeds until the climactic moment in which he is finally exposed and receives his comeuppance in the form of a decisive title loss.

From a fight promotion perspective, WWE threw away a match that could’ve been a legitimate semi-main event at Hell in a Cell. Had Owens simply taken his powder and headed to the back with a grin on his face and the title on his shoulder, Ryback would have something to stew over for weeks as Owens mocked him. Their next meeting would actually have some heat behind it, because it would be the culmination of Ryback’s journey to revenge and redemption rather than just another match between two wrestlers who’ve fought each other several times.

The art of promoting wrestling matches is essentially reading how long an audience will accept the delay of gratification. By blowing off what could be a top-of-the-second-tier angle in seconds, Vince McMahon and the WWE creative brain trust simply proved that they have no patience or sense of subtlety and assume the same of their viewers.

When WWE continues to churn out more and more original content—reality shows, televised house shows, additional sit down interviews—amidst sagging ratings, it becomes troublingly clear that they’ve forgotten how to execute the fundamentals properly. The finish of a midcard match in the middle of the B-show might seem like nothing to some, but it’s truly emblematic of how those in charge have forgotten what good storytelling looks like.

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