At Starrcade 1985, the NWA’s premier event, Dusty Rhodes notched a long-awaited title win against Ric Flair. They had fought at Starrcade the year before, only to have the match stopped by special referee Joe Frazier because of a nasty cut Dusty had suffered.1 But 1985 would be different — sort of. Rhodes fought valiantly, even though after the referee was accidentally knocked out, Flair’s buddies Ole and Arn Anderson came in to help subdue Rhodes. Miraculously, Dusty sprung a surprise pin on Flair and won, with a replacement ref performing the three count. The crowd went wild. Rhodes celebrated in the ring and in the back with the locker room good guys. But it was not to be. When the original ref came to his senses, he insisted that he had seen the Andersons interfere, and so, since his decision took primacy, the pinfall win was changed retroactively to a disqualification win, which meant that Flair retained his belt on a technicality. Blame it on the replacement ref.
From a booking perspective, the goal of this reversal was to give fans the satisfaction of a Rhodes win without changing the status quo. That way, the thinking went, the eventual rematch between Flair and Rhodes would be even bigger. This is, after all, how pro wrestling works: The villain’s comeuppance is never really in question; it’s only a matter of time, place, and, ultimately, economics. But there was also an old-fashioned aspect to the way Starrcade 85 played out — above all else, the status quo had to be maintained.
This conservative element is partly a remnant of the original NWA system, in which title changes could only take place upon a majority vote of the NWA commissioners. This forced local bookers to invent scenarios that made title changes seem realistic without having a belt actually exchange hands. Crowning new champions also took longer back then because media moved so much more slowly in the 1980s than it does today. Assume that most fans only saw a live show once or twice a year, and consider that even the early TV broadcasts were basically commercials to boost attendance at live events. Story lines had to move slowly so everyone would be able to keep up. In this manner, delayed gratification became ingrained in pro wrestling. In those days, comeuppance — or any final resolution to a feud — was more of a tease than something you could count on.
In that context, the Starrcade ’85 ending was a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, that thing of beauty had been used before. Ending matches like this had become almost standard operating procedure. And since the chief operator, both backstage and in the ring, was Rhodes himself, the ploy became known as the “Dusty Finish.”
Back in the modern heyday of the NWA, Dusty Rhodes wasn’t just the top good guy — the fleshy, blue-collar-boy counterweight to the egocentric excess of champ Ric Flair. He was also the booker, or, in fancier terms, the creative director. These days, WWE employs a small army of writers to script numerous hours of heavily produced television. In the 1970s and ’80s, when the live shows were the main product and TV was just an extension of that, the booker, who often worked alone, was part old-time matchmaker and part classical mythmaker. Dusty was a great booker, and he is responsible for much of the success the NWA achieved during the ’80s, but his lasting legacy is the Dusty Finish. Starrcade 1985 was the most high-profile example, but the iterations were numerous — as were the number of times they were reproduced in shows around the southeast. If it wasn’t the Andersons interfering, it was Dusty tossing Flair over the top rope — an illegal move in those days. The reawakened ref’s revelation, of course, would be that he saw Dusty inadvertently break the rules.
As fans became accustomed to this narrative technique, they began feeling as if they were being jerked around. They began to detest the explicit artifice of it, and once wrestling started its steady creep into modernity, fans became not just wise to the act but indignant about it. The thing that made the Dusty Finish different from other shock endings was the agency of the referee. Normally, referees are window dressing, a shrug toward the sport’s simulated legitimacy. But the referee is rarely part of the morality play. When he interferes with the action, he threatens to disrupt the mythological enterprise. After all, he’s not a titan; he’s just a regular guy doing his job, and there’s nothing superheroic about that. When NBA referee Tim Donaghy was accused of betting on games he officiated, it made it easier to criticize any other seemingly corrupt aspect of the NBA. But in wrestling, corruption is the art form. Referee high jinks only underscore that. At Starrcade ’85 — and in many of the namesake Dusty Finishes — the inability of referees to do their jobs (or, at least, the inability of referees to stay conscious through an entire match) was as central to the match’s outcome as outside interference or the proficiency of either wrestler.
As the years went on, and as bookers less gifted than Rhodes added the Dusty Finish into their playbooks, the term expanded to encompass all the half-baked, noncommittal endings of the ’90s. As Urban Dictionary elegantly puts it, the Dusty Finish is a “complete and total bullshit way to end a main event/title match in pro wrestling.” Like pro wrestling M. Night Shyamalans, bookers’ attempts to surprise only succeeded in raising expectations for an ultimate disappointment.
Rhodes has tried to distance himself from the technique. As Scott Bowden points out in his treatise on Dusty Finishes, Rhodes fully denies that he invented the concept. “Holy dippity dogshit,” he writes in his memoir, “the ‘Dusty Finish’ is without a doubt the biggest scam in our industry … Sure, I may have brought it to prominence by showing it on TV in the ’80s, but my finish? That fucking finish was around a lot longer before I was booking. If the swerve is what makes it a Dusty Finish, then I guess the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a Dusty Finish.” Well, not exactly. A swerve is misdirection. A Dusty Finish is willful misrepresentation of the facts. A swerve is a double reverse; a Dusty Finish is a Statue of Liberty. When you call that play, you better hope it works, or else you’ll face the righteous anger of your fans.
Dusty does have some right to feel aggrieved: It’s not strictly his fault that he was running the NWA during a rather seismic shift in wrestling media and the ascent of widespread postmodern hyper-awareness in its fan base. But that’s where he was. With the rise of cable television, pro wrestling was no longer a series of one-night stands in arenas across a regional fiefdom; it became a never-ending soap opera for which constant evolution became the norm. It’s not that Dusty was incapable of dealing with this, but at the time he was unprepared. In the WWE-produced Starrcade DVD, Ric Flair casually refers to that 1985 bout as a rematch of the previous year. That’s true, and it’s exactly the point: These days, rematches usually happen at most a month later, whereas in the ’80s, you could spread out a feud over years.2 But once television became the wrestling industry’s primary medium, fans expected more. They demanded feuds and story lines to evolve on a monthly or weekly basis.
The Dusty Finish was the first thing that came to mind Sunday night, after an excellent Night of Champions pay-per-view. The CM Punk–John Cena WWE Championship match had ended with Cena executing an impressive belly-to-back suplex on Punk from the second rope and holding his shoulders down for the three count. The ref counted three, the bell rang, Cena’s music played, and the crowd lost its collective mind. As Cena celebrated, however, referee Chad Patton walked over and took the belt away from him. Despite what we’d just seen, Cena hadn’t won. See, Cena’s shoulders had also been down on the mat when Punk was being pinned. Both of them had their shoulders down. It was a draw. Punk clutched the belt and grinned. The fans — most of whom had been cheering for Punk throughout the bout — were flummoxed. They’d rejoiced at the title change or booed it, and now that emotional response was being invalidated. They seemed less disappointed than surprised by the swerve. It didn’t have dueling referees, but this was a Dusty Finish. How the hell did that trick worm its way into Night of Champions?
Too-close-to-be-true endings are part of pro wrestling’s foundation. On Sunday night alone — on a pay-per-view, a night when fans expect some version of dramatic closure — we saw several dubious endings. The Miz beat Cody Rhodes,3 Sin Cara, and Rey Mysterio, pinning Rhodes almost accidentally while blindly groping around in a mask Sin Cara had used to blind him. Daniel Bryan and Kane won the tag-team belts after they got into a fight and Bryan accidentally shoved Kane off the ropes and onto one of their opponents. Eve won the Divas title, and she wasn’t even advertised to be on the card. Sheamus won with his Brogue Kick, which had been banned prior to the event but bizarrely reinstated at the last second. In modern wrestling, where squash matches are rare, almost every match ends on a technicality. If there’s no obvious rules violation, then there’s a surprise roll-up or some other flash ending that seems too accidental to be fully binding. They have to keep the stories going, after all, and above all else they have to keep the losers relevant. The simplest way to accomplish that is to never make a loss seem definitive.
On Raw Monday night, the show opened up with promoter and manager Paul Heyman trotting out referee Chad Patton, a previously innocent ref who had counted the double-pin on Sunday night. He was almost cruelly asked to defend his decision on live TV. (Only in their occasional incompetence are refs portrayed in dimension.) Just as with Dusty Finishes in decades past, the striped shirt becomes a fully active participant who only exists to fail. At the close of the evening, when Punk teamed with Del Rio against Cena and Sheamus, the ending saw Cena pin Punk for the win. But Punk’s foot was on the bottom rope, which should have stopped the count. The show ended with Punk following the referee to the back, berating him for blowing the call.
Certainly WWE is no stranger to staged ineptitude. But so far this year it had been trending toward a UFC-flavored “serious referee” model, where they stay close to the action and seem to have a basic awareness of what’s going on. Despite CM Punk’s occasionally mixed martial arts–inspired move set, these competent refs aren’t what he needs — especially not as a villain. And with the NFL referee lockout becoming a major topic of water-cooler conversation, it was almost inevitable that Vince McMahon would needle his onetime rival4 with some blown calls of his own. Having the referee defend his decisions in public is poignant because it’s something that would never happen in real sports.
It’s typically only when a referee is primed for a story line role that he is asked to defend himself in public. In this case, Chad Patton may be little more than a head fake, however. In Monday’s main event, the ref who missed the foot on the rope was a newcomer whose previous career was as a WWE developmental wrestler named Brad Maddox. If any ref is going to get physically involved in this, my money’s on the guy who was taking bumps in a ring a couple months ago.
Is it possible for the Dusty Finish to succeed in modern wrestling? If Sunday was any evidence, the answer is yes. It depends on the players. Punk and Cena are WWE’s biggest stars, and they have a special relationship. Unlike just about every other feud in wrestling, their stature has allowed them to construct a rivalry nearly as epic — and long-lasting — as Flair-Rhodes.5 Even in this era of warp-speed storytelling, certain things can be allowed to linger. Who knows if referee failures will ever really be interesting, but here they’re at least helpful to Punk. All heels in the WWE whine; this way, Punk can whine with good reason. A Dusty Finish can succeed if it’s used to deepen a story — not merely to postpone its resolution.
The Dusty Finish can be a thing of beauty. In Sunday’s example, it was Punk’s determination to rehash wrestling lore that intrigues me. Punk hasn’t proven to be the agent of change that meta fans hoped he would be, but at least he has used his championship reign as a master class in pro wrestling history.6 In recent months, Punk has tried to out-macho Randy Savage, to out-King Jerry Lawler, and, with his off-kilter moonsault attempt on Sunday night (and ongoing association with Heyman), to out-ECW Terry Funk. If anybody can legitimize the Dusty Finish, it’s Punk.
Last week, Punk suggested to Bret Hart that, had he been around in the 1990s, Punk would have jumped ship from the WWF to WCW and put the WWF out of business. On Monday night, before the main event, Punk had a testy backstage planning session with his partner Alberto Del Rio. Near the end of the exchange, Punk (through his mouthpiece, Heyman) suggested that Del Rio get a time machine and go back to last year, when Punk beat him at Survivor Series. Maybe it was a bit of projection on Punk’s part. If anybody wants to go back in time, it’s your WWE champion. And since that can’t happen, his next best option seems to be bringing the past to the present, Dusty Finishes and all.