Sunday at Night of Champions, Daniel Bryan faced WWE Champ Randy Orton, the corporate-sponsored d-bag who cashed in his Money in the Bank title shot last month after Bryan won the belt from John Cena.1 Bryan versus Orton might not have been Dusty Rhodes versus Ric Flair circa 1985, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the fans were screaming. Orton is backed by the newly diabolical McMahon clan, who want a more suitable champion than Bryan, while Bryan has united WWE fans in a way that hasn’t been seen in ages. In a surprising turn of events, vile COO (and McMahon son-in-law) Triple H outlawed any interference in the match — odd because the Orton-McMahon regime thrived precisely because of ongoing assists from the Shield and other shenanigans. And once the match was left to an unadulterated one-on-one contest, Bryan won. Let me repeat: Bryan won! The crowd went wild! It almost felt like an all-time epic moment in the modern pro wrestling landscape.
Except it didn’t, not really. Because the win didn’t count.
It’s been exactly a year since I wrote about the sacred art of the Dusty Finish, the match-ending technique popularized by Dusty Rhodes in his run as booker (and star) of the Crocketts’ NWA bastion, Mid-Atlantic Wrestling. (Commonly known in those days just as the NWA, it would later morph into WCW.) It’s a brilliant move that worked wonders at the tail end of the Territorial Era to draw out tension and delay gratification in favor of short-lived, wrongheaded joys. In its most classical form, the hero (Dusty Rhodes himself, often) would be facing the bad-guy champion (Ric Flair) after months (or years) of chasing him, and now he finally beats him and wins the title — except the referee who was knocked out at some point during the match regains consciousness and reverses the replacement ref’s decision. Here’s how I described the thought process:
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.
The Dusty Finish is much derided today, mostly for its overuse by middling practitioners and for its catchy name, which is really only incidentally credited to Rhodes, who groans at the neologism. (Like every other booker in those days, Rhodes stole much of his material from other Territorial promotions, under the then-reasonable presupposition that nobody would ever know. Though it must be said that this may be the only instance in pro wrestling history of someone denying credit for something so seminal.) In truth, though, the Dusty Finish is the zenith of wrestling finishes, the very jive-soul of the craft. Wins are meaningless without the journey, and the journey is insufferable without the tease. When Rhodes “won” the NWA title from Flair that night at Starrcade 1985, when he basked in the adoration of the Greensboro Coliseum crowd, when he celebrated in the locker room, all of the ecstasy until the moment when the decision was revoked — that’s just the tease. There’s no lasting satisfaction. The Dusty Finish is the blue balls of pro wrestling.
Which might not sound like a good thing, but in terms of making you want it even more than you did a day before, it’s a powerful … er … tool to have in the pro wrestling … er … toolbox. Wrestling is storytelling. It’s mythmaking, every Monday night, spread out over months and years. Without delayed gratification, victories would be dictated by crowd response, the title would change hands at every pay-per-view, and all the story lines in the world would dry up in a matter of months. And, above all else, fans wouldn’t be happy. Delayed gratification that hopefully leads to a greater payoff, watching the hero’s continuing struggle — it’s what makes stories into legends.
That’s precisely what happened at Night of Champions and in its immediate aftermath. Midway through the Orton-Bryan match, referee Scott Armstrong got knocked out and a replacement ref was brought in. After coming back to his senses and convincing the replacement that he had regained his facilities, Armstrong retook his place and ended up scoring Bryan’s victory. Except his three-count was clearly too fast. Despite the fact that Orton stayed down for much longer than three seconds, the ending of the match was thrown into question.
On Monday, Raw opened with Triple H rescinding the win and holding the WWE Championship “in abeyance” until a suitable remedy could be determined.2 It was a textbook Dusty Finish. Rewatching the match, it’s not clear that Armstrong getting knocked out was even necessary to the ending — it was just a nice touch, a nod to tradition. The implication — if one takes Triple H’s reprimand and subsequent firing of Armstrong at less than face value — is that the ref was in on the sting. Armstrong was Triple H’s fail-safe even as he tried to look magnanimous by outlawing interference in the match. It was Dusty Finish by corporate diktat. In the Reality Era, there’s no force more villainous than the front office.
In a nice bit of storytelling synergy, WWE trotted out Dusty Rhodes himself on Monday to beg for his sons’ livelihoods. After Orton’s McMahon-abetted ascendance, Triple H started getting prickly about dissension in the ranks. Anyone who spoke out against his conniving was punished, and the harshest penalty was meted out to Cody Rhodes, who was shown the door after losing a match to Orton on the eve of Cody’s wedding.3 The next week, Cody’s half-brother Dustin — the wrestler formerly known as Goldust — competed in a match against Orton to win his brother’s job back. He failed.
Monday, Dusty appeared under the premise of being offered a business proposition from Stephanie McMahon, wife of Triple H and sometimes-adversarial co-chair of their diabolical dance committee. The invitation — which was first disseminated on Twitter and which, via Dusty’s Southern drawl and general old-manness, led him to say he found out about it “on the tweet”4 — was heartily accepted, of course. Dusty’s appearance Monday started off with an in-ring speech that half the people probably called a quintessential, epic Dusty promo and the other half called a jumble of nonsense and aphorisms. In Dusty’s masterful hands, those two mean approximately the same thing.5
Dusty refused to decide between his kids (despite earlier saying that “this was about Cody’s job”), so he was forced to make another choice: Take a beatdown from the Shield or get KO’ed by the Big Show, the do-gooder giant who has been forced into McMahon subservience by virtue of his pennilessness. In the end, Show made the decision for Dusty, tearfully slugging the legend and then catching him and lowering him to the mat in a pugilist pietà.
If cashing in vacation days has ever helped advance a career, this is it — Cody’s star has grown more in his absence than it ever did in his presence. And here’s the irony — we know he’s coming back, story line be damned. Everything that’s happening in the meantime is prelude. It’s a tease for Cody’s return. It’s not a Dusty Finish, but the principle is the same. Seeing Goldust and Dusty humiliated is the same as seeing Bryan pummeled by Orton and the Shield week after week, and seeing him lose to Orton at SummerSlam, and seeing his title get stripped on Monday. The joy isn’t in the win but in the chase. The agony is the ecstasy.
The question, in this day and age, is how long WWE can drag out the drama. In the old days of the Dusty Finish, story lines could be extended for upward of a year. Dusty spent five years chasing Flair’s title and won it only once, for two weeks.6 When the Bryan–Orton–Triple H feud started last month, fans salivated over the possibility that the story might last until next year’s WrestleMania. That would not only mean a lengthy, well-developed story line, but also a mind-blowing victory on the industry’s biggest stage for its littlest underdog.
The latter point bears consideration anytime someone complains about Bryan’s aborted reign at SummerSlam or the indignation with which he was treated on Monday; in a world of fake wins and losses, some wins are bigger than others, and a ‘Mania win won’t be possible without a months-long chase and all its accompanying agony. The former point is more uncertain. Can you drag out a story for six months in the modern era? Will fans stand for it? In Dusty’s heyday the weekly shows served as commercials for the big, monthly house shows, and only in the annual Starrcade-type shows were title changes of the Rhodes-Flair magnitude even conceivable. In the old days, preserving status quo was necessary — to avoid having to get the NWA board of governors to agree on anything. In modern wrestling, championship exchanges have been more fluid.
During the Monday Night Wars, titles changed hands on random Monday nights. What we’re seeing now is a deliberate effort to re-seal Pandora’s box, and that’s a good thing. But it remains to be seen how much time has sped up; or how much patience WWE can ask of its audience in the “tweet” era, as Dusty might call it. Remember, the current era is one in which the only thing holding back the bookers is the narrative arc (and, frankly, how drawing out that arc makes the most money). Predictions of Bryan headlining WrestleMania sound great in the abstract, but the same fans who clamor for that endgame are often the ones who groan the loudest when Bryan gets beaten down. They’re the ones who feel angry that Bryan was cheated out of the title at the past two PPVs. It’s an odd fact that the fans most aware of pro wrestling’s falsehood are often the ones who care most about championship reigns.
Odder yet, those fans aren’t wrong — title belts may not perfectly reflect a wrestler’s skill in the ring or on a microphone, but they tend to end up around the waists of the biggest stars of an era. Champions are the stars who are best remembered. John Cena was WWE Champion for the better part of seven years, and time span aside, it wasn’t exactly the Epic of Gilgamesh. With a few wonderful exceptions, too much of his reign saw him floating from feud to feud with little at stake other than the volume of his promos and the color of his T-shirt. But even so, Cena may have fashioned himself into an all-time great (despite the boos he still gets), and he will go down in the record books as the face of an era because of his lengthy reign as a headliner. He did his level best to make every feud seem epic, but more often than not, nothing meant anything. Bryan could be champion now, but he’s not, and that means everything. If you’re mad that Bryan got screwed, then the story line is working. The longer they can drag out the status quo of fans being so outraged that they’ll buy every pay-per-view, the longer the narrative will continue.
In the end, of course, Cody will eventually return as a full-time WWE wrestler, probably in time to enter the Survivor Series main event, probably when Triple H hubristically lets Bryan assemble a dream team. Nobody will be surprised, but we’ll be elated. We always knew Cody would come back, but seeing it happen at the expense of Triple H’s Corporation 2.0 will be a delight. Just like Bryan will eventually win the WWE Championship and keep it — for a month or two, anyway, or maybe he’ll just chase the title into perpetuity like Dusty once did. The beauty is in the delayed gratification. It seems excruciating at times, but that’s the point. It takes misery, punctuated by misbegotten moments of happiness, to build to a fulfilling end. It’s the art of the chase.