There are very few absolutes in pro wrestling booking.
Vets may talk about stuff that “always works”, but in reality, not many things that work in 1879 also work in 1911, or 1942, or 1985. In looking throughout pro wrestling history, however, some things do stand out as contributing to regular success. And one of them that seems to be forgotten by many contemporary bookers is a commitment to clean finishes. Whether it’s creating a new star, booking your main event scene, or recreating your whole promotion, clean finishes are an essential part. However, if we take a moment to look at history, we see repeated examples from “Farmer” Burns, Jack Curley, and Giant Baba.
In October of 1897, Martin “Farmer” Burns had dropped the American Heavyweight Championship. He turned his attention to the future, and to the young wrestler he wanted to make a star: Tom Jenkins.
They met a month after Burns’ title loss, in a best two of three falls match. Now, at the time, it wouldn’t be considered uncommon for wrestlers to split the first two falls and for one of them to walk away before the third, essentially forfeiting the bout. It was a way to lose without getting pinned. Someone of Burns’ stature no doubt could have demanded such a finish from the much greener wrestler. But he didn’t. He didn’t even demand a fall. Jenkins defeated Burns two falls to none, and the match results were reported all over the country.
But Burns wasn’t done there.
They rematched two months later, this time in a best three of five falls match. And this time, Jenkins won the first three falls in a row, making a clean sweep of the former champion. Burns didn’t even claim a foul in any of the five falls, he was just pinned cleanly five times in a row, and because he was willing to do that, Jenkins became a megastar, second only to champion at the time, Dan McLeod. Clean falls, and only clean falls, could accomplish that.
In 1919, New York’s Jack Curley was the most powerful wrestling promoter in the nation and exerted influence over promoters all over the country. His top three guys at the time were Joe Stecher, Wladek Zbyszko, and Ed “Strangler” Lewis. In February, he booked a match in Sioux City, IA, between Joe Stecher and Wladek Zbyszko, and promised a clear winner. Of course, Curley pulled a swerve, and the match did not end decisively, causing the crowd to riot. He announced a winner the next day but didn’t matter.
The town was still angry.
The experience stuck with Curley, and he learned his lesson. Instead of figuring out ways to try and protect his top guys, he just booked one to go over the other, to immense rewards. He booked Lewis to beat Stecher in Chicago on March 3, and days later Stecher also jobbed to Zbyszko. Instead of working ways around someone getting pinned, Stecher jobbed twice, convincing crowds either man could win in his match.
In his rematch with Zbyszko, on March 21, 1919, Curley promised in the papers that there would be a winner. If there wasn’t, he would refund every ticket. The result? They sold out Madison Square Garden and turned 5,000 people away. Curley continued booking exclusively clean finishes in his main events for the rest of the year, producing more sell-outs in both the Midwest and the East Coast. Curley did not spare the main stars of Stecher, Zbyszko, and Lewis from clean pins. Instead of not being perceived as “strong” after eating the loss, crowds knew any man could win at any time, and they would get a conclusion every time they bought a ticket.
Perhaps the best argument for committing to clean finishes, is Giant Baba’s philosophy change in 1989. After seeing the success that new promotion UWFi was having, Baba, president of All Japan Pro Wrestling, decided a new direction was needed. Clean finishes would be the rule of thumb in the company. And that rule would serve him very well, because when top star Genichiro Tenryu left the company in April 1990, a vacuum was left at the top of the card, and new stars needed to be made immediately. So when MItsuharu Misawa met current ace Jumbo Tsuruta in June 1990, no one swung a chair and got disqualified, Mitsuharu Misawa pinned Jumbo Tsuruta one, two, three. We all know how successful the 1990s were for AJPW.
Obviously, clean finishes were not the only aspects of the above success. There plenty of reasons why AJPW was successful in the 1990s, another important factor’s in Curley’s brilliantly booked 1919; Burns not getting a single fall against Jenkins. But none of those things would have worked as well if they weren’t done with clean finishes.
Clean finishes build goodwill with a promotion’s fan base, because you know you won’t waste your time watching the match. When a match-up is announced, you instantly know there will be consequences because someone will win and someone will lose. The fans never feel cheated.
Clean finish philosophies have worked for well over one hundred years. Historically, it one of the few absolutes in pro wrestling. Infuriatingly, most promoters don’t take advantage.