A Mark’s Eye View is a weekly look at some of the things that made me a huge fan of professional wrestling.
Even the biggest wrestling fan would be hard pressed to name the best referee stoppage in wrestling history. Fans will find countouts, disqualifications, and even the occasional schmozz acceptable. But as was proven a couple weeks back at Hell in a Cell when Seth Rollins vs. Bray Wyatt was called off, even the thought of the ref stopping a match is greeted with disgust. At best, it’s a puzzling decision that will make fans throw their hands in the air.
Stoppages seemed to increase in frequency during the title reign of WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino. Many of his matches were stopped due to excessive blood loss. It was partially due to the more violent nature of sport at the time. More importantly, it was an easy device to set up rematches. The promoters did not want anyone to lose, so they book a screwy finish. Of course, the question becomes why book a match at all if you don’t want to have a loser? See, bad booking is not exclusively a product of modern times.
These finishes were not just relegated to house shows. A common practice in the 1980s was to have the champ either win or lose by countout or DQ, setting up a rematch for the next time a card was held in the area. The results were not definite, but fans didn’t feel cheated either.
What’s the difference between a non-finish and a ref stoppage? A well done non-finish gives fans everything they want. Time limit draws are an excellent example. Two competitors go at it for as long as the match constraints allow. When all is said and done, neither one comes out on top. But this is not a case of there being no winner. In this situation, no one is willing to lose. If done right, it can be a thrilling back and forth that still delivers a satisfactory conclusion. (“If done right” is the key phrase, as anyone who has ever seen the Shane Douglas/Tully Blanchard draw from ECW will tell you.)
A ref stoppage makes the fan feel like they have been cheated. This was not a battle that both wrestlers refused to let slip away; a third party decided the match needed to be stopped for safety concerns. No one watches fake matches to see them end for fear of someone being hurt. There is a reason the best refs are complimented for not being noticed.
At Starrcade 1984, Ric Flair defended his NWA World Title against longtime nemesis Dusty Rhodes. Each put up a million dollars to add to the stakes. In one of the worst matches of Flair’s career, special referee Joe Frazier stopped the bout due to Dusty’s bleeding. Announcers tried to explain the boxing legend was only doing what came natural to him, but fans still hated it.
The NWA loved to use Flair in these finishes. In 1988, Lex Luger seemed to be on the verge of winning the big one. At The Great American Bash, the bell rang as “The Total Package” had the champion in his dreaded Torture Rack. Luger’s victory turned out to be a swerve. The Maryland State Athletic Commission called the match due to a small cut on Luger’s forehead. (Yes, somebody thought using a Dusty finish and a referee stoppage in the same match was a good idea.)
The NWA was not the only company screwing fans out of finishes to world title matches in 1988, however. Jerry Lawler met Kerry Von Erich in a unification match at Superclash III. Von Erich, the World Class Champion, had AWA World Champion Jerry Lawler in his dreaded Iron Claw. Referee Marty Miller called for the bell. It seemed as if Von Erich had won the AWA strap, but the ref called the match and awarded it to Lawler due to Kerry’s bleeding. (At least it was a gusher. Both competitors, the official, and the ring mat were covered in blood.)
What makes the idea of the ref stoppage even harder to accept is how beloved the other options are. When the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express lost the NWA Tag Titles to Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, it was because Robert Gibson submitted for his partner. The ref didn’t stop the bout and Ricky Morton refused to give up despite his injured arm. He came out looking like a hero who never quit. This led to more heat on the Horsemen, leading to an incredible pop when they finally lost the belts to Luger and Barry Windham.
The Midnight Express were involved in another situation involving the NWA Tag Championship. The team ended up losing the belts to the Road Warriors. Before the match, the LOD brutally attacked the Midnights. Bobby Eaton was left a bloody mess. “Beautiful” Bobby was sent to the back but came back to help “Sweet” Stan in the title defense.
Eaton was obviously in no shape to wrestle. He stumbled around as he tried to take on both Hawk and Animal. He was able to mount a very brief comeback against the Roadies, but was eventually pinned after a clothesline from Animal. Eaton’s efforts caused the fans to boo the newly turned Warriors, something even Sting and Rhodes had been unable to do.
Some things are better left in the past. There is nothing wrong with a good non-finish. They can advance stories and feuds and get fans excited for the future matches. A referee stoppage does the exact opposite. It angers fans and cheats them out of a satisfactory finish. It is the worst way to end a wrestling match.
Unless you’re Steve Austin.
Next week: Love, hate, and cheers.