Chris Flackett takes a look at AEW’s Exploding Barbed Wire Death and Blood & Guts matches and ask whether bad finishes can really prevent great matches from still being great matches.
Imagine it: you and your opponent have just spent the best part of the last twenty, twenty-five minutes pushing each other’s bodies to the absolute limit of what a human body should be able to do. You’re gassed to all hell, you’re tired, your muscles feel like they could just slip off the bone. You’ve given your sweat, your blood and yet you’ve kept on going, even though there’s almost nothing else left to give.
Now you’re in the final stretch, the home straight; you’re about to cap off every amazing moment of action you’ve given the fans with something that is going to drop people’s jaws and trump what has gone before; it’s the ultimate crescendo if you will, the denouement to end all denouements. You give yourself one last push as you think; just one final moment, just one last act of oblivion and then you’re a myth forevermore, a legend to warm the hearts of those who still believe in heroes, who furthermore still look at the pro-wrestling ring for their morality plays of good and evil.
You close your eyes. No turning back. This is it: immortality…
So why are the boos, those siren calls of error, of folly, sounding in surround like a rapid-fire assault in your ears? The spilt crimson that still slips down your face runs cold as you realise—this wasn’t how it was meant to happen. All that planning, all that creativity, the years taken off your life that you left on the mat as an offering to those who would tell your tales, you suddenly realise that they meant nothing when dealt with a hand outside of your control by the fates or even mere men, prone to mistakes, hubris and sometimes poor discipline. You can’t fathom it. Does one mistake eradicate all of the good that you gave like a gift before you?…
A Botched Finish
Something that has come to light in the wrestling community over the last few months has been a kind of infuriation with so-called “bad matches” that goes beyond mere disappointment. In particular, I’m thinking of Kenny Omega’s Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match with Jon Moxley at AEW Revolution, and the Blood & Guts war between the Inner Circle and The Pinnacle on Dynamite.
While the idea of an objective concept of a bad finish is problematic in itself, the rage displayed on social media to the finishes of these matches focussed beyond the actual result or basic concept of what the finish was. Rather, it was the failed execution of the finishes that left a lot of people enraged with what they saw, leading many to rail at what they considered botches.
When the wrestling community came to discuss these “botched” finishes on social media, the overriding sentiment that came out of it was that these were awful matches precisely due to the botched, as if these bad finishes eradicated all the great action and hard work that had been put into these matches.
My question is: does a botched finish genuinely ruin a great match or can a great match still stand up despite a bad end?
Good to Great
First of all, I think it’s only fair to consider whether the matches in question—the Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match and Blood & Guts—were actually any good in the first place. Because if they were, then it’s harder for me to dismiss them based just on the endings.
In all fairness, both matches, pre-ending, were indeed very good. Much like their Lights Out match at Full Gear 2019, Omega and Mox lived up to the stipulation and took things much further in the violence stakes than is usually seen in the larger, mainstream American wrestling promotions. Deathmatches are an acquired taste, of course, but what really made this match is that both men are really good at what they do.
Not only did they rip each other to pieces—literally—but they also told a compelling story; that Omega would have to lower himself to Mox’s level to try to get rid of his rival. As Mox is well known for being a death match-loving, crazy son of a bitch, it made complete sense that Omega would ramp things up to that level, and the subsequent hell that the pair put each other through was completely riveting and made complete sense from a story point of view. Not only did Omega use Moxley’s own match against him to eradicate his rival, but he also used a version of Mox’s weapon, the barbed wire bat, to finish him, using a second, exploding, bat brought down by The Good Brothers to smash Mox in the face and pin him for the win. Omega played Mox’s game and won, and it made for great drama.
Blood and Guts, meanwhile, was also an exercise and violence and drama but perhaps in a more old-school way, the match clearly being War Games in all but name. That didn’t stop the match from having its modern moments though, Sammy Guevara, in particular, putting on quite the aerial display within the confines of the four steel walls surrounding him.
Still, this bout was about bloodshed and there was plenty of that, the pent-up fury both teams had for each other spilling out into cathartic violence, and FTR and MJF, in particular, came out of this one juicing some real gushers. I’m a War Games fan anyway, so there was always a good chance I was going to enjoy this one anyway, but the heat, hatred and full-on fury of the first parts of the match were indeed excellent and simmering with savagery.
I wouldn’t, however, say that this match was better overall than the Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match. It was still very good; what prevented this match from rising to excellent though seemed to be Chris Jericho, and I’m not even referring to the ending. Having displayed some success as a Brody-style gaijin brawler during his appearances in New Japan, I assumed we were going to get that same Jericho here, as the match certainly warranted it. Instead, once Jericho, the last man in, entered the match, everything seemed to turn a step slower. Jericho certainly wasn’t going at it with the same intensity as the rest of the combatants were, but then I wonder if he was nervous about what was coming up. I can’t recall Jericho taking such a bump before, so I do wonder if it played on his mind.
Still, it was the case that, after Jericho’s entrance, The Pinnacle all ended up on the mat with The Inner Circle throwing the odd kick at them and that really did seem to work against the real excitement of what we had just seen. Thankfully, Jericho and MJF would head out of the cage and up to the roof and the drama of the earlier moments of the match would be allowed to reach a crescendo that they deserved to reach. That’s why I still claim this match to be very good, but it was so close to excellent.
This, though, was before we got to the ending of the match. What was it about the endings of both matches that infuriated some fans so much that they completely tore them to pieces?
Where Did It Go Wrong: The Exploding Ring
Admittedly, the ending to the Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match didn’t look good. But it also was extremely unfortunate too.
With Moxley pinned, the timer went off to count down to the big explosion that would rock the ring and do serious damage to whoever was caught in its midst. As Kenny and his Elite gang escaped, Moxley lay unconscious in the middle of the ring. The commentators panicked, thinking Mox was going to get seriously burnt. The mood of the match took a dark turn.
Of course, one man’s disaster is another man’s moment of redemption. Out of sheer terror at the thought of his friend getting cremated, Kingston ran to the ring, putting aside the differences the two men had recently experienced so that he could cover and protect his friend.
The counter ticked on. 3…2…1…0…and then?
You could have had a worse burn off of a sparkler, to be honest.
The four corner posts lit up ever so slightly, the smoke and sparks coming nowhere near Kingston and Moxley, who were still very much visible amongst all of this and consequently looked a little silly as a result. The sounds of boos were clearly audible from the crowd, who, remember, were at a reduced capacity. Both the fans at the arena and the fans at home were disappointed and I understand that completely. I was disappointed too.
But why the disappointment? Is an explosion more important than a great match that would lead up to it? In a nice moment of PR spin, Tony Khan was quoted as saying “I don’t know what people really wanted unless you wanted us to actually explode the guys at the end, there’s only so much you can do.” Tony then went on to blame Kenny Omega, who supposedly built the exploding ring, in a nice moment of kayfabe.
However, and I suspect Tony really knows this and wanted to deflect away from it, when you promise an exploding ring, yes, people really do want to see that ring bombarded with an apocalyptic hurricane of smoke and sparks. They really do want to see an end-of-the-world scenario in that ring. Because it’s very easy to find footage now of old classic FMW bomb and barbed wire matches; with YouTube being such a huge resource, this kind of thing is no longer just the preserves of the underground tape trader. Even the most casual fan can go onto YouTube and find an Onita-Funk or Onita-Hayabusa classic and get an idea of what to expect.
With this kind of match, you can’t have your cake and eat it. You really do have to give people what you’ve sold them. Because, especially with this type of match, the selling point is really the spectacle, the big bang. While I’ll come to why I think fans were absolutely wrong to rubbish and denounce this match simply based on the ending, they were also denied what they had been promised, simply by the associations of the match stipulation.
I mentioned this ending was unfortunate before. But I didn’t mean that in a glib way. The fact is, the explosives were tested before the show and had worked absolutely fine during the test. It was only on live PPV that something apparently went wrong with the explosives, as can very much happen in these matches, and that led to the explosion being much weaker than it was meant to be. Imagine if the bomb had gone off as it had during the test: the match would probably be being held up on a pedestal right now. So yeah, I think it’s a damn shame, when the company did their due diligence and tested the explosives beforehand, that they were defeated on PPV by a technical fault. Sometimes the fates conspire against us…
What Went Wrong: Blood & Guts
Again, it’s not so much the concept of what the wrestlers were doing here that seemed to upset people but the execution. Simply put, MJF had Chris Jericho on the roof of the cage and threatened to throw him down onto a section of the ramp or stage unless the Inner Circle surrendered, thus losing the match. Sammy Guevara, out of concern for his friend, did just that. The Pinnacle were awarded the match…and that rat-b*****d MJ went back on his word, throwing Jericho down about 15 feet approximately and crashing into the stage!
There were two things people seemed to take exception to here. The first was Sammy surrendering so as to save Jericho. I didn’t really understand the issue people had with this. Several comments on social media at the time suggested Sammy wouldn’t have surrendered, or that the Jericho-MJF scenario shouldn’t have occurred at all. I can’t quite grasp the issue; it made MJF look even more dangerous, cold and calculating than we’d seen so far and demonstrated the strong bond that exists between the reconciled Sammy Guevara and Chris Jericho. Ultimately, it put MJF over even further as a main event heel and doubled down on the Inner Circle as faces.
What’s the problem with that? Look, even at its most athletic, AEW is not pure wrestling-based. AEW is ultimately about storytelling. Remember, this is the company that was praised for its long-term storytelling during the Hangman Page/Omega/Elite story. The story that the end of Blood & Guts told was more than acceptable. Job done.
The bigger issue that many more people voiced upset with was Jericho’s fall. Why? Because when Jericho landed on the stage, the metal panels that made up the ramp were forced up, very clearly revealing that the metal panels themselves were not metal at all but actually cardboard painted or modified to look like metal panels. It was also clear that Jericho had landed on a crash pad. Many mocked this moment for preventing them from suspending their sense of disbelief. The reaction, I felt, and the level of anger involved was very unnecessary.
AEW die-hards responded in an equally ridiculous manner, claiming that critics of the fall wanted to see wrestlers get legitimately hurt and criticised them as hypocrites for worrying about Matt Hardy but wanting to see Jericho injured. Someone may have said that, I don’t know, but I legitimately didn’t see a single person give that opinion. Nor did anyone have an issue with crash pads themselves, knowing that they have been used for spots like these for many years now.
What I did see, and here I can sympathise, was people complaining about having their illusions shattered because they were taken out of the moment by the careless presentation. When Shane McMahon falls off a cage or some lighting rig, we know he’s going to land on a crash pad. We know he won’t be genuinely hurt. But we also, as fans invested in the story being presented, want to suspend our disbelief. We want to believe. If WWE does one thing right, it does use its camera angles to hide the workings of its illusion, so that we can fully invest in the moment presented. Whether the moments they present are worth investing in is a different matter. Cough-zombies-cough.
Again, AEW is very much about storytelling, as is most wrestling in its way. Imagine if you were watching an action movie and the film showed you the stunt man landing on a crash pad or something similar that was not of the universe of the film. It would take you out of the film. That was the complaint of the fans here for Blood & Guts, and at the least, I do understand that complaint.
Must We Burn Great Matches For Bad Finishes?
I’ve established in this article that, personally, the Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match and Blood & Guts were excellent and very good matches respectively. I’ve also established that many fans have complained and disowned these matches based on their endings, some for reasons I understand and some for reasons I don’t. But do I think these endings were so bad that they ultimately undid all the great stuff that occurred in the match beforehand?
No, I don’t. Here’s why.
I personally think that a fair rule to use when judging these matches and others like them is to assess whether they have rewatchability in the knowledge of what is going to happen at the end of them. Simply put, if I was watching AEW Revolution or the Blood & Guts show again, would I be apprehensive once we got to this particular match or even skip the match entirely?
The answer for both matches is no. The Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match, pre-explosion, is an example of great storytelling and brutal violence. The story of Omega having to lower himself to Mox’s level to take out his rival and actually winning makes for great drama. The viciousness that both men tear at each with is scarily compelling and when you couple that with the story of Mox losing at his own game, it makes for a superb match. After the excellence of the proceeding half-hour, I can accept the ending—especially when I know it was due to a technical issue rather than AEW trying to cheat the fans out of an explosion.
After the time that’s passed since as well, there’s a good chance I’ll be able to laugh at the end and take some entertainment out of it anyway. It might not be the entertainment AEW wants me to take out of it, but still. Even then, although Eddie Kingston might look a bit silly lying down amongst sparklers, I actually appreciate why he’s doing it from a storyline point of view. It’s a nice bit of storytelling and, maybe it’s the wrestling nerd in me, but I like how it nods to the end of the famous Atsushi Onita-Terry Funk Death Match classic from 1993, where Onita covered his mentor at the last second as the bomb went off to protect him. The ending seemed to deflect from that, which is a damn shame.
As for Blood & Guts, the case is a little more complicated. However, it’s not the ending that’s the issue for me. As stated above, the period between Jericho entering and Jericho and MJF taking it to the roof really lags for me. But as this is a small section of the match, and a lot of what came before that was blistering and bloody, I can overlook this, as I know what’s coming will make up for it.
See, Jericho kicks it up a gear on the roof, locking in the Walls of Jericho before MJF counters into the Salt of the Earth armbar twice, his face a crimson mask full of fury and frustration and disdain. Sammy being forced to concede the match to save Jericho is a nice touch, consolidating Guevara’s place back in the Inner Circle and painting MJF as ruthless heel, something he capitalists on brilliantly by throwing Jericho off despite Sammy’s surrender. It’s great storytelling, and the image of MJF, bloodied on the top of the cage, his face full of disgust and satisfaction, shouting “thank you” down at the lifeless body of Jericho, was a definite star-making performance in my book and will stay with me for a long, long time.
As for the fall: while I agree that it wasn’t the greatest decision by AEW to focus the cameras so closely on Jericho so that it clearly showed the crash pad, I hope this something AEW can learn from and I give them a pass. If they do a similar stunt in future and the crash pads are in full sight, then that will be a different matter. But then there’s a different reason for giving them a pass.
Regardless of the crash mat, the sight of a man falling 15 or so feet downwards through the air is still equally exhilarating and terrifying. I mean, you could pay me and I’m still not doing that fall, crash pad or otherwise. I’d happened to read about the Jericho fall before I actually saw the match so maybe I neatly avoided the disappointment those who watched it live experienced, but I also still genuinely felt a rush of dread and excitement as Jericho fell. I knew he was going to land on the crash pad; that didn’t stop me from getting invested in the fall itself because it still looks bloody terrifying! And, in perhaps the ultimate irony, even though the crash pad was visible, Jericho still got hurt, injuring his elbow on the landing. You can have all the safety precautions in the world; things can still go wrong. A large fall is still a large fall.
And maybe a great match is still a great match, even if, for whatever reason, it can’t quite completely stick the landing.
What do you think? Should both matches be dismissed as poor for their endings? Should they be celebrated in spite of them? Maybe you didn’t even like the content of the matches before the endings? Whatever the case, let me know in the comments—I want to hear from you!