Three count and a cloud of Dust: Wrestling’s dreaded Dusty Finish
In his book and DVD as well as during several “shoot” interviews, Dusty Rhodes denies responsibility for the screwjob finish that became a trademark of his booking during several high-profile World title matches in the ’80s. I’m talking about, of course, the dreaded “Dusty Finish”–a disheartening swerve that was booked in several JCP/WCW towns and on PPV repeatedly to the point it only served to piss of the fans instead of build anticipation for the rematch.
It usually went something like this: one referee (e.g., Tommy Young) is knocked unconscious to the floor with a bump. The heel (in this case, Ric Flair) charges his babyface challenger (say, Big Dust), who alertly backdrops the champion over the top rope, near the knocked-out official on the floor. A second ref hits the ring as Dusty suplexes the Nature Boy back into the squared circle and goes for the cover. The substitute ref counts the pinfall on the champ, swerving the people into believing the belt has just changed hands. The title win is then promptly overturned by the original ref, who explains that he had regained his bearings just in time to see the champ tossed over the top rope, an automatic disqualification. To make matters worse, sometimes the overturned decision wasn’t announced to the live crowd, so they left the arena thinking there was a new champion. The following week on TV, Flair would strut out with the belt, with no mention of a controversial finish at the local arena. As Big Dust himself might say, “Dat’s risky bidness, baby.”
Using his this finish, Dusty won the NWA World title from Ric Flair at Starrcade ’85 and had the boys (Superstar Graham, Billy Jack Haynes, Wahoo, Italian Stallion) give him a rousing locker-room celebration before the belt was returned to Flair. (I’m sure they were all just thrilled.) Tommy Young’s explanation about the DQ didn’t air on JCP TV until nearly two weeks after the event.
Dusty pretty much killed the promotion’s attendance in Chicago when he booked that same finish in a Road Warriors vs. Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard bout for the NWA tag titles at Starrcade ’87, which saw the “hometown” LOD lose on a DQ. (Amazing feat: In one night, Dusty pissed off fans from Chicago to Greensboro, where the longtime JCP fans were already furious that the promotion had moved the flagship event to Chi-Town.) A year earlier, Animal and Hawk had both seemingly won the NWA strap from Flair via the Dusty Finish in matches Rhodes booked as part of the 1986 Great American Bash tour.
WCW even used the Dusty Finish years later in a Ric Flair vs. Tatsumi Fujinami title match at the Tokyo Dome for a PPV, which ended the long-standing credibility of the NWA belt in Japan. (As Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer wrote at the time: “The Dusty Finish strikes Tokyo.”) The poor members of the Japanese press were forced to explain that Fujinami was still the NWA champion, but Flair had control of the WCW belt so he could defend it at house shows in the States. (In a lame segment by even WCW standards, a bloody Flair interrupted Fujinami’s press conference and simply stole the belt back before winning a rematch in the States.)
To those who criticized him for the Dusty Finish, the American Dream responded in his book: “Holy dippity dogshit, the ‘Dusty Finish’ is without a doubt the biggest scam in our industry. The phrase was created by sheet writers and picked up by the guys in the business who read them. Sure, I may have brought it to prominence by showing in 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. George Washington crossing the Delaware to surprise the Hessians, that was a Dusty Finish.” (He goes on to categorize the Trojan horse and Eve taking a bite out of an apple as “Dusty Finishes.”)
In Dusty’s defense, he wasn’t the only guilty party. The Southeastern/Continental territory booked the same swerve with the likes of Austin Idol and Ron Fuller winning the belt for all of two minutes, while Kevin Von Erich got a brief taste of the Ten Pounds of Gold at the Dallas Sportatorium with an apparent win over Flair in 1982 before Bronco Lubich overruled babyface ref David Manning’s ruling. Flair himself used the finish in Auckland, New Zealand, for a bout at the local YMCA with Mark Lewin.
A recent YouTube Find reveals that even Sam Muchnick’s St. Louis territory, which prided itself on relatively clean finishes, especially in bouts involving the NWA World championship, wasn’t above a variation of the Dusty Finish. I sort of like this version, with Harley Race tossing Ted DiBiase over the top strand in a 1981 title bout at Kiel Auditorium; the verdict is delayed when even the original ref raises Ted’s hand after a discussion with the ring announcer and the second ref. But in the end, the ref awards the belt to Harley; Ted has the victory…but by disqualification. Nice touch with announcer Larry Matysik stressing (with an awkward pronunciation of the challenger’s surname) that, ever the sportsman, DiBiase shook the ref’s hand because he realized it was the right call to take the heat off the official and the finish. If used only once in a territory, the finish could be effective in spiking the houses for a return match.
Writes Jeff Sharkey for the Cauliflower Ear Club: “The infamous rematch with Race for the NWA World title at Kiel Auditorium on February 6, 1981 ended with what became known as “the Dusty finish” for its frequented use while Dusty Rhodes booked for Jim Crockett in the mid 1980s. But in St. Louis, the result was booked to make all parties come out strong. The referee of record, Charles Venator, was knocked down, yet he still witnessed Race tossing DiBiase over the top rope, an act that served as grounds for disqualification. Yet before that decision could be rendered, DiBiase returned to the field of battle, and Race fell victim to another belly-to-back suplex, which led to a three-count at the hand of a second official. Slowly the official decision of a DQ on Race became apparent to the throng in attendance through well-timed referee pantomime and Matysik’s announcement of the result over the house mic. The St. Louis crowd shared DiBiase’s visible disappointment. But it was the right decision technically, and thus they respected the referee’s call, especially after he was endorsed by a handshake from the challenger, who came ‘just that close’ on this night. The anticipation of DiBiase being on the brink of striking gold led the fans back to the rematch at the Checkerdome on June 12, 1981. Sixteen thousand fans watched as Race turned back DiBiase’s challenge. “But it proved Ted was a main eventer who delivered good matches and drew money,” Matysik said.
The problems mounted for WCW which Dusty booked the ending on consecutive shows in towns like Greensboro, whose fans were pretty savvy. Plus, Dusty seemed to have trouble realizing that when you booked that finish on the SuperStation or on PPV, your fans nationwide–not just the folks in the arena–saw it, so you couldn’t effectively run it again at house shows. Fans could see it coming a mile away.
Today, while WWE occasionally resorts to lazy booking for major PPV bouts–e.g., Sunday’s World title match at Over the Limit PPV between champ Jack Swagger and Big Show, which ended in a DQ in under five minutes–the company for the most part appears committed to delivering clean wins, even by heels, which is one of few refreshing developments in the era of sports entertainment. While I hope the days of the Dusty Finish are behind us, I can’t help but think WWE Creative might get cute and book Cody Rhodes to win the WWE championship in a few years after a second referee makes the call, only to have the decision overturned by the official of record. Talk about karma–in public, if you will.