A name often spoken in the same breath as William Regal’s, it seemed only right to conduct a survey of Dave “Fit” Finlay as a follow up to last week’s column. I won’t compare the two men (much), but I will start the same way.
Full disclosure on what I knew about Finlay beforehand: 1. He loves to fight. 2. He trained the Women’s Division during its heyday. 3. He is Hornswoggle’s father. 4. If he is as good as other wrestlers say he is, I was yet to appreciate it.
After last week, it seemed a foregone conclusion that I would be schooled in the ways of a legend, if only I looked beyond the obvious sources. I apologize for reporting in a random order; it’s the way I’ve been watching the matches, and my observations end up being built upon that order. Please excuse the Willy Wonka-style tour - I promise it ends well.
Finlay vs. Lord Steven Regal – WCW Uncensored, 1996
I was not prepared for Finlay’s aesthetic choices. I typed eight different analogies for his hair before settling on none, and his jacket is the improbable love child of Demolition Smash and a hub cab.
As expected, there are a lot of kicks, stomps, punches, and elbows. Finlay has a jarring short-arm clothesline, which we’ll see in other matches. Both men clearly favor the hard-hitting options: Finlay jumps from the apron and lands with a hard fist to Regal’s back. Normally you see wrestlers opting for a double-axe handle to the back, which looks gentle in comparison.
Finlay shares Regal’s practice of “active holds” by striking and twisting body parts simultaneously. He can kick fast and high, and when he kicks, there is no knee-slapping to create an illusion of impact. Finlay kicks for a field goal every time.
I like how Finlay breaks a pin count by pushing both feet against the bottom rope to propel his shoulders off the mat. When Regal attempts a sunset flip on him, Finlay doesn’t do the usual “helicoptering” his arms in the air to get his balance – he just punches him in the face. After 17 punishing minutes, the match ends in a bewildering disqualification, due to interference by The Blue Bloods.
Finlay vs. Bobby Lashley – U.S. Title match, Smackdown 2006
Taking place ten years later, Finlay has a fresh, strong look. He is cool and relaxed as he feels out his younger, more muscular opponent. How does he manage this discrepancy? From behind, Finlay reaches up and squeezes a nerve in Lashley’s shoulder, then as soon as Lashley weakens enough to sag at the knees a bit, Finlay steps onto his calf and brings him down, where he now has the leverage to apply this pressure hold with both hands.
I also love the simple beauty of his drop-toe hold into an STF that doesn’t look cartoonish. The expression on a wrestler’s face means a lot. You can look like you’re making an effort without flapping your tonsils all over (John Cena).
Lashley makes a dramatic point of throwing Finlay’s trademark shillelagh up the ramp, but Hornswoggle appears from under the ring to provide another, title-winning replica. This pattern of non-clean finishes will continue.
Finlay vs. Rey Mysterio – No Mercy 2007
During the opening “face-off”, Finlay subtly draws Rey in by backing into the corner himself. Rey pursues him, the ref gets in between to caution Rey, and Finlay slips out behind the ref’s back and comes around to corner Rey himself. So this is what Jimmy Korderas was talking about – he was the referee in this match.
Compared to Bobby Lashley, against whom Finlay had to use creativity to gain advantage, with Rey Mysterio every blow makes an impact. This is a very different match, and it looks like Rey is working much stiffer here himself.
We are also treated to a favored Finlay trick, of using the ring skirt to trap his opponent. After Rey goes for a sunset flip over the top rope, Finlay counters by reaching down and wrapping the ring skirt around Rey’s head so that he cannot see where the next attack will come from. He uses every part of the ring, and his body, to great effect. Making a cover, he tends to jam his knee into his opponent’s face/neck to further prevent a kick out. This match is made better by both man’s commitment to making contact.
Finlay vs. JBL – Belfast Brawl at Wrestlemania 24, 2008
“Hornswoggle is my son!” was not a big reveal that I cared for, and I did not originally watch this match with much interest. This is a fight. The crowd is pleased by the use of metal trash cans and the always-entertaining cookie sheets (we’ve had plenty of catering-table brawls, but have we ever had a kitchen clash? I think Ziggler could sell the crap out of an egg beater to the abs). Finlay dives through the ropes to receive a trash can lid to his head, mid air! The WWE really likes to hand out Holy Sh-t Moments in the opening bout.
JBL does not hold back; he fires trash cans at full-throttle onto Finlay and the sympathetic Hornswoggle at ringside. When Finlay swiftly sneaks in a can-shot of his own, the crowd rejoices. After enduring so much violence, Finlay magically pulls out a rolling fireman’s carry slam. Yes, this is a fight, but well executed, with no lag time. For every near-blow there was a seamless counter.
Finlay vs. Matt Hardy – Smackdown June 2006
We skip back a couple of years to Finlay’s WWE debut. The commentators play up Finlay’s toughness, but the fans are behind hometown boy Hardy (who holds his own for the first half, then appears fatigued). Please note their respective ages of 48 and 32. Kids, don’t waste your time making YouTube videos. Spend your time fighting.
Look at how Finlay bodyslams Hardy with minimal exertion. His moves are never sloppy or overemphasized (I’m thinking of indy wrestlers who make a point of jumping after bodyslamming someone to give the effect of impact on the mat). He also pulls another trick with the ring skirt when Hardy goes for a baseball slide and gets trapped.
The ref calls for the bell when Finlay won’t break the 5-count and continues to beat up Hardy in the ropes. Not clean, but an appropriate finish for his debut, as it affords Finlay the opportunity to show the referee (and Hardy) what a disqualification really looks like.
Finlay vs. William Regal – U.S. Title match, Great American Bash 2006
They begin with a most amusing collar-and-elbow tie-up that moves all around the ring, down to the mat, barrel-rolls under the ropes, continues on the floor, back up the steps, and into the ring. With the history between them, they must be having so much fun.
I shake my head in disbelief at what Finlay does next. Regal has him on his back on the mat in an ankle lock, and Finlay performs a headspin to break the hold! The propulsion of the head spin send Regal flying, and Finlay greets him with a grin.
We get some interference from Hornswoggle, who eventually takes to biting Regal’s fingers. Finlay takes advantage of Regal’s damaged fingers by slamming them against the turnbuckles, stomping them, contorting them and jamming them into the ropes. We’ve seen this recently, in Regal’s match against Ohno. When you have a repertoire like William Regal, you can be forgiven a little re-use every five years.
The crowd is not so forgiving, and a “Boring” chant breaks out around the 10-minute mark. I’m biased right now, and cannot decide if I would have found it boring 7 years ago. The action is ever-moving; even while they are both lying spent on the mat, Regal kicks away at Finlay’s head. Don’t hope for a clean finish: we have more Hornswoggle shenanigans involving a stolen boot.
Finlay vs. William Regal – King of the Ring 2008
Regal had eased his way into this semi-final match by submitting Hornswoggle in the quarter final. Meanwhile, Finlay had beaten The Great Khali, but injured his knee in the process. We see Finlay limp out with a well-taped knee, upon which Regal focuses. Once he’s damaged Finlay’s knee further, Finlay consistently sells his handicap. Everything he does - from a failed attempt at a fireman’s carry, to a purposely-awkward backslide – tells the story of his injury. The ref calls for the bell when a submission hold renders Finlay’s eyes vacant. He does not tap.
Fit Finlay & Skull Murphy vs. Steven Jones (Regal) & Orig Williams – Reslo 1990
Not every Wrestlemania appearance has a heritage like this. It is a Saturday-morning Welsh program from the days when wrestling flourished on UK television. Aside from a trim, clean-cut Regal, this is an unsavory crew of grimacing Popeyes who like to take proper turns fighting. It’s a lively crowd full of unhinged children, a Native American Princesses named Paula (Finlay’s wife), a disturbing (possibly Nazi) marching band leader, and slapstick wrestling being taken seriously. Never tell Finlay that he hasn’t paid his dues.
Dave Finlay began wrestling for his father’s promotion, and made a name for himself in the UK, Germany and Japan. His stint in WCW was rather short, after he lacerated a nerve in his leg during a hardcore match in 1999. He couldn’t fully recover before WCW was bought out by WWE, where Finlay took on the role of trainer to the Divas. Over the course of five years, he elevated the women’s division past gimmick matches and even into the main event. He made sure that the models could get at least a few moves in, and the wrestlers could get our genuine attention. He wrestled the mid card for the second half of the decade, and was dismissed as a road agent in 2011, after advising The Miz to interrupt the national anthem at a house show. He has continued to work for other promotions, and this is where we make our final stop.
Finlay vs. Yoshihiro Tajiri – Smash title in Japan, February 2012
I referred to hidden gems when surveying William Regal’s career. I can’t explain how I found this match, but it wasn’t easy, and I wasn’t looking for it. If the 1990 match in Wales was Finlay making ends meet, this 2012 match transcends mere accomplishment. This is the part where I give you the Chocolate Factory.
Tajiri and Finlay work a catch-as-catch can style that is enhanced by the auditorium’s low lighting and near silence (in respect for the action). They are constantly jockeying for position and trying to outmove/outsmart each other. About to be trapped in an STF hold, Finlay sneaks in his arm to prevent Tajiri from completing his grip, then neatly slides his head out. He doesn’t labor endlessly, which can grow monotonous as wrestlers try to summon a crowd’s support. These fans wait for a break in the action, their cue to applaud politely for the competitors.
There is an awesome predatory feel to their next tie up. They both move like wild animals until they begin to trade holds and takedowns again. The quietude of the arena makes their pained cries even more effective. It sounds more believable because there is no need to overact.
Watch Finlay lock in his own STF at the 9 minute mark: it looks so tight, that someone in the crowd dares to yell “Tajiri!” in support. I love these fans, this match, this combination of wrestlers. Finlay can totally keep up with Tajiri’s speed, and Tajiri can keep up with Finlay’s physicality.
Finlay fights dirty with a hair pull, which is going to draw even more heat from a Japanese audience that favors respectful combat. The Japanese commentary builds to an emotional (sounding) finish; however, there is no Japanese word for shillelagh. The Japanese Buzzsaw still kicks out, but a piledriver brings this masterpiece to a close.
The heel Finlay is the retaining champ, but there is not a single boo from this classy Japanese crowd. The match went for over 25 minutes. Dave Finlay picks up the microphone. Instead of cutting a heel promo, he says “Arigato” to the fans, and helps Tajiri to his feet. They embrace. He tells Tajiri to “Keep wrestling classic.”
Is it a reasonable reaction to feel both joyful and angry after watching that last match? To watch a man wrestle so flawlessly, at the age of 54, in a match that so few will ever see… after so many non-clean finishes, and so few platforms to exhibit his true skills. I’m going to take away the joyful feeling. I hope you share it too.