For a lot of reasons, theft has been on my mind in recent weeks.
External events of the world aside, AEW Dynamite was rife with it on May 11th. The first two matches on the card—Dax Harwood vs. Adam Cole, and John Silver vs. CM Punk—both featured finishes that saw the winners use another wrestler’s patented maneuvers. In the Harwood/Cole match, it was self-processed Shawn Michaels product Adam Cole using a Sharpshooter to tap out Bret Hart disciple Dax Harwood. The match after, CM Punk put away John Silver by pointedly using Hangman Page’s Buckshot Lariat to continue to heat up their AEW World Title program.
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Both instances got me thinking of the rich history of the move steal in professional wrestling. Wrestling, as with any other medium, builds upon its history constantly. It’s an unending process of innovation, reinvention, and rediscovery. As such, some moves just naturally enter what we might call the public domain of usage with enough time.
That’s not quite what I want to talk about here. Rather, I want to focus on the more intentional uses of move stealing in pro wrestling. In considering the topic, I found that this particular trope generally gets utilized in three different ways—tribute, spite, and retribution. There can be overlap between those three categories, but broadly speaking, I find that these cover the storytelling purposes of a good finisher steal.
As such, I’ll be breaking down some key examples of the finisher steal through the years. This will be far from a comprehensive history of the move, but rather just a cherry picking of significant uses of it to demonstrate how it can be used to varying degrees of efficacy.
Theft as Tribute
This is probably the most innocuous of the purposes of a finisher steal. As such, it’s both the most common and the one that varies in quality the most. It’s not uncommon to see wrestlers shouting out their influences from past generations by utilizing their moves. After all, every artist steals at some point in their career, but what’s important is how they implement what they take and in what context.
A notable example that comes to mind would be Eddie Kingston. Well-known for his love of the King’s Road style of pro wrestling, Eddie Kingston has folded in a lot of 90s All Japan offense into his arsenal. The obvious thing here is the machinegun-style Kobashi chops he’s fond of, but there’s also the Stretch Plum which he’s used as a submission finish for years now.
Kingston’s use of King’s Road moves might be the best example of this particular brand of tribute. There’s no actual history between Eddie Kingston and the wrestlers that he references, it is a gesture done out of pure love — one performer acknowledging the efforts of those he admires.
While Kingston might be one of the more outspoken and obvious examples of this, this mindset is shared by numerous performers. I’ve already mentioned FTR’s proclivity for quoting Bret Hart in this piece, and so any time Dax Harwood or Cash Wheeler goes for a Sharpshooter, it’s obvious that it’s more than just a use of a fairly common submission maneuver but a direct reference to one of their great influences.
On a smaller scale, we have indie wrestlers like Dominic Garrini referencing much more recent history. While the Triangle Choke isn’t a move commonly associated with a single wrestler, Garrini’s proclivity for flexing while slapping on the hold in recent months can’t help but recall Bryan Danielson’s brutal run of squash matches from late 2021. This is a connection that’s a little vaguer and more tenuous if just reading it on the surface—again the Triangle Choke is a hold that’s been passed around like crazy through the years — but the tie becomes a little clearer when one recalls that one of Dom’s many monikers is still “The Italian American Dragon.”
Speaking of Bryan Danielson, he might be one of the most “quoted” wrestlers of the century especially in recent months. This won’t be the last time we discuss Danielson, but the advent of the Blackpool Combat Club can also be used to highlight the bond between wrestlers. Both Jon Moxley and Wheeler YUTA have incorporated Danielson’s 12 to 6 elbows as well as his signature head stomps into their matches to emphasize that all three act as training partners and brothers in combat.
A similar use occurs in the first ever Holy Demon Army tag match. Toshiaki Kawada, having just formed this new bond with longtime rival Akira Taue, hits Taue’s Nodowa Otoshi finisher in the closing moments of the match. It’s a nice way to signal that Kawada and Taue are now on the same page, and far more dangerous than ever.
Of course, the tribute finisher steal is a double-edged sword. As common as it is, it becomes easy to drift towards the inorganic. When the person paying tribute doesn’t have a strong enough connection to who they’re aping or overdo their tribute, one ends up with things like The Young Bucks vs. FTR I or perhaps the finishing stretch of Randy Orton vs. Edge’s Greatest Wrestling Match of All Time. It comes down to a matter of taste but there’s a point where doing cool moves of one’s peers or of greats of the past can come across as cheap if not done right.
Theft Out of Spite
In terms of storytelling uses, spite is the one that I most associate with the finisher steal. The two examples on the May 11th episode of Dynamite fall nicely into this. Both Punk and Cole used another worker’s finish to poke at their opponents.
A lot of the most famous examples of it fall under this category. Something like Austin and The Rock’s finisher stealing through the build to their WrestleMania X7 match comes to mind. That might be one of the most prototypical examples of how this trope is deployed. It was used to show just how well The Rock and Austin knew each other leading into their biggest match ever. At the same time, it hinted at Austin’s mindset going into the match of refusing to leave any stone unturned in his quest to regain the WWF Championship.
The Okada vs. Tanahashi rivalry adds a more tactical bent to this idea. While there is absolutely a fair share of spite between those two, especially in the peak years of their rivalry in the mid-2010s, the move steals in their matches come across with a slightly more calculated tone. The best matches of this rivalry are characterized by constantly shifting and adjusting strategies as both men learn (or fail to learn) from their past battles. Part of that is becoming deeply familiar with each other’s offensive arsenals, which plays into the famed counter sequences in those matches.
Yet again, we must refer back to our old friend Bryan Danielson. Two of his most notable rivals engaged in move stealing during their feuds with the GOAT. Through the late 2000s, Nigel McGuinness often quoted the American Dragon for heel heat. Whether that meant nabbing Bryan’s catchphrases or even locking in the Cattle Mutilation, Nigel was always good to throw a petty jab at Dragon.
Meanwhile in the WWE, The Miz took to stealing Daniel Bryan’s signature maneuvers and taunts while feuding with him in the fallout of the famed Talking Smack blowup. Last I checked — which I don’t do with any regularity if it’s on WWE TV — The Miz still uses his It Kicks long after the person it references left the company.
John Cena is a fascinating example of this device. One of his most famous losses, in the first match against The Rock at WrestleMania XXVIII, came because he spent too much time trying to set up for a People’s Elbow instead of pressing his advantage. This same habit cameback to haunt him, nearly a decade later, when Cena battled Roman Reigns at SummerSlam 2021. Despite being in control late in the match, Cena opted to go for the champion’s patented Spear only to have it countered, thus costing him the match. Cena’s attempts to embarrass opponents with their own moves has consistently been a weakness of his that leads to downfall.
Seth Rollins spent much of his career in the late 2010s utilizing Triple H’s Pedigree for a couple of reasons. The first is as a dig at Helmsley throughout their feud, but also as a replacement finisher when the Curb Stomp was banned from WWE television. Around the same time period, members of the NXT UK roster also took the Pedigree into the European independent wrestling scene, often to get heat given their ties to Triple H and the WWE. While I personally don’t care to see Triple H continue to leech off the young in this way, its effectiveness will likely vary among many here. For what it’s worth, I’ll just say no one really hits the Pedigree quite as well as Hunter anyway.
Theft as Retribution
Closely tied to the last category, this would be the most satisfying of the three uses. It’s the one that provides a real sense of finality to proceedings. When this is well done, it elicits all the very best things that pro wrestling can achieve. At its finest, there’s a real sense of justice and closure that can come from it — something that should be the norm in pro wrestling but sadly is often a rarity.
I will cite Bryan Danielson for the last time, as twice now he’s been on the losing end of this. At WrestleMania 35, Kofi Kingston grabs WWE Champion Daniel Bryan by both wrists and stomps his head in to set up his big win. An echo of this happens in Danielson’s first AEW World Championship match against Hangman Page. After bullying and pestering Page and his friends for weeks, Page gets a turn to kick Danielson’s head in.
Yuki Ueno utilized this tactic to great effect in a 2021 DDT Universal Championship match against Yukio Sakaguchi. The year prior, Sakaguchi had choked out Ueno with a Sleeper in a Six-Man Tag Team Championship match, which immediately led into Sakaguchi and his partner Kazusada Higuchi winning the Tag Team Titles from Ueno and Naomi Yoshimura in the following match.
As part of the build to the singles bout between Ueno and Sakaguchi, much attention was given to Ueno learning techniques to counter Sakaguchi’s Sleeper. The match plays out with Ueno doing everything he can to neutralize the Sleeper, even going for Sakaguchi’s arm to take away his ability to grab it. It all culminates in Ueno finally get the Sleeper on his own and choking Sakaguchi out. Pretty much perfect storytelling from where I sit.
Sticking on the Japanese wrestling track, there’s a wonderful example from all the way back in 1984. The famous Sekigun vs. Ishingun 5-on-5 elimination gauntlet match starts with Tatsumi Fujinami representing the Sekigun taking on Choshu’s goons in the first couple of match ups. In the first match up, he’s able to lock in Choshu’s own Sasorigatame on Kuniaki Kobayashi. In the second, he even gets a submission victory over Isamu Teranishi with the very same Sasorigatame. It’s rapturous seeing Fujinami twist the knife by clearing out his opponents with Choshu’s hold. If more finisher steals were half as cool as this on the regular, wrestling would be much better off.
The finisher steal leaves an instant impression whenever it’s done. The instant flair of recognition in the viewer’s brain is satisfying in its own right, but what’s left after that first moment dissipates that matters most. More often than not, these things are done best when they can leave the viewer with a feeling greater than just, “Remember that cool thing from before?”
I’m glad that AEW experimented with it on a recent Dynamite, as it diversifies the options they can draw from when telling their stories. It’s not something I want to see every week, but approached in just the way, it could be great.
As with anything else in wrestling, it’s a tool. On its own, it’s a neutral thing. It all comes down to how you use it.