Finlay: The Wrestler's Wrestler
May 26, 2006 by Langdon Beck
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"I would take a thousand piledrivers from Finlay over one snapmare from some workers." - Lance Storm
That statement neatly sums up the general opinion of Finlay among his fellow wrestlers. Put simply, he is one of the most respected and admired men in wrestling today. As well as Storm, William Regal, Steve Corino, Bobby Heenan, Colt Cabana, Chris Benoit, Terry Funk, Bam Bam Bigelow, Bret Hart, Vito, Vader, Mike Tenay, Harry Smith, Antonio Thomas, Robbie Brookside, Drew McDonald, Tony St. Clair and Doug Williams are all in awe of him. Regal is not alone when he says, "I've been lucky enough to wrestle a lot of great opponents over the years. For me, the absolute best was Fit Finlay." Many fans also respect the hell out of Finlay, yet there are some, even on the internet, who don't seem to recognize his ability.
With his father being a wrestling promoter in Ireland, Finlay got his start in wrestling early, working in his father's promotion from an early age before moving to the British mainland in 1978. There, he was trained by Ted Betley (who also trained Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith) and wrestled for Joint Promotions. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, British wrestling was a hotbed for outstanding talent, even if many of the most skilled wrestlers were, and are, not globally well-known. Finlay joined the likes of Dynamite, Marc 'Rollerball' Rocco, the original 'Master Of 1,000 Holds' Johnny Saint, Steve Grey and Marty Jones, and soon began to establish himself as hated Irishman who could back up his threats with his actions, thanks in part to his manager (and then-wife) Princess Paula, a glamorous ringside presence not often seen in European wrestling. In his book, William Regal remembered this time period. "There were so many amazing guys... to watch and learn from... They all did extremely believable-looking wrestling, just the style I liked. Whenever they went at it in the ring it was as real as wrestling ever got because they'd knock the hell out of each other. They used to work so hard and when they came out of the ring, drenched in sweat, it looked like they'd had a real battle. They used great psychology too... Fit Finlay was one of my earliest heroes."
It was in Joint Promotions that Finlay won his first title, when he won the British Heavy Middleweight belt in June 1982. He lost the title soon after, but won it back three times over the course of the year, and became a five-time holder of the championship in September 1987, holding it until July of 1989 when he was beaten by one of his major rivals, the great Danny Boy Collins. The two clashed numerous times in brutal battles over two decades, including in chain matches, and their feud was one of the defining rivalries of the era. Collins later said that there was no wrestler he admired more than Finlay, and independent wrestling superstar Colt Cabana says, "[what] really made Finlay for me were the matches with Danny Boy Collins. It was a great story of the mean Irishman versus the fresh young wrestling kid from England."
Finlay also became a two-time Joint Promotions Light Heavyweight champion, beating British legend Ringo Rigby in a tournament final for his first reign, before losing the title to Marty Jones. Finlay would win the belt back, however, and it was as a result of these title wins, and other accomplishments such as victory in a 1982 tag team tournament that helped Dave 'Fit' Finlay to become a recognizable star on ITV's 'World Of Sport' television show.
When Colt Cabana moved to Europe for three months in 2004, he fell in love with the European style of wrestling. In addition to enjoying the matches of Johnny Saint, Steve Grey, and others, two men caught his eye: one was Rollerball Rocco, and the other was Finlay." "Every match I saw and have seen," says Cabana, "he was the most intense man in the ring. He seemed to be in there for one reason and that was to win. The man had so much energy and on top of being a bruiser, was always the best wrestling technician."
It soon became clear that Fit was one of the top heels in the country - only the great villains such as Rocco or Jim Breaks, and now Finlay, could provoke the old women sitting at ringside to the degree that they would not only harangue the heels mercilessly, but would approach the ring and attack them with handbags, hat pins or cigarettes. This particular aspect of British wrestling was explored by the BBC in a 1984 edition of 'London Plus'. The show featured a fan, Esme Osbourne, explaining the appeal of wrestling, and went on to show her verbally abusing Finlay (and of course Princess Paula) from ringside during a match with 'Iron Fist' Clive Myers.
Finlay's versatility was apparent from the get-go, as he adapted his style to accommodate his opponent, and was often seen in tag team matches, teaming with Skull Murphy as the Riot Squad, or partnering fellow Irish scoundrel, the late Rocky Moran. Finlay & Moran's matches, such as their 1984 encounter with Ross and Owen Hart, were always of a high quality, but it was in singles competition that Finlay really excelled. Says Colt Cabana: "I recall seeing a match of his when he was probably 18 years old, wrestling a 16-year-old Davey Boy Smith. It was such a great match. I remember thinking, of course it's a great match, it's Finlay and Davey Boy. Then you must sit back and remember these guys were just kids. They were kids who, at the time, were already five times better than most." In All Star, he defeated Marty Jones for the World Mid-Heavyweight Championship, and went on to hold that title twice more, beating Jones again for his third reign in 1984. As well as competing for titles, the two met in several highly competitive and classic grudge matches over the years.
Over the course of the 1980s, Finlay wrestled many of Britain's top stars before reaching the peak of his career to date, winning the British Heavyweight Title from nemesis Tony St. Clair in February 1990. In a recent column for a British wrestling website, St. Clair remembered, "by that time, Fit had developed into what I can only describe as the most talented pro wrestler I have ever met. He has everything; timing, agility, ring craft and most of all the ability to lead a match." It would be more than a year before he lost the prestigious championship to current Deep South Wrestling trainer Dave Taylor. Around this time, Fit began to wrestle for the Catch Wrestling Association based in Germany, teaming with old rival Marty Jones to win the CWA Tag Team titles from St. Clair and Miles Zrno. After losing the British title, the CWA was where Fit focused most of his attention, although his ongoing rivalry with Taylor kept people coming to All Star shows long after wrestling was axed from British television.
Jones and Finlay lost the CWA tag titles to Zrno and Franz Schumann before the end of 1990, giving Finlay the opportunity to pursue a singles career - although he did win the titles again, partnering a young John Hawk (better known today as John Bradshaw Layfield). Finlay and Schumann embarked on a rivalry, trading the CWA Middleweight Championship back and forth in tremendous matches such as Finlay's speciality, the Irish Street Fight, combining mat wrestling, brawling, flying, and doing it all well. Both men were prepared to take a major beating in order to produce the best match possible. Finlay would win the Middleweight title three times in total, defeating Steven Wright (father of Alex) and Eddie Gilbert for his second and third reigns respectively. In addition to this, Fit continued his feud with Tony St. Clair, faced up-and-comers like Ulf Herman and Lance Storm (who beat Fit in a Street Fight Cage Match), and won several other CWA titles, taking his career total to sixteen.
By the time Finlay reached CWA, he had already perfected the art of making every one of his opponents look great. On his website, Lance Storm says, "I remember one match in Europe, I worked with Finlay; he beat me clean in the second round (record time) and he managed to make me look like a million dollars. It's not always the result, it's how you go about it." Finlay is one wrestler who knows how to go about it. Storm continues, "Fit is likely the most talented man I have ever been in a ring with... I had maybe 50 matches with Fit and I learned so much about being a heel working with him. His professionalism and attention to detail is the standard I try to hold myself to."
Finlay's feud with Tony St. Clair spanned more than a decade. During the early 1990s, events featuring a Finlay - St. Clair match were almost always guaranteed to sell out. As well as regular matches, they fought in Street Fights, Chain Matches and Ladder Matches, and beat the hell out of each other every time. "That was what the people wanted to see and that is what they got," said St. Clair. "We both felt we would be short changing the crowd if we didn't [hit as hard as we could]. Sometimes I could hardly get out of bed the next morning, my body ached so much... I don't know who won or lost the most matches but it didn't matter - it's not winning or losing that makes you a star, it's the quality of your work." Their final match, an Irish Street Fight, marked St. Clair's retirement from full time wrestling. At the time, Finlay was still recovering from an almost crippling leg injury suffered in WCW. Finlay got the win and left without shaking Tony's hand (after all, they'd never shaken hands before, why start"). St. Clair got a microphone to thank the fans and say goodbye, but Fit came back out. St. Clair recalls, "[Fit] took the mike from me. 'St. Clair, nobody ever hit me back like you did, now it's over, good luck ´. I was genuinely shocked as he offered me his hand and we hugged each other as we fell, both crying, to the floor."
The early 1990s also saw Finlay begin to gain worldwide exposure, competing mainly for New Japan Pro Wrestling. His most famous Japanese match was a tag team victory against Negro Casas and Eddy Guerrero, with Pegasus Kid (a.k.a Chris Benoit) as his partner, but he would compete with Guerrero again during Eddy's time as Black Tiger, as well as with other junior heavyweight greats such as Shinjiro Ohtani. And in the middle of the decade, WCW came calling...
Using the name 'Belfast Bruiser', Finlay aimed to make an impact. He would have been there up to three years earlier if things had worked out differently. In 1993, WCW was looking for a new booker, and Terry Funk appeared to be the favourite for the job. When asked what he'd do if he became booker, Funk replied, "´First of all I'd get that tough son of a bitch Finlay on contract." Sadly, Terry didn't get the job.
Fit's first major American match with William Regal at Uncensored 1996, although it ended in a DQ, was the one of the most brutal, hard-hitting match American audiences had ever seen. They were supposed to go to a thirty minute draw, but as Regal explains in his book, things didn't go to plan. "We went out and got stuck into each other so much that Finlay hit me in the face with one punch which gave me twelve stitches over my eye, a broken nose and a fracture cheekbone. There was blood everywhere - and WCW still had a strong anti-blood policy." The impromptu DQ came about when Regal's associates, Bobby Eaton and Dave Taylor, were sent out to stop the carnage. "But the adrenaline was flowing through the Belfast Bruiser and he just attacked them... the match made a name for us both," Regal said.
Their captivating feud ended with a ferocious Parking Lot Brawl on Nitro. Before the match, Finlay and Regal had asked which cars were gimmicked, and were told, "What do you mean, gimmicked"" Aside from one car with a loosened bumper, all they could do was run into things hard and break them. "We killed each other in that match," Regal said later. "Fit's head went through a side window, and there was nothing gimmicked about that. Glass was everywhere.... We hit each other as hard as we could, ground each other's head into the concrete, slammed each other on cars and it ended when I gave Fit a piledriver on top of a car... It was amazing - I don't know how we got away with it... For months later, Fit kept finding little fragments of glass under the skin on his legs and he'd have to pick it out." Soon after, Finlay returned to the CWA, taking advantage of his increased exposure. He made his return to WCW (using the Fit Finlay name) in late 1997, picking up wins on Nitro against the likes of Dave Taylor and competing in the World War III Battle Royal.
It was another couple of months until Finlay would really make his mark on the organization again. In early 1998, he earned a shot at the Television Title. The champion at the time was Booker T., who was involved in a rivalry with Chris Benoit over the belt. On the May 4 episode of Nitro, Finlay got his title shot, and when Benoit came out to distract Booker during the match, Finlay hit a European-style Piledriver - also known as a Tombstone - to capitalize and win the championship. His first pay per view defense came against Benoit at Slamboree, and if you've seen any of their recent WWE matches, you can imagine how good it was. Thanks to a Booker T. distraction, Finlay retained the title, but now both Benoit and Booker were after him. It was decided that there would be a Best Of Seven Series between the two, with the winner getting a title match at the Great American Bash. Booker won the series, and regained the title from Finlay.
After his two-month reign as TV Champion ended, Fit returned to relative obscurity within WCW, wrestling Dean Malenko in excellent non-televised matches during the summer, and feuding with fellow Europeans Davey Boy Smith and Alex Wright. A short time later, Finlay made an impact once again, this time in WCW's newly-created Hardcore Division. It made sense to have Finlay in the Hardcore Division, given that he was - and still is - one of the best brawlers in the world, but at the same time it was arguably wasting his technical wrestling skills. At the 1999 Bash At The Beach, he competed in the Hardcore Junkyard Invitational, facing well-known hardcore wrestlers like Public Enemy, Mikey Whipwreck, Hardcore Hak (a.k.a Sandman) and more, and with the assistance of former foes Regal and Dave Taylor, won the match and a trophy. However, the following Nitro, Jimmy Hart's First Family stable stole the trophy, setting up a feud with the three Brits. Unfortunately, a freak accident during a match with the First Family's Brian Knobbs put an end to the rivalry, and almost to Finlay's career.
During this non-televised match, Knobbs sent Finlay through a table set up in the corner of the ring. At the time, WCW was making booking cuts, and this particular night had not brought any tables despite having scheduled a Hardcore Match. So they used the tables at the building, which were made out of Formica (a laminate plastic) rather than wood. The table shattered like glass on impact, ripping Fit's leg open and slicing through all the major nerves just below the knee. Lance Storm says that Finlay "just sat quietly in a pool of blood holding his leg together until medical people arrived." He came close to losing his leg, and doctors gave him a 50% chance of walking again. Even with an injury of this magnitude, Finlay did not take a single pain pill, nor did he lose hope. When St. Clair spoke to him several weeks after the accident, Finlay challenged him to one last match, saying "If my leg doesn't get any better we'll have to make it a Wheel Chair match." A return to wrestling was highly unlikely, but in a show of true determination and courage, Finlay returned to the ring later that same year, viciously attacking Knobbs. He wore a hard metal cast for protection, and to this day still has a wound shaped like a shark bite and no feeling below the knee. "You'd never know it to see him, which just shows the sort of fellow he is. He's never given into it," as William Regal says.
If you're still not convinced of just how tough Finlay is, let Lance Storm explain: "[Ken Shamrock] may be the most skilled fighter but skilled fighters don't put you on the most dangerous list. Guys like [Haku], or Fit Finlay, are dangerous people... If I were in a fight with Ken I would no doubt lose, if I were in a fight with Fit, I likely wouldn't leave with the right amount of body parts. There is less danger in getting beat up than there is in getting beat to death."
Finlay and Knobbs began to feud. Following a match at Starrcade also involving Norman Smiley and Meng (a.k.a Haku), and a short series of matches with the latter, Finlay and Knobbs formed a bond and joined forces to become the camouflage-wearing Hardcore Soldiers. Finlay returned to singles competition soon after, losing a memorable Falls Count Anywhere Match to Vampiro at Uncensored 2000. When Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo returned to power in WCW, they essentially forgot about Finlay and Knobbs, though the Soldiers did compete in a decent match against Terry Funk & Norman Smiley and Meng & Hugh Morrus. After this, however, Fit Finlay was practically ignored, competing only in the occasional hardcore match and on the Millennium Final pay per view.
Finlay left WCW and returned to Europe, occasionally wrestling old friends such as Robbie Brookside. Following WWE's purchase of WCW, he was offered a job as a road agent, dispensing knowledge and advice to full-time wrestlers on the roster. Finlay, now effectively retired, accepted and was put in charge of WWE's female wrestlers. Under his guidance, the Women's Division flourished, with the amazing improvement of Trish Stratus in 2001, and her subsequent rivalries with Jazz, Victoria, and Molly Holly being among the best results of Fit's training. Of course, Finlay can't be given all the credit, as the incredibly hard-working ethic of the women themselves played a major part. But Trish, Torrie Wilson and several other Divas have mentioned Finlay as having a significant role in the rejuvenation of the division. In 2002, he, William Regal and Dave Taylor opened a wrestling school; before its closure in 2005 it produced wrestlers such as Chris Hero. Meanwhile, Fit continued his role as road agent, running tryouts for potential additions to the company and continuing to give advice to whoever wanted or needed it. Tank Toland (known in WWE as James Dick) credits Finlay as being someone who went out of his way to help him, and Antonio of the Heart Throbs says, "he's one of the best in the world, I learned so much from him during my time in WWE - you're always learning something new being around such a phenomenal worker."
At the end of 2005, videos began airing on SmackDown! advertising Finlay's return to the ring with a new, no-nonsense character; a man who loves to fight. And he's had a lot of success with it, proving that you don't need to be young, flashy or have an over-the-top personality to be noticed in wrestling as long as you have the talent. His return match against Matt Hardy showed a whole new generation of fans exactly why so many regard him so highly; showing little ring rust, and with his timing and execution as good as ever, Finlay stood out, and was a breath of fresh air. From his memorable obliteration of the Juniors to great matches (and post-match brawls and beatings) with Lashley, Chris Benoit, and various others, Finlay has been a consistent highlight in WWE during 2006. Former ECW, NWA, and AWA World Champion Steve Corino sums it up when he says, "I think he is the best thing on SmackDown right now."
For over twenty five years Finlay has provided us with some of the most intense, hard-hitting, and just plain great wrestling matches that any fan could hope to see. His work from decades ago is as watchable now as ever. Says Corino, "I LOVE Fit Finlay's style! One of my favorites to watch. Colt Cabana showed me some of his stuff from the UK back in the early-mid 90's and it is unbelievable how good it is." He's the ultimate pro: tough as hell, charismatic, and staggeringly good in the ring, especially considering he has one leg that is dead from the knee down. It's not for nothing that a European promoter once remarked that Finlay could get a match out of a rusty old bike frame. According to Colt Cabana, "whether it was against the lackluster Grasshopper or the outstanding Tony St. Clair, Fit Finlay was just a machine. 100 Miles per hour and a professional all the way through." Finlay's peers know it, and many fans know it too. With his continued presence every week on SmackDown, more and more will realize that Finlay's one of the very best.
Special thanks to Antonio Thomas, Colt Cabana and Steve Corino for sharing their opinions with me.
by Langdon Beck --- [View Langdon Beck's Column Index]..
Matt Jordan wrote:
I love Finlay too, but WWE just doesn't know what to do with him. I mean, they make it look like he can't win without cheating. What's up with that, WWE"
Jack Tronson wrote:
This is the best collum i have ever read, nothing else needs to be said. Thankyou for such an insightful collum!
Shaun Whirock wrote:
Great column Langdon. I've been watching Finlay technically for 20 years now, thanks to my fathers tapes and he certainly is one of the greatest ever.
One things that bugs me I never understood how him and Princess Paula got together, I really didn't understand that at all.
Richard Gittins wrote:
I have been a fan of OWW for well over a year now and there have been many great articles but none have been as informative and entertaining (although
biased) as this one. I hope the next 16 are just as good.
Steve McGrath wrote:
Fantastic column. I have been touting Finlay as an excellent worker for years, while recognising his faults. To give a history so in depth and detailed shows understanding and commitment. Well done!
Joseph Nicolino wrote:
Great column. I just watched Finlay vs. Regal on WWE 24/7 and it was a great hard hitting match. The success of Finlay training the Divas is a bit suspect to me though, since the WWE cut most of the women wrestlers that had talent. When I read that Finlay was coming back full time I didn't know what to think. I figured that if he can at least resemble what he was in WCW then he'll be a good mid card heel, something Smackdown really needed. But his match with Matt Hardy was good, his use of the ring apron in his offense was pretty innovative. Now since Finlay is one of the most over heels on Smackdown Johnny Ace has to mess with him and give him a midget, since Johnny Ace was against Finlay coming back saying it'll never work, then it, you know did. I hope the midget gets him more over just to throw it in Ace's face.
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