So, one thing needs to be made clear off the bat: Wrestling isn't real. Being fake is different to not being real, Star Wars wasn't real but then that didn't matter because no one pretended it was. The important thing about storytelling is that you acknowledge to begin with that it isn't real because even if it seems it in the moment, it sets a bad precedent. Wrestling is not a sport, it's Sports Entertainment as much as I loathe that term, second only to Men being Superstars and Women being divas but that's a rant for another day. The point is, there is an unpredictability to actual sport: Football matches can have no goals after the entire match, Boxing matches can have KOs in the first round, Cricket can last forever and be really bloody dull. But Wrestling isn't real, it's planned, it has a story it's intending to tell and sometimes it can do something amazing that no one expected but for most of the time, it's pretty predictable and I'm here to tell you why that's not necessarily a bad thing.
So I'm going to begin by focusing on a recent example of some frequently predictable storytelling: The John Cena US Championship Open Challenge. In one corner we have the angry people of the IWC, complaining that the matches are too predictable, that Cena was always going to win, that he's burying the entire midcard, that his springboard stunner looks fucking awful (I will give them that last point) and in the other corner, we have people who have accepted two sadly inevitable truths about wrestling, the person you want to win doesn't always and actually wins and losses don't really matter. When Hulk Hogan slammed Andre The Giant, sure Hogan was the one who looked incredible for lifting Andre but he wouldn't have looked so incredible if Andre didn't look like a monster to begin with, as long as both performers are given a chance to shine, a loss doesn't matter. So John Cena, you remember John? Big Match John aka Five Moves of Doom aka LOLCenaWins, this is a man who two of the most prominent parts of his mythos are built around the predictable nature of his matches but here's the most important part: he's Big Match John. It doesn't matter who the opponent is, if you're in a match with John Cena, it's a big match.
Cena doesn't do 'squash matches' (we'll get back to those later), especially with his US Challenge matches, he liked to take his time, to take a nice ten-fifteen minutes, to give his opponent a chance to look like they could win. Sure we all know he kicks out at two (it's what he does, he kicks out at two) but in the best of those matches, we could believe that the opponent could beat him, he lets the opponent look amazing before he manages to pull it back in his favour, I mean there were a few seconds in 2015 where some people could almost believe that Zack Ryder might have beaten Cena. It is possible that even if you go into a match knowing the outcome, it can still be enjoyed on the merits of the match itself. This was the joy of the challenge, even if you know Cena will win, why complain when you get a perfect introduction to the WWE universe for Sami Zayn (when lets not forget, Cena's first main roster match was losing a US Champ Match to Kurt Angle), when you got Neville doing his flippy-doo stuff, when you got Barrett actually looking like a threat for the first time since about 2010. It's not burying a roster, it's putting a spotlight on performers who were stuck in House Show dance-offs with R-Truth and letting them wrestle which is y'know, what they're paid for. I mean yes, the Five Moves of Doom are almost groanworthy in what they represent (and in his silly jumping shoulder tackles) but they represent a perfected formula, a graceful designed 'end' to a match, you know what's coming but even those who don't want to see him win can't deny, they really make a satisfying closing sequence, it's manufactured but it works.
Here's one other thing everyone needs to understand, a squash match isn't a bad thing. I know I spoke a moment ago about how as long as the match is good, it can get away with being predictable but a squash match doesn't even have to be good, it just has to serve its purpose. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say some of you reading this have played a WWE game released in the past five or so years and if so you've played WWE Universe Mode. Have you noticed how 90% of the time the 'rivalries' it creates are just two people or teams fighting each other every week until after a PPV, they stop? You know why that's bullshit? Because it's just repeating the same story beat twelve times. You need to throw in new matches on the way to a big match to keep things fresh. But at the same time, you couldn't have Dolph Ziggler randomly beat Triple H on RAW as everyone would ask 'so why isn't he the one challenging for the title instead of Roman Reigns?' Oh wait, everyone is asking that. A better example would be sub in for those Rich Swann, Finn Balor and Samoa Joe. Rich is an incredibly talented, athletic performer who I have no doubt will have a good run with the company but his match last week against Finn Balor wasn't about him, it's about showing Finn's increasing violence on his road to Takeover:Dallas, it's about making him look fearsome going into the match. Joe was given nearly forty-five minutes with Zayn to show how amazing he was, Finn needed to pull off that in five.
Your beloved NXT is full of squash matches and predictable finishes, actually, when was the last time there was a count-out or a DQ finish on NXT? It sticks to predominantly predictable storytelling but it's because it knows that it's better to tell an old story well that allows the wrestlers to develop (don't forget it is developmental) instead of trying to be overly clever and getting a convoluted clusterfuck of Shane vs Taker proportions. Possibly the best example of NXT's commitment to satisfying yet predictable booking is the Sasha Banks/Bayley feud. Going into Brooklyn and Respect, we knew what was going to happen, Sasha was on RAW already so there wasn't any reason for her to hold the belt anymore but even knowing that, was there anyone who watched and didn't cheer when Bayley won? It's because (disregarding height discrepancies here), they told the oldest story in the wrestling book: David and Goliath, the plucky babyface who's been left behind triumphing over the seemingly unimpeachable power. There was no reason for Sasha to win, she already looked amazing going into the match and there wasn't really any stories left to tell with a heel women's champion between Charlotte and Banks but Bayley winning was so well done because it didn't over-complicate it's story, it was two women with one aim and one coming out on top. As much as people love Sasha, I don't think anyone wanted her to win and she didn't. There was no 'swerving', no 'screwy' finishes, just good solid, old-fashioned storytelling that makes both competitors look world class and that's what good wrestling is. I can't remember the last time I was surprised by an NXT match outcome but I also can't remember the last time I cared.
Good matches are not defined by whether the ending is predictable, as I'm reliably informed by ATP's own editor-in-chief, WCW in the 2000s was full of swerves and screwy finishes and it was shit. Of course, feel free to disagree with me. Feel free to tell me I'm wrong or start a chain on a Reddit to tell me I'm the worst person ever to type a word about wrestling, especially as I gave credit to Big Match John but really stop and consider, if at Wrestlemania 30, Bryan had beaten Triple H only to lose to Batista, if Steve Austin had lost to Shawn Michaels at WM 14, if Hogan had failed to bodyslam the Giant and Andre had beaten him to the shade of his bandana you would've been surprised but completely unsatisfied (actually that last one was a bad example, I would've loved to have seen that). I'm not saying that all storytelling should be predictable, predictable can be dull, can be uninspired, can be Roman Reigns vs Triple H. A surprise can improve, a surprise can keep you on your toes but sometimes there just isn't any other way a story needs to be told than the obvious one. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
You can find Joe on Twitter. Just don't expect him to do anything interesting there.