FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons Pro Wrestling can learn from Time Limit Draws, evidenced by Joe-Punk in ROH, Buddy Rose, Bockwinkel-Hennig, Flair-Sting, more

By Matt Seabridge, PWTorch Specialist

C.M. Punk ROH (photo credit Wade Keller © PWTorch)


The time limit draw used to be a staple of wrestling prior to WWE monopolising the industry. They were a key part of a booker’s playbook in wrestling promotions around the world, even for Vince himself to a less frequent extent.

Pro wrestling is all about presenting a façade and working the audience into buying it. The time limit draw was one of the most effective façade’s, particularly throughout the territories era. What was essentially a booker’s way of opting out of having either wrestler lose isn’t looked back on with the same eye-rolling glare that the run in DQ finish is despite them both being used to achieve the same outcome.

Time limit draws weren’t just a good finish by the standard of cop-out finishes, they were a good finish period. They helped make rivalries memorable, added variety to the stories being told, created drama and, most importantly, helped make money-drawing stars. In this edition of “Five Count,” we’ll look at the positives that the time limit draw brought to wrestling promotions and how modern promotions across the world can benefit from the use of them.

(1) They Help Build & Prolong A Rivalry

In the modern wrestling climate where fans have access to more wrestling than ever before, the ability to be different and do something nobody else is doing becomes an invaluable asset. Differentiation should always be the name of the game in any industry and, while building a rivalry based on time limit draws isn’t exactly differentiation on a grand scale, anything you can do that nobody else is doing is generally a positive thing.

The concept of the time limit draw is spectacularly simple, almost to the point that it’s bordering on laziness. You take two wrestlers who have good chemistry together who can work a match to a standard where fans are left wanting more each time. First time out you book them in a 15 minute time limit draw. The match gets over because it’s two good workers with enough time to have a good match but nothing gets decided so you not only have a desire for a rematch but also a need (plus nobody has to lose!).

You come back again with the same match only this time with a longer time limit, say 20 minutes instead of the previous 15. Rinse, wash, and repeat the last match only with an added five minutes and ideally an ever better match than last time with spots and stories that build on the previous encounter.

After this draw, you add a little more spice to the rivalry and the wrestlers produce greater fire in their promos because at this stage they don’t just want to find out who the better man is, they NEED to find out. So you come back for a third time where you finally produce a winner, this time building the time limit to 30 minutes or even saying because the final match will be without TV time restrictions there won’t be any time limit, we go until we have a winner and here you pay the entire rivalry off finally producing a winner.

The beauty is in the simplicity of it. All you’re doing is picking a pair of good workers and allowing their strengths to shine. Proof of it is the Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose series from FCW which through the brilliant FCW 15 concept produced the exact program I just described. And guess what? It got over. FCW wasn’t a show that people were watching on a regular basis like they do now with NXT, but hands up how many people reading this have watched them matches?

That series of matches got over bigger than the show they were on and are proof that time limit draws aren’t some outdated booking trope from the territories era that doesn’t work anymore. They were effective then and they still are now; the only difference is how often they’re implemented.

Another great modern example is the Samoa Joe vs. C.M. Punk series from Ring of Honor. Yes, the main reason their series of matches got over so big is because they were absolutely classic matches but by the time Joe vs. Punk III came around at All Star Extravaganza II, everyone was not only watching to see another entry to a classic series of matches but they were watching to see who won. And that’s when business will always do well, when fans have genuine interest in the outcome of a match.

Joe and Punk were equals at the very top of the promotion. Punk eventually doing the honours did nothing to damage his credibility. He’d already been made and he never even had to win a match. Joe was made as an all-time great champion and Ring of Honor were made as a promotion because of a program based around two guys being presented as equals that were unable to get a win over the other before time ran out.

Now that WWE has entered another brand split era, getting longevity out of programs without killing any desire to ever see them again is not only a massive challenge but a genuine necessity. Less than a year in and we’ve already been consistently beaten over the head with WWE’s tactics to extend programs because there’s not enough viable opponents over the course of a year for many acts. The Sasha vs. Charlotte program being a key example.

Due to the only other programs the entire division had to offer being Charlotte vs. Bayley and Sasha vs. Nia, WWE was forced to extend the Sasha vs. Charlotte feud longer than was ideal for fear of running through everything they had available with such a sparse hand before WrestleMania. So in order to extend the program and justify having so many matches between the pair, we got this constant back and forth of trading wins which gradually soured viewers on what should have been a very well received feud.

Time limit draws offer an alternative to just having to beat someone and provide greater justification for not only doing a rematch, but also making viewers actually want to see a rematch. When there’s no decisive outcome in a match you’re invested in there’s a natural desire to see a rematch but when the indecisive outcome just comes across as a garbage copout finish it puts the wrong type of heat on the program and viewers lose rather than gain interest. And that’s the way that so many DQ or count out finishes come across nowadays. “Oh they just didn’t want to beat other guy so now I feel stupid for getting invested in that match” is not a reaction that you want your viewers to have and it’s definitely not a reaction that will leave them anticipating the rematch.

If overused the time limit draw can also end up that way, but as of now it’s a finish that a large chunk of people watching WWE have never even heard of. It’d be a fresh finish and any extra variety you can add to your show is almost always a positive.

(2) You Can Make Someone A Star Without Them Even Winning

The beauty of making an undercard guy a star in one match without even having them win is one of my favourite pro wrestling angles. With the right guy it’s so incredibly straight forward and incredibly effective. Think Jeff Hardy going through a war with Undertaker in their Ladder Match and begrudgingly earning his respect despite coming up short. The time limit draw is the perfect context for making a star out of someone without the trade-off of having to sacrifice one of your top guys in order to do so.

Ric Flair and Sting is probably the most memorable instance of this, and rightfully so. When people say “that match made Sting a star in one night,” it can sound hyperbolic to some but it really did. Sting was a hot upstart who had never been presented as being at Flair’s level, but that one match proved otherwise and immediately changed perceptions of him. It proved that Sting was indeed not only a major player but a genuine threat to Flair’s dominance at the top.

Flair vs. Sting was by no means an isolated instance of how the time limit draw could be a money-making asset for promotions. The territories era was beaming with instances of babyfaces going toe-to-toe with the heel champion, going the distance and gaining huge rubs from the match that would allow both them and the promotion to go on and make big money.

A big part of the Ric Flair formula as the touring champion was he’d go to the local territory, face their top babyface, and go to a time limit draw with them putting their guy over huge while not losing anything himself. In fact, Flair would actually benefit from it as well because it allowed him to become a stronger attraction the next time he came back to the area where he could rematch and the fans would buy into the tease of a title change more than they did before.

Not only that, but it also allowed Ric to build his reputation by putting on all these classic broadway matches that would not only remembered but revered for decades to come. It helped make Kerry Von Erich the meteor he was in Texas, helped make stars of Terry Taylor and Butch Reed in Mid-South, helped elevate Barry Windham and Ricky Morton to another level, and of course took Sting from an undercard prospect to a legit star in 45 minutes.

Flair was undeniably the most famous wrestler in that role – and arguably the best – but by no means the only one. Harley Race before Flair played much the same role but his reputation as the touring champion making his opponents look a million bucks hasn’t carried through in the way that Flair’s has. Which is unfortunate because the more of Race that I watch in that role the more and more I appreciate how brilliant he was in that role of doing everything to put his opponent over without ever sacrificing anything that made him THE guy.

The famous Nick Bockwinkel vs. Curt Hennig matches in the AWA are another fantastic example of the impact that the time limit draw would have on a promotion. Decades later we can watch matches like them back and appreciate how fantastic they were in an isolated context, but it’s important to also remember that these matches were money-drawing matches. Nick Bockwinkel made Curt Hennig a superstar, not by losing to him but by allowing him to go the distance with him and putting him over as a competitor on his level. Then you could come back and do the rematch and draw even more money but, more importantly, you had created an asset in Curt Hennig who could draw money for you with different opponents than just Bockwinkel.

The time limit draw also offers the perfect environment for a babyface to excel in showcasing their most admirable babyface traits. It’s designed for the babyface to have to sell for extended periods of time,  it’s designed to make fans want to see matches involving the babyface, it’s designed to give the babyface an extended shine period on offence, and it’s designed to allow the babyface’s comeback to come at the time when the crowd are on the edge of their seats knowing that one way or another the finish is imminent. As a finish it’s also perfectly designed to make the fans sympathise with the babyface who took everything the heel had to throw at them and still finished the match swinging for the fences mounting yet another hopeful comeback. Or it’s also perfectly designed to leave the fans NEEDING to see the rematch where the babyface proves he’s the better man because next time the heel won’t be able to hold on to the belt just by going the distance.

And then for the type of fan who is primarily invested in match quality, it’s a platform which makes having a lengthy match a necessity and thus provides great workers with the opportunity get themselves over as fantastic workers that fans look forward to see wrestling because they buy into the promise that when this guy’s in the ring it’s going to be a great match.

(3) The Dramatic Final Minute

“There are three minutes of time remaining!” shouts the ring announcer. The fans shuffle forward in their seats in anticipation of something big about to happen. The heel starts to panic at the thought of not being able to put the resilient babyface away. The babyface gets a wind of fire and starts to mount a comeback. The fans are all standing now as the announcer shouts at the top of his voice “ONE MINUTE REMAINING.” The pace of the match reaches its peak as both wrestlers start to work more and more frantically.

The babyface is now well and truly on the comeback trail as the heel does his best to back off and run the clock down, opting to just make it out of the arena still the champion. Meanwhile the babyface is running wild on one final burst of adrenaline desperately trying to hunt the heel down and hit one final big blow or frantically pull them down for a series of pin attempts. What happens next? Does the babyface hit that big move and finish the heel of just in the nick of time or does the heel hang on long enough to be bailed out by the expiration of time.

One of my favourite endings to a time limit draw was the Bryan Danielson vs. Colt Cabana match from Ring of Honor at Gut Check in 2006 which effectively flipped the script on how to work the closing stages of a time limit draw. It was two out of three falls and the gimmick was, as Colt was up a fall, if it went the distance Colt would win the title. So here you have the babyface as the one happy to run the clock down infuriating the heel champion as Danielson plays the babyface chasing down the heel role. Naturally he hits a low blow as he distracts the ref in the final minute and then just casually strolls off to the back knowing the match will be over by the time the mandatory rest period is complete.

Naturally it gets massive heat, arguably more than Danielson could have got from just straight up beating Cabana in Chicago. The fact that he couldn’t beat Colt, that he could only get a draw because of a cheap low blow at the death and didn’t care one bit about because he was still the champion was everything that he needed to draw big heat while also putting Cabana over as someone who could more than hang with the champion and was deserving of becoming champion on that night. None of that would be possible without time limits. Instead, it would have just gone to a traditional finish with Danielson cheating to beat Cabana which wouldn’t have drawn as much heat, would have hurt Colt by having to straight up lose and wouldn’t have had the drama of the Chicago crowd being able to tangibly feel how close their hometown hero was to becoming champion.

With the exception of Ironman matches, you just can’t create that drama without the use of time limits. Not time limit draws, but just the appearance of a contest having a time limit on it. Which, by the way is only logical, especially on TV because what happens if the main event of Raw goes past the end of the show? Does that really matter in the grand scheme of things? Honestly no, but it is another instance of WWE not giving fans those added little touches to the show that individually may not account for much, but when you add all them little touches together they do amount to something that enhances the viewer’s enjoyment of the show and buys goodwill with the viewer.

It’s not just the actual time limit draw scenario where you reap the benefits of time limits actually being in place for matches. Just the presence of them as the match closes in on time expiring creates an added sense of drama and excitement.

Fans know that one way or another the end is in sight and that’s enough to kick their interest in the match up a gear. Now every pin attempt means more and every submission isn’t just a case of will they tap, but now it’s also will they hang on. You could have a match like Randy Orton vs. Jinder Mahal on Smackdown and, although nobody would expect Jinder to win, they could somewhat buy into it ending in a time limit draw, especially as you close in on time expiring.

Then it’s no longer a case of how long before Randy hits the RKO and wins but a question of will he get it done in time. And then when he does hit the RKO in the final minute before time expires it’s a bigger adrenaline rush. Or you have it go the distance and you have a justifiable reason for Jinder getting a title shot without having to go as far as to have him beat an asset like Randy Orton.

WWE actually used that really well in the Ironman match between Sasha and Charlotte before they got too cute and made Sasha look like an idiot by tapping with only seconds left. But that’s the type of variety that you can have in your booking when you make time limits part of the show. More viable scenarios for viewers to buy into while watching your show is always a good thing.

(4) They’re A Heel’s Dreamland

If I’m a heel wrestler, I’m pitching a time limit draw as a finish every opportunity I get. They’re an absolute dreamland for heels to get heat and draw money. They’re designed for the heel to “win” on a technicality, to gloat about achieving something they haven’t achieved, and to be an ass kicker and a coward in the same match.

Buddy Rose in the early ’80s was a massive draw in Portland as the lead heel of that territory, taking on a plethora of babyfaces who came in and out of the area to take on Buddy Rose. I’m not exaggerating when I say that a good 90 percent of finishes on Portland’s TV during that time were draws because of the TV time limit expiring. It was a staple of the Portland region along with the two-out-of-three-falls format. And it worked because it built and built the heat on Rose leading up to the mid-week arena shows where they’d draw their big gates.

I’ve been watching a lot of early ’80s Portland TV lately and it’s some of the best wrestling TV in terms of getting you hyped up to see the next show they’re promoting which would be the big mid-week arena shows. And it was so good because Buddy never lost on TV. You’d have your two-out-of-three-falls main event involving Buddy and the rotating members of his Army and the formula would be they trade a fall each and then time expires before a winner of the third fall can be determined.

The fans would be left fuming that they didn’t get to see Buddy get his comeuppance but, despite the TV time limit expiring, the show would always find time to have Buddy gloat about being the greatest despite the match finishing with him bumping around like only Buddy could clearly about to get his ass handed to him by the babyface.

Buddy riles the fans up to get heat as the babyface marches over to Buddy and Frank which causes Buddy to hightail it to safety (because he’s a coward and full of shit, you see) as the babyface rips into Buddy and promises that he’ll get his next Thursday as the studio audience go nuts (and I mean NUTS) and everyone watching at home goes “well, god damn, I need to get myself on down there and see that happen!” The time limit draw in Portland wasn’t just a way of not having any of their top attractions lose, it was a plot device to make serious money by making viewers loathe the heel, root for the babyface and want to see the next match.

Heels should always be full of shit. They should be oblivious, delirious, illogical. They shouldn’t go out and make valid points that put themselves over. Retaining on a draw is the perfect outcome to fuel a heel’s next barrage of obliviousness. They get to talk about how they backed up everything they said they were going to do (even though they didn’t), they get to talk about how they proved they were the better man (even though they didn’t), and they get to talk about how the babyface doesn’t deserve a rematch because they lost (even though they didn’t). Then the babyface comes out and points out how they’re full of garbage and gets the easy pops.

Another brilliant benefit of the time limit draw to a heel is that you can draw great heat from running the clock down in the closing stages as everyone is made aware that there’s ONE MINUTE OF TIME REMAINING. The babyface is finally starting to make their comeback and, rather than fight back and start trading blows back and forth, they start acting like a SCARED COWARD and run the clock down so that they can get out of town with their title in hand without backing up any of their trash talk in the build to the match. And that’s easy heat. It always been and it always will be. Think about how often the crowds at UFC shows start turning on fighters in the third round when they start running because they’re up on points. Everyone watching has come to see a fight and the last thing they want to see is someone literally running from one, especially when it’s coming at the expense of the guy they’re rooting for to win.

(5) It’s A Good Way To Have Nobody Lose

Wins and losses matter. Fans are far more likely to get behind babyfaces that win frequently and lose sparingly than they are babyfaces who win sparingly and lose frequently. They do affect perceptions. Even the type of viewer reading this has their perceptions of wrestlers affected by wins and losses. How many of you have given up on Dolph Ziggler because he constantly loses? How many of you struggle to get excited for Sami Zayn’s next program because you know he won’t be benefiting from it? How many of you take Braun Strowman seriously as a top act because he’s only lost the once?

One of the biggest problems WWE has is beating everyone too often. There are maybe a handful of acts that they make a strong effort to protect and beat as little as possible and then everyone else just wins and loses seemingly at the flip of the coin. It’s especially an issue with their booking of babyfaces who are just constantly losing.

In an edition of “Five Count” at the start of this year looking at five lessons WWE could learn from 2016, I outlined just how few babyfaces actually had a winning Win-Loss record on PPV. In fact the only significant babyface to have a winning record in 2016 was Roman Reigns and even he only won six of eleven. The time limit draw is an invaluable asset to avoid beating acts that you’re trying to make money with and a much more effective method of showing that two wrestlers are equals by having them go to a time limit draw rather than having them trade wins and making them both losers.

Basically every major WWE show now we seem to be faced with at least one match where neither guy should really lose. A great example on Payback was Rollins vs Joe. Rollins needed to carry on his momentum from beating Triple H at WrestleMania and Samoa Joe losing his first significant test wasn’t an ideal outcome. And you can argue just don’t match acts like that up against each other and that’s an easy thing to say, but a very difficult thing to actually put into practice in the modern climate.

Presumably this program will carry on into Extreme Rules where they’ll have another match and, by WWE’s general pattern of booking, Joe will win this one going into a rubber match at the PPV following that. When you’re in a situation like that and you want to push both wrestlers, the time limit draw becomes a great booking tool to use. Neither guy has to lose, you put both of them over as a result of them being two acts at the top of the card shown to be equals, and you have an easy justification for a rematch without having to trade wins and force a three match series out of the program.

Another example is the upcoming Kevin Owens vs A.J. Styles match at Backlash. Really neither guy should be losing at this stage. Owens is in the process of a rebuild coming off the Goldberg defeat and A.J. Styles has only just turned babyface. Eventually someone has to lose, but they don’t have to both lose and they don’t have to both lose straight away. Go to a time limit draw at Backlash, stick them together at Money in the Bank, and then finally have one of them go over the other at whatever the next PPV is. That way you’ve got longevity out of the program and put someone over without hurting the rub you’re giving one of them and doing minimal damage to whoever does the job in the end.

How often do we see a title match set up where the challenger just beats the champion clean? With certain acts you can create a rub from an opponent just managing to survive them as opposed to actually beating them. Braun Strowman would be a perfect act to do this with at the minute. He’s not someone who should actually be losing to people, but you can still create a rub for people going up against him if they can just survive long enough to make it to the time limit. Doing that also puts over Braun even stronger as a monster if people treat just outlasting the time limit with him on par with getting a victory over anyone else. Plus it also gives Braun great monster content for his promos by challenging anyone just to last 15 minutes with him and putting even that over as an impossible feat.

You can also use that same line of thinking when setting up new title contenders. Instead of doing what WWE does so often and have the new challenger just straight up beat the champion, just have them go to a time limit draw with the champion and that is more than enough reasonable justification for them earning a title shot. None of that is even on the table though unless you make time limits part of the narrative of your show.

NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: FIVE COUNT: Five lessons WWE should learn from Payback from Bayley to Cameramen to House of Horrors

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