On June 11, millions of people settled in to watch New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Dominion event, held in Osaka, Japan. In the streaming audience were rabid NJPW fans as well as some who had heard the hype about the main event and wanted to check it out before the promotion makes its American promotional debut (other events in North America have always been co-promotes) in Long Beach, CA on July 1. One fan watching online was a 24-year-old mechanic named Tommy. Tommy grew up watching WWE as a kid. Another fan in the streaming audience is Mark, a 52-year-old truck driver from Charlotte, NC. Mark grew up watching Mid-South Wrestling. He remembers longingly the days of kayfabe, the era of Jim Crockett and Bill Watts. Mark watches WWE from time to time, but he has grown disillusioned with the show over the years. He simply isn’t invested enough to make wrestling appointment viewing like he did when he was younger. Tommy and Mark have both heard great things about NJPW from friends who watch the show regularly and have tuned in to see the main event, a rematch of what many have called one of the best matches in decades.
Finally, the main event arrives: Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega for the IWGP heavyweight championship. Both Tommy and Mark wonder why NJPW’s title is called the IWGP belt, but they consign the question to the back of their minds at the next words they hear: “This match is one fall with a sixty minute time limit.” Time limit? Tommy wonders why they would have a time limit on a wrestling match. After all, it’s not a real sport. Everyone knows they would never run out of time on a match; the wrestlers would just get to the finish beforehand. Mark, on the other hand, hears these words and is transported back in time. He remembers the wrestling of his youth when every match had a time limit unless there was a special stipulation. He looks over at his friend Jack and says, “Remember when Flair used to go sixty minutes every few weeks on TV? Those were the days.”
Tommy and Mark are treated to one of the greatest matches of their lives. Omega and Okada put on a wrestling clinic. Our two fans completely lose themselves in the action, easy to do when either of these performers is in the ring. Then, they hear something unexpected: “Two minutes remaining.” What? The sense of urgency this produces in the fans watching is something Tommy has never experienced and which hearkens back to Mark’s youth. Then as time counts down, Tommy sees something he has never witnessed: time expires and the match ends in a draw! Mark reflects fondly on his experiences watching Flair wrestle to a 60-minute Broadway (as draws are known in the industry lingo) against Barry Windham, Ricky Steamboat, and so many other great wrestlers of that generation. Both of these fans leave the show thrilled with what they have seen and strongly looking forward to a future rematch.
The hour that Okada and Omega spent in the ring on June 11 was notable, not just for the amazing quality of the work they did inside the ring, but for the booking genius that planned a time-limit draw as the ending of the match. Long ago, the WWE stopped announcing or using time limits for their matches. After all, most matches never approach the limit, so what was the point? Unfortunately, this is emblematic of the short-sightedness that the “premiere” professional wrestling promotion in the world brings to the business. Time limits serve several useful purposes and should be reinstated immediately in WWE and any other promotion that has eliminated them from their shows. First, time limits add a hint of realism to the show. Professional wrestling may be a work, but it should look and seem as real as possible. Sure, most matches will not approach the time limit, but that makes the ones that do more special. As I have said before, kayfabe may be dead, but that doesn’t mean we have to bury it. Second, a time limit adds a sense of urgency to the proceedings in the ring. As a kid, my favorite matches were for the NWA Television Title. Why? Because it was always a fifteen-minute time limit and I knew both guys were going to go hard for the belt to get finished inside the limit. Third, time limits are a tool to communicate the importance a fan should place on a match. Unimportant matches get a ten-minute limit. Bigger matches may get an announced limit of 20 or 30 minutes. World title matches go for 60 minutes. Fourth, time limits inherently add in another possible finish: the time-limit draw. Broadway finishes protect both wrestlers and build anticipation for the rematch. They offer bookers a tool to show how great a character is without needing to allow him to beat the champ, and why would you EVER remove a tool from your booker’s arsenal? Finally, time limits add another tool to the booker’s bag of tricks by creating the possibility of a no time limit stipulation on a title match. Imagine a rematch between Okada and Omega in which Omega hits the One-Winged Angel and climbs atop Okada for the pin, but just as the two count is administered, the bell rings because time has run out. Now, a time limit has robbed Omega of the belt that he has fought so hard for, and fans are either outraged or overjoyed (depending on their preferred wrestler). However, the next rematch is announced as a no time-limit match. The anticipation this match would create would be off the charts. The money it would draw would be similarly huge. How do I know? I remember these situations with Ric Flair as a kid. I remember watching him wrestle my favorite babyfaces to multiple draws only to be excited by the fact that there would be a no-time limit stipulation added to the rematch. Again, why would you ever remove a tool for your booker to draw money for your company? An intelligent promoter wouldn’t. It is time to set limits once again.