Whatever Happened to the Time Limit Draw?

My first experience with the time limit draw was…underwhelming to say the least.

While absorbing endless amounts of late ‘80’s NWA/WCW on the WWE Network, there is one specific element that has stood out to me that has completely evaporated from the modern wrestling landscape: the emphasis on time. In seemingly every match in mid-to-late ‘80’s NWA / Jim Crockett Promotions matches, the ring announcer is constantly keeping the audience up to date on the amount of time left in each match, almost to the point of absurdity. This is not a random quirk of ‘80’s wrestling however; the purpose of the time reminders was to continually tease the possibility of a long-forgotten wrestling booking tool: the time limit draw.

Back in the day (“the day” here is defined loosely as the time in which I spent my formative years developing my wrestling fanhood, approximately ’88-94 or so), time limit draws in wrestling were quite common. In one of the very first shows I ever watched, WrestleMania IV, “Ravishing” Rick Rude and Jake “the Snake” Roberts fought to a 15-minute time limit draw in the first round of the World Heavyweight Title Tournament. The match was lackluster to say the least, but it sent the message home: time can run out in these matches! A whole new sense of urgency that I hadn’t previously sensed as a child now loomed over each and every match.

I would find myself thinking “These guys better hurry up! Time’s gonna run out any minute!” during important matches, knowing that if my hero didn’t polish off the hated title-holding villain in the allotted time, he would lose his shot at the title!

At Wrestle War ’89, WCW based their headline match  – Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat for the NWA World Heavyweight Title (the rubber match of their legendary series) – around the tease of a time limit draw. It was announced that three judges – Terry Funk, Pat O’Connor, and Lou Thesz – would be scoring the match in the event that it went to a time limit draw. At this point fans had been trained to see Flair and Steamboat as near equals, and the tease of the time limit draw throughout the match made the clean finish with Flair pinning Steamboat all the more shocking and meaningful.

Time limit draws can serve various useful purposes in the booking of a wrestling match or an ongoing storyline. They can serve to offer a bye to a wrestler in a tournament, like the one One Man Gang received in the WrestleMania IV tournament as a result of the Rude-Roberts time limit draw as described above. This allowed Gang to advance to face Randy Savage, and make the threat to end Savage’s night all the greater since he didn’t have to wrestle a 2nd round match. At the same time, it allowed Gang to advance without forcing Rude or Roberts – two wrestlers in the upper mid-card of WWE at the time – to have to do the J-O-B and look weak.

Back in the territory days, the time limit draw was used as a necessary tool for keeping the local champions strong – they needed to maintain their prestige to remain a credible top draw in their given territory- while at the same time allowing the NWA Champion to retain his title.

In his book, To Be The Man, Ric Flair describes how he was constantly working time limit draws as NWA Champion:

A lot of my matches would end in a one-hour draw. My opponent would have me trapped in his finishing hold or tied up on the canvas. The referee would raise his hand, slap the mat – one, two-…and the bell would ring just as the ref’s hand hit the canvas a third time. As the fans erupted, sure that they’d just witnessed history, the ring announcer would inform them that the sixty-minute-time limit had expired.

I did this so much that when I called myself a “sixty-minute man” in my interviews, part of me really was referring to wrestling. During my nine NWA title reigns, I can’t count the number of guys who worked sixty-minute draws with me – Tommy Rich and Butch Reed and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, “Bullet” Bob Amstrong and Dick Slater and Harley (Race), the Funks and Wahoo and Steamboat, Austin Idol and Dick Murdock and Bulldog Bob Brown, Billy Jack Haynes and Dino Bravo and Ricky Morton. Dusty Rhodes and Jack Brisco. (The Rock’s dad, Rocky Johnson, under a mask). In 1987, I wrestled Ricky Morton in eleven one-hour draws in nine days. Then there were times when I did two sixty-minute draws in a single day. I once wrestled in Tampa early in the night, got on a chartered plane, and appeared last on a show in Raleigh.

The time limit draws were able to serve to keep everyone happy. The local territory hero and the NWA Champion would both come out looking strong, while the bookers would have extra heat behind which they could build up to another money-making rematch.

The moment that made Sting a star.
The moment that made Sting a star.

A time limit draw can take a guy that went unnoticed before and put him on the map. At the very first Clash of the Champions, Ric Flair defended his title against Sting in a match that went to a 45-minute time limit draw. The match ended with Sting having Flair securely locked in his finishing submission move, the Scorpion Deathlock, with Flair seemingly moments from submitting as the bell rang indicating the time had run out. As a result, Sting didn’t win the title, but he came out looking like a legitimate threat, and this time limit draw was a precursor to his eventually winning the title from Flair.

Time-limit draws can also even enhance a wrestler’s gimmick. During his 19993-94 TV title reign, Steven Regal would seemingly wrestle to a time limit draw every other night. In a year period from September 1993 to September 1994, Regal wrestled Davey Boy Smith, Ricky Steamboat, Dustin Rhodes, and Brian Pillman to time limit draws on TV and pay-per-view. This gave Regal the impression of a guy that could go the distance with anyone, while keeping his various opponents looking strong as well.  This would make his eventual title loss even more meaningful.

So whatever happened to the time limit draw?

The time limit draw is largely a victim of the complete metamorphosis of the professional wrestling landscape in the last 30 years. During the territory days, the purpose of the weekly local TV shows was to hype up the house shows, where the top feuds would be paid off. This was the type of environment that was conducive to one-hour matches between two of the top stars of the day. Fans would save up their hard-earned money for the privilege of watching two of the greats go at it in epic encounters.

But since then, the model has changed completely. Now professional wrestling is based around weekly television, which builds up to monthly pay-per-view (or now “special”) events. Television formatting is based on relatively short segments, and today’s viewing audience has become accustomed to consuming not just wrestling but all entertainment in short, swift bursts.

Even with six or seven hours of weekly television, it is rare to see a WWE match go longer than 15 minutes. The roster is so stocked with talent, and the writers are juggling so many characters and storylines with limited screen time, that it’s just not realistic to expect 15 minute let alone 30, 45, and 60 minute matches to take place. And of course, a five minute “time limit draw” would come across as ridiculous as it sounds.

It’s ironic that technology by which we consume wrestling has destroyed the time limit draw, while at the same it has made my ability to relive the days when it was commonplace easier than I ever imagined. I don’t need to sit around longing for the days of time limit draws as a wrestling staple. Instead, I can just pop in old Starcades on the WWE Network, or even hunt down Bob Backlund vs. Greg Valentine on the Titans of Wrestling YouTube channel.

Still, part of me has to hope that Scott Criscuolo’s daily prayers that Tripe H becomes a Place to be Nation reader go answered, and that maybe just maaaaybe he’ll stumble upon this article, and treat us all to a Daniel Bryan vs Cesaro for an hour one of these days.

Can I interest in an hour long match between these two? I thought so.
Can I interest in an hour long match between these two? I thought so.