Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Squared Circle: The Art of Selling

Describing pro wrestling as "performance art" may strike some people as ridiculous! But I don't know of any better description. It is a performance in the sense that the action in the ring is not designed to be a legitimate contest but a form of entertainment for the audience. And it is an art in the sense that an evocative performance requires skill. Not every painter is an artist, not every singer is an artist, not every wrestler is an artist. But those who excel in the skills to paint a beautiful painting, or sing a moving song, or execute an entertaining match, are truly artists.

The key to a truly artistic performance in wrestling is what is called "selling." Just as a comedian must sell his material, or a singer must sell her song, a wrestler must be able to sell the action in the ring. What separates the truly great wrestlers from the mediocre ones is the ability to sell the moves of the opponent.

At first glance it may seem counter-intuitive to argue that great wrestlers are good at making their opponent's moves look good. Shouldn't they focus on making their own moves look good? But since wrestling is built around the illusion of violence, the responsibility for creating this illusion falls primarily to the one on the receiving end of the "violence."

As in any field, there are some wrestlers who are so egotistical they "no-sell," meaning they do not want to make it look like their opponent is really clobbering them. They prefer to be on the offense all the time, and always want to look like Superman. But this is a short-sighted posture, and none of the guys known as no-sellers is ever going to be on anyone's list of greatest wrestlers. The reason is simple.

If you are a good guy, you want the audience to feel for you, to be worried about you, and to cheer you on to make a miraculous comeback. The only way to get the audience truly care is to sell your opponent's moves like crazy. Though he is not one of my favorites, think of all of Hulk Hogan's matches as a good guy. He would be pounded for 75% of the match, almost be out of it, then "Hulk up" and make the big comeback. And if you are the bad guy, after the good guy makes the big comeback, you have to make him look like Superman so the audience can enjoy your getting your just desserts. In this sense, if I may be philosophical for a moment (first time ever the words "philosophical" and "pro wrestling" appeared in the same sentence), pro wrestling represents a classic "win-win" way of thinking. The better I make my opponent look, the better I will look.

And to illustrate tremendous selling on both sides, take a look at the match that started Hulkamania, Hogan's WWF (as it was called then) title win over the Iron Sheik:

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