What Is Wrestling? – Storytelling & Ring Psychology

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With wrestling, we wait for our cues. Wanting to feel, we hold on to the hope it can produce magic. And while we’ve become accustomed to frantically paced contests, those we remember are often slower, classic encounters. Why is this? And what makes them stand out? Could it be attested to superior storytelling & ring psychology? Today, I’d like to talk about what these terms mean, as well as how current wrestlers use them compared to days gone by.

You could say this is an educational piece. You may know more about this than I do? So it’s educating me also. I’m not a wrestler, so I do not claim to know the intricate inner workings of the business. However, I feel I can do the job of explaining things with the help of others. We’re going to discuss what each terms means, and analyze three matches so we have examples. For anyone with limited reading time? You can get the gist by skipping ahead to Justin Credible’s “Wrestling 101” videos.

Storytelling

Like any fictional story, we need basic structure: Beginning, Middle, and End. However, as confusing as it may sound, what happens in the ring .. does not always have to tie in to the story outside the ring. Wrestlers can still “tell a good story” with no build. It’s a matter of making every move and action mean something in the grand scheme of things.

Some of us may watch movies/TV shows and critique them based on structure and other factors. Does it make sense? Were they any holes? Did the third act drag? Was the climax worthy of the build? Or was it anti-climactic? All these elements mean the difference between a good movie, and a great movie. The pacing has to be right. Length is crucial too; can it sustain an audience for 2-3 hours? Is it good enough to warrant a second part? Did they do enough to plant seeds for a sequel?


And that’s what wrestling matches are; short stories. The wrestlers involved, need to know what the promoter wants from its conclusion so they can plan ahead. Is it a one-off? Will it lead to a feud? Is it about getting one guy over? Or is there enough time for all involved to get over? Every match needs structure, otherwise it quickly turns in to a sloppy mess. Wrestlers unfamiliar with one another, may need to rehearse spots to ensure they don’t screw up when the cameras go live. When a match jumps from beginning to end .. with no middle? We get something like Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania. A match needs to join the dots from A, to B, to C, or it won’t make sense.


The best storytelling makes use of concurring themes (like the crutch in the Tomasso Ciampa vs. Johnny Gargano NXT rivalry). Legends like The Undertaker tell stories through facial expressions, mind games, and callous acts of revenge. The best storytellers are those who can make us feel all kinds of emotions; like how Eddie Guerrero could make us laugh, cry, or seethe at a moment’s notice. They make an average match good, and a good match great, because they’re capable of adding a little extra something.

James Ellsworth: “I’m old school. I like the babyface and heel stuff. So I like to tell that story, [with the crowd] I’m the heel and he’s the babyface even before you lock up, then do it with the art form of wrestling. You lock up, the babyface gets over at the beginning, he gets his shine, then the heel gets the cutoff and works the heat, you get your little hope spots, then you go home.”



Selling

In this era, we have what could be called a “high-spot epidemic”. It’s been going on for years with little signs of easing. So many matches feature high-spot, after high-spot, after high-spot. And while they may initially “Wow!” us .. when done repeatedly they become meaningless. We’re taken out of the action when wrestlers telegraph the next spot. They huddle together .. lightly punching each other, watching out so they can catch the person throwing themselves over/through the ropes; killing the suspension of disbelief.


The lack of selling is an issue in wrestling today. For example, a superkick to the head should take someone out for a significant amount of time. We’ve seen so many get up and shrug off others moves like they didn’t happen (should Kofi Kingston be kicking out of three Blue Thunder bombs?). This ties together with storytelling; wrestlers can’t tell a good one if they are going the same pace thirty minutes in .. as they were at the beginning. Don’t get me wrong, there are good sellers .. but when so many aren’t? The perceived effectiveness of moves drops severely. At least 95% of moves have little meaning in the context of how a match ends.

In fact, I’d go as far to say the roll up has become a dangerous finisher. How do so many get caught out? Even when the person taking the fall has sustained hardly any damage!? I’m still baffled over Rey Mysterio rolling up Samoa Joe this week. If a roll up must be used? Execute it like how Eddie Guerrero and Kurt Angle did it at WrestleMania XX. Kurt was caught off guard because Eddie loosened his boot, and it came off as they were doing the ankle lock. This frustrated the Olympic Gold Medalist enough to lunge at him, not expecting Latino Heat to counter with one of the greatest roll ups in WrestleMania history. Angle sold the disbelief really well, while Eddie’s cheeky grin was the icing on the cake.

The best sellers are those who sell the offense all the way to the backstage area, til they get to private quarters. It ties in to storytelling and psychology; an art form which Justin Credible explains really well. You want the viewer to go “Oooof! Boy, that looked painful”. It probably did .. but if it didn’t? At least you got them thinking. That’s half the battle. On the other side of the coin, if a wrestler sells a botched move? Or if they oversell .. like how Shawn Michaels messed with Hulk Hogan at SummerSlam 2005? Then everything looks cartoony and fake.


Psychology

Not so easy to describe without taking a really detailed look at several matches. Wrestling psychology is much like storytelling, although it goes beyond the basics. What makes a good wrestler great? It’s using psychology. Selling a leg injury which affects the climax? Good psychology. Trash talking your opponent to rile them in response to something they said in an earlier interview? Again, using logic to get the audience to care about what they’re seeing.


Back to The Undetaker again, as he’s a master of this. It’s not just about his facial expressions, but the way he interacts with opponents. A no-sell is usually bad psychology right? But with his character .. it somehow makes sense. It gives their opponent a sense of impending doom, due to how The Deadman has grown over the decades. If they find a way to knock him down afterwards? Their offense appears more incredible. At the right time, no-selling is good .. so long as it makes sense and leads to a satisfying pay off.

The most effective heels are those who have so much heat .. they use psychology to get fans to cheer babyfaces who are not quite over. It’s not necessarily about how much they do, but what they do and when. They are the key ingredient because they carry proceedings. Working an arm so their opponent can’t execute a finisher? Timing a distraction for the referee so a manager can dismantle the arm with a steel chair .. making it almost impossible for them to hit their finisher? It’s logical and makes sense, which is good psychology. Even simple things like taunting the crowd is rewarding. “Look at your precious champ!”

With babyfaces though .. so much more could be done. They rarely play to the crowd anymore. We don’t see anything like “hulking up” (maybe fans wouldn’t buy it?). Also, so many comebacks are over too quickly. For example, a heel spends 10-20 minutes methodically working John Cena over, working their butts off .. only for Cena to turn the tide with a few moves in a minute for the win; followed by no-selling in the celebration.


I believe this is why fans have come to resent faces (in WWE), because they’re booked to be so god-like it takes us out of the action. There’s so little respect for what the heels do, we might as well dive head first in to the comeback. But how can a babyface comeback from nothing? They can’t, and this is why so many struggle to get fans on their side. So many faces do not use good psychology, and their prescribed (by management) “Five Moves of Doom” become so inevitably predictable .. even the most exciting talent can find themselves blending in to the environment.

In the days of kayfabe, ring psychology was essential in maintaining it. But without kayfabe? Psychology isn’t needed like it was. We know when a match works though, because everything makes sense and we can’t question anything. Ring psychology has been a difficult term to define, but I hope I’ve done enough. Below is a quote from Kevin Nash’s lesson on psychology to students.

Kevin Nash: “When I broke in the business .. my psychology was, if this was real .. how would I work? I’m bigger than most people, I’m stronger than most people, but I’m not as fast, so what I’m going to do (like in boxing) is cut the ring down. I’m going to push you up against the ropes, so I can get you in the corner and pound on ya .. because I can’t chase you. So it’s kinda like Frankenstein or Michael Myers, that methodical (pace) I think a big guy should work.”



Match Analysis

In this section I have tried to highlight stages of storytelling, good selling, as well as the use of psychology. You may be able to find more, as I’m only highlighting the key moments. A match does not always need to be a wrestling clinic to be remembered.

Hulk Hogan vs. Andre The Giant at WrestleMania III

– Because of Andre’s limitations, they relied heavily on storytelling aspects and psychology. The storyline leading in hyped it as being “The Unstoppable Force” vs. “The Immovable Object”. An old school, super heavyweight feel.

– Major heat on Andre due to him turning on the fans, and his association with Bobby Heenan. Playing on patriotism and boatloads of charisma, there’s no doubting who the fan favourite was.

– The beginning includes a stare down worthy of any WrestleMania main event. Andre stands still, letting Hogan walk up to him .. showing his unbridled confidence. Hogan talks to him, but Andre has nothing to say. Andre starts with a shove, and after some brawling, Hogan tries a body slam .. but it backfires, and he sells it like he’s injured. Commentators confirm he is injured .. when he’s not, they’re just selling.

– Andre takes control and slams him down with ease. His confidence is through the roof, and the fans show their support for Hogan. Another slam hushes the crowd, as he literally walks over the champ. It’s not a “great” match, but everything they do means something.

– Andre taunts the crowd as he keeps dominating the Hulkster. After getting him in the corner, Hogan scrambles free and the crowd pops. This is a great hope spot, giving fans something to cheer for. Hogan thinks he has the upper hand, til Andre lifts his boot and stops the comeback. Commentators sell Andre’s undefeated record, and how Hogan’s never experienced a bearhug like how Andre does it.

– The middle of the match, Hogan signals to the Hulkamaniacs to help him find the strength to get out of the bearhug. He looks out on his feet .. but he comes back to life! The fans pop as he fights to get free. It’s very basic stuff, but the fans are eating it up. Again, Hogan gets free .. but Andre cuts him off with a chop. On the outside, the champ moves out of the way, making Andre headbutt the turnbuckle post. This is the turning point .. Hogan tries finishing him with a piledriver to the floor, but Andre isn’t done yet.

– Hogan uses his speed to knock the big man down! This is good psychology, as Hogan’s never going to beat him with power. It’s the first time Andre’s been knocked off his feet, and Heenan is there to support him. The Hulkamaniacs have hope now .. it’s possible. Hogan is making them believe the impossible is possible.

– The high spot! Hogan slams Andre! The crowd goes bonkers. No one had slammed Andre in such a huge main event encounter. For many, this would’ve been the first time they ever saw Andre slammed. The leg drop! Hogan retains. Commentators sell the win, saying they didn’t think it could be done. As he celebrates, Hogan sells the pain he endured. Afterwards, they plant seeds for a rematch, as Hogan taunts Andre and vice-versa. Bobby’s in a state of disbelief, as fans throw garbage at them.

– In a match with very little going for it, they entertained 90k+ fans in attendance, and millions around the world. And it’s still remembered as one of the greatest moments in WrestleMania history. All because they played to their strengths, and reserved one high spot for the end of the match. Well played.

Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13

– The story sees a frustrated Bret Hart claim he’s been screwed by everybody, including management. Steve Austin is the new guy, and is in your face .. whether you like it or not. Bret Hart must do everything he can to get his life back on track, by defeating Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13.

– Honestly, I can’t do a better job of analyzing this match than Stone Cold Steve Austin himself. Seriously guys, check it out if you never have before. He’s so incredibly insightful, letting you know how he wanted his character to be perceived. The storytelling and psychology is top notch across the board. The double turn was so well done, it made a superstar of Steve Austin. Also wow .. the selling. The selling is nothing short of legendary. And that’s the bottom line, cos’ Stone Cold said so.

Ric Flair vs. Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 24

– Before the match, Shawn Michaels’ already showing reluctance. This theme continues throughout. Ric Flair on the other hand? Is his usual cocky self, enjoying the occasion as much as he can. He seems to stalk HBK around the ring and offers a handshake, only to psyche him out. HBK isn’t enjoying it though.

– Flair gets the upper hand early on, because Michaels hasn’t got out the gates yet. He’s giving Ric a chance, which isn’t smart. It soon devolves in to slapping, and the line has been crossed. “First Blood Brother”. This signals the start of the fight, with neither side holding back. After some exchanges, Flair hits a crossbody .. which is out of character, but is really amazing at his age. It’s only when HBK misses an Asai Moonsault on the outside (almost breaking his ribs on the table), does this match pick up. We’re given hope Flair can pick up the win, which is encouraging.

– Apparently, Flair is a rabid dog and has rabies .. that’s not a good sell Lawler. HBK flies again and hits the moonsault this time. The crowd isn’t in to it yet. There’s been too many high spots already with little build before them. HBK hits the elbow, giving him the momentum. Reluctantly, he tunes up the band for Sweet Chin Music. He decides mid-move not to pull the trigger .. and in his hesitation, Flair goes for the Figure Four Leg Lock. The crowd animates, because they realize HBK is hesitating to put the Nature Boy away.

– The crowd is glued, but they are not crazy yet. They pop mostly when Flair brings out his old tricks. As we get to the back end of the match, Flair gets the Figure Four again. Everyone wants to see Flair win in his last match. Even Shawn’s attempt to reverse the Figure Four is reversed. The crowd are on Flair’s side now, as it would be a good sendoff if he wins. They’re getting behind his confidence. Boom! Sweet Chin Music outta’ nowhere.

– This is where psychology plays a huge part. HBK hesitated earlier, but now he’s willing. He sells the Figure Four, as he screams to Flair to get up. Shawn is frustrated, he wants to end it. Just to show he can, he locks in an inverted Figure Four. No one wants to see Flair go out this way though, and the fans cheer him on to escape. Flair’s doing everything to survive. HBK’s demeanor changes, as he realizes Flair is done for. He has to pull the trigger now .. but he doesn’t want to. He tells Flair he loves him, before hitting the Sweet Chin Music. Flair is crying as Michaels covers him.

– The match was as good as it could’ve been. They told a story of Flair wanting HBK at his best. Flair wanted to go out, win or lose, with his opponent giving everything they had. Flair received a standing ovation afterwards, and really? It should’ve been his last. It wasn’t, but at least we can say this was his last WWE match. They worked it perfectly, giving fans hope he would bow out with a victory. It didn’t happen, but they admired the effort. The end is what fans remember, when HBK mouthed “I love you”. That’s what makes it memorable.


Conclusion

First time I’ve done something like this, so apologies if anything didn’t make sense. There’s so much we could talk about regarding storytelling, selling, and psychology, but I think this is enough. I’d like to close by thanking Justin Credible for making the Wrestling 101 videos, giving something extra for those who want to learn from a wrestler’s perspective. Also, I never thought I’d find insightful quotes from James Ellsworth and Kevin Nash; the business keeps on surprising me.

Do you feel like you could add anything to this? Are there any matches you would like to share with good storytelling and ring psychology? If you are gonna’ watch any of the videos, I recommend the one where Steve Austin provides his own commentary for his bout with Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13. I’d like to thank one of our Disqus commenters for giving me the idea for this subject. If you thought it was good and you’d like to see more like it? Please let me know and I’ll consider a sequel. Thank you for reading! Always appreciated.

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