Beginning in late 2018 and extending through Wrestlemania 2019, Daniel Bryan orchestrated a heel run as iconic as it was unlikely. It would’ve been easy—even advisable—to take his story in a different direction. After his triumphant return from what was purported to be a career-ending injury, Bryan could’ve basked in the audience’s elation to have this fan favorite back in action and taken a victory lap as a beloved babyface, tearing his way through some semi-serious opponents on his way to a satisfying, if not particularly memorable, upper-card victory at Wrestlemania. Tears, confetti, clapping, goodnight.
Instead Bryan turned the crowd’s goodwill against them. He took up the mantle of “The Planet’s Champion” and cut vicious promos on his opponents—his chief opponent being the WWE audience.
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Bryan returned to a particular descriptor to hurl at WWE fans over and over again: “Fickle.” Fickle in their alliance to one wrestler over another, who they’d applaud for one week and boo the next—DB got to screaming it so often the crowd eventually started chanting it back at him during his matches and promos. Which, please, take a moment to consider how charming it is that tens of thousands of people shouted “fickle” back at this one man, like an enormous Victorian-era parliament getting rowdy inside Smoothie King Stadium. Bryan was, of course, right about his audience. WWE fans are fickle, but in our defense, the only thing more fickle than the fans is pro wrestling itself. Which brings us to today’s topic: Force.
You could be forgiven for believing that a sports entertainment product centered around athletes appearing to deliver grievous bodily harm to other athletes, while in reality only kind of hurting them (most of the time), would have sorted out an internal logic re: how the “hurting” part works. Which, to some extent, they have. There is a kind of hierarchy of pain present in the WWE, it’s just that it can be chucked out whenever the writers feel like it, which then damages the audience’s belief in that aforementioned internal logic. The more holes in logic that governs the hierarchy of pain—what moves should hurt the most, and when, and why—the more tattered our belief that anything we’re shown makes sense. But these are abstractions, and our mission here is, after all, to make sense of the sensational. Let’s get into it:
FINISHERS: We’ll start at the end. A finisher is supposed to be the most powerful move in a wrestler’s arsenal. It’s the killing blow, the final strike that will knock your opponent cold, or at least disable them long enough for you to get the pin. That’s the idea, anyway, but that only really works if a finisher is “protected.”
A protected finisher is a move that actually ends a fight. Your opponent is vulnerable, and blam: You hit them with your finisher exactly one time, they drop, you pin them, match over. Or, if your finisher is a submission, they tap out almost immediately upon you locking it in. Rusev’s submission hold, the Accolade, was an extraordinarily well-protected finisher during his first big U.S. Title run; for a while, Seth Rollins’ curb stomp was about as protected a finisher as you could find. It was non-negotiable: he jumped on your head, and moments later the bell rang.
But for most wrestlers, their finisher operates less as an actual means to finish a match and more like a signature move. While a finisher is still almost always the most powerful move in a fighter’s arsenal—some tusslers have multiple finishers, to which there is likely a mini-hierarchy of which move is the killing blow and which just look really cool—they may have to hit it two or three or sixteen times before their opponent finally goes down, if their opponent goes down.
Because here’s the thing: a great way to make an opponent seem really tough and strong is to have them eat a previously well-protected finisher and immediately get right back up again. This, of course, will make the deployed finisher look weaker than it did before, even if the opponent it was used on was really tough and strong. Too bad. It’s your finisher, it’s supposed to have borderline-supernatural damage-dealing powers. It’s supposed to be the thing that puts you over the top. If a finisher fails to deal the killing blow time and time again, its rating along that “protective” scale drops, and soon the move is less an ultimate weapon than it is a catchphrase that hurts people.
NAMING: While we’re talking about finishers: a move with a name is always more powerful than a move without a name. i.e., a “superman punch” is going to be stronger than a regular punch, even if they look similar, and even if “superman punch” is a more appropriate name for a mocktail at a child’s birthday party than it is for a haymaker.
SELLING: I regret to inform you that your Little League coach was right: it’s not about how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get back up again. Selling is the art of making it look like whatever just happened to you in the ring hurts really, really bad. It’s an often-overlooked ability in a wrestler’s skillset, which is a shame, because selling well is often the difference between an above-average wrestler and a superstar. Truly great wrestlers sell their opponents’ regular ol’ kicks and punches like they’ve just been shot with a fucking gun because it makes them look all the more powerful for getting back up and dishing the pain back twice as hard.
Here’s the secret: Selling well adds drama to a match, but it rarely makes the person selling actually look weak.* It’s a wrestling match! You’re supposed to get hurt! It would be weird if a wrestler found themselves fighting someone who could not, in fact, harm them very much! That’s why Brock Lesnar matches are so boring 95% of the time!!
Selling is almost never proportional, even across a single match. We’ll dive deeper into this when we cover time in a future column, but just know that a wrestler may sell the impact of a neck chop in minute five of a match with the same amount of theatrics as they sell being drop-kicked through a table in minute seventeen of that same match. That’s fine; selling is proportional to what stage of the match the wrestlers are in. In Act 1, a kick might be enough to drop a fighter to their knees; by Act 3, they might eat three kicks in a row, and can only be felled by a spanish fly off the top rope. It doesn’t matter how many times they get back up again. It only matters how convincingly they fall down each time.
*While selling well and then overcoming your injuries can make a wrestler look strong, no-selling** a move makes a wrestler appear borderline unkillable.
**Assuming the no-sell is intentional and well-executed. A bad no-sell is the closest thing an incessantly fourth-wall breaking sport can come to breaking the fourth wall.
INJURIES: If the announcers in a wrestling match are playing up an injury that one of the combatants has recently suffered and discussing how it might place said combatant at a disadvantage, rest assured the injury is probably fake. (If it is real, and is connected to real-life events like a car accident or a recently-rehabbed injury that kept the wrestler out of action for some time, it probably isn’t as dire as the announcers are making it out to be. Probably.)
An obvious injury at the start of the match is a wrestler’s Chekhov’s gun: First it will be mentioned by the announcers, then injured wrestler’s opponent will focus their attacks on the injury, then the injured wrestler will retaliate and get some offense going but—alas!—their now-exacerbated injury will keep them from delivering a key move that would have won them the match!
All of this is to say, injuries are there to be made worse, and must either be heroically overcome or agonizingly succumbed to over the course of a match. Also, getting hit in a pre-injured area will hurt extra.
WEAPONS: Almost every weapon deployed by a wrestler against another wrestler would, in two to four blows, kill or maim a regular human being in regular circumstances. This is not the case in wrestling. In wrestling, a sledgehammer to the spine is just, like, a bad afternoon, and not a murder conviction.
Force in wrestling: it’s mostly logical until it isn’t. Keep your eyes out for the next column, when we’ll discuss the element that both guides and disrupts the way force is meted out in the ring: momentum. Until next time, tussle scientists.