The Art of the Sell

Pro wrestling is an art form. That’s an innocent enough statement, but it is a statement that some would contest. I believe it to my very core that pro wrestling is an art form; a performance art at that. My belief has been challenged though; many times over. I’ve been told I was crazy for thinking pro wrestling is art, or that there is flat out no way that pro wrestling is an art like music, movies, comic books, etc. I have a hard time comprehending that argument, it literally makes no sense to me. Still, since I view art as inherently one hundred percent subjective I allow for such a take. It doesn’t mesh with mine and I couldn’t disagree with it more, but if someone can argue why pro wrestling isn’t an art form then their argument is valid by virtue of being able to make said argument.

The reason I talk about pro wrestling as an art form is because I think that acknowledging pro wrestling as art is important to discussing the elements that make up pro wrestling. These elements can be anything from move selection to visual presentation. The reason we can dig into whether or not the Rainmaker is a quality move in both physical and storyline execution is because of the artistic subjectivity of pro wrestling. Almost all the discussions about pro wrestling that we fans like to engage in are because of the artistic subjectivity of our favorite hobby.

One such discussion that is perpetually heated and always at the heart of pro graps is the pro wrestling element known as selling. For some this has become a powder keg issue. These people would rather walk away from a discussion than spend their time talking about any facet of selling. There are people who have carved out a place in the selling discussion maelstrom and refuse to budge from their hovel. The end result of this entrenchment are discussions where both sides are shouting at one another and very little discussion is actually taking place. It also usually entails both sides missing the point of the other side because they will not hear anything that is the opposite of what they believe.

I am a firm believer in selling, let’s get that out of the way right now. When I discuss wrestling selling is one of the most important elements in my mind. Great selling can elevate a lesser match, while bad selling can drag an otherwise great match down. For me this is because selling is important to the performance art I am watching. Without selling I don’t understand the point to watching pro wrestling? I honestly don’t, because if selling doesn’t matter then instead of watching pro wrestling I can go take a trip to my local stage theater and watch the ballerinas do their thing. That’s how important selling is to pro wrestling and why without it the pro graps I so look forward to would cease to exist.

I’m not singling out anyone with that last paragraph. That’s just my take on selling and how much import it carries in my pro wrestling viewing. I am someone who loves high quality selling and looks for it in every match I watch. To me it speaks to the logical nature of a story, something that I don’t always need in my storytelling but more often than not enjoy. Rick Rude wincing in the middle of a match and not being able to do his usual gyrations because he’s selling a rib injury makes me one hell of a happy camper. That’s my drug so to speak; the little thing in the larger picture of pro wrestling that brings it all together.

All the same I am keenly aware of the importance of context. That’s why I don’t think selling has to be the same each and every time out. Rude’s long term selling of his ribs worked in an ironman match versus Ricky Steamboat. In a seven minute sprint versus Ultimate Warrior it would probably seem out of place. In that match Rude takes a different track with his selling, and it works just as well. That’s why context is important and why I don’t want the same type of selling match after match.

A major point of contention when it comes to selling is the belief that selling has to factor into the finish every time. In this instance I am writing about the specific idea of limb based selling. I will not deny that there are people out there who think that if an arm has been worked over for fifteen minutes then it has to factor into the finish. However, there are just as many of us who don’t ask for that to happen every time out. What I’m looking for is an effect to spring forth from the cause. If Charlotte has had her leg worked over by Nikki Bella for eight minutes that does not mean that said leg has to factor into the finish. However, I do believe that the injured leg needs to factor into getting to the ending though. That might mean Charlotte showing damage or exhibiting a lack of strength thanks to the injury. Perhaps Charlotte has to deviate from her usual moveset because her injured leg will not allow her to hit any of her usual arsenal. That’s what I look for in my selling, a simple effect that lets me know that all of the focused offensive work being put in by Wrestler A isn’t being forgotten by Wrestler B.

Make it look like you’re hurt, like the work being done by your opponent is having an effect on you. That’s important in making wrestling believable which is in turn very important to my enjoyment of the art form. When I watch the Hardy Boyz versus Edge & Christian from No Mercy ’99 I don’t expect nor want Matt Hardy to be selling damage to his arm throughout. But, when he struggles late in a match to set up a ladder, or is more susceptible to a Spear from Edge simply by virtue of accrued damage I view that as quality selling. If you make me believe then you have accomplished perhaps the most important task a performer can undertake.

Within the hot button topic of selling there exists the even hotter button of no selling. Even this I would argue has its place. I know there are those who will vehemently disagree with me, and I understand their reasoning. Don’t get me wrong, watching Minoru Suzuki versus Takashi Sugiura from Pro Wrestling NOAH late in 2015 I was bored to tears by their match centered on no selling. They took it to a point I found unbelievable and to a level where I became detached from the match. Go back in time twenty years and I have very little issue with Masato Tanaka and Mike Awesome taking a similar approach because of the difference in context. I found ingenuity in what Awesome and Tanaka were striving to present, whereas with Suzuki and Sugiura I felt they were just standing in the center of the ring and hitting one another in the most boring way possible. The context and my interpretations make all the difference.

I’m realistic, I’m not expecting what I have written here to change anyone’s mind or for the majority of the people who debate vociferously about selling to even make the time of the day for what I have written. All I’m saying is, there’s more to the debate than the polar opposites that are usually presented. Context matters, approach matters, and individual interpretation matters most of all. If someone complains about the lack of selling in a match then allow them such an interpretation. When someone tells you that they didn’t like Rusev selling his ankle against Jack Swagger as much as he did, take it in stride. If another pundit states the lack of selling in a match didn’t matter to them, that’s their opinion and it is perfectly valid. Disagreements and differences of opinion are the lifeblood of the art form we all love so much. Leave the strawmen at home, and learn to be comfortable with the fact that some may expect more selling than you did, or vice-versa. Because in either scenario, selling matters. That’s why people will keep discussing it, and as long as their arguments tackle the actual issue, those discussions are vital aspects of analyzing wrestling.

Bill Thompson

About the author

Bill Thompson

I am the almighty Bill Thompson, father of a little girl, husband to an awesome wife, a paramedic/firefighter, and a fan of the Chicago Cubs. I've been writing about wrestling for some time now. You can find me writing about great matches at Blue Thunder Driver, or matches people have suggested I watch at Random Match Generator. I write about free matches legally available to watch online at Free Pro Wrestling and am a contributor to the Cubed Circle Newsletter. I'm also the Senior Writer for the magazine/website The Tag Rope. I'm happy to be on the Wrestling with Words ship, and have I mentioned I am a fan of the Chicago Cubs? Cause I am, like huge, as in they are my #1 priority. Just making sure we're on the same page...


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