THE ART OF BELIEVABILITY IN PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING
Professional wrestling (even the WWE's spectacle-based version dubbed Sports Entertainment) is most effective when it's believable. Believable does not necessarily mean "realistic". As works of fantasy and science-fiction often demonstrate, believability has less to do with real-world characters and real-world situations and more to do with establishing a clear relationship between cause and effect.
One of the clearest examples of this principle in action is when a wrestler pulls their opponent's tights. If a pro-wrestler pulls the tights of another wrestler during a pin, it's understood by the audience that doing so gives that wrestler an unfair amount of leverage on their opponent and almost always guarantees a victory. This tights-pulling tactic is entirely unrealistic, however. It's abundantly clear to any viewer that merely pulling down an opponent's waste-band during a roll-up cannot possibly give them any sort of realistic advantage.
Realistically, it would be so much more effective to simply sit on an opponent's chest or lock them in an amateur wrestling move like a half-nelson to score a pinfall. But this classic "heel" (villain) tactic remains entirely believable and incredibly effective. There is a clear cause (pulling tights) and effect (added leverage) relationship that has been repeated so often throughout the years that the audience is able to suspend their disbelief and regard what they're seeing as truth. The viewer is told "this is cheating because it provides an unfair advantage", and it's up to the wrestlers and the commentary team to convincingly depict that cause and effect relationship or, in pro-wrestling parlance, "sell" that idea.
In storytelling, realism doesn't always allow for the flair, allure, and joy of the theatrical...
Absolute realism, in many ways, defeats the fundamental purpose of art; particularly a form of theater like pro-wrestling. Realism may be useful as a guide to creating the basic structure of believable cause/effect relationships in fiction, but realism is not inherently entertaining. In storytelling, realism doesn't always allow for the flair, allure, and joy of the theatrical. If wrestlers approached the situation of a match in a hyper-realistic fashion then the fight would devolve into an amateur wrestling match, a boxing bout, or a mixed-martial-arts contest. It may be boring to anyone who wanted to see a professional wrestling match.
Audiences attending a movie, a play, or a pro-wrestling show want to be told a story. They want to experience the joy that inevitably comes when they place their faith in fiction. Believing reality is easy; it requires no participation or imagination. It's much more fun and engaging to believe in fantasy. We naturally want to believe we can fly, that the underdog will overcome, that moral conflicts can be definitively resolved, and that good always triumphs over evil. Skilled storytellers recognize that urge and then manipulate the viewer, teasing-out the desired result, delaying it as long as possible through the execution of established, believable sequences.
Wrestlers "Pull Tights", "Irish Whip", "Trade forearms", "Drop Elbows", "Drop Legs", "Comeback", "Hit Signatures", "Hit Finishers"...performing any number of entirely unrealistic activities that contradict their ultimate goal of pinning and winning. And yet such sequences and moves are absolutely essential to the story and to creating a credible portrayal of the athletic competition. It’s as though the pro-wrestling medium represents a unique, fantastical-reality where the “sport” of wrestling requires its participants move and behave in specific ways (such as throwing each other against the ropes or executing “finishing moves”) regardless of whether or not it makes any logical sense to do so. In fact, the medium has established that wrestlers must perform certain illogical or unrealistic activities in order to succeed. This is no different than the conceit of a play like A Streetcar Named Desire.
Is A Streetcar Named Desire bad because it was scripted?
The stage is believably arranged to resemble an apartment inhabited by characters created by the screenwriter, director, and the actors. The audience understands that they’re seeing a play and that they’re not looking at a real apartment. But, as viewers become absorbed in the rules of this fictional world their awareness of its unreality fades and they just accept what they’re witnessing as truth. Even though the kitchen on-stage is a blatant fabrication, the theater-goer is magically transported into that mad, sweaty, apartment. If the stage direction and the actors are particularly good, it becomes that much easier for the audience to believe what they're seeing and invest in the story.
This is one of many reasons why the criticism “pro-wrestling is fake" is so ridiculous and ineffective. The critic might as well dismiss A Streetcar Named Desire because it’s not taking place inside a real Mississippi apartment. Is A Streetcar Named Desire bad because it was scripted? Absolutely not. It's good precisely because it's scripted and scripted so well.
Like any theatrical performance, pro-wrestling isn't trying to be real. Pro-wrestling isn't making a mistake by being pre-determined just as a play isn't making a mistake by taking place on a stage. A match being pre-determined and moves and punches being "worked" is the DNA of the medium. Like any art, pro-wrestling is simply trying to tell a believable story using the tools of its theatrical trade - even if that story is fantastical, outlandish, or absurd.
The medium only fails to tell a believable story when the cause and effect relationships of particular scenarios or particular wrestling moves are not made explicitly clear to the audience. Some moves are more realistic than others, but that doesn't negate the importance of convincingly "selling" the damage and establishing how that damage impacts the wrestler.
For example, if a pro-wrestler receives a DDT (a fairly realistic move where a wrestler's head is driven directly into the ring-canvas), and then soon after that wrestler pops back up to their feet and starts throwing energetic punches at their opponent then the cause-effect relationship of the DDT is compromised. The move becomes insignificant because it has no clear, lasting, or believable affect on the wrestler.
If your head was driven directly into the ground in real-life, you might die. At the very least, you'd certainly be disoriented for an extended period of time, perhaps even concussed. That's why reality is a good starting point for fiction, but not necessarily a good end. If a wrestler used a DDT on their opponent with the intent of legitimately knocking that opponent out then the match would stop; it would be like an actor completely forgetting all of their lines and preventing the story from progressing (viewers recently witnessed such an event when wrestler Enzo Amore’s head viciously snapped into the ring ropes and then bounced off the canvas. He received a legitimate concussion and the performance was discontinued).
The well-executed (or well-told) wrestling move subtracts some of the harsh reality of violence while still successfully registering the relationship between violence and the damage that violence would believably cause. There is a suggestion of damage, and because the cause/effect relationship has been made clear, the audience believes that suggestion.
(Out of respect to wrestlers, it’s important to clarify here that wrestlers do suffer legitimate bodily harm every time they perform even though wrestling is a “work” or fiction. A “bump” on the canvas or "move" causes real pain, just not necessarily in the precise way the story of that “bump” or move suggests. For example, a film actor performing a scene in the arctic is going to experience the same cold temperatures their character experiences, but that actor is not in the exact same fabricated scenario as their character. The pain is real, but the situation is fiction. The actor’s job is to react to the situation of their character, no matter how unrealistic it might be, as if it’s actually happening to them. The wrestler's job is not so different, only the legitimate risks of permanent bodily harm are ever-present due to the high-risk nature of pro-wrestling performance)
Every wrestling move is a story (like a chapter in a book) contributing to a larger story about what it takes to physically or morally best a rival in a match. When a move doesn't have a believable affect on a wrestler's ability to continue fighting or not, then it doesn't adequately contribute to the potential power of that story. It's like pages missing from a book. The audience doesn't have all the information they need to become emotionally invested in the hero's struggle. If a wrestler doesn’t appear to be affected by all the punishment they’re receiving, how can their victory or defeat really resonate?
In pro-wrestling, the audience always needs to know exactly how a wrestler's relationship to damage works.
If a DDT doesn't do more damage to a wrestler than a knife-edge chop or a suplex, then what’s the point of a DDT?
The answer to this question is simple; the DDT is a beloved, easily-recognized move made famous by "Jake The Snake" Roberts (originally used as a "finishing move").
The move itself is "over" (popular) and so its execution would seem an easy way to satisfy the crowd regardless of whether or not it was believably sold. In practice, a DDT that doesn't result in any perceivable form of head-damage is squandering that potential genuine “pop” (crowd response) in favor of a "cheap pop". The move itself is the star in such a scenario, not the wrestler who performs it or the wrestler who receives it or the story about their conflict, and this same principle applies to a variety of popular moves used adnauseum today.
There’s a massive difference between “This is awesome” and “Wow!”
Matches that aren't believable (in the sense that a wrestler's offensive arsenal is less significant than the show-runner's booking decision) have a broader detrimental affect on pro-wrestling than merely compromising the integrity of individual matches or stories. Unbelievable matches, or matches where wrestlers don't appear to be convincingly affected by their battles, condition audiences to disregard the fundamental purpose of pro-wrestling storytelling and mutate into passive, needy, complacent, and even disrespectful drones.
While many modern audiences will chant "This is awesome!" after their favorite pro-wrestler kicks out of two DDTs, three super kicks, five chair shots, two dives off the top rope, and several finishing moves, that audience is reacting purely to visual spectacle rather than a substantive or believable story. “Smart fans” (wrestling fans acquainted with the technicalities of the craft) react positively to matches where the cause & effect relationship between wrestlers and their damage is absent because smart fans don't believe in wrestling in the first place; they pride themselves on the knowledge that pro-wrestling is staged. Smart fans are so familiar with the motions of wrestling that they take the story of wrestling moves for granted, and can only react positively or negatively to the execution of a move if it "comes out of nowhere" or gets "botched". These fans can skim through the chapters of the pro-wrestling story because they’ve already read it so many times. These fans can even be seen and heard getting restless during slower (but necessary) moments in a pro-wrestling match such as a "hold". These fans constantly seek the cliff-notes (or "high spots"), and when wrestlers or promoters cater to that type of fan the ring-work, the characters, and the stories suffer.
The details that make pro-wrestling really work get lost.
"This is awesome" chants basically mean "I appreciate your athleticism" or "I really like your personality" or "I like chanting This is Awesome!"
A wrestling fan needs to think in order to chant "This is awesome". If a wrestling fan is thinking then a wrestling fan isn’t feeling and that means they're not reacting, naturally, to the work of wrestling. That means the necessary component of clearly defined causes and believable effects has vanished from the story, and all that matters is a booking decision or the aerial acrobatics.
There’s a massive difference between “This is awesome” and “Wow!” - one is a reaction to self, the other is a sincere reaction to story. “Wow!” is a better reaction to earn because it only comes when the audience believes what they're seeing. Genuine Moments of Pop resultant from a deep emotional investment in the story (rather than an investment in the minutia of the craft itself) tend to be louder and more enthusiastic. When an audience is made up primarily of "smart" wrestling fans then it becomes harder to surprise them, and so the enthusiasm wanes over time. When an audience is convinced to believe what they're seeing, there is a perceptible shift in the atmosphere and everyone benefits from it, particularly the wrestlers trying to tell their story.
Convincingly selling damage is an incredible skill that takes years to master, as a wrestler can easily compromise the integrity of their match by underselling, overselling, or no-selling a move when the situation calls for a different reaction. The viewer can easily compromise their own integrity when they stop paying attention to the match and start cheering for themselves or in celebration of their knowledge of the craft. Both of these situations cancel out the efforts of the other.
But when the wrestler reinforces, clearly and carefully, the pain of their battle (registering damage in believable, sympathetic fashion no matter how blatantly unrealistic or illogical the situation might be) and the crowd allows itself to become absorbed in the action, it's possible to experience something truly magical. With a bit of pomp and circumstance, a few carefully executed moves with clearly defined causes and effects, a logical amount of selling from the wrestlers, the right voices on commentary, the right camera angles, and the right electricity in the air, pro-wrestling manages to be a remarkably effective means of suspending one's disbelief.
And the suspension of disbelief is a hopeful process that reveals the best in us; a need to be better than we are, a need to overcome our pain, and an eagerness to find strength through faith. Pro-wrestling, perhaps more than any other art, is solely focused on inspiring that uplifting process and moving people to The Moment of Pop (an experience of absolute conviction). This is why, unrealistic as pro-wrestling may be, it’s uniquely powerful in its ability to transform passive viewers into passionate believers.