Wednesday, July 22, 2015

An Essay on Selling

At least vs. Nakamura at WrestleKingdom, Ibushi sold, even if unconventionally
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Selling, or the art of feigning injury in a wrestling match, is perhaps the most important element of any contest between the bells. It is the source of pathos for the babyfaces, and rallies the crowd when the heel is called to do it. Without selling, wrestling is a living representation of a fighting game, only you don't have control over either of the combatants. Of course, watching someone play Street Fighter II has its merits, but the charm of professional wrestling has historically been in its storytelling elements. The hero can't provide catharsis without conflict, and the biggest representation of how the conflict affects the hero comes from damage taken at the hands of the villain.

The art of selling has more than likely always been a hot topic among "smart" fans; I can't say whether or not people writing letters to the early Observer debated whether selling was going the way of the dinosaur or not in 1988. But every year, it feels like someone is making a louder fuss over wrestlers not selling anymore. Any listener of the Ross Report podcast feels that sting in their ears (Hi, Scott!) on a weekly basis. Wrestlers don't sell anymore, or at least they don't sell the way Ric Flair does. I patently disagree with the first assertion, even if it's very much fighting a strawman. But if wrestlers today don't sell like they did in Flair's age, does that mean they're selling wrong?

Wrestling, like any art or sport that strives to remain healthy and relevant, has evolved in its history. Baseball would not have survived had the Dead Ball Era persisted into the '20s and '30s. Cinema might have withered or atrophied had the style of dialogue or shooting techniques remained stagnant from the '40s and '50s. Wrestling has evolved in so many different ways. A match built around endless headlocks would have been riveting theater in the early days of wrestling; when Bryan Danielson and Claudio Castagnoli did the same at Pro Wrestling Guerrilla's Enchantment Under the Sea, it was reviled at first and then hailed as a cheeky troll later. Offense has certainly evolved. Promos have evolved (for better or worse). Why can't selling?

Kota Ibushi has come under fire for his selling, or lack thereof, against Hiroshi Tanahashi in the G1 Climax. I haven't seen that match, but I have seen him against Shinsuke Nakamura at WrestleKingdom 9. It happened four days into the year, and it still cast a long shadow for the rest of the year. No one is going to accuse either wrestler of chronically selling a body part during the match. The shots of adrenaline may have come a bit too hard for classic observers, not the least of which being Jim Ross, who was there at the Tokyo Dome calling the action on the Global Force Wrestling English broadcast.

But both Ibushi and Nakamura sold. It wasn't classical in the least. But they recoiled. They slowed down at times. They absorbed damage and gave it back. It wasn't what one might find in a classic Flair/Dusty Rhodes match, but at no point during the match did I think I was watching a couple of rank amateurs trying to do as many moves as possible without any ear towards coherence or building to a crescendo. One hit the other with a sequence of big moves, and the other one staggered and crawled around until they could hit a counter and recharge. It almost felt like a play on the battles one might find on Dragonball Z, only with big time wrestling moves rather than energy streams and auras.

Of course, the old kind of selling will always have its place, and it will never really disappear. Roman Reigns excels at that kind of thing. Chris Masters/Mordetzky is a, pardon the pun, master at selling a limb. Sami Zayn has rewritten the book on absorbing damage and presenting that residual damage even making his comebacks. Biff Busick, Drew Gulak, Chris Hero, and Timothy Thatcher go all the way back to 1970s England with their takes on selling. But just because many wrestlers today don't do it like that doesn't mean the art is dying. It's just changing.

And just like not everyone who tries to sell the way they did in olden times succeeds, wrestlers who try the new kind of selling will oftentimes fail. Davey Richards, Togi Makabe, Michael Elgin, and Johnny Gargano are all wrestlers whose acumen at presenting their own self-damage is lacking at times. But using them to decry wrestlers today feels hollow, like the person levying the criticisms is looking for a reason to bash these kids today. It's lazy.

Again, the importance of selling (both in its implementation and the times when it is not used situationally) in a wrestling match is supremely paramount. But a stagnant point of view will see fault where none exists. Selling, like anything in a vibrant art, has to evolve in order to stay current. Odds are, if a match makes you feel something, then either the selling done in that match has done its job, or perhaps the observer loves watching people play fighting games on YouTube. Nothing really is wrong with either here, to be honest.