T5W: Defining Wrestling Psychology | Defending Flashy Move Sets
Welcome to a three-part series on the wonders of wrestling psychology. It’s a hot topic in the inner circles of pro wrestling fandom. This is especially true for wrestling purists who often complain that today’s product doesn’t offer a lot of wrestling psychology.
I promise we’ll get to these topics next week, including identifying some of the great psychologists in pro wrestling history (Jake “the snake” Roberts, Roddy Piper, Raven, Dusty Rhodes – just to name a few).
But before all of that, I want you to picture yourself in a real-life match.
POV: You in a Wrestling Match
The match begins, there’s a collar-and-elbow tie up into a headlock and then the first offensive move onsets: Your opponent grabs your arm in an attempt to sling you into the ropes.
This is called an “Irish Whip” — of course we all know this. However, you are about to receive this move and you are left with a few options:
A) Immediately resist and plant your feet. Maybe try a reversal.
B) Stumble forward but catch yourself mid-run.
C) Let momentum take you into the ropes, but grab on to the ropes stopping your momentum.
D) Just “go with it” and let yourself be thrown into the ropes only to bounce back at your opponent.
For some reason, let’s say you chose ‘D’. Your opponent then literally bends over in front of you. He’s itching to do a back body drop. You have options:
A) Kick him right in the face on the way back.
B) Perform another offensive maneuver on a now vulnerable opponent. (He’s literally looking down at the mat!)
C) Run right into your opponent awkwardly and do nothing so he can flip you over his back.
Let’s face it. In any realistic scenario, nobody would choose ‘D & C’ – yet to this day, this still happens in modern day professional wrestling. We don’t question it — it’s just part of the wrestling move set vernacular.
Yet we praise wrestling psychology and the art of selling as if what you are seeing is sold as REAL.
(and you wonder why many fans from the 90s/00s switched to MMA)
But we don’t question moves like the Irish Whip or Back Body Drop. And this is par for the course as we suspend belief to do so — we know it’s a violent, story-driven, pre-determined dance. But my question is this: If we simply shove aside all logic for the Irish Whip and Back Body Drop, why do some critics get their panties in a twist over moves like the Spanish Fly, Suicide Dives, and the Code Red?
Note: Take out any mention of selling or story at this moment. We’re only focused on the moves at hand.
Old Wrestling Moves
We could spend time on awful finishers and wrestling moves. John Cena’s Five Knuckle Shuffle involves him running and jumping from end-to-end, over his opponent, only to then stop his momentum, make small gesture, and then plop his fist into his opponent’s face — who has done nothing in the process to prevent this.
You know the same is true for The People’s Elbow, The Stinkface, and a host of others. Here is a short list of traditional wrestling moves that make no sense in a realistic scenario. Unless your opponent was nearly dead (and then why wouldn’t you just pin him?), they would likely either simply move out of the way, or put up some level of defense.
-The Hip Toss (usually off an Irish Whip)
-Old School (you’re just going to let your opponent tight-walk the ropes without pulling them off?
-Japanese Arm Drag
-The Leg Drop
-The 619 (“let me just lay on these ropes and take a kick to the face”)
-The Bronco Buster (“Thanks for the bouncing crotch in my face”)
-Ten Punch Combo on the Turnbuckle (“sure, I’ll take 10 undefended punches to the skull”)
-The Monkey Flip
-Most Hurricanranas/Head-scissors takedowns (“Is that glue on your wrestling boots?”)
-Boot to the Face off an Irish Whip (“That’s a nice boot you have there — I guess I’ll just run into it face first”)
-And many more…
And the worst offender of all — STOMPS AND PUNCHES. Because who in their right mind will stomp the ground simultaneously while throwing a punch? Furthermore, who leaps a few inches into the air just to deliver a stomp?
Furthermore, if people complain that they’re watching a “martial arts” match in certain parts, as some spots have multiple choreographed reversals and flash — at least they’re defending themselves against the other’s moves. This is at least somewhat realistic…
“YES, DUH. WE KNOW THIS IS ALL “FAKE” — WHAT IS YOUR POINT?”
My point is this: Why do we habitually disregard logic for the most basic of wrestling moves, especially the ones that look the worst — yet some fans call ‘B.S.’ on high spots and flashy moves?
Reminder: Take out any mention of selling or story at this moment. We’re only focused on the moves at hand.
NFL Playbooks Have Evolved
The Slam Dunk. A very flashy way to score the same amount of points as a simple layup. Yet we see it all the time. Now take this idea and expand it to an entire NFL playbook.
It’s obvious that NFL offenses are much faster today than they were 20-30 years ago. Today’s NFL athletes are faster, quicker, and stronger. This has led to more creativity in modern NFL playbooks where a heavy focus has been shifted on the passing game.
An NFL game in 2023 would likely blow away any fan from 1983 who found a way to travel into the future for one game. Offensive schemes have become more complex, more efficient, and overall much faster; which has led to a much flashier game compared to years before.
Now take this ideology and spread it to professional wrestling.
Any team could attempt to ground and pound 75 yards down the field for 6 points. But we don’t see that too often. Since the late 70s, passing started to become used more frequently than the run, and this number has significantly jumped since the mid-2000s.
NFL teams are passing the ball more than ever. Why? Because it’s a quicker and more efficient way to move the ball down the field to score points. So in the same spirit, could quicker and faster wrestling moves still tell a good story and achieve an end goal?
Wrestling Playbooks Have Evolved
So you knew it would get here. If athletes have evolved, professional sports have evolved, then why not professional wrestling? In fact, what if there are very little “high-risk” maneuvers anymore? What if “high-risk” is simply reframed as “high-flying”? These are aerial experts — is it really a risk anymore?
If a talent can deliver amazing feats in their wrestling move set, then why is that somehow associated with “outlaw mudshow” Indies wrestling? I’ve often heard the sentiment that “I want to see a wrestling match, not a gymnastics show…”
Cool, that’s what Frank Gotch basically said in the year 1913 when he thought wrestling was getting “too flashy”. It was also near “death” during the 1910s. If it weren’t for the Gold Dust Trio bringing “flash” into wrestling during the 1920s, we wouldn’t be talking about this today. Wrestling evolved, became a little more exciting, and it blew up in popularity.
I’m not sure if anyone has noticed, but ever since the rise of MMA, and the end of the Monday Night Wars, the wrestling fan base has greatly dwindled. Even financial giant Morgan Stanley stated in a report on WWE Smackdown that there simply weren’t enough wrestling fans in existence to justify what Fox paid for it.
Let that sink in. I’ll wait.
But the solution is to disregard the flash, stick with the “old school”, and continue to wait while wrestling fans keep shrinking over time? We all know wrestling isn’t “real” — but if you’re an MMA fan, are you more impressed with a simple bodyslam that you’ve seen 100 times before, or a double springboard moonsault doomsday device?
“yes, but it doesn’t tell a story…”
I said to wait on that. We’re just talking about moves. I promise to get to the psychology soon, as I will point out next week — YES, many well-told stories have played out in the ring with tons of perceived “high spot” moves. Some fans do just need to pay better attention.
We Can have Both…
Why can’t we have both?
I see nothing wrong with the acknowledgement that various types of wrestling styles exist. If two high-octane offenses are in the ring, I’m going to expect a fast-paced match, much like an NFL shoot-out between two high-octane offenses. Whether it’s an old school approach from a wrestler like Cody Rhodes, a deathmatch brawler like Jon Moxley, or a the Puroresu/West Coast style of Kenny Omega — all should be welcomed as legitimate wrestling styles.
So really, why can’t we have both old and new styles?
It’s simple. There is a large minority voice in the wrestling ether that still have their Jim Cornette/Eric Bischoff blinders on (there’s my one Cornette reference per column). The belief that wrestling needs to “look” a certain way and that high spots and high flying maneuvers have a very specific place for them over the course of a match. In addition, we have a large sect of fans that have been conditioned to view the formulaic WWE style as what wrestling is “supposed” to be.
In all seriousness, we have established that old school wrestling moves can be just as ridiculous as modern-day moves when it comes to believability. So why is this so one-sided? Future WWE Champion (and second top babyface to Sami Zayn) Cody Rhodes even mentioned this when looking back on kickstarting AEW:
“I want to do Crockett and old school and they want to do PWG and West Coast and damn, I loved it. That contention is what made us bond.”
Guess what? You can do both. You can both whip out old school wrestling, and also infuse it with a West Coast/Puroresu influence — sometimes in the same match. And they can both be used to tell a story.
Don’t let tribal wrestling fans tell you otherwise…
Yes, this was a long-winded defense of “flippy-flopper” wrestling, as Mr. CYN put it. But we’re only getting started. I merely pointed out that when it comes down to it, there’s no difference in a ridiculous move like a tight-rope walk into a jumping strike (Which Undertaker and Ricky Starks both do), or a top rope front flip into a Meltzer Driver (a Young Bucks specialty).
Both look cool. Both should be accepted among all fans. Yet one will likely get more hate for it than the other. This is a very dumb sentiment that fans need to stop having.
If you can tell a story and sell flashy move sets, then there is no room for anyone to logically call it out as “unrealistic”. Whether or not these types of moves used frequently in a wrestling match are able to tell a story is something I will demonstrate next week.
Yes, it’s possible, and happens more often that you think.
Many wrestling moves, both old and new, can look absolutely ridiculous. If you have a reasonable bone in your body, you will agree with this, and accept that high-flying maneuvers and quick-paced, fast-workrates are just part of pro wrestling now.
Many of of us have already long done this. It’s time to evolve, don’t you think?
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Next Week: Wresting Psychology: The Art of Storytelling