Part 1 of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy (1972) remains one of the highest-ranking films in some of the world’s most respected lists. In the final closing-door scene, we watch Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) rise to power as the new head of the Corleone family following the death of his father. In a fiery meeting between Michael and his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), he warns her, “Don’t ask me about my business,” making clear the separation between family and his affairs. Michael grows more menacing with each exchange, at one point slamming his hand on the desk, and we see just how much danger Kay is in.
Appearing to soften, Michael offers Kay one question – “this one time” – to which Kay responds by asking him whether he had his brother-in-law, Carlo, killed. Michael lies to her and they embrace. Relieved, Kay leaves the room to prepare some drinks. Behind Kay’s shoulder is the door frame to Michael’s office in which we see the arrival of the caporegimes, who kiss Michael’s hand and call him Don Corleone. One of the caporegimes then closes the door, shutting Kay out, and the film credits roll.
This closing-door scene is an iconic moment in cinema history. There is something missing from this description, though, that makes it the milestone it is. That missing piece also happens to be an integral part of what makes professional wrestling such a magnetic form of entertainment.
There was a time in professional (pro) wrestling’s history when fans bought in completely, believing that competitors stepped into the ring to have a truly legitimate contest. It was essential for wrestlers to keep kayfabe (the presentation that pro wrestling is real) to the point that heels (villains) and babyfaces (heroes) could not be seen out together or risk being fired. Today, fans understand that wrestling is a scripted form of entertainment.
Vince McMahon Jr., the owner of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the biggest wrestling company in the world, made that clear on 10 February 1989 when he spoke to the State of New Jersey Senate regarding a bill that would remove pro wrestling from athletic sports regulations. McMahon claimed that pro wrestling should be viewed as “an activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest.” More than 30 years since McMahon’s statement, pro wrestling remains hugely popular around the world. This is partly due to the spectacle and the athleticism of the combatants, but it has a lot to do with storytelling (or “ring psychology” as it is known in the business). One of the main ways in which wrestlers tell their stories is through the sell.
Selling is an essential part of any pro wrestling match. It is, as artist, curator, and former pro-wrestler Jamie Lewis Hadley (2017) writes, “the key communicative tool with which wrestlers attempt to evidence pain to the audience.” In its simplest form: if Wrestler A throws a punch at Wrestler B, then Wrestler B must react as if it hurts, hence selling the move.
In his essay, “The World of Wrestling”, Roland Barthes (1957) refers to pro wrestling as the “exhibition of suffering”:
In judo, a man who is down is hardly down at all, he rolls over, he draws back, he eludes defeat, or, if the latter is obvious, he immediately disappears; in wrestling, a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness.– Barthes (1957)
Barthes connects the sell with semiotics, comparing it to “a pause in music” that signifies the “tragic mode of the spectacle.” Any move is only of value, Barthes argues because the audience sees its effect (Barthes, 1957).
As well as the physical, selling also refers to the way in which wrestlers react to intimidation. A competitor could be a muscle-bound giant behind the scenes but, if their opponent does not sell them as if they are a threat, the enactor appears weak and the illusion breaks down. In that earlier scene from The Godfather, Michael shouts and hits the desk. Kay, who up until then had locked a brave stare on him, breaks it to look at the floor, sheepish and fearful. In the last seconds of the film, the final face we see is not that of the newly-crowned Michael, but Kay, as the shadow of the door closes on her. Kay’s look communicates everything: her distrust, disappointment, heartbreak, and the realisation of how lonely and unsafe she is in this world. The look almost burns itself onto the black backdrop of the credits.
Diane Keaton’s work as Kay was a masterclass in selling. It took the situation and elevated it so that we understood just how dire things had become. Pro wrestling loves a good superlative and, if Keaton were a pro wrestler, she would rank among the Greatest Sellers of All Time.
Barthes writes that, as well as suffering, pro wrestling is about defeat and justice, all of which are story points documented in Joseph Campbell’s seminal monomyth study, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s structure consists of 17 stages, which are ordered into three phases: the adventure of the hero, the cosmogonic cycle and transformations of the hero (Campbell, 1949). These stages make up the common template used in many types of stories, often Hollywood blockbusters. Subsequent authors have revised Campbell’s work, including Christopher Vogler, who wrote for Disney, and Dan Harmon, creator of television shows Community and Rick & Morty.
Harmon refers to story structure as having circular rhythm that rhythm being based on polarity, e.g. life and death, conscious and unconscious, and order and chaos. Harmon (2009) argues that we all can recognise a good story when we read, hear, or see one because the rhythm of story (of needing something, descending into the abyss to achieve it and returning having changed) is second-nature to us.
At a TEDx event in Decatur, Georgia, USA, screenwriter Marty Buccafusco (2019) drew comparisons between the circular structure of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” and the storytelling of pro wrestling. Buccafusco’s argument is presented in the three acts of a wrestling match. Firstly, the story must “identify hero and quest”, such as a babyface competing for the world title. Next, we see the hero “fail and develop”. Finally, we need to watch the hero “triumph and celebrate”. Buccafusco insists that it is essential for the hero to fail in act two. Their destiny is clear at this point, but it is not yet the moment for them to achieve it. Selling is what allows a wrestler to communicate this.
Bret “Hitman” Hart almost always appears in best-wrestlers-of-all-time lists. Hart (now retired) wasn’t a beefy muscleman like Hulk Hogan. He wasn’t a giant like the Big Show or Andre either, nor did he brim with natural charisma like “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Hart was a technician in the ring, able to apply an entire library of holds with precision and believability. He is remembered by fans as one of the greatest champions of all time, not for his domination of the competition but for his ring psychology, which allowed him to bring the best out of any opponent.
If Hart were any bigger, he could have relied on his size. Instead, he used the fact that heels could overpower him to his advantage, going into most matches as the obvious underdog. In November 1995, Hart faced Diesel at Survivor Series 1995 for the top prize: the WWE (then WWF) Championship. At nearly seven feet tall and around 300 pounds, Diesel should have been an incredible champion, but instead, he is remembered as one of the most lacklustre in WWE history. Diesel had dominated Hart throughout their Survivor Series match.
Towards the end, he yanked Hart up from the mat to perform his signature Jackknife Powerbomb finishing manoeuvre. Diesel signalled to the crowd, confident that the match would soon be over, and Hart, exhausted, collapsed down to the mat. This one moment of believable selling from Hart summarised to the audience everything they needed to know: Diesel was a formidable competitor, deserving of respect, and Hart had to have had superhuman strength to have lasted in the ring as long as he did.
Diesel reached down to try for another Jackknife Powerbomb, but this time Hart was ready and rolled him into a quick pin. The crowd cheered at the sound of the bell, not just because Hart’s win had been such a surprise but because Hart, through his selling, had built Diesel up from unexciting champion to dangerous monster and now, against all odds, he had vanquished him.
In The Godfather, rather than selling Kay’s indignation at the injustice, Keaton focused on how threatened she felt and, as a result, strengthened Al Pacino’s impassioned performance as Michael. In the same vein, Hart boosted Diesel’s believability through his selling so that the final victory would appear more meaningful.
In his first memoir, A Lion’s Tale, former world champion, commentator and lead singer of heavy metal band Fozzy, Chris Jericho shared some advice he received from a mentor, Bulldog Bob Brown:
I had done an interview about my first match with Bulldog and I was talking about how old and slow he was […] I walked back to the dressing room and Bulldog stopped me in front of everyone. “What the hell are you doing? Yeah I’m old and everybody knows it. But I want you to think about this. If I beat you […] tonight, then you just got beat up by an old man. If you beat me […] then you just beat up an old man.” The first big lesson I learned about promos […] was: Never totally bury your opponent. You can tell jokes and insult them all you want, but if you don’t build them up […] you’re just burying yourself.– Jericho (2008)
The year 2000 began with difficulty for WWE. Rival company WCW had bested them in the TV ratings for 83 consecutive weeks. WWE had regained control of the ratings war, but their product was thin on the ground. One of the company’s biggest draws, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, was off television due to major surgery as were two other main-eventers, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker. The company’s other major star, The Rock, was out of the world title picture and a year away from embarking on a film career that, in 2016, would see him become the highest-paid actor in the world. They needed to promote someone else to big-name status and they managed it with one of the most exciting match buildups in WWE history.
On 13 January 2000, Mankind, a popular masked babyface, arrived on an episode of SmackDown to confront the heel world champion, Triple H. The two were scheduled to go one-on-one in a street fight at the upcoming event, Royal Rumble 2000. In the preceding months, Triple H had defeated Mankind in multiple matches and embarrassed him every chance he could.
When Mankind limped through the curtain to address Triple H, he looked a disheveled mess. Dressed in a torn, white shirt and black sweatpants, he was no match for the muscle-bound, bronzed champion. His shirt was even still bloodied from the previous Monday night when he and Triple H had collided. Mankind conceded, calling himself “a beaten-up, pathetic fool” and Triple H “the best in the business”. He admitted that he had no chance against the champion and so would stop trying. Triple H leaned into his bully character, reacting with smiles and unvoiced bravado.
Mankind insisted, though, that the fans deserved to see the championship match and so there would be a replacement. He then stepped forward and tore off his straggly shirt and mask to reveal a black t-shirt with a rectangular yellow print.
I think you know the guy […] His name is Cactus Jack.
The crowd erupted in cheers. Devoted wrestling fans knew Cactus Jack, the alter ego of Mankind, to be a legend of the hardcore scene. He had spent years in Japan, wrestling under stipulations involving barbed wire, nails, and C4 explosives, becoming King of the Death Match. The casual fan, however, could not have known this.
The commentators, audibly shocked, explained how Cactus Jack was “homicidal” and “psychotic” and questioned whether Triple H knew “what the hell he’s gotten himself into at the Royal Rumble.” The greatest sell of all, though, was from Triple H himself, who moments ago had laughed at the thought of facing Mankind and now stood motionless, his eyes and mouth wide open as if the Grim Reaper had come for him.
By selling Cactus Jack as an unpredictable maniac, Triple H helped to build his opponent from a joke into a credible threat. To do this, he had to exhibit vulnerability, as Keaton did as Kay in The Godfather, convincing the audience of his terror. This, in turn, proved to viewers that Cactus Jack was deserving of his position as a world title contender – possibly even the only person in the company who could beat Triple H.
Triple H now had the fight of his life ahead of him and, consequently, if he were to beat Cactus Jack, the vulnerability he showed would be transformed into strength as he would have faced his greatest opponent and won.
Triple H went on to defeat Cactus Jack in a brutal match at Royal Rumble 2000 that would be looked back upon as one of the greatest WWE Championship matches of all time. It is remembered as this not just because of the physical contest but because Triple H and Cactus Jack had elevated each other through the art of the sell, cementing Cactus Jack as a formidable foe and taking Triple H to the next level: superstar status.
Once treated as a real sport, pro wrestling evolved into a showcase of cartoony superheroes and, later, a form of reality-inspired entertainment. New fans get hooked in by the spectacle every day. What they stay for, though, is what every great wrestler understands. More than any acrobatic stunt or flashy entrance or thunderous slam, what we want most of all is a good story.
Barthes, Roland. 1972 . Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Buccafusco, Marty. 2019. Wrestling With Failure: Crafting Your Personal Hero’s Journey. TEDx Talks (YouTube). 8 November 2019. Retrieved 13 March 2022.
Campbell, Joseph. 2008 . The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd edition. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Harmon, Dan. 2009. Story Structure 102: Pure, Boring Theory. Channel 101 Wiki. 13 August 2009. Retrieved 13 March 2022.
Hadley, Jamie Lewis. 2017. ‘The performance of pain in professional wrestling’, in B. Chow, E. Laine and C. Warden (eds) Performance and Professional Wrestling. London: Routledge.
The Godfather. 1972. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Paramount Pictures Corp and Alfran Productions, Inc. Film.
Jericho, Chris. 2008. A Lion’s Tale. London: Orion.
WWE. 1995. Bret Hart vs. Diesel – WWE Championship Match: Survivor Series 1995. WWE. 19 November 1995. Retrieved 13 March 2022.
WWE. 2000. Mankind turns into Cactus Jack: SmackDown: 13 January 2000. WWE. 13 January 2000. Retrieved 13 March 2022.