Friday, June 11, 2010

OT: Death of a Salesman.

Sell: to cause to be accepted or persuade; the goal of professional wrestling.

Salesman: a man who sells goods, services, etc; a professional wrestler.

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Wrestling, since its earliest form, has always been about entertainment. Ancient Greco-Roman coliseum types aside, let’s just look at the past fifty years: people like Gorgeous George, Jimmy Hart, Jerry “The King” Lawler, Hulk Hogan, and Andy Kaufman have all been entertainers at heart (Andy Kaufman more than the rest, though). The hardest part about wrestling, current-day wrestling, isn’t being physically bigger, stronger, or smarter than your opponent as it was centuries ago when wrestling was still a pure sport, or as it is found in its common high school derivative, but rather being the better salesman.

It should be common knowledge to most of American society by now that professional wrestling is in fact, a farce—a grand soap opera that just happens to involve two or more brutes pummeling each other senseless. While it is true that it is quite the physical soap opera, and that the actors do in fact sometimes get hurt, it is never the goal of the production to actually injure any of its actors. It is the goal of the production to present the image of such injuries, though. In wrestling terminology, such a goal is commonly referred to as “selling”. Just like with good stage acting, professional wrestlers have to make their acting appear as real as possible. They have to sell their moves to the audience. Because honestly, who really likes bad acting unless one is mocking it? It takes the audience out of the experience and makes the whole production extremely laughable. That’s not to say that professional wrestling isn’t laughable by its own accord, but at least it looks real a good majority of the time.

A sale can encompass any number of elements within professional wrestling. A wrestler has to sell the action of receiving a hard boot to the groin or the aftermath of a vicious chair to the lower back. Similarly, a wrestler has to sell his character to the audience, because if the audience doesn’t buy into the character, they’re far less likely to believe the actor to begin with. In this respect, professional wrestling is nothing but a series of negotiations between a salesman (the wrestler) and a client (the audience). Just like in our everyday capitalistic society, some salesmen are better than others and are rightfully rewarded for it, moving up the corporate ladder to middle management, possibly even CEO, before retiring.

Professional wrestling is no different. What we commonly see on television are the middle management fellows duking it out for their metaphorical promotions, with the hope of one day being promoted to the position of Heavyweight Champion of the World. If that doesn’t fit into your five-year plan though, we in the wrestling world offer many other options for promotion: one could apply for the Tag Team Champions of the World, or perhaps a more regional title such as North American or Intercontinental Champion. But of course we are an offer and equal opportunity chance for promotion so we also have positions for a Cruiserweight Champion of the World (under 215 pounds only, please), and even a Women’s Championship title (Andy Kaufman’s need not apply). Not only do these positions come with a considerable pay increase, but franchising options are available for those interested (see Hasbro’s newest line in action figure realism at Hasbro.com).

There is another similarity between the capitalistic salesman and the wrestling salesman though, and it’s not of the good variety either. Think of a really stereotypical car salesman, or a pushy telemarketer, or even better a life insurance agent—you know, the type that is always trying to get you to look out for your family even though you are twenty-two, unmarried, and have no existing or hereditary medical problems, that type. With the everyday salesman it is quite possible to oversell your product to a potential customer. In doing so, one runs the risk of turning away a prospective client because you either: A) scared them away or B) presented them with more information about the product than they wanted to know. I always run into these types of salesmen, and I think I know why. It’s because I don’t shop at the high-end stores or agencies. I’m cheap, and I don’t want to spend an extra three thousand dollars for somebody to shut up and let me decide what I want.

Honestly, if you ever step foot into one of the Richie Rich stores, you’ll see what I mean. You’ll quickly realize that every item that you can purchase within the establishment carries no price tag. That’s because for the people that shop there, money isn’t a concern, and the prices are already so over-inflated a salesman can make a hefty commission by just selling one item per workday. In light of these over-inflated prices, the sales staff will generally leave a shopper alone, letting the purchaser do most of the work, only in the end swooping in to swipe a credit card as some sort of polite, customary action. Then again, the people that work in these types of places are usually good salesmen/women in their own right, they’ve earned their positions. They are the champions of their league, able to pick and choose their customers just as professional fighters pick and choose their opponents to some extent.

But you know what? For a three thousand dollar discount, I’ll let some moron talk my ear off about some feature I don’t really need or want; it’s a minor inconvenience, really. I play the role of the dutiful and gullible customer, taking every last sales pitch the seller has to offer before finally replying with a “No thanks” and walking out with whatever item I just purchased. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly frugal, I’ll do a little overselling of my own. You’d be surprised just how many companies are willing to cut you some slack on APRs or payment plans if you’re willing to listen to one of their gimmicks or take part in one of their customer satisfaction surveys. On more than one occasion I recall asking for every last gimmick, trick, and deal to be presented before me just so that I could see how low I could work the final sale price. And well, if the gimmicks aren’t particularly too painful, I’ll take’em, and other times, I’ll turn’em away. Sometimes we (myself and the salesman) get what we want out of the deal, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we make a big scene out of it (those usually work pretty well). Sometimes we oversell our roles to each other to the point where we can only laugh at how silly we both look. But getting back to my point, really bad professional wrestlers are like really bad salesmen: they oversell everything that they do, and how can you not love them for it?

Back in the 1990’s, all the way up to the turn of the century there were two major wrestling groups that were commonly televised: the WCW and the WWF, World Championship Wrestling and World Wresting Federation respectively. Between the two they had wrestling televised at least four or five nights a week. Monday and Thursday were the big nights for the WCW and Monday and Sunday were the big nights for the WWF. These shows were primetime, 7:00PM to 10:00PM and they brought in quite the televised and live crowds. But I didn’t care about the big-name nights where you saw the Hulk Hogan’s and the Bill Goldberg’s, what I loved watching were the Saturday afternoon shows. These shows usually ran from about 4:00PM to 6:30PM, well out of the limelight of the casual watcher. And let me tell you, these shows were nothing but a montage of really bad salesmen. Granted, these were the venues by which young, raw, aspiring talent got a shot at the big time, or where aging heroes were casually cast aside into mediocrity, but they were still terribly lacking in subtlety. I loved watching those time slots, I loved watching a man take a punch to the stomach and roll around on the mat for five minutes as if he had been hit by a swinging sequoia trunk while his opponent openly flirted with the nearest female ring assistant, I loved the flamboyant costumes, I loved the way wrestlers would change their characters every week in order to find a new angle on something that had been done by their predecessors decades before, I loved the tongue-in-cheek announcers, I loved trashy low-grade professional wrestling, and I loved it for all the wrong reasons.

I suppose that is why I find the older professional wrestling so appealing, the stuff you can’t find on television anymore, except for when the Fox Sports Network is having a special. I love the clich├ęs, the Gorgeous George’s and the Ric Flair’s. They wrestled when there was no “big time” there was simply the time, and they were in it. Sure there might have been a Heavyweight Champion of the World, but they just got some flimsy plastic belt to show for it, not an action figure and their face on a cereal box. Don’t get me wrong, wrestling back then was still as scripted as it was today, still as fake, but the sell wasn’t nearly as important.

Maybe people back in the 1950’s and 60’s were more gullible, or maybe they were just eager to be entertained, not as jaded as the children of the 80’s were. I think that television had a lot to do with it though. Back in the 50’s and 60’s matches were hardly televised as they often are today, and even if they were televised, it was with your typical 1950’s RCA low quality camera by today’s comparison. That being said, most of the audience was actually present at the event, hundreds, if not thousands of people packed into an auditorium to see two men face off in a twenty foot square. Like actors of the Greco-Roman period in the coliseum, the wrestlers had to be sure that their actions were accurately portrayed to all of the spectators, even those occupying the two dollar nosebleed seats. Punches had to knock men off their feet, send them across the ring, and even sometimes through the ropes spilling onto the apron below. These men were larger than life, as were their actions. Everything was taken to the extreme for the sake of the audience. Wrestlers of old had to project themselves, and their characters much further than today’s wrestlers have to. Think of the wrestlers of yore as actors in a melodrama. Today’s wrestlers, through the addition of technological advances in camerawork, merely have to project themselves as far as the nearest camera, which is usually only five or six feet away. From there, their image is then plastered onto a big screen within the arena for all to see, even those in the two dollar nosebleed sections, as if they were only six feet away from the action. The wrestlers of today can be a lot more subtle in their actions. Punches that would in the past be made to look like they had the force to send a man through the ropes now lean more towards believability—professional wrestlers aren’t gods, nor do they hit like ones. Today’s wrestlers take part in a well-scripted soap opera where the standard melodramatic character types have blurred to the point where characters today can change on a week to week basis dependent on audience approval or disapproval.

By today’s wrestling standards, wrestling of old is nothing but a collection of overselling. Though I don’t think it’s a bad thing, they were merely conscious of their audience, as most good actors are. I still enjoy it though, much more than I ever enjoyed the current popular professional wrestling (not the Saturday afternoon stuff, that was just too good to miss), regardless of how real or fake it was. The Saturday afternoon scrubs, like their historic predecessors, were both entertaining in their own right. Sure the scrubs would never make it into the big time because they lacked subtlety, but that’s okay, that’s not what they were selling. I guess that’s why I still find myself buying items I don’t need from really bad salesmen; not because their pitch was amazing, but because they tried, overzealous and misguided as they might be.