People would be surprised to read that professional wrestling has rules.

A really major one boils down to this:

Thou shalt not no-sell.

To "no-sell" is to completely ignore or otherwise refuse to act as if the move performed against you caused you any injury or harm in any way.

It's a dual crime: the first is against the other performer, because it in essence aggrandizes one unreasonably over another. One guy performs a forearm smash against the second, who reels back and grabs his chest, grimacing and staggering. He bounces off the ropes and throws a haymaker across the side of the first guy's head, and he stands there, laughing. Well, performer two looks like a real chump because this guy just made his character look weak and vulnerable, and here's performer one, refusing to play along when it's his turn. It also show appalling disrespect to performer two - because now they're treating it like it's a real fight, "I don't want HIM to beat ME" as opposed to recognizing that the two people are performing - "my character loses to his".

And sometimes that wounded pride leads to someone deciding that if that's the way he's gonna play it, by God, the next haymaker is going to land squarely in the temple, for real. Now that turns what's a dangerous way of making a living into a REALLY dangerous way of making a living because now you have two three hundred pound guys legitimately trying to hurt each other.

There's a certain expectation in said business that you do everything in your power to make things look like they hurt, but do no actual harm to anyone else. People who worked "stiff", putting way too much into a slap or an arm bar would find themselves with people refusing to work with them, or receiving the occasional "receipt" in-ring for that sort of thing. But absolutely nobody will work with someone who has no regard for other people or who hurt others. Bret Hart had to quit after having a stroke (and had to relearn to walk, etc.) brought on by an inadvertent legitimate kick to the side of the head by former Atlanta Falcon Bill Goldberg. Some moves, like the piledriver have an extremely high chance of crippling someone if done wrong, so you want to make sure the other person is a technician in every sense of the word.

And never mind the wounded ego of the Backwoods Brawler, or whatever, the front office won't put up with it, and one that does is suspect. Keep in mind that in any reasonably sized promotion that doesn't work out of the back of a trailer park there's usually a team of writers, storylines, and something along the line of PLANNING. If some idiot goes and cabbages the main talent, there goes not only a significant draw of money into the company but all the TV work, scripting, clues, buildup and so forth to make the company's main event or Superbowl happen which now goes out the window. As well as other talent, who won't stay with someone who tolerates shoddy work.

But there's another reason why that sort of thing is not tolerated.

People claim the rules go out the window because it's a post-kayfabe world where everyone now knows wrestling is "fake". When the WWF (now WWE) was forced to drug test its "athletes" for steroids if it's a bona fide competition/sport - they decided to call it "sports entertainment" instead, taking themselves out of the anti-doping requirements of athletic commissions. It's now entertainment. Everyone knows it's scripted and the two men or two women involved are performing.

But that's not true. It's ALWAYS been entertainment.

Got news for you - people had pretty much guessed since the beginning that the Masked Vigilante and Zonar, the Grappler from Mars weren't really pulling each others' arms out of their sockets for real or using the momentum for a dive off the top rope to genuinely smash the point of an elbow through a ribcage. A main reason they tell kids not to try these moves at home is that more than one kid has genuinely killed another doing it "for real".

Because if they were, none of these performers would last five months. Absolutely no boxer or other combat sport participant goes out and gets punched over and over again in the face, even with gloves on, every night and sometimes twice on a Sunday, they'd be unable to stand within two weeks. If some guy got onto a top rope and leapt off it and landed his full weight into someone else knee-first, that other person would be carried out in a giant black opaque zippered bag.

But here's the thing, there's an unwritten contract in every interaction with a show. You pay your money for a ticket, and you suspend your disbelief at the door. If you don't, you're really robbing yourself. Guess what, Christopher Reeves couldn't fly as Superman, and Jean Paul Van Damne can't punch out a viper. Sit down and brace yourself if you didn't know this already, but there are no such things as light sabers and the Force is just a metaphor for any of a number of human religious ideas. But there's limits to that disbelief, correct? If a movie shows you someone falling off a skyscraper and then standing up and brushing himself off and carrying on, there had better be a plausible, or at least internally consistent in-movie rule that explains why. It turns out he's actually an alien species who is impervious to damage for some reason, for example. But that guy had better not be hit by a car in the next thirty seconds and end up in hospital with broken ribs because otherwise now nothing makes sense.

Professional wrestlers put time and training into learning how to perform moves that cause a certain amount of pain and bruising but not the devastating consequences real-life versions of those would have. When a man dives into the "ropes" (actually they're braided steel aircraft cable, and bruising is the usual result) and bounces off smashing his forearm into the neck of someone else running across the ring, that smash is actually across the upper chest, not the neck. But because he's screaming in a gravelly baritone, stomps the ring floor harder at point of impact and the other guy goes down with his arms and legs flying, that and the fact that he's covered in neon pink and green face paint and a mohawk distract you from that fact. Also, if these guys have done their job right, you've just watched the hero be beaten down, cheated, and otherwise treated poorly and when he comes back and drives his forearm into the other guy with a primal scream, you so badly want him to tear the head off the other guy that your desire to see Player Two get his makes you more than happy to be sold that result.

So when some guy just stands there when that happens, it doesn't just insult the performer who has happily "sold" being choked, punched, arm-bar'd, leglocked and so forth, it insults the entire audience who up until that point have gone along with it and happily suspended their disbelief for you. Now you've broken the internal "rules" of the game and reminded people abruptly that, yeah, this is a show, those are lights, the two guys are named Bill and Ahmed and they work construction in the offseason. You've made every single match of the night a laughing stock, because people are now remembering they're in their seats having cheered on something totally fake. Imagine going on next after something like that.

The penalty for this is for it to suddenly get very, very real.

A lot of guys in the pro wrestling game come from a legitimate wrestling background, and some pro wrestling schools actually teach you to hurt someone before teaching you how to not hurt someone. This comes from the days when guys would walk up to the star and be all like "hah, I'll impress my girlfriend by taking out the guy with the heavyweight belt" or worse, have watched his favorite wrestler "hurt" from a stomping by the guy and want revenge on his behalf. Also, because occasionally people get out of line in a workplace, and some kind of workplace discipline is essential. There's usually one or two very scary people on the payroll who are more than happy to be thrown around like a rag doll if it sells tickets, but are also more than ready to "come out from the back" and take over, making sure the guy who previously was "impervious to pain" gets taken out for real in an ambulance.

I've seen at least three videos circulating around on the internet of independent shows where someone tried to get "over" by no-selling. One was repeatedly stomped in the face until his front teeth were knocked out, another had a guy practically kerb-stomped by the rest of the staff in a very very ugly incident that disgusted fans, and the third is one of the greatest "shoot" matches in history.

Over in Japan some decades ago, it was customary for the Japanese puroresu to hire big gaijin to in essence get stomped by the home team. Just as how pro wrestling in America featured Russian or Iranian performers whose job it was to become human pinatas to satiate American distrust and hatred of certain types of foreigners, not surprisingly the Japanese got off on watching the home team take out a 400lb white behemoth. It was a great way for a lot of guys to see the world and get a check.

The match was between Antonio Inoki and The Great Antonio, a handsome catch wrestler and a Canadian strongman, respectively. Then even as now, sometimes a guy who doesn't really know what he's doing gets booked into something because who he is is a draw. Andre the Giant was of a monstrous size (and a legitimate pro wrestler) but you had guys like Donald Trump, Dennis Rodman and Mike Tyson show up for a match or two, and sometimes a big strong guy like The Great Antonio.

Nobody's sure if it's because there was a language barrier, the fact that he was crazy (he died homeless and penniless of a heart attack in a bodega in the Rosemont area of Montreal - apparently if you wanted to reach him you left a message at the local donut store) the expectation the Canadian had that it'd be like the Calgary Stampede Wrestling where he'd get a check to throw a bunch of jobbers around and be declared the winner, or what have you but Inoki starts the match upset that his opponent doesn't seem to know even the basics of how to lock up. He tries a few moves and "The Great Antonio" just lets him bounce off, after Inoki had just sold a few moves from the man including eventually some very stiff punches to the back of the head and neck. After some attempts to get this match actually going properly, Inoki has had enough and does a classic legitimate Gotch-style leg takedown. While the 4-500lb Antonio tries to get up, Inoki full on boots him in the side of the head, then uses the leveage of the ropes to literally stomp him into bloodied unconsciousness. Someone shows up to try and stop him, but Inoki continues putting the boots to him until two things happen simultaneously. We're not sure what it is, the bell signifying that Inoki is the winner as the promoters put a very rapid stop to all this, or the fact that Inoki finally notices that his opponent is out cold, bleeding, and a few more kicks and we're talking a bona fide murder charge.

There's a more subtle form of no-selling that is killing the business, according to old timers. If you watch older wrestling tapes, you'll see a lot more headlocks, a lot more armbars, a lot more "dead time" where there was some emphasis on trying to get a submission and high-flying moves and punches were almost never seen. Back when they took this seriously and back when most people saw regular bar fights, they realized that a punch to the jaw isn't something you stand there and trade back and forth, typically the fight's over when that happens as one guy's eyes roll up into his head and he goes crashing to the pavement. According to the old guard, if you punched someone in the face four or five times, there'd better be some insane reason as to why the guy's face isn't busted open and he isn't collapsing to the ground. Otherwise, again, the suspension of disbelief is gone. Over time that got eroded as attention spans shrank and there was an "arms race" of having flashy moves and near-constant dangerous hits to keep the punters in, and a move away from storytelling. Pro wrestlers went from being guys in good shape who could play a crowd, to guys on steroids who were almost hired for their looks as any kind of talent.

In the 1970s and 1980s, some moves were established in-canon as being absolute fight-enders. A piledriver was it, game over. Some wrestlers had moves that were somehow inescapable. Mr. Perfect had the Perfect-plex, a suplex that ended with Curt Henning holding one leg in a bent position so the wrestler could not "kick out" of a shoulder pin. And it became an ending, only used in very VERY special circumstances that - for example, during the Superbowl of the company's promotion, the one big main event, the pay per view, the night that titles changed hands and so forth, someone could kick out. It would be established that it would only be because the crowd was roaring and screaming, there was THAT much on the line, and the performer had the heart and tenacity to make it already through 20 guys to get to this final match. That he somehow, CRAZILY, managed to somehow have the presence of mind to move his shoulder a half inch off the mat in a half-conscious state. And as the villain relaxed his hold and stomped around the stage in a tantrum, it distracted him enough so the hero could use literally the very last of his strength to grab the villain and use ALL OF IT to put him in a Mongolian Toe Hold or something. Using basically the last of his life to hang on and stretch the ankle painfully it would be enough that the villain, raging with all his might, had to concede the match, the belt, and the night - because of the pain and the risk of breaking his foot. Part of the whole thing was the "can he hang on? Who will collapse first?" which had the audience on its feet. Now people somehow regularly kick out of being pinned after being thrown off a three storey balcony through a pile of tables, and to the old timers, it explains why pro wrestling for all its flash and better physiques and so forth have finally started losing viewers.

It's not that we now know it's fake, it's that the performers are treating it as no longer needing any kind of credible rules. Oh, they'll sell that something hurts, because it probably does, but the scripting is now that the damage is far less. Someone obviously walking around refusing to sell is still going to get stomped, but I'm talking about this modern obsession with making wrestlers scripted to be bulletproof.

The problem with epidemic no-selling is that it's basically killed that business - you can't put that genie back in the bottle or the toothpaste back in that tube. Having established that yes, someone can get up and keep walking (albeit with a bit of a stagger for about 30 seconds) around after being dropped 70ft through a pile of tables, well, now what? You really expect them to believe that they're going to be put down for good by a couple of punches?

One way the business has tried to get around it, especially in the independent circuit, is to turn the whole thing into a gory, Hepatitis-C filled horrorshow where they throw each other through barbed wire, drop people on thumbtacks, drive people through mountains of fluorescent tubes, etc. just to watch someone suffer and bleed. To my mind stapling someone's forehead with an industrial stapler or shredding his back by putting him through broken glass isn't wrestling, it's a geek show.

The other is to move towards the entertainment side of it, namely having people stand there talking into a microphone. Problem is, you don't really have anyone with the charisma of a Steve Austin or The Rock, Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair in the limelight anymore to work a crowd. It's just a bunch of bland, faceless the WB type interchangeable pretty faces in the same costumes saying the same things. It's why people don't really care about the business like they used to.