5 Lessons I learned about Storytelling from Professional Wrestling

In 1985, in a small studio in Charlotte, NC, the interviewer welcomed one of the most popular pro wrestlers of that time, Dusty Rhodes, to the mic.

And in that moment, Rhodes cuts one of the best “promos” (slang for promotion to sell a fight, or a match) in pro wrestling history.

To set the stage, we call on a writer of great linguistic poetry,

“Let me set the stage for you. The American Dream had a short, permed, bleach-blond mullet. It resembled a dried-out Jheri curl, like he had haphazardly picked it out without putting some oil sheen on it first. Like he had been on the road for a while and left his Care Free Curl and shower cap at home. If you’re wondering why I can speak so intimately about this, yes, I had a Jheri curl around this same time and I make no apologies.”

And in a day of scripted promos (now), no one could have done what Dusty did in that moment.

He told Stone Cold Steve Austin on his podcast that he spilled his guts.

“The off-the-cuff nature of the performance is a part of that. Rhodes told Steve Austin on The Steve Austin Show that he didn’t write any of it beforehand. He just went out there with the basic idea in mind and spilled his guts.”

That promo has been written about many times over and it cut through all the social divides as Rhodes sold his dream of winning the National World Alliance Heavyweight Championship and getting even with Ric Flair, who he said, put “hard times” on him and his family.

We all can relate, right?

And thus, we have the first lesson of professional wrestling and storytelling. They know how to make you feel.

Read the Transcript of Hard Times

Articles about Hard Times

Breaking Down the Greatness of Dusty Rhodes’ Famous ‘Hard Times’ Promo

What I learned about writing from Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream

Link: Dusty Rhodes’ Hard Times: Why It Remains One Of The Best Promos Ever

 

Lesson One: You have to make them feel.

In professional wrestling, you have to make the audience feel something. This is a crucial part of storytelling both in pro wrestling and in life.

The first example that comes to my mind was when WWE was in Lyon, France recently. When WWE Superstar Jimmy Uso came out for his match, the arena exploded. The crowd went nuts, and they were doing his dance.
That’s one way that you, as a performer, know you are making them feel something. The audience mimicking you, they’re doing your dance. They are singing your song. They are saying your catchphrases with you.

And when it comes to professional wrestling, it is imperative that you make them feel. Your job depends on it. If you don’t make them feel, then there’s no reaction from the fans. You might get sent to a developmental territory. You might get let go.

The company will try different gimmicks with you as the performer. They will try different character types to see what works.

As a performer, you want to do one of two things. You want to make them hate you (that’s called heat) and you want to make them cheer you. If you get heat from the crowd, you are a good enough villain. You’re a good enough heel. You get the heat and so the crowd boos you.

And if they love you, they cheer you on. They sing your song. They do your dance. They say your catchphrases.
One example of that is LA Knight. Everybody knows what he’s going to say, it’s no secret. He says it. The fans say it with him. He’s over (when a wrestler has a huge crowd reaction, it’s called “over”). The fans love him. In fact, they started doing his catchphrases and everything while he was still a heel. WWE had to turn him face to accommodate that.

It’s never some rare cases where the fans do both for the same guy. So some will cheer and some will boo. Two examples of that are John Cena and Roman Reigns. Reigns was really in, as he calls it, “God mode.” In the past year or so, half of the arenas are cheering him. They do his mannerisms and acknowledge him as The Tribal Chief. The other half is booing and booing him.

He was drawing both heat and cheers at the same time. That’s rare. He was the top guy with, uh, 1300+ days as the top champion. So he was doing something right.

And so you got to make them feel. And of course, the promos help. As a performer, you go to the ring and you cut a promo. There, you tell them your motivation for attacking someone. Or, you tell them your motivation for winning the title or getting your revenge.

Most of the time, the wrestler promos are done on TV and in front of the crowd. Everyone needs to hear you, hear what you are thinking, saying and feeling. Everyone needs to hear your “why?” It’s imperative, and It’s part of your character’s backstory.

So you make the fans feel something good or bad. If you’re doing that, you’re doing your job.

Lesson Two: There is always a villain.

In professional wrestling, there is always a villain. In the pro wrestling lexicon it is called a “heel.” Dr. Seuss even talked about a heel when he described the Grinch. Everyone knows about a heel.

In life, we have an adversary. The adversary is often what we are trying to overcome. In wrestling, that is a person.

One of the best-ever in professional wrestling was The Nature Boy Ric Flair. He was often was called “The dirtiest player in the game.”

No one could bend the rules, cheat, and pull one over another wrestler or referee better than Flair. As a result, he has won a record 16 (21 according to him) heavyweight championships.

GIF Ric Flair
Ric Flair, the greatest villain

He took on the persona of the ultimate playboy, with the most famous lines being,

“I’m Ric Flair! The Stylin’, profilin’, limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin’ n’ dealin’ son of a gun!”

He was also fond of saying, “In order to be the man, you have to beat the man.”

These catchphrases were hallmarks of his character and his career. Flair transcended pro wrestling and into the conversations in our culture.

Another one of his signature phrases was “Wooooo!”

He had the signature phrases, the signature moves, the signature mannerisms and so much more. He exhibited amazing charisma for someone who was a “heel” most of his career.

He may have been one of the first pro wrestlers to be loved as a heel. It happens regularly now, but before Flair, it was unheard of.

Flair was a frequent rival of two of my favorite wrestlers, Dusty Rhodes and Sting. They and legendary feuds and remain friends to the end.

Lesson Three: Overcoming adversity.

The best story is one that shows a protagonist overcome adversity. I figured this out a long time ago, and pro wrestling showcases this as well as any storytelling platform.

It starts with the general narrative that is being used for the arc of each character.

Also, overcoming adversity is the main crux of a pro wrestling match. Each match is a struggle against an opponent. Rarely, if ever, is a match a “squash” match, one that is completely one-sided.

So, you have an opponent, and they have you in a bad spot. But you may also have your opponent in a bad spot. Someone has to win. There are exceptions to the win rule, but there has to be a winner most of the time.

In a match, you have two opponents. One is the face, or Babyface (the good guy) and the heel (villain, bad guy). On rare occasions, there will be two faces or two heels, but most of the time, it is a face versus a heel.

The face is the protagonist and most fans identify with that wrestler. He or she has to overcome his or her adversary to win. It’s pretty simple, really. It is a lesson in overcoming adversity. Each match has sequences and moves. The performers tell a story as they go back and forth before one wins.

GIF Cody Rhodes
Cody had to overcome all odds to finish his story

A great example of an ongoing narrative to overcome adversity is Cody Rhodes (Dusty’s son). When he returned to WWE three years ago, he cut this promo saying he came back for one reason. That reason was to win the top prize in the company, the heavyweight championship.

His father never held the top title in the WWE, so it was his goal. Cody called it “his story.” Cody had bumps along the way and ‌his journey, his story, seemed magical. He won the Royal Rumble two years in a row. This gave him an automatic shot at the main event at WrestleMania and the title he wants.

He won his first Royal Rumble after returning from a bad torn pectoral muscle. It had kept him out of action for many months.

The first year, he took his shot against the Universal Champion, Roman Reigns. It was set up perfectly and everyone just knew he would win, but in the end, he lost the match. Cody had to go back through it all over again. As the fans would say, “long-term storytelling.”

He faced a monster in Brock Lesnar in a three match opera throughout the summer after his loss to Roman Reign. He gutted through a broken arm. He ultimately won the rubber match and gained Lesnar’s respect.

He had to fight the Judgement Day in Survivor Series, another sidestep to his stated goal. One again, he entered and won the Royal Rumble.

But, as 2024 unfolded he had a new hitch in his plan, a returning Rock. The Rock wanted to face his cousin, Roman Reigns, at WrestleMania. But, the fans hated it and Rock became a villain for getting in Cody’s way.
So, WWE went with the story that was emerging right before their eyes. Cody and his supporters fought Rock, Reigns, and The Bloodline. It was a big battle.

It was set up for a two night main event. The first night, Rock and Reigns faced Cody Rhodes and Set Rollins. According to Rock, if Cody and Seth win on Saturday night, Cody’s Sunday match with Reigns would be free from Bloodline interference.

However, if Cody and Seth were to lose, the second night match would be Bloodline Rules. In those matches, anything goes. The two night main events were set with the highest stakes imaginable. Dusty would have loved it!
Night one, Cody and Seth lost setting up a night two Bloodline Rules. The hope for Cody to live his dream, his story, seemed all but gone. How could Cody overcome those odds?

Night two came. Cody and Reigns started their match. It lasted 30 minutes before there was interference. Then, it all started. Members of The Bloodline showed up to put obstacles in the way, but one by one, someone showed up to help Cody. You see, Bloodline Rules go both ways.

Every Bloodline member was countered by a Cody supporter: Jey Uso, John Cena, and Seth Rollins. This went all the way down to a surprise appearance by The Undertaker to counter The Rock.

To be honest, as I watched, it was a magical night. Cody finished off Reigns with his Cross Rhodes. The referee counted to three. Then, joy and relief filled the arena.

Finally, Cody finished his story! Finally, Cody overcame that huge obstacle in his career, but not only for him, but his whole family. Cody was the first Rhodes to hold the highest prize in WWE.

Wrestling is an opera. We see the protagonist in the story overcome many obstacles. Each match and storyline is a chance to see the “moment of highest tension.” This is what a storyteller would call a climax.

Lesson Four: The Comeback Story.

Everyone loves a good comeback story. This one is from pro wrestling and has stuck in my mind for over 40 years, since 1981. I was just a 10-year-old kid back then, but the events that unfolded have stuck with me to this day, even as I am now 53 years old.

It was a heated feud. It was between the beloved Ted DiBiase (long before he was The Million Dollar Man in WWF) and the villainous Fabulous Freebirds. They fought in Georgia Championship Wrestling. DiBiase’s partner was the iconic Junkyard Dog, JYD. In this match, Terry Gordy piledrove DiBiase outside the ring. He drove his head into the hard concrete with no padding.

Gordy rolled DiBiase back into the ring. The Freebirds scored the three-count. But, they weren’t done. In a pure act of villainy, they kept pummeling DiBiase. They hit him with not one, not two, but three more piledrivers. This left him motionless and the fans in shock. What made it more effective is, apparently, few people on the show knew this was going to happen so it came across as very real.

Reports say the switchboards lit up. Fans frantically called for updates on DiBiase’s condition. In the following weeks, the promotion told a story of DiBiase’s recovery. It aired vignettes of his hospital stay and of him in a neck brace. They showed him slowly regaining his strength through rehab.

As DiBiase’s comeback neared its peak in the video, the song “Fame” by Irene Cara began to play. It captured the spirit of overcoming adversity well. It set the stage for his triumphant return to settle the score with the Freebirds.
Even with the video technology of that era, the storytelling was so compelling. It was so emotionally gripping that it left an incredible mark on my mind. I never forgot this story

 

Lesson Five: Keep it simple.

“if you confuse ’em you lose ’em.” Jeff Jarrett

Jeff Jarrett is a WWE Hall of Famer and a veteran wrestler. He has been quoted as saying “if you confuse them, you lose them.”” He’s right, and it’s true in any kind of storytelling. It’s great to use structure and elements, and maybe a “Hero’s Journey.” But, if you stray too far from archetypes, you risk losing the audience. Don’t confuse your audience!

GIF of Jeff Jarrett
Jeff Jarrett keeping it simple.

I do like to say you should challenge them, no doubt. WWE ran a risk when Cody didn’t win the WWE Universal title in 2023, but that made the payoff much sweeter in 2024. In fact, if you look at Cody’s story to the Universal title, you might say that he, in fact, was following the Hero’s Journey.

I believe you can challenge your audience with a new paradigm, but you have to be careful. Think about the last time you watched a movie and there were missing answers. You have to answer those questions.

Mostly, professional wrestling understands this. They are not making storylines for the Oscars, but they are making them for the gate (revenue.) Before pay-per-view shows, pro wrestlers would sell live shows using TV time. They did it with promos and storylines. The fans were craving to see how it ends so they bought tickets to the events. It is called “selling tickets.”

When you use storytelling, don’t confuse your audience. Challenge your audience, but don’t confuse your audience. And you will sell tickets (that is make money).

Whatever you do with your story, you have to keep it relatively simple. Don’t confuse your audience or they will not respond to your product.

Notes:
Kayfabe – what’s real is often used – blurring of the lines
Turn face/heel – we all have times when we are on the other side, when we are the villain and we are the good guy. Or, we all wish we were the villain.

Wrapping it up

It’s easy to see. Professional wrestling is a giant soap opera that continues from one week to the other.
And storylines are crucial.

The five lessons I learned about storytelling from wrestling transcend all storytelling efforts.
We love a comeback story. There is always adversity. A villain always emerges. Keep it simple. And remember, great storytelling always makes them feel.

From what have you learned more about storytelling?

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