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Theatrics of Pain

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Combat choreography is often done using explicit and implicit cooperation by all involved to minimize injuries while doing maneuvers that remain extremely dangerous. To help maintain the Willing Suspension of Disbelief, the person at the receiving end of the dangerous maneuver must appear to show that the move hurt. This is the Theatrics of Pain.

Usually, it is quite easy to tell in wrestling if someone has been injured for real or is "selling" the move by its absence. It is harder in film and television because the stuntmen (whose job it is to do all the dangerous maneuvers) are trained to handle such situations professionally in a contained environment—and such things are all behind the scene anyway. note 

When a wrestler pretends to be uninjured by the move, this is the No-Sell. When an actor does, it is The Stoic or Made of Iron.

Sometimes, wrestlers will hit too hard. This is called "stiffness". Usually, it's harder to show any level of pain other than the true level, making them difficult to work with. That can happen in film and TV, too; we are less likely to see it there, however, because of the magic of editing.

A common place to find unscripted Theatrics of Pain is in Association Football. As the game allows tackling for the ball but penalises reckless or deliberately injurious tackles, it's in an unscrupulous player's interest to sell any physical contact whatsoever as theatrically as the referee can be expected to believe, often including crashing to the ground and rolling around wearing a grimace of agony. Such "diving" is stereotypically associated with Latin American/South European styles of play, but can in truth be found all over the world. Some fans are of the opinion that the game should adopt a rule of "If you're not bleeding profusely, or can still play, you don't deserve the foul", but the sporting gods hold that it's important to deter unsportsmanlike behaviour like intimidation, reckless tackles and shirt-grabbing (plus, multimillion-dollar-losing broken ankles are as terrifying to owners of football clubs as those of racehorses.) For the polar opposite of the stereotypical Fragile Speedster footballer, see Rugby Is Slaughter.

Compare to Reality Is Unrealistic.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Kengan Ashura has a character who uses this as a combat tactic—Jun Sekibayashi, a pro wrestler who also fights in underground rings. Most trained fighters consider him a performer rather than a combatant (and his Fighting Clown demeanor certainly furthers this impression), but it turns out this is actually a boon; he's very good at making an attack that barely even bruised him look like a decisive blow that put him on the ropes. A number of his fights suddenly turned in his favor when he revealed he was actually nowhere near as injured as his opponent thought, and went from stumbling in agony to flawlessly grappling the opponent and going for a powerbomb.
    "Pro wrestlers are good actors!"

    Comic Books 
  • Superman in any given media is reduced to a pain riddled heap around kryptonite. Often his anguished reaction is over-the-top in order to emphasis how painful the experience is to him as he rarely feels discomfort, never mind unspeakable agony. Interestingly one of the great criticisms of Superman is that he is either being beaten near to death or feels no pain at all. What exactly does "invulnerable" mean? On the other hand, Clark Kent often has to sell attacks. First, as in this example to protect his Secret Identity, of course. But also on occasion to protect the attackerno-selling a full-force punch from a normal human is going to break the puncher's hand, and even someone as tough as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man will be in a world of hurt.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Three Stooges, notorious for their very physical slapstick humor, had ways of making things look far more painful than they really were. For instance, Moe's Eye Poke was really a poke to the eyebrows which Curly, Larry or Shemp would sell by flinching and covering their eyes. The accompanying "doing" sound made it more convincing and humorous as well, in fact the foley work in general made Moe's attacks seem more harsh than they actually were.
  • In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Saruman gets stabbed in the back. Peter Jackson attempted to direct Christopher Lee on how someone reacts when stabbed like that. Lee replied that he knew perfectly well how people really reacted, from his time in the Special Forces during WWII. Make of that what you will.

    Live Action TV 
  • When Frasier assaults a rude patron of Cafe Nervosa and is later served with a lawsuit after he publicly admits fault in doing so, Niles baits the other man into barely poking him in the chest... at which point Niles goes spinning wildly across the café and falling through a table. When a horrified Frasier runs to his side, he whispers simply "Countersuit."
    Frasier: My god, Niles, that was brilliant. You even got a tear in your eye!
    Niles: I landed on a fork.
  • Soccer's propensity for faking injuries was parodied on an episode of Key & Peele, where a player flopped so convincingly that he literally died and his soul went to heaven, then when his opponent was penalized and red carded, returned to his body to score the winning goal.

    Pro Wrestling 
Wrestling has the most literal version; the theatrics of pain is called "selling" in that medium. Many wrestlers find themselves praised or derided based on their ability (or lack thereof) to sell an opponent's attacks. See also Wrestling Psychology.
  • Mr. Perfect's legendary career of bouncing around like a pinball for his opponents cannot be overstated. Perfect was nimble and dexterous enough that he would practically pirouette off of a simple punch.
  • Ric Flair sold like he'd been shot. One of his trademark bits is getting the crap beat out of him, then getting up, taking a few dizzy, awkward steps and falling on his face. Longtime fans call it the Flair Flop.
    • If Ric Flair wants to bladenote , Ric Flair will fucking blade. His bleached blond hair will quickly turn orange-red, and his entire face will be caked in blood in moments. Even a simple knockdown punch will have him banging his own fist against his forehead until he's more bloody face than man. Infamously, Flair would even blade during a promo.
  • One of the most memorable examples of a wrestler over-selling is the Shawn Michaels vs Hulk Hogan match at WWE's Summerslam 2005. After Hogan screwed Shawn out of a win by cancelling a match to follow that one (in which Shawn'd get the pin), Shawn decided to screw him right back by turning his big match into an absolute farce: He oversold every last blow he took like a cartoon character, flopping about with everything that landed until the match looked less like a main event and more like slapstick theater. Hulk was visibly furious throughout the whole thing as his victory was turned into a joke.
  • Dolph Ziggler is probably one of the best sellers in WWE history, to the point where there are montages on YouTube on him doing nothing but selling. Although sometimes he gets criticized for taking crazy bumps such that they look cartoony, still others like him for emulating the likes of Mr. Perfect and Ric Flair who revolutionized how entertaining selling could be and for making his opponents look strong. Speaking of which...
  • Triple H. For all the flak he gets for his burials and metaphorical shovel, when Hunter wants to get a guy over, he will get that guy over. His selling is as good as Ziggler's — as shown when Roman Reigns beat him down at the end of TLC 2015.
    • He's able to do this in a non-physical way, too. In the build-up to a feud between him and Mick Foley, Mick (as Mankind) claimed to be too beaten up to face Triple-H, so he found a replacement... Cactus Jack. Despite being the same wrestler with a different gimmick, the news (and Foley's changing into the appropriate outfit while approaching the ring) was sold like Hunter had just seen the devil himself emerge from the ramp, which Foley credits as giving the storyline as much credibility as it had.
  • Almost every time "Stone Cold" Steve Austin hits The Rock with the stunner, Rock backflips.
    • Due to Stone Cold's current state as an occasional guest, most newer wrestlers understand that they're probably going to have only one chance to sell the Stone Cold Stunner and by god do they sell it.
  • One of the current best in the business is Sami Zayn, who frequently shows off his flexibility and acting skills when he takes hits. When he wrestled as El Generico, he could make you believe that he'd been knocked unconscious or couldn't stand after a blow, building the suspense for how the eternal-babyface would ultimately triumph. As a heel, he's adapted his selling to better show off his opponents' big moves, feigning dizziness and confusion at quick hits and power maneuvers. And of course, no one sells the pop-up powerbomb like Zayn can.
  • NXT's resident master of this is Kyle O'Reilly. While he'd been doing the same thing for years on the indies, NXT has given him a much bigger platform. O'Reilly seems to have very little vanity, screaming for help from his faction or his tag team partner, getting up from hits on legs that resemble spaghetti, doing an entire Face Fault, or getting "hit" so hard he falls out of the ring itself. His over-the-top heel antics provide a stark contrast to his babyface reactions, utilizing the same tactics, but making the audience sympathize with him instead of laugh at his misfortune.

  • As mentioned, often very blatant in soccer/football, often with the commentators snarkily pointing out the attempts. Unfortunately, it's often only blatant to those watching on television, as they have the advantage of multiple angles and slow motion, meaning that many a referee has been taken in. It is popularly associated with the Spanish, Italian, and South American leagues in particular, especially by British fans. However, while referees are a great deal less interested in injuries and theatrics in the UK, with far more leeway given in regards to what constitutes Unnecessary Roughness, the English and Scottish game is far from free of the stain, one which goes right up to international level. Little wonder Teen Titans Go! describes the sport as "Kicking a Ball and Pretending to Be Hurt".
    • One of the worst in recent memory was a quarterfinal game in the 2011 Women's World Cup. With Brazil up 2-1 and extra time almost expired, Brazilian player Ericka suddenly crumbled to the ground in apparent agony, and after a four minute performance (and remember, the clock doesn't stop in soccer), jumped up off the stretcher taking her off the field and sprinted back into position. Ian Darke, the British commentator for the game, drily noted her "miraculous recovery". However, she was hoist by her own petard because the referee, annoyed, gave her a yellow card and added three more minutes of extra time. The US scored in this extra time and eventually won the game in the shoot-out.
    • Pictured above is the Brazilian player Neymar, who went from being merely infamous for his theatrics to a fully fledged meme at the 2018 World Cup, with even the press criticizing how much he was diving. This perhaps worked against him though, as the times he was actually fouled the referees did not call it because of his reputation for this trope. Very few people have shown him much sympathy.
  • It is creeping into American Football as well. Briefly, each team gets three time-outs per half. However, if a player is injured, the officials call a time out that is not charged to either team. Thus the well-timed "cramp," often induced by a look to the coaches on the sideline. This is somewhat balanced by the rule that a player who is "injured" has to sit out at least one play, and (in some circumstances) can also cause a 10 second run-off of the game clock. This practice is actively disincentivized inside of the final two minutes of each half, where an injury requiring stoppage of play causes that player's team to be charged one timeout. As losing a timeout can have game-changing implications, no player interested in seeing the field again will feign an injury in this situation.
  • Certain players in the NBA are rather notorious for flopping to draw a foul - most notably Vlade Divac, Danny Ainge, Manu Ginóbili, and Le Bron James.
  • Rugby fans like to tell a joke when in hearing of soccer fans: "Football is 90 minutes of pretending to be hurt, Rugby is 80 minutes of pretending to be fine".

  • Demonstrated in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when Guildenstern seizes the Player's dagger and tries to stab him to death. Guildenstern thinks the Player has been Killed Off for Real, when the Tragedians start applauding and congratulating the Player on a death scene well played. (He considers his own performance "merely competent.")
  • In the Takarazuka Revue production of 1789, Ronan gets A Taste of the Lash courtesy of the Comte de Peyrol in the Bastille, followed by a good ol' fashioned No-Holds-Barred Beatdown from Peyrol's soldiers while being chained to a wall. Akatsuki Chisei's cries of pain in the shinjin kouennote  are quite convincing. Ryuu Masaki as principal Ronan? Given the Unresolved Sexual Tension between Ronan and Peyrol, it sounds like Too Kinky to Torture.

    Video Games 
  • In Punch-Out!!, especially the Wii version, boxers react in differing degrees to punches; depending on how you hit them, they'll either stand there stunned and take a flurry, take one hit and back off, or, depending on if you knock them down with a jab or a body blow, get sent flying or twirling backwards instead of merely falling over as real boxers usually do. Of course, the comical reactions are there to help the player and give them a rush from clobbering their opponent.
  • In the Disgaea series, recurring character Axel has his "My Heart Shakes" special attack, which places him and his target in a movie shoot where he builds up energy in a ridiculously flashy manner before stumbling into his victim with a punch that does zero damage and makes a comical sound effect. The target proceeds to hurt themselves by overdoing the theatrics, reeling backwards before exploding.

    Western Animation 
  • Exaggerated in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, when Patrick fakes a fight with SpongeBob for the sake of making him look tough enough to be admitted into a bar. He somehow manages to get a black eye, loses some teeth, gets hit with some Metronomic Man Mashing, and finally, gets a wedgie before being punted into the distance; all without SpongeBob so much as laying a finger on him (which gets lampshaded by an impressed onlooker).


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Final Face Off

It's Nic Cage and John Travolta, so even their actual combat is absolutely full of pork!

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Main / HamToHamCombat

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