Kayfabe is a funny thing. It was once a vital aspect of professional wrestling, in some ways maybe the most vital aspect of it, but it was also something that had to be eventually left behind for professional wrestling to continue to exist and grow. Leaving it behind let the industry soar to new heights, but it also may have hurt the industry as well.
It seems hard for some younger fans to believe, and even back in the day there were people who made fun of fans for believing it was real, but a part of wrestling’s success for so many years was having a large part of the audience believing it was real. People genuinely hated the wrestling heels, some people even attacking them at shows, occasionally even with weapons, and rooted for the face to win their war with the hot heel of the moment with almost the same fervor they would root for their country in an actual war.
It wasn’t even the stereotypical wrestling fans made fun of in so many comedy skits and comic strips that could be this way either. My family had several generations of what were called “Wrestling Grannies” in it. These could be the prim, proper older ladies in the family who were never seen yelling, screaming, or using bad language and could be found in the front rows of their church every Sunday. But catch them in front of the TV during an hour of wrestling and they transformed into the loudest, most animated, and (occasionally) verbally questionable of people you’d ever see. They might even be the first in line to physically attack a wrestler at the live show. On the flipside, they could often spend hours waxing poetic over a favorite, well-built face wrestler.
There were live shows where the heels had been built up so hot that the heels winning a match could literally set off a riot in the arena. Fans responded to some wrestling news by appearing in the kind of numbers that shut down smaller towns and cities. There were literally events where so many people arrived they filled the arena to capacity and the still incoming swarms of fans gridlocked the streets for hours on end.
It was sometimes an unbelievable level of passion put on display for their favorite pastime. It could occasionally be the type of devotion that ventured well beyond most other displays like it and into the area where “fan” more closely resembled “fanatic.”
This wasn’t just the bygone days of the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s either. There are older wrestlers in their 50s and 60s who can show you scars where they were attacked by fans wielding weapons in the 1970s. There are wrestlers in that age range who can point to old news stories in their scrapbooks showing when they closed down a town. The era of a large number of the fans still believing it was real was an era that died out not really all that long ago.
Kayfabe was already certainly its age in the 1980s though. You still had wrestlers who would adamantly defend the “real” nature of wrestling- David Shultz slapping John Stossel senseless during a 1984 interview for a 20/20 report on the legitimacy of wrestling being an extreme example -but the constant and growing public questioning of the “sport” was taking its toll on kayfabe. The shift with fans, somewhat dependent on the region they lived in, was happening enough that you were already seeing a sizable number of fans either knowing it was “fake” or at least saying they knew it was “fake” when around people who made disparaging remarks about those who believed. But in the end, it was Vince McMahon that finally truly killed off kayfabe in 1989.
Vince wanted to get away from kayfabe for a number of reasons. Some of it was creative; some of it was getting out from under the various state commissions that regulated sporting events. There were a lot of reasons he wanted to get away from those. The various Athletic State Commissions of each state would be at and involved in every wrestling event. They would issue the licenses to the promoters, the wrestlers, the referees, and timekeepers that allowed them to work the events. If they didn’t grant a license it could be as problematic for a wrestling company as it is now with MMA in some states. They could even fine and suspend wrestlers for various offenses whether the promoter liked it or not.
But the big one that got discussed by many at the time was how they could also levy a tax on all wrestling events, with the percentage of the gate depending on which state the event was held. A lot of people speculated that Vince’s biggest motivation was getting them out of his profit picture. It wasn’t speculation without merit though. The McMahons had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1980s lobbying to get professional wrestling deregulated. Admitting it was scripted and predetermined, entertainment rather than competitive sport, achieved that goal faster and cheaper than anything else they had tried.
A lot of old-timers were absolutely apoplectic. The belief among the older wrestlers and promoters was that Vince was going to kill the business. The talk was he had taken the mystique away from every performer in one interview and exposed the business to even greater derision from the naysayers. It may be apocryphal, but there are even wrestlers who have talked about some promoters legitimately discussing killing Vince. He was already hated enough by many for disregarding many of the agreements from the old territory days, but with this declaration he was seen as being the man who was about to kill the business for everyone.
There was an odd thing about their dire predictions of the death of the industry though. They were absolutely dead wrong about it. Thing is, they were also kind of right.
Where Things Went Well
Obviously, with this being written in 2016 and one of the top cable shows being a pro wrestling show, it didn’t kill off the industry. If anything, Vince putting the stake in kayfabe’s heart may have helped some of the smaller territories to survive as long as they did. Yeah, Vince is often pointed to as the man who killed the territories off, a charge not without merit, but by acting in the interest of his own personal financial gain he put money back into the pockets of every promoter. It may ultimately have been little more than just extending the dying gasps of the various territories, but they now had the money to put back into their product that they had once been paying out to state athletic commissions.
It would help the business with regards to smaller promotions in other ways; especially with one promotion about ten years after Vince’s announcement. While the territories may have died out as the WWF and WCW dominated the US wrestling markets throughout the 1990s, there was now the ability for independent promotions to grow. Small, cash strapped startups didn’t have to give some of their all-important but meager profits to an outside commission of any kind. Some promotions that started up and survived their early years only by the skin of their teeth would have died very quick deaths if they had to pay out to state commissions as they once would have had to do.
Most of us couldn’t name many of the indie promotions fitting this description that popped up in the 1990s. All of us can name one. It was a little promotion that went by the name Eastern Championship Wrestling. They later changed the “Eastern” bit in their name to “Extreme” but simply went by ECW to most fans. In all honesty, TNA and ROH also may have only been able to survive their leaner startup years because they weren’t a “sport” but rather “sports entertainment” and thus exempt from many of the fees and dues owed by sporting bodies and the controlling nature of the commissions.
The death of kayfabe also allowed characters to blossom in ways they hadn’t always been able to before then. Wrestling has always had its share of colorful characters, but, sometimes for good and sometimes not quite for good, the post kayfabe wrestling world could literally have anything imaginable as a character for a wrestler. Signature matches could be invented for characters to use as their ultimate feud enders that would never have been approved by the athletic commissions. Because, somehow, I just don’t see a sports commission getting past the concept of a match held in a burning ring where the goal was to set your opponent on fire before they set you on fire.
Wrestlers were no longer as constrained by “realism” with characters or performance. They could now perform moves for style purposes and weather assaults for storyline purposes that might have been discouraged by old-school promoters. Sometimes this worked, creating exciting matches and creating high energy stars. Sometimes it lived down to the fears of the old-timers by killing the grounding in reality and going a little too far for some viewers’ willing suspension of disbelief.
But, interestingly, the death of kayfabe initially changed very little with regards to the fundamentals of the industry. Some characters may have become more exaggerated over time, some move sets may have grown flashier while losing their grounding in realism, and the disparity in some of the various Davids fighting some of the various Goliaths may have occasionally grown somewhat greater, but much of it still centered around the basic concepts that always made the business work. Yeah, some of the comedy storylines could occasionally go too far- an aged women wrestler giving birth to a hand comes to mind –but many of the basic kayfabe dynamics initially stayed intact and acted as the building blocks for wrestling in a post kayfabe world.
If anything, at least for a time, the new creative freedom may have been a large factor in helping to usher in the biggest era in professional wrestling. There was a lot of stuff that happened in the Attitude Era/Monday Night Wars that fans loved despite the grounding in reality being left far behind and despite occasionally breaking the rules that were held sacred by many a promoter in the age of kayfabe. The death of kayfabe meant the death of some creative restrictions and rules about what not to do. Extended comedy bits from the Attitude Era, some still loved by fans to this day, were certainly something that a lot of older promoters would have considered money killers and never gone for.
You also had an eventual opening of the business in ways we would have never seen in an era of kayfabe. Wrestlers become celebrities more in line with actors. You could actually go meet your favorite wrestler, even if he was a heel, and not have to deal with someone having to “protect the business” and stay in character. TV shows, either from the outside looking in or generated by the companies themselves, showed us the inner workings of the business. For some people it was simply a matter of academic interest and entertainment, but for others with a dream it was the first time they were able to see what you had to do and endure if you wanted to pursue that dream. It opened the business up to becoming a more fully interactive entity in the modern age of social media and information/communication technology as well.
Where Things Went Wrong
The sad part of looking at where some things went wrong in the post-kayfabe era is realizing that many of the things that went wrong didn’t have to go wrong. Some of the wounds inflicted in the last couple of decades were self-inflicted and avoidable.
One of the things that seemed to go off course for a while may have been a side effect of no longer having a “protect the business” mindset to the nth degree. This would be the quality of some of the in-ring work.
The mindset of protecting the business is most often discussed these days in terms how wrestlers used to have to act outside of the ring. Many people talk about how wrestlers had to stay in character at all times, had to ride together in all face or all heel groups, or had to have separate face and heel dressing rooms at the arenas. Occasionally they’ll even bring up the infamous plane crash that broke Ric Flair’s back and how they did what they could to keep it quiet even in the real news media that Tim Woods was in the plane along with the others since, due to kayfabe, you weren’t supposed to have feuding wrestlers happily traveling together.
But people rarely discuss how protecting the business worked in the ring. When the business was being sold to the public as a legitimate sporting event, you had to have your work in the ring a little more grounded in reality. Now, that doesn’t mean you didn’t have moves that a bit of serious scrutiny would tell you shouldn’t quite work a certain way or that would be so damaging in a real fight that no one should be getting up after them. What it meant was wrestlers working and selling the unreal moves in a realistic way.
If you didn’t work properly, promoters wouldn’t book you in high profile matches and the other wrestlers would do what they could to straighten you out in the ring until you did work properly. More than a few wrestlers have discussed not selling properly in their early career and having an older wrestler legitimately and deliberately knock them senseless in the ring because of it. If you didn’t sell your opponent’s offense properly, you might have ended up hurt badly enough that you wouldn’t have to fake it anymore. Wrestlers may have presented and sold some things in larger than life ways, but they kept an internal logic intact with the work in the ring that gave it some semblance of realism.
You had to sell the unreal as realistically as possible in the era of kayfabe. If your game wasn’t up to snuff, you could have exposed the business and destroyed the product. This was drilled into people over and over and over again as they learned their craft and progressed in the industry. And that was only if you were deemed worthy of being brought into the business to begin with and survived your initial introduction to the business. The story of Hulk Hogan getting his leg intentionally broken the first day he showed up to learn the business isn’t an apocryphal story, and it’s hardly a unique one.
But the product in the ring started to change without kayfabe after enough time had passed. Some recent era wrestlers have barely sold offense properly throughout most of a match before completely forgetting to sell any “injury” after the bell rang to end the match. Some ring work was becoming more geared towards being visually entertaining than it was having a grounding in even the unreal reality of the days of old with the rationale of everyone knowing it was entertainment. The problem with that is similar to the one of ridiculous, over the top, bad videogame styled CGI action scenes in movies vs grounded action scenes. Yeah, everyone watching the movie knows it’s not real, but you need to meet the audience halfway with regards to helping them with their willing suspension of disbelief.
When some of the action in the ring started to drift too far from the fundamentals that helped protect the illusion of reality in earlier eras, it sometimes broke the illusion too greatly, and viewer involvement in the outcome was lost. Some of that didn’t need to happen, and very recent wrestling developments have indicated that they’re working at reversing some of that slide away from stronger fundamentals and dos and don’ts.
Characters in the WWF (and some other organizations) began to suffer for a while as well. Vince, when left to his own devices and not facing stiff competition, seems to hold a vision of wrestling as being a giant cartoon. Maybe not literally, but he seems to push for the most cartoonish concepts possible. Early 1990’s WWF in the immediate wake of the removal of kayfabe began to look in many ways like a living cartoon; even more so than some of the 1980s did. In WCW, the powers that be became obsessed with making mini-movies featuring one-eyed midgets, exploding boats, Sid Vicious threating people on a beach while wearing flip-flops, secret castle hideaways, and wrestlers shooting laser beams out of their eyes. They eventually went full movie crazy, going entirely off the deep end and involving Chucky (yes, the evil doll of the movies) and Robocop in their wrestling programming. Because, you know, nothing says “grounded in reality” like watching Robocop slowly walk down to the ring to help the face wrestler in his match.
As it was more and more established that wrestling was purely entertainment, it became more and more acceptable to some in the business to involve entertainers in the action in ways they hadn’t been before. Jay Leno putting a wrestling hold on Hulk Hogan in the middle of a wrestling ring in an actual match should never have happened. It could probably be fairly easily argued that David Arquette would never have been allowed near a world title match as a competitor, let alone winning the world title itself had they still been in the age of kayfabe. It seemed for a while there that, to the detriment of the product, the attitude of too many running the shows became one of believing that so long as it was entertainment anything that worked as entertainment or grabbed entertaining headlines was the way to go.
You also have the issue we’re still seeing with guys like Roman Reigns. In the era of kayfabe, if you weren’t ready to be the top guy, you couldn’t be the top guy or at least couldn’t be the top guy for very long. You had to be the guy who could carry that ball and do everything that a top guy holding the world title needed to be able to do or you weren’t going to be the top guy. It was a vital requirement, because you needed to be believable in an age where the product was sold to the audience as real. Now, because it’s just entertainment, we get things like Roman Reigns. And the Roman Reigns thing opens up a whole other can of worms.
The death of kayfabe kind of killed the concept of wrestling fans as fans just being fans. It’s something we’re all guilty of to greater or lesser degrees, and I include myself in that grouping. The truth is many fans can no longer simply watch the product and just be entertained by what they’re given. Fans have become “smart” to the business and armchair book their fantasy cards. When the people the fans deem deserving are not given the booking treatment we deem them deserving of, you can see entire arenas revolt in some weird, and occasionally obnoxious, ways.
If our guy isn’t given a title, it was bad creative, booked wrong, and it’s the wrong guy winning. The reality of the situation may be the loser on Sunday was booked to be screwed only to get his revenge and the belt on Monday or Thursday all along, but it’s seen as bad booking being panic changed due to negative fan reaction. This leads some fans to literally demand more changes whenever fan fantasy booking is not matched by the actual booking.
It’s a somewhat unique thing with wrestling fans as well. All of us discuss bad writing in TV shows and movies we watch and all of us either tune in or tune out of such things because of the writing. But few fans of TV shows or movie franchises demand changes to the scripts as actively and, in some cases, as angrily as wrestling fans. I know people who will sit through half a season of a bad TV show watching things unfold while talking about how it’s going to lead to something cool who won’t sit through one week of wrestling without becoming the worst example of a “smark” fan. The art of being a wrestling fan, of just watching the program and seeing it unfold, is becoming a more and more lost art form.
That may be the biggest damage to wrestling that the killing of kayfabe as we once knew it did. We can’t go back to believing it’s real. We know it’s not and the most we can do is suspend disbelief for a few hours. But, even then, we no longer react to wrestlers we don’t support coming out on top in the way fans once did. We react like smarks, and we complain about how that’s not how we would have scripted it or about how they ruined it and obviously got it all wrong.
Smarks bring up a whole other issue as well.
But is Kayfabe Really Dead?
Smart fans may not actually be as smart as they think they are. Everyone swears they “know” information about what’s going on, what’s happening behind the curtain, but everything everyone is operating off of is rumor and speculation. Every source people cite for their information can be as wrong as often as it is right, and maybe more often wrong than right, but they still use those sources because it’s all they’ve got. And the various sources can be and have been used to play the fans.
One of the biggest surprises fans got in a long time was due to the WWE playing kayfabe tricks on the fans. Cena was out with a terrible injury. Cena was on the shelf for months. But, like Kirk and Spock’s hours becoming days in Wrath of Khan, the WWE’s announced months were really weeks, and then Cena appeared at the Royal Rumble as a surprise entrant to the loudest pop he’d received in years,
Chris Jericho has joked about fans telling him how pissed they were with how he was once written out of wrestling before heading off to tour with his band. The fans felt it was disrespectful to him for all he’d done in the business and how popular he was at the time. The thing is, being carted off kicking and screaming, being “disrespected” like that, was in part his idea. He was playing the cowardly, arrogant, snotty heel and he wanted to get the memorable treatment he got that night. But smarks reading rumors about what “really happened” behind the scenes had their own ideas about why things went down as they did.
James Storm Just showed up on Impact after playing down the rumors on his social media that he was going to do so. People were convinced that his say-so was legit since he would never leave NXT to return to the “dying” TNA. But then he showed up on Impact after all. Right now there’s breaking news of A.J. Styles and others leaving Japan and signing with the WWE as either WWE main roster guys or NXT roster guys. Rumors are flying everywhere and people don’t know what to think. Finn Balor started posting tweets looking like he was welcoming his old crew into the fold with open arms before deleting them a short while later. Then the WWE’s own website started posting things designed to muddy the waters and stir the pot all at once.
Playing with the minds of fans, creating a false reality and making the fans fall for it, is basically kayfabe. Playing with our perceptions, fooling us and even confusing us until they drop a reveal on us that, for even just one moment, makes us forget to be smarks and makes us geek the hell out like fans gone wild because we’ve been caught off guard is basically kayfabe. Making us forget, even if for only one brief second, that it’s entertainment and reacting like it’s real is a form of kayfabe.
We will never get the kayfabe back that the industry once had, but there’s definitely a newer version of kayfabe out there they’re trying to create now. And the fact that they can still do that to us and make us be fans again and enjoy being fans again if only briefly is maybe a sign that we need to let ourselves be fans again a little more often.
We’re always going to nitpick some things and we’re always to a degree going to discuss things we liked and didn’t like after a show because, well, we’re geeks and that’s what geeks have always done. But, you know, maybe we should also let ourselves embrace the new kayfabe a bit more as well. It might be good for us. After all, while I like to talk about the nuts and bolts of why something does or does not work as much as the next guy, I think we could all do with feeling more like fans again at least a little more often.