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CIRCA
In Memory of Kayfabe
December 9, 2004

by Denny Burkholder
Courtesy of WrestleLine.com

 

Some time between the advent of insider newsletters and the Internet boom, "kayfabe" became a dirty word. 
 
Protecting the business used to be a ferociously serious matter. Wrestlers and promoters firmly believed that if the fans were told outright that pro wrestling were indeed "sports entertainment" and not a straight-up competition, the business would die. It was already a laughing stock among the legit sports 

media, who ignored pro wrestling 99 perecent of the time, and denounced it as a ridicuous farce the other one percent.

A large percentage of the general public accepted that pro wrestling was predetermined for decades on end, and were usually able to cite valid reasons (these people were not usually fans). The time they saw Bob Backlund sell a punch that Superstar Graham visibly whiffed. The time they saw The Ultimate Warrior splash a guy and pin him, only to see in the slo-mo replay that the Warrior's knees and forearms prevented any contact at all with his opponent's chest.

Every once in a while, a pro wrestler slipped, and his opponent sold it anyway, and the business, as they say, was "exposed." It may have been a secret that pro wrestling wasn't exactly a shoot, but it was a terribly kept one. Not only was the wrestling business mocked for perpetuating the myth that this stuff was legit, but its fans were considered even bigger idiots for believing what they were seeing. Remarkably, there were a large number of fans who completely accepted that pro wrestling was an actual fight, and the good guys were actually kind hearted, and the bad guys were evil in real life. Virtually all old-time wrestlers can relate stories of when fans were so wrapped up in this athletic theater that they physically attacked the heels, or leaped into the ring to protect their beloved babyface. They're not all exaggerated road stories. Some of these guys have the wounds to prove it.

When Stampede can incite a riot in Calgary because of a storyline with Bad News Allen and Archie Gouldie, SOMEONE thinks it's real. When AWA fans are arrested for picking up their seats and trying to hit the Road Warriors for what they did to young Curt Hennig, SOMEONE thinks its real.

Kayfabe is still around today, but it's a shell of its former self. Today, kayfabe amounts to the storylines we see on television and the characters the performers are playing. That's it... kayfabe is what we see on television. But back in the day, wrestling was completely surrounded by this farce. Unlike actors and producers for other television shows, pro wrestlers were forced to play their characters in public, 24 hours a day. Ted DiBiase has often told of Vince McMahon spotting him hundred dollar bills to carry with him on the road so cashiers at gas stations wouldn't be able to say they saw "The Million Dollar Man" fumble for change at the register. When the infamous 1975 plane crash nearly killed Ric Flair and Johnny Valentine, the territory went to great lengths to kayfabe a reason why babyfaces and heels were aboard the same private plane.

Wrestling magazines didn't cover "the business" so much as they extended the storylines of wrestling companies, publishing columns, articles, and interviews that pretended this was all real. As far as the magazines were concerned, breaking kayfabe could result in two things: the smartening up of wrestling fans, and being cut off from the wrestling companies that were allowing them to cover their shows. Either one would presumably spell the end of their own business. So the choice really wasn't a choice at all, in their minds: protect kayfabe at all times, or find a different job.

Wrestlers like Eddie Mansfield were blackballed for attempting to expose the business to the mainstream media on shows like 20/20 - programs that usually ignored wrestling, but were suckers for a good old-fashioned exploitative feature. Sometimes wrestlers got fed up with protecting kayfabe, and snapped when a reporter asked them if "wrestling is real or fake." "Dr. D" David Shultz effectively ended his own career in pro wrestling by slapping reporter John Stossel on 20/20 for just such a question. Even in 1997, when the wrestlers themselves were admitting their business was fixed, Big Van Vader got into trouble on a Kuwaiti talk show during a WWF tour of the Middle East, when he got physical with the interviewer for questioning wrestling's authenticity.

Kayfabe wasn't just a story on television. It was cause for physical assault. It was the life of the business. It was the rule of the road. It was the atmosphere, the culture, the albatross that everyone in the industry had to carry.

A number of things led to the death of kayfabe. Vince McMahon himself relented and admitted the business was fixed more than once, usually for legal reasons - because he was being sued, or because a sports regulatory commission used kayfabe against the WWF as a reason to interfere with its profits. The advent of insider newsletters in the 1980s smartened up a bunch of fans prior to this, and kept on going right through the present day. The Internet made this insider info much easier and cheaper for the average fan to obtain. Eventually, the whole industry dropped kayfabe as a general rule. You'll find very few in the pro wrestling business in 2004 that will stand in front of the media and try to convince them this is all a shoot - and the ones that do are considered out of touch with reality, even by their associates.

The mainstream media still does not respect pro wrestling, but they are more willing to allow the Ric Flairs, Triple Hs, and DDPs to appear on their programs to plug PPVs, books, and reunions. And the wrestling magazines have also evolved, still covering the major storylines, but without the insinuation that it's a real-life struggle.

Where has the death of kayfabe left the fans?

With the majority of fans aware (at least on a basic level) that this is all scripted, a whole new attitiude has evolved. Perhaps tired from years of being ridiculed for watching wrestling, fans will now louding and angrily scoff at anyone who discusses a pro wrestling angle without mentioning, somehow, that it's all a put-on. There's an unspoken insecurity among "smart" wrestling fans not found in the fans of other scripted TV shows.

Indeed, it's as if the death of kayfabe has made the fans afraid to have fun, in fear of retaliation.

If you pop for the babyface today, you're a mark - a term previously associated with those who believed kayfabe, but which has evolved into a catch-all insult. In some cities, if you dare to play along with the show at all, you're ridiculed by fans who'd prefer to focus on "the business" side of the show. While other fans enjoy Chris Jericho's interview, these fans are silently wondering what kind of rating that quarter-hour will draw. While 2,000 people around them are enjoying the entertainment, these fans are calculating the attendance in their heads, watching for specific botched moves, and entering the arena with a much more critical eye. Fans used to buy tickets to a WWF house show to relax and have fun after a hard day's work. Today, some fans are more concerned with critiquing the show and stifling their natural response to enjoy, or to not enjoy, as the case warrants. Everybody used to be fans. Now, everybody's a critic.

In that respect, one could almost deduce that "smart" fans are punishing pro wrestlers for kayfabing them for so long.

We're in REVERSE kayfabe mode now. Twenty-five years ago, insecure wrestling fans were always faced with the question, "How can you watch/enjoy this garbage?" Wrestlers provided them with false security as a retort... "Because it's real, we promise." Today, the fans turn the tables by asking wrestlers, "How come this garbage isn't any better?" Wrestlers are forced to respond defensively, "Hey, lay off, it's supposed to be entertainment!"

Twenty-five years ago, the most dilligent wrestling fans accepted everything they saw and stuck up for their favorite pasttime when friends and family scoffed. Today, the biggest wrestling fans accept almost NOTHING they see, and throw mistakes and bad shows back at the wrestlers, as if it's THEIR turn to be ridiculed.

Have we used the death of kayfabe as an outlet to act out our own insecurities, to overcorrect the percieved error we've made in "watching this garbage?" Do we still enjoy pro wrestling, or is it serving a more psychological purpose at this point?

Whatever the answer, the cause was probably kayfabe... in life, and in death.

 
E-MAIL DENNY
BROWSE THE CIRCA ARCHIVES


  
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