Oh, kayfabe and professional wrestling. If there’s any argument that has divided people more than just that one issue than I can’t tell you what it is. First, let’s define kayfabe:
In professional wrestling, kayfabe (pronounced /ˈkeɪfeɪb/) is the portrayal of events within the industry as “real” or “true”. Specifically, the portrayal of professional wrestling, in particular the competition and rivalries between participants, as being genuine or not of a worked nature. Referring to events or interviews as being a “chore” means that the event/interview has been “kayfabed” or staged, or is part of a wrestling angle while being passed off as legitimate. Kayfabe has also evolved to become a code word of sorts for maintaining this “reality” within the realm of the general public. (from wikipedia)
Now, just as polarizing as the topic of kayfabe and whether it still lives in pro wrestling is the issue of when kayfabe died. For me, it died during a Nightline episode in the late 80’s.
It was right around the time Vince McMahon appealed to the NJ Athletic Commission that WWF was entertainment and was not a true sport, and as such should not be held to the rigid standards and taxing of the NJ Commission. This took place in February of 1989.
I can remember as a young lad watching this report that featured a former wrestler revealing secrets of the “sport” I loved. I vividly recall the wrestler and reporter (it may have been John Stossell and Les Thorton) watching a video of The Ultimate Warrior lifting someone up for his press slam. And, there they were breaking down the move and showing where Warrior was being helped by the person he was supposedly attempting to slam. My young eyes couldn’t believe it. I turned to my Dad and asked, “What about the blood…that’s real, right?” Just then, they showed a clip of a wrestler blading. To further illustrate it, the wrestler that was viewing the clip showed how wrestlers would hide the small razor blade in their wrist tape, head band, and sometimes their mouth. With tears in my eyes, I retired for the night having eaten from the “Tree of Knowledge”.
Yet, having this knowledge did not sway me from having a passion and a true love for this business. I still remember in January of 1987 when Randy Savage crushed Ricky Steamboat‘s larynx. It was shocking. I remember how upset Bruno Sammartino was after the dastardly deed. I never knew at that time that just two years later I would look at that as a work. And, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s the same way that a film critic looks and breaks down a film. Both are entertainment, and both should be looked at in the same way.
Whenever kayfabe died, the fact is that it is dead. It has been for a very long time. It could have been like for me when McMahon testified in front of the NJ Athletic Commission, or it could have been when the Kliq did their MSG sendoff, or it could have been when Jim Duggan and The Iron Sheik were pulled over together on the NJ Turnpike. But, kayfabe is dead, and I do not believe it detracts from enjoying what wrestling is. I would counter that knowing that it’s a work only enhances the enjoyment of pro wrestling.
There was a time when just asking a wrestler would result in a vicious attack from a wrestler. Just ask John Stossell. In 1984, Stossell filed a 20/20 report where he was attempting to destroy kayfabe.
Watching this report now, it just strikes me as so ludicrous. Not the attack on Stossell, but the fact that there was even a report about the validity of pro wrestling to begin with.
Getting back to my point, I don’t think you have to mindlessly believe the angles and the stories that are thrown out each week in order to gain enjoyment in it. While I watch wrestling, I look for the athletic display that these performers put on. I look at how well they can do a convincing promo, or interview. I look for something to latch onto like someone who watches The Walking Dead or Goodfellas does. Wrestlers today are highly trained athletes that not only have to perform in the ring, but also have to be good getting themselves over on the mic and in the form of backstage vignettes. And, it’s been that way for years. Whether it was “Gorgeous” George in the 50’s, “Superstar” Billy Graham in the 70’s, or Ric Flair in the 80’s and 90’s, a wrestler that is remembered as a legend in this business is one who can get over in all those areas. Sure, there are a few exceptions where someone makes it on talent alone (Chris Benoit comes to mind), but the grand majority have to be great in all three areas.
Furthermore, I can enjoy the business knowing that it’s predetermined. Frankly, when I see a fan who still believes what is going on is “real” blows my mind. There’s a forum I belong to that is made up of a grand majority of marks. It really, really blows me away. In this day and age after a film like The Wrestler has been made and a new “behind-the-scenes” autobiography or documentary is released, how can you even believe for a second that what is produced each week is real? The Rock’s notes on his wrist? It was a work, people. If you think it wasn’t, listen to this guy:
In closing, we’re all marks to some degree or another. I do not think that it matters if you know it’s a fix. Knowing it’s scripted doesn’t destroy the enjoyment at all. I think it allows you to look at it like any other medium. You can critique it and be critical; yet, you can still enjoy the product (or hate it when they insult your intelligence). Simply put, the death of kayfabe was not the death of pro wrestling. In fact, knowing what’s going on allows you to enjoy it even more.