Kayfabe is a term that perhaps dates back as old as wrestling itself. Kayfabe refers to the illusion that wrestling is “real,” as in not scripted or planned ahead of time. While the idea that professional wrestling was a staged event has been an open secret forever, it wasn’t openly acknowledged until the late 80’s.
It all started in 1987, when babyface Hacksaw Jim Duggan and on-screen heel rival The Iron Sheik were busted in a car together for cocaine possession. The arrest itself was not the issue.
The issue was that both men were embroiled in a heated feud with each other on television, and wrestlers were expected to respect that boundary by not being in public with each other. That was the offense that convinced WWE Chairman Vince McMahon to fire them both in the same breath.
Speaking of the Chairman, it was not long after this incident that Vincent Kennedy McMahon himself infamously testified before the New Jersey State Senate that wrestling was not a competitive sport and was, in fact, pre-determined. Both instances are cited as the death of kayfabe.
But is kayfabe really dead? Or has it merely evolved? We’re more likely to say the latter.
It’s hard to say that the kayfabe died when it never really lived to begin with. Since the early days of wrestling, fans and audiences alike all knew that wrestling was fixed. Of course, wrestlers would always go the extra mile to protect their side of the business, but Vince McMahon wasn’t the first promoter to admit that wrestling wasn’t real. In 1932, there was a match held at Wrigley Field that was promoted as “The Last Great Shooting Match,” implying that the rest of the matches on the card were worked. Ironically enough, even that match was a work.
Back in the day, everybody knew that wrestling was – for lack of a better word – fake, but for the same reason that many fans love the sport today, its fakeness is where the appeal comes from. Soap opera storylines mixed with high octane action is naturally entertaining, whether it’s still real to you or not.
There have been storylines which have been presented as a shoot or “breaking kayfabe,” that proved to captivate and intrigue audiences more than storylines which look blatantly obviously planned. One of the hottest storylines of the past ten years surrounded the infamous CM Punk Pipe Bomb, as people spent weeks trying to figure out if the promo was truly a shoot, or at least which lines of his dialogue were shoot and which were worked.
More recent examples were when Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair had a “shoot” fight at the Performance Center, and more notoriously, the Austin Aries incident that closed out Impact’s Bound for Glory event this year. In the former, WWE thought that the illusion that something “real” was happening on a scripted show would add spice to a feud heading into WWE Evolution. In the latter, some are still debating whether that was a shoot or a work.
It would appear that fans are most glued to their seats when the balance between “kayfabe” and reality is at stake. The Aries incident aside, would kayfabe really be dead if we weren’t so captivated and – at times – fooled by what appears on our screens in storyline? Kayfabe might be a little more complicated than that.
We here at DailyDDT are not trying to re-define what kayfabe means, but the current definition certainly needs a reevaluation if nothing else.
If kayfabe was really dead, then audiences would not be so desperate to try to pull the veil of onscreen “reality” from professional wrestling. Fans would not be trying so hard to distinguish between what is a work and what is a shoot. Whenever a Loose Cannon pledges his respect to the “Booker Man” in the middle of the ring. Whenever a Straight Edge Superstar implies that his boss is a bully live on the air. Whenever a vegan little man storms out of a title match whilst bidding farewell to the crowd – and the company – with a middle finger salute.
Our point is that everybody knows that wrestling isn’t real and everyone has known that for a very long time, but at the end of the day, that’s what the appeal came from. That’s why we were so entertained by the pageantry of professional wrestling to begin with. We were all wowed by not only the athleticism that each superstar displays in the ring, but wowed by how they can make us believe in a “fake sport.”
The emotions and – most importantly – the mystery that comes from professional wrestling is more appealing than the professional wrestling itself. It’s live action theater, and we’re all just a bit curious as to how they pull it off every week.
Who wasn’t dying to figure out all of the secrets behind the curtain when it first dawned on them that wrestling was fixed? Who didn’t wanna know how wrestlers feined a punch, bled without getting hit, or how they learned how to fall off a 20ft ladder? We all had these thoughts run through our heads when we were still young, as was our love for professional wrestling.
That’s where kayfabe fits into all of this. Even though we know the fix is in, we wanna know how. Not only how, but just where the cracks between reality and wrestling lie in the product.
That’s why so many of us are captivated by the Punk promos, and the shoot fights, and the Aries walkouts of the business. When we know that everything else is fixed, we’re intrigued by the slightest crack in the system that destroys the veil of kayfabe. It’s no different than watching Ferris Bueller address his audience for the firs time. It’s disorienting, yes, and strangely meta, but it’s attention grabbing.
All things considered, maybe kayfabe’s not dead after all. If it ever existed to begin with, it’s merely evolved for modern eyes.