We live in a post-kayfabe world. Or at least that’s the received wisdom. Ask any wrestling personality of a certain age, and they’ll tell you how much better things were in the old days, when the fans believed in what they were watching, and everybody thought the cartwheels, Irish whips, leapfrogs and flip bumps performed by their favourite wrestlers were legitimate fighting techniques. It all came to an end when that dastardly Vince McMahon coined the term “sports entertainment”, you see.
Of course, things never really worked that way. Newspaper stories from as early as 1910 – during the World Title reign of Frank Gotch, and a decade before the Gold Dust Trio created the formula that all modern wrestling would build on – discussed wrestling being framed, fixed or faked, and in such a matter of fact way as to suggest this was widely known, and not the subject of shocking, lurid headlines.
The wrestling trust is boycotting Mahmont, the Turkish grappler. Breaking away from his old manager he refuses to “frame” any more matches. Mat exhibitions are nearly all fixed. Square matches are the exception.
A hippodrome between two clever grapplers is more exciting and spectacular than a genuine contest. When the wrestlers break holds, shake their fists in each other’s faces and play to the gallery they furnish more sport than when they wrestle in deadly earnest.
Published In The Lethbridge Daily Herald (Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada), November 24, 1910.
Boxing journalist Nat Fleischer’s superb 1936 book From Milo To Londos: A Wrestling History frequently touches on the suggestion that “modern” wrestling involves more showmanship, and is more acrobatic, and has its integrity questioned – while stopping short of ever outright suggesting the matches were fixed.
One may well ask questions as to the extent of the public’s knowledge that wrestling wasn’t exactly on the level, though it’s been said that asking when wrestling became fixed is akin to asking when boxing became legitimate. Benjamin Litherland’s superb doctoral thesis, The Field And The Stage, Pugilism, Combat Performance and Professional Wrestling in England: 1700 – 1980, frames the question in an interesting, and perhaps more enlightening way, asking not why wrestling became fixed per sé, but rather why all other sports did not.
The more appropriate question, though a more difficult one to answer, would be not if the fans knew, but if the fans cared. By extension, does it insult the fans’ intelligence more to assume they believe all they see is legitimate, or to throw open the curtain, and let them in on at least some of the magician’s secrets?
So are we, indeed, living in a post-kayfabe world? A world where WWE is “sports entertainment”, just a couple of hours of weekly TV, no different to watching Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or whatever it is people actually watch on TV these days when their entire viewing time isn’t occupied with professional wrestling?
Maybe so. But wrestling differs from the vast majority of episodic television, in that it takes place live, in real time, and the stories don’t pause between episodes – they continue to be borne out on social media, at live events, and in countless interactions between fans, journalists and performers, the line between the televised conflict and behind-the-scenes gossip often blurred, as real life contract issues or personal disputes play out under the lights of weekly TV in dramatic form. At wrestling events themselves, the audience are willing participants, not just ticket-buying spectators, but performatively playing the role of a sports audience, their catcalls, chants, cheers, boos and heckles an integral part of the show. It’s a common misconception to assume that the fans most actively engaged are those naive enough to assume what they’re watching is real; rather, they are the fans most adept at playing the role in which they have been cast.
In many ways it echoes the call-and-response learned roles of British pantomime, or even the alienation effect of Brechtian theatre in which the audience can never be permitted to forget that they are witnessing a performance (sidenote: WWE TV’s directorial choices, often involving an “invisible” camera crew stand in stark contrast to the live experience, mimicked by many other televised wrestling programmes, and taken to a logical cinematic extreme by the likes of Lucha Underground).
Another analogy could be drawn to drag performance, in which the audience consciously buy into the central conceit that the persona adopted by the performer(s) is 100% legitimate for the duration of the performance.
As wrestling no longer makes any pretense of being anything less than a performance, the notion of “kayfabe” may sit somewhat uneasily. A villainous heel could be threatening injury of a beloved babyface one moment, and delivering an anti-bullying PSA the next. Fans who once only saw their heroes at designated events and on television now have 24/7 access to them via social media. Kayfabe was a genie let out of a bottle, that will never be recaptured.
Or will it?
Let’s look to the feud that’s set to main event Wrestlemania – Becky Lynch vs. Ronda Rousey. Fans of Becky Lynch worried that WWE golden girl Charlotte Flair would be added into the mix had their fears confirmed when Vince McMahon announced that Charlotte, and not Becky, would be fighting for the RAW Women’s Championship at Wrestlemania. This was, to a large section of the fanbase, WWE not prepared to give the fans what they wanted, forcing their chosen star into a situation she hadn’t earned, and holding back the underdog Becky Lynch. The “underdog”, it must be said, who had just won the Royal Rumble match in dramatic fashion. Is it a coincidence that the “behind-the-scenes” story these fans had bought into wholesale was mirrored so precisely by the on-screen, “kayfabe” narrative? Or has the focal point of kayfabe shifted, no longer playing out purely on TV, but taking its lead from every point of access fans have with the wrestling product – taking in rumours, speculation, gossip and real behind-the-scenes events, and recycling them back at the viewer? Is this interplay between fan, performance, social media and the final, televised show, the new shape of kayfabe?
But it gets a little murkier than that.
On social media – already a grey area when it comes to kayfabe, in which the majority of wrestlers on Twitter present as their “real” selves, rather than the character they play on television – the feud between Becky Lynch and Ronda Rousey has taken on dimensions largely hidden on television.
Chief amongst them is this Tweet.
In which Ronda Rousey criticises Becky Lynch’s armbar finisher as “fake”, with all the added weight of Rousey’s legitimate MMA background behind the criticism. Outside of kayfabe, this can be viewed as a criticism by the “real” Ronda Rousey against the “real” Rebecca Quinn, not the wrestling personae of Ronda Rousey and Becky Lynch – an interpretation strengthened by Rousey using Lynch’s real name in a subsequent Tweet.
However, it cannot be ignored that Rousey and Lynch are promoting a match at Wrestlemania, and any “shoot” comments between the two can only be viewed through that lens. This is, again, another layer of kayfabe.
This isn’t uncharted territory – particularly not when it comes to martial artists entering into the realm of wrestling. I wrote on this very blog recently about ideological differences in how wrestling should be presented, and conflicting ideologies litter the history of wrestling, and Japanese wrestling in particular – from the “shoot style” of breakaway groups like the UWF, to Naoya Ogawa’s brutal assaults on rival Shinya Hashimoto, and Antonio Inoki’s constant late ’90s/early ’00s attempts to incorporate MMA matches into a pro wrestling landscape – while the history of the two disciplines is intertwined, they’ve often been uneasy bedfellows. The moment you present one section of your wrestling show, or one fighter, or one match, as being “real”, it’s a tacit acknowledgement that the rest of the show is not. If Ogawa’s attack on Hashimoto is presented as something exceptional for being “real”, if the NWF Championship is advertised as something only “real” fighters are eligible to compete for, if the WWF’s Brawl For All is a “legitimate fighting tournament” – what does that say about the other wrestlers, and the other matches on the same show? And if we accept that we should care about Match A because it’s “real”, is that not admitting by omission that we should not care about Match B because it is not?
If the redemptive ending of the Lynch/Rousey feud, and their Wrestlemania match, is the visual of Lynch forcing Rousey to tap out to her “fake” finisher, what does that say of the legitimate mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey to be defeated by a fake hold? If the move is fake – and, by extension, doesn’t matter – then nor does the performance, or the consequences, attached to it.
While it’s true that wrestling fans, by and large, don’t believe that what they’re watching is “real”, we still spend our time as a member of that audience wilfully responding as if it were. In a mid-90s Memphis wrestling angle, behind-the-scenes gossip filtered into the kayfabe world, as Jerry Lawler was dogged with rumours that Brian Christopher was his son – a closely guarded secret in reality at the time. When quizzed on the allegation, Lawler responded that he’d recently been to see Jurassic Park, and the best thing about it was that Steven Spielberg didn’t pop up every five minutes to say, “you know these aren’t real dinosaurs?”. The message was clear – even when the fans know something, there’s no need to let it get in the way of a good story.
I don’t believe that wrestling needs to convince the audience that it’s “real” (or, more accurately, to make you briefly forget that it isn’t), but it does need to elicit an emotional response, and often creating the sense that what you are witnessing is legitimate is the most effective way of achieving that. There are exceptions – CHIKARA have been able to evoke genuine emotion, and often tears, from their crowd when wrestlers are “killed off” or otherwise written out in a manner that could not reasonably be mistaken for reality. But so long as the nature of the promotion’s approach to kayfabe, their internal logic, remains consistent, the effect is the same.
Johnny Valentine used to say, “I might not be able to convince you that pro-wrestling is real, but I sure as hell can convince you that I am”.
Many of the biggest stars in wrestling have embodied Valentine’s ethos – they have been able to elicit a reaction of, “I know all this is phony, but maybe not this guy“. The fans believed that Steve Austin was a double-tough bad-ass when he stared out Mike Tyson without blinking, they believe that Brock Lesnar is a mercenary prize fighter and the toughest man on the roster, they believed that CM Punk was an anti-authority rebel unafraid to speak his mind, they believed that Daniel Bryan was an underdog held down by a system that didn’t believe in him even while he was a featured part of weekly television and headlining successive pay-per-views, they believed that Bill Goldberg was perfectly capable of beasting his way through the entire roster, and that Ric Flair was celebrating every championship win with expensive champagne on his private jet.
When a wrestler is able to project that sense of credibility, of “reality”, the goal of any promoter should be to reflect that credibility on to their opponent, and on to the product as a whole. When Antonio Inoki fought Muhammad Ali, and later when he booked martial artists to compete against NJPW talent, it was with the express intent of presenting NJPW’s brand of pro-wrestling as superior to any other martial art – even if the results of his booking philosophy were questionable. For several years in the WWE, Brock Lesnar’s aura of credibility, and the dominant manner of which he has been booked, has meant that an opponent even holding their own in a worked match against him is an instant boost to their own credibility – even knowing that the result is predetermined, the idea of Lesnar is so powerful that his opponents gain from it by association.
Ronda Rousey came into WWE with all the advantages of a legitimate MMA background. There was no need for Rousey to prove that she was the real deal, because she had an entire UFC career behind her that had done just that. Rousey’s history should be lending credibility to her WWE run – she should be the dream of Inokiism; one of the world’s most famous martial artists, putting WWE and wrestling as a whole over by presenting her opponents as being on her level, and providing a middle ground between the two disciplines.
Instead, by burying her opponent, her opponent’s finisher, and her opponent’s success and achievements as “fake”, Ronda is effectively saying, “nothing else on this show matters, I’m the only one that’s for real”. She’s selling herself, and not the match. Other than the vague prospect, suggested by Ronda in one of her Tweets, that she could shoot on Lynch during the match, nothing she has done in belittling her opponent could possibly serve to sell the match to anyone.
I’m reminded of comments made by Sam Roberts on a recent NXT Takeover pre-show, in which he claimed that Bianca Belair “wasn’t good enough” to perform at Takeover, that her title match with Shayna Baszler wasn’t worthy of the card. As a “shoot” opinion, it may well have reflected the thoughts of many fans, but in kayfabe Belair was heavily promoted as a top contender, and undefeated up until that point – she couldn’t have been more deserving. As with Ronda Rousey’s Twitter diatribes, there was an uncomfortable gulf between kayfabe and an audience perception of “reality”, and Roberts managed to plant his foot firmly at the wrong side of it. If nothing else, when on a pre-show designed to sell NXT Takeover to the audience, in what way is saying “this match doesn’t deserve to be on Takeover” achieve that aim?
Some argued that Roberts was “working heel”, but I take exception to that – working heel isn’t just belittling and insulting, it has an end goal of furthering the narrative, and of making money. Roberts’ comments were in no way designed to achieve either. Nor is Roberts presented as a Bobby Heenan-like figure, whose opinions are almost absurd in their bias and the leaps of logic designed to reach his conclusions, to the point where the fans want to see him proved wrong – he’s presented as an expert analyst, an outside observer lending his valued insight, and there’s no scope to see him proved wrong, or get any comeuppance in any way. He is not a heel, just a poor surface reading of how a heel might behave.
Ronda Rousey’s Twitter escapades fall into a similar category for me – in using insults to try and sell a match with Becky Lynch, it seems like she’s playing the part of the fighter cutting promos to build some heat, but the nature of her insults helps no one. The old adage is that if you call your opponent a piece of shit, you gain nothing from beating a piece of shit, and lose everything from losing to one. If Ronda Rousey wins a fake fight against a fake fighter, well, who’d she even beat? If she loses, either she needs to redemptively admit that Lynch’s finisher isn’t “fake”, or else she gains nothing from winning a fake fight – so what was the point?
Maybe there’s one more conclusion, though. Maybe there’s yet another layer of kayfabe developing even as we speak. One in which the intrigue generated by debating this is a bigger draw than anything we see on TV or anything we see made more explicit on social media. Perhaps this is all designed to plant the idea of Rousey breaking kayfabe, a legitimate fighter shooting on an opponent whose biggest breakthrough moment was, arguably, how she reacted to taking a legitimate punch. Maybe it’s designed to appeal to Ronda Rousey fans who haven’t yet followed her to WWE, by planting the suggestion that she might make an example of one of their fake fighters on their biggest stage – playing off the real animosity that exists between many fans of MMA and of professional wrestling, and of perceptions of the two disciplines. Another echo of the awkward feeling out process of Inokiism, of Ogawa and Hashimoto’s kayfabe-blurring 1999 brawl, or the cross-promotion of NJPW with Antonio Inoki’s own UFO mixed martial arts league, as the wrestling business as a whole struggles to reconcile kayfabe with social media, and the presentation of pro-wrestling when increasingly cross-pollinated with the more ostensibly “real” world of mixed martial arts.