On Kayfabe

On a recent episode of The Jim Cornette Experience podcast, Jim and co-host Brian Last discussed the divide between the current and older generations of wrestling fans. I have no intention of analyzing that divide here, though I confess that I have little sympathy for the view that wrestling is meant to be silly, sophomoric, and embarrassing to the viewer. I grew up watching elite professional athletes perform at an high level, and I prefer that brand of wrestling to the modern parody where people attack each other with their reproductive organs, force-feed each other personal sanitary products, or pretend to compete against invisible wrestlers.

Over the course of the conversation, Last queried, “What is kayfabe? Is kayfabe the fans believing, or is kayfabe the wrestlers going out of their way to make sure that you have a reason to believe in them, presenting themselves and the product in a way that, even if you think it’s a work – even if you know for sure it’s a work – you can lose yourself in it?”

What follows is based on content I wrote several years ago for an academic paper I co-authored, in which I tackled that precise question.

The roots of professional wrestling as we know it today grew from wrestling’s tradition as a carnival attraction in the 1880s. Skilled wrestlers visited towns across the country, challenging local tough guys to try to beat them on the mat. William Muldoon, a veteran of the U.S. army in the War of the Rebellion, began studying his craft in army camps, where wrestling was a popular way to pass the time between campaigns. Serving in the French army during the Franco-Prussian War, Muldoon learned the Greco-Roman style of wrestling native to France. He brought that style home to the United States, where he combined skill with showmanship to become a top attraction. While working as a New York City police officer, Muldoon moonlighted as a wrestler, taking on all comers at a local saloon. Realizing that he could make more money as part of a touring vaudeville show, Muldoon left the force in 1881 and began touring full time. The world’s first professional wrestler, Muldoon took the sport on its first steps toward its current form.[1]

Even at this early time in wrestling’s history, the outcomes of most matches were predetermined. Top wrestlers had legitimate grappling credentials, but all stood to make more money from “doing business” than engaging in actual contests of skill. Ticket sales comprised only a small portion of potential income. The real money was made by convincing spectators that a particular wrestler was sure to win, taking their bets, and then having the favorite lose. Newspapers regularly printed allegations that matches were fixed, but these only moderately damaged wrestling’s appeal to spectators and gamblers.[2]

Professional wrestling matches were almost always “fixed,” but from the days of William Muldoon through the First World War, matches were worked to appear indistinguishable from legitimate grappling contests. Matches conducted this way, often lasting several hours, became increasingly tedious to spectators. As interest waned, a trio emerged that would change wrestling forever by making it entertainment. Promoter Billy Sandow and wrestlers Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Joseph “Toots” Mondt formed their trust, which came to be called “The Gold Dust Trio,” around 1920. Mondt conceived performances that combined the most entertaining aspects of boxing and various wrestling styles into what he called “Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling.” Like Muldoon four decades before, the Gold Dust Trio toured the country, but instead of long, boring grappling matches, their fans were treated to an entertainment spectacle. The trust employed a stable of wrestlers and ran full cards, making the Gold Dust Trio the first “wrestling promotion” in the modern sense of the term. Wrestling as a character-driven entertainment medium was wildly successful, and ticket sales shortly eclipsed betting as the business’s most lucrative revenue stream.[3]

The original philosophy of kayfabe was that wrestlers must always hide the truth, that wrestling matches were worked performances, from those not “smart to the business.” The allegations that wrestling was fixed were difficult to prove in Muldoon’s era because of the realistic style presented. Protecting the business became more challenging as the emphasis shifted toward entertainment, but “shooters” like Ed Lewis could still rely on their legitimate skills to silence would-be whistleblowers. When wrestler William Demetral grew unhappy with the payoffs he received from the Gold Dust Trio, he concocted an elaborate scheme to expose wrestling. First, Demetral mortgaged his home to Billy Sandow for $5,000. Then, after losing a match to Lewis in Chicago, he told reporters that he took a dive because he feared that Sandow would foreclose on the debt. Illinois Governor Len Small appointed a committee to investigate the matter. Sandow panicked, but Lewis calmly appeared before the committee and put up a $25,000 bond which, he said, he was “willing to pay to Demetral if he can beat me before you gentlemen in this room or in any gymnasium you care to name.” Demetral declined and the case was closed.[4] Realism grew less and less important and new generations of fans, accustomed to Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling, accepted manufactured champions. Still, many promoters made a point of entrusting their championships to shooters who could handle themselves in a real fight. Lewis’s protégé Lou Thesz, collegiate wrestling standouts Jack Brisco, Bob Backlund, and Brock Lesnar, and Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle were all bastions of legitimacy in a fake sport, following the tradition of Ed “Strangler” Lewis.

By the early 1930s, the Gold Dust Trio had disbanded. Mondt joined another trust with New York’s Jack Curley and other promoters. Jack Pfefer, Curley’s former talent scout, felt betrayed at being excluded from the trust. In 1934, he went to the press in another attempt to expose professional wrestling. Through Dan Parker of the New York Daily Mirror, Pfefer told readers that most major matches had been predetermined since 1925 (actually, matches had been worked to some degree since at least William Muldoon’s day). He also criticized manufactured world champions such as Wayne Munn and Jim Londos for their lack of real wrestling credentials. Few were surprised at these revelations, but fans were disgusted at Pfefer’s behavior and his reputation, already poor among wrestlers and promoters, was further diminished.[5] Wrestling legend Freddie Blassie wrote that Pfefer “was fortunate not to be murdered” over the ordeal.[6]

Pfeffer’s axe grinding had little effect over the long term. The New York State Athletic Commission launched an investigation, but it was soon dismissed. As newspapers across the country reported, the commission had long since ruled that wrestling bouts were “exhibitions” and could not be billed as competitive “matches” without special dispensation. Because it was already tacitly acknowledged that wrestling exhibitions were not legitimate contests, Pfefer’s accusations that matches were fixed revealed no new improprieties.[7] Box office gates suffered for a time, but the fans soon returned. Wrestling may not have been a real sport, but it was entertaining. Fans were willing to suspend their disbelief and enjoy it. Toots Mondt’s vision of entertainment-style wrestling had proven to be the saving grace of the wrestling business.[8]

Professional wrestling has been viewed as a sport, an athletic exhibition, performance art, and even as a soap opera. While promoters and wrestlers may share one or more of these views, they see wrestling first and foremost as a business, their means of making a living. Insider terminology makes this apparent. Wrestling is known by the simple sobriquet, “the business.”[9] Other wrestling jargon revolves around the term. The purpose of kayfabe is to “protect the business.” Kayfabe has two key underlying aspects. The first is that wrestling must always be presented as a legitimate sport before, during, and after the show. This philosophy is outdated. As explained above, there has been publicly known evidence of the performance-based nature of professional wrestling since at least the 1930s.

The other aspect of kayfabe is the belief that the internal consistency of the shows themselves should be maintained. Fans know that they are watching a performance, but they want to suspend their disbelief during the show. R.D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez explain this with a movie analogy: “Everyone knows what they see in the movies is not real, but we’re still able to let ourselves go for two hours and ‘believe’ what we see up on the screen.”[10] Breaking kayfabe during the show is equivalent to a character in a film breaking the fourth wall. This can be fairly harmless when done sparingly and unobtrusively, a small inside joke between a performer and the fans. However, it has all too often been done in a way that insults the fans’ intelligence and hinders their ability to suspend their disbelief. Fans will still watch professional wrestling knowing that it is not an actual contest. They will not watch if the show itself calls them stupid.

Maintaining kayfabe became less and less important as wrestling evolved, to the point that it is all but ignored today. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, wrestlers and promoters went to great lengths to protect the business, and convinced many fans that wrestling was real. No incident better encapsulates “protecting the business” than the October 4, 1975 plane crash involving several wrestlers working for Jim Crockett Promotions. The plane was a small six-seat Cessna flown by a down-on-his-luck Vietnam veteran desperate to make money. The passengers were wrestlers Johnny Valentine, Ric Flair, Bob Bruggers, and Tim Woods, and Jim Crockett’s brother David. Fearing the wrestlers and their gear would make the plane too heavy, the pilot compensated by removing fuel for the short flight from Charlotte to Wilmington, North Carolina. The plane ran out of fuel and crashed just a few miles from New Hanover County Airport in Wilmington. All four wrestlers suffered vertebrae fractures; Valentine and Bruggers never wrestled again. Despite his grievous injuries, Tim Woods’ first concern was to protect kayfabe. He was a babyface, and could not let fans find out that he had been on a charter flight with hated heels Valentine and Flair. Woods gave the police and medical personal his real name, George Woodin, and said he was a wrestling promoter. To prevent rumors from spreading, Woods checked himself out of the hospital and began making public appearances, and wrestled two weeks after the crash. Because he wrestled under a mask as “Mr. Wrestling,” the ploy worked.[11] Even the newspaper report of the plane crash only mentions him as “George Burrell Woodin… a promoter.”[12] Woods went above and beyond the call of duty to protect the business. In his memoirs almost thirty years later, Flair still thought of Woods as “the man who saved wrestling.”[13]

Mid-South Wrestling promoter and former wrestler Bill Watts was notorious for his stringent insistence on maintaining kayfabe. He would not allow heels and babyfaces to travel together or be seen in public together. If word got out that one of his wrestlers had lost a bar fight, Watts would fire him.[14] Watts was strict, but not abnormally so in the 1980s. When Watts was hired as booker for World Championship Wrestling in 1992, wrestling had evolved. Watts had not. He insisted on enforcing antiquated rules, which alienated the wrestlers and office personnel. He was shortly fired for making racist remarks in an interview.[15] The key to continued success for wrestling promoters and bookers is the ability to change with the times.

Vince (Vincent Kennedy) McMahon is, indisputably, the most successful professional wrestling promoter of all times. His success reflects his willingness to adapt World Wrestling Entertainment to changes in business practices and popular culture. McMahon has never shied away from breaking kayfabe when it suited his ends. His father, Vincent J. McMahon, was educated in the school of Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling by his business partner, Toots Mondt. In 1956, the elder McMahon faced controversy at his employment of wrestler Karl Von Hess, who portrayed a pro-Nazi character. McMahon Sr. told the Washington Post and Times Herald that “Von Hess is no Nazi. He uses that silly salute to point up the fact that he is the villain.”[16] Disregard for kayfabe is a McMahon family tradition. The younger McMahon bought his father’s company in 1983 and used the emerging phenomenon of cable television to expand nationally and push the country’s various wrestling territories out of business. McMahon is an astute and ruthless businessman. He decided early on that the risk of publicly breaking kayfabe was worth the potential reward.

As mentioned above, professional wrestling was for decades subject to the supervision and regulation of state athletic commissions. Some, like the New Jersey State Athletic Commission, levied taxes on the profits of sporting events held in their state. With the popularity of McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (as the company was called from 1983-2002) in the region, the tax took a substantial amount of money out of his coffers. In 1989, McMahon went before the New Jersey State Senate and testified that was not a sport, but rather “sports entertainment,” and should not be subject to regulation by the commission. McMahon’s public admission of what everyone already knew or suspected convinced the Senate to remove commission oversight from wrestling, but drew the ire of wrestling insiders.[17] It made no difference. By the 1990s, McMahon’s only remaining competition was World Championship Wrestling. In 2001, he won the promotional war against WCW. Ever since, World Wrestling Entertainment has stood alone at the top of the wrestling mountain. No other promoter has been able to challenge McMahon’s hegemony over professional wrestling in the United States.[18]

The fall of World Championship Wrestling was due in large part to the incompetence of its bookers. Some, like the aforementioned Bill Watts, harmed the product through their archaic ideas of keeping kayfabe. Others tried to revolutionize wrestling by blatantly breaking the fourth wall. By 1999, the tide of the promotional war between WCW and the WWF had turned irrevocably in favor of Vince McMahon. Out of sheer desperation, WCW pulled what company executives thought was a major coup: they signed McMahon’s head writer, Vince Russo. WCW believed that they had stolen away McMahon’s secret weapon. Unfortunately, Russo’s true talent was convincing people that he was “the sole reason behind the WWF’s success.”[19] Russo was certainly creative, but some of his ideas were truly bizarre. In the WWF, his scripts were filtered through Vince McMahon, assuring that Russo’s most ridiculous storylines never saw the light of day. In WCW, however, Russo had the keys to the kingdom.[20]

Russo believed that every single fan was intimately familiar with the inner workings of the wrestling business. His plan for generating interest in WCW was to depict storylines in which wrestlers “went against the script.” The October 28, 1999 broadcast of Thunder included a backstage segment in which wrestlers Buff Bagwell and Scotty Riggs discussed the fact that Riggs was scheduled to win their match by pinfall. During said match later in the show, Bagwell “hooked” Riggs in an inside cradle and won the match, the implication being that Bagwell had “shot” on Riggs and pinned him “for real.” The effect of this segment was that, as Reynolds and Alvarez note in The Death of WCW, “insider fans considered it a stupid fake angle, and casual fans had no idea what was happening.”[21] Other Russo concepts were downright illogical, such as a tournament in which wrestlers advanced to later rounds despite having lost (or having not wrestled) in previous rounds and “falls count anywhere” matches that ended when a wrestler was counted out of the ring. On the December 20 episode of Monday Nitro, Bret Hart wrestled Bill Goldberg for the world championship. When three of Hart’s stable-mates attacked Goldberg, retired wrestler Roddy Piper ran in and covered Goldberg to protect him from further injury.[22] The referee counted Piper’s pinfall on Goldberg, and Hart was awarded the championship.

At least Bret Hart was an accomplished wrestler and a credible world champion. By the end of Russo’s WCW tenure, that once-prestigious title had been held by non-wrestlers such as actor David Arquette and Vince Russo himself. In addition to pushing himself to the pinnacle of professional wrestling, Russo continued pushing his beloved “worked shoot” angles down the audiences’ throats. In July 2000, he unleashed a profanity-laden tirade against the company’s top draw, Hulk Hogan, in the ring on a live pay-per-view broadcast. The following month, he ran another angle in which a wrestler refused to “do a job” (wrestling jargon for losing a match). Bill Goldberg walked out of his three-way match against Kevin Nash and Scott Steiner while the announcers chided his unprofessionalism. By the time Russo was finally removed from power in December 2000, the television audience had fallen significantly and live gates and pay-per-view buyrates had tanked. WCW lost $62 million in 2000.[23]

WCW’s decline began before Russo arrived, and there were certainly other factors that led to its demise. However, Russo’s apparent hostility toward the integrity of the product put several nails in the company’s coffin. His tenure in WCW is a sterling example of the irreparable damage done to a wrestling promotion’s fan base when the promotion breaks kayfabe so frequently and so grievously that the audience feels insulted. Wrestling fans will always watch wrestling as long as the show lets them believe for a few hours per week.

Only the dumbest social media intellectuals believe that professional wrestling fans think they are watching a legitimate contest. We know that we are consuming content created for the purpose of entertainment, the same as if we were watching a movie or reading a novel or listening to a song. But I know that, for my part, I wouldn’t continue reading a novel if the author told me I was stupid for reading their work every other page.


[1] Jonathan Snowden, Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling (Toronto: ECW Press, 2012), 3-4.

[2] Snowden, Shooters, 15, 52-53.

[3] Snowden, Shooters, 67-77; Marcus Griffin, Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce (N.p.: Argos Classic Reprints, 2007), 30-44.

[4] Snowden, Shooters, 19, 78, 84; Griffin, Fall Guys, 46-48.

[5] Tim Hornbaker, National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling (Toronto: ECW Press, 2007), 251; “Wrestling Exposed As A Fraud; Londos vs. Browning; The Emergence Of The Wild Irish Rose; The Triumphant Return Of Shikat,” Squared Circle of Wrestling, http://www.squaredcircleofwrestling.com/2013/02/26/wrestling-exposed-as-a-fraud-the-emergence-of-the-wild-irish-rose-the-triumphant-return-of-shikat/

.

[6] Freddie Blassie and Keith Elliot Greenberg, “Classy” Freddie Blassie: Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks (New York: Pocket Books, 2004), 30.

[7] “Nothing Wrong With Mat Game,” Border Cities Star [Windsor, ON], January 25, 1934; “New York Adopts New Code for Wrestlers,” Lawrence [KS] Journal-World, January 26, 1934; “Code For Wrestling,” St. Joseph [MO] News-Press, January 27, 1934; “Wrestlers to Work Under Latest ‘Code,’” Spartanburg [SC] Herald-Journal, January 28, 1934.

[8] Hornbaker, 251; Lou Thesz and Kit Bauman, Hooker, ed. J. Michael Kenyon (Gallatin, Tennessee: Crowbar Press, 2011), 73; Blassie and Greenberg, 30; Johnny Griffin, “Jack Pfefer,” Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, http://www.pwhf.org/halloffamers/bios/jack_pfefer.asp [accessed September 4, 2013].

[9] George E. Kerrick, ”The Jargon of Professional Wrestling,” American Speech vol. 55, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 142.

[10] R.D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez, The Death of WCW (Toronto: ECW Press, 2004), 276.

[11] Ric Flair and Keith Elliot Greenberg, To Be the Man, ed. Mark Madden (New York: Pocket Books, 2004), 49-53; John F. Molinaro, “The plane crash that changed wrestling,” SLAM! Sports, http://www.canoe.ca/SlamWrestlingFlair/planecrash-can.html

.

[12] “Promoter, 3 Wrestlers Injured In Plane Crash,” Charlotte [NC] Observer, October 6, 1975.

[13] Flair and Greenberg, 53.

[14] Jim Duggan and Scott E. Williams, Hacksaw: The Jim Duggan Story (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2012), 49.

[15] Eric Bischoff and Jeremy Roberts, Controversy Creates Cash (New York: Pocket Books, 2006), 70-76; Mick Foley, Have a Nice Day!: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks (New York: ReaganBooks, 1999), 221-222; Reynolds and Alvarez, The Death of WCW, 44-48.

[16] Horbaker, National Wrestling Alliance, 178.

[17] Scott M. Beekman, Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006), 131; Jerry Lawler and Doug Asheville, It’s Good to Be the King… Sometimes (New York: Pocket Books, 2002), 82.

[18] Reynolds and Alvarez, The Death of WCW, 313.

[19] Ibid., 213.

[20] Ibid., 213-214.

[21] Ibid., 220.

[22] Ibid., 220-224.

[23] Ibid., 257-293.

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