To lift the veil on the world of professional wrestling, we need to take a look at the term: kayfabe.
“Kayfabe” is a wrestling word coming directly from the early carnival days of wrestling for the word "keep," originally used as "keep quiet" or "keep secret." Kayfabe is often seen as the suspension of disbelief used to create the non-wrestling aspects of the business, such as feuds, angles, and wrestling gimmicks (a wrestler’s on-screen persona from their personality down to their attire). In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to an actor breaking character on camera.
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"Is wrestling fake?"
If professional wrestlers or wrestling fans had a dime for every time they were asked this question, they would have a bank full of dimes!
It is an honest (and sometimes exasperating) question often queried by those naive to the business of professional wrestling. As Owen Hart would often respond to those asking this, "Yes, every bit of it is fake!"
This leads us to this next one:
"You know wrestling is fake, right?"
In the words of comedian Ron Funches, "Well, no shit, it’s fake! What type of psychopath would I have to be if I wanted it to be real?"
How Kayfabe Came to an End in Professional Wrestling
In the past, it was expected that professional wrestlers adhered to keeping kayfabe in public to preserve the illusion that the competition played out on television was not staged. This was due in no small part to feuds between wrestlers sometimes lasting for years — feuds would be destroyed in seconds if the individuals involved were shown associating as friends in public. Not to mention, the adverse effect on ticket revenue would be substantial.
With Vince McMahon shattering the illusion of professional wrestling being “real” on February 8th, 1989, in a bid to dodge heavy sporting tax regulations applied by the Athletic Commissions, and the advent of the Internet and the IWC (Internet Wrestling Community), pro wrestling has become much less concerned with protecting the so-called backstage secrets and typically only maintain kayfabe during performances.
Kayfabe is occasionally broken on television in order to achieve a number of goals, among them advancing storylines, explaining prolonged absences (often due to legitimate injury or wellness policy suspensions), paying tribute to other wrestlers, and sometimes for comedic effect with the delivery of insider humor.
There are numerous fascinating stories out there of legends talking about the days when they had to preserve kayfabe in public during a time when it was heavily protected. We will do our best to share some of the best stories out there. We also share the thoughts from legends such as Bret Hart, Ricky Steamboat, and Mick Foley, where they talk about the evolution of kayfabe and how it is essentially dead today.
1. Ricky Steamboat on the Preservation and Death of Kayfabe in Public
Ricky Steamboat (source: TWC Online, H/T: solie.org):
"I’ve been in situations where we’d walk into a restaurant, and there were heels sitting down in the restaurant. Even though we knew that we would be sitting at another table, if I had an angle going on with one of those heels, we’d turn around and walk out and go find someplace else to eat.
Nowadays, they all sit together.
Sometimes you’d pull into a gas station, and they’d be filling up with gas on the way home, and you’d just pull through, you wouldn’t even stop – just roll through and go on to the next gas station – or go across the street or the one on the other corner.
If you did walk in and sit down in the same restaurant, even though you were at another table, the family-run business, the promoter would find out about it, and you’d be called into the office. They’d say, ‘Look, we just did this big thing with you and Flair, and Flair was sitting down having dinner…’ and you know they would have the spies out there of course, and the promoter would probably find out about it even before you made it home that night.
You’d be called in and told, ‘Look, you got on TV and cut an interview saying that the next time you saw him, you were going to take his head off, and then you calmly sit down and eat in the same establishment!’
Crockett would look at me and say, ‘Kid, do you get the point I’m trying to make here?’
‘Oh yeah, yessir, yessir…’"
2. How JBL Kept Kayfabe by Hiding Who His Groomsman Was
JBL (source: bodybuilding.com):
"Back when I first started, if you were a bad guy, you had to be a bad guy 24/7.
If you saw somebody at the airport, you would be mean to them and wouldn’t sign autographs. You barked at people all of the time. It was tough in that respect.
Now it’s changed.
People understand that it’s entertainment, and I’m no different than Anthony Hopkins, who played Hannibal Lector. What you do may or may not be true, but it’s a character. So now that it’s changed, it makes things a lot easier. That character is completely confined to the wrestling world.
The biggest rivalries I’ve had were with Eddie Guerrero and The Undertaker. I had long, long feuds with both of these men, and both were groomsmen at my wedding.
In fact, I was wrestling The Undertaker the next day, so we had to keep the wedding and the wedding pictures secret because I didn’t want anybody to see that we were actually very close friends…"
3. Dustin Rhodes on Maintaining Kayfabe Earlier in His Career
Dustin Rhodes (source: Cross Rhodes: Goldust, Out of the Darkness):
"Some of the bosses back then, if you got caught riding with a guy you were doing an angle with, they’d fire you on the spot. I kayfabed all the time. That is the art of keeping it all real for the fans by staying in character at all times. If I was driving with a guy I was wrestling that night, I would jump out of the car down the road from the arena so we could keep the angle pure. I couldn’t see doing it any other way. We took it very seriously. When Steve Austin and I had our run in the early 1990s, we were very cautious about being seen together. Today, guys who just wrestled on television are out having a beer together, and no one thinks twice about it.
The Japanese wrestlers were into keeping it real for the fans. Everything was very secretive, even more than it was in the States back then. Before the show, you couldn’t even talk to the guy you were going to wrestle. The referee would go back and forth between dressing rooms relaying information, which made everything a lot more difficult. They spoke very little English, but enough that I could understand what they wanted me to do in the ring."
4. Mick Foley on How to Respond to Fans Asking if Wrestling is "Fake"
Mick Foley (source: TheProvince.com):
"There is nothing worse than sitting on a plane for six hours next to someone whose first question to you was, ‘Is wrestling fake?’
You know you are not going to have a pleasant experience.
I would never think of sitting down next to somebody and insulting what they do for a living.
My general answer is, I say, ‘Every bit of it is fake,’ and then they say, ‘Every bit of it..?’
Then I get people starting to come on my side and saying they KNOW that some of that was real.
That’s something I learned from Owen Hart. Just say, ‘Yes…every bit of it is fake…’"
5. Marty Jannetty on the Pros and Cons of the Death of Kayfabe in Wrestling
Marty Jannetty (source: notinthehalloffame.com):
"There are certainly pros and cons to both sides.
Many younger wrestlers today don’t even know what kayfabe means…most people already know that we are not out there really beating the hell out of each other. What I don’t like is that some of the guys go all out, revealing everything that we do.
However, take the series, Tough Enough. That show tells you everything about our business, and I actually thought it was great. A lot of people [in our business] didn’t like it, mostly the veterans and other guys my age or older. They viewed it as an expose. Yet, at the same time, when they did that, all of the doctors and lawyers who were ‘too smart’ to follow wrestling would look at this show and say, ‘Yeah, it is a show, but look at the beating they are taking…’
It was right to be called Tough Enough because it showed how tough you had to be to do what we do. It showed the commitment you have to give to wrestling and the beatings you take before you even get to wrestle on TV. I think that gave us an audience of people who would look at our business and say, ‘That stuff ain’t real…’
It eliminated that as a reason not to respect what we do.
Now that being said, I like the mystique about it – when not everything is revealed. Now the mystery is gone.
It is like with magicians. We know it is a magic trick, and we wonder, ‘Wow, how did pull a rabbit out of his rear end,’ but if they tell you how they do it all, it ruins it all.
And we are like magicians only we use the human body as props."
6. When Kayfabe in Wrestling was the Holy Grail, According to Gary Hart
Gary Hart (source: My Life In Wrestling: With A Little Help From My Friends):
"I came into the business at a time when kayfabe was the Holy Grail, and for over thirty years, I would not talk about the business to anyone that wasn’t a part of it. Over the past few years, I’ve softened and can now openly talk about how wrestling is manipulated – but it was a long process that I had to go through.
[I was involved in a business] that had to be protected. In those days, wrestlers had to kayfabe everything. It was beaten into our brains: Don’t talk to anyone about anything. As I was training for the business, I abided by that, and if somebody tried to play smart with me and act like wrestling was fixed, I would act dumb. To smarten someone up would be the kiss of death because if you squealed on the business, you could get your arms or legs broken by one of the wrestlers, and you would never be allowed to wrestle again. Basically, back then, the wrestling business was just like the mob. People involved with both of those businesses had to know how to keep a secret.
There was an old hardcore gym in downtown Dallas called Doug’s Gym. It was a no amenities gym. Every day, first thing in the morning, Mark Lewin and Bruiser Brody would go to Doug’s. They would do their warm-ups and then start their squatting. You would have thought the two of them were training for the Olympic squatting team the way they went at it. Then, after their work out, they would go for breakfast at a coffee shop across the street and sit in the same booth. They were perfect playmates. The only problem was, Bruiser was a babyface, and Mark was a heel, and in 1977, kayfabe was next to holiness. Sure enough, Fritz called me in a rage one day, screaming, "What is this I hear about Bruiser Brody and Mark Lewin eating near the gym together? Fire them!"
"Who told you that? I don’t believe it," I said – even though I had a hunch, he was right. "Mark and Brody would never do something like that."
I then found Mark and Brody and told them, "Guys, stop going out to eat near the gym together!"
Brody and Mark understood where I was coming from and assured me they would stop eating near the gym together. About a week later, Fritz called me in another rage – this time saying Brody and Mark were spotted eating breakfast in a restaurant across town! When I confronted Brody and Mark about that, they confirmed it, with Brody oh-so-cleverly pointing out, "Gary, we only promised you that we wouldn’t eat together at the restaurant near the gym!"
Kayfabe is a funny thing. While the seriousness of it in the ’70s cannot be overstated, sometimes certain guys would throw kayfabe away for a good buddy, so what Mark and Bruiser were doing was not exactly uncommon – no matter what any other old-school booker or promoter says these days. If a heel and a babyface liked each other and enjoyed hanging out together – regardless of what anyone in the office said, did threaten, or tried – they would find each other. I knew those things were going on, but what was I supposed to do – spend all my free time trying to catch guys in the act or fire them based on rumors? As far as I was concerned – heels and babyfaces could spend as much time with each other as they wanted – as long as they were careful about it and didn’t cause me problems with Fritz because there was no one stronger on kayfabe than Fritz Von Erich.
One time, Rocky Johnson, Tim Brooks, and I all drove to Houston to work a show. Now, Rocky was a babyface, so there I was – the booker of the territory – completely breaking kayfabe. Even though I shouldn’t have been doing that, Tim and I really liked Rocky because he was a good guy, and we had a lot of fun with him. After the show, we were driving back to Dallas when we came upon a barbecue restaurant in Fairfield – just sixty miles from Dallas. We went in, sat down, and ate like pigs. When we were done, we jumped back in the car and must not have paid attention as to where we were going because after a while, we saw a sign that read "Houston: 26 Miles." We were having such a good time together that we mistakenly drove back towards Houston rather than continuing on to Dallas! Rocky and Tim started panicking, asking, "What are we going to tell our wives? How can we explain that we got home at 8:00 a.m. when we should have been home by 3:00 a.m.?"
I said, "I don’t know about you two – but I’m going to tell my wife the truth. You can’t make stuff like this up!"
7. Bret Hart on the Kayfabe Code Amongst Professional Wrestlers
Bret Hart (source: Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling):
"I was so old school. I couldn’t bring myself to explain to anyone not inside the business what was going on. The code among pro wrestlers at the time was to kayfabe, which is wrestling jargon for babyfaces and heels not being seen together in public and doing whatever it takes to perpetuate the idea that wrestling is real. It was thought that if the fans knew the matches were a work, it would destroy the business, along with the livelihood of everyone in it."
8. Vince McMahon on Why He’s Glad Kayfabe is Dead
Vince McMahon (source: Esquire):
"Years ago, the promoters tried to tell the world that this was 100 percent sport. It was an insult to the audience. Professional wrestling has always been a show. When Abraham Lincoln wrestled, it was a show. You didn’t know that? Oh, yes, he did. I’m serious. You can look it up. Abe Lincoln was a wrestler.
Giving it to the audience is probably the easiest thing to do. Finding out what they truly want is probably the most difficult.
When I took over, I said, ‘Why don’t we just let the audience know what it is?’ An exhibition. Are these athletes? Without question, they’re some of the greatest athletes in the world. But I wanted to reposition who we were. It was the right thing to do. It was being honest with the audience. It was showing respect. And it didn’t hurt business at all because they already knew."
These stories may also interest you:
- David Schultz, John Stossel, and the Slaps Heard Round the Wrestling World
- Kane, Christian, and Their Dysfunctional Friendship
- Hulk Hogan and Richard Belzer | The Very Real Choke-Out Incident on Live TV
Some of the quotes used in this article were compiled by Matt Pender and shared here with thanks to our friends over at ‘Wrestling’s Glory Days’ Facebook page.
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