Keeping Kayfabe: Wrestlers Who Protected Their Gimmicks in Public
Wrestlers are very proud of the personas they embrace. The most devoted will even stay in character in public. These wrestlers went above and beyond to preserve kayfabe and sacrificed much to live their gimmicks, even when it meant putting themselves in harm’s way!
Kayfabe is a term used in professional wrestling referring to the preservation of the scripted nature of the sport. It is an essential part of wrestling and has been around since its inception.
To maintain the illusion, wrestlers must follow a set of rules to keep their characters protected when in public.
Nowadays, kayfabe is occasionally broken on television to advance storylines, explain prolonged absences (often due to legitimate injury or wellness policy suspensions), pay tribute to other wrestlers, and sometimes for comedic effect with the delivery of insider humor.
However, many legends have gone above and beyond to play their character’s roles on and off camera for years. Here is eleven such examples.
1 – Russian Renovation: Nikita Koloff and Ivan Koloff
A definitive evil Russian gimmick, Nikita Koloff was one of the most popular stars of the mid-late 1980s.
“The Russian Nightmare” was the kayfabe nephew of Ivan Koloff. But, in reality, he was Minnesotan-born and bred Nelson Scott Simpson.
Now Simpson went above and beyond the call of duty in living the gimmick.
First, he legally changed his name to Nikita Koloff. Yes, he went from the Simpsons to the Koloffs. Now that’s dedication.
Not only this, but Koloff learned Russian, a language rated a Category IV by the Foreign Services Institute, requiring around 1,100 hours of learning to become a professional.
Nikita Koloff: The Russian Nightmare Who Lived the Gimmick
Brandon Truitt of the website Kayfabe Memories once wrote, “He sold his gimmick as a newly-arrived Russian immigrant by never speaking English in public and never showing that he knew exactly what people were saying. The only place he ever spoke English was in the car with Ivan.”
“To sell the gimmick, Ivan had to go around and help Nikita get his apartment, hook up the utilities, and get a gym membership. He went months without paying membership fees at the gym to sell the ‘doesn’t understand English’ part of his character.”
Like his kayfabe nephew Nikita, Ivan, too, was living the gimmick. Billed from Moscow, Russia, Ivan Koloff was born Oreal Donald Perras in Montreal, Canada.
Nikita only dropped the accent two years after retiring from the business. Talk about devotion to his craft!
2 – Silence Speaks Volumes: “The Sheik” Ed Farhat
The Sheik’s wrestling persona was that of a rich wild man from Syria. Clad with his keffiyeh, before each match, he would use stalling tactics such as kneeling on a prayer rug.
He was highly successful as a wrestler and promoter, but his true legacy lies in his commitment to preserving kayfabe.
In the rare event that Sheik spoke on camera, it wouldn’t be in English and would often sound like gibberish. Even those who have heard him speak English claim he was near impossible to understand because he spoke fast.
The Sheik: A Dedication to Kayfabe That Spanned Six Decades
Farhat’s dedication to kayfabe doesn’t end there. Although he was born and lived in the Lansing, Michigan, area, he never spoke publicly, even when meeting fans years after retiring.
Senior Editor of Pro Wrestling Stories Evan Ginzburg met Farhat on many occasions and spoke of his commitment to not speaking in public.
“He would sign things at the gimmick table, and when fans thanked him, he gave a little nod and smiled as if not to let anyone else see he was out of character. But he wouldn’t talk. A moment captured in time, if you will!”
Jim Cornette speaks of this, too, and in a tweet from 2017, said, “Sheik never spoke English on tape.”
Quite impressive for someone who was in the public eye for almost sixty years!
3 – Silence Runs in the Family: Sabu
The nephew of The Sheik, Sabu’s gimmick upon arriving in Eastern (later Extreme) Championship Wrestling saw him wear a Hannibal Lecter-Esque mask as he was strapped to the bonds of a gurney.
Only released for his matches, this madman also had a fixation on tables, needing the restraint of bodyguard 911.
Much like with his Uncle Sheik, the gimmick saw Sabu unable to speak English or otherwise.
Sabu Upholds Kayfabe and Becomes a Legend
So when, at November To Remember 1994, Sabu had his neck broken only seconds into the scheduled main event with Chris Benoit, this presented a problem.
Sabu was sent to a hospital and, for hours, upheld “kayfabe” and refused to speak.
Paul E. Dangerously served as his mouthpiece until Sabu eventually spoke up for his health.
The angle, too, was made a storyline.
Although Benoit broke down in tears in remorse, on-screen, he became “The Crippler.”
Sabu, amazingly, was back in the ring just two weeks later.
4 – “Mr Wrestling” Tim Woods: The Man Who Saved Wrestling
Few real-life events changed the wrestling world more than the plane crashes of 1975. They would occur only eight months apart
The aircraft, piloted by Colt, crashed into the Tampa Bay following a stall after an attempted go-around. The Tampa Police Department retrieved the aircraft from the water, where they found Shane’s body. Sadly, Bobby Shane died from drowning. It is believed his foot was caught in the wreckage of the aircraft.
Later in the year, on October 4th, 1975, a second fateful flight occurred with Ric Flair, Johnny Valentine, Bob Bruggers, Tim Woods, and David Crockett aboard.
Not only did NWA United States Champion Johnny Valentine suffer a career-ending injury, but it significantly shaped the wrestling style of Ric Flair – now one of the most regarded in-ring talents of all time.
Ric Flair doesn’t like to talk about the plane crash even now.
"I was out six months," he was quoted as saying in the Ric Flair: 2 Decades of Excellence documentary.
"I was supposed to stay out a year… [but] like every young athlete, I wanted to get back in, you know?"
"The doctors said, ‘I can tell you that the bones are put back together…but whether or not [you can wrestle again] you’ll have to find out yourself…’"
Not Even a Plane Crash Could Break His Kayfabe
Also on that plane was Tim Woods, better known by the ring name Mr. Wrestling.
Then, kayfabe still ruled; the industry’s secrets had yet to be publicly revealed. But, with babyface Mr. Wrestling sharing that plane with different heels, including previous rivals Flair and Valentine, the business would be exposed.
In Ric Flair’s book, To Be The Man, he details how Woods managed to keep the industry’s secrets hidden.
Woods checked into the hospital under his real name George Burrell Woodin.
Local papers picked up the story with rumors spreading about Woods’ involvement. To end these accusations, Woods checked himself out of the hospital while suffering from cracked and bruised ribs, a concussion, and an inability to walk unassisted.
“The Nature Boy” commented, “Immediately, Tim began making appearances all over the territory to dispel any speculation that he had been hospitalized.
“Then, two weeks after the crash, he stepped into the ring in unbearable pain and wrestled Superstar Billy Graham. They had a relatively short match, but Tim was more than ‘Mr. Wrestling’ that day. He became the man who saved wrestling.”
Now that’s dedication!
5 – Mr Wrestling II Refuses to Remove His Mask at a U.S. Presidential Inauguration
El Santo famously only removed his mask a few days before death, and Mil Máscaras was rarely in the locker room without his. Yet “Mr. Wrestling II” Johnny Walker ranks among the most dedicated to his masked persona.
The popular worker was a favorite wrestler of US president Jimmy Carter and his mother, Lillian.
Lillian once spoke of wrestling, saying, “The more brutal it is, the better I like it! You can go ahead and print that!”
The Masked Man Who Met the President
Walker was a massive name in Georgia Championship Wrestling, where Carter was from. Walker had cops pulling him over for autographs and was even allowed into the bank with his hood on, keeping his identity intact!
President Jimmy Carter invited his favorite wrestler to his inauguration in January 1977. Yet, for his appearance, Secret Service told Mr. Wrestling II that he had to remove his mask. Not willing to risk his identity, Walker attended anonymously.
Walker still visited “Miss Lillian,” later saying of the experience, “We probably talked more than two hours. We discussed all kinds of stuff. And the whole time I was in there, she never cracked about wrestling. And I appreciated that.”
6 – “Earthquake” John Tenta: The Tale of Fresh Ink
John Tenta saw a prominent run in the WWF during the late 1980s and ’90s as “Earthquake,” with the Canadian superheavyweight feuding with Hulk Hogan before a memorable stint in the tag ranks in the Natural Disasters alongside “Typhoon” Fred Ottman.
Observant fans would see a tiger tattoo on his left arm, referencing his time playing at Louisiana State University (LSU), where he competed in various sports.
The tattoo, incidentally, caused issues in his sumo career.
In Japan, the public display of tattoos is frowned upon and synonymous with gangsters. As a result, Tenta could not compete in higher leagues without tattoo removal, and he needed to wear a bandage to hide the tattoo when competing.
A Devotion to Kayfabe That Backfired
By 1995, John Tenta found himself in WCW. After a run as “Avalanche” – as close as the company could get to his WWF gimmick, for a short while at least – Tenta was christened with a new gimmick when joining the cartoonish Dungeon of Doom faction.
Thinking this would be a lengthy tenure, Tenta changed his tiger tattoo in a 24-hour procedure and replaced it with a shark.
Was the re-inking worth it?
Unfortunately, the net soon closed in on the Shark, as the gimmick finished up within a few months, and Tenta reverted to using his real name.
Needless to say, after his dedication to the craft led to a body alteration, he was not chomping at the bit to be repackaged.
7 – Ricky Steamboat: Enter The Dragon
By the 1990s, the WWF had become more gimmick based. Previously strait-laced workers such as Tito Santana became “El Matador,” Mike Rotunda morphed into a taxman, and Greg Valentine dyed his hair black to play guitar alongside Honky Tonk Man.
The company also revamped Ricky Steamboat’s gimmick when he returned for a brief foray into the WWF in 1991.
Not only was he now exclusively known as “The Dragon,” with no acknowledgment of his past, but he was also given a pair of dragon wings as part of his entrance attire and forced to learn a tremendously dangerous trick: breathing fire.
Fire breathing is a hazardous activity that can lead to all kinds of harm. For example, pneumonitis or lipid pneumonia can occur if inhalation of the oil occurs.
Accidents in handling the fire can also lead to esophagus, mouth, and lip burning if something as trivial as the wind slightly changing in direction.
A Fiery Dedication to Kayfabe
After seeing this veteran with a rosy-red face having singed off his eyebrows, Steamboat refused the gimmick.
After more training, “The Dragon” finally complied and soon breathed fire during his entrance using kerosene.
This was an extreme commitment, considering the sheer danger of the trick.
8 – Local Lazarus: A Blinded Sandman
A remorseful Dreamer fought on behalf of The Sandman and went to extreme lengths to convince fans it was a legitimate tragedy. Dreamer even dedicated his career to the blinded booze-wiggler.
Considering the cult status of ECW, the largest audience of the promotion was concentrated in The Sandman’s hometown of Philadelphia. Paul Heyman remarked that to sell the angle, Sandman effectively put himself under house arrest.
A Dedication to Kayfabe That Paid Off
In the book The Rise & Fall of ECW: Extreme Championship Wrestling, Paul commented, “He never left his house; only his wife answered his door. It was unheard of back then for somebody to stick to the storyline to this degree.”
This lasted for a month. When he was required to leave the house, Fullington wore bandages over his eyes, as he would do on TV. He would not interact or try desperately to avoid other people during this time.
The pay-off was worth it, popularizing Dreamer and making Sandman an even bigger star. Heyman referred to it as “one of the more memorable non-beer-soaked moments of his career!”
The Sandman’s blindness was finally revealed as a ruse during his retirement ceremony.
9 – Salt Of The Earth: MJF
In the modern era, keeping kayfabe has vastly diminished. However, Maxwell Jacob Friedman (MJF) remains the king.
MJF once famously tweeted to Sheamus, “You’ve been handed the ball multiple times and fell. I’m glad you’re having a resurgence and finally figured out how to get over it. It only took you a decade. Took me one day.”
Not only does Maxwell Jacob Friedman have an in-character social media presence, but he maintains it in real life.
MJF: Lives the Gimmick
For example, he described an anime fan paying for a Cameo shout-out as a “weeaboo piece of ****.”
A 2020 incident at a fan fest saw MJF spark controversy for staying in character. Photos show “The Salt of The Earth” giving a middle finger to a seven-year-old attendee.
Naturally, the event caused an outcry of both support and derision, with the significance of the event earning it coverage in national newspapers in the US, such as The New York Post, and across the pond, such as The Sun.
The young fan’s father later remarked, “I tried to laugh it off, knowing he’s just in character, but it upset him. I know that’s his gimmick, but he’s only seven and doesn’t understand.”
MJF later commented on his actions, simply stating, “**** them, kids.”
He later caused controversy in September 2021 with a headline-grabbing Tweet.
A little girl with a “Hate MJF” shirt was shown flipping off a camera, to which Maxwell replied, “Is it too late to abort?”
On TV, MJF was one of few wrestlers still in character at Brodie Lee’s tribute show, even ripping the mask off the deceased Lee’s son and spitting on it. Although considered distasteful for some, MJF classily let Brody Jr. hit him with a kendo stick, a comeuppance for MJF and a feel-good moment.
Mastering Kayfabe for Perfect Promos
MJF has become a master of the worked-shoot promo.
On the June 1st, 2022, edition of Dynamite, MJF got the wrestling world talking when he threatened to walk out and join WWE, citing a real-life conflict with promotor Tony Khan over pay.
In a prolonged in-ring segment, MJF highlighted Khan’s fixation with hiring ex-WWE talents while daring Tony to fire him.
The segment ended with MJF declaring Khan a “******* mark” before his microphone was cut off.
Subsequently, MJF missed a fan fest with reports he had legitimately flown home, throwing his pay-per-view match with Wardlow into bedlam – working the fans.
Moreover, MJF stayed away from the public eye during his subsequent hiatus from AEW. Not only did he not tweet from May 27th to September 5th, 2022, but he also ended contact with close friends, AEW, and the entire wrestling industry.
Jonathan Snowden of Bleacher Report summed up the enigmatic MJF by stating, “There’s a certain genius at work here, a commitment to kayfabe so fierce you can’t help but be impressed.”
And it has all paid off for the Plainview, Long Island native as in late 2022, he became AEW World Champion.
10 – Public Complaints for the “Man on the Moon,” Andy Kaufman
Was comedy enigma Andy Kaufman working or shooting?
For the uninitiated, Kaufman was a divisive, so-called anti-comedian who forged his name on Saturday Night Live and created zany caricatures of fictitious characters. He stayed on the show until a 1982 vote-in poll took place to ban him, which Kaufman lost.
The inspiration for the film “Man On The Moon” starring Jim Carrey, he began his journey into grappling by wrestling women.
Crowning himself the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World, he offered female audience members $1,000 if they could pin him. He’d graciously “allow a winner to marry him,” all the while insulting his opponents and demanding they stay in the kitchen.
The Anti-Comedian Who Wanted to Bring Wrestling Back to TV
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1981, Kaufman explained, “If I play my cards right, I could bring network wrestling back to TV. Unfortunately, to most people, wrestling is a laughingstock. But fortunately, I’m reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t watch it.”
Yet this led to a swathe of backlash, including angry debate and numerous complaints.
Trying to capitalize off his popular act, the anti-comedian reached out to Vince McMahon, Sr., in New York.
Vince, a more strait-laced and traditional promotor than his son, refused.
In an interview with VICE, Jim Cornette elaborated, “He was afraid it would make wrestling look phony.
“A comedian, a skinny TV star, is coming in and wrestling with my talent. [He] just wasn’t interested.”
Instead, through photographer Bill Apter, Andy came into contact with Cornette, who brought him in to feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler.
The Staged Slap That Shocked the World
Lawler and Kaufman took their rivalry to nationally syndicated TV. It was July 28th, 1982, when the two wrestlers appeared together on Late Night with David Letterman.
The duo threw barbs at one another. Then, after a commercial break, “The King Of Memphis” slapped Kaufman – who was wearing a neck brace after having been broken by a Lawler piledriver.
Knocked off his chair, he quickly jumped up and unleashed a tirade of expletives, throwing coffee over Jerry.
The men sold the match and the characters in a headline-grabbing manner.
In response to write-ins asking if the events were staged, NBC East Coast Programs Vice-President Josh Kane told people, “We satisfied ourselves that the producers of the show were not a party to planning or staging what happened in any way. That was our first and primary concern.”
Mike Chiari of Bleacher Report observed, “The lengths that Lawler and Kaufman went to preserve kayfabe was impressive. Most thought that the Lawler vs. Kaufman feud was legitimate for many years.
“It wasn’t revealed until ten years after Kaufman’s untimely death from lung cancer that Lawler and Kaufman were friends who were putting on a show.”
11 – Goldust and His Almost Golden Globes
When it comes to wrestlers who took a gimmick and ran with it, “Goldust” Dustin Rhodes surely must be atop that list.
Previously the more traditional, hard-working babyface Rhodes transformed into the pompous, eccentric “Bizarre One.”
One of the odd accommodations nearly made by Goldust was breast surgery.
Covered in great detail in Rob Ireland’s Pro Wrestling Stories article “Goldust: The Time Dustin Rhodes Almost Got Breast Implants,” Rhodes legitimately wanted to get a boob job, allegedly asking $1 million for the necessary procedure.
The Texan Redneck Who Was Willing to Be Androgynous
Bruce Prichard remembers how a hunting, beer-drinking, tobacco-chewing, 260-pound Texan redneck reacted to the news of being turned into a non-gender-specific character.
“At the time, he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I love it, oh my god, that will be so cool!’
“I think that Dustin was caught up in the meeting and the excitement of it all.
“We were creating on the spot literally, so he was excited about it, we were excited about it, so, ‘Yeah, man, I’ll be androgynous. That’s awesome!’
“I’m not sure Dustin knew what the hell androgynous really was.”
Now, he was willing to alter his body for his character cosmetically!
The Wrestler Who Almost Got Implants for His Gimmick
In his book, Forgiven: One Man’s Journey from Self-Glorification to Sanctification, Vince Russo, former head writer for the WWF during the Attitude Era, recalled, “Dustin Rhodes was considering getting breast implants for the wrestling business.
“And yes, McMahon did contemplate it. But that’s what the business does to you. It makes sane men go nuts!”
Bruce Prichard recalls the idea slightly differently, playing off that Vince McMahon would have never approved.
Jim Ross, however, recalls Dustin wanted the whole incident filmed! He later said that the reaction of Dustin’s wife, Terri Runnells, was an eye roll and nod.
It was never quite something Rhodes could persuade management to pounce on.
This was perhaps for the best, as the Goldust character soon ran its course.
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