RIP Kayfabe, beginningoftime-1997
The date November 9, 1997 has a special significance to wrestling fans. It was on that night that 20,593 fans in the Molson Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada witnessed an event that would be analyzed, reanalyzed, dissected, and argued about for years to come.
The event was the Survivor Series, and was being main evented by then-WWF Champion Bret “Hitman” Hart defending against challenger Shawn Michaels. The match itself was nothing special – pretty standard fare for late 90’s WWF action. The final two or three moments, however, would live in infamy.
This article has nothing to do with the Montreal Screwjob, as it came to be called, but the ramifications of the wrestling business as a whole as a result of what happened that night.
Before the rise of the Internet in the early 1990’s, most wrestling fans “knew” that what was happening inside the squared circle wasn’t exactly what was presented. As the kids of that era morphed into teenagers and young adults, we all “knew” that wrestling was, in a word, fake. (I’ll go into how the word fake is possibly the worst word to describe professional wrestling in another article.) Wrestling fans were mocked by non-fans, and we endured endless taunts by family and friends, usually when somebody felt the need to use the line “Don’t you know it’s all fake?”
The thing is — it doesn’t matter. Most, if not all forms of entertainment, contain portions that are scripted. Blockbuster movies, sitcoms, TV dramas, talk shows, Broadway plays, even *game shows* have scripted dialogue. Nobody makes fun of fans of those events.
The difference, however, is that our favorite form of entertainment is the only one where the characters are supposed to stay in character all the time. When Christopher Meloni steps off the set of Law & Order: SVU, he is no longer Elliott Stabler. He’s Christopher Meloni. When Gene Simmons goes grocery shopping with his family, he isn’t wearing devil makeup. But when Dustin Runnels goes to a baseball game with his family, he is approached by fans looking for either Dustin Rhodes, Goldust, or Seven. (OK, probably not Seven…)
The practice of staying in character at all times is part of the tradition known as kayfabe. Ever since professional wrestling was a “thing”, the matches have been predetermined. For those of you who still has that grandfather waxing nostalgic about how wrestling used to be real, you can rest assured that he is wrong. Kayfabe was that strong. Heels traveled with heels, heels shared hotels with heels, and heels ate with heels. This was an absolute rule that was NOT to be messed with. In 1975, most fans know that Ric Flair was involved in a plane crash. What most fans don’t know, however, was that there were three other wrestlers and a promoter on the same plane. As a result of the wreck, two of those wrestlers never wrestled again (one was Johnny Valentine) and the pilot was killed. The fourth wrestler was Tim Woods, known professionally as Mr. Wrestling.
Woods initially gave the paramedics a fake name so that fans wouldn’t hear that he (a babyface) was traveling with a dastardly heel (Valentine & Flair). Upon arrival at the hospital, he was told that his back was broken. The problem was that rumors began circulating that he was indeed on the same plane that Valentine was on. To protect kayfabe, Woods did the only thing he could — he wrestled a bout two weeks later with a broken freakin’ back in a (futile) effort to prove that he wasn’t on the plane.
That’s how important kayfabe was.
When Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik were pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1987, fans were shocked that a bad guy was in the same car as a good guy. The inevitable happened two years later, when WWF head honcho Vince McMahon admitted in New Jersey’s State Senate that his wrestlers were not really engaging in combat sports — a tactic used simply to avoid paying exorbitant doctor and license fees in numerous states. This was, for obvious reasons, not well publicized and was, in fact, kept quite hidden thanks to Titan’s marketing department.
In the 1990’s, as the Internet grew in popularity and availability, websites and newsgroups were opening up so that computer users could meet online to find people with similar interests. It wasn’t long before sites dedicated to professional wrestling would open up. Old-timers like me still remember The News From Dayton, and the rec.sport.pro-wrestling newsgroup. While newsletters had existed before (or “dirtsheets” as they were known in locker rooms), most notably Wade Keller’s Torch and Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer, this was the first time that many fans were exposed to industry secrets — the carney lingo (angle, shoot, jobber, etc.), the bladejob, wrestler’s real names and former personas, and more. And even though internet fans then, as they do today, feel they are smarter than the average fan, they aren’t the majority of wrestling fans or even in the demographic of what WWE and TNA market to.
As a result of the incident at Survivor Series 1997, Vince McMahon came on television and basically announced to the world that wrestling was predetermined. During his sitdown interview with Jim Ross, he complained that Bret Hart wouldn’t agree to do the “time-honored tradition,” meaning of course, that he wouldn’t agree to put Michaels over for the strap. To the vast majority of wrestling fans, this was quite an eye-opener. Vince tried not to openly say that Bret didn’t want to job, but by choosing the words he did, he ended up raising more questions than answers.
In the years to come, there have been more and more of these kayfabe-killing moments. While somewhat entertaining to “smart” fans, the humor or intent was lost on 99% of the “regular” fans. Moments like Eric Bischoff asking Sid for his scissors, Triple H’s infamous “I’ll see you at home! Um, I mean your brother’s a gnome!”, and nowadays, the constant advertisements for WWE Network showing “backstage” moments are doing more harm than good.
How am I supposed to believe that Stephanie McMahon is a cold, heartless bitch as she portrayed during the Authority angle, when before commercials they ran adverts showing her hugging Connor Michalek? How could big, bad Triple H be taken seriously when YouTube evidence shows him breaking character at ringside to console a young fan in the front row?
To put another spin on it, it would be exactly the same as sitting in a movie theater watching The Dark Knight, and just before the climactic finale, the movie suddenly cut to a kindergarten classroom where Christian Bale and Heath Ledger were reading stories to the students at naptime.
Wrestling fans like to enjoy what I call a “suspension of disbelief” while sitting in the arena or sitting on their couch. We don’t want to be reminded that what we’re watching is in fact, a play. Keep the backstage stuff, the Ride Alongs, the Swerveds, and other shows on the Network where fans can find it, but don’t advertise it DURING the damn show.
The good news is that there IS a way to fix this, and it looks like it’s already started. It’s what I call “the new work.” At SummerSlam, when Brock Lesnar potatoed the shit out of Randy Orton’s head, fans (and independent workers) were going INSANE with the notion that Lesnar shot on him. Hell, even Chris friggin’ Jericho, a man who has been everywhere and seen everything, was worked. A few weeks later, there was a TREMENDOUS segment between Daniel Bryan and the Miz on the Talking Smack show. Again, fans were up in arms screaming for Miz’s head. Due to these (both scripted) incidents, Miz and Lesnar are bigger heels than they have ever been. Miz, in particular, is showing fire in both his promos and his matches and has elevated his game greatly.
You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but you can disguise the toothpaste and make people think it’s Oreo cream. (Prank idea: Remove cream from Oreo, replace with toothpaste, place back in cookie bag.) Make people BELIEVE again. It worked for hundreds of years when professional wrestling was at its heights. There’s a REASON that wrestling is no longer the #1 rated television show on whatever channel is broadcasting it. Slowly rebuild your characters. Let your heels be HEELS. (Kevin Owens is the perfect example of this.) Let your faces be faces. And STOP reminding people that everything is a work.
I’m the Hooded Jobber, and that’s my opinion.