Kayfabe (ˈkāˌfāb), noun – a professional wrestling term used to put forth the impression that staged events with a predetermined outcome are authentic and real.
Most current fans of professional wrestling are too young to remember when the events were regulated by state athletic commissions and there was a wink and nod acknowledgement that, yeah, it’s staged, but we won’t admit as such. In 1989, however, Vince McMahon was in the relatively early stages of his establishing his global monopoly. To further his ends and provide greater evidence of his lack of concern about adhering to long-held industry standards, there was a means to an end public admission that it is entertainment and should not be subject to the same regulation and oversight as “real” sports. With that, there was no longer a need to give athletic commissions the cut they once demanded.
Like almost anything McMahon has done in his career as impresario of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) which was later renamed as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), it was about money: maximizing the value of his company and profiting from it. There’s no denying he succeeded. What he surrendered for that success is undoubtedly irrelevant to him, but for many fans and people who were involved with professional wrestling at every level, the loss of the tradition of kayfabe was a death of sorts.
The most recent episode of Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring revisits one of the most infamous events in pro wrestling history when 20/20 reporter John Stossel spoke to WWF wrestler “Dr. D” David Schultz and told him – not asked him as Stossel now claims, but told him by way of declarative statement – “I think this is fake.”
Schultz responded with an open-handed slap to the side of Stossel’s head, knocking him to the ground. After Stossel stood up, Schultz hit him on the other side of his head, knocking him down a second time. Wisely, Stossel left.
Obviously, there was no justification for an assault which, technically, is what Schultz smacking Stossel was. Still, according to Schultz, he was told by McMahon to “tear his ass up and stay in character.” That can have endless connotations, but given Schultz’s seriousness about the business and that he was ornery by nature, it’s obvious what would happen. In addition, Stossel’s confrontational tone almost invited Schultz to take a whack at him. Would the result have been different had Stossel done as he now claims he did and asked Schultz whether wrestling is fake rather than say to the wrestler’s face that what he does for a living is fake?
Regardless, Schultz’s refusal to break kayfabe was the residue of the code he learned in his formative years in the business.
Prior to McMahon’s public disavowal of any pretense that the matches were predetermined and for entertainment only, kayfabe was a sacred part of being involved in wrestling. Schultz was a wrestler’s wrestler who was fully invested in being his character. His teachers and mentors hammered home the point that breaking kayfabe was about as low as a wrestler could possibly go in damaging it, potentially destroying the business and losing his job and everyone else’s too. Tradition required that if the wrestlers agreed to one thing when they became part of the club, it was to uphold the code. That code was destroyed by McMahon three decades ago through the same ruthlessness that made him a billionaire, but it was done purposely and not as part of a television news investigation.
Whether you are a wrestling fan, were a wrestling fan or have a perverse fascination with the suspension of disbelief necessary to become emotionally invested in an event with a predetermined outcome, the notion of kayfabe was a foundational part of enjoying the show. The old-school wrestlers took it seriously. Perhaps not as seriously as Schultz did, but still seriously because their livelihoods were at stake.
Kayfabe is the crux of the chasm between purists and McMahon. Veterans of the business hated the financially motivated admission that it was staged. McMahon was trying to turn wrestling from a somewhat tawdry niche diversion into a family-friendly event that would make him and his wrestlers an exponential amount of money compared to what they would have made had they clung to the past. To achieve that, kayfabe needed to disappear.
When McMahon bought the WWF from his father Vince McMahon Sr., he had his plan already mapped out and within a decade had turned it into the equivalent of a license to print money. Unimpeded by relationships and collusion with fellow promoters throughout the world, he set out to invade their previously sacrosanct territories. He poached talent, changed the way stories were told, and tried to make it something that went beyond a diversion for men by branching out into television, film, toys, clothing and more by appealing to children and women. He did it and then increased his and his wrestlers’ income by detonating the notion of kayfabe.
The key difference between Stossel’s subversive attempt to destroy kayfabe and McMahon intentionally destroying it was one was doing it for no real reason and the other was doing it for a fully acceptable reason of growing the business and making money.
The insular nature of professional wrestling and the locker room camaraderie that the wrestlers were working together came with a compact that they do not break the code to outsiders and ruin the game for everyone. They were not putting something over on the fans who were paying good money. They were trying to give them an enjoyable show and sacrificing their bodies and minds to achieve that knowing the consequences. Unlike Stossel’s unsaid implication that people who were watching were somehow hoodwinked because it is “fake”, it was kayfabe that shielded the unsaid truth as to what the show was all about. With that in mind and in retrospect, it’s no shock that Schultz reacted the way he did. In fact, it should have been expected.