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In professional wrestling, kayfabe (pronounced /ˈkeɪfeɪb/) is the portrayal of events within the industry as "real." That is, the portrayal of professional wrestling as being genuine or not worked. Referring to events or interviews as being a "work" means that the event/interview has been "kayfabed" or staged, or is part of a wrestling angle while being passed off as legitimate.

Kayfabe is often seen as the suspension of disbelief that is used to create the non-wrestling aspects of promotions, such as feuds, angles, and gimmicks, in a similar manner with other forms of entertainment such as soap opera or film. In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to an actor breaking character on camera. Also, since wrestling is performed in front of a live audience, whose interaction with the show is crucial to the show's success (see pop), one might compare kayfabe to the fourth wall, since there is hardly any conventional fourth wall to begin with.

In the past, virtually all wrestlers adhered to kayfabe in public, even when outside the ring and off-camera, in order to preserve the illusion that the competition in pro wrestling was not staged. With the advent of the Internet Wrestling Community and, most importantly, the sports entertainment movement, pro wrestling has become less concerned with protecting so-called backstage secrets and typically maintains kayfabe only during performances. However, kayfabe is occasionally broken, including during performances, in order to achieve a number of goals, among them advancing the storylines, explaining prolonged absences (often due to legitimate injury), paying tribute to other wrestlers and sometimes for comedic effect or that of driving insider humor.

Contents

Name

The origin of the term is uncertain. Pro wrestling can trace some of its stylistic origins back to carnivals and catch wrestling, where the term "kayfabe" is thought to have originated as carny slang for "protecting the secrets of the business." With money tight, a carny would call home collect, telling the operator their name was "Kay Fabian." This was code letting the people at home know they had made it safely to the next town. The family would then deny the call. This was a method of communicating without paying for the cost of a phone call or telegram.

However, another tradition holds that "kayfabe" was merely Pig Latin for "be fake," and thus an instruction by one carny to another not to break character at the moment a "rube" or "mark" was close by.

Heels and faces

The characters assumed by wrestlers can be distinguished into faces and heels.

Faces, short for babyfaces, are hero-type characters whose personalities are crafted to elicit the support of the audience through traits such as humility, a hard working nature, sticktoitiveness and reciprocal love of the crowd. Faces usually win matches on the basis of their technical skills and are sometimes portrayed as underdogs to enhance the story.

Heels are villainous or antagonistic characters, whose personalities are crafted to elicit a negative response from the audience. They often embrace traditionally negative traits such as narcissism, egomania, unprompted rage, sadism and general bitterness. Heels typically inspire boos from the audience and often employ underhanded tactics, such as cheating and exploiting technicalities, in their fighting strategies.

Matches are usually organized between a heel and a face, and the distinction between the two types may be blurred as a given character's storyline reaches a peak or becomes more complicated.

Uses

Relationships

Many storylines make use of kayfabe romantic relationships between two performers. Very often, both participants have other real-life relationships, and the "relationship" between the two is simply a storyline. However, more than once, kayfabe romantic relationships have resulted either from a real-life relationship, such as between Matt Hardy and Lita, or ultimately developed into a real-life marriage (e.g., Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who married in 2003, more than a year after their kayfabe marriage ended).[1]

For years, the World Wrestling Federation presented real-life spouses "Macho Man" Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth as a wrestler-manager relationship, with no mention that they were actually married. In 1991, the two began a kayfabe romantic relationship, which culminated in a wedding ceremony at that August's SummerSlam. The storyline ended a year later with the couple's real-life divorce and Miss Elizabeth's departure from the WWF.

Tag teams of wrestlers, who may or may not look alike, are often presented as relatives, though they are not actually related. Examples include The Brothers of Destruction (The Undertaker and Kane), the The Holly Cousins (Hardcore Holly, Crash Holly, and Molly Holly), the Dudley family, Arn and Ole Anderson, etc.

Moreover, the Von Erichs, despite being a real life family, had a number of peripheral kayfabe relatives, most notably Waldo and his "son", Lance. Additionally, the "Von Erich" name itself was kayfabed; their real family name was Adkisson.

"You're fired!" and "I quit!"

Through kayfabe, wrestlers often quit or get fired, or are said to have been booked to lose a match where their jobs are on the line (e.g., a "loser leaves town match"), only to return at a future time.

However, such "departures" may also be used to advance a feud between two wrestlers. A classic example is the "masked man," where the wrestler (usually a face) who has supposedly lost his job makes appearances at subsequent events while wearing a mask, and then interferes in his heel opponent's matches; eventually, the masked wrestler's identity is exposed by his foe and the feud intensifies. This storyline was used for the Dusty Rhodes/Kevin Sullivan feud during the 1980s and also for the feud between Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan in 2003. Some more recent examples include William Regal losing a Loser Gets Fired match against Mr. Kennedy on the May 19 episode of Raw (Regal was actually suspended for sixty days due to violation of the WWE Wellness Policy), The Undertaker losing a Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match to Edge at WWE One Night Stand where the winner would get the vacant WWE World Heavyweight Championship and Shawn Michaels' eye being 'injured' and making the decision to retire from wrestling.

The "you're fired" gimmick has also successfully been used to repackage a wrestler with a new gimmick.

On the August 22, 2005 edition of Raw, WWE Champion John Cena successfully defended his title by defeating Chris Jericho in a "You're Fired!" match. Eric Bischoff promptly fired Jericho, and ordered that he be taken from the arena by security. Jericho was not truly fired, however, as his release was a mutual arrangement. The match had been conceived to cover for Jericho's departure from the company, and he eventually returned to the WWE on the November 19, 2007 edition of Raw after an absence of just over two years.

On the December 6, 2007 episode of TNA Impact!, Christopher Daniels was fired in the Feast or Fired match and due to the stipulations it was revealed that Daniels' briefcase contained the pink slip, immediately causing him to be released from TNA. He reappeared on January 24, 2008 under the guise of Curry Man, a masked character he has used in New Japan Pro Wrestling. He was then fired under this name in another Feast or Fired Match. He then returned to TNA in 2009 reverting back to Christopher Daniels, but now is announced to the crowd as "Daniels".

Breaking kayfabe

There have been several examples of breaking kayfabe throughout wrestling history. It should be pointed out that what exactly constitutes "breaking" is rather difficult to define. It is rare for kayfabe to be dispensed with totally and the events acknowledged as scripted. Often the "break" may be implied or through an allusion (for example calling a wrestler by his/her real name; which is done often such as many people calling Batista by his first name Dave, started, it is believed, by Ray Mistereo) and standards tend to vary as to what is a break. In the WWF during and after the Attitude Era, the line between kayfabe and reality was often blurred.

With the growth of the industry and its exposure on the Internet and DVD and videos, kayfabe may be broken more regularly. Whereas in the past it was extremely rare for a wrestler or other involved person to recognize the scripted nature of events even in outside press or media, WWE DVDs and WWE.com routinely give news and acknowledge real life. In the case of the former, it has ostensible adversaries and allies talking about each other, and the angles and storylines they worked and their opinions on them. On WWE.com, real life news is often given which may contradict storylines.

As of late, WWE.com has included an "Industry News" section to their website, which regularly breaks kayfabe to deliver news about current and former WWE superstars, and even going beyond their former policy of not acknowledging their competition, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, by posting TNA Impact! and pay-per-view results on their site. Live events for virtually every wrestling company around the world are also listed on a regular basis, as are tidbits regarding wrestlers, such as Nick Hogan's arrest and subsequent incarceration, the Ultimate Warrior's return to wrestling and challenging Vince McMahon to a match, etc.

Kayfabe has been broken many times, though it may not always be apparent to fans as seen below. The following is a list of some of the more notable examples.

Andy Kaufman, Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World

A decade after Andy Kaufman's death, Jerry Lawler starred as himself in Man on the Moon, a film that, in part, portrays the kayfabe feud between the pair. The movie shows highlights from the work and then reveals that Andy and Jerry are friends. Andy was only an amateur wrestler, but his devotion to the kayfabe would last his whole life, eventually affecting his reputation with fans of his acting and comic careers.[2]

Montreal Screwjob

The most popular example is the Montreal Screwjob (also called the Montreal Incident) in which then-WWF Champion Bret Hart was going to wrestle Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship. The agreed finish was to have Hart walk away with the title that night and come on Monday Night Raw the next night to give up the championship. Hart had already signed a deal with World Championship Wrestling and still had three weeks after Survivor Series 1997 before appearing on WCW Monday Nitro. Vince McMahon, fearing that his championship would appear on his rival's TV show (similar to when Ric Flair left the NWA and went to the WWF with the NWA World Heavyweight Championship belt in tow), felt that he needed to change the agreed finish without telling Hart. Vince went out and told the ring crew to ring the bell and say Michaels won the championship. Hart, very upset, spat on Vince (later punching him in the dressing room) and wreaked havoc on equipment around the ring. It was long thought that Michaels had nothing to do with the change, but it was later found out he was in on it as well. The incident was recreated several times over the years such as in a storyline to screw Mankind at the following year's Survivor Series. The same finish was recreated on the March 18, 2006 edition of Saturday Night's Main Event, where McMahon screwed Shawn Michaels in a match with his son Shane in order to build up the feud between the two leading up to their match at WrestleMania 22.

In a shoot interview with RFvideo.com, Kevin Nash expressed his suspicions of the legitimacy of the Montreal Screwjob. He believes the whole thing was a "work". He claims that it was too much of a coincidence that all of the cameras were in the right place at the right time during the Screwjob itself. He went on to say that Vince McMahon was staggering a little too much after being punched. He knew Vince as a man who would never sell a real punch as much as he did. He also claimed that if McMahon didn't want something videotaped it wouldn't be videotaped, relating to the video footage of the punch aftermath.

Contradicting this view, in Bret Hart's book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Hart noted that Vince looked visibly concerned that the crew who was following Bret for the documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows was at the event but never made any objections. It was only by sheer luck that the crew got all of the footage.

1996 MSG Incident

In the 1996 MSG Incident, real-life friends Shawn Michaels, Hunter Hearst Hemsley, Diesel (Kevin Nash), and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) broke kayfabe by embracing in the ring at the end of a match between Michaels and Nash. Nash and Hall were on their way to rival promotion World Championship Wrestling, and the incident was a farewell from Michaels and Triple H. As punishment for breaking kayfabe, Triple H was relegated to working lower card matches and was booked to lose to Jake "The Snake" Roberts in the King of the Ring 1996 tournament, having previously been booked to win it. The event had a profound impact on the company overall in later years, as Stone Cold Steve Austin was booked in Triple H's place to win the tournament overall, thus setting the stage for Austin's meteoric rise to prominence in the late '90s.

Hogan/Savage/Miss Elizabeth

Sometimes a real life issue that a wrestler is involved in outside of kayfabe will be used as a storyline.

The end of The Mega Powers, the alliance between Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, was inspired by real-life tension between the two men over Randy's valet (and real-life wife) Miss Elizabeth.

Lita/Edge/Matt Hardy

Lita and Matt Hardy were a legitimate couple, but around February, Lita cheated on Hardy with fellow wrestler, Edge. Hardy made this public notice, and was fired from the WWE soon after, but the WWE hired Hardy back after only 2 months. They then put the real-life incident into storyline with Edge and Lita facing Hardy.

McMahon Steroid Trial

In the build up to Hulk Hogan's match with Vince McMahon at WrestleMania XIX, real life tension between the two men following McMahon's steroid trial was added to the storyline to generate interest in their match.

Sid/Scott Steiner

Shoot comments were a popular tactic of Vince Russo, who would often blur the line between kayfabe and reality. WCW, in its declining years of the Monday Night Wars (a term used to describe the time when the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling were in direct competition), would use real life incidents the wrestlers had as material for storylines, even though they could be seen as tasteless at times. A prime example of this is when Sid Vicious suffered a severe leg break in a match against Scott Steiner from a botched second turnbuckle kick in January 2001.

Mick Foley/Ric Flair

Ric Flair and Mick Foley's real life issues were also built into a storyline, which used the real criticisms of each man against the other in their respective books as fuel for the storyline. This escalated to the point that on an edition of Raw, a diatribe from Foley saw Flair aim a punch at him which he did not pull and made full contact in Foley's ear.

Special and Tribute shows

In specials and tribute shows, kayfabe is often broken. In the tribute shows for Brian Pillman, Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit, many wrestlers and officials, including those who had kayfabe feuds with them, spoke in their honor.

Kayfabe and real life came into serious conflict on June 25, 2007, when the actual death of Chris Benoit necessitated an appearance by WWE chairman Vince McMahon on his Raw program which aired that same day, even though the character of Mr. McMahon had been "killed" in an automobile explosion on a previous episode. The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Benoit and his family led McMahon to appear in person on the show.

The ending of the Raw fifteenth anniversary special featured both heels and faces enjoying a beer together with many WWE alumni. When Ric Flair retired the night following WrestleMania XXIV on Raw, the entire roster of all three brands honored him, as did former wrestlers such as the Four Horsemen and Ricky Steamboat. Most notably, however, include The Undertaker and Vince McMahon (whom, as part of the storyline for Flair's retirement, made the stipulation in which if Flair lost a single match, he would be forced to retire).[3]

9/11

Days after 9/11, SmackDown! was one of the first shows to address the recent events in earnest by having all the wrestlers start the show by marching down to the ring apron and standing together along the ramp (with most of the wrestlers having tears in their eyes) while Mr. McMahon addressed the crowd about the recent terror attacks.

Triple H/Stephanie McMahon

This is a rather special case. The two were "married" in kayfabe in 1999 and had a very acrimonious "divorce" in 2002. After their characters split, the two were married in real life. Onscreen however, they remain divorced. On the February 16, 2009 edition of Raw, Randy Orton, who was in the middle of a feud with the McMahons, punted Shane McMahon in the head. After this, he hit Stephanie McMahon with an RKO, which caused then-WWE Champion Triple H (Stephanie's legitimate husband) to run out and chase Orton out of the ring, despite the two not being married on television. In an interview with Jim Ross on the following edition of SmackDown, Triple H fully admitted his true relationship with the McMahon family, even referencing Stephanie as the mother of his children. However, the real life marriage between Triple H and Stephanie McMahon was widely known to fans before this, and was played upon several times. Triple H later said on another edition of SmackDown that the marriage between himself and McMahon was the worst kept secret in WWE history.

Trump buys WWE Raw

On June 15, 2009, Vince McMahon announced on a special three-hour edition of WWE Monday Night Raw that he had sold the show to Donald Trump, who appeared on-screen to confirm it and declared he would be at the following commercial-free episode in person. However, it was not revealed that the "sale" to Trump was not an actual sale, but a kayfabe as part of the WWE's storyline. Executives for WWE and USA Network treated the "sale" as an actual sale, such that was picked up as a real event by many industry sources.[4] The day following the announcement, WWE's stock on the New York Stock Exchange fell, leading USA Network to admit that the "sale" was indeed nothing more than part of a storyline.[5][6]

Linda McMahon's Senate campaign

Not long after the Trump incident, in the fall of 2009, WWE CEO Linda McMahon (Vince McMahon's spouse) announced her candidacy for the United States Senate. The announcement was initially thought by some to be kayfabe, but it turned out that Linda McMahon was in fact a serious candidate for the Connecticut U.S. Senate seat currently held by incumbent Christopher Dodd. Vince McMahon took over as CEO of WWE. Linda and Vince's son Shane McMahon left WWE around the same time, for reasons which have not yet been explained.

A break which is apparent but not acknowledged

In the ring as in theater many scripted things can easily go wrong, either due to wrestler or equipment error. Like theater, these are often covered-up and not apparent to fans. On some occasions mishaps have been brought into sharp relief due to the circumstances or actions of individuals, making the mistakes obvious.

  • At SummerSlam 1997, in another Intercontinental Title Match, a reverse piledriver administered by Owen Hart to Steve Austin resulted in a serious injury for Austin. He was clearly unable to move for several minutes and eventually only did so with great difficulty. Owen Hart's concern was apparent to all. Austin was scripted to win, and Owen taunted him and the crowd for a while until Austin rolled him up for a weak pin and the win.
  • At SummerSlam 2000, in the three-way match for the WWF Championship between The Rock, Triple H & Kurt Angle, Triple H attempted to give Angle a Pedigree, his finishing move on the announce table. The table legitimately collapsed and Angle was rendered unconscious. The microphones from the collapsed announcers table broadcast Triple H whispering 'Are you ok mate?' to the injured Kurt Angle. The other two participants improvised until Angle was able to regain consciousness so the match could go on to its scripted finish. However, Angle would later claim in his autobiography that while his injury was real, everything that led up to it as well as the aftermath was scripted.
  • In October 2007, John Cena battled Mr. Kennedy on an edition of Raw. During the match, Cena injured his shoulder while executing a hip toss on Kennedy. For the duration of the match, Cena visibly favored his shoulder and arm. After the match, Randy Orton (then in the middle of a feud with Cena), attacked Cena, eventually performing his finisher, the RKO on him while on top of an announcing table. WWE worked Cena's real life injury into the Orton/Cena feud, stating that Cena's shoulder was injured due to the RKO (and not that it was injured during the match with Mr. Kennedy).
  • In June 2008, at the One Night Stand PPV, Triple H battled Randy Orton in a Last Man Standing match for the WWE Championship. At one point during the match, Orton was supposed to attempt an RKO on Triple H, which was then supposed to be countered, resulting in Orton being thrown over the top rope to the floor. Yet as Orton hit the floor, he suffered a legitimate broken collarbone, and as he was writhing in agony, Triple H could be seen discussing with the referee and the EMTs whether or not to continue the match. In the recorded broadcast it can clearly be seen and heard as the referee advises Triple H to conclude the match early by saying "get the sledgehammer, the sledgehammer" and continuously telling him to "be careful". Triple H then took out his signature sledgehammer, and proceeded to hit Orton in the head with it, thus finishing the match.
  • Bret Hart once talked about a match against Dino Bravo he was meant to win; during the match, Bravo threw Hart into a barrier outside of the ring and broke Hart's sternum. Without letting Bravo know, Hart battled on and was in severe pain. When he was thrown back into the ring, he rolled himself back outside the ring and was counted out without giving away his injury.
  • On February 25, 2001 at No Way Out, the Rock wrestled WWF Champion Kurt Angle. As noted in Angle's autobiography It's True! It's True! the finish to the match was supposed to be the Rock giving Angle a Rock Bottom to win the match and the title. He did so, but referee Earl Hebner stopped his count at two by mistake by almost counting three but stopping short, apparently forgetting the original finish. Ringside announcers Jim Ross and Tazz covered for Hebner's mistake by saying that Angle had kicked out despite the fact that Angle made no visible effort to do so. The Rock then gave Angle a second Rock Bottom and Hebner made a three count to finally end the match.
  • On May 21, 2001, Triple H tore his quadriceps during a tag team title match. The injury happened as Triple H was breaking up Chris Jericho's Walls of Jericho while Stone Cold Steve Austin was in the hold. Although he was visibly in pain, the fact that he was apparently injured was not mentioned by Jim Ross or Paul Heyman, and Triple H managed to continue the match, taking the Walls of Jericho on the announce table at one point. Following the match, which Jericho and Chris Benoit won, Triple H would be out of action until the 2002 Royal Rumble.
  • At New Years Revolution 2007, Triple H tore his quadriceps again while performing a Spinebuster to Randy Orton in a Tag Team Title Match. The match then ended with Triple H (and tag partner Shawn Michaels) getting intentionally disqualified. You can notice how Triple H then initialized a Pedigree by landing both his legs on one side only.

Other

On the May 5, 2008 edition of WWE Raw, Roddy Piper mentioned Santino Marella's recent DUI arrest on Carlito's Cabana.

During the storyline end to "McMahon's Millions", which saw the Raw stage collapse on Mr. McMahon, Vince was heard referring to Triple H by his real name (Paul).

Storylines becoming real life

Some efforts to promote kayfabe have resulted in real-life consequences.

While working as a booker for WCW, Kevin Sullivan conceived an angle where Woman (Nancy Daus Sullivan, Sullivan's wife both on-screen and off), would leave his character for Chris Benoit's. Sullivan insisted that the two should travel together to preserve kayfabe for the general public. This resulted in Sullivan's wife legitimately leaving him for Benoit when the two developed a real-life romantic relationship during their time together. Nancy ultimately married Benoit in 2000; Benoit later murdered her and their son and committed suicide (see Chris Benoit double murder and suicide).

Brian Pillman developed the "Loose Cannon" persona for himself while in WCW in 1996, conspiring with Vice President Eric Bischoff and booker Kevin Sullivan. Pillman's gimmick was based entirely on straddling the fine line of kayfabe. He would engage in on-camera actions that seemed to be unscripted, even to the other performers, and even breached kayfabe protocol when he addressed Sullivan on air as "bookerman". In the ultimate act of turning fiction into fact, Pillman convinced Sullivan and Bischoff that their storyline "firing" of him would seem more legitimate with the physical evidence of a release form. They faxed an actual WCW contract termination notice to him, complete with his name and the proper signatures, in order to preserve kayfabe. This allowed Pillman to leave WCW for the WWF.

See also

Notes

References


Simple English

In professional wrestling, something that is "kayfabe" is not real, something that is "acted out" and not happening in real life. Many things in wrestling are kayfabe, that is, they appear to be real (such as the storylines), but are, in actuality, fake.

People who believe that kayfabe acts are real are called marks, as opposed to smarts. Those who know wrestling is scripted but still enjoy the storylines are known as smart-marks, or smarks.

It is unknown where the term came from; it is sometimes believed that the term "kayfabe" is a modification of the Pig latin word for "fake", "akefay".








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