I love professional wrestling.
From my early days as a Hulkamaniac to my discovery of lucha libre in the mid-90s to my college days as a forum-posting “smart mark,” pro wrestling is one of those things that’s never really left me. I never got into UFC or boxing, but darn it if I don’t love watching all the pageantry and pantomime play out inside the squared circle. Over my now two-decades plus of fandom, I’ve started to learn some of the lingo and phrases used by those in the industry and even began to use them in my daily life. Wrestling language is its own sort of special code that developed out of the carnival speak of the early 20th century, and while I’d gladly love to go on talking about bumps, spots, works, shoots, juice, gas, marks and smarks, there’s one word in particular I’d like to talk about today: kayfabe.
Kayfabe, like a lot of the old carny lingo, was a way to say something without really saying it by means of mixing up syllables and sounds. Originally, kayfabe was a scrambling of the word “fake” when it came to selling a show to the impressionable “marks” in the crowd, but over time the term of kayfabe morphed into a juggernaut and sort of overarching code of law for the business. To keep kayfabe, you see, is to not give the game away. It’s to not lift the curtain. It is to not let the audience know that what they are seeing, while not straight up “fake,” was certainly a predetermined fight.
And before we go any further I want to squash the “fake” talk right now. When CM Punk got his fractured skull repaired without pain medication as a result of a neckbreaker gone wrong, you can be darn sure we won’t be calling it “fake.”
So kayfabe, to blend the world of wrestling with the world of acting, is staying “in character.” Some wrestlers have gone to ridiculous lengths to keep kayfabe, and some have done ridiculously stupid things to break it. Hacksaw Jim Duggan and The Iron Shiek were once busted for having a frankly comical amount of drugs in their car, but what was considered a greater injustice to the wrestling community is that they had allowed themselves, kayfabe enemies, to be seen together in public. In reality, they are just workers for a company, but in kayfabe? That car shouldn’t have gotten on the road without someone’s head getting imprinted into the hood first.
Kayfabe has caused more than one issue with a skeptical press, as well. Any wrestling fan worth his salt has seen the famous grainy video of David Schultz slapping reporter John Stossel upside the head to prove it was “real,” which lead to a battery accusation and lawsuit. The so-called Immortal Hulk Hogan got into a bit of hot water when he put Richard Belzer into a front chinlock and knocked Belzer out, causing the TV host to crack his head on the floor as he collapsed, resulting in another settlement. Wrestlers were told that, in order to keep their jobs and in order to keep the business alive, they had to be the tough guys they pretended to be both inside of the ring and out.
Keeping kayfabe has often proved dangerous for the wrestlers themselves, as well. In 1974, a plane crash that paralyzed one wrestler and killed the pilot left Tim Woods with a broken back. Unfortunately, he had been sharing the plane with a supposed sworn enemy, so Woods gave a false name at the hospital and went back to wrestling only two weeks later, with a broken back, just to prove he hadn’t been on the same plane as the bad guy. In 1995, a rumor was going around that “Macho Man” Randy Savage had injured his elbow and wouldn’t be wrestling, which lead to the “good guys” loudly proclaiming that Savage was not injured and would be wrestling tonight… which he did. With an injured elbow. And he injured it even more. But hey, you gotta keep kayfabe.
And, of course, the most infamous moment of breaking kayfabe was Owen Hart’s tragic death in the ring during a 1999 pay-per-view stunt gone horribly wrong. Trusted and beloved commentator Jim Ross told the audience at home that Hart had died… but promoter Vince McMahon went on with the show. After all if the show had been cancelled, he would have been out a lot of money. It’s best not to risk causing that problem, keep kayfabe, and insist that the show must go on above all. Wrestling is littered with bizarre, shocking and sleazy stories like these all over its long, dangerous and unregulated history, and I think it’s important to make note of that because, and I do not say this lightly, we are living in a world where everything has become pro wrestling.
Pro wrestling is a highly choreographed piece of performance art where two or more people make a concerted effort to go through the motions of an event, in this case a gladiatorial grudge match, while in reality they are just two workers, possibly even friends, doing their best to impress an audience, make some money, and gain a little validation. If that doesn’t sound like the life of your average worker under late stage psychocapitalism, I don’t know what is. We go to our jobs, and we go through the motions, but so many of us are just “working” to get paid, or do just enough work to get insurance. We’re just putting on a show because, hey, that’s what we have to do to survive. We all know it’s fake, and to some extent our bosses and masters in the “audience” know it’s fake, but what they are the most interested in, what they came here tonight to see, is the characters and the performance of it all.
We all cultivate a character, and we try to sell that character, and we see which ones “get over.” We have “faces” who help us and “heels” who skirt the rules, but at the end of the day so much of it is just a show to we can eat that night. And, on top of it all is the current World Heavyweight Champion of our Pro Wrestling Reality, a larger than life spectacle of a man with all of his aspects dialed up to eleven, who has found the best way to work the crowd, even if his punches don’t always look real. This current President is a pro wrestling star with a character that has been cultivated for decades. Much like the heyday of Hulk Hogan, we have an orange, balding man at the top of the heap who is what we might call in the business a “sloppy worker,” but that never stopped Hulk from selling like gangbusters because he had “it” and “it” is what gets you over, whether it be the wild and wacky world of pro wrestling, or our current political climate, which has become all too similar to any little Hulkamaniac-turned-30-year-old smart mark.
But, just like Hogan, one of the biggest failings of this current President is that he will, to a fault, try his damnedest to keep kayfabe. For the President, breaking kayfabe is unacceptable, even if his character is widely contradictory on its face. The President wants us all to believe he is this white-meat babyface champion of the Forgotten Man while he actively pursues policies that ruin the life of those folks. It’s like trying to have your good guy come out every night and wallop his best friend with a steel chair. Or having someone “sell” a punch to the face by leaping completely out of the ring. Pretty soon, the audience won’t buy what the character is selling and, in the President’s own words “you can’t con people, not for long.” This is how we get the stories of fake publicists, the bizarre outrage about tiny hands, the mind-bogglingly contradictory actions and the flip-flopping on every issue. He doesn’t actually care about making anything better or helping the country: he’s just trying to keep character. He will not, under any circumstances, let that curtain come back. He will not tell the people he is managing, now the entirety of the American people, that Owen Hart is dead because it would cost him money. And, if you think this is going too far, here’s a short clip of our current President taking a Stone Cold Stunner at Wrestlemania, an event put on by his good friend, Vince McMahon:
And here is Vince’s wife, a former CEO of the billion dollar company, and now an administrator for the “Small Business Administration.”
Pro wrestling now runs our country, and it refuses to break kayfabe… and that is bad news for all of the rest of us. And, if you’re wondering, Trump did NOT “sell” that move well at all.
Wrestling, as an almost unregulated industry, has a lot in common with the completely deranged idea of capitalism gone beserk. In wrestling, to show the audience you are indeed hurting from whatever smackdown your opponent has placed on you, you do what is called “selling.” In wrestling, a “worker” “sells” in order to “do the job” when his back hits the mat for a 3 count. What started as an offshoot to a notoriously crooked carnival industry is now a billion-dollar, publicly traded psychocapitalist monstrosity where the workers don’t get health coverage, take repeated blows to the body that are often exacerbated by extreme stunts gone wrong, and not all that surprisingly die very young from overwork, drug abuse, and crippling injuries.
Perhaps the reason I like wrestling now isn’t the rush I got as a five-year-old watching Hogan triumph over bad guys. Maybe it’s no longer the awe and wonder I feel watching Rey Mysterio perform a springboard, leaping hurricanrana onto his opponent. Maybe now, as I see capitalism as less and less viable in a society that looks to be on borrowed time, I can appreciate the garish, grotesque clown show of overexagerrated capitalism pro wrestling has always been. Now, ironically, an industry usually steered by unscrupulous billionaires is one of the best stealth parodies of the system we could ever have hoped for.
In wrestling, kayfabe has been shattered due to the Internet Age, and now you frequently see a program where “heels” make small talk with each other while they drive to their next gig. These aren’t the moustache-twirling villains of yesteryear, they’re people just like you, doing their job, working and selling just like you and me. Quizzically, as soon as kayfabe began to die in wrestling, it took root everywhere else in the form of ridigly accepted dogma about tax cuts, immigrants, jobs, climate change, and so on. But, as wrestling learned when it began branching out of the bingo halls in the 1980s, kayfabe doesn’t do well when it is challenged by those on the outside. And these maniacal capitalists, now leaping out of the ring and into our government, will learn the same lesson that promoters have found out in an area of widespread skepticism: refusing to break kayfabe is, to use the lingo, “killing the business.”