5 Reasons Kayfabe is dead in pro wrestling, and 5 reasons it isn't
The suspension of disbelief was vital to the wrestling industry in its inception, but is it still a factor today?
When pro wrestling first came about in France during the nineteenth century, it was considered to be a carnival or sideshow attraction. Men with names like "Steel Eater Edward" and "Mountain Bull" would offer local townsfolk the chance to knock them off their feet and win 500 francs (roughly $100 US adjusted for inflation.)
But these seemingly cartoonish characters had a secret; They were all trained in the Greco Roman arts of grappling. The locals didn't stand a chance, even if they were larger than the performers.
Wrestling's carnival/sideshow status wasn't the only variety, however. In the United Kingdom strongman shows had been popular for years, and in the 1800s wrestling was added in to spice up the entertainment value. Catch wrestling was more popular than Greco Roman because many more grapples were allowed, including leg locks. These early professional wrestling matches were legit contests and could last for hours.
As modern life evolved, and there were more entertainment avenues competing for the public's interest, professional wrestling began to wane. In particular, George Hackenschmidt was so good but also so careful that his matches were considered one sided and boring. Promoters managed to convince Hackenschmidt, who by all accounts was unbeatable, into allowing more entertainment aspects to be introduced. For a time most matches were performances, with only the championship matches being legit contests.
By the 1930s, legit wrestling competition had moved to purely amateur venues, such as High Schools and the Olympics. Pro wrestling was almost universally a scripted performance, with the winner and loser known to the promoters ahead of time. This new breed of wrestling was more popular than the legit athletic contests, but in order to preserve an air of enigma and mystique the wrestling industry coined the idea of 'admitted but not stated fakery,' or kayfabe for short.
Kayfabe was a sort of agreement with the audience, that even though the matches were scripted they were presented as being 'real.' Even in the early days of wrestling, a majority of the audience were aware it was not a legitimate athletic contest, but thanks to kayfabe they were free to enjoy it anyway.
Over time kayfabe evolved into an almost mystical force; Wrestlers were expected to defend the sanctity of pro wrestling by force, if necessary. This led to incidents like the one involving Meng/King Haku, where he bit a man's nose off for calling him a 'fake' wrestler!
According to a popular critical opinion, kayfabe died when Vince McMahon admitted wrestling was a performance to avoid sanctions by various state athletic commissions, and it was eulogized with the dawn of the modern internet in the mid to late 1990s. Now fans were privy to insider secrets and information, which the world wide web's anonymity made flourish.
But is this really the case, or has kayfabe just evolved with the times? Here are five reasons kayfabe is dead, and five that it might not be.
Kayfabe is dead: Fans are rejecting stars like Roman Reigns.
When you buy a Superman comic book, you're not expected to root for Lex Luthor. Superman is the hero, and the story is written in such a way that it really doesn't work if you cheer for the bad guy.
That, of course, doesn't mean the comic fans still don't complain about every little thing from the shape of the S on his chest to the size of his spit curl.
Modern pro wrestling fans are aware that wrestling is entertainment, much like a comic book. Because they know that it's entertainment, they can sometimes reject the hero of a given wrestling storyline.
You can really see that phenomenon at work with Roman Reigns. The chorus of boos he received for winning the Royal Rumble perplexed even the Rock, his cousin. If fans thought wrestling were 'real,' they would cheer for Roman because of his scripted superhuman ability to always find a way to win. But because Kayfabe is dead, they greet him with boos instead.