Is Kayfabe Dead?
Recently, Roman Reigns stood victor in the 30-man over-the-top-rope match, at Royal Rumble. The formulaic nature of the WWE is evident in how they build up to Wrestlemania every year. The winner of the Royal Rumble event goes on to face the WWE World Heavyweight Champion at Wrestlemania.
However, this time round, Roman Reigns had to fight again at Fastlane, for the spot that history entitles him to. Is this breach in tradition a one-off aberration? Or does it represent an underlying paradigm shift in the functioning of the WWE?
The Stone Cold Steve Austin podcast featuring Triple H, aired on 2nd February 2015, answered such poignant questions.
“Is Kayfabe dead?” Austin mused.
The following is the answer Triple H could not give:
Kayfabe turned out to be an ingenious advantage for the WWE. It projected an alternate reality of the WWE to its fans. The relationship between two wrestlers was purely how it was portrayed to be in the ring. In the ring, Triple H might have been feuding with Shawn Michaels, and the crowd viewed them as enemies. A good superstar used to pick up on these crowd sentiments and play along – a face in order to get pops, and a heel to get heat.
Back then, it did not matter to the audience that Triple H and Shawn Michaels were best of friends in reality. It did not matter as much to the audience who the WWE put over in a match, or over the course of the feud, because any judgement passed on the product was done wholly based on the quality of promos in the feud, matches that were wrestled during the course of the feud and the in-ring chemistry between the wrestlers during these matches.
Liken Kayfabe to a stadium. It was a place then, where people came to witness a football match. People just wanted to see a good match. What happened behind the scenes with the tactics or the man management was not directly expressed to the people, nor were they privy to it. It was much simpler to handle expectation from the people when kayfabe was in place. All the teams had to do, was to play a good match.
The fact that the attitude era is still so referenced and its stars still so adulated, had to do with the fast-paced unpredictability of it all. You had to tune in every Monday night, for the fear you might miss watching Austin stun half the locker room and spray them with a beer hose. Unpredictability; It was an important element that Kayfabe allowed WWE to have.
Today, however, we have to acknowledge that Kayfabe is dying, if not already dead. The WWE created a double-edged sword when they laid plans to restructure the manner in which audiences over the world could view and experience the WWE product. Yes, just for $9.99 a month, they created the WWE network. I’m sure the WWE envisioned it as the step forward. The way to rope in people of all age demographics, and from all walks of life; not just the specific age demographic that formed the core group of audience for the Attitude Era.
But if WWE wanted to expand their viewership, they had to change their product into one that would serve a larger age demographic that they were now trying to rope in. Inevitably, WWE had to move on from the type of show they were putting together during the Attitude Era. In effect, they had to put on a show that had elements of the Attitude Era, to continue maintaining the interest of young adult males, as well as elements that were in keeping with a larger age demographic in mind.
Something a bit more colorful and fun for the really young kids nowadays. Something a little bit more real, grounded and uncontroversial, to cater to the much older fans who, for good or for worse, have started treating a WWE show as an opportunity for a family outing. Triple H mentions that it is difficult to shape the product a certain way nowadays, simply owing to the fact that different age groups in the WWE universe, each would like to see something different. If WWE prioritize the preferences of one set of audience over another, would that not be a definitive step backward in the long term?
WWE in some senses has backed itself into a corner. When they decided that the WWE network was the way forward, the WWE, I’m sure, understood and realized the great potential and reach of using the internet to market their product. Now, they were reaching people in a way they never had before. But to fully comprehend the changes that the WWE is undergoing, we have to also acknowledge the drawbacks that expanding through the internet had. The most telling drawback, I feel, is the perceived death of Kayfabe. After opening access to their product through the internet, the WWE has put itself in a position where it can reach millions of people throughout the world. The reach of the WWE has expanded impressively. Now the WWE are in a situation where they have to deliver a product in such a manner that they justify their lengthening reach, which brings me back to Roman Reigns.
The match that Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan had at Fastlane is telling. Not simply because it was a good wrestling match, but because the match happened in the first place. At Royal Rumble, many fans were in Daniel Bryan’s corner, and it was a wide held fan belief that WWE was angling to have Bryan win at the event, and go on to main event WM 31 with Brock Lesnar. Or so it seemed, till Bryan was eliminated early, and Reigns went on to pick up the win. Suddenly, all the fan heat on WWE not booking the event to their liking, led to the spill off on Roman Reigns. To put into perspective how aggravated the fans were, we have to take into consideration that Roman Reigns was booed out of the building despite having The Rock come out to a complete surprise and endorse him. Now, this reaction was something that the WWE did not expect. This reaction, also serves as a prime example of Kayfabe being dead; The fans who expected to see Bryan win the Rumble, turned on Reigns when they realized that he was being “pushed” by the WWE. According to them, there were more ‘deserving’ superstars who should have gotten the top spot. This is what the WWE did not expect. Suddenly, the WWE has to cope with a scenario where their product is not being judged by what transpires on Monday Night Raw, or on Thursday Night Smackdown. Suddenly, much to WWE’s amazement, the fans were acting out based on how the industry was working rather than the show that was put together. Suddenly, the WWE had to act.
So they broke off from tradition, and instead of fast-tracking Roman Reigns straight into the main event of Wrestlemania, they had an angle on Raw the day after the Rumble, where the Authority strong-armed Reigns into accepting a number one contender’s match against Bryan at Fastlane. To the discerning audience, even then it was obvious that the WWE would give Reigns a clean win over Bryan and have Bryan endorse him after the match. However, that WWE made the match, clearly underscores the fact that they had been overwhelmed by the fan reaction to Royal Rumble. The WWE were thrust into a situation where they were forced to acknowledge what the fans were telling them. This is where the WWE network, and the WWE’s ever expanding social presence worked as a double edged sword.
Grappling with this concept blurs the lines between showmanship and reality, but this offers growth for the WWE in a new direction. If the Bryans-Reigns match at Fastlane was anything to go by, it is a precursor to the greater role that WWE now HAS to afford it’s fans, in creative decision making. Down the line, I wouldn’t be surprised if the WWE comes up with a workable process through which they can obtain the pulse of fan opinion regarding potential feuds and matches between wrestlers. The Reality Era that we find ourselves in, inevitably points towards it.
Regardless of which direction the WWE takes in the coming years, it is safe to say that it’s fan base is only growing. And while i believe catering to the fans’ opinion is an integral part of the path WWE will need to tread, there is much, we as fans need to understand about the business in order to positively influence it.
“We are the book that never ends. There’s always another chapter…you don’t know where we’re going tomorrow, so you can’t fully knock today. The book never ends.”
– Triple H, Chief Operating Officer, WWE.