Could Wrestlers Stay In Character Today? By John Brecko
When we think of pro-wrestling today, we think of World Wrestling Entertainment, we think of All Elite Wrestling, we think of Ring of Honor and we think of smaller independent promotions. Some of those smaller independent promotions put on shows locally and others put on shows all over the country. We also primarily think of New Japan Pro Wrestling when we think of wrestling overseas.
Wrestling used to be completely different from the way it is today.
First off there was a system of territories. This system was formed in 1948. Although promoters would share wrestlers and it was common for wrestlers to pop up at shows in another territory, you did not cross over to another person’s territory to put on shows to take profit for yourself.
There was Jim Crockett Promotions that was in the Carolinas and Virginia. There was World Class Championship Wrestling that was mainly run out of Dallas along with a couple other promotions in Texas. WWE as we know it today was a northwest promotion during the territory system from the time it was formed under the name of the Capitol Wrestling Corporation in 1952 until Vince McMahon took over and decided to take the then World Wrestling Federation national.
He did so by persuading wrestlers of other promotions to come work for him with big money contracts and gambled everything he had on the show “Wrestlemania” in 1985 by taking wrestling into the world of celebrities. Celebrities that participated in the first ever Wrestlemania were Muhammad Ali, Mr. T (who was in the main event match), Cyndi Lauper, Liberace and The Rockettes. Considering he ran many promotes out of business, it is surprising that no one tried to follow through on any of the death threats McMahon ever received.
In a way, Vince McMahon helped destroy something called “kayfabe”, which was the art of making wrestling seem real. In the time of the territories, kayfabe was expected to be kept in real life and could only be dropped around other wrestlers, promoters and anyone else involved in the pro-wrestling business when no one else was around.
Heel wrestlers (bad guys) could not be seen with face wrestlers (good guys). Heels were expected to act vicious and nasty to people, even if it betrayed their personality and faces were expected to keep up their appearance with outsiders as well.
Up until the 70s, wrestling was real to people outside of that business. Stories of pro wrestlers protecting kayfabe include legendary heel wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie protecting the legitimacy of the business to such a degree that he would not break character even after fans would try to physically harm him. He had been stabbed 21 times throughout the course of his career and even had acid thrown him one time during a show
The “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes refused to break kayfabe around his own children. He was only forced to break it when he turned heel and joined the NWO in WCW in the 1990s and his son Cody Rhodes was so upset, that Dusty’s wife made him tell his children what was going on.
Mr. Wrestling was involved in the plane crash in 1975 and that left many wrestlers with broken backs and even almost ended Ric Flair’s career before got the “stylin, profilin, jet flyin, limousine ridin, kiss stealin, wheelin dealin son of a gun” we know today. When he was in the hospital, Mr. Wrestling gave his real name (George Burdell Woddin) to the police and claimed he was a wrestling promoter. If he had given either of his wrestling names to authorities, it would have exposed the business because he was traveling with his storyline enemies.
He went so far to protect kayfabe, that he lied to his fellow wrestlers about being involved in the crash and wrestled just two weeks after that same plane crash. He had broken ribs from the crash and was undoubtedly in extreme amounts of pain. Ric Flair would later state that that day, he was not just Mr. Wrestling, he was “the man who saved pro-wrestling”, saying it would look unrecognizable today if that was not done.
Vince McMahon killed kayfabe by classifying wrestling as “sports entertainment” to avoid paying extra taxes when putting on wrestling shows, even outing wrestling as fake in front the New Jersey Athletic Commission at one point. This started the slow death of kayfabe.
In the 80s and early-mid 90s, people suspected wrestling was fake, but was never properly outed as such in the ring. What went on in the squared circle was still serious business then. One event would change that.
It is known today as “The Curtain Call”.
It took place on May 19, 1996 when Scott Hall and Kevin Nash were moving on to WCW and their last matches would be at a house show against storyline rivals, Shawn Michaels and Triple H. After Shawn Michaels faced Kevin Nash in a steel cage match, it is said that a certain level of respect was agreed upon by McMahon, but the hug and celebration was much more than was agreed upon.
All the weight fell on Triple H, who was pushed back down to the bottom of the card since Kevin Nash and Scott Hall were leaving and Michaels as WWE Champion at the time.
The world itself has changed a lot since that time. Social media is a big part of how people promote today. The rise of coverage in news, sports and households with some type of access to information and shows through phones, laptops, televisions, etc. has continued for decades.
This causes a question that needs to be asked.
If wrestling was never discovered to be fake through events like the ones that have been mentioned, could professional wrestlers today, considering how the world has changed, still keep kayfabe.
This is impossible to prove and difficult to argue, but I think it is possible.
There have been wrestlers to use social media to help their characters, tweeting and posting in character as well as setting up potential storylines outside of the ring in order to make their characters as well as storylines more interesting.
CM Punk looked like he was on his way out of WWE in 2011 and it had not been revealed that he had signed a new contract. He turned up to comic-con in front of a group of WWE panelists and asked them how life was “in fantasy land”? He had won the belt at the promotion’s last pay-per-view “Money in the Bank” a few days earlier and even turned up at a house show one time after claiming he would defend the WWE Championship all over the world (even if he did not actually do that last part; what could have been…).
He would return to the company on the following episode of Monday Night Raw, but people were talking about the legitimacy of this angle and the fourth wall had been broken in a way the wrestling world had not seen for a long time.
When Matt Hardy adopted the broken gimmick that had revitalized his career, he would even appear in interviews in his broken persona and kept up the gimmick almost everywhere he went. We had all known about kayfabe before this and we knew who Matt Hardy actually was, but along with all of the events that would take place during TNA’s television shot (my favorite is still him talking to the giraffe with the soul of George Washington inside of him), this added to how great the broken gimmick was.
Image Credit via: Merriam Webster
There is an argument to be made that broken gimmick still would have been successful, but not as big of a talking point of wrestling as it would have been otherwise.
The Undertaker did not take interviews for decades, even after kayfabe had been exposed. There were hardly any videos of him outside of wrestling until recently. He has taken interviews now and the reason why he is seen being interviewed on so many different shows, YouTube channels, etc. is because no one has had the chance to do so.
Mark Calloway (the Undertaker’s real life name) has talked about even being careful of where he went so those who were outside of this business would not see him out of character. You did not see him on social media until recently as well because he protected the legitimacy of his character. It is hard to argue that this did not add to his success, even though he would probably still go on to be a legend in wrestling today.
With the increase in coverage in news, sports, etc. all around the world and all the forms of social media and technology being around today, it would be difficult to keep up kayfabe anyway and even without some events that have exposed the business in the past, people would probably still question whether or not wrestling is fake today. However, that does not mean kayfabe is impossible to protect even in times like these.