The New Kayfabe: FS Reprint

January 01, 2011

I wrote the following for my “Storm Front” article for “Fighting Spirit” Magazine, back in May, and it is being reproduced with permission from Uncooked Media Ltd.

Last month’s article about the death of kayfabe led to an interesting discussion with my students at Storm Wrestling Academy. We talked about being a heel and how difficult it is to generate real heat any more because fans no longer ‘believe’ and thus don’t get as emotionally attached to the product and characters. Because of the great access fans have now, via the Internet and pubic appearances, fans get to know the performers as well as the characters so now even the best heels tend to get appreciated by fans for being, great heels, rather than hated for being dastardly characters. When you know their actions are scripted it’s hard to hate someone for those actions.

True heat is almost impossible to generate anymore because fans know it’s just a show. I used Ric Flair as an example, because I think he is the most obvious case. Ric was one of the most hated heels in his hey day, yet today it is almost impossible to get anyone to boo him. Fans love and respect Ric Flair, so regardless how good his heel promos are or how dastardly he acts in the ring, fans just won’t boo this guy anymore; they love Ric Flair the man, so they can’t hate Ric Flair the character.

At this point one of my students piped up and mentioned JBL. He expressed how much he really hated John Bradshaw Layfield back when he was wrestling, because JBL was such a bully in the locker room, and such a dick in real life. After a lengthy discussion about not voicing ones opinions so freely, during the early stages of a career, I went on to point out that said student didn’t really know John Layfield so how could he be sure he really disliked the man. He conceded that he didn’t really know if JBL was a bad person or not but he certainly believed that he was and that was good enough for him.

I’ve mentioned many times that in wrestling Perception is Reality, and this is a great example of it. This student perceived that JBL was a dislikable person in real life, therefore in his mind he was a dislikable person. Because he disliked John Layfield the person it became very easy to dislike JBL the character. This is where things got interesting and really got me thinking. I’ve known John Layfield since 1995 and while we have not seen eye to eye during all of that time, we were pretty good friends a great deal of it and I think the perception that most ‘smart’ wrestling fans have of JBL is incorrect, or at least greatly exaggerated. I’m not interested in the reasons for this misconception; I’m just interested in the result, which is that JBL has managed to generate real heel heat in a post kayfabe environment. John is not alone in this accomplishment, so let’s look at a few others.

Vince McMahon I think is a prime example. Vince McMahon was the heel heat behind the Steve Austin boom period in WWE, and while I think Vince was and is a tremendous heel performer, I can’t help but think a lot of his heel heat, back then, could be attributed to fans genuine hatred for how Vince McMahon “screwed Bret”. I think to a lot of wrestling fans Vince McMahon was a real life heel owner, which made it so much easier for them to hate him in his heel owner role fighting Steve Austin. Fans knew Vince wasn’t really screwing with Steve Austin but they knew he really did screw Bret Hart so they allowed the hatred for the one act against Bret to seep over into their hatred for the scripted acts he did against Steve. This made for a tremendous amount of heat and when you combined that with such a charismatic, over baby face like Steve Austin you got lightning in a bottle.

Edge is another great example because of the level of heat he generated in 2005 thru 2009. Edge has always been a great performer and he has played both sides of the fence successfully during his time in WWE. That being said his career and the amount of heat he generated shot through the roof after a real life public controversy. In 2005 the really life story broke of the “love triangle” between Edge, Lita, and Matt Hardy. Details became public that the real life, long term relationship between Matt Hardy and Lita ended after Matt discovered Lita and Edge were having an affair. Matt and Edge were good friends at the time, so public opinion quickly swayed and Edge was seen as a very bad person for not only cheated on his wife but on one of his best friends. What really happened isn’t important, and quite honestly none of our business, but what is important is that fans genuinely hated Edge and thought he was a scum bag for what he did in his real life, and this translated into incredible heel heat for his character, and led to the biggest success of his career.

So if fans knowledge or perception of real life events can change their perception of performers and generate greater amounts of heel heat, and thus ultimately draw money and help business, how long before the wrestling industry takes note and starts promoting what I like to call the New Kayfabe? Maybe they are doing it already. How hard would it be to stage angles in real life, and get them picked up by TMZ and other media outlets? They don’t need to be consistent with current storyline or characters (They’re more believable if they aren’t) they just need to portray the person in a clearly negative light to be effective.

I can think of a couple instances in the last year or two where Chris Jericho made TMZ for his questionable public behavior, which contributed to his heel heat in WWE. The first was a crazy parking lot confrontation with fans in Victoria, British Columbia, where cell phone video footage showed Y2J shoving one fan to the ground and possibly hitting a female fan before leaving the scene. I’m not sure the exact time frame but I believe this was around the time he was feuding with Shawn Michaels and coincidently enough punched Shawn’s wife Rebecca on PPV.

Next up were some questionable remarks Chris made at a comedy show he was doing in California that also made the rounds in the press. I thought the incident was blown out of proportion, but racist accusations were hurled at Mr. Jericho for his comments. Coincidently enough (or perhaps not) Chris Jericho subsequently went on to have a very successful feud with Rey Mysterio.

Now I’m not saying any of these situations were staged, but it certainly raises the question that if they work to generate heat, if they aren’t staged maybe they should be. Could this be the next stage of our business, the new way to kayfabe fans? Instead of working fans into hating the characters, start working the fans into hating the performers who portray the characters.

Food for thought,
Lance Storm